As my boy and girl race to the finish line of another school year, the fact that I have not visited my blog since they started back to school last September keeps coming to my attention.  I guess I’ve been too busy stirring to string together words.  Following a pretty harrowing summer last year, I spent a delicious couple of weeks just gulping in the silence around me.  Finding relief in this stillness, I gave thanks that my boy and girl appeared to be successfully transitioning to the new school year and then proceeded to tackle the next set of goals on my to-do list.

From secretly devouring every last page of mixed-media art journals at B&N to signing-up for just about any art class that I could find and then going-on to create and sell my own art, I’ve done a LOT of learning and stretching over the past 5-6 years.  So grateful for the life that was breathed back into my soul through this process, I felt a deep yearning to give back to other women who might be in need of restoration, too.  That said, this Spring, I found myself on an airplane, flying across the country to Brave River Ranch in Idaho in order to become certified to teach a course called Soul Restoration.  A course that combines art and soul work into one beautiful, life-changing curriculum.

It seems, in my journey to become whole again, that I’ve needed to gather a good measure of necessary ingredients:  intense parenting lessons, self-awareness, forgiveness, art-making skills, courage, and acceptance, just to name a few.  While I’ve spent a good amount of time gathering and honing these things individually, it is now time to begin stirring it all together.  In her best-selling book, The Best Yes, Lisa Terkeurst describes the idea of plopping all the ingredients of an amazing cake recipe into a bowl and refusing to stir it:

There would be shiny yellow yolks on top of crisp white flour with a dab or two of brown from the vanilla. Little mounds of sugar would sit off to the side of the bowl along with the baking soda.  The milk splashed on top would sink into the flour bottom.  I would have a bowl full of potential that will never be if I don’t stir before baking.  I’m not exactly sure what might happen if I just dumped this all into a pan and popped it into the oven, unstirred, but I know it wouldn’t come out right. (p.227)

This stirring process? This is where I am right now in my life.  I could choose to dump all my wisdom into a pan and pop it into the oven, as is;  however, I’m more likely to end-up with a whole, edible cake if I take the time to stir the experiences and the lessons that I’ve been learning together before moving-on to the next step.  Stirring takes patience and effort.  I think I’m done only to find a patch of flour unearthed at the bottom of the mixing-bowl.  I alternate slow, laborious strokes with quick anticipation, sprinkling-in a handful of chocolate chips for extra-goodness. How is my cake going to turn-out?  Will it fall in the middle?  I am offered no guarantees that this cake will come-out looking or tasting good at all.  What I have learned, though, is that I have to trust the process.  And even if this particular cake doesn’t turn-out as I expect, I’ll likely gain whatever wisdom that I need to learn from the process and apply it to my next baking session.  This baking thing is not for the faint of heart. It is a lifelong process.

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livingwater

If you can imagine one of those desert movie scenes where the main character is all haggard-looking, stumbling in search of water, that is pretty much me.  All. Summer. Long.

Towards the end of fifth grade, my boy’s anxiety seems to build ferociously, likely due to the anticipation of  starting middle school this fall.  “Easy” transitions are a rare phenomenon in the world of autism and this is going to be no joke.  Plagued with the obsessive need to pick at the skin on his fingers and feet, my boy spends most of the summer pitifully trying to care for his self-inflicted wounds, smothering them with Vaseline, putting on Bandaids, lifting the Bandaids to see if everything is “okay” and replacing those that are about to fall-off. All day.  Every day.  Crying, whining, excessive fast-paced talking and pleading for reassurance.  “I am so tired of suffering!” my boy laments.  “I wish I could be in someone else’s body!”  My boy suffers. Our family suffers.

This is not the first time along our 12-year journey that autism strips me of my calm composure, leaving my nerves raw and exposed.  Angry and exhausted,  I steal away to our bedroom closet, slump against the mirror and sob, cursing, and shaking my fist at God.  Why are you allowing this to continue?  Where are you?! I can’t take it anymore!  The storm inside me subsides temporarily.  I breathe.  I ask God to pray for me because I am just too tired to think.  I open the door, quietly descend the stairs and pick-up where we left-off.

Later in the summer, I glance at the dried-up stream bed beside the path I walk on a rare morning alone.  That stream is just like my soul.  All dried-up.  I smile to myself as the Bible story comes to mind where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman sitting at the well that she needs to ask for Living Water.  Water for the soul.  “Give me Living Water,” I pray.  And God offers me small drinks of water, just to get me through until the end of summer.  Until I can breathe again.

An unsuspecting friend asks about my summer and before I can say much of anything, tears stream down my face and she puts her arms around me while I quietly let out a few sobs.  “How can I help?” she asks.  “Just do what you are doing, ” I tell her.  “Sit here with me and listen.”  She shares my pain. My mother-in-law spends time alone with my girl, allowing her to enjoy a few hours away from the tension in our household. My parents bravely take both my girl and boy for a weekend at their house on the farm while my husband and I enjoy a quiet house by ourselves.

These desert seasons have taught me that we are not meant to live life solely on our own strength.  There are times when we have to admit our own thirst so that others can provide Living Water for us.  Sometimes just enough to keep us going until we can reach a long stretch of fresh flowing water. For me, that life-giving stream comes in the form of a new school year. I will take this time to breathe in quiet.  To listen and give my soul what it needs. And then with a quenched spirit, I will offer a cup of water to the next thirsty soul.

 

 

 

 

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ConquersResized

In my dream, I am trying to find my way home.  I am walking.  When I ask Siri for directions, she keeps changing routes and finally settles on the one right in front of me.  I have to travel through a decaying urban area and climb the steep concrete wall of a dam.  I’m scared, but I start climbing anyways. Higher. Higher. Higher.  I near the top of the dam and notice water starting to leak through a crack in the wall. A flood gate has been opened.  Cold water rushes out in big torrents and I am tossed about.  As I fall downwards with the thundering water, I open my mouth every so often to get air and allow myself to be carried downward.  Crashing into the churning water at the bottom of the dam, I rise-up, arms in victory, waving my phone around in the air.  “I made it!  I made It!”  I yell.  “I’ll show you just what I made it through because I caught it all on video!”

This was my dream the other night. And it is also my family’s reality as we travel with our boy on this journey with autism.  The only way home is precipitous and hard and scary, at times.   Our climb is fraught with rigid thinking,  pervasive anxiety, intense sibling rivalry and hairy family dynamics. We never know when the dam is going to break and we’ll find ourselves sitting in an anxious, angry mess, wondering just what happened.  And yet, we keep on climbing.  We climb because we love each other.  And we know that love surpasses any fear that threatens to thwart this journey that is ours to travel together.  To keep climbing means that even when the flood wall opens and we find ourselves thrashing  around at the base of the dam, once again, we are alive to tell about it.

While my particular “wall” happens to be autism,  I have come to know so many beautiful souls who are climbing different walls.  Just as scary.  Just as hard or even harder.  Cancer.  Broken Marriages. Addiction. Chronic Illness.  Abuse.  Depression. Racism.  We all have stories.  Stories of a season(s) in our lives during which we discover our souls being hurled against a concrete bottom, weary and unsure of our ability to stand-up and start climbing again. Perhaps, if we can see ourselves as the heroine of our own stories, raising our arms in victory because we are still here to tell about it, we will be more likely to share our experiences with each other.  We can replace fear and judgement with “Me, too.” and “Being human is hard.  Let’s climb together.”  We can conquer our fear with love.

birdback

With both hands, I cup the body of Mama Bird with her cracked, broken wings, and apply gentle pressure.  Kneading and smoothing.  Adding and taking away.  These wings, each lovingly shaped and adorned with small flowers, sat for a few weeks too long, wrapped in wet rags and sitting in a black garbage bag.   When I finally get around to attaching them to  Mama Bird’s body, the wings have started to dry and crack into pieces as I lift them from their solitary perches.  Wings left unused become frail and brittle.

Sensing the panic welling up inside me, my art teacher declares,  “You need to pop those suckers on soon and work from there!  There’s no way to do it gently.”  It is the end of class, so I pack-up the pieces and parts of my bird, once again, in wet rags and lug them home with me so that I can do some emergency repair work.   When I unwrap the clay that next morning, I feel a sense of reverence.  I aim to make this bird whole again.  I can’t help but think, as I hold these broken wings in my hands, that this must be how God feels when He cradles our broken spirits.

The molding process?  It can hurt and it might last longer than we would like.  In the case of Mama Bird, with some work, I am able to put her back together, all in one piece, but her transformation is still not over.  We have glazing issues, where for some odd reason, the “feather white” glaze that I have so carefully chosen, chips-off in tiny pieces when we remove her from the kiln.  Even with repeated glazing and firing at higher temperatures, Mama Bird’s glaze continues to flake-off in places.  For some reason, though, I am okay with it.  Her “shabby chic” exterior speaks to me.  The bare clay peeking through is evidence of Mama Bird’s journey.  Scars of a warrior.

Early on, I had decided to keep the hole open in Mama Bird’s chest where I hollowed her for firing.

birdfront (2)
I imagine a huge spray of colorful flowers flowing from that hollow, spilling forth with beauty.  The tiny little flowers that I fashioned from vintage fabric and wire sit patiently in a block of green foam while Mama Bird undergoes her many transformations.  Now it is time to fill that hollow space.  After playing with flower arrangements and securing the wires with a final dose of resin, I step back from Mama Bird and take a look.  There is still something missing. This mama bird is a warrior.  She needs a crown.

WarriorMamaBird1

To all my fellow warrior mamas out there, I want you to know that it is never too late to repair your wings.  We make mistakes.  We suffer losses and heartaches.  We may even feel so broken that we cannot fly again.  But God, the Master Artist?  He specializes in crafting beauty from our brokenness.

 

 

 

AngelofCourage1

Just in case you didn’t know, I am a quiet person.  This fact was first brought to my attention when I entered first grade.  David Petry backed me into a corner of the classroom where he towered over me with his puffy blonde hair, pointed his finger in my face and asked, “Don’t you ever talk?!”  Up until then, I had not defined myself as “quiet.”  My earliest years spent climbing trees, hiking through fields, and gathering clay from the riverbanks of Nelson County, I felt perfectly at home with myself.  That is, until we moved to suburbia during the summer before first grade.

First grade was a real eye-opener for me.  Not having attended kindergarten prior to starting school, I had a lot to learn.  How to read, how to write (other than my first name), and how to make new friends.  Fortunately, an outgoing little blonde girl named Susan asked if I wanted to be her friend at recess on the first day of school and we stayed pretty tight all through elementary school. Riding our bikes to each other’s house, playing in the woods, and creating haunted houses in the upstairs’ bonus room over her parents’ garage.  At school, I remained fairly quiet and learned that teachers tend to like quiet kids, even earning the endearing nickname, “Lamby-Pie,” from my second grade teacher, Ms. Stout.  Unintentionally, I was well on the road to becoming a people pleaser.  It felt safe and comfortable at the time.

I continued-on into middle school and high school where I developed a nice group of girlfriends, all pretty quiet-natured, like me.  I loved my girlfriends and the fun we had together.  At the same time, I carried around this nagging voice in my head that told me I was too quiet and shy.  Everyone around me seemed to be more confident.  More fun.  In my eyes, quiet equaled boring.  It took a LOT of energy for me to put myself out there.  And while I was known for being a kind, friendly person, I mainly focused on the quiet part.  The part of me that I did not want to own.

As a young adult and into adulthood, I began to feel stuck inside a box.  A box that I named “QUIET.”  My spirit longed to bust out of that box and make itself authentically known.  I wasn’t even sure what it would  look like if I busted-out.  Would it be loud and crazy?  Cursing and saying whatever it felt like?  I hated the incongruency between what others saw from the outside (calm and peaceful) and what I actually felt on the inside (anxious and irritable).  I wanted this peace but without the cost of smothering my soul.

When my boy and girl started back to school one fall, I wandered into a free creative parenting class thinking that I would pick-up a few fun tips and wound-up embarking on a five-year journey during which, one by one, I ripped-down the walls that were squeezing the life out of me.  And you know what?  I didn’t go crazy or run naked through the streets!  After doing the hard work of  acknowledging my old stories and negative ways of seeing myself, I learned to sit with the uncomfortable feelings and then gently (and sometimes not so gently) release them through my art.  It is a beautiful thing, really.

For me, the final leg of this journey has meant embracing my quiet self.  After all those years of rejecting a huge chunk of my being, I am wrapping my arms around my gentle spirit and curling-up in its softness and warmth. And, that free-spirited 5-year old little girl who loved to commune with nature?  She is still inside me and always has been.  She might be quiet, but she is also joyful.  She is strong and compassionate.  She provides a sanctuary for other anxious hearts.  And she knows that the quiet nourishes her soul and serves God in the exact way that she is created.

Bentrotting

My boy stands still in the middle of the kitchen with a little grin on his face and a faraway look in his eyes when my girl asks him what he is thinking about.  “I was remembering what it felt like to canter yesterday,” he replies.  My boy with the gentle soul also possesses a speedy streak.  He loves to barrel down the driveway on his Green Machine and spin-out at the bottom and is known to be heavy-footed when driving his Grandma’s golf cart.  Now, he has discovered the thrill of riding fast on a horse…

For a number of years now, my boy has taken to horseback riding as a form of exercise and therapy for his autism.  For the most part, he has remained content with walking around the ring on his horse, slow trotting and doing a few very low jumps;  however, after attending an inclusive horseback riding camp this summer, my boy got a taste of what it feels like to ride a bit more independently and fell in love with idea of competing in shows to win ribbons.  “This is going to be my sport!” he declares boldly.  “I want to learn more than what I am doing in therapy riding.”

So, naturally, when my boy with autism expresses a keen interest in something that is good for him in so many ways, I seek to figure-out a way to start the process of transitioning him to regular riding lessons.   Someone willing to teach him lessons on the weekend (his energy is spent after a long day at school during the week), at a reasonable price, and, ideally, one-to-one.  I mention my boy’s desire to Helen, the owner of the therapeutic riding center, and she jumps on it immediately, setting us up with one of the regular riding teachers at her barn, a young lady named Sophie with a soft, sweet spirit.

Several weeks later, we arrive for my boy’s very first “regular” lesson, a big milestone on his journey.  He has the whole inside ring to himself and performs each and every request with great pride and confidence.  Midway through the lesson, my boy’s horse unexpectedly goes into a canter with my boy hanging-on, mouth wide open.  When they come to a stop and my boy realizes that he is okay, he excitedly shouts, “That was fun!” With great valor, he shares his cantering experience with friends and family in the days that follow.

All geared-up for his next lesson the next week, my boy is likely dreaming of flying across fields on his horse, just like the boy in one of his favorite movies, The Black Stallion.  Only this time,  my girl is joining him for his lesson.  My boy and girl.  When the going gets tough, they totally have each other’s back.  At the same time, they are brother and sister and each possesses a healthy dose of competitiveness with the other.  My girl participates in a variety of other sports and enjoys doing some riding when she is not in the midst of swim season or basketball season.  It can be tricky when she rides with her brother, as riding just comes a bit more naturally to her, even though she does not ride as often.

You can imagine how devastated my boy feels when his younger sister is able to get her horse to canter and his horse refuses.  He even tries switching horses with my girl, but still, he cannot get it to canter.  By the end of the lesson, my boy leaves in tears, feeling totally defeated.  Over the next week or so, he lugs this discouragement around with him, a heavy load, and it becomes the topic of many conversations.  My boy wants to feel like this horse thing is all his.  He wants to be special.  He hates how autism makes some things harder for him.  We talk a lot about how he is special just because of who he is, not what he accomplishes.  And how there is enough “specialness” to go around for everyone.  We talk about how, yes, it is discouraging to see others be “better” at things we want to be good at, but, that in life, there will always be people who can ride better, sing better, write better, etc.  And sometimes, we have to be content with enjoying the journey while we learn the skills to become better.  The important thing is that we persevere.

With these understandings, my boy returns to his lessons several weeks later with a renewed sense of calm and resolve.   He listens patiently, when the instructor reminds him to keep “quiet hands” as he steers the horse.  She breaks-down the process leading-up to cantering into bite-sized pieces so that he can digest the instructions more slowly.  And when the time comes to try to canter, once again, my boy does as he is told and squeezes the the horse’s belly with his outside leg, but then he awkwardly pulls back on the reigns, confusing the horse, and stopping him from going into a full canter.  With all his might, my boy holds himself together while Sophie soothingly explains what  happened.  “Just try to relax,” she says.  “The horse senses your anxiety and knows that you’re not quite ready to do what you are wanting to do.  If you can be patient and become strong on the little things, you will eventually reach your goal.”

I love how this instructor speaks truth to my boy.  Even more so, I love how my boy internalizes her words and applies them to other areas of struggle as we drive home.  “It’s just like math at school, Mom.   I get all anxious about not knowing how to do something and then it makes things harder.  But once I relax, I usually get it!”

I can learn a lesson or two from my boy.  Sometimes, I get all inspired by these great visions of what I want to do with my art, my writing, my life in general, and I want to be there yesterday.  Just like my boy, I start to feel discouraged that someone else is  a lot further along the journey than me.  I am learning, though, to pull myself back to Center and relax.  To become strong in the little things.  To trust the process. And one day, I too, will canter. When I am ready.

dreamcatcher

“God gives us dreams a size too big so that we can grow in them. “

(Dream catcher made with vintage linens)

mojoinprocess

I started this painting back in November as a part of an online course called Paint Mojo taught by artist Tracy Verdugo.  It sat on the art room easel in its crazy, unfinished state until last month. April.  You might say that I lost my mojo for a little while there, but in reality, I just couldn’t finish everything on my plate at the same time.  During those months in between November and April, I found myself preparing for an Open House right before Christmas and then jumped headfirst into finishing my “Ben’s Dream” piece just in time for an Autism Awareness exhibit in April.  All the while, this big canvas brimming with bright colors and symbols winked at me in the corner of my art room.  A reminder that I am always a work in progress.

I am convinced that God called me to start creating art several years ago, the year my girl started kindergarten, as a means of helping me practice the real art of surrendering my life to Him on a daily basis.  To loosen my grip on the steering wheel and trust the process.  My whole art journey has been a series of surrender.  Surrendering my old insecurities and ways of thinking.  Surrendering to the grief I never allowed myself to feel at the beginning of our boy’s autism journey.  And surrendering to the idea that I can be an artist even though my college degrees are in education.

Art has become my metaphor for living life.  With each painting, I start with a vague idea or vision and very often do not know how I am going to get there.  I just have to start.  I paint a big swoosh across the canvas.  Or pick-up a piece of collage paper that calls to me and glue it down.  Nothing monumental.  I just have to do something.  Before I know it, that big swoosh is followed by few more swooshes in different colors.  I fall into a rhythm.  Swoosh.  Tear.  Glue. Swirl.  Ahh.  This is how God wants me to start living.  Take a step. And another step.  You don’t need to know all the answers right now.

flyfreeprocess2

Before I know it, a certain energy takes over and LOTS of movement is happening.  Almost always, though, I arrive at a certain point in my work, stand back, and think, “But where am I going?  What IS my next step?”  My heart pounds a little harder and I question my ability to make something out of all the chaos staring back at me.  This.  This is when I pray.  God move through my hands.  Guide them in the direction they need to go.  Awkwardly, I might sketch-out an image in my mind.  Many times, I fumble, frustrated over lines on the paper that do not match my vision.  I will myself not to give-up.  Something beautiful is waiting to come to fruition.  Art is about capturing a feeling, not perfection.  And so is life.

Sometimes, I just need to take a break.  I sit on the deck with a good book.  I scroll through Facebook.  (Because creating can feel isolating at times!) I roam around a boutique that inspires me.  Or just work on a project that is more structured.  I need to refuel in order to persevere through the more trying stages of creating.  And when I return to the canvas, I am able to bring a fresh perspective along with me.

When I do return, the vision that needs to be brought to life starts to reveal itself as the images connect on the canvas.  A crazy line or paint dot becomes a bird’s beak.  The splotch of blue ink that I thought was a mistake peeks through the background adding just the right effect.  Nothing is wasted.  I fly free in the knowledge that I can trust the process, both in my art and in life.

flyfreefinal3

bens_dream_small “I need to tell you a dream, Mommy.  I dreamed that you and I were holding hands and we were flying. Not up to Heaven, just flying together. It was so beautiful, I didn’t want it to end!”

For those of you who are not familiar with my “Ben’s Dream” project, the inspiration for this piece of art came to me three years ago, when my boy slipped into bed beside me one morning and whispered of a dream where the two of us were holding hands, flying together. The image of flying with my boy over his signature houses touched my heart so deeply that I asked him to draw a picture of what it looked like and then set it aside for the right time.  After several years of finding my own voice through art and allowing myself the space to grieve this autism journey that we have traveled together so far, I decided it was time, last summer, to make “Ben’s Dream” come alive on the canvas.

And so, began the “Ben’s Dream” project.  The project that I have been documenting in a number posts over the past nine months and recently had the privilege of celebrating at the Children’s Museum of Richmond as a kick-off for Autism Awareness Month!

I have to say, I experienced a myriad of emotions throughout the creation of this piece.  Grief.  Fear. Hope.  Frustration. Boredom. Acceptance. Excitement.  Parts of it, near the end, really felt like a labor of love.  Especially the days spent cutting-out layers of foam core in order to create the relief effect for the houses.  At the same time, I sensed God urging me to carry-on.  Bring this cycle to completion, my child.  It will be worth it in the end! To witness the pride and joy on my boy’s face on Friday evening?  It was oh, so worth it!

With no further ado, allow me to share a few scenes from our Night at the Museum.

Ben'sDreamTable

An hour before the opening, my girl and I set-up a table filled with prints and magnets of “Ben’s Dream” along with several trays of “Hope” necklaces which I made using recycled puzzle pieces coated with resin, hearts punched from the scraps of Ben’s Dream, and crocheted glass beads. (A portion of the proceeds is now on its way to The Autism Society of Virginia!)

BenonCarousel With the table all ready and time to spare, we made our way into the museum to find both my boy and husband playing in the Water Works area…My boy’s tie half dragging through the water and pants all splotched wet, I willed myself not to make a big deal out of it.  There was a time, in my boy’s earlier days, when just the thought of splashing in water and riding a carousel would have sent him over the edge.  Look at him now!

Ben&Houses Before our friends arrived, I managed to take a few photos of my boy with the exhibit of his signature houses.  Each of these houses was used, in the form of a print, within our collaborative piece, “Ben’s Dream.”

Ben&Raughs Among our very first visitors were these sweet friends (including my girl) from school. In the two hours to follow, the number of smiling faces walking through the doors to show their support left me both humbled and overjoyed!  Grandparents.  Aunts.  Uncles.  Old friends.  New friends.  Church friends. Babysitters.  Teachers. Therapists.  Each sharing their hearts with our family along our journey.  Many asked for Ben’s signature on their prints, to which he happily obliged by neatly printing his name with a heart sweetly drawn beside it.

Ben&Esther A wonderful surprise visitor arrived in the last hour.  Miss Esther!  The occupational therapist who taught our boy to hold a crayon and draw his very first house during his preschool years!  We came full-circle that evening.

Ben'sDreamFamilyPhoto

Our night at the museum was much more than an art exhibit.  It was a celebration of how far we have traveled on this autism journey with our boy.  A celebration of all those beautiful souls who have made a difference in our lives. May every family of these special children experience the joy of flying with them in their dreams!

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