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Monday, February 18, 2013

Who Is In Your Group?

ex·clu·sion:a keeping apart; blocking of an entrance.

I wonder how many times I have kept a person apart from me whom I could have loved instead. How many times have I excluded? The creepy power of exclusion is that when I'm doing it,  I am foolish enough to feel justified. Such as, "she does drugs, so I'll stay clear of her." (she could hurt my family.) Or, "I have seen her yelling at her kids too many times," (so she is out of control and could hurt my family.) Or "That child is spoiled or watches to much tv, or he is a bully, or he makes too much trouble" (so my kid isn't going to spend time with him...I'm doing what is best.) Or "she doesn't even smile at me so I don't want to get to know her." Or "she cheated on her husband" or "she snubbed me at that party"... or...well, you get it. Judgements can seem well-founded to that ugly portion of my heart that quietly pounds away, blocking the entrance to ME...  Judgement and exclusion is a blood clot or sticky plaque growing in my arteries, quietly disconnecting me from life and from love. The definition above says it well-- exclusion (which I'm realizing, to me, is the equivalent of judgement) pulls us all apart. It is love's enemy. God's enemy.

The common thread that I have discovered in almost all of my judgement, my need to exclude, is FEAR. Fear for my family's safety and well-being, fear for my reputation, fear of not being loved, fear of being hurt, fear of being disappointed. Fear that God is not really taking care of me and this world.

Why write about this today? Lately wherever I have looked, I have seen exclusion. Well, I haven't just see it-- it has screamed at me. And the echos of those screams haven't escaped my mind. So here I write. I believe that I recognize judgement and exclusion more clearly today than ever before because of my struggles as a parent of a special needs child. I have parented a child whom, at times, in many places, people have drawn away from. It has been a quiet, life-sucking with drawl. My family has felt painfully excluded. Judged. But ironically, this experience of exclusion has blessed us enormously-- maybe more than any other aspect of parenting. I can relate to SO many more people today. I can love more. And the door to my heart is very much more open.

When I was in elementary school, I remember my first experience with exclusion when I saw a large, sweet, awkward, glasses-wearing boy getting punched and teased by a group of classmates. I remember yelling and running at the perpetrators. I was that kind of girl. Overly confident. But there was something in my gut that was disgusted with what I saw. At least when I saw it so clearly as at that moment. Maybe it was my selfish fear that I could be that boy some day. 

In college, I joined a sorority. I thought it was a decent way to make friends and go to fun parties. I was later upset when I learned that during the "rushing" process, we were required to score potential new members based on their appearance. I remember another sorority sister asking me if I had rated the girl in the "porkadots." I wanted to vomit. Don't get me wrong, I was (and am) not above judging others (as pointed out earlier.) But to actually have it written on a score sheet (where I couldn't avoid the truth), and to exclude along with a large group of women, brought this issue into the spotlight for me.  I couldn't look. I went inactive shortly after. It was then that I started to think about exclusion-- exclusive friendships, groups, clubs, and how much they worried me. Something, maybe it was God, was pulling me in a different direction.

But we all still do it. We try to find people who are like us. We pull away from people who are not. Our groups might not have names or scorecards, but we have them. We hang out with people who dress like us, or who dress "different" and therefore like us. People who share our faith, or lack of faith. People who have similar parenting styles. So what is the big deal?

The big deal is this--people do not love others if they exclude them...if they don't let them in to their group. If they think they are from a "different group." For example, in Marin, we sadly neglect our homeless family population. I have learned that our neglect is largely because we do not believe there are many homeless people. And when we do learn that homeless families really exist (hundreds of them), we judge them, creating distance from our (wealthy, successful) community to theirs.

I am not that different from a homeless mom. If my husband lost his job and one of us became ill (common background of a homeless family) we could become homeless.When I get to know homeless moms, my similarity to them becomes evident... if I let them into my "group", and they let me in to theirs. I have been blessed with powerful lessons from homeless families about strength, grace and resilience.

Or divorced families-- I just spoke with a separated, lovely mom who is suffering from shock and isolation after her husband left her and her children. She is not much different from me, but right now she might feel that she is. How does one cope when a family suddenly breaks apart? With raising children alone? And watching families going on vacation to Tahoe this week, while she copes alone...She sees distance. Where is her group? She is like me. She could be me. She is part of my group. She has shown me my blessings and how little I deserve them.

Or what about the GBLT community? My husband and I have a couple of gay relatives. We have often talked about how much courage it must take to admit to being so different from what our "mainstream" society proclaims is acceptable. From what some Christians proclaim to be sinful behavior. I am not so different from a gay person. Human sexuality is a giant, scary thing to me. Men scare me (except for my husband, of course.) I do not claim to understand human sexuality, nor can I judge others for their experience with it. Though I am heterosexual, I am part of the same group as those who are GBLT. I love my partner, whom I'm blessed to have as my husband, with all my heart. I love him just as many in the GBLT world love their partners. I can't imagine having to hide that fact.

Or let's consider those kids who can be challenging to be around because of their "imperfection" or their special needs-- like my son? I can write about this today because we don't feel so excluded at the moment. We have found our group, though it may be scattered and small. And maybe because we have looked a little harder than most, we have found beautiful, genuine people to spend time with.... But I can tell you...if you are a parent, you are not that different from me, either. Not so different from me, the parent with the challenging child. And your kid-- he or she is not that different from my child. He is not perfect. He can be a pain in the rear-end. But, guess what, he or she deserves to be included and loved, anyway. At least that is what God says. He or she will enrich many lives if given the opportunity to connect. If the exclusion is lifted. If he or she can taste differences and love them.

This world has all sorts of colors, bright, faded, torn. I pray that one day we can weave them together. All pathways open. All part of the same group. We will make a beautiful land.

"The central tenet of Christianity as it has come down to us is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward; to give when we want to take; to love when we are inclined to hate; to include when are tempted to exclude."
Jon Meacham 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Do You Dare Ask for Help?

A little boy was having difficulty lifting a heavy stone. His father came along just then. Noting the boy’s failure, he asked, “Are you using all your strength?”

“Yes, I am,” the little boy said impatiently.

“No, you are not,” the father answered. “I am right here just waiting, and you haven’t asked me to help you.” 
- Anon

Help. How often do we ask for it when we need it? I confess that I once measured myself by how often I did not need help for most everything. I did careless things like carry a piece of furniture twice my size inside from the car, rather than asking for help from a person in the next room. "There, I did it." I would think. And I would feel so satisfied.

But there was a problem. I took credit, and pride points, for everything that I did well, particularly scoring a good job when I didn't have the right experience, starting my own business, moving across country to San Francisco without any friends in the area, recovering from a failed relationship and finding someone so much better. I took the credit for my blessings. I forgot that God was there with me, probably chuckling at my ignorance. Or maybe he was really miffed? I was not doing it alone. But I didn't recognize it. I just sprinted along, believing that I was one of those "resilient" people. When I wasn't feeling insecure and trying to prove myself, well, I felt kind of proud.

Then I became a mom.

I had it in my head that if my husband and I were good parents, we wouldn't need any help. We would read and follow the best parenting books, and "poof" we would become picture book parents with compassionate, intelligent, well-behaved kids. We were educated entrepenuers and we loved each other. With the right amount of nourishment, love, discipline and structure we could "create" (as though we were the creators) great kids. Right?

Of course not! When our son T started walking at 13 months, one month before my second baby was due, my life took a distinct turn toward CHAOS... And boy did I need HELP. You would think we could have handled anything at that point. We had just taken T off of his heart medication, his open heart surgery and atrial flutter were behind us. We had moved back to our beloved Marin from New York. We were remodeling a new home. It was time for the dream life. Two kids? We thought, "No big deal!"

Then T  became mobile, his new brother N entered the picture, and T began DESTROYING everything. He tore books, cleared shelves and drawers, threw objects. He wrecked everything in his path. He responded to no consequences, even natural ones, and became defiant-- about everything. He talked non-stop and never stopped moving. Food would fly. If another child came into his vicinity, he would offer a smile and then a quick-like-lighting SHOVE. Faces transformed from smiles to alarm, then disgust. He started throwing things at little N. And when N tried to walk, he could barely get a step in before T would intercept. N became exceptional at finding the ground just in time to avoid a push. I remember sitting in my living room, helplessly nursing N, watching T wreck everything in sight. I learned that my sense of peace relied on visual order. I felt unraveled, all day and night.

So I stopped sleeping. Many nights I got 2-3 hours of sleep. I felt terrified for the next day of chaos. Especially frightening was the expectation, the uncertainty, of dealing with the next day. Alone. Without sleep. Guilt. Instead of feeling the joy of motherhood, there was misery, fear and lonliness. The blessing of the day was a walk to the market without a major episode. A moment when I could feel in control. We could not consider going to church because we couldn't imagine leaving T with any Sunday school teacher, or sitting through a service. We were trapped.

No one was knocking on the door, offering to help. And I didn't have the skills, the courage, the humble heart to ask. Honestly, I didn't know who could have helped me at that point. When things were really bad, and I hadn't slept for nights, I would break down. I would ask my husband to stay home from work. It was only when I reached real darkness (fear for my children's safety and my sanity) that I started searching for help... I called Easter Seals and they visited and told me that T needed an OT. Simple, right?

Of course not! I spent six months calling OTs. Trying to get someone in Marin to help me. No one had time. No one returned calls. I hired a nanny to help me for six hours a week. But after a few weeks in our house, it became apparent that she could not help me with T. So she helped with housework and my little baby N. I missed my time with him.

I know that many people cannot afford 6 hours of nanny time weekly and an OT. I understand that I was blessed. But sadly our life was still so far from healthy. I was overwhelmed by T. Almost all of the time. I was not getting a break. I needed more help.

Then I got pregnant. And for some reason, when I had my third child, I truly could accept my need for help. Help! I asked Ross Academy, the preschool where we had been on the waitlist for over a year, to take T for five mornings a week to provide him with consistency. I  informed them about his challenges. They met him. They accepted him. They commited to our family. I hired a nanny full time. On my way to help, right?

Of course not! When our third child was born, Ross Academy called me in the hospital, the day after my C section, and informed me that T could not come back to school. They didn't have a specific reason-- just that he wasn't right for their school. Sorry! I cried non-stop for the next four days in the hospital, while calling every preschool in Marin. No space. Five weeks later, with three children under three years old, my new nanny quit too....

But I kept searching, seeking help. I knew I needed help. I became very comfortabe admiting, heck, proclaiming, that I could not do this alone. I just kept searching.

And four years later, I DO have the help that I need. I have survived. Honestly, without the people in our lives who have helped our family, I am not sure whether our family would be OK today. There is so much love here. And, I can tell you, that we have NOT survived alone.

This post has gotten way too long, so I'll continue some other time. My point is pretty simple. My special son T, along with his very special siblings, has taught me an incredible lesson...

Asking for help takes courage. Asking for help takes a humble heart. God hears our prayers, and I believe that God works through the people in our lives, too. So when we ask God, and we ask people for what we need, we have a chance to flourish. But if we never ask, if we suffer quietly, we overlook the greatest gift we have been given-- each other. God is in each one of us.

I'm so grateful for the people in my life who have helped my family -- occupational therapists, osteopaths, a pastor, a children's ministry leader, psychologists, psychiatrists, nannies, a housekeeper, pediatricians, integrative doctors, learning therapist, teachers, sisters, friends, and parents.

I'm also grateful for my unbelievable husband who has supported me when I have turned into a sleepless wife monster. (I know, I say it a lot, but he really is amazing.)

Help isn't easy to find-- especially the right help. But ask, be honest, and you might be surprised what you get. Grace (undeserved favor from God) is at your fingertips. I know that I do not deserve the amazing family and support that I have. But here I am. It is miraculous. And what has it done for me (other than making my life more peaceful?) I want to share it.  When you reach out to others, and you receive mercy (help that you do not deserve,) well, you want to give back. A lot. You can relate to others. You meet God. And there is much joy.

Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door shall be opened. 
Matthew 7:7 

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. 
Mahatma Gandhi