Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Community over Convenience: Why the Amish have got it goin' on

This weekend, during commercial breaks in our Adult Conversation (i.e. passionate, adoring chatter between two lovers--about their children), Rachelle and I talked about the Amish. (This is sounding like a really steamy couple's get-away weekend, I know.) But the Amish are like my heroes. If I got into the whole reincarnation thing, my goal would be to graduate and come back next life as an Amish person.

They are all about doing things the hardest way possible, which yields this paradoxical simplicity. They are the antithesis of what Staples is hoping to sell us. This office supply
store's ad campaign has captured the fantasy of the 21st-century Westerner: an "Easy" button, the postmodern magic wand that simplifies life's complicated tasks. They actually sell them. I have been buying easy buttons all my life: cell phones, computers, cars, PDAs, books, magazines and the rest of the pile of tools and toys that now isolate us from each other. I love all this stuff. I love "easy." I love harnessing my time and getting organized and being a geek.

In the gym, we are wired to personal audio devices leaving us incomunicato, so plugged in that we're utterly disconnected. My affluence affords me the luxury of driving wherever I want on my own schedule, without needing to rub elbows with other passengers or alter my hours to those of public transport. I live in a single-family home inhabited by my nuclear family. I have My Computer, My Music, My Movies, My Documents, MySpace--all so convenient, so confining.

I have been buying "Easy" buttons for my family, and loving them too. The minivan--complete with wireless headphones for kids to hear their movie while we do not--delivers both kids and parents from the inconvenience of sharing sound and space. Today I had the luxury of cleaning up from dinner while two daughters watched a video and the other listened to music on the computer with headphones. We buy Happy Meals, named for how parents feel when each kid has her own setup: toy, drink, entrée, side. Hold the squabbling over who got more fries.

But for the Amish, the perennial absence of an "Easy" button seems to give them something that I would love even more--each other. A dozen years ago I showed a documentary about Amish culture to a religion class I was teaching, and as we discussed it, this lanky, long-haired kid named Oliver--one of my brightest students--summed up Amish values in a phrase I have never forgotten: "community over convenience." And every so often, when the high-tech clutter of my life leaves me feeling lonely in a crowd, I know that this is what I want more than almost anything else.

The vision comes back: a trio of bearded Plain People plowing a field behind a horse--together. No Easy button there. But oh, how I envy them sometimes.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A weekend away from the kids

Rachelle and I just spent a weekend away from the kids—physically. Measuring proximity by our words and thoughts, we may have been closer than ever to them.

Parents may recognize the phenomenon. We spend our lives loving and serving our children, while coveting time to pull away and have Adult Conversation. We circle that special evening or weekend on the calendar months in advance, adding little hearts around the date, meaning you know what. The mere mention of the date steams up the windows.

We count down the days to it. We pack up their stuff and our stuff. The day arrives—finally—and we deliver our lovely little attention guzzlers to the saints generous enough to be watching them for us. We hug them goodbye, thank the hallowed caregivers profusely. The holy moment has arrived. The heavens open and our beatific countenances shine in the light of glory, as strains of the Hallelujah Chorus throb somewhere in our souls. We throw our proverbial mortarboards into the sky, give each other invisible high fives and sigh, “Freedom.”

In the car, we debrief the farewell. “That was soooo cute how Melía told us, ‘Go bye-bye. Huwwy up!’” “Yeah, I’m so glad they enjoy being with their grandparents.” “Every time, the first thing the little ‘I-refuse-to-wear-pants’ princesses want to do is play with the snails. I love it.” “I hope they’re good.” “Did you pack the Pull-ups?” “Yeah, does your mom know about the potty-training deal?”

Adult Conversation has officially begun.

Clearly, it’s not that we’re sounding the depths of themes relevant to ordinary adults; it’s just that we are unhindered by whining petitions for food, drink, volume changes or criminal justice. We have to lower our voices in the absence of VeggieTales’ competition for audibility. The minivan is a vast, hollow cavern in which our voices echo.

Dinner is amazing. Over Chinese food we discuss pros and cons of the various kindergarten options, of whether or not the twins will be ready to start the same year. We review pictures of black-eyed Brielle reading her X-rays, and laugh, now that it is all over. We talk like them, salting our dialog with favorite phrases from Melían English such as, “I mownt dat.” “Dat lours?” “You dot dum in lour purse?” We substitute phrases, now archaic, that bring back the days of Old Briellian and Ashlynian English, when “Dee-doo” meant “Thank you” and “Lou’re weh-pum” was its polite reply.

We run on the beach the next day, and talk about the touchably-close Santa Catalina Island just over the glassy swells on our left, and the mountains draped in snow all the way down to their ankles on our right, how incredible it is to thread our way between them in shorts, here in midwinter. We stop along the way and kiss like teenagers.

Running again, we only hear our breathing for a few minutes. We are alone, together, with our thoughts, comfortable knowing we’re relishing the same picture in our minds’ eyes. And when Adult Conversation resumes, we are back in the place where the rivers of our love converge—our three beautiful girls.

Friday, January 25, 2008

One of those days (Reprise)

I guess I'll take another look at yesterday. It was a 24-hour panorama, and I have offered a gloomy 2-minute snapshot of the thing, meaning that for 23 hours, 58 minutes, I have been blind.

Blind. "Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness." (Jesus) Bad eyes--bad, dark days. Good eyes--maybe something else.

Pollyanna played The Glad Game, and we have come to use her name to belittle people who intentionally choose an optimistic view. Pollyanna wore these words on her brooch (with fictional attribution to Abe Lincoln): "When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." Could the same be said of what I look for in a day? Was Pollyanna really that far off base, or are do I just feel safer in my cynicism if I blow her off as a cheesy Disney character?

So here is another view of the same day I described yesterday. No less true, just seen through a different glass, less darkly.

I woke up--dry, safe, beside the woman I've loved for the last lucky 13 years, whose warmth radiated onto my skin under the thick covers.

I took a hot shower with running water and soap. I chose from an assortment of clothes and found something in good repair, nearly clean, warm enough, that I liked.

I went into the overstocked kitchen and drank two large glasses of clean mountain spring water from the tap. I opened the cupboard and spread my very favorite food--Laura Scudder's peanut butter--onto two slices of bread, adding a half banana to each and rolling them into tacos for breakfast. I threw my favorite apple (Fuji, the big ones from Costco) into the bag and headed for the door.

My daughter, Brielle, opened the door to the great room, walked over in silence, and opened her arms to me for a giant tiny embrace. "Bye-bye, Daddy. I'll miss you while you're at work today." A few seconds more of her squeeze and she slid to the floor and disappeared again into the hallway.

I stepped out of the house I own (with a nice 30-year fixed-rate mortage) and into a world of white. Three inches of snow had covered the trees and everything else. I breathed it in.

Having heard the forecast, the car--still going strong after 200,000 miles--was already chained up. I drove to the highway, which was in excellent repair and well plowed. The snow-covered mountains at dawn were a freezing delight, like ice cream for the eyes. I listened to my favorite band, Jars of Clay, on the CD player half the trip and then switched to my favorite radio station, KVCR, our local NPR. I got a call from my brother about our childhood friend who was in grave danger after complications from a C-section, asking me to pray and invite others to pray. I did.

I made it to work late, but didn't get in trouble. I was paid well for doing a job I love, and it was a minimum day because of finals. I grabbed lunch at a local taquería that makes a killer veggie burrito. After school I helped our best and brightest students hone their speeches for the weekend's Academic Decathlon.

I swung by the public library and checked out eight books free of charge, then drove to the urgent care center, where I hung out with Brielle and Rachelle. Brielle's right eye was barely open after her faceplant into the log while sledding that morning--but she was an angel despite that and her three-hour wait to be seen. Rachelle was still sane too, and happy to see me. I paid a $15 copay for Brielle to see a licensed physician and have X-rays done. Both doctor and X-rays told us we had nothing to worry about.

I went to the auto parts store, where they exchanged a broken set of tire chains without any questions. Rachelle and I met up and ditched a car, allowing us to carpool home. We made it up the snowy road safely without putting chains on. Passing a car that had gone over the edge, I thought about how fragile a package is life, and prayed thanks that mine was being delivered safely home today.

We arrived at the home of my in-laws, who had been willing to watch the twins while Rachelle took Brielle to urgent care. They were well-fed, well-loved and happy to see me. I smashed my head on their countertop, but neither head nor counter were seriously damaged. I made an idiot of myself in front of Rachelle's folks with the ensuing tantrum, but they have still not threatened to take their daughter or granddaughters away from me. I also made an idiot of myself in front of my daughters, but Ashlyn, at least, got a laugh out of it.

I drove my family home.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • Which of these stories--today's version or yesterday's--will readers prefer?
  • What is it that makes me so attached to yesterday's version when today's leaves my soul in such a better place?
  • How can I reconcile or balance the need for realism, and compassion for real suffering, with the benefits of focusing on the positive?
  • Which of these do my kids need my help seeing more of?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One of those days

I don’t believe in bad days. Each moment should get to speak for itself without being drowned out by whatever else has happened in the same sunrise-sunset cycle. Resign myself to a bad day and next thing I know I’m writing off the week, the month, the season, the year, my earthly life.

But today too many painful things happened to too many people I love.

  • The twins had their 3-year-old shots.
  • Brielle crashed into a log in one of her first sledding runs, leaving her right eye swollen nearly shut.
  • Rachelle spent the day in doctors’ offices—all morning with the punctured twins, all afternoon waiting to check out Brielle’s shiner at urgent care.
  • Rachelle’s mom buried the man she called “Daddy,” while trying to be strong for the woman who called him “Honey.”

The day drew suffering like iron filings to a magnet.

  • A mother who came here fleeing violence just watched two of her little boys come home from school beaten up in a single week, and she wanted me to give her advice on what to do now.
  • A childhood friend lay a micron from death after 18 hours of surgery, 30 units of blood and 20 of plasma and platelets—this on the day her baby was delivered by emergency C-section.
  • Heading up the snowy mountain, the highway patrol guided us around a tow truck winching a car gone over the edge, its driver’s fate uncertain but grim.

It was nearly 9 p.m. by the time our unfed stomachs rolled into Grandma’s driveway to pick up Ashlyn and Melía. The pure beauty of their beings had only begun to soak in to me when I plopped down onto a couch, Ashlyn on my lap, and banged my head harder than I can remember. It felt as if the kitchen countertop just above the sofa had reared back, gathered all the might of its granite inertia and swung into the top of my head with a satisfying crack.

Remember all that nice talk about “never a bad day,” letting each moment speak for itself? Presently every sad second of the day screamed in unison with the pain in my skull, and came out my mouth in a flood of wailing profanity, as I writhed on the carpet. It was as if the singing agony of the moment was so exquisite that it inspired all the other painful moments of the day to join in, like that old Coke commercial with the people holding candles. Except scarier.

Melía was silent. Ashlyn thought it was funny. Grandma felt horrible about having moved the couch. I was too tired and sick of the day to do anything but get up, embarrassed, deflated, surrounded by purlple-ish stars, and take the kids to the car.

Maybe I did write this one off as a bad day. But I’m holding out hope for tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Of funerals and bedtime

Papa’s funeral was yesterday.

It has been tiring and beautiful. And in the process of saying good-bye, my kids and I have been teaching each other some new definitions. For example, I’m teaching them:

  • Death: (n) sleep
  • Casket: (n) bed

My favorites they have taught me are:

  • Funeral: (n) party
  • Tribute in song with pantomime by great-granddaughters to honor deceased: (n) dance contest

The girls had spent the long weekend “helping” Daddy put together a bulletin and slide show for their great grandfather, and were downright excited about “Papa’s party.” (We called it a “celebration” of Papa’s life—why not a party?) They bathed without complaint, put on their church clothes, descended the mountain crammed in the back of the Accord without even scratching each others’ eyes out. In fact, despite skipping a nap, they shared a Chicken McNuggets 10-pack among the three of them, Brielle in the middle handing out nuggets as each twin managed her own container of dip on either side. (Unheard of.)

The service was what it needed to be—a loving review of a life well lived. And the kids offered grace notes throughout it. Technical difficulties stopped the sound from playing during the slide show. This left us in a silence I can only call deathly, a silence from which Melía rescued us with her narration, audible throughout the room: “Dat is my Papa. Dat is my Nana. Dat is my MOMMY!” Ashlyn ran outside, broke a vase and reminded us how grateful we are for friends to scoop her up and prevent her from plowing straight into traffic. Tears and farewells and poetry and hymn and eulogy honored the 90-year-old patriarch in a dignified fashion. Rachelle managed to get through her song, Goodbye for Now, only choking up on the last two lines, which in its own way was as beautiful as the rest of her singing.

All this was preamble to what would easily have been Papa’s favorite part: the “dance contest,” featuring contestants Brielle, Melía and Ashlyn. Following their aunt’s lead, the girls did motions to You Raise Me Up. In their cherubim-white dresses, they carved laugh-wrinkle canals to drain our tears. Each child lost interest in the performance at various times during the song, pausing to check under fingernails, pick nose, eye loved ones or otherwise drift off to left field. Yet each refrain of “You raise me up…” brought them back, lifting hands from floor to sky, high as their tiny arms could reach.

Hours later, as the restaurant hosting the wake was rolling up the fire hoses used to clean up after our kids, I tucked the girls into bed. Melía, ever the night owl, brought up the song again. “We raise Papa up, Daddy.”

“Yes, Melía, Jesus will raise Papa up, sweetheart. You did such a good job helping people remember that today.”

“We raise Papa up, Daddy.”

“Melía, when Jesus raises Papa up, he will be so happy to see you. He will dance with you and play with you and run with you and tickle you.”

“Yeah! YEAH! Yay! YAY!” Melía was bouncing on the bed now, energized, as always, by her parents’ snowballing exhaustion.

“That’ll be fun, huh, Melía?”

“Yeah, dat will be fun. Dat will be FUN!”

“I hope Jesus does that soon, Melía. I can’t wait.”

“Yeah, I townt wait. I townt wait.”

“Night-night, Melia.”

“Night-night, Daddy.”

Night-night Papa. We can’t wait…

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Weak of prayer, day 4: Supplication

A = Adoration (digging who Father God is)
C = Confession (noticing He and I are dissimilar)

T = Thanksgiving (celebrating His gifts despite this)

S = Supplication (asking for more)


My wife's grandfather died in his sleep yesterday morning at the age of 90.

After several hours of beating around the bush and feigning normalcy, I broke it to my daughters, there in the open doorway of the minivan, all three still strapped in. "Daddy has something very sad to tell
you." I eyed the three blond heads, hating that they had to hear what I was about to say. "More Papa has been very sick and ouchy. His body was so broken that this morning, he died."

The 3-year-old twins absorbed the news in silence, unsure what to make of it. Brielle--whose increasingly pointed questions had finally convinced me it was time to talk--puckered her lips, her eyes flooding with tears, and began to wail. "He is sleeping now," I went on, "and the next thing he sees will be Jesus waking him up. And then we'll be able to see him and play with him. And he'll be able to dance with you and throw you in the air." Brielle giggled through her tears at the thought of this. "And play hide-and-seek with you and do all kinds of fun things that he couldn't do before because his body was too broken."

Brielle cried for
two or three minutes. I passed her Kleenex and stretched over the middle seat of the minivan trying to snuggle my face up against hers and stroke her hair. The twins processed it all without comment. As a brief thunderstorm wets the ground and disperses, Brielle's tears came and went. She was on to the next topic, and it was time to go into Souplantation to lunch with Papa's surviving wife, daughters and granddaughter.

I would apologize that yesterday's events so dominate this day of supplication--of obeying Jesus' command, "Ask and you will receive...." But
prayer never happens in a vacuum; real prayers flow from souls scraping their boils as they sit upon the dung heap, from the fatherless and the widows. So be it.

Day 4: Supplication
  • Comfort my wife and kids and all in the family who mourn the loss of this great fallen father.
  • Lord, please give peace, or at least the hope of peace, to all children who have lost their fathers.
  • Give me a sense of urgency in my time with my own father and with my kids.
  • Remind me that everything I do leaves a legacy; nothing is only for now.
  • Help us be both wise and courageous in the conversations we have with the kids about this, the first real death they've experienced in their short lives.
  • Give us grace to be the difference in the world that Papa was in his 9 decades.
  • Help the girls to relate rightly to death, not fearing what is on the other side, but seizing every second of what we have while we live.
  • Use this time of mourning and remembering to bring the family together. Deliver them from the temptation to let their grief be a wedge; let it be a bridge instead.
  • Give me a long life, Lord--at least long enough to give these girls a fair start, to frontload them with the love a soul needs to thrive in the true love wasteland that is our world.
  • Teach us to be content.
  • Remind us that health is a fragile gift, and that following your guidance on healthful living--like following all the rest of your Law--is less a duty than the tearing open of that gift. Help us to take delight in caring for the temple.
  • Protect my wife from harm; home could not be home without her.
  • Hold Nana close to you in these excruciating days. Help her to find your grace to be sufficient for her, your strength made perfect in her weakness.
  • Give me a hunger and thirst for You. Keep on melting the ice on my heart for you (and thanks for mixed metaphors).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Weak of prayer, part 3: Thanksgiving

A = Adoration (digging who Father God is)
C = Confession (noticing He and I are dissimilar)

T = Thanksgiving (celebrating His gifts despite this)

S = Supplication (asking for more)

It's been pretty interesting how just two days of thoughtful prayer-blogging has begun to melt the icy edges of my communication with God. It is only a few days past the solstice, but the days are slowly getting longer now, and I feel the sun finding its way through the cold air when I stand still in it long enough. The winter of worry, freed from its silent prision, is flirting with the hope of prayerful spring.

In some ways, as depressing as it may have been to read, yesterday's confessions were the beginning of today's giving thanks. Each broken part of this vehicle for God's love, laid out piece by corroded piece, is not a pretty sight. It is embarrassing to reveal my lack of routine maintenance. But what a relief not to be driving around, wondering mutely when the next breakdown is going to happen, to have these parts out and in the hands of the Mechanic, who accepts whatever shabby jalopy that rolls into His shop with--could that be joy on His face? There is hope of repair here, and that is reason #1 for gratitude.

Day 3: Thanksgiving
  • Thank You for leading me to the woman who would be the amazing mommy of choice for my girls. Long before I had any desire to be a father, You led me to a wife who was all about motherhood. When we met, her maternal passion seemed like the one downside of an overall great package deal. Now I see it is among her greatest beauties.
  • Thank You for allowing me to have my three daughters, even after I failed to thank you for the son that we lost.
  • Thank You that two- and three-year-olds eventually blossom into four-year-olds. And thank you that this happens slowly.
  • Thank You for baby wipes.
  • Thank You for the miracle of language, and the hilarious, fascinating process of watching it unfold.
  • Thank You for dancing, spinning, singing little princess brides.
  • Thank You that we still have years before the princesses are full-grown brides.
  • Thank You for endless questions and curiosity, for unanswerable "why's."
  • Thank You for kisses, hugs, tickles and "I love you's".
  • Thanks for an excuse to play hide-and-seek again.
  • Thank You for rides home when we sing.
  • Thank You for a pile of little readers-to-be vying for position on and around my lap.
  • Thank You for a faith community that loves our kids and makes times at church high points of the week.
  • Thank You (I never dreamed I'd say it) for the minivan and all the blood and tears still inside my children thanks to the space it provides them.
  • Thank You for summers home as Mr. Mom.
  • Thanks for the accountability I have with my three little apprentices listening and learning from what I say.
  • Thank You for all I've learned about parenting beginning with my own parents, and continuing daily.
  • Thank You for all that my children have access to, unlike millions of children--clean water, protein-rich food, clothing, education, justice, a safe and weatherproof home, love.
  • Thank You for the honor of seeing, if only through a glass darkly, through Your Father eyes.
  • Thank You for grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and friends who are willing to take care of the kids, so that I can also...
  • ...thank You for date nights and date weekends, which allow me to...
  • ...thank You for time to talk, reminisce and adore our children from a distance.
Time to meet Rachelle. It's date night. And we have TONS of stories about the kids to catch up on.... Wait, just one more thing.
  • Thank You for the honor of sharing thoughts with all who read. Each mind and soul who come by here is a gift to me and my children.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Weak of prayer, part 2: Confession

Here's the post that, on the one hand, could derail this whole project, as I put it off in fear. On the other hand, once I get started it could be the one that breaks my commitment to "short and sweet"; God knows I could go on for terrabytes. Do remember I have agreed to self-censor, meaning that in the dizzying spiral of my fatherly shortcomings, this list is but the first loop.

OK, here goes.

Day 2 - Confession

Lord, I get really tired sometimes, and wish for a life of ease and sterile convenience rather than the rich, rough road that fatherhood is. I spend too much time resisting the blessings of raising my children rather than savoring them. I still wonder at times why You muddied the clear waters of Your existence by creating life beyond Yourself.

I too often discipline my children out of anger rather than wisdom. It's like the darker side of the affection thing, where they get what they need--mostly a reprimand and timeout or slap on the hand--but my motives are more about meeting my need to act out frustration than about helping them become more like You. Teach me to discipline in cold blood, for their sake and not my own.

I really enjoy telling my children "no" when they ask for things. It's just that I think they need to learn to deal with negative responses to their requests, to grow out of their egocentric sense of entitlement. But something in the way I relish the denial of their petition seems wrong in light of "Ask, and you will receive....
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" Help me to learn a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity, even if it is best not to indulge my kids' every cry of "I want..."

I can get more into projects--even this writing--than into the people You have given me to love and lead. Teach me to balance all lesser callings against the greatest calling.

Rachelle prayed aloud the other day in a group of adults, and it was the first non-kiddie prayer I'd heard her utter in months. This is not for lack of Rachelle praying, but because I have not been making prayer with her a priority. Give us a commitment to shared time with You.

I so quickly grow impatient with people in my life, and with myself. Teach me to slow down.

I feel so angry so much of the time, frustrated with myself when things do not go as I feel they ought. I say words that deny the image of You in me, words devoid of hope or faith. Release me from the rut of anger.

I frequently let circumstances or someone else determine our family's plans, and then I complain about how things turn out and feel like a victim. Teach me to take more responsibility for planning or to shut up about the end result.

I sometimes let time slip away at work that could be life-changing if reallocated to home. Make me a penny pincher of time when I'm away from my family and liberally generous when with them.

I don't like to admit that I'm wrong. Remind me to confess--to you and to my family--my sins, mistakes, failures and whatever euphemisms I have for when I blow it.

And remind me as I do so that Your grace dwarfs them all.


That's enough for now...I have the balance of the year for you all to hear the rest of the bad and the ugly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Weak of prayer, part 1: Adoration

This morning I was remembering that I introduced this blog promising "ranting, panting and praying." I think I'm delivering the first two, but the prayers seem stuck in the dead letter office, unless you count questions as abstract silent prayers. Sadly, this reflects the current reality of my prayer life: weak.

This week I'll spend a day on each of the four sections of the
ACTS prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication--largely from a dad's eye view. Maybe that'll help me do the Philippians 4:6 thing, shaping worries into prayers.

Day 1 - Adoration

God, you are Creator. You make soul-size miracles that begin microscopically. And then you became one.

You are creative too, finding ways to make even the craziest situations beautiful.

You are Peace-giver, even when nothing about a situation is peaceful. Your peace is offered even when I fail to receive it.

You are daring, scandalously trusting of my frail flesh to raise three of your own angels. You respect me, expect the best of me even when I don't see it. You hand me the tools and let me make a mess of things when you know you could do it better yourself, because you care more about me than what I accomplish.

You are Love, and you speak love to me in ways I never thought I had space for. You kept trying, and now you speak it through my daughters.

You are patient, willing to wait for your kids to come around, to pass through this phase, loving me as much in the midst of my tantrum as you do when I'm snuggled up close, absorbing your story.

You are humble, wiping up my most disgusting spills, my soiled clothes, the blood and tears that are your payment as Father, and your gift to me as son.

You are gentle, drawing me "with cords of human kindness, ties of love" when you have every right to play the "I'm your Daddy" card and shove me into line.

You are forgetful, mercies new every morning, giving me a chance to be seen as the kid of your dreams every day, and inviting me to see myself that way too.

You are Rest-giver, an oasis in the parenting perfectionism desert, a weekend getaway from all my stumbling labor.

You are Wisdom, uncommon sense with courage to live beyond my self-defending, interest-protecting prudence.

You are Power made perfect in my abundant weakness.

Again and again, God, You are Love--unconditional, unbelievable, unstoppable Love.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Questions I asked myself today

Today was one of those Sundays when Rachelle worked, meaning Daddy day care for the girls. Here are just a few of the questions I distinctly remember asking myself today.
  • Why do they make toys for children that create more work for the parents than play for the child?
  • Why do we buy these toys?
  • Are all these pieces necessary?
  • Which child wiped the poop on the hand towel?
  • Did said wiping occur before or after yesterday’s guests were here?
  • Which is the best kindergarten for Brielle?
  • How should I balance my time today—getting chores done around the house or playing on the floor with the girls?
  • Should I agree to this sparkly butterfly tattoo Brielle is trying to share with me or take a stand for my manhood while risking making her feel rejected?
  • What time is Rachelle coming home?
  • Does a protein shake with vitamins count as a meal for the kids?
  • Are her feet too cold?
  • Are they too young to help build the fire?
  • Should I wake them up from the nap or enjoy the extended peace?
  • Should I stop reading the story to discuss the pictures and throw in some Spanish, or just get on with it?
  • What is that smell?
  • How much candy have they already had today?
  • Do I need to change what I’m eating/drinking, given that they want some of whatever it is?
  • Do they need a bath?
  • Is that Rachelle calling to say she’s on her way home?
  • Is it warm enough to go outside and play?
  • Who should I put on time out—the one who hit or the one who provoked it, or both?
  • Is silver poisonous?
  • To what extent might the 10-second rule be stretched?
  • Should I listen to something that feeds my soul, or something the kids like?
  • Is this the best way to discipline?
  • How did we ever get all this stuff?
  • Why can’t I have a bigger lap?
  • Could they get any more cute?
  • What time is Rachelle coming home?
  • How many times have I already asked that?
Who says parenting is not mentally stimulating?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Father love, part 4: Affection

Suddenly, she was there. I felt the rough blanket wrapped around her tiny body on my bare forearms, the arms that were all that was holding her six-some pounds in the air--unbelievably. She was still now, breathing in, breathing out, steady in the calm that followed the storm of her emergence. Pinned against my chest, her steady stillness flowed in, swirling with my fear and overcoming it. Her impossibly blue eyes stared straight up into my soul.

It was love at first snuggle.

Since the first time I held my daughter, closeness, affection has been one of the things I most love about daddyhood. If I can hug them, it's all going to be OK. Despite the many flaws that Rachelle and I have, one thing they will not be telling their shrink as they lie on the couch someday is that their parents never hugged them or gave them any affection.

For better and for worse, my little girls have no personal space. Even touchy
huggy people like my wife and I feel claustrophobia setting in when we've got three noses and six hands in the middle of our cooking, gift-wrapping, bill-paying, cleaning or writing project. There are moments when we just wish they would find a diversion that doesn't require being within inches of our every move.

But mostly, we like it. I sometimes worry that we like it too much. Tons of us have lived the childhood annoyance of that overly affectionate relative or friend whose expressions of love nearly smothered us. I would like to say that every kiss, squeeze and tickle I gave my kids were an intentional, selfless gift. But more often, I find myself hugging them just because they're so dang hugable. Sometimes the affection I give is for my sake, not for theirs, which strikes me as almost exploitative. Those hugs are probably lost on them, emotionally speaking, while they help me get through the frustrations of parenting and life. Is that OK?

I wonder how often God sends us hugs when we aren't asking for them. We're busy building our block castles, dressing our paper dolls, scribbling drawings that only a parent could love. Suddenly, uninvited, He wraps us in His love, sending a purring cat, a needed email, a familiar scent, a tree silhouetted against the setting sun, a warm breeze, a song lyric, or just the feeling we're not alone.

I am clear that God is infinitely more selfless than I am, and snuggles up to us in these ways more for our sake than for His. But can't the selfless servant-heartedness of God's affection for us peacefully coexist with the fact that He just loves to love us? Does He enjoy giving us the divine equivalent of hugs, even when they're lost on us? Isn't there something to be said for a Father whose expressions of love outshine His children's ability to appreciate them?

I hope so, because right now I feel like sneaking into the sleeping twins' room and kissing the tops of their curly heads--whether they like it or not.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • How important is it that affection be unselfish? How unselfish should it be?
  • To what degree is our need to give and receive affection a part of the image of God?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Father love, part 3: Curious skepticism

Cliché as it sounds, my children are curious. I really, really like that about them. As a teacher, curiosity was my top criterion for the ideal student, which makes my 3- and 4-year-olds about the three best students I've ever had. To my unending delight, they ask "Why?" all the time.

This is not to say that they believe much of anything I say in response. One of the curious questions they must ask themselves routinely is, "Where did Dad get the inane idea that he knows more than the piano bench?" I had fantasized, as a prospective father, that my children would adoringly hang on my every word, accepting as truth whatever precepts my infallible lips should utter--at least till the age of 10.

In harsh contrast, eavesdroppers at our doors can enjoy conversations like this:

Child: (sweetly) Daddy, what color is that tree?
Father: (matter-of-factly) That tree is green.
Child: (with horrified contempt) No, it's not!
Father: (insisting) Yeah, that is a green tree.
Child: (livid) No, it's NOT!
Father: (heated) Yes, Daddy is smart. Daddy has been speaking English for a long time. Daddy has seen lots of trees and lots of other green things. You can believe Daddy when I say that it is a green tree.
Child: (in full tantrum) STOP TALKING TO ME, DADDY! YOU HURT MY EARS!
Father: (sternly) Do not talk to me like that. If you talk to me again like that, you are going on time out. (As child cries and runs from room, Father secretly wishes he could have a time out.)

This can be annoying, but I deal with it, because part of what I love about their curiosity is the way it leads them to question authority, even mine. They are inquiring minds, and not only do they want to know--they want to know for themselves.

A couple weeks before Christmas, Brielle was regarding the poinsettia plant with some ambivalence. "Poinsettia plants are poisonous, Daddy. If you touch them you have to wash your hands before you do anything." She paused. "Daddy, I don't like that poinsettia plants are poisonous. We don't need poisonous things for Christmas." I agreed with her about the irony of something so pretty being poisonous.

That's when she began her inquiry of epistemology, which won my heart over to her at yet a new level. "Daddy, why do all the people who come to our house know that poinsettias are poisonous?" I mumbled something about someone reading it, learning it in school and then people talking with each other and spreading the fact.

But the vagueness of my answer and the attraction of Brielle's skepticism gave me an idea. "Brielle, let's read about it ourselves. Do you want to read about poinsettias on the computer?" Oh boy, did she ever. She squirmed up onto the couch beside me and we Googled "poinsettias poisonous" and a click later learned that this unfortunate fact is no fact at all. Don't go adding poinsettia leaves to your salad--they taste terrible--but it turns out that a 50-pound kid could eat around 500 leaves without topping the experimental dosage, which has showed no evidence of toxicity. (See the Snopes piece yourself.)

Brielle was indescribably gleeful over this discovery; now she could dig poinsettias without suspicion. As for me, Brielle was officially my hero for the day. She had questioned a widely-held belief (two-thirds of florists surveyed held the same false notion about their own merchandise), we had researched it, debunked it, and the truth had made our lives richer.

I'm just glad she didn't ask me about poinsettias' color.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • I want my kids to learn to trust, but also to think critically. How do I do one without damaging the other?
  • Where might it serve me to regain the curiosity that my kids have? Where do I need to have a healthy skepticism?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Father love, part 2: Care-freedom

Tuesday nights a few friends and I meet at this Filipina-owned coffee shop to talk, laugh, read, think, and pray for each other. (We also like to venture bizarre guesses on the mysterious ingredients of the day's Halo Halo, a Filipino dessert that I think represents the randomness of our group.)

Tonight I drove home from this time worrying, of all things, about worrying.

It's just that we were chewing on this story where Jesus was telling people to
cut out all the worrying about food, clothes and stuff--you know, the things that give us our security. I can assure you, I am above all that. In fact, because I have all that stuff in excess, it leaves me plenty of time to worry about what really gives me security--like what people think of me. And realizing, despite all these years of trying to kick the habit, how much I worry about others' esteem--I don't know, I guess I got to worrying about it.

Which brings me to what else I love about my little girls. They don't worry.

Did I mention that these things I love about my children can also threaten my sanity? Brielle, for instance, does not worry that dragging her Cinderella castle with accessories into the hall may cause death or dismemberment to passers-by. Melía does not worry about how her postponing of bedtime decreases our sleep, impairing white blood cells' immune response. Ashlyn does not worry that Play-Doh seeds sown across the carpet dry and must be harvested, or that ceramic wise men do not bounce, or that string that goes in one end of the GI tract will--with some gentle tugging--come out the other.

They are free from caring about these things, liberated from the burden of tomorrow, the "what-if's" that rob mature adults of sleep, of peace, of life. This care-freedom opens up worlds of possibility for what they
do care about at each moment.

Brielle, pure from concerns that our home will be mistaken for a landfill, brings out toy after toy to help her sisters stay busy and engaged.

Melía, free from care about our getting to work on time, stops us to ask, "Mommy, are lou ha-ee?" ("Yes, sweetie, I
am happy," Mommy replies. "Why didn't I think to ask this?" thinks Daddy.)

Ashlyn, unspoiled by fears about her image (or the limits of the human eardrum), spins wildly around the living room to the music, alternately singing and giggling and hollering at maximum volume, just for the love of sound.

I know, this care-freedom will need to give way to a responsible concern for the impact of one's actions on others, lest these girls go on to threaten the sanity of future friends, teachers, husbands and the international community.

But just for now, let me covet this. Let me regress just enough to remember how it feels to be all about the moment. Pass me down the mixing spoon and let me lick off a dab of the sweet, raw cookie dough of my baby girls' care-freedom.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • If I admire this so much, how come I so often fight the spontaneity of my family, muttering, "What were you thinking?!?" What fears behind this complaint might be competing with the love?

  • How do we strike a balance between careful planning and care-free, worry-free, in-the-moment living? Is the ideal somewhere in between, or a situation-based approach, with careful planning for some stuff and care-free passion for other stuff?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Father love, part 1: Gratitude

Saturday afternoon, my fears about parenting kids were on the brain, but this week I'm going to work through a list of what I love most about my children, so far. (That way those of you who haven't had the chance to fall in love with them yet will have some good reasons to start.)

First of all, I love the way they're learning to be thankful. Yesterday Melía was playing "birthday" with us, bringing gift bags stuffed with random stuff carefully hand-picked from the back of the house. When her twin, Ashlyn, received the gift, she drew in her breath with delight, and exclaimed, "Oh, a [whatever it was]! And a BEAUTIFUL [whatever else was in the bag]! And a [fill in with some other broken, used toy]! It's my favorite! Thank you, Melía!"

Today we did a belated Christmas gift exchange with my parents and brothers and their wives. Everyone was generous and thoughtful with their gifts, but it takes no genius to discern that kids are more excited about some presents than others. But it didn't matter--whether it was the little wedding dresses complete with garter, gloves and veil (8.9 on the excitement scale) or the pajamas (over which Mommy and Daddy were possibly more stoked than the girls), they called out, "Thank you! Thank you! THANK YOU!" in crescendos till they could be heard over the Christmassy chaos, following up with tight hugs to the giver.

Like I said, any fool could see that the pajama thank-you's began differently than the bridal gown ones, a little more Superego than Id. But by the time the little girls were shouting their thanks and jumping into the the arms of the giver, the distinction blurred. By then all that mattered was this dance: giver gives joyfully, recipient expresses thanks, giver is more joyful than ever, recipient senses this joy and realizes her thanks has been a gift too. In the best case, both parties are more present to the magic between them than to the gift itself.

I'm hoping to pick up some of my children's gratitude in the new year, seeking to practice what I've been preaching so hard to them. I want to be just as faithful about thanking God, my wife, my coworkers, my children, total strangers, for whatever gifts they share. I want to put my heart into expressing gratitude for the wedding gown kind of gifts and the pajamas, even for the broken, used toys. Because it isn't about the gift, but about the dance, the magic that can happen when generosity meets gratitude.

The band Sixpence None the Richer takes its name from Mere Christianity, where C.S. Lewis tells a story about a boy asking his dad for a sixpence to go and buy him a gift. Of course, after receiving the gift, the father--by some measures--is no richer than before the child gave. (See lead singer Leigh Nash explain this to David Letterman on YouTube.) I'm thinking this father was grateful anyway, if not for the gift, for the magic that swelled between generous Father and eager-to-please son. Something tells me our True Father is grateful too, for whatever broken gifts we return to Him. Maybe He really does feel richer.

That's the kind of daddy I want to be.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fathering fears, then and now

Before I had kids, I was scared of many things. Here are the top six fears I nursed:
  1. My children will grow up to be mass murderers.
  2. Even if they aren't mass murderers, my choice to give new souls existence will lead to the world being worse in other ways, such as overpopulation.
  3. I will "screw my kids up" with my own imperfections.
  4. If Bible greats such as David, Jacob, Abraham, Adam and even Creator God Himself had such lousy records as dads (think Absalom's rebellion, Joseph's brothers selling him as a slave, Ishmael and mom having to flee, Cain killing Abel, Adam and Eve finding the only junk food in an otherwise perfect garden), then I am SOL (Surely Out of Luck).
  5. My relationship with my wife will be over once the kids come.
  6. I will no longer have a life.
A few years into parenthood, I feel a little less melodramatic about these fears, but most are still there in altered form. These days, the fears above look more like this:
  1. While my paranoia that they'll be homicidal has pretty much tapered off (and what's more, we parents beat the infanticidal temptations of those sleepless nights), I do still fear that my kids will pick up a habit of killing people with unkind words, gossip and contempt.
  2. I believe now that by grace, my children will actually make the world better than it could have been without them. I continue to fear that growing up in a materialistic society will give them a sense of attachment and entitlement to more than their share of resources, that they will be wasteful and careless.
  3. I am grateful for the ways that grace has diluted the "sins of the fathers" in my generation, and hopeful that the weaknesses I pass on to my kids will be watered down even more. Still, I abhor the thought of my girls apologizing some day to their kids for their anger, moodiness, pessimism, procrastination, criticism, messy house, etc. with the explanation, "Sorry, but it's something I learned from your grandpa."
  4. When Rachelle and I were expecting Brielle, I expressed fear #4 to my friend, Tracy Gunneman, like this. "When I look to the Bible for hope as a future father, I keep seeing that all these spiritual giants really sucked as parents." Tracy's inspired response? "And you know what, Mike? You're going to suck at it too." Beat. I giggled, checking to be sure I'd heard him right. He nodded. "But by God's grace, they're going to be OK." This prophetic utterance was the breach in the dam of my parenting perfectionism. Nothing goes perfectly, not then, not now, not ever. But God still does His thing. And it's going to be OK. (I do still fear that Ashlyn will take after Great-grandma Eve and eat poisonous fruit.)
  5. Did you ever have a friend move away, and somehow you created more quality time and intentional communication than when they lived across town? Kids have been like that move to Rachelle and me. We have to plan more carefully, but we actually have weekly date nights and quarterly overnight getaways, things that we never got around to before the kids came. The luxury cruise ship of convenient time together has gone the way of the Titanic, so we cling to these couple times as our life raft of intimacy, and it's cozier here. What's more, the common focus of our kids brings us together with a less egocentric focus than before kids. Rachelle's commitment to our couplehood as top priority has all but eliminated this old fear.
  6. I have redefined, "have a life." My old definition was pretty narrow, anyhow. I'm actually just scared of what sort of life I might have lived had I limited myself with all these fears.

Questions I'm asking myself:
  • If "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18), to what extent does the persistence of these fears reveal a lack of love in me? To what extent might these fears interfere with my love of my family?
  • But it seems like responsible parents must be somewhat fearful. Doesn't God fear what might become of us? To what extent should I seek to purge my heart of fears for my kids?

Friday, January 4, 2008

High/low vs. flat

After almost three weeks of Christmas break as Mr. Mom, going back to work has been not unlike someone with extreme bipolar disorder getting a quick lobotomy.

I have an interesting job, mind you, counseling ninth graders at a school serving the roughest section of a very poor city. We can count on fascinating drama at work every day. Still, held up against the nose-bleeding mountain-highs and subterranean lows of spending time with my three young children, even a dramatic day at work is like rolling pastureland.

Where could a body find work that provides low moments like those we parents have? Zookeepers clean messes rivaling those at our home, and have to deal shrewdly with the wild animals under their care. Restaurant servers hear a
constant stream of demands from hungry, fickle customers, absorbing complaints for minor imperfections that were not their fault. And I suppose an asylum offers the kicking, screaming and refusal to groom or take medication that daily grace our lives.

By the same token, what occupation could offer the breathtaking heights of parenting? Who's ever found a gig that includes tiny high-fives, hugs and victory dances to celebrate a bowel movement? What line of work gives you such a front-row seat on life's miracles--amazing displays of language, coordination, curiosity and cunning performed by the creature who just yesterday was that indistinguishable outline on a sonogram? Show me a job where your flesh and blood speaks back to you and says, "I love you, Daddy."

So that days and nights with the kids are like the Matterhorn at Disneyland, complete with dips, dives, thrills, jerks and horrifying appearances of the abominable snow monster. I feel out of control, hanging on and praying for protection from impending whiplash as I laugh and scream. And work--as satisfying and delightful and challenging as
is mine--is like the Peoplemover, a nice break from the dizzying drama of the roller coasters, but all in all, a trifle tame. It's interesting and you see a lot of things in the park. But spend all day there? You've got to be kidding.

You can have your lobotomy. Give me my bipolar.


Questions I'm asking myself:
  • Why is this so hard for me to remember when I'm so irritated by the difficulties of child-rearing? How can I remind myself?
  • Why do I so often choose excellence at work over excellence as a dad? Am I seeking control, comfort, peace, safety, ease, praise, or what?
  • In what other areas of life might I benefit by letting go of blasse Peoplemover predictability in favor of something more volatile, more passionate, and potentially more hair-raising?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I love everybody who loves my kids

Thinking back through the holidays, I'm realizing I pretty much only like to be with people who like to be with my children.

I really hope that friends I had in the BC (Before Children) years did not have such a narrow focus, because before I had a child, I did not like anyone's children. I was not even that hot on the childhood version of myself and my brothers. While others idealized the innocence of childhood, I remembered being cruel, narcissistic, insensitive and judgmental. (Really, I was
even worse in these areas then than now!)

So if you don't like being with my children, or anyone's children, and are just reading this to enhance whatever method of birth control you're currently employing, please, feel ye not bad. You've got sympathy here, my brother/sister. From there, only by the grace of God (and the instincts of parenthood) have come I.

It's just that, reviewing December, the common thread of all the people I really loved hanging out with was a genuine affection for my little girls. I never imagined myself choosing friends based on who my kids clicked with, and while that does happen, it's not what I'm talking about. I simply like all people--big or small, young or old, rich or poor, red, brown, yellow, black or white--who realize that Brielle, Melía and Ashlyn are priceless princess gifts from God, and who treat them as such. People like this are the Chosen Ones who get it, who've seen the Light, who stand in right relationship to the Truth that my girls RULE!

Can I get a witness?

No, but there really is a sort of religious fanaticism to this litmus test. Dig my daughters and you pass--well done thou good and faithful servant; here's your harp. Everyone else, weeping and gnashing of teeth for you; here's your accordion.

At first this seemed analogous to God's insistence that we love His Son, the whole "No man comes to the Father but by me" thing, which some Christians love to quote to prove that we are the only ones God really likes. (A strikingly effective way to endear people to the faith, don't you think?) And from that angle I didn't really like God or myself very much. Being so infatuated with one's begotten (even if it is the Only Begotten) that you doom all non-fans of the begotten to second-rate friendship or eternal alienation just didn't seem to be what Jesus would do.

But maybe that is the wrong angle. Maybe God's fatherly fixation is more on people loving His children--all umpteen billion of them who've ever lived. Loving Jesus is great, because it betters our odds of finding love for the Father. But surely God is more self-secure than I am and has less of a compulsive need than I do for folks to love his child.

Perhaps God and I are more alike in this way: We both have invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in each one of our kids, and anyone who treats them as less valuable than we see them to be just doesn't fit in. We're both kind of nutty about our children;
through the screaming and snot and poop, we see this beautiful perfection, this image of God, which may be more fantasy than reality. But we're passionate about that fantasy, and remember, we're nuts enough to believe that it might be real. And the more we get into our kids--the more that we give of ourselves to enrich them and show them love--the more fanatical we become about other people seeing them as we do.

Or, maybe it's just that I feel more comfortable around people who don't mind a half-full potty being brought out into the living room. I don't know.

But I do know this. My girls RULE. (Can I get an "Amen"?)


Questions I'm asking myself:

- How can I transfer my generous Dad's eye view of my kids to some of God's snotty, poopy, screaming adult children of whom I take a more dim view?

- Why are some people able to have so much love for children without having had their own, while others, like me, don't find that love until they are parents themselves?