On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.

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On the physics of kisses.

Okay, this post is not about what you think it’s about.

These kisses are the kind that our sons blow to us — across rooms, down the driveway, through closed windows.

They used to be content with the blowing of kisses, but about a month ago they got worried that the kisses wouldn’t reach their destination, the kissee, if you will.  Which led to a brief lecture by me explaining that they, the kissers, can only control the love they send out into the world; they cannot control how it is received.

But they can surely trust that kisses are fast and smart: they fly faster than any car and they can find their person no matter where they are. Kisses always reach their kissee when we send them out into the air.

These are some established truths at our house.

Today, however, posed some new challenges, as Len and I backed out of the driveway at the same time (me with the kids in back) and headed off in opposite directions.  The sweet boys had waited until we drove off altogether before starting to smooch their little palms, and as they took their big breaths to blow those kisses toward Papa, they realized HE WAS BEHIND THEM!  What would happen if they blew their kisses in the WRONG DIRECTION?  We revisited the physics of kisses (see above), which reassured them, and then led to this:

Ezra, after a moment of quiet reflection: “My kisses are shaped like hummingbirds.”

Mama (eyes welling up with the awesomeness of this revelation): “Wow.  That is pretty fabulous.”

Malachi: “Mine are shaped like bluebirds.  Blue and RED.”

Ezra: “Yes, because bluebirds are your favorite birds.  But not blue and red, blue and orange.”

We haven’t yet discussed whether these shapes and colors and their breathy essences always embody kisses (what a world!) or whether these particular boys have particular kisses the shape and color of small birds…but I feel sure we will.

On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

On the making of goodness.

It sounds rather grandiose, now that I write it down, but I’ve been trying lately to imagine how it is that we make space for making goodness.

For making good things, for allowing basic goodness to creep into whatever it is we are making anyway.

Specific examples include the lamb-leek-barley soup I made last week and cannot get over; the upcycled wool scarf I made Len for Christmas that both of us quite adore; the hour spent in the kitchen with both boys this morning as we explored  spontaneously the acoustic properties of an old vacuum pipe and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube.  In every case, there was the magic of serendipity (one can never properly estimate the right amount of leek, am I right?); the hard work of preparation (finding the best way to set the tension for the walking foot and cleaning out all the felted wool lint repeatedly); the challenge of setting down expectations and just showing up to what’s present (a two-year-old’s insistence on toting around a long ShopVac tube and helpfully “vacuuming” freshly painted walls while hollering seemed like a good opportunity for redirection).

It strikes me now that this post would do well to include the soup recipe (inspired by this), the scarf tutorial, and the fun description of sound games to play with toddlers…and perhaps it shall.  Another night.  For now, let it be enough for me to share my gratitude for delicious local foods, for friends with a superior grasp of sewing machine workings, for fun and interesting kids who are malleable enough to move with me sometimes.  Let it be enough to remember that making things is often better than not making things; that flailing wildly is really just a natural part of the creative process; that resilience in the face of failure is a whole lot better than being so safe you never get to fail.  And once in a while, you get to feel the good in the product, even, and not just the process.  Those are good days.  And the rest just keep you humble, right?

On reaping what we sow.

I made the best dinner of all time today: smoked salmon chowder (see Epicurious for recipe; then double most of it, use chicken instead of veggie stock, and add fresh dill).  It was freakishly, awesomely delicious.  I’m not sure why, exactly, but the fact that the potatoes and garlic were harvested from our garden a week or two ago and the leeks and dill just tonight might have helped.  And let’s face it: the fact that the smoked salmon was from one of the monsters my nephews and brothers-in-law caught fishing on Lake Michigan in August wasn’t bad either.  I thought the meal would be a festival of the goodness of local eating — hence the name of the post — but it’s way more than that.

While we ate, we had music playing in the background: a mix of songs from my iPhone. One song was from my acapella group in college, and Ezra kept asking: Mama is that you?  So when one song featured a solo of mine, we turned it up and I told them yes, this is me.  The rest of the time you can’t hear me because I’m blending in with all those other beautiful voices, but I’m part of the music.  But they were so thrilled to hear me sing solo that we found the other track of mine: Cats in the Cradle.  I remember the day I earned this solo in group auditions, being near to tears myself and apparently bringing others to the same point.  It was just such a poignant song to me, as one in a long line of kids who didn’t get what they needed from their parents, and as someone who assumed that patterns perpetuate themselves.  But to hear my own nineteen-year-old voice singing those lines, remembering the anguish inside me, while looking at these gorgeous, robust, whole children of mine AND their beautiful, engaged papa…well, it brought me to tears again.

It’s a strange thing, when you spend a lifetime with a sense of unfairness, to discover that sometimes, even if only for a little while, there’s a reprieve.  Sometimes the universe rains down the kinds of goodness we had mostly decided was a myth.  And sometimes it rains down all kinds of goodness at once.  Tonight was one such night: a veritable flood of goodness.  The beneficence of family and the earth and water; the originality and specificity of these small boys; the good flavors and great good fortune of our food and time together.  The voices of dear friends from long ago making music that still moves us all to dance.  A friend of mine once said that the universe has lessons to teach us, and if we aren’t listening, it will keep beating us about the head and neck until we do.  This was more of a massage, really, a kind, persistent, and powerful reminder that it’s safe to relax, to trust in who and what we’ve chosen, to reap what we’ve tried to sow.  I can’t imagine a greater mercy.

On the warming and strengthening properties of snuggles.

It was cold this morning as I opened Ezra’s door and peeked inside.  Just a few moments earlier, he had hollered for me in a particularly full-voiced and dramatic way, with a long tapering tail, suggesting he was wide awake.  But in the dimness, I couldn’t see him.  Turns out he had pulled his covers up over his head.  As I pile onto his bed, hugging the (to me) enormous lump of his self under the covers, he peeks out his head.

“Mama.”

“Yes,” I reply.  “Cold Mama.”

“I will warm you with my snuggles.”

“EXCELLENT.”  And he does, wrapping me up with the one arm that has fully emerged from his nest, and pressing his sweet warm cheek against me.

He says, “I have six snuggles for you.”  And he counts them.  Then…

“I have six more snuggles.  Seven, eight, nine, ten.”  We discuss subtraction and the number four and the number twelve, and he counts out my remaining measure of snuggles.

Then, curious, I ask: “How many snuggles do you have, anyway?”

“Twenty.”

Oh!  “So giving me twelve is a pretty big deal.”

“Yup.”

“But what happens when you use those up?  Do you make more?”  Yes, as it turns out.

“Where do you keep your snuggles?” I ask.

“In my ribcage.  In my ribs.”

I point out that that makes good sense, since snuggles are so strong and the ribcage does such important work protecting the heart and the lungs.  I’m sure the ribs benefit from the presence of all those snuggles.

As we head downstairs, later, he explains the whole thing to Papa, how he warmed me, and where the snuggles live, and how they are useful there.

But all this is shortly forgotten as he piles animals into an airplane and an ambulance for their trip to North Africa.  Some frogs live on planes, he points out.  Well, sure.

On counting with children. And aging.

We’re at the breakfast table.  Ezra (3) says he has no idea how to count to twenty.  Papa says, “Of course you do!  You count to twenty all the time in your counting book!”  Ezra denies this.  He insists he has no idea.  I offer this: you count to ten and I’ll count with you up to twenty.  So we do.

At twenty, Ezra wails, “But there are lots of other numbers!”  Indeed.

So we keep counting.  At twenty-three, I realize that we’re enumerating the years of my life, and I try to recall each one.  I know I loved twenty-eight, the birthday I first held my PhD and had a job I loved and a husband and a house and two beautiful dogs and a keen sense of gratitude about all of it.  Thirty was lovely, too, building a new community of amazing friendships in a new and welcoming area.  Thirty-three and -four were stressful for a bunch of reasons; thirty-five was when I got pregnant, finally, and went through massive, life-altering and transformative changes deciding to leave my job/career.  “Thirty-six is how old I was when you were born,” I say to Ezra.  “Thirty-eight is how old I was when your brother was born.  Thirty-nine is how old I am today, and forty is how old I turn soon.”

Hurray!  Birthdays!  We love those!  A brief flurry of shouting.  And then…

“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…”

And I head for my computer, smiling to myself, because how can little kids offer such wisdom and perspective?  After all, that’s what this birthday thing is, right?  Another step, another day, another year, stretching out in front of us.  God willing.  I hear Ezra chanting from the kitchen: “Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…”