not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

While much of the lower 48 is recovering from a blizzard, we are oddly snowless in our part of Alaska. It’s brown and ugly, but makes for easy driving with seven kids in the Stagecoach going hither and yon for errands.

not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

The other day we drove home from Cham’s therapy appointment behind a sedan with a slow leak on both of its left tires, wobbling slightly lop-sided down the Parks Highway at 48 miles an hour until it finally turned off near a service station. We don’t always notice when we have a leak; the roads are rutted from studded winter tires, and a little wobble doesn’t necessarily mean any more than that. But hopefully the driver noticed and stopped for a quick refill — air’s still free, you know.

We had snow a few weeks ago before it melted, and some moose came to visit. This mama just stared at us through the window, her ear flickering at sudden noises, on guard nonstop. Her baby was nearby eating a willow. We stared at her, staring at us, as she sized us up through the window. And I know how she felt, this mama on high alert.

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A little on edge. Constantly watching for danger, trying to keep our kids safe and in sight; trying to keep the air from leaking out of our tires.

Most moms really struggle with this. And most adoptive moms I know are driving on at least one steel rim. Some of our tires are just fine, but others are about to go flat without some serious maintenance. And soon.

Someone asked me a while ago what our family really needs, and how the church can support us. It’s a loaded question, so I gave the easy, predictable answer: Pray for us. Then the Spirit pricked me towards transparency, and I also mentioned we need a bigger house. And it’s true, we need both of those things.

But I wish I would’ve said childcare. Or a meal once a week. Or just, invite me to things even if you think I probably can’t come. And you’ll probably be right, but it’s nicer than being written off.

The church is starting to recognize that special needs adoption is a frontline ministry unlike most others – the mission field is brought into the home, and it often (especially in the first years) becomes a war zone. There’s no clocking out; there’s no furlough, there’s no sabbatical. There’s no leaving triage after a 12 hour shift.

Several times a week I hear from grieving moms who are walking wounded, marriages struggling, everyone suffering some level of trauma from the chaos. And for the most part, I don’t mean families who just recently adopted. I mean families – moms, dads, and siblings – who have been in this for years and have little left after so many miles of driving on rims.

What can we do? A meal once a week would free up 30-60 minutes for the adoptive parents to spend much-needed time doing any number of other things that need caught up on: errands, paperwork, phone calls, one-on-one time with a child, or (gasp!) even alone time to decompress. For reals.

Marriages might be saved if someone invested in an adoptive family in such a way that they could provide appropriate childcare for the special needs involved. A mid-week calibration might do wonders for a family on the edge and in need of intervention, because frontline ministries require reinforcements.

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Ready for a science break? A few days ago I was reading to Afton about silkworms and metamorphosis. Here:

“Once enclosed in its cocoon, the caterpillar withers and shrivels up, as if dying.”

Cheerful, isn’t it? Hang with me. Many mamas are right here, in the middle of the mess, shriveling in darkness. And we need to hear this.

“It is an intermediate state between the caterpillar and the butterfly. There can be seen certain projections which already indicate the shape of the future insect….Both the chrysalis and the nymph are insects in process of formation – insects closely wrapped in swaddling clothes, under which is finished the mysterious operation that will change their first structure from top to bottom.”

And did you know that swaddling clothes are death wrappings? The same cloths wrapped around Jesus at birth were meant for wrapping around a dead body. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. But the same death that was meant to be the end of everything was actually the beginning that conquered death forever.

It is an intermediate state, this darkness.

“It must get out of the cocoon. But how? The caterpillar has made the cocoon so solid and the butterfly is so weak! …It would not be worth the trouble of going through so much to stifle miserably in the close cell, just as the end is attained!”

“Could it not tear the cocoon open with its teeth?” asked Emile.

“But, my innocent child, it has none, nor anything like them. It has only a proboscis, incapable of the slightest effort.”

“With its claws then?” suggested Jules.

“Yes, if it had any strong enough. The trouble is, it is not provided with any.”

“But it must be able to get out,” persisted Jules.

“Doubtless it will get out. Has not every creature resources in the difficult moments of life!….But you would never guess the singular tool that it will use.”

Tell me. Tell me how we stop the leak, refill, keep our kids safe, and protect our own oxygen level all at once. Tell me how we get from the new normal that feels like death and darkness to a new normal that feels like flying.

Ready?

“Insects’ eyes are covered with a cap of transparent horn, hard and cut in facets. A magnifying glass is needed in order to distinguish these facets, they are so fine; but, fine as they are, they have sharp bones which all together can, in time of need, be used as a grater…One by one the threads of silk succumb to the rasping. The hole is made, the butterfly comes out. What do you think about it? …Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye?”

– Jean Henri Fabre, The Story Book of Science

And He says, Look at Me, Love.

Your oxygen is right here. That’s why this is the year of deep and wide. There’s not much that prayer, education, and worship won’t round out again.

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We are so busy looking at the darkness – not only the demands of the day, but sometimes we have traumatized kids or abusive people puncturing our tires and slashing their own. And the darkness tries to command our attention, but we are not at the mercy of darkness because how we aim our vision is how we let the light break through.

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.

– Luke 11:34

We’re meant to thrive and grow, not just barely make it before our rims start wearing against the pavement. Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye? Only the Creator who made a way for each of us to escape the darkness.

Look at Me, Love.

It’s hard, yes. Diagnoses are real and pain is real, and changing our focus doesn’t change the past, it doesn’t change Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it doesn’t change the amount of your paycheck or the dysfunction of someone else.

But it’s not the end. The prison turns into a place of new birth, oxygen changes our structure from top to bottom, and where we were earth-bound and vulnerable, we become strong and beautiful. It starts with looking at the One who fills us. The air’s still free, you know.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She woke up with one question.

“You say, ‘Happy bootday, Reagan?’”

After 364 days of talking about what she wants to do on her birthday – to the point we had to reign in and discipline it lest she drive herself and the rest of us crazy – we finally we got to say, Yes. Happy bootday, Reagan. Today is your day.

“Do you know how old you are?”

She grins and flutters her hands. “Yes!”

“How old are you?”

“Five!! I five, mama!”

Yep. Still working on that.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She was born ten years ago. Andrey’s biological mom was seven months pregnant with him, I was six months pregnant with Afton. During their first five years, we didn’t know Andrey or Reagan existed. During the last five years, we spent two trying to bring them home, and the last three post-adoption years helping them know they are home. For good, forever.

She opens the first gift and before I know it, I hear myself say, “Do you like it?” Suddenly it’s three years ago and I’m asking the same thing in my best awkward Bulgarian. “Haresva li ti?” Please say yes. Please mean it.

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And she does like them. Vin took a risk and bought size eight pants. They will fit nicely in the top of her closet while we wait for her to grow into them.

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What she really loved, though, came next. “Oh! Oh! Hoo-ey, ahhhsome! Yay, hoo-ey!” I have never seen anyone so excited over hooey before.

She loves hoodies and glasses. She likes cars and coloring. What really makes her light up, though, is music. And food, of course.

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Vin was home for the day, there were eight inches of fresh snow over everything and it was still coming down on our cusp of the valley. We had a snowball fight before lunch – all of us except Reagan, who wasn’t interested. She made tracks, ate snow, and watched from a safe distance. Cham also wasn’t interested, so she made herself a snow throne and sat like a queen in the middle of the action, occasionally granting boons of huge snowballs to us, and just as often getting hit in the crossfire with her own artillery.

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But Andrey joined us, and for you to understand how significant it is to have him do so – and have fun – in this particular activity, I would have to remind you that he cried fat tears the first time Vince gave him a high five, thinking he was getting hit. And other times more recently, there have been big crocodile tears over the slightest jostle, trying to get siblings in trouble. The boundaries are so paper thin and fragile sometimes, us learning to trust him and him learning to trust us. We want him to know that we can carry him upside down and not drop him.

Vince and I were captains and we chose sides – I took Mattie and Andrey, Vince took Iree and Afton. Afton captured Andrey and took him to the snowbank, and Mattie and I had to Stage A Rescue.

Under heavy fire from Vince and Iree, Mattie threw Afton into the snow bank on their side and I threw – okay, gently shoved – Andrey toward the safety of the snowbank on our side. And he loved it. And then the snow was everywhere – in our eyes, stuck in our hair and melting down our faces, sailing in arcs to land on hats and backs and behinds.

(There was some hand to hand combat and it got a little messy. If you ask Vin, he might tell you some nonsense about me playing dirty and shoving a ton of snow down the front of his shirt. But that’s ridiculous; I would never have done that because he had Finnegan in the front pack under his jacket. I shoved the snow down the back of his shirt. Just so we’re clear.)

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There was soup and bread inside for lunch; a movie and a nap. A normal day. A relatively easy day. The next day was harder; behavioral fallout from excitement and change still happens. Sometimes it’s over just a routine appointment, and sometimes it takes us back to behaviors we haven’t seen since those first weeks together in a hotel in Bulgaria.

Every day is a study. Will they cooperate with school – or speech – today? Will they have fun? Will Reagan join us during meals and playtime, or will she piddle the day away in the bathroom, trying to isolate herself from all of us? Will Andrey obey routines, or will he sabotage every opportunity for freedom and joy? Will Reagan remember how to count past ten today? Will Andrey pretend that he doesn’t know what the number fifteen is?

Will they know that we will do what we can to rescue them from attack, but that we won’t rescue them from the consequences of their own actions?

We are still here, a little over three years later. And the pendulum still swings, but now it usually has a more tempered, predictable rhythm.

As they get older, I hope we’ll see the right answers to all these questions. I hope they will forgive us for being imperfect parents. I hope they’ll forgive their birth parents and orphanage workers for anything they may harbor against them, heart-wise. I hope they will forgive and love themselves. I hope when it comes time to choose sides, they will choose life.

I hope they will see Jesus through their entire story, protecting, loving, correcting, and renewing. I hope they will know He is for them. I hope they wake up every morning and hear Him say, Hey, Love. Today is your day.

_____

related: a love that grows: a letter to Reagan on her eighth birthday

the day of small things

Our oldest is now a big fifteen-year-old. He reaches things off the high shelves, opens tight jars for me, and chops wood. He even (gasp) shaves. He was our smallest baby — now he wears Vince’s shirts that have shrunk in the wash.

the day of small things - Copperlight Wood

On his big day, Vin took him and four of his siblings on a birthday outing and left me at home with the other two kids and the task of making clam chowder for lunch. Piece of cake.

The two boys who stayed home played close by while I chopped potatoes and onions. They spun gears in the dining room, wearing the varnish off the table. Maybe I should’ve stopped them. Maybe I should’ve told them to simmer down, just a little. But I didn’t – it was a beautiful moment, them playing together like normal kids, making noise and messes and laughing memories. We need more of this.

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The music was loud and the sun streamed in, and the house was completely still except for the shrieking activity around the table and the flames under the soup pot. Maybe that doesn’t describe stillness to you, but to me it was like our house was in a coma.

What to do, what to do…I was at a loss once the soup was simmering. It’s astonishing how inspired you can be with three shots of espresso and only two kids in the house.

I could read. I could turn on the computer and open that file of 60,000 words I’m working on. I could wash the kitchen windows. I could re-pot the rootbound plant on the counter. I could do almost anything short of flying to the moon — but no, I only had a few minutes before they all came back home, and I needed to keep an eye on the stove to keep what was simmering from scorching.

I scrubbed the grime and grungus off the sink dropper – such a little thing. The hot water ran and the steam rose, and stainless steel started to shine again. The sun hit it and sparkled, and I realized this was the first day of blue skies after a week of dreary, smeary grey in the weary early winter.

We had our first frost last night – this morning the lawns are all grey, with a pale, bright sunshine on them: wonderfully beautiful. And somehow exciting. The first beginning of winter always excites me; it makes me want adventures.

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children

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The big boy and crew came back hungry for chowder and full of news about the new Lego store. This kid got his first Lego set when he was three years old. That was only ten minutes ago, and now he builds them into robots. Little things into big things.

…but who dare despise the day of small things, if it has proved to be the dawn of mighty ones?

– Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!

westward ho

I’ve been working on this blanket for years – you can tell, because the color scheme dates it back to the sixties (kidding, but not kidding…) – and it’s finally down to just two squares and trimming left. In this day of imported department store specials, it feels both trivial and sacred to spend time on it compared to everything else going on in and around us. There’s always more to be learned, taught, cooked, written, cleaned, hugged, and disciplined; the dishes and laundry are never done. There are pages to read, and pages to write. And there is always more stitching to do – but the difference with stitching is that you can see exactly what progress has been made.

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A finished book can go on a shelf, but there’s no way to measure what was really absorbed in the reading. The hamper will be full again tomorrow. And you can teach and lecture and assign consequences till the cows come home but those kids are still going to tie fake spiders to the tail of their little brother’s favorite stuffed animal, and try to get the cat to walk on his front legs wheelbarrow style, and color their own body parts with green marker. I’ve, um, heard it happens. In some families.

But with this blanket, I can see exactly what’s been achieved. This row, that round of colors – done. And that is incredibly satisfying in the midst of all the other intangibles.

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Our kids are big and little, busy and slow, high school and infant, and life right now is full of their needs and their changes and their noise. These days I often feel rootbound, spinning gears. I typed most of this one handed while holding this almost-four-month-old, who will be a big fifteen-year-old in about ten minutes. There are a million things I could do, but I don’t regret holding him. I don’t regret keeping an eye on these kids to keep what is simmering in them from scorching.

The dirty socks, the worn-down pencils, the minutes that fill long and short days – small things, baby steps, leading to mighty movements. It is the sacred monotony of these early days that write history.

fermata: where we hold and rest

It’s not for lack of material that I haven’t been writing here. In one afternoon, an entire jar of pickles shattered on the dining room floor, a shower was out of commission with a clogged drain, and I broke four dishes simultaneously during a skirmish in my ongoing war against fruit flies. Boom. Go big or go home.

It’s days like this that drain us, though, and for the last few weeks I’ve sat at the computer almost every night, but nothing came out right — too dry and stale, too flat and foggy. The hurricane is exhausting.

fermata: where we hold and rest (Copperlight Wood)

So my steady routine of night owl productivity is on hold until our little bed-buddy is a steadier sleeper. He stays a few hours in his crib and then wakes up needing to nurse and moves in with us. A queen size bed easily fits two adults and a cat or two, but the addition of an 8-week-old’s wingspan can also be accommodated as long as one parent doesn’t mind sleeping with part of their body hanging off the edge of the mattress.

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I really don’t mind. These are the tiny days, when a clean dishtowel serves as a blanket. But the house feels small, too, and the view from the couch rarely changes.

…to get away from the disturbances and influence of men, planned or unplanned, and to find a place where one is open to influence only from the sky, the wind, the clouds coming up from the valley or closing in from the mountain peaks, the sparkle of snow in the sun, the marvel of light filtering through trees, or the sound of a waterfall splashing on rocks, or birds singing before sunrise, or the crickets’ special song at twilight – this is to give one the possibility for some original thinking, for getting a few fresh ideas, for feeling inspired to some form of creativity.

– Edith Schaeffer, The Hidden Art of Homemaking

We went where we always go. I never get tired of this place.

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There were paragliders. I had to look that up because I didn’t know the difference between hang gliding and parasailing – one is a motorized contraption, the other involves being towed by a boat tauntingly out of shark’s reach; neither are what we saw at Hatcher Pass.

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But I didn’t know that then. They reminded me of something else, something familiar that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

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They are fermatas, Love, He said.

A fermata is the symbol in music that tells you to hold, to pause. He knew I wouldn’t have to look that up.

This is the time to rest and linger – don’t rush through these days, looking more at your to-do list than you look at your kids’ eyes.

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These tiny days, taking turns holding Finnegan, taking turns cleaning messes, taking turns making meals. The days are fast and slow, intermittent lulls in a windstorm, and we are depending on each other to keep the storm outside – we have to constantly push it back out after it wheedles its way in, via bickering, misbehavior, old wounds, fresh grievances. We sweep out bitterness as persistently and repeatedly as we do to dirt and leaves in the fall, a continual process of keeping hearts and house clean. The storm is kept out only with extreme diligence.

I shall always be grateful to that storm in Cornwall that drove us inward on ourselves. The quality of light being almost the same at ten in the morning as it was at ten at night, we lost all count of time. The soporific swaying of the wagon, the utter stillness of the moor broken intermittently by sounds of wind and rain, the glimpses of a shifting, shadowed landscape gave us the feeling of having embarked upon a long voyage.

– Joan Bodger, How the Heather Looks

I’ve been thinking on this for weeks as I sit in dullness, trying to produce something here that just wouldn’t come. It won’t be pushed, no matter how behind I feel.

We need productive time away. We need productive time together. We need time to not produce anything at all – this may be the most productive time of all, giving us the perspective and simplicity we need to handle the chaos as it comes.

I asked Vince about it. “Do you know what a fermata is?”

“No. Is it Greek pastry? Mediterranean pasta?” These are the answers he gives while cooking dinner.

“No, it’s a pause in music.”  But it’s more. This is the place to hold, Love – and you need to hold for longer than you normally would. The song will pick up again soon enough.

It is a restless baby, squirming and overtired, who finally lays his head on your shoulder. It is a restless mama, overtired and fussy, letting go of the dishes and deadlines, just to listen to her Father.

He rests, I rest. This is the place to hold and linger.

 

to-do list

June, and almost 37 weeks. Everything summer is happening here: sprinklers, popsicles, heat waves, wildfires. Forget-me-nots blooming by Sophie’s grave, starflowers and dogwood, star-shaped tiger lilies almost ready to bud. Dinner is dandelion fritters, and pasta salad with peas and chickweed.

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We are hurry-up-and-waiting, slowly plugging through our summer term, getting over colds, and purging closets.

Lately we spend most afternoons outside, but a few weeks ago we sat on the couch during a rainy spell and did this sweet survey that was flooding social media. The instructions were something like, Ask your child these questions, write down their age and what they say, and try not to laugh so hard that you choke on your coffee.

How old is your mom?

Chamberlain, age five – Twenty-something. (haha!!)

Iree, age eleven – Thirty-nine or thirty-eight. (yes, one of those)

Afton, age nine – Thirty-nine. (but not that one)

How tall is your mom?

C – Taller than Mattie. (wrong)

I – Less than five feet. (wrong again)

A – I dunno…five or six feet? (Close enough. Give a broad enough answer, and you’re a winner!)

What is her favorite thing to do?

C – Eat cookies with a baby in her tummy.

I – Drink coffee with Dad.

A – Um, maybe ask us questions? (sarcasm runs very deep in our family)

What does your mom do when you’re not around?

I – Kiss Dad.

C – She cries.

A – I dunno because I’m not there. (logic runs very deep in our family, too)

The evenings are normal, mostly. Which means we still spend the first two or three hours after bedtime sending kids back to bed in between drinks for water, trips to the bathroom, and sudden appearances of ailments that did not bother them during the 12 hours previous to bedtime. The main difference is that now I make as many trips to the bathroom as all of the kids do combined, and we’ve decided we could probably never live in a house with less than three toilets.

What is something mom always says to you?

C – She calls me Bunny.

I – “Drink water.”

A, frowning – “Wash your hands.” (at this point he decided not to answer all of these pesky questions)

What is your mom really good at?

C – Keeping chocolate off her face when she eats cookies. (I’ve had some practice at this)

What is your mom not very good at?

C – She’s not very good at zipping her coat because Finnegan’s too big.

Where is your mom’s favorite place to go?

C – To sit on the couch and drink coffee with dad.

A – To bed.

I – To STAY in bed.

These kids are brilliant. I thought for sure they’d say “church” or “Kaladis” or “Hatcher Pass” for places I like to go, but no…they know me better than I know myself.

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What does your mom like most about your dad?

C – She likes him because he helps with babies and she loves babies.

A – ‘Cause he makes coffee.

I – She says he’s a stud.

(all true)

How tall is your dad?

C – He’s, like, about as tall as the ceiling.

I – More than five feet.

A – Six feet, maybe?

What was your dad like as a child?

C – He loved his mom. (Still true. She’s a pretty great lady.)

What makes dad sad?

C – When he has to work and paint. If he had to paint the whole inside of the house, it would make him cry. (probably true)

We still haven’t settled on a middle name for Finnegan yet. I haven’t finished his blanket yet. I feel woefully unprepared in so many ways and actually had a moment of panic the other day wondering if I had (ahem) appropriate birthing undergarments and such. Those. You know.

We need to pack our grab-and-go bag. We need to choose the wee little outfit to bring him home in. We need to paint, in spite of the trauma this may cause my husband.

And we’re still not sure where to put that yoga ball.

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What is your dad really good at?

C – Touching the ceiling. (which is a good thing, considering those painting projects)

I – Making me happy.

C – Yep. That’s true. He made you special and he loves you very much.

I – GOD made me special…

What makes you proud of your dad?

C – Because he loves me and he made me special…

I – He makes sure that we let mom sleep.

What do you and your dad do together?

C – We um, we go…drive to places and get slushies…and drive back home…and then go outside on a nice sunny day…slurp, slurp.

What is his favorite thing to do?

C – Sit with you and drink coffee.

I – Yep. Sit with you and drink coffee.

C – Huh. There’s a lot of coffee in here.

We need to slow down and speed up all at once – we need to rest on the couch with coffee and each other, and then run to the store and buy necessary postpartum supplies. We need to spend time with each of the kids in rambling talks and prayerful questions. But we should probably also teach them how to order pizza.

We need to decide urgent necessary things, like…who will stay with our kids during the birth? What music should we bring for labor and delivery? And, oh my goodness, hold on just a minute – what color should I paint my toenails??

Just kidding.

I mean, I can’t even reach my toenails. That’s another painting job for Vince.