Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'I will never be shaken'

Psalm 30:6 (NIV)

When I felt secure, I said,
   "I will never be shaken.”
It comes as little surprise to those who have been with me for all 475 of these entries that I am big on nostalgia and also somewhat hung up on anniversaries. At this time of year, this kind of sentimentality is around every corner. As I wrote in today’s newspaper column, it’s been twenty years since I started high school. At the college where three generations of Hollands matriculated, today is freshman move-in day, which reminds me it was 15 years ago when I first laid eyes on my future wife, during her orientation. And did I mention we have a son starting kindergarten Thursday? And one beginning fourth grade tomorrow? And another arguing he deserves to go to preschool despite refusing to use a toilet? And a bun nearly ready to spring from the oven?

And yet is so remarkably cliché to write about such things — as just pointed out, I’ve already done so once this week — it’s now almost even more of a cliché to comment on how many people are being cliché. In fact, one essay I encountered I only clicked on because the person sharing it, a Chicago Tribune features writer whose work I enjoy and respect, presented it with the following caveat: “So many pieces of this ilk are written at this, the sending-off-to-school time of year. This one is especially good.” And, of course, he was right.

Michael Gerson, who according to his Washington Post bio writes about politics, religion, foreign policy and global health development, departed from his stated oeuvre to share his feelings about his son heading off to college. It is, as I was told it would be, especially good. But one particular paragraph leaped off the screen at me:
I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life.
I’d originally planned to write tonight about giving our oldest son advice as he enters a big new school building tomorrow, that he can always feel secure in the love of God and of his family, that he should never be shaken. But when I read this paragraph in Gerson’s essay, I came face to face with an important truth: I never felt homesick at college.

To clarify: I missed my high school friends and spent far too much time corresponding with them via email, which believe it or not was a new experience for me in 1997. I was very, very sad when my grandmother died a few months into the fall. When I got physically sick (nothing serious) in the spring of my freshman year, I realized how lousy it is to be ill when your mother is not there to tell you what to do to feel better. And I loved going home to visit, discovering a new layer to my relationship with my parents and, eventually, my younger siblings. But I was never what I would consider homesick.

Why? Because I felt secure. I could not be shaken. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that no matter how long I was away, no matter where I went or what I did when I was gone, there would always be a place for me at home. Maybe not my old room — though my mother, knowing me better than anyone, took great strides to preserve my former life exactly as I’d left it — but always, always a seat at the dining room table. A hug when I came through the door. A tacit commitment to wash every last piece of dirty laundry. Every piece of mail that came addressed to my name. Any remotely relevant scrap of the daily newspaper.

When I came home the dog slept in my room again — no questions asked. When I came home the pantry always had enough of my favorite cereals and microwave popcorn. The fridge was never short of whatever brand of caffeine I favored at the time. If I ever needed to borrow a car, somehow there always seemed to be one available — and we only had two — even if I wanted one for the whole weekend to go see the girl who would become my wife. In the summers I was still allowed to mow the lawn and wash the cars for a little extra cash. I might even have been permitted to stay home from church on Sundays if I’d ever asked to try, but church was always just an extension of home, and I wanted to go feel loved there, too.

If my mother were honest, she would say I was not very good about calling home from college. She probably noticed I was not even the best at paying attention the entire time when I did manage to ring. I’m not sure I got much better after I got married and had kids, so it’s a good thing email and instant messaging technology advanced before the present reality, which is seeing my parents so many days a week I never need to remember to call.

In a weird way, that forgetfulness was a testament to my parents. I’d grown so safe and secure I did not need to hear their voices to be reassured. I knew I was loved, and deeply so, and I suppose eventually I took it for granted to some degree. But I am here to say now it was not sheer laziness or some twisted power play for independence. It was the manifestation of feeling so unbelievably safe in regards to my place in the family. Even today I can see my siblings understand the same way I did, and perhaps that’s why they feel so secure being so far away. I guess when you’re prepared well to succeed outside the nest, there isn’t much alternative but to soar proudly.

As noted regularly, I am doubly blessed in that my in-laws’ house has come to feel like a home for me as well. It goes beyond the food and the laundry, though certainly that helped ease me in. Rather it is a place where no one has to love me unconditionally, yet I’ve felt from the earliest days as if somehow I always belonged. I don’t think these things happen by accident, nor do I feel I would appreciate this situation as much had my own home been anything less than what my parents nurtured.

It probably goes without saying that my parents did not do this alone or luck into it accidentally. They are intentional parents in the best sense of the word, and they have always made faith a core component of the family. In hopes of repaying them for everything they invested in me, I’m trying every day to do just as much for their grandsons, to build for them a home where they not only feel safe and loved but feel so much security they’re not afraid to leave, for they’ll know that not only will the door always be open, but inside that door is a place they’ll always want to see again.

This week, kindergarten and fourth grade. Soon enough, high school, maybe college and whatever lies beyond. But those are just places. Very special places, sure, where almost magical transformations are expected. But they are not home. Home is here, with mom and dad and your brothers, the food you love to eat, clothes cleaned and folded while you sleep and a free ride wherever you need to go. There’s lots of ways to say, “I love you.” My goal is to try to use them all.

A prayer for August 20:

Lord, thank you for our summer together. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with my children while they are young. I hope I was able to give them joy, security, fun, encouragement, respect and an example to follow. My prayer for them as they go off to school is they remember to treat their teachers and fellow students with love and kindness. May they continue to live lives worthy of you and walk in the light of your grace today, tomorrow and always. Amen.

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