Small

I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far. I don’t have answers; it’s like staring at a giant tangle of strings and being asked which one to tug on to begin to unknot the mess. It really doesn’t help that we tend to dive in and grab the “right” string and yank on it, tightening the tangles and frustrating our neighbors. We argue and the knots get tighter as we pull. Impasse.

I can only do small things. I look deeply into my kids’ eyes and search for brokenness; I ask questions; is there a kid who doesn’t get included? Is there someone who struggles to connect with others? How are you; no…how are you really? Kid, where is this anger springing from? Talk to me. I want to hear you.

Love. Hugs. Kisses. Tears and prayers. Long, slow, revelatory conversations.

The big ones…the politicians and the lobbyists and the organizations having a war of words; their work is large and beyond my understanding. No one can untangle knots while shouting and jerking the strings. I can’t tell them anything; I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far.

But I will pray, and it isn’t a small thing; not a trite thing. Not a half-hearted thing, not an opiate, not a crutch, not an “out”. It is the Made saying to the Maker, we are undone; help! Our children are bleeding out under their desks and pain is written on our turned-away faces. Our hands are sliced by pulling strings and we can’t see through our tears and our voices are hoarse from shouting.

“The children are dying!”, my shout rings out and the string-pullers look at their bloodied palms and at the tightened wad of chaos quivering in the middle of them. “But the right to bear…” “But video games….” “But mental health”…”But background checks…”, whispered, chanting, building into shouting, and I back away.

“Love well today; be kind to those who need a friend”, I say as my kids head off to school. My prayers trail after them. I am small, and my voice carries to God’s ears.

 

*I wrote this in February, after a school shooting.  Which one was it?  That is a painful question to ask.  Lord, have mercy.shortstory9

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Scars Of My Stumblings

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“This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”

+ St. Anthony the Great

I dared to shower, I dared to answer some work emails.  Meanwhile my five year-old and my three year-old dared to destroy.  A school library book and a fake plant.  I asked, exasperated by the thoughtlessness of it,”WHY?”.

They said, one tearfully and the other with a barely-suppressed grin, “I don’t know.”

I can relate.

Why did I snap at my husband over a minor offense?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I pray instead of flinging myself at the to-do list, heedless of filling my cup before washing cups?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I listen attentively to my preteen at bedtime when it seemed he was down, because I was ready to be done for the day?  I don’t know.

But I do know.

I know that I like to choose me over:  you, them, that (obligation, responsibility, good).  Sometimes it’s easier to choose the right way; sometimes it’s extremely difficult; sometimes I fail.  Daily I have reason to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Daily I have the absolute obligation to forgive others their sins as well; if I do not I cannot expect mercy myself.  I am not a healthy person responsible for chastising the sick for their poor state; I am a sick person in need of a Physician, and I must help the other sick ones in my care to choose to follow the Physician’s instructions as well.  Am I letting the Doctor address my illness?  Am I following His treatment plan?  Am I getting better and better?  My children will see.  My spouse will see.  It is not enough for my words and beliefs to be correct; so also must my behavior, speech, and love reflect Christ, must honor Him, must spring from the healing He is doing in my heart and soul.

There is a beautiful hymn that I often have on repeat when I need a reset.  It is good medicine for me, especially this part:

You Who did fashion me of old out of nothingness, and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgressions of Your commandments did return me again to the earth from whence I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.

Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes.
I am the image of Your unutterable glory, though I bear the scars of my stumblings. Have compassion upon me, the work of Your hands, O Sovereign Lord,
And cleanse me through Your loving kindness; and the homeland of my heart’s desire bestow on me
By making me a citizen of Paradise.

I certainly bear the scars of my stumblings.  God’s healing and forgiveness does not take away all the brokenness from our sins.  Some relationships never truly heal, some temptations will dog us to our deathbeds.  But we do know that God’s love is great, warm, merciful, and powerful.  He is meticulous and persevering in mending us, healing us.

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The book and the plant will never be as beautiful and perfect as they once were; they look a bit shabby and patched-up, but they are no longer bound for the trash; that’s something, right?  Mended things are a bit more humble, aren’t they?  Wouldn’t we all benefit from a strong dose of humility?

I have this hanging in my kitchen; a constant reminder to remember my own brokenness and sin as I raise these dear children, as I interact with my husband, as I try to be a good friend, daughter-in-law, neighbor, and parishioner.  May God enable us to heal, forgive, mend, be mended, persevere, and live holy lives “by humble love”.IMG_6223

 

 

For Which Generation? On Telos and Techne

 “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”  -Carl Jung

Six kids?!?  You must be SO BUSY!

It’s said with wonder, with a smile, and nodding knowingness.  Everyone’s busy, so I must be doubly, or triply, so with such a sizable family.  Despite every inclination to just leave it at that, I cannot seem to help my contradictory self.  “I’m really not.  We live an intentionally slower-paced life with few outside commitments.”  This does not compute generally with whomever I’m making small talk.  But, it’s okay, they have to run anyways; busy day ahead!

I learned a new word the other day as I read You Are What You Love by James Smith:  telos.  A Greek noun, it means an end, purpose, or goal; an ultimate aim.  He writes convincingly that our telos affects everything, even if it’s not what we think it is.  What do we really aim at? What do we really love?  We may think that we’d love to have a beautiful and healthy body, but our true telos may have more to do with the tasty pleasure of eating donuts and the comfort of sedentary habits.

I wondered; what do I love?  What am I aiming my life towards?  And what is my techne (another Greek word, meaning our rational method in accomplishing our aim) for getting there?  And why is the techne that is assumed to be universal a breathless and harried busyness?  What telos requires such haste and incessant activity?

A baby is born and the parents begin to dutifully schedule portrait sessions, play dates, and provide heaps of stimulating “educational” toys.  There’s childcare to arrange, and baby is bundled up and ready for the day before the sun rises.  Life is a series of being dropped off and picked up, shuttled about from car seat to stroller to car seat to bed.  As toddlerhood approaches the parents feel this unsettling pressure; will their child be ready for preschool?  Which preschool is best?  Maybe a parent will pick up another job to pay tuition at a promising one.  This is only the beginning, but the telos is in full swing, the techne chugging along doggedly.  The comforting thing is that everyone else looks just as frantic, just as hurried, just as worried.  Until one attempts to commiserate with an odd duck like me, that is.

As the child enters elementary school he will be shuttled from school to after school care, to music lessons, to sports practices, to youth events at church, to karate, to dance, etc.  I know many families who only eat dinner together about once a week due to various activities that keep them orbiting the home, landing at different intervals for a hurried snack and a change of uniform.  Saturdays and Sundays are not exempt from this quick, packed lifestyle.  The two most common words associated with this time of life when I speak with my peers are “busy” and “stress”.  What is the end, the telos, of all this hustle?

A well-rounded adolescent, with success in one or many specializations, be they academic, musical, or sports-related, and a promising list of accomplishments to be listed on college applications?  Perhaps.  I think the telos reaches further as soon as they get accepted to a college; that they’ll pick an impressive major (or double major preferably); that they’ll graduate with honors, that they’ll land a lucrative and fulfilling job, that they’ll meet an equally impressive mate, and that they then can start a family.  Having that baby, then the parents can bring their telos to bear on that child; schedule the portraits, buy the Baby Einstein books, get the ball rolling towards laudable success.

This telos demands an incredible amount of busyness.  Such investment in the success of our offspring has never before been seen in history.  Family life has become bewilderingly child-centric, parents giving up their own interests and pursuits as they struggle just to meet the demands of their childrens’ schedules.  Is the cost worth it?  If you’re not willing to pay the price, can your children still have a chance at a successful life?  And what of your own life?  Can it be enjoyed or is it too laid upon the altar of busyness?  Are we always to be simply enduring the present in order to achieve the future?

This brings me back to my techne:  slow, unhurried, thoroughly enjoyed life, each day, each hour, for its own sake, aiming towards holiness in the long run by faithfulness and growth in the everyday.  Though I cannot guarantee the future success of my children (however one may define that), I can give us the space and time to enjoy life right now; splashing in today’s rain puddles, examining this year’s butterflies and roses, going on long walks and feeling this day’s fresh air filling our lungs.  Savoring bites of food, starting the day slowly with cuddles, spending a good half hour staring at my newborn’s tiny pink face, and taking my older children out for one-on-one dates where we linger over ethnic foods and connect deeply; these are my techne for not missing the moments that can’t be put off until later, for not missing the now.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for spurts of busyness; right before an opening night of a play, or a championship game, or helping with charitable events.  Feeling a bit breathless and harried is appropriate for such; it’s a special time given special energy; it can be exhilarating, but to live every single day that way?  I’d argue that such effort shoots right past its own aim, its own telos; it hurries right past the life it meant to live so well.

So I ask, for whom is this offering of hustling, bustling, hurry?  For which generation?  It seems we are rushed about all our lives so that we can raise children whom we rush about so that they can raise children whom they can rush about.  Is this life?  When are we allowed to actually enjoy it?  On a yearly vacation, packed with activity itself?  When we retire and our bodies which we’ve neglected through inattention to them are ailing and out of shape?

I do not claim to be a better parent than anyone; God knows and I know the limitations and deficiencies I bring to the table, and trust me when I say that I esteem the great love and care that undergird the frantic scheduling folks submit themselves to.  I seek only to sound a bit of an alarm, that we might miss life if we sprint through it.  We can’t go back and have these days again.

I’ll end with a poem that is of help to me in forming my telos, and thus also, my techne:

Song for a Fifth Child

Mother, O’ Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth.
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.
 
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.
 
Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due,
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek – peekaboo.
 
The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew,
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo.
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren’t his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo.
 
The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.
~ Ruth Hulbert Hamilton
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The Welcome

IMG_1632Lunch was scrubbed off of the dining room table, and the long, shouty process of putting the toddlers down for their naps was in full swing.  I popped the banana-chocolate chip muffins into the oven and vacuumed the floors and rugs, tucking toys and spoons and socks and whatnots into my apron pocket while I worked.  Our rooms slowly relaxed into peaceable order and beauty (I cannot abide a tight and fussy beauty, but a gentle one I adore).  I did not present a perfection, but removed distracting static.  At its best, this preparation is a gift of love, at its worst a wild vanity parade.  Today was on the better side, so I had a calm heart.

I was to see two dear souls at three.  At two thirty the babies had all succumbed to sleep and I brewed some rich coffee and heaped the still-warm muffins in a wooden bowl, and arranged delicate sand tarts on a pewter dish.  Tea and coffee accruements were brought to the low, cozy coffee table in anticipation of warm conversations and refreshments, feet tucked under us on the plush sofas, hands wrapped around steaming mugs.  The hour ticked past three and I thought to check my messages; see if anything went awry.

I’d missed one from my friend; sadly they couldn’t come as transportation had fallen through.  I looked at the celebratory and cozy spread and mourned the loss of all the delightful catching-up and companionship it had anticipated facilitating.  What a grief to not see these dear friends!

Gladly, it has been my habit to “accept all things as from God’s hands”, so I promptly decided to keep the feast and give it as a gift to my children; to welcome them home from school as warmly as I’d hoped to welcome my friends.  Shamefully, their welcome is usually a quick hug and then a chore list and a harangue about the places they’ve decided to dump their backpacks and shoes and lunch boxes.  I rarely quiet myself enough at that hour of the day to truly be present to them, dinner preparation being in full swing.

They sat down around the coffee table in frank amazement at the deliciousness laid out for them.  Tea or coffee?  Their days’ events came out easily, without me fishing; one son smiled wide and declared that I was “the best mom”.  He truly felt welcomed, warmed, treasured.  I felt sad that this sort of thing was such a rarity; though, I give myself grace; my fly-about madly-cooking days are also works of love, just differently felt, differently received.  This was special.

I was reminded how essential it is to care for our loved ones not only in industriously tending to their physical needs, but sensitively to their emotional ones too.  To welcome not only guests, but the ones who live under this very roof.

 

The Gift of Risk

IMG_0624I watched my two and four year old sons ascend the ladder of the tall slide.  Twenty, twenty-five feet?  Metal and a steep grade; this slide survived from the early days when playgrounds were actually pretty exciting, a place where you could feel a thrill of adrenaline-pumping weightlessness as you peaked the arc of the giant swings and hovered there, lifting out of the rubber saddle, gasping.  Sometimes you let go and went flying through the air, attempting to stick your landing, or at least not get your wind knocked out.

I lay back on the sun-warmed merry-go-round and watched the heavens circle above me.  Memories of white-knuckled thrill rides, holding on for dear life while centrifugal force tried to turn all of us wide-eyed kids into projectiles, sometimes succeeding, were as vivid as the smell of the chipping hot paint beneath me.

There was a high look-out platform at my elementary school, accessible by climbing a network of intersecting chains, clambering over the top edge, and standing with a simple rail between us and a bone-shattering fall.  There were rumors about kids who’d fallen to their possible deaths, but I don’t think anyone got seriously hurt on it.  We loved leaning over that rail, mentally picturing the ground zooming up at us, feeling butterflies of fear in our stomachs.

My children use playground equipment improperly.

If the spiral slide is too slow and not long enough, they’ll climb on top of the outside of it to challenge themselves; to seek that line between pushing away fear and holding back from foolishness.  To test their balance, their nerve, their ability.  If the swings are too low to achieve a good speed and height, they’ll climb the support poles and walk across the tops.  And when we find a precious vintage playground with merry-go-rounds, calf-crunching teeter totters, and high swings?  They’re in their glory, even if, and sometimes especially if, they get hurt a bit.

It’s been discussed quite a bit among those who study such; how managed risk helps to make kids safer.  How tame, “safe” playgrounds are simply boring for kids.  How kids who’ve never been allowed to test their limits are highly vulnerable to real dangers.  I think about that as I watch mothers forming an admonishing, controlling ring of managers around the merry-go-round.  The kids are made to stop the whole thing for each approaching kid to get on, and then painfully slowly they are given a light push, only to stop a moment later when the understandably bored kids want off.  When all their kids got off and they walked off to monitor other play with the same exacting interference, my kids got on.  The two year old hovered beside the spinning structure, tentatively reaching out and pulling back his hands as he gauged which bracket to grab.  He reached and his chubby legs pumped hilariously fast as he sought to retain hold, and he hefted himself inside, grasping for a handhold against the outward force.  He made it, and he smiled.  Moments later he misjudged and tumbled off; a scuffed knee and dull pain told him all he needed to know for next time.  Moms exchanged glances; I imagine that they thought there was some slacker of a mom around who’d let such shenanigans happen without stepping in.

 

IMG_2707 I gently lift the upper cover of each beehive, wafting smoke down through the inner cover’s vent hole.  I pry apart the structure, box by box, moving slowly, avoiding bumps and bangs.  Bees overflow and land all over me, some hovering at my bee veil.  Stings hurt.  A lot.  That pain informs the way I move, even the way I breathe.  It has made me a better beekeeper, and a safer one.

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There are no compromise times for me though; parking lots, streets, when I’m working with lye to make soap, when I’ve got a boiling canner going, when I deeply distrust a stranger hanging out near my kids; then the red flags are waving madly and I’m on high alert, and I’ll grip their hands just as white-knuckled as I’d held on to the merry-go-round bars as a kid.  But that fear all the time?  No.

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Sometimes things appear more dangerous than they actually are.  In Machu Pichu I posed for this picture which seems like a giant drop-off into the steep canyon below, but there was actually another terrace below me (and then the death plummet).  It took me a while to handle with some peace my older children being able to walk around town unaccompanied.  I imagined every creepy guy I’d ever seen, every wild driver, every scenario of disaster.  But what actually happens is that my kids experience new freedom and a sense of themselves in the world.  They purchase candy from the gas station and test their balance on low stone edge walls.  They talk to townsfolk.  They look both ways without me telling them to.

I don’t get a guarantee that they’ll be safe, only that they’ll have truly lived; a gift most of us grew up with, riding our bikes “no hands” on summer evenings.

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Dancing Little Screens

I’m the only one looking around, seeing trees swaying in the wind, and the play of shadows over rough bark; the way the light streams through twisting leaves.  Even the children, even the littlest ones, their faces still and passive, their squirming ceased, their eyes riveted by the dancing little screens, they miss the squirrel racing around the trunk and chattering.

Their parents stare hard and scroll, scroll, scroll, their thumbs stroking the glass of their miniature portals into otherness; other peoples’ beach photos, rapid-fire recipe videos, artful platings of food, and memes unending.  Now and then they’ll look up, around, at their child, and then, as though there were an invisible elastic from their neck to their wrist, they bend to it, raising their phone-clutching hand, and they leave again.

Grocery lines, stoplights, carpool pick-up lanes, waiting rooms, restaurants; they are no longer experienced anymore…they are only escape spaces to distraction, to otherness.

I love elderly people.  You still see their eyes; their eyes greet you, see you; there is a sense that they’d gladly connect and share life for a moment.  They remember the times before people carried all-engulfing entertainment in their pockets and used them at every opportunity.  They remember courtesy, conversation, presence.

I am alarmed.

Ever-reaching for phones, ever-scrolling, compulsive behavior that is becoming “normal”.  I’ve experienced it myself.  I don’t have a phone, and hopefully never will, but my husband’s smart phone is terribly tempting to reach for on the long drive to church.  I don’t even know what compels me to “check it”; what on earth am I longing for; why not let the passing landscape form my thoughts, rather than absorbing the experiences of others?

In my home my laptop is a severe temptation; always promising a moment’s escape from domestic cares and hollering toddlers.  But again, I have to ask, what am I longing for?  Do I ever feel any sort of fulfillment from “checking in” and “catching up”?  No.  Rather I feel the weight of wasted time and attention.  My childrens’ behavior also changes when I tune out; they are more irritable and uncharitable with each other.  They ignore my words, sensing that I’m not really “there” anyways.  Presence is necessary.  Not just at home but out and about in the world.

I will endeavor to change; to allot a time for online reading and interaction, writing, answering of emails, and ordering supplies for my business.  Lord, help me!  I don’t want to be absorbed by a screen, nor feel myself pulled towards it.  I am mindful of the little eyes that watch how I live; do I need a screen or use a screen?

Please, dear ones, consider.  Leave the phone in your car, don’t let your kids play with one whenever they’re bored or fidgety (it’ll prevent them from growing in imagination and creativity and being present), and don’t teach them that zombie-like staring at screens is how to live.shortstory8

The Looser Weave

There was a time when we leaned back into couches and weren’t sure if we’d be able to get back out of them; our pregnant, rounded bellies sitting like so many beach balls in our laps.  There would be commiseration about heartburn, clothes no longer fitting, nausea, and exhaustion, but mostly we laughed and we dreamed.  I don’t know what the husbands spoke about.  I knew wonder and it grew and grew.

Somehow then we were in the thick of it, with babies and toddlers, and were in and out of maternity clothing on the regular.  Our toddlers grew into friends, our babies which we once rocked to sleep in their carseats with our feet while we played board games were tearing around, trashing toy rooms and pretending together.  We went from couples with babies to a whole vibrant community with shared memories stretching back years and years.

As kids entered grade school, one by one, the moms could catch their breath and look around.  Some decided to work, to find their purpose and passion in fields of interest to them, others had to work to support the family, others devoted themselves to educating their kids at home, others found home itself work enough.  Our worlds opened outwards as the kids grew, into new schools, new churches, new connections, new responsibilities, new stories.

Though we would get together as able, and delighted yet in the ease of being with those with common history, one could feel the looser weave.

I walked today with my baby and my toddler in a park where I’ve spent untold afternoons with friends and their little ones.  I settled a child on each knee and we watched ducks and a great blue heron beside a sparkling pond with cheerful fountains; autumn giving every tree a gilded, crisp look.  There wasn’t anyone to call to join us when we’d spontaneously decided to escape the house and Monday’s laundry.  There’s work and homeschooling and a billion busy things, and I understand.

But I miss them.  I miss journeying together.  I’m too old for the new moms, and generally, I think I freak them out by not hovering over my babies, by letting them climb high on the playground equipment, by letting them get frustrated and work through stuff. I find now that I talk to the grandmas, but often they’re on their phones, which is sort of funny, but mostly sad.

I want to have more babies.  I want to peer into little faces again; hear newborn squeaks and sighs.  How much joy and laughter is there, in the knowing of a person, brand new to the world.  I want to feel the kicks and squirms through my own skin, to carry a soul not my own but knit within me.  I’m not over it.  I’m not past it.  I haven’t moved on and held a garage sale and reclaimed my home.  It would upset none of my plans; my plan is simply to live.

My toddler put on a severe pout today; he pulled it on deliberately, like a heavy coat, and I could hear in my heart the sounds of an inner stream of laughter; one that is always flowing but not always overflowing outwards.  He teaches me in caricature; in his simple sins I see the roots of my seemingly complex ones.  A screaming fit?  Mine may happen inside, but what’s the difference?  Any size fist can be raised to shake at God.  He surely repents better than I do; in tears and real compunction.

What am I saying…only this; I’m not eager to hurry away, to go on to the next thing.  I am in a garden and I haven’t exhausted my wonder at all the flowers.  IMG_1146