That Little Tree

Small ceramic Christmas treeThat little tree.

I remember it in my childhood bedroom. It carried the soft glow of Christmas from the rest of the house into where I slept. My mother had crafted it carefully and lovingly, intending it to be a gift to me, in a ceramics class that was her creative release. Though not inherently worth any money, it’s a fragile little tree, and I’ve always handled it with the utmost care. The memories that it carries with it, the intention with which it was created, endow it with a value far beyond any monetary appraisal.

I have carried that little tree with me everywhere I have lived since. I pack it away with special care at the end of each season, and I unpack it again when the temperature begins to fall. Perhaps because it always had a special place in my bedroom all of those decades ago when I lived in my parents’ home, it has always lived in my bedroom since.

I remember every detail of the Christmas decorations in our home. There were flickering lights, music almost constantly, and gold garland hung with artificial apples that framed our living room. I particularly remember one circular, flickering Santa that somehow gave the softest presence to a room when it hung in the window, overlooking a snow-covered lawn. The decorations mattered less than the feeling of a solid foundation to which they contributed. My family always loved Christmas, because of the central part that it represents in the history of our faith, as well as the generosity to which it gives occasion. Of all the holidays of the year, this was the one to which we gave the most energy, and so the close of each year was a special, peaceful, even holy time. I’ve carried that into my adulthood, not only as a nostalgic recollection, but as a practice.

Or, at least I have tried.

I wonder how these same sorts of memories are being formed for our daughters, what will stand in the fronts of their minds about Christmas when they are my age. At least during the Christmases of my youth, the opportunities, it seems, for the formation of important memories were carefully crafted. I’m not sure that we accomplish that. With the number of times that we have moved over the past few years, the pace of life that is at times unmanageable despite or best efforts, I fear that this intentionality slips from our grasp, however good our intentions.

Perhaps, though, I’m mistaken. Perhaps those opportunities for memories as I grew up were not crafted at all, but are the sorts of experiences that create wonderful memories on their own, however unplanned, facilitated only by the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a stable nuclear family. Should that be the case, then the opportunities for these foundational memories are simply present for our children, and I can only hope to make them as positive as I can.

When our oldest daughter, now six, was three years old, she gazed with fascination and a certain degree of longing at that little tree. I promised her that, when she was grown, she would inherit the tree. She spoke often of that promise for a while, though she doesn’t really mention it of late. I wonder what that tree will mean when I pass it on to her?

I wonder if I can influence that meaning at all.

Cheating the System

Cheating at the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel GameWhen I was in middle school, I was (and this will not exactly take you by surprise) a bit of a nerd, not exactly popular in social circles. My best friend was three grade levels older than me, and also not exactly the most socially mobile. We partook of the sorts of things that you might guess, perhaps stereotypically, would interest us…Dungeons and Dragons, chess, fantasy and science fiction novels, and all of the imaginative escapism that went along with them. The issue was that, being older and more experienced at things, my friend nearly always won every game that we played, and I was still immature enough that this really bothered me.

Our families were both heavily involved in the same faith community, and that was the beginning of the age in which the youth group was a heavily prioritized aspect of church culture. I remember one evening in which some church function was occurring, and we were the oldest youth group members present. While the adults had dinner and talked about…boring adult things…and the younger children played games appropriate to their ages, my friend and I were playing a board game. I couldn’t tell you which one (although we were particularly given to Axis and Allies at the time). I was losing, and so I took the opportunity to alter the odds in my favor when my friend wasn’t looking. I just wanted a chance, after all, and was quite tired of losing. He, of course, noticed immediately upon returning his attention to the game, and things erupted into a quarrel.

I only remember two other incidents in which I cheated on something, both involving quizzes and spread between my late middle school and early high school careers. The point is, the older I became, the less palatable cheating became to me. The same faith in which I was participating the night that I cheated on that board game necessitates that truth is more important, that cheating is (as much as this would frustrate my friends ascribing to a philosophical post-modernism) wrong.

Our daughter is old enough that she is beginning to grasp board games more effectively. On the evening that I write this, she and I were playing a simple game involving spinning an arrow and placing plastic acorns into cardboard tree stumps…you get the idea. Of course, one of the options that the arrow can land on with each spin is the “you lose all of your acorns” option. I was the first recipient of this unfortunate spin, and used the opportunity to show good sportsmanship by giving away all of my acorns. Then she landed on the same option a turn or two later, and was significantly more reluctant to give away her acorns.

So, I compromised. She gave up half.

This actually worked, because, the next time she landed on the harbinger of acorn loss, she hesitated, but gave them all away, working on copying my sportsmanship. This was great until she landed on it again. And then again. That was too much.

So, I compromised. I nudged the arrow to the next option over, much to her satisfaction. Then, a few turns later, I did it again.

So, I suppose I cheated.

I’m not entirely certain whether this will have a negative impact on how our daughter views games or competition or any of the other developmental processes associated with these sorts of activities. Or, perhaps the event will be inconsequential for her, lost in the mists of memory. For me, though, I’m quite taken with the amusing fact that I cheated.

What’s different is the motivation. When I was young, on those three occasions, I cheated to further myself, to compensate for self-esteem issues, to look better in the eyes of others. When I cheated tonight, there was no self-serving incentive behind the act. Rather, the impulse was to protect my daughter from a cold fact that she shouldn’t have to experience quite yet, the fact that life can, indeed, be that unfair.

I cheated because she doesn’t need to know that yet, because she doesn’t understand the concept of cheating yet, and because maybe at least her first exposure to it, if remembered at all, will be a positive one.

I cheated in a good way, if that’s even possible.

I’ll try to do better in the future.

The Spirituality of Freshly Cut Grass

I mowed the lawn this weekend.

Wow, Dave. That’s…um…amazing. Thanks for the Earth-shattering news. 

I know, I know. But, wait for it…

You see, the thing is, I haven’t done this since before I left my parents’ place to head off for college. Since I launched into the life of a student, professional, and otherwise participator in the adult world, I’ve been either a dorm or an apartment dweller. No lawns to mow, no real maintenance at all, as a matter of fact. Which is actually just as well, because, while I know my way around power tools and have helped build more than a few sets for more than a few shows in my life, I’m actually really not all that handy around the house. Building a facsimile of the real world to stand on a stage, while allowing your skills to develop with woodworking, is actually quite different than building or re-constructing something for the inside of your home.

My dad tried his best when I was young. I hauled wood for our wood burning stove, I even tried to split it on occasion. When I was very young, I went around the house with a set of plastic toy tools to accompany him on whatever small thing around the house needed to be repaired. I would screw and hammer pretend items as dad did the real work. By the time I was in college, I could assemble furniture. That, however, would remain the extent of the handy-man skills that I needed until last week.

The thing that I had always been good at around my childhood home, though…the weekly chore that my dad always felt comfortable giving to me, was mowing the lawn. I studiously observed his teaching me about the techniques with both a riding lawn mower and a push lawn mower than he used to take care of our lawn, which came in at just short of a full acre. Unlike most of the other things that I observed, though, I grasped the practical applications of this. As horrible as I am with mathematics, I grasped the geometry of establishing the angles of mowing, the framing of the area of the lawn that you’re working on and the careful progression inward, making the square always smaller until it does not remain, and you can move on to the next area. Starting and maintaining the mower…there’s a trick to all of that. Handling grass that has grown a bit too tall without stalling your mower…there’s a trick to that, as well. I knew those tricks. I actually took pride in the fact that I had learned this from my dad, that I could contribute to the household in that way.

I suppose it’s like riding a bike. When Karen and I moved into this house upon arriving in North Carolina, we had to purchase a lawn mower. I called my father to get his advice on which one to purchase. We unpacked it, set it up. I was looking forward to taking care of our lawn. A great deal of the rest of the home improvement that needs done to our house I’ve been irritated with, but this…this I hadn’t done in so long, and I was almost thrilled with the anticipation of caring for a lawn again. Starting the mower was a spiritual experience in its own right. I remembered all that my father taught me those years ago. I handled it well. I contributed in the best I way knew how.

The beautiful thing is…I get to do it again next week.

A Tribute to a Blanky

Tiny Blankie

‘Tis the season for…well, the season for stuff, all too often. This is the time of year, after all, in which we collect seemingly endless amounts of stuff. Often, I think that stuff is intended to be used as a coping skill. We cling to certain things, because they make us feel more comfortable, more safe in certain situations. When life becomes stressful or out of control, we find that item that makes us feel safe and hold onto it.

Not all stuff is needless accumulation, though. I’m reminded of that, as well, as I look around at our Christmas decorations. Our tree is decorated almost exclusively with ornaments from our past adventures, both in our life together and before we met, and it’s a very important and spiritual experience for me to reflect on that. I have a small porcelain Christmas tree that my mother gave to me as a gift when I was young, and this will be passed on to our daughter. It has no financial value to speak of, but a huge value in the fact that it reminds me of my mother and, as we age and she will eventually pass on, it will become even more valuable…I hope even to our daughter’s children.

While I don’t believe in accumulating stuff, I do think that it’s important to have and hold onto those sorts of important items in life. They serve as markers for us to focus on important things.

Our daughter started early in that regard.

When we were expecting, one of Karen’s co-workers knit a blanket for our daughter. The blanket had a pattern in it that equals 42, because we’re geeks and that, after all, is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Karen thought it would be a really cool idea to have a second blanket, a sort of substitute in case the main blanket got dirty and needed washed, and her co-worker generously made a second, smaller version, this one without the special pattern, but otherwise a smaller duplicate of the first blanket.

Our daughter slept with them from the day she joined us, and they became her security. She clung to them as she learned to calm herself after being upset. They have affectionately become known as Tiny Blanky and Big Blanky. We developed a system: Big Blanky was the most important, so Tiny Blanky went on trips and outings, in case she needed to sleep in the car, but still keeping the primary Blanky safe at home.

The first time our daughter got really sick, she threw up on both of them in the same evening, and was up until the wee hours of the morning crying and unable to sleep because Blankies were absent as we washed and dried them for her.

Blankies were important. Very, very important.

Karen texted me at work one afternoon late this week. She had made a quick run to Ikea to return some odds and ends that we had purchased and decided we didn’t need (ironically, she was acting to prevent the accumulation of stuff). She was leaving the store when they discovered that Tiny Blanky was not with them. Re -tracing steps, talking to security, consulting with lost-and-found…all resulted in nothing.

Tiny Blanky was lost.

Karen spoke of the sadness that she and our daughter talked through in the store, of how bravely our daughter handled the loss. It seems silly, to be so sad over a blanket, especially when Big Blanky is still safely at home for her to sleep with. But, Tiny Blanky had become a fixture, often in her hand as she walked here or there, requested frequently when out and about. Tiny Blanky, an inanimate object, had assumed a personality of sorts. Our daughter is sad, and told me so, but bravely moves on with life.

What’s really sad is that Karen and I sat around after our daughter was asleep for the night, and spoke of how depressed we both are that Tiny Blanky is gone. And while we hope we will be called by the store saying they’ve had a blanket turned in, and while I will make whatever time necessary in my schedule to get it if they do, we’ve moved to acceptance now. I’m much more aware of the need to keep track of Big Blanky, so that it can be kept for her and hopefully even held onto as an adult, so that she can remember the story. After all, Big Blanky was lovingly made and is one of a kind. It’s of great importance to our daughter, and thus of great importance to us. And I’m certain that it will continue to be in her hand as she explores the world.

The day Tiny Blanky was lost, though…that was a sad day for our family.

Tiny Blanky, thank you for all that you did. You will be missed.

Time Passages

I hope that I can keep track of what’s important.

That is, I find myself concerned a bit as, even while things go according to plan, I become anxious about the plan sometimes. This move has been different than previous moves for me…much different. Obviously, there’s the fact that I’m now moving a family of three, which is logistically an undertaking comparable to any traveling concert production, I’m convinced. Practically, this is also the biggest move I’ve ever done in regards to distance.

Also, though, this has been the biggest move in regards to emotional repercussions. I became extremely sad at one point during the process, and it lingered for days. I’m still not entirely certain why, but it was almost like I was grieving something. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany later.

As I’ve experienced this dramatic change in place, I’ve also experienced a profound shift in perspective on permanence. That is, I’ve began to recognize that certain things that felt permanent to me are in fact hopelessly temporary, and that what is critically important is, in fact, permanent. The career that I’m changing from was unduly stressful in its own right, but I had come to regard its daily schedule with a sense of permanence because of the comfortable income that it provided. Although we lived in an apartment that, by definition, is not a permanent home, I had come to regard the little routines and patterns there with a sense of permanence that not only belies my distaste for routine, but were also a practical way of staving off the chaos. I think that part of my struggle with this move has been trying to stay on top of being a parent and writer and (once again a) student in the midst of a set of systems that no longer work and have to be re-vamped or entirely replaced. Those systems, which allowed me to keep track of what had to be done and kept mine and Karen’s sanity, though, were very, very temporary things, designed for a temporary place that served us during temporary conditions.

For years, we were in holding pattern, wondering “what next?” in our lives.

And, now that we’re moving forward at long last, I’ve had an irrational difficulty letting go of the temporary. That is, the physical has been threatening to overwhelm the spiritual. What placed this into unyielding perspective, though, was two days ago in the back yard, as I pushed our daughter in a swing. As she giggled with delight and glided to and fro, she made extended eye contact with me, all smiles, her deep eyes communicating a wealth of information.

What they told me that afternoon was, “I trust you, Daddy.”

That’s permanent. Very, very permanent. Whatever transient circumstances and events rotate through our lives, my wife and daughter, and the responsibilities that I have to them, are permanent. They are persistent. They are pervasive.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.