Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Becoming small

We are starting a new church. And I start homeschooling my oldest two kids this fall. 

My world is about to grow by becoming very small. A new church is a tiny thing. There are about twenty people who want to begin this project, worshipping in a new place, getting to know the people of a new neighborhood. For a while, until we get to know our new neighbors, our experience of church will be each other. Christian ministry will be what we do with each other, in the hopes that the community we build will extend by its ripples to include a whole town. To grow large, we start by becoming small.

Already we have been meeting for prayer and planning, and a women's book study has been reading and discussing A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. We are learning about each other, praying for each other, and praying that the new church will be guided and used by Christ. We are learning about the neighborhood, soliciting ideas from community leaders, and considering what skills our group has and needs. We are trying to act wisely and faithfully, from our tiniest beginnings to our biggest hopes.

Our plans for our kids are similar. After five years with the public school system, we've decided the best thing for our third and fourth graders is homeschool, while our youngest two continue for now in the public school. Our girls have acquired some skills in public school, but they are not thriving. I love the solitude and stillness I get at home during the day while all the kids are at school (at least sometimes - there are still many visits to school during the day), but as precious as that solitude and stillness are, seeing my girls grow in ability and competence is more important, and I think they need me to help them now.

These are big changes in our lives.  I have to give up things that are dear to me - my familiar church, my solitude, the projects that require child-free time - and draw the circle of my life smaller. For the sake of growing something new and amazing, we are folding ourselves in, starting as a tiny seed.

This, it turns out, is how the gospel works. The skies filled with singing angels and magi came on pilgrimage from far away, but then there was just one boy's life in a small town in Galilee. When that boy grew up, his ministry began with twelve friends. Not cathedrals and palaces. No university degrees. He didn't even have a blog.

A few people, in a family or in a church, serving God together. It's how big things start.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bullies and Neighbors

"Young man, we don't have have fun by making little girls cry." I made my voice firm as I said this to the nine-year-old boy at the fountain, but my words still sounded hollow. To some boys, making little girls cry is the most fun ever, and we both knew it. Crying girls make such interesting noises! They give you so much attention! You are the biggest person in a little girl's world when you are making her cry!

This boy had staked his claim at the deepest part of the fountain, the only place where kids could sit and submerge their feet, and he was waiting for other children to approach the coveted spot so he could fling water in their faces. They would back off crying when the water hit their eyes, but the siren song of the best spot at the fountain kept bringing them back. All the kids hovered just out of his reach, waiting for him to leave so they could dip their feet. He wasn't going anywhere.

There's been a lot of talk online about bullies lately, and the drift of the conversation troubles me. There is a static quality to the bullies of parental complaints, as though that third-grader with the sneer is a monster of unchangeable nature.

And the bullies are always, always someone else's kid.

This boy at the fountain was no bully. When he made eye contact with me, he recognized an authority figure. It leached the fun out of the experience for him. He did not backtalk, and he stopped splashing. He sat in the water for another minute, and then ran off to play where there would be no inconvenient adults to limit him.

It does not always go this way.  Sometimes there are real bullies, even as children. The last time I corrected someone else's child at this park - a violent child with cold eyes - he kicked me for it.

"No tolerance" policies against bullying will always target boys more than girls. The boy at the fountain who only needed correction will be the object of such a policy, while the truly vicious girl who sadistically wounds with her eyes and words will slip by. Conversations about bullies seem to focus on solutions that segregate and ostracize, cutting off the misbehaving kids from others. What rarely gets owned in these conversations is the parent's fear and unwillingness to risk intervening in the life of a child. After all, his parents could be anyone. They could hate you. They could threaten you. They could sue you.

I don't have a solution to the human heart. People hurt each other. Minimizing that hurt is not the job of a single authority; it's the vocation of each of us who live in community. I look out for you and you look out for me. We correct each other's children. We protect each other's children. And we train our kids to care about the smallest and the weakest, even if it takes a lifetime to make the lesson sink in. My kids, and any kids who play with my kids, will get the kindness lecture. I watch out for spite, and I pounce on it.

Another day, another sunny afternoon at the park. I was waiting for my kids at the park and a group of young men walked by. There were eight of them, walking in pairs, and they had the trim waists and lean muscles of an athletic team. They were catcalling two young women on the street, shouting vulgarities while the women walked faster. The two groups turned the corner, past where I could see them, and the young men began to run. I heard a woman scream. The homeless men on the corner, who could see where I couldn't, stood up straight and threatening and looked toward the scream. No one hates teenage thugs more than homeless men.  The men stood, poised to run, but did not run. I hope it means they did not need to.

I found my children and went that way. The young men and the women were gone from the bus stop, and the only sign anyone had been there was the city's cast-iron trash can overturned on the sidewalk. I tried to to right it, but it was too heavy for me to lift by myself.

My daughters have a friend they love to play with. This little girl lost her father recently. He was a cab driver, and two men shot him in a robbery. They thought he must have money. It was the start of his shift, and he probably only had twenty dollars. I don't have any words for her loss. Devastation and heartbreak silence me. But I wish we were something different. I wish we were a town and a country where we all looked out for each other, and these things couldn't happen. I wish peace were alive in every heart. I wish I could make it alright for her.

But I correct that kid at the park. I intervene when I see heartlessness in my own kids. I walk through my neighborhood and my city, and in every step I say, This is MY home. Mine. This place belongs to me and I will not be afraid. This is a home for people who build, not those who tear down.  Goodness lasts, even when life doesn't. Watch this community grow in peace. See what happens when the people of God are fearless.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Most Important Thing I Know About Parenting

My worst flare-ups as a mother - every single one - happened when I was anxious about someone else's opinion of me. Sometimes that someone else isn't even a real person, merely one of the faceless horde of What Will People Think.  Maybe it was an impending visit from the in-laws, or that time we were getting our house ready for a showing. It could be my kid's tantrum at a playground, or the time she made me look bad in church. But at the core of my worst moments as a mother, an inordinate desire to look good to others is always there.

We intuit this, even when we don't say it out loud. The best parenting advice has this behind it, even when it's not acknowledged. Consider this wise post from We Are That Family. Very sensible. And as I read Kristen's list, I see lurking behind each item a rejection of the urge to look good to other people. Would we overspend if we weren't trying to keep up with someone else? How does your spending change if you choose to be unashamed of what you earn?  Does anyone really plan those party goody-bags out of pleasure, or is it so the other moms are impressed by the way you have it all together?

Here is the most important thing I've learned about motherhood: know who you want to be in yourself, alone, before God or in the interior of your soul. Then know who you want to be in your relationship with your kids. When you look for community, choose a few moms whom you respect. Seek their counsel when you need advice.  And other than that, disregard the entire prating world. Disinvest yourself from the babble of opinions, real and imagined, and live by what you yourself are determined to be. Let that wave of opinionated nonsense rise and recede without sweeping you away with it. Stand firm in who you are. That's it.

The Mommy Wars are manufactured, of course, and patronizing and pointless and destructive. But they have an effect, to be blunt, when we allow them to.

 There is a scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More, knowing that arrest and possibly death is approaching because of his religious stance against the king, urges his friend Norfolk to abandon their friendship. More picks a quarrel on the subject of the king's demands when he knows he and Norfolk are observed. More says, "I will not give in because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites, but I do -- I.  Is there in the midst of all this muscle no single sinew that serves no appetite of Norfolk's, but is just Norfolk?"

What part of you as a parent is just you? Not the club you belong to or the people you want to please or the public image you want to cultivate, but you? Not the ideas that enrage you or the puffery that entertains, but the identity that sings in your soul and calls itself right whether anyone is watching or not? Who is the parent you choose to be, not because others are noticing, but because you yourself have determined this is what a parent is?

Love is, in its essence, the meeting in delight between you as you really are and the beloved as they really are. Love is the opposite of pretense. The joy of parenting comes from getting to know  children in their fascinating selves - all the ways they are like mom or dad, and all the ways they are different; the things about them that are fixed traits, and the qualities that are pruned and shaped. There is joy in learning who a child is meant to be, and knowing you helped get them there.

When the words of others help you see your children better, show you new ways to recognize them or shape them for the good, then those are wise words to be cherished. When the words of others, real or imagined, interfere with that face-to-face knowing and instead encourages affectation and shamming, then they are only noisy gongs or clanging symbols. Turn them off and shut them out. Be the person and the parent you decide to be, and be at peace.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Husband in Winter

My husband says I love him more in winter. The heat does not stay in our drafty old house, and I scoot closer on the couch. He wears big quilted overshirts, and when I walk into our kitchen on the cold, cold floor each morning, he laughs at me and spreads his arms wide, that roomy, unbuttoned overshirt opening for me to tuck myself inside.

When there is snow on the ground, his warmth feels meant. Despite all scientific facts to the contrary, I feel certain the heat from his body is intentional and directed. It reaches out to me on purpose and stops the shivers. Every year I deny that I love him more in winter, but when the windows frost, I find myself settling into marriage like a quilt. I can't help it. Or I don't want to.

I have been working on a novel for years, the slow, sneaky kind of project that throws sand in my face when I think I've got it pinned. To write it, I have to remember what I thought love was when I was young. I set myself the chore of listening to young music and I try to remember. I recall being lit up by conversation and the certainty I was understood, that piercing feeling of affinity, the belief that I had finally found my kin. I remember the hollow longing that never got filled up. I remember that intensity that makes every roadblock an outrage and an ending of the world. But as I sift through my memories, I am surprised at how bodiless it all is. I remember the longing, but from this distance of decades, it looks pointlessly consumed with my own interior self.

But marriage is carnal. The man in my kitchen stands there, solid even when I'm not paying attention.  There is no moment he is safely framed and contained in my thoughts. In our own demanding story, dammit all if he doesn't shock me with his stubborn plot points. I shuffle into his arms on a cold winter morning and see how memory and future track along his hands, his neck, the grizzle of his beard. He is always past and always present, and I am never merely left inside myself.

Warmth is personal, no matter what the physiology textbooks say. He warmed me by meaning to, and I sometimes hope that winter lasts forever.