milk and pencils

for what it's worth

To fall into the earth and die

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It feels silly to confess this, but I’ve always aspired toward ‘greatness’.  A vague term, but to me, meaning: being well-known, having a deep and lasting influence in the world, leaving a legacy.  Simply put: to be famous.

Of course, this desire will never be fulfilled in my lifetime.  (How could it?)  There is no amount of fame or recognition that would satisfy me indefinitely.  Which is, perhaps, why such a longing leaves me lifeless and breathless, forever panting after something immaterial.

While I wish that scripture always had immediate power to change my attitude and perspective – or perhaps, a better way of putting it is – while I wish I was always self-aware enough, and in tune with the Spirit of God speaking to me through his word, I am not.  While words like, “Whoever loves his life loses it,” should lacerate my pride, I am, rather, anesthetized under the knife.

Thankfully, God has not given up on me.  He speaks in a number of ways to get my attention.

* * * * *

Recently, in reading a book called A Different Kind of Luxury, By Andy Couturier, this concept (losing life to gain it) was rekindled.  He relays the story of Atsuko Watanabe who lives in on Shikoku island in Japan with her husband and two daughters.  They live a simple, quiet life, providing for their basic needs, while also fighting for social and environmental justice.  At one point, the author remarks,

I remember that she once told me she wanted to be like plants are, producing an uncountable number of seeds, or like wildflowers in a meadow, not thinking of herself as so unique and special.  “I admire how they simply sacrifice themselves, hundreds of thousands of seeds, and only a few grow into plants.  I’d like to be more like that myself.”

What a release of self-important, I think to myself. (p. 76)

This reminded me of that same passage in the John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

To produce thousands of seeds, and only a few bear fruit.  Often, that thought scares me.  To work for a lifetime and not see the fruit of my labors?  For most of it to lie dormant?

I wonder if previous generations struggled with this as much.  I wonder if the digitization of everything causes me to feel that all must be recorded and praised (or liked).  Every dinner I make must be posted on Pinterest.  Every moment with the children captured on Facebook.  Every memory written down and capsulized for eternity.

In other words, there is constant temptation for me to capture or capitalize on every moment.  It can be very difficult for me to ‘just be’ with my children.

* * * * *

Sunday mornings are stressful because daddy needs to get to church on time.  The morning is ruined because of my sour attitude, and our hearts not prepared for worship.  (One of many examples showing that the clock has me wound around itself.)

* * * * *

Another over-familiar Jesus saying that has, to some extent, lost all meaning for me is, “Do not resist the one who is evil.”

Again, I saw this in fresh perspective in reading about Kogan Murata in the same book.  Murata, after saving up enough money to travel, spent a number of years in India, people watching, eating, and learning Hindi.  Murata says:

“At first I would get angry so quickly.  It’s hot there, right?”  He’s looking straight at me across the table.  I know what he’s talking about now: the constant battles with taxi drivers or shopkeepers, each attempting to get more money than was initially agreed.

“Oooh,” he says, using one of my favorite Japanese idioms, “my stomach stood up!”  Murata growls, “I got so like this”; demonstrating, he crunches up his face, all the muscles red and tight, squinting with one eye, the other one wide open with the eyebrow up over it, and his hands in fists above his head.

“And I started to think, ‘This is pointless.’  And I got tired.  Incredibly tired… I must have lost twenty pounds in my first month there.  So then I decided, ‘This is a total loss.’  After all, the argument was usually over five or ten rupees, I figured, ten or twenty yen [about 10 – 20 cents].  So I decided, ‘Forget it.  If they overcharge me, I just pay it.’”

“Really?!” I say, leaning back in disbelief.

“Yeah, they’d raise the price, and I’d give it to them, and buy them a cup of chai too.  We’d talk for a couple of hours.  And then,” he says, with a satisfied grin on his face, switching to English, “Everything is getting peaceful!  I was relaxed, all the time.  Can you imagine letting you head and heart get like that? ‘You bastard, you lied to me!’ and all that.  So I’d give him the money, and then go and get tea for him.  ‘Drink some chai.  Take some time.  Drink, drink!’  Really, it’s an incredible coincidence to meet this rickshaw driver.  And then he would say ‘Thank you’ to me.  That’s better, isn’t it?  I just thought back to my old way, fighting with them all the time, and I thought I was just such an idiot!  Ten or twenty yen!”

“But if the motor rickshaw driver charged you twice the price, you just gave it to him?!”

“Sure!  I’d say, ‘You want it?  OK, here it is.  No problem.’”  Murata’s voice is now utterly sunny and happy.  “Over something small like that, getting all…” he makes his face of mock fury again, eyes bulging out… “like that, it’s just a bad bargain.  So I changed.  My way of thinking turned all the way around.” (p. 109)

Interestingly, in letting go of control over the situation, and ‘turning the other cheek’, he stopped getting so angry, and was instead peaceful and happy.

In the words of the author, Murata espouses “the gospel of taking it easy.’

As I read his story, it occurred to me, that I am not much different than he in regards to my children.  It’s not just getting to church on time.  It’s doing everything on time.  I have the American disease of hurry, hurry, hurry through every moment of the day just to go to bed and do it all over again until you go on vacation for a week.  Everything from making breakfast, to taking a walk, to putting the kids to bed becomes a headless frenzy of short answers, scarfed food, and toothbrushes jabbed a little too far into the back of a child’s throat while barking out orders.

* * * * *

These stories have been ruminating in my head, along with those words of Jesus, over the past several weeks.  They’ve inspired me to conduct a little experiment this past weekend, called Not Looking At The Clock And Just Enjoying The Moment.

Hypothesis: If Jesus words are true, then I should 1) experience much more peace of mind and joy if I pay less attention to my own agenda, and 2) simultaneously have time for what is needful, as well as the things that God has given me desires for.

Goal: To be less like headless Martha, and more like submissive, worshipful Mary.

Here were the four, loosely laid out rules:

  1. Don’t look at the clock or your phone as much as possible
  2. Don’t think about the next thing but be fully present
  3. Let the kids (reasonably) interrupt you
  4. Say yes as much as possible
  5. Don’t take pictures

It started Saturday.  A leisurely breakfast, then several hours spent outside putting up a fence and building a door for the garden entrance.  Rache took the girls out to look for shoes, while Emeth stayed with me.  When it’s just he and I, he talks almost non-stop, alternating between conversations with imaginary drivers of his cars, and questions to me about everything he sees or thinks of.

After cutting off a few ends of a board, Emeth asked, “Are these for me?”

“Sure, bud.”

A few minutes later he came back with the pieces piled on top of one another, “Daddy, can you nail these together like this?”  He wanted to make a ‘car’ out of them.  So, I stopped what I was doing (though I desperately didn’t want to), got some nails out and started hammering.

Then, seeing some spare washers lying in the hardware box, I asked, “You want some wheels on here, too?”  (Thinking of, ‘And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”)  And proceeded to screw on some shiny ‘wheels’.  This process went on for a little while as more pieces dropped onto the ground, and as he’d run back and forth, to and from the sound of the circular saw.  Little boy was happy as a bee in spring.

Rachel and the girls got back late from shopping, and went inside to prepare lunch while the kids played outside.  I think we ate around 3pm.

* * * * *

Sunday.  Called The Best Day Of The Week by one of my pastors.  I prefer to think of it as the Most Challenging And Anxious Day Of The Week.  The day I am supposed to slow down and rest.  Something I find nearly impossible.

To complicate things, we were going to visit the in-laws church about an hour away.  We are already usually ten to fifteen minutes late to our ten o’clock service (on a good day).  Their service starts a half hour after ours, so we had some wiggle room.  But we also had to pack extra supplies of food and clothing.

I didn’t set my alarm the night before.  We woke up sometime around 7 am.  Exercised, then showered.  When I finished, Caela and Emeth were awake.  Oh no!  No time to just sit, read and drink coffee.  “Can you read to us?” Caela asked.  I’d prefer to make breakfast, I thought to myself.  Instead, with my eyes lowered so as not to see what numbers the clock hands were on, I grabbed the hymn book and Bible, and we sang and read.

We went through our morning routine of food prep, packing and modest kitchen clean up, got into the car, read to Rachel on the way up, interspersed with yelling answers to inquiring children in the back seat, wind blowing through the wide open windows.

I finally checked the clock when we arrived.  Just a little before 11 am.  Not bad! I thought.  We arrived happy and peaceful.

* * * * *

The rest of the day, more or less, went on like that.  Attempting to be fully present, undistracted by all of the things tugging at my mind, enjoying the slowness and beauty of it all.  I think we arrived home around 8:30 pm.  The kids were (understandably) hungry since they were distracted playing with their cousins all day.  (Food, a distraction from the real fun.)  I laid down the law: No Food Later If You Don’t Eat Your Food Now.  I intended to enforce it, but realized (again) I was trying to control time, wanting to get the kids down as quickly as possible so I could go to bed as anxious as possible and with my stomach in knots.

Whether or not I did the right thing by going back on my word, I do not know, but the evening was peaceful and full of laughter as Rache and the kids sat around the dinner table, drinking milk, snacking on nuts dipped in butter and salt, while I washed up the remaining dishes.

Typically, on those late nights, I’ll rush through the bedtime routine as a last resort to save some time for myself.  My tendency is to lay down more rules to keep order in the bedroom, but it usually turns to chaos.  (Everyone, get in line!  March up the stairs!  Lay down!  Blankets on!  Quiet!)

Instead, that night we let them sit or lay wherever they pleased, or for Annie, to walk around with her blanket tied around her head, arms lifted as she sang.

By 10:30 pm, the kids were down.  Rache and I were tired, but not frazzled.  Again, we felt peaceful.  We spent a little time reading in bed, then, to sleep.

* * * * *

I tried doing the same thing this week, as I prepared breakfast and got ready for work.  Usually the last ten minutes are an insane whirlwind of scarfing food, abbreviated ‘shower’, getting dressed, packing lunch and snacks, and deciding which book(s) I want to read on the train.  Usually I forget something crucial, like deodorant or a wallet.  Instead, I kept my eyes off the clock, did everything I needed to, kisses and hugs, walk to the train, etc.  I got to work on time Monday, and was even early the rest of the week.  (I usually get in at the last second of the last minute of the ten minute grace period they give us.)

* * * * *

It seems that in everything Jesus said, he is trying to turn my perspective upside-down and inside-out, helping me to see that there is more to reality than I can calculate.  While I didn’t do much different this past week, while the events were nothing short of mundane, I was happy and peaceful.  My attitude was different, and I fought less with the kids.  I wasn’t anxious.  Perhaps because I was continually reminded to relinquish control over things I have no control over.  A way of letting God build the house, or watch over the city (Psalm 127:1-2).  Walking the line between lazy trust, and laboring in vain.

Perhaps this is just a taste of what it means to walk in step with the Spirit.  Not rushing ahead, but also not lagging behind.  Is this what God means when he says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God”? (Psalm 46:10 NASB) Or to fall into the earth and die, like a seed, that I might bear fruit?  Is that when I will begin to experience true life?

* * * * *

There is a phrase Murata wears around his neck while alms playing, “Without existence, without extinction.”  I think there is some wisdom to it.  Jesus continually taught that I should not be aware of myself or my needs.  Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Pray in secret.  Do no be anxious about what you will eat, drink or wear.  Give to the one who asks of you.  Do not exact revenge, but turn the other cheek.  All of it, a call to continually die to myself.

Does not experience and observation tell me that living like that is more joyful than always pushing for what I want?  Am I not happier when I don’t hold a grudge, or exact revenge?  Does not my marriage thrive more when I don’t grumble and complain when I feel our responsibilities aren’t evenly divided, or when I let go of what I think I deserve?

* * * * *

I fear dying, it’s true.  But only when I fear being nothing.  But Jesus calls me to be nothing.  Not to not exist, but to take no thought of my life.  To be like the flower that disburses thousands of seeds without caring how many take root and bear fruit.  Maybe this is another dimension of the parable of the sower.  Disbursing seeds upon all types of soil.  Some is choked, some eaten, some thrives.

* * * * *

Father, you have made me in your image.  You are the Creator.  I am the created who loves to create.  You have designed intricate beauty at the depths of the sea, at the microscopic level of the earth, and in the farthest corners of the universe that man will never see.  You care not whether it is seen and worshipped.  May I not care whether my creations, my seeds of sacrifice, my investments of time, love, and energy bear any fruit at all.  And if it does bear fruit, may I not care whether anyone is even aware that I was the one who cast the seed.  Make me unaware of myself.  Make me nothing, just as Jesus was made nothing.  Empty me of myself.  Amen.

Death almost took you

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I’ve never been this close to death before
Not mine, but yours
Sweet Anna Belle

You choked on a brussel sprout
On my thirtieth birthday

I think it will pass
But you quickly pass
From choking to wide eyes
Those desperate, dilated, helpless eyes
Image etched in my mind

Helpless father
Help me, Father!
I cry with shaking voice
Oh God, no! God please, no!

Completely lost
In confusion of thought
Do I squeeze your abdomen
Or hit your back?
Will I lodge it deeper into your throat?

I don’t know
So I do both

I squeeze and hit
Like an abusive father
Harder and harder
But nothing works
Your face and lips turn beet purple

You go limp in my arms

Feeling your faltering life
Feeling burned into my skin
Turns my blood cold
And I pray my heart would stop
Instead of yours

I yell louder at your mother
To call nine-one-one
She fumbles for the iPhone
Dropping it to the floor

Your sister starts to scream

I don’t know what to do
You are fading, sweet child
You are fading, sweet Anna Belle

Instinct compels me to reach down your throat
To feel for that lodged brussel with my index finger

Something happens
I know not what
But something gives
And you sputter for air

Color returns to your face and lips
And we collapse on kitchen tile
Stunned and afraid

An eternity before you mumble
Brain in tact
Heart beating
Lungs breathing
Tiny hands reaching for glass of water

My mind running after
What could have happened?
Thirty more seconds
Would your brain work?
Another few minutes
Would you have died?

If you had
(ashamed of my thoughts)
I would have blamed myself
For not knowing how to save you
For not holding on tight enough
As you slipped into Death’s arms
I would have cried out
My God, my God
Why have you forsaken me?

When all my life, I’ve thought
If I were in Job’s place
Humble Job
(Humble Joseph)
I would say, as he did
The Lord gives
And the Lord takes away
Blessed be the name of the Lord

But now I know
I wouldn’t

Jack

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There are only a few teachers that have left a deep impression on me.  There was Dr. Hsu, my piano professor.  Dr. Talbot, my Philosophy 101 professor (which was also the class I met Rachel in.)  And there was Jack.

He insisted that we call him Jack, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.  It seemed irreverent.  To me, it implied that we were old chums, yet he seemed so far above me.  He was a mathematical genius, and in his presence, I was mentally undone.  Like a child, tinkering with my abacus.

When he taught, the room was silent.  Attentive as an army rank before their Captain.  Even the most apathetic student sat bolt upright with pencil in hand and beads of sweat on his brow.

Jack treated all of us equally and gave none an unfair advantage.  He told us upfront, “You will have to work hard in this class.  If you at least show you’ve tried, I’ll give you a C.  That means you have to show up.  This is not a class you can skip.  If you skip, that shows me you don’t care.”  His words were firm, yet calm and even.  He’d pause, placing his left thumb, index, and middle fingers on his forehead.  Sometimes he’d pause so long you’d think he’d forgotten about us.  He’d look each one of us in the eye, and we’d shudder, or look away.  Then, just as calmly, he’d continue.  “And if you don’t care, I’ll fail your ass.”  And we knew he was serious.

As much as I respected him as a teacher, I could not understand his character.  Jack was Irish Catholic, and had been an orphan.  Once in awhile he’d tell us stories from his impoverished childhood.  And when he would get going, his stream of swear words would flow like milk in Spring.  Most people I knew at the time over-used or misused swear words.  But not Jack.  Each one seemed so appropriately placed, so tastefully used.  Adding to the effect of his story, rather than diminishing it.

* * * * *

Jack told us he was a Christian.  Occasionally he’d even end his lectures with, “A wise man once said…” and quote the words of Jesus.

This bothered me.  How can this man, who claims to be a Christian, use curse words like he does?  He is misrepresenting the faith!

It was my last semester.  My last course with Jack.  I was sad it would all be over soon.  He had stretched and challenged me.  But this one character flaw (or what I supposed to be one) still bothered me.

So, one afternoon, during his office hours (I had never gone before), I showed up with some questions about the homework.  (My cover-up for my real agenda.)  We went over the assignment, then I had a choice to leave or bring up my concerns.

I didn’t have the audacity to call him out directly over his use of language.  So I proceeded in a roundabout way, asking him about his faith, saying I was curious to know more.  How did it come about?  What led him to it as a child?

I don’t remember all the details of his story, but I do remember how humbled I was.  Here, I had been judging him for several years, and in the course of ten minutes I learned what a truly difficult childhood he had, and yet, how in spite of it all, God provided for him every step of the way.  He had always seemed so tough and hard in class.  But by the end of his story, he was crying, grateful for what Jesus had done for him.  More grateful than I had ever been for the same gift.

Three children born

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Part twenty-five.

 

Five springs, five summers,
five falls, four winters.  
Three children born,
Under the shadow of poplars.
You and I,
in a covenant of love.
One merciful God
Giving grace from above.

* * * * *

The greatest of all our joys in our house under the trees was the birth of three more children, birthed in the comfort of our own bedroom.

February 8, 2011.  Rachel was already two weeks overdue, and we weren’t supposed to go beyond that date.  The midwife suggested a protocol of herbal extracts and using a  breast pump to initiate the contractions, which Rachel started at 8:30 in the morning.  It worked better than we were expecting.  The labor picked up quickly, and transitioned as the midwife arrived and set up her things.  Within two hours, our boy slid right out in the water sac, his hand up next to his head.  I caught him as the rest of his body emerged.  The water broke and our joy overflowed as we heard his first gasps for breath, and his vivacious cry.  “Oh, baby boy!  Oh, baby boy!” Rachel cried, again and again.  A little before noon Emeth Reid came, as sunshine streamed in through the bedroom windows.

* * * * *

July 27, 2012.  The contractions had started in the middle of the night, but Rachel didn’t tell me or the midwife until 6am that morning.  She didn’t seem to be in much pain, and I went through my usual morning routine, getting ready for work, in the event that the contractions stopped.  But they didn’t, and continued to intensify with no sign of relenting.  We had been in communication with my mom and the midwife, and they both were taking their time, thinking they had a few hours to go.  By 7:30 or so, the timing and intensity of the contractions really picked up.  We spread out our home-birth supplies in the bedroom, covered the floors, and kept texting the midwife.  I remember her saying something to the effect of, “I’m going to leave the house at eight.”  Okay, seems good enough to me, I thought, imagining we still had plenty of time.

Rachel paced back and forth in the house, groaning deep through her contractions.  Micaela and Emeth were awake at this point, and standing in their cribs, playing and laughing at one another.  Soon, Rachel went into our bedroom and leaned into the bedspread to muffle her groans, but the kids heard from across the hall and made a little game of echoing her.

Rachel: “Oooooh!”

M+E: “Aaaaah!”

R: “Oooooooh!”

M+E: “Aaaaah!”

At 7:53, Rachel’s water broke.  I texted the midwife.  Water broke.

Call me if you need to, was her reply.  I’m on the Ben Franklin Bridge.

My mom had not arrived yet, and thankfully the kids were still playing in their bedroom.  Then the reality of it hit me.  She isn’t going to make it!  Then, I remembered the midwife’s words to me, from the previous week.  She had said, If things are going well, all you have to do is catch.

I called the midwife and put her on speakerphone, just in time, for during the next set of contractions, Annie’s head popped out.  Miracle of miracles.  It was really happening, and we were alone in our bedroom!  I felt for the umbilical cord around her neck.  Check.  Not there.  I was zoned in, and ready to catch.  The midwife told her to push at the next contraction.  It didn’t take much (at least from my perspective) to have Anna Belle come sliding out.  I slipped my fingers under her arms, held her for a moment, then placed her on Rachel’s chest, where she wailed for a moment, then began nursing fervently.  Arriving prompt and hungry, at 8:00 on the nose.  I opened the kid’s door, “Annie’s here!”

At 8:05, my mom arrived.  I heard the door open and walked out of the bedroom with my hands held out in front of me, gloves on, as though I had been in surgery.  “What happened?!  Is everything alright?” She asked, with a nervous look on her face.

“Come and see,” I said.  Everything is just perfect, I thought, leading her in to meet her third grandchild.

* * * * *

When Rachel first found out she was pregnant with our fourth, she ran the idea by me of doing the delivery by ourselves, since we had delivered Annie alone.  No way, I said.

Over the course of the next few months, though, Rachel wouldn’t let go of the idea.   This scared me a little, but the more we talked, the more I softened to it.  We talked with the midwife about all the different scenarios and possible symptoms that would indicate that we needed to get Rachel (or baby) to the hospital.  We ordered extra homeopathics, herbs, and supplies just in case.

The day finally came.  April 15, 2015.  Again, labor started in the morning.  It was a warm, overcast, drizzly day.  The contractions didn’t seem to be relenting, so we called my mom, since she had agreed to come and help with the other three kids, and Rachel’s parents too.

The timing and intensity of the contractions slowed down just before noon, to every ten minutes or so.  We were discouraged, and hoped they wouldn’t stop altogether.

The midwife suggested a homeopathic remedy that we didn’t already have to help the contractions pick up.  So Grandma and Grandpa took the kids to pick it up at Whole Foods.  Rachel continued to labor slowly.

I had it on my mind to apply for some new jobs at the time.  What better time than now?  The kids weren’t around.  Rachel was laying on the couch.  I didn’t need to worry about making dinner since my mom had already started preparing it.  So I went online and continued to work on an application I had started.

Rachel got up and paced again, groaning louder during the next set of contractions.  “Are they picking up?” I wanted to know.  No answer.  After a minute, she asked if I could do a technique that the midwife taught us, called rebozo sifting.  Rachel was on all fours in the back room, and I held both ends of a towel, with the middle of it wrapped underneath her belly.  I lifted, and rocked her back and forth.  It was supposed to ease the pain of the contractions.

Wanting to take advantage of the downtime (between contractions) I walked to and from the computer, working on my application for a few minutes, then back with Rache and the towel.  Between one set of contractions, as I was typing away, Rachel said, “Jos! My water broke!”  The application can wait!

I ran back to the bedroom.  We had already put the birth supplies away earlier when her contractions were slowing down.  I spread out a shower curtain and some towels on the floor, and Rachel got down on her hands and knees.  Rachel’s parents and the kids returned from Whole Foods with the remedy we no longer needed.  They turned on some music out in the living room to help drown out any noises from the bedroom.

Things were progressing quickly now.  And I realized, There’s one question I forgot to ask.  How do I measure how dilated she is?  At that point, it didn’t matter though.  “Oh, Rache!  I see her head!  It’s so scrunched!” I cried.  Pretty dilated, I guess.  The next two sets of contractions were textbook.  First the head.  That beautiful, scrunched, oxygen deprived head, feeling the harsh atmosphere for the first time.  I checked for the cord.  Nothing.  Then, the next contraction.  I told Rachel to push.  Baby girl’s body started slipping and twisting out, and I slipped my fingers underneath her arms.  Our little Vitalia Joy.  (“Thank you, Jesus!  Thank you, Jesus!” was Rachel’s refrain this time.)  She was calm and alert, and barely whimpered.  Within moments, she opened her eyes, and stared at us, as though saying, Thank you.  I’m so glad to finally be here.  I gave her to Rachel.  She didn’t express any desire to eat, but rather, just kept looking at us.  Her whole face and body, full of peace.

Once Rachel was settled and tended to, I walked into the living room and asked,  “Did anyone hear a baby cry?”

“What? No!” said grandma.

In time, Vitalia nursed well.  We ate, put the kids to bed, and followed suit.  Needless to say, we were all exhausted.  Even Vitalia.  And in God’s kindness, we all slept through the night.

Part twenty-four.

The wisdom of Frodo

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I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved.  But not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger.  Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

– Frodo Baggins, from The Return of the King

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