We’re all a little dressed up for Father’s Day, in our case Fathers’ Day!
Did you know Iowa has its own version of Wimbledon?
Appropriately, it is called the All Iowa Tennis Club: a grass tennis court on a family farm surrounded by a well-tended, short white fence in the middle of fields that stretch evenly as far as the eye can see.
It took 14 months to build after years of hope, research, planning, and perseverance.
The public is invited to make court reservations. Homegrown strawberries are served. A youth tennis league learns the wonders of grass court tennis every year on the court.
For tennis fans young and old, it is truly a field of dreams. I wish I had played at the All Iowa Tennis Club. I had begun to make travel plans with a friend, but out of nowhere a job opportunity came about and my family and I moved to Hawaii.
But I’m always thinking about level playing fields, whether they offer opportunities for folks from all walks of life to enjoy baseball, tennis, safe and sustainable communities, education.
Yesterday I wrote about The Village Community, an amazing living/learning/working center in Iowa begun by parents of children with “disabilities” who dared to dream of a place where everyone is valued for his and her gifts to the world.
If only the new United States Secretary of Education, and more members of the Senate and House of Representatives were truly invested in giving everyone a level playing field and greater access to services whenever possible in integrated settings.
Unfortunately, many people — not just those with “disabilities” — are feeling pretty vulnerable since the national elections last November.
Speaking out about Civil Rights has become more important and necessary than perhaps ever before in our nation’s history.
Since I began this blog a year ago, I have learned what I already knew: telling our stories can make change for the better.
So let’s tell them whenever we can even if it means going out on a limb or out of our comfort zones sometimes. If they are worth telling, they will find resonance and build trust, hopes, community, and yes, fields of dreams.
For my last entry I posted a beautiful painting from my friend Matthew, a view from our last home before we moved to Hawaii. We lived in an intentional Quaker learning community and farm in Iowa.
Our daughter was just a year and a few months old when we moved to Iowa from Germany. Although born with an extra chromosome, she was alert and curious. She took in and responded to songs, poems, and books in English and German her fathers read to her several times a day. She could do everything most babies do!
The shock of our beautiful baby girl coming into this world with an extra chromosome gave another dimension to the steep learning curve of parenting a first child. We knew finding a great community would give our daughter advantages we might not be able to on our own. It was the main reason we left Germany where Ben and I felt at home in the German language, enjoyed many friendships, but also saw that most people would not consider “the sky’s the limit” for Ellen. Unfortunately, most people in Germany were already placing limits on her, and she was just a baby!
Iowa was different. The sky was as wide and bright as farm fields in summer. Ellen had many fans who encouraged us to set the bar high for our daughter. She had wonderful teachers.
One day I received a request at my job for a tour of the intentional learning community. I spoke to an eloquent, kind, funny woman named Mary on the phone before I started asking questions. She paused. Soon, though, we laughed and realized we were speaking the same language. The tour was for a group of parents of children of all ages with disabilities wanting to ensure that their kids would lead meaningful, sustainable lives as they grew older. The parents’ goal was eventually to build a living/learning/working residential community.
I agreed to set up the tour. I asked a colleague named Mark, who manages the farm at the Quaker day and boarding school, to join me. Mark, one of the finest teachers I have ever met anywhere, immediately said yes.
Mark, in fact, pretty much led the tour. It gave me a chance to watch the parents’ faces grow brighter with hope, to listen to their questions, to watch their reactions as they realized that their dream could be achieved.
At the end of the tour, I brought these amazing parents to our home on the school property that was close to the farm. I introduced them to my daughter who at that time was three years old but starting to speak the two languages that are her first (but not last!).
A few minutes later, I showed the parents the Quaker meeting house and we talked a bit. At the time I did not know my family would be moving to Hawaii, and I wanted to become fast friends with this group of people I had just met. I had trusted them immediately so I allowed myself, knowing they had far more experience with parenting than I, to ask what they thought about Ellen.
I think most parents seek reassurance in some way at one time or another (or more) about what matters in life most: the future of their children. For parents of kids with a “disability,” I have learned that we hold our breath a great deal and hope we don’t come across as needy while we seek to be the best advocates possible for our daughters and sons.
In that Quaker meeting house years ago, one of the fathers looked me in the eye and spoke quickly, decisively, and kindly.
“Look, my friend. Your daughter can do so much. She understands and is speaking two languages. She’s alert. She answers our questions. You’ve got a bright girl. She’s going to be fine.”
But one never knows, and every day you try to give your children skills so they can thrive in small and large ways, so they can transcend expectations, so they can learn the rest of their lives.
But it takes a village, and the wonderful people I met in Iowa began one: http://www.thevillagecommunity.org
Before I started writing this post, I revisited my memories and their website. I was stunned to find my name as one of the individuals who supported them. To my mind, I only did my small part.
More than three years ago, my family and I moved to Hawaii. We’ve all found what we were looking for even if we didn’t know it at the time!
My husband: friends, a faith tradition, a devotion to exercise, the Hawaiian language and culture, a great job, and community.
My daughter: friends, first-rate teachers, Buddhism (although she is still a Quaker), community, and the Hawaiian language and culture.
Me: mountains! I grew up with them, I missed them, I’ve met mountains all over the world, and the most magical mountains I’ve ever seen are in Hawaii. Also a great job, community, amazing new friends I feel like I grew up with, a reconnection to writing poetry, starting this blog and keeping it going for a year.
I’m often asked if I ever have “Rock Fever,” a sense of being in the middle of a vast ocean and missing the Mainland. The honest answer: in more than three years, not even for one second!
I’m glad my family sat down together one cold morning years ago in Iowa, weighed pros and cons about moving to a place where we knew no one, hugged each other, and agreed to go for it!
In an ideal world, all our close friends and family would move here! Short of that, we still have pieces of our past with us. I’m cooking a German meal this morning for my daughter’s summer school class. Then I will go to my office where I have this beautiful painting of where we lived in Iowa in an intentional learning community and farm. My artist friend Matthew gave it to me on my last day on the Mainland, and I carried it with me on a train and a boat before I landed in Hawaii. I believe Matthew moved to Japan soon after! Come visit, Matthew. Hawaii is a perfect place to meet in the middle!
For the entire year I have written this blog, I have composed posts the day of, once in a while the night before. I believe that practice gives greater clarity and focus to the topics.
Ideas for the posts are another matter. Some I have had for years while others occur to me the day of writing.
Two possible topics were swirling around in my head for today’s post, but then I woke up to learn about events in the world that preempted those.
Words about the beginning of the grass-court tennis season or an inspirational book I was going to recommend can wait.
I will ask readers to join me in spending a few minutes to send supportive thoughts on the victims, and their families, of the apartment building fire in London and the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia, and San Francisco.
The headlines this morning reminded me again how precious life is and how it all can change in one moment. I take deep breaths as I hold those who were helpless and the heroes who did whatever they could to give them aid in the Light. All too often these tragedies happen where you least expect them: where you live or work, on a baseball field, at a school, a movie theatre, a restaurant.
I still believe collective hearts and minds will somehow prevail for a more peaceful world, but I’m a bit numb right now, and I’ve been awake for all of four hours.
If Serena Williams were playing the French Open this year, she and the woman whom she is looking to tie as winner of the most major championships in tennis, Margaret Court, would be the talk of Paris mostly for their achievements on the court.
Serena is enjoying the tournament, but as a spectator this year as she is many months pregnant.
Margaret decided during the tournament to ramp up her decade-long rant against gays and same-sex marriage. A fellow West Australian, Casey Dellacqua, who is still in contention at the French Open, has for years been on the receiving end of Margaret’s tirades. Margaret claims she likes Casey personally but can’t condone Casey’s decision to have a woman as a life partner nor their parenting their two children.
If the world were in a more normal place, Margaret would probably be mostly ignored. Unfortunately, with the new occupants of the White House, all ground gained in the last decades in Civil Rights is no longer guaranteed.
A friend recently asked why I write about this. After all, he said, I have a nice life and my husband and I and our daughter who was born with an extra chromosome have been largely accepted by the communities where we live, work, and play.
My response is that I still get hit with Big Macs (why not a wrapped Double Cheeseburger?!) and people will yell “Fag” at me when I’m walking down the street minding my own business. Even in settings here in Hawaii very familiar to me, I hear comments and questions — not always kind, occasionally laced with disdain — about my style, mannerisms, choices, and sometimes about people of all ages who are figuring out their sexuality and identities.
I’ve learned, more often than not the hard way, not to take it personally. To answer my friend’s question more specifically, as long as I have a voice, actually as long as I can breathe, I’m going to live my life and write and speak so that people like Margaret Court might wake up one day with a willingness to imagine what it’s like to walk in my shoes (or tennis sneakers) even if she never can (nor I in hers).
Change happens. For many years I did what was expected when work colleagues, friends, relatives, and close family members would talk endlessly about dates they had gone on, their children, their marriages, their weekend activities. I was expected to take in all this, be friendly and supportive, but never talk about myself. But every once in a while I would pop in with something like, “You know, I went out on a first date with a guy a friend introduced me to. I think it might have been our only date!”
I would be greeted with snickers or ignored. Once in a while, I would be taken aside and told I had been “offensive.”
Times have changed, slowly, but actually more so than I ever would have imagined. My husband and child are recognized as full-fledged members of my vast family. We are accepted in our work and faith communities where the majority of our friends are straight. I actually don’t define myself as gay or straight. I’ve never been a huge fan of labels.
I’m also happy to share some really good news: I found out yesterday that my family will be featured by a well-known organization for its national promotion of diversity and inclusivity. This is an organization founded well over 150 years ago in part to improve the health and well-being of people in countries throughout the world.
It’s funny, but on my walk home yesterday, after finding out this news, I thought, “For this to happen makes all the Big Macs that have landed on me, the thousand times in my life I’ve been called ‘Fag,’ the bruises from being beaten up, it has made all of that worth it.”
I never have thought of myself as Mr. Advocate. But if I can help anyone move to a place of greater acceptance of differences, then I have my answer for “What’s it all about?”
Given the decision by Trump and his close advisors to ignore what is staring everyone in the face — our climate is changing so fast that Antarctica will soon be green and a major tourist destination — life makes sense to me at times like this when I stop trying too hard to make sense of it.
After a few conversations with close friends and my husband, I go back to what gives me hope: making time to be more active so the world will be a healthy place for my child and all children. I want them to look forward to viewing the world from an oversized pineapple or other vantage points and see trees — palm trees, maple trees, birch trees, any trees will do — clear, blue skies, and water they can drink safely and swim in.
One of my close friends told me after the presidential election that now more than ever people need to become more resilient to decisions imposed upon us by the new occupants of the White House. This resilience can take the form of art, poetry, other forms of writing, community activism, taking on leadership roles in faith groups — in general taking on a more active role rather than passively despair.
And still enjoy and appreciate life! And keep disappointment in perspective but taking delight in what we have: the joy and innocence of children and the possibility of making the future better for them.
I’m home today with a fever, so if my writing is a little off, please forgive me!
While struggling to get out of bed for a cup of coffee, I saw a news segment about Maria Shriver leading an event this Sunday with prominent journalists hosting panel discussions in major cities about topics that include fitness, food, nutrition, and sleep.
The event, MOVE FOR MINDS, will bring women together to increase awareness of Alzheimer’s as a women’s disease and the need to raise research funds to find cures. Participants will be encouraged to take part in workouts that challenge them physically and spark neural activity in the brain. The event will also promote brain healthy food and lifestyles.
My daughter, like most people born with an extra chromosome, is susceptible to Alzheimer’s. For Ellen and others who have Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s tends to appear 10 to 20 years earlier when compared to the general population.
When I first held Ellen in my arms a few days after she was born, I knew she would lead an incredible life. (But don’t most parents feel that way?!)
When she was a few months old, an early education specialist visited our home. She asked me if there had been an official diagnosis. I said yes but asked why she asked. “I’ve been around a lot of children,” said Sharon. “She is so alert. There is so much going on.”
It may not have exactly been at that point, but soon after my husband and I intensified our research about Down syndrome. We learned a lot about nutrition, lifestyle, early education, physical activity. We joined a wonderful online forum for parents of children born with an extra chromosome. We met parents of teenagers who had graduated from high school.
As all parents of children who are “different” know, it can be at times a lonely path. But we have been blessed by the encouragement and knowledge of many astonishing women and men whom we call Team Ellen.
We are also lucky and grateful for Maria Shriver and others for their courage, humanity, activism and advocacy. They inspire and engage scientists, philanthropists, politicians, industry leaders, and ordinary people like my husband and me who together may accelerate finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, especially as many baby boomers will be staring it in the face or in the faces of their loved ones.
There is a lot of hope. Ellen has been following a nutritional regimen since she was six months old. My husband and I feel like it has made quite a difference. She loves nothing more than to climb walls at the YMCA! She is verbal (at times a bit too verbal) in two languages. With patience, her fine motor skills are improving. Most recently, a link in the online forum Ben and I belong to featured an article about a drug in trials that could reverse the progress of Alzheimer’s.
So what about my 5 Degrees of Separation from Maria Shriver? In my work in philanthropy, I once spoke with Sargent Shriver, Maria’s father, who was first director of the Peace Corps and former president of Special Olympics who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. Thank you, Maria, for looking out for women like my daughter. Because of your advocacy, you inspire me to do my part.
A colleague came into my office today and talked a little about faith. I work for a private school that is affiliated with a faith tradition. In fact, I’ve worked most of my life in small, faith-based private schools that are inclusive.
I want to note that while this kind of work environment is very rewarding, these schools also have budget goals that need to be met. I’ve been working in the philanthropy field for over two decades. I’ve always been inspired by learning about people’s life stories, and it is an honor to become acquainted and sometimes even friends with donors. But deadlines abound for most of the year. By meeting financial goals, I help the school, students, parents, and colleagues.
So a rare, short conversation about faith with a work teammate on a quiet summer day is a nice change of pace.
My colleague asked if I consider faith a big part of my life. “Absolutely,” I said. “Why,” he asked. I smiled and said there are many reasons and I look forward to talking about them in the years ahead. He smiled as well and said, “Fair enough.”
After he left, that brief interchange got me thinking about faith, fate, and my friend Gail.
I met Gail in one of the schools I worked in as a German teacher. I’ve been lucky that in addition to having full-time jobs as a fundraiser, I’ve also been allowed to teach German at my workplaces a few hours a week for about 15 years. I’m able to get to know students and families on a different surface, so to speak. It also helps me keep a promise I made to my grandfather that I would always keep our family’s heritage language part of my life and try to pass it onto others.
Gail is one of those people in life to whom people gravitate. She is smart, optimistic, fun. She gets things done. I always wanted to get to know her better, but at the same time I had a funny feeling I already knew her.
Then one day our six degrees of separation became two, possibly fewer.
Gail showed me a document written in old German script and asked if I would translate it for her. I immediately recognized it was a marriage certificate from 1903. Then I read further and the name Herzing appeared. “That’s funny, Gail,” I said. “That’s my mother’s maiden name.” Then my eyes scrolled down the piece of paper a little more and widened considerably. “Hold on, Gail. Johann Herzing resided in Pegnitz [in Bavaria]. That’s where my family comes from.”
We looked at and hugged each other. “We’re cousins.”
And have been all our lives but didn’t know it. Or maybe on some level we did even before my husband and I completed a thorough translation of Gail’s document.
Gail and I didn’t grow up together, and for much of our lives we lived in different cities and only met when I began working in a Waldorf School in my 30s. Now, though, Gail is part of my family and related to my daughter and by marriage to my husband who also taught Gail’s son.
So yes, if readers of this blog don’t know already, I’m a big believer in fate and faith. I’ll never have either of those weighty topics figured out, but seeing signs of each is one of the reasons I get up every day!
What an intense 11 months since this blog began! Even in Hawaii, where the weather does not change a great deal ever, though, the pace has changed and it’s starting to really feel like summer.
For our daughter, that will mean learning math, hula, Hawaiian language and culture, exploring the island with her parents, and enjoying her new hobby of painting!
For her dads: preparing for the new school year, reading, training for a marathon, and for this blogger, imagining myself in Paris or London by watching the French Open and Wimbledon!
I wish followers of this blog a wonderful holiday weekend. I hope you will be able to devote time to savor something new or familiar, on your own or with your family. See you back on Tuesday!