“The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do.” Aldous Huxley

One of the astonishing things I’ve learned raising our foster daughter is that abuse often makes its victims incredibly unlovable.

Long before we took in our foster daughter I had become obsessed with the ways in which childhood abuse not only affected my character Buck Crenshaw but also his siblings. Christians are called to love the unloved — and the unlovable. Many times it turns out that the unloved and the unlovable are the same person. Of course I know Buck’s heart and all that he’s been through so as a writer I love him. Yet some readers have expressed frustration at all of his wrong turns and bad behaviors.

As a  foster parent I’m given the benefit of the doubt. Everyone in the system understands unlovable behavior — a child who eats goat shit, a child who wants to have sex with your dog, a child who struggles with murderous thoughts. As a novelist the problem lies in the fact that readers want to love the characters they read about despite their flaws. But what is a writer to do with prickly characters who shoot quills and make one bad decision after another?

People tell us that our foster daughter is a changed girl but that change continues to take place at a glacially slow pace and even with the changes we must work each day to soften our hearts enough to love her — or even like her. Just like my fictional CRENSHAW siblings, our foster daughter always finds new ways to go left, not right. She finds new ways to annoy and instigate trouble — almost on an hourly basis.

The truth about foster care and abuse: Some kids are over medicated, some never receive the mental health care they need. Some seem fine but carry burdens into adulthood marked by drive, alcohol abuse or an inability to accept love.

As the god of my fictional universe it hurts when a reader doesn’t love a character who really needs to be loved. Writing about them is like being one of those photographers who takes portraits of troubled, desperate foster kids dressed in their best smiles and outfits. Yet the troubled, desperate character still remains.

Writing about unloved and unlovable people comes with heartache and risk. Maybe no one buys the book. In real life maybe the unloved child becomes a menace to society. Maybe he kills people.

I think about the creator of the universe sending souls into the world. What happens when no one loves the unlovable?

 

How many generations does it take to rid a family of behaviors and problems of the heart that sometimes lead to acts of evil? On the other hand, can there be enough human love devoted to someone to truly set them straight?

The recent shooting in Florida, the ramming of vans into pedestrians, the flying of planes into towers, the modern slave trade that dwarfs the slavery of the past, and the simple, daily, often secret abuse of children (so many cases around the globe that they hardly ever discussed) in homes that from the outside seem quite respectable — these things — these evils are problems of the heart.

We seek easy fixes. I’ve done it myself. Gluten is what makes my foster daughter think of stabbing me in the night with kitchen knives. Alarms on her door will cure her PTSD. All meds are evil. All meds are good.

The reality is that we are under a curse. Town Hall meetings, virtue signalling, talk of burning  NRA spokespeople — these things –are just frosting on the poison cake of life.

If there is no God and there is no truth then murder and abuse have no meaning. Fatherless boys and molested girls are just play things in a culture that regards pleasure and irresponsibility as its god.  If every human feeling is just a social construct and every human desire is equal then why do we even care who lives or dies?

We are flawed. That almost sounds trite. We are murderers, deceivers, neglectful parents. We are selfish and stupid much of the time. We are driven by pride. Gunshots fly all around us and we go on with our day until one shooting is deemed more important than others. We show how deep we are by posting pictures on Instagram  or write posts like this with no answers except one that makes no sense.

LOVE THE IMPOSSIBLE ONES TO LOVE. This act is so uncommon and revolutionary that it seems ridiculous.

It’s easy in fiction writing but I have a long way to go in the real world.

“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.” Aldous Huxley

Testimony Farm

I shoot an envious glance towards this house every morning on the way to our foster girl’s school. The house has an elegant sign out front “Testimony Farm.” I can’t help but wonder about testimonies. The great thing about stories of calling or faith or redemption in public testimonies is that they have beginnings, middles and endings. Like this house everything appears tidy and finished. Of course it’s an illusion. Termites work, people die and houses crumble, but still . . . there is a longing for enduring testimonies that offer the assurance that one day we will be complete and all will be well with our souls.

Last night  our foster daughter (M) and I went on our bi-weekly sibling visit. M’s sisters were adopted only recently but we all knew it was coming and on this particular visit the sisters saw fit to make M feel how lucky they were and, by contrast, how sad they were for her. Kids do this to each other. One sibling emphasized the word “MOM” every time she spoke with her foster/new mom before turning to M to ask her if she was all right because it looked as though she might cry. M refused to be goaded.

As we sat in a quiet McDonald’s (because where else is there to take three young girls on a dark Monday night in Upstate New York) the girls repeatedly brought up their impending trip to Disney. “Wouldn’t you like to come with us, M?” one asked knowing it was impossible and seemed sort of gleeful about it. M let it slide.

As the adults chatted about watercolor paintings and anniversaries the girls laughed and joked. They sang made up songs to amuse each other until the youngest tugged her new mother’s sleeve and pulled her aside. “M said something inappropriate.”

I was pulled aside then. It seemed that M had made up a song about throwing babies in the trash. “Okay,” I said, “M often has a less than funny sense of humor and it’s usually related to anvils falling on people’s heads and car wrecks.”

The little girl peeked from behind her new mother. “M said she wanted to throw our new foster baby in the trash,” she whispered.

I didn’t believe her. Yeah, throwing a fictional baby in the trash isn’t a fantastic place to go with your jokes, but M spoke quite fondly of the new foster baby in her sisters’ family. I  went to M who sat watching the weather on the TV.

“Did you say you wanted to throw a baby in the trash?”

M said, “Yes. It was a joke in a song . . .” a look of panic flashed across her face as she glanced at her sister.

The sister’s new mom stepped in. “M, your sister says you wanted to put this baby in the trash . . .”

“No! She’s lying!”

The dinner ended abruptly, but as we walked to our cars the girls made sure to mention Disney one last time.

M stared after them as we pulled out of the parking lot and waved. They didn’t wave back. They didn’t see her.

I waited for M to say something. It came like a torrent. “Why do they get to go to Disney while we take care of stupid goats? I didn’t say I wanted to put a real baby in the trash and how come they look so pretty and I’m like trash? Everyone hates me at school and I try to be nice and they think I’m trash too. And my sisters hate my real mom and I love her even though she did bad things and why can’t you guys just adopt me already?” The talk went in long circles between sobs.

I said, “Well, M, I love you and don’t think you’re trash–it’s why I help you brush your hair in the morning.”

“Yeah, I know you love me, but no one else does!” More sobs. She settled down for a second. “But . . . when you get mad at me –when I do something–I think you might–you know–send me away and hate me–like trash.”

Trash was the word of the night.

We got home and M returned from her room after getting ready for bed. She was holding an mp3 player we bought her when she still lived at the group home. “I have this thing . . . and I’m afraid to tell you . . . but I recorded words I’m ashamed of and everyone’s gonna think I’m trash. The lady at the shelter said I should let out all my sexy thoughts–like what my mom did. I can’t get rid of the thoughts.”

“Wait, do you mean in your head or on the mp3 player?” I asked.

“Well, on the mp3 player which makes me think about it all.”

My husband sat reading about the CUBS. “Here, M, give me the player.” In about 2 seconds he figured out how to delete the offensive recordings. “All gone,” he said and tossed the thing back. ” Let’s just keep music on it from now on, okay?”

M nodded gratefully.

My husband of little words continued, “Oh, by the way. You do realize there’s no turning back. I spoke to your case worker and the lawyer. The adoption is a done deal–just waiting for the paperwork.”

M covered her face and went to her room with her dog eagerly at her heels. We listened as she goofed around with the dog before falling asleep.

Today was M’s last visit with the psychiatrist. “I don’t see any reason for M to come anymore now that she’s off the meds. I see a bright future for her. One that I never would have forecasted looking at her paperwork. I guess it was meant to be,” the doctor said. “Please let me know when the adoption goes through. M told me before you walked in that she loves you and your husband and that you love her so I’m done here.”

And there’s my testimony (for the moment).

 

 

One Less Lonely Girl

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It’s been a year since our foster girl first pointed out she could kill me with a steak knife–and it wasn’t the last threat on my life. Each time she casually mentioned killing me I casually responded that I had no fear of death and if she wanted to kill people she’d end up in a jail for evil kids who all wanted to kill each other. I said, “Go for it if that sounds like fun.”

It occurred to me today that those threats ended some months ago. She hasn’t picked up string beans off the floor of public restrooms and eaten them in a long time either. My big fear before picking up M last year (the week of the all important county fair) was that I’d find her unattractive. Yes, I’m that shallow. She was cute but a wreck. She was eager to be taken home (by just about anyone including two men she pleaded with the day before on the golf course after escaping the first group home). The group home director told me not to feel bad if the placement didn’t work out since no one expected it would. As she helped load M’s stuff into our car she said, “Oh, and by the way, don’t let M near babies–she wants to strangle them. Okay, bye!”

Think of abuse.

Think of all the different ways in which a person can be abused.

Think a thick stack of reports.

M had seen it all by age 8.

She came to us highly medicated and had a visit with her mother in a public park that first week where her mother asked her to pole dance in the park. This triggered M and put her in the children’s mental ward for two months where they drugged her even more.

Think soulless zombie slobbering and shuffling.

We took turns visiting her a few times a week. We visited her daily once her mother surrendered her rights and her sisters were set to be adopted by a family who decided they couldn’t take M (fair enough–they’d done all they could do).

Let me just say that cider donuts and coffee got me through those autumn weeks of endless travel to the very depressing hospital.

Halloween stands out as a low point. M begged us to come see her in the Cinderella costume we got for her, but by the time we arrived the staff had blackened her eyes with zombie makeup. She was angry, crying and “unstable” (the word they use in such places when someone is beside themselves with sorrow). M wanted her real mother. She wanted us to leave. She hated us. The staff took her to the padded cell–in her princess costume– and escorted us out. Later that night M called and asked if we’d come visit the next day.

The young, hipster therapist thought she’d intimidate me with big therapy words. She didn’t like me questioning the crazy meds (some of which are actually marketed as “foster kid drugs”!!). BTW, I knew what the big words meant. They meant money for the institutions housing the foster kids. One day the therapist saw me coming and ran outside. I kid you not.

It’s been a journey. Therapists, mental wards, group homes, sibling visits and evenings spent with cops looking for M. Last year M came to us taking about 10 different meds. Now she’s on none. She was afraid of open spaces and small places. Last week she sat in the quiet field with the sheep and goats for an hour with me in silence. At the end of the hour she turned to me and said, “You know, you’re right. The crickets’ singing is relaxing.”

M rides her bike, feeds the dogs and walks them, cleans her room and weaves pot holders like any slightly bored 10 year-old girl in summer. She’s still goofy but I don’t think she deserves the label she came with: low functioning. Who wouldn’t be low functioning after the life she’s lived? I think she functions fairly well these days.

When she comes back on Friday from sleepover camp (we can’t believe she’s actually still there!), we’ll go to the fair and eat fried dough. She’ll probably still make a mess of it–but this year she’ll know how to clean herself up! We’ll visit her sisters who happen to be adopted by a farming family we’ve become quite friendly with who show cows at the fair. Soon, if all goes according to plan and we adopt M we’ll practically be family. I hadn’t expected a  new family. I hadn’t expected to love this weird kid, but that’s yet another reason why blogging has to wait.

It’s hard to write with a chatty girl over your shoulder.

 

 

 

Infamy in a Small Town

In a small town there may be one (at most two) people who are impressed with you because you’ve written NOVELS. Fair enough. Why should they be impressed? After all you did get the Donkey Basketball  fundraiser cancelled when you wrote that thoughtful letter to the school superintendent questioning the idea of people humiliating donkeys who probably would rather not be laughed at and kicked up and down a slippery gym floor. You think it a bit much that the teacher who organized the event called you a bitch to her high school class (she doesn’t even know you and your step-daughter was in the classroom at the time and almost died), but you forgive the teacher–the event in past years made a lot of money and it was her claim to fame.

No one cares if you’re a writer when you are the second wife of a Navy man in a small town because the first wife is a native daughter with a, let’s say, talkative way about her and a talent for spinning sad stories of her own. At the bank they called you “the second wife” in derisive whispers, but they’ve warmed up to you a little since they see how often you make banking mistakes.

025And they all know about the time you were in a hurry to attend a parent/teacher meeting, swung into a parking spot and barely touched the car next to yours (a teacher’s car). You panicked, went home to bring a child back to ask this child if he saw any marks on the teacher’s car, went home again to get cleaning fluid, came back to leave a note, took away the note and never even considered just going into the school to tell what happened. A few days later the school called and you gave a tearful apology. Luckily there really was no damage to either car, but still, things like that–and the fact that you drive a white minivan with a CUBS license plate–stick with people.

Your husband counts down the years until his almost grown children will no longer sing in school chorus programs, but you quite enjoy the band and some of the songs (though not the theme songs from Disney movies). The Navy guy always sits way in the back of the auditorium so he doesn’t have to see his ex-wife. On this night you have along with you a lovely though fragile foster kid. She’s excited. She wants to feel grown-up and sits a few seats down. When the auditorium gets crowded and a student on stage asks for quiet you whisper to the girl to move closer. She pretends  not to hear you so you whisper louder and more imploringly. This triggers a secret horrible memory of her abusive mother who had a fondness for electrical tape. The girl whispers your name with big eyes and confesses she’s scared. Before you can do a thing and as the first nervous notes of a student soloist hit the air the foster girl screams your name–at least three times as you head for the door.

The show is stopped. The room is silent. Everyone recovers their senses. The show begins again, but you’re outside trying to calm the kid down. She’s having none of it and runs away. The Navy guy says let her run or she’ll keep stealing the show. It gets dark. The concert ends, and we’ve been searching for over an hour–with the police. Each car that leaves the show is stopped to be shown a picture of the little girl. The drivers glance over to see the Navy man answering questions about the girl in the squad car. What must they think? Someone says what they think: I saw that girl being kidnapped from the concert!

037You drive towards home but turn around thinking she couldn’t have made it this far. You turn around again because you really have no idea what to do and 8 miles from the school, nearly at your front door you see a small girl running in the distance with a coat over her head for safety. She’s run in flip flops along a highway and made it over a narrow unlit bridge spanning the Hudson. It boggles the mind. The cops are notified and everyone is relieved–or embarrassed. The Navy kids’ phones are blowing up with chatter and sympathy. Some EMS workers are a little disappointed they didn’t get to do a full-scale search through the fields surrounding the town.

You thought junking the minivan and buying a black SUV would allow you some anonymity, but no. Your name though hardly known for a novel you wrote will live in infamy at the school auditorium.

PS~I actually love my small town life and the people I meet, most of whom would give the shirts off their backs to help in times of trouble. I found the entire run away episode really funny–especially since unlike me my husband is a very private soul. Seeing him in the squad car will be a priceless memory for our family, and once the little girl was found we all laughed a lot. BTW, the policemen were wonderfully supportive, too!

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Fostering an American Girl

Childe Hassam 1859-1935 - American painter - Avenue of the Allies 1918 - The Impressionist Flags  (1)What are boundaries for? Imagine this: a girl, aged ten, is released to the state after her mother refuses to seek counseling for beating and starving her children. The girl sits in wait for a new home, gets one and wonders alone in her new room. Is this bed mine? Will wolves (the human kind and the furry kind) cross the line into my personal space through doors and opened windows? Will a higher power, a governing force, protect me?

This girl knows (after years of being in the system) that people often have very good excuses for overrunning her boundaries. She even feels some sympathy for the wolf who is her blood mother. This girl also knows (or wants to believe) that not all people who invade her space are bad, but does that matter? When a foreign person insists on brushing her hair it’s still an invasion.

This girl’s personal rights and privileges have been suspended through no fault of her own. Many rights have been taken to “protect” her, and it’s then that she wonders how is it that the invaders, those with good intentions and those with bad, have more rights than she does. She slams the windows shut. She insists on repeating this CD is mine. This sock is MINE. This space is officially mine!

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Is she irrational for insisting upon the notion of sovereignty? Is it okay to let other abused people fleeing poverty, despots and war into her personal space without asking? There’s a book her therapist gave her that she reads again and again. It’s My Body (a book to teach young people how to resist uncomfortable touch). This girl understands yet struggles with boundaries. Just like the millions of other people fleeing wolves, this girl wants to run away and into other people’s space. She ignores boundaries and the laws of nations set up to protect the rights of citizens. She’s never been protected, has never read the Bill of Rights, has not pondered its meaning or its history.

As foster parents we invited this child into our home, come what may. We considered long and hard and were never forced. There’s something about being forced to do something that makes it unappealing (God gave us each our sovereignty and when it’s tread upon we feel a boundary has been crossed).

Childe Hassam 1859-1935 - American painter - Avenue of the Allies 1918 - The Impressionist Flags  (5)

Make no mistake, personal property is a sure sign of freedom. Forced sharing is a sign of tyranny and personal abuse. If our house were overrun with children each as needy as this one little girl then we’d have to fly the white flag of surrender. I’d rather fly the flag of freedom for one individual than all the flags of wolves.

flag_hassam_57th_18_lgOne company is synonymous with the beleaguered flag that once stood for freedom: The Annin Flag Company. Around since the mid-19th century Annin vowed at the beginning of the Civil War to  “Without going through forms of contract[to supply] the government direct . . . as the war progressed, orders came pouring in from every state and city that was loyal to the Union, so that by the beginning of 1864, there was not a single battlefield, a brigade or a division that did not use Annin flags.” Wikipedia

 

Some will argue that the Civil War was not about individual rights. I disagree. It certainly was a messy debate and butchery over the meaning of freedom and boundaries (personal and communal). People in the North hung Annin flags from their homes. Some (a great many as the war progressed) understood that it wasn’t enough to allow a percentage of runaway slaves escaping a rotten system to cross the border into freedom. If a group of states could go against the law of the land any time they didn’t like the outcome of an election (even if the election brought in the Republican Lincoln) there would be no such thing as a free election left on earth (The US was a very young experiment at the time–one which the world watched with a mix of disgust and awe).

The powers that be in the state of New York watch over a foster girl. All the papers are signed and procedures are followed presumably to protect the children and the adults involved in foster care. Rules will help protect this child’s boundaries. In time it is hoped that the chaos of a life spent without boundaries will be a distant memory for this girl. She will need time to first close her boundaries, to see what her baseline status is, before she can open up with freedom and allow others to politely cross the borders to her heart.

De jure, or legal, sovereignty concerns the expressed and institutionally recognized right to exercise control over a territory. De facto, or actual, sovereignty is concerned with whether control in fact exists. Cooperation and respect of the populace; control of resources in, or moved into, an area; means of enforcement and security; and ability to carry out various functions of state all represent measures of de facto sovereignty. When control is practiced predominately by military or police force it is considered coercive sovereignty. Wikipedia

ANNIN FLAG MAKING VIDEO

FLAGS AFTER 9/11

constitutionfreezonemap

DO YOU LIVE IN A CONSTITUTION-FREE ZONE?

 

**Paintings by Childe Hassam

 

 

 

Inducement: A Bedtime Story

“I was thinking about killing you. With a knife,” the little girl says.

“Really. Hmm,” I reply.

“NO, I mean I’m not really going to kill you. You’re a sweet person, but if I did kill you (with a knife) would you be in the hospital or dead?” she asks, flipping the pages of the story book we were reading.

“Well, first off, I’d never let you kill me, but let’s just say you did. I don’t know where I’d be, but you’d be in jail.”

Her eyes widen. “But kids don’t go to jail.”

“Yeah, they do. Juvenile detention is one place they go. So it’s really your choice. You could live with us where everyone loves each other or you could become a killer every time someone doesn’t give you a 5th brownie and land in jail with other kid killers.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, I would never kill you anyway.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so because then we couldn’t be friends–obviously. And you’d have no chance with Grant from Kid’s Bop because he seriously wouldn’t date a killer,” I point out.

The little girl mulls it over. “Adrienne, I think I see what your saying. Can we go to the library tomorrow and  maybe to Starbucks and I can get one of those cupcakes–you know the red ones . . .”

“Red velvet?”

“Yeah, because I really love them. Didn’t we have fun the last time?”

“Yes.”

The little girl flips the pages again (we’d need to work on her handling of library books). “My mom tried to kill my sisters and I had to protect them. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I heard something about it.”

“She kept our heads underwater in the bath tub and once she taped me to a chair and covered my mouth with silver tape and left me for days. I had to break free to go to the bathroom in the closet.”

I have nothing to say.

“So Adrienne, you know I love you and I would never hurt you. Did I upset you?”

“No, not really. I think I get where you’re coming from. But it’s safe here. See, we covered the windows so the wolves won’t get you, and there’s the dog lying there to protect you. Now what do you do if you’re scared during the night?”

The little girl sighs, plugs in her mp3 player and says, “I’ll knock on your door.”

 

**INDUCEMENT: With no words required, one person sets up a situation to make another person feel just what that first person feels.