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

Beyond Hurry

Time moves plenty fast without our assistance.

I turn around and my son is two inches taller, the weeds I just picked have resurrected and are going to seed, and the pie I pulled out of the oven is polished off, only crumbs remaining.

I walked into a pharmacy on Halloween and found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a  life-size Santa.  I’m sorry, has Thanksgiving passed?  Have we decided that Fall ends in October?  Before the leaves have completed their magnificent show?  Before the silly roses even quit blooming?

I can’t blame the shops, though.  They wouldn’t do it if this wasn’t what consumers responded to.  So my question is, why are we in such a hurry for the next thing?  In my previous post, The Looser Weave, I spoke of my own reticence to wrap up my childbearing in a tidy yesterday box, and apply my expectation towards the next thing.  I shared, “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.”

I am glad to both enjoy my daughter’s entry into her teens and my baby learning his first words, simultaneously.  I don’t mind our vehicles hosting both strollers and soccer balls.  There is something quite magical in seeing the delight and wonder in my oldest child’s eyes when she holds her littlest brothers, and I can point out the things they do that she also did as a babe.  It opens to her the wonder of her own yesterday.  She reads to them and I hear my own voice in hers, the way I read to her.

What is to be gained from hurry?  It seems the logic is that I’ll power through tons of work/things/activities so that I’ll have time…for….more…what, more work/things/activities?  Why not enjoy fully the time we have now?  Can we not resist the pull of cramming our days breathlessly full and aiming them at a mythically less-busy future?

“…if the devil can’t get you to sin, he’ll keep you busy.”

-Anne Lamott

“Busyness is not of the devil; busyness is the devil.”

John Wesley

“Busyness acts to repress our inner fears and perpetual anxieties, as we scramble to achieve an enviable image to display to others. We become ‘outward’ people, obsessed with how we appear, rather than ‘inward’ people, reflecting on the meaning of our lives.

Busyness also seems to be a determination not to ‘miss out on life.’ Behind much of the rat-race of modern life is the unexamined assumption that what I do determines who I am. In this way, we define ourselves by what we do, rather than by any quality of what we are inside. It is typical in a party for one stranger to approach another with the question, ‘What do you do?’ Perhaps we wouldn’t have a clue how to reply to the deeper question, ‘Who are you?’

– James Houston

If my life is too busy to…

  1. cook with my children
  2. take Sunday as a true Sabbath, a day of delightful rest
  3. create for the sheer pleasure of creating
  4. snuggle on the couch with my baby
  5. cook nourishing food for my family
  6. pray
  7. examine the eyelashes on my sleeping toddler, memorizing the way they lay on his cheek
  8. linger
  9. play
  10. respond to sudden needs of family and friends
  11. breathe
  12. read
  13. enjoy, while still hot, my morning cup of coffee
  14. have talks and dates with my children, one on one
  15. learn something new, like a language or a craft
  16. give of my time to others
  17. find a stream and sit beside it in thought
  18. care for the animals and plants under my stewardship
  19. talk with my husband in long meandering conversations
  20. respond to a gorgeous sunset with a walk to enjoy it

….then I am too busy, and something has to be reevaluated.  Emergencies excepted, of course, but I find many are living in emergency mode…all the time.  That is exhausting.  What is the cost of this?  What is the cost of a rest-less life?

I heard recently the story of a man who had filled his life with hurry and noise, constant distraction.  He was also deeply unhappy.  As an experiment, while driving, he shut off the phone and the radio and drove in silence.  It was uncomfortable, this silence.  Tears began to well in his eyes as raw emotion, that had been tamped-down by distraction, reverberated through him.  He pulled over his car and wept.  Hard.  When the weeping subsided he felt lighter and better, more human.  I can’t help but hope for the same sort of breakthrough for our harried culture.

Then, maybe, just maybe, we can celebrate the seasons in the actual seasons, and Santa can come flooding into our stores in December, when we are ready for him, when we have let time flow at its own pace; when we live less in tomorrow than in today.

 

Customary Love

cropped-img_2107.jpg“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful….”

My voice was near a whisper as it formed the words and the morning light filled the window over my prayer bench last week.  The children’s school had been delayed and they’d gotten off to a later start so no candle was needed to illumine the words.

Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions.  But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness, that I might sing my morning hymn and glorify Your sovereignty….”

Fast forward to today, in which I was furious.  I looked into my childrens’ rooms and saw there every possible form of chaos and lack of care.  This has been a recurring theme for as long as they’ve been mobile, and we’ve tried every methodology we could think of to train them into neater habits. Yes, even boxing up their toys and putting them in the attic, but their hearts weren’t changed.  My voice was eerily calm as I gave them a monotone speech at breakfast that I was seriously considering getting rid of all their toys, since clearly they didn’t care about them.  Tears and quivering chins and promises that they’ll never let things get to such a state again.  I dryly remarked that I’d heard that a thousand times and yet they hadn’t reformed their ways.  Time was up, I was done, they’d gone too far, too many times.

Do now enlighten the eyes of my understanding, open my ears to receive Your words, and teach me Your commandments.  Help me to do Your will, to sing to You, to confess to You from my heart, and to praise Your All-Holy Name:  of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.”

I had finished the prayer and let the warm light pour over my kneeling form, and even with my eyes closed it was bright.  I got up from the floor and for whatever reason I turned around to sit a moment on my bench, lifting my eyes to the other side of the room.  There was our icon of Christ, a gift at Pascha last year from our dear friend Leon Miller, where I had placed it near our Lent candle calendar just the day before.

It was absolutely, stunningly, glowing.

The face was so full of light that I was startled.  Like I’d caught someone staring at me boldly.  The morning light had come in at just the right angle, and just at that moment, leaving only the face illuminated and everything to the sides in darkness.  I sat there dumbfounded, and it seemed special, but in a way I don’t have words for.  Many of the things of God are like that; He seems to leave us margin to see or not to see the burning bushes in our lives.  To take them as holy or coincidental.

I sat and I thought.  I had just begun the practice of saying the morning and evening prayers from my Orthodox study Bible the day before.  If the weather had not been predicted to be bad, the children would not have had a delay, and my prayers would have been in the morning’s dark rather than the light.  I had just placed the icon there the day before, and uncharacteristically, I placed it oddly, off-center; not at all as I would normally arrange things.  I had turned around and sat down, I hadn’t just leapt up and started in on the day’s duties as I normally would.  The light had filled that one square foot of space and no other, almost like a spotlight.  But, still, it could be a happy coincidence.FullSizeRender-43Icons might be one of the most misunderstood things in Christianity.  In western eyes they are at the worst, idols, and at the best, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

ICON:  A transliterated Greek word meaning “IMAGE”.  Icons of Christ and His saints depict the reality of the incarnation; because the Son of God became Man, He can be imaged.  Orthodox Christians honor or venerate icons, but never worship them, for worship is due the Holy Trinity alone.  The honor given to icons passes on to the one represented on the icon, as a means of thanksgiving for what God has done in that person’s life.  (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.1782)

This icon is known as Christ Pantocrator, “Ruler of All”.  In this year of church-homelessness I have been blessed by this visual, physical reminder that God has all things in His control and that he steadily cares for us.  As the prayer reads:  “You have shown Your customary love towards mankind...”  Customary, as in habitual, constant.  What grace.

So my day went on and the afternoon found me in study at my desk._MG_4776It’s a cherished spot in our home.  The children love the special occasions when I let them do work there, but most of the time it is a place set aside just for me.  Again, for whatever reason, I turned my chair around and looked across the room.  I have there hanging a print of Christ praying in Gethsemane.  It was an image clipped from a Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and carefully matted with strips of cardboard by a loving hand.  I’d purchased it at a thrift store, stunned by the care someone had given to preserve the cheap print.

Well, the face was glowing bright.

christ in gethsemane 1

My first thought was that I’d never noticed how drastically the painting was done; like a Rembrandt with his startling use of shadow and light that made the bright points of the painting near leap off the canvas.  I kept staring and was suddenly sure that something was different; the painting had never been so striking before.  I got up and walked toward it.  All of a sudden the light calmed flat as my presence interrupted a singular ray of light that had pierced the filigree on my front porch, sliced through the uppermost corner of one of the tall windows and hit solely upon the inch-wide face of Christ, leaving the rest of the painting in shadow.

I stepped back and the face filled with that singular light again.  In another moment the light had shifted and was gone.

Again, God leaves margin; there is nothing miraculous in sunlight striking where it pleases as the earth rotates and orbits the sun.  It is, however, highly unlikely that the face of Christ in two distinct works of art would be illuminated singularly twice in one day and that both times I would pause uncharacteristically in my work and witness it.

I was hesitant to tell my husband; afraid I’d be dismissed as the sort who saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or something of that sort.  But it felt so special, so astonishing, that at evening’s end I did share it with him.  He shared my wonder and my pleasure and the mystery of it.  We didn’t try to wrangle a meaning out of it.  I was left with two strong emotions:  joy and surprise.  It was the feeling when you know someone thought of you especially and sent you flowers or a note.  That “I am noticed and loved” sort of pleasure.

________________

I had sent the children up to their rooms to clean, my disapproval a palpable presence in the house.  There was a nudge in my spirit though, and I was drawn to the morning prayer.  God filled my heart with the words;

“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful.  Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions. But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness…”

Daily He extends mercy and grace.  Daily I fall into sin and repent of it bitterly.  I resolve in my heart to hold my tongue, to exercise more patience and grace, and daily I must repent of my failings to do so.  I was ashamed that I had offered my children less than I had received.  I called them downstairs.

I read them the prayer and tears filled my eyes.  I told them the story of the debtor who was forgiven his great debt and then had demanded unjustly the payment of a small debt from another in anger.  I told them that I had no grounds on which to withhold forgiveness and mercy from them when they failed, because forgiveness and mercy were not withheld from me when I did. Seventy times seventy times seventy.  I looked into their eyes that swam with emotion which matched my own.  I said, “You will screw up, just as I do.  But I will forgive you as I have been forgiven, and each of us will try again.  God promises to forgive our every failing and to help us to do what is right.”

The prayer writes of the “customary love” that God has for us, and that is just what I seek to grow in; customary, habitual, constant love, a reflex of sorts towards compassion and mercy and kindness.  The experience with the light last week has reminded me of God’s presence with us, His interest in us, and His lovingkindness towards us.  The prayer has reminded me to extend that great mercy and love to those who’d be most keenly effected by the absence of it in my words and actions, my children.

God whispers in His Word and in our hearts and through art and burning bushes, and let us pause so that we do not miss a word of it.

 

Why It’s Hard to Rest

Henrik does laps around his playpen, swinging his dimpled arms like pendulums, as taking a nap is unthinkable with all this excess energy that compels his little legs to run, his little body to move, move, move.  It’s hard to rest.  There’s so much running to do.  As he winds down a bit, he rolls across the mattress with his blankie, in a wrestling match of sorts with the idea of sleep:  I embrace it (sucks thumb and strokes blankie’s silky edge), no I do not (tucks and rolls and kicks the sides of the playpen).  I think I do the same with the Sabbath.

For six days of the week I start my day by getting the laundry going.  There’s something soothing to me about hearing my trusty appliance sidekicks humming in the background, doing some major work at the touch of a button or two.  It’s probably as close as I’ll come to having some domestic help, and it makes the day seem like it’s acquired some momentum.  Some getting-it-done-ness.

So when the Sabbath comes around, a day to cease from my day-to-day workload and enjoy rest and my Lord, I miss the assuring hum of progress in the laundry room.  I even have “temptations” and rationalizations about why I could/should in fact do laundry anyways.  The quickly piling basket in the laundry room woos me.  I’m serious.  The loudest voice of temptation is Miss Responsible.  She reasons matter-of-factly that it’s as necessary as brushing my teeth and cooking on Sundays; the children do need clothing ready for school the next day.  What would become of Monday if Sunday didn’t do any work?

But, it’s just not true.  Because I do laundry nearly every day, there is no true shortage of clothing for anybody.  And Monday is meant for working, so let it have it’s work.

It’s hard to rest, hard to cease from wreaking productivity all over our weekend-blasted home.  Hard to swallow the crumbed floors, the scattered shoes, and the Sunday paper laid strewn in several reading spots.  Part of me wants it all ordered and shining and fresh and ready for Monday.  But when, then, am I ready for Sunday?

Ready for rest?

This takes some foresight.  I’m slowly learning that.  If I have laundry going Saturday night, I make sure not to put a load in the washer before bed, because it will shout at me to be switched over to the dryer and folded on Sunday morning.  I try to vacuum the floors and tidy things up Saturday night so that my restless I-want-order spirit can find less irritation in my surroundings.  And if all else fails and I awake to a disordered home on Sunday morning, I do as we did last night.  We gathered the children and headed out for a nice walk to the park.  We abandoned ship and sought fresh air, different landscapes, and no visible work to attend to other than pushing a giggling baby on the swings.

Sometimes you have to physically flee from temptations, even seemingly silly ones.

But the Sabbath commandment isn’t silly.  I guess it’s pretty important to God, so it must be awfully important for us as well; for our spiritual wellbeing and connection to Him and others.  We have to hit the pause button on our work, we need to step away from it, we need to remember God and dwell on Him with unscattered minds.  _MG_4776

Why do I put dear Henrik down for a nap?  Not because he wants one.  Oh, no.  He doesn’t even feel sleepy, quite the opposite really.  I put him down because I know what he needs better than he does.  I know he’d run himself ragged and get cranky and destructive and all out of sorts without his rest.  He’d make himself, and all of us, miserable.  It is an act of kindness and love, though to him it can feel so confining and restrictive.  When he finally succumbs to the nap, his cheeks flushed pink and his blankie clasped in his pudgy fingers, his breathing sweet and soft, I am captivated by the sight.  Love sweeps on over me as I see my son relaxing into the gift of rest.IMG_2100

It is humbling that we need the same, eh?  We are all grown up and yet we are still assigned a rest time.  We try to squirrel our way out of it, don’t we?  Because we like to be unrestricted; we like to chart our days as we please.  But God, in His wisdom, knows what we need better than we do.

Let us not, then, resist Him.  Let us accept the gift He kindly offers to us as dearly loved children.

 

From The Silent Place

silenceIt may seem strange to speak of silence when one is a mother of four precious jibber-jabbering children, all under the age of eleven, in anything other than a sighing-longing way.  Amazingly, I am immersed in it (when Henrik deigns to nap, that is).

Since closing down my Facebook a while back, the reams and reams of information, quips, photos, and humorous bits which I plowed through each day have disappeared.  In their wake, silence.  I didn’t know how anyone was doing, or what they were doing, and no one knew my news either, unless I called, emailed, or got together with them.

My habits have been startled; before, when I’d read a particularly striking quote or passage in a book, I’d earmark it for sharing on Facebook.  I wanted to share the nugget I found and hear others’ feedback on it.  Now I read that line and am struck and I look up from the page.  I still want to share it, I still want to discuss it, so I memorize it.  I swallow it in and make it part of me, so that I can, by word spoken, share it.  I am chewing on words, rather than handing them off right away.

Also, “checking the computer” takes all of five minutes.  Reading and responding to the few emails that trickle in and catching up on the major news stories…and…..done. I close the laptop and look around.  There’s nothing more to see here, people, move along.

silence1  In the meantime, in this wider silence, I find myself quieting too.  Almost like that feeling when you step into a lofty empty cathedral and the quiet urges a stilling of the tongue, urges a listening and an awe.

What is God teaching me in this valley, this quiet, dark, valley?  I don’t know, but I beg Him in whispers for wisdom, humility, selflessness, and mercy.  For Him to burn out the weeds in my heart and plant life-giving things.  For all the soul-killing sins to be yanked into the spotlight and named that I might reject them full in the face, with no turning aside.  That sort of stuff.

And in this time, Baby grows in the deep, nearly the size of a kumquat, but with a soul as large as any, in the secret place.  And I pray to be a wiser, more humble, more gentle mama today, tomorrow, and when I meet this wee one face-to-face, smiling.

Wisdom, Humility, and Facebook

It is not to my credit that I seem utterly incapable of making minor changes, but only large and drastic ones.  If I am told to favor my right foot, you shall soon find me hopping on my left foot.  If I am found to be absorbed in television, I will not own one for fifteen years.  Cold turkey is my modus operandi.  Maybe it is because I distrust myself exceedingly; afraid I may persuade myself soothingly back into bad habits and sins one reasonable excuse at a time.

My husband laughed at me yesterday.  I had asked him to “pass me my book, please”.  He laughed, “Which one?”  I had to laugh too.  Within my sight at present are nine books of all sorts of genres and depth, and I am reading them all concurrently.  It is my version of flipping channels I suppose.  Anyways, this morning I’d chosen “Water From A Deep Well-Christian Spirituality From Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries” by Gerald Sittser.  I read the following in a chapter relating to how the early monastics viewed struggle:

“The self always dies hard,” Martin Luther once said.  It dies hard because it resists giving up habits of mind and body that satisfy immediate desires but in the long run destroy the life of the soul.  However much it resists, the self must still die.  It will die as we struggle against the world, the flesh, the devil, and the darkness within.  We must submit to this struggle when it is imposed on us through difficult circumstances; we must choose to struggle when God calls us to discipline our appetites, resist temptations that threaten to undermine the good work he wants to do in us, and confess our egoism.

Immediately to my mind came the distractive nature of my use of Facebook, and more than that, how it “satisfies immediate desires” with joyful little red notifications, and successive “likes” to propel my ego through the day.  Note here, I am not vilifying social media, nor Facebook itself, only my own sin in seeking from it what I should have only sought in the Father, approbation.  Worth.

I reread that passage a number of times.  I wondered how it would change me if only God knew what I was up to throughout my day; to live as I’ve heard it said, “as for an audience of One”.  A spark of joy was lit within, which is a rather big deal in my current valley of darkness.  Would that focus aid me in deeper study, more attentive prayer, and more present presence?  I promptly deactivated my account.  Why I did not delete it entirely is because, again, I distrust myself exceedingly.  I cannot claim to know now what level the Father will allow or lead me in the future to interact via Facebook.  I only know that for now I’m called away.

It feels quite counterintuitive.  To be walking on a darkened road with a helpful and cheering friend, only to be told, “excuse your companion who has been helpful to you”.  The only way this would make sense is if God Himself wished to have me more to Himself.  Okay then.

Two virtues have been held before me as twin desires of my heart:  wisdom and humility.  They are often hard to hold within the same person.  Humility is such a flighty virtue, and, as I’ve heard it said, “once you think you’ve attained it, you’ve lost it”.  I wish to grow in both of these, and where can I go for them but to the Father?  Please pray for me; I do sincerely wish to grow, to become like Christ, to die to self, and to find all my joy in the Father’s love.

How Would You Respond?

The young family was eating their meal at a nicer restaurant; looked like two teens and a tween, a mom and a dad.

A quirky type drew near their table with a vintage Polaroid camera and explained that she was doing a project on families out to eat in Lancaster.  Could she take their photo?  Sure, they said, and put their arms around each other’s shoulders, moving in close and beaming their smiles at the photographer.

“Oh, no no, please just separate and look down at your phones like you were.  I want what you actually do when out to eat together.”

*awkward silence*

How would you respond?

Because my blood boils when I see this, all this self-absorbed, mindless behavior, this rudeness, this wasting of precious time around a table with loved ones.  I am one slip of self-control away from blurting out to total strangers with an exaggerated tone of wonder, “LOOOOK!  There’s a REAL LIVE PERSON right across from you!!!  Imagine that!” and then preceding to spike their phone like a football in the end zone.

Zeal much?