Cigarettes, dinosaurs, and spontaneous worship

Daddy, I smell something I don’t like.  It smells like cigarettes and cake.

– Micaela, on the smell of Black & Mild

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R: I went to have lunch with my friend, Andrea.
A: Does she talk?
R: Yeah.
A: Can I talk a her?
R: Yeah, maybe next time you could meet her.
A: But I didn’t come!

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God is above me,
God is above me,
God is above me up in heaven.

I am below God,
I am below God,
I am below God on the earth.

– Micaela, spontaneous song on the steps

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I like to write, but it’s hard to know what to write, that’s why I like to write from the Bible.

– Emeth

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But what if Jesus turns?

– Micaela, while discussing what it means to follow Jesus on the straight and narrow path

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I feel like this water could be as soft as a coat because it’s so warm.

– Micaela, while taking a bath

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E: Are there dinosaurs around here?
D: No, not anymore.
M: Even the ones that don’t fly?
D: Yes, even those.
E: Why not?
D: They’re extinct
M: What’s extinct?
D: It means they’re not alive anymore.  They aren’t having any more babies.
E: Why aren’t dinosaurs around here anymore?
D: Because they’re extinct.
E: Why are they stinky?
D: They aren’t stinky, they’re extinct.
E: Why are they a-stink?
D: Because they aren’t alive anymore.  There are none left to have babies.
M: So instead of seeing dinosaurs we could just go to dinosaur birthday parties, or draw pictures of them and put them on the refrigerator so we can look at them and remember them.

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It’s so good to be at church, [repeat each line 10x]
O, thank you, God, for everything!
Thank you, God, for church,
O, thank you, God, for your Holy Bible!
God is great to me,
O, thank you, God, for you!

– Micaela, Emeth & Annie, spontaneous song on the steps

One on one

I don’t know if it’s because we’ve simplified in our home, or because Talia is becoming more independent, but we finally feel like we’re in a place to spend some much needed one-on-one time with each of our children, particularly the older two.  It’s something we’ve desired to do for a long time, but have had difficulty getting past the essentials of food prep, clean-up, baths and bedtime.

Previously we’ve only spent one-on-one time on their birthdays.  This has put an awful lot of pressure on that one day, because it seems that with each day, another idea springs into their minds of what they want to do.  Then, come birthday, it feels like, “This is it!  We better have a good time!  We better make a memory!  Let’s pack it all in!”  Micaela and Emeth both wanted to spend their birthdays in the city, so we did.  But I found it distracting and difficult to connect on a more personal level.  Walking through busy streets, so much to look at, weariness from walking, hunger and thirst, and televisions in the diner while munching pizza.  Fun memories, to be sure, but the experience left me wanting more.

So, for whatever the reason, we feel ready to work toward making one-on-one time a habit.  As we talked about it with Micaela and Emeth, they were astir with ideas of what to do.  They started on a grand scale, but moved toward more realistic ideas as we talked.  For example, after having spent a half-hour in our bedroom with mommy, folding laundry and talking, Micaela proclaimed, “Mommy, maybe for my birthday we can go up in your bedroom and organize and play dress up with your dresses!”  

At first I laughed when Rachel relayed this.  “Poor, deprived child,” I joked.  But then quickly realized what a precious gift this could be, if we could do something so simple with each of them, while growing in our friendship, trust, and love.

After that evening, Micaela and Emeth began making ‘things to do with mommy and daddy’ lists.  Thrift store, dress up, build, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Knight Park.  Each item something that could be done in one evening.  

Wednesday was Micaela’s turn with mommy.  They went up in our bedroom and got out the blank stamp blocks and carving tools.  Micaela was so enthralled to get focussed time, mommy helping her with a certain technique, or how to execute an idea.  Answering her questions, and sharing in her joy.  It was simple, but several times Micaela expressed her gratitude, saying how fun it was to spend time together, just the two of them.

Emeth, understandably was ready (and has been for a long time) for some focussed time with daddy.  We agreed to Thursday night.  “Can you stay home in the morning?  I really want to build with you in the morning?” he asked me several times.  

Rachel said from Thursday morning till the moment I arrived home Emeth was talking about working in the basement with me to build something.  He was drawing plans for a toolbox, a house for his animals, and a truck.  He was asking if daddy could come home after lunch, and if he’d be home soon?  No?  How about now?  No?  Now?

Finally, the moment came.  I was home, and nothing was stopping that boy from directing my attention to basement, wood and tools.  We got our water bottles, strapped on our shoes, put on our hats and went down.

“Which one do you want to build?” I asked, looking at his drawing plans, having some difficultly making out what each was.

“Um… a toolbox!”  He pointed.

“How big?” I asked.  He put his hands in front of him, spacing them out, further and further.

“Um… this big!”  We settled on 10 and 7/8 inches.

Each step of the way I asked him about the details of his plans, not really sure what I was getting myself into, or whether I’d be able to execute it in the time we had, with the resources available.  The wood was warped, which made things a little tricky.  But he didn’t care.

Emeth would grab the next board, excited that he could carry it.  (They were thin and light.)  I’d measure, put the square on, and he’d draw the line I was to cut.  He insisted that I use the hand saw, since the electric mitre saw was too loud for his liking.  He’d then hold the end of the board while I sawed, taking his job very seriously to not let it fall to the ground.

He loved that there were parts of the process that he could do, and that he could experiment with the more difficult tasks of hammering and cutting.  He was not thwarted or discouraged by their difficulty.

What was so encouraging about all this is that not only did Rachel and I feel a real connection with each of them, but these have been things we’ve wanted for a long time in terms of schooling.  Some would call it ‘project based homeschooling’.  To us, it’s simply learning through living.  Our children coming along side of us, working together, and learning the practical skills of life: reading, measuring, fractions, hand-eye coordination, communicating, collaborating, creating, adapting.

Micaela is already getting excited for the Clay Fest next Saturday in Old City.  She seems ripe for this focussed, hands on time.  For the opportunity to engage her creative ideas and desires.  How will these moments shape each of them in the years to come?  What will they run with?  What will fall to the wayside?  I’m finding this to be one of the great joys of dad-hood.  Watching our children grow and develop, to take interests and hone their skills.  Seeing them try and not give up because they are not perfect.  Seeing them pursue their interests, not for the praise they’ll receive, but for the sheer joy of it.

Undertake difficult tasks
by approaching what is easy in them;
Do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects.

All difficulties under heaven arise from what is easy,
All great things under heaven arise from what is minute.

For this reason,
The sage never strives to do what is great.
He can achieve greatness. (Tao Te Ching, No. 26)

[He] acts but does not possess,
completes his work but does not dwell on it.
In this fashion,
he has no desire to display his worth. (No. 42)

Toward the flame

I feel weary of writing about that which wearies me.  But my job remains a wearisome trial, and so, I must process it through writing.  If I do not, it is as though these thoughts will continue to fly wildly through my mind, crashing into one another, creating a storm with nothing to anchor them.  Writing is a way to catch them by their tails and stick them to the paper (or screen).  To look them directly in the face, and attempt to keep them in their proper place.

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With so few books now on my shelf, I turned to my dear friend, Kierkegaard, yesterday for some counsel.  I read the section entitled, Spiritual Trial, not really knowing if ‘spiritual trial’ is an appropriate way to describe what I’m going through.  But nonetheless, he writes,

In the case of temptation the right thing to do may be to fight it by avoiding it.  In the case of spiritual trial, however, one must go through it.  Temptation should be avoided?  Try not to see or hear what tempts you?  Temptation is best fought by running away?  But this does not work with thoughts that try the spirit, for they pursue you.  If it is spiritual trial, go straight toward it, trusting in God and Christ.  When you are weak, he is strong. (Provocations, 380)

An interesting distinction between temptation and spiritual trial.  I can tend to view my job as a temptation.  That is, as something I must flee from if I am to find relief from its effects.  The difficult thing about contentment, though (I hate to admit), is that true contentment is that which is not based in circumstances.  As put in Tao Te Ching:

Know contentment and you shall not be disgraced. (No. 7)

No disaster is greater than discontent…
Contentment that derives from knowing when to be content is eternal contentment. (No. 9)

While it may be true that different circumstances, such as working with my hands rather than staring at a computer screen all day, may give more opportunity for joy and contentment in my work, I can’t help but wonder if I should not place so much hope in things changing.  It may sound obvious that the grass is not always greener on the other side.  Yet, it is far easier to pick out the things I don’t like about a good situation, than it is to thank God for the good things about a bad situation.

So what can be done?  What is God thinking when he puts us in the wilderness?  In a situation that seems endless and hopeless?  What was he teaching the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness for forty years?  What was he teaching Abraham as he waited for Isaac?  What was he teaching his people in the 400 year silence between the prophet Malachi and the coming of the Messiah?  What was his purpose in not answering the cry of his Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There are no easy answers to these questions.  And there are no easy questions to ask of these problems.  Is it merely a matter of God desiring to teach something?  Can I understand the deep purposes of God?  The one who knows all, and sees the interconnectedness of all things in an instant?  Who weaves stories together at a grand and masterful scale?  Who both moves planets and brings plants to sprout from the smallest of seeds?  

Why do I feel the need to try and understand that which I am not capable of understanding?  Like a child that only wants to eat sweets, while his father withholds them, choosing rather to feed him nutrient dense foods.  (As though he were starving me of my ill cravings.  Training my soul to feed on the fat of his Word, and not the sugar of life.)

Is there some danger he is keeping me from?  Is there some purpose in bringing me through this dry, desolate valley?  

As his child, I can only say, “Father, I do not understand why you are withholding something that clearly seems good to me.  But you have never left me or forsaken me, even when it feels like you have.  You have always been a faithful Father.”  

And as my Father, he would lovingly address me by name and embrace me, saying, “My precious child, do not run from this trial.  But go straight toward it.  Be still.  Cease your striving, and rest in the circumstances I have given you.  Change will come when it will be good for you.

“I withhold nothing good from you.  You can’t see that now, but you must trust that I can see, both behind and before you.  I have chosen this path for you.  It is the best path.  It is the good path.  But not in the way you think of good.  You think good only means to avoid suffering.  To not feel lonely.  To not feel desperate.  But the true Good is so much more.  True Goodness is that which makes you good.  That which makes you more like my Son.  That which strips you of your selfishness, your unloveliness.  I am only desiring to make you more lovely.  More beautiful.  Even silver must go through the fire.

I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God. (Zech 13:9)

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  

I do not see him, or his purposes, or his ways right now.  So is it merely a choice to trust?  To trust him with all my heart, and to not lean on my own understanding?  To fear him, only?  

Yes, to fear the Lord.  For this is the beginning of wisdom.

Contentment through tidying

Today we must return our friend, Kondo, to the library.  I share a departing thought from the end of her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Through this process [of tidying] people come to know contentment.  After tidying, many clients tell me that their worldly desires have decreased.  Whereas in the past, no matter how many clothes they had, they were never satisfied and always wanted something new to wear, once they selected and kept only those things that they really loved, they felt that they had everything they needed.

We amass material things for the same reason that we eat – to satisfy a craving.  Buying on impulse and eating and drinking to excess are attempts to alleviate stress. (197)

Planting. Watering. Observing. Growing. Praying.

“Mommy’s home!” The kids shouted and crowded at the window.  As soon as mommy opened the door they yelled, “Did you get any books for us?”  Mommy had just returned from the library, and yes, she happened to get four books.  One for each.

The one for Micaela was Crosby Bonsall’s, The Day I Had To Play With My Sister.  A first level, ‘I Can Read’ book.  Micaela accepted it with rapture.  She gathered Annie and Emeth around her on the sixth step, and to our great surprise, she read the entire book to them.  Afterwards she brought the book to the piano, placed it on the music stand, and plucked out a simple melody while setting the text of this book to music.

This was incredible to watch.  The absorption of information, gathered through thousands of question and answer sessions, over the past several years, between child and parent.  Information assimilated, sorted, made sense of, built upon.  And finally, the fruit of this little child’s hard work ripens, allowing her to make sense of the English language.

It was joyful to see the fruit of Rachel’s patience and labor as a mother and teacher, reflected in the joy of Micaela’s voice as she read this book.  It was a sweet satisfaction.  A confirmation that we are not completely off track with our alternative approach to education.

Of course, our approach is not the only way.  It is not the Right Way.  It is simply our way.  The way that we feel best suits the needs of our children.  Will it work for all of them?  I don’t know.  But we will take it one at a time.

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Micaela has been sitting down at the piano, multiple times a day, to pluck out melodies that we have been singing to her for years.  This, too, is incredible to watch and hear.  I don’t think we have a genius on our hands.  It’s more that I believe God has given every child the capacity to learn the things that interest them.

She is exploring the keyboard, just as she is exploring language.  She is adding chords, experimenting with rhythm and the pedal.  She has already written a short tune that ascends up the keyboard.  Chords in the left, melody in the right.

Emeth, on the other hand, is not interested in music at all.  The other day he said to Rachel and me, “I don’t really like playing music.”  I was so glad he felt free to express that to us.  (Especially since his father is a musician!)  He’s more visual and hands on.  He likes to build and draw, and pays much attention to the details in his world.  He is drawn to books where there is a lot going on in the illustrations, such as Town & Country, by Alice Provensen.  He loves to ask questions about what is happening, and what the people are doing.  While Micaela is interested in music and language, Emeth is drawn to that which he can touch and see.

In some ways, Emeth is a mystery, despite his simple interests in wood and paper.  He has a difficult time expressing his wants and needs.  I wonder if this partly because he feels squeezed out by the strong personalities of his sisters.  I do struggle to give each of my children the time they deserve.  The time they need.  Simply because their are four of them, and there is much to do in a day.  I think, though, Emeth needs that time more than the others right now.

It’s an exciting process trying to figure out what interests each of them.  What makes their little minds tick, and what moves their hearts.  To discern how they are different than one another.  To observe what is important to one and not to the other.

Annie is a free spirit, and mostly Emeth’s opposite and rival right now.  We are still trying to figure her out.  She has a very unique sense of humor, and is fairly good at playing by herself, when given the opportunity.  She seems fairly independent already.  She is a fireball.  She doesn’t beat around the bush.  Instead, she tears it up.

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Vitalia, has finally learned to crawl at sixteen months.  Yes, some children learn to walk by nine months.  But not our Talia.  She started out very calm and peaceful.  We joked that we should’ve named her Shalom, and not Vitalia (life) Joy.  She observed and took in her world for twelve months.  Then found her voice.  She can yell louder than the other three.

She seems the type to take it slow, and to learn at her own pace.  She does not let us force anything on her, and she knows what she wants.  (Her wants and needs are fairly simple at this point, which makes it easy, perhaps.)  For example, when she doesn’t want any more of a particular food, she lowers her head in the direction of the spoon to make it clear that spoon will not make it into her mouth.  And if you continue to try, she’ll swat it out of your hand (if she makes contact).

She is coming into her name though.  (Interestingly, they all seem to be doing this.)  Talia is so vibrant and expressive, lively and joyful.  She has more facial expressions than she knows what to do with.  She can go from happy, to skeptical, to angry, to laughing with the slightest change in her brow and lip.  She, too, has a sense of humor, and knows how to get us all laughing.

I wonder what they will all be like in a year.

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Lord, help us to know ourselves and our children.  To know how you hardwired us, to know our needs, and to express those needs to one another.  Help us to care for one another in a way that is meaningful to each.  Fill us with your Spirit, and help us to love, not just when we are lovely, but when it feels impossible.  When we make a mess, and when we ourselves are a mess.  Amen.