The Dishwasher’s Prayer

shortstory3She bent low, being tall

Light touched her face from the window, touched the bubbles

She was careful with the water

Don’t let it flow, don’t let it waste itself unheeded down the drain

She was careful with the soap

Dilution, always, mostly water

Shaken in the worn bottle, coaxing out suds

Your eye can see all this and then

Come, come around to the side and watch

Her lips which betray the words

Her heart is whispering to God

Have you seen eyes like that?

Seeing dishes and Heaven, at once?

Come away now

Here is every goodness at once

And we too must begin.

 

What Busyness Takes

There will not be that ideal moment to write; when all ripe tomatoes are cleared from the weighted, fragrant vines, when the laundry is all tucked into drawers and relaxing onto hangers, when the children are deep into quiet, peaceful play, and the to do list is a crossed-off list of merry accomplishment.  Such a moment would last, at best, a span of minutes, and so I write anyways.  I just left to help a frustrated toddler remove his wooden cars from his little barn toy where he had hopelessly wedged them.

Financial burdens led me this past year into multiple jobs and homeschooling my five year old, with a baby and toddler at home as well.  I did babysitting at a local church, I became a direct care worker for a disabled person, and I continued my soap business, albeit without a partner, who moved out of state.  Though there was love in my offering, I felt, and still feel, hollowed out by the weight of the work of that year.  The children I cared for gave me their smiles and their joy, and I love them.  The person I care for with a disability has given me concrete perspective on suffering and perseverance.  My small soap company has given me just enough to stave off needing loans to pay for our childrens’ education, and gave me the opportunity to grow in my craft.  All these good things, and yet, there was too much, leaving not enough of me to breathe.  Not enough of me to connect at day’s end with my kids and husband and friends.  I missed the kids’ sports, social events, and quiet evening time playing games around the table, because I was working or falling asleep standing up.

Activities give, but busyness takes, and I’ve found that I cannot live well with what it takes.  We are taking steps to reduce my work.  We enrolled the homeschooled kiddo, and I declined to babysit this year.  I put in a request to drop to one morning a week for direct care.  I wrote to one of my wholesale customers that I’d be unlikely to make the quantity of soaps they’d requested (this was a sorrow as I love the shop’s owner and have sold at their location for years).  I am fully owning that I’m one person and that I can’t breathe; that I require open stretches of time that aren’t stalked and menaced by a workload that endlessly intones, “back to work, back to work”.  I need my energy that has been consumed by busyness; I need it to be a “horsey” for my baby to ride on, I need it to cook wholesome food for my growing kids, I need it for cheering on my kids while they play sports.  They have first dibs on what I have to give.

I don’t want to miss these years.  I don’t want to produce a thousand bars of soap if it means I’m too tired to read a bedtime story to these little ones who grow an inch every time I look away.  I’m putting a stop to the madness that can be stopped, so that I can reasonably  deal with the madness that can’t.55458331_10157517776583352_5915649093199200256_o55819024_10157527981533352_787634639161262080_o56396022_10157545627993352_5875322391126605824_o57568478_10157581165648352_7460836377630867456_odrawing

 

On Small Joys

Take a moment, maybe?

Our lives are brief.  We breathe through the hard, we let tears fall one after another, chasing each other’s trails, dripping off our chins.  We laugh hard, we laugh with our whole selves, bending low with the joy, then throwing our heads back, laughter erupting forth; the sound joy makes.

In between, in the even breathing, in the blank expression, washing a dish, thinking of how to untangle a work knot, wondering if Sadness will come and turn out the lights inside; even there…

A warm cup of coffee and a blanket.

A phone call with a friend whose soul knows yours.

A flower that dares to open fully, radiantly.

The way of dogs, to lay their heads on knees just then.

The candle, lit and nestled into a trough of sand, prayer in light and wax.

The child, wild, who wants suddenly a kiss.

Why not learn to enjoy the little things-there are so many of them.

-St. John Chrysostom,  347-407 A.D.

Nature, Like White Paper

notbusy5

We aren’t really playground material.  Unless, that is, if no one else is using it.  Then it can become an obstacle course for an intense game of tag or a jungle gym for my children who find no joy nor challenge in the “correct usage” of the equipment.  They go up the slides, climb on top of the swing bars, and try to spin themselves into white-knuckled, near-projectiles on the merry-go-round.

My four year old climbed a five foot fake boulder at a playground while I watched from about ten feet away.  Another mother was soon spotting him from below, asking anxiously, “OH HONEY!  Where is your mommy?”

“I’m here,” I said, giving a little wave, “He’s fine.”

Her eyes told me that he was indeed not fine, but she moved on.  I appreciate her care, I do.  If he’d been wandering toward a busy road or had been being bullied by some big kids, she’d be one I’d want to have around; a protector, an ally, a do-er.  Unfortunately, we don’t always see eye-to-eye about what constitutes acceptable risk.  I find the current culture of helicopter parenting to be exhausting.  Have you been to a playground on a busy day recently?  Kids are followed around, constantly!  They are directed on how to use the playground “correctly”.  There is a chorus of mothers saying “OKAY, no, no, honey, we only go down the slides.  NO, no, sweetie, take turns.  Oh, say you’re sorry for bumping into that boy.  OKAY, kids, not so fast on the merry-go-round; now stop it so this girl can get on, okay, go slowly, NO STANDING, okay stop it and let him off, okay….”  It’s like this delicate dance of politeness and correctness and fairness and safety, and really, I didn’t come here to direct a ballet; I came so that my children could dash about, climb, spin, and work off that boisterous and overflowing energy which is there for a reason.  And if you don’t follow the Momicopter Culture?  You’re shamed.  Shamed for letting your kid carry a small stick.  Shamed for letting them climb.  Shamed for letting them jump off the swings.  Shamed for letting them throw snowballs.  Shamed for not making them slow the tire swing down to a speed other parents comfortable with (even if it’s just your own kids on it!).  Shamed for letting your kid stomp in the rain puddles and get understandably cold.

I vividly remember the playgrounds of my youth.  They were made of wood and metal; they had precipitous drop offs, unforgiving angles, and slides that could fry eggs in the summer.  Tall towers to climb, high swings from which kids could launch into glory, and wondrously speedy, large merry-go-rounds.  And the moms?  Stationed on a park bench, book in hand, happy to have a rest while the kids exhausted themselves.  Kids got splinters, bruises, and the wind knocked out of them, sure.  They also got to navigate risk.

I took my kids to our local playground today, which was blessedly empty.  I noticed that the huge wooden ship, where many of my kids’ early memories were staged of harpooning imaginary whales, leading a band of pirates, or braving typhoons, was gone, replaced by an open stretch of newly seeded grass.  First had went the open stairwell to the ship’s interior, boarded shut “for safety”.  Then the mast.  Then the slide. Then the whole boat itself.  I noticed quite a few more missing attractions; without a doubt they were deemed “unsafe”.  There remained nothing exciting; no apparatus which caused any tingle of fear.  There was no risk.

My kids solved it.  They climbed in the no-climb zones (atop partitions, over low walls, etc).  They dragged big gnarly downed branches in and made weapons and tools out of them.  They plunged headfirst down the small slides.  Their developing brains made accommodations for the lack of risk.  I scribbled out these thoughts on a scrap of paper in my purse and tilted my face to the sun.  “Nature is like blank white paper; anything can be wrought upon it; it can absorb any story you draw on it.  Playgrounds are like coloring books; the stage, the lines, are set, fixed.  There is a degree of success expected because of the proferred design:  here is how to enjoy this; follow the rules and it will turn out nicely.  Playgrounds with helicopter moms in full command are like paint-by-number pieces, where even the minutest details are not left to chance in the pursuit of excellent, safe, play.  I can think of no greater threat to imagination and safety than this current state of affairs.”  I wrote it out in hurried cursive.  My baby clambered past, slipping on patches of snow.  He hollered at the icy cold on his bare hands, shook off the snow, and carried on.

Appropriate risk is crucial to developing brains.  Overly coddled and protected children don’t have the tools to interact with their environment in the absence of their parent.  I’ll never forget the time when I hosted a stream-stomping birthday party for my son in third grade and invited several boys from his class.  One boy, whose mother was on the extreme end of helicoptering, asked if I was going to hold his hand on the walk to the park (it’s just through a development, no major roads nor traffic).  When we arrived at the stream, the boys clambered down through the brush and started exploring, splashing, and pretending.  He turned to me and asked “Where are the steps to get down to the water?”

“Um…there are no steps, just walk through the brush.”

“But what do I do?”

I was shocked.  Had this child ever been allowed to interact with nature without an adult telling him how?  “Just go explore, feel the water, run around, be a kid!”

After the creek stomp we headed back and I let the boys build a fire to cook our supper on.  The one boy looked on with a mystified expression on his face.  Fire was danger, danger is for adults.

I don’t pretend that every adult reading this is agreeing with my point of view, but I do ask you…if 100% of kids love to try to climb up slides, why are we always telling them not to?  When the worst case scenario is as benign as getting run into by a kid coming down, which automatically teaches the climber the risk involved and how to hedge against it, say, by observing by sight and sound whether another person is up at the top, why are we interfering?  Couldn’t it be that kids’ minds know what they need to do to grow?

It is my contention that good playgrounds enable rather than inhibit appropriate risk, and so do good parents.  I think the magic of kids’ play really takes place when they not only navigate bodily risk, but also learn the give and take of social interactions (sharing, apologizing, being considerate) without a parent prompting them.  When they screw up, of course a parent should pull them aside and reiterate expectations, but that should be a rarity.  They’re there to play, to learn, to risk, and to grow.  That will only happen if we get out of the way.

Until then, I prefer nature itself; there is no “correct usage” of a fallen tree spanning a small creek.  Maybe it’s a bridge, maybe it’s a pirate ship’s plank to walk, maybe it’s simply the risk-du-jour that needs experienced and conquered.

 

 

CrushedMess at Christmas

We held each other’s hands in the quiet of the house; the Christmas-charged children had finally settled down; it was like the moment after a parade, when the workers come out to sweep up the confetti.

We had just prayed, and we had warbled a broken “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.  Tears slipped down my cheeks, and there was some constancy to that, like perhaps my eyes would never stop pouring forth.  “This has been the worst, the hardest Christmas I’ve ever had”, he said, rubbing his hand over his face, the way he does when he’s stressed and sad.  I nodded.

We’ve invested in rental properties, and a tenant kept falling farther and farther behind on rent, running into one disaster after another with his addictions, and resultant loss of jobs.  We rented to him, fresh out of jail, his girlfriend expecting their baby any moment. For a few months it looked like maybe this small family could make life work.  The baby loved her mama, her drug-addicted mama, and it hurts my soul to speak of this.  He called us from prison, we bailed him out.  We did not have money for this, but we knew he needed to be able to work or they’d lose their daughter.  Please, can there be some redemption?

The baby was taken into foster care.  Sweet baby, how you will bear this?  I am glad she is safe and cared for, and I am heartbroken too, for she loved her mama, her mama who also loved drugs.  We served them eviction papers and gave them time to relocate their things.  They broke back into the house and sublet space to other people, not giving us any rent.  We called the prison when our calls to them weren’t answered, and discovered they were both back in jail.  Unpaid rent was up to $5,000 now.  School taxes were due.  We had to clear out the house and get it ready for another renter.

There is great sadness in all of it.  My husband has been so stressed and saddened by it all that he hardly sleeps at night.  He shakes with stress, and he apologizes for not being able to provide for us all, for the lack of rent income, plus the mortgage, and impending taxes have put us firmly in the red.  That’s a sobering thing for a family of eight in the middle stage of life.

“We are vulnerable…one car breakdown, an appliance failing, a medical need…”  We let the silence extend.  I put a load in the washer, dropped to the cold tile floor, and wept.  A crushed mess at Christmas.

That is the load on our backs, weighing heavy.  Now let me speak of the beautiful.

A high school friend gifted us two bins full of Legos, many of them Star Wars sets.  These became the Christmas gift for our two older sons, who were overcome with wonder and joy.  They’ve been joyfully playing with them constantly ever since.

A friend here passed along her kids train track set and wooden castle set; my two middle sons received them with joy for their Christmas gift.  The baby was pleased with his thrifted wooden toys, and my daughter quite happy with the clearance bin goods we got for her.

Our families gave beautiful gifts to us; there was merriment as the children opened things they’ve dearly wished for.  We were gifted a Christmas tree, because our family helped unload a flatbed full of them at a friend’s business.

On Christmas day a package arrived for me.  A book I’ve wanted for three years!!  A friend somehow found out and ordered it.  I held it to my chest and smiled.

We made cookies with the help of the neighborhood kids, whose own stories are difficult and pain-filled, and I gave up the rolling pin and cutters and let them have at it, mess and all.

…………………………………….

We held hands in the quiet.

“Do you know what makes me so happy though?” my husband asked.  “Our kids.  They are so cute and funny and I love watching their faces as they open gifts; just that expression of joy and surprise.”  I nodded.

So much pain, so much stress, so much uncertainty, but oh so much beauty, so much joy, so much life.IMG_2861

Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

For Which Generation? On Telos and Techne

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

Six kids?!?  You must be SO BUSY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song for a Fifth Child

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