Thursday, March 13, 2008

March, 2008-- Struggling not to lose my sense of humor

            When I was a new, young junior high teacher, I remember writing in my journal at the end of one particularly difficult day, I hope when I can finally joke around with the kids without losing control of the class, I haven’t lost my sense of humor.  It seemed to me that whenever I related a funny story or quip to my class, students would grab onto it and use it as a launching pad for their own comedy show. Pretty soon, the class was in an uproar, and what I had meant to be a funny way to get a point across had turned into 15 minutes of lost class time as I struggled to get the kids back on track.
            While I eventually learned how to use humor in the classroom, it was always a balancing act. Too much and I risked the students not taking the lesson seriously; too little and I ended up with a dry, boring class that even I couldn’t stand.
            Now, as a parent, I see that my humor is at risk once more, but in a different way. I am at risk for taking myself too seriously.
            If humor is, as Webster defines it, “that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous,” parenting should be one of the funniest jobs there is. In any given day in our household, there are many, many ludicrous or absurdly incongruous moments. There are two small girls who ask, when it is six degrees outside, why they can’t wear their sleeveless leotards. There are two boys who can spend hours at a time shooting a ball at a 10-foot tall basket, but who cannot take 15 seconds to shoot their dirty socks at their 2-foot tall hamper, which has a very wide rim. There are conversations between the nine-year-old and the four-year-old where the entire point of the conversation seems to be to prove the other person wrong, on an issue that has no bearing in either of their lives. There is one person who feels very strongly about drinking from a cup with a certain cartoon character on the front, and would rather have this cup — even if she is not thirsty — than see anyone else use it. And just this morning, one of the girls asked me if she had kindergarten in the morning or the afternoon, even though she has been going every afternoon for six months now. It is ludicrous and it is absurd, and I need to somehow laugh about it more.
            But like balancing humor in the classroom, balancing humor as a parent can be tricky. My boys love it when I joke with them about forgetting to do their jobs.
            “Won’t it be great when the dishwasher fairy comes tonight?” I said one evening. “I know that must be why you haven’t emptied the dishwasher even though I’ve asked you about 12 times to do it. Does she look like the tooth fairy? She must be stronger, since she has to put all these dishes away.” The boys grinned and sheepishly started their job, with Liam, 9, going on and on (and on) about the dishwasher fairy’s attributes.
            It became a happier family moment than it would have been if I had docked them each dessert for not following directions. Yet, I also know, that if I don’t dock them dessert, or send them to time-out for arguing, or take away toys for not sharing them, I will never be able to teach them that these things are important and expected. So it’s a balance. But for me, the danger is that in the midst of so many ludicrous moments, many of which require me to discipline, redirect or correct someone, that I will lose site of the absurdity and in doing so, destroy any drive at all to talk about dishwasher fairies.
            We have a big dress-up chest in the basement and often, the two little girls will walk around the house in costume — Jamie as a fuzzy brown bear, T as a dragon with a spiky tail. They have no idea how cute they look, and Bill suggested once that we keep them in costume as much as possible, because it reminds him of how small they are and in his words, “what a limited IQ they have to work with.” Bill maintains it’s easier for him to be patient with Jamie when she’s fussing at him with ears on the top of her head and a tail.

            And Bill is so right. When it comes down to it, they are all so young and short and inexperienced at life. And the more I can remember this and laugh — even in my mind —the better we all will be for it. So this Lent, I’ve decided to give up a little bit of my seriousness as a parent. I’m giving up a little bit of my belief that if I don’t teach them to put their dishes in the sink right now, they’ll never learn it. I’m giving up some of my unrealistic expectations for rationality, and trying to enter more into the absurd. I’m living with four people who have varying degrees of incongruity in just about everything they say and do. And it’s time to laugh.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

April, 2008-- Memorized prayers?

            We were driving to school recently when an ambulance passed us. I suggested to the kids that we pray for the person who was hurt or sick in the ambulance. Jacob, Liam, Jamie and I said the Hail Mary together. Teenasia, our foster daughter, who had been living with us about two months at the time, listened with interest.
            “I’ve never heard that prayer before, Mom,” she said. “Did you make it up?”
            I told her I hadn’t, even as Jacob, 13, tried to convince Teenasia that I had.
            “Don’t be modest, Mom. You know you wrote that prayer. In fact, weren’t you there for the original Annunciation, to hear what the angel said to Mary?”
            Liam, 9, not wanting to be outdone, added that my prayer seemed to be growing in popularity and perhaps I would be famous for it someday.
            Jamie, 4, noticed a rare chance to show more knowledge than her older sister, and simply started saying the Hail Mary again, just because she could.
            Teenaisa caught my eye in the rearview mirror, and we smiled, then rolled our eyes at all three of them.
            I have a strange relationship with memorized prayers. On one hand, I like them, because they quickly organize my fragmented mind into prayer mode. Memorized prayers mean you don’t need to reach for any words—the words are given to you. Memorized prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Bless Us O Lord and Glory Be also serve as connectors. I know that any time I may be saying one of these prayers, there are likely thousands of others saying them as well. They also allow for building of community-- rather than just me spontaneously talking to Mary about the person in the ambulance, the prayer allowed the whole family to join in.
            On the flip side, I’ve wondered about how memorized prayers fit into a real relationship with God. I would not approach anyone else with whom I’m in relationship with a formal, well-worded message written centuries ago. If I, for example, called a girlfriend and began with a sixteen-line sonnet greeting taken out of Shakespeare, she would gently remind me that she had things to do, and could I please get to the point.      Another problem with memorized prayers is that I have the ability—and I doubt I’m alone—to say them flawlessly while not thinking about them at all. I have mindlessly said memorized prayers in church while mentally repainting the bathroom or planning a grocery shopping trip. The Lord be with you. And also with you. (Do we have syrup?) Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. (I know we have frozen waffles.)
             But the question of memorized prayers point to the bigger question of what is prayer, exactly? Prayer is being in relationship with God—living in such a way that we are in tune with the nudges of the Holy Spirit. The mystics tell us we do not need words at all. The ancient practice of meditation or centering prayer is the complete absence of words—and even thoughts— in God’s presence. The labor of saints remind us that work itself can be a prayer, when that work serves God — again no words necessary.
            Yet, mystics and saints also went to church. They prayed aloud before dinner with their families and before bed with their children. I have noticed that even among the spontaneous “un-official” prayers we have in our family, there is repetition and rhythm, two attributes of memorized prayer. As Jamie prays each night for great grandma, she phrases it the exact same way. And each night as I tuck each child into bed, after our “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer (where we skip the line about dying in the sleep), I say something to God in my own words about that child. Yet, even my own words have become their own predictable prayer. I always pray that God blesses Liam to become “the Liam God wants him to be,” and I say the same for the other children. It’s unchanged every night, but truly, I can’t think of a better way to say it. This is what I want from God for my children, and I want my children to know this, so I say it each night.
            As for my mixed feelings about memorized prayers, I have mixed feelings about exercise and broccoli, too, but both keep me healthy. My questions about memorized prayers prevent me from becoming stagnant; keep me searching. My simultaneous comfort with them keeps me grounded in a tradition that unites me both with my immediate community and with millions around the world. Grounded and comfortable; yet searching for even more. It’s not such an unusual place to be — it’s a place I know well enough to bring my children.

March, 2008-- First chairlift ride, not in the baby book

First chairlift ride: Not in the baby book, but still significant

            I don’t remember Liam’s first steps.
            I remember Jacob tentatively making his way from Bill to me across our dining room, and Jamie taking hers outside on our driveway. I remember Teenasia’s huge smile as she made her way from Bill to me, using the exact same route Jacob had six years before her. But Liam’s first steps are a blank.
            I don’t quite understand why it is that some “firsts” are etched in my memory while others float away. I think some of it has to do with how much anticipation I have before the milestone. Jacob, Jamie and Teenasia all walked relatively late — 14 or 15 months. For all of them, I had been waiting for the first steps for quite awhile, hovering in a state somewhere between patience and concern. Liam, on the other hand, earned the nickname “baby-on-the-move” very young.  He started crawling at five months and picked up alarming speed every day. By the time he learned to walk, probably around 11 or 12 months, I was already trying to slow him down. When he broke his leg at 14 months, he gave up walking for a few hours before learning to balance on the edge of the cast on his foot and propel himself around with a strange-looking, yet surprisingly effective gait.
            Other milestones have similar gaps in my memory. Despite the fact that our family skis every winter, I have no memory of either of my boys going on the chairlift for the first time. I remember taking them both up the rope tow, my inner thighs shaking with the effort of holding them between my knees as we were pulled up the hill. I remember Liam slipping away from me going down a hill at age three and careening into a hay bale at the bottom. I remember noting that Jacob as a new skier skied the way he did everything else-- quietly and deliberately, with few risky moves. But I have no memory of that first chairlift.  
            So this past weekend, when we took all the kids skiing, I was not expecting the chairlift to be a defining milestone moment. Jamie, four and Teenasia, six, spent all of Saturday in a children’s ski school while Bill and I skied with the boys. Then, on Sunday, we left the boys to ski on their own — Jacob in a hat and Liam in a helmet— and took the girls from their children’s bunny slope to Maple Syrup, the next easiest run on the hill. We decided that Bill would take the girls on the chairlift one at a time, since he is better than I at skiing in general and no child has ever crashed into a hay bale on his watch.
            Jamie and I took our place at the bottom of the Maple Syrup chairlift, so we could watch Bill and T get on. My hope in doing this was so that Jamie could see the technique, so she’d be prepared for her turn. As I watched Teenasia move up the line, toward the lift, though, I began to feel much as I remembered feeling when she took her first steps. I was awed by this little girl approaching the chairlift so confidently. How could she do this? On Friday, T had not even known what skiing was. I had to explain to her that it consisted of strapping on long, thin boards to special boots and going down a big, big hill. It sounded crazy when I explained it, but I didn’t have a picture handy. T had nodded and said it sounded fun.
            Since re-entering our home two months before as a foster child, Teenasia had experienced so many firsts. She was up for anything. Some firsts, like eating grapes and grapefruit, were long overdue. Others, like learning to ice skate and read a few words, were the same firsts other children her age were experiencing. As the operator held the chair steady and she sat down, I decided that six years old was probably early for a first chairlift. I wondered if anyone who lived in T’s previous neighborhood had ever ridden a chairlift.
            Bill put his arm around Teenasia and the chair glided upward. Jamie and I waved at their backs as the chair climbed. Up, up, up. Teenasia, safe in the hold of an expert skier. Teenasia, so far from where she had been two months ago. Climbing high in the morning sunlight. So safe.