I Don’t Even Know the Name


There is no end of this week of work or a beginning to the next one.  There is simply the work–not insight nor poetry nor even a bad joke to tell.  Even so, there are words of others that redeem my own.  Tonight, Leonard Cohen’s are the ones that transfigure the night.

There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah



In late January and early February of 2009, I got to go to Holland.  My brother was being installed as full professor at the University of Tilburg and would present his inaugural at a special convocation.   The year before, I had seen a movie that is still one of my favorites, “In Bruges”, a rather dark comedy filmed in the medieval city of Brugge.  I found the cityscapes compelling.  When I knew I was going to see my brother in Tilburg, I decided to make a side trip to Brugge.  I had read that many convents across Europe serve as hostels so I researched that possibility for my visit.  I discovered that there was a convent called The English Convent in the heart of Brugge and began to explore the possibility of spending two nights with them.  Though the sisters of the convent did not practice that particular form of hospitality, they were very gracious about inviting me to join them for Compline while I was in town.

2105_1080830855824_8397_nHans, my big brother, was sweet about wanting to send me on this outing with friends, by car.  I really wanted to go by myself.  So early on a winter’s morning, I went to the train station in Tilburg and caught a train to Antwerp, in Belgium.

The station was amazing.   So many layers of history in that place.  As the train goes through the Dutch countryside into Belgium, you still see bunkers from World War II. I read Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War avidly as a teenager and walking through the train station in Antwerp, I was so intensely aware of the ghosts of that war around me.


I caught my connecting train to Brugge and finally got there early in the afternoon. It was cold, grey, windswept, and beautiful.  Just beautiful.  I was staying in a B&B in one of the oldest parts of town; walking with my backpack on my back through fog that would break here and there along the way from the station to the B&B was like moving through a dream.  I spent the whole afternoon walking around with my mouth hanging slack.  There were places I recognized from the film, especially the belfry.  There were a lot of areas that were way too touristy to be very attractive.  But in the dead of winter, the city was almost empty and revealed itself quietly and gently.


I walked to the convent  in the dark.  It was cold, cold, cold outside as I walked, and when I came in and was led to the chapel by a nun who kept silence, I found a space that was almost as cold.  Slowly, many of them bent over or shaky, or supported by a walker, nuns began to come into the chapel.  They smiled at me, one put her aged hand on my shoulder in greeting.  Another gave me a copy of the liturgy in French.  Candles were lit.  One of the sisters sat down in front of an organ that wheezed.


And then, in the cold and candle light, sisters, most of them very old, about 25 of them, began to sing Compline.  Their voices were frail and reedy, yet still exquisite.  I had enough of a working knowledge of French to be able to follow along and at some points, try to join in the chants, with some of the nuns sitting close to me smiling their encouragement.  At the end of Compline, a few of them spoke to me in broken English and I replied in even more broken French.  We hugged and I went back out into the darkness and walked around the city till late into the night, willing myself to be there.  Really be there.  I had not had my hip replacement surgery yet and my hip hurt like hell.  But I couldn’t not try to take it all in.

I think back on Brugge and I realize that night was so dark, the light so weak, the voices singing so old.  Really, what difference did it make to the order of things in the universe that a few handfuls of women had gathered to pray?  Probably nothing much changed and the next night was almost the same and most nights since then.  I myself haven’t thought back on that service in years.  But somehow, tonight it all came flooding back and I realized that I had been made to feel at home, I who was a complete stranger in a surreal, strange land.

I baptized two beautiful children today.  When I try to think about my hopes for them, there are many.  But one is simple.  That one day, far from anything known or familiar, each of them may find a community, young or old, male or female, the particulars are not that important, but a community that invites them to join their voices to others in songs of praise and thanksgiving.

Fragile All The Way Around

On Tuesday of last week, Ms María had a bad morning at school. Her behavior was disruptive to her class and the staff in her classroom was not able to redirect her successfully. The situation escalated to the point that our girl got into a staff person’s space and though we will never know the sequence of events, the long and the short of it is that she put open hands on this person’s arm and pushed. The staff person did not fall, nor was she bruised in any way. A code was called and the safety team came in to take María away from the situation. The staff person then turned around and called 911 to file battery charges against our child.

In a matter of minutes, the police came, handcuffed María, took her out to a patrol car and drove her away to be booked and charged. The school called BARC to advise them that Maria had been taken away by the police but it took almost two hours to locate her, when the FLPD finally contacted us and agreed to return her to BARC housing. At one point someone told María that she would be locked up in a cell where mean people would beat her up. She had no adult advocate present for any of these events even though she is a minor with significant cognitive disabilities. Charges of battery of a school board employee have not been dropped. Among other things we can apparently still expect is that Maria will be put through a 2-week program so the system can claim that she understands enough of her Miranda rights to go to court.

Sherod and I have been trying to get our minds around it all. We have spent several hours attending meetings at her school and with her support team. The monsters of my fear have been out and roaming on many of the past nights and once again, it feels like the fight is with a tar baby that only entangles us more and more.

It was a perfect storm of failures that led to this situation. Standards imposed by the Florida legislation and Department of Education mean that our daughter is forced to engage a curriculum that is simply beyond her. She has to do work with exponents, long division, algebra, even though on her good days she is barely able to add more than a small set of single digit numbers and that, using her hands. So María gets F’s over and over again. The school recognizes this is incredibly wrong. But their hands are tied.

About 4 years ago, we were fortunate beyond words when we finally got the support of a behavior analyst who understands our child in a way that no one had ever been able to before. With her help, we put a behavior plan in place for María that required her dad and mom to learn more parenting skills and change our understanding of how to work with María down to the very core of our relationship. That behavior plan gave us 4 years that were filled with real joy and goodness even if in the end, we had to make the decision to place María at BARC. For those 4 years we have been begging the school to use the same plan to manage María’s behavior issues at school. Again, state-level mandates, rules and regulations make it impossible for the school to use the plan and in fact, have led to a behavior plan that increases the risk of María escalating into aggressive behavior repeatedly.

María attends a learning center for SED students–that is, severely emotionally disabled young people. At BARC and ARC, employees routinely deal with aggressive behavior because that goes with the territory. They, like school employees, are highly trained to manage these types of situations safely and quickly. They also understand it is part of the reality of working with young people with special needs like our daughter. Never has an employee of BARC or ARC had a client arrested. One of the lingering questions for Sherod and me has to do with an organization’s culture that says that the people with all the power, the teachers and staff, can and do routinely call 911 to have students charged and arrested.

We have all kinds of questions as well about the way the police handled this situation. We are told the officers were new on this beat, that other, more seasoned officers would not have arrested our girl. But how is it possible that a cognitively disabled minor does not seem to have any civil rights at that moment, and how is it that parents aren’t immediately notified and allowed to be with their child as they go through the process of being booked and charged? No one even takes a stab at answering that question.

I wanted to take my little peep and run. I watched my combat veteran husband struggle with every warrior instinct in himself to keep from going atomic. María´s godfather is one of the best, toughest, New Jersey trial lawyers a person could be lucky to know and he was by our side immediately. But taking the legal route is entangling ourselves with the tar baby even more, when what matters to us is pretty simple. We want our child to be as prepared for life as she can possibly be because one day, Sherod and I will be dead and she will need every life skill possible to make it to the end of her days. And we want her to be safe. The folks at BARC and ARC have been tireless trying to engage the school system at the highest levels of management and leadership to get this situation addressed and that has been of some help. But it is still at the ground level, at the school level itself, where the real action has to happen.

For that reason, by the end of last week, our focus became: “what comes next”. If María didn’t have such serious behavior issues, we could look at a transitional vo-tech program in the community, focused on teaching her life skills and job placement. But she is who she is so that is not an option. School options? They make my heart break. We are looking at the possibility of transferring her to a learning center focused more on severe cognitive disabilities. When I called one of these centers, the person who talked to me asked if María is at all verbal. When I told the lady that María reads at the 3rd grade level she said, “Honey, you really don’t want your child in this program–our students aren’t even verbal here”. She would probably not risk arrest in the centers we’re considering but I struggle to accept that this is a better alternative.

To give credit where credit is due, over the past two weeks, her current school has worked hard with us to reduce her risk of another arrest. Some things can and have been done to give María some experience of success at school, though the G*& D#$!!% “core curriculum” requirements of the State of Florida will force my daughter to fail at tests over, and over, and over again. Likewise, her school behavior plan has been modified to line up a little more with what we know works. But I don’t kid myself. María is as at risk as ever to be arrested again.

I am left carrying a hollowed-out sense of despair as big as the ocean. As long as Sherod and I are around and have the energy, we will do battle for this miracle we call our daughter, this little light that still continues to shine. But with the way things stand in this country when it comes to mental illness, all we will manage to do is ensure she doesn’t lose too much ground. What happens when we are gone? And what about the others? An incredibly high number of the students at Maria’s learning center are in the foster care system, come from terribly marginalized situations. Who speaks for them? How do they catch their chance at the “American Dream”? How very, very fragile we are…