Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Moment of Joy

I think I owe my blog readers some moments of joy from time to time, especially when so much of my blog has been focused on the serious, or the morose, or the challenging side of parenting special needs children. Imagine my delight a couple of days ago when I opened up the paper lying on our front step (we recently resubscribed to our community's newspaper) and saw front and center on the sports page (a page I rarely read) an article complete with large picture of our son Ricardo. (He's the one on the bottom, in case you didn't figure it out based on the origins of his name).

Midway through the article, which reports on the entire wrestling tournament, is this quote from Jim Rueda, the Free Press Sports editor:

One of the bright spots for East was Ricardo Fletcher, who took on Class AAA's ninth-ranked Alex Thompson at 119 pounds and gave the Scarlet all he could handle. The bout was tied at 2-2 after two periods before Thompson pulled away to an 8-2 victory.

What the article doesn't say -- and the writer couldn't have known -- is just how incredible this really is. In the Fall of 2007 Ricardo began the school year as a sixth grader, an old sixth grader, but one none the less. He has only been in the USA since he was ten (he just recently turned fifteen), so his English skills have been a challenge; hence his grade placement. After two months in sixth grade, though, we were informed that he was "too old" to be in sixth grade and would have to jump up to seventh grade. So in the Fall of 2007 he left sixth grade, became a seventh grader, and within less than a month decided to wrestle. He had not wrestled before, had no training or coaching previously, but did well enough that within a couple of weeks he was wrestling varsity. This year as an eighth grader he has done very well, and this is the second time in the season he has grabbed a sports front page picture and write-up.

With many of the challenges our children have presented us over the years, it is nice occasionally to relax in the joy of seeing one of our kids succeed. And Ricardo is the kind of kid who deserves to succeed. He is bright and respectful and almost always does what he is asked to do in the family without argumentation.

For just a moment I am experiencing joy, and thanking God for it!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Figuring It Out On His Own

The letter (which I reference in a previous blog post) has not yet reached Mike, but today's frantic phone call from him foretells, as expected, continuing difficult water. He called first about an hour ago to see if I "had come up with anything yet" concerning his impending release from prison.

I said, "Well, Mike, I'm not really sure what to tell you. I just sent you a letter explaining that there wasn't too much we could do to help you at this point."

After a silence. "So, I'm on my own, then? That's the way it is? OK, then." And the call disconnected. I am no longer (after thirteen years of working with difficult kids) bothered by abrupt ends to telephone calls, so I stepped back into my work.

More than an hour later it is Mike again on the phone. "So, did you hang up on me last time?" is his opening salvo.

"Um, no. I thought you disconnected from me."

"Oh. So there's nothing you can do to help me, huh?"

"Like I said, Mike, I don't know what it would be. We've pretty much exhausted our options on this end."

"So, I get sent to prison and then you're all done. Is it like the straw that broke the camel's back or something?"

"It's like this, Mike. Everything I've been doing for you over the past few months and the years before that was to prevent you ending up in prison. And nothing worked. It doesn't seem like any of it really mattered too much."

Long pause, but the tension in the air is thick enough to slice. I respond, "Mike, I don't think it is really in your best interest to return to [our community]. You mentioned in your letter to me that you need to get away from bad influences, and that's all you know here."

"But what am I supposed to do, then? I don't have anywhere else to go. I should never have come to [our community] in the first place."

I bite my tongue. What I want to say is that on more than one occasion we have set up situations that allow him to start fresh in a new place with new people, but that each time he has refused to cooperate with whatever stipulations have been placed upon him. So I say simply, "You're right."

He begins to move down the blame-the-parents road by saying that his downfall in our community was the school that he enrolled in after he came to this community (following our family's move nearly three years ago) following his release from a Department of Corrections program. He was not yet eighteen at the time, and we felt that we had a moral obligation to at least let him try something new in a new community. But he is no longer a child, at least by legal standards.

"So I guess this going to be my life, then." Since the blaming game didn't work it's time to apply guilt, evidently.

"Mike, you're only twenty years old. You have your whole life ahead of you."

"Yeah, but this life in the system is all I really know, sine the time I've been thirteen. It's where I've been."

"You're right," I offer, mentally reminding myself that for the four years before that time Claudia and I did everything in our power to prevent his decisions that we knew would one day lead to this conversation. I feel Claudia and I could have done nothing more than we have done, but I know Mike cannot understand that, and rather than starting an argument over something that matters so little, I become more directive.

"You don't have any friends you've met inside that live in another part of the state who can put you up for a while until you get a job and stuff?"

"Not really. It's not like I can just go to another town and find a place to live and stuff. And I really don't want to return to [our community], but I don't really have much choice."

"And what are you going to do when you get here, Mike?"

"I don't know. People have offered me some jobs and stuff."

I interrupt. "Are these legal jobs, Mike?"

"Um, no. Not really. But I don't have any other choice. It's all I know."

Blame hasn't worked. Guilt hasn't moved me. So now it's time to play the victim card. I don't buy into the conversational plan.

"I'm sorry, Mike. I don't know what else I can do for you at this moment. I've checked into some things, but there just isn't anything available for someone in your situation."

I hear his expulsion of frustrated breath. "Just forget it, then." Blame, nope. Guilty, nope. Pity-the-victim, nope. Let's just get right down to anger, then. "I'll figure out someone on my own without your help. I'll take care of it myself."

"OK, Mike. I love you."

"Yeah. Whatever."

The conversation ends, and while I am conflicted because I do love my son, I sincerely, honestly know that there is nothing more I can at this time. He has made a progressive series of bad choices for seven years (throughout which we have intervened time and time again in many ways) that bring us to this point. I will pray for Mike, I will keep the doors of communication open with him, but I have reached the limit of what I will do for an individual who has been unwilling to better himself. I have had a long-standing personal, internal debate about what is "unable" and what is "unwilling," but there comes a point when a parent trying to "rescue" a kid who is "unable" must accept the reality of "unwilling." If for no other reason than because the laws and codes of society begin to hold that child, now an adult, responsible for his or her actions.

Mike will need, like all of us who navigate the churning waters of adulthood, to figure it out on his own. Every other attempt to assist him has only turned into entitlement and enablement, and I will not be held hostage any longer.

Just to Clarify

I have worked hard in my life not to be a reactor, but it is a continual challenge to maintain a non-anxious presence, whether in my life as a pastor, or even as a blogger. Any of those three venues opens a person to critique, deserved or undeserved. In those situations it always important to know oneself, or to clarify once again (with growing awareness, ideally, not from a defensive, this-is-always-how-I-have-been posture) who one is.

So let me clarify my blog entry about $1.75 per meal.

As the grocery shopper and cook of a large family (on a night when everyone from our family is present, excepting adult children who live outside the home, there are eleven of us at the table) I know that usually our per person cost is less than $1.75. So, I do understand that it is possible to eat, and eat healthily and economically, for less than the amount a person subsisting on food stamps receives.

I have been blessed with the opportunity of intellectual development, economic security (for which both Claudia and I work hard), and family origins that taught me values of conservation, frugality and thrift (even if I do not always practice those virtues consistently, I do know *how* to do so).

What I wanted my kids to understand in our MLK Day project is that there are people in our world, in our community, perhaps even a door or two from where we live, who have not had the benefits I (and they now) have. I wanted them to recognize that people who rely upon food stamps for the basis of their food supply often lack education, may not have a stable housing situation and few resources to help them understand how to live except in a transient fashion. The truth is that people on the margins, who wonder from day to day or month to month where they are going to live have little energy left to organize and plan a home food pantry, make menu plans, follow sales at the grocery store or even to plant a garden with fresh produce.

Because some of these basic safety nets in society are harder and harder for challenged folks to secure, it means that their $1.75 per meal is pretty meager.

What I like about the comments I have received is that there are good, proactive suggestions. Yes, I think our church should offer classes to assist others to understand how to shop and cook economically and nutritionally. I would like to have a garden -- perhaps this will be the year we do that at home -- and would like to share produce with others.

These are good suggestions, but I want my kids to realize that there are big, systemic issues for the "low income" amongst us. And, of course, I want my children to understand that all of us need to break down the divisions that exist between "us" and "them" (however that is described). When people cannot find a job that pays more than $7 an hour, or affordable, safe housing or the most basic in health insurance, then food supply issues become even more paramount.

I'm carefully considering how I personally and pastorally might do better work in this arena, and prayerfully, earnestly hope my children will see their connection with all of God's creation (human and otherwise) as how people of Christian faith live.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Drawing A Line

Last week I received a telephone call from our son Mike, who has served two of his three months in one of our state prisons. He is anxious "to parole" (as he says it), but will not be released until he has a physical address. He understands that he cannot live in our home, but he asked if we would consider paying for a month's stay in a hotel.

I have to admit my conversation with him was rather perfunctory and direct.

"And what, Mike, are you going to do once you are out?" It was an honest, factual question, based upon my personal feeling that his current location is not a bad place for someone to live in the midst of a harsh Minnesota winter. Three meals a day, a warm place to sleep, constant direction and supervision, with little chance of re-offending while behind bars.

He was incensed. "What do you mean what am I going to do?! I need to get out of this place."

I was not very sympathetic with his plight. He asked if there was anything I could do to be of help to him ... a place to live, or some friends we could ask or ... something?

I used my best "I'm sorry, but no" voice. Our conversation quickly eroded to silence, I begged off and reminded him that I loved him. "Yeah, love you, too, dad."

Today I received a letter from Mike. I glanced at the tell-tale envelope. The upper-left hand corner of the envelope says in stark green bold face print: "NOTICE: Mailed from a MN Correctional Facility," with Mike's handwritten address, offender identification number, and prison location.

Tearing open the envelope I unfold the trifold page and see at the top of the page in large letters this salutation: "BART ... "

In case you're wondering, children (even adult children) referring to me by my first name never goes very well. I was immediately irritated by what I interpreted to be the tone of his missive, although I'm sure in his scattered mind he wasn't implying any particular disrespect. The rest of his letter betrays no sense of rudeness, so I'm sure I am simply overreacting.

His letter is basically a written plea echoing his recent verbal requests. He mentions that he needs a place to land when he's done with his prison sentence (and he can get out earlier than he anticipated if he has such a location), he would like us to pay for a hotel stay (he estimates a month would be $300, which reminds me that he really doesn't understand the cost of living), and wonders if we might set up a dental appointment for him.

I'll admit it. I am tired of all that has transpired in the past twelve years. For more than a decade now we have done all we could do for him. He has bounced from treatment center to treatment center, juvenile delinquency center to center, county jail cells in at least three counties, and now a state prison cell. Over and over again we have attempted to intervene in ways that would offer him a chance to prove his consistent thesis that he is "ready to change this time."

And so I write him a letter. It starts out by reminding him of our continuing love for him, and then, before I can stop my fingers I am writing: "I need to say some things to you that are hard for me to say and, I am sure, hard for you to read." I spend the next three pages recounting the numerous times since the time he was thirteen that Claudia and I have stuck with him, advocated for him, and offered him opportunities to change.

I have decided it is time to draw a line. In as factual of a way as possible I must remind him that his illegal behavior has cost us thousands of dollars, countless hours spent in court rooms and, most painful of all, the sense of safety and security for our other children that Claudia and I have worked so hard over the years to create and maintain.

We have always loved you, Mike. This letter is not about whether we love you or not. If you cannot believe that after all of this, then I doubt we will ever convince you. But love does not mean perpetually repeating the same things over and expecting a different outcome. You have been intelligent enough to figure out ways to break the law and to get into numerous illegal situations. You are intelligent enough, then, to figure out a better way for your life.

In my final paragraph I am clear that we want to hear from him, we want to know how he is doing, but we are unable to do more than that. This is difficult. Maintaing clear boundaries without emotionally cutting off the other person is always a challenge, but I must be fair to my law-abiding, still-at-home children. Those who are willing cooperative (most of the time, anyway) and able to benefit from our family must take the priority.

Monday, January 19, 2009

$1.75 Per Meal

$1.75 per meal. That's how much a family of four qualifying for food stamps receives. Before today I knew it wasn't much, but I had no idea it was that little. $1.75 doesn't even buy a McDonald's Happy Meal, and in some stores barely a soft drink. But let me back up a few days and tell you how I got to this place.

I have always felt a little guilty about viewing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as simply a day off. (In fact, it really isn't a day off for me in the technical sense, but that's another story). Anticipating that the kids would be out of school and wanting to push for more than a day to sleep in, I decided that I wanted to off our family a different way to spend at least part of the day.

So I went to the office this morning as I normally would and put in some time and then by late morning was heading home to pick up two of my kids who wanted to observe MLK Day in a socially just way. I took two groups of kids but shared with the same story on the way to the grocery store.

I reminded them that today Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been eighty years old, had he not been assassinated more than forty years ago. I told them a bit about what he stood for, and that in particular he was concerned with the poor and the dispossessed (although I didn't use the latter word in my descriptions with them). Then I told them about "food stamps." I pulled out the government brochure I took from the internet earlier today, and together we looked at the chart. By the time we were done figuring with the calculator, we discovered that a family of four who eats twenty-meals a week for four weeks a month has $1.75 to spend per meal per person if they rely solely upon government assistance. At first they didn't really understand why that was such a big deal until I asked them how much a typical meal at a fast food restaurant is. Or when I reminded them that when they are gone for an evening meal on a school sporting event we (their parents) usually send them a minimum of $7 to cover their single meal.

Arriving at the grocery store, we determined that we would purchase a week's worth of groceries for an individual ($36.75) and then bring the results to our local food shelf. I handled the calculations as we selected food items and offered suggestions on the way. "Remember," I said, "we want food that is nutritious, filling and inexpensive."

We chose beans (both canned and dried), dried pasta, jarred pasta sauce, instant oatmeal, cereal (on sale for less than $2 a box), and a variety of canned items with high protein possibilities. It didn't take long to reach our pre-assigned dollar limit, and our cart looked rather empty, compared to our regular grocery shopping expeditions which usually require (and occasionally two) full carts for a week's food for our at-home family of eleven.

Because I wanted both to acknowledge their budding attempts at social justice, as well to prove an additional point, I took them out to lunch, too. The first group went to a sub sandwich place where their sandwiches alone were $5 (and they were on sale). The second group went to a Mexican restaurant, where each of our meals, with drinks, tax and tip, were nearly $10 per person. As we scanned the menu I asked them to find options for $1.75. It didn't take long for them to recognize there were no such options. And again I reminded them that those who live at the edges of society don't have many of the same choices so many of us think nothing about.

I don't know how long our expedition today will stick with my kids, but I intend to do similar things in the months ahead as a reminder to my children at how fortunate they are (even though I will keep the moralizing language to myself in hopes that they "get it" with the education piece I bring along with the process). Without exception, each of our twelve children in their earliest years subsisted with birth families at the economic fringes of society. I hope the experience in living in our family will provide them the opportunity of seeing something different.

And, more importantly, that they will one day find selfless ways to give back to the world, as well.