Sunday, October 28, 2007

One More Time ... It's Always New

I spent the afternoon with Napoleon and Wilson. I picked them up at noon, we ate lunch together at an Applebee’s and then spent some time trying to find a fun place to hang out. Since I couldn’t find anything in the first hour of driving, I decided to call home and ask my wife for some assistance. (It’s times like these when I think I might need to have an iPhone like she does). She gave us the directions to a Celebration Station, where Napoleon drove the race cars and then joined Wilson in the arcade. Sixty tokens later we were on our way back to the car and on the way to the home that will be theirs for less than forty-eight more hours.

When I tell people we are adopting two more children, bringing the child count to twelve, I usually append the information by adding, “But we’ve done this before, so we’re pretty familiar with the routine.” And that is true. There are many things we are familiar with ... the social services process, the legal process, the emotional transitions that all of us will encounter in the weeks and months ahead.

But it’s not entirely true, I was reminded today, that familiarity wins the day for adoptive parents. It is familiar, but it is always new. No families -- adoptive, foster or birth -- are alike, no children are completely similar, no experiences are entirely replicable. I made some observations this afternoon that remind me that this is one more familiar, yet new experience.

These boys exhibit a deep attachment to one another. I assumed based on what I had read and heard about them before actually meeting them that this was true, but I also know that sometimes what professionals observe to be “true,” may not eventuate. So I watch for subtler signs, and in Leon’s and Wilson’s case, it is a truth. Even though he will soon be 13 Leon does not seem to mind Wilson’s need to be physically close to him. There is a protective warmth between the two of them that warms my soul. It is protective, but does not seem exclusive. In other words, while I’m sure Leon has been parentified to some extent, he is not inappropriately fixated with his younger brother’s whereabouts. Because Wilson is too small to drive the cars or drive the bumper boats, I gave him his tokens while Leon went to the race track. I could tell almost immediately that this was uncomfortable for Wilson. He was not afraid of being with only me in the arcade, but his furtive glances disclosed the depth of his attachment to his older brother.

Claudia mentioned to me after her time spent with them alone last week (while I was in Nashville at other church-related meetings), that “these boys are crazy smart.” And they really are. While Leon was on his way to race the cars, Wilson and I counted the tokens. I gave him five extra tokens (without telling him how many). He pocketed his tokens and we set off in the arcade. The first game took two tokens, the second three tokens. And then he stopped. I said, “Aren’t you going to use some more of your tokens?” He just smiled at me and shook his head without saying anything. Then it hit me. He knew that he had used his five extra tokens, that now he and Leon each had nearly the same amount, and he intended not to do anything further without his brother at his side. Fortunately I am nearly as smart as he is, so I said, “Do you think we should go out and see how Napoleon [Wilson always calls him ”Napoleon“ in a charmingly enunciated combination of Texas drawl and Asian staccato] is doing in the race?” With a broad smile he nodded his head in the affirmative and we were quickly at the race track. I did not need to point out Leon’s location. Wilson had already spotted his yellow shirt and was watching as his brother screechingly rounded a corner.

During our car ride I heard much from Napoleon about his early experiences in life. Our initial minutes before lunch were stone quiet, and lunch was also an experience in solitude. Rather introverted myself, I chose not to push conversation. But by the time we were in the car, Leon was ready to tell me all kinds of things. Why they were unable to live with their birth parents, the racial dynamics in his middle school, even a bit of social commentary on the changes in urban life. He waxed eloquently as he described the way in which incoming Mexican immigrants were living in areas from which the newest immigrants twenty years ago (Asians, his ancestry) had vacated. In the neighborhoods he is familiar with, white flight is followed by African-American families, and when African-American families become more upwardly mobile it is Asians who take their places, and then incoming Hispanics who occupy the most basic rung. I was struck with his insight as a twelve-year-old about how all this happens.

He explained that the scars on his right cheek were the result of numerous street fights in which he had been attacked by kids of other ethnic backgrounds. He regaled me of his ability to fight as needed to protect himself, how his older brother helped him and watched out for him as much as possible. He went on to tell me about his birth grandmother, who would chase away the bullies attacking him, only to have them laugh in her non-English speaking face.

This, mind you, is a child (?) of twelve years old. But he has lived on some of the toughest streets of a major United States urban area, and he is a survivor. He is internally resilient, externally slight, and emotionally strong.

I explained to him that moving to our relatively small (55,000) community will be a big change for him. He is used to seeing many African-American and Hispanic faces, a few Asian faces, and even fewer white faces where has been living. I explained that in his new community he will see a lot of white people, very few Asians, and not that many African-American or Hispanic faces. It will be a big change, I reminded him. He simply looked at me with his trusting brown eyes, sparkling with acknowledgment and nodded his head.

Last week when they were with both Claudia and me, he told us that he intended to be an engineer. I think this might be more than an idle whim. This is one kid to watch grow up, let me tell you.

This will be a new experience in adoption. To welcome into our home kids who appear to be so emotionally healthy, internally resilient and wickedly intelligent will be a real journey. But I’m ready for it.

One more time we’re adopting kids. But it’s always a new experience.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Heavy Six Hours In Dallas

At some point in the last ten years I decided that when visiting locations that are new to me that I will do all I can to become familiar with my new surroundings. Often times that involves walking a few miles in my temporary terrain, but it can also mean driving to places I want to visit. I am by nature a fairly reluctant person when it comes to new experiences, so my resolve is often tested when it comes to this commitment (I can always find work to do in the hotel room or I rationalize that the traffic will be really bad or that I will get lost in a strange city), but I am almost unfailing these days in making it happen. And when the experience is over, I have few regrets.

So, this morning after I awakened in a Holiday Inn Express in a suburb of Dallas, I took care of “housekeeping” items (email and doing some laundry) and then my day to include a drive to the west end area of downtown Dallas. Having never been there before I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I wanted to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy some forty-four years ago. With the help of Mapquest my trip to the location was uneventful, and parking was easy to procure. (If you’re planning to visit this site, you should know that it is really very easy to find and parking is a snap).

The Museum is in the former Texas School Book Depository, and the entire tour takes place on the sixth floor, the location from which it is alleged that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fateful bullets that would take our thirty-fourth president’s life. Each visitor is equipped (you may choose, but it is no additional cost and does add the the tour) with a personal listening device that provides guidance from panel to panel. The recorded information includes interview segments from those who were present that day, including recordings of original news casts from that day. These extras add a lot to the narration.

It is a sobering experience. There is little talking from other visitors (and today there were three or four buses of middle school aged students), and while it’s sober it’s not a morbid experience. The corner window from which the rifle was fired is blocked by plexiglass dividers with boxes set up to resemble the original site. The facts of the shooting are relayed in factual terms, not in a violence-glorifying or “here was where our President was martyred” sort of way.

There are alcoves in which video of the original news broadcasts can be viewed, ranging from the reports of the assassination “attempt” to the report of the President’s death, the funeral procession and burial of the president, and other vignettes. The tour concludes with positive reflections on the work -- finished and unfinished -- of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His legacy is remembered in a reverent, though not maudlin, fashion.

After the museum experience I took a walk in the downtown West End area. It is a lovely sun-drenched Dallas day with highs in the 70s, and I happened upon the Sea Dogs Restaurant. Because it was high noon on a Saturday the area was not filled with people (as I suspect it might be during the lunch hour during the business week or on weekend evenings), so I had my pick of seating location. I chose to sit outside on the patio, where I could enjoy the warmth of the day and watch the occasional walkers pass by. Had I known before arriving that the restaurant is known primarily for seafood (now that I read the website I see that), I probably would have made a different choice, but I opted for the chicken fried chicken. If you can’t get good chicken-fried whatever in Texas, where can you?

I had a lackluster salad to begin with and minutes later my lunch arrived. The chicken-fried chicken was excellent, some of the best I have ever eaten. It’s thin crust was perfectly friend, not greasy and not tough, just enough to provide the crispness that makes a perfect contrast to the juicy, perfectly cooked chicken breast within. Atop the golden crispy chicken were sauteed mushrooms (and not from a can, either). They were a delicious, though unlikely, companion to the chicken fried chicken. Accompanying the chicken were mashed potatoes (so lackluster I won’t say another word about them) and “fried corn.” I saw fried corn on the menu and simply assumed it would be grilled, but what arrived was delicious, albeit a little on the salty side. Think “fried rice” without the rice and without the Asian flavors. It was a buttery, grilled combination of scrambled eggs (like fried rice), tiny chunks of texas toast and, of course, corn. The only thing that would have made my lunch more enjoyable was the presence of my family, whom I am missing after being away for six days already.

After lunch I continued to walk around the West End area, visiting the John F. Kennedy Memorial site on my way. The Memorial site is a block or so away from the assassination site, and is a stark white reminder of the era from which Kennedy comes. A cenotaph (I learned that means an “open tomb”) structure, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza seeks to remember the joy and idealism of Kennedy’s presidency. It is another solemn reminder of Kennedy’s connection with Dallas, and its startling simplicity is captivating. It is a square thirty feet high and fifty by fifty feet with no top. There are seventy-two concrete columns, held aloft by eight that actually touch the ground. In the center is a simple, square granite base that has etched in gold on two of its sides: JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. It is a hauntingly personal experience to stand within the walls, so empty yet echoing with the downtown sounds one can almost hear the cracks of the rifle that took the president’s life four decades ago. Yet it is hopeful, rising as it does to the skies, hearkening back to distant time while pushing forward to the future. Aesthetically it seems to capture the spirit of our youngest president, flush with an idealism cut short by the harsh reality of unanticipated premature demise.

I stopped by the Old Red Courthouse a block away to check into their Information site. If you visit Dallas, this location will provide you excellent information on all kinds of happenings in the area ... from accommodation options to restaurants, historical sites, theater schedules and maps. There is an internet alcove with three computers available for use by the public and what appears to be a helpful guide. (She was busy helping someone else while I was there, and while I am quite self-sufficient, I could tell that she was doing an excellent job for the individual inquiring about options for his kids, in particular). I didn’t have time to take in the Old Red Courthouse itself (which appears to house history relevant to Dallas), but I was able to locate the Dallas Holocaust Musem, only a couple of blocks away.

As I walked to the Holocaust Museum I mentally took time to evaluate my emotions. Having spent the better part of two hours reliving the JFK assassination trauma, I wondered how I would do hearing about the horrors of Holocaust Germany, but I decided it was something I needed to do for moral reasons, if not for emotional ones.

The Holocaust Museum is a difficult journey, but decidedly meaningful and important. The visitor is equipped with a personal listening device (not unlike the ones at the Sixth Floor Museum), but more helpful here because each site is marked with a number. When you are ready to hear the narration for that part of the tour you simply punch in the appropriate numbers. There are approximately 3 hours of narration, and the visitor can choose which he or she chooses to hear. I listened to approximately 75% of the complete narration, shortening some by my choice, and simply not choosing those with which I had some familiarity. The concept is compelling. A particular day has been chosen (I forget the exact date at this moment) during the height of World War II on which three important events occurred. One is the Conference in Bermuda at which there was little substantive action taken to assist the European Jews, another was the Warsaw Uprising, and a third that date in Dallas-Ft. Worth. It is a fascinating approach to hear how on the same date in history three groups of people were engaged in varying degrees to support or lack of support of European Jews.

The narration and accompanying exhibits are riveting. There is a railroad car from Belgium during the era in which Jews were transported to concentration camps, from which a haunting lullaby is sung (the lullaby was actually written by an important singer of Jewish origins who sang in the boxcar to her own children as they were transported to their deaths). There are original artifacts which bring the evil of the Holocaust into a much more personal realm. I will never forget the jumbled display of children’s shoes, removed before their deaths and stockpiled by the Nazis. Nor will I forget the box of human hair, the box of gold teeth and the fragments of burnt human bone displayed as a reminder of this regime of human terror. There is a memorial room in which the names of hundreds of those who died during the Holocaust are remembered and a theater in which the firsthand accounts of survivors are projected. By the time I left the museum two hours after my entrance, I was ready to see the sunshine outside, grateful for the gifts of democracy and humbled by the realization that as a white male I have been privileged in more ways than I can ever fully articulate.

I cannot help but think that in our world today there are similar campaigns of horror currently raging in Sudan and in the Mideast. I wonder why we who have the freedom, the means and the voice to rise up in holy outrage do nothing, but I fear I know the answer. For many of us, especially those of us born into a privileged racial or economic class, those who are being slaughtered today look too little like us for us to bother. After all, if our children are happy and healthy (or relatively so), and if our parents are in good enough health, why do we need to worry? May God forgive us. And persuade us to act with more courage and speed than the leaders of our grandparents’ era some sixty years ago.

It was a heavy six hours in Dallas. But I don’t regret a single minute of it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Don't Want to Bring Another Child Into the World ...

While Claudia and our two new boys were at the theater preparing to watch The Game Plan, we saw the preview for Martian Child. Any movie that has adoption-related themes is interesting to me, but I was particularly struck with one of the sentences I heard this afternoon.

The main character, the adoptive father figure, explains his plight in wishing to parent a “Martian child”: “I don’t want to bring another child into the world, but how can I argue with one that’s already here?”

This one sentence sums up eleven years of my life experience as an adoptive parent. I have never been too confident about the possibility in bringing into the world through birth another child. If such a child were to be born with both Claudia’s and my best attributes, it might be a worthwhile endeavor. But, based on my observations over the years, very few children are born with their parents’ best features. Many times they have one or more positive qualities, but the risk is pretty high, especially for parents like Claudia and me who have some glaring irregularities. I must confess that it is kind of sad that on both sides of our family it looks as those there will not be another birth generation proceeding forward. Neither my sister nor Claudia’s two brothers intend to bear children, so we have the sole responsibility of providing grandchildren, which I believe we have done rather well, if I do say so myself.

But, I digress. It is easy for me to justify our lack of childbearing, whether from sheerly personal reasons or from the likes of those who talk about the overpopulation of the world and the anticipated perils it will introduce to civilization as we know it.

It is not easy, however, for me to ignore the reality that in the United States in any given year there are over 120,000 “older” (age four and over) children who are legally free for adoption, and many of whom will age out of foster care without a permanent family resource. Especially as a person of Christian faith, a tradition which has since our Judeo beginnings championed the cause of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, it is hard for me to ignore the children in our world who need permanency.

There are those who ask us, “Are you really adopting again? How many kids do you already have?” While I almost always respond as graciously as I can, what I often want to say is, “Yes, we are adopting again, because you are not.” If only 10% of those who claim the name Christian in the United States would choose to heed the scriptures’ admonition to care for orphan, the permanency crisis we currently face as a society would be eliminated.

Sometimes the junior high school students I work with in our confirmation program are less tactful in their questioning. On more than one occasion, and in more than one church I have served, I have been asked in a less than delicate way: “Why do you have so many kids?” or “You guys must be loaded to have all those kids!” or “Are you really doing this again?” My usual, and sincere response is, “As long as there are children in the world who need a family to love them, and as long as we are able to do it, how can we stop?”

It is a different lifestyle, to be sure, but we have found it to be one honored by the God we serve. There is a certain joy and delight in knowing that we are contributing in a most foundational way to the betterment of our society, that we are giving back to our world more than we are taking from it. And our day spent with Napoleon and Wilson today only affirms these decisions we have made in faith. They are delightful children who exhibit intelligence, sensitivity, conversational depth and promise for the future.

I am so glad God did not let us ignore these children who are already here, waiting for a home with a permanent mom and dad. How could we argue with kids who are already here?

Across the Years

It was nearly ten years ago that Claudia and I first entered the world of older child adoption. On a December day in Vancouver, Washington, not unlike this October day in Dallas, Texas, we met for the first time two boys who would come to share our last name and our family life.

Kyle (then 11) and Mike (then 8) were living in separate foster homes at the time, so part of our immediate task was to bring together two brothers whose relationship was lack that of magnets. You are, I am sure, familiar with the way that two magnets respond to one another. I learned about the way magnets work at my Grandmother Fletcher’s kitchen table many years ago, probably when I was a preschooler. She had two large magnets that always sat on the shelf next to her kitchen table, and I remember many minutes spent learning about similar and dissimilar forces. If I placed the magnets together with similar magnetism they would actually move away from each other, and if I took the same magnets and reversed their relationship they would summarily find themselves tightly connected.

We learned quickly that Kyle was the magnet doing his best to keep distance from his younger brother Mike, and that Mike was the magnet clinging with force to his older brother Mike. You can guess that their first years back together again with us were challenging ones. From the first moments they were in our rental car together before we ever flew back to Minnesota they were engaged in bickering, argumentation and some expressions of physical force. Their only moments of appropriate sibling interaction were ones in which they were competing together (in a board game, for example, or in swimming stunts in the hotel pool). Their relationship over the years has continued to be similarly characterized: Kyle continues to distance himself from Mike, and Mike reports that Kyle is the only person in the world he has ever really trusted or loved.

What a striking contrast Claudia and I have discovered in our two newest boys, Napoleon “Leon” (12) and Wilson (8). We met them for the first time last night at the airport upon our arrival, and it is apparent they are healthily attached to one another. Leon extends a brotherly hand to protect his brother on occasion, and Wilson looks to his brother for direction and safety. It is too soon to tell whether their relationship is one that is unhealthily enmeshed, but even the first hours we have been with them stand in stark contrast to the chaotic, fractious ones we spent together with Kyle and Mike a decade ago.

We are not naive, and we know that this is the “honeymoon” period for all of us. The boys are on their best behavior, and we are able to be generous with our time and attention at the moment without work and other children competing for our time. But by all reports these are two healthy boys. They have no documented diagnoses, they have not had a horrid history of physical abuse or emotional trauma. They have experienced neglect, but it appears that their early years have caused them to be bonded together, but not codependent or enmeshed. Their time together is not characterized by internal chaos or external anger.

It will be interesting to see what may develop in the weeks ahead, but for now I will receive as a gift from God’s hand the lives of these two handsome, intelligent, calm children.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Because My Wife Asked Me To

I'm blogging this entry because my wife asked me to, and you have to know that if she has asked me to blog something that bring her better blog traffic, she has to have a reason. The reason, simply, is that she is overwhelmingly tired and needs to sleep. The stresses of our delinquent children have hit both of us hard, but these days it is she who suffers more than I, kind of a role reversal from days past. Normally she is the one to tell me that she will offer me hope in the midst of dark days, but these days I am the one who seems more positive and settled. It may mean that I have learned to care less than I used to, or it may mean that I think kids (especially those old enough to know better or old enough by legal standards) who break the law and then treat their loving parents bad, too, really just deserve what they receive.

Forty-eight hours ago our son Mike was knocking on our front door, having just received his sentence (one one felony charge a sentence of five years probation, and on the other felony charge a concurrent sentence of 365 days in jail, stayed for two years, if he followed the terms of the court's order).

Seventeen hours ago our son Mike was arrested on a new charge of vehicle theft (the specific charges have not yet been leveled against him). So, that means beginning seven days ago tonight he has been responsible for stealing two separate vehicles. The police found him early this morning hiding in the porch of one of our daughter's friends (the friend is also a friend of Mike's), and he was booked at 4:36 AM on charges of auto theft.

Throughout the years I have gone round and round in my head about what we could have done differently with and for Mike. I have spent considerable time grieving what I thought to be a parenting lapse, but I no longer grieve in that way. I recognize that it has not been about good or bad parenting; it is about choices Mike has determined to make (even if they are short-sighted and FASD-fogged ones), against the good guidance and offered assistance of caring adults (not only his parents) in his life over the years. There are, it seems, some people who are simply bound to be criminal and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them.

This does not change my love for Mike, nor my ardent hope that one day his thinking might be clear enough to decide he no longer wants to lead this kind of life. But his actions, consistently antisocial and progressively worse, make me feel that I did all I could do in the years past, and no amount of loving, forgiving, responsive parenting was going to change that. When Mike's brain has grown to adulthood (whatever that might look like for him with the brain damage he suffered in utero), I hope he will recognize that we still love him and did all we could do to prevent the miserable road he finds himself upon.

My personal philosophical belief in free will has been confirmed time and again in Mike's life. While his thought processes may be jumbled, Mike has used whatever process he has to thwart the law, sidestep society's norms and passively defy all authority. All along the way he has been given chances over and over again, but soon things will come to screeching halt as a result of the adult criminal justice system.

The community will be a little safer when that day arrives. And maybe, just maybe, so will Mike.

Feeding a Large Family

Since this blog is really focused upon the life and times of an adoptive father of (soon to be) twelve children, I was thinking about the question I am often asked. It goes something like this, "How in the world do you manage to feed so many kids?" The question can mean anything from "who does all the cooking?" to "how much does it cost you a month for food?" to "where does everyone sit when it's time to eat?"

It's been a couple of weeks since we did a major grocery shopping stint. Typically during the week I need to buy milk or eggs or bread about every other day, so a major shopping stint usually requires one very, very full or two relatively full grocery carts. This morning one of our city's grocery stores had some great coupon deals (like buy one, get two free items), so our fifteen-year-old son Ben (that's what he prefers to be called most days, although some days he tells me to call him "Jimmy," which is what I am most familiar with) and I set out see what we could save.

We carefully picked up the items that were coupon items and only a few other necessity kinds of things. I am the major grocery shopper in the family (and since I'm also the cook that helps, since I usually know exactly what I want and how much I want to pay for it), and I happen to enjoy the process quite a bit. I hate dragging the bags into the house after arriving home, but fortunately I have kids who don't mind bringing in the groceries. As they bring the groceries in the house I immediately put the items away. I try to do it right away for at least two reasons: (a) I can put them exactly where I want them so that I know where to find them when I'm cooking and (2) special items (like chocolate-covered almonds and chocolate chips) can be quickly "hidden" away to avoid the hungry scrutiny of already well-fed children.

Anyway, today we used our coupons and saved 40% on our grocery bill. What started at well over $300 ended up costing us $130 less because of our coupons. And in case you are wondering, I don't buy items with coupons that we might not otherwise buy, and I almost always check prices to make sure that item in question isn't available cheaper with another label. The coupon items might be things we wouldn't always purchase (like frozen shrimp), but things that we would use if we had them. I've finally given up on the idea that convenience foods shouldn't be purchased ... when it comes to breakfast for the kids and such it's really easier (and cheaper when you build in the time to cook and clean up from scratch) to have a few frozen items (like waffles) or cereal (typically healthy ones like Cheerios, but occasionally if the price is right a box of Fruit Loops or my personal favorite Honey Smacks) on hand for the kids. Quite often I will cook breakfast on Friday (my day off) and sometimes on Saturday or Sunday we have "brunch."

The biggest challenge I find with the whole kitchen process is that if someone else is putting items away or in charge of dishes it takes me a long time sometimes to find what I'm looking for. I've had to decide whether to spend time being frustrated occasionally when I can't find my cookie scooper or whether I just want to do everything -- from purchasing, cooking and cleaning up -- myself. So far I have decided not to do everything for myself. While it's irritating not to be able to find what I'm looking for, the extra time it gives me is so far the payoff.

We try to eat together at least four or five times a week, although there are nights that are very difficult to do that with changing schedules for all of us as our kids get older. And it's not always the idyllic scene you might think it would be. Although we sit down to eat together (something, I understand that is becoming largely lost in our culture), often there is friction between any number of us. Occasionally the conversations are pleasant, but typically they are only endurable. I am hopeful, however, that as our children grow up, they will value the times we shared together at the table and that they will want to pass this on to their own families in the years to come.

Our table will be a little fuller and seating space a little tighter in the days to come, but I am looking foward to having another two persons to feed in less than a month. I've always told Claudia it's easier to cook for all twelve of us (we rarely have that privilege any long, with one of our college-aged sons living away from home and now Mike and John who are unable to live here), so I'm looking forward to a fuller table!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Felon at the Door

I came home for lunch today and finishing a bit early decided to do some organizing in our bedroom before leaving again. I had not been so engaged very long when I heard a rapping at our front door. Thinking it might be the washer repair guy (long story ... short version: our washer has not worked correctly since early August, and we have been waiting since then for a final resolution) I eagerly headed toward the door.

It was no washer repair guy. It was a felon. It was our eighteen-year-old son who had appeared in court earlier today for sentencing on two felony charges of receiving stolen property and auto theft (a separate auto theft than the one occurring this past weekend). I stood for a moment at the door, surprised that (a) he was out of jail and (b) that he was standing at our door, looking as if nothing had transpired over the past week.

"What do you need?" I asked.

"I suppose you know everything that's happened with the car and stuff."

"Yeah. I know what happened with the car."

"So, where is the car?"

"Rand has it at school."

"Think you could drive me there?"

"Ummm. Why?"

"My friend left some stuff in the car, and I want to get it back for him."

"Well, Mike, I looked through the car and didn't find anything that belonged to you. Except for the pot."

"There was pot in the car?"

"Yes, Mike. We've taken it to the police."

"Oh. Well it wasn't mine."

Awkward pause.

"So what happened in court this morning, Mike?"

"I've got five years of probation."

"That's it? You don't have any time to serve?"

"Well not yet. But maybe I will now. Why did the police release the car to me anyway? I don't even have a license."

"That's true. And I'm not sure myself why they would release the car to you, but you know if you had brought the car back here in the first place we would not be having this discussion."

Another awkward silence.

"So, do you think you can give me a ride to [the school he was enrolled it last year] or someplace?"

"Well, I'm just on my way to get Tony for an appointment, so I can drop you off on the way, yes."

"Think I could put some deodorant on first?"

"Mike, you don't have any deodorant here. You haven't lived here since February."

"Yeah, I do. It's in the basement."

"Can I trust you not to steal anything from the basement while you're down there?"

Irritated release of breath ... "Well, you can follow me around if you want to."

"Nah. Make it quick."

Returning up the stairs a few seconds later, "Think I could get something to eat quick?"

I offered Mike some of the leftover lunch I had made a few minutes earlier and he ate hungrily as we got into our car and headed toward his drop off point. There were few words exchanged between us, and as I pulled up to the curb to let him out he said, "Well, I'll talk to you guys later."

"OK, Mike. Later."

It's always a haunting experience to talk with Mike, even if in a limited encounter like the one we had today. There are moments when he seems so vulnerable, so lost, so obviously unaware of what's happening in his life. After all these years of involvement in his life I still feel a catch in my heart for him. I have to guard myself against succumbing to the irrational, illogical emotions of parental concern.

When I find myself emotionally torn I take a trip to the court house, look up the latest criminal records for the son in question, and then feel a little more justified in maintaining a necessary distance from him. Today's research shows that on his two felony charges Mike is expected to pay $1500 in fines, attend a cognitive process group, remain drug and chemical free, maintain a law-abiding status, and serve community service. He will remain on probation for 5 years, and during that time his 365 days of jail time will be waived (I believe the legal term is "stayed") if he complies with the requirements of the court for two years. Realistically, this seems like an impossibility.

But for tonight Mike finds himself free, able to knock on the doors of any who will receive him. In a short period of time, I fear, the door he will be peering through is not our door, but the door of his jail cell.

How It Looks From My Window

I have grown to love the morning, the earlier the better. Today I was able to be in my office well before 7:00 AM, so I have watched the world come alive around me. My office is on the second floor of the educational wing in the church where I am appointed as pastor. One of the things I love about my office location is that my window looks out over one of the busier streets in this area, so I see many different people doing many different things throughout the day.

Take this morning, for example. Walking through the deserted parking lot as the morning darkness transmuted into whisps of light, I slipped my key into the front lock and entered a darkened office hallway. Sitting at my much-cluttered desk I immediately dove into the stacks of paper I have to work through, hearing little from my opened window. In the refreshing newness of the day I could feel the gentle, cool autumnal breezes filtering through to where I was sitting.

Within the hour the traffic, both pedestrian and automobile, increases. I see joggers, walkers with their dogs in hand. And then, one of my favorite occurrences: two of the kids who live a block away, who regularly attend our church, and whom Claudia and I have "adopted" (along with their younger sister and mother). Every morning I am in the office they wave, raising their voices: "Hey, Pastor Bart!" I always return the wave and smile at them. It seems like a nice way for them and for me to start our mornings.

I busy myself with the relentless onslaught of email, telephone calls, preparation and papers representing work to be acted upon or delegated. And then I hear it.

A word wafting through my open window in this heretofore glorious morning that I am not expecting. The word that propriety prohibits me from typing here, but which begins with an "F" and rhymes with the animal that quacks and swims in the water. I am no prude. The wod surfeits regularly in our home, much to our chagrin, and after all this time is still not one that I appreciate much.

But to hear it piercing the beauty of the morning disconcerts me.

In the synaptic intensity of the moment, jarred as I was from the soothing start my morning had earlier promised, I drew a mental picture of the vulgarity's source. The church is located in a diverse neighborhood filled with all kinds of very interesting people, and so I imagined a small group of teenagers strutting their bravado and supposed maturity. Not seeing such a group, I thought perhaps a young adult who had experienced a challenging life or morning.

But it was neither.

It was a young man, someone I have seen walk by the church before, but not a person I have yet had the opportunity to meet. Twentyish, scraggly-bearded and evidencing the signs of a challenging life, he was holding the hand of a preschool child. No older than four years of age, she appeared to be his daughter. “Surely not,” I thought. “That guy can’t be talking to a small child that way, can he?”

In those quick moments of mental processing I quickly convinced myself that I must have misunderstood or misheard what I thought I had heard. Sadly, he confirmed my initial shock as I heard, “Hurry up! You don’t have to be so f---ing slow.”

By this time they were nearly past the church facilities and crossing the sidewalk, so I didn’t feel my presence would be welcome or helpful. Even had they been within clearer sight or closer to my office, I’m not sure if I would have bounded down the stairs and out the doors to confront the inappropriate behavior. The time may come when I have the chance to develop some kind of relationship with him, but the time was not today.

And so, sitting here, watching from my window, I am reminded that as challenging as my children are, they do not have to be subjected to the kind of emotional abuse that may very well lead them into repeating a generational cycle of despair and hopelessness. While we exchange heated and terse words now that most of kids are in the teenage years, none of our children at those young ages had to endure the inappropriate wrath of their parents because they were dawdlers.

Watching from my window reminds me that our world is filled with shadow and light, hope and despair, promise and destitution. And I am glad that I have the opportunity, one child at a time, to do my best to prevent the scene I observed this morning beneath the steps of my church office window.