The Greatest Teacher’s Secret School

One of the greatest teachers I know is a 6-year-old boy. (My 6-year-old boy.)

He runs a classroom full of girls (i.e. his little sisters) and he is always teaching them the most important things in life, like: the difference between a Double A and a Triple A battery, which shade of green crayon makes for the most realistic looking dinosaur and which toys of his are not meant to be touched.

His students tend to listen to him more than I — especially one in particular — his adoring 4-year-old sister with Down syndrome. She is, much of the time, teacher’s pet. (Given the day and if she decided to make a mess of the toys in his closet or not.)

I say he is one of the greatest teachers because he, despite his young age (or perhaps because of it), knows quite intuitively what it means to teach.

“Did you hear that, Mom?” He asks me excitedly with the pride of an Olympic coach. “Kate said a new word!”

“Did you know that, Mom?” He tells me boasting, “Kate can match all of her numbers!”

“Well how did she learn that number?” I ask puzzled, watching in awe of my bright girl.

“I taught her,” he says plainly (proudly). “We’ve been having secret school.”

“Secret school?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says with all the confidence of the biggest brother. “It’s when I teach her about life.”

And that, he does.

He pulls her in for a protective hug at church if she happens to get a bit restless. He grabs her hand and helps her up a step or down a slide made out of couch cushions. She is his and he is hers and what I find most beautiful is that he doesn’t realize he’s actually learning at a “secret school,” too.

For every day he is being taught the true wisdom of life — that we exist for each other, that patience is freedom, that a simple touch, a hug, a smile can change the world. He is learning how good it feels to help someone else, how rewarding it is to share your gifts for the benefit of others, and how life doesn’t get much better than when a 4-year-old wakes up asking for you by name.

And as my teacher becomes the student, my girl becomes a teacher. Kate pretends to tickle her 1-year-old sister who is fussing in the carseat next to her. When her baby sister drops her sippy cup, she is the first to pick it up. When her 2-year-old sister needs a dance partner, Kate is the first to step in for a waltz.

My 6-year-old boy isn’t the greatest teacher because he knows everything — but he does know Kate. He knows her words that others may not understand, the funny faces that make her laugh and the stuffed animal she’d most like to snuggle with. And because of it, she has learned so much about him.

For even though a big brother can be a big source of teasing and tickling and toy-withholding, he is so very much more. For in him, she learns what only the best teachers bestow:

How much she matters, how capable she is, how very much she is loved.

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To my dear millionaire friend, Carolyn

I stumbled upon a book today on our bookshelf with worn edges and a slight rip through the book jacket. The copyright says 1973. The title reads The Richest Lady in Town.

It was a book given to my Nana — my Dad’s mother — an angelic vision that rests in my heart’s memory with bouffant silver hair and piercing blue eyes and a contagious laugh.

Inside the front cover is a handwritten note from the author, scribbled in the pretty cursive writing so ubiquitous in my grandparents’ generation.

To my dear millionaire friend, Carolyn. See page 142. Lovingly, Joyce

My Nana was not a millionaire in the way most people know the term, but she was full of treasures. And as the book title implies, her God-given gifts, talents and virtues are what make a person truly rich, says Joyce.

I flipped to page 140, 141.. there it is, 142. I began reading.

Colleen Evans wrote unknowingly of my friend, Carolyn, when she described the “utterly sincere” as “the woman who gives every conscious area of her life to God… There is no inner tension in this woman, for she seeks to hide nothing from God or man.”

Carolyn lives her life as the wife of a military man in that kind of honesty, and consequently, she reveals no inner tensions. In fact, one of her loveliest traits is a well-developed, marvelous sense of humor. She is such a comedian she makes me smile, giggle and down-right howl, yet I have wept with her in prayerful moments. Having a sense of humor really boils down to this fact; you don’t take yourself dead seriously…

Carolyn is also one of the few women I know who acts her age without sobbing about it. She doesn’t try to be some young chick but has accepted her age. That may not sound like any big deal to you, but, from all the conversations I’ve heard at women’s meetings, age is the one thing very few women have on their “most wanted” list. Carolyn, with a married daughter and teen-age son, has adopted the attitude that she is exactly the age God wants her to be — not a moment older and not a moment younger. Growing older is never a threat to the woman who is securely loved by Christ.

When I did the last two military tours for the Chaplain’s Division in the Far East, I needed the rich gifts that Carolyn so lovingly gave to me in Okinawa. One was the gift of laughter… The other was that honesty that freed her from inner tensions. She refreshed my weary spirit in a hundred ways with these two gifts, and, even though I’m home now, the gifts still creep into my memory at odd times, and I smile because I’m blessed and warmed all over again!

I smiled when I read this passage, because this is exactly how I remember my grandmother — authentic, real, and quite frankly, hilarious. Her treasures of love and laughter have been a gift to my entire family and the memory of my time spent with her is the greatest inheritance she could’ve given me.

Joyce’s sentiment also reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote that I read the other day: “Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of  friends, ‘Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”

And isn’t it true? In thinking of my own dear friends, I see clearly that the gift of their friendship is not by chance; rather, it is a gift from a God who brings us together for a greater purpose. And through their own unique treasures — their humor, intelligence, talents — I learn more about God’s love.

I’ve re-read the last sentence of Joyce’s passage about my Nana several times now. It is, I think, an example of what all great friends of every age in every time do best of all:

“She refreshed my weary spirit in a hundred ways with her gifts, and, even though I’m home now, the gifts still creep into my memory, and I smile because I’m blessed and warmed all over again!”

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What Feeds a Family

I have picked up a new hobby.  I could call it a lifestyle, but that seems a bit prosaic.

It could be more akin to a religious conversion, but that might be dramatic, so maybe I’ll just say: there’s been a lot of food for thought (and thought for food) around here this last year.

It started innocently enough when I received the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook at a “Favorite Things” gift exchange one December evening.

Though, in all actuality, it has been brewing for awhile — a year to be exact. A year where we spent a lot of time in a minivan driving with lots of young children and cup-holders full of rainbow goldfish crackers and trips being made through the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru.

I was pregnant, we were living in a small apartment while building a home in the country — and we were driving back and forth to the job site every day (sometimes more than once). And so, as transitional times often are, we were out of routine, short on time, and fueling up on what was fast and easy.

Once we moved into the new house, we did settle back into routine a bit — better planning, better food. But still, we had a newborn by then, and I started to recognize a very scientific pattern: the more crackers I had in the house, the less vegetables my 5-year-old wanted to eat.

This was a subtle observation — and I’m not villainizing crackers. Many are really quite tasty, especially those buttery, round, salty ones with a slice of Jarlsberg on top. But what this cracker/no vegetable correlation (causation?) did is make me start thinking.

It began with just the food itself, as in: how can I get my kid to be less picky?

I am practical about these things, truly — and I give us all a lot of grace. Though my then-5-year-old was, at the time, approving only about 9 different foods on rotation, my 2-year-old bon vivant was begging for roasted tomato salad with goat cheese and sauteed onions. Personality does come into play.

But with something as human and basic as the nourishment of our bodies (and my role as the primary food-maker, nourisher), what I have fallen in love with over the last year is more than just eating “healthy;” rather, the bigger-life-philosophy of being well-nourished.

After reading 100 Days of Real Food, I went on to digest the real catalyst of my conversion, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. Pollan calls it an “Eater’s Manifesto” and it’s a fascinating discussion of the Western Diet, the history of Industrialized Food and what he calls, “The Age of Nutritionism.”

Next I read Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a deeper dive into where the steak and potatoes and tomatoes on our grocery store shelves actually come from — a wonderful book. Then on to Pollan’s Food Rules (a short little read about the cultural guidelines for eating), which nicely led to an interesting book about French food culture, French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon. I’m currently reading the beautifully penned Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which details one family’s attempt to eat only locally grown food for an entire year.

As I’m writing this, it doesn’t seem all that poetic or metamorphic — you’re eating healthy food, woopee! — but making thoughtful changes in our pantry and fridge and recipe repertoire have really enriched aspects of our family culture in ways I didn’t anticipate. My son said at breakfast this morning: Mom, I’m so happy we’re eating our bread again. (I have been making our own sandwich bread for months now and my Kitchen Aid mixer, which I use for kneading, has been kaput the past couple of weeks. It’s finally fixed, so this morning we had the first homemade batch again.)

This idea of “our bread,” the bread of our family — thick, hot slices of not just toast, but tradition and ritual and love. It’s about so much more than the yeast and the flour and the honey that falls, thick, from the measuring cup into a big metal bowl. It is about nourishment — in the sense that this is our family bread and also that it is bread that we know – down to every pure ingredient — and because of that, we have more gratitude for it.

In order to eat well we need to invest more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance, to dust of a word, than most of us do today. A hallmark of the Western diet is food that is fast, cheap, and easy. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food; they also spend less than a half hour a day preparing meals and a little more than an hour enjoying them. For most people for most of history, gathering and preparing food has been an occupation at the very heart of daily life… Here then, is one way in which we would do well to go a little native: backward, or perhaps it is forward, to a time and place where the gathering and preparing and enjoying of food were closer to the center of a well-lived life.

— Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

And perhaps that’s why the crackers really did start to bother me — you poor crackers, I’m really not trying to pick on you, but I do need an example. I simply realized how much I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their ingredients or even how to pronounce many of them. I didn’t know where they came from. And at the end of the day, I didn’t really know how nourishing they were — and the fact that my son loved them above all else edible was problematic to me. Once we got rid of most of the crackers and boxed snackies and started cooking more home-made meals of rich, nourishing, delicious whole foods, we liked the boxed stuff less anyway.

(And because of it — and a little persistence on my part — my son has added many new foods to his rotation.)

This conversion of heart — or is it stomach? — came at a time when our family was already embarking upon an adventure as neophyte homesteaders.

As I’ve been soaking up words about food and culture and nourishment, my husband has been reading the prose of Wendell Berry and the no-nonsense farm sense of Joel Salatin. Somewhere in all of this food for thought, in the intersection of delicious cooking and apprentice vegetable gardening and chicken coop planning, we have found that the care and energy that goes into feeding ourselves is just as filling as the food itself.

My picky eater would not be motivated by my simple coercion to eat your peas before ice cream, but he is quite motivated to grow his own watermelons in our backyard garden beds and taste what truly ripe, in-season fruit tastes like. He would have nothing of trying a new texture put before him without warning, but he loves being my Sous Chef on a step stool beside me while making a new recipe (and what chef doesn’t dip their finger in for a taste?) His love for good food has become a love for the ritual of mealtime; and mostly, the routine of sharing a meal — the passing of a plate, the setting of a table, the conversations that are as sustaining as the meal itself.

French children are exposed early on to elaborate meals and learn that their parents expect them to treat these occasions with respect. Their respectful attitude carries over into everyday meals, which have a slightly ceremonial feeling. The French never, ever, eat without putting a tablecloth on the table. They even have a special phrase for setting the table: dresser la table. (The word habiller, which is the normal French word for getting dressed, is also used.)

The image of a table getting “dressed” can still send my girls into fits of giggles. But it is actually an accurate description of how the French approach the dining table. They dignify the table, and themselves, through clothing it with the appropriate item to be worn for the most important moment of the day. Setting the table is a ritual that expresses the ceremonial and aesthetic aspects of French eating, at the core of which is the belief that eating is intensely social and that it rightfully happens around the table…

Preparing the table to receive the food in this way might seem a little old-fashioned. But it has a marvelous effect on children. They react as if a stranger in uniform has shown up at the front door: it immediately puts them on their best behavior. The effect is heightened by the rules concerning how the French eat. Food is never eaten standing up, or in the car, or on the go. Food is not eaten anywhere, in fact, but at the table. And food is only served when everyone is at the table. “À Table!” is a summons that brings most French children running. Everyone waits for everyone else to be served, and for the ritual “Bon appetit!” to be said before beginning the meal. As children almost always eat with their parents, these habits sink in early.

So eating — even everyday meals — is treated like an occasion. And it is, above all, a social occasion. The French never eat alone (at home or at work) if there is someone else to eat with. And because French food tastes so good, it is an occasion to look forward to.

— Karen LaBillon, French Kids Eat Everything

The heartwarming food culture that is developing in our home has become such a fulfilling part of our family culture. Writer Barbara Kingsolver defines a genuine food culture as an “affinity between people and the land that feeds them.” And perhaps that is what is growing here.

In a world of processed food a hundred grocery store shelves wide, we are all too often detached from where our food comes from — a box of crackers is not nearly as intuitive of a connection from earth to food as the plants and animals that are fed themselves by the soil.

And so, in nourishing ourselves with gratitude and grace from the God who provides for each of us, we are reminded that every meal and every person who shares it along side us truly is a gift.

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A podcast interview: Down syndrome, hope and what it means to be human

A few weeks ago, the lovely Erin Franco (from the Humble Handmaid blog) kindly asked me to join her on her podcast about faith and motherhood, The Right Heart, for a conversation about having a child with Down syndrome.

I thought that was a super fun idea — so on a rainy Wednesday evening, I snuck away into my closet (the only quiet place I could find in the house with four children) and sat on the floor next to the treadmill (you don’t keep your treadmill in the closet?) and called Erin for a heartfelt chat.

Some of the questions Erin asks in the podcast are: What is the best reaction or treatment of Kate that you think people can have? Why do you say it is a “gift” to have a child with special needs? How has having a child with Down syndrome affected your marriage? How did you and and your husband decide to have more children after having Kate?

To listen to our conversation, just click here.

(Thank you, Erin, for having me on your podcast! I so appreciated your honest and thoughtful questions — you are a wonderful host.)

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Special Children, Blessed Fathers

My husband was recently invited to contribute a chapter to a new book about faith, fatherhood and children with special needs called Special Children, Blessed Fathers.

In Matt’s chapter, titled, “A Different Life,” he naturally talks about his experience as Dad of our daughter, Kate, who has Down syndrome. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of us spend our lives trying to make life easier. We imagine that having a lot of “success” — extra money and influence, a nice house, the ideal family and plenty of free time for pursuing hobbies and career interests — will make for an easier, happier life.

Deep down we know it’s not true. Not only does every bit of conventional wisdom testify to this lie, but we also see it played out every day as we learn the unhappiness of the rich. Yet we still insist on learning it the hard way ourselves, often wasting our lives pursuing this “easier life.”

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. Having a child with special needs is like a secret short cut. When you have somebody who needs you a little differently, you have much less time to waste on such other pursuits. Of course, having any kids at all does this in its own, beautiful way. But having a child that nudges us out of the norm and demands our attention in a different way has been a great gift.

Yes, some things in life are harder. There is no sugar-coating the extra challenges that come with having a child with special needs. But, for us, while some things are harder, the most important things in life are actually easier. It has compelled us to live the life of service we were already called to. And when you begin to live in this way — with less room for your own selfish ambitions — it’s easier to see the simple and miraculous life God planned for you.

Mother Teresa says, “The fruit of service is peace.” Well we’ve learned that all the unexpected trials of life are not really burdens at all, but opportunities to serve. They are the path to peace.

Matt’s chapter is beautiful (and I would say that even if he wasn’t the love of my life) — but the other chapters bring great wisdom as well.

Writer and father, Joseph Pearce, who pens a chapter called, “Unless We Become As Little Children: Lessons my Son Has Taught Me,” also writes about having a child with Down syndrome.

An excerpt from Pearce’s chapter:

Children with Down syndrome are, indeed, very special people. They are here to teach the rest of us about love, not merely in the feel-good sense in which the word is so often abused in our largely loveless world, but in the self-sacrificial sense, which is the heart of love’s deepest meaning.

If the true definition of love is to lay down one’s life for the other, the child with Down syndrome or with other challenging disabilities teaches us how to love more fully and more truly. Can there be a greater gift to any family than the gift of this very special love? Once again, Father Ho Lung encapsulates the heart and hub of the problem of modern life and the way in which children with Down syndrome help us to solve the problem:

‘There are so many worries in the world because our modern world requires that we have so much.

We sophisticated people battle and compete to acquire so much, intellectually and financially… There are so many goods that are there to be had; so we miss the flowers, the trees, the birds of the air, and each other.

There is no ambition [in the self-centered sense], no battle for power, no pomp, no falsehood, no hypocrisy in people with Down syndrome.’

Most of the contributors in the book are Catholic fathers who have children with a range of special needs — but the stories span faith traditions and life experience with words of love, truth and encouragement. And you might even find a few words from yours truly if you look close enough! (*cough* on page 190 *cough*)

Archbishop Chaput wrote the forward — he has spoken positively and powerfully about people with Down syndrome often, some of my favorite words of his:

A friend of mine has a son with Down syndrome, and she calls him a “sniffer of souls.” I know him, and it’s true. He is. He may have an IQ of 47, and he’ll never read The Brothers Karamazov, but he has a piercingly quick sense of the people he meets. He knows when he’s loved—and he knows when he’s not. Ultimately, I think we’re all like her son. We hunger for people to confirm that we have meaning by showing us love. We need that love. And we suffer when that love is withheld.

These children with disabilities are not a burden; they’re a priceless gift to all of us. They’re a doorway to the real meaning of our humanity. Whatever suffering we endure to welcome, protect, and ennoble these special children is worth it because they’re a pathway to real hope and real joy.

I have a few extra books to give away if you know a father who may need a little encouragement right now. First come, first serve — just email me at sippinglemonade (at) gmail.com and I’d be happy to drop one in the mail for you. Update 7/14/15: All of the free books have been claimed, if you would like to purchase one from Amazon, just click here.

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