Something like this quote was on my mind yesterday when I was writing my post about discernment and living into my call. Hope it inspires you today!
The first year I was teaching in the writing program Lucia was diagnosed with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome just a month after her first birthday. I remember that despite the cake and the guests, there was a somberness to that first birthday. Lucia couldn’t eat the cake we made, because she’d just begun feeding through a tube a few months prior. We worried that she’d spit up violently during the party like she often did or that she’d scream in pain most of the time. But mostly we felt intent to celebrate because we didn’t know how many birthdays we’d have and we were desperate and determined to have that first one even if it wasn’t perfect.
Later that summer I began to wonder what God was doing.
I’d spent years doing research in China studying foster families who raise children with disabilities; disability in China had become so unexpectedly a professional, academic interest. And then we had our own child with special needs and it all felt a bit too close for comfort. People wondered about the order of things: surely you planned to study disability because of your own child? No, it was the other way around? They’d shake their heads disconcertedly, unnerved, perplexed. It felt reductive to presume God had been equipping us in China to be Lucia’s parents or a bit simplistic and crass to pronounce that Lucia’s disability and our relationships with families in China had all been a part of God’s plan, but it was also hard not to see it that way either.
But somewhere along the way, I began to embrace what God was doing even if I didn’t gully understand it. I began to dream that summer about a writing course about disability, but would students want to take such a course, I wondered. When we develop our writing courses our directors always encourage us to get inside the minds of 18 year olds arriving at college, and so the most popular classes are on madness, New York, extra-terrestrials, and film. Would a course on disability really be something freshman students would care about?
I’m not sure how popular my course has been, but every semester, two groups of twelve students walk in the door. Many of them come because they have a family member who has a disability, and they want to understand and talk about it. Some of them are just curious. I’m sure for several of them, my course wasn’t their first choice and they just ended up there by chance.
But I try to make the most of that chance.
The course considers disability as a form of diversity, a form of difference, and challenges the students to think beyond what they thought they knew about disability to reconsider how disability can teach us more about what it means to be human. At an elite, ivy league university, the thought that people with intellectual disabilities might be insightful when it comes to our knowledge about humanity it a particularly challenging, counter-cultural thought. For some of my students that dissonance, having a brother back at home who struggles to speak because of his autism, while they are thousands of miles away, toiling for the mere self-improvement of their own mind, is nearly too much to bear. During a routine writing conference, one such student broke down and told me, “I just had to take your course. When I look at all the ones on campus, it is the only one that seems to matter.”
I am not a miracle worker, but I do try to offer those students shelter and companionship within the world of academia. I know just how inhospitable such a world can be to the daughter I love most, the daughter who has taught me more about myself, life, and God than nearly any other human being on the planet–and yet to so many, she is broken, disabled, lacking. Together with twenty-four students each semester in this small, windowless classroom, we encounter just that kind of prejudice and exclusion toward people with disabilities, and I invite them to see otherwise.
What happens each semester is powerful.
Not only are there brave, open-minded students who have little contact with people with disabilities but come because they want to learn, but there are students with disabilities in my classroom who find that they are not alone and they are valued. There are students who leave impassioned to work with and learn more about people with disabilities even though they came in somewhat hesitant.
And at the end of the semester, when I have the students write narratives and Op-Eds about what they’ve learned about disability, I am overwhelmed. At the end of a semester of rigorous academic writing, they are invited to share their hearts, and I sit there with my coffee and my computer, humbled and honored to be invited into their beautiful, painful lives. So many students have written about how religious leaders have been so limited in their understanding of disability, hurting their family members, denying their humanity. So many have written about their own struggles with learning disabilities or mental illness that they’ve often kept to themselves on a campus that doesn’t have time for any inkling of weakness. Still others find the language of disability and difference a provocative opening to reconsider their experiences of race, class, gender, or body issues.
Every semester these disability narratives blow me away.
I learn so much from my students. Indeed, it was with that first class that I began to write about my own experiences–“I’m Not Sorry” was my disability narrative that I wrote alongside them, because I told them that I couldn’t ask them to be so brave if I wasn’t willing to try, too. These students have made me realize that the collision of my personal and professional life is both a gift and a responsibility. As I read over these narratives this past week, I realized that students leave my classroom better equipped to appreciate what is sacred in people who are different from them. And the hope that welled up in my heart when I read those narratives was distinct and surprising and so thrilling, because these students will resist attempts to belittle those who are different and those with disabilities. I know they will. These students will use their knowledge for good. It is because of these students that I can’t help but find purpose in my life and Lucia’s life; the opportunity to serve them and to grow alongside them is just too precious, too unique.
A few days ago, I snidely posted the following words to my social media account,
“Apparently there’s an inauguration today. Meanwhile, I have rearranged my office for maximum coziness while I get to read the exams where my students explore what they’ve learned about disability and difference over the course of our semester. How’s that for a protest, Mr. Trump? Three semesters (and counting) of students who will value and advocate for people with disabilities: we will make America great with or without you.”
So you see, this class, while it’s not overtly political is a distinct act of resistance in a world that is far too close-minded, cruel, and careless when it comes to the lives of people with disabilities. It’s resistance that comes from knowledge and hope and love. It is the resistance that I choose and that has chosen me. And I will carry on because just a few years removed from Lucia’s first birthday, I no longer question God at all. Rather all I can do is thank God for God’s incredible vision and a life so humble and yet, so grand.
A friend posted this to Facebook this morning.
And this week (and probably all weeks), I’ve been teaching my students about the power of words–especially the ways in which words are coded with hidden cultural meanings, with gender, class, and race. There is always more than meets the eye, metaphor dripping and resonating with import, value and privilege connoted in simple turns of phrase.
What’s funny to me about coddiwomple is that it doesn’t sound the least bit purposeful; it sounds more the stuff of vague wanderings, trodding, trudging, even. For me it comes too close to the catawampus or the cattywampus, the awkward, askew positioning that some prefer to catty-cornered.
Over the past few days, we’ve discovered that things are a bit cattywampus in a 200+ year old house. Stairs, floors, windows, closets, joints, gutters–give it 200 years and everything is a bit askant, askew, and disheveled.
And so are we.
There’s been the stress of moving from place to place for months and finally into this home, and then the rains from this weekend flooded our department, some offices, and classrooms, and so even at work now I feel a bit aimless and displaced. These are small inconveniences, ones that have lended much needed perspective for me to the challenges many in this world face on a much grander scale.
But they’ve also reminded me that we human beings need purpose.
When all else fails, even when we press on toward a vague destination, we crave clarity, connection, conviction. What I thought this house might yield along those lines, though, I realize now, is only the beginning. When we purchased this house, I prayed that it would be a gathering place for family, friends, and strangers, that it would be a place that blessed many and not just us.
But that purpose is still unfolding, amidst boxes and all that is askew, and I’m often impatient to discern the future. What I’m recognizing and perhaps disappointed by is that although we seem to be home finally, we’re still traveling, always traveling, making our way though the way now be paved with local negotiations, leaky faucets, and neighborhoods.
When it comes to words, coddiwomple might be a nice mantra, a beginning, rather than end point, in order that I don’t lose sight that purpose, in so many ways in my own life and probably yours, is also still unfolding. What I’m won’t to do in moments like these, is harvest the simple purposes in the everyday–in the fact that this area is crawling with amazing butterflies, in the serene walks atop the cemetery, in the union of struggle and working together that has to happen but also can and does happen when we meet challenges with patience.
Maybe it’s possible to live purposefully even when you’re a bit disheveled, or at least I’d like to think so. I’d like to be a bit coddiwomple in a world that is often askew. I’d like to glean purpose, like a forager, a harvester, a woman who doesn’t let a little rains or floods or follies deter her…
But we’ll see, won’t we?
The tenure track job.
It came up again today in conversation and I heard myself explaining away Lucia as somewhat of a limitation, a barrier to my acceptance of a prestigious position at a faraway university, and the words stung on my lips. I didn’t like the way they sounded, not because of what they necessarily made Lucia out to be, but as to what they failed to communicate about my life with her. We may not be in China or Europe or even the Midwest anytime soon given that moving, let alone traveling with Lucia is daunting, but I’m starting to see that parameters aren’t always limitations, but often, good and wonderful gifts.
When I focus on the things I can’t or no longer do as Lucia’s mother, I neglect the way in which our tax payment to the state of New Jersey took on new, holy meaning this year, as we’ve become so gracious for the services our daughter receives from the state everyday. Even the fact that we are seemingly grounded here because of Lucia’s state services misconstrues the amazing provision that we just happened to have a special needs child in one of the states with the greatest benefits for such kids. Lucia wasn’t accidentally born into such a blessing, but wonderfully, purposefully so.
And then there’s the incredible academic rebirth I’ve had as a result of learning to love Lucia. Whereas I was already studying foster children with disabilities in China, my experience with Lucia pushed me to develop and teach a new course on “Disability and Difference” at Princeton, to write on my personal experiences, and to begin to combine my scholarly and personal pursuits. My journey alongside Lucia to reconceptualize diversity, justice, and faith through the lens of disability has been revelatory, and I am so grateful for her guidance.
There’s a really mixed bag here because I often suffer with Lucia, and I also struggle to comfort her, understand her, and help her. I feel firmly that Lucia’s daily struggles shouldn’t be eclipsed by my own growth or edification. But several years after God acquainted me with foster families raising children with disabilities in China who made us want to become parents, then God granted us our one-in-a-million Lucia. I seek to embrace what God has shown me as God teaches me so profoundly that my daughter is fearfully and wonderfully made.
Another thing that I see is God melding these seemingly separate lives–that of the scholar, the pastor, and the parent–in far more intentional ways than I ever could. In other words, we have partially stayed in New Jersey because of Lucia’s special needs, but I’ve also stumbled upon an opportunity to minister and teach and care for my child here that is life-giving and good. The gift of living life alongside Lucia has taught me that life is not always as it seems, because there is blessing in what God builds amidst difficulty, sacrifice, and challenges.
In a recent blog post, a friend of mine wrote about how much his son with special needs has taught him not just about life but about the Bible and about God. The truth is so much of Lucia’s giftedness is in revealing to me my own limitations, in enlightening me in what God is already doing, and in inspiring me to be a better follower, servant, and mother. Lucia shows me the fullness of life, not in her limitations, but in our mutual, challenging, deep relationship, and I am deeply grateful. Lucia continues to push me to fulfill my purpose in God and for others.
I might have said then, that Lucia is hardly a limitation–rather she is a gift.
She is a person that has made my life so much more meaningful than it could have been otherwise. From one vantage point, her life has placed certain constraints on my own, but I believe she has also grounded me to see and experience the gifts and the goodness of God anew. She has pushed me to reevaluate that tenure track job, not because I can’t have it or she doesn’t want me to have it, but because it doesn’t necessarily represent promise, privilege, or prestige that really matters. She pushes me to live a life that matters, a life worthy of the calling I have received: she makes me whole in a way I could never have conceived.
And so I say, thank you God, for this good and perfect gift.