Learning to Fly


‘every cloud has a silver lining.’

while i realize that this statement is ‘technically’ true (that when you look carefully at a dark cloud, you will see the rays of the sun peeking out around it like a ‘silver lining’), more often than not, i have a hard time buying it. because it most likely originated from the ‘glass-is-half-full school of perception’, of which i am almost certainly a drop out (actually, a ‘flunk out’).

but when one of my friends and mentors put the same image in different language to me several years ago, for some reason, it resonated within me much more powerfully.

‘within every crisis, there is an opportunity.’

one of the ‘opportunities’ that has arisen out the ‘crisis’ that has been my life’s journey in recent months has been the chance to spend more time with my son, Ian, during the day.

you see, since Ian graduated from high school this past spring, he, like me, has been in the midst of the most significant season of ‘life change’ he has ever known. this is the first fall that he is not attending full-day school since he was 3 years old. that’s SIXTEEN (16) years of a slight variation of the same theme for him each August…the daily routine of getting up before the crack of dawn, riding a yellow school bus to and from school, and having that experience of community and learning at his school form the basis of his daily schedule of life.

he LIVED this schedule.

he LOVED this schedule.

and for people with autism, the regularity of a schedule is as important as the rhythm of a heartbeat.

so, to have that rhythm disrupted by a transition into a new season of life can be VERY disconcerting and daunting for someone like Ian.

my wife, Kirsten, myself and others have been working diligently through the past couple of years to help prepare Ian for this change.

throughout the summer, he kept asking when the yellow bus was coming back to pick him up to take him to ‘Big Sky High School in August’. and we kept trying to reassure him that he graduated from Big Sky and was ‘all done’ there (showing him his diploma), and that there are new things in store for him this fall.

a graduate student worked with him this past summer (as a project for her program) to help him navigate a way to go independently from our house to a couple of favourite places around town via our local bus line, which he now does quite adeptly.

we worked with Vocational Rehabilitation in our state to secure a part-time job placement for him that he can get to and from on his own.

and while change tends to come slowly for ‘Routine Jim’ (as it does for most of us), he has been adapting to it remarkably well.

in the struggle between ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’, the latter seems to be grabbing the upper hand thus far.


Ian outside the Missoula Food Bank.

one of the parts of Ian’s regular schedule for the past three years that he has been able to continue post-graduation is his volunteering at the Missoula Food Bank. recently, the kind and wonderful folks there added a morning shift to his regular afternoon shift, so that he goes in two days a week now instead of one.

i recently got the chance to experience this new morning shift with him.

and it was fascinating.

and inspiring.

and laughter-inducing.

and incredibly moving.

i walked with him to the Food Bank (something that is NOT a given with Ian these days, since it’s one of the things that he prefers to do ‘by MYSELF’.) 😉


Ian stocks the coolers at the Missoula Food Bank.


we arrived, said hi to the leaders, and were swept up into activity immediately by one of the volunteers before we even had a chance to get his schedule for the day. normally, this would kind of upset him. but Ian just transitioned right into the first task without much (or any) help from me.


Ian at the Missoula Food Bank.


so i was able to just watch him in this environment of service, going from task to task, some simple, some more complex.

at one point, we were recruited to open huge bags of pasta, empty the contents into a large storage container, and using a measuring cup to move the pasta into smaller bags. at first, Ian couldn’t open the big bags on his own, and i wanted to jump in and show him how.

but instead, HE figured it out…ON HIS OWN.

then he had some difficulty getting the pasta from his measuring cup into the smaller bags by himself.

but HE figured it out…ON HIS OWN.

then he didn’t know what to do with the remnant of pasta at the bottom of the storage container.

but…you guessed it…he figured out a way to get it all into a smaller bag.



Ian works at the Missoula Food Bank.


and while this was all happening, a song came on our facvourite radio station (The Trail 103.3) that i love from an artist that i love, the title of which couldn’t have been more fitting:

Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’.


All smiles on the job.


now, you wouldn’t think that something as simple as watching your son figuring out how to put elbow pasta into a little bag by himself would bring you to tears. but in that simple experience, i saw a much more profound miracle occurring.

i saw a small microcosm of Ian’s whole life’s journey up to that point.

i saw a young man who has had to face innumerable struggles with new challenges and tasks throughout his life. but when given attention, basic instruction and nurture by caring and gifted people, and the space to set him on his way, a young man who will figure things out in his own unique and marvelous way…ON HIS OWN.

i saw a young man who is taking more and more steps closer to leaping off of the branch of the tree that has held him in love for his whole life, and into the air to test his wings. and while there are plenty of fits and starts on his journey, with some days being very stressful and frustrating as he seeks to take another leap and stumbles to the ground, there are other days when his fragile, yet expanding wings catch the winds of the Spirit of joy and love that flow under and over and around and through him, and lift him to soar to new, exhilarating heights of freedom and independence…ON HIS OWN.

i was going to say that after 16 years in school and into his 19th year of life, Ian, in his own unique and gradual way, is ‘leaving the nest’. he is ‘learning to fly’.

but actually, ‘learning to fly’ describes his whole life’s journey.

a journey that he has LIVED and LOVED to the fullest extent possible.

a journey that has been empowered by the Wind that supports him and and enables him to fly.

a journey that he making, more and more, ON HIS OWN.

(a journey, by the way, that now includes a part-time job at a local market that he gets to and from…ON HIS OWN!)

i won’t join Ian anytime soon at the Food Bank. he prefers to go ‘by MYSELF’. and so, i’ll let him go on his own, and see how far he flies.

he may have some close calls, or may even crash at some point.

but he’ll be learning…learning to fly.

and as someone who is in the most unfamiliar and unsettling season of his life’s’ journey, facing the prospect of a future that will involve some kind of leap of faith off of a familiar branch from the Tree of Love and Life that has held me and supported me and nurtured me for so much of my life, i find, yet again in my life…

that my child is my teacher.

that his courage gives me courage.

and that his joy is so infectious, i can’t help but catch some of it, and let it remind me that there remain seeds of joy still planted deep within myself, waiting to sprout up into a new season of life and vocation…

waiting to sprout wings to fly.


To see more of Brian’s writing, check out the Brian Marsh main page here at Make it Missoula. And for even more, check out his personal blog, Apocalypso Now.


i’m a wanderer and a wonderer. a pastor who isn’t sure he’d attend church if he wasn’t pastoring one (and currently, i’m not), living with my unique and special family (my wife, Kirsten, and sons, Ian and Trevor) in a unique and beautiful place (Missoula, Montana). restless and lazy, usually amazed, always in process, i’m continually surprised and usually delighted at discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular’, the shafts of light that sneak into the shrouds of darkness. i drum decently, surf poorly, love multicultural food, music, and community, and living in the ‘Zoo.