November’s Gifts

The leaves changed and fell and I hardly noticed. The most virulent, obnoxious election ever flooded the airwaves and feeds, and as of the second week of October, it all seemed very inconsequential, like so much noise. Perhaps that latter ignorance was a gift.

I remember this closing in, the wide world suddenly becoming very small – the size of a rocking chair. Activities narrowing to only a few that matter.

feeding

When my two kids were born, I was leaning close to 30. I’m now just a couple skips from 40 and I have 10 years of mothering experience in my pocket. Ten years of nights that show a clear upward slope of sleeping hours for mama and child. This gives me perspective and hope, because right now, with a 7-week baby in our home, sleep is the topic my brain can’t stop thinking about (dreaming about?).

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The fact that sleep is my biggest challenge right now is a gift. In the world of foster care, that’s a pretty mild complaint.

The election came and went. I was up anyway and watched the inconceivable become reality. The explosion in our little world tempered my response to the political upheaval. Big and small kindnesses of relatives and friends for our family-of-five inspired me and reminded me of the bigger, more important impact of millions of kindnesses over who is in office.

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We suddenly became part of a beautiful community I only barely knew before – foster parents. A circumstance of our case led me to a gracious, wise, seasoned foster mom who has wrapped me under her wing and has spent hours with me on the phone (texting and real conversations) and meets me in person. She encourages, gives helpful advice, lets me question and process, and provides incalculable perspective.

We ran into (ok, walked by) Ellie’s new basketball coach and his family at the annual Thanksgiving Run for the Hungry in our town. Guess who welcomed in children and adopted through foster care for years? Yep. Them.

Other gifts stack up like so many packages, each one unwrapped with gratitude. We landed a compassionate, competent primary care provider, a fantastic foster family immediately responded to my plea for respite care while we are out of town right before Christmas, and our baby boy started daycare without a hitch. My SLP friend Nicole covered my absence from work, making possible the unexpected gift of staying home with baby boy for his first six weeks.

Just as if I had actually given birth, many dear ones sent meals, clothes, baby gear, messages, gifts, and encouraging words and prayers.

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For months we prayed, along with our closest family and friends, that our first foster placement would be the right fit for our family and we would be the right family for that child. I wasn’t picturing a newborn, but he was our first call and it seemed right.

Which is surprising. My friend Annie once half-jokingly introduced me to someone at church as a mom who only started enjoying motherhood when my children learned to read. I shrugged, agreeing with her analysis.

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So we fit our family around this tiny bundle who upends everything as babies do. It’s hard, smelly, tiring, and emotionally weird. But I’ve also pulled out a nice stack of old favorite board books, we’re smiling and laughing more, and widening our little circle of family.

tummy-time

He is a gift.

For as many days as we have him, we are altogether his, love pouring in to all of us in ever increasing measure.

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First Week

It all began much like the other two. A professional placed a 7-pound human being into my outstretched arms, fully trusting I was up to the challenge.

My heart burst into a million pieces, and in ways I don’t comprehend, a rush of warmth spread through my body.

All the prayers, classes, pages of documents, inspections and preparation of our home and hearts culminated in this moment.

Within a couple hours, Grandparents, Aunt, and Uncle were over with food and diapers. And after eight years of rest, John and I initiated Night One of zero REM sleep.

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Feeding, changing, rocking, gazing into one another’s eyes, attachment, sleep deprivation – it is all very familiar. But. Instead of postpartum hormonal weeping, it is a different kind of emotional maelstrom.

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It’s inexplicably loving this baby like he is my flesh, knowing he is most definitely not my flesh, and not even mine. It’s knowing he needs to be loved and held and nourished like a son, but understanding he is another woman’s son who would be holding and nourishing him if she could. It’s grieving for her and him, truly wanting their brokenness to mend and reunite, yet all the while greedily inhaling his sweet scent and kissing his smooth skin. It’s splitting the night shift with John (because bottles), big sister and brother snuggles (already anticipating their grief), and writing in a first-year calendar (that may never be complete).

I’m starting to understand. Foster care is a gift and a knife.

 

 

Summer Road Trip and Fall Beginnings

A few years ago, when both of our kids had reached the golden age of Elementary School (i.e., they could read and wait long periods between bathroom breaks), we started talking about taking a road trip together. Skills required for being in school and pleasantly riding in a car for long, sustained periods have remarkable correlations, in my experience.

road-tripping

Summers came and went quickly, all filled with wonderful things, but no road trips. Then, this year.

2016 brought some changes for us. In March, we decided to start the licensing process for becoming foster parents. That same month, John got a new job as an instructor at a community college, which included a three-and-a-half month summer break. Ellie, a 4th grader, got a parting gift from the Obama administration: a free pass to all National Parks and Monuments for her entire family. These things and the opportunities and future constraints they would bring finally forced our hand. It was the perfect summer for a road trip.

John, lover of maps and geological wonders, master of efficiency, and careful analyst of worst case scenarios, took the lead for almost every aspect of our trip. I downloaded audiobooks to my library apps and packed food, clothing, and toiletries. He did EVERYTHING else.

From Washougal, our route took us through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, back to Utah, Nevada, California, up 101 along the Oregon Coast, over the bridge into Washington, and back to Washougal.

We only made two reservations, both in the first week. We camped in our new-to-us tent trailer about two-thirds of the nights. We had a long list of places to see, but wanted to be flexible with timing. Google and Priceline were our dearest companions.

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Here is a photo summary of the highlights:

Dinosaur National Monument, UT

I didn’t know this place existed until my uncle and aunt suggested it was a not-to-miss sight along our route. I’m so glad they persuaded us! Who knew there is a wall of actual dinosaur bones preserved in place for anyone in America to gawk at!

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO

John loved the geology of this beautiful park.

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100s in the Hills, Silverton, CO

John’s dad, brother, and nephew joined us for the three days of the annual 100s in the Hills Landcruiser gathering in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The scenery here is breathtaking. The event was interesting. I loved every part of it except for the Landcruiser bits.

100s-landcruisers100s-colorado-trails

100s-engineer-pass

Two best-bud brothers who share nearly identical professions, trucks, and tent trailers.

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Four Corners – NM, AZ, CO, UT

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Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Another park I didn’t know about but absolutely loved. Cliff homes of the ancestral Puebloans 800 years ago.

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Santa Fe, NM

We spent a few days with John’s aunt and uncle in Santa Fe. We soaked in the gorgeous surroundings, Aunt Beverly’s gracious, top-notch hospitality, laundry facilities, and lots of puppy dog snuggles.

santa-fe-bev-and-kids

Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

This was a relatively small national park, but so incredibly cool for our tree and rock-loving family we could hardly stand it.

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petrified-painted-desert

Painted Desert

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Petroglyphs

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Yes, John’s shirt says “Geology Rocks”

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Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

We made a short drive-through visit to the Grand Canyon, arriving close to sunset.

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Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT

We camped here for five days at a lovely, cool altitude of 10,000 feet. From here, we explored other national parks in Utah.

cedar-breakscedar-breaks-elliecedar-breaks-panorama

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Junior Ranger Hike

Zion National Park, UT

Hiking through the Virgin River in a slot canyon at Zion was a highlight of our trip.

zion-kolobzion-kolob-canyonszion-narrows-hikezion-narrows-hike-3selfie-zion

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Hiking the Hoodoos at Bryce was another unforgettable adventure.

brycebryce-hoodoosbryce-hoodoos-hikeselfie-bryce-familybryce-john-and-ellie

Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA

We started longing for cooler climates and greener vistas, so instead of hitting the other red-tinged national parks in Utah, we adjusted our itinerary and headed west to California. We spent part of a day in Lassen Volcanic National Park, chiefly to hike the “Bumpass Hell” trail, named after a man named Bumpass who fell into a steaming mudpot here.

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Redwoods State and National Parks, CA

Wow. Just, wow.

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Animal Sightings

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Once I was in the northwest corner of California, despite loving the Redwoods and enjoying our few days there, the urge to go home pulled strong. We talked about spending a couple days exploring some beaches along 101 and the Oregon Coast, but my heart said, “Been there, done that. HOME. NOW.” My brain said, “Your house is not ready for Foster Care Home Inspection. You start work next week. Get your people out of this foreign land and return to the familiar passages of Highway 14 and I-205.”

Being a sensible wife and a sacrificial mother, I did not nag my family (too much) into alignment with my personal inclinations, but let them come to their own conclusions as we ventured out of the truck in our California shorts at a beach near Coos Bay to 57 degree afternoon fog and wind.

“Let’s stop for some Salt Water Taffy then drive the rest of the way home,” John said.

Victory! Promises of sugar had worked like a charm throughout our adventures (Gatorade, Slurpees, Oreos, Jolly Ranchers, and ice cream made frequent appearances) and didn’t fail us at the end either.

Taffy was procured at Ainslees in Depoe Bay and we pulled in to our driveway at 11:00pm that night, three days ahead of schedule.

The two weeks that followed were a blur of relentless cleaning, organizing, and safety-checking, squeezing in another quick trip to Mason Lake (annual summer requirement), back to work (crying most of the way there), foster care interviews, and home inspection.

It was a rough re-entry to a good life. Our home is more organized and decluttered than it has ever been and ready for a new little person and the chaos, complications and joy that will bring. Returning to work at York Elementary always fills me with pride and contentment with my capable, caring colleagues, supportive principal, and their single-minded purpose to help all children who walk through those doors to flourish. I reconnected with our tribe of friends and family – a beautiful collection of souls I do not deserve but eagerly grasp for dear life.

Maybe I’m being “optoomuchistic” (a word I immediately entered into my vocabulary upon reading The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place), but I think everything is going to be ok.

This year and this summer put us on a path we had never been, filled us with beauty, and strengthened us for what is ahead. Life will soon become challenging, and oh, so busy, and probably very sad. But see how He loves us. He will be faithful. He will provide. I will accept from His hand the memories of this summer, the good people hemming me in on every side, and the skills and experience He has been sowing into our lives all along.

Alright, Fall. Alright, foster care. Ready, set, go.

 

Summer Unaccomplishments

Things I eagerly ponder and plan in May and June, but by the first week of July I have already abandoned:

  1. Teaching my children how to weed, vacuum, dust, fold, mop, wipe down, scrub the right waySince during the school year I mostly just do it myself or let them make lazy efforts, thinking, “When we’re home together in July I’ll really buckle down on this.”
  2. Handwriting practice for Jack. Need I say more? image
  3. Encouraging my children to read copious quantities of “quality literature” carefully selected from multicultural/award-winning/vocabulary-rich/justice-loving book lists gleaned from a myriad of sources online and from books about books that I have actually purchased that sit hardly cracked on my bedside table. Instead: are they really still checking out Geronimo Stilton at the library? Yes.
  4. Listening to Ellie diligently master “Can You Hear the People Sing” from the also newly purchased “Les Misérables” piano book so we can awe her piano teacher in September. Instead, my family is listening to me diligently pluck out “Stars” until John says something like, “I think I can recognize that song now!”
  5. Touching each and every item in my house to determine if it “sparks joy” a la Marie Kondo, simplifying and purging until my heart and soul are light and free, and so that when the Foster Care Licensor comes to inspect our home, things won’t fall on top of her when she opens cupboards and doors.
  6. Re-reading “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo. Oh, the Foster Care archetypes I now recognize amongst its characters!

Adjusted Summer Goals:

  1. Sacrificially acquiesce to my mother-in-law’s suggestion of having Ellie to come over to her house once a week where she would teach Ellie how to clean her house and pay her for her efforts. Daughter getting paid to learn valuable life skills by a better teacher than myself = Win.
  2. Let 3rd grade teacher deal with Jack’s handwriting. Focus on teaching my nearly EIGHT-YEAR-OLD how to freaking tie his own shoes.
  3. Listen to quality literature via OverDrive and OneClickdigital library apps any time we’re in the car, which will be in copious quantities during our upcoming 3-week road trip. Already finished and highly recommend: “The Key to Extraordinary” by Natalie Lloyd, and “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg.
  4. Remind them to practice an old piano song once a day (or at least 3 times a week), if I remember, and if we aren’t having too much fun with other stuff.
  5. Handle, watching for joyful sparks, every item in my kitchen, closet, and MAYBE my bedroom. Procrastinate as long as possible, since Foster Care home inspection is likely still months weeks away.
  6. Watch “Les Misérables” with Hugh Jackman, taking no foster parenting tips from the Thenardiers. We will love like Valjean, forgive like the bishop, follow the WAC like Javert, and fight for the rights of our children like Marius! Jean Valjean

Already accomplished:

√  Go camping
√  Go to the beach
√  Play at the river at every opportunity
√  Eat dinner outside while listening to multicultural mixes on Spotify unless over 90 degrees or raining
√  Finish the library summer reading program
√  Bonfire with friends and cousins
√  Say “no” to all Sunday School volunteer opportunities

Also this:

√  Educational Opportunity at Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco, in which we discover that Lewis and Clark spent about a week at the mouth of the Washougal River (Cottonwood Beach), exploring up and down, hunting and catching fish. Upon our return home, we looked up their detailed journals from March 31, 1806 and found that yes, indeed, they did paddle up past our very spot of beach on the Washougal (named “Seal River” by the intrepid explorers)! Perhaps they stopped for lunch at our very idyllic pebbly shore! If the waters were low enough, maybe they stood upon our very stately jumping rock and did a little fishing!

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Yep, we’re pretty much killing it at summer.

Teach, Pray, Love: A Week in Peru

It has been well over a month since Ellie, Sandi and I returned from our week in Trujillo, Peru. Enough time to recalibrate to North American schedules, people, problems and routines. But thankfully, any time I travel outside my “normal”, normal gets redefined, and that is a good thing.

Something I’ve learned about life (now that I’m solidly in my late thirties) is that things that matter the most are in the context of a relationship. A week is a short time to spend in another country, yet our week in Peru was meaningful because of the threads of relationships that brought us there and were strengthened.

I told you how Sandi, Ellie, and I were invited to come to Peru to train staff at an orphanage about educating children with special needs. I typed that story into cyberspace and our people responded. Within 24 hours an entire Amazon.com wishlist of Spanish books and games were ordered by you to fill our suitcases. The principal at the school where I work, Sandi’s son’s 2nd grade teacher, childhood friends, aunts and uncles, and many others responded. My college roommate’s dad donated a laptop in a shiny new case for Alex, the orphanage director. Glenwood Community Church  generously supported us financially. Evergreen Public Schools equipped us with quality, current information for some of our training sessions. Dozens more of you called, texted, emailed, prayed, and encouraged us. All of you sent us to Peru for Spring Break.

Here is who you impacted by your kindness to us and our Peruvian friends:

My daughter. Oh, Ellie. You exceeded all my expectations of how a nine-year-old girl going to a foreign country with a distracted mama would respond. Hours and hours spent on airplanes and airport benches. Dozens of not-like-home meals. Many, many happy voices and questions (some in Spanish) surrounding your introverted self 14 hours a day.

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You flew your little kite outside at the orphanage, and when one of the children accidentally tore off the strings, you just wrapped up what was left and tucked it in your backpack without a word. With head held high, you tried the cow heart kabob and the ceviche nestled in an octopus broth. You didn’t forgot to put the toilet paper in the waste basket or rinse your toothbrush with bottled water. You held strong in the Lima airport until our 2:00am flight with only the tiniest of meltdowns at 10:30, followed by a cheerful second wind. You didn’t whine or complain, and you never demanded my attention. You went with the flow until mid-week when you saw that I could finally look up from our piles of notes and PowerPoints, then quietly asked if the two of us could spend some time together. I was so proud of you.

My teammate, Sandi. If I liked Sandi before Peru, I consider her a dear sister now. Sandi’s quiet, thoughtful observations were so timely and helpful. When she opened her mouth to speak, it was with wisdom and love. She delighted in having a nine-year-old companion as part of our team and watched out for Ellie like a mama bird (even more so than Ellie’s actual mother did).

Sandi is that rare combination of exemplary competence with humility and flexibility. She is a natural leader who took the co-pilot or the passenger seat without a fuss. She listened more than she talked. She remained unflappable when plans changed or were not announced until moments before an event. She generously poured out encouragement on me. She made a room full of exhausted workers cry from her empathetic stories of working with adolescents with special needs. She broke a toilet seat our first day in Pablo and Sarah’s home. And admitted it.

Sandi and CT girls

The whole Cenepo-Torres family. Every minute we spent in this family’s presence was life-giving. So much laughter, love, and steadfast, faithful living. Pablo and Sarah wear many hats and serve, give, and pray without ceasing. The word “yes” is almost always on their lips. They open their home to visitors from Peru and around the world every month. Just a week before our arrival, they hosted 14 children from the orphanage for an extended Easter holiday weekend.

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Our trip overlapped by a few days with our now-North Dakotan friend, Brian Martin

Sarah seamlessly manages a myriad of practical details when hosting visitors, and somehow attends to each person individually. After watching Ellie quietly acquiesce to every appointment of our full week, Sarah made sure we squeezed in a trip to the ocean. She was so right – boogie boarding with the girls on the South American side of the Pacific Ocean was Ellie’s absolute highlight of the week.

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The four Cenepo-Torres daughters are delightfully unique and flourishing under their parents’ love, education, and discipleship. I LOVE these six Peruvian-Americans and am grateful for their presence in Peru and their friendship with my family.

see saws

Alex, Nancy, Paola, and all of the faithful, hardworking staff at Hogar de Esperanza, the orphanage I visited four years ago and have been supporting through prayer and email conversations. Alex initiated and organized this whole endeavor. He reached out to workers from other local orphanages, and for the first time a large group of workers from multiple institutions came together for two days of trainings while we were in the country.

HdE - alex

These people may have different titles, but every one of them has a heart like Jesus – broken and swollen with compassion for hurting, abused children. The kids they care for are not easy. Yes, they are cute, but the trauma they experienced left them with lasting damage that presents in developmental delays, emotional and behavioral struggles, and learning problems. This can also be true for vulnerable children here in the US, but in Peru, they don’t have the social services and educational supports families here can access.

These workers are in the thick of dark, hopeless stories, yet they persevere because of the love they have for the children and the strengthening love of God. They were eager to learn new strategies to help their children make progress physically, emotionally, academically, and spiritually.

HdE workers

What we actually did during our week in Peru was in the context of these relationships, which is important, because our Peruvian friends are the ones who will actually be carrying on the work and applying the skills we taught to their context.

HdE - CTs and kids

The week skipped along, with Pablo as our guide and interpreter.

Two days we spent at a local orphanage where Alex had gathered representative workers from the various orphanages to come and share their experiences and learn new skills. The participants included caregivers, tutors, social workers, psychologists, and directors.

group shot

Sandi and I presented a trauma-informed approach to caring for and teaching children in their settings. We talked about developmental milestones, making observations, and determining measurable goals for the children in their care. We gave them ideas for teaching academics, social skills, and communication to children with special needs. We filled their notebooks with positive behavioral strategies. They shared their struggles and we listened and cried.

teaching

The next two days we spent at Hogar de Esperanza. Sandi and I enjoyed meeting with a rotation of one or two caregivers at a time, and helped them apply their learning from the previous days to their actual reality with the children they care for.

The orphanage staff we talked to described their children with deep affection. Many have worked with the same kids for years, yet the problems that brought the children to the home and cycles of trauma and confusion that continue impact their functioning. It was a privilege to hear their hearts, offer strategies when we could, and join them in prayer.

We gave them a huge suitcase filled with books and games in Spanish and the laptop, all donated by YOU, our friends and family. Thank you for giving these children quality materials that will be used to enhance their learning and social skills.

gifts

Finally, Sandi and I met with a couple families from the area who have children with special needs. In one family’s home, we gathered close and demonstrated some ways the parents could increase the communication of their nonverbal son who has autism.

family

Pablo and Steve were our fearless interpreters. These two guys are missionary-pastors and we stretched their brains and language skills with all of our special education jargon. Pablo gained a new appreciation for his amazing wife who, he came to realize, educates and parents their daughters using many of the evidence-based, effective techniques Sandi and I shared with our audiences. You rock, Sarah!

pablo and sandi

We left Trujillo on the day of Peru’s presidential election, going our separate ways. Sandi headed to the mountains, where she met her husband and son for sightseeing in and around Machu Picchu. Ellie and I flew home to our grateful boys.

jack and jenae

At home, I slowly eased back into life with my little family. I returned to my job in a bright, modern elementary school filled with highly trained teachers and staff, and multiple levels of support for children with special needs. I filled out our licensing paperwork for foster care, thankful that even though this system isn’t perfect, at least it is something. I opened the same Bible that was read by the Cenepo-Torres family in Peru and prayed to the same Father who hears our prayers and knows what we need even before we ask Him.

I continue to teach, pray, and love those God has placed in my life. I believe these are things He created me to do. I am grateful for the days Sandi and I did so together, with our friends in Peru.

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Epilogue:

A couple days after we got home, I spent an evening with Jack, and John spent the evening with Ellie. I asked Jack what he wanted to do during our special time together. After a quick stop at McDonalds for a Happy Meal, he asked, “Could we go to a gas station, get a treat, then sit on a park bench together and hug?” So we did.

park bench