Monday, May 14, 2012

Of grace, nature, and friendship

Mother's Day, 2012

The Mass readings and Fr. Larry's homily put me in a pensive mood today.  The gospel was about Jesus' telling the disciples that they were his friends. 

No longer slaves.  Big promotion.  Friends.  And the job description that does with it:  "This is my commandment, love one another as I love you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Which, needless to point out, Jesus did.

Fr. Larry sang, "What a friend we have in Jesus," and then asked how it works out if we try to reverse the lyrics.

Well, pardon me while I crawl away to hide under the nearest rock. 

Later today, I got to thinking about the movie The Tree of Life.  I keep hearing it referred to by critics as a "near masterpiece," and always I think: Near?!

To be sure, when I saw it a third of the audience left the theater, baffled and impatient, 15 minutes into the picture.  But I hung in there and was richly rewarded.

The movie is about the interplay between Grace, personified by the mother, and Nature, personified by the father.  It opens with words from Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"  We then witness a family facing heartbreak and loss, the creation of the universe, and the evolution of life on earth.

The Disney movies of my childhood were a bit misleading.  We saw a lot of lions pursuing zebras, but not the gory outcome.  When things became a bit more realistic and we did, we were offended by the lion's rapacity.  It seemed natural then to root for the prey, for what we perceived as the victim.  Only much later did it occur to us that the lions' babes were no less needful.

In The Tree of Life, the father over the years becomes sterner, unyielding, especially with the oldest son.  The boys grow up, move out.  One dies in Vietnam.  It's easy to root for the mother's merciful and tender ways with her boys against the hardness and inflexibility of the father's.

Hard, too, to remember that Nature's laws, though they have no pity, are precisely what we asked for, and what we  became subject to upon exile from the Garden.  We would get to be both predator and prey.

We witness vignettes from the family's life as everyone endures the loss of innocence, until Grace breaks through from another dimension and restores each to him or herself, reconciling all to itself, and to each other.

Which is, of course, what Jesus did, and does. 

"Oh happy fault, which bought for us so great a Savior."

It was the only way we were ever to be rescued from Nature, which is to say, ourselves.  In our short stay in the Garden we longed for that big promotion.  We listened to the flatterer as he insinuated that we could know what the Big Guy knew, and that meant we'd be His equal.

We could all be good buddies!

And so the Big Guy let us go to seek our own way, and we learned what Nature always knew, that there is the hunter, and there is the prey, and we must sometimes be one and at other times be the other, but always, we must live within the boundaries of Nature's laws.

Jesus says in the scripture, "I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father."  God laid all His cards on the table this time around. No secrets, no forbidden fruit.

Only the terrifying equality of friendship.

Photo by Judy Horton, University of Texas Austin campus

Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy Birthday!

Jessica (in Yankees shirt) with mom Janis
Today is granddaughter #1 Jessica's birthday.  For a short few months she gets to be the same age as Aunt Kelly: 27.

Caitlin, #2, came along a few months past Jess, and Noah, #3 a few years after Caitie.

Though I have no regrets about becoming Kelly's mom at the age of 42, I must admit that having babies and grandbabies at the same time compromised my grandmothering role.

First of all, I was as busy and preoccupied on the mothering front as my daughters were.  I had to hand Kelly off in order to hold and ooh and ah over Jess or Caitie.  By the time Noah came Kelly would burst into tears if I even reached for him.  Like I say, it cramped my style!

But her nieces and nephews have played the role of cousins in Kelly's life, even though she very much sees herself as Aunt Kelly to them.  In the very early years they were a natural playgroup, but as they got older and Kelly's handicap became obvious, each of the grandkids, in their own time and way, came to an understanding and acceptance.

By the age of three, Jessica had already taken on a (small) playground bully to defend her Aunt Kelly.  "Don't you make fun of my Aunt Kelly!" she yelled, fists at the ready and flying in his face.

And now comes the new generation, in the form of Mr. Happy Guy, the ginger man himself, Adam, son of Caitie and Aaron, and absolute possessor of Nana's heart these days.

I was privileged to spend a few days with Adam, now six months, and with Caitie and the rest of the family last week in Kansas.  Caitie and I got to talking about this and that, and somehow got onto the topic of family planning.

"Well," I said.  "Certainly means were available to plan pregnancies back when I first got married, but in fact only one of my four was planned.  And it was no big deal, really, because I always expected to have kids, and I expected to have them early.  It was a given."

I think it all sounded a bit willy-nilly to my Caitlin, but it wasn't, really.  In our minds there was a place for each, waiting in readiness for their arrival, but recognizable only after the fact.  When each did arrive I exclaimed in wonder, "Oh!  I didn't know it was going to be you!" as if I'd known them all my life.

Which in some sense, I believe I had. 

So Happy Birthday, Jessica!  You were meant to be here with your wonderful parents and we thank God and pray blessings upon you every day.

Day at large

Sunday last we returned from Kansas.  We'd planned the trip because there was a sustainability conference in Iowa Jerry wanted to attend and a red-headed six-month old great-grandson I was desperate to get my hands on in Kansas.

Our greatest hopes for the trip were fulfilled--I got lots of baby Adam and other family time, and Jerry came back super hyped by the people he'd met and the exciting sense that not all is doomed for the small towns we love (and the small community in which we live).  But more about that later.

My gray Dodge Charger (aka the "Dodger") ran like a top for the 2,000 mile trip.  We listened to Ambrose's Undaunted Courage on CDs as the countryside flew by, rekindling our desire to drive the Lewis and Clark route, munching on Clif bars and apples and drinking coffee.

Come Tuesday morning, Dodger was not so happy, and a trip to Gordon's Automotive in Austin revealed that a large rodent had made a nest in the engine something or other and chewed up a bunch of wiring in the process.  (I was surprised, although at the Ranch we've dealt with snakes and cats in our vehicle engines before and it seldom has a happy outcome for all concerned.)

So Wednesday Jerry brought me into the condo so I could go to choir practice and hand around waiting for the car to be fixed.  Thursday I had a doctor's appointment close to the university, so I looked up the bus routes and figured out how to get there.

Thursday mid-morning I bravely headed off for my first adventure on Capitol Metro in oh, about 35 years or so, and boarded the #5 bus headed south.

The driver was helpful, with a friendly laugh and easy way with his passengers, most of whom he seemed to know.  We rumbled along unfamiliar streets until we were close to the university and got off at Dean Keeton and Speedway. 

From there it was a half-mile walk in a gentle rain.

I got out of the doctor's office early and decided to go down to the drag to have some lunch and maybe catch the exhibit on the King James Bible at the Ransom Center.  As I ambled along, students whizzed past me on bikes and professorial types crossed my path looking intense and preoccupied.

It was an atmosphere in which I feel completely at home, having spent years of my life on campus, studying, teaching, working.  But I marveled at how free I felt as I surveyed my fellow pedestrians.  They were so intense, and I felt so serene.  The day opened before me uncharted.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tom O!

Tom is RA of Isaiah House
Tom O! is short for Tom Oliver, who has been the Resident Assistant for Isaiah House since taking over December 1. 

There are a few other Toms around the Ranch, so it we had to add the "O" to clarify matters.

The exclamation point?  Well, that just has to be there.  If you meet him you'll see why.

We first met Tom through Special Olympics meets when he worked for the State Supported Living Center (formerly the "Austin State School"). 

Our coaches and athletes would meet Tom and his athletes and get to talking, and before long back at the Ranch we were hearing things like, "You've got to meet this guy.  He's a natural for Down Home Ranch!"

So in the course of things we did, and he is. 

Isaiah House was brand new when Tom and his guys started moving in.  It took a while for everybody to settle in together, as several trial visits needed to happen in order to fill the house the get the mix right.
Tom, Jay, Jason, Kyle, Tom H, Nick, and Travis in the woods behind Isaiah House

"I was really impressed with the guys during that process," said Tom.  "They were cool with adapting to whatever was going on with the new guys.  But I admit it's great fun now that we've all had a chance to just settle in together.

"Like the other night, well, usually I've got two guys working to get dinner ready with me in the kitchen, but this night every one of them came to hang out, just leaning over the counter or sitting at the table.  They just wanted to share their day and talk about things, and it was all so natural and fun, and I just felt like, wow, these really are just the buddies I'd hang out with no matter what.  Can't imagine anything any better!"

I asked about challenges and he laughed and said he'd realized he was like a nervous mother every time he heard a cough or someone said his stomach hurt.

"It's just not right, you know.  My  guys?  Get sick?!  No way.  Not on my watch!  But sometimes they do and I really just hate that 'cause I take it personal.  And like if I'm ready to take Travis to work at the HEB and he starts to get in the car and I see he's got a little dirt under his fingernails I just say 'Whoa, hold on!  We gotta take care of that before we pull out of here!'

"And of course they're all different.  Most get up in the morning just fine, but Jay--he's a real sleepy head and he'd usually rather sleep in.  So first what I did was turn getting up into scenes from movies.  I'd bust into his room and pretend to be some character or other and say, 'Jay!  Get up man!  There's Klingons in the kitchen and I need help getting them out of there!  And he'd laugh.

"And then I discovered the walky-talky is a great way to keep on making sure he's up and getting dressed.  He loves using it and he doesn't feel nagged.  It works great!"

I asked him what he most looked forward to in terms of his work at the Ranch, and he said, "More and more activity.  Activity is life.  Activity heals!"  Tom plans to become certified as a personal trainer in order to help Ranch staff and Ranchers increase their activity levels and "get more out of life, man!"

We're hatching a plot to build a challenge course of concentric ovals in which people can compete with one another at different levels of challenge.  It took me a while to get the idea, but Tom sketched it out with great enthusiasm.

When energy was being handed out, let's face it: Tom got several extra doses.  He's out every evening with his house and others, creating novel and exciting ways to get folks moving.  Last night it was football skills in front of Barnabas House.  Tonight it might be track. 

But one thing it won't be is boring.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Finding a way

Apparently there's a story in Newsweek's current edition concerning families with children with special needs and the mounting crisis in public funding available to help these families.  Long story short, growing numbers of kids needing help and shrinking pool of funds to help provide it.

This leaves families in a pickle.

I can relate.  After Kelly was born, pretty much every aspect of our life became related in some way or another to dealing with Kelly's Down syndrome, and despite the hopeful predictions of the "experts," we figured out early on there would never really be an end to it, but such was our love for our girl that was okay.  We just went on with life, doing the best we could.

One friend remarked when Kelly was about six weeks old, "You know, you're her primary therapist from here on out.  You'd better get used to it."

I knew it was intended as good advice, but it rankled me something awful and I snapped, "You know, I am her MOM, and I'm going to be her MOM from here on out, and yes, we'll do whatever we can for her but I don't intend to change my job title!"

Little did I dream at the time what all that would entail, even though I began thinking right away about the coming funding crises I imagined would be caused by so many people aging all at once.  Heck, I thought, in 20 years AARP is going to have 4 billion members and where's the help going to come from for my little girl?

So I put a notice in the local ARC (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens) newsletter saying that I was looking for parents to join with us to purchase a nice suburban home we could use as a group home for our kids when they came of age.

Nobody was interested.  In fairness, most other parents with kids Kelly's age were much younger than we, had other young children, and were struggling and juggling it all with hardly any spare time to draw a breath.  Funds were scarce for mortgage payments and time was scarcer for managing such a property.

So eventually Jerry and I decided to go for it ourselves.  We'd travelled around a bit and looked into all the options.  The least practical one was the most common: take care of her as long as we lived and hope for the best after that.  We were already 42 and 46.  Even the dismal life expectancy for Down syndrome at the time pretty much ensured that she would outlive us.

So we founded Down Home Ranch.  And now all our predictions are coming true.  These days we spend hours every week talking with parents who "want to do the same thing you've done," to which our reply is usually, "No.  Trust us.   You don't."

Frankly, we created the most complicated model possible, and it has required our active involvement  every minute of the 21 years it has taken to do it.

But there are others that accomplish the same purpose in a much simpler and more affordable way.  There's the Mission Project in Kansas City, where parents formed a board of directors, incorporated, and themselves provide the oversight and management for their corps of 14 adults with intellectual disabilities, who live in apartments and over the years have come to rely more on each other than on their parents.

What we wanted, and what the Mission Project founders wanted more than anything else is control over the living circumstances of our kids. We want our values expressed and carried out.  We don't want a situation where everything is fine in the house, and then someone leaves--either a staff person or a new resident--and his or her replacement shows up and ruins everything for everybody.

It can happen, and parents have precious little recourse when it does, unless they are on the board of directors or otherwise invested in a position of influence and authority vis a vis the organization.

Are we sorry we went in such a complicated direction, winding up with a huge capital investment and responsible for running every aspect of what needs to be taken care of, which includes greenhouses, animal husbandry, forest management, and a host of other endeavors not directly related to the field of intellectual disabilities?

No, not at all.  For one thing, my husband Jerry is a true visionary.  He saw and sees ways in which the Ranch can address critical issues and seek solutions for them far beyond anything I envisioned.  It would have been a shame to limit the Ranch's development and opportunities to be a trailblazer.  The best and brightest have attempted along the way to put him in a more manageable box, yours truly included, to no avail.

And the best part is that our Ranchers play an important role in helping the Ranch carry out the ambitious and innovative projects Jerry creates.  They work in sustainable agriculture and aquaponics, they help grow their own beef, eggs, and pork, they help cook the meals and get in the hay.

The essential things we wanted for our Kelly were these: being part of a vibrant community (not being alone), growing in competency to do meaningful work (not having a purposeless life) and being constantly challenged to have new experiences and learn new things (not being bored).

We wanted a place where people with intellectual disabilities could feel completely at home, among people who loved and respected them, in that old-fashioned neighborhood where everybody knows you and where a helping hand is always there when needed.

The best part:  I can honestly say, as one of the 34 neighbors in the Village, that most of the helping hands that reach out to me over the course of a week belong to our Ranchers.  They are capable, they are caring, they know the people and the ropes and what to do in an emergency.  We celebrate together, and we squabble with each other, but in the end we work things out.

No.  Not sorry one bit.