The Gift of Disruption

When I was a young man I disliked children because they appeared noisy and messy. My few experiences with children over the next ten years did little to change this opinion. Uncomfortable with chaos, I focused on things that I could do well and cleanly: work, for instance, or writing, or folding laundry, or living in the glacial stillness of my own mind. I felt satisfied with my labor and content with the fences I had constructed to keep children from trampling on my intellectual azaleas. Like many young men, I misbelieved that control of my environment meant that I was in control of myself.

It was, as you can tell, a life needful of disruption.

The first glimpse I had of Oliver was the tiny thatch of hair on the top of his head. It wasn’t even his whole head–let alone his body–just a wet patch of hair and my universe exploded. Everything about him seemed soft and vulnerable and perfect. He cried, and I didn’t mind it. He pooed and I burbled with pride. I changed his sticky tar of meconium and felt as Armstrong must have felt stepping onto the moon. This is easy, I thought, when all I feel is love.

the_gift_of_disruption Now I have two of them and it is no longer easy. Gone are the days of chest cuddles and tiny swaddles and strangers oohing at toes the size of capers. I can remember when I read books. I remember when I left the house and got into my car and drove out the driveway in less than a minute. I remember when I could stay on the toilet with the door closed, silent and content. I remember life without strollers or diapers or Goldfish. Schools of Goldfish–whole pods of Goldfish swarming in the darkest recesses of my SUV. These children, my children, have changed everything.

When I was a young man I disliked children. But what I really disliked was myself.

chaos_reignsDisruption is a gift. The noisiness, the messiness–these are crowbars that lever me open in ways that undo me. My boys make me see life in ways that I had forgotten. In richer, deeper ways. I am confronted every day with my inner workings. My own mess, my own chaos. Through these children I have become sometimes nastier, yes, sometimes angry, true, but also more loving and more authentic. I realize that I have little control over my environment but a lot of opportunity to change myself. And that gives me hope.

It is a beautiful thing to have your life disrupted when the trampling is done with love. It is a great gift to invite messiness into your life when that messiness is a child.

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Parenting Advice from a Tomato Plant

Last year I learned something about tomato plants which I think applies to parenting.

tomato_plants_with_stakeMy steel tomato cages worked well to prop up the tomato plants when they were young. But once the tomatoes grew to chest height and produced fruit, the cages tended to tip and the plants fell. My tomato plants needed a steel stake–a strong, unmoving reference point–to anchor to when they grew tall.

Parenting is like that. The rules I place around my children prove helpful when they’re young. Like steel tomato cages they help prop up my kids and provide limited stability. But children need more than mere rules–a steel structure of dos and dont’s–to grow strong and healthy. They also need an example of good character which runs strong and straight and true.

Rules serve a purpose, but rules alone are inadequate. The example of a good and kind character, a life full of the fruit of the Spirit and love for God and neighbor, is the best gift I can give my children if I want them to grow strong and healthy.

I wonder whether the decisions I make today will cause my character to falter or to stand straight and strong? Am I living in such a way that my children will someday look past the family rules to see a life they want to imitate? I hope so. There’s a lot at stake.

The Gift of Story

When I was a boy I took a tattered green copy of The Boy’s King Arthur into my room and read it from cover to cover. Flush with swords and dragons and flying pennants, I knew with the certainty of childhood that one day I would also do great and noble things.

A quiet life in a quiet part of Maine did nothing to dissuade me. I felt uncommon, despite a brother who looked like me and a glaring absence of extraordinary ability. None of that mattered. As children, we think ourselves kings or queens.

sir_launcelot
Sir Launcelot, by N.C. Wyeth, in “The Boy’s King Arthur”

Today I look around at my life. Measured by most standards I have failed in my youthful dreams. No one would mistake me for a knight. My influence is small. I have no horse and, to tell the truth, no stall in which to keep one. I shake in crowds and can number my truly brave exploits on a single hand. Reality throws his brawny arm around my neck and presses down. “Remember that green book?” he seems to say, and his voice is not unkind. “Remember when you believed in fairytales?”

I remember.

“What a young fool you were,” he says. “To think yourself a prince.”

I disagree. There are other measures of success, and other ways to see. There are truths we know clear as children–ancient stories we remember in our youth but forget when we are old. That kindness is a virtue which never goes unseen. That in our veins runs royal blood and eternity haunts our hearts. That courage sometimes walks in sneakers and looks a lot like love. That the greatest is the least and the least is still our brother.

Reality drops his heavy hand. “You’re hopeless,” he says. “You always were a dreamer.”

I smile. Perhaps. But it is such a wonderful story. And some stories are too wonderful to be untrue.