Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. Another crystal clear and cold night and we are all nestled around the fire after a day of visits with family and friends, two great meals (masterfully prepared by Jocelyn) and an evening service at St. Paul Church. My dad is starting to nod his head in fatigue as he finishes out his night’s reading, and I’m occasionally looking up with some amusement as Jocelyn discovers the joy and frustration of assembling an educational toy for our daughter. The education, apparently, is mostly for the parent and comes from just getting the product out of its packaging.

It’s been a great retreat so far from the pace and noise of the city. I’m always struck by the comparative silence that greets us when we arrive. The days here are quieter – especially in winter when most of the farm implements have been stowed for the season. But the nights are exquisitely so, the silence broken only by the occasional bay of a barking dog off in the distance. I’ll always try to talk Jocelyn into cracking open a bedroom window on the off chance that we hear the chilling cries of the coyotes that have made their way back into the township over the past few years.

I’ve come into this writing with two thoughts in my head. The first is how important it is to remember. I will forever look back on this Christmas as the holiday when I remembered how to breathe. A year ago, right around this time, we were weeks away from Julia’s open-heart surgery. If you’ve followed the story for that long, I had a countdown clock set for the minute we were to report to the surgical staff at Children’s Hospital. We were recording Julia’s food intake down to the milliliter and guarding against any possible infection for fear of its potentially devastating effect on her health. It was a major undertaking (and not a small risk) to even come out to the farm for a few days.

Now, as the ache in my back eases after standing at the back of the church holding a wiggly toddler for an hour, I am struck by how… normal… it all feels – and how long, long ago that whole ordeal seems. I get far more agitated at the fact that Julia is misbehaving in church than I can ever remember during her recovery from surgery. I guess that’s the mercy and the curse. It would be so easy to simply forget what we had gone through and the sustenance we received from God through so many. So tonight, I am going to remember – and say, “Thank you.”

I’ve also been reminded in the last week or so by how something beautiful and lasting and redeeming can come in such small packages and under the most adverse conditions. I am still amazed at God’s willingness to take us through a tomb of horrors in order to give us the “street cred” we need to speak into the lives of others and bring a level of encouragement that we couldn’t have before. Even more amazing is the posture we have when we are doing it well – not overbearing, but offered with the quiet humility of one whose self-image doesn’t rise or fall on the person taking the advice.

Jocelyn and I have had so many opportunities over the last year to encourage other families going through what we did. And it’s been awe inspiring to see their countenance change over the months from one of fear and uncertainty to the quiet knowing of a parent who has gone to the wall for their kid.

I’ve been reading the entire Bible over the last year with some friends and recently came upon a verse in an often-overlooked book of Hebrew scripture:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” ~ Micah 5:2

Some seven centuries before its realization, a promise was made that a backwater town (in the shadow of the capital of the religious establishment) was going to be the cradle of a new movement. It would start with a child born under circumstances that some would deem rustic and even scandalous, but its message of a love that was (and is) as overpowering as it is humble would silently weave its way through the ages.

Political and religious powers would try to appropriate its message for selfish gain, and would seem to succeed for a time. To their eventual frustration, though, Love has a life of its own and quietly demands to be met on its own terms: gratitude, selflessness, and service. The swords that people would take up to defend it are useless. The organizations raised to promote it will eventually crumble to dust. But Love will remain, beginning again in a willing heart that simply chooses it. And out of the smallest of packages, beauty continuously unfolds.

It is that Love we celebrate tonight. It is that Love that will not let me forget – even when the crush of life’s demands push in even harder. My prayer for you is that you bind yourself ever closer to the God of that love and let Him push back on the expectations laid before you; and for this time find the rest and comfort that Love so generously provides.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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Goodbye, Bill

On December 18, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I didn’t want to go too long before I paused to remember the passing of one of the last of the old farmers. Ever since our family made its home on sixty acres in Saline Township, Bill’s family was a part of the fabric of the community. His great grandfather settled there around 1870 and the family has been there ever since.

Bill ran the farm on his own after his parents died, eschewing the large scale, specialized farming methods and continuing to keep a few pigs, a few sheep, an orchard known throughout the county and a marvelous herd of Holstein dairy cows all descended from the single cow that his grandfather acquired in 1922. Apparently, her name was “Corny”. Seriously.

But that’s not what I really remember of Bill. He was truly a man born of a different and gentler age – and one of the finest 4H leaders I’ve ever known. Other than my father, he is the one man most responsible for getting me through nine years of show cattle projects that ultimately paid for three years of college. As one of the elder statesmen of Washtenaw County agriculture, He also took a ragtag team of teenage boys to the state livestock judging finals. We didn’t get into the top five, but it was his tough but fair coaching that got us there in the first place.

He was one of easy nature and temperament – I only remember him losing his temper once, (for which he immediately apologized). His patience for kids, as I look back, was truly saintly. Although he remained a bachelor his entire life and had no children of his own, Bill has adopted kids all over the world through his tireless efforts introducing so many to the unexpected beauty of agriculture.

It took no patience on my part to hear his stories – from his time with a German family while he was in the Army to the inner workings of relationships from generations back to controlling fire blight on the young apple seedlings. Bill was the consummate yarn spinner who would regale me with tales as we drove the back roads of Washtenaw County on our way to the next judging practice.

But mostly I remember him as one of the hardest working men in that same county. For as long as I can remember, he worked that farm – alone – with the care of his whole heart. He never took a vacation (dairy farms are a tough mistress that way), but in the forty years I knew him, I never heard one complaint. And the barnyard was neater than many fully staffed farms twice the size.

He chose a quiet life of communion with the land, teaching others the ageless value of responsibility, reliability and simply keeping promises. His death was sudden and, at the age of 71, far too soon.

And I’m going to miss him.

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Autumn in the Midwest and Elsewhere

On November 18, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

Hey – been quite a while. For those of you who have been following our story, I want to apologize. After a year of pounding out these posts in reasonably quick succession, I’ve found myself in kind of a winter of my motivation. I came back from India and honestly wanted to spend some time with my family that was as undistracted as possible. Anyone who knows me knows that’s quite a trick, considering how many things I like diving into.

Blogs – especially if they’re done well – take a lot of discipline to maintain and create an itch similar to when the lawn goes un-mowed for a couple of weeks. You look out the window and there it is, and there’s a tipping point of motivation that comes into play: “Should I get out the lawn mower and get it done or does the couch and the remote look more enticing?” I could wind this metaphor out even further and talk about the neighbors complaining, but you get the idea. (And thanks to my brother-in-law Jonathan for the image!)

So now I’m hanging out at Costco getting some new tires for the Camry, and I thought I’d get you up to speed on the goings on over the last month.

Being away from the family in India for ten days wasn’t as gut-wrenching as I thought it was going to be. There were certainly pangs of it when I sat and thought for too long, but the pace of activity and the crush of the in-country experience thankfully kept my mind off of it. Most of my time was spent behind a camera telling the story of CEM. I came home with 2400+ images and my perspective realigned for a while. I’ll have more about that later.

Not long after my return, we took advantage of a trade show that Jocelyn was attending to visit her brother and his family in Fort Worth. It had been almost a year since we had seen Jonathan and Deirdre last Thanksgiving and their son Oliver has grown up! Julia was really excited to meet him and he showed amazing patience with her even though he is not even a year her senior.

We also had time for breakfast with the Gilmartins, our dear friends transplanted from Detroit. And in Grapevine, Texas, we visited the Torian Cottage, a log cabin bought by one of Jocelyn’s ancestors back in the mid-nineteenth century and occupied by the family until just after the Second World War.

Oh, yeah – and we celebrated Halloween in Texas as well! Miss Julia was styling in her University of Michigan cheerleader outfit at her cousin’s costume birthday party (okay all you Ohio peeps – no hatin’! We are equal opportunity – send us some OSU stuff and we’ll put it on her). She then tore up the trick or treat circuit on the mean streets of Fort Worth in a pink skeleton outfit courtesy of Old Navy – accessories and hair by Mommy.

The family visits didn’t end after we got back. The following weekend, we visited with my sister, Lisa, who was spending some time out at the farm. While we were there, we did a quick photo shoot of Julia for our Christmas card. No previews until after we send them out!

We also met some new friends last week. Babycenter.com was a real godsend to Jocelyn as she was processing and preparing for Julia’s birth and all through the challenges of the months before the surgery. As much as she gained from the deep base of knowledge on the site (there are forums literally for every issued out there from Down Syndrome to the best ideas on effective potty training), Jocelyn is starting to give back with the experience she has gained. Jennifer is a local found us through Jocelyn’s avid activity on Babycenter and read the blog to hear more about our story. She and her husband, Dave, are the parents of twins – one of which has Down Syndrome.

It wasn’t too long before we set a date for the zoo. Truth be told, our hearts have knitted together in a surprisingly short time and I think we may have some lifelong friends!

You’ll be hearing more stories very soon, but we’re going on the road again tomorrow. We’re going out to the farm, transferring all of our baby crap into my Dad’s big “grandpa cruiser” and shooting down to Washington D.C. to spend a long holiday weekend with my sister and her family.

Good to be back!

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Good Morning CEM!

On October 10, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

editor’s note – sorry for the tardiness of my post! There have been a lot of power outages in Andhra Pradesh due to a coal strike and the internet has been pretty spotty!

It’s just after 5am on Monday here at CEM, and call to prayer from the mosque nearby cut quietly through the heavy morning air. The place is already a buzz of activity as the children get ready for the day.


Even this early in the morning, you can’t sit for long without drawing attention from the children wondering what you are doing. The visitors from America are a source of constant fascination for them and a welcome diversion from the normal routine. Already, I’m beginning to draw a small crowd as I sit on the porch overlooking the courtyard as they try to read over my shoulder.

It would be a little disconcerting for someone who is not accustomed to the crush of people that one encounters here; and I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I take it in stride. It’s grown to quite a number, though with the children completely surrounding me. But with one word from the housemother, they scatter and make their way to the courtyard for their morning calisthenics.

I’m often still trying to clear the cobwebs this early in the morning, so it’s kind of fun being able to sit in the cool and think a bit as I hear the growing crescendo from the dorms.

They’ve gone into chapel now and I am writing this to the sound of their fervent prayer (led by my friend Naveen) coming from the room just behind me. It was these prayers that got my family through some very tough times last year.

I come to India for the perspective I get here. It is in this completely different cultural context that I get shaken out of the complacency I often find in my own. In their commitment to simple rhythms (you can count on chapel at least once a day) and the togetherness in their practice of it has a way of bringing heaven near.

The problems of life await them in the rest of the day, and many of them are more complex than anything I’ll ever know. But it is here that they bring those problems and are reminded of the One who gives them the strength to face them.

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Wheels Up for India

On October 6, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

Today is the day I’ve been anticipating (and dreading) for months now. Jocelyn and I prayed and talked together in February after Julia got out of the hospital, and we agreed that I needed to think about re-connecting with our friends in India.

Back in early 2002, I was in the middle of my transition out of the auto industry when a friend invited me to go to India with him and meet Jaya Sankar, who was doing an awful lot of good in his community. He already had nearly a hundred kids that he had taken off the street and was working with my church to purchase a property for a more permanent campus. He has since expanded into dozens of initiatives and I’ve been going back pretty regularly ever since. I count Jaya and his staff among some of the best friends I have in the world.

Jocelyn went with me back in 2009 and caught the same vision. Even now, she’s packing several dozen of her famous cookies for me to take.

She and Julia are staying behind. That’s the dread part.

The farthest I’ve ever from my daughter in her young life has been a couple of miles when she was in the NICU right after she was born. Jocelyn has traveled briefly for a trade show, but Julia and I have always been together (even though she’s kinda biasing toward momma these days). A buddy of mine who just came back from a trip to Israel said that there is no way around it. Being away from your family is very, very hard. Great.

But here’s my hope: the last year has so completely altered my outlook that I can’t help but believe that I’m going to look at India through a new set of eyes. And anyone can benefit from a different perspective now and then.

There are some things you can do to help:

Pray for us! This is my first time being away from my girls after a very intense year and Jocelyn is going to be a single mom for a while; so we would love your prayers. You can also watch the team’s progress on our team blog and get some of my more personal thoughts right here.

Give to a good cause! Jocelyn is putting a team together to give back to a community that has done so much for us. Step Up for Down Syndrome, benefiting the Down Syndrome Guild of Southeastern Michigan, is happening this weekend and there’s still time to be on the team. Click here to donate or to join the team!

Well – here it is. I’m closing up my bags and making final preparations. We’re headed for the airport at 12:30. By the way, can you take really cute babies in your carry-on luggage?

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