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.