Sunday, March 23, 2014

The desire to create

Sitting at the breakfast table, I experienced a familiar urge — the desire to create. I simply wanted to make something today, only I didn’t know what that might be.

This probably is not surprising to those who know me as a semi-professional writer, or who’ve seen me turn a village park into a personal photo studio. Yet the yen to make has not always yielded successful creations.

I am a monumentally awful fiction writer. Even before I worry about hashing out a compelling plot I get hung up on naming characters. I should try fairy tales or fables and use unidentified animals as heroes and villains. Perhaps my shortcoming is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction outside the occasional bedtime story.

Good poetry, on the other hand, is a joy to consume. Though in college I took writing workshops in both fiction and poetry (with some overlap among fellow students) I remember being far more interested in and impressed with the poetry. At times I sensed a smidgen of my own talent, though my peers’ work routinely left me in silent wonderment.

Far greater than poetry is my love of music. On a few forgettable occasions I’ve thought myself capable of creating my own songs, always with disastrous results. Even arranging someone else’s original idea is far too daunting. So I’ve settled to create simply by playing or singing along. This is almost always enjoyable, but happens far too infrequently relative to how much of my life music used to occupy.

One of my most recent favorite snapshots.
Many of these frustrations are why I’ve been so interested in developing photography skills over the last several years. We got our fist digital camera when my wife was pregnant with our second son, and when she was expecting our third a few years later she surprised me by getting all of our family members together to get us a DSLR for Christmas. I’ve loved being able to create what some might call art, especially with my children as the subject.

My only other 2D artistic talent has been collages or tracing — I could never make anything from scratch. But with a camera, my job is not to create the image, only to properly focus, frame and capture. I can still be wracked by indecision and doubt when it comes time to choose what to print, which frame to choose and where it should hang, but on balance the only works I’ve enjoyed as much as some of my more treasured writing are my favorite photographs.

My greatest creations, of course, are my children. Yet for all their wonderful qualities that amaze and amuse daily, I am ever mindful of the true Creator. Even those without belief or faith must agree parents aren’t exactly custom-ordering offspring. Though I can influence their personalities as they mature, I did not draw the blueprint. It is a privilege and an honor to be their father, but their very existence is a constant reminder of the blessing and miracle of life.

A prayer for March 23:

Lord, thank you for my wife and my children. Thank you for the circumstances that brought us together to form a family, and may we all live in gratitude for the countless ways you show your love. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Questions I need to ask

“Why me? Why now?”

Those are the questions the doctor asked us a few weeks ago shortly after we met him for the first time. And while the specific details are immaterial, suffice it to say we had a satisfactory (if perhaps overly complex) response.

It was easy to understood why this question came up at this specific time. What’s surprising in some small way is it doesn’t come up more often. It’s a question we might often want to ask when meeting someone, and maybe there are polite ways to gently probe under the surface where a probably mundane truth lives. But the reason we generally don’t ask is because it’s the type of question we might prefer to not answer about ourselves.

Obviously this goes beyond the basics — I don’t expect the checker at Jewel to ask me why I chose to buy my roast beef there instead of the Mariano’s across the street. Of course, I’d have a ready answer if she did. But what if the question came from someone I already know well, someone who might almost be able to answer for me?

What if one of our dear friends from small group came up to me at social hour on Sunday and said, “So, why did you come to church today?” I might have to admit the entire family functioned on autopilot from the moment the baby started to wake us all from our Saturday slumber.

What if the kindergarten teacher Wednesday night inquired about our sincere reasons for bringing everyone to open house? Sure, it takes a real lout to tell an eager six-year-old no one is going to see his classroom. But did we have a true purpose beyond fulfilling parental duty?

It is important to note we had a really good time at the open house — the kid was beyond proud to show off his projects and introduce his brothers to any teacher he could find. But as I sit here tonight I struggle to come up with a better “why we went” reason than “because that’s what you do.”

And maybe for some things that’s all we need. A good chunk of life is motions that must be gone through lest we get bogged down and thrown off course. Yet I remain convinced there are plenty of times — surely far more than I would think of at first blush — where I would be well served to ask myself “Why me? Why now?”

Basically, the more time I spend considering why I do what I do, the more likely I am to think, speak and act in the way I hope my kids will want to emulate. When I lapse into the thoughtless grind, I barely resemble a man I want my kids to become.

I was glad the doctor asked. I knew we had the answer. But the next time, with the next inquisitor, I may well be stumped. That’s a problem I need to address.

A prayer for March 20:

Lord, help me be mindful of how my words, thoughts and actions can help or hurt the people I encounter. Teach me to focus intently on the path you set before me. Guide me, that I may ever follow. Amen.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A change in the forecast

Not to get too far ahead of things, but a quick glance at the extended forecast shows predicted highs at or warmer than freezing for the rest of March. That might not seem like reason for optimism, but up here in the northeast corner of Illinois it’s been an especially brutal winter, and there is distinct joy in embracing the hope the worst may finally be in the past.

This gradual thawing coincides well with the nature of our household. We’re a week past the baby hitting five months, which means his personality and routines are fairly well established. Even better, we’re less concerned about exposing him to the outside world than we were when he was hospitalized just a few weeks after his birth.

My wife has, in the last few weeks, regained the level of domestic ferocity (that’s a compliment) I knew she’d regain even with four kids at home. And while it means I have to keep my own act together more — no more leaving my coat and shoes and old newspapers and empty cups where they don’t belong — it also means we’re past the newborn-induced survival mode and back in the swing of parenting with intent.

Each baby has been different, and the first three came home to widely disparate life circumstances from each other. So there was no real blueprint with No. 4, but there always was a somewhat liberating feeling linked to our mutual belief the family is complete. There is no room for, “You know, a fifth one wouldn’t be so hard.” Rather, there is a mental list of all the baby stuff we can unload at a garage sale in May because we just don’t have the need or the storage space to hang on any longer.

Yet there is no real urge to rush forward. The present remains a delight (most of the time). You don’t have four children without learning how to appreciate the bright spots of each age. We’re taking joy in the little guy learning how to roll over, the toddler mastering the potty, the kindergartner being uncontrollably excited about Wednesday’s open house and the big kid’s being able to, on his terms, have legitimate conversations than peel back the layers on a fascinating young mind.

Having four in the house will always seem something like survival mode. On the table next to me is the park district catalog, which promises to suck away time and money for soccer, swim lessons, preschool and goodness knows what else. But this new feeling, as spring promises to arrive, is one of renewed calm, order and direction. We have miles to go (and always will), but feeling like we’re back on the proper trail is, like that forecast, as good a reason as any to embrace the hope of good things to come.

It mainly feels like we’ve found more time to simply get along with one another. Hopefully the kids will sense a change in the family atmosphere.

A prayer for March 17:

Lord, guide me always. Grant me wisdom, clarity, peace and protection. Help me see your vision for me and my family, and lead me each step of the journey. Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Moving beyond juggling

An old youth group friend of mine, mother of two young sons, has a blog she calls her “Balancing Act.” I admire that term, because it seems like a better goal than what I’ve been feeling like of late, which is more akin to juggling or plate spinning. Rather than strive for equilibrium, it’s been more about keeping everything moving forward without letting any one priority crash to the floor.

Some of this madness is joyful. My sister just spent a few days in town from California, a blessed interruption in our daily schedule (Kristie and I even had a dinner out at a restaurant with no menus on the walls). Isaac is transitioning well into his crib, but it’s a process. Charlie has been doing very well at working his way out of diapers. Jack insisted we go see the musical at his school, and Max insisted he be allowed to come along.

Certainly there have been hassles, many originating with an historically brutal Midwest winter. But we’ve (so far, knock on wood) been able to avoid illness, haven’t had any problems with the house since September and I’ve burned thousands of calories shoveling the driveway. Plus the day in, day out obligations of four children…

…and that’s what I managed to write the night of Feb. 19, before Isaac woke up and had to be soothed back to sleep. The next night I found myself surprisingly sick to my stomach. It only lasted a few hours, but since then the craziness of life resumed. Around the first of March I started to lose my voice — it’s not yet all the way back — the main complication of which has been intense difficulty in reading bedtime stories.

There have been thoughts to share on and off since my last post on Christmas. A few on my kids, a few on my parenting successes and failures (mostly the latter) and way too many on the heartbreaking tales of struggle and loss I’ve encountered among friends in recent weeks.

Along the way I’m working on re-imagining this project a hair — giving myself a 500-world limit and admitting life is just too busy to present decent writing each day. I’ve made the choice to focus more on the act of parenting than spending time writing about the job. That said, I do miss how trying to meet a nightly deadline made me think frequently about my approach to dad life and if I was living the goals I expressed in writing.

Even thinking about this stage of life as balancing as opposed to juggling seems like a positive step. There are many, many challenges. But there is so much to enjoy, so many reasons to feel absolutely blessed. Sometimes the most important balancing act is the one that plays out in my heart and mind, adjusting my approach to life such that I’m in the right position to be the husband and father my family deserves.

A prayer for March 13:

Lord, help me find the time each day to calm myself, settle my mind and open my heart to your will. Lead me along your intended path, and help me teach my children to do the same. Amen.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas letter to my sons

Dear Jack, Max, Charlie and Isaac,

On this Christmas Day, there is one more of you to love than at the same time last year. In some ways it’s incredible to think how different life is now from just 12 short months ago, when a fourth baby wasn’t on the horizon. And in other ways, it seems like we’ve somehow arrived together at a destination we’ve all been traveling toward together over the last decade, even before any of you were here.

Ten years ago tonight, when Mom and I knew our first baby was about four months away, we had no way to know where the next decade would lead. But standing here now, looking back and also facing our future, I am simply overcome with a feeling of being blessed. Each one of you is a precious, indescribable gift. That I’m able to be your father, and that Mom and I are able to be partners in this wild journey, are at once all I ever wanted and yet far beyond my wildest dreams.

Life may be a lot different if and when you all grow up and have your own families. But let me tell you how it worked for me in 2013: On Christmas Eve we went to church with Pops and K. All throughout the sanctuary were some of our dearest friends and other important members of our faith family. And on Christmas morning, in quiet moments trying to get Isaac to nap, I spent some time on Facebook seeing how friends from different parts of the past and present were marking the holiday.

The pictures of expectant mothers and older siblings getting ready to welcome a new baby next year. My peers struggling through the first holiday season without a beloved father. Newly single parents trying to establish new Christmas traditions and numb the pain of divorce. Brave souls facing the inevitably of aging and disease. Couples married earlier this year posing in front of their first tree as husband and wife. Other parents brave enough to raise four kids. People who desperately want to be parents but encounter challenge after challenge. Families together on Christmas for the first time in years. Families trying to celebrate together despite being separated by many time zones.

Love is all around, especially on a day designed to celebrate the love God has for all people, but there are some situations where it’s harder for that love to break down the walls we build. And honestly, there are times throughout days like today where I just feel guilty for the simple pleasure of hugging one of you and letting you know you’re loved. I wish I could convey to you know how special these moments really are, to convince you to enjoy them fully because we’re not promised tomorrow, but that’s the kind of lesson I haven’t learned to teach.

So here’s the deal: I’m going to do my best to make sure you know you are loved. I will try to live my life in gratitude for everything God has done for me, and along the way I’ll attempt to give you an example of someone who pursues love and peace. It’s beyond cliché by now, but you all make me want to be a better person — and I want to inspire you to unlock every ounce of potential you have to make this world a better place.

Being a dad is amazing. Being your dad is beyond wonderful. To God be the glory.

A prayer for December 25:

Lord, thank you for my family. Thank you for the promise Jesus brings and the freedom to live fully in peace your love provides. May we all be able to hear your call, to seek your will and to live lives worthy of you. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Isaac's Big Day

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 (NIV)

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The gathered family. A wonderful day.
Perhaps someone who writes a blog about parenting with a Christian perspective (or someone who used to before a fourth baby arrived and did serious damage to his dad’s productivity) should have something deep and meaningful to say about his infant son’s first sacrament. But this was a day where I paused in trying to figure out what everything meant and simply allowed myself to experience the joy of the moment.

There was a point during Isaac’s baptism where I stopped staring into his eyes, stopped checking to see if the other three boys were standing politely and stopped checking to see if my tie was straight and actually stood straight up and looked out at the congregation. For a moment it felt like our wedding ceremony, during which we surveyed a room full of people there to give us love and support.

It was a different building today, but many of the faces were the same. Several others belonged to people to whom we’ve gown close since moving her almost five years ago. And unlike at a wedding, there were plenty of folks there who would have been at church regardless of our special day, but the liturgy reminds them and us that accepting a child into the congregation is about our responsibilities as a community of faith not limited to personal relationships.

The moment didn’t last long. After all, I had three children to supervise, plus a little bit of fretting about the fourth howling as he got washed in the water. Yet the feeling persisted throughout the day and hopefully will sustain me through many long years of raising these boys. After all, this is our final baptism as parents. Our next major church milestones are both several years away and also not about us as mom and dad, but about the kids as individuals.

Three boys have yet to be old enough for their third-grade Bible. All of them hopefully will go through confirmation class as they begin high school. Then things like baccalaureate Sunday, and perhaps one day their own weddings. They will stand up and face outward, reading the eyes of those gathered under the same roof in God’s name — but we’ll be among the seated and observant. Their blood family, yes, but part of the larger family of faith as well.

Jack helps make sure all things are ready.
One of the great gifts given to us today was the pastor’s initiative and creativity in involving the big brothers in the ritual. Jack was invited to pour the water into the baptismal font during the opening sentences. Max was tasked with retrieving presenting Isaac’s first Bible. And all three were asked, in front of everyone, if they would promise to encourage us to share the Bible with Isaac, to help him find his Sunday school classroom and to teach by example the high art of sharing. When Max proudly answered, “I will!” well, I couldn’t help but radiate joy.

I know faith isn’t for everyone. There are people who can handle belief but abhor organized religion. Some point out it’s entirely possible be a good person without going to church or acknowledging and worshipping a higher power — and just as possible to behave horribly despite claiming to walk in faith. The diversity of thought and experience helps makes modern life rich and challenging, and I truly value the chance to communicate with people who come at the world through a perspective different from my own.

But on days like today, when I feel in my bones the love of God expressed in unmistakable, uncontained abundance, I know I’m walking the path intended for me. And after all the excitement and family time, as I (soon, I hope!) lay me down to sleep, I commit to waking tomorrow to live in gratitude for the many blessings I experience today and every day.

A prayer for December 15:

I know I’m supposed to write my own prayers to end these things. But I feel it more appropriate to share this instead. Following the worship service today was the Christmas pageant, our first with a child involved. Since the focus was on classic carols, and not just the music but extra knowledge as well, we were able to hear the name of Isaac Watts invoked during the spoken introduction to “Joy to the World.” This is special to me, as noted right after our own Isaac arrived.

Furthermore, earlier in the morning the sermon incorporated the well-known prayer that almost led to us using a middle name before we chose a first name. I’d love to delve into the full context of the sermon, or even the history of the prayer itself, but it seems more appropriate at the moment to simply share the words and add to them my thanks the prayer exists at all as well as my hope I can live up to its high calling:

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Up on the rooftop? Just shingles

We are not a Santa Claus family.

We have stockings hung by the chimney with some degree of care (though this year we have one too many for our previous decorative holders), but we don’t write letters or put out milk and cookies. We don’t do pictures at the mall. We don’t make it a point to watch the seasonal TV specials. Over the years we’ve collected a metric ton of Christmas-themed books, but I try to steer the kids away from the overtly Santa-based material.

It’s not that we’re overly emphasizing the religious aspects of the season either. We don’t do Advent calendars or have a home Advent wreath. We don’t have Christmas music playing on a loop. Plenty of those aforementioned books are about secular gift giving or animals getting together to decorate a Christmas tree. Heck, probably a full dozen are just about snowmen.

Make no mistake, Christmas is indeed a religious holiday in our family. We have a Nativity scene and always go to church on Christmas Eve. Lots of the books are indeed explicitly about the reason for the season. Last Sunday in the car, after discussing the months of the year, I asked the boys whose birthday was coming up next. Max’s hand shot up from the back seat and he yelled, “I know! Jesus!” So at least one of them is paying attention in Sunday school.

(He pays attention at church choir, too, as I learned a few weeks ago when I thought I heard him muttering “Jesus Christ!” under his breath. Turns out he was practicing “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” Not my finest parenting moment.)

We do have a few of the hats, though.
I’m not really sure I can pinpoint a time when we decided to skip the Santa craze. Maybe it was when Jack was eight months old with two parents working full-time jobs and a 40-minute drive to the nearest mall. Maybe it was a few years later when we had to take down the decorations after a curious toddler nearly melted a hole in the living room carpet. Maybe it was when he was old enough to buy into the routine, but also very clearly sharp enough to get quite cross if he grasped the reality.

Whatever the actual reason, we don’t do Santa. Items stuffed in the stockings are a surprise, but we don’t make a production about their origin. It’s much like the Easter baskets. We do them, and hunting for eggs remains a thrill even for the fourth-grader, but there’s no undercurrent of mystery. It’s more or less just a fact of the holiday. The boys know a cow has to die in order for us to eat hamburgers, which is a thing you can teach without showing videos from the processing plant.

And that’s the wrinkle: We’re not a Santa family, but we don’t care if anyone else loves the traditions. I don’t begrudge any fellow parents their Elf on the Shelf hijinks. I certainly don’t arm my kids with “the truth” and urge them to confront their peers and burst bubbles. But according to some things I’ve seen (or heard secondhand) on social media, apparently this is a major concern for parents. Surely it’s been that way forever: School, after all, is where kids learn all the things their parents won’t teach them at home. If parents think Santa and the Easter Bunny are rough lessons, just wait to see what the precious ones pick up during junior high.

I get it. Santa is great fun. Parents love being able to let their children share in the magic. They all know it will end some day, but they’re always hoping to get through one more season of wonderment. It has to be crushing to set hopes high for late December only to have them dashed right after Thanksgiving.

That’s partly why we never started. If you don’t show them the lady being sawed in half, you don’t have to see the look on their faces when they realize the skill is in the illusion. Maybe that’s a bit like saying you don’t want a pet because it will crush the young ones when the pet’s time is through… but the love for and from the animal is real every step of the way.

I’m trying very carefully not to pass judgment here. Abstaining from Santa stuff doesn’t make us any better or worse, just different. Like with many things, we just want the kids to understand our traditions and respect the rights of other people to enjoy theirs. It seems silly to see people getting so worked up about who does what at holiday time, but it seems like as good a time as any to teach tolerance and deference, as well as a reminder to us, as a mom and a dad, to answer kids with honesty, making sure it’s age appropriate truth.

So no, we’re not a Santa Claus family. Maybe our boys will choose to go all in on the Jolly Old Elf if they become parents some day. And if so, we’ll play along. If not, that’s fine, too. There’s plenty of other things in life for more deserving of attention and concern, and only so much time and energy to expend. They key for us is knowing where to look for guidance on which path to follow.

A prayer for December 5:

Lord, thank you not just for the wonders of Christmas itself, but the gift of Advent and urging me to prepare my heart and mind. My walk through this world is so much different when I can get my soul in a proper place, and I know so easily when I am out of sorts. But I always need your help to pull me back, set my feet straight and walk by my side going forward. I am blessed to never be alone, and I hope with your help to be able to teach my children to feel the same way. Amen.