Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Fable about a Table

**Friends, this post is longer than my average post.  Please give yourself a few extra minutes to read.  To help you, I've put in more than the average number of photos.  Thanks for engaging with my life and my thoughts!  

My husband tells me that his parents bought this table as a part of a big home redecorating project in the 70's.  That would explain how ugly the table was.  The legs to this table always made me think of furniture that might be in King Arthur's court; heavy, ornate and . . . medieval.  But it was also sturdy and free so we've had it in our dining room ever since Alex's dad passed away.  It is the only dining table that my kids had ever known.

Despite all of the effort that we put into rearranging so that they could have desks in their rooms, my girls do their homework almost exclusively on the dining table.  As soon as I come into the house I plop my computer bag and my purse onto a chair at the table.  Groceries are sorted at this table.  Almost all of our meals have been eaten at this table.  Many guests have been hosted.  Conflicts have been resolved.  Serious conversations have been had.  Many prayers have been prayed at this table.  Our dining table is, in many ways, the heart or the hearth of our family home.

Alex has always taken care of this table as a precious artifact from his family history.  When we have to move the table, it must be done with two people so that it can be lifted not dragged.  Expanding the table by adding additional leaves to it must be done with great care and attention lest it be jostled too much and things get out of joint.  I never knew if this was because the table was so important to him or because he's just a really meticulous dude.  It might be both.

For a long time we had these custom made cushiony cover thingies on the table at all times.  I don't know why.  They came with the table so we kept them on.  And because they were ugly, we always had a table cloth on the table.  And because we had kids, the table cloth was always getting disgustingly gross so we washed the tablecloths almost every day.

Two years ago I asked myself why we were putting so much effort into protecting a table that was almost 50 years old and far from my ideal table.  I made a big change to our lifestyle and decided that we would let our table be naked, come what may.

Well, what came was that one day, while his mom was watering plants in the backyard, Josh took a ball point pen and carved a significant number of shower heads, hairdryers and fans into the table top where he sat to have an after school snack.   Here are some pictures of his "designs".

My first thought was that my husband was going to have a cow.  My second thought was that the table top was already pretty old and worn.  I posted some of these pictures on Facebook and a friend suggested that I simply refinish it.  Another friend even suggested a specific place nearby who might do a great job.  But given the busyness of my life and my tremendous hostility to taking on household projects, I knew that this would never happen.  I just internally prepared myself to live the rest of my life with a dining table with some artwork on it.  Maybe it would just be a conversation piece.  Or we just never let any non-family member sit where Josh usually sits.  I contemplated returning to table cloths.

Alex did have a cow, but just a little one.  He had a calf.  He was upset but quickly submitted to the chaotic power of Josh.  We have an autistic child.  Whaddya gonna do?  Fight to have a semblance of order in our lives?  I think not.

I'm not sure how it happened but somehow my husband and a good friend of his were chatting about what happened to the table.  The friend happened to be a designer and inventor who knew how to work with wood.  And he happened to have a power sander.  I kept coming home from work to see them working on the table with great gusto.  I think they were actually having fun.  Alex was really enjoying learning a new skill, something that he always wanted to know how to do but never had the time or bandwidth.

This is a picture of them and the table before the final varnish.  It was an amazing transformation and resurrection.  I couldn't believe it.  It was a gorgeous color of reddish brown; shiny, gleaming, almost radiating a loving warmth to our home.

Here is a pic of the final work.  Beautiful, isn't it?

How I wish the story ended there but, alas, it does not because two nights ago, the girls had left a permanent marker on the other end of the table from where Josh sits.  As I was preparing his pills, in a split second Josh took the black permanent marker and did this.

I turned around to see him holding the marker in his hand.

"Josh, what are you doing?!!!"  I yelled.

"Josh, what are you doing?"  he replied, calmly, eating a tomato.  If he sensed my emotion, he gave no indication.  It occurred to me that even our dog knows when he is in trouble.  Luther knows when to avert his eyes and get out of the way when I find that he's ripped up a stuffed animal or has peed on the carpet.  But my son acted like it was no big deal, like he was the one who knew some peaceful, deep wisdom that I could not yet fathom.  I just stood in the kitchen with my mouth open, silent, fuming and flummoxed.  Our beautiful, refinished table, was ruined once again.  After a few minutes of silence Josh said to me, "Want more toast".  Sigh.

Years ago, a wise mentor once taught us that we have to remember that the many things that we work to build in our lives are like sandcastles.  We work hard to build something and we want them to be beautiful, excellent, impactful, and lasting.  But in the end, like sand castles, the things we build are ultimately washed away.  Organizations, churches, ministries, institutions, programs, careers, wonderful as they may be, they all have their ends, often sooner than we expect.  Even expensive dining tables don't last forever.  None of the things in my house will last forever.  Even my house will not last forever.  From a Christian perspective, the only things that lasts forever are people and God (and maybe animals, I'm not sure about that one yet).

A few weeks ago while we were on vacation at the beach, we ran into a pair of brothers who were hard at work on a super-duper sand castle.  They had roped off a section of the beach and were building a replica of an actual European castle that they had researched.  Both were engineers who grew up at the beach making sand creations in their childhood. They spent quality  time together once a year by spending a whole day making something beautiful out of sand.  This project took them over 13 hours.  They arrived with their many tools and buckets before dawn and we helped them pack everything up using our flashlights on our phones.  As we chatted at the end of the day, I asked them why they did this and wasn't it a bummer that their creation would be washed away by the next morning?  Exhausted but happy, they said that it's all part of the process.  They did not expect it to last forever.  That was not the point.  Their wives let them take a whole Saturday away from their families not to build the sandcastle but to invest in their relationship as brothers.

I've been thinking about this sandcastle ever since that day.  The beautiful, valuable things in our lives are but a reflection of that which is ultimately lasting beauty.  We will enjoy our lives, our relationships and even our things better if we accept that and just give ourselves to the process of life in this temporal world.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Minor Miracles and Other Things that Keep You Going

Being fifteen has meant that Josh is sometimes aggressive.  When he wants something but can't have it, he might grab, scratch and even hit people around him.  One time when we were in our van on our way home from a family vacation trip to SeaWorld, he suddenly got really frustrated and pulled a big handful of hair from his sleeping sister who was in the row in front of him.   That was a huge bummer.  It broke a lot of trust with that sister and she, understandably, declared that she was going to take a break from helping Josh.  The other sister, also understandably, defended him, declaring that he couldn't help it because he gets frustrated just like all of us but he doesn't have the tools to manage and express his emotions. 

We've employed various strategies and behavior plans to deal with this unfortunate but somewhat expected pattern given Josh's age.  He's a teenager.  His brain is going through a normal adolescent growth process which includes hormonal and adrenaline surges.

One of the things that we do is to leave his presence and let him know that he doesn't get to be around us if he's being demanding or agitated.  Josh's wonderful respite provider, K, knew to do this the other day when Josh was becoming aggressively demanding. Apparently, Josh was yelling and grabbing K's arm.  K firmly told him that he was going to have to be in his room by himself for a while and that K was going to be in the living room.  K said that Josh yelled and made unhappy noises for a few minutes and then was quiet for about 15 minutes.

Josh came out to the living room and silently sat down next to K and then did something that shocked our experienced respite provider.  Josh said, "I'm sorry."

"It was a miracle!" K said as he recounted the experience to me later.  "You know, my colleagues and I talk about how we stay motivated for our work by the little miracles that we experience every once in a while.  This was one of them."

It's so true.  I know many adults who don't seem to know how to utter those words in the course of their lives.  How did Josh access those words and place them in a socially appropriate context?  Was he just repeating a phrase that he heard in a song or on the radio?  Maybe.  But it touched K's heart nevertheless.

As a Christian, I believe that being sorry and acknowledging one's faults/ shortcomings/ fallenness/ sins is a crucial part of opening one's heart to grace.  Yet I also know how difficult it is to speak those works of acknowledging wrong.  Sometimes my husband has to wait a good long time to receive an apology from me in a situation where we both know that I was wrong.

I know that apologizing not something that is modeled by many "adults" in this world but somehow, we all know that repentance is what makes healing and relationships possible.  Sometimes, an apology is a miracle; a sign of some amount of self-knowledge and a desire to heal.  It is a sign of grace and hope.  It is the touch of God.  What a beautiful thing to see that, in that moment with K, Josh had been given the gift of being able to say, "I'm sorry".

I wonder what our world would be like if people were able to say, "I'm sorry" just a little bit more each day.  I wonder how my life would be changed if I was just a little bit freer to say, "I'm sorry".

Friday, February 16, 2018

Swearing, Profanity, and Cursing

Today, as Josh was making himself some toast he dropped the butter knife onto the floor and immediately exclaimed, "Sh*t!"  I looked up with surprise in time to hear him say it again three times with vehemence, "Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t!"

After surprise, came amusement.  After amusement, came pride.  My son was using an interjection in a contextually appropriate way!  Way to go, buddy!

As you may know, if you have read any of my other blog posts, Josh is not someone who has a lot going on in the way of expressing language.  In fact, his spontaneous (non-prompted) language falls generally in two categories; echolalia (random echoing of things that he has heard before without appropriate meaning or contextualization) and expressing simple needs or desires ("I want toast").

To have Josh use profanity appropriately with some amount of affect was kind of awesome!  At the same time, I wondered where exactly Josh picked this up.  Was it from us?  From school? From kids on the bus?  I wish I could say that I knew for sure that he must have had this modeled for him outside of our home but, alas, I cannot.  

In our early parenting years, when blow out diapers, interrupted baby naps, and finding people spreading poop on walls were a regular part of our lives, I noticed that Josh was much more likely to echo swear words that came out of my mouth than anything else.  Perhaps this was because they were accompanied with clear and passionate emotion.  

We've been talking a lot about swearing with our (6th grade) girls recently.  We've wondered together why swearing is supposedly bad.  I hate it when people just tell you not to do something without having a reason so I've been thinking about it a bit myself;  Do you refrain from swearing just because it makes you a bad person?  Why do we have the sense that we should not swear?  True, the Bible says that we shouldn't swear but I think that means swearing as in "making oaths" or taking the Lord's name in vain.  Ok, so we don't say, "I swear to God..." or use Jesus' name in irreverent ways. But the specific question that we have sought to answer is "What exactly is wrong with using profanity?  

In her book,  Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, Emma Byrne writes that "Swearing, it turns out, is an incredibly useful part of our linguistic repertoire. Not only has some form of swearing existed since the earliest humans began to communicate, but it has been shown to reduce physical pain, help stroke victims recover their language, and encourage people to work together as a team."

Even the apostle Paul uses "coarse language" in Philippians 3: 8 when he says, "What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ."  That word which is here translated "garbage" is more accurately "the refuse of animals", "dung" or "poop".

All of these things may be true but my experience tells me that peppering one's language with profanity hurts relationships, especially if one is swearing at someone.  Swearing usually adds a jolt of emotion (usually negative) to a conversation or interaction that is draining, uncomfortable or painful to the listener in most situations.  There is a degrading and disrespecting quality to swearing at someone. In conflict, profanity usually amps things up rather than calming things down which is not conducive to making peace or bringing resolution.  Once you've said, "F--- you" to someone, you really can't ever unsay that.

Now that they are in middle school, my girls are discovering that there is plenty of negativity, anger and meanness in this world.  Using profanity just adds to it.  For Christians, Ephesians 4:29 advises,"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."  Also, the practice of self control is important to the life of someone who is wanting to emulate the God of love.  According to James 1:26 "If you think you are being religious, but can't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless".  Another reason all this matters is that the words we use say a lot about what is in our heads. Philippians 4:8 says, "Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things". As we think about what's right and pure, cuss words are not helpful.

Words are a very powerful part of creating the reality in which we live as human beings.  In general, we ought to try to make our words be edifying, positive, and gracious, for our own sake and for the sake of people who are hearing our words.

But, at this point, if my son wants to express himself by swearing when he drops a knife, I'm still going to smile.  

What are your thoughts about swearing?  Swearing and parenting?  Swearing and being a parent of a child with special needs?  Swearing and the middle school experience?  Swearing in a household with kids?