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 Time The Children Wept For Me

They gather in their pajamas as Henrik looks over from his pack’n’play, sitting themselves on the tattered rug from Goodwill with all the colors on it trying so hard to make our mismatched furniture look intentional.

We are in Proverbs, chewing on a few verses at a sitting.  Digesting them together in the earliest of mornings or the dark of evenings; in all those holy times of beginnings and endings of days.  Those are very real and very slow times.

“When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise.”

Proverbs 10:19

I talked about how words can be like swords flying out of our mouths (which made them giggle), and how they can deeply wound others (they sobered).  I said that cuts on our skin heal within a week, but cuts on our hearts from words can take decades to heal, and even then, they might reopen and bleed again.

I talked about how words can be like giving each other treasures, beautiful gifts that each can store in their hearts, bringing them joy all their life.  I told them some of my treasured words that were given to me, that shaped me and encouraged me.  They smiled and told me about which words were given to them.

Then I told them words that had wounded me, right to the marrow.  It was a teacher in middle school screaming at me that I was stupid, stupid, stupid because I messed up in following a list of computer lab instructions.  As I related how she screamed at me and how quick I blinked not to cry, their eyes filled with tears.

My children wept for my wounds, right there on the colorful rug, right there in their jammies.  It was as if they were sitting in that hard plastic computer lab chair, being whipped by words let fiendishly loose.  They felt the sting and pain of them.  They cried for the broken place in me that always cringes if I make a mistake, for the wound that keeps telling me that I’m stupid, stupid, stupid.    For the ways I try to bandage that wound by trying to appear smart, smart, smart.  Reuben crawled up on my legs, draping himself over me with a groan, whispering “You’re not stupid, Mommy”.

The three little blond heads tucked under my chin, I prayed for wisdom for all of us; that God would help us to think and discern before we let our words fly out.  That He would ever remind us that words are powerful, for destruction and for building one another up.  Their potential is all out of proportion to the ease with which they are uttered.

They are now tucked into their beds and the crickets are calling one to another, and I can’t quite wrap my mind around the holy moment on the colorful rug when my children wept for me.

 

And Then There Was Today

There was yesterday, sitting in the evening light chewing on dripping honeycomb fresh from the hive and feeling the breeze cool my sweat-soaked shirt.  Sophia and I sat, half peeled-out of our bee suits, chewing wax and guzzling cold water, smiles on our faces.   We had seen both queens; one which I helped the queen-less hive to raise by bringing in egg-laden frames from the strong hive, week after week.  I was satisfied.

We’d been through a scare the evening before on a walk; Edison tripped and landed on his wrist awkwardly, causing great pain.  A cast again, really?  Just, please, no.  I had him soak it in the cold stream.  Returning home I wrapped it, tucking a steeped comfrey leaf (knit-bone herb) inside.  If it still hurt the next day we’d take him in for x-rays.

All day yesterday he improved, using his arm more and more normally.  This morning, he had no pain left at all.  We ran some pre-trip errands and then the crazy started.

Three times as I worked at Mt. Ever-Laundry came piercing shouts and cries from my outdoors-romping boys.  Reuben stubbed or broke his pinky while playing with a basketball.  Hot tears and worst fears all over his dirty face.  Ice pack, a homemade splint, taped digits, and googling of “difference between stubbed and broken”.  Again the assurance that if it hurt the next day we’d take him in for x-rays and such.

Then the hollering panic of Edison with his first-ever bee sting.  More ice, a dollop of lavender essential oil, then a paste of clay and lavender oil to dry it out.  The cries subsided fast (thank you, lavender!), quickly replaced by what we call “jibber jabbering” (the non-stop talkathoning that excited children do) about bees, what their stingers look like, the possible motivation of the bee, etc.  My ears nearly fell off.

I sprayed poo off of the cloth diaper, folded another load of laundry, put two meatloaves and potatoes in the oven, and started hacking away at heads of cauliflower and broccoli, willing the evening to wind down all nice and quiet.  The aioli sauce filled the kitchen with garlic goodness, and supper was served amidst candles and a tenuous peace.

We set up a collapsible drafting table that we’d scored at Goodwill for $6 and laid out a puzzle on it, all pulling chairs up to the wide workspace, and tried to put the puzzle, and our day, back together.  It was while I washed the dishes that the final screaming cry rattled through the wavy glass windows.

I found Edison sprawled across the sidewalk, having tripped over a log piece that has time and again been moved about the yard for “creative purposes”, and having landed directly upon the previously injured arm.  I was about 30% compassion and 70% anger right about then, and it came out in my frustrated response:  “Just what in the wide world do you think you’re doing?  Do you want a cast?  Can you please JUST STOP HURTING YOURSELF?!?”

His pitiful whine/cry/lament accelerated to a higher pitch and I gathered him up and hauled him into the kitchen which was feeling more like a triage unit.  I washed away the dirt and examined his arm gently, though my face masked none of my irritation.  Soaking, wrapping, clove tea for both boys to help them sleep and ease their pain.  More cold cloths.  More whispered prayers.  One mama wrung clean out.

When Dustin arrived from his side job at eight, I motioned towards where he could find his supper and crashed into the couch to type out my day, to let it drain out my fingertips, right into the keyboard, and flung out to you, that you may commiserate with me.  Or at least shake your head at me.

When Henrik cried out, having been awoken by Ed’s crying, I just told my husband, “I’m done.  I’m.  Just.  Done.”  He soothed him back to sleep and I sank deeper into the couch.  There was today and today is closing like a chapter that a child rumpled and worried into crinkled pages and sticky spots.  Tomorrow may find us getting casts on limbs right before we head to the beach, or awakening to healed pains and wiping those worries off of our foreheads.  We’ll see, but it is just one bad day, and I can still breathe thanks to Him who saw it all and holds us all.

Just. Walk.

IMGP4158 Sometimes my kids make squirrel herding sound easy.

What is it in kids that makes them zigzag back and forth while walking, makes them climb every set of steps, and tip toe across low retaining walls, and swing around the sign posts?  What makes them take a dead stop right under your feet or walk backwards or make mad dashes that knock a sibling over?

We walked home from a church gathering tonight and as usual the children were scampering everywhere, catching lightning bugs, wrestling, and carrying on.  Sometimes this makes  me smile the benevolent smile of a content mama.  Other times it makes me cranky and weary.  “JUST.  WALK.  FOR.  THE.  LOVE,” I’ll bite out between clenched teeth, like enunciating would soften my words too much.  Some days I just can’t handle one more moment of exuberant wildness.

This pregnancy has been a rough one; lots of exhaustion and nausea, probably exacerbated by taking care of four other high-energy little ones.    Not trying to complain, but it helps to frame why my reserves of patience and good humor are running on fumes.  But just here is a place where deep change can be wrought.  Just here where the world would say, “Yeah, see?  THAT’S why I’ll never have that many kids.”  Just here where suffering is taken to be an altogether horrid and avoidable thing.

I get cranky when I fast.  My temper grows short and I feel like a walking ball of irritation.  How does a grumbly tummy cause such a sour attitude?  Because we are mind, body, spirit, not divided in neat boxes but smeared all through and through.  A sad thought produces our eyes to drip.  Embarrassment flushes our face red.  An empty belly makes us hangry (hunger-angry).  But I don’t avoid fasting because it’s unpleasant; I know too well the humbling that chastens my heart as I see my sins so very un-masked, so very laid-bare.  Because we feel we are awfully good and nice when we’re well-fed and feeling super.

Suffering, if not run from, if borne well, can serve our souls.  Through it God trains and breaks our whining flesh, making us stronger from the inside out.  He causes us to know our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our weaknesses thoroughly.  Knowing them, we can watch out for the rearing of their ugly heads.  We are awake.  Pain awakens.

The breaking of the alabaster box and the anointing of the Lord filled the house with the odor, with the sweetest odor. Everyone could smell it. Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered; been limited, gone through things for the Lord, willing to be imprisoned by the Lord, just being satisfied with Him and nothing else, immediately you scent the fragrance. There is a savor of the Lord. Something has been crushed, something has been broken, and there is a resulting odor of sweetness. –Watchman Nee

 

If thou art willing to suffer no adversity, how wilt thou be the friend of Christ? –Thomas à Kempis

 

We all know people who have been made much meaner and more irritable and more intolerable to live with by suffering: it is not right to say that all suffering perfects. It only perfects one type of person …… the one who accepts the call of God in Christ Jesus. –Oswald Chambers

 

But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. –C.S. Lewis

My husband has little caches of Aleve all over our vehicles, our home.  When he gets a twinge of headache, he pops a few.  He doesn’t want the pain, so he avoids it.  He has no patience with his wife, who flatly refuses to do likewise.  “The pain is information,” I say, “My body is telling me something.”  So I’ll go lay down, drink water, be quiet.  Both choices are valid, but not when we do the same spiritually.  When we categorically avoid doing things which might involve suffering.  When we don’t listen to the pain, nor to the God who permitted it to cross our paths.

I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me.

Robert Browning Hamilton

So when the squirrely children have worked on my last nerve, when I can feel anger pouring up my throat, and feel my tongue poised, ready to strike, just there, I can breathe a prayer past all that black, a prayer that God would help me, enable me, fill me, that He’d give me the grace to suffer well, to love well, to persevere.

And God smiles, ready to help.

Don’t You Know What Causes That?

It’s the first of June and I can smell summer.  Henrik is just below me, sitting in a basket of Lincoln Logs, industriously and determinedly throwing them out onto the floor.  He’s too young to have the weight of consequence bothering him; no idea that messes made mean messes that need cleaned up by the mess maker.  He pants with exertion as his chubby fists fling another handful of logs.

It’s strange, the variety of reactions you get from people when you share that you’re having your fifth child.  I’m sure you can imagine the tenor of the remarks.  Head shaking.  Eyes rolling.  Eyebrows lifting in silent disapproval.  Laughter.  “Better you than me!”, “Don’t you know what causes that?!”, “Oops?!”, or the perennial, “You guys are nuts”.  Some think we are carelessly making a gigantic mess, like Henri flinging Lincoln Logs.  I think the most cutting remark I’ve heard has been when my children were acting up one day and it was whispered, “And you want more children?”.  They laughed, I didn’t.

silence2 Then there’s my favorite response, “Oh, that’s wonderful.  I grew up in a big family and my siblings and I are so close.  There was always someone to play with.  We made such great memories together, and even though we didn’t have as much as our friends did, we had each other”.

As I write, Reuben is out on the front walk singing Amazing Grace and punch-dancing.  I kid you not.  My life, and as you see, my writing, is peppered with humorous interruptions. And now Reuben is standing beside me with a strawberry from our patch, taking a bite, and dramatically exclaiming “SO JUICY!” while he swivels his hips in delight.  Back to my train of thought…

I make no claim that big families are better ones.  Not in the least.  Your decisions and/or physical limitations are your business, not mine.  Likewise, our decisions to have a big family are our business, not particularly yours.  Imagine me coming up to a small family and snorting derisively saying, “Don’t you know how to make kids?”.  When people make negative comments about the size of our family, I’m seriously tempted to call the children over, line them up before the commenter, and saying, “I’m sorry, which of these shouldn’t we have had?”

We all choose our chaos.  Really.  Some people with two kids are WAY busier than we are; schedules packed with cello lessons, rugby, clubs, and PTO meetings.  Some industriously set about making an ever-better version of themselves by striving to maximize their personal potential (marathons, French lessons, career advancement, plastic surgery, etc.).  Some immerse themselves in ministry.  Some faithfully keep up with a dozen tv shows each week.  We choose.

We chose wash lines full of diapers, always making at least a double batch of every recipe, NEEDING to garden and can in order not to empty our account at the grocery store, NEEDING to make most of our food from scratch to stretch our food budget, wearing secondhand clothing, sleepless nights with sick children, and, for me, having my body stretch out to gargantuan proportions every couple of years.  But this is not flinging Lincoln Logs across the floor heedlessly and carelessly.

We are building something.

Memories of boys jumping on our bed wearing underwear on their heads.  That first breathtaking look into each newborn face.  The wonder of seeing these chubby toddlers stretch up into leggy kids every time I blink.  Seeing Reuben holding open a door for an elderly couple with a huge proud grin on his face.  Sledding.  Hiking.  Walking streams together as the sun slants down.  Mother’s Day homemade cards with all their love coming out in crayon hearts and misspelled perfect words.

Henri 184 Gifts.

work8IMG_4615 Yes, we know what causes this.  Apparently we know very well.  Yes, it certainly does look like my hands are full, sir.  They are full of very, very good things.

When You Want To Disappear

It was a sneak preview of our upcoming play, Dancing At Lughnasa, held in front of the student body.  I was Maggie and I was nervous.  I had solo singing parts, I danced an Irish jig, I had lots of lines.  I had polka dot underpants on.  Curse you, polka dots.

It was several weeks after the performance, which had been blessedly uneventful (so I thought….).  Someone nudged me in a laughing, knowing way about how funny it was when my skirt twirled up in my dance during the show and everyone saw my underwear.

Oh.

Ahem….I was not aware….um….what?!

The urge to melt right through the floor, or vanish, just simply disappear, I’ve had that urge many-a-time.

….

It was a small room, steadily warming up to uncomfortable tropical temps.  A free papier mâché class at the local library for Reuben’s age…what could go wrong?  There were ten kids and that many mamas and papas.  The table was quickly mounded with torn newspaper strips; the parents industriously ripping enough to stuff a king-size mattress.  I left Reuben to rip his own (giggle).  Plus, I had a baby on my hip, and wasn’t this thing his project after all?

So the plan of action is to blow up a balloon for the body, wad a ball of paper and tape it into a head shape, attach egg carton eyes, cut out cardboard ears, wire up a trunk (and cover that in paper and tape), and do the same for a tail, then add four paper towel roll legs and cover them with tape.  Reattaching all the parts that kept falling off also.  And weaseling the tape away from the tape-hogging-mompetitors.  And that’s just the base.  Then you drag strips of newspaper through Elmer’s glue and you need 2-3 layers of the stuff all over that poor creature, which alternately sticks to the mountain of paper strips, or falls head-over-heels, being so heavy in the head.

Did I mention that this was for six year-olds.  And that we had two hours?

So, Reuben was doing his thing and the balloon belly exploded.  Just…BAM!  And all the mamas and papas jump and look at us.  Henri bursts out into wailing.  I go in search of a new balloon.  The teacher explains to me how to be careful not to pop the balloon with the wire for the tail.  Did I have the heart to tell her we weren’t even remotely close to making a tail yet?

So we worked (yes, by now I see that Reub’s is woefully behind because his mom isn’t doing it for him, so I come to help) at getting the deflated, mangled, lump of tape and towel tubes unstuck.  We got the new balloon situated and BAM!  Explosion number two.  There was a moment there where I considered scooping Reuben up and fleeing the room, yelling “OKAY….okay….we’re just going to go get ice cream….ICE CREAM! YEAH!  THANKS!”.

I got another balloon.  Reuben was still game to keep on-keepin’ on.  He blew it up again and handed it to me to tie off.  Some diabolical twitch in my fingers happened.  The balloon took off, took off farting lustily across the wide table, over the mountain range of paper, past the recognizably-elephantine shapes, past the startled eyes of the mamas and the papas.  And nearly nailed a man in the head.  Did he pretend not to notice?  Because I needed that balloon back.  That slobbery balloon.  Sir?  Sir….can you….um…there’s a balloon on the floor behind you.  Could you….yes….could you please hand me that slobbery balloon and a side of dignity back?  Thanks.

While the balloon was on its noisy trajectory, I really did consider ducking under the plastic tablecloth and hiding.  I just needed to not see what I just did.  To just let the whole world forget I did that, okay?

Reuben was giggling beside me.  I smiled at him.  I thanked him for having such a good attitude about this whole thing.  I told him I was proud of him.  He took it all in stride.  He really enjoyed putting his hands into the glue and ignoring the fact that we had, oh, twenty minutes to finish.

It was not a marvelous experience, but a memorable one.  It was an opportunity to persevere, it was an opportunity to see my son keep his cool and his humor in the midst of a frustrating debacle.  I’m sure all he’ll remember is the escapee-farty balloon and that he thinks he made an elephant.  I’ll remember my boy, and seeing something real and precious in his personality that I’d never seen before.  It’s the sort of thing which keeps me from hiding under the table, it makes me downright shine.

Presence

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Do you remember when we used to look at faces?  When a meal time was spent with the people at the actual physical table we were sitting at?  Do you remember how we’d mutually try to remember the name of that actor in that one show who later was in that other movie about the heist, and how that wondering and brain-racking ended in a triumphal, “AHA!” when we figured it out together?  Before the age of swiftly answering the question with a quick jab at Google?  Do you remember being present?

Because I think we’re forgetting.

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One of the major culture shocks upon returning from six years in Chile was that young and old alike were to be seen everywhere, bent over their phones, thumbs busy, in their own little worlds.  Even if they were waiting in a grocery line, one person deep, out came the phone, flying went the thumbs, away went the presence.  This was now normal?

I admit that I am a dinosaur.  I have no cell phone and do not desire one.  I still write letters and cards on paper.  Once when I asked for someone’s phone number and handed them my little notebook, they laughed and couldn’t remember the last time they had written a number on paper instead of keying it into a phone.

I am exasperating to my friends.  If we’ve agreed to meet at a park at 11:00 and I’ve left my home at 10:30 to drive there, there is no way to change plans last minute; they know I’ll be at the park wondering where they are.  They can’t get a hold of me if I’m not home, so admittedly I miss out on some fun outings, but you know what?  I am present where I am.

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Along the Caribbean Sea in Honduras

I don’t always handle things graciously.

We had three dear friends visit us in Chile from North America.  They had traveled thousands of miles to see us, to see Chile, to get it all into their hearts and memories.  One evening as we all sat in the living room, I realized that everyone but me was staring at a screen, laptops or phones, all around.  I was alone in a crowd.  I flipped out.  “What are you doing?!?  HELLO!  Why did you travel to another hemisphere just to be looking at that screen when you’re here?!”

I suppress it, but I have an aching desire to throw an adult temper tantrum when I see a couple out on a date, both absorbed in their phones.  I want to go up to them, tap one of them on the shoulder, point at their significant other across the table and say in a voice of awe “Looooook!  There’s a PERSON across from you!  WOW!!!”  Then I would take their cell phone, unceremoniously dunk it into their drink, and walk away.  I assume I’d be charged with destruction of property, but I think I’d smile in my mug shot.

I have found one peaceful way to express my sentiments.  Now, when my husband takes out his phone when we’re together with friends, I quietly leave the table.  If he asks where I’m going, I simply say “I’m sorry, you have left the table, and so I will also”.  He puts his phone away, smiling and rolling his eyes.

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Presence.

It is most heart-breaking to see the lack of it between a parent and their child.

“Mommy, look at me!  Look at me!”, cries the child, bravely balancing on one foot at the top of the slide.

“Uh-huh”, mumbles the mom, staring down at her phone.

“No, Mommy, you aren’t looking!”

“That’s great, honey”, she says, barely looking up before she’s back to that all-absorbing screen.

The child sits down, the child learns that whatever world is accessed through that screen is much more interesting than the one she’s currently exploring.  She can’t wait to have her own screen.

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I am deeply disturbed by how all this technology is affecting kids, not only by robbing them of Mom and Dad’s presence, but of their own.  If a child needs to sit for more than a few minutes, they are handed a cell phone to watch a movie or play games on.  Like boredom and the space for their own thoughts are not important building blocks for hearty imaginations and creativity.  They are being taught that we must be entertained, always.

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It takes away the marvel, doesn’t it?  The awesomeness of this world, even at a grocery store.  As a child, I made up stories in my mind about the people in line with us.  Sometimes we even (gasp!) talked to them.  I read the magazine covers and wondered if Elvis really was hiding out in California instead of being long-dead.

I don’t expect anyone to live as I do, phone-free.  Many use cell phones wisely and kindly, use them to bless others and encourage others, and call tow trucks for stranded old ladies along the road.  Cell phones have saved lives, but also cost lives through misuse while driving.  They are neutral objects in and of themselves, but our use of them, or misuse of them, can cause great harm.

It may help if you think about your cell phone as a book.  Would you get out a book, mid-conversation with someone, and look through it’s pages?  Would you put it right on the table during a lunch date, and repeatedly pick it up and stare at it?  It would only be appropriate if you picked up the book, opened it to the other person with you and showed them something you found interesting.  That would be lovely, no?

With your kids, can you leave the phone at home when you’re at a park, or turn it off when they come home from school?   Can you carve out hours of full presence?  Can you let them squirm and fidget and sprout some imagination while waiting in line, instead of rushing to entertain?  Can we revive being present?  Can we afford to not do so?