Moment to Moment

This weekend, I attended a funeral for a college student who left us entirely too early. We’re close friends with the family, so it was a weekend (and, indeed, a week) fraught with a myriad of emotions and events that, while healthy and necessary to experience, leave one exhausted at their conclusion.

Something said during the service was a tribute to the deceased young man’s love of life, how he lived every day that he had to its fullest, and how he lived it to the good of those around him whenever he could.

When confronted so harshly with our own mortality, it is normal to question the application of these words to our own lives, to consider what sort of imprint one would leave behind. There’s a natural tendency as a parent, I think, to understand the often experimental nature of raising your first child. That’s to say, it’s not a question of if you’ll make a mistake, but a question of minimizing the seriousness of your mistakes as you guide your child into adulthood. A tendency of mine has been to shrug off the moments when I haven’t handled a situation well…when I’ve minimized my daughter’s feelings, or been inconsiderate of her emotions, or raised my voice in frustration when I could just as easily have taken another deep breath and reasoned things through. I’ve assumed that these moments would be lost to her young memory as she grew, and that I would just get better at what was happening as I gained experience.

I’m not sure that these events are, in fact, lost to her memory though, and, as she’s now four, they’re not currently even if they once were.

Her quality of life, and the kind of person that she grows into, depends very largely on my actions and reactions during these years, and, while this is something that I understood in theory, the weight of it in practice is something entirely unanticipated.

Added to the fact that I’ve been unable to forge any depth of connection with our youngest daughter, this means that I’m leaving much to be desired in each moment that passes. Those moments are no longer just mine, if they ever were. They are impacting two other young lives in ways the depth of which I may never understand.

As I sat in the warm glow of stained glass windows this weekend paying tribute to another life lived, I considered the love of life and the importance of making it count in each moment. And while, yes, I understand how cliché that may sound, I think what strikes me here is redeeming the time…redeeming each moment…not for my own sake, but the sake of my daughters. To expect to handle every event, incident, and interaction perfectly is a superhuman expectation that I couldn’t hope to keep any more than anyone else can. What I can do, though, is do better. I can be more conscious of each moment, and how those moments carry repercussions into the lives of others.

If I do that, perhaps it won’t make any difference on my own life, but that isn’t the point. The point is the impact that will make on my daughters’ lives, and, perhaps, on others as well.

Motion

There’s an old adage, I’m certain you’ve heard it, that a “body in motion stays in motion.” I believe that its meant as a physical truth, encouraging one to remain active and fit. I remember, though, a conversation that I had with a young colleague in a Boston office building years ago, while he worked his way, as we all do, through relationships and life. I reminded him that none of us are static. That we change. That the people whom we know change.

On an emotional, psychological and spiritual level, we are always bodies in motion. We’re always moving forward or backward, but I don’t for a moment think that we’re ever stagnant. If we are, we don’t stay that way for long.

I’m thinking of this because I remember a teacher with whom I worked many years ago during my first career. She was struggling when I knew her, both personally and professionally. She wasn’t received well by her peers, and, whatever the details of her battle, the fact that she would not be returning after that semester became increasingly obvious. I remember respecting her strength as she worked to hold life together during the final few months of that academic year. She didn’t return the following year, and I have no idea what happened to her. If I remember her, though, I remember a person struggling through a difficult season of life, wearing all of the frustration and insecurities that go with that on her face, displaying it with her eyes and averted gaze.

Not so long ago, I was beginning a new career, and had taken a position with a company which surrounded me with people much better than I was at what I do. I had viewed this role as a learning experience…and it ultimately was exactly that…but I was a source of frustration to my more-experienced colleagues as they had to stop and explain things to me that were, for them, elementary concepts. When one has to meet tight deadlines in an environment where communication is not a priority, mentoring someone less experienced in one’s field is a burden, not a privilege.

I’m much more experienced at what I do now, and I’ve grown into an expert in my  niche. I have a skill set now that I wish I had possessed in that job, for the sake of my colleagues, because I could have been so much more productive and helpful to them. I occasionally encounter one of them on LinkedIn, congratulating them on a new role or something similar, and I wonder how they remember me. I think that, in their minds, I am still the inexperienced and troublesome novice whom they believed would have no success in this new career.

The teacher that I knew all those years ago, whatever happened to her, is likely in a much better place in life, now. I imagine that she no longer carries the stress that she did when I knew her. I no longer carry the stress of being inexperienced and needing to ask constant questions now, because I have learned and grown. I no longer carry the burdens that I did when my colleagues from two years ago knew me.

We are not static people. We stay in motion.

We all know people like me, or like that teacher. We’ve helped someone through a difficult time in their life, and, whenever we see them now that they are doing better, we begin our approach with a practiced empathy that is no longer warranted or even helpful (perhaps even the opposite), yet engrained with a sort of emotional muscle memory when encountering that person. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, and it’s not fun.

Just as our children will not be the same next year as they are now, neither will the people that we know. I think that recognizing the growth that someone has experienced…actively seeking all the ways in which they are better…is the sort of unconditional positive regard that has an enormous influence on all of us, something that helps us to live our lives that much better.

Because we are in motion. Always in motion. And that is a frightening, as well as a really cool, thing.

A Hope Deferred

Each weekend, I keep a now long-standing tradition of taking our oldest daughter for cookies and milk. It’s the time in which she knows that she has my undivided attention, where she’s the scheduled priority, regardless of other commitments that may press in. I began the tradition by taking her to a Starbucks for a cookie when she was younger. As her love of books grew, however, she developed an affinity for the Barnes & Noble near our apartment in New England. After our cookie and conversation, we would spend an hour or more looking through books, and occasionally returning home with new reading material. Dedicated time with my daughter, and feeding her love of books. Everyone wins.

Since our re-location to North Carolina, Barnes & Noble isn’t as close by, but we manage to make it the home of the weekly cookies and milk outing about once monthly. A couple of weekends ago, after having browsed the books and moved on to the toys, she discovered one of those toys that would be really cool at about half its price. Of course, it’s a toy that she immediately wanted, for which she professed her un-dying love, and that she pined to own in a way that one wouldn’t even imagine possible for a four-year-old.

She’s ahead of the game, I suppose.

My reasons for not buying her the toy were many. The cost was less of an issue than the fact that her grandparents are able to show very little self-control in the toy-buying area, to the point that we must routinely purge old and un-favored toys in order to avoid the cost of purchasing a storage unit or a larger house. Karen and I both wish to not raise materialistic children.

That said, I also prefer to not be the guy with a sobbing four-year-old in the middle of a bookstore because she didn’t get what she wants. Parenting is a learning curve. Sometimes you end up saying things that you realize in retrospect were not the best of ideas. In this case, that went something like, “I’ve taken a photo of it. When we get home, Mommy and I will talk about it. Maybe we can buy it for you if we agree.”

The issue is that I already knew that no such agreement would come, because I could predict with certainty that Karen would feel the same as I did. It accomplished the short-term goal of avoiding the in-store meltdown, but the side effect was frequent reminders on the drive home to remember to show Mommy the toy as soon as we arrived so that we could talk about it and then make the purchase.

As promised, we discussed the toy, and, as predicted, it was not purchased. So, I was successful in deferring the meltdown until we were in the safety of our home, but I also deferred my daughter’s hope.

I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I forget…we all do…how crushing is the potential for such an event on a child of that age. I’m not speaking of not getting a toy, but rather about being given hope and then realizing the desired result still didn’t happen. Hope, you see, is a most powerful thing. Only a small amount of hope can inspire us to get through the day, to stop obsessing over that thing that is causing us such anxiety, to believe the best of a potential diagnosis, to try one more time to keep a relationship alive. Hope is a Divinely given gift, one of the best attributes of the human condition.

Hope crushed…a series of dreams that don’t come true…can achieve the opposite. The most optimistic among us can become calloused after a certain number of such experiences.

I believe that I mis-handled my daughter’s hope that day. A small thing, perhaps, a blip on the proverbial radar of her childhood (she’s already forgotten the toy by this point), but impactful should it continue. I gave her hope for something that I knew would not come true, that I knew I would not permit to come true, and I did so because of selfish motives.

I’m quite disappointed in my actions that day. I learned in that moment that realism is always the preferred approach. I want our daughter to know that hope is important because dreams and wishes do occasionally come true to our liking.

I can’t manipulate her outlook the way I did that day because of that toy.

I won’t do so again.

“What happens to a dream deferred?

 

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?”
(Langston Hughes)

Trust…Inherited

As I write this, I’m sitting on the sofa of our friends on a Sunday afternoon…friends who were kind enough to give us a warm place to crash after an ice storm knocked out power for thousands in North Carolina, including us, on the preceding Friday afternoon with a restoration estimate of sometime on Monday (and I thought winters in New England were difficult to navigate).

Good friends are a God-send. We are blessed to have them in our lives.

During this weekend outage, we also joined forces with a neighbor who was in the same predicament as we were. That neighbor, in true Southern hospitality fashion, had proactively introduced himself to us when we moved into our neighborhood, something that was helpful to us as reserved New Englanders. During our brief time living here, this couple has helped us with a few things, and we them. I trusted them by the time this incident occurred.

Karen and I approach others in very different ways. Karen begins with the assumption that someone is trustworthy…I begin with the opposite. I’m the guy who won’t ask someone to watch my bags at the airport gate for a moment while I step away…I pack them all up again and take them with me. I lock the car when I’m away from it for two minutes. I assume that someone cannot be trusted until they’ve proven otherwise. I call this prudent…others (Karen) call it paranoid.

In any case, an interesting disparity struck me in this particular situation. I trusted our neighbors because they have, in my mind, proven themselves trustworthy. When I meet new friends, I believe that opportunities for someone to prove themselves trustworthy occur naturally. This is true of neighbors, co-workers, fellow members of the same faith community. I expect no one to trust me unless I’ve proven myself trustworthy to them. And, yes, there have been multiple times when the questionable theology of this opinion has been brought to my attention. I’m working on it.

The friends with whom we are staying as write this, however, present an interesting exception to this rule of mine. They were Karen’s friends long before Karen and I ever met. I met them through her, on our wedding day. My trust for them wasn’t earned…it didn’t have to be. This is an inherited trust. My wife trusts them completely, and thus so do I.

This is true with many of my wife’s friends, but with many of my friends’ friends, as well, which causes me to suspect that my “trust when proven trustworthy” position on others is perhaps not as universal as I might think. I’m not certain that this is a bad thing.

Trust is a beautiful event. Karen contends, as L’Engle contended, that trust can only be achieved when one is given the opportunity to prove themselves trustworthy. I have a long way to go…longer, likely, than I care to admit.

I’m so very, very thankful for friends in whom I can trust.

The Second Time Around

As of New Year’s Day, 2016, I have two daughters. 

Quite a surprise, that. A surprise that, if it has taught me anything at all beyond simple stress tolerance, has taught me that, just because you remember what something was like, it doesn’t follow that you can predict anything for the second occurrence.  Which is a bit disconcerting, because that is true in many aspects of life. After all, if you’ve ever flown, for example, you can generally predict what will happen the next time that you arrive at an airport to board a plane. Once you’ve gone grocery shopping, you basically have it under control for subsequent shopping excursions. 

Not so much with children. 

Confessions are for priests and not blogs, but, in the interest of transparency, I’ll say up front that I was extremely hesitant about having another child. Certainly, when we discovered that we were expecting again, I didn’t respond enthusiastically. Perhaps that makes me a bad person, I don’t know. In retrospect, it was likely a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees, as I couldn’t get past the logistical concerns of living in a new place, working in a new career (which mostly involves working for myself, which involves long hours), and trying to get a house ready to sell, all while planning for a new baby. I haven’t been thrilled with living in the South again, and bringing a new baby into the world while here was not on the list of adventures that I wanted to have. 

That’s the thing about adventures, though. Planning them sort of misses the point. 

So, I buried myself in the logistical concerns. What did we still own that would not have to be purchased again? How would my newly self-employed occupational status manage to make what we needed to have for this financially? We needed to locate a mid-wifery practice in our area, determine which hospital had the best reputation, take care of all of the diet and healthcare that comes with those nine months of planning. We had to pick a name again (something that came easily for our first daughter, but was the source of much debate this time around). So much planning, so many variables that had not been in the equation with our first, to say nothing of the fact that raising a four-year-old takes more time and energy than any human can muster. The sheer volume of things to do kept me too busy to ponder the gigantic spiritual weight of another child most of the time, and when I did have time to ponder, I chose to entertain myself and not ponder it, instead. I was very much behind in my to-read list, after all, and needing to catch up seemed a valid excuse to spend my time in a different way. 

Not the best of coping strategies, admittedly. The end result, though, was that, even more than with our first daughter, this little girl existed only in theory until, for the second time in my life, the cries of my daughter being introduced to our world echoed from the walls of an operating room.

Since then, I’ve nearly lost my mind with noise, with conflicting priorities, with just keeping up with life. I’m doing, not thinking, because thinking and understanding…things which I hold dear…are luxuries that cannot be afforded now. There is only doing, and more doing, almost never for oneself, and always so profound in volume that the actions mean nothing other than survival. My anxiety and stress from nine months ago are more compounded than ever, but with less energy to give them voice. 

Because I want our second to be as exceptional as our first, to love books as much, to bring smiles to everyone nearby as much. I want to be connected with her as much, even though I already am not, and all of this requires a constant, un-choreographed movement, emotionally and mentally as much as physically. My time is insufficient for both of them, yet it must be sufficient because they need me equally, because I am bound to each equally, and the weight of that responsibility is so crushing that it escapes me how anyone could find it a joy. 

A few days after she was born, I was sprawled across the sofa, and our new little girl was placed in my arms by a grandparent because it was “my turn.” I was trying to stop the flood of thoughts in my head, the lists of things that had to be accomplished (the list for even the next evening seeming insurmountable), and I was finally able to breathe for a bit, and relax the noise in my head with one daughter in bed for the night and the other snuggling on my shoulder. She had been crying (a seemingly constant state of affairs), and had finally calmed for a bit, calmed, I like to think, because she was with her daddy. I actually couldn’t think for those moments, not because I was practicing avoidance or didn’t want to, but because I was actually not capable of doing anything other than experience. 

And the experience by which I was touched in that moment, a feeling that couldn’t be explained except perhaps by the Divine, was that it will be okay. 

Somehow, for her sake and not for mine, it will be okay. 

And all manner of thing shall be well…