Potties in jail

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Thank you for my book, and that it could be a present, and that Aunt Krista could make it for me.  And thank you for my ball, and that we could blow it up, and that we could kick it outside, and that grandma could give it to me for a present.

- Emeth, praying at dinner the day after exchanging gifts with mommy’s side of the family

Thank you, daddy work.  Thank you, pop-pop’s eye.  Amen.

- Annie, reminding daddy that work is a gift (and getting mixed up between mom-mom and pop-pop)

* * * * *

Context: Emeth, Micaela and Annie looking through a book about animals of all sorts and sundry.  

E: Daddy, what’s that!?
D: That’s a crab.
E: Why do crab’s eat people?
D: They don’t eat people.  They would just pinch you if they thought you were going to attack them.
M: Well, if we got it with some toilet paper it would only pinch the toilet paper. [Thinking of all those times daddy smushed a poor pincher bug in the same manner.]

* * * * *

Context: reading Proverbs 17 to children before bed.

D: “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker…”
M: Daddy, what’s “mops-the-floor-salts-his-maker”?

* * * * *

Context: children getting ready for bed.

D: [walking past bathroom door, seeing Emeth pull up underwear that looks awfully familiar. Enter’s kitchen.] When’s the last time Emeth changed his underwear?
R: I don’t know.  I stopped keeping track.
D: [goes back to bathroom] Emeth, did you change your underwear upstairs when you were getting dressed for bed?
E: Why?
D: I’m just asking.  Did you?
E: I think I did.
D: Well, where’s the dirty pair?
E: I think I put them back in my drawer by accident!

* * * * *

When I go out in the city for my birthday I want to have fat and butter and nuts and lemon water!

- Emeth, in reference to his upcoming birthday, in which daddy and he plan to take a day in the city

* * * * *

It’s bright in my eyes!  Turn it off!

- Annie, in reference to the sun shining in her eyes in the car

* * * * *

Twinkle, twinkle little star…

- Micaela, to the tune of Hark the Herald Angels Sing

* * * * *

I’m running around a lot because I’m trying to get energy for the day.

- Micaela

* * * * *

Is there potties in jail?

- Emeth

* * * * *

I amn’t.

- Emeth, creating new contractions

* * * * *

I wake up.  I fall asleep.  I wake up.  I fall asleep.  I wake up.  I fall asleep…

- Emeth, on the futility of life

* * * * *

Context: conversation between Emeth and Micaela on the way to church

E: I wish I could be a mailman when I grow up.
M: Maybe when you grow up and become a daddy.  Being a mailman is a lot of work. …
I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up?  Sometimes girls work before they have children.
E: Us don’t have children.  But we are children.

On living to one hundred and one

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A woman in our church just died at the age of one-hundred and one.  Hearing our pastor talk about her briefly on Sunday got me thinking about living that long, looking back over the course of my life, through faded memories, at my accomplishments and failures, joys and sorrows, children grown up and my “career” ended.  What would stick out?

The pastor shared a quote from Randy Alcorn’s book The Law of Rewards: Giving what you can’t keep to gain what you can’t lose.  “May what will be most important to us five minutes after we die become most important to us now.”  To vary that thought – May what will be most important to us five minutes before we die become most important to us now.

* * * * *

This is all easier said than done, of course.

This past Saturday, all I wanted to do was change my oil and fix a headlight.  All I wanted was to go outside with my children and soak in the cold sun for twenty minutes.  All I wanted was get the kids to bed early, so Rachel and I could have time to talk about raising our children, and how to turn our living room into the perfect environment for our family, and where we are in starting a family business, and how we are addressing our children’s attitudes.  To plan meals for the next day.  To write four emails, another blog post, and a piece of fiction while I’m at it.

Instead, we made breakfast, I spent time with a friend over coffee for an hour, came home, read to the kids, started lunch, ate lunch, cleaned up from lunch, took a nap, started dinner, ate dinner, cleaned up from dinner.  We’re making good time.  It’s okay that I didn’t get to change the oil or go outside.  It’s still early.  The children get dressed for bed, brush their teeth and make sure their water bottles, stuffed animals and blankets are all squarely situated by their beds.  The salt lamp is set up.  My Bible is in place, and my guitar ready for strumming.

It occurs to me that their fan, the one that helps them sleep, has been having trouble starting.  Maybe I will just clean off the dust.  That should help.  It will only take a few minutes.  It’s still early.  I take the fan downstairs and begin to disassemble it.  Yes, that seems easy enough.  Just put that screw there, that plastic thing with that side out.  I’m this far, perhaps I should go a little further and make sure the motor inside this casing is clean.  It will only take a few more minutes.  The fan is finally apart, and I vacuum the dust away and spray WD-40 onto the turny-thing.

Everything is cleaned off and oiled.  Great.  Now I will just put this thing back together.  Let’s see.  Was it this screw here?  No.  That one?  Yes.  Did that plastic thing go behind or in front of that piece?  Let’s see.  I put the fan together four different ways, and none of them seem to work correctly.  I’m left with pieces on the counter.  So I try again.  Rachel eventually comes downstairs, and I look at the clock.  An hour has passed.  She has already read and sung with them.  And now it’s past nine.

I walk upstairs, exhausted and discouraged that I wasted so much time, and kiss them goodnight. “Daddy,” Emeth begins, “why in some places in the world do some people want to kill other people?”

“Can we talk about it in the morning?” I ask, ready to bang my head against the wall.

“Daddy, wait, I have a question, too,” Micaela says.  “Why, in some places in the world are people not allowed to have Bibles?”

My brain cannot process these questions that beckon me out of myself to think about suffering elsewhere in the world.  I am suffering enough, can’t you see?  I have my own problems to worry about.

The kids are down, and we can finally talk.  But now we are both too tired.  Maybe it is better to not get started.  And we fall asleep.

* * * * *

At the end of my life, what will I wish was important to me in my twenties and thirties?  Will I remember the scraped knees, burnt fingers, weary minds and unfulfilled plans?  Will I remember the complaining children, the unfulfilling career, the songs half-finished, or the book unwritten?  What will I think of those times I was desperately anxious for change, and I tried with all my might to run ahead the Holy Spirit, only to find myself worn out and exhausted in trying to build what only the Lord can?

Might all those strivings fade?  Rather, did I shine light and life into other people’s hearts and lives, and into my home?  Did I go through life with a Holy Humor that brought mirth and joy to everyone I had the privilege of knowing?  Did I persevere when I wanted to give up?  Did I encourage others to do the same?  Did I show my children and wife how to fail well, and not just be perfectly successful in everything?  Was my home full of warmth and love?  Did I live a life full of gratitude, overflowing in thanksgiving?  Did I walk in step with the Spirit?

What might my self-on-the-edge-of-eternity say to this not-yet-thirty self?

“Son, every goal in this life that is attained in isolation, or even at the expense of others, is an empty achievement.  Instead, ‘delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.’”

Notes From the Elevator

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Four of us are waiting in the lobby for the elevator.  I’ve ridden with each of them before, but never in this specific configuration.  I do not know them by name.   Only by sight.  I know their floors and they know mine.  Two are going to sixteen, and one to eighteen.  I look forward to how our friendship will grow today; to learning more about them.

The two on sixteen, a man and woman, are talking to one another, while Ms. Eighteen, wearing a black fur with sparkles talks on her cell phone.

The elevator bell dings.

Ms. Eighteen aggressively moves towards it.  “I told him he had a nine o’clock appointment!  I told him last night, that lazy…”

You are speaking to your husband.  I know.  You are speaking to him about your lazy son who missed his dentist appointment this morning.  You shouldn’t do so much for him.  You are enabling him.  Trust me.

Her step is checked as the door opens, for behold, a young man is in there, texting.  He looks up, surprised that he has reached his destination so quickly.  It’s okay, you can come out.  You don’t need to be afraid.  We will make a way.  I tell him with my eyes.  He trusts me, and we step back to make a path for him.

I enter our golden chamber, press floor seventeen and step back into the corner.

“I’m stepping in the elevator, so if I lose you…” Ms. Eighteen says to her husband.  You know that the connection will be lost.  Just tell him.  Just tell him you are tired of this conversation.  He is tired of talking to you, too.  I know.  It’s okay.  She presses floor eighteen, and stands in front of me.  The smell of cigarette smoke is wafting from her fur.

Couple sixteen has entered, stepping into the corner to my left.  “Can you press sixteen please?” Girl Sixteen says to Ms. Eighteen.

“Hello?  I’m losing you.  Harry?”  I knew his name was Harry.  She didn’t need to tell me.  “Can you hear… ah!  D—.”  But please, the language!  There is much I know, but I did not expect this from you!

“Can you hit sixteen?” Man Sixteen says to Ms. Eighteen.  Eighteen slams her knuckle into button sixteen.  The door closes.  It is silent for a moment, and we listen to the hum of the elevator together.

Man and Woman Sixteen begin to pickup where they left off in conversation.  Just tell her you are attracted to her.  You’ve been putting on airs for so long, always gossiping to her about co-workers.  It’s a cover up.  I know.  You don’t have to tell me.

“Did he do it on purpose?” Man Sixteen asks.

“We all think so.  It wouldn’t be the first time.”  Girl Sixteen says.

“Why doesn’t Ella say something?”

Girl Sixteen rolls her eyes.  “She’s tried.  But no one who can do anything about it seems to care.”

I carefully place my eyes on Eighteen’s shoulder, attempting not to breathe too heavily.  I know that Ella should say something, and they know I know, but they are afraid to ask my advice.  It’s okay.  I try not to make eye contact with Man Sixteen in the reflection of the golden door.  It would be too much.

Sixteen dings.  The door opens, and Man and Woman Sixteen walk out, voices trailing as they resume their conversation.

Goodbye.  See you next time.

“I think I might say something to Ed,” Man Sixteen says.  I knew his name was Ed.  He didn’t need to tell me.

“Your better off digging a hole in cement with a toothpick…” Girl Sixteen responds.

The door closes and I move to my left.  That is funny, yes.  Digging a hole in cement with a toothpick.  I could have never thought of that.  Some people are so clever.  I did not realize she was so funny.  I will have to tell her the next time I see her.  

“Friday can’t come quick enough, eh?”  Ms. Eighteen says, leaning against the opposite wall.

She is talking to me.  A clear breach of etiquette!  But she, a stranger, feels the need to open up her heart to me.  

Some situation is going on in your life that Friday will bring relief from.  I know, it’s okay.  You are tense, I can see it.  Your doctor told you to lay off the cigarettes last week.  It was a tough conversation but you don’t feel that you can give them up just yet.  You need them to get you through till Friday.  Just wait till Saturday to start.  What’s a few more days of oxygen deprivation? 

You don’t need to be afraid.  Your Avon package is scheduled to arrive on Friday, too.  Your favorite hand lotion just ran out yesterday.  Maybe stop over at Walgreen’s for a substitute.  Your Avon rep won’t know.  It’s okay.  And your daughter is getting back from Ecuador on Friday night.  She will be safe.  

I offer a light smile.  My floor dings.  I hold my hand over the door to keep it open.  I don’t want to leave just yet.  I can tell she is taking it all in.  Then, suddenly, I see her shoulders fall in relief.

Goodbye, I tell her with my eyes.  And I step onto my floor.  I know my work is done here.

 

 

Education in the void

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Education must become coextensive with life.

All who enter the educational world tend to be cut off from society.

Young people leave the university with their minds so shackled and sacrificed that they have lost all power of individuation and can no longer judge the problems of the age in which they live.

The world of education is like an island where people, cut off from the world, are prepared for life by exclusion from it.

Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 10, 11

* * * * *

Deciding what path to pursue for the education of our children – mental, physical and spiritual – is a daunting task.  Like most anything else, it can be boiled down to two major schools of thought.  And depending on who you ask, or what book you read, each person has legitimate reasons for choosing one or the other.

As of now, we are trying to embrace the Montessori philosophy of education, as opposed to the classical approach.  (Not that they are mutually exclusive.)  The Montessori method seeks, essentially, to integrate learning with life.  It does not begin with facts, which later turn to theory.  It is not a system that sets up standards of knowledge that a child needs to master by this or that year.  (Although she does strongly emphasize the different stages of a child’s development.). Rather, it emphasizes nurturing the soil of a child’s mind, giving him the tools for learning at his own pace.  Just as soil is only as fertile as what is put into it, so it is with the child’s mind.

We are far from perfecting this approach.  In fact, we feel quite desperately amateur at it.  There are two things going against us.  One, we have no personal experience with this method (that is, neither of us experienced it growing up), and two, culture is not conducive to this style of learning.  We are a culture that values measurable results.  (As if standardized testing could really measure one’s ability to get by in life.)

My entire schooling was spent in public education, with the exception of a year-and-a-half at Wheaton College in Illinois.  There was Mrs. K’s Kindergarten class, with nap time, ABCs, piano lessons, cardboard bricks and snack time.  There was Miss M’s 2nd grade, in which all I can remember is struggling through words like ‘blood’ and ‘flood’ and peeing my pants mid-lesson for fear of 8th grade bullies in the bathroom.  There was Mrs. K’s 3rd grade class, where we started the drudgeries of mathematics which seemed ten steps above me, and her walking around during lunch, stealing popcorn and pretzels out of the children’s baggies.  There was free-play on the wooden playground, running across the bridge, and popping one another to devilish heights as we jumped with all our miniature weight on the other side.

There was 8th grade Social Studies with Mr. H, a tall, bright-faced, balding man with slicked back strands and circle frames.  Writing his notes on the chalkboard, word for word, with his wily arm.  And I would sit with my mother, memorizing those sentences, so I could answer long form on his weekly tests.  There was every year of English, with every well-meaning teacher, tirelessly teaching us the building blocks of language, and I, never quite grasping adverbs and pro-nouns (and whether it’s ‘me and you’ or ‘you and I.’)

The pathetic school dances, raising money for who knows what by selling overpriced chocolates, and after school detention for spitting on a ‘friend’ who had first spit on me.

With every grade there is this vague memory mush of awkward situations, teacher personalities and quirks, bullies, introductions to the taboo, and a continual longing for escape.  Escape from the restraints of sterile learning.  To escape to real life.  To get out from underneath the heavy burden of mental theory, and to taste and see how things work together in the broken, real world.

Yet, with every year that passed, while my mind ‘developed,’ I became more and more inept at the very things I would need to do at the end of my school career.  I became more and more disillusioned as I learned in a vacuum, imagining that all problems had a clear answer that could be looked up in the back of a textbook.  I imagined that life after school would be nothing more than a series of problems and answers that, in my test taking savvy, deduction and process of elimination would point me to the correct multiple choice answer every time.

Of course, this is not how life actually is.  But, whether I liked it or not, this is what my education got me.  I did, at least, feel that in college I learned how to learn (whatever that means).  I no longer had teachers holding my hand through everything.  Even so, I did not learn how to apply that knowledge to real-world situations, simply because there were no real-world situations to apply them to.  (I’m sure this is the value of internships, but I did not see that at the time.)

Every time I think of these sixteen years of my life, it seems utterly ironic the discrepancy between input and output.  The days spent in the classroom, the nights on homework, memorizing facts, tables and sequences.  Years of energy that I wouldn’t entirely consider wasted, but rather, misapplied and misguided.  I say without exaggeration that I am completely at a loss to think of one single life skill that has carried me through to this day.

I certainly hope that I am in the minority.

I mentioned, also, the cultural barriers.  Montessori argues that children six and under are well endowed with the capacities for learning, but that we skip over them, as though we were waiting till they got to an appropriate age to actually learn anything.  She says, “The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge.  He has the power to teach himself…. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything! …. It is as if nature had safeguarded each child from the influence of adult reasoning, so as to give priority to the inner teacher who animates him.” (5, 6)

She talks about the first schools they started, in which children entered at the age of three.

No one could teach them because they were not receptive; yet they offered us amazing revelations of the greatness of the human soul.  Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school.  We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction.  The children who came were from the humblest social levels, and their parents were illiterate.  Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons.  If visitors asked them, “Who taught you to write?” they often answered with astonishment: “Taught me?  No one has taught me!” (7)

Environment is key, yet the environment of today’s world is set up for adults, not children.  She could fall off the counter, he could cut himself with that knife, she could burn herself at the stove, he could fall down the steps, she could fall into the toilet, he could burn himself with scalding water, the lawn mower could take off her head, the vacuum is too heavy, the cleaning product too toxic, the tree too tall to climb, the stream too polluted to jump in, the dirt too dirty.

We not only protect them from physical things, but also the abstract.  Take money.  Our bank accounts are online, and every transaction can be logged electronically.  Our children rarely see money exchange hands, except at the toll both.  “Why didn’t he give any back to you?”  Our debit card is all we need.

But that is not all we deal with in the abstract.  Our phones (or now, the cloud) contain all the information we need: phone numbers, quotes, book lists, grocery lists, reminders, mail, messages, music, Bible, Bible reading plans, maps, weather.  Not to mention all of the entertainment and shopping options.

I bring all this up not to be sensationalistic, but rather, to point out the obvious irony.  That is, we have created a culture and society in which all of the things our children will eventually grow up to do are withheld from them until they are fully grown.  We have replaced childhood with learning that is separate from life, and forced upon them entertainment to keep them out of our hair so we can just get the dishes done.

 

Some thoughts on community

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A few days ago I was having coffee with a friend (which I could probably say most days) and we were discussing community.  Specifically, he was asking me how we’ve been doing as new small group (community group) leaders in our church.  Were we feeling burned out?  Overwhelmed?  Tired?  “Thankfully, not,” I said.  “We feel like we have a pretty good support system in place.”  I told him about the older wisdom we have pouring into us, peers that we can mutually give and take, friends that I see weekly for coffee or lunch, women that Rachel spends time with every few weeks, and younger friends who we are getting to know.

“It’s good, but we feel like we need more,” I said.

“More relationships?” he asked.

Yes.  More strong and deep relationships.  To widen the circle beyond a few couples.

“I wonder if that’s maybe being a bit unrealistic,” he said.  “Do you know how many people I know that have coffee every week with someone, one-on-one?”  He paused, then held up his hand, fingers to thumb in a circle.  “Zero.”

Zero?  How can that be?  Maybe you don’t know enough people?  Surely, there must be others.

“And every few weeks for Rachel!  I don’t know if it would be realistic to expect more.  That’s pretty good!  Do you know how many times my wife gets to spend time one-on-one with Kate?  About three to four times a year.”  Kate, his wife’s close friend.  A woman with similar life circumstances, full of wisdom.

As we talked more, it became apparent that part of the reason this type of community was so challenging for them is because their schedules rarely meshed with others’.  Soccer on Mondays, Karate on Tuesdays, Ballet on Wednesdays, Piano lessons on Thursdays, lesson planning for homeschooling, etc.

To my surprise, he went on to say that he would even look to us as a model for what community could look like in a large church.  (There are about 800 or so regular attenders.)

I was shocked.  Us?  Malcontent church members who struggle to get in the door by 10 am on a Sunday morning, and despise it from beginning to end?  Our circle of three couples in the church is a model for community?  I feel like a stranger on Sunday mornings!  Surely you must be talking to someone else.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that I have something good going for me, though.  A few months ago, at the coffee shop S- and I regularly frequent at 6:45 am, the owner came up to us and said, “You know?  You guys have something really good going here.  I see you in here every week, and there’s nothing better than starting your morning with a friend and a cup of coffee.  I wish I had that.”  This man is old enough to be my father, and has a child my age.  What do you mean?  How do you not have this?  Why do you not have this yet?

There have been similar reactions from others.  “That sounds really nice.  I can’t think of one of my friends who would meet me that early in the morning.”

All of this (as so many things do) got me thinking.  Why does this seem so rare?  If community is central to the health of a church, to the health of individuals, why are people surprised, or even envious, when I talk about these things?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at their surprise, though.  It was only a year-and-a-half ago that we, too, felt such a relational void.  We had been faithfully attending a community group for three solid years, leading worship, getting together with members of the group outside of the official meetings.  But it wasn’t working.  Even though we loved the people we were meeting with, we did not feel any real solidarity with them.  Was it us?  Was it the group?  Were there certain people that we simply couldn’t connect with?  We didn’t know, but it felt futile to keep going.  So we stopped.

We wanted relationships, not meetings.  But where to start?  We knew that to build healthy relationships required time.  We needed time to get to know others.  To nurture friendships.  Not time filled with agenda.  While three meetings a month didn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, we felt a great burden lifted.  Freedom.  No more mid-week meetings to drain our energy.

Almost a year passed.  A year of wrestling with questions like “What is community?”  “Do I even want to be a part of a small group?”  “Should we go to a smaller church?”  “Why do I go to church?”  Talking with friends and mentors and parents.  Reading books and writing rants and raves.  A year of clearing through the muck in our heads to try and understand what we needed in relationships.  And how to fulfill those needs.

As S- and I talked during that time, the Lord weaved our paths together to a place where both our families felt peace about starting a community group.  We were hesitant, wondering if it was possible to enjoy a formal group again.  “Why not just keep meeting informally as couples?” we wondered.

Yet, the timing of it seemed right.  So we started.  Soon, the Lord brought another couple into our lives, and we began getting to know one another.  We left our meeting times fairly open ended.  We came with no agenda except that of getting to know one another.  We prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide our conversations, and care for those who were in need.  And soon, darkness and sorrow, hidden places that we didn’t know were hidden, became unveiled.  Laughter flowed, songs were sung and prayers prayed.

For the first time in years we looked forward to these times.  There was actual joy in meeting together.  For the first time in years we began to feel a stir of affection for God’s word.  What seemed impossible was actually happening.  Lives were being transformed.  Seeds that were planted long ago began to sprout.  Growth was on the horizon.

We actually feel close to people for the first time since college.  We can honestly say that not only do we know them, but they know us.  We are on one another’s minds, the struggles we are facing, the joys we are engaged in, prayer gushing forth in an overflow of thankfulness for these relationships.

How many of us are hungry for this?  How many do not experience this, but desperately want it?

Are we doing something special or unique?  I do not believe so.  (Besides, it is clearly the Lord’s work, not our own.)  It only feels natural to say no to unfulfilling obligations that do not draw us closer to others, so that we might have time to engage in something that truly matters.  Something that has a lasting effect.  Something that our Lord commanded us to do.  “Go therefore and make disciples.”

 

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