To See Beauty First: A Video

Hello and Happy Monday!

Since I’m traveling this week, I’d like to share a video with you in lieu of the usual post. It’s a 10 minute talk I gave as part of the Faith Inclusion Network’s March 2013 “That All May Worship” conference. (I thank Karen Jackson for her wonderful work in organizing the event, and for sending me the recording as well.)

A Wish Come Clear readers who receive posts via email may recall the story I sent out about my experience speaking at the conference two months ago; it’s reprinted below.

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Please pardon the at-times-loud background noise in the recording (but if you’ve read the story, you’ll have a good idea why that’s happening). Enjoy!

This past weekend, I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia for the Faith Inclusion Network’s biannual, “That All May Worship” conference. I was honored to be a guest speaker at the opening banquet, and to lead a breakout session on L’Arche* as well.

At the Thursday night banquet, I was the first speaker to take the stage. The usual shivers ran through my stomach; the usual adrenaline pumped through my veins. But once I started speaking, everything else fell away, and I was able to lose myself in the stories.

That is, until I heard a masculine voice coming from the foyer. It was loud, yelling something I couldn’t distinguish. I thought it sounded angry, but I couldn’t be sure.

I kept on speaking without pause, but inside, I wondered, Who could it be? Are they supposed to be here? What’s going on? I couldn’t see the person, but for a moment, I was afraid. Visions of violence moved through my mind; was it some kind of radical protester, intent on harm? I didn’t dare turn my head to look.

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But then, as the man and his companions moved toward the center of the room, I realized: here was a man with special needs, coming in late, just making some noise. No big deal. I felt my shoulders relax, and a smile spread across my face. Thank God! It wasn’t any of the terrible things I’d feared. It was going to be all right.

In fact, I actually felt more comfortable giving my talk after that young man came in. Why? He reminded me of my friends at L’Arche (some of whom are wont to purr and shout phrases in Spanish during Catholic Mass). With his arrival, I felt as though I was among family.

Oftentimes I think we get so afraid of what might happen that we are blind to what is happening. We get all worked up about something we perceive as terrible, when in reality, we’re just frightened by our own thoughts, our own imaginings.

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I wish I’d had the chance to meet that man after I spoke; if I had, I would have thanked him. I wish I could have told him how he helped me, how glad I was that he had come to the event.

As Amy Julia Becker wrote in her recent post, Missing Out on Beautiful, “I feel as though I have been let in on a cosmic secret because when I look at Penny, I see her beauty before I see anything else.” (Amy Julia’s daughter, Penny, has Down syndrome.)

When I read those lines today, I couldn’t help but think of the stranger, the man from the conference last weekend. It’s clear to me now: he was beautiful because he reminded me of those I love.

And love is what gives us the ability to see beauty first.

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How do you ‘see beauty first’? Join the conversation in the comments!

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*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

What Holds You Up? Or, the Hands that Frame Your Risks

Photo Credit: Ashley Baker

I hopped on my bike and started pedaling, determined to arrive on time. I’d left home a little bit late, but I could still make it on time if I tried. Even though I was moving quickly, I savored the crisp autumn morning around me. It was a perfect day for yoga in the park, a donation-based event hosted by Shoals Yoga.

As I pulled up to Wilson Park, I heard bells chiming the hour. After locking my bike, I pulled out my yoga mat and joined the other yogis on the grass. Glad to have arrived in time, I tried to quiet my racing heart and settle into the breathing exercises.

Every time I turned my head, I couldn’t help but smile; there was so much beauty around me. Gentle sunlight beamed through the leaves, and light reflected off the fountain at the center of the park. It was idyllic, and I felt fortunate to be able to move my body and enjoy it.

Towards the end of the practice, we started working on inversions — poses that involve going upside-down. We were practicing headstand, a pose I’m comfortable with … in the context of a yoga studio, that is. I typically practice headstand close to the wall; it feels safer that way.

But in the park, there were no walls. For the first time, I was challenged to try an ‘unsupported’ headstand. I kicked one leg up — so far, so good. But I couldn’t quite work up the nerve to kick my other leg up to meet it. Though I knew I had the strength to do the pose, the absence of a wall intimidated me. I brought my leg down.

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Ashley, our instructor, saw my hesitation. She moved through the mats to stand beside me. “Do you want to go up again? I can support you,” she said quietly. I felt a smile spread across my face. It was exactly what I needed: for someone else to be my wall. With her beside me, I knew that I could give the pose another try.

“Yes, let’s do it,” I said. Getting into position, I kicked one leg up, moving the other to meet it in the air. Ashley’s hands framed my feet with the lightest touch, just enough for me to find my balance. Then, once I was still, she moved her hands away, and I held headstand on my own.

What a rush! Time seemed to stop as I focused on maintaining the posture. I held headstand for as long as I could, then slowly brought my legs down. “Good job!” Ashley said softly. I was surprised; I’d been so intent on holding the pose that I didn’t realize she was still there. But I was also relieved; in doing that headstand, I’d been safer than I knew.

Listening at L’Arche

As we moved into the final poses of our practice, I thought: That’s what real friendship is all about. Real friends dare one another into being braver than each one knows how to be. Real friends come close, because they know that their presence can be a powerful catalyst for growth.

And that’s what caregiving at L’Arche* is, too: the act of coming alongside. It’s the practice of empowerment, of giving just enough support. Real caregivers use their hands to support someone else with the gentlest touch possible, so that the other person is doing as much as they can on their own.

Seasoned caregivers know that small supports can make or break a person’s day. They know that their touch may make an impossible day bearable, and a beautiful day transcendent.

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As I pedaled home from yoga in the park, I thought: Help me to remember this. Allow me to recall that, no matter how small or insignificant I feel my contribution is, it may be significant for someone else. And allow me to accept the help that is given to me. Because with it, I can do and be so much more than I’ve imagined.

It’s the secret we keep from one another, the depth of our need for support. The extent to which it matters whether or not we have trusted hands framing the risks we take. The choice to listen rather than tune out; to call rather than stay silent; to show up rather than stay home.

Thank the people who have offered you their hands, and be sure to offer your own. It may feel futile; you may not see results as immediate as, say, a headstand in the park. But even so, keep reaching. Keep offering. Keep trying. Because really, you never know. 

Today may be the day when your touch makes all the difference.

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Who holds you up & supports you in the risks you take? Join the conversation in the comments section below!

Also, I’m proud to be featured on Your Lovely Life this week. Tammy Strobel and Courtney Carver’s site focuses on, “… cultivating beauty and joy every day. Through helpful articles, recipes, inspiring books and quotes you can begin to recognize what’s lovely in your life.” Be sure to check it out!

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Liked this post? Receive new posts via email, along with your complimentary copy of Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive).

*L’Arche is a faith-based, worldwide non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I spent 5 years serving the DC community in various caregiving roles.

**Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Why I Am Not Afraid of Having A Child with Autism

When I’m feeling out of sorts or uninspired, my favorite remedy is to go for a long walk. Such was the case this weekend, when I found myself stressed on Saturday morning. So, I headed out the door.

After a mile of walking, I felt myself starting to smile. The tension within abated as I noticed the beauty around me. Blooming flowers, fluttering birds, blue skies … all worked together to move my mind from anxiety to appreciation. As I walked through Rock Creek Park, I felt the noise within quieting down.

And in the newfound quiet, I remembered a particular conversation. Allow me to share the story:

This past Thursday, I was babysitting for my friend Allison’s son. We headed to the toddler park, as we do whenever the weather is fair. My friend’s son loves the park (especially the swings), and I love being outdoors and watching him explore the world.

As my friend’s son played in the sandbox, a woman came over to me and began a conversation. I was surprised, but pleasantly so; she reminded me of a cousin of mine, and we talked companionably. Her name was Kim, and she had three children at the park that day.

When I asked about her kids, she told me the story of her son’s birth. She hadn’t been someone who always wanted kids, she said, but when her son was born, she was hit by a wave of love too big to understand or explain. She spoke with wonder in her voice, and I listened intently.

The conversation turned to life with toddlers, and she mentioned a period in which her son hadn’t hit certain developmental milestones. She said, “We were afraid, you know, that he was going to have developmental delays, or autism. But he didn’t.” Her tone was matter-of-fact. I simply nodded.

It was such a small moment, but I’ve been turning it over in my mind ever since. Part of me wanted to say something like, “My brother Willie has autism.” But at the same time, part of me knew that Kim’s words were simply a statement of how she’d felt at the time, not a judgment about autism or people with autism.

Simply put, she’d been afraid. And I understood that.

I, too, have had moments in which I’ve feared having a child with special needs…and having a child, period. I have had moments in which I am so daunted by the prospect that I hesitate to think about becoming a parent. Having grown up with my brother, having lived in L’Arche, I know what a tremendous responsibility it is to care for someone with a high level of need. (And yes, all babies and toddlers fit that description!)

That said, I cherish relationships with people who have autism and special needs. They have changed and blessed my life in ways too numerous to count. I cannot imagine life without the people at L’Arche, without my brother, without my friends. (Likewise, my friends who are parents tell me that, while their children’s needs can be demanding, their very existence is an incredible gift, one that continues to transform them.)

Even so, we live in a world that is afraid of difference and disability. We live in a world wherein many parents abort when doctors tell them their babies might be born with special needs such as Down Syndrome. We live in a world wherein people with special needs are discriminated against from day one.

It’s no wonder that parents (and potential parents) are afraid. We’re afraid of a level of need we think won’t be able to meet. We’re afraid of children we don’t know if we’ll be able to relate to. We’re afraid of the world’s judgment of such children, and we’re afraid of our own judgment, too.

As always, we’re afraid of what we don’t fully understand.

As I walked through Rock Creek this weekend, a crucial question sounded within me: Am I afraid to have a child with special needs? Quickly, my answer arose — defiant, strong, compassionate, certain.

Tears started running down my cheeks as I realized …

I am not afraid of having a child with autism. Or Down Syndrome. Or Fragile X. Or any of the other -isms and diagnoses there are in this world.

It was such a simple realization, but its power — and its implications — took my breath away.

I used to be afraid, but now, I’m not.

Before, I felt as though I could say yes to a child with special needs, but that I’d say that yes in fear and trembling. I felt guilty for feeling afraid; after all, I know and love many people with special needs. But now, after so many years of carrying this heavy burden, it has tumbled away.

The relief I feel is so huge, I have to sit down. I walk over to a picnic shelter, and let myself rest as the tears fall.

I’ve feared the possibility of being a parent of a child with special needs because I’ve lacked the faith that I will be able to welcome and love and celebrate that child exactly as they are. But as chickadees flit around me, pecking at crumbs, I know that the love Kim spoke about having for her child has (somehow, inexplicably) hit me too. There is only the possibility of such a child in my life, but I love her (or him) even in the abstract.

And in that moment I catch a glimpse of what it means to think of ourselves as children of God. It means that we are cherished long before we are born. It means that each of us is a good and perfect gift in our own right, needs and weaknesses and frailties and all.

And although we might feel like strangers to true acceptance, we are always invited in to a new vision of beauty … one that would not be complete without people with autism and special needs.

As I rise to walk home, I spot an eagle soaring overhead. And I think to myself: I’m only human. I will never feel ‘prepared’ to be a special needs parent (and that may not be the path that my husband and I are led to walk). And in the course of my journey, I will probably feel afraid again.

But the fear will never have the same power now that I have felt the love.

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“She told me I swallowed the blue pill. She told me I could never go back. But that I held a key to a door that no one else does.” -Kelle Hampton, Nella Cordelia Birth Story

You, the friends, families, and loved ones of people with special needs — you have helped me to move beyond my fear to a place of greater faith. Thank you.

If this post spoke to you, please share it with those you love.

Finally, I’ll be on vacation next week, so look forward to a new post on April 2nd!

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