Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hope Does Not Disappoint - New Year's Eve!

The end of a year invites retrospection, while the beginning of a new one brings introspection, doesn't it?

It's nearly impossible to avoid wondering what might happen in a new year: more good than bad, good tempered by unfathomable bad, or an even mix of life. (Note that I, even as an optimist, cannot bring myself to list an option of only good, believing it an impossibility.)

This year I hope for more highs than what occurred 2009 but to have the highs accented by appropriate times of stress - the kind of stress that helps you appreciate life's moments of bliss and motivates you to keep moving forward – because forward is the only acceptable direction to move, isn't it?

Now for a vlog warning:
I couldn't resist capturing the raw emotion I feel today; I hope I don't regret sharing it with you.

I continue to believe there is value in sharing the perspective of someone living an altered existence: life as the parent of a child living with disabilities. It's not how I am defined (at least I sure hope not), but it's often the most dominant piece of my life's puzzle. I offer today's perspective as a token of solidarity (if you also live such an existence) or as a petition for understanding (if you've ever wondered what it might feel like). I don't think there's a middle position.

As for what you'll see on screen: My sentences are often incomplete. It's pretty much how my thoughts are these days. They are what they are, just as my life today is what it is.

Happy New Year! May you carry hope that does not disappoint into each day of your 2010.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve: Welcome to Our World

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a program of music for the annual Garner Presbyterian Women's Christmas Dinner, an event that one of the attendees remembers occurring every year since at least the mid-1970s. The night was shaped by a charmingly unsophisticated beauty: a delicious potluck salad supper with a chicken casserole entree; glittering holiday table decor; thematic, hand-crafted table favors; bow-tied male servers; and holiday-attired female party guests connected to each other within three or four degrees of separation. If a woman whose life had only extended into the 1970s had been granted the opportunity to revisit such a night - much like Thornton Wilder's Emily – I believe she would have had a difficult time understanding just how much time had passed on this earth.

In some ways the activities of the evening seemed an intentional preservation of celebrations past. And that night, in addition to enjoying a wonderful, traditional church supper, I relished how the event revived memories of childhood that connected me to what felt like simpler times – shopping festooned downtown streets while Christmas music played on loudspeakers, delighting in the magic of nighttime snow while hurrying from one family-owned store to the next, trusting your mom and dad to take good care of you no matter the driving conditions, and anticipating the joy you believed each carefully chosen gift would bring.

My memories were so easily relieved that night, in part, because of my hostess, a former member of my hometown church who watched me grow up and heard me sing some of my first church solos. That night she had sealed the aura of yesteryear for me by inviting my sister to the event as well. Jill, forever my little sister and only sibling, is the sole person who also knows what it means to be known as "one of the Bowden girls" – something we were called several times that evening, even though neither of us has literally held that status for more than two decades.

Interlocked lives. Powerful impressions. Steadfast faith in a future, fully realized.

As I stood before those women, sharing stories mixed with musical messages, I remembered what it meant to be young and what it meant to grow up. Welcomed back into the wondrous world of my youth, I felt the story of God come to earth once again and witnessed how its power joins lives in a hope that does not disappoint.

Welcome to our world, Messiah. Come into our lives and show us what it means for the kingdom to come to us - Immanuel. Then help us live the message every day. May it indeed be so this Christmas and into the coming year.
*Yes, there is sound in the vlog below, a song even, but not right at the beginning.*


God bless us, every one.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Blizzard a Comin'

Well, the weather's threatening to give the phrase "home for the holidays" a whole new meaning. I need a word for equal parts excitement and anxiety to describe what I'm feeling. My anxiety isn't about the weather, either. It's about the need to reschedule and reorganize because of the weather.

Tonight, I guess I'll attempt to focus on getting our stack of cards ready for mailing. Tomorrow is my new goal. (I obviously missed today.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chase is Home

One of the best aspects of teaching has to be the privilege of watching how a young person's passion carries him (or her) into a rewarding life.

Our family has known Chase Chisholm ever since we moved to town 16 years ago. Chase grew up in Forest City, keeping busy with ability-stretching activities like musicals, cross country, and student council. I had the privilege of being Chase's confirmation teacher during his ninth grade year, a role that gave me insight into his compassionate nature and creative thought process.

I watched him struggle with his decision about where to go to college. He was attracted to Waldorf College's outstanding communications program but itched to bust out of his small hometown to see the world. In fact, he nearly made it into the Paris "Real World" cast - a road not taken that would have surely altered his life in ways that will forever remain unknown. Instead, this Bill's Family Foods grocery checker committed to stay small-town for three years - long enough to earn an accelerated BA (with a summer studying in Europe) - and I'm so glad he did. Both Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed his contributions in our courses and other ways he simply shared life.

Chase left a large imprint on the Waldorf College campus, evident by his selection as the college's President's Award recipient in 2005. Since then he's worked as a graphic artist, a broadcaster, and a waiter in Sioux Falls, S.D.; sang with a Lutheran Youth Encounter team during its appointment to Hong Kong; assisted with the branding of an organization for persons with disabilities; and helped launch a website for a magazine of the ELCA.

In the spring of 2008 our family bid Chase farewell as he prepared to serve two years with the Peace Corps in Georgetown, Guyana, with an assignment to teach technology to students at Open Doors Centre for Persons with Disabilities. Their need and his passion match beautifully, something easily witnessed even half a world away through the wonder of Facebook. His photography and notes about daily life convey the essence of who he is at the core, a man who misses little of life because no detail is deemed insignificant. It's clear that those he teaches eagerly drink the life he pours in large portions.

I've always thought of Chase as a bit of a pied-piper. Everyone who encounters him is attracted to his open, caring spirit and would likely follow him anywhere. You get a strong sense that he can help you find the fun while appreciating everything that might cross your path. So you can imagine our family's joy this afternoon as we got to share life with Chase in person again. Such a privilege. I hope you enjoy a few minutes with us too.

.P.S.- Chase, send me this photo so I can make it bigger!! :-)

Monday, December 14, 2009

How to Know You're Home

It's finals week, and college students are eager to take exams, if for no other reason than to go home. Freshmen may return in January having discovered something a bit surprising–even unsettling. They may discover they now have two homes: one where the people they think of as immediate family reside and one where they live daily with new friends.

I discovered that phenomena sometime during my freshman year at Wartburg College. I felt at home with Mom, Dad and Jill; and I felt equally at home on campus. In fact the closer I got to graduation, my definition of "home" got quite broad–broad enough for me to feel at home with Mark (whom I married five days after earning my college degree) whenever and wherever we were together. In fact, we had no dwelling to share as our own for about the first month of married life. Truly, if we were together, we were home.

I've had few occasions to ponder the meaning of home since. In nearly 24 years of marriage, Mark and I have spent only a few nights apart and only two nights together while apart from our children. On that weekend outing 12 years ago, it took us nearly a day to feel comfortable without Stross or Skye–especially in a location that wasn't our home.

Well, last week I discovered something delightful: Home is also a way of being.

I hope you enjoy listening to what happened when I, a worst-case scenario planner, spent the first overnight of my married life in the home of my childhood without my husband and children along, and how my parents aided my plan to travel to a speaking engagement just after a nighttime snowfall but before a 24-hour blizzard.

Best of luck to all you taking finals. May you fully enjoy every minute back home–wherever that may be and whatever that may mean.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Stross was born without the ability to feel his feet. Not his toes, pads, heels, ankles - nothing. That's why I'm fascinated that one of his favorite playful things to do with family members - me, Mark, Skye - is to tickle our feet. We often hang out together in our Great Room, watching TV or YouTube videos while attempting to complete household chores. (You can guess which family members are busy with what.)

Here's the scene: While busy with whatever compels us, we remain basically within reach of each other; and if someone has a bare foot close to Stross, he'll reach out at some point to tickle it. He's consistent. He always approaches the foot with a sneaky gesture and a grin of anticipation. Plus - always - his tickling persists with a smiling, sing-song line of questioning: "Does it tickle? Huh? Are you ticklish?"

We always respond "yes." No matter what, and he always chuckles his incredible, deep-bellied Stross chuckle (a borderline laugh), as we smile. No matter what.

Stross might not know what it feels like to have his feet tickled, but we sure know the delight of having him tickle ours.

And based on his visible joy, I think he enjoys the deepest pleasure.

That tickles me beyond what anyone can know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The December 2009 Blizzard

Let's hope we have only one blizzard of December '09, if for no other reason than to avoid having to know how to name the second one.

There's nothing like a good blizzard, though. Good, for me, means that it occurs at a time when most people will be home safe without a need to travel (i.e., no roads, no airports involved). Good also means our refrigerator is full and that the blizzard has disrupted my workweek - not my weekend. (I guess if someone's job requires him or her to work weekends, a good blizzard would be timed on a Saturday or a Sunday.)

The best part of a blizzard: The universal acceptance that nothing is required of life other than to be. And you get to "be" with those you love most in life - if it is, indeed, a good blizzard according to the criteria above.

This is a good blizzard. Today I'm simply doing whatever I'd like: catching up on grading papers, baking some cookies I promised for upcoming school events, watching my full soap opera for the first time in more than a year, studying for the class I'm taking, and blogging/vlogging. I might even begin writing our annual Christmas card.

And my family is here with me through all of it, grabbing my attention from time to time to listen to a piano lesson, watch a funny YouTube clip, move the laundry around, talk about the holidays and cook.

If you aren't enjoying your own blizzard day today - wherever you are - I hope you get to have something a lot like it very soon.

BTW: Mark did help the neighbor blow out his massive drift. And he and Skye also helped blow out a 10' drift for another neighbor (a widow).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hometown Holiday Memories

One of the wonderful parts of parenthood is reliving hometown memories through your children's eyes. Sometimes you get to make new hometown memories while your children are with you.

That's what happened last weekend when we visited the recently built West Union Recreation Center, beautifully decorated for the holiday season. Grandpa and Grandma were along, too. Perhaps we've begun a new tradition on the solid foundation of three generations.

Many blessings to you and yours as you enjoy your family's holiday traditions.


Community Tree Lighting

This week's snow certainly beckons the Christmas season. Following so closely after our community tree lighting ceremony, I don't think anyone in Forest City can deny the yuletide season is here.

Candles, caroling, Christmas tree, a choir - a community event for children of all ages. Our 21st century version of Norman Rockwell Americana.

Blessings to you and yours as you finish a fascinating 2009. May your coming year be full of promise and a hope that will not disappoint.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Farewell Open House

I believe in marking moments that comprise the fullness of life. Always have.

Today I'm grateful for the way my colleagues - especially my friend Heather - helped me mark my most recent tour of service at Waldorf: friends stopping by to share holiday munchies and well-wishes before sending me on my way with a scrapbook full of gratitude.

I learned I wouldn't be moving forward with the college on August 6. That month moved quickly, thanks to the energy of students arriving back on campus and start-of-the-year activities. Basically, I was too busy to contemplate the personal transformation this professional change would bring.

But a week after Labor Day - after my birthday - my emotions began to jumble, threatening to mess with my identity by deflating my sense of self. That's such a "Joy thing." Fortunately I know what to do. I took charge. I looked at the brightly-colored "Happy Birthday from All of Us" balloon that Heather and Molly had given me a week earlier and decided to give myself the same type of uplifting missive whenever my mood decided.

I began to mark time in balloons – my way of keeping my spirits high while the current of engagement shifted from me to others. And it worked. I bought three additional balloons from the bookstore before the month of November began, or about one every two weeks. Each time a new message balloon joined the bouquet (the message was only fully understood by me), either Karla or Terri would re-inflate the others.

I no longer needed my four-balloon bouquet in November. It's how I knew my emotional separation was nearly complete. I threw away the whole deflated bunch as I left for Thanksgiving, five calendar days before I returned for my last day in the office.

I've hardly looked at my "You'll Be Missed" balloon today, but I have read my Ode to Joy scrapbook more than once and enjoyed putting together the few video clips I took for this vlog. I realized that I stopped taking video at some point so I could simply enjoy the day. That's good. That's healthy. Still, I'm glad I have a bit of yesterday's moments captured in time in case I get caught in an emotionally rainy day.

And, Zach, you get your own vlog. Thanks for enjoying my balloons nearly as much as I have these past few months.

P.S. Not enough time has passed for me to adequately describe what those of us who are Waldorf have been living through - actually continue to be living through. Maybe in time. Until then, I've been given the gift of reflection, something that can only happen with time.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Making Memories

The boys and I had a chance to play in a park this weekend while Mark helped my parents with a volunteer service project for the local historical center.

I think we all had fun ... just in different ways.

Swinging and speeding for me and the boys:

Decking historical halls (actually brick walls?) for Mark, Mom and Dad.

Precious memories made and shared. Now my sons know what a "Freddie stick" is and how their grandpa is a lot like mine.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksmus (Thanksmas?) 2009

While some in the family might dispute the spelling of our hybrid holiday, the Bowden clan has no disagreements about its importance. We've been celebrating Thanksmus (or Thanksmas) for nearly two decades now - maybe more (depending on who you ask and how they count). Gathering grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on the Friday after Thanksgiving is simply what we do now. So if you're a Bowden of the Fred and Delma branch, you mark Thanksmus on your calendar, because you know its gonna happen.

This is the eighth year that we've not had Great-Grandpa alive to celebrate with us and the second year we've not had Great-Grandma; but we continue to have her younger sister, Mildred, and Mildred's son Duane. And we continue to eat a Thanksgiving dinner for lunch, cherish time together in the afternoon (now on a bowling alley rather than during a Santa visit) and exchange Christmas gifts with each another as suppertime approaches.

This year we celebrated as we have in years past: kids exploring the woods out back and the basement below, everyone eating platefuls of Thanksgiving fare for lunch – and again as luscious leftovers, some attempting to make history at the bowling alley while others gleaned historical facts from family photo albums, children receiving packages from the red Santa bag, and adults swapping gifts according to rules that change slightly from one year to the next.

Share the wonder, share the joy, of a Bowden Thanksmus Celebration!




P.S. - Hope you had fun, Miss Meghan, our first family guest.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Haircuts

Just after lunch three Thanksgivings ago, our family packed up Stross' room at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester and traveled to the Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah, Iowa, to spend the rest of the day recuperating from Stross' shunt replacement. His previous shunt had silently begun to fail, and this operation had been necessary to relieve his brain of pressure caused by a build-up of spinal fluid. We'd only discovered the life-threatening problem, because I'd realized he'd not had an MRI in several years and had requested one as part of his fall check-up at the Mayo Clinic.

Sometime I'll attempt to describe the mixture of gratitude, horror and disbelief we felt upon learning the results of his MRI. I'll also try to explain what it felt like to tell him "good night" during the weeks before his surgery, wondering if he'd awaken the next day. As the neurosurgeon had explained it, until Stross had the surgery, we ran the risk of the fluid placing enough pressure on his brain stem to stop his breathing as he slept.

Today, I'm simply remembering his haircut on that Thanksgiving holiday in 2006, for Stross chose that surgery as the reason to get his first Mohawk. His reasoning and ours had been that if they were going shave his head anyway, he might as well do it first, and with style.

Since then Stross has probably had about two or three additional Mohawk cuts - and those for no specific reason, really. Just because.

Yesterday Stross had a reason again, but I'll let him tell you why he's sporting a Mohawk again this Thanksgiving.

This vlog is for you Philip, Lynne and Jack. Philip, we're going to get our Christmas tree soon. We will always hold fond memories of having you join us on those outings when you were a student at Waldorf in the late 90s. It would be great to take your whole family with us this time. And, hey, there isn't any snow on the ground yet; so we could even let you drive without fear of you landing in the ditch. Please send your parents our greetings. All the way to Russia, with love.

P.S. - After we checked into the historic Hotel Winneshiek that year - beautifully decorated for the holiday season - we let Stross take a painfully-late-dose-of-Tylenol nap before picking up a Mabe's Pizza. Our family enjoyed one of the most delectable Thanksgiving's Day suppers we've ever had.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Hero

I'm continuing to clean "out" my office in preparation for my last "in" day (Monday). Today I found a small paper tacked to my bulletin board with a scribbled sentence fragment. It's the answer to a question posed by some students who were working on an assignment that involved (what else?) collecting answers.

Their question: What is a hero?

My answer: Someone others look to in admiration for a behavior they hope to emulate.

I remember the words had rolled out of my mouth that day, and I was so impressed by my answer (such a Joy thing, *sigh*) that I wrote it down to think about later.

Here's what I think today: I have a lot of heroes in my life – a lot of people I hope to emulate in the midst of experiences yet unknown or as I tackle the often strange occurrences of daily life.

Stross continues to be one of my heroes - someone that I'd like to emulate in so many ways when I grow up. I don't think my youngest son is offended I feel that way, for I think he's beginning to understand the dynamics of that fascinating paradox as well. And, Skye, you are one of my heroes, too, such an open and generous heart.

Thank you, my heroes ... my friends ... my sons.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Peeking at the Past

Trudie, a friend from my college days, posted a comment in response to a recent blog that sounded as if she could see one of the photos hanging on Mark's office wall all the way from her home on our nation's east coast. The photo is a personal favorite: a black and white, 11x 14 of me singing "New York, New York," while dressed in an 80s-era white jumpsuit."

A friend named Patrick Simmons took the photo; and I remember feeling grateful that he'd captured the moment, for I had not wanted the song to end. If I could, I'd have hung that note – that night – in the air forever. Because of Pat's photo, it sorta has.

But, that was 1985, and since then, the photo has only existed on Mark's wall and the pages of a Wartburg College Fortress yearbook. Trudie's e-comment this week prompted me to go to Mark's office, take the framed print down and scan it into my computer so the image can exist in the digital realm, maybe forever. Right?

But a funny thing happened on my way to the scanner. I found a paper hanging from the same nail as the framed photo, hidden behind it apparently since 2004 – according to the date on the paper. It was a print out of a memory I'd posted on a message board known as Millaweb, a forum for Waldorf alumni and friends who are all somehow connected to Brian Miller, class of 1998. My memory - a contribution to a thread topic on romantic memories - described the first Valentine's Day Mark and I shared in 1985, two days before our first kiss.

That five-year-old paper is evidence that Mark also tries to capture memories, and interestingly, he's now given me a new romantic memory to treasure: finding his hidden archive.

Our differences are striking. Mark constantly cautions me to live in the moment because life is perishable, while I constantly collect moments to relive so they won't have fully perished. He secretly archives memories, while I post them for the world.

I hope our differences deepen our alliance, keeping us fascinated about the history we've shared while anticipating a future we are creating moment by memorable moment. I guess I'll find out when Mark discovers that I've now posted his hidden memory for the whole world to see.

I simply can't help myself.

While I had not forgotten our first Valentine's Day, I had forgotten that I'd once shared the story with others. Thanks to Mark, I again have the story for safe keeping as I told it in 2004, because Millaweb – once a lively forum for Brian's college cohorts and colleagues – has become his personal place of preservation, a home for photos and stories of his young family's perishable moments. As it should be. (And, come on, alliteration is fun, yes?)

Therefore, I must post my memory of our first Valentine's Day again – this time in a digital realm that might outlast the paper that's still hanging behind the photo on Mark's office wall – because we need to peek at the past every once in a while, don't we. We need to cherish moments as we live them, for life is perishable - each minute as fleeting as the next.

So capture your cherished moments. Suspend them in time anyway you know how, for one day you'll appreciate the capacity they have to propel you into the future, bolstered by the formidable fuel that is your invincible past.


My First Valentine’s Love

Once, when I was a junior in college, I was on my dorm floor making fun of all the girls who were being visited by the floral delivery guy. When the guy ventured onto our floor again (for like the fifth time) a couple other girls and I started taunting him: “You’re back? So who’s it for this time? Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Well, he said: “These are for someone named Joy.”

Man, did those girls turn on me! I had no idea that this very cute guy I worked with as a singing waiter was planning to send me a dozen roses! I’m certain I blushed; I know I was very embarrassed. Best of all, the card read: “Friends are Friends Forever.” (See … I’d been telling the girls that we were “just friends.”)

Needless to say I started to pay even closer attention to this man with an incredible smile who’d spent dozens of evenings lingering while saying goodnight, but never once attempting a goodnight kiss. Insanely enough, he’d managed to have me fall in love with his voice, then become increasingly intrigued by all other aspects of him simply by driving me home, hanging out to eat boatloads of chocolate (hot chocolate with chocolate truffle mousse topped with Hershey’s kisses was a favorite), and arguing about whether or not women should be ministers.

Yes, those girls were at our wedding and still hold a very special place in my heart. They are probably the last ones to see me as a young woman whose life was fully her own and the first ones to see what it meant for me to become blissfully attached to someone forever.

*leaving to go find Mark*

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Process of Remembrance

Sometimes I feel like I should apologize for my overt emotional transparency, for I know many people are not comfortable around those who regularly put emotionally tainted thoughts on display. However, if you have visited my blog before, you know that I flash both emotions and thoughts at will – a characteristic, I believe, that might be dictated by my DNA.

So if this is your first time to my blog: beware. I'm pretty hung up on me. To be even more clear: This blog is all about me, all the time.

That shouldn't be a surprise, for that's what a blog is – a web log that provides a running commentary on a topic or serves as an online diary. My blog is mostly the latter flavored with a bit of the former, and I regard this blog as an extension of Involuntary Joy, the memoir I wrote about my first five years as a mom. How I share what's on my mind matches the book's tone, and I believe the copy on the book's cover describes it best:

Involuntary Joy relates the fullness of her story, with blemishes exposed and vulnerabilities offered for full examination.

So, again: beware. You're gonna get the full story of what's happening in my life, with blemishes exposed and vulnerabilities offered to you for full examination. I simply don't know another way to do it.

My blog's purpose – declared in full view as the subhead – is to answer a perpetual question: "Who am I now?" I believe this question has a universal answer that remains constant – a child of God – as well as an answer that varies with each person who is asking. It's the Part 2 of the question that intrigues me most, for it deepens Part 1: "I am a child of God who …"

Who what?

Thinks this {fill in the blank}.
Is afraid of this {fill in the blank}.
Is reluctant to admit this {fill in the blank}.
Wishes she could stop doing this {fill in the blank}.
Is deeply grateful for this {fill in the blank}.

You get the idea.

For me, coming up with answers for the blanks requires a type of self-examination that's aided by memory. I gain insight about where I'm going based on introspection about where I've been. Sometimes my process for remembrance is intentional, like paging through photo albums and yearbooks or reading through files filled with letters, documents and old journal entries. I find affirmation in this jumbled chronicle of my life's milestone moments – reassurance that who I am has been sufficient and who I can be holds great promise.

Other times remembrance simply happens, triggered by memories that bubble into present day events. This type of bubbling happened this weekend as I helped apply stage makeup to cast members in a high school production of "Oklahoma." Stage makeup colors many of my high school memories, connecting me to the leading lady I used to be. I was a young woman who earned a musical theatre scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa but decided not to use it. This earlier version of me was a dramatic, real-life ingenue who realized that pursuing life as an actress would forever change her – likely becoming more dramatic and less like an ingenue.

This weekend, when I saw the high school actors, I remembered me and felt gratitude for the wonder of my life's journey.

Had I become an actress, I don't think I'd have become a mother; for as I shared in the epilogue of Involuntary Joy, I had decided not to have children at the time I was entertaining college scholarships. Perhaps, I'd have eventually felt a maternal pull as part of a storybook storyline with a real-life equivalent of a leading man. Or maybe I'd have been drawn to the motherhood experience out of a desire to really know what being a mother felt like, not just acting such a part.

I'll never know.

On Saturday, as I remembered the me of then, I was thankful for the me of now – a mom watching her son stretch his moral imagination by becoming a cowboy. And not just any cowboy – a toe tapping, tap dancing, lasso roping, singing one. While I've never performed the role of a cowboy, I saw myself in my son, loving every minute of what it took to bring his role to life in front of an adoring audience. Regardless of where his life's journey carries him, I believe that one day he, too, will remember those moments and wonder how they might help answer the question: "Who am I now?"

Remembrance is a powerful practice, isn't it? Holy days of remembrance connect the people of Israel to the God of their fathers. Muslims recount Allah's faithfulness as a way of experiencing the same. Like the disciples of these and other faith expressions, I've found that remembering who I used to be and where I've been establishes a divine connection that sustains my hope for all that is to come.

We are all children of God – every one of us. Children of God who ... well, you fill in the blank.

For the record: My favorite role was Reno Sweeney, a character definitely not of the ingenue mold. Interestingly, she's probably the one I related to best, as well – except for her former prostitute and friend-to-gangsters status. I love Reno's complexity and her brazen, let's-put-everything-on-the-table-friend attitude.


Friday, November 6, 2009

A Whole Lotta Life

A whole lotta life happened this week.

It seems that – contrary to my life plans – I can't avoid a mid-life crisis.

Stay tuned ...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"This is It" - Our Review

Michael Jackson means something very different to my teenage son than he does to me. While I sat in the theatre taking in "This is It" -- nodding my head and tapping my feet to the beat of my youth -- he sat beside me fascinated by thoughts of how one person can be known both for unsavory indiscretions (allegedly) and unparalleled genius (undeniably). I guess I pondered the paradox also, but most of the time I simply drank in the wonder of someone so thoroughly in command of his capacity to communicate through music.

It's practically cliche' to describe Michael Jackson as a genius. But, really, what other single word can be used? He's clearly the master of his craft - a magician who mixes music, movement and moving images as a way to fashion memories capable of lasting a lifetime. And now this movie encapsulates the work of his life: This truly is it.

Both times that I watched this cinematic tribute, I sat silently and a bit misty-eyed through the end credits like most of the other theatre-goers, attempting to reconcile what it meant that this really was it. The first time I sat next to my husband, remembering what it felt like to dance with him to the songs playing again for us as lively as in our courtship. The second time I sat next to my youngest son, enjoying a rare - and fleeting - night out together. One day he will accompany females that aren't me to must-see movies, but tonight the privilege was mine.

Then, as we warped back to present time during the car ride home, he helped me remember that it truly is times like these that help us learn to live and love again. I am blessed.

Enjoy ...


Monday, October 26, 2009

Regarding Car Conversations

Car conversations. I'd been thinking about this topic for about a day when my friend Tammy Mortenson Sharp called just to touch base. Everytime we talk (and we really should find the time to do it more), we share memories, thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of topics. The conversations alway include updates on our children, bathed in an awareness that we have both become acquainted with rare brands of grief: hers for a child lost too early to cancer; mine for dreams that fall outside the reality of what my life is now.

Last night Tammy shared a conversation that she and her husband had with their daughter Kelly one day while riding in the car. They were coming home from the doctor's appointment where they had learned that Kelly's cancer had returned. Tammy said Kelly intuitively knew she'd not survive her cancer, and the conversation quickly turned to all the things she'd never get to experience: a real boyfriend, marriage, children, sex.

I shared what I'd been thinking about car conversations with Tammy, knowing that she'd connect with the layers of emotion present in those sacred car rides - the kind that carry you from oblivious to knowing.

You travel to medical tests and then return to face the new reality the tests revealed. Or, you ride in silence, wrestling with loud, private thoughts that won't let you revisit old ways. Or, you sit passively, welcoming God's active involvement in life - if only.

I offer this to you - to all who've known the complexity of car conversation with divine implications. Here I briefly reflect on a few car conversation memories of my own with a promise to share those still too raw to describe.

Warning: Sorry about the audio on this one. I wasn't aware of how much the car windshield would magnify the sound. Be ready to adjust your volume.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Different Lives - A Life of Hope

Remember sixth grade? How we became aware of our differences – internal and external – but were not attuned enough to understand how those differences would shape us into grown ups?

I remember that preteen phenomenon in tonight's vlog, courtesy of a school vocal concert, while also remembering a six-year-old named Claire who's life has become different overnight. Claire contracted H1N1 in the first days of October and has been struggling to breathe on her own ever since. This weekend her recovery became even more complicated. I tell you about that tonight, too, and invite you to join me in sending large doses of hope to her, her sister, her mom, her dad, and all those who love her. While I have never had the pleasure of meeting this family personally, I empathize with the new realities that now shape their lives individually and collectively.

I'm finding a tie that binds in the words of a song by Z. Randall Stroope called "Inscription of Hope." The lyrics were written on the cellar wall of a German home by someone of the Jewish faith during the Holocaust.

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,

And I believe in love even when there’s no one there.

And I believe in God even when He is silent,

I believe through any trial there is always a way.

But sometimes in this suff’ring and hopeless despair,

My heart cries for shelter, to know someone’s there.

But a voice rises within me saying hold on my child,

I’ll give you strength, I’ll give you hope,

Just stay a little while.

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,

And I believe in love even when there’s no one there.

But I believe in God even when He is silent,

I believe through any trial there is always a way.

May there someday be sunshine,

May there someday be happiness,

May there someday be love,

May there someday be peace.

So here's to the curiosity that is sixth grade, the wonder that is a sixth-year-old and the majestic force that is life itself–even in the face of formidable circumstances.

Different lives - vastly different than could be imagined. Still, hope does not disappoint.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Traditions! Apples, Cheese, Pumpkins ... and Shoes

It's a family tradition from my youth: a one-day trip to Wisconsin to glory in the wonder of autumn leaves, the trauma and triumph of previous months on display in the pigments of each year's changing hillsides. Every year different. Every year amazing.

Before we head up to the cheese factory (Mt. Sterling) and apple orchards (Gays Mills), we stop for clothing staples (Prairie du Chien). A highlight this year (for me) was wonderful, quality, leather shoes at a store that still provides personal customer service: Panka Shoes. The owner, who measures your foot and then assists in putting the shoes on your feet, always keeps a room full of shoe racks with a permanent buy one pair, get another pair free sale.

Some years I only get two pair of shoes. This year? Well ...

But here's why we really go. I hope you enjoy joining us on a bit of our day's journey.

The family fun continues into future generations.

Wonderful Wisconsin! Thanks for a great Saturday.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Until Further Notice - Band of Brothers & a Chic

For a full decade, Mark and I have belonged to a band that – in 2002 when we signed a group covenant – agreed to remain together "until further notice." Evidently none of us have served noticed, for even though we've only played one concert together in the past three years, we gathered as a band again last night.

It wasn't to make music. Not last night. Last night was simply about reconnecting and sharing life. Greg, our lead guitarist, was back in town; and for nearly three hours, we broke bread together (o.k., it was actually Chinese, so maybe we broke rice?), and we remembered what it felt like to be a band.

It felt good.

We relived our reunion concert this summer and filled Greg in on the experience. Because he'd missed the performance, it had not been a full reunion, but we told him how we could hear his guitar licks playing in our heads and even hummed one of his guitar solos so the song would be as good as possible despite his absence.

Mostly we laughed, teased, cajoled, and confabulated (love that word!).

We shared life ... just like we used to every Tuesday night from 7 to 9.

I know you won't be able to feel how we can fill musical spaces for each other – switching melodies for harmonies and instinctively following shifts in rhythms and tempo without need for forethought. But I hope you at least get a sense of the love and respect we feel for each other despite how vastly different we are. (And we are all really different!)

For six years we rehearsed weekly and performed once or twice during each of those weeks. In the past three years, we've only rehearsed four times and performed once. But we're still a band. A really good one. And even though none of us said it aloud last night, I'm confident that each one of us knows that we'll continue to be a band: Until Further Notice.

Until Further Notice:

Greg Owen, lead guitar
Jeff Gremmer, acoustic guitar
Roger Lyons, drums
Dave Melby, bass and vocals
Mark Newcom, vocals
Joy Newcom, vocals

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October Snow!

So, what's up with this?

On October 11, I wrote of my affection for autumn.

Then on October 12, we got a crazy early snow.

And it really was a beautiful snow.

And it really didn't last very long.

And now it's snowing again – on October 13.

So, really, what's up with this?

Poor pink petunias.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Reasons I Love Autumn

  1. My birthday. While not officially part of autumn, it's always near Labor Day – the unofficial start of fall.
  2. Schools start too and learning becomes en vogue again.
  3. Better apples in the grocery stores.
  4. Warm apple pie – another reason to love cinnamon. (And baking pies from scratch just happens to be something I'm good at.)
  5. Vegetation challenges sunsets with a new palate: red, yellow, gold, deep orange, tan, brown and – my favorite color for fall – burnt umber.
  6. Combines at night transform the landscape like gargantuan, nocturnal ants, as farmers keep one eye on the sky and one ear on the Weather Channel. This is a farmer's time to shine. Always makes me proud somehow.
  7. The sound of leaves crunching under my shoes – because that crunching sound when I'm walking is o.k.
  8. Hot chocolate – one of my favorite flavors in liquid form.
  9. Soups! In autumn, they not only taste good, they help me feel good too.
  10. Fireplaces. Ours comes to life, giving our Great Room new life as well.
  11. Sweaters – everyone wears them; some wear them extremely well. I aspire to the latter category.
  12. Colder days that get colder. The stark reality gives me permission to be inside without guilt.
  13. Shorter days – my reminder to get busy living life.
  14. The quiet of a dormant season heightens anticipation for seasons with longer days.

I bet there are more than 14 reasons I love autumn. What's one of yours?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

If Life's About Winning, We're All Losers–My Corner of the Sky

"If life is about winning and being right, we're all losers." I hold that truth to be self-evident. I'm not as sure that another statement in this vlog is as easy to label as truth: "If life is about fitting in, we're all out of luck."

Not fitting in isn't really all that troublesome, is it? World events are shaped by fascinating people who are easily distinguished from their peers. They stand out because they are different from the rest–in a good way. And don't we all admire entertainers? Entertainers are driven by a desire to be seen as special somehow. Something deep inside them cries out for others to recognize that they don't fit in–but in a good way.

But for us everyday Joes and Joys, the concept of fitting in simply feels more complex, doesn't it? Our misfit times seem to coax us to travel a little farther down the road, as if our emotional wanderlust can help us determine if we are in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time.

Is that what's happening for me?

For me. Ah, yes ... for me.

What does any of this mean for me?

I feel a strong sense of vocational calling connected to this endeavor. I'm driven by a desire to share feelings that I believe are universal but, too often, are left unspoken. While it's not my vocation–not my job–to vlog, it is something I'm able to do that may meet a unique need. At least when I get feedback from readers/viewers, it feels like I've met a need somehow.

You'll note I'm a bit raw today - not fragile, but quietly pensive. Of course, I'm vlogging my feelings, so I'm aware on some level that's not such a quiet way to live. Yet I feel quiet despite what you see. You may also notice that when I'm trying to keep my voice from showing too much emotion (a.k.a., attempting to hide the fact that I might begin to cry at any moment), I start using a bit of an accent. Not sure what kind of an accent it is, but it seems to help keep my voice from wavering. It's an involuntary reaction - this accent. Something I've not noticed until this vlog ... but I recognized it when I saw it.

So here's to you - to all you winners out there who are looking for your place to fit in. We'll find it. I know we will ... and when life changes, we'll simply find it again.

With love to all you Carver's Singers alumni. I'm so blessed to still be standing by the tenor who always seemed to find his way to my side when the song required a partner.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Video to Post - Someday

Well, I couldn't help myself. I recorded a vlog in my office–something I've been thinking about ever since the experience that inspired this vlog first happened. So, when the clock struck 5–actually when my Mac showed 5:00 PM–I hit record and began vlogging.

It's a reenactment in the truest sense. A reliving of an epiphany that happened a few weeks ago. This awakening, of sorts, elicited a feeling I want to always remember. And, thankfully, I was almost able to fully recreate the experience. Of course, I couldn't capture the original euphoria of my epiphany, but I did relive the sense of peace it brought. And, I'm hanging on to that sense of peace right now and the promise that "maybe, someday, we'll figure all this out and be better off somehow."

Sorry, I can't bring myself to post it just yet. But I promise I will.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Stross' Review of Dan Meyer the Sword Swallower

Tonight Stross, Mark and I attended a type of event that you really have to see to fully appreciate: a man who can swallow swords. For real.

The sword swallower is Dan Meyer, a 1977 graduate of Waldorf College who received a distinguished alumni award this weekend. His unique ability has taken him around the world and found him performing for the Food Network, Ripley's Believe It or Not, and America's Got Talent.

For Dan Meyer, sword swallowing serves as a tangible faith metaphor. He puts his life on the line every time he does it, and his motivation is to prove that what he's doing is real. What began as a fascination for him–courtesy of sword swallowers in India–has become his vocational call.

As Dan realized, his greatest impact on a person comes only after that individual is convinced he's real. And as I've realized, it doesn't matter what faith you profess: Your ability to impact someone's life must come from authenticity. I very much respect that. God is God in any language. Authenticity is valued universally.

Stross didn't want to go at first, but we convinced him this is the kind of thing you don't usually get to see in person. According to Dan, in 1988 there were less than one dozen practicing sword swallowers in the world! I certainly can understand why the number is so small.

Stross and I try to share what we saw, but it's probably something you need to see for yourself to fully appreciate:

And, please take Stross' closing words of advice to heart!

Keep it real, people. Keep it real.

Ongoing Rebirth: When Alumni Were Young

Homecoming 2009

My afternoon conversation with Tali Salberg Paulson (class of 2000) was a bright spot during this rainy, cold afternoon. While she was waiting for her classmates to return (after they had ditched her ... just kidding Ben and Joy E.), Tali and I nestled in for a vlog about the internship she had at Access Hollywood during her junior year at Waldorf College.

At first Tali worried she'd have nothing to say, but I don't think that's ever really been a problem for either of us. Also, she made me promise to let you know that she's vlogging under the influence of cold medicine. (I'm not sure why that matters. She's a very coherent and intelligent woman in any circumstance.)

Hope you enjoy hearing Tali's stories about spending a portion of her first day as an intern with Rosie O'Donnell, assisting at the premiere of Erin Brockovich and discovering that her dream job wasn't really what she'd dreamed of after all.

We're all in a constant state of discovery and rebirth, aren't we?

P.S. - Congrats on Baby #2, Tali and Chad...may he or she be as wonderfully life-changing as the amazing Beckett.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Saints and Poets–Maybe They Do Some

A quick vlog before heading to bed tonight to capture a few of my thoughts after seeing a production of "Our Town." You'll have to suffer through my recollection of portraying Mrs. Gibbs in eleventh grade - but I'm not gonna apologize. They are wonderful memories (and I spared you most of them!).

Mark and I squeezed hands often tonight, taking in the magnitude of this piece as filtered through our middle-aged minds. At each intermission, Skye wanted to know where the conflict of the story was. By the end I think he understood that the conflict existed in the lives of the characters themselves as they dealt with the realities of their extraordinarily ordinary daily existence.

By the way, I knew I had the wrong native people living in Mesa Verde. I remembered the name began with an "A," and it's the Anasazi who were cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde not the Aztecs. The Aztecs lived in what's now central Mexico, and according to the internet search I just did, they lived in huts or shacks made of clay. So ... now we all can impress our friends.

Here's to all of us: saints and poets, every one. And here's to you, Thornton Wilder. Thank you for reminding us all of life's extraordinarily simple beauty.

BTW: Because some of you have asked: I got a B+ (88%) on my test. Now, if I hadn't changed around two of my matching, I'd have had the A- I was hoping for. And, if I hadn't over-thought two of the true and false questions, I have had an even more impressive showing. But you know what? I'm sorta glad I didn't get an A. The pressure is off now, somehow. Plus, I experienced my very first "words swimming on the page" as soon as the test was placed in front of me. I now know what students mean when they say they go blank when a test is placed in front of them. Of course, me being me, I was fascinated by the phenomenon, analyzed what was happening and then talked myself through it. I discovered once my pencil got moving, I was fine. But what a strange feeling. I have a class presentation next week. Now THAT I want an A on!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thank you ...

Thank you to those who have been sending kind messages about the vlogs to me via Facebook or my joy@involuntaryjoy email. The stories or thoughts you've been sharing affirm our connected humanity. I'm honored to be sharing the richness of life with you.

May you have many beautiful moments today.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Change of Seasons, A Change in Life with Stross

I couldn't resist vlogging outside on Saturday, and I thought I had some free moments to do just that while Stross was inside doing what we call his "cares." At least six times each day (every four hours), he or, if it's in the middle of the night, we perform his intermittent catherization and attend to his ostomy. He's become fairly independent with this task, and Mark and I have decided to use the four years after high school that many parents think of as "the college years" to help Stross become as independent as possible during his version of college life.

Stross is taking colleges classes each day - either English 100 or Successful Study Strategies - and getting involved in some campus activities. Yet the rest of his day is spent practicing life skills as independently as possible. Things like meal preparation, a bit of cleaning or organizing and his cares.

On Saturday, Stross and I took time to get his bathroom even more organized. Now all the medical supplies he might need are on storage shelves within reach of his wheelchair so he has ready access regardless if Mark or I remember to restock the drawers he can reach from his dressing table.

As you'll see in this vlog, accommodating independence and realizing it are different things. We can get everything within reach and something still can go wrong. And we knew that. That's why we installed a phone by his dressing table and why we encourage him to always have his cell phone charged and ready. Each one of us - Mark, Skye, me - live life on the alert for Stross, which means we all keep our cell phones handy - except for Saturday, when I went to the tree house to vlog on a gorgeous fall afternoon and forgot to take mine with me. Ugh!

On the scale of emergencies, this wasn't a biggie at all. But it did serve as a reminder that our oldest son - a young adult in life years - will always need support within reach.

P.S. - I did remember to give you a tour of the tree house, but it would have made you seasick. I'll do it again sometime. Besides, I need to involve our number one tour guide, Stross.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ryan Daniel & Stepping on Mark's Ponytail

A great thing happened this morning: Ryan Daniel (class of 2000) walked into my office and lifted the fog of my sleepless night.

Part of what's carrying me forward right now is the conversation we had after this vlog while sitting on the interior entry steps of Thorson Hall - particularly the words he shared about what his time at Waldorf College has meant to him and how Mark and my contributions helped shape him. Bless you, Ryan, for your generosity of spirit. You didn't have to share those feelings but you did – and they were quite well-timed.

Perhaps someday I'll share the phrase he used that rang like a tuning fork. But I want to wait for the next notes of this mysterious life symphony to play first. I think I might know the melody that's playing right now – or I maybe I'll discover I'm learning a new tune.

It's probably safe to assume the tune isn't Caribbean hipster rap, as you'll see in this vlog. While I have the ability to talk too fast sometimes, I cannot match the quick-paced, rhythmic and smooth vocal stylings of Mr. Ryan Daniel. I absolutely love the lines he says (raps?) toward the end of our conversation about being who you are. It's preciously that concept that I've been passionately upholding as life provides opportunities.

Notice how I mess up on accepting a compliment. And, please ... the comment about Mark's ponytail - it truly IS about his ponytail people. Really, really.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stress, Psychosomatic Illness & Banana Bread

I've mentally outlined a written blog (maybe a book chapter) about my experiences recognizing how my body communicates stress. When I say "communicate," I don't mean externally, for I think it's terribly noticeable to those I interact with daily, making my external awareness - "Joy is stressed, people!" - easy to determine. The kind of communication I'm referring to occurs internally - between my physical body and the cognizant part of me that's most responsible for shaping my identity.

So tonight I've vlogged (is that a term?) thoughts I have mulled today related to a conversation with a student in my office. Talking about that and the banana bread I'm baking reminded me of my first nearly immobilizing anxiety attacks. They manifested about ten years ago in my kitchen, and I had to discover why that was. Until I identified what my kitchen had to do with my physical pain, I couldn't quiet what I'd been denying in my mind. That's what I hope to write more about someday.

Sorry about saying the words "so" and "anyway" a lot in this vlog. I'll get better. I promise. And check out my wording: "part of my plan." Ah, will I ever learn?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

To Video Blog or Not to Video Blog

Ta-da! I did it. I taught myself something new.

Had I decided to write rather than record a blog today, I'd have told you something only my hairdresser really knows (and it has nothing to do with hair color - but you know that from a previous blog). Or I may have written about spraying the dog doo off Stross' wheelchair tires and then riding his chair back into our house–things not many moms or dads have had the privilege of experiencing.

But I recorded my first video blog instead. Ahhhh! Accomplishment! (And likely better than my description of the dog doo incident.)

I am Joy, hear me roar! BTW: The word I almost used but stopped myself from using was "hyperbole." I didn't want to sound highfalutin. (Yes, "highfalutin" is really a word, and that's really how it's spelled. I looked it up just to be sure.)

Please, let me know what you think. Have a beautiful day!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Living Life Out Loud

Two nights ago I wasn't really able to fall asleep. Neither could Mark. That's not really a biggie, as one of us needs to stay awake to do Stross' midnight cares. Ninety-seven percent of the time that's Mark, because I simply cannot keep my eyes open much past 10:45 p.m. Also, we both recognized early in our relationship that I'm a downright, um ... witch, if I don't get enough uninterrupted sleep. So on nights when Mark is sick or out of town, I do my best to stay awake for Stross' midnight cares before allowing myself to fall into a long stretch of recuperative rest.

Well, two nights ago I was awake with Mark as he prepared for Stross' cares at 12:40 a.m. When he headed to the boys' bathroom, I headed upstairs only to lie awake minutes later–eyes wide open–wondering if I was suffering from insomnia or a loneliness only Mark could remove.

It was neither. It was restless anxiety - likely the reason I was able to stay awake as long as I had. My mind wasn't ready to turn off a day that I'd spent reliving events in weeks past.

I'm probably not the only person who believes that anxiety is a far worse reason to lie awake than insomnia. With insomnia, you want to sleep but simply can't. And if your insomnia's not gone by the next night or so, a doctor can prescribe medication to help. I've never needed such an aid, but I've felt glad knowing it's a possibility.

With restless anxiety, however, you don't really want to sleep because some part of you feels that solving your life's problems is far more important. Yet as you lie in the dark mulling over things you're unable to address until morning, you realize you must add sleep deprivation to your list of ails; and, without a good night's sleep, you can't begin to work on the solutions you've begun to map out anyway.

Anxiety - even a mild version - is viciously circular.

That night I absolutely did not want to add sleep deprivation to my list, and I certainly did not want my thoughts to circle back to any topic I'd already spent time on during the day. So, since Mark wasn't back from helping Stross yet, I turned on our radio, hoping an audio distraction could drown out my anxious thoughts. Something far better happened: I got a message, delivered in my spiritual language of music. It came through the words of Rob Thomas' "Someday," letting me know that Mark and I were somehow sharing the same mixed up, mid-life muddle. It also let me know that we'd be fine, despite the ugly experiences of this bizarre year, because we were staying true to our vow to live through our messes together.

The music offered a promise that - even after 23 years of marriage - we could still feel the freshness of a shared beginning; and that, maybe - someday - we'd even be able to figure out what we'd survived together. Best of all, the message said we'd be better off and, here's the best part: living our lives out loud.

I love that! Living life out loud. That resonates deep within me. I've always tried to let my life speak in a way that communicates clearly to others. What better way than to live out loud? I know exactly what that means, even if I can't express it any differently than that beautiful arrangement of words. And I love that too! Getting a perfectly worded message is how I know my life - just like every child of God's - is connected to something divine. The God of the Universe found a way to speak to me, delivering words I needed to hear, right when I needed to hear them. Thank you, God. (And thank you, Rob Thomas.)

The song had just begun when I turned the radio on, and it ended as Mark entered our bedroom. I reached over to turn off the radio as the last notes played, not wanting other sounds to pollute the delightful feeling that hung in the air. I didn't want to ruin the moment by telling Mark either - not then. He needed his sleep just as I needed mine. And I was ready to sleep - a restorative, restful night of sleep that would allow me to begin a new day.

Sleep. A way to start all over again every 24 hours, bringing new ways to live out loud and to live them together with Mark. What a wonderful message. What a peaceful thought. Good news from a good God. A good night.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Know the plans

In the face of disappointment, some either offer comfort or find comfort in the statement: “God has a plan for you.”

I wonder: Why?

Please note this is a big ‘why.’ A ‘why’ so big that it’s chock-full of other ‘whys’:

• Why would God divinely alter what I assume has been a previously endorsed plan? (Or, if a plan is being altered, does that mean a person has actually been on the wrong plan?)
• Why would God alter a plan without prior notice? (Is God really that spontaneous?)
• Why, if there is some form of prior notice, is it so easily missed? (Certainly God can grab a person’s attention in good and clear ways.)
• Why would God use disappointment as a way to move a child created in God's image toward a new plan? (Doesn’t that make God bad even if the plan is supposedly better?)
• Why can’t God just go with the plan currently in place and simply improve it if necessary? (After all, God IS God.)
• Why does someone else seem to know God’s plan for another person’s life while the one God’s working on seems rather oblivious? (Again, can’t God get someone’s attention whenever and wherever God wants?)

If I had to focus on only one of the whys, it would be this one: Why do we need assurance that God has a specific plan for our lives anyway?

When Mark and I married in May 1986, we chose Jeremiah 29:11 as the central verse for our marriage ceremony. It’s probably the most popular “plan” verse of the Bible: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (NIV)

Idealistic, young lovers with a lifetime of only good things in store, we vowed to share who we were with each other, facing any circumstance life threw our way. We clung to this promise, confident nothing could sidetrack the wonderful plan God had for us individually or as a couple. Believing in a providential plan provided reassurance that we could prevail regardless of what might come.

Then, five years into our marriage “what might” did come. And you know what? We were right about not being sidetracked or overtaken; we continued to prosper, although probably not in the way we understood the hope of prosperity then.

Truthfully, I can’t attest to what we understood then. Who were we in our 20s anyway? We certainly lacked the capacity to look into our future as we know it today. And if we could have seen or even gotten a glimpse of our future, it may have altered how we followed “the plan.” For whoever we were then, we had a much smaller concept of God. We believed there was only one correct plan, and if we missed our opportunity to stay on course, well, we didn’t want to find out what could go wrong.

God was in charge. We just needed to follow.

But you know what? In the process of trying not to misstep, we discovered a prosperity promise even more provocative regarding God’s capacity for hope and a future: The God of the universe is so expansive, it’s impossible to get lost. No matter which direction we step, God is already there. What a relief! That kind of providence is providential, indeed.

Moreover, God’s love is expansive, too, encompassing every child created in God’s image. This all-encompassing love renders God incapable of inflicting pain on those created to reflect the very image of God. This expansive, providential love is personified grace, or God in action.

After 25 years together (one courting, one engaged and 23 married), Mark and I now allow God to surprise us with displays of expansive grace – grace so huge we are able to see God in the midst of some pretty dire circumstances. It’s a grace that begs this question: “Why shy away from prosperity that can intangibly sustain even during times of want?”

Not capable of comprehending the anxiety and hopelessness of exile, we might find it easy to ignore the powerful context of Jeremiah’s words. He was writing to people banished to Babylon, encouraging them to settle down. “Go ahead and do things that might give you roots,” he told them, “Even if you are in a land that’s foreign to you, I’m right here.”

It’s truly a grow-where-you’re-planted message. So why not get comfortable with a more contemporary interpretation of this popular text: “Wherever you go, there you are. And, guess what? God is there too.”

Really. Go ahead. Enjoy life as it happens and wherever it might lead you, for God “knows the plans” not just “the plan.” God is one step ahead of you no matter the direction you’re headed.

Do you have a better plan?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Grace Matters: When You Did Not Expect Joy

A friend's dream of owning a gift and floral shop dies after two years; the bankruptcy thrusts her family into a personal financial crisis as well.

A company that thrives on customers' abilities to spend hefty amounts of disposable income begins the tough business of staying afloat by laying off hundreds - eventually thousands - of employees.

A college that existed for more than a century through the grace of supporters and grit of tenacious faculty, staff and administrators boldly decides to sell its assets in an act of faith some regard as faithless.

Individuals across this country (indeed, the world) continue to experience tough - even dire - times because they do not have sufficient means to continue living as they've been accustomed.

I found this audio file tonight and was reminded that this radio ministry, too, has become a casualty of the economy. Rev. Peter Marty did such a beautiful job with this unique ministry. I know many are missing the blessing of his weekly broadcasts.

I couldn't resist listening again to the opportunity he offered me to join him in a broadcast more than a year ago. The interview - his questions, my musings, his wonderful way of tying it all together - made me smile.

Yes, there still is involuntary joy in the midst of it all. May you experience joy as you have need!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What You See, What You Get

As printed in
BE Magazine / Spring 2009 issue

My first strands of gray hair made themselves known during Mrs. Singer’s 8th Grade English class. Actually, Mark Bostrom, the young man who would—in my freshman year—become my first official date, leaned forward to softly herald their arrival from the desk immediately behind mine: “You have gray hair. Did you know that?”

“Where?” I inquired, for I had not known it.

“Back here,” he said, reaching up to move a section of hair near the nape of my neck.

I pretended to listen to Mrs. Singer and tried not to flinch when Mark—without warning—pulled out a strand. He handed it over my shoulder to affirm his discovery, and I looked with fascination at the evidence. Before I could formulate a response, he said: “Do you want me to pull them out? There are probably eight. Maybe more.”


I cocked my head just enough to let him know I had heard his offer, but not enough to attract Mrs. Singer’s attention. Eight of them? He had counted? The thought fascinated me, but his offer to pull them out fascinated me even more. Obviously Mark believed that women weren’t supposed to have gray hair—that we were to rid ourselves of its existence by removal or, possibly, concealment.

Too young to have peers facing similar propositions, the moment felt momentous: My 13-year-old body was aging prematurely. How was I to respond? What kind of woman I would I be?

I shifted my position enough to lean back and whisper a decisive answer.

“No,” I told him. “Don’t pull them. They’re mine.”

Then I turned, looked him in the eye and flashed a smile. He smiled back.

Thirty years and tens of thousands of gray and white strands later, I have not looked back. I am now in my middle 40s with hair color that defies my age. I’m not as old as some believe me to be, and I’m ok with that. It is what it is.

In 8th Grade, I had no way of knowing that this don’t-assume-you-know-me-by-my-looks testament would help me identify with my oldest son, a young man of nearly 18 years who was born with physical and intellectual disabilities. His life-limiting circumstances have shaped not only his life’s course, but mine. And from the moment I first laid eyes on him, the deepest part of me continues to cry out, “Don’t regard him as less than anyone else. He’s mine.”

I certainly understand Stross is not “mine” in the most possessive sense of the word. I regard his life as mine to protect and guide. I also revere the wonder of who he is and regard him as a treasure to be shared with whomever can accept him for who he is: an incredible young man who lives nearly every moment with palpable joy.

As an infant, the extent of Stross’ disabilities was nearly imperceptible, for others couldn’t see he lacked the nerves necessary to walk, nor could they notice that he soiled ostomy pouches rather than diapers. Most of all, they certainly couldn’t tell that he would grow up only possessing the problem-solving skills of a seven-year-old. It took his father and me more than a decade to discover that ourselves.

Unlike that day in Mrs. Singer’s classroom, no one leaned forward to tap my husband and me on the shoulder then whisper the revelation of Stross’ rare birth condition into our ears. Our knowledge came as suddenly and surprisingly as the moment of his birth. Then, as with the moment of clarity when I accepted my gray hair, I accepted the reality of Stross’ altered existence by answering a question. This time the question was: “What kind of mother am I going to be?”

Since the day of his birth, Stross has helped me define my role by living as a constant source of unadulterated joy; and his joy exists regardless of circumstance. It’s a witness I value more with every passing year, and I continue to aspire to live as he does, taking in each moment as if it was designed for pleasure.

For instance, some legal papers arrived in our mailbox a few weeks ago, outlining the need for him to establish my husband and me as his legal guardians. As the papers clearly indicate, the action is necessary because his “decision-making capacity is so impaired that [he] is unable to care for [his] personal safety or to attend to or provide for necessities [food, clothing, shelter, medical needs] without which physical injury or illness may occur.”

As I read the stark legalese, a renewed sense of grief swept over me, and I choked with emotion. My son was nearly 18. He should be anticipating new relationships with roommates and dorm-mates, not being asked to re-define his relationship with his parents by relinquishing his right to make certain life decisions.

When my husband noticed I had been crying, I held up the papers in explanation and offered a simple statement: “The guardianship paperwork arrived.”

Stross snapped to attention and looked my direction with a face that beamed excitement. He sat taller in his wheelchair and lifted his hands with exclamation: “My lawyer sent me papers? Are those from my lawyer, Mom? Do I need to sign?”

I was momentarily speechless—just long enough to make the emotional trek from my path of self-pity to his land of endless delight.

He cued my response again: “Do I need to come up there and sign my lawyer’s papers, Mom?”

His repeated use of the term “my lawyer” brought an involuntary smile. This was about his life, and he owned it. He deserved a response.

“Well, yes,” I said. “I guess we should just get these signed right now, huh? Why wait?”

“Yeah. Let’s do it,” he said, beginning to wheel up the ramp to our dining room.

Why indeed? Our life as a family is what it is. We have a 17-year-old son who won’t be doing the same things his chronological peers are when his eighteenth birthday arrives. In fact, he’ll likely never keep pace with others his age for most of the things that comprise daily life. And that’s ok. It really is.

Maybe I started to learn that lesson in 8th grade and I have my early strands of gray hair to thank. Maybe realizing that my life might not track like that of my chronological peers has helped me as a mom.

As Stross regularly demonstrates, you just have to claim the life you are given, and then keep moving forward. After all, what you see and what you get don’t have to match. Sometimes what you get is far, far better.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lessons My Son and I Need to Learn

I spoke at a Friends and Family Recognition Dinner at Opportunity Village in Clear Lake, Iowa, today. What a wonderful place with wonderful staff, volunteers and financial supporters.

Mark and I are deeply grateful for the services Stross receives through them. It's clear that those connected to the Village value and respect each person who is benefitting from their services.

Afterward, a man asked if I had the "five things" I mentioned in my speech written within the pages of Involuntary Joy. I don't. He reassured me that he had them written on his napkin and then showed me precisely that.

In case anyone else finds them worth noting -- either on a napkin or something else -- here are the five life lessons I am aware that both Stross and I need to keep working on:

1 - Brief encounters are deceiving: Don't judge anyone by what you see-or even hear. Get to know them and accept them for who they are. They are using the skills and abilities they've developed to this point, just like you are. No one's farther down the path - just on a journey different than yours. You should look for the life lessons they can teach you as you continue on your own life's course.

2 - Focus on your abilities and what you can do, not what you cannot. Abilities are the starting point for possibilities. They just are.

3 - Ask for help when in need. This one works best when you've gotten fairly good at #2. Others can help you accomplish things that may seem overwhelming on your own. It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. On the contrary: It's wisdom at work. Empowerment begins when you facilitate accommodations that can help you overcome things in your path. Don't be satisfied to stay in one place if someone else can help you maneuver a bit farther down the road.

4 - Embrace a way of living and doing that works for you. Your life and how you live it needs to be as unique as you are. This may mean redefining things you used to take for granted: Who comprises family, what measures success, how you regard faith. Something happened that caused your world to feel a bit upside down. It makes sense you'll have gained a new perspective on a lot of things because of that.

5 - Look for joy in the midst of it all - it's there. It really is. Holocaust survivors attest to this truth. Even victims of other horrendous crimes have discovered this truth on their way back from despair. Life is amazing and deeply beautiful. Your life is no exception.

I think everyone has something or someone they can look to as a "joy compass." It's my deep prayer that you find yours. Mine is named Stross. I'll forever be grateful for the lessons he brings my way, even if involuntarily so.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fools' Day

So why is it?
Who thought it wise
To meddle with mortals
Regardless of lies?

A day for fools I'm ok with.
A day for fooling, no thanks.
Does anyone suffer fools gladly?
Do glad fools enjoy what I can't?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I wish...

I wish I could have done a better job explaining what I feel about the topic I attempted to write about below.

How's that for...what's the opposite of "clarity"?

Murky? Muddy? Opaque?

Ah. Life.

Perhaps sometimes living equates a series of days spent attempting to be understood. At least by humans.

My faith assures me life is palpably divine. Therefore, someone -- some One -- understands without me needing to say or write or even think a word.

I like believing that.

A lot.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Hope of Living in Community with Others

dedicated to another Joy living with Grace: Hang in there, keep moving forward

I think one of the most difficult things anyone deals with in life is becoming a parent. Time and again we hear first-time parents sharing comments that reveal they had absolutely no idea what they were getting themselves into. What’s more, they had no idea how dramatically their lives would shift focus. To become a parent means your life is no longer your own.

We flirt with that notion in marriage. Parenthood kisses us squarely in the face with it.

When your child puts you in a “special” category of parenthood, you wrestle with added burdens of what that “specialness” means. So many stereotypes and preconceptions. So many unacknowledged prejudices and oversights--all while friends and loved ones are attempting to soothe your grief and anger with compliments of how admirably you are dealing with your personal tragedy.

And let’s be frank: Having a child with a disability is a personal tragedy. To acknowledge that doesn’t mean we don’t love our child or that we regard our child as tragic. It’s the circumstances wrought by our child’s altered existence that are tragic.

And let’s not forget: In our ancient cultural past, our children’s lives were regarded as God’s abomination for sinful living. In our not so distant cultural past, our children died because society wasn’t equipped to care for them. Today our children live because medicine makes it possible for them to do so, yet our society hasn’t fully figured out what that means for the rest of us. Our society now includes adults living with severe disabilities, and they are living a quality of life not imagined possible just a generation ago. So where does that leave the moms and dads of these children? Our culture hasn’t figured that out yet, and I don’t think its come to terms with God’s perceived role in all of it either.

People living outside the special reality that belongs to parents of children with disabilities simply cannot see what we do. I don’t like positioning it as a “we v. they” perspective, but I once was them and that’s how I know. Each day I (we) live a gut-wrenching truth outside their realm of existence. That’s just what it is. I (we) remember the difference. It’s as real a phenomenon as me not fully understanding the brutal horrors of famine or the helplessness of abuse because I’ve not lived them firsthand.

I cannot fully understand something I do not intimately know. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Those intimately connected to "the disabled community" understand the term is a bit of an oxymoron. Society doesn't make it easy for those with disabilities to live with a sense of community. Their sense of community is created within a contained system intended to protect persons with disabilities. At the same time it incubates others from the inconveniences their lives cause. It’s this disconnect that leads me to think of society itself as a disabled community. Living apart from the greater community is not living in community with the world.

Shame on any coworker, friend or relative who attempts to define my life only in the context of a parent of a child with a disability. Confining me to that role may make their understanding of life and their opportunities in it less complicated but it keeps us separate. For them, I’m now on a trajectory to professional advocacy rather than professional achievement, a path outside their collegial realm. It seems that makes me easier to deal with somehow. What they forget is that relegating me to a role that's one step removed means not having my voice at the table. And I now understand how my voice—my child’s voice—needs to be heard in regular daily living. Not just in the realm of some distant special needs world.

All parents are—in the best of circumstances—a child’s best advocate. We advocate, even putting our lives on hold for a time, in order to place our children first. That’s just what parents do. But that doesn’t mean we forsake our dreams forever. Keeping our dreams and passions alive, even if in a transformed version, sustains us.

Others may need to be reminded that our child’s arrival did not erase our dreams and passions—our professional and personal goals. Instead our child likely ignited a fierce need to keep them alive for our sake and for our child’s. They are part of our identity. They existed before our child, and they will live on after.

Our dreams and passions fuel the energy needed for our demanding daily existence. Our societal companions need to understand that. Supporting us directly impacts our children and enriches the communities in which we live. We learn more about who we are through our children just like “normal” parents do. That doesn’t mean being a good parent for our child is our only aspiration. Parenthood is probably not their sole aspiration either. It just makes it easier for them if we carry the bulk of society’s disability burden.

Feelings of wanting more, doing more and being more should not be discounted. They won’t be assuaged by well-meaning admonitions to be grateful for the lives we have. We are grateful. In fact we know a gratitude that runs deeper than what our coworkers, friends or relatives with “normal” children can comprehend.

Writing the words above makes me frustrated. I can hear them sounding almost self-righteous, courting a sort of egotism that belies the life that I and so many others lead. I just wish I could be better at explaining what I see and what I feel. These words are coming from a bold sense of purpose: I have to try.

Why do I feel so bold anyway? It's my answer to the frustration of my altered reality. I used to be one of "them." I remember my na├»vete when I’d not had the privilege of living an altered existence. My son ushered me to a new understanding of my identity and my place in the world: I am no greater or less than anyone else. Because of that, I live open to many things: How the mother of a child dying from hunger might regard grief as a precursor to new life, how the mother of a child living with an abuser could fear living without means more than remaining alive, and how the mother of a child born gay understands her son was born perfect in God’s sight. I’ve found a way to live closer to those realms of existence, and I am better for it.

Life is big and long and large. The needs my child has today are far different than what he will require even next month or next year. The same goes for me. What does that mean for him? For me? For us?

I don’t know. But I sure look forward to finding out. One day at a time, one person at a time, one step closer to life lived fully in community with all things divine.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Grouchy Day

I was looking through files in my computer and ran across this piece. I thought this blog would be a nice place to share it. And even though I wrote it more than a year ago, I recognize the day described as similar to ones I've lived more recently.

Grouchy Day - written Oct. 7, 2007

On Wednesday of last week, I was having too many “special mom” moments—those are moments when being the mom of a child with both intellectual and physical disabilities is more bother than blessing. My oldest son, Stross, had not managed his own medical cares well the day before, causing him to miss out on our specialized studying time. As a result, he totally bombed a modified test that his teacher’s aide had fretted over, causing her to write a very detailed note that required a very detailed response from me. Then the school nurse called needing my help (and of course I had not copied the handout the public relations class that I teach yet). Still I headed off to the high school on a rescue mission, missing my chance for lunch.

There were some more things: I didn’t get to exercise that morning; my scale seemed to be weighing me heavier than I’d remembered somehow; my computer chose an inconvenient time to display a “black box of death”; and some other pretty trivial stuff happened that I don’t care to mention here. But “things” were adding up in a way that made me grouchy; and the mood lasted into the next day. To lift my spirits, I put on a dress before heading out the door. And I felt better.

Now, some people might call that “faking it until you make it” – but I believe that’s a dangerous notion. I prefer to think of it as relying on a coping technique I know works for me. There’s nothing fake about it.

I own the life I lead, and I know how to lift my spirit in life-affirming ways when necessary. On that particular Wednesday it took a dress. On another day it might take singing a Broadway album in full voice or paging through a photo album. I might even need to call a distant friend I haven’t spoken to in months or even years.

I know what it takes to feel like me again. But only I know what that fully means. That thought alone might require me to lift my spirits to a place where I don't feel so alone. I think I'll grab a piece of dark chocolate and think about that some more.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

It's a New Year

Ten days into the new year, and I've not yet written a blog entry. I've outlined two or three in my mind, however.

I'm not upset about my lack of initiative. Truly I'm not. Life has just been too full of living.

I'll write soon. Perhaps about how unprepared I was for "Marley and Me" to serve as a mirror of my life. After all, I've never had a pet. (Goldfish don't count.)

Still there I sat in the dark--next to Stross--tears spilling from overfilled eyelids, then trailing onto my cheeks. There was simply no point in holding them back. Had I attempted, I may have broken into a full-bodied sob.

You see, I've learned. When the pain returns, simply let it come. Wash it out, let it flow. Discover what lies beneath.

And I know it had nothing to do with a dog. Marley may have captured my attention, but the husband and wife commandeered my heart. There we were, larger than life and playing to a theatre full of people who were on their own journeys, shedding their own tears. Different stories, similar pain: Idealistic newlyweds. Thrilling careers. Miscarriage. A complex marriage alliance. Children. Overwhelming life. Unselfish choices. Growing older. Growing awareness. Missed opportunities. Under-utilized potential. Hellos. Good-byes.

And there was love. So much love.

Yes. It's a new year. I wonder what's in store.