From my front row seat

Monday, October 23, 2017

Loving the Little Bitty Parents

One of our mothers had to be discharged recently from our program.  She had blatantly broken some of our rules, wasn't putting forth the effort she should, and made this decision unavoidable for us.  It is always hard to see a woman leave when we feel she is capable of so much more, but when she takes her precious children with her, it becomes even more painful.  In fact, this may be the toughest part of our job.

Right before they left, the oldest child, a spunky little girl, came into my office to give me a hug.  I hugged her back, once again choking back the tears, knowing I would probably never see her again.  Before she walked out the door, I quickly said, "I'm proud of you!"  And I've not gotten the next moment out of my head since.

This young, brave girl immediately straightened her back, held her head high, looked straight ahead and said, "I am proud of myself!"  Then she walked out the door.

I realized in that moment that she had already begun shifting back into the role of the parent.  She knew her mother had messed up, she realized their lives were returning to chaos, and she was already positioning herself to take care of her siblings as she did before coming to Blue Monarch.

There is a subtle melody that plays every day at Blue Monarch and even though the notes never end, it goes relatively unnoticed. I think of it as our own "Rhapsody in Blue".  Sometimes the music is peaceful or playful.  Other times it's loud and almost a little dark.  But it's the ebb and flow and fluid interaction between treble and bass that remind me so much of what happens with our mothers and children as they fight to find their proper places as parent and child.

Things are often very disjointed and dysfunctional when our families show up at the door.  The mother may have never had a healthy childhood and she's hanging onto the hope she will still get one somehow.  Therefore, she's acting like a child even though she has several children of her own.

Then, the older child shows up as the parent.  He has taken care of his siblings for a long time, has worked to keep his mother in line best he can, and he is accustomed to solving grownup problems way beyond his years.  Our children often arrive overly concerned about things no child should worry about - like shelter and food.  They sometimes hoard food because they have learned this as a way to survive.

We have a young girl right now who gets off the school bus and comes straight to my office with her list of things to discuss.  It's amusing, but also a little sad.  That list usually consists of things she should never worry about - a leak in the tub upstairs...the backpack she wants me to remind her mother about...her concern over her mother's struggles to quit smoking.  

So we have a problem.  The mother is the child and the child is the parent.  However, the mother has chosen to come to Blue Monarch because she desperately wants to become the parent, a healthy mother.  This dramatic switch in roles is extremely difficult for both of them.  

This is where the "Rhapsody in Blue" becomes loud, choppy, and quite angry.  As a piano player I've always been uncomfortable when one hand crosses over into the territory of the other.  It never feels right, like the world is upside down.  That's exactly what I picture when the mother is crossing over into the child's territory, and the child is crossing over into the parent's.  When they suddenly cross back and forth with no warning, it gets even more volatile.

So how do they each get to where they belong?  This takes lots of time and patience.  The child resents the mother for suddenly taking over and deciding to be the parent.  How dare her!  He is afraid to give up that power because he's been disappointed in the past and doesn't trust her.  Maybe he tries to give it a shot - and then it's too scary so he takes it back.  That's when the music gets deafening and the whole orchestra joins in.

We have a wonderful Pen Pal program for our children.  People from all over the country sign up to write to our children.  (We currently have a waiting list, by the way.)  The kids love getting surprise letters in the mail, and no doubt the writers on the other end are greatly blessed in the process.

I was reading a letter one of our young boys wrote recently.  He must have been asked what sports he liked because the first line read, "I really don't like sports.  After all, what do they do to solve problems in the world?"

It hit me that this boy had experienced too many grownup things in his short little life to find any meaning in something like sports.  He had recently been reprimanded in Sunday School for being disruptive, but I could see how sitting around singing Jesus songs probably seemed pointless to him - my word, his father had just gone to prison.

So is there any good news in this behind-the-scenes melody that plays day and night here?  After all, we don't have just one song playing - we have multiple songs playing at the same time.  Well, yes, there is hope.  And there is good news.  

Let's take the little girl who left.  That looks like a pretty hopeless story - but she was able to stop the madness for the months they were here and enjoy just being a kid - perhaps for the very first time in her life!  She danced with other children in a dance contest, she played with the goats and chickens, and she got a glimpse of what her home can look like one day when she's a mother, herself.  Through counseling she had the chance to express her feelings as never before.  She saw the differences in her own mother when she was applying herself, and even told us, "My mother is nicer to me here." She will not forget those memories of safety and security.  She knows, now, what that looks like.

Through the years several people have pulled me aside and confessed that it's hard for them to care about a mother who doesn't treat her child right.  But this is one thing I think they need to consider.  That mother is just that precious child grown up. The difference is, her own mother may not have had a place like Blue Monarch to teach her how to break that cycle.

We see amazing things happen as that "Rhapsody in Blue" becomes more peaceful and the right and left hands learn to stay where they belong.  But let me tell you the most valuable thing the mother and child learn while they are here.

Even though they both may have longed for a parent to care for them, they discover they actually had one all along - their Heavenly Father!  It's when each of them realize this - and I mean, they truly believe and feel it in their hearts - that they begin to heal as a family and settle into their proper places as mother and child.  We get to see the music when that happens...and it's a beautiful, beautiful sight.

Thank you, Lord, for being such a good, good Father, even when we don't realize you're there.  Thank you for your powerful healing that brings such beautiful music.  Amen

I invite you to listen to Leonard Bernstein play "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin.  It's such a great illustration of the intense and powerful process as our mothers and children find their places in that delicate relationship.  
Click here:  Rhapsody in Blue 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Swinging Swords for a Reason

Do you remember when the Wii games first came out?  My daughter was crazy about them and wanted me to play one where you swing an imaginary sword and fight off enemies who are coming from every direction to knock you off the top of a mountain.  Well, I really hate to lose, so I began swinging the sword with quite a vengeance.  Bam!  Knocked the first one off and cheered, and then continued feverishly fighting...and swinging...until I had fought off every last one of them.  Each fighter was more aggressive and devious than the last, and I got more and more determined with every attacker.  This actually took quite some time before I was declared a winner.

When it was over, I was breathless and sweaty, and suddenly a little embarrassed that I had gotten so ridiculously out of control over a silly game like that.  I looked at my daughter who had an expression of "that was disturbing to watch", and quite frankly, I was a little disturbed by it, myself.  Did I have unresolved anger issues?

This past week I feel like I have been on top of that mountain swinging a sword fighting one thing after another.  We have been through a very trying stretch that has been hitting us from every angle.  We couldn't solve one problem before another popped up.  And they were all critical.  

Here are a few examples, and I'm leaving out bee stings and flat tires.  We had a number of horrible maintenance issues that suddenly showed up out of nowhere.  We lost our local honey supplier who suddenly went out of business, leaving us to replace him with no notice and lots of granola orders to fill.  A distributor for a large grocery store chain actually lost over two hundred cases of our granola (which is still unresolved).  We watched two families walk out the door after we had gotten attached to the children, which broke our hearts.  And then, just when we thought things couldn't get worse, one of our dearest Blue Monarch family members was diagnosed with cancer.  That was the straw that broke this camel's back and that's when the tears started falling. 

I had just received this heartbreaking news when my husband and I were leaving for a wedding.  But this was no ordinary wedding.  It was for one of our very first residents, Chrystal, who has always been very special to me.  I've seen her through the best of times.  And I have seen her in the absolute worst of times.  Through lots of hard work, she had finally straightened up her life, had regained custody of three children, she had developed a strong spiritual life, and was marrying a good man.  So I left for her wedding with a heavy, weary heart, but wouldn't miss Chrystal's wedding for anything in the world.  I was so proud of her. 

Chrystal typically calls me on Mother's Day and when I arrived at the church she presented me with a Mother's corsage, which was such a sweet surprise.   

It was a lovely wedding and a beautiful ending to a terrible week.  However, it was the thirteen year old young man who gave Chrystal away that got the best of me.  And there's no way to understand why unless you know the full story.  Watch the short video below from an earlier blog post and you'll see why this evening was so special... 

Thank you, Lord, for such a powerful reminder of why we do what we do - even on the days we are weary from swinging swords. 

For this earlier blog post click here:  My Favorite Blue Monarch Christmas Story 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Please help me find her!"

Business was unbelievably slow at the pharmacy where I worked after school.  Someone occasionally wandered in for a Coke flavored Icee and then there was also the woman who came in every week for nasal spray.  She was notable because she had no nose (although I never knew why), and she insisted on peeling back the Band-Aid to squirt nasal spray into her exposed nasal cavities before leaving the store.  I wasn't sure if she was truly that desperate for it, or if she simply enjoyed shocking the people around her.  If that was her plan, mission accomplished.

I felt so badly for the pharmacist because at the end of the day the sales only totaled $30 or so.  Surprisingly, he was never upset about it.  What a great attitude.

The middle aged pharmacist had loads of friends.  They loved to gather in the back room and watch ballgames on the weekends.  They whooped and hollered and slapped each other on the back.  At least he was having fun.

It was an easy job, which included taking lots of puzzling phone messages that were usually strings of unexplainable letters and numbers - no doubt, prescriptions that only a doctor would understand.

Shortly after I left this job the pharmacist showed up on the evening news.  He was arrested for running a large sports gambling operation.  So that's why his friends enjoyed ballgames so much.  And those messages were bets - not prescriptions.  Imagine.  This entire operation was taking place right under my nose and I had no idea.  I was young and quite naive, but how often does something like this happen right in front of us and we don't notice, or we don't care to see it?

Sometimes I feel like I can almost mark the very day God opened my eyes.  Once I said, "Yes" to God's call for my life, it seemed like the world immediately became more vivid and brilliant.  The way I describe it is like going from sepia tones to technicolor.  Do you remember the sepia toned crayons in the box?  Raw umber...burnt sienna...basically monochromatic tones of dull brown.  That's how I would describe life outside God's will.  It may be in color, but it's dull.

Once God opened my eyes in a different way to the world around me, I began to see everything more vividly - good things and bad.  Miracles around me became more brilliant, full of amazing color.  My heart felt more deeply in all directions.  However, the ugliness of the world became more vivid as well.

For instance, the unruly child in the store no longer looked like an annoying pest to me.  He suddenly looked like a little boy who might be living in fear, probably unable to pay attention in school because he had so many grownup problems to worry about - basic food, shelter, and especially safety.

The messy car in the Wal-Mart parking lot no longer looked like it just needed a good cleaning.  It was actually a temporary home for a family that's struggling. 

The woman staring blankly out the passenger window was probably not bored.  Her gaze was a sign of hopelessness.

The man walking on the side of the road wearing clothes from the wrong season was not a hiker, but most likely a man who had just been released from jail and had no one who could, or would, pick him up.

This brings me to something I saw in vivid color a year ago that unexpectedly turned into brilliant technicolor just the other day.

One Saturday morning last summer, I took a left out of my driveway.  I rarely go that direction on the weekends, but this day I was looking for flowers for my porch and had seen some in town the day before.  When I reached a wide stretch of highway where there are no houses, I found a woman on the side of the road.  She was a pretty woman but showed signs of a rough life.

Right away I noticed she was walking with a sense of desperation so I slowed down to see if she needed help.  Before I could reach her, an SUV came rushing from behind, swerved off the road in front of me, and skidded to a sudden stop right in front of this woman.  She and the driver immediately began arguing.  What's about to happen here?

I parked my car behind him and should have gotten the license number but I was so concerned about this woman, I didn't think about it.  He madly waved for me to pass him, but I stayed put.  Then much to my surprise, the woman got in the car with him.

The driver made an angry U-turn and took off slinging gravel.  As I searched for a better place to turn around, I looked in my rearview mirror just in time to see the passenger door fly open and the woman dangle halfway out of the moving vehicle.  The car swayed wildly down the road, and right before I lost sight of them, I saw the woman swing back inside.

I turned around as quickly as I could and went searching for the car.  In those few seconds, though, I lost them.  I drove several miles down the road and was relieved to find someone from the sheriff's department checking out an abandoned car.  "I'm so glad I found you.  I need your help!"

After I explained what had just happened he very calmly said, "Well, how do you know this isn't just the first time they've had an argument?"

"Are you kidding me?  What difference does that make!"  The man finally agreed to call it in, and I waited as he very patronizingly did so.  But he was not willing to look for her.  I drove off and called the sheriff's department, myself.  They assured me they would "send someone to check it out."  Sure you will.

After this I could hardly go about flower shopping, so I drove all the way into the next town to try again.  I walked into the police station and begged them to help me even though I knew this didn't happen in their district.  I said, "Surely someone knows who this guy is because today can't be the first time he's done something like this.  There's a woman getting the crap beat out of her right now and we've got to do something!"

When I described the guy and the SUV, the officer said he thought he might know who that was, and assured me he would call the neighboring law enforcement and get someone to check it out.  I believed him, at least more than I believed the last two guys, so I left feeling I had done all I could, but was still not satisfied.

For the next few days I traveled down all kinds of side country roads looking for this vehicle and worried about the pretty woman who disappeared with it.  I told our staff about the incident and we prayed for her.  For the next year I thought of this desperate woman from time to time when I passed that same place in the road, and even followed a similar vehicle for several miles one day until I realized it was a different driver.  I never forgot her.

So last week we had a special Family Day at Blue Monarch.  One of our newest residents had no family visiting that day so I sat down on the sofa to get to know her.  She began telling me how her former boyfriend had just gotten his domestic violence charges moved to attempted murder because of how severely she was beaten.  She described how he planned to throw her off a bluff, but he threw her out of a moving car instead, which beat her up something dreadful.  In fact, her vision and hearing were impaired because she suffered such severe damage to one side of her head.

"Wait...did the two of you ever go outside of town toward where I live?"

"Yes, he would take me out to remote places like that to fight."

I then asked her if he drove a vehicle like the one I had seen that day.  "Yeah."

"What color is it?"  And yes, it was the same color.  This was the woman I saw!  I finally found her - on the sofa at Blue Monarch.

I was so excited and began anxiously telling her my side of the story that day.  I described how hard I tried to find her and get help.  It turns out, after my visit to the police station that day, she said someone called to warn him that a police report had been filed on him.  Sadly, though, he didn't stop beating her.  He simply looked for places no one would see her.  Months later he threw her from a moving vehicle, nearly killing her.  So I didn't really help her at all - at least not in the way I tried.  However, God was helping her in a different way.

After we pieced together my story and hers, she became tearful and said, "You wouldn't believe how hard I prayed for God to let someone see what was going on and intervene.  And - you did.  Someone did!"

In that powerful moment, this broken, wounded woman realized God was paying attention to her prayers all along and had heard her desperate cry.  As this sunk in, a big, beautiful smile grew across her face, and she glowed with tears in her eyes.  A visible peace came over her, as if she had softly landed in God's arms and was finally safe.

As we shared a tearful hug, I realized that God didn't just open my eyes so I would notice this woman on the side of the road.  He also wanted me to see the brilliant, magnificent color when she met Him face to face.  

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou has for me...
Hymn by Clara H. Scott, published 1895 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

It's not always love at first sight

It started out so lovely.  There we were, eating lunch side by side.  The sweet toddler in the high chair next to me was eating chicken noodle soup while I enjoyed my leftover kale soup.  Swimming lessons had just ended and we were at the Blue Monarch kitchen table as moms and kids, and staff members, scurried around preparing their lunches.  The room was filled with lots of laughter and chatter.  That's one of the things I love about bringing my lunch.  It gives me a chance to visit with the amazing women and children we serve and get to know them better.  It was another special Blue Monarch moment.

Then - all of a sudden I heard a loud splashing sound with great force and velocity.  The adorable little girl next to me was calmly spooning noodles into her mouth, all the while peeing a river through her swimsuit, right onto the floor.  She must have a bladder the size of a watermelon because there was a virtual lake beneath her.

I guess this is a great example of the environment in which we work because I paused to say, "Bon Appetit", to no one in particular, informed her mother that we had guests coming any minute and it would be nice if the massive mess on the floor was gone, then kept eating my soup as if nothing had happened.  (It's not always a Hallmark moment at Blue Monarch with hosts of angels singing in the background.)

When I was a young teenager I made frequent visits to the doctor's office for a nagging stomach problem.  In looking back I think I was simply anxious about being a teenager.  But I grew very tired of the routine, which always began with a pesky urine sample.

One morning before my mother and I left for yet another doctor's appointment, I happened to look in the refrigerator and discover a Tupperware container filled with leftover pineapple juice - the real syrupy kind from a can of pineapple rings.  Hey!  That looks familiar.  So I decided to play a little joke.  This was going to be great.

I hid the container in my purse and could hardly wait to implement my brilliant plan.  Sure enough, as soon as my name was called, the nurse handed me the usual cup and nodded toward the bathroom.  Just in case someone was listening, I turned on the faucet and let it run while I carefully poured the pineapple juice into the cup and flushed the excess down the toilet.  I marched out the door and placed the cup on my file as I had been instructed, then took my seat to watch what would happen next, which I had not considered until that moment.

I could hardly contain myself.  This was absolutely hilarious and without a doubt, one of the best tricks I had ever played.  It was hard to keep a straight face while I watched the nurse run her test on my fake urine specimen.  She quickly ran another one.  Then another one.  Her face gradually turned white as a sheet and she became increasingly frantic.

Suddenly she jumped up, grabbed the two doctors in the hallway, and rushed them back to see the results.  They looked just as alarmed as she did.  Occasionally they glanced over their shoulders at my innocent mother in the waiting room, then turned their backs and whispered among themselves.

Eventually the nurse looked over at me, and I suppose I must have looked pretty guilty because she yelled, "WHAT IS THIS?!"

Immediately I realized my joke was not funny to anyone but me.  I confessed it was pineapple juice and I suppose the sugar level was sky high and no one was laughing.  Especially my mother.

Both doctors stomped off in total disgust.  The nurse just stood there shaking her head as the color in her face swung all the way back to beet red.  No doubt they probably grumbled to themselves, "We come to work every single day only trying to help people - and then she comes in here expecting us to fix her problem when she's not willing to do her part!"

Does that sound familiar?

We do random drug testing at Blue Monarch.  Actually, we test for a variety of things:  drugs, alcohol, and even nicotine.  (We are a non-smoking facility.)  Occasionally we have someone who tries to fool us and finds ways to fake a test.  Instant coffee, her child's urine stored in a medicine bottle, you name it and someone has tried it.

This always aggravates me.  A woman comes to us for help, we are committed to helping her change her life, and then she does something like this that only cheats herself.  Aren't we all on the same team here?  Team Help Her?

Well, actually we may not be.  At least not yet.  Many of our women arrive here very broken.  Some have developed pretty sharp survival skills that may show up as deceit, manipulation, and even ugly entitlement.  Often they don't trust us - and they are suspicious of anyone who wants to help.  "Why are you doing this for me?", which usually means, "What's in it for you?"

These are thick, heavy walls to tear down.  It takes lots of time, great patience, loads of prayer, pretty intensive work - and especially the tremendous grace and mercy of God, to reach that sweet place of redemption.  But in the meantime there are some days when I honestly want to grab a woman by the shoulders and say, "What were you thinking?  Don't you see we are only trying to help you?  Do we care more about your recovery than you do?!"

That's when I have to take a deep breath and ask God to please show me what He sees in her.  "Please, Lord, help me see her through your eyes because I'm having a hard time loving her today."  And each time I get the same response.

"She is my daughter.  And I love her."

Well, this does the trick every time.  In that moment I am humbly reminded that she and I are actually sisters.  We are both children of God, and He loves each of us the very same - even on the days she hands us pineapple juice.

Thank you, Lord, for the raw and beautiful reality of recovery that you so graciously allow us to witness day after day.  Help us to feel your presence, even on the days that are hard.  Thank you for the gentle reminders that we are always to love others as you love us, and that when we do, the results can be amazing!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Leave the Buckets Alone!

It was years before I knew the real story.  Just down the road from my farm, an older man sat in a junky car on his front lawn - every single day, year round.  In the winter he looked miserable all huddled up with his collar pulled around his ears.  In the summer he seemed pretty content, swung around with his feet on the ground and elbows resting on his knees.  Doing absolutely nothing.

Neighbors sometimes brought him corn to shuck or beans to snap - I figured it bothered them just as much as it did me, to see him wasting so much time day after day.  I was brought up with that saying, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," which made his front yard look like a breeding ground for trouble.  That is, if he weren't so darn lazy.

A neighbor finally told me this man's story.  Turned out, his wife had banished him to the front yard years ago because of something he did to make her mad.  He wasn't allowed back inside until it got dark.  And come daylight, back outside he went.  Not sure why nighttime made a difference, but her forgiveness was clearly conditional.  That woman was sticking by her grudge!

Forgiveness is something we focus on a lot at Blue Monarch.  There are often extreme, intense issues surrounding forgiveness.  Things that are so grievous it's hard to imagine how anyone ever gets past them.  I believe that's one of the reasons Mother's Day and Father's Day are so difficult around here.

I can't help but remember the time I found a woman standing in front of rows and rows of Mother's Day cards at our local drug store.  She was crying.  I assumed she had probably just lost her mother.  But after reading one card after another and stuffing each back into its slot, she finally slammed one down and said, "Not one of these describes my mother!  All of these are for the mother I wish I had!"

Sadly, mothers and fathers have caused some of our residents' greatest pain.  Certainly not always, but often.  Perhaps the mother sold her daughter to support her own drug habit - or turned her back when her boyfriend repeatedly molested her daughter.

There are also numerous heartbreaking stories from women who were hideously victimized by their own fathers.  These are unthinkable offenses, that for most of us seem unforgivable.  It's no wonder drugs become an easy way to numb the terrible pain.

The women at Blue Monarch are some of the most amazing women I have ever known.  I often hold them up as a standard by which to measure myself.  This difficult issue of forgiveness is one of the reasons why.

I have seen the women of Blue Monarch reach into the depths of their souls with weeping, grieving hearts, and supernatural determination - and then miraculously overcome the bitterness and anger they so rightfully earned.  It's a beautiful and powerful process.

But their forgiveness is not conditional.  They don't hold a grudge until the sun goes down and pick it up again in the morning.  They totally and wholly let go.  They completely hand it to God and ask Him to take it from them.  And He does!

Isn't that where the true issue lies?  I think we often convince ourselves we have forgiven yet feel it's our right to hold onto the hurtful memory.  But when does that memory turn into a grudge?

When my daughter was about ten years old, she and I went on one of our usual horseback trail rides one summer.  I had just gotten a new goose neck trailer and we were barrelling down the interstate having a big ole' time, probably listening to some Restless Heart or Forester Sisters, when I happened to notice something crazy going on in my rear view mirror.

As if a tornado had hit the bed of the pickup truck, our heavy, black rubber feed buckets began tumbling in the air behind the cab, and every so often one would suddenly shoot out onto the interstate like a rocket.  Pretty soon every single one of them were gone and I could see cars swerving behind us to miss them.  Yikes.  This could cause an accident.

I quickly pulled onto the shoulder and parked.  I knew I didn't want to leave the truck running so I told my daughter to stand under some trees in the shade until I came back.  It was blazing hot and I knew I couldn't leave the horses in that metal trailer for long, but someone had to get the buckets off the road - and we were going to need them.

As I ran down the interstate to retrieve the buckets, I was a little surprised to see how far back they were.  Thankfully, off in the distance I could see a car pulling over from time to time to pick up the buckets for me.  Or at least that's what I thought.

When the car pulled over to one of the buckets near me, I ran to thank them, but they started to drive off.  What?  Of course, I foolishly ran to the car demanding an explanation, and surprisingly, they stopped.  I couldn't help but notice it was a nice looking family in their Sunday best as if they had just left church.  What's this?  A family that steals together?

They insisted they didn't have my buckets even though I knew they did.  "So then, what's that in the back floor board?"  I could see two of my buckets under the legs of the young girl in the back seat.  She was wearing a flowered sundress and looked quite innocent, but a little nervous.  She timidly handed them to me through the window.  

At that moment the father pulled the car back into traffic and there went the rest of my buckets.  I was furious!  I began stomping back completely disgusted, (probably mumbling some pretty ugly things to myself) and then a few seconds later, way off in the distance I saw that same car pull over in front of my truck.

Oh no!  My daughter is standing there under the trees completely unprotected!

I immediately dropped the buckets and started running as fast as I could, (not sure I've ever run that fast), but as soon as I reached the truck, completely out of breath, the little church family quickly took off.

What was I thinking?

I had left the most precious thing in the whole wide world standing there under the trees while I ran farther and farther away from her over some stupid buckets.  I risked losing the one thing that brought me the most joy in life for something that was completely worthless.

How many times do we focus on all the wrong things?  Things that have hurt us, things we just can't forgive, while we could be focusing instead on the joy that Jesus Christ so passionately wants us to have?

We sometimes think we have forgiven someone when we really haven't.  That painful memory we just can't stop thinking about, is often disguised as forgiveness, while in reality it's an ugly, bitter grudge.  It looks like a nice church family, but it's really a car full of thieves.  Thieves that want to rob us of our joy.

God wants us to forgive as He has forgiven us.  It's even included in the Lord's Prayer that we learned as kids.  But there is a secret side effect to forgiveness that I've learned from the women of Blue Monarch.

When they forgive the ones who have hurt them - and I mean, truly forgive them where they no longer hang onto the memories or carry a grudge, they actually become prettier.  Yes, it's true.  Prettier.  I bet you could ask anyone who works at Blue Monarch and they would agree with me.  It's something very tangible that changes on their faces and in the way they carry themselves.  It even spills over into the way they laugh, the clothes they wear, the way they spend their time, their relationships with their children, and how they see their future.  It is truly remarkable - and it is only through the tremendous strength God gives them that they are able to forgive to that magnitude and gain such beautiful freedom.

It's at this point they begin basking in the glow of the pure joy that was patiently waiting for them the whole time.  In fact, the glow on their faces becomes so intense, it actually reflects onto the faces of their children.  

And you know what that means?

It means those precious children will have fewer buckets of their own one day.   And they will learn to leave them in the road... right where they belong.

You turned my wailing into dancing;  you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.  Psalm 30:11  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Finding Meaning in a Suitcase of Grief

Surely it was a sick April Fool's joke.  It was the evening of April 1st when I got a text from one of our Blue Monarch graduates.  She forwarded me a Facebook post with Erin's beautiful face that indicated she had died that day - April Fool's Day.  We were hoping it wasn't true.

But it was true.

In two days it would have been a year since Erin graduated from our program.  My mind immediately flashed back to her bubbly personality, great sense of humor, and sparkling blue eyes.  And then of course, to her precious two boys.

Erin was so full of life, I couldn't help but remember some of the funny moments with her, too - like the time we all went to a tearoom for high tea.  She surprised us by breaking into a perfect English accent as soon as we arrived, then stayed in character the entire time we were there, which kept us in stitches.  How could she be gone?

When my father died I described that painful journey as a train ride where you stop at depots along the way and exchange one suitcase of grief for a different suitcase of grief.  It seemed there were distinctly unique stages of grief that came in all shapes and sizes.

So the first suitcase I grabbed when Erin died was one of complete shock.  I spent the next twenty-four hours basically numb as I systematically called each staff member to break the terrible news.  I wanted to cry but for some reason I couldn't.

The next day was Monday and the suitcase I carried that day was one of making sure everyone on our staff had oxygen.  I had two psychologists, who are very dear to us, meet with our staff to help us process what had happened.  Some of us spent eighteen months living very closely with Erin and a few new ones on our team only knew her by name.  But it was immediately clear that her death had impacted each of us in powerful and personal ways, and we were all hurting terribly for Erin's children.

I'll have to admit.  As I looked around the room at the beautiful, amazing people on our staff, and observed how they were hurting so deeply over Erin's death, I had to resist having a few George Bailey moments where I wondered if all these people could have been spared this pain if I had not started Blue Monarch in the first place.  And yes, I do realize how crazy that is, but it was hard not to feel some ownership in the raw hurt I saw around me that day.

The third day I held in my hands a suitcase of great anger.  I kept thinking back on the day Erin sat in my office and announced she was not going to participate in our transitional graduate program, but instead she was going home to take care of her mother and brother who needed her.  Someone had given her mother the money it took to turn the electricity back on in Erin's house, and that was all it took to spring her back like a bungee cord to the worst place she could possibly go.  (Erin's mother and brother are now incarcerated so the sheriff's department escorted them both to the funeral home.)

"Erin, I'm telling you.  Please listen to me.  I have sat here with many women through the years who also wanted to return to their old environments and not one of them was successful doing that.  Not one."

In that tiny, baby voice of hers, with a smile of confidence on her face, Erin said, "Well then, I will be the first."

Erin was the first, but not for that.  Even though I can't stand to hear condolences that begin with "At least...", I found myself trying to get some kind of comfort in the fact that at least she was the first we had lost due to drug related circumstances, which was remarkable considering we had served hundreds of women struggling with addiction.  However, this staggering statistic brought absolutely no comfort and felt quite empty.

My next suitcase held great sorrow.  It was the heaviest suitcase so far and I'm still holding it today, although it's slowly getting lighter.  In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I realized I had gone an entire day without unexpectedly bursting into tears - the kind where you find a quiet place to cry out loud.  Erin's tragic death at the young age of twenty-three, and the impact it will have on her children, has had a profound effect on me.

Months ago, well before I knew anything like this was on the horizon, I got an unexpected email from a professor at Texas Tech.  Unbeknownst to me, she had been using Blue Monarch for several years as an example of a non-profit doing recovery right.  She asked if I would speak to her class of seniors who were going into the field of recovery.  We planned to do this via Skype and I began keeping a list of Ten Things I Wish I Had Known, which quickly turned into twenty.

All of a sudden one weekend, I felt God was telling me, "You need to go there in person.  You need to be there."  I had never been to Lubbock, Texas, the home of Texas Tech, and when I looked online to see if it was obvious why God would want to send me there, I can't say anything jumped out at me.  But I contacted the professor and said, "If it's all the same to you, I think I will come speak to your class in person."  She seemed really excited and as soon as I made my travel arrangements I felt great peace about my decision.

After Erin's death, however, I realized my trip to Texas Tech was going to conflict with Erin's memorial service.  Maybe I needed to reschedule or cancel my trip.

Suddenly it became clear to me why I needed to go.  I had the opportunity to talk to a room full of compassionate people who were going into the field of recovery.  What better way to honor Erin's life than to empower people who were joining our army to fight the ugly world of addiction!

With a heavy heart, as Erin's memorial was taking place back at home, I made sure the students in front of me would know how to spell Erin's name and remember her face.  I wanted them to know that the people they will one day serve are very real.  I described Erin's life and the trials she experienced as a young child, finding herself as the primary caregiver for her younger brother at the age of eight.  I shared Erin's childhood stories of how desperately she longed for her parents to do the ordinary things other parents did - and I told of how she learned to do those same things for her own children while she was at Blue Monarch.

I showed the class the staggering chart Erin made that illustrated how multiple people on one side of her family tree had died from suicide, and multiple people on the other side had been murdered.  And until the results from her autopsy come back, we won't know which side of the family tree her death will belong. 

I described how Erin arrived at Blue Monarch without custody of her two boys.  And then I shared the beautiful memories she made with her children when they were reunited and how much their relationships grew during such an impressionable time in her boys' young, little lives.  I talked about the rich experience her children had as they had the chance to grow and thrive in a healthy environment and Christian home.  How our farm provided a place for her children to just be kids instead of worrying about grownup problems at such a tender age.

Then I felt compelled to share with the class one of the most important lessons God has taught me - that our job is to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.  It was important for them to know that the services they provide may have an impact down the road that they may not even see.  I knew there would come a time when these students would question whether they were really making a difference in the ugly world of addiction.

And there it was.  That right there was why the last suitcase was so heavy.  How do we experience something like this without questioning whether we are really making a difference?  I found myself asking this question over and over as I grasped for answers.  However, I got the answers to my own question from Erin, herself.

Stuck away in a box with similar letters from previous residents, I found the ones from Erin that described how much she had gained at Blue Monarch and all the reasons she wished she had not left when she did.  Over and over she described the relationship with Jesus she had developed while she was here.  She even drew me a picture of Jesus.  "I'm not much of an artist but this is my first time ever trying to draw Jesus.  I'd like you to have it."  The greatest blessing of all was the change in Erin's soul!

However, I read through all Erin's letters to see if there was anything else that would help me feel we had made a lasting difference.  And then I found one more thing...

From a jail cell Erin had written, "When I spoke to my son, you know what he wanted to talk about?  Normally it's always been 'Mommy why you in jail?  Why was you bad?  When you coming back?' - all bad things, but he didn't ask any of that.  The only thing he said was, 'Mommy, I want to go back to Blue Monarch.' "

Sometimes I feel the biggest challenge we face in what we do is not even the drugs.  It's the extremely intense pull of what's familiar.  It's typically what they knew as children.  So even though it may be dysfunctional, chaotic, and harmful, they are naturally drawn to it like a magnet.  Therefore, we want to become THAT.  We want to become that same powerful, pulling force for the children we serve.

We want the life we provide at Blue Monarch to be what our children spring back to like a bungee cord.  We want to be what is familiar to them, what they long for even as adults.  For Erin, even though her story did not turn out the way we wanted, she gave her children a beautiful gift by providing them wonderful memories of a life they may have otherwise never known, and one she never had herself as a child.  A place where the world is safe, people are nurtured and loved, the future is bright and full of hope.  Erin planted those seeds in her children and we must pray they will continue to grow.

A few days ago I got this in the mail.  It was lots of nice notes from the students at Texas Tech.  My goal was for just one student to make a difference in someone's life because of Erin's story.  But after reading what some of them had to say, I can see that Erin planted many seeds there too - way over in West Texas.  

Thank you, Erin, for sharing your life - and death - with us because I believe God found a way to turn your darkness into light for many others.  And that's a suitcase I'm honored to carry for a long, long time.

CLICK HERE to read an earlier post about God's message to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Break Gone Way Bad...

Occasionally there were vivid reminders that I was an unconventional single mom, and my daughter was living an unconventional childhood.  Plus, I didn't always make the wisest choices.  For instance, there was the time she and I were coming back from Thanksgiving in Peavine, Georgia, when I discovered a tattoo parlor that was open.  Imagine.  Tattoos on Thanksgiving Day.  I whipped into the parking lot and the two of us went in the door.  At the time I was a full-time artist, selling my work at a highly esteemed gallery in Nashville.  My work was mixed media construction and people were always my subject matter.  I was working on a piece for an upcoming show that had a person with a tattoo and I needed to research some different designs.

So Mary Susan and I took our seats in the seedy, crowded waiting room so I could peruse the catalogues of tattoos.  There seemed to be a guy in charge so I asked him a question but he quickly interrupted me and said, "Lady, I don't know nothing about nothing.  They just pay me to sit here and make sure there ain't no trouble."  Okay, well, if they have to pay someone to do that, perhaps we shouldn't be here.  So we left.  I decided the tattoo parlor was probably not a good idea.

For most of Mary Susan's young life it was just the two of us on our horse farm.  I wore fringe way too much, and for a brief time I seriously considered living in a tee-pee (which I didn't realize at the time had my daughter completely mortified.)  We had a zebra named, Zelvis (Elvis with a "Z"), a couple of llamas, and the Budweiser Clydesdales stayed with us when they traveled through the area.  So yeah, it probably wasn't the most normal childhood.

This was never so apparent, though, as when I came up with an idea for Mary Susan's spring break one year.  I thought it was an excellent educational field trip for a first-grader.  This time I was working on a piece of art about women in a holding cell, and I wanted to see the inside of an actual jail cell to study how it was constructed.

Since my brother was a game warden, he offered to take me to his local county jail.  Great.  I would turn that trip into a spring break outing for Mary Susan and kill two birds with one stone.  Being a small county jail, I made jokes about going to visit the "Mayberry jail" - confident it was perfectly harmless.  

After being shown a small empty cell, I asked the captain if I could see the larger holding cell instead.  "Well, there are some men in there, but if it's okay with you, it's okay with me."

What could possibly go wrong?  After all, Mary Susan and I were with two guys carrying guns.  So sure, let's go see it.

With drawing pad and pencil in hand, we approached the holding cell and there were five men sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall.  I turned to the captain and asked, "So, if you have women in here, are they allowed to keep their jewelry on?"

"Absolutely not.  They aren't allowed to keep anything they can use to hurt themselves or anybody else."  I quickly learned this was wrong.

At that very moment, Guy Number One said, "Hey, aren't you going to do something about this guy?"  He motioned toward Guy Number Two sitting next to him, who had a blanket across his lap and was looking a little pale.  The first guy then reached over and yanked the blanket off his neighbor's lap.  The inmate had slit both wrists and was sitting in a pool of blood.  Holy cow.

Our little trip to the Mayberry jail immediately turned into a nightmarish scene.  The captain rushed us to his office, jerked some towels from a filing cabinet, and ran back to the cell while yelling for someone to call an ambulance.  The place was turned upside down and our spring break field trip was over.  Surprisingly, Mary Susan didn't seem particularly moved by the incident so I was hopeful she wouldn't be scarred for life.  Again - probably wasn't a good idea.

The following Monday, I was concerned whether Mary Susan would share this terrible story with her teacher and classmates.  Asking her not to would just make it seem worse than it already was.  She typically used good judgement even as a small child - she'd know to keep it to herself.

That afternoon when I picked her up, I hurriedly asked, "Did you happen to tell anyone what happened at the jail?"

"Oh, yeah!  And they LOVED it!"

I immediately turned the car around and knew I'd have to somehow explain it to her teacher.  When I found her, I expressed how I really didn't expect anything like that to happen, how I actually thought the trip would be harmless - but I could tell by the look on her face I wasn't ever going to win her over.  She was completely disgusted with me as a mother and I was beginning to agree with her.

"Well, this is the problem.  She didn't just tell us about it.  She explained to the class that if you are serious about killing yourself, you do it like this (and she motioned a cutting motion on her wrist), and not like this."  (She motioned a perpendicular cutting motion.)  And then I remembered that's what the captain had said as he rushed us to the office, so even amidst the chaos Mary Susan had taken it all in.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I replayed all the teacher's critical remarks in my head and suddenly it hit me.  Was she going to call the Department of Children's Services and have my precious child removed?  I went into a complete and total panic.  I realize now that this was probably not even a possibility.  But at the time, it felt like a real one and I can't describe the level of fear I felt.  I immediately imagined a total stranger showing up at my home and taking Mary Susan away to someplace I wouldn't know where.  I imagined the fear she would feel - the trauma it would cause for both of us.  I could go on and on as my imagination ran wide open down that dark trail.  For weeks I feared I would lose my child who meant more to me than anyone on the planet.

Whereas my own experience gave me just a tiny, little glimpse into what our moms must feel, this is something many of our mothers have actually experienced firsthand.  They saw their children pulled from them, they saw the frightened looks on their faces, they felt their fear and uncertainty, and then they lived the lingering, devastating loss as they blamed themselves for all of it.

This is where we cross over into some touchy territory.  Most of our mothers have lost custody of their children because of their own actions.  Their own poor choices.  Maybe it was drug abuse, perhaps even neglect.  So even though many people won't say this out loud, they often wonder, "How could they have done those things if they truly loved their children?"

Well, if there's one thing I've learned over the past fourteen years, it's that you can't measure someone else's love for another.  I can tell you from what I've seen with my own two eyes, these mothers DO love their children.  Addiction makes people do things that many of us can't ever understand.  Sometimes it takes getting clean before the enormity of their actions really hit home.  But that's where Blue Monarch comes in.

I have seen women weep, wail, and appear to be in complete physical pain over the separation from their children.  These mothers go to bed each night wondering how their children are doing.  Are they safe?  Are they happy?  Will they remember me?  Are they ever going to forgive me?  Are they calling someone else "Mommy"?

Have you ever missed someone so badly that your heart literally hurt in your chest?  Has the pain been so extreme that you walk around just looking for a spot that will make you feel better and you can't find one?  Well, that's something we see almost daily here.

Blue Monarch has a reputation for being a place where families are reunited and restored.  That's a tedious and lengthy process but over 250 children have reestablished a relationship with their mothers through our program and God's tremendous grace.  We have seen absolute miracles take place!  I remember one mother who was just inches away from losing her parental rights forever, but we actually left the meeting with her child.  We had totally underestimated God's grace and power because we had to run to Wal-Mart for a car seat.  

But sadly, not all stories like this have a happy ending.  Occasionally we have a mother who does all the right things, jumps through all the same hoops, and is still not reunited with her child.  I can't imagine how difficult that must be to return to Blue Monarch and continue living in community with other moms who did get their children back and have the wonderful privilege of loving on them any time they want.

There's a song playing on the radio right now by Hillary Scott.  The name of it is "Thy Will".  The first time I heard it, I immediately recognized the pain in her voice and lyrics.  I thought, "That's got to be the pain of losing a child."  Sure enough, I later learned that the artist was referring to the loss of a child through miscarriage and was desperately trying to understand God's will in her painful situation, yet continue to pray, "Thy will be done."

We are accustomed to celebrating stories with happy endings around here.  We blast them on Facebook and love to share reunions of mothers and children.  But today I want to lift up the amazing women whose stories don't end like that. And this is why.

I think the bravest prayer of all is, "Thy will be done."  Think about it.  It means that you are willing to accept whatever the outcome is because you trust God to do what's best - even when it's not what you want.  And this is what we see some of our hurting mothers have the courage to do.  Quite frankly, when it comes to my child, I have to wonder if I would have the courage to do the same.  Even in their greatest pain and deepest disappointment, these courageous mothers lift up their hands in praise, and with tears streaming down their faces, they offer their children to God and pray, "Thy will be done."

These are the very mothers who are the easiest to judge.  Despite their best efforts, they are still not able to reunite with their children.  But in many ways, they should be our greatest examples because their ability to turn their children completely over to God shows faith that is beautiful and supernatural.

Lord, I ask you to abundantly bless the mothers who have the courage to pray the bravest prayer of all, "Thy will be done."  Please show them there is light ahead even though it feels so dark at the moment.  I pray that you will bless them for their tremendous faith in the midst of their greatest pain and loss.  Amen