Thursday, July 26, 2012

Delight in Life

Yesterday I watched a bunch of six- and seven-year-old children jockey for positions at a table where they got to use an eyedropper to add vinegar, with a little food coloring added, to a tray of baking soda to watch little eruptions of colorful foam. Again, and again, and again. Their delight never waned. It was a little miracle right before their eyes.

A few feet away they built tube towers they could roll marbles down. Squeals of laughter erupted as the marble spun through the segment that made the wheel spin and when two marbles coming from different directions collided, forcing one to jump out of the structure and race across the floor.

Earlier that day they ate corn tortillas they pressed and baked themselves, and most of them ate two or three.  Another remarkable experience.

We forget, as adults, that everything is new to them. They are still just discovering the world and they still see that it is good.

My grandpa used to delight in feeding pickles to babies. Babies get so much bland food that a dill pickle can cause their faces to contort in hilarious ways. Some babies loved the pickles. Others threw it on the floor as you can only do from a highchair. I always suspected that my grandpa tried to guess ahead of time which way the child would react. Watching him watch the babies was almost as good as watching the babies. He had found something that brought him delight well into old age.

A couple days ago I watched with amusement as three young men in their twenties spent close to ten minutes examining a huge cicada they found in the pool filter. They looked at it from every angle, turned it over, moved it where no one would step on it and admired the mechanics of its legs, the shimmer of its wings and talked about the sound it made when it was alive. I went and looked at it after they had finished their scrupulous examination. It was an impressive specimen.

Jesus told us to be salt and light to the world - that is, to make ordinary life better. Kids know how to do this. We should take note. . .

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Preventing Erosion

I am continually amazed at the common sense of children. Yesterday, in a discussion about wants and needs with the children at Daily Bread Cooking Camp, one soon-to-be fifth grader rolled her eyes and said, "It's like a mansion. Everybody wants one but nobody needs one." Out of the mouths of babes. . .

There was also a decision at camp about who got to go first for a specific activity. I turned it over to the kids who had lively discussions within their groups of four and ultimately chose, without tears or counselor intervention, who would go and who would wait. They could do this because they trusted they would get their turn.

I sometimes made my kids choose their own punishments. My girls were almost always harder on themselves than I would have been. They didn't like having to choose their own consequences, but when faced with the challenge usually judged themselves quite fairly.

At some point human beings learn to rationalize. Once that happens, the innate fairness, trust, and honesty that kids have starts to erode. Erosion is a character issue. It's also a "natural" issue. Consider soil erosion; left unprotected soil will wash away in the rains or blow away in the winds. Two things can slow or stop the erosion: strengthening the soil's "hold" and creating barriers to the eroding factors. If we want to keep soil from blowing or washing away we plant vegetation like ground cover or grasses so the roots will help hold the soil in place and build windbreaks like trees or fences that will keep the wind from blowing away the soil you want to protect.

Those same methods, creating a root system and building windbreaks, can work to protect character. Building a root system is having a strong community for your children: a community with common values, woven together by culture, memory, and connections. For my family our church has served this purpose well. Some people live surrounded by family and have their own built in root system. Any community will work, as long as your community is authentically rooted, and not merely superficial.

The institutions around our kids serve as the windbreaks: the churches, schools, sports clubs, camps, and musical groups can all help to prevent character erosion. If these institutions value fairness, are trustworthy, and not punitive, your child's innate systems will be protected. If there is favoritism or exclusiveness, your child's innate values may begin to erode. How are your kid's windbreaks performing?

I don't want to romanticize children into fantasy creatures. There are values beyond fairness that are not innate and need to be taught, but like the protective vegetation that ultimately dies and further nourishes the very soil it protected, and the tree that drops its leaves, which also serve to nourish and protect, and even the snow that covers or the rain that soaks - all of these things change the soil for the better. Your anti-erosion systems will do more than protect your child's character; they will nourish it, and help your child grow in the face of challenge or hardship. The communities and institutions will even create the situations where your child's character can be further formed.

We all have communities and institutions in our lives. Are they helping you protect and nurture your child's character?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Further along the parenting journey

I thought that by now I would be much further along with my "after the kids leave" list.  I started my own private Pinterest about twenty years ago when I realized that this or that hobby would take too much time or too many resources away from my kids. I have lists of books I have been meaning to read for a decade or more. Lists of places I want to visit someday, a box full of recipes to try, pictures of quilts I would love to make, and a Netflix queue I didn't even start until shortly before my nest became empty.

Like nearly everything else I anticipated about parenting, the transition to the empty nest has been much more complicated than expected. I figured the girls would go to college, get jobs, get married and eventually there would be  grandchildren . I guess I imagined that they would call for advice from time to time, keep me up to speed on trends, and that we would gradually evolve into friends. That's not exactly how it has gone.

I really miss being their primary debrief-er. Sometimes I find out about things weeks or even months after they happen. This implies there are things I never find out about at all. They aren't being secretive - there's just so much life going on that it can't all fit into phone calls and e-mails. And, there are no buffers either. When something goes wrong, there isn't the day-to-day interaction to rub off the sharp edges. I have to find my way out of these bruised places by myself. I understand all too well now why, as a young woman, I always felt that I left my mom wanting more. She did want more. I do too.

The hardest part has been the intensity of the feelings that accompany each of their milestones. The joy, pride, excitement, and amazement overwhelm my attempts at detaching. I realize that I still want my eyes to be the ones they search for in the crowd, my arms to be the first to go around them, my ears the receptacle of all the backstage details of whatever event is underway. Now they have husbands and in-laws and friends I don't know. I have not been displaced; I am still their mom, and will always be, but my role has changed, probably not for the last time.

Eventually my heart will catch up to my brain but it's not there yet. In the meantime I listen for what God wants me to do next, and keep one ear tuned to my "baby monitor" in case I should be called upon for something that only a mother can do.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Long View

It is the tradition, when building a cathedral, to lay the first stone at the east end of the church and build backward from there. The Washington National Cathedral was built in this way. Its first stone was laid in 1907. Five years after construction began, the first services were held in the Bethlehem chapel. Construction continued until the final stone was placed in 1990. The finished structure has over 83,000 square feet, is 102 feet high in the middle, has over 200 stained glass windows, and tombs containing the remains of several notable Americans, including Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.

I recently took a tour of the Cathedral and left pondering the sheer magnitude of this project. Who could conceive of a project that would take 83 years to complete? The original architect of this project, George Frederick Bodley died less than a month after the first stone was laid. All told, a total of five architects contributed to the building of the Cathedral.

One of the most famous features of the Cathedral is the "Space Window" which contains a rock brought back from the moon. It was hard to imagine a plan that would be flexible enough to incorporate such an artifact when the first flight at Kitty Hawk had just happened. According to the docent on my tour, the south windows were designed from the beginning to represent the gifts that people use to serve God. This particular opening was designated for the Scientists and Technicians window. The white spot in the center of the red circle is a slice of moon rock brought back and donated by the crew of Apollo 11.

In the instant world of the 21st century it is almost impossible for us to think in terms of decades, never mind centuries. That is partly a consequence of the pace of change in the life we live today, and partly the result of our ego-centric worldview. In the midst of this, the one place where we are perhaps still called to take the long view is the family. Having children is an act of hope. It is a dream of the future; an act that tells the world we believe in life. When we become parents, we have to remember that we are raising children who will most likely outlive us. We need to prepare them for a world we cannot see or even imagine.

Can we learn something about life architecture from the great architecture of the cathedral? The cathedral is shaped like a cross - reaching up, yet reaching out. It points toward God, and is put together of millions of smaller pieces - each small piece someone's best work. It is surrounded by enough natural space to allow time and calm for reflection. It incorporates the very greatest stories from the Bible and recognizes the gifts of all people. It acknowledges that there are fearful creatures around us, but lets the light in to chase the dark away. Both life, in the form of the baptismal font and the table where we can gather to eat, and death, in the form of crypts and memorials, are woven into the construction of the whole. What a wise design for a church, or a life!