One of the most maddening, is-it-bedtime-yet moments in my parental life is when, most often in the car, one of my kids whines because his brother is looking at him the wrong way. “He is smiling at me,” they cry and whine. Or even “He keeps looking at me.” The key words here are at me. The other person’s pleasure is obviously spiteful, rotten behavior intended to make the cranky child more miserable than he already is.
Confession: Too often I find my 38 year-old self slipping into behavior not unlike my five year-old’s. Maybe already feeling a little bit grumpy or irritable, it’s easy to look around and have a feeling that people are doing things at me: posting pictures of dream vacations while I set my alarm for work, having houses that look magazine-worthy (or even clean toilets), being thin while still eating candy bars.
It’s unnerving that I understand what is logical or even what is good for me, but sometimes it seems easier to be the pouting child in the backseat than the adult steering the car. Sometimes it seems easier to pretend things are happening at me or to me, rather than to exert the energy to guide myself toward adult-like behavior.
My husband and I recently jumped on the Whole30 bandwagon. If you’re not familiar, it’s a 30-day dietary re-set in which we abstained from sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, alcohol – and if you asked us most days – fun. I’d like to tell you it was 30 (or maybe 28.5…) glorious and glowing days, but most of the time, it was just plain old hard and time-consuming. I got sick of shopping, sick of scouring labels, sick of prepping, sick of making good decisions. Much like the glowering kids in the backseat, I too often found myself getting irritable when I had to take the time to cut up the kiwi versus grabbing the chips from the cupboard. And, though my body seemed to be quite happy with some logical decisions I was making on its behalf, watching my kids eat a $5 Little Caesar’s Pizza was nearly torturous. Words like accountability and wisdom and discipline can feel a bit like older brothers smirking at me.
Don’t we wish it was easier — that doing the right thing might cost a little less? That kale might call to us like dark chocolate does? That selflessness was as easy to access as it is to talk about? That goodness could flow from us as easily as greed? Or that extravagant kindness would seep from our veins as does competitiveness and jealousy?
C.S. Lewis says it this way: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Trading my tendency from focusing inward to looking outward requires me to realize that I am the “ignorant child making mud pies;” I am the crazy kid in the backseat screaming at someone else for smiling; I’ve mindlessly got my hand in the Cheetos bag when fresh apples and ripe cherries are hanging on the tree outside. It’s an inconvenient truth: I am far too easily pleased.
P.S. In case you’re interested, these have become my favorite go-to Whole 30 recipes:
During the summer, my schedule permits me to take a walk nearly every morning, just after sunrise. I pop in headphones, tune into a podcast, and head for my favorite path. Quiet neighborhood sidewalks open into a paved trail that winds through a farmer’s field, sometimes dotted with freshly-rolled bales of hay. I make my way around a small pond (albeit a former gravel pit with condos along one side), cross a bridge over Buttermilk Creek, and then veer off to a two-track under a canopy of trees. I rarely make it back home without a feeble attempt to capture a shot or two with my camera phone – it might be the sunlight reflecting on the water or a purple wildflower standing proudly in a drainage ditch.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the snow had melted enough to allow for a February walk along this same trail. The sun couldn’t find its way through the clouds, and the gray sky matched the barren trees, but I caught myself snapping pictures of details I hadn’t noticed before – just as the voice on my podcast spoke of how almost everything has an “underbelly,” a hidden side we avoid or don’t know as well. I noticed tree roots twisted into the creek banks, the shimmer of ice hugging the pond’s shore, and that same canopy of trees – in shades of gray instead of forest greens.
I found hope on that walk. Hope in the beauty of the gray: like God gently tapping me on the shoulder to remind me that things don’t have to be shiny and perfect to be good, that grace meets us where we’re at, that creation still cries out in the midst of a dark day. And it’s led me this week to notice more of this, to keep a list of hopeful things.
Extra chairs pulled up to a table.
The sudden, distinct memory of my Grandpa’s deep voice singing his favorite hymn.
A student with down-syndrome, who passed a basketball to a student in a wheelchair to make a basket. Bleachers full of middle schoolers filling the gym with cheers.
An eight-year old shaking the hand of a refugee, no words exchanged, just shining eyes.
A well-written 8th grade literary analysis. The thesis: there is beauty in the ugly. And ugly in the beauty.
The yellow of a sunrise on a barren, winter field.
The friend, an atheist, who found herself in a church pew at the request of her son, and said she just may come back.
A child dancing without music.
A driver who stopped, smiled, and waved me through an intersection.
The Writer’s Almanac. A poem each day standing calming amidst a cluttered inbox of advertisements.
Bible Study in the brewery.
Friends who listen. Who need say little more than, “me too.” On Ash Wednesday, I’m remembering that author Barbara Johnson says that we are “Easter People living in a Good Friday world.” That even in the dormant seasons, God’s story – for redemption, restoration, for the world to be made right again – is not at a standstill. We wait and we work with hope, grateful for a God who shows up in small and big ways.
My New Year’s Resolutions (or New Year’s Good Intentions) are often like my housecleaning — I walk in one room to vacuum, then bend over to pick up a few Nerf bullets strewn about from my kids’ last battle, and suddenly I am gathering up old magazines I meant to recycle yesterday, but on the way to the recycling bin I notice the dishes I had started 20 minutes ago. Oh, and yesterday’s laundry is still damp in the washer after I forgot to transfer it to the dryer.
In other words: I can be scattered. There is much to compete for my attention, and I’m easily distracted, easily called in different directions.
Instead of a list of resolutions, I’ve taken a cue from the folks over at #oneword365 and found I do better with picking one word of focus – “one word that sums up who you want to be or how you want to live.” Tomorrow, I’ll challenge my eighth graders to do the same. We’ll dream, free write, brainstorm, and then they’ll tape index cards featuring their words in their lockers.
This year I’m choosing STILL.
/stil/ Old English stille; from a base meaning ‘be fixed, stand.’
Noun: deep silence and calm.
Quiet is not my default setting. Silence does not naturally abound in my life – I teach 8th grade and I have three young boys at home. But, I’m asking myself, how do I create more calm in the chaos? How can I clean out a bit of space in my soul, even in the midst of noise? I could blame all the commotion on everyone else in my life, but that’s not fair. I fill my calendar too full. I’ve gotten worse at waiting. (I once heard someone say that he wished when a light turned green all the cars could just go simultaneously so that no one had to wait…and I laughed. But since then, I’ve caught myself wishing the same thing.) We live in a world of instant gratification, and I fall easily into its traps. I have to remind myself, sometimes force myself, to pause and then react. I want to practice this kind of stillness in small ways this year: wait to put something in my shopping cart to see if I still want it next week. Avoid rushing to grab my phone the moment it buzzes — or turn it off, set it aside. Wait to open and respond to emails until I have the time to do it well. Breathe before speaking (or snapping or screaming), or maybe just choose silence instead. Allow a day or two to meditate and pray on decisions. Active stillness may look a lot like more like doing nothing when my instinct is to do something now.
2. Adjective: not moving or making a sound.
As I sit writing this on the final eve of my Christmas Break, I’m all too aware of the pace — the movement — waiting for me tomorrow. But maybe stillness is more of mindset, or even a discipline, than a physical state. I often measure my day in to-do lists and items crossed off the calendar. I awake to an alarm on my phone, and the glow of that device is the first light I see. I find myself, first thing in the morning, scrolling instead of praying and centering — checking messages instead of stretching, breathing. I may need to resist the temptation to fill up every window of my day with noise or a screen – often false productivity. To set limits for myself and the people in my house so we look each other in the eyes and talk more often. Set limits so that I pick up more books, read more poetry, and put the work (that will surely be there tomorrow ) aside and go to bed at a decent time. I want to create space to pay better attention, to live deeper rather than just scratching the surface of my days.
3. adverb: nonetheless; despite/in spite of.
This past April, my dad had major heart surgery. Once he was safe and sound in recovery, my husband, siblings, and I went out to lunch, where we sat talking about the enormous sense of false urgency that usually governs our days. Nearly losing my dad hit a reset button for all of us; it was a reminder that our usual stresses were trivial compared to what mattered at that moment. I don’t want to lose that awareness — I want to think about what still, what nonetheless, what truly matters. I recently made a sign for my house that reads, “Life is not an emergency.” (It sits in my bathroom, hanging next to my toilet — get the irony?)
4. verb: make or become still, abate, subside, ease up.
Last, I’m going to have to ease up on myself. Because STILL is a work in progress. It’s tiny steps. It’s January 2, and I’ve already snapped at my children too soon, stared down at my phone in the car instead of having a conversation with my husband, and looked at Instagram too many times today. I know that when I need silence and calm most is when I’m quickest to get short and snappy with others. The calm and serenity of morning is often challenged from the minute I wake my darlings to get dressed and ready for school. I will still need grace. I am still not in charge. The Psalms say, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or, as my favorite author Anne Lamott interprets this verse, “Put a sock in it—you are in charge of very little.”
Late this morning, two of the boys and I went for a walk. It was cold, but the sky was blue, and that barely ever happens around here in January. It was marvelous. I remembered to breathe, even when I had to wait while they threw sticks in a creek for 20 minutes and my fingers were frozen, and the little one’s legs broke down and I had to carry him on my back the last half of the way. But by late afternoon, the skies had turned grey, it was already getting dark, and a cold rain began. I had to think about backpacks and making lunches for tomorrow – which is for no good reason my absolute least favorite chore in the whole world. Then I stopped to flip back through the pictures I had taken from our walk earlier in the day, and I was reminded that high beyond those grey clouds, there is still blue. That we can’t always see the big picture. That some days we just have to sit and breathe in and out while we make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there is solace and assurance and even restoration in the small, everyday things of life. Still.
It was nearly five years ago when Caleb and I participated in a craft night at church to make a nativity scene. I remember that when it was time to draw the faces on our little wooden figurines, I cringed as he grabbed the black Sharpie and haphazardly scratched in the eyes, noses, and mouths. I did a couple for him, including the baby Jesus, to try to show him the “right” way to do it.
This year, when I took that little scene out its box, I was now cringing that I had helped him at all — that instead of two more faces drawn by the little fingers of a kindergartener (who is now as tall as me), I had two smiley faces drawn by a 30-something mom more intent on giving advice than letting her child play.
And two days from Christmas, I’m fessing up that this is still my struggle. Like with that manger scene, I’m always trying to clean these days up, make them a little warmer and fuzzier and more manicured than they want to be. But listen closely and you’ll hear the sounds of my boys fighting over the strains of Christmas music. Ride along in the car and you’ll hear me lecturing about materialism as we run yet another errand. Look closely and you’ll see I have three strands of lights attempting to cover the burnt-out ones that still hang on my tree.
We press expectations of perfection upon Christmas — a day that at its core is about meeting us in our mess, about light entering a world of darkness, chaos, and brokenness.
Everywhere I’ve gone this week, I’ve been given nudges to let go of the polished “Silver Bells” version of Christmas (where everything is shiny and hustling and bustling). I’ve been noticing not just the beauty of the imperfect, but our need for it. Without acknowledgment of our brokenness, of the dark, dark days of December, who needs Christmas? Who needs saving — who needs a savior — when we’re trying so hard to sculpt perfect Christmas moments that we live under the illusion that we can sanitize and save ourselves?
My pastor reminded me last week to be “startled by wonder.” Not the wonder of a magazine-cover holiday, but the wonder of an inside-out Christmas. A reminder that Jesus was born into hopelessness, brokenness; he was born in a smelly cave, not a stained-glass cathedral. And that the news of this birth first came to dirty shepherds: those who didn’t count, who didn’t matter, who were ignored or disdained.
And so when things the next few days –or few years — don’t go exactly as planned (because they won’t), maybe I can remember that God comes into our mess, invites us into other people’s messes, because don’t things have to get messy before they can get good? Isn’t that the heart of the gospel?
I’m not a fast learner, but the reminders keep coming.
A few days ago, I scolded my youngest for writing on the pages of my brand new notebook, for not using scraps of paper (that I can covertly recycle after he’s in bed.) But then yesterday, I got out my notebook to scratch down thoughts about imperfection, about doing more things badly, but with passion. And I found these doodles. Perfectly imperfect evidence of a real, abundant life.
Let me keep being reminded this Christmas that I don’t need to clean up so much, that I don’t need to sculpt every moment into something Hallmark-worthy. Because the good stuff can only be found when there is also room for the mess.
P.S. Giving credit to Jack Ridl for inspiring me to get that notebook out yesterday, and passing along this gift to you, as my cousin Sara, did for me yesterday. This is from a couple of years ago, but it begs to be watched today, right now. Jack is one of the good, good teachers I’ve had, and his stuff about “with” is wisdom I try to carry with me everywhere — into my classroom, my home, my marriage, my writing. I need to hear these words about showing up, showing up perfectly imperfect almost all the time, but especially in December.
“By facing God, we also face our own inner chaos.”
— Henri Nouwen
It was a warm, fall, Michigan Sunday; what I knew would likely be our last for awhile. Twenty-some family members had just left my house, and the dishes were in the dishwasher, the floor was swept, and my husband wanted a couple of hours to laze and nap. I, on the contrary, had visions of a wistful walk through the woods as a family – basking in the fall colors. You know, something straight out of that Instagram or Facebook post that instantly makes it seem that other people have life figured out, and I can’t quite seem to get it together.
And so, I solicited volunteers – two boys (ages 3 and 6) – and we piled into the car and headed to the nearest nature center. I parked at the trailhead, and we were not more than 20 feet up the path when the oldest declared this walk “boring and stupid.” The youngest meandered and wandered and panicked whenever he dropped one of the 30 leaves that had haphazardly become his prized collection. What’s more, he didn’t even pick the best leaves, the ones I deemed prettiest, but seemed content with the browns and molded yellows.
We slowly made our way as I tried to appreciate the beauty despite the whining, despite the fact that one son had now disappeared down another trail to sulk and the other would not stop talking (don’t the woods inspire silence?) and was now begging to be carried the rest of the way to the car. I took enough pictures to feel like I had record of the sunshine and something suitable to resemble a perfect family moment (or millisecond).
Back at home, I walked through the door a bit more tired and a lot less energized than what I had gloriously envisioned when we left. As I stood in the kitchen, contemplating what to feed these boys in my house who had somehow managed to get hungry again, my husband came up behind me and tapped me gently on the shoulder, saying, “You try so hard.”
Trying is my thing: it has always been my thing. I come from a family of hard workers — farmers — who have taught me to get a move on, to get things accomplished, to not slow down (besides, we might fall asleep if we did). We don’t need rest. We have things to do. We are “yes” people. We must have something to show for our time.
But the problem with trying is just that — it’s a try. Trying is not foolproof. Effort alone does not always guarantee expectations are met. Trying may earn occasional admiration for hard work and commitment, but it doesn’t get any of us across the finish line 100% of the time. Trying can earn us approval, but doesn’t often fulfill our purpose.
And, when we’re honest, we can admit that trying can also feel a whole lot like like bluffing, like pretending. It feels like trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got it under control, that we can do it all, that if we focus and work hard enough, we can fool people — or maybe ourselves — into believing we can keep the world — our at least our world — spinning.
It can feel a bit like posting a picture of a beautiful walk in the woods when no one can see our kid’s scowl or our own frustration on the other side of the camera.
For a long time, I believed I needed to “let go, and let God,” which is one of those trite phrases that is easy to repeat and has had very little practical applicability in my life. This is mainly because I still envisioned that if I let go, God would make me soar, make me succeed, makes things turn out “right.” God would clean up the mess — rather than meet me in the mess and accept me there.
I’m realizing more and more, letting go looks more like falling than expecting everything to fall into place. Letting go is acknowledging my shortcomings, acknowledging that trying will probably not be enough, and then accepting that. Maybe even celebrating that.
One of the problems with trying — with that pick-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps mentality — is that it isn’t truly compatible with grace, with undeserved and unconditional love. It’s like saying, “Well…I sorta need saving, but I’m doing pretty well on my own. I can handle most of it, God, if you can just help me out with the last 11% or so.” Trying too hard doesn’t truly leave room for grace because both hands never completely let go of the controls. We just lift a pinky at a time and then clench the rest of our fists harder.
And when I’m not ready to truly receive grace, it also becomes harder to dole out. Because if I’m hustling and working, everyone else should be, too. (And that starts to sounds like a lot like competition, doesn’t it?) I’ve heard grace referred to as a “simple act,” but that’s just not true. Grace is a whole lot harder and requires a whole lot more trust and faith than makes most of us comfortable.
The problem with trying, pushing, and hustling to prove our own worthiness is it doesn’t leave room for the messiness of grace, for the gift of rest, for the discomfort of understanding that I will not — cannot — get it all right because the world is broken, I am human, and there will always be more to do. It doesn’t leave room to collect and celebrate those brown and yellow molded leaves. Or to accept that life rarely can be molded, manufactured, or pressed into perfection.
I was in choirs when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and I thought I was pretty good at it. Along with my cousins or youth group friends, I’d even perform “Special Music” (a phenomenon of 1990s West Michigan church culture) at night services, and was always among the first to try out for solos at school.
But sometime around the end of middle school, I realized that my performances weren’t so cute anymore. No one cringes at a slightly out-of-tune 3rd grader, but the judgement — or awareness of judgement — sets in around the age of 12, 13. As I grew older and more self conscious, I quit all choirs, and started to sing quietly in church, making sure my voice wasn’t heard outside of the crowd, outside of the other muted voices.
During a recent Sunday morning during worship, an adult with some cognitive impairments stood a few rows behind me, singing over the crowd. Her voice was out of tune and out of rhythm — and beautiful. It was raw. It was real. With this voice behind me, I dared raise my own voice a bit. Add into the chorus the sounds of a baby babbling nearby, and I really felt free to air my own imperfection.
Maybe this is more of what our churches need, more of what I need. We need to welcome more out-of-tune voices, more babies crying, more messes in the pews, and through the doors.
I recently had the chance to interview Gregg Taylor. Gregg is a friend of my church, and currently serves as the President of the Board of the National Association of Christian Recovery. He’s also works with Houston reVision, an organization that helps gang-effected youth and kids on the edge to revise the stories of their lives toward a hope-filled future. Prior to joining reVision, Gregg was the pastor of Mercy Street, a church in Houston that creates a safe place for the hurt, the lost, and the seeking to experience radical grace.
Gregg told me the story of how he ended up working at Mercy Street after spending 17 years in campus ministry. The experience is best shared in his own words from an interview we did together:
I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My dad was a child of an alcoholic. My mother was a child of alcoholic. Our family could be a case study. (Laughs.)
A friend of mine, the founding pastor of Mercy Street, was transitioning out, and he called to see if I would talk with him. And I said no; I like it where I am. But he pushed and pushed, and I finally relented. He said, ‘Just talk?” And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll talk.”
I knew of Mercy Street, but I’d never been there. As I sat down in that service, I thought, ‘Wow. This is the kind of church where Jesus would show up.” It was raw, it was celebratory, it was broken, it was a mess. There was an energy of palpable grace and connection.
But the kicker for me…My dad passed away right before I accepted the job, and he was sick during this entire conversation. My dad was 10 years sober when he passed away, and those last 10 years had been great, lots of reconciliation. When I was explaining to my dad about the possibility of coming to Mercy Street, I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of drunks in this church and people in AA. And he goes, “That sounds like the kind of church I could go to.” And I said, “Yeah, dad, that’s the kind of church that would welcome you with open arms.”
You see, he grew up in a hellfire/damnation, shame-based, fear-filled church. His Dad made sure he was at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights — every time the doors were open — but then at home, his dad would beat the hell out of him. And my grandfather would beat my grandmother. This spiritual toxicity had seeped into his soul, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. There was a lot of fear and shame; he was beat down, but AA helped him recover from that and return to himself and God. AA became his fellowship of faith. By the time he died, he was no longer atheist or agnostic, but the God of his understanding was compassionate, grace-filled, and loving. My sense was that if Jesus could show up at Mercy Street, and this was a place where my dad could show up and be welcomed with radical hospitality, I could say, “Yes.” And so I went.
Gregg went on to share stories with me — stories of a homeless woman with no teeth learning to serve and smile, stories of bringing his own son to rehab and feeling love and compassion rather than whispering gossip about a preacher’s kid who needed help.
Gregg said a church that welcomes recovery “creates a space where brokenness is not a problem — whatever brokenness we bring is actually a pathway to grace. God doesn’t turn his head to that, but it actually becomes the conduit to where compassion, restoration, and grace flow.”
The truth is that we’re all in recovery. We’re all dealing with junk. We’re all cracked and broken. And grace is available to all of us. But those who are willing to admit when they’re broken soak up that grace a little more easily.
As a rule-following, oldest child with a history of trying too hard, of trying to control situations and manage the people around me, I’m not always being very good at admitting when I need help or when things aren’t going well.
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning writes, “Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, ‘I think I can fix this.'”
Showing up real and vulnerable to God — or anyone else — is impossible when it becomes all about trying to have it all together, all about performing. Especially because we’re out of tune much of the time.
I stopped singing loudly for the same reason many people never want to step a foot through a church’s door again. It’s hard to pretend you’re good when you’re not. It’s hard to show up and be a mess. So often, we get very good at pretending or we shut up, we stay away. And too often, grace and love — radical hospitality — aren’t the first thing people feel when they walk inside a church.
We can learn a lot from our friends in recovery. We could learn a lot by admitting we all are in recovery. It isn’t a place for pretending to be perfect or whispering quietly — it’s a place to be honest and broken enough to be fully present, fully known, and fully loved. It’s not only about showing radical hospitality, but accepting that gift, too.
I was a nervous, cautious kid, not one to take risks — and it wasn’t until high school that I remember being talked into venturing onto a rollercoaster and walking off the platform with a smile on face. My problem was that as soon as I reached the pinnacle — that moment of the first drop, as soon as momentum picked up — my stomach went under, and I would panic and forget to breathe. But eventually, by laughing and screaming with a good friend beside me, I came to realize that if I could will myself to let out my breath as we plunged down that first hill, I might actually enjoy the ride. I might get why people waited hours in lines to ride these things.
(Now, as I near forty, my brain and my bladder would rather me speak metaphorically about this experience than get in line to prove it’s still true.)
For teachers, August can feel like that slow click, click, click up the first hill of the rollercoaster.
I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m anxious, I’m anticipating — I know the steep drop ahead of me. I know I will have 140-some names, faces, and stories to learn. I know I will trade my summer sunrise walks for earlier-than-usual alarm clocks and lessons that I am inspired to revise while in the shower that morning. I know that my email box will fill quickly, and I will decorate my desk with sticky notes of to-do lists. I know I will finish the first day and sit down relieved, only to grasp the reality that I get to do it again the next day. (More than a decade in, why is this continually a surprise to me in September?)
And so this weekend, I’m mentally rehearsing my breathing. I’m reminding myself that the joy is in the work, that the reward is in showing up — and that the fantasy of finishing it all or doing it perfectly is silly.
Because that’s not the point.
I most enjoy teaching and my students most enjoy learning when I remember the basics — when I keep it simple and share my passion for reading and writing. When I don’t overplan or push too hard. When I honor the slowness and the messiness that is learning.
My tendency to forget to breathe is a symptom of trying too hard to control things that are not mine to control. My tendency to tense up and feel overwhelmed is a symptom of forgetting that life is, in fact, not an emergency. That teaching is an art, not a science, and that I’m working with adolescents, not machines. That the beauty — the fun of the ride — is easily missed when I’m closing my eyes, holding my breath, and clenching my hands too tightly.
Tuesday morning I’ll walk into my classroom to teach, but I’ll also send off my three sons to their own classrooms. Like me — like their teachers — they will be a little nervous, a little tired, a little afraid, a little excited. Let’s all promise to breathe, to laugh, as we take this first hill together.
It was just a few minutes after I had shooed the boys outside when I found them – all three – peering down into a trash can that had been dragged into the garage. The teamwork and silence were a clue that this scene needed further investigating.
At the bottom of the bin I saw a small robin, struggling for breath. The details were fuzzy, but involved a Nerf gun, the bird (which I gathered from later confessions may have been injured or slow) and its transport to our garage.
For an instant, I wondered if this was just a “boys will be boys” moment, but as I looked into the faces of my little guys and down at that little creature, I found my eyes glassy and my voice shaking. Their original faces of bewilderment turned toward panic, and my oldest began to cry, promising “I didn’t mean to”and “I didn’t know.” My middle, whose emotions mainly display as anger, turned bitter, his voice short, and voluntarily lifted the bird and carried him back outside to the green grass. The bird still made no attempt to fly.
For the next several minutes, we had a few more tears, a little more anger, and too much lecturing from me. By filling the silence with noise, I justified moving on quickly from anything too messy. By telling my kids how they should feel, I rescued them from what they already felt. By naming the situation before they could process it, I found a way to assure them – and myself – everything was okay, when maybe it wasn’t.
Leaving the bird be – with hopes would miraculously wake from its daze and fly away – we all piled in the car to run off to whatever thing we had planned next. Driving out of the neighborhood, with a bit of fresh air coming through the windows, I finally remembered to quiet down, perhaps long enough to allow room for some empathy, some room to just be broken.
It’s a tricky path to navigate. Protecting my kids’ innocence, while still wanting their hearts to be tender enough to ache. Remembering my job is not to squeeze them into a mold. Restraining from fixing my third grader’s spelling errors so he can write his own drafts before Mom gets out her red revision pen.
In a broken world – with war and unrest and children sitting alone at elementary school lunch tables – I desperately want my boys to be safe, happy, and loved, but I also want to allow them to feel discomfort; to not be so protected, numb or self-absorbed that they don’t recognize the pain of people around them.
It’s moments when we stare down at a dying bird or overhear a news report on school shootings that our little ones need a chance to ask a few questions. And while I’m not advocating trading in PBS morning cartoons for CNN, it does seem like kids deserve adults willing to wrestle with them through the hard stuff. Though I want to protect my sons from pain and harm, I also want them to see that the world is bigger than their neighborhood and that there are tragedies bigger than running out of Frosted Flakes in the morning. On returning home, my oldest son went back outside to check on the bird. I wobbled between trepidation and pride as I watched through the window as he stooped to pick up that little creature, walk it slowly to the trash, and then make his way back into our door.
Stumble: trip or momentarily lose one's balance; almost fall. Grace: Undeserved redemption, sweetness.