Monday, December 27, 2010

A Thought for the Quiet Period

Since I am reduced to silence for what would appear to be a few weeks, I would like to invite followers to guest post. Just send me a post (, introducing yourself and, if pertinent, your family, your blog if you have one (and a link if you would like), and post about something you would to share. You can re-post something from your blog or talk about something new -- whatever tickles your fancy. Let others get to know you. I think it will be fun for readers to discover who is behind the pictures under the follower list.

Here Yesterday, Gone Today, Back after Some Tomorrows

Just as I took vacation time to work on my next book, my computer died. This is called Leaver luck; it has happened to us on so many occasions that I was not surprised. You see, Murphy's home is on a cloud right about our house, and whenever we start to feel comfortable with life as it is, he drops some raindrops, hail, blizzard flakes, and the like. The computer repair shop said that the computer was too dead for emergency CPR, so they have to send it to a hospital far away to see if it can be resurrected (perhaps not). That is going to take "weeks," they assured us. How many, they cannot say. Happily, the computer is under extended warranty. I am glad I had the foresight to purchase that. So, if it cannot be resurrected, I will be sent a brand new baby.

In the meanwhile, Donnie has loaned me his very old, but functional Macintosh laptop. I used to know how to use Mac; I am re-learning. The problem is that the computer is so old, it cannot handle even my Word files, and every single document I want to use, Donnie has to convert on his machine. Internet is difficult. I seem to be able to get onto blogger and publish comments, so please feel free to explore and comment on old posts. What is difficult to do is write new ones because I have no access to my graphics, no way to upload graphics, no way to handle large files, etc.

So, it looks like I am out of commission for some weeks. I can get online to read your blogs, and I will continue to do that. Posting on my own blogs, though, is, unfortunately, on hold until my electronic life returns to normal.

I am indeed still working on my next book. Donnie was able to convert the book file, but all my notes are not available. :( Well, I thought of those ideas, they will come back, or God will plant some new thoughts. I actually ended up drastically revising the table of contents while waiting for Donnie to convert the old document on his desktop computer, put it on disk, and pass it along to me in a format that the laptop will recognize. I also changed the title of the book: A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God. I seemed to be getting more inspiration coming my way now that nearly all I can do computer-wise is work on that book. (I am also getting more family and friend time, which is not all that bad, either.)

As for posting anything on my blogs, I am afraid I will have to wait until I am past the computer crisis and my electronic life is back to normal, which looks like nearly the end of January -- right after the book is due. Interesting, how dates and tasks work out that way!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Find the Angel

In nearly every situation, there is an angel who could help. They are often easier to find than one thinks.

Probably the most literal example was at a Christmas party held a number of years ago by a group of Czech immigrants who taught in one of the foreign language education programs I supervised at the time. They invited Doah, who has made a lifetime habit of asking people for help, to attend.

Doah did not know Bohemian traditions, but he quickly figured things out. All the children sat in a circle while Mikolaz (St. Nicholas) read a list of their bad behaviors during the year (prepared, of course, by each parent). The, for each, Mikulaz decided whether the devil, who was dancing up and down in gleeful anticipation near the child in question, could throw him or her into his sack for transport away from this world, or whether the child's behavior had been good enough or contrition deep enough for an angel, also standing nearby, to give a present. Each child quaked. Some cried.

When it was Doah's turn, he must have thought that there was no hope for forgiveness for him. Partway through Mikulaz's reading of Doah's "sins," Doah got out of his child, walked over to the angel, took her hand, and said, "I in trouble. You help me? It your job help people in trouble."

To this day, some people cannot stop laughing at what they perceived as the difference between the "American approach" and the "Czech approach" to a problem. Actually, I don't think Doah's behavior had as much to do with cross-cultural
differences as with his own skill at finding angels. Of course, the angel helped him.


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes I published, copyright 2003.

Note: Also posted on Mahlou Musings and 100th Lamb.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Brief Steps Away

As this goes up (automatically), I should be on a plane for Hawaii, where I have some end-of-year business to conclude. After that, on Saturday, I will fly back home, just in time for the Christmas season to descend in full tempo. This year, though, Christmas cards will have to wait until February (January if I can manage a trip to Korea and card writing). We have no tree -- our cat Intrepid eats all plants, including artificial ones, and nearly died from the latter a few years ago so we have given up on a tree -- therefore I will not be distracted with tree decorating. Some holiday activities will, of course, take place as they should and as we want them to. However, I will be stepping back a bit from my normal kinds of blogging posts and the normal tempo of my blogs.

I have taken some days off from work to do a second edition/sequel of my book, Blest Atheist. Unfortunately, over the past two years, the title has been snagged for a variety of odd things, none of them having to do with the remarkable kindness of God, which is what the book is about at its core. Even a furniture store has taken it, along with an atheist reading group! In fact, although it is a spiritual book, essentially Christian, most bookstores carry it in the atheism section. (I guess no one reads books before categorizing them!) That has caused some angry, even rude, reviews from atheists who got a conversion story, rather than a confirmation of their atheism -- which must have been quite a surprise for them. (Christian readers and believers belonging to other religions generally review the book well.) So, the book needs a new title, which I am working on, and since time has passed and my spiritual experiences have continued on a path of deepening conversion, I plan to revise the book dramatically, as well as include those new conversion experiences.

For publication and marketing purposes, I need to turn in the manuscript no later than December 30, so I will reserve most of my writing effort for the book. Monday Morning Meditations will continue, and I will post excerpts from the book as I go along on Mahlou Musings. So, for the next 15 days, my posts may be sparse in spite of having prepared a few backups in case of situations like this.

I will indeed take time to enjoy the Christmas season. San Ignatio, as you can see from the pictures above and below, goes all out for Christmas. (Note: the placard under each lighted wreath/halo is the story of a saint important to this town: St Francis for it was founded by the Franciscans, St. John the Baptist after whom it was named, the real name of this town being San Juan Bautista -- I used San Ignatio as a pseudonym in my book and so I have continued to use it in this blog.) If this town has a year-round sacred feel to it, at Christmas that feel intensifies, beginning with the lighting of the streets, intensified by the daily performances of La Virgen de Teyepac (Our Lady of Guadalupe) by our local El Teatro Campesino, and concluding with our midnight Mass, which usually realljavascript:void(0)y is at or near midnight, depending on how you count the caroling.

So, please forgive my moments away. I will catch you when the book muse takes a recess and will be back on full-time blog duty in January.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Please Help Us Choose

For years now, after our children grew up and became adults, rather than spending money on gifts that are neither needed nor particularly wanted, we have taken a family collection of the money we would have spent on each other and have instead spent it on things that others both need and want. For example, last year we gave visa cards to all the staff (cooks, janitors, librarians, handymen, monks, etc.) at the St. Francis Retreat Center, who do much to make sure that retreatants are able to devote their time exclusively to spiritual matters.

Each year we select a charity that has some special meaning to us. The retreat center is a place where both Donnie, my husband, and I have spent time that has contributed to our spiritual growth. Years ago, floods in India destroyed the homes of relatives of Appu, the college roommate of my daughter, Lizzie. When we were living in Jordan, we gave the money to the only animal shelter there, one which took in more than two dozen cats that I rescued from the streets of Amman. And so on and so forth. Family members nominate various options, and we all vote on which we would like to support in a particular year.

This year we have four "charities" from which we are choosing. Before we take a family vote, I thought it might be interesting to hear what readers thing. Here are the options we are considering:

(1) Afghans for Afghanis (see the link in the right sidebar under Ways to Help). Having spent time earlier this year in Afghanistan, I have developed a soft spot for this very impoverished nation. While factions in the leadership may have been working toward mutual extinction for decades, if not centuries, the everyday man is the one doing the greatest suffering. From the little I could see, by Western standards they have very little, even considering that their desires, values, and concepts of what a "normal" life looks like is quite different from those same concepts in the USA.

(2) Adopt a Box. Our parish has collected Christmas gifts for troops in Afghanistan. Ah, there's that Afghanistan soft spot again! The amount of gifts collected has far exceeded what the parish member who headed the drive anticipated. She was prepared to pay for the mailing of the gifts, assuming that if the collection can were entirely filled, it would cost her about $100 in postage. Well, our parish donated not a can-full but a truckload of gifts, and the postage will be about $1200. So, our pastor has asked that individuals offer to adopt a box of gifts for mailing. As a family, we could adopt a number of boxes. (There is an additional option, as well. I have told the parish member that I would use God's credit card for any orphan boxes.)

(3) Bennie's Homeless. Our friend, Bennie, works with the homeless in a nearby city, providing them with blankets, clothes, food, and personal articles, thanks to the generosity of his friends and neighbors. In return, the homeless work to clean up the local river along which they live. Thanks to their efforts, the salmon, which had nearly disappeared, are now returning "home" to spawn.

(4) Hope. Doah works for Hope, which gives work to the handicapped, who do janitorial and other kinds of simple tasks that they are capable of handling. Doah mentioned that Hope is short of money this year, so it seems that this is a charity that truly "touches" home.

We will take a family vote very soon. In the interim, I would love to hear readers' opinions: which would you choose if you were a member of our family? (I will let you know the result from all the blogs and from our family's vote.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Our Friend, Bennie

Bennie called me today, trying to reach Doah. Now, he rarely has trouble reaching Doah. Doah calls him every morning very early and says, "Good morning, Bennie, this is your wake-up call." While most people would be annoyed since Doah is not very good at telling time and often calls when he wakes up, which can be as early as 5:00 a.m., Bennie (shown in the photo above with Donnie, Doah, and Noelle) at the Mission Thanksgiving dinner) loves it and worries if he does not get his wake-up call.

Bennie has been Doah's special friend since the two met. When Doah was living in Santa Clara, Bennie would drive up sometimes to have lunch with him. He also introduced him to Phil, a local police officer, who kept an eye on Doah and even took him to his house for Thanksgiving one year. Bennie has taken Doah fishing and camping, and Doah often hangs out at the Mission gift shop where Bennie works. After Doah's rape, Bennie took Doah under his wing, and for a few hours every day, Doah would spend time at the gift shop with Bennie. It did much to help Doah recover.

In addition to helping Doah, Bennie helps a whole host of people and even creatures of nature. A Secular Franciscan, Bennie takes very seriously St. Francis's commitment to animals and to poor people. With his brother, he has undertaken a project to clean up a stream in a nearby city so that the salmon, which had nearly disappeared, can come home to spawn. How did he do it? By enlisting the help of the homeless people living along the banks of the river. In return, he provided clothing, toiletries, and warm blankets to those people, no questions asked as to why they chose to live outdoors rather than indoors. (Some of them have alcohol and drug dependencies; some have other reasons for staying outside while shelters are, in general, available.)

Bennie asks no questions because he has been where these people are now. For many years, Bennie was known as a local drunkard. He is the first to admit the depths to which his life sank. However, thanks to the help of God and a decision to allow God to help, using the 12 Steps program, Bennie pulled himself out of that morass and commits his free time to helping others also climb back up to the dry heights of a normal life (however one might define normal).

Bennie is not wealthy. He makes a living by piecing together income from two different jobs. Although sometimes he does not have all that one might consider necessary even to "get by," he never complains, and whatever he has, he shares. Maybe because of this level of generosity and humility, Bennie has a special relationship with God. He assumes that his prayers will be answered, and they always are. He has shared with me understandings of what God might want in one or another spiritually significant situations. When I listen, often magic happens. Many people say the same thing.

How lucky we are to have Bennie as a member of our extended family! Or, just perhaps it is not luck but an intentional blessing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

From Bad Experience to Blessed Existence

I think I have blogged enough in September about Doah's rape experience that everyone is aware of what happened then. (If not, see Time to Quander.) What has happened since, though, I have mentioned less frequently and in less depth because things rolled out slowly, over time, to the point where they are now.

Initially, we brought Doah back to our home. Because he is severely allergic to our cats and cannot sleep where they are present, we made him a guest room outside -- in a backyard tent. He loved it, especially since he was the one who had talked a store manager into selling it to us at considerable discount a few weeks earlier. San Ignatio is a perfectly safe and always warm little town, so, except on checking on him occasionally throughout the evening and night and hearing his comfortable snoring, we had a temporary solution that worked for everyone.

In San Ignatio, everyone rallied to Doah's defense and support. Fr. E spent time talking to him. The Sisters of Atonement whose convent is located in San Ignatio showered him with love and kindness. (The picture above is of Sr. Delores and Doah at the recent Old Mission Thanksgiving dinner for the entire town of San Ignatio where Doah has helped with cleanup in the past -- as well as for the Old Mission fiesta days in the summer.) Bennie, who works at the Old Mission gift shop had Doah helping him there for a few hours a day to keep him busy while we were looking for a group home for him. Everyone in town seemed to adopt him and take care of him, distracting him from too much dysfunctional reflection on his bad experience.

Then, with the help of the state of California, likely the best state to be in if one has any kind of disability, we found him a wonderful group home in the nearby town where Shane and his family live. In fact, he is about a ten-minute walk from Shane, Lemony, Nathaniel, and Nikolina and a one-minute car hop from them. It seemed ideal. Then, we learned that the owner of the group home was from Russia, and his daughter managed the home. Lizzie visited shortly thereafter. She is about the age of Alex, Evgeny's daughter. So, the four of us and Doah went to lunch. Lizzie and Alex were instant friends, sisters even, lost from us in the excited comparison of the K-12 days in the schools of Moscow. They each knew the locations, behaviors, and customs that the other was talking about. Evgeny, it turned out, has a degree in my field although he is now working in a different field, so we, too, had a great conversation. It is so wonderful having Doah in a place that is just minutes away from us, safe, and where we can speak the language (Russian or English) of the owner. The relationship is entirely different from homes of the post where Doah has lived. Soon, thanks to the intervention and active support of Evgeny, Doah was back to work at Hope in another nearby city, where he had worked as a janitor and order fulfiller (Is there such a word?) when he first went into a group home at the age of 21 and is doing the same now. (In California and perhaps elsewhere, it is very difficult to get the full range of services, including employment, if one is living at home. More important, however, living with other young people has helped Doah feel and be more important and given us the comfort of seeing while we are still alive how Doah will manage when we are not.)

Another added benefit is that Doah can come visit far more often. Every day if he wants to. He can stay overnight if it gets late, but since his home is only 10-15 minutes away, there is rarely a need for that. He comes to Mass with me on Saturday and Sunday. In some ways, he owns this town. Everyone watches out for him, talks to him, treats him kindly, relates to him as another "townie." I mentioned this to the owner of a local gift shop, the former mayor, yesterday, and she replied, "Well, of course, he is a town son. That is just the way this town is." Thank God for places like San Ignatio. Small, humble, kind.

Good from bad. From bad to blessed. Isn't that the way God so often works in our lives? So much gratitude!! How does one express it all??

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am taking the day off from blogging to attend morning Mass and then help out all afternoon at Old Mission's community dinner -- open to all, regardless of SES or church affiliation. I will also take some time during the day and evening to drop in to followers' blogs with Thanksgiving greetings.

Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Today, after Mass, Doah and I went to lunch. During lunch, Doah caught me up to date on what has gone on while I have been out of town and what plans he would like to make. I realized after the conversation that I really have a 19th language almost under control: Doahan, the language of Doah. Not everyone is proficient in Doahan. Complication matters, Doah is nearly alingual in English, Russian, Spanish, and sign language and therefore Doahan often include parts of other languages as well, making it more complex. So, Doah's communication in general tends to take effort on both sides (listener and speaker). The gist of our conversation today was as follows:

1. He wanted to mind me to do something.
2. His boss was tired while I was gone.
3. He had been being have, or so he considered.
4. He plans to help out at the mission on Turkey Day.
5. He would like to go to see his Uncle Honk on either Ho Ho Day or Count Down Day.
6. Because it has been raining, he needs to find his rainbrella.
7. Because it has been raining, they don't need any cold heat at his group home -- not that they use it very much, anyway.
8. The crazy doctor is too far away now.

And now here is the translation.

1. He wanted to REmind me to do something. (Minding does not come easy to him, so I know that he does not mean the word he chose.)

2. His boss REtired while I was gone.

3. He has been BEHAVING, or so he considered.

4. He plans to help out at the mission on Thanksgiving.

5. He would like to go see his Uncle Rollie (dunno where Honk comes from, but it took and everyone in the family calls Rollie that) on Christmas (Ho Ho = Santa Claus) or New Year's.

6. Because it has been raining, he wants to find his UMbrella.

7. Because it has been raining, they have not needed air conditioning at his group home -- not that they use it much, anyway.

8. The psychologist he sees is far away (now that he has moved = he needs to find a new psychologist.)

How did you do? We are thinking of writing a dictionary with Doah, called Cold Heat and Crazy Doctor. Today's conversation was about par: I understood about 40% before analyzing and questioning and over 90% after doing so. Doah is usually patient about these communication gaps, but sometimes that patience runs thin. We might have to start teaching a course for friends of the family (family members, too, it sometimes seems) in Doahan.

Nonetheless, hamburger's at our local JJ's Burgers is a universal language. So, Doah had a good day, and so did I.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Lords

People in Blogland generally know me as a multi-childrened mother and senior administrator of some kind of international organization. I have been quite vague about where I work because of the connection with the US government and security issues. I will continue to be vague about that out of necessity. However, there was a time a while back when I spent ten years in international educational consulting, traveling from country to country, helping minister of education after minister of education to improve child and adult experiences and learning success in that country's classrooms. In ten years, I worked in 24 countries, where I learned much about learning but not as much as I learned in raising seven exceptional children. (I kept waiting for the typical, average child to appear in my life, imagining how "easy" and "fun" that would be -- although at some level I knew that no child, no matter how "typical" and "average" is truly easy and at the same time, regardless of health, talent, or lack thereof, they are all fun, well, most of the time.) So, I may have learned as much about learning from my seven children as I did from the seventy times seven children in seven times three plus three countries.

At one point, in the mid-1990s, I wrote a book about teaching and learning any subject at any level in any location by any kind of learner that has now been translated into a few different languages and is in use in many of the countries where I consulted and in others where I did not. That book ended in an epilogue, couched in the form of a folktale, that put everything I had learned into one short story. I am departing from my usual type of post to bring this to you a decade later because I think (hope) that you will find it not only interesting but perhaps helpful with your own children.

A Tale of Two Lords

In a far-away land in a far-away time there lived two lords, each with his own fiefdom, His Excellency Dejan and His Excellency Mejan. Now Dejan and Mejan each hoped to wed the king's daughter and ensure security and riches for his own fiefdom. The price of the bride was to make a present to the king of the best honor guard in the whole kingdom, as determined by the most successful completion of an unknown task to be assigned to all contending honor guards.

In preparation, Lord Dejan and Lord Mejan each gathered together ninety-nine of the best soldiers in their fiefdom for training as an honor guard. They determined that members of the honor guard needed three skills: marching, firing, and collecting intelligence. So, each selected thirty-three soldiers with strong legs, thirty-three with strong eyes, and thirty-three with strong ears.

Lord Dejan put his chief administrator in charge of the training for the soldiers in his fiefdom. The chief administrator agreed immediately; he had a number of ability and achievement tests that his staff had been developing that he would be able to use in the service of his lordship.

The chief administrator first tested all the men nominated for the honor guard on ability and found two-thirds of them lacking in marching skills, two-thirds lacking in firing skills, and two-thirds lacking in listening skills. He immediately found three remedial instructors, one for each subject area. Soldiers with strong legs spent most of the next six months in remedial firing and remedial listening classes. They sat for most of the day, and their legs grew weak. Soldiers with strong eyes spent all day in remedial marching and listening classes. They marched to the point of fatigue, and their eyes clouded over. Soldiers with strong ears were sent to remedial marching and remedial firing classes. The noise of the weapons dulled their hearing. After six months great progress had been made. All of the soldiers tested "average" in all skill areas on achievement tests.

The chief administrator knew that "average" would not be good enough for Lord Dejan, so he implemented a motivation program, associated with periodic progress testing. For testing, he used multiple choice test items, based on a componential analysis of each of the three skills, as well as hypothetical tasks. When soldiers assigned to a particular instructor exceeded their previous percentile scores by more than 10%, the instructor received a bonus. Soon, the instructors were familiar enough with the test items that they could begin direct instruction of the soldiers in the specifics of those items and how best to handle the test questions. The instructors initiated an incentive program for the soldiers: the higher the test score, the more privileges a soldier would receive. The scores of the soldiers began to rise dramatically, and the chief administrator was immensely pleased. When the scores reached nearly 100% for all soldiers, the instructors received a big bonus, and they were immensely pleased. The instructors handsomely rewarded the soldiers with lavish benefits for their high scores, and the soldiers were immensely pleased.

Nearly a year had passed, and the time for the competition for the king's daughter neared. Lord Dejan, assured by his chief administrator that objective test results proved that these were the very best soldiers in the entire kingdom, proudly presented his honor guard to the king for the competition. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other nervously, wondering if the task would match any that had been on their tests and what would happen if they failed to be the best honor guard in all the kingdom.

Now, during this same time, Lord Mejan also established a training program for his soldiers. First, he approached a retired, old general, who had been known for his exemplary service and multiple soldiering skills, tested and honed in some very fine battles. He asked this old general to oversee the training program for the new soldiers. The general, at first, declined, "Sire, I am too old. I no longer walk well, let alone march. I no longer see well. I no longer hear well. How can I train your soldiers to be good marchers, good marksmen, and good intelligence collectors?"

Lord Mejan would not listen to the general's demurring. He replied, "You do not have to march or to walk or to see or to hear. I have thirty-three soldiers with the strongest legs in the kingdom; they will carry you. I have thirty-three soldiers with the best eyes in the kingdom; they will see for you. And I have thirty-three soldiers with the best ears in the kingdom; they will listen for you. You have been the best of all my soldiers. You have accomplished remarkable feats. You can share your ways of soldiering with these new soldiers. They, not you, must now do the marching, the firing, and the intelligence collection; they need you to support them in doing this the best way that they can.

And so, the old general agreed to teach the new soldiers. He knew that they would all need to be able to do all three skills well, so he organized them into groups of three. In each group there was a soldier with strong legs, a soldier with strong eyes, and a soldier with strong ears. When the soldier with strong eyes could not march well, the soldier with strong legs guided him into a marching rhythm. When the soldier with strong ears could not fire well, the soldier with strong eyes helped him aim his weapon for better marksmanship. When the soldier with strong legs could not collect data well, the soldier with strong ears showed him how to use his legs to get just close enough and positioned well to hear better.

To help the new soldiers, the old general selected the best marcher, the best marksman, and the best intelligence collector in the fiefdom and gave them roles as counselors. When individual soldiers determined that they needed extra help or simply wanted assistance, they could come to these counselors to practice under their mentorship, to receive individualized instruction, or to have questions answered. The counselors' roles were to serve as mentors and role models, as well as to be foster the growth of skills and confidence in each soldier by observing how each soldier went about soldiering, making him aware of what he still needed to know (and why he needed to know it), showing him the best strategies for improving his soldiering skills, and encouraging him to take risks and to experiment with his own training program.

When all the soldiers had improved their weaker skills, the general tasked them to complete meaningful missions. Often, these missions involved going to far parts of the fiefdom where information on subjects' living conditions could be brought back to Lord Mejan. The soldiers had to march there, use marksmanship skills to forage for food, and listen well to bring back accurate intelligence to his lordship. Sometimes, when they had done this, Lord Mejan would send a detail of soldiers back to those same subjects to bring to them the supplies and assistance they needed. The soldiers felt good about this—they were helping their countrymen, and their countrymen loved them. Their confidence grew, and they became better marchers, marksmen, and intelligence collectors.

The old general sometimes went with them, and they did carry him. Sometimes he stayed behind and allowed them to fend for themselves, debriefing them and making suggestions when they reported back to him. Sometimes he gave them detailed instructions in advance. Other times he simply provided general information and let them determine what they needed to do. What he gave them and asked of them depended upon what he knew they could do and where they still needed support. With time, he removed more and more of the support. With time, they stopped relying upon him and began relying upon themselves and their developing skills.

The old general did not check the soldiers' knowledge through standardized exams; instead, his observations served as informal "tests." He would have examined the soldiers objectively, had Lord Mejan required it, but then he would have used the test results only to supplement his observations. He watched the soldiers complete their missions. He listened to their descriptions. He evaluated their successes. He analyzed their failures. Where he found the soldiers lacking, he provided individual or group instruction or practice, as need dictated.

In a year, when the time for the competitions for the king's daughter neared, he approached Lord Mejan. "Are my soldiers the best in the kingdom?" asked Lord Mejan.

The old general answered his lordship, "Sire, "best" is a relative word. Those with strong legs are still the better marchers, those with strong eyes the better marksmen, and those with strong ears the better intelligence collectors, but all the soldiers possess strategies for accomplishing all these tasks both independently and as one unit. Sire, these soldiers are capable today, and they will not disappoint you. But more important, they have the knowledge and skills to become better tomorrow and even better the day after that. Your soldiers have competed not against peers but against their own potential. They have cooperated in helping each other become better. They have the thinking skills to handle both the known and the unknown and enough self-confidence to take any risk. They are ready for this competition."

Lord Mejan marched with his soldiers to the castle and presented his honor guard to the king. Standing at their head, carried there by the soldiers with the strong legs, was the old general. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other in anticipation, wondering what exciting challenge might lie in store for them today.

Now, which honor guard do you think won the competition?

Note: Also posted on Mahlou Musings. Excerpted from book on teaching, copyright 1997.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturdays with Doah

Today being Doah's birthday (#31), it seems the perfect day to blog about him. It will be a simple day, like Doah. Donnie and I plan to take care of home tasks until mid-afternoon. Then we will go pick up the ordered-from-Safeway birthday cake, take Doah on board, and wend our way back to San Ignatio for Doah to spend a few minutes with a pal who takes him fishing and works in the mission gift shop. (He cannot come to Doah's party tonight because he has to work a second job, so he wants to say happy birthday to Doah before Mass.) After Mass, Doah and I will join others from church and elsewhere, about twenty in all, at the local pizza factory to celebrate not only Doah's birthday but also Donnie's, which was November 1, and that of Evgeny, the owner of Doah's new group home, which was two days ago. Prediction? Lots of fun will be had by all!

For some time now, Saturdays have been our day with Doah. Of course, it makes sense, since Saturdays fall on the weekend. Now that Doah is nearby, we do such things as go to the Monterey bay Aquarium together. We are members there, and when we were living in Salts, a bus ride from the aquarium, Doah would frequently hop the bus to visit the aquarium. He liked watching the fish, but he especially liked eating the fish at the aquarium's cafe. His idea of how best to observe fish is not to look at them in the tanks (except for the otter tank which fascinates him) but to go outside and looks out over the ocean where they live. There is a special connection between Doah and nature. One feels this watching him in his natural environment: the outdoors.

We also drag him along on any shopping trip. Unlike me, Doah loves to shop, and he always has great ideas about how to spend my money.

Spending Saturdays with Doah made even more sense during those years that Doah lived in a group home in Santa Clara. Every other Saturday we would make the long trek north to have a few hours with him. I guess that is what is called quality time. It was always his choice, and his choice was always simple. Perhaps the simplicity is why we enjoyed those Saturdays so much. Mainly, we would go somewhere to eat and talk, both being equally important to Doah. Then, generally, we would stop into CVS, and he would pick out something to take to his group home, and I would purchase it for him. He would always pop out his CVS card, of which he is as proud as most young people his age are of their driver's licenses, so that he could get credit for the purchase. (I have never known what CVS does with the "credit" that goes onto those cards, but I figure if I lose my wallet, a good citizen will be able to turn it into a CVS store which should be able to contact me -- or is that delusional thinking?)

And those made up the majority of our Saturdays with Doah. The last Saturday in Santa Clara was spent at Subway. Doah and I finished our lunch early, so while we waited for Donnie we took a walk around the two-storey building in which Subway is located -- and around it again and then again and again. It was a nice walk albeit a tad directionless. At the end, we climbed up onto the second floor and took some pictures. Little did we know at the time that this would be Doah's last Saturday in Santa Clara. It was the following three nights that he was raped at his group home, immediately after which we brought him back to San Ignatio until we were able to find him a new group home, lucking out in finding one in a small city nearby.

That last Saturday was full of hope. The staff at the group home had been planning a fishing trip, and Doah wanted to pick out a fishing pole. So, we went to a camping goods store near Subway where Donnie, an experienced fisherman from many years of both spinner fishing and fly fishing (used to tie his own flies when we lived in Montana), helped Doah pick out an appropriate fishing rod. As we were leaving, Doah's eye settled momentarily upon a tent that was set up in front of the store, then settled there. "I want a tent," he declared.

"What would you do with a tent, Doah?" we asked.

"Sleep in it," he replied.

"Really? Where?"

"In my back yard." He as already beside the tent and starting to crawl into it.

"I want this tent," he declared. "Look. Cheap." He pointed to the sale sign.

He was right. It really was cheap. $45 for a $90 tent. While we considered it, Doah settled inside and declared himself at home in "his" tent.

Entrapped by Doah's enthusiasm, we headed inside to find the tent, although we were certain that the tent would never be used. Inside there were all kinds of tents, mostly rather expensive ones, but none were the model or price that Doah had seen on the front lawn of the store. We asked a salesman for help, and he determined that this particular model was entirely sold out.

"Sorry, Doah, they are all gone," we said, but Doah was not listening. He was not there with us any more. That kid can slip away faster than a greased pig at a pig-handling contest! We looked around and found him in deep discussion at the front of the store with the store manager. Now what? We hurried over to find out what was going on.

Amazingly, Doah had talked the store manager into selling us the tent that was on display -- and into giving us an additional deep discount on it since it had been on display. We paid, in all, $30. "Cheap!" Doah pronounced, and he was right.

We brought the tent home and put it in storage. After all, we did not believe that there would be any need for that tent. Ironically, we needed that tent only a week later when Doah came home to stay with us. While we were baffled as to how to balance Doah's sleeping arrangements and his allergy to our cats, Doah had an answer: "I sleep my tent back yard." And so we pitched Doah's tent in our back yard, and there he slept comfortably and peacefully every night until he moved into his new group home.

This is so like Doah. We make plans that we think will contribute to his continued development and integration into the greater world. We try to excite him with our sophisticated ideas and all that he could be involved with were he to develop some additional skills. Instead, he comes up with something simple, something we never anticipated, and something that turns out to be more meaningful than any of our plans for him. I have no idea how he knew he would be sleeping in a tent in his back yard, but he was convinced of it, and, lo, it happened.

With time as he has grown from infant struggling to live through years of special education to supported adulthood, we have learned to give up our dreams for him in order to live in his reality. It is a simple reality, and it brings him happiness. I have rarely known Doah not to be happy. He wrote a book once (of course, with my help), and it is a happy book (you can find excerpts on Mahlou Musings from time to time). Doah could not write something serious. He views life as a good place; he sees people as good no matter how they treat him; he "needs" only one thing -- to know that God is with him.

When we first moved to San Ignatio, which has been called by a friend of mine "a place drenched in prayer," Doah came to visit. On his first trip, he stood in our front yard, turned around a few times, then suddenly stopped and remained quiet for about as long as he ever can -- a second or two. He looked at me and announced solemnly and with obvious satisfaction, "God here."

The sacred simplicity of Doah is something greater than all the secular sophistication of our plans for him. I wonder who is really learning from whom?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Wall Art

Our grandson, Nathaniel, came to visit recently. He excitedly shared with us his newly found interest in astronomy. He described his visit to a planetarium and told us how sad he felt that poor Pluto had been downgraded from planet status. (We told him that we were sad about that, too, because now we had to relearn the solar system, and old minds don't relearn things as quickly as young minds learn things from scratch.)

So, to help us, Nathaniel sat down and drew us a picture of the solar system. We told him that we thought it was quite a nice picture and very helpful to see the solar system without Pluto in it. About that time, Lemony decided it was time for Nathaniel to go home since it was a school night, and off they went.

Later that evening, as I walked through the living room, I noticed a paper affixed to the living room wall. It was the picture of the solar system. I guess Nathaniel left it to help our old, feeble minds remember the new solar system. He does that at times. Our walls are getting decorated enough that we just may have to resort to measures that we took when Lizzie was little.

We were living in a building that we also used a day care facility that we ran. Our living quarters were in one part of the building, and the day care in another, with long corridors. Those white corridors were really tempting for the day care children and for Lizzie. We were constantly washing crayon drawings off the walls, paranoid that we would end up removing the paint as well and have to pay a fortune to have the place re-painted. Then, we got the idea that rather than working against the children's yearnings to draw on the wall, perhaps we would be better off to go along with those yearnings.

So, off we went to the local newspaper publisher. We asked if there were leftover newsprint rolls that we could have for the center. (When the newspaper is printed -- at least in the days of printing presses -- the paper rolls on which the newspapers were printed would always have some leftover paper. The size was perfect -- 2-3 feet high and a length of whatever was left on the roll, but usually 5-6 feet. It covered a corridor wall quite nicely. We had no more messes on the wall paint, and the children could then draw and color on the wall paper to their hearts' content.

The children loved seeing their art work on display in this way and having the opportunity to draw whatever they liked whenever they had some free time without getting into trouble for drawing on the wall. (Is there a child in existence who has never drawn on a wall?) When the paper was completely used up, it could be replaced with a new roll, and we could cut out the individual children's wall art to be taken home.

That might be just the thing for our walls and Nathaniel. Now, if we can just find a newspaper publisher that still prints on newsprint, using printing presses...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghosts of Halloween Past

This Halloween Nathaniel decided to go out as Dr. Who. Lemony did a great job on his costume. Somehow, the character fits him. As I take the day off (yes, really), thanks to a virus that slugged me strongly enough to lay me out all weekend (but might not have had I not worked all week while fighting it), Shane and Lemony are preparing to take Nathaniel and Neela around the block, gathering treats. Donnie and Doah are preparing to hand out candy. As for me, I am lounging about on the couch, supervising. (And gathering strength for a wicked week ahead at work.)

One Halloween brings back reminiscences of past Halloweens. Of course, some were spent abroad and, therefore, not celebrated, but most years we have been in the USA in October. It seems that each year, though, there are fewer knocks on the door. At least, here in San Ignatio, life is safe, and kids can walk the streets and knock on doors with no fear. When we lived in Salt, no one in many of the neighborhoods went out because children were hurt and/or candy was deliberately contaminated. The police started a tradition of bobbing for apples and other games at the police stations. Those games were always a part of my childhood Halloweens and induce a sense of nostalgia when I saw children and now see my grandchildren playing them. It is good that Halloween has not gone the way of May Day. Even my old childhood neighborhood no longer celebrates May Day.

Costumes blur into costumes. I never bought any for the kids; I always made them -- mice, turnips, clowns. There were original ideas, as well as the tried and true.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of Halloween, though, comes from my own childhood. I had grown old enough as a pre-teen to stay home to help with the handing out of the treats. While there were future confirming events and situations, that night was when I first learned that we were poor. We quickly ran out of treats. My father then started handing out real food, feeling bad that we had nothing to offer: crackers, even hot dogs. I wondered what we would eat the rest of the week. Then, finally, he sighed and said that we had nothing left to give except our talents. He went to the closet where he kept his violin. When the next group of children chorused, "trick or treat," he countered, "here's my trick," and he would play them a song. How embarrassing! However, the next day, everyone commented on how fun it was to get a trick instead of a treat and how they did not know my father could play the violin so well. (Somewhat after that, I asked my father to teach me to play the violin, but I never learned to play more than a few notes; Noelle played the violine in the elementary school orchestra for a couple of years, however. I guess talent skips generations sometimes.)

I learned a lot more from that Halloween night beyond the simple fact that we were poor. I learned that no matter how little you have, you do have something to give. I learned how to give beyond what is convenient to pass along and to give from one's very essence. And I learned that an intangible gift is every bit as good as a tangible one.

Remembering San Diego

Donnie and I spending time with Fr. Julio in San Diego this last weekend brought back a host of memories of the days when Lizzie, Blaine, and Noelle lived there. They are now scattered into three locations, so the memories evoked a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time (or maybe it just seems simpler in retrospect). I will share of few of the many memories that flooded us during our three days there.

First, there was Angel. Noelle and Lizzie moved to San Diego a year before Blaine joined them. We had no idea where were the good and bad parts of town, safe and not safe areas. We did know where the areas were that they could afford the rent and where they could not. Where they could afford afford the rent was not as comforting to me as their mother as were the areas where they could not. However, the manager of the apartment complex upon which they ultimately decided reassured me, promising to watch out for them as if they were his own daughters. His name? Angel. I figured that was a good a sign.

While Angel was watching over them, I did not worry about them. Then Blaine moved to San Diego, and life became more interesting (for all concerned).

For starters, there was the time that the kids were coming home to visit. Lizzie called me as they were leaving San Diego so that I would know to plan for their arrival and just because parents like to know these things -- where their kids are, when they are leaving for home, and all that stuff. Several hours later, Blaine called to say that they would be home in approximately an hour. I did a quick calculation and remonstrated, "You had better not be!" because that meant that they had been driving too fast for my comfort. Two hours later, they showed up. "That's more like it," I told Blaine. "I thought you could not be only an hour away." Lizze later pulled me aside and told me that they really had been only an hour away, but they all decided to sit beside the road for an hour so I would not be unhappy with their arrival time! (Kids!)

Then there was the time that we had just spent a small fortune on new glasses for Shura. (He brought very little with him from Siberia, so there were many new supplies to be acquired for him, including some very important things such as eyeglasses.) He was quite proud of those glasses, and we did not have to enforce his wearing them. He always did. In between surgeries in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we had been able to set up his care with the help of a philanthropist, John Kluge, a wonderful man who died earlier this year, he came "home" to California and decided to spend some time in San Diego with Lizzie, Blaine, and Noelle. I should not have been surprised by the phone call later that week because there was something scatterbrained about Shura. Maybe it is simply the artist's temperament. In any event, Blaine and he were cruising along the coast, enjoying the sun and wind, and Shura, not used to cars, stuck his head out the window to feel the greater effect of the wind. Whisk! His expensive eyeglasses were gone with the wind, literally. Chagrined, he had to go get a replacement pair. (Kids!)

Then there was the time that Noelle took the wrong bus home. Her trip turned out to be a different kind of joy ride from that of Blaine and Shura. A bit ditzy at times, Noelle, realizing that she did not recognize the areas the bus was traveling through, decided to stay on the bus until she did recognize something. It never occurred to her that she was on the wrong bus. Well, the bus finally reached the outskirts of town and stopped. End of line. It was nor returning. End of day. So, Noelle hopped off the bus, in her braces, with her crutches, carrying her backpack, and hitchiked back into town. Some kind man picked her up and brought her all the way to her house, where Lizzie proceeded to give her quite a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking (although one thing I have noticed with handicapped children: they bring out the best in people, and rarely do the "bad guys" want to "mess" with them -- I think God keeps a pretty close eye on them. (Kids!)

Of course, if I can complain about kids (!), then I guess they should be allowed to complain about parents (!). When the kids were living in San Diego, I was working on a couple of books for publication, and I loved using Lizzie's library (University of California at San Diego) for research. So, I would visit quite frequently. In the beginning, Lizzie's supervisor at work (she worked in the bookstore while going through college) would offer to give her the day off so that she could spend time with me, but Lizzie would tell her that I had come to visit her library or that if she visited with me she would end up helping with research (which she did not mind doing, but she preferred earning money from working more), so soon her supervisor stopped offering, and Lizzie and I and the other kids just spent evenings and weekends together -- and even on some of those occasions when I had a close deadline, they all ended up helping me with library research. I am sure that their response would have been: Parents!

And the bottom line? The kids needed the parents, and the parents needed the kids -- and the complaints were all just in fun (well, mostly).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Children Are Unnumbered

I suppose you could take the title of this post in more than one way, and it would be accurate. I have four birth children, three others who moved in as teenagers, and four more young adults from the Middle East who call me Mom (and treat me like their mother) but never lived with me. And the number of them grows...

What I am referring to in this post, however, is the tendency that was rampant in my children's growing-up years to put a number to each child. That number, his or her IQ, then let him or her enter programs or denied him or her entry into programs. Control by number was the game of the 1970s and 1980s. It continues today, but at least is disappearing in many parts of the country. More and more educators and parents are beginning to realize that our children are more than numbers. Take my children, for example, who, by the way, for the most part, were never numbered by school systems or anyone else who might use the number to their disadvantage or to their advantaging over their peers. I would permit neither the use of IQ for program selection with them nor even testing them for IQ by the schools, but I did have insights into what their levels were and in three cases actually know the number the schools would have attached to them had they had the same information I had.

Lizzie, the oldest, learned much about life very early because of two multiple-handicapped siblings. She probably is gifted. She skipped two grades in school, and by the time she was in fourth grade was studying genetics as a hobby, sat through my university classes when babysitting was unavailable, and was taken into the university honors biology program (the only non-university student there). I could trust her with anything. The Red Cross trained her in CPR at age nine (four years younger than their 13-year-old prerequisitebecause she convinced them that she needed to be able to save Doah, who had a trach at that time, if he stopped breathing while I was in the bathroom); she was their best student (that had a lot to do with real-life, immediate applications of knowledge, I am sure). In fourth grade, her teacher, who had been reading Tennyson with her, proposed her for the gifted program, but that required an IQ test. I demurred because the gifted program was only part-time, would not stretch Lizzie enough, and would serve only to mark her as different from the other kids. I did take her on my own to a psychologist to satisfy my own suspicions that her learning styles (especially reflectivity instead of impulsivity -- we in the USA equate speed with intelligence, erroneously, in my opinion) would result in an inaccurate representation of her potential. It did. At least, it did to the extent that the test could even be scored. Lizzie, in pure Lizzie fashion, refused to give in to those parts of the test that required her to respond in a way inconsistent with her learning style. She is concrete by nature and needs to work from within context. When she was asked to define a list of words, she refused, commenting "words do not exist out of context; give me a context, and I will define them." Keep in mind that this comment from a 7-year-old, whose ultimate score turned out to be high average (probably inaccurately so). In high school, based upon performance and given the fortunate lack of an IQ score in the files which would have held her out of advanced courses, Lizzie was placed in the gifted group, working a year ahead of grade level (on top of skipping two grades), and by the age of 15 had taken two college courses and seven Advanced Placement courses in foreign language, math, and science. Today, she holds a doctorate as a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Not bad for high average IQ!

Noelle, of course, experienced some of the traditional difficulties that spina bifida children with hydrocephalus and Arnold Chiari malformation encounter: specific brain damage from placement of the shunt that destroys the part of the brain that deals with higher mathematical functioning. Nonetheless, Georgetown University Hospital at one point decided that it would be helpful to have an IQ test for her. Her IQ at that time was flat average: 100, just a few points behind Lizzie. However, because she was physically handicapped, she was denied placement in all but special education programs. We sometimes fought successfully to keep her mainstreamed; other times we lost that battle. In fourth grade, because she was in special education, she was excluded from the school's spelling bee. The next year, I began the fight early, she was allowed to participate, and she won first place. Nonetheless, during her years in special education, her IQ slipped down into low average levels; the hospitals, not the schools, tracked it for us, mainly out of curiosity as to how good and poor education and availability and lack of educational opportunities can affect IQ. Clearly, it can, when one compares Lizzie and Noelle, who started out so close. Noelle did complete two years of college, then dropped out to be with her significant other, Ray, who died earlier this year. Now that nine months of mourning have passed, she is working on returning to college. I suspect that in spite of being flat average, she will do fine, as she did in her first two years.

Shane began life very inconspicuously. Situated in birth order between two multiple-handicapped siblings, he pretty much raised himself due to our lack of time to spend with him. I usually found out after the fact what he could do. For example, at 23 months he could read books -- he read one to me; it was the first time I heard him talk (and he was not yet walking because Noelle, who could not walk, would pull him down whenever he stood up, afraid that he would hurt himself). At age 3, when we put him in the university nursery school, the administration moved him the next day to first grade since he was not only reading but also understood science and was able to do math calculations at fourth grade level. By the time he was seven and in the fifth grade, he dropped out of school. We took him to a school clinic for diagnosing educational problems. The answer: too gifted to be educated by public schools. Although we asked that the total IQ score not be added up and our wishes were observed, we were told that no one had ever before achieved a perfect score on the Wechsler math section. So, after money ran out for an ungraded private school, Shane grew up in homeschooling at a time when homeschooling did not yet exist. He studied with college professors, went off to college at 14, and is clearly my best-educated albeit least educated child. IQ unknown.

Contrary to my wishes, Doah's IQ was tested: 52. Two points above the category of "moron." We paid little attention to that. He was fortunate that our push to make sure he had only good teachers saw results. Our "near-moron" lives in a nearly unrestricted group home, was voted "class flirt" in high school (he was the most popular graduate that year -- no one will deny that assertion since his popularity made the front page of the local paper), is semi-lingual in five languages, can take care of all his personal needs independently, travels independently by bus throughout the county, and wrote a book that was exhibited at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles in 2003. He loved autographing copies! When his HOPE helper left, I overheard the departing helper say to the incoming helper, "This is a case of the greatest delta between potential and performance that you may ever see." That is probably because we chose not to react to Doah's number.

Blaine had obviously been numbered before he arrived to live with us because he attended the gifted program at the local high school. We know he is also dyslexic, but he manages to keep that under control as head of IT at one of the branch campuses of the University of South Carolina.

Ksenya and Shura have no numbers. Raised in the USSR, where all children were taught with equal expectations of full performance, they never encountered the need to be numbered.

So far, my grandchildren have not been numbered. Their school district appears more enlightened than ones of the past.

Now, I mean no offense meant to educators. After all, I am one myself (my organization is one that hires teachers and focuses on education). I understand why teachers, educational administrators, and school districts like to be able to label, categorize, and "file" students. It is easier and less messy than having to deal with each student individually in accordance with his or her learning strengths and needs. The latter, though, is the only way that every child will reach his or her full potential. Not leaving any child behind is not really the point. The point is for all children to enjoy learning and experience success in learning, and even special education children, taught in accordance with their learning styles and needs, can do that.

Even more important, though, are the traits that go beyond number: trust, resilience, kindness, problem-solving (rather than problem-creating), forgiveness, compassion, insight, faith -- those things that come from the grace of God. I don't care what number my children have. I care that they possess these other traits. I care that they are Good Samaritans. While I have been proud of their better school moments, I am prouder as I watch them sometimes literally go 200 miles out of their way to help friends and classmates. I have watched them accept foreign children into the family as brothers and sister, not complaining about the significant amount that they had to personally give up in order to accommodate their additional "siblings." These things are enough for me. I don't feel any need to know their number because God's graces come without number, innumerably.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It has been a long while since I have written about Donnie and me, at least in terms of our relationship. There is no particular reason for me to write about that now except perhaps it is time to return to my first post and develop it more.

The odd things about Donnie and me is that 40 years ago no one gave our marriage a chance. It would never last, we were told by nearly everyone, because we were so different.

They were right about the being different part. Certainly, it is difficult to find much that we have in common except a passel of kids and easy to find what we do not share. The list is very long.

(1) Donnie is a scientist; I am a humanist.

(2) Donnie prefers to work outdoors; I prefer to work indoors.

(3) Donnie is an introvert, who likes being alone in nature; I am an extravert, who seeks out people and interaction.

(4) Donnie prefers to stay at home and speaks only English, once trying to learn Russian, that experiment ending in abysmal failure; I am on my 18th language of active study, being able to read nearly fifty and not even knowing what some of those are that I can understand, and as a result, I love to travel and live among people of differing cultures.

(5) When we travel, Donnie looks for comfort and familiarity, i.e. he likes to live at home abroad; when we select a community for settling in, I look for one where traditional American culture shares the streets and institutions with people of other cultures, i.e. I like to live abroad at home.

(6) When we travel, Donnie dreams of flying first class but has never done so; because I travel more than 100,000 miles a year, I sometimes get upgraded to first class, which is unimportant to me, and generally sleep through the whole flight anyway.

(7) In college, Donnie was a poor student, and I helped him with his studies; in college, I was a good student (which is perhaps why I initially became a teacher and then an educational administrator).

(8) Donnie likes to photograph; I like to write -- at least, there is possibility of complementarity and collaboration here (and we do collaborate on publications).

(9) Donnie is a night owl; I am awake during "normal" hours, i.e. day time.

(10) At the end of the day, Donnie would want to know that our kids' bellies were full; I would want to know that their minds were full.

(11) Donnie likes to climb real mountains; I like to climb the allegorical kind.

(12) Donnie likes to watch ball games; I like to play ball games.

(13) Donnie likes moderate climates; I like really hot ones (like Jordan and Uzbekistan where I have spent summers) and really cold ones (like Maine where I grew up and Siberia where I have spent winters) and get confused by moderate ones.

(14) Donnie collects gadgets; I collect people.

(15) Donnie grew up in the middle class in a city and attended one of the best public high schools in the USA; I grew up in the lower class on a farm and attended one of the worst public high schools in the USA (strange then that I would become the better student -- ah, right, motivation and interest...).

(16) Donnie can fix things easily, especially technological ones; I can break them easily, especially technological ones.

(17) Donnie cooks well; I cook abysmally.

(18) Donnie loves to eat; I forget to eat.

(19) Donnie likes to play; I like to work.

(20) Donnie likes to play computer games; I like to play musical instruments.

(21) Donnie wanted no children; I kept turning up pregnant and when I was done with that kept bringing home other people's children to raise.

(22) Donnie likes an empty nest; I fill it with cats since the children I have been gathering lately are fully grown young people.

(23) Donnie likes to drive; I like to be driven (hm, another complementarity, perhaps that works okay).

(24) Donnie prefers air conditioning; I get sick in air conditioning -- fans, including the kind you wave in front of your face, are my preference.

(25) Donnie forgets important dates, like our anniversary; I forget them, too. Ah, finally, something in common!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on and on with all the differences we have encountered over the years. People are right. We are very different from one another. Perhaps they are also right that opposites attract but the marriages of opposites don't last. There is always that possibility. Time will tell. Right now, we are at 40 and counting.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Where in the World Is Elizabeth?

I just thought of an interesting little competition. While I am gone tripping, please leave a comment, guessing where you think I am and why. And since I will not have access to the Internet, no one will see anyone's answers until I return so there will be no influence one upon another!

I will send a surprise gift to everyone who guesses correctly.

This will be fun, no?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Giving Away Everything

This year, Lizzie and Shane have needed large weekly monetary infusions due to lack of work. Lizzie's summer semester courses were cut, and Shane, as reported earlier in Clan under Siege, lost his job as a result of a threatened insurance premium hike on his employer for all employees due to the more than two million dollars that the insurance company had to pay out for Nikolina. Without going into the question of the value of life versus the value of money (I always choose life over money, and Nikolina at 18 months is showing that she has the will to make the most of the life she has been given), my son was left stranded with a wife who needed to stay home to care for a baby who could not be given care through babysitters or day care and no income.

I can state without equivocation that life fought for comes at a high cost in emotions, time, and, yes, money. So, here I am again in the position I was in when the children, especially the ones with birth defects, were small and needy, juggling bills. Now the kids are big and needy, and the bills I am juggling allow me to help them to juggle theirs. Of course, no one in the family has any savings. With million-dollar medical bills (not only for Nikolina but for three other children in the family), who would? I have to note here, though, that Stanford University Hospital, upon learning of the critical financial situation of Shane due to his summarily losing his job, told him that they wanted to keep the baby as a patient (the doctors are pretty darn proud of themselves -- as far as we know, only one other such baby, now a small girl living in Pennsylvania, has survived) and would help him however they could. They forgave every cent of the co-pay bills from birth up until Nikolina's second birthday (which will be in the spring of next year), at which point her medical expenses should taper off.

Nonetheless, living expenses remained a problem. Shane burned through his savings and withdrawn retirement funds while unemployed and took a 25% salary cut on his new job. Some day he will catch up to where he was. For now, I help him.

Some day Lizzie, too, will catch up. First, she needs to repay her student loans, and second, she needs tenure and promotion to associate professor. After that, she will be able to be on her own. I hope so since after that I would like to retire and devote full-time to writing and part-time international consulting. For now, that option is only a distant dream.

Recently, I told Lizzie, "I don't mind giving you all that I have. Just keep in mind that based on financial affairs to date, there will likely be no inheritance for you kids."

"No problem, Mom," she wrote. "I hate the idea of getting rich from your death." (Hah! No danger of that! In 2000, we moved from a 13-room house into a small RV and in the process gave away everything to the kids that they wanted, sold all of the rest that we could, and gave away all the rest to a neighbor who provided libraries in the Philippines with our books and needy families there with our household goods. We really did literally what Jesus said: "give away everything" and live for and with God. We have never missed any of it, and the joy of being unencumbered was surpassed only by the joy of all the people we were able to help with our accumulations.)

Personally, I hate the thought of my kids ever getting rich. That would mean a change in values. It would mean that they are no longer giving away all that they can, and I know that they do give away everything that they have at the moment if someone needs it more -- including what I give to them. I also know that they and my grandkids are as chronically happy as I am. I imagine it has a lot to do with not worshipping the god of money.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sad News: Fr. Thomas Dubay

I have mentioned Fr. Thomas Dubay's publications a number of times on my blogs, and they are in my recommended reading list. For me, his works have been my sanity checks and mainstay when it comes to dealing with the mystical experiences that have come my way. About two years ago, after a string of locutions and having just finished his book, Authenticity, I wrote to Fr. Thomas to tell him how helpful I had found that book (probably not one of his most popular because it is directed to those people who have experienced sound, voice, touch, and, as I have found over the past four years, they are not found in every pew in the church). I also told him of some of my experiences, of the details of my quest to determine their authenticity, and of some of my questions and concerns. I did not ask for a response and did not expect one. Nonetheless, a few weeks later, I received handwritten comments on my letter from Fr. Thomas, who apologized for the format but said that he had just arrived from another trip, was tired, and wanted nonetheless to respond to my note immediately. He told me that he thought that my experiences, as described, were likely authentic and why, commented on my comments, and suggested some answers to my questions. His letter gave me greater confidence in moving more deeply into contemplation and not pulling away from God at the most intimate moments.

Fr. Thomas passed away this weekend, and his passing feels like a personal loss. I will now treasure those handwritten notes even more. If you have not read Fr. Thomas's books, please find some time to do so. They are, for me, second only to The Cloud of Unknowing/The Book of Privy Counseling on my list of books to which I am addicted.

The following is from the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C., who cared for Father Dubay during his final days; I have blatantly "stolen" (borrowed?) this information from his publisher and am certain that the publisher will be happy to have the word spread.
Rev Thomas Dubay, SM
RIP September 26, 2010

From Washington, DC:
This morning at 4:45, the Lord welcomed into His Kingdom Rev Thomas Dubay, SM, after suffering kidney failure and massive bleeding in the brain. Father’s frail health had been declining ever since his admission to the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Washington more than a year ago, but his suffering was even more noticeable in recent months. Despite this fact, Fr Dubay was just as witty as ever.

When Father’s superior, Fr. Bruce Lery, SM, called the Little Sisters on Sunday morning to tell them, he said, "We have a saint in heaven" –how true! Fr. Dubay was hospitalized about a month ago and then transferred to a rehabilitation facility for specialized treatments but his health was steadily declining. Yesterday he was re-admitted to the hospital with bleeding in the brain, and he was put in coronary intensive care. Although the ventilator was removed, he continued to breathe on his own.

Although he suffered from his loss of independence, he was happy to concelebrate Mass almost every day in the chapel of the Little Sisters Home in the shadow of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in our nation’s capital.

The Marist priests and brothers visited him almost daily, and Father depended very much on his superior, Fr. Bruce, who was always there for him. In a few words, Fr. Dubay literally practiced what he preached! Father was happy to give weekly classes to the Little Sister postulants –classes which he enjoyed as much as they! From his room, Father continued his spiritual direction with many persons who called on him and this also was extended to letter writing.

We can render prayers of thanksgiving for the wonderful support Father gave to religious communities spending a good part of his life giving conferences and retreats. Although his preaching and spiritual direction was delivered to contemplative communities, his teaching was not for them alone. Religious the world over benefitted of his spiritual wisdom and guidance for years. He will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace after leading so many souls to true spiritual peace during his lifetime! The opening prayer of today’s liturgy says it all: “Help us hurry toward the Eternal Life you promise and come to share in the joys of your kingdom”.

For more about Fr. Dubay's writings and work, see his author page at Ignatius Insight.
My note: Many have said that Fr. Thomas Dubay is one of the greatest spiritual directors and writers of our day. I believe it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

If the Road Comes to an End, Find a Path through the Woods

I grew up barefoot and suntanned on a farm in rural Maine, the oldest of eight children. My father was a shoe cutter in the winter and a farmer in the summer. All the children I knew in the Maine farmlands grew up barefoot, suntanned, self-confident in the country air, and a little insecure when confronted with city bustle and impersonality.

We were bussed to the city for school. Everything in the city seemed better than on the farm. Our classmates had nicer clothes, shinier shoes, and spiffier haircuts. Life seemed to move faster, and you were supposed to have toys, gadgets, candy, money, fancy book bags, and all sorts of things. The differing levels of affluence were painfully obvious to all of us.

So, when it came time for the science fair, I did not consider the possibility of entering. I loved science, but the cost of supplies was not within my reach as a single exhibitor. I could not partner with one of the city kids because I could not provide my fair share. I could not partner with one of the farm kids because even together we would have no money.

My science teacher would not listen to my explanation. He personally signed up my girlfriend and me and challenged us to figure out a project that we could do with what we had.

"You don't have to buy science," he told us. "Science is all around you."

We picked the topic of light and color, then scoured our houses and barns for anything useful: some leftover pieces of glass from a broken barn window, oddly shaped pieces of wood from the woodpile, and some scraps of wool from my mother's sewing basket. We realized that we had the makings of a display. Perhaps our science teacher was right. Perhaps we could, indeed, make something from nothing.

First, we cut the broken window glass into triangles for homemade prisms. We found, though, that the light diffracted into a multitude of directions so that we could not get the clean spectrum that we wanted. After thinking a bit, we conceived the idea of gluing black construction paper remnants from art class to the flat slides of the prisms to absorb the ambient diffusion. It worked. We made a couple dozen homemade prisms to hand out.

Next, we built a stand by hammering and sawing the pieces of wood to the approximate size and shape we needed, and we hung the scraps of wood on the stand to make a lightproof enclosure. It teetered and sometimes tottered, but it worked.

Using scrap materials was fun. It required creativity and really helped us to understand principles of light and color better than learning about them in a book. We were satisfied that we had put together a credible project that cost us absolutely nothing.

On the night of the science fair, we carefully packed our multi-piece exhibit into some old cartons we found in the barn, lining them with newspaper to keep everything clean. Arriving at the school gym, which had been set up with dozens of conference display tables, we saw the projects our classmates had assembled from beautiful, expensive science kits. Suddenly, our window-glass, black-paper prisms and our rickety stand seemed shoddy. We could not even begin to compete with the blood circulation machines and the fancy optic displays of our classmates. Without a word to each other, we both turned around at the same time and walked out of the gym. We would have gone home, but there stood our science teacher with a stern look on his face. He marched us back into the building.

We spent the rest of the evening in embarrassment, watching the judges look at the impressive, professional-appearing exhibits of the other students. We crossed our fingers that none of our classmates would walk by and poke fun at our display. They did not. They were too busy showing their displays to the judges and parents. Although we did not understand how our homemade apparati could possibly interest the judges, we were enthusiastic about our project itself and appreciative that they came back several times to ask us ever more interesting and challenging questions. We were especially appreciative that they did not laugh at our homemade displays but thanked us and pocketed the prisms that we handed out as if they were just as good as those pretty, store-bought, sparkling ones.

As a seventh-grader, I was surprised and puzzled when we won first place although our science teacher was not. As an adult, I have found many applications of the lesson I learned at the science fair. It is not what you have that counts but what you do with it. Or, when the road comes to an end, find a path through the woods.

Double-posted on Mahlou Musings and Clan of Mahlou.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Worst Is the Best

A while back I was attending a First Friday gathering where we had an interesting experience-sharing activity. Fr. Gavin asked us to write down for later sharing the best things that ever happened to us (and the reasons we considered it the best thing) and the worst thing that ever happened to us (and the reasons we considered it the worst thing). As I reflected on my life, pondering over what really and truly I would consider the best thing and what I would consider the worst, I stumbled against a dilemma: the best thing and the worst thing were the same thing! I didn't think that Fr. Gavin would expect that particular outcome, and when I shared my thoughts, his stunned surprised indicated that he clearly had not considered that the best and worst things might be the same, but he understood my reasons for saying this.

I identified the birth of Noelle, with her array of birth defects, as the worst thing that had happened. This was not the cute, cuddly baby we had expected. In fact, it would be some time before we could even pick her up because she had to be airlifted out of town and run through a series of surgeries. Thirty years ago, surviving spina bifida, epilepsy, Arnold-Chiari malformation, paraplegia, and hydrocephalus, along with some of the surgeries done to manage her life, such as a colostomy, was not as likely as it is today. Never, though, is it easy to handle all the physical, psychological, emotional, educational, relationship, etc., etc., needs of a handicapped child. Learning that my perfect baby had some imperfections in the eyes of the world, at least in the eyes of the medical world was not the best moment of my life.

Or was it? I could not think of anything better that had happened to me. Through Noelle, I learned much that I would never have known. Through her, I became ready to mother Doah. Through her and Doah, our family bonded, our able-bodied children learned compassion, and all our children learned a lot about creative problem-solving as we struggled to figure out ways to incorporate all our children into all our activities (e.g, traveling, hiking, roller-skating -- even paraplegic Noelle learned to roller-skate, braces and all). None of them are afraid of life because they have met it head-on, thanks to unique situations that first Noelle, and then Doah, and the Shura introduced us to. And, of course, thanks to Noelle and Doah, we were all ready to open our home and hearts to Shura when the time came.

Interesting, isn't it? Just when we think something really bad has happened, God puts it all into a different light, using it for good, and showing us the very worst can actually be the very best.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Days of My Broken Back

Having had Doah at home for a couple of weeks now, once again balancing family needs and work requirements, I find myself remembering the days when all the kids were home and I was doing the same -- balancing family needs and work requirements.

At one point, years ago, I needed to have a psychologist's note for work. It was a routine type of thing, dealing with a back injury that had reared its head, something that rarely happens but was probably the result of both work stress (the reason the psychologist was involved although, for Heaven's sake, a simple doctor's note should have done but was unacceptable because this was a ten-year-old injury, not a new one) and the physical stress of caring for seven children, one of whom could not walk (due to paraplegia) and was getting pretty big for lifting and carrying. All I needed was the note, relieving me from certain activities at work for a few weeks, and in the end that was exactly what I got. However, being a psychologist, the lady felt that she should have a little psychological discussion with me. It went something like this:

She: So, tell me, how do you spend your days?

I: Well, I get seven kids ready for school in the morning, then dash off to work, where I sit in front of a computer for long hours at a stretch, answering dozens of email notes, then I run around visiting classes, counseling teachers, attending and conducting meetings, hiring people, firing people, and working together with our resource office on budgets that don't quite meet the needs of work requirements, a very stressful endeavor. The physical running around is actually great. It relieves the stress on my back, but the sitting at the computer, in the classes, and at long meetings has been problematic lately.

She: Forget the back, let's get back to your schedule.

I: Okay, well, after work, my oldest daughter picks me up because she has the car during the day. She needs it for work more than I do because I can walk to and from each of my 12 buildings, which is good for my back.

She: Forget the back for a while. Let's get back to your daily routine. What do you do when you get home?

I: Oh, well, fortunately, I don't have to make supper. My kids won't eat anything I cook, so my husband does that. While he is preparing supper, I go over the homework of my teenage son who is being homeschooled. We discuss the various papers he has written, research he has done, and any questions he might have. I also want to know what he thinks he has learned. I check his understanding of the books that are not in English, and we have some debates over the meaning of various novels and stories he has read. Then I work with the littlest one. He is retarded so the schools think he cannot learn, but he can. He just has his own way of learning. Right now, he and I are working our way through 1984, and he gets Orwell's intent. However, he explains it in ways that would not work in a regular seventh grade class because of his speech disinhibition. I know he understands much more than he communicate because when I ask him who the protagonist is, he will say "little guy, like me." Then, dinner is usually ready. I always forget to make sure that the kids have washed up. They seem to remind themselves, though, and at the table we discuss what the other kids have done during the day, any particular problems (often, we attack the problems as a group), and highlights in which to delight. Then, Noelle has to catetherize; she does that pretty well for herself but I need to ensure that she has no oncoming urine infection or body sores. If she is out of her braces because they are being repaired, then I have to do range of motion exercises on her. After that, there is a scramble for baths, one on one time with the kids, helping with homework with the kids who are still in school: Lizzie and Ksenya have graduated and help as they can. Then, often, Ksenya, who is not my birth daughter, likes to crawl up in my lap because she misses her mother in Moscow; we spend time reminiscing about Moscow in Russian. Sometimes, Lizzie joins us because she went to school in Moscow and can speak Russian; it is good for her not to forget Russian. On a school night, the kids go to bed around 10:00, but if it is a Friday night, we generally gather at that time for a family meeting to make family decisions on expenditures (money is always tight) and forthcoming activities.

She: Well, that's interesting, but what do you do for yourself?

I: Oh, right, after that, somehow I squeeze in dishes. It's only fair I do them since Donnie makes dinner, and I get some thinking time while washing them. Also, laundry and some light housekeeping. Donnie does the trash detail. The kids help, too, and the heavy cleaning we do as a family on Saturday morning.

She: That's not what I meant. I mean for yourself personally.

I: Well, I used to do some exercises to try to keep my weight normal, but I cannot do many of them lately because of my back -- which is why I need to have that piece of paper I came here for -- so that I can take a couple of weeks off and let the back recuperate.

She: We can talk about your back later. I am curious as to what you do for self fulfillment.

I: I thought I already told you. I get the delight of entering my children's minds every night and helping to develop their thinking -- both ethical and analytical. I get to discuss literature that I love with my own children. I get to shape the education of my home-schooled son. I get some one-on-one time with myself while doing dishes and laundry. I get to relax with my "adopted" daughter and my oldest daughter, reminiscing about Moscow and helping the former make the transition between cultures. Sometimes, I even get to talk to my husband before or right after tumbling into bed -- and sometimes the two of us get to talk even more while doing chores together. If I have time, I will help him with the trash, and he will help me with the dishes. (Actually, we met doing dishes, so that is appropriate.) And, if my back is okay, I spend a few minutes exercising.

She: Lizzie, you have a serious problem. When do you put your family aside and do things for yourself?

I: I don't quite understand your question. I would want to put my family aside, why? Doing things for my family is doing things for myself. That's the source of my happiness. You are right, though. I do have a serious problem. I need that note for work so I can take a couple of weeks off to heal my back!

She sighed and gave me the note. Mission accomplished. Sheesh! Why did it have to take so long? I would be late getting home and miss my reading time with Doah. Big help that lady was!

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