Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No room for guilt

My daughter and I, right before her open heart surgery last December.
I wonder if the expression "mommy guilt" existed in centuries past--I kind of suspect that it didn't. 

The sheer number of expectations we enlightened and modern mothers place on ourselves (and on our children) is mind-numbing.  The birthday parties, extra-curricular activities, academic pursuits, social opportunities, and rites of passage for children leave little time for just being.  I've never been one to even attempt to do it all, because I'm not even talented enough to pretend I can--not even for a little while.

When my children were very young (think three kids ages two and under), we stayed home a lot.  My husband commuted to work and was thus gone long hours each day, and so the kids and I mostly hung around the house.  That lifestyle felt natural and comfortable to me, and the few times I attempted to become involved in things, I eventually had to step back because it just didn't work for me.

Yes, this meant that my husband and I quit doing youth ministry when my sons came home from Ethiopia.

And yes, I did drop out of my church's hallowed Beth Moore biblestudy, once my fourth child was born.

And maybe this makes me sound like a bad person, but I never once felt guilty about those things.  Not even one little bit.  Because, contrary to the women's ministry representative who indicated that women not participating in the biblestudy were sinning, I believed that my vocation as wife and mother came first--long before any trappings of Evangelical Christian culture. 

The truth is that to live out God's calling for wives and mothers, we must pick and choose.  In recent years I have, for example, cut out any sort of homeschool or adoption support groups, none of my children are presently in regular sports activities, and the majority of our social life is spent with people from church.  This is by design.  Because limiting what we do is essential to sanity-preservation.

So if we know that our sanity and well-being is so important, why all the mommy guilt?  Why do women feel bad for not throwing first-rate parties and raising star athletes?  Why do we even feel compelled to try?

I wonder if part of the reason is that with lower birth rates (due to the popularity of hormonal birth control), a high standard of living, and the advent of technology, American families simply have more leisure time.  It is thus no longer enough to simply raise your children, put food on the table, and maintain relationships with family and friends.  We now have to try to excel in other areas, keep up with the Joneses, and aim to provide the Ideal Childhood for our children.  And we have the time and resources to do it. 

So, we do. 

A simple family meal shared around the table is not considered a success or norm or ideal any longer, but a child earning recognition in three different sports is. 

We mothers would do well, I think, to avoid the hamster-wheel altogether and acknowledge that the ideal woman is not the one who does it all.  Because that woman just doesn't exist.  The standard we should be shooting for is obedience to Jesus, charity in all things, children with well-formed consciences, and peaceful homes.  None of those ideals require multiple drop-offs and pick-ups, taking out a second mortgage, or getting less than five hours of sleep.  They do of course require the grace of God.

I could honestly not do what I do (raising seven children) if I internalized the pressures of society around me.  And that's not to say that we are hermits--far from it, actually.  My children participate in a weekly homeschool program through the public schools, as well as a twice-monthly Catholic homeschool co-op, and they also have some really great friends.  Weekends often find us having dinner with other families or hanging out at church, and I occasionally have dinner or coffee out with girlfriends.  We are busy.

But we're busy with things that nourish our souls, not things we feel obligated to do or that I believe make me a good mom.  And we are home a lot still, and we need that too.

The more time that passes, the more I see the value in only choosing activities that you want to do and that bring you joy.  If that means time out of the house, great.  If it means staying home, great.  But motherhood should never mean feeling guilty for not throwing Martha-Stewart-level birthday parties or raising professional football players. 

God gives us this vocation in order to nurture the souls of our children, and to become more like Him.

And there's no room for guilt there!

Because, in leaving margin in our lives, there is more room for love, service, joy, and yes even big things like heart surgeries.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The difficult language of adoption

Me and Mekdes, in her orphanage, looking at photos of our family.
I've spoken before about how I feel as if I'm on the outside of adoption culture itself, in spite of personally having four adopted children.  I find I don't primarily identify myself as an "adoptive mom" (although I am), nor do I typically seek out other adoptive parents in an effort to find community or solidarity.  This is perhaps in part because some of my dearest friends are adoptive parents, so maybe I've already found "my people."  But it's also probably because adoptive parents vary as much as anyone else does in terms of worldview, values, philosophies on raising children and the like.

Even being on the outside, I am still part of the adoption world.  I read the written-by-an-expert-articles and the popular blogposts and observe the assorted controversies.  From afar.  And, it does not escape my notice that certain words or phrases are accepted in some circles, while rejected in others.  One of these words that I've been thinking about lately is the r-word: "rescued."  Some adoptive parents prefer to focus on how they "saved" their child in adopting them, while others vehemently reject this paradigm and insist that the child has blessed them more than the other way around, and that it's not much different from having birthed the child themselves.

For a long time I was 100% in the latter camp.  I hated to see the mentality that presented adoptive parents as having done a great and selfless deed by giving a hurting child a home.  And I still do, to some degree.  But having been an adoptive mom now for nearly seven years, and having visited my kids' orphanage three different times within that seven years, and after meeting each and every one of my childrens' birth mothers, I have a more nuanced view of adoption in general.  Which basically amounts to, "it's complicated."  This grid through which to view adoption hinges primarily on the fact that it's not really an understanding at all, but more an acknowledgement of the complex web of struggles and issues surrounding the relinquishment and subsequent classification of a child as an orphan.

I've come to see that orphans are vulnerable, whether they are two-parent orphans or not, and whether they live in a child-headed household, in a sewer, with a relative, or in an orphanage.  And this is precisely where the compulsion to talk about saving a child comes in.  Because removing a precious soul, no matter how old, from a situation where they have been exposed to the risk of sexual abuse, neglect, and intimidation is in a very real sense rescuing that child.  On the other hand, be it far from me to take any credit for giving any of my adopted children a fairytale ending to a traumatic start in life--because that beginning remains a part of them, and no child who has lost their birth parents and culture, who has potentially been exploited and hurt, ought to feel indebted to anyone for doing what should have been done in the first place: protecting them.

So like with many things, I find myself hanging out in the tension of knowing my children are fortunate in one sense, to have been given a safe place to land and an opportunity for a future, and unlucky in another because they lost their first parents due to horrible circumstances.  And they will of course live with some of those scars.  On a day to day basis, I tend towards focusing more on the fact that they are simply children who had an unideal beginning.  I don't think much about the big-picture of how my husband and I factored into their story.  Nor do I use the word "rescued" when referring to my kids.  Ever.

But then, sometimes, the gravity of what it means to be an orphan (in any culture--including our own) hits me.  Generally it's when I hear a story or read something like thisAnd the first thing that runs through my mind is, good grief, these kids need to be rescued.  Yep, I used the r-word.  It's mind-numbing to consider such precious children with broken souls and frail bodies.  I find myself thinking that they need an advocate, a hero, someone who will charge headlong into the world of undiagnosed syndromes and cerebral palsy and autism and malnourishment.  It doesn't have to be a saint or The Best Parent in the World.  Just someone open to raising a child with some extra challenges.  And it's no small feat, but it's doable. 

I find my mind wandering to the what ifs...

What if each and every church rose up and encouraged just one couple in their midst, who felt called to adoption, to take one of these children?  What if each and every faithful Catholic took it upon themselves to examine the meaning of openness to life in this context?

And it is at this point when I typically start getting scared, because oh my goodness I'm starting to sound like one of those people that talks about rescuing kids, and suddenly I'm morphing into an obnoxious adoption cheerleader while ignoring that complex web of issues that I oh-so-cooly referenced earlier.

And what about my own adopted children, who deserved to be raised by their biological parents, who I refuse to acknowledge needed saving?

All of that flies out the window when I look into the faces of starving and drugged fourteen-year-olds that weigh 15 pounds.  I start to forget all about the statistics and the proper language and the socially acceptable way to refer to things.  Because all that seems to run through my head is, "This is crap."  These boys and girls, being systematically tortured and neglected while dying a slow, excruciating death in a place that more closely resembles a horrific psychological experiment than a home for abandoned children.  It is darkness, and it is evil.  It is sin in one of its purest manifestations.

I know of course that I cannot fix it.  I know that I am not being called upon at this time to pursue the adoption of one of these children, because I am presently needed by my own little ones, to a degree that prevents me from taking more on right now.  And, I also know that it is a complex web of issues.  Or something.  Okay I don't really know anything except that these kids are not being treated with the dignity they deserve, which is of course true of many people around the globe, but it seems particularly horrible in the case of a teenager who is confined to a crib for years and years.

Of course I can advocate for these children, encourage others to consider whether adoption might be a part of their family landscape, and use my small voice to express a big injustice.  But in the end, I must also simply believe that God is present in these places, that He is grieved by what is happening and that His mercy is unending.  Even for these seemingly forgotten children.

As for me, I live in the here and now, and so this adoption thing is a tightrope act for us, in how we conceptualize and discuss the whole matter.  My kids are not charity cases, they are not the luckiest people in the world, and we are not heroes.  At the same time, they are fortunate to be out of an orphanage where known perpetrators of abuse also lived.  They are fortunate to have landed at that orphanage, period.  They now have the potential for a long life that they simply did not have before, not as orphans in a developing country.  My two daughters with Down syndrome in particular have a shot at a safety within the confines of a family who loves and protects them.  They are extra vulnerable and will continue to be over the course of their respective lives.

And yet I still am not comfortable with the word "rescue" in reference to my kids--at the end of the day, I think that children deserve to kids, not kids that we pity or who owe us something.  But I'll probably talk that way sometimes about the many orphans still living without families, who are being drugged, abused, neglected or deposited into mental asylums to die.  Surely they need to be rescued.  And I understand why parents do elect to speak that way about their kids, if they wish, because in a sense it is absolutely true.  One of my kids' birthmothers in particular saw it as such.  Which was awful and humbling, but it's how she perceived the matter.

The language of adoption is difficult.  I am convinced that the ultimate reason why is that we are attempting to give words to ideas and situations that are painful, laced with brokenness, and rooted in the tragic reality of what happens when the fundamental building block of any society, the family, deteriorates.  The protectors lose the ability to protect, the marriage union (if ever it existed) is torn apart by death or poverty or divorce, and children are left vulnerable and alone.  Is it any wonder then that we grasp to articulate the situation?  Should we be surprised that there is no simple or ideal way to describe our child's plight?

As adoptive parents, we of course don't have the luxury of turning off the TV or computer and returning to sweet and simple daily life where the words flow easily.  We must instead continue muddling through that complex web of issues I keep talking about, even if our own family is presently free of death, disease and dissolution.  Because those things remain part of our child's story, and as such are now part of our daily vocabulary.  Even if we fail to find just the right words to describe it all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

7 Quick Takes through Instagram

I'm linking up with Jeannett at Life Rearranged,
and with Jennifer at Conversion Diary,
for 7 Quick Takes through Instagram Friday. 

While I try to write something of relative substance here on my blog a couple of times a week, this is a fun chance to share the mundane details of what we've been up to and give you a glimpse into the details of my life.  Ironically, most of life is lived through these small moments, and I love documenting them here.  And, I do have two sons in addition to all these girls, but somehow I didn't capture them on camera this week.  Oops.  Next time I'll do better.

1.)  Family Costco trip, after the kids got home from their weekly homeschool co-op.  Even though I detest grocery shopping of any kind, my kids LOVE getting to go.  On this particular night, Kevin met us at the store after he got off work, and we had pizza when the shopping was done.  He had no trouble finding us in the store, because Tigist was angry and yelling 

2.)  Dear, sweet Kaitlyn announced she had a "project" for the little ones to do one afternoon.  It involved some drinking straws (swiped from the Costco food court the night before), glue, and nametags she made for each of the girls.  Who were not as cooperative with her craft as she had hoped.  :)  Still, they had fun, and I love getting to see Katie in the big sister role.

 3.  Several months ago I bought a Groupon for Anna to receive some lessons in horse care/horsemanship from a local equestrian center.  She was thrilled.  Kevin took her Saturday morning and she groomed, cleaned hooves, bridled, and rode.  And she gets to go again in three weeks for an assessment ride.  She was super excited about all of it, but I have to admit I was maybe equally so, because I just plain love horses--always have.  Not only are they beautiful and quite a lot of fun, but they provide a wonderful opportunity for kids to learn the value of hard work, discipline, and the value in caring for an animal.

 4.)  So we have a lot of squirrels in Denver.  They reside in our backyard and love to steal my kids' shoes (and take them up into the trees), and eat the peaches off our peach tree.  They drive me crazy, but I've never given them too much thought beyond thinking they're annoying.  Well, until the other day, when one of the squirrels SMACKED MY TWO-YEAR-OLD IN THE FACE.  Yes, in the face!  The squirrel had apparently been hiding in a cardboard box that was ready to go out to the recycling bin, my daughter picked up the box, and the squirrel jumped out and hit her forehead!  It scared her, needless to say, and also prompted her siblings (who witnessed the attack) to grab sticks and yell and chase off the offender.  I would have given my right arm to see it all go down, but I was in the house, and instead had to settle for interviewing the victim later that night after her bath.  My apologies for the poor lighting.
 5.)  Now that Kaitlyn attends our weekly homeschool co-op, my Thursdays are pretty quiet.  Because all my rambunctious big kids are away, and it's just me and the three littles.  Who I discovered are fabulous shopping companions.  Just me, these three, a pumpkin spice latte, and the joys of Target.  For a little over two hours we roamed the aisles, found great deals, and enjoyed one another's company.  And if you ever want to be entertained, take Mary and Mekdes down the toy aisle.  "Ohhhh, MAry!  Loooooook!" Mekdes would say, to which Mary would reply "Yeah!"  Those two and their sweet relationship just never, ever get old.

6.)  Of course, when most of your big siblings are away for the day, it is the perfect time to sneak an entire stack of chocolate chip cookies.  Oh, this girl.

7.)  Well I figured it was time for a belly shot, being that I'm coming up on 18 weeks pregnant (!) now.  Please excuse my pale, deformed-looking arm, and my horribly messy mirror (not exactly sure how my kids always manage to make such a mess).  I'm not nearly so nauseous anymore (yay!), but am still pretty much exhausted all the time (boo!)  We should be able to find out the sex in a couple of weeks and I'm so, so excited.  And I've been feeling the baby kick every now and then over the past few days which never ceases to amaze me.  Pregnancy is, simply, a miracle.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The clown heard 'round the world


Racism and sexism are subjects I do not discuss very often here on my blog. 

It's not that I don't have thoughts on these issues, because I do.  But problems like these, ultimately the fruit of sin, are big and real and ever-looming for many, many people.  So mostly I just feel that I, personally, would not do such topics justice.  I would honestly prefer for people affected by these things to share their own stories and own experiences, people who can speak from first-hand knowledge of discrimination and prejudice, as opposed to an arm-chair blogger.

But every once in awhile I'll read or hear something that serves as an unfortunate reminder that it is still culturally acceptable in some circles to view African Americans and/or women as little more than a punchline to a disturbing joke.

Enter offensive rodeo clown.  (Yes, rodeo clown.  Stay with me.)

I'm writing this today not because making a joke with a reprehensible punchline is particularly noteworthy.  I'm writing because there seem to be a lot of people utterly dumbfounded that anyone could be offended by it, or who think that it is an infringement of a person's free speech for the media to report on it.  So.  I'm going to attempt to explain why the joke (which is old and has been used for years in different ways) is problematic, and why even though the man who made the joke was well within his legal rights to do so, people like me think it was in poor taste and completely inappropriate.  And I'm well within my legal rights to do so.

I come from a very small, little-known rural "town" in California, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.  It is, in my view, a truly wonderful community that includes all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and viewpoints.  It will always hold a happy, special place in my heart.

So imagine my surprise when my sleepy hometown made national news (!) for a rodeo clown's stupid joke, made at their annual rodeo this past weekend. 

Insert slightly amusing and tangential self-disclosure: When I was seventeen, I was in the running for rodeo queen of this very rodeo.  Which amounted to me attempting to sell raffle tickets by spending time in a smoky VFW hall, dancing with a bunch of old men.  I did not win. 

The joke in question involved references to Michelle Obama and Ann Romney posing in National Geographic and Playboy, respectively.  It was directed in a negative way towards Michelle Obama, but also managed to degrade Ann Romney in the process.  (Unintentionally I am sure--to the clueless clown, the thought of Mrs. Romney being offered money to pose for Playboy was a compliment of the highest kind.)

My first thought upon reading the joke was, did my little ol' town really just make the Huffington Post?

My second thought was, I've always hated clowns of any type.  They scare me.

My third thought was, Oh my goodness, how could ANYONE make this kind of asinine comment?  Especially in public?

But perhaps most of all, I was positively astounded by some of the comments on the article that ran in the county paper--people defending the joke, declaring that no one ought to be offended, justifying the words by claiming that if Bill Maher had said something parallel about a conservative woman, it would have been okay.

Um, no.

He does say horrible things about conservative women (and religious people, and most everyone else he disagrees with), and it's not okay--and I hardly think Bill Maher should be the standard of decency when it comes to making statements about other human beings.  Heaven help us if he is!

So are you ready to hear what the problem with the joke is?

It is inexcusable to joke about upright, decent women posing for pornographic publications.  Period. 

It is even less excusable to, in the same breath, insinuate that the blonde, fair-skinned woman is Playboy material (because Playboy is apparently the epitome of what a woman should be?), and the woman with brown skin and brown hair belongs nude in a feature on African tribes.

It disrespects both women, it disrespects the women found within the pages of National Geographic, and oh my goodness, it is stupid.

Really, really stupid.

I kind of wanted to call this (literal and figurative) clown up on the phone and tell him what this mama-to-girls, including two girls with brown skin, thinks.

And maybe I would, except that he's in the hospital with an injury he sustained at the rodeo.  I hope and pray he makes a quick and full recovery.

So instead I'll direct my indignation at those who are trying to defend the joke itself, and who are attempting to blame the fall-out on "tree-hugging" liberals: I am a registered Republican.  I am a social and fiscal conservative.  I used to own cowboy boots and attend that very rodeo.  I didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and I won't be in 2012.  I live in a city now but I love me the country life.  So anyone trying to say this is about politics or about the liberal thought police, think again.

It is ultimately about the dignity of human beings, about the fact that each and every person on the face of this planet is made in God's image.  It is about the fact that we should not be seeking to deride people on account of their race or gender.  Women are, as both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama fabulously demonstrate through their success and dignified demeanors, designed to be far more than sexual objects abused by men.

I must say that I find it particularly annoying that this festive community event is now associated with this sort of nonsense.  The clown doesn't even live in my hometown.  And I personally know the people who work hard to put this rodeo on each year, and I grew up with the folks who helped the clown to the hospital when he collapsed on the street.  All good people.  Who use the word "folks."

But I also think that for better or worse, this story made national news, and it doesn't do any good to keep saying that it was just a joke.  It was a disgusting thing to say, from both a racial and female perspective, and now that it's out in the open, let's call it as such.  I don't think we need to demand a public execution for the clown (who I'm sure is otherwise a decent human being), but I also don't have to pretend that his "joke" was okay. 

To those who keep saying the clown is not a racist, I would respond that the word "racist" is of no practical use in this conversation.  His words were racially offensive.  Period.  Had our family been there, we very well may have asked for a refund and left.  And then had to debrief our kids and explain why we don't go places where people make those types of comments.

Because my beautiful daughters, all five of them, are fearfully and wondrously made.  Their bodies are meant for the honor and praise of God, and for beauty through chastity and holiness.  Playboy and similar publications are not the crown of female achievement.  On the contrary, they are the low-point, the unwelcomed and crass uncle at the dinner table that refuses to leave--in part because we won't kick him out.

So this is me saying enough is enough.  This is me saying that the female body is worth far too much for public derision.  This is me saying that the brown-skinned body is worth far too much for public derision.  This is me saying that I am doing my very best to raise children of virtue and character, and that I stand against any statement that reduces a person with a soul to the brunt of a sexually and racially degrading joke.  I am not attempting to be the thought police or killer of free speech, and I'm not saying that joke-making--even heinous joke-making--ought to be illegal or that it ought to single-handedly ruin a person's livelihood or reputation.

But I am saying that words have weight, and let's take care to use them well.  And if you honestly still can't fathom why people were upset by the joke, well, I'm sure there's a line one could cross in making a joke about you or your kids or your wife or your husband.  Imagine someone crossing that line in a crowded public venue.  While you sit there humiliated because oh my goodness, that joke was about people who look like you.  (Or your precious children.  I honestly cannot imagine the horror of having my four Ethiopian kids in a venue where racial jokes were being made over the PA system.)  You might not be so thrilled either. 

Racism and misogynism are real, whether people in small towns acknowledge them or not.  As a former resident of this particular small town, and as a mother to four Ethiopian-American children, I have decided to share my perspective.  I am not intending to bring negative publicity to the town or its residents, and I would suggest that the best thing for them to do is admit that the clown's joke was inappropriate.  Going onto Facebook and into comboxes to defend the clown and his words, insult liberals, and further defame these women, is what will ultimately draw negative attention to your wonderful community. 

It really is okay to admit that sometimes, clowns just aren't very funny. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Introvert on a plane

As most of you know by now, I love to read.  Really, truly, love it.  Most books I pick up are religious in content, although I also enjoy anything with a psychological/sociological aspect, because I'm kind of fascinated by people. 

And as most you also know by now, I am a complete and utter introvert.  (This goes well with the book-loving.)  I tend to remain silent in group settings, it can take me awhile to fully process things, and I prefer a good one-on-one conversation with a close friend to a raucous party.

So anyway, imagine my excitement when I learned that Susan Cain had just written a book about introversion!  And not just a book, but a delightfully insightful exploration of our culture's long history of prizing extroversion, and the resulting consequences in areas like religion, business, and education.  Be still my heart. 

Now I just so happened to get the book from the library the day before I flew to Dallas for the Catholic New Media Conference.  And yes, I see the humor in bringing a book on introversion to a conference all about social media.  I devoured the first few chapters on my flight out (we introverts don't like to talk on airplanes, see, so a book is an excellent diversion--especially a book with a title like Quiet.)  I hoped to do some more reading once I arrived.

But the conference itself was busy and not very quiet, so I looked forward to some precious quality time with my book on the flight home.

Except that, as luck would have it, the woman who wanted nothing more than to read her book about introverts landed a seat next to the loudest, most extroverted man on the plane.

No joke.

He was noisy, opinionated, fond of expletives...and funny.  The first twenty or so minutes of the flight were devoted to his complaining about Dallas, a tirade which I think he could probably use as a stand-up routine in a comedy club.  (Just not a comedy club in Dallas.)

Then he told me about his Jesus-freak of a brother, and about how he hates religion. 

And it was probably around this time when I started wondering if there might be a parachute under my seat.  Because surely jumping from an airplane mid-flight would be less awkward than my having to admit that not only am I a Jesus freak too, I'm Catholic.

Of course before I could divulge any of that, I wound up having to explain my family.  I have been married ten years already, I have a slew of kids, seven to be exact, four of them adopted, two of them were born with Down syndrome, and one baby on the way. 

After helping the man overcome his shock (the official and uncensored Heldt Family Disclosure tends to have that effect on people), I figured nothing I could possibly reveal about my faith would phase him.

And, it didn't.  We actually wound up talking the entire flight (with me gazing longingly at my book every so often, still tucked sadly away in my purse), covering such topics as religion, good deeds, violence, adoption, Hell, parenting (he has two children), and Joel Osteen. 

Yes, Joel Osteen.

Because he had a Joel Osteen book with him, which seemed funny to me since he'd already announced his disdain for any and all religion.  But he said his boss had recommended the book, and he saw it in the airport bookstore, so he bought it.  I told him that with a title like Every Day a Friday, he probably couldn't go wrong, because Friday's are generally pretty awesome.  He agreed.

I have to admit that by the time our plane touched down in Denver, the guy had grown on me.  In spite of the fact that my anxiety was at an unbearably high level, because hello, I am an introvert.  But I rarely have conversations with strangers outside of comboxes, especially strangers who I have very little in common with.  Not because I don't want to, but I'm an at-home mom, and I don't go very many places.

His story was fairly predictable for a forty-something American from Nebraska: he'd been raised Catholic, he walked away from religion at some point and eventually came to hate the hypocrisy he saw in Christianity, but is concerned about the moral decline of our country.  Interestingly, at no point in our conversation was either of us combative.  (Had it gone down that path, I would have jumped for sure, parachute or no parachute.)  He was interested, plain and simple, in my story and in my family, and in what compelled us to choose the life we've carved out for ourselves. 

It was actually a good reminder of the power of story.  People are naturally curious and inquisitive, and I think that in this day and age especially, they want to see life.  Because one need not look far to see where society has taken us--life, dignity, and perserverance in the face of trials are ever so slowly disappearing from the cultural landscape.  Instead, the stories being written today seem to be more about convenience, materialism, and the freedom to destroy masquerading as, well, freedom.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm sure I had about as much impact on this man as Joel Osteen probably did, sitting (and smiling--I wonder if he ever isn't smiling?) unread in the man's backpack.  I didn't make a convert out of him (I wasn't trying), I didn't convince him that he and his wife ought to adopt a child (I wasn't trying), and I am sure he's long since forgotten about the shy woman on the airplane that he initially thought was a teenager, but who turned out to have a slew of kids and a weird affinity for Jesus.  But that's not really the point.  The point is that I shared a small piece of the story that God has given me, and I'm always saying that God's story ought to be told, and sometimes the opportunity arises to share it in person in a most unexpected way.

Even though I'm much more comfortable doing so in front of a computer screen.  In my pajamas.

It all seemed so ironic to me that a trip dedicated to spreading faith and hope through online communication would ultimately end in the sharing of my faith in person with a stranger, something that is much harder for me to do.  And the man was such a loud talker that I'm sure half the plane could hear his half of the conversation.  ("What kind of crazy lady must he be talking to?", is what they were probably wondering.) 

I'm also sure that any Dallas residents were completely offended by his observations about their beloved Texan city.  If you are one of them, I'm sorry for laughing.  His jokes may have been mean and laced with cusswords, but they were funny, and I was socially anxious.

And yet maybe it's not so ironic afterall, because maybe the point of all of it is to try to live a good story, and to vulnerably share who we are with the world and allow God to do what He will. 

After I'd exited the plane and bid my seatmate farewell, I caught up with my friend and fellow conference attendee (and fellow introvert) and asked how his time on our flight was.

And he smiled.  And said the following:

"It was great!  Nobody talked to me.  Just how I like it!"

Sigh.  That's how I like it too. 

That's why I brought a book along called Quiet.

And that's the story of what happens when an introverted Catholic sits next to an extroverted ex-Catholic on a plane.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Last Ounce of Courage

While in Texas, I had the opportunity to meet with the promoters of a film about religious freedom.  Last Ounce of Courage is produced by an Evangelical film company that hoped to make some inroads in the Catholic market, thus their presence at the Catholic New Media Conference and Catholic Marketing Network Tradeshow.

The movie itself centers around a mayor of a small town who grows concerned about religion being banned from the public square.  So, he makes the decision to decorate his town for Christmas, in spite of threats from a fictionalized version of the ACLU.

Now it can be tempting to think that, what with issues like the HHS mandate having recently gone into effect, and the recent flare-up at Steubenville's Franciscan University over how one of their sociology courses approaches homosexuality, the idea of equating religious freedom with putting up Christmas decorations is somewhat trivial.  And from a Catholic perspective, the film seems to take more care to depict the characters as patriots than as Christians.  But.

The core message of the movie is an important and timely one.  Religious freedom has certainly been on the Catholic radar lately, because it is something we no longer have the luxury to ignore.  The Catholic Church cannot, for example, comply with the HHS mandate, because they are unable to provide employees with coverage of contraception.  It violates some of the Church's oldest and most fundamental religious beliefs.  So once the one-year period is up, Catholic organizations and employers will be left to participate in civil disobedience. 

I'll be honest and say that I used to hear people talking about the loss of freedoms, and I wrote them all off as alarmists.  But now?  Well, I guess I'm one of them, because when the federal government can legislate that faith-based groups are required to cover things like the morning-after pill and sterilization procedures, something seems very wrong.

Interestingly, as time marches onward, and more and more lines are being drawn in the sand, strange bedfellows are beginning to emerge.  Catholics and Southern Baptists, for example, do not have much in common on the surface, and certainly have never been BFFs.  But as the Nashville-based, Baptist movie promoter said to me over lunch in Dallas, "We're on the same side now."  And he's right. 

So while Last Ounce of Courage was made by Evangelicals, we Catholics ought to support this effort and stand with our Protestant brothers and sisters to help spread the message.  The makers of this film took a chance by reaching out to us, and I believe we have the opportunity here to reciprocate and respond that YES, we too are concerned about how things are going, and we of all people care deeply about preserving the freedom to practice religion.

My own favorite part of the film is when the mayor tells a news reporter that Muslims ought to be able to pray in the public square.  It was a powerful moment, and a beautiful image of what America ought to stand for.  There is a lot of American imagery in the movie--flags, for example--but I believe it is used less as a nationalistic tactic and more as a symbol for what our country ought to stand for.

Last Ounce of Courage opens nationwide today.  The promoters were quick to point out that this film is straightforward and simple, and that they are ultimately hoping it can serve as a good catalyst for conversation.  The movie utilizes professional actors, and the production value is good considering that it is a small film company.  So please spread the word, and go see the movie, and if you've not given thought to the concept of religious freedom, now may just be the time. 

In the interest of FCC disclosure, I received a screener's copy of the film, as well as a stipend, to assist with promotion.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I will tell you

A year ago today we arrived in Ethiopia, with the mission of finally bringing our daughters home.  It's so cliche to ask "Where has the time gone?", but really--where has the time gone?  (I so want to tell you some outlandish story of how we went on safari and skinned a zebra.  Which wouldn't be true, but would sound much more interesting than the actual truth, which is that we posed at a touristy shop for this photo.  So that apparently we could look like we bagged a zebra on safari.)

Here are Tigist and Mekdes at the guesthouse, moments after we took them out of the orphanage.  This photo encapsulates their dynamic fairly well, even now.  Silly little sister who loves to pull her older sister's hair and just be all around, well, silly.

Each of our three trips to Ethiopia was deeply meaningful and amazing.  But they were also difficult, especially the two trips where we took custody of our children.  As of a year ago, both of our girls had some profound delays. 

Tigist could not crawl, or walk, or eat or drink, really.  She'd apparently only been spoon-fed mush, and had spent a lot of her time sitting in a Bumbo seat so she more closely resembled a rag doll than an active, inquisitive two year old.  Mealtimes were stressful, messy, and always included at least one meltdown.  And for some reason this is always magnified when you're away from home, in a relatively unfamiliar place.

Mekdes could scarcely walk herself at age four, and had horrible balance issues.  She couldn't run or jump, nor did she know how to play.  She was afraid of dogs, baths, a particular restaurant we unfortunately kept going to, and having her diaper changed.  She hated having her hair combed--and still does actually.  And not only does she have Down syndrome and most likely an uncommon form of Cerebral Palsy, she also appears to be on the autism spectrum--which could be the result of institutionalization, or something she was born with.  We don't know, and most likely never will.  But this explains her fascination with hands, her assorted aversions, and also some of her other behaviors.  

Here the girls are leaving the orphanage after their going away party.  For good.  As in, the last time they were ever at Layla House, which had been their home for years.  While they were completely unphased by the whole matter, it was terribly emotional for us--I really had to work to hold it together at their goodbye party.  Not because they were leaving, but because they had seen so many little friends come and go over the years, while they waited for their turn to be sung to and sent off with prayers and orange soda and bread rolls.  And now, finally, two little ones with Down syndrome were leaving the orphanage because they had a family.

Ready to leave Ethiopia.  And by ready, I mean dying-to-get-on-the-plane-as-soon-as-possible.  I missed my kids at home, one of our daughters had open sores all over her body as the result of scabies, and we'd just found out the other had much more significant heart issues than we'd suspected.  God bless our dear pediatrician who personally squeezed us into his schedule, after I frantically emailed him from Africa begging for an appointment in three days.

Any adoptive parent who's travelled abroad to bring a child home will tell you that there is a certain gravity you feel--a weight of responsibility, really--as you leave your child's culture, birth family, orphanage, language, and life behind.  The above photo is of Mekdes, holding onto Kevin's hand, on the airplane as we prepared for takeoff.  It's hard.  On the one hand you know that there is no future for your children in this place, but on the other?  You know that there is loss, and it all feels very wrong.  Having done this twice now I can tell you that the reason it feels wrong is that it is wrong.  Children are meant to be raised by the man and woman who created them, period.  And while that is not always possible, and I do believe adoption is necessary for many of these children, I also believe it is normal and healthy to acknowledge that this is simply not ideal.  Not in the least.  And once you acknowledge this, you are then free to wholeheartedly embrace God's calling to take these children into your family and start life together.  It is bittersweet and beautiful and, ultimately, reality.

Happy airport greetings from dear friends upon our return to Denver.

Happy sibling + grandma greetings upon our arriving at our house--all seven kids, united for the first time.  Mekdes and Tigist have been desperately and fiercely loved by five young people since the moment they stepped through the door that day.  I am not exaggerating, nor am I generalizing.  It's simply the truth.  Want to fall more deeply in love with your kids?  Watch them eagerly embrace two timid, uneasy children--who will now share their bedrooms and their very lives.  Watch them do it without fear, judgement or expectation.  That afternoon was a tiny glimpse into the heart of God, I think.

I can tell you that this past year has been hard and busy, but it has also been incredibly good and fulfilling, and infused with hope.

I can tell you that through a combined total of three heart surgeries (including Mekdes' open heart surgery--that's her recovering in the cardiac ICU above), my daughters have had their respective congenital heart defects repaired.  They now have the potential for longer life and a greater quality of life too.

I can tell you that Tigist is walking unassisted now.  Walking!  She can eat most anything and even uses a fork or spoon. 

I can tell you that Mekdes has acquired quite a bit of language, can now run (!), jump, and climb, and her balance has improved tremendously.

I can tell you that it is easy, when parenting children with developmental delays, to feel as if time is standing still.  We occasionally ask ourselves why things are taking so very long, or wonder what level of self-sufficiency our children will ever eventually achieve.  The truth is of course that each and every child has his or her own timetable, and sometimes progress happens incrementally, and other times it comes in spurts and then stalls out for awhile.  But when we maintain perspective and actually take the time to reflect on where these girls were a year ago, it is clear that they have come an incredibly long way!

People often ask me what it's like raising two daughters with Down syndrome.  And I can tell you that just as with any child, there have been (and continue to be) challenges, although as far as day-to-day life goes, it is really not as complicated as one might think.  One of the hardest parts is simply remembering that while my daughters' chronological ages are five and three, respectively, they are developmentally more like two and one.  Some of that is due to them having Down syndrome, some to a rough start in life, and some is because of autistic tendencies and CP.  No matter what the cause, it requires patience and a change in focus--both sometimes hard to come by.

But what an incredible way to love unconditionally, and what an amazing glimpse into life otherwise not seen. 

And, at the end of the day, these girls are simply my daughters.  My children.

So I will tell you that Mekdes and Tigist are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves them dearly.  I will tell you that they have been our daughters for a year now, and in that time they have made some amazing progress.  I will also tell you that their value and worth comes not from ticking developmental milestones off a checklist or from how well they navigate social situations, but from God Himself.  I will tell you that we were somehow chosen to be their family, when their own families were unable to continue caring for them..and I will tell you that is humbling.  I will tell you that these girls love to eat, laugh, and cuddle.  I will tell you that they are not defined by their diagnoses but I will also tell you that those diagnoses are also part of who they are.  I will tell you that Down syndrome, whether we're talking about an adopted or biological child, is nothing to fear. 

I will tell you that I love my daughters. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Belief and understanding

Last week I read something fairly profound and challenging, and have been considering it ever since. 

Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address last Sunday in Rome, and in it proposed that Judas' biggest problem was ultimately falsehood.  He explained that Judas certainly could have walked away from Jesus as many of Jesus' followers did...but instead Judas stuck around, in spite of his unbelief, in order to betray Christ.

The Pope then went on to quote St. Augustine, who once wrote the following:

"He does not say we have understood and believed, but we believed and understood. We have believed in order to be able to understand".

Profound, yes? 

This idea that belief, or faith, comes before understanding seems counter-intuitive and upside-down.  But then, a lot of things about faith probably do.  And the truth is that faith is not always easy.  It's hard to believe in something we can't see, or fully understand.  It must be nurtured and protected.  It involves, on some level, choice.

And it is ultimately challenging, because it forces us to ask the difficult question of, Do I believe?  Do I believe in the creeds, the claims, the historical Jesus?  Do I believe not only in His humanity but in His divinity too? 

I reflected on this at Mass yesterday, during the recitation of the Nicene Creed.  And as I looked upon the large crucifix that hangs above the altar in my parish, and considered the words I was saying, I thought that it really is awfully hard to make sense of the Christian story without simple belief.  This is why many consider faith utter foolishness--it seems that way when you don't believe that Jesus is at once God's Son and also God Himself.  Of course when you do accept those propositions, it's much easier to accept the Church's teachings on original and actual sin, the dignity of all human life from conception until natural death, sexuality, and the like.  Because at the end of the day, belief in the historic Christian God--as revealed in the Bible and the creeds and ultimately apostolic teaching--compels us to follow and trust Him.  In order to do that, we must have some level of understanding, but the paradox is that we really can't understand if we don't believe.

Being in relationship with Jesus requires faith, which is a virtue that must be cultivated and nurtured, protected and bolstered.  It is precious and must not be sacrificed on the altar of doubt or worldly success.  A good reminder for me, I think, to spend my time reading, watching, and thinking on things that promote faith.  A good reminder for me to rest in my faith in God when there are things I don't understand.

If you watched the DNC last week, you may have seen Caroline Kennedy saying it is her Catholic faith that compels her to defend reproductive rights.  Which of course got people talking because, well, the Catholic Church has always considered abortion and contraception to be grave evils.  Later I watched a clip of a priest on a cable TV show discussing the situation.  (This is my own paraphrase because I could not find the actual transcript online.)"I'm sure she's a wonderful person, and loves her Church," he said, "but she is lacking intellectual honesty when she says she opposes state restrictions on abortions because she is Catholic.  She should have said she supports reproductive rights because she is a dissident."  And, he's right.  You can't favor abortion rights because you're Catholic--that defies logic.  You can favor them in spite of being Catholic, or you can say that you depart from what the Church believes on this point.

Caroline's viewpoint is not uncommon however--there are many people (both high-profile and otherwise) like Kennedy who identify as Catholic while openly promoting and embracing things the Church has always denounced.  On the one hand it seems to make little sense, especially for us converts who had to wrestle through countless theological issues ourselves in order to arrive at a place where we believed in the concept of Church authority, as held by the Magisterium, instituted by Jesus Himself.  Why associate yourself with a hierarchical institution that has never, ever, affirmed your beliefs, we wonder?

Of course on the other hand, I do understand having an affinity for culture and family tradition.  And it makes sense to me that it is hard to wholeheartedly embrace a set of teachings.  Traditional, historical Christianity is not always an easy pill to swallow.  It requires something of me.  It tells me I am not enough, on my own.  It defines personhood and life's purpose.  It flies in the face of the culture.  It says that there is a natural order to things, and tells me where I am in that order.  It brings freedom through self-control.

And so yes, sometimes Christianity is very hard to understand, especially without the transformation that humble belief ultimately brings.  And that is why intellectual honesty can be hard to come by, and why there are countless people remaining in hierarchical institutions who've long since (or perhaps always) jettisoned the core of what those institutions stand for.

So Pope Benedict's message was timely, and Augustine's words profound, and I think it is a challenge to us all to ask ourselves what do we believe--and are we truly living that way?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Catholic New Media Conference

I'm back!  This grainy photo I snagged from Jennifer's tweet (where it was not at all grainy) is the only visual proof that I was, indeed, at the CNMC. 

I returned from Dallas last Friday night to a vanload of little people (and one big person) excited to see me, which may just be the best feeling in world.  The kids had even made, with the help of my parents (fearless babysitters for the week), a bunch of sweet decorations and signs welcoming me back.  It's always amazing to step away and return to realize that I am loved so very much by the dear people in my home. 

And, the Catholic New Media Conference was great!  Time with friends, meeting new people, hearing from successful and inspiring speakers, and even a little bit of networking.  One of the best parts was actually that a friend from my parish in Denver was there attending the Catholic Marketing Network tradeshow, so I got the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with her.  She's in the midst of discerning a vocation as a consecrated laywoman (!), which is pretty amazing.

There were several things I "took away" from the conference--many of them not necessarily what I expected, and I'm sure I'll share more about that soon--and one thing swirling around in my head is that in spite of the pitfalls and issues with online communication, engaging in relational, authentic online community is worth the time and effort.

Tears sprang to my eyes when an audience member stood up during a Q&A session, and told a woman that her blog was instrumental in his coming into the Catholic Church.

An ordained minister in the (Protestant) Nazarene denomination, who has built a great relationship with Father Roderick through podcasting, spoke of the warm welcome he continues to receive at these conferences in spite of the fact that he is of course not Catholic. 

Someone in a panel discussion described a high school student who devotes 45 minutes each day to going online and answering questions about abortion on sites like, and as a result has deterred countless women from terminating their pregnancies.

Regular people.  Busy people.  Engaging in online interaction and allowing God to use them as He sees fit.

Even (perhaps especially?) amidst our information-rich, technologically-connected age, men and women are craving truth, insight, and genuine relationship.  And in an increasingly post-modern, post-Christian culture, I believe people are hungry for things that resonate on a very deep level.  And they want to see those things lived out.  Not just theological or philosophical or political theories or ideas on a page, but actual in-the-trenches life. 

This is why I believe blogging has found the place it has in society.  This is why we continue day after day, week after week, to follow along with our favorite (and not-so-favorite) bloggers.  This is why we love seeing photos of their homes, hearing about their good and bad days, and learning more about what makes them tick.  This is also why we keep reading, even when they make us insanely furious. 

And, maybe it's just the ever-looming election season that is suddenly upon us, but you don't have to look far to see just how polarized our culture has become.  And I personally would argue that polarization is not in and of itself a bad thing, but that it merely reflects a society which no longer holds many values in common.  And, for some reason, the internet remains one of the few safe places to explore ideas and to see how the other side lives.  I may have been moved when the man told the woman that her blog played a role in his conversion, but I was not surprised.  At all.  Where else would a Protestant have the opportunity to explore the bold and ancient claims of the Roman Catholic Church, without fear of being labeled a papist or idolater?  Where else might a person be able to engage with difficult concepts or explore what it even means to be a Catholic in the present day?

And where else can someone watch a story unfold piece by piece, a story that touches and changes them in some powerful way?

You probably know by now that blogs have played a major role in my own faith journey.  And not because the writers of the 21st century are vastly superior to the writers of old--because it's quite the opposite, actually.  (Doubtful there will ever be another GK Chesterton!)  No, it's not that at all.  Ultimately, I believe it's the relational component, the transparency, the real-life dimension that punctuates each and every blog that stirs hearts and pricks minds.  So-and-so may not be a theological genius, but they make me think.  Or, I love that blogger's perspective.  Or, that writer defines life in such a beautiful way.

Most of all, they have a story.

And it's easy to get hooked on a good one. 

Of course the CNMC was ultimately dedicated to those attempting to tell and reflect Jesus' story, which is for Catholics a story of redemption, mercy, hope, and dignity for all people.  And it is one that must be told in part through new media, because that's where the people are.  I do think it will continue to be a difficult balance, because the computer screen is not where true life is actually lived.  And it will never be a legitimate substitute for true human relationship.  We must be careful not to give undue weight to the present, as if it is more important or relevant than the past.  And I think we also need to remember that it is not the end all, be all and there are certainly large demographics it's NOT reaching. 

Not to mention, I think care needs to be given to the quality of what is being produced.  Just because you can blog/Facebook/tweet something doesn't mean you should, or that you should do so without attention to detail.

But it does serve an important and dare I say integral role in the global conversation on faith, morality, beauty, truth, and life, and that really kind of makes it all worth it.  Relatively few bloggers will ever publish a book or gain a large following for their work, but you can--and must--use whatever platform God has given you to influence the culture for good. 


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