Thursday, October 20, 2005

October, 2005 They keep saying "no"

My children are all telling me “no.” Each one of them is doing it somewhat differently, but the effect is the same. Jamilet, who just turned two, often yells the word in mid-air, squirming feverishly as I try to redirect her from some imminent catastrophe — an outlet, a stove knob, a pair of scissors — to a toy — any toy.
Liam, 7, uses a bit more sophistication with his no’s. Liam already understands that he shouldn’t say no to a parent and has decided to substitute “but” instead.
            “Liam, time for bed.”
            “But I’m not finished with my book.”
            “Liam, put your socks in their drawer.”
            “But Jacob didn’t put his away.”
            Jacob, 10, occasionally falls back on Liam’s technique, but is moving towards something even more ingenious — the “yes” that means “no.”
            “Jacob, pick up your school uniform from your bedroom floor.”
            “Okay.”  Fifteen minutes later, the uniform is still there.
            When I first became a parent, I felt like I had a new understanding of God. I stared in wonder at newborn Jacob, overwhelmed by my love for him, and marveled that this love I felt for my son was just a sliver of God’s love for me.
            Now, with the newborn years a cozy memory, my children continue to help me understand God as parent.
            God the parent has requests and demands of us, just as I have demands and requests of my children. Sometimes we feel what God is asking of us in the deepness of our being — we hear God’s call in our souls. Other times, God speaks to us through scripture — a reading at church, a Bible verse at home. And still other times the Holy Spirit moves through a conversation and we sense what God is asking of us.
            And while sometimes we say, “yes,” right away to what God asks of us, more often we respond like Jamilet, Liam and Jacob. Like toddler Jamilet, we don’t always see when we’re headed for self-destruction — we think if we can just get to that stove knob, everything will be great. Intent on our own pleasure, we ignore God’s warnings and pleas for our safety.  Like Liam, we tell God “but.” We point out to God that He isn’t asking our neighbors to do the same thing. We make excuses for not doing God’s will. We try to put God on hold. And finally, perhaps we’re most often like 10-year-old Jacob. We hear a reading or homily in church — we know what God is asking of us and at that moment, we say “yes.” But then, too quickly, we forget what we agreed to do.
            While I understand that my children’s “no’s” are all developmentally appropriate, I also know that for our family to function effectively and for my children to learn responsibility, I need to teach them to say “yes.”
            I have to make Jamilet realize that when I say “no” and she doesn’t stop, she will be physically lifted away from the danger. Liam needs to know that no matter how many “buts” he comes up with, the end result will be the same — he’ll need to do as I asked. And Jacob needs to understand that if he doesn’t put the clothes away the first time, he will still need to do so 15 minutes later, and by then I probably will have added another job.
            My experience is that God operates similarly. When we ignore God or tell God “no,” God the parent doesn’t back off. Instead, God continues to call us to what would be best for us or for the greater world. Just as my children don’t always understand why they need to go to bed, stop playing with the scissors or help keep the house neat, we, as adults don’t always fully appreciate where God is leading us. Too often, because we can’t see the bigger picture of where our life fits into God’s plan, we choose not to summon the courage to trust God’s vision over our own.
But when we do summon that courage to trust; when we do say “yes” to God’s call; it is then that we begin to glimpse the bigger picture. We start to see where it is we fit. And we begin to understand that everything God asks of us is within our capabilities.
My plan is that someday, I won’t even need to ask Jacob to pick up his uniform from the floor. He’ll do it on his own. On that day (and I hope it’s coming soon), Jacob and I will have a shared vision of a bedroom without crumpled clothes on the floor. Someday, Liam will notice on his own that he’s tired and should go to bed. And someday, Jamilet will realize that I really do have her best interest in mind when I don’t let her play with the knives.
I don’t know when that day is that my children will see the bigger picture — when their “yes” to me will come before I even make the request. Right now, it’s enough for me that I see progress. Liam, after all, no longer lunges for the stove knobs like his little sister. And despite Jacob’s struggles with the clothes on the floor, he has become very good at going to bed with just one reminder. Everyone’s moving forward, and as a parent, that’s all I’m asking for. Hopefully, God sees the same progress in us.


Thursday, October 6, 2005

October, 2005 We have too much stuff

There is a Bernstein Bears children’s book called Too Much Stuff. In the book,  Mama Bear looks around the house and decides the family needs to give away many of their things to the needy.  Papa bear has fishing supplies he hasn’t used in years. Brother Bear and Sister Bear have more games than they could ever play with. And Mama Bear herself admits there is no need to save stacks of magazines and scraps of material from her sewing projects.
We recently moved, and I’ve been feeling a lot like Mama Bear. Our family has too much stuff. It took six adults nearly five hours to move boxes and boxes of our things to our new house. Then, the following weekend, four young, strong professional movers spent another couple of hours moving our furniture. After that, Bill and I still needed to return to the old house for about four or five carloads of “just what’s left in the garage.”
I’m not completely sure what all this stuff is or where we got it. I doubt that we need more than half of it.
“Live simply so that others may simply live,” said St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Mama Bear would have very much agreed with this. All over the world, there are families who struggle just to put together enough rice and beans for one meal. Our family has so much food that packing the pantry of dry goods to move from house to house took several large boxes. In our own city, there are families who would look at the dressers filled with clothes and boxes of shoes we were moving and assume we must have eight or nine kids, not three. We have enough toys to open our own daycare center, enough paper, pens, markers and art supplies to operate a small school, and enough books to keep every kid in the neighborhood busy reading for the rest of the summer.
In my early twenties, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s  “Live simply,” philosophy was mine as well. I lived in community for a year. Fifteen young adults, we worked in the Chicago’s central city, serving the poor and came home each night to a converted convent where we each had our own tiny room. We shared all other living quarters. I remember in-depth discussions of whether buying a package of cookies was in keeping with the simple life. When I left my year of service work, I fit all my belongings in my parents’ car, with both of my parents and my sister also in the car. What has happened to me?
Family life happened. It used to be all I needed to go running was a pair of running shoes. Now, I need a running stroller for the baby and bikes for each of the boys so that everyone can join in. Every age of childhood seems to come with its own equipment, and since there’s an eight-year gap between two-year-old Jamie and ten-year-old Jacob, it means we have both baby-toting equipment and big-kid sports equipment in the garage and basement.
Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Baptisms and First Communions bring a rush of presents from well-meaning relatives buying more stuff for us. And I can’t blame it all on the kids. As Bill and I have moved from the “Early Marriage” style of decorating (think futons and framed posters) to having specific tastes, we have accumulated quite a bit on our own. And living as a family, rather than in community necessitates a certain amount of material things — from having enough plates so as to be able to invite people over, to owning power tools so that we can fix the house on our own.
So what is the answer? In the Bernstein Bears, the Bear family, under Mama’s direction, gives away much of their excess stuff to the needy. Everyone grumbles a bit, but they feel good in the end. In our family, the move has taught me to question our possessions.  We had the St. Vincent De Paul Society make one pick-up at our old house and two at our new, so far. I’m now less likely to hold onto something thinking we might find a use for it. If we haven’t used it or worn it in six months, it’s better to go to someone who has a more pressing need. Picturing myself packing, moving and unpacking the item gives me an immediate sense of if the item is all that important.
Almost three weeks into our life in our new house, we still aren’t completely unpacked. Yet, the kids play with toys, we eat three meals a day, wear clothes, and use a pretty operable office. The unopened boxes speak directly to the question of too much stuff, as we certainly aren’t missing what’s in those boxes.  I want to simplify, but don’t have all the answers yet. I’m praying to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for guidance. And maybe I’ll read that Bernstein Bears book one more time.