Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Give Us this Day our Daily Marshmallows

It was like quicksand.  The more I tried to pull her out, the more I was pulled under.

There was no tragedy, just the end of another very long day in late January.  Kindergarten.  She hated kindergarten, pancakes, and having a sister.  Housemates made the house too loud, and why couldn’t she have a pet (the cats and chickens don’t count because they’re boring).  School was too hard, and why couldn’t she be homeschooled like _________, and she didn’t have any friends at all.  She hated church and ballet lessons and all of our games and books.

Am I leaving anything out?  She didn’t.

As I sat there, trying to listen, trying to pull out some positive speck of something from her (What about recess?  Recess is boring.), I wished I could erase the words hate and boring from her brain.  When did my six-year old turn into a sullen preteen?  Is this the beginning of a very long decade?  And as I sat there, I sank, right along with her.  Everything was horrible.  I hated that moment and myself in it.  And I almost said (key word: almost), “Do you know how much we pay for you to go to that school you hate?” 

****

There is this song that I find myself in sometimes.  It’s a U2 song from the All that you Can’t Leave Behind album.  Track two.  The chorus:

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better now you’re stuck in a moment
And you can’t get out of it

I understand what it means to be stuck in a moment.  It doesn’t take much–how about a slight headache set to the soundtrack of screaming children?  How about a deadline and a computer program that is Not Behaving as it Should?  How about a change of plans that I didn’t plan, or 4-7 p.m. on just about any given day?

Stuck in a moment.  Look.  See, there I am. Scowling, glaring, sulking, sinking.  And I can’t get out of it.

****

One of the worst moments as a parent is when you realize you’ve passed along some undesirable trait to your children.  You have this thing that you don’t like about yourself, and then one day they do it.  Right in from of you.  Nature and nurture, working together to corrupt the next generation.  This is what I realized as I sat there listening to my daughter’s hate and boring litany.  Oh no.  That’s just like me.

Well, that was just like me.  You see, I’m working on it.  And I’m being worked on.  Lists of little things that I’m thankful for sit beside my bed, are tucked into the bookshelf downstairs, and grow as virtual post-its on my computer desktop.  Little thankfulness lists chipping away at me:

Cat, curled up on the towels; Warm tea received in warm hands; Sun!  We are tilting back toward it now; Four squeaky voices full of life; Getting to check my e-mail; Christmas present slippers; Yellow rubber duck (why is it on my desk?); Insulated walls; Husband obsessed with insulation; Winter doesn’t last forever; Pain reliever for my headache; Clean water from the tap; Pink mittens and polka dot pajamas

Etc.

But my daughter doesn’t write, and it’s a little much to ask a six-year old to keep a list.  Isn’t it?  Besides, why would she do it?  I suspect, sometimes, that she enjoys getting a little pity, complaining a bit, wallowing in her discontent when things didn’t go the way she wanted them to…

(Or is that me?)

But wait.  Suddenly, inspiration.  Small, cubical, gelatinous inspiration, filled to the brim with corn syrup.  Disgusting.

Perfect.

“Honey,” I announced as on the way to the bus, “today we’re going to play a game.  It’s called the marshmallow challenge.”

The rules (I was making them up as I went along):  pay attention and try to remember good things that happen to you today.  They have to be specific (Mama, what’s specific?).  You have to remember them.  Then when you get home, we’ll sit down for snack, and for each good thing you can remember, you get one mini-marshmallow, up to ten.  No more than ten.  I’ll do it too.  We’ll see if we can each remember ten.  Got it?

At 3:30, she came home with this:

023

 (Clockwise from upper left, her words, my writing:  Made a paper airplane, A Spanish reader came, My teacher read a book about penguins, Played at kitchen, I tried to fly, Played at pipes, Colored my paper airplane, and Played freeze dance)

Eight marshmallows isn’t bad for the first day.  I got six.  Maybe tomorrow I should try to fly.


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Be Small and Love Big {Part Two: Christmas Letter Aftermath}

How do you count your life?

Big, small, meaningful, wasted, successful, incomplete?  How do the days add up?  How do you add up?

Do you ever wonder?  I do, and though I finished Part One with a nod toward meaning found in daily acts of love, I am unsteady here.  I sway when I consider that my part-time job pays less in a whole month than my husband makes in a single real estate transaction (which isn’t even his main job).  I waver when my friends get promotions in jobs that they actually went to school to do.  I topple when the Christmas letters come and I learn that someone else’s preschooler is reading better than my kindergartner.    Or that they ran marathons.  Or teach Pilates.  Or just published their dissertation.

(You all know who you are.)

I sway, waver and topple; and though I tell myself that my own life has meaning that can’t be quantified, sometimes I feel like an over-indulgent parent complimenting a four-year old’s scribbling.  “Oh, honey, it’s beautiful… what a nice, uh, nice, uh…”  “Pegasus, Mama, it’s a yellow Pegasus with rainbow wings.”  “Oh, of course.  Let’s put it on the fridge.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life is really worthy of the fridge.

****

How do you count your life?  Here is the easiest way to count most things: numbers.  Let’s talk annual income, weight loss, or likes on facebook.  How about debt, doughnuts eaten, or hours wasted in whatever way you like to waste hours?  How do the numbers add up?  It’s like a word problem on a standardized test, “If Suzie spends two hours watching Downton Abby (which, if you’re wondering, is a positive value), works for six hours at twelve dollars an hour, and cycles three miles home; did she have a good day?”  “If Bill owes twenty thousand dollars in school loans, makes thirty thousand dollars a year, and just lost ten pounds; is he having a good life?”

Yes, I know that I’m being ridiculous.  Of course, you can’t count a life by numbers any more than you can compare one life to another.  But isn’t this our fallback position?  Isn’t it at least a temptation when you find yourself unemployed or overweight or in debt over your little graying head?  Or conversely, don’t we have a subconscious sense of security when the numbers add up in our favor?  Isn’t this why I’m obsessed with exactly how many miles I ran?

If life doesn’t add up in numbers, how am I supposed to know how I’m doing?

And now that I’ve said it, I can tell:  this is exactly the wrong question.  I ask it as if life is something to be earned, deserved or proven.  But when I sit here, when I fall into this place and wallow in it, I know:  I’ve gotten everything backwards.

****

Ann Voskamp spelled it out for me the other day on her blog, the blunt force of her words cutting through my hazy patterns.  “Doxology or drown.  Decide.”  We either live a life of thankfulness (doxology), or we will quickly find ourselves in over our heads (drown).

Doxology or drown.  Decide.

When I read this, I felt physically shaken.  It’s no wonder.  She was pulling up the roots of my assumptions.

Life is not an accomplishment(yank), but a gift.

Life is not something to be evaluated(pull), but something to be received.

Yes, yes, I knew all this.  In my head.  But do I really know it?  Do I live it?  How deep does it go?

I entitled this pair of posts “Be Small and Love Big” not knowing precisely what I meant.  I still don’t.  But it’s a place to begin.  Be small.  Doxology begins with the small, with noticing how the raindrops slide down the electrical wires (thank you).  With hearing a child downstairs whisper much too loudly, “Go away.  I’m hiding” (thank you).  With feeling the tap of computer keys as words come and another blog post goes out (thank you).  Another new morning.  Another list of responsibilities.  Another influx of blessings.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Doxology begins with receiving each small piece of your life.

Noticing.  Receiving.  Saying thank you.  Again and again.

It’s another way of counting life, and I have decided to give it a try.


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Stop Growing Already

Not to brag, but…

Our kids eat kale.  Straight up, plain kale, in all its wrinkled green glory.  Kale, which is not just a commoner vegetable like carrots, but Superhero nutrition, somewhere on the order of brussel sprouts.  Or turnip greens.  Or something else I don’t like to eat.

All of this is thanks to a simple psychological trick, um… careful methodology… called reverse psychology.

It came about in this way:  One evening my housemates made dinner.  It was a grown-up favorite–sausage and kale over pasta, sprinkled with olive oil and feta cheese.  Yum.  The cooks were wise (experienced) and kept the ingredients separate for the kiddos.  Sausage in one section, pasta in the next, and a little bit of kale in one corner.

The sausage disappeared first, followed closely by the pasta, until four kids were left with lonely bits of green and the irresistible urge to leave the table.  “I don’t care for the yucky stuff,” our youngest cherub intoned.  “Kale, it’s called kale, and you need to at least take a thank you bite,” an exhausted grown-up replied, “We’re out of carrots.”

Rebellion was brewing.  The kids looked at one another.  Four of them and four of us, and though they were smaller, they were perhaps faster and definitely more agile.  They looked at us, and then…

Brilliance.  I think that it was housemate-dad who spoke first.  “You’re right kids,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “Do not eat that kale.  It’ll make you grow, and we like you just the way you are.”  The kids were confused, but the grown-ups caught on quickly.  “Oh, of course!”  “Why would we give you such a thing?”  “If you eat too much of that, you’ll grow up.  And you are so cute right now.”  “Don’t you dare touch that kale!”  “Candy.  Nothing but candy for these kids from now on.”  “What were we thinking?”

And the kids shoved kale into their cute little mouths.  Did they know it was a joke?  I still don’t know–they were laughing, but they were eating.  They ate the kale, and asked for more.

“No, you don’t want more of that stuff.  Don’t you want marshmallows with  sugar sprinkled on top?  Ah, come on.”

In classic grown-up fashion, we milked our little trick for all that it was worth.  For weeks.  Kale was just the beginning.  It became a nightly routine–a well-balanced meal on their plate eaten amid our feigned protests.  The drama and the laughter increased, but they ate anything we gave them.  “Please.  Please stop growing!  Please!”

Can you blame us?  It was working so well.

And then.  One night, right after dinner, I took my eldest out to buy Christmas presents.  As we were driving, she spoke from her booster seat.  “Mama, I need to have a talk with you.”  “Yes honey?”  “Mama,” she asked, “do the grown-ups really want us to stop growing?”  “Oh no, of course not.”  I laughed lightly, but she was completely serious.

And she wasn’t done.  “Mama, did you like me when I was four?”  “Yes.”  “Do you like me now that I’m five?”  “Yes, of course.”  “Then, Mama, you will probably like me when I’m six or seven too.  Mama, you have to let us grow.”

Ouch.  I took a deep breath, trying not to smile, but now also fighting back a few tears.  This was serious.

“Okay, honey.  From now on, I’ll let you grow.  I promise.”

“Thanks Mama.”  I could hear her smile from the back seat.  Satisfied, she went back to watching Christmas lights out the window, but I swallowed hard.

Did I really say that?  Yes honey, I’ll let you grow.  I’ll let you grow, I promise.

And how many times will I have to say these words again?