Day #7 – Why I Clicked…

On January 11, 2018, in Photo, by Chris

Day #7/365: Taking down the Christmas decorations at the farm can be especially bittersweet, mostly because there’s that question in the back your mind… Are we doing this again next year?

Julia and I went out to the farm late last week to help dad take down the Christmas decorations. We always put the wreath out on the front of the house (it’s the neighbors’ waypoint to let them know that the holiday has truly begun), but this year we got a little more ambitious with a tree and many of the decorations that we’d kept in storage – some of it for years.

It was definitely worth the effort. Christmas had a special twinkle on the farm this year. Seeing Julia’s face light up when I turned on the Christmas tree or wound up a music box was rocket fuel for my soul.

But now it was January, and the time had come to take it all down. The boxes were pulled out and filled with the trappings of Christmas joy.

First, the big wreath that hangs on the farm house every year was unplugged, lowered to the ground and put in the shed. And then the Christmas tree was taken down.

Finally, there were the heirlooms that were my mother’s. Her Santa Claus figurines left the shelves of the china cabinet and the handmade wreaths that had hung in the windows for years found their way back into their boxes and were taken to the attic.

And through it all, the nagging question remained: How many more Christmases will we spend at the farm?

Strangely, it was a bittersweet mixture of nostalgia and gratitude of ever having known this marvelous place that welled up inside of me. And as Julia helped me carry a borrowed wreath back to the car, I turned her around to face me and got this shot.

The look on her face mirrored my feelings as I considered the twofold blessing of a life giving Christmas season and a wondrous place to spend it.

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2017, in Commentary, Life, by Chris

It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. Those of you who have followed these posts over the years know what a marvelous pause the farm is in the life of our family. Time seems to get so compressed in the weeks before Christmas and all of the preparations and engagements that compel us to make just one more commitment.

But now we’re at the place of my birth, with bad cell coverage, no television, no internet and no distractions. We can simply be together to prepare meals, try to make a dent in the Christmas cookie supply (still working on that), visit the neighbors and take in the luxurious quiet of the land lying fallow and still.

There was a light blanket of snow when we got in yesterday; but the sun melted most of it away in the afternoon, painting the trees across the field in rich ambers and butternut. We woke up, though, to a completely different situation. The snow started around noon as we were wrapping up one of our many visits to our neighbors and friends; and by mid-afternoon, it seemed we had a good old fashioned snow storm on our hands.

It’s still coming down as I write this. I even excused myself from dinner preparations to take a walk in the woods to experience its silence. There was little to break the hiss of the landing snowflakes, except a couple of neighborhood dogs in distant conversation and an intrepid nuthatch winging about the trees in search of her next morsel.

I wish I could share some insight or encouragement that I found in that solitude and silence – some neatly-tied-up-in-a-bow wisdom that will lift your spirits. Those of you with whom I am in more intimate contact will know that it’s not been that kind of year for me. It’s been “dig deep” time for months now, and I’m honestly wondering how I’m going to bounce back from it.

I was out in the cold until I couldn’t feel my hands, but the same frustrations were with me. So let me lay them out in all of their embarrassing glory:

Frustration at my father’s increasing frailty of mind and body.

Frustration at the growing developmental gap between Julia and her peers.

Frustration at the marriages blowing up around me and the inevitable collateral damage visited upon the youngers.

Frustration at officiating the funerals of good men struck down far too soon.

Frustration over the seemingly intractable divisiveness we find in every domain of life.

And despair over a world that seems – in my current experience, at least – to be devolving into chaos and selfishness more than growing into something life giving and beautiful.

A wise friend told me once that sometimes the spiritual walk is putting “one damn foot in front of another.” But that roiling anger that I and many others wrestle with seems to make everything in life just a little tougher.

So I’m going to let you listen in on a conversation I’ve been having with myself of late – sometimes half heartedly, sometimes with a bit more conviction. It orbits around an oracle of Old Testament prophecy that I’ve clung to for the past few months:

For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

For this season, I am clinging to an idea proposed eight centuries ago:

As bad as a situation can be, I’m not alone in it. It might not be the “salvation” I would choose, but God is always working to reconcile, redeem and remake. Even in my worst and most embarrassing moments, he is audacious enough to like me anyway.

Now comes the big one (for me anyway). God’s love can calm my gnawing tendency to project a catastrophe into every situation, give me perspective and discernment to know when I can and cannot do something about whatever frustration presents. And by the way, the ones I enumerated above, I have no control over whatsoever.

This love comes out in a song of life and beauty that still confounds me – even after twenty years in pursuit of understanding it more. I still struggle with truly receiving love like that; but it’s reflected in the steadfast loyalty I have known in my relationships and the whimsy of the little exchanges with Julia. I’m borne from my despair in the intentional practice of gratitude for those small gifts of clarity.

The season we celebrate brought all of this even more into life with God actually living among us in our frustration and fear. And it is the hope that there might be a larger, more redeeming story piercing into the mess of ours that I cling to. I bid you peace in the knowledge that we don’t have to have it all figured out (I know – that kills me too), and that there might be Love living among us as we put one foot in front of another.

Or I could simply say, Merry Christmas.

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Every Day is WDsD

On March 21, 2016, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

CrazySocks

My Facebook feed has been blowing up over the past 24 hours with all kinds of videos, images and well wishes from our community. It started last night with a video from a family that has been walking alongside us – then a text message from the principal of Julia’s school telling all of the students to wear their craziest pair of socks as the beginning of a more intentional celebration for a sliver of their community.

It’s World Down Syndrome Day – the one day of the year it is universally cool to be a friend of someone with Ds! So allow me to put on my “crazy socks” and tell you a little more of what’s going on from the perspective of a man whose life got ambushed by a little girl with an extra chromosome hitchin’ a ride with the typical 21st pair.

If you’ve been hanging around my social media feeds for any time at all, you’ve been acquainted with Julia. As a freelance photographer, I try to regularly put out a picture to let folks know how she’s growing. You’ve seen her through the walker stage into preschool, the endless hours of therapies, and the ubiquitous “giraffe horn” hair buns that Jocelyn fashioned to keep her from chewing on her hair.

We’ve received unceasing encouragement from all of you over the years – from the comments on how cute and precious she is to the challenges we hear from you to press on through the adversity of navigating the bureaucracy of service providers to get her the help she needs. Sometimes I even wonder if Julia’s social media following outpaces Jocelyn’s and mine combined! Such is the life of a little girl with her own entourage of stylist (Jocelyn) and publicist (me).

But even with the love we get from our community, I’ve noticed a change in the way strangers interact with her. There is now just a tiny minority of people who don’t quite know what to do with Julia when she busts into her ballet routine in the middle of a crowded mall or expresses her still inarticulate but very clear frustration with directions. Don’t get me wrong – there are still loads of smiles and comments on how beautiful she is. But sometimes I hear the unspoken “… for a kid with Ds” at the end of the compliment. There is a quiet standard I hear that seems to be applied to all school age kids where “typical” becomes “normal” and “normal” slides into “expected” and these young souls are filed on to the treadmill of striving and competition that will follow them through adulthood. It’s an atmosphere that my kid just isn’t built for.

We’re getting to the stage where, just like any kid her age, Julia’s innate cuteness is starting to wear off and the real differences (along with some of the attendant social embarrassment) are becoming more pronounced. Julia is very tentative and even fearful of high-energy situations that she’s unfamiliar with. She is a creature of habit whose desire for quiet and television time can torpedo an evening social gathering. And we are still fighting for every syllable in her speech therapy – the progress is real, but painfully slow.

I’m sure that some of this is due to my own hang-ups. I still have to remind myself that despite a world bent on progress and its hostility toward anything or anyone that isn’t economically value added, there are people – lots and lots of people – who know that value isn’t solely measured by productive output. There are those wonderful people who love the differently abled for their intrinsic humanity and not the packaging they come in. They’re willing to bear with our Julia because she belongs to them as well – no matter what her mood happens to offer up at the moment.

One thing you know you’re going to get: pure, unfiltered, no-hidden-agenda Julia. Sometimes impolite, other times a fist bump or a hug – all of it is very, very real. This kid has no guile and you never have to wonder what she is feeling. And in a world full of agendas and deception, that can be as refreshing as it is frustrating; because with every interaction, I have to decide if I am going to press my agenda or enter into her simple desires.

Julia forces me to step off the treadmill of my agenda and engage with hers. She encourages me to be a little less selfish and reminds me that my story is only a part of the larger story. How can that be a bad thing?

So here’s to our girl – with all of her love, simplicity and challenges. With a community like you behind us, we get to experience the love and support of World Down Syndrome Day all year round!

Julia-WDsD2016

 

 

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2014, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

Misty Field
It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather here over the last few days with a lot of rain and mist on the fields – fallow except for those planted with winter wheat. We saw our neighbor Jim Laramie earlier, who stopped by with the most amazing homemade toffee. He told us it was his first year trying his hand at it, and all I can say is that it was quite a success. We are even now hovering around the computer for the Skype call with our friend Malcolm from the U.K. There’s a fire in hearth, cranberry glazed pork tenderloin waiting for dinner; and after the maddening rush of Christmas preparation, we’re finally feeling the permission to breath again.

I have to admit at the outset that I came into this season with a tiny bit of dread. It wasn’t necessarily the quickening pace of our lives with all of the holiday expectations (we’re still “that family” that puts out 150 or so Christmas cards – and the list is only growing!). Actually, it took me a while and some real soul searching over the last month or so to put my finger on it.

The first string I picked up and followed was the realization that I wasn’t anticipating the Christmas gift exchange. Normally I’m at the front of the line with a list of the things I want; but when Jocelyn asked me what I wanted last month, I couldn’t come up with a thing. Even scarier, it wasn’t because I was feeling any sense of contentment with what I had. As I pondered it, I realized that it was a weariness of this practice of endless acquisition that we westerners seem to be locked in. I had simply become “gadgeted out.”

I also spent a lot of time thinking through my holiday malaise as I listened to Christmas songs on the radio (and yes, I waited until after Thanksgiving). It’s amazing how they can conjure up so much sentimentality with the warm images of family coming together and the anticipation of Christmas morning. After years of great family memories, the older generation’s passing and exodus of the younger generation across the country have thinned out the celebration of Christmas on the farm. What’s more, it felt as if the songs I once enjoyed became an inventory of the experiences that were more in my past than my present – or my future.

And I very well could have stayed in that funk, but I believe I was quite literally delivered by a Christmas carol you’ll rarely hear on the radio. Dating back to the 12th century, the Wexford Carol is one of the oldest carols that we know of in the European tradition; and it was the first verse that reached out and captured my heart:

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born

To consider well and bear anything in mind can be a real trick in the crush of the holiday treadmill – much less the spectacular thing that happened in that town in a backwater Roman province no one had ever heard of. How easily we – I – forget. But in those simple words I was reminded again of the gift that outweighs anything I could have gotten from Amazon. Amid all of the wonder that our holiday-industrial complex offers, this was the thing my heart longed for.

And somewhere in the second hundred playbacks of “Happy Holidays”, I started to realize that instead of mourning the loss of all of the family experiences of years past, it was far more life giving to be grateful that I ever had the opportunity to have those marvelous experiences in the first place.

Even better? Out of an overflow of that grateful heart, I need to pour myself out to give others a beautiful Christmas memory. So with my heart steeled with that conviction, let the real holiday begin…

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2013, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

Christmas Wreath
It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. The temperature barely got above 20 degrees today, but a strong sun melted off the dusting of snow we got last night and its reflection off the white and fallow fields made it hard to look outside today. But now the light has mellowed and the afternoon shadows have lengthened, and I sit in the living room as a Christmas Eve dinner of salmon with Meyer lemon is being prepared (don’t worry, I’ll be doing the dishes!). We may even get down the road later tonight for a bowl of Jim Laramie’s marvelous homemade gumbo!

The quiet and much slower rhythms of the farm are a welcome change from the frenetic pace of the city. Most of the farm implements have been covered up for the winter and the farmers in Saline Township take a grateful sigh of relief now that the season’s crops have been harvested and the winter wheat has been sowed.

It’s interesting and a little sad, though, that the Christmas rhythm out here got a little slower this year. We normally would have been out the door not long after breakfast today, making a round of visits to the older family – especially my aunts. I said my last goodbyes to my Aunt Cora a month or two ago, and her sister Pat has moved down south to be with her children. And so our family’s world got one orbit smaller this year.

I’m seeing it along Willow Road as well. One by one, the dairy farmers let go of their herds until the nearest operation is three or four miles away. Our neighbors (and my adopted parents) have finally divested of their hog operation after nearly fifty years. After abusing their bodies for so long, they said that all they would feel was achy after a long day tending the farrowing house and finishing barn.

Even my Dad is getting to an age where he doesn’t want to bother with a lot of things these days – and at nearly eighty-three, he has every right. I came out a couple of weeks ago and got a Christmas tree up and the traditional wreath on the house, more for my own nostalgia than anything else. Now that he has throttled back on his volunteer hours up town, many of his days are spent with crosswords or books in the quiet of the farmhouse, coffee or an occasional breakfast with friends and afternoon cribbage with his girlfriend, Sue.

And it would be really easy for a guy of this age to begin to despair of life. With friends and family of his generation passing away and the natural physical inconveniences that come with age, retreating from life can seem like a reasonable choice between a lot of unsavory alternatives.

Dad RecordingBut it took one of those silly recordable storybooks you buy at the Hallmark store to remind me of a more hopeful trajectory of a life well lived. Jocelyn had picked it up last year during the post-holiday liquidation of all the Christmas merchandise. She brought it along to the farm, intending to record the story for Julia to follow along and learn about the Nativity; but I suggested we have Dad do it. It’s not much fun to think about, but one doesn’t need to have skill in actuarial math to realize that we will outlive him. I thought it would be a nice way for Julia to remember her grandfather on a special day.

So Dad and I sat down at the kitchen table while Julia was napping and recorded the story; but the weight of it didn’t really hit me until later when I played it for Jocelyn. It was a tinny, digitized recording depicting a childish, sentimentalized version of Jesus’ birth, but its pricelessness brought us both to tears within the first few words.

Behind that simple story – from the promise that love finds a way to the final words of my father’s love for his granddaughter – was the voice of nearly eighty-three years of experience. Those years had seen many things – marvelous and tragic – from living through the Great Depression and a world war to serving his family and community through the country’s meteoric growth. There were, to be sure, glimmers of the prosperity in his voice, but it was the heartbreaks that he lived through that imparted its weight and depth.

And it was the story my father read of an improbable birth in a place fit only for animals and castaways that reminded me: despite the frustrations of life and the slowing, painful pace of age, Love played the ultimate trump card that overcame the separation from everything good that is the ultimate fate of us all. Love did not give up on us, even while we were still shaking our fist in defiance. Love loved anyway, sacrificed anyway, became vulnerable despite humanity’s track record and pitched his tent among the lowliest, yet could still run circles around the mightiest.

Love came not to condemn us – any of us – but to save us. Because each life that walks this planet is of inestimable, intrinsic worth.

And I heard – again – the wonder of this Story read in the quavering voice of my father on a cold Christmas Eve.

I give God thanks for all of you and wish you all the best this Christmas.

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