Empathy, Simple Pleasures, & The Trumpet Of The Swan

Trumpet of the Swan

Back when I was a student at Olde Providence Elementary School, I discovered the work of E.B. White. I cannot even remember how many times I checked out either Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. The former book made me want a pet pig and, the latter, made me wish for a mouse for a brother (and envious of Stuart with his beautiful red roadster). Yet, despite my love for both of these books, I never got around to checking out or reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

Even when we had our first child, I read him both Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but, despite owning a copy of The Trumpet of the Swan, never read it to him, either. I cannot explain this. Why would I not when I loved the other two books so dearly? It wasn’t until recently, with our younger son, that this book even got taken down from the shelf. He adores birds and is becoming an avid birdwatcher (so much so we are joining our local Audubon Society). After he read The Trumpet of the Swan, he recommended it to me with, “Papa, you’ve got to read this book. It is soooo good. You’re going to love it, too.” I promised him that I would and he reminded me of that promise recently; so I agreed to read this children’s literary classic. And I’m so glad that I finally did!

As I began to read, I could certainly identify with the boy, Sam Beaver, who was described as “…odd in one respect: he liked to keep things to himself. And he liked being alone, particularly when he was in the woods.” It also described White himself, who was a quiet man. He loved writing in an old boathouse at the water’s edge where he could be in peace in solitude.

E B White in boathouse

What I appreciated about this character was that, “Every night, before he turned in, he would write in the book. He wrote about things he had done, things he had seen, and thoughts he had had. Sometimes he drew a picture. He always ended by asking himself a question so he would have something to think about while falling asleep.” I love this idea of keeping a journal of what one saw during one’s day, drawing a quick sketch, but, even more so, ending the entry with questions. Unanswered questions to ponder in one’s sleep. What a wonderful way to approach the world.

Trumpet

“The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking,” wrote E.B. White in one of my favorite passages from The Trumpet of the Swan. It’s wise advice that so few people choose to do. In my own life, our of pure curiosity, I love to ask questions and just listen to people unfold the stories of their lives. In a world with so many words, many of them angry and pointed, we have neglected the pleasures that come with not always having to be heard but to offer only empathy and understanding.

EPSON scanner image

What I loved about The Trumpet of the Swan, along with Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, is the simplicity of the writing mixed with the complexity of using words children might not be familiar with. E.B. White said in an interview once, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”

White’s style reveals his spirit: how he was fascinated by natural science and a keen observer and used the rich in detail from the world around him in his books. His work is infused with a sense of wonder that he retained all of his life and brought to his writing.  Those who knew him said that he had “an unsurpassed capacity for wonder.”

In his letters, he wrote, “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”  This love of nature was something that White had ever since he was a young boy. As he said of himself, he “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.”  This was shown to the various animals he tended, though his favorite were birds (pigeons, chickens, a turkey, ducks, and geese).

EB White with his dog

Along with his love for animals, White lived for the simple life. In one of his essays, he wrote, “I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands—she with a couple of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists—just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.”

The Trumpet of the Swan is not as fanciful as Stuart Little or filled with the imaginative creatures that inhabit Charlotte’s Web, but it reveals a quieter and serene sense of White’s approach to the world. This sweet, tender tale also has some of my favorite lines by E.B. White when he writes, “As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”

eb-white

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Sparking Curiosity

IMG_7929

Two of my favorite people to watch and listen to is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, and Emily Graslie, the Curiosity Correspondent for The Field Museum in Chicago (she has her own YouTube program called The Brain Scoop, which I highly recommend as it is informative and entertaining). In 2017, he interviewed her about the future of museums. At around 4:37 in the 10-minute video, Neil asks Emily, “Where do kids lose their curiosity?”

All children are born with a natural curiosity. “Why?” is a favorite question. I have raised both my sons to question and wonder, to ask and to seek answers, to ponder and to wonder and to be curious human beings who never get bored with or dulled by this great big amazing world and all that it has to offer.

Emily Graslie’s response was, “As soon as they get standardized testing. We stop doing experiments in class, we stopped going on field trips, but instead, we spent that time preparing for a test. A test for information that you had that you had no context for.” She explained that’s where she lost her interest in biology and the natural world.

As a parent who homeschools, I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. Schools are no longer places that teach kids to think, question, ponder, dream, explore, and investigate. It is now a place where teachers pour out facts that the kids memorize so they can then regurgitate onto a standardized test. There was no passion in learning.

So, as a parent and one who homeschools his son, how do I encourage and foster a sense of curiosity in my child? As well as continue to do so within me? How do I keep a sense of child-like curiosity about the world in my life?

Today, for example, we have been learning all about plants and parts of a plant cell and parts of the plant and how they are both male and female. So we went out on a nature walk to see different types of plants, to look more closely at actual plants. To see the flowers that are still in bloom. To sniff them and see which ones had scents and which ones didn’t. We touched and explored. We felt the difference between types of barks on a variety of trees. We contrasted that with the softness of beds of moss or with the textures of rocks.

IMG_7900

There were times on our nature walk where I would suddenly say, “STOP! Be still. Close your eyes and just listen.” And we would. For a few minutes, we would remain motionless and, with eyes closed, focused all of our sense of the world into our hearing. What did we hear? What did it feel like to experience the world without sight even if only for a few minutes? How did that change our perspective of what was around us?

My son was fascinated. He was paying attention more closely to the natural world but also to his senses. We would stop moving and be quiet to simply watch nature. Our stillness allowed us to be able to watch a Robin drink from a creek.

IMG_7888

This child who is diagnosed with ADHD, was still and quiet. His attention was focused and not distracted. He was engaged and fascinated with the natural world and it became more alive to him than simply facts on a page.

The naturalist and biologist, Edward O. Wilson wrote, “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom.” And he’s right. Why? Because we do not allow for wonder, for a child to go out and touch things and turn over rocks and inspect what the bugs are doing underneath that rock. We are not allowing children to be engaged with nature and to understand it more than simply as facts. There is no sense of discovery in rote learning that is simply geared towards testing. The education system makes no room for daydreaming, for aimless wandering, for imagining. These are not quantifiable things we can test to show a school system that our kids have grasped information.

Yet how much connectedness and complexity are these students missing out on in their education? You can learn about soil on a tablet but there is something richer when a child can touch that soil in their hands; when they can pick up an acorn or a pine comb, or see minnows swimming in a pond, or listen to birdsong.

IMG_7925

I watched my son today as he delighted in this world. He stopped to watch ants on a rock. He sat down beside a pond to look at the turtles basking in the sun on the rocks. Or gasp in wonder as two yellow swallow-tail butterflies danced and flitted and chased each other through the woods.

“The fascinating thing about curiosity,” Emily Graslie said, “is that it is self-perpetuating.”

IMG_7905

And it is. I watched my son become curious with each new aspect of nature that he encountered first-hand. Everything from a downy-woodpecker to a mushroom.

When we returned home, I asked him to get out his daily journal and write about this experience. Normally, he hates writing. He struggles to articulate himself in the written word, but not today. Today I watched as he poured out what he saw and heard and felt and experienced in nature into words on the page (three pages to be exact). He was thrilled and excited about expressing what he encountered. But even before he wrote a single word, he spoke them in enthusiasm as we drove home from our walk. It was exciting – learning was exciting. Once again his curiosity was kindled and sparked.

The same for myself.

I love to read nonfiction books about the natural world, about science, and to get a tiny glimpse of how truly big and grand the world both around and inside of me really is. I love that reading about what scientists in their different fields are beginning to understand. It sparks in me a sense of awe and wonder. The universe becomes both bigger and smaller, as in the case of my current read (Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life). I love how this expands my sense of everything. Makes me think differently and have newer and more thoughtful questions to ask.

Ed Yong writes in I Contain Multitudes that, “Within 24 hours of moving into a new place, we overwrite it with our own microbes, turning it into a reflection of ourselves.” When I read that simple and yet complex sentence, I was amazed. It was something I began to really and truly stop to think about. I began to reflect on how we can have a microbial impact on the very places where we are. We change the place to a reflection of ourselves without even consciously being aware of it. And that’s part of why I love science. This fascinates me. And it makes me curious to know more. It also spurs me on to inspire and embolden my sons to do likewise.

A closed mind shows open ignorance. I don’t want them to dismiss subjects as unimportant or of no use. I want them to approach each new subject as a way of becoming animated to ask and discover and explore what they are reading and, in the case of my older son, hearing in lectures and discussions in the college classes he’s taking.

I don’t want them to close themselves off. I want them to feel the freedom that comes with questioning and discovering better questions to ask with each answer they uncover or find. Take pleasure in the “Why?” As E.O. Wilson writes in his Letters to a Young Scientist, “First passion, then training.” I love that. “It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training,” Wilson continues, “Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science, in technology, or some other science-related profession. Obey the passion as long as it lasts. Feed it with knowledge the mind needs to grow. Sample other subjects, acquire a general education in science, and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears.”

Now my older son is studying computer science and I keep telling him that he will never know where his inspiration might come from or how he wants to engage that technology with the real world, so don’t close off his curiosity by dismissing a subject because he doesn’t think it relates to what he wants to do.

The more we learn about the natural world, the more we learn about ourselves. The more we become invested because we are constantly asking and studying and examining and delving into something more fully, more deeply, and with a greater sense of purpose.

IMG_7910

 

 

 

Real Adventure

 

the-book-of-three-anniversary-cover-620x330

Lately, I have been reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, which is the second in his The Chronicles of Prydain, and have delighted in the masterful way he has taken Celtic mythology and created his own world using elements from it. Ever since I was a boy, I have loved fantasy novels and imagined myself within the worlds such authors have created; beginning with C.S. Lewis and Narnia. In Alexander’s novel, I came to a passage that resonated with me. In it, Adaon, the warrior, tells Taran, the assistant pig farmer, as they are off in search of the magical black cauldron, “Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us? You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.”

How many of us grasp the truth of Adaon’s statement? Do we view our daily lives as adventures? That there is glory in the ordinary?

More often we think of adventurers as those who rock climb or skydive or travel to exotic and distant locales, or mountain climbers or deep-sea divers. In our heads, we picture those who first sailed the seas in exploration or traveled into space. Adventure is something that is grand and spectacular – something completely out of the ordinary. There is nothing adventurous about our hum-drum daily existences – is there?

Do we see adventure not as something to be sought but as something to be lived in our everyday existence with those whom we love and love us? In sharing a meal or a walk? In the simple conversations we have with one another? In the making of beds and the washing of dishes? In the reading of stories and the saying of prayers? Do we see glory in weeding our gardens or mowing our yards? Do we see the extraordinary magic that is woven in these quotidian activities?

Why must we consider adventure to be something of danger instead of something that is nourishing and nurturing, as in the relationships we have? There is always great risk in loving as it is because to open ourselves up in vulnerability always offers the chance of being hurt. Yet to hold someone’s hand and to be present with them in that moment, what more does a life need? It is not about the grand gestures or acts that we do, but in the offering of ourselves wholeheartedly to another, to parenting our children, to being with a friend during a time of trial or heartbreak as well as those moments of simple joys (such as having coffee and conversations).

There is such complexity to the ordinary. The rhythms of our habits and our routines often dull us to this realization. We are miracles. All around us are miracles.

One reason that I love practicing the liturgy of the hours is because it forces me to stop, to pause and be aware of the holy in the hours of my daily life. All moments are sacred, but sometimes this pausing to pray reminds me of what I too often take for granted. Taking the time to begin one’s day with Lauds or to stop mid-morning for Terce and to end one’s day with Vespers is to offer all of my moments, all of my hours as a sacrament before God. It is seeing the sacred in the ordinary.

Psychologist Abraham H. Maslow wrote, “The sacred is in the ordinary . . . it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard . . . To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.”

When Moses approached the burning bush, he took off his sandals because he understood he was treading on holy ground. Do we realize this as we enter our very backyards?

Do we see our getting ready in the morning, getting dressed, as an act of worship? As a priest puts on his holy vestments, so, too, are we as we get dressed and go about our days. We are no less priests and priestesses. Our actions and interactions with those we come in contact with us should be an opportunity for transformation, for a moment when two humans, created in the divine image, realize this about each other. It would certainly change how we view our morning commute or those we encounter in a grocery store line.

All of our lives are spiritual lives. All hours are holy hours.

But we have to recognize this. We have to allow ourselves to be aware of the glory in living the days that are given to us. These days are gifts. Precious and holy gifts. We are guaranteed no more than the moment we are in, so we must cherish each one as our last. To realize that this moment we are in, right now, is an adventure that should inspire in us an awe greater than that of seeing the Grand Canyon or the vast expanse of an ocean.

So, go forth, into the adventure that is your day.

 

Life As Story

Buechner's Library

In his book The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner writes, “How do I happen to believe in God? Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.”

For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories. Written ones. Ones read aloud by my mother to me before bed. Stories told by my relatives: stories of my family and of those whom I never knew and some whom I can now barely recall. Every summer, I was hauled off to camp (being told that it “built character,” a phrase I distrust to this day. My parents used this phrase for anything they know I would dislike, such as certain detestable vegetables) and, not being one who was either prone or interested in athletics, I found very little to enjoy (although I did learn to love and become quite good at archery), but the one thing I loved was when our camp leader would gather us by the fireside and read to us from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It was a book I already adored and knew as well as my best friend, but there was something even more magical about hearing it read aloud with only the light of a campfire and the darkness of the mountains and the woodland sounds all around us.

I was a child enraptured by stories and even began to delight in writing my own (though they were most often cheap copies of the books I loved with my own variations).  In Sunday School, in the Presbyterian Church I grew up in, I heard “Bible stories.” These stories could seem magical though they often took dark turns (much like fairy tales did) and they sounded much bigger and grander than the life I certainly led. God as a whirlwind or a column of fire or a burning bush. Men saw angels and a ladder of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. There were men who miraculously survived un-singed in a fiery furnace or un-nipped by lions in a den. There was a floating zoo, that bobbed on the flooded surface of the earth where most of humanity and creation was drowned. There was the terrifying angel of death who snatched away the firstborn of all the Egyptians but passed by the houses of the Israelites with their doorways splashed with lambs’ blood. So much of this seemed disconnected from my small life on Windy Rush Road.

And yet I was being told that these were more than stories and the lives they spoke of were deeply connected to my own. How? Certainly, I hated Adam and Eve if it was their fault that there was so much bad in the world and it was because of them that there was death, as well as my getting into trouble and being punished for it. Seemed like a raw deal to me just because they ate of some fruit. I didn’t get why God didn’t just punish them and create some more people.

Still, I read my children’s Bible with its colorful illustrations and I memorized scripture verses; mainly to win prizes (especially if those prizes were books, like my copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress).

The older I got and the more I understood how stories worked and what they could impart to me, the reader, the more I began to realize how much I was like some of those within the pages of the Bible. I could be moody and temperamental like Peter, who so often spoke before he thought. While I had a harder time seeing myself as young David slaying a giant, I did see myself in him when he hid in caves and wondered where God was.

And I loved how Jesus told stories, or parables as we were told they were called. I liked that he taught through stories because this meant that stories were divinely important. Stories were a way of drawing people in. It was something our ancestors had been doing for centuries. The Old Testament was full of stories of finite man attempting to understand infinite God. And I loved that Jesus was called “the Word” because this concept meant that words mattered. Christ revealed God through story. This astounded and delighted me, a lover of stories.

In Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

How often do we think of our own lives within this divine story? Do we think of our lives as having plots and narratives? Do we see how we are characters in the stories of others? Each and every day, we become a part of a narrative thread that weaves itself throughout all of history, tying us to those who came before us and to those who will come after us. We are part of our ancestors’ stories and we are part of our future generations to come. Story connects all of us to each other.  And, ultimately, we are a part of our Creator’s.

It’s overwhelming to stop to consider.

Or to consider that every person we meet is a story and has a personal one that only they can tell. There are stories that would break our hearts and tear our souls if we stopped to hear them. There are those of great joy and affirmation that would make us feel a sense of gratitude and amazement. Yet within all of those stories is a God who created and cares about each and every one of them. This means that no story is insignificant, that all of our stories matter and have importance.

Storytelling is our way of expressing that which is deepest within ourselves; thereby allowing us to connect with each other. It is a way of tying into that emotional and spiritual reservoir that dwells in the spirit of every living person.

To tell our story is a spiritual endeavor. It is to offer up a part of ourselves, a sacramental act that can not only empower the one telling their story but also those listening. To take the time to read or listen to another’s story is a way to worship because it requires us to be present. To hear, truly hear, the story of someone is to strive to understand the great mystery that lies at the heart of all our lives. Story forms community. It opens communication and understanding in a way that nothing else can. That’s why we love stories: be they written or spoken or painted or on a screen (be it either television of movie or even computer). It’s why we watch Ted Talks by the millions. Why? Because we see ourselves in the stories of others. Because they enlarge our understanding and our empathy. They shape and transform us. They gather our parts and give them a whole and a meaning.

This is why we love fairy tales and myths and folklore: because they tap into who we really and truly are. This is why we can never fully plumb the depths of scripture. When we return to a story we have read before, we have changed, therefore the story we are now re-reading has changed. We see it differently. That’s why the same story read by a million different readers is really a million different stories. But isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it incredible to think of the billions of stories that walk the earth at this very moment?

Returning to Buechner, he writes, “The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story.”

All our lives have plots. All our lives are stories. All of our lives have meaning.

What a glorious, wonderful story we all compose!

 

 

An Encounter With Awe

IMG_7835

I sit by the edge of the pond and listen.

Cicadas’ tymbals fill the summer air with their loud singing.

Sometimes I hear the song of the mockingbird or the Carolina Wren.

A turtle’s head pops up through the surface of the water.

Though I have not brought a book with me,

the landscape is filled with biology, geology, theology, and poetry.

I spot a Pipevine Swallowtail flitting about on shiny, metallic blue and black wings.

That is as close to an encounter with an angelic being as I will get today,

but that is enough.

Enough for me to grasp, “The whole earth is filled with Your glory.”

Maybe the Dobson Fly, large and intimidating with its powerful mandibles

are closer to angels; after all, as Rilke wrote in his Duino Elegies:

Every angel is terrifying.

And, like an angel, this dobson fly brings me into awareness, into awe.

 

 

Advice To My Son Upon Entering College

Reading by Light

This past week, we dropped my older son off at the college he will be attending. To transport all of the things for his dorm room, we took two vehicles. My younger son rode with my wife and my older son rode with me. It was an hour and a half drive, so I normally love to listen to music on road trips, but my son wanted to talk. How can I take him up on that before he leaves for the next chapter in his life? So the radio remained off and we talked about anything he wanted to talk about. The hour and a half went by quicker than any I can remember. At one point, I reminded him, “No matter where you are, our house will always be your home. And no matter what, I love you for who you are, not what you accomplish. You will always be my son and I will always be proud of you.”

There was so much that I wanted to say but couldn’t. Mainly because I didn’t want to get too emotional; as well as the fact that I let him by the guide of our conversation. I wanted him to say what was on his heart and in his thoughts. But now I have an opportunity to put down in words some of what I wanted to say.

The first time I ever held you, I whispered a prayer in your ear, “May your heart always be filled with compassion and your mind with curiosity and wonder.”

Compassion and curiosity.

Those are the two things I hope guide you, not only through your college life but throughout your life.

Compassion for others. “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ thought this the greatest of commandments. Compassion, kindness, tenderness, generosity, mercy, and love: these are what should guide you in the choices you make – not simply the bottom line and money.  See others as being made in the image of God and treat them as such. If you do, then all will be worthy of your compassion and you will see the intrinsic value of each and every person that you meet.

Compassion means seeing beyond self, beyond your own plans and being aware of the pains and needs of others. It means being present to them: sometimes simply sitting with them and listening. You don’t have to have answers, just a willingness to be there with them through whatever they are going through. If you do this, you will find true friendship and community wherever you go. Compassion will expand your boundaries in ever-widening circles, to paraphrase the poet Rilke.

And curiosity.

All wisdom begins in wonder. It begins in the asking of questions. It is a seeking, a pursuing, a wondering, a pondering, and the ability to see something from more than just your own or one perspective. Never ever stop questioning. Never stop imagining or dreaming. There are those who see such things as counter-productive but do not listen to them. Make the time and space in your busy routine to simply sit and think. Find a tree that is your tree and daydream. Watch others. See the world around you. Literally, stop and see. Again, be present to where you are.

You will change and curiosity will see to that. You will find yourself doubting yourself and questioning yourself. This is all a part of growing up. But know, deep down, whose you really are and who you really are. Ask yourself: What do I really believe and why do I believe that? Some of these will change, but keep in mind that in your choices lie your character.

One of my favorite quotes and one that has so often applied to my own life is one by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” I wholeheartedly believe that.

Explore. There is so much more to the world than you have even begun to imagine.

Find new interests that you never knew you would enjoy. Try new things and meet new people. You will find yourself becoming a new person in so many unexpected ways.

Take delight in this time in your life. It will only come once. Do not spend all of your time worrying and studying. Take joy in your learning. View each class as the opportunity to not only learn something you never knew before but as opportunities to ask questions, you never would have thought of asking before.

Do not be afraid to fail. You will. It’s a part of life and a part of growing up. It’s how you respond to failure that is important. I expect you to make mistakes and mess up. This will not impact my love for you. There will be times that you do not know what you’re doing – this is natural and it will be like that throughout your life. You won’t have all the answers and that’s okay. Sometimes it is far more important to have bigger, grander questions.

Create. Create in ways that only you can. You were put here to create what only you can. We are, all of us, meant to be co-creators in whatever fields or interests we have in life (even if it’s in planting a garden or fixing a meal). Add beauty to the world in your own way. Daily. This could be in the simple act of smiling and greeting a stranger.

Find new goals and hopes. Dream new dreams.

Know also that to achieve dreams, one must be willing to work towards and put in the effort to achieve them.

Learn when to say, “No.” This may cost you friends, but they weren’t real friends anyway if they cannot understand your choices. Say no to something if you find that you are only doing it for the money.

There will be times when you are discouraged, when you feel lonely, when it feels hopeless, and that, too, can be normal. But don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it. Surround yourself with friends who can be entrusted to hold these feelings and for you to be able to hold theirs. This requires and vulnerability.

Sometimes success can be worse than failure. This is especially true if success leads you away from being who you were meant to be, or if it hurts those relationships that are most important to you.

Envision a world the way you see it and work towards achieving what you can to make that a reality. Your talents, your gifts, and your achievements are not who you are. Neither is being a student or whatever job you find yourself taking. Know that. Do not let the outside world tell you who you are or what you should be. Listen to your inner one. This means taking time to be still and to listen. “Be still, and know that I am God” is the beginning of true wisdom. Meditate on that before making any major decisions.

Life can be hard. As I said, making mistakes are a part of that. Sometimes life doesn’t happen the way that you planned, but that’s okay. Make new plans. Revise. Rethink. But don’t let it stop you from dreaming, from creating, from becoming who you are truly meant to be. I cannot tell you who that is or what that will entail. I can simply be here to love you and offer whatever advice my experience has given me.

You are my son. That will never, ever change.

I love you. That also will never, ever change.

I will always be here for you.

So, as I said, be guided by compassion and curiosity.

I know your life will be amazing in ways that I cannot begin to dream or imagine – and in ways that even you cannot yet begin to dream or imagine.

As your Papa, I cannot wait to watch what God and life have in store for you.

The Summer Psalm

IMG_7834.JPG

Did we find our prayers there

among the oaks and ashes and elms?

Did we learn that prayers are not words

but the song sung by warblers

or in the quiet whirring buzz of the dragonfly’s wings?

As we walked along the rambling path,

that edged beside the willows and the bullrushes,

did we grasp that grace was like this lake;

something freely given and unearned,

something we could just accept

as the turtle simply swims in its waters.

Did we, as we took off our shoes and socks

so that we could step into the cool, clear stream,

understand that grace underlies all of creation?

Did praise fill our lungs as it did the chorus of cicadas

that filled the forest?

Did we open our mouths and sing from this summer psalter

as the nuthatch or the wood thrush so freely did?

Perhaps we don’t believe in this gift of grace

as much as they?

At summer’s end, we were silent

though our spirits cried out like the rocks

or the spread wings of the Cooper’s Hawk.

If only we had stopped, knelt down on the mossy banks

and lifted our hands as the verdant trees

in the grateful understanding

that all is grace,

all is light,

all is love,

and all is given.

Selah.

 

Gather Ye Rosebuds

IMG_7784

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” wrote the poet Robert Herrick in his poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s a poem that many know from Robin Williams’ quoting it in the film The Dead Poet’s Society. The opening line references a Latin phrase collige, virgo, rosas (gather, girl, the roses). There are those who would find this poem about mortality to be morbid, as we seldom like to think on the subject of death in our culture but prefer to focus on youth and health. Yet I take comfort in the transitory and fleetingness of life. The Psalmist instructs us to “number our days.”

The older I get, the less I have to number but this sense of my own limited time here on earth, makes me appreciate and be present to them more than in my youth. James 4:14 reminds me that my life is but a vapor that appears and then vanishes away. This is not morbidity, its reality. And I choose not to fear or ignore it, but to embrace that I am only given so many days here before I die and I do not know how many that truly is. But it means I am awakened to the world around me.

IMG_7781

I do not want to rush headlong through my life, looking only for those big, grand moments. It’s not about those moments we capture and post on social media in the hopes that we will get both likes and envy. We show off where we went and what we did. Instead, I slow down, pause and pay attention to those little moments that make up a daily life. It is these quotidian moments that are what really and truly matter. Not the extravagant trips one takes, but those times where one is simply there and present to those whom we love.

Today, I stopped in the midst of the hectic busyness of working and homeschooling to tell my sons to drop what they were doing and we were going somewhere to just be together. I am fully aware that the time I have with my older son living under our roof is dwindling, as he heads off to college next week. “Where are we going? What are we doing?” were the questions I became inundated with, but I answered none of them. “We’re going somewhere. We are being together.” It is not always about doing. Our culture is far too concerned with doing and far too little focused on being. I do not want either of my sons to grow up and lose perspective on what matters the most in life.

The trip was not a long with. Just about 20 minutes from our little gray house on the corner. But it was worlds away. Gone were the sounds of traffic. They were replaced with quiet and stillness. I parked my car, we got out and walked down the hill to a lake. Beauty. It is what the soul needs and is nourished by. And they felt the excitement of being in a place.

They stood at the water’s edge and watched Canada geese gliding across the lake’s surface. They spotted a dragonfly that was more vivid in color than the ones they normally saw over our goldfish pond. There were butterflies. Anise yellow swallow-tails.

IMG_7778

As we walked along the small dirt path that rambled alongside the lake, I heard both of them gasp in wonder as they came to a man-made waterfall. They climbed onto the dark, wet rocks and felt the water on their skin.

IMG_7840

They played in small streams and delighted in the coolness of the water to their touch.

IMG_7796

Children need nature. They need to be able to touch and explore the natural world. They need to get away from the false Plato’s cave of technology and into what is real and is connected to the world of our ancestors. I see them become more alive when they are out in nature. When they spot a broad-winged hawk in the sky or hear the greetings of cicadas.  Gone are the distortions of life that we see in social media and the online community.

IMG_7829

It’s necessary for them to just listen. To just be.

No expectations other than to be aware and alive.

To not view the path as a simple walking from one place to another. The journey is the destination itself. To stop and take a closer look at the grace that underlines all of creation around us.

IMG_7813

Life is, indeed, a miracle. Life is precious. Life is a gift.

Sometimes it takes stopping from our scheduled lives to go out into the woods to remind ourselves of this.

It is necessary to remove the distractions and to breathe, listen to our breathing, and the call of unfamiliar birds in the treetops. To see light and beauty and to drop the false ego-ness of believing that we are most important, but to grasp that we are connected, we are as much a part of nature as the creatures we come across.

We need to feel the unpaved earth beneath our feet. To go up the steeper climbs and stumble on roots and rocks. We need to lose our balance to regain it.

And it is here that we not only see and hear the world, but we see and hear each other. We listen to what the other person is saying. To hear them speak from their heart what so often we do not say any other time than when we are out on such a walk.

Trees, mountains, fields, lakes, streams release us. They open our souls to play and to wonder and to delight.

IMG_7815

This is what matters in life.

When my children do go off on their own paths, what will they remember? What will I have given them?

I believe what they will remember are taking such walks together. Of stopping in the middle of the day to do the unexpected, to leave our routines, to simply be. They will remember the shared joys and tears. They will remember sitting around the kitchen table, eating dinner and sharing their lives and their laughter. Or of sitting around that same kitchen table to play board games. They will think about those nights when I read to them before bed or prayed with them. When I stopped whatever it was I was doing at that moment to spend time with them doing whatever it is they what to spend time doing because they are important.

IMG_7843

Life is not about those grand gestures but about never forgetting to tell those whom you love that you love them. Or to show them that you love them. Love is best shown in listening. To take our attention away from all the distractions and to stop and honestly listen to what they are saying. Listening in a way that tells them, “You matter and I hear you.”

Spend your time. Spend your days in the ways that matter. Gather those rosebuds, collect those moments. Savor them. Enjoy them. These are what make a life worth living.

IMG_7802

Returning To Little Women

March Family

Today, as I folded the newly washed laundry, it struck me: I will not be washing and folding my older son’s clothes for much longer. Eighteen years. For every week of the last eighteen years, I have. I have been a part of his daily life: driving him to and from school each day, listening to how his day went, going on nightly walks around our neighborhood and town, listening to him talk about whatever programming project he was working on over dinner, and all of the daily routines that have formed our family from the time he was born.

Next week, he begins college.

As a parent, I knew this day was coming. And, yet, I find myself still surprised by it somehow. In my mind, he is still the little boy who played on the swingset that used to be in our backyard, who delighted in having large boxes to make into castles, who I taught to ride a bike and, not that long ago, how to drive a car.

I am very much a creature of habit, of routine, of disliking change. Change brings uncertainty and anxiety. I love having all of our family under one roof, together, playing board games and laughing. Of all of us quietly reading in some part of the house. Of hearing my two sons spending time together, enjoying each other’s company, and playing with our dog Dash. I like being able to look down the row at church on Sundays and see them both sitting there between my wife and I. I, like Jo March, think “families are the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Is it any wonder that, during this time of great change in our family, I found myself pulling my copy of Little Women down from the shelf. I need something familiar and unchanging, I need the warm and well-read pages of Louisa May Alcott’s classic about family.

My own childhood was fraught with insecurity and not feeling safe in the one place where a child should. It was as a boy that I, like Laurie, discovered those wonderful March sisters. I understood deeply why he wanted to be part of them, to be a member of the March family. Yes, they were poor but they were rich in love for each other and I found myself identifying with Jo, frustrated with Amy, dismissing Meg (her wants seemed boring), and weeping over the death of Beth. I cannot read Beth’s last words without tears coming to my eyes:

I’m not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is leaving you all. I’m not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.

Homesick even in heaven.

“Why does everyone want to go away?” Beth inquires, “I love being home.”

I was homesick for this home that the March family had formed out of tenderness for each other, even when they fought and argued and the terrible Amy burned Jo’s book in revenge.

Reading this novel now, I wish I could be the kind and wise parent that Marmee is. She is patient beyond my own abilities, has a deep inner strength, and knows how to say the absolute right thing that needs to be said to her daughters when they most needed to hear her. Like Jo, I needed to be told, and still do some days.  “The love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy,” Mrs. March says and I understand this. What parent doesn’t want this from their children? To live your life in such a way that your children want to copy it?

I think of Alcott writing of Marmee’s nightly routine, “The clocks were striking midnight and the rooms were very still as a figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlid here, settling a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter.”

While I don’t do this at midnight, I do check in on both of my boys as they are sleeping and before I go to sleep. I kiss their foreheads and offer up a quiet prayer over them and their lives. And, this, too will soon change.

I, like Jo March, grew up restless to go on and do great things, to become a published author, and see the world. Yet, as she realizes that her family would be changing with Meg marrying John Brooke, Jo finds herself resistant and reluctant to it. She begins to understand that once change happens, it will never go back to being the same way again. She wants her world, her home, her family, to stay as it was. She wanted mother, father, sisters, home, and hearth to always be as it had always been.

I cannot help but hear the words of Jim Croce singing, “If I could save time in a bottle…”

I want to slow time down, if not downright stop it. But as much comfort as I get from Little Women, it also reminds me that change is necessary and a part of life and family. Children grow up and go away to live their own lives, forge their own destinies, perhaps marry and have their own children, and yet always remain our children. Yet how much I want to stand guard and refuse, but I understand that such thinking is futile.

So my days to come will be mixed with joy and sadness. I cannot wait to see what lies ahead of my older son as he begins to understand who he is and wants to be.

As I reread this beloved novel, I found myself moved by this image of family Louisa May Alcott portrays. Idealized and sentimentalized, yes, but what’s wrong with wanting to? Of creating the image of family that we long to aspire to?  Alcott wrote, “The girls gave their hearts into their mother’s keeping—their souls into their father’s; and to both parents, who lived and labored so faithfully for them, they gave a love that grew with their growth, and bound them tenderly together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death.”

Why would we all not want to be a member of the March family? Or for our own families to be as such?

I hope as my sons grow up and, maybe, start their own families, that they will look back on their childhoods and the way my wife and I raised them as Louisa May Alcott did: with tenderness, fondness, generosity, love, and affection. I hope they see something in the model of us, as their parents, that they want to aspire to and model for their own children.

As I read, a small cup of tea on the table beside me, and a summer rain pouring down outside, I am grateful for those little, daily joys and moments that our family has offered us and will continue to do so as it changes over time. I am also thankful that I could go over to my bookshelf, take down a copy of Little Women, and be reminded that there is nothing else in this world that is more important than those we call family.

 

Little Women

J.K. Rowling On Protecting One’s Time

rowling

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must, therefore, guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”

When I read this quote from J.K. Rowling, the most successful author in literary history, I was flabbergasted that she would have to protect her writing time. Who would dare to interrupt her? Her Harry Potter series have sold over 400 million worldwide and, yet, she still has to find and guard her writing time.

Making the space for writing can be hard enough, especially for those of us who have other jobs and taking care of whatever daily chores and tasks that are required of us. I work part-time, home-school my younger son, take care of all the quotidian needs that a house has (laundry, cleaning, preparing meals, etcetera) so I have to literally squeeze in time somewhere to write (as well as make time to read). There are times my family get indignant and balk at my doing this. I have been working on a fairy tale for some time now and it takes getting into that mental place where I am in that world and not my own so that I can envision and create it. This is not easy or quick. I find that my thoughts are interrupted by one of my family’s needs. They feel no remorse or guilt to have barged in and my having lost the very sentence I was in the process or writing down. It can be frustrating.

I love my family. I love my kids. C.S. Lewis once said, “Children are not a distraction from more important work, they are the most important work.” Of course, I also say, “You didn’t have children, Mr. Lewis.” He did not have kids to ignore that closed-door and need to tell you whatever thought has popped into their heads or to come in bickering with one another over something trivial.

“I’m writing,” is white noise to them. They often cannot see past their own needs and certainly feel no shame that I cannot get down on paper what I may have been struggling days with to find a way past writer’s block. It is all I can do not to become a parental version of Hulk when my older son interrupts to show me yet another stupid YouTube video that he finds hilarious and I keep thinking, “REALLY??? This is what you interrupt my creating with??? WHY???” And it takes all I have in me not to yell or demand that they get out of whatever room I have attempted to squirrel away and hide myself in.

Yes, sometimes I ignore the dirty dishes or vacuuming or dusting, because I had to go off by myself and write. Yes, sometimes dinner may not be ready at the time everyone else seems to think it should be ready by.  And, yes, I can hear those thoughts in my head that remind me I am neglecting my home for the selfish reason of writing, but there are times when I ignore that damnable voice and push on. Writing is hard enough as it is without all of the millions of things that require our attention each day. I don’t have millions of readers to disappoint or a deadline to meet or an editor or a publisher or anyone else who is reminding me that my manuscript is due. I have no huge advance check to show my family and say, “SEE! I am a writer and I need this time so I can finish the book they have paid me to write!”

Yet for those of us nameless writers who plod on and write whether we ever get a readership base or followers or a book contract, we still must make space and find a place within our somewhere away from our homes to write, to create, and tell that untold story that only we can tell. We must be good stewards who are diligent to our craft.

Madeleine L’Engle writes, “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve… A book may come to me and ask to be written, but it takes time and energy and considerable pain to give birth to even the most minor of stories. The life of the artist is much a life of discipline as that of the physician or the missionary. It makes incredibly austere and difficult demands. Are you willing to make the sacrifice? Don’t worry if you’re not . . . Not everyone who writes is called on to make this work a vocation; but if you feel that you are called, then I promise you great joy as well as conflict and pain.”

These are not words we want to here. They require unpopular words like discipline, obedience, service, and making the spiritual and mental space to create from. It’s never easy. It requires some serious juggling and not everything gets done that may need to be. Sometimes there are dust-bunnies on the floor or unmade beds. I try to write every day, even if it is only writing ideas and sentences and images down in my journal. But it is necessary work. Sometimes writing is my lifeline, my source of connection to something greater than myself. Sometimes writing is my worst enemy and is more stubborn than my children and stomps its foot and refuses to come to me no matter how hard U try to coax it to the page.

So for those of you who love to write, write. Make the time. Guard and protect it, even if you need Cerebrus, the three-headed dog to stand guard at your door to keep everyone out.