Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Last Shall Be First

The first day of school in our house is not so much the celebration of the new school year's birth as it is the funeral of the lovely summer.

It's been too cold to swim for a while, but the cool off didn't mean dialing back the fun.  No.  It really meant it was no longer too hot to run screaming through the neighborhood like a stray dog squirted by the resident skunk or to grind forward up that hill on a bike to turn around and whoosh back down with a whoop of glory.

I, who had been keeping little noses to the grindstone all summer long, relented after the boys' cousin departed.  It was just too sad to keep pushing.  The two flourished those last two weeks--both growing out of shorts and shirts just in time for school.  At the end of each day as the sun's last rays glistened on the paint-stripped metal bars of the jungle gym, their father and I corralled the boys into the house like sheepdogs nipping at the heels of the sheep (or “its” closing in for the tag).  The bleating boys romped circuits over the playground finally tumbling sullenly through the screen door claiming sudden exhaustion and may never have made it upstairs to the bathtub without Daddy's arms hoisting them upward by the elbows and my shoulders propelling them onward by the butt.

Once stripped and deposited in the tub, the boys shivered, surrounded by their own cloud of filth--or topsoil as it may be.  Daddy and I pondered whether the expression "from dust to dust," was really appropriate.  It would appear, from the state of the tub, that "from dust to mud" was far more apt.  And so began the pre-bath rinse.  After what seemed like millennia, a primordial flood of the bathroom, and half a bottle of Old Spice scented “man soap,” they came out far shinier than they went in, and it was time for the nightly wrangle over going to bed, exacerbated by the absence of melatonin and the void of a place to be in the morning.  In all the wrestling that ensued, we managed to sneak in much snuggling, a bedtime snack, some bedtime books (long ones, by choice of the big one),  and perhaps a bed movie (or two).  As the big one wanted Daddy, the little one wanted Mommy, Mommy wanted her own bed, and Daddy wanted peace, we played musical beds all night long, finally concluding that the four of us could no longer populate a queen-size bed comfortably (although some no-longer-little-enough boys would have liked to keep trying)!

In the misty morning of the next day, we descended in turns from our various resting places to, by the time I got there, cuddles and puddles (of juice, pee, or what have you), spilled cereal, eggs (still whole, thank you, Lord!) left on the counter for Mom to cook, and missing Wii-motes.  Despite my aspirations to be a loving, peaceful mother, I fear that, in those pre-caffeinated moments, I met it all with general gasps of exasperation like, "Must you actually step on your brother's head on the way here?  Couldn't you choose a foot?" to the one and, "Well, he couldn't step on your head if you would sit up!" to the other.

Yes, I am sorry to see these last weeks end, sorry to pack lunches instead of beach buckets, backpacks instead of travel packs.  And as I crane my neck to glimpse the last vestiges of summer before it disappears from view forever to the tinkling accompaniment of the ice cream truck whose cola-flavored brown ice cream fakes the kids out for chocolate every time, a brisk breeze catches the hair on the back of my neck and beckons me to consider autumn.  After all, the best may be yet to come.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Way It Works (at Least for Me)

Long ago, a friend and I were a team in an event called "Write It/Do It."  The object was for the team to build a replica of an item.  But there was a catch.  Only one teammate got to see the item.  Then she had to write instructions on how to build it.  The item was then taken away, and the instructions and components given to the partner for them to build it.

We never won that I remember, but I learned a lot--primarily that a list of instructions, even good ones, doesn't always produce the intended results.

I find that living life follows the same pattern.

Don't get me wrong; I have benefited from explicit instruction many times.  In fact, some of the best advice I've ever gotten has been explicit.  Like my mom's "People like people who smile," and my dad's "If you have to ask yourself if it's loving, then it's usually not."  My mother-in-law says, "Leave it alone," implying that time fixes many problems if we are only patient.

But certain pieces of advice have never helped me.  "Be more normal."  What's normal?  "Don't talk."  Should I just do what I want then and ask you if you liked it later?  "Don't do it that way." Well then what way should I do it?  "Don't eat with your mouth full."  Well then how do you get the food in?

Like I said, I don't do very well with instructions, especially "don't" ones.

But that doesn't mean that I don't get to a place where I just know I've got it wrong, instructions or no.

Let me tell you a story.  I was five, sporting a newly-minted Lilt home permanent that my mother had just given me and which smelled strongly of chemicals in high humidity or after a good sweat.  I was playing with my sister, then three, our next-door neighbor, a boy aged two at that time, and my two-doors-down neighbor, then six.  Let me just say straight out that my two-doors-down neighbor, whom I'll call Trouble for the sake of this story was trouble for us.  She was that neighbor whom my parents swore was a bad influence.  And, while my sister and I could get into quite a bit of trouble all on our own, it seemed to take a bit of Trouble to really blow the roof off the house--or the egg out of the microwave (which really happened, but that's another story).

I've forgotten the name of the game we were playing--if there ever was one--but it was loud, full of running up one side of the hill in Trouble's yard (the rocky side which was a little easier to climb) and sliding in tandem down the other side, which was nearly vertical, grassy, and therefore much easier on the butt.  Now I don't know why, but apparently we all decided to slide train-style down the hill and leave my sister behind.  She had little legs, you know, and didn't always move as fast as we wanted her to.

Now it may sound small, but I knew not to leave my sister behind.  Whatever I did, she did too.  Once I learned to share, I took it very seriously--even making sure she got half my pizza when she was but six-months-old.

But I didn't think about my sister.  I listened to my friend.

And when we finally skidded giggling to a halt in the never-quite-dry muddy patch of Trouble's backyard, I tumbled over and glanced to the top of the hill where my sister stood crushed--shoulders slumped, knees wobbly, and tears already dripping off her nose.  She met my eyes, scrubbed her nose with the back of her fist, then pirouetted and raced toward our gate. 

"Who cares about her?" Trouble asked, shrugging her shoulders as she pulled up our next door neighbor. "Let's play with that."  She pointed at something on the other side of the yard and then bounded over with our two-year-old neighbor.

I just stood, gazing up at the place where my sister had stood.  I knew I did that to my sister.  I scaled the slippery side, pulling out clods of grass with my fingers as my feet searched for some traction.  At the top of the hill, with the late spring breeze ruffling my permanent, I hid myself in Trouble's forsythia bush and wept.

"God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I'd read the Bible story with Daddy.  I would've beaten my breast like in the story, except I didn't have any yet.

Yes, I was modeling what I'd read about it.  But in that moment, I knew I was the sinner and that prayer was for me. 

Of course, I didn't quite understand the permanence of it--and maybe this is part of that implicit understanding, maybe that permanence isn't as permanent as we might think, maybe there is something to working out your salvation with fear and trembling--and often found myself back in that spot begging forgiveness again.  Usually after playing with Trouble.  Maybe my parents were right about something.

But you see, that is how it works with me.  All the rules in the Bible, from Sunday school, from my parents, teacher, society--they meant nothing in and of themselves until, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, I felt the knife of sin twisting in my own heart.

And since that time, God has been generally gentle with me.  Oh, it never feels gentle.  It feels like clay in the hands of a potter, complete with the wedging, pug mill, and firing.  But He shows me what I'm doing wrong.  Sometimes it comes through the words of others, true. But most often not, and it never comes without that deep kerthunk of something falling into place deep in my heart, a surge in the pit of my stomach, and the faintest whisper in my ear, asking, "Do you hear Me now?"

And that's why, after three decades in this vein, I'm very hesitant to tell someone else that they are sinning unless I hear it explicitly in His Voice.  I'm not sure I ever have.  That's not to say that I never say anything.  Quite the contrary!  I am never hesitant to say, "Something here smells fishy," or "I don't think everything is quite right."  We need to be discerning--and there are definite guidelines for that, but I wouldn't call those guidelines rules either.

And you see, God gives us some pretty good reasons to doubt that we have the rules right.  Jesus's lineage contains a woman who had her son by her husband's father, a prostitute, a foreigner, and an adulterer.  Jesus's birth was greeted by shepherds and by foreign (read that gentile) kings, but not by the teachers of the law.  And then, of course, there's the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus basically turns the law on its head, challenging, "So you think you understand the law?  Well, let me tell you what it really means."

But aside from the fact that the only people Jesus called "sinners" were the ones who were convinced that they weren't, when Jesus called, "Repent," we came because we knew we were wrong.  I am convinced that if anyone wants to know what they're doing wrong, God will let them know.  I am not needed for the finger pointing.

Besides I am wrong everyday, and it helps to know that going in.

I don't know the answers, and that helps keep me from telling you (both Christians and non-Christians) that you're wrong.  But I will say that if you take it to Jesus (especially us Christians!  If Jesus had to pray, what makes you think we have a chance of figuring this out without His constant insight?), He will let you know. 

And He's the only One you really need to listen to.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Just words

It has been an incredible summer--incredible in so many ways that words for it elude me at the moment.  So I'm not going to talk about that at all for the moment.

I'm going to talk about words--words that shape us and others, that are spoken and listened to or ignored, that are validated or invalidated thus leaving us feeling validated or invalidated.

Now, I think about words all the time because I just always have.  My little one shares my passion for words and often expresses himself with vigor.

"Give it to me now, Mommy," he growled last spring.

"I have no intention of giving it to you," I answered calmly.

"Then I have no intention of obeying," he retorted.  Well.  He's honest.

And I am more likely to go along with him because of his calm, articulate nature.  That's the way I'm trained.  Say it calmly.  Say it when I'm listening.  Make me laugh.

Unlike when the big one, from the back of the car, wailed, "SHU-U-U-T    U-U-U-P!"

I was likely to throw out, "Don't scream at us," but our TSS at the time jumped in and explained calmly and in no hurry exactly why she wasn't going to be quiet, and, beaten to the punch, I was forced to ponder my own gut reaction.

Why was I not listening to my son?  He was, in fact, telling me what he needed: quiet, a pause in the activity.  Sure, we needed to work on the delivery, but to be honest, I suspected that he had been telling us again and again and we simply weren't listening.  Which, of course, brings me to the insightful comment of one of my husband's relatives.

"I was discussing something I was really upset about with my husband," she related.  "And I swore.  And he stopped me and responded, 'Let's not swear at each other, okay? Can we agree not to swear at each other?'  'Okay,' I answered. 'But can you let me finish my point?'"

And that's exactly the issue I have been dancing around for a long time:  poor delivery does not equal an invalid point.

I decided to teach English as a Foreign Language because I truly believe that it contributes to world peace.  I know.  Blind optimism.  Idealist.  But I do believe that much of what I have helped to edit, ways that I have helped to teach, and systems that I have tried to lay bare so that others can traverse them have indeed helped.

But I am caught again and again by a very simple fact.  We only hear what we want to.  We choose to interpret things in the way that best fits our view of the world (regardless of what that view is), and we throw out the evidence that challenges our view.  And when people have come to us to object, like my son, they are hard pressed.

"I don't want to," he had said as I packed him into the car.

"Too bad," I had said and continued talking.

"Please be quiet.  I don't want to talk about this," he had elaborated.

"Tough," I had said, hardly taking a breath.

"SHU-U-U-T    U-U-U-P!"

Maybe if I had paused a little earlier to listen, we wouldn't have gotten there.  But his point was no less valid because he screamed it.  In fact, he hadn't started by screaming it.  He had started calmly.

It makes me wonder about all those others we cut off because we don't like their tone or say they have taken things into their own hands.  Did they start that way?  Am I punishing them because they have spoken inappropriately, or did we come to this situation because I couldn't be bothered to listen?