College kids should know you love them…no matter what.

My column in today’s Greenville News.  Love on your kids when they’re in college!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/08/30/send-college-students-off-tears-and-joy/607968001/

Two of our sons began university classes last week; one a freshman, one a junior. After spending a wonderful Summer with them, Jan and I always find this a difficult time. It requires that we adjust to walking past empty rooms and accept the fact that they aren’t coming back home at the end of each day to scavenge food and tell us stories. Even their high-school junior sister misses them, although she is under the delusion that the house will be neater with brothers away. (Guess what, papa still lives here!)
Of course, we’re hardly alone. All over the state, nation and world, families send their daughters and sons off to be educated. And what a great thing! Broken parents everywhere have lost children to disease, accident, starvation or war and would love to simply have them alive, much less getting an education. I try to keep that in perspective when I feel sorry for myself.
However, as grand as college is, it’s a time of significant stress for our young people. Many are leaving home for the first time. This means great fun and adventure. But it also means a separation from those who have, for at least 18 years, been their constant supports and care-takers. It means leaving the comfort of the known for new places and new people. It exposes the kids, appropriately, to opinions that challenge their own. It introduces them to other kids from different backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles.
In addition, their sudden unsupervised state opens them up to all sorts of opportunities for bad habits and bad decisions. All of this added together can be very difficult. This is especially true in a time when, for a variety of reasons, some young people seem to be maturing later than in previous generations.
Perhaps this is why colleges are reporting more and more students struggling with depression, anxiety and substance abuse. University mental health clinics are always busy. And many kids end up dropping out or transferring to schools closer to home.
However, there’s one stressor we forget. When we send our kids to college we have high hopes and expectations for them. For years we’ve encouraged them, talked about college and even talked to our friends and family members about our kids’ academics. ‘Oh yeah, Joan here is going to Clemson and then med school; she’s going to be a surgeon! Aren’t you baby?’ (She nods her head nervously…) ‘Rick is planning to be an architect, right dear?’ Or a lawyer or an artist. We think that at 16, 17 (or even in their 20’s) they can plan their entire lives and it will all play out as scripted. That they’ll go to university, get that planned degree, go to professional school or grad school, get that awesome job and then we can tell everyone how great they did.
And yet, what if they don’t? What if they’re frightened? What if they’re tempted? What if they feel outcast? What if they get addicted? What if they get pregnant? Perhaps harder for parents (and kids) to accept, what if they aren’t ready, or just don’t enjoy the academic environment and find that they really just want a job and a family? What if, like all humans, they simply miss home and the places and people they love?
The thing is, we parents (and grands) must never let our children’s identities be completely tied to education or career. Because if is, and if it goes wrong, then the whole structure of their precious lives is shaken. I think this may be one of the biggest stressors of all. That is, their desperate fear of disappointing the ones who worked for them and encouraged them to move forward. It must be absolutely paralyzing.
Our children are valuable because they’re our children. That’s the most important and foundational truth they need to hear. Not because of their grades, scholarships, IQ’s, career goals, awards or anything else. And it needs to be followed by this truth: ‘My precious child, if you are unhappy, if school doesn’t work for you, if you change majors or change life-goals, it’s OK. You are not defined by any of it. I love you no matter what; you can always tell me the truth. And home is always here for you.’
So send them off to school with tears and joy! But always anchor their worth to the love of family, not the success or failure of their educational adventures.

Vacations early and vacations late

I write from the large, quiet beach house where 21 family members have been enjoying one another, and the various delights of vacation.  I write from the solitude of the large dining room table which, this morning, was full of adults and children, from six to eighty, basking in the joy of breakfast, the smell of bacon and eggs, the delight of one another, the impending pleasures of a new day’s adventures.

Vacations come in two flavors, I see today. Early vacations in Spring are full of ‘what if,’ and ‘what shall we do,’ as well as ‘how wonderful to be together!’  They are powered by the kids’ freedom from the confines of schedules; they are super-charged by the joy parents have in being liberated from the homework and activities of their young.  Early vacations are made more delightful because not everyone is free yet, the traffic isn’t gridlocked and because (even on Southern coasts), the evenings are breezy and cool and the bed is chilly not from air-conditioning but from nature.

Late vacations are also wonderful.  All time together, laughing, floating in the pool, kickign the soccer ball on the beach, all of it is a sacrament of love.  But this morning, lying in bed, I watched through the window as heavy rain rolled over the side of our rental house; it was a gray dawn, with high dark clouds, and reminded me that Summer is not half over, but sometimes still hints at Autumn.  That Summer is a roller-coaster that runs faster and faster, and its cars are driven ever faster by the return of school, the heat of the season and by the advancing ages of the children we try so hard to keep young and nearby.

This is a late vacation; and an odd one.  Several of two of our children and one of their cousins cannot be here.  One is working, one is looking for an apartment, one is traveling in Ireland.  One will leave for college in a few weeks. They are doing what they should; in the Spring of their lives, in their twenties, life is busy.  But their absence punctuates the reality that all vacations, like every single year, change.  In a sunny homage to Heraclitus, ‘you cannot step onto the same beach twice,’ as it were.  Kids grow up, adults grow old and things move on to jobs and school; as they have and as they should.  The alternatives are for our children to be stunted forever like pets, or to die.  Better they should miss vacation.

The house is quiet, except for the dryer and the occasional young person scrounging for food and saying, ‘good night Papa!’ Or, ‘good night Uncle Ed!’  They make me smile, They inspire me.  And every year, we return to do so many of the same old things, to hold the form and shape of vacation even as the substance (mostly the children) move in and out.  And thus there is miniature golf, and bike rides; pizza night and games; throwing football and Frisbee on the beach.  Even having overpriced ice-cream too late and after too much food.

These are scaffolds that remind us of the past, and on which the young will perhaps build their own future times, or (when the times are right) bring their own loves back into our rickety traditions to enliven them.

This late vacation is drawing to a close, and I will miss it.  But we have a deep trove of memories, all of us, and we have build not only the frame but the solid foundation of love upon which families, this family, can stand for generations to come.

Tomorrow it will be hot and muggy.  But we will run on the beach with reckless, joyous abandon.

Nothing can take that from us as we drain the last drop of joy from this pitcher full of love and tradition.

 

Barbie the Zombie Cat Walks the Day

 

Barbie the black cat has lived with us some ten years or more.  A transgender cat ahead of his time (and through no actions of his own), he was a Christmas present to our daughter Elysa in a season when cats were few and far between (an unusual situation to be sure, given the reproductive tendencies of cats).  Elysa wanted a girl cat, but only a boy cat was available.  He was named, therefore, Barbie. That was during our daughter’s ‘Barbie phase.’  Since that time, Barbie has been the subject of any number of debates over pronouns.  He?  She? Him? Her?  Maybe if we had had the currently vogue zie or zir, it would have been eaZier.

At any rate, Barbie came with a matching cat, a brother gray with white paws, who was named Socks.  He belonged to Elysa’s brother, Elijah.  Socks, like Barbie, was extremely devoted to his child-master and often slept the night standing guard at the head of his bed.

Socks, alas, had a propensity to wander through open doors.  Once we found him in our woods, high in a tree and calling out in his most pitiful cat voice for rescue.  Jan talked him  down and ultimately he returned.  Several years ago, he wandered out again and was not recovered.   We mourn Socks to this day, good egg that he was.  We hold to the hope, faint as cat whiskers, that he will return one day, king of the forest, with the look of one gone on extended adventures.

Barbie, however, lives on.  And on.  Barbie has likely burned through at least nine lives and perhaps nine more.  You see, Barbie’s teeth fell out years (and years) ago. He/she has claws like well-honed sabers, but not a tooth to be found.  I dreamt, one night, that her/his teeth had grown back.  But it has not happened.

Some time ago we noticed that Barbie was losing weight.  Pick him up and he was a furry bag of bones, purring loudly but a wisp of a kitty.  A trip to the vet, with fears of cancer, feline AIDS, leukemia or worms, and I was informed that our cat was hyperthyroid.  That’s right, Barbie burns through calories fast enough to make a Sumo wrestler anxious about gaining weight.

As a consequence, Barbie is on medication.  Every day we shove a pill down his toothless gullet and he purrs like a madman as we do.  But because of his endless calorie burning, he learned long ago to eat.  And eat.  And eat. He eats non-stop.  Downstairs in the morning?  He sees humans and paws the glass back door frantically, as if to say, ‘Hello!  Hyperthyroid cat here!’  Jan has said we should put little cleaning pads on his paws and we’d have sparkling windows.

I feed him, we feed him, multiple times a day.  Cat food and scraps, all day and all evening, and still an open door leaves him frantically running for the house.  His ability to juke between human legs and come inside is the stuff of soccer legends.  His co-cats (later arrivals, half-Manx maniacs named Leo and Frodo), have no trouble gaining weight.  But they have learned the frantic food pursuit from Barbie and as soon as he begins to panic, so do they.  Despite the fact that together they could probably take down a deer.  (If you’ve had a Manx, you understand.)

So we have a cat of some 11 years at least, who lives in the yard and on the porch of a house in the South Carolina Blue Ridge foothills.  He is surrounded by any number of creature would should by all rights have eaten him by now.  (He is guarded by five dogs of increasing sloth but who still bark and smell doggish to predators.)   Said cat is nearly weightless and fully toothless.  And yet, he remains.

I think, sometimes, that he stays for Elysa. She is a rising junior and they love one another. Perhaps, he waits for his brother.  Maybe Socks said, ‘wait here, I’ll be back,’ and went to a foreign land to hunt mice and get rich.  Maybe he’ll bring back cat dentures of gold and diamonds.

We theorize that he has a happy dementia.  Some of us have postulated that he is actually dead, or the Walking Dead.  A cat who passed years ago and simply forgot to die.  Barbie the Zombie Cat sounds like a B-rated horror movie to be sure.

But utimately, Barbie is just a reminder that life is good. No matter what nature throws at him, he rolls with it.  He is full of joy in his few small joys.  A bit of turkey, a cup of milk, a bowl of cat-food or even his medication and he is dancing on cat toes, tail high and happy.  But a little cradling in Elysa’s arms and he purrs like he has loudspeakers.  Hold him and he reaches up with his blade-embedded paw, not to strike but to caress as surely as any human ever touched another.

Life is hard, for people especially but also for the small creatures of this world.  But we should all be as satisfied, as joyous, as Barbie the hyperthyroid, toothless Zombie cat.

Long may he purr.

 

Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

Graduation, When we Shoot Arrows at The Enemy

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/25/its-time-launch-our-arrows/343820001/

We have a quiver full of arrows in the house. Over and over again, the kids and I have used the target arrows it holds. Many of the arrows are worn and dinged, and some fletchings have come loose. (I have no idea how many rest beneath the grass or are stuck into trees in the woods.) The remaining arrows are sentimental to me, but still see use now and then as the mood strikes us.
Since yet another of my children prepares to graduate high school, I found myself thinking of Psalm 123: that says ‘like arrows in the had of a warrior are children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them.’ Jan and I are about to launch another ‘arrow.’ But not at a target. Our son Elijah is being launched into the great battle of life. And as I heard a preacher once say regarding that passage, ‘what do you do with an arrow? You shoot it at your enemy.’
I am unapologetic about the martial metaphor. We live in a time of conflict, contention and danger. And no matter what one’s political, cultural or spiritual alignments, the fact remains that our children go forth into difficult times.
There are physical dangers, of course. The cowardly murders in Manchester, England remind us that violence lurks in the world and no amount of lovely colored buildings or candlelit, hug-filled marches will impede those who find its use expedient.
Cruelty is timeless and knows no borders. Slavery is still widespread, in the world at large and even in the US in the form of sexual and financial exploitation. Women of every race and creed are treated horribly in many lands. Globally, children die of starvation, dehydration and assorted diseases that we can easily manage in even the lowliest American hospital.
War continues to raise its endless Hydra-head. Gang violence robs necessary, beloved young people of their potential and their lives. Domestic violence and child abuse are rampant; especially in SC, sadly enough. Addiction is an entire war in itself, demanding aggressive action to save lives and families.
There are also political dangers. On both sides of the political aisle, there is fear that the glorious traditions and safeguards of the Republic may be imperiled. Each thinks the other is wrong. But each is concerned about something; each side has a sense of unease.
There are many battles to fight. Some compassionately advocate for equality of groups marginalized by race, gender or sexual orientation. Others battle for preservation of freedom of conscience, for the precious right to believe and act based on faith and tradition rather than cultural trend.

There are battles for abortion and against abortion, for open borders and for more regulated immigration. Climate change pits economic interests against environmental, both making important arguments for the future. Behind each lies the war of objective truth versus the cheap manipulation of spin and emotion.
Hardly a pep-talk for graduation, is it? But that’s the lay of the land. Graduation is beautiful and thrilling and all of us try to stifle our tears and cracking voices as we applaud our young people and give them hope.
But I want to give all of them, my own incredible son included, more than pretty images and vapid platitudes about ‘following your dreams.’ I want to say this: ‘It’s tough out here; we’re ready for reinforcements so get with it. Welcome to the team. Keep your heads down.’
I find that a more useful and thrilling thing than what graduates are all too often told. I want to see them launched at the problems of the world, in the full knowledge that it isn’t safe, that it isn’t easy, that they have a purpose in all the struggles and that they are needed. We need their courage, their insight, their creativity. We need their brilliance, their success, their strong backs, their loving hearts.
We live in a culture of increasing self-interest. Young and old spend too much time reflecting on their own wounds, victimization and identity politics. These things pull us apart rather than uniting us in the fray.
Dear graduates, look up and look around! Show us how to rise above ourselves and live well, how to glory in the struggle, how to win (or lose) with compassion and love, and also with ferocity and risk when necessary.
We loose you, dear arrows at the various enemies we face.
Strike true.
And congratulations, Elijah and all.

 

A Wedding is the Portal to the Mystery of Marriage

Congratulations Meg and Tyler!

This past weekend we celebrated the wedding of our dear friends Tyler Jordan and Meg McCall.  It was an event filled with the the grace of  God, expressed in a truly perfect Spring evening, in the love of parents, friends and the blessed couple.  It was conducted in all the glorious, meticulous yet casual elegance of the South Carolina coast.  All of our children were in the wedding party (along with many other wonderful folks). I was privileged to be able to deliver this short reflection at the wedding.  Thanks to Meg and Tyler for including me!

A wedding is a beautiful thing. It is a celebration, and in life’s troubles we celebrate too little. At a wedding we smile, and cry. We laugh and dance, we eat and drink and send a new couple on their way into life. A wedding is an event where others witness and affirm our vows, in order that others may help hold us to our promises. Wedding ceremonies are much valued in our time, and we spend great amounts of time and treasure to make weddings beautiful and memorable, to make wedding dreams come true.

However, despite its beauty and wonder, the wedding is not an end in itself. It is a gateway which serves to fuse two into one. When a man and woman walk through that gateway, through that portal, they enter into a beautiful mystery.

Beyond the vows, the veil, the ring and the kiss lies previously unseen, unknown garden of their common life together. That life is a new creation waiting to be unveiled and explored, shaped and molded hour by hour, day by day, year by year over a lifetime. In so doing they are living in the spirit and tradition of Adam and Eve all over again.

St. Paul says that this is a great mystery. In Ephesians 5:31-32 he says, after a profound explanation of the relationship of husband and wife, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ We’ll circle back to that last bit in a moment.

Here Paul uses the Greek word Musterion, which means ‘a mystery that can be revealed or discovered through God’s revelation.’

The mystery of marriage is not ineffable, because God who created it is constantly teaching us through it. It is not beyond comprehension. It does, however, require that we be committed in order that we understand its riches and metaphor. It cannot be approached tentatively, with one foot in to test the water, but all in, with all our hearts.

To comprehend the mystery of marriage we can only cross the portal, and in faith and hope and love leap headfirst into the unknown. And it is an unknown.

Dating and courting and all the time we spend together before the vows are exchanged are critical. They help us to learn who it is that we can indeed spend a lifetime loving. But something different and mystical happens when we take the plunge of matrimony. Suddenly, the world takes on a different light in the power and energy of the fusion of two into one.

Through the mystery of marriage, through the great unknown garden of life together, we learn small things. That our beloved is beautiful to us first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That our beloved is a human with frailties, failings and annoying habits, but that they are no worse than our own. We wonder, at times, why they stay with us; at others why we stay with them. And then we all laugh at the fact that we both ask the same questions.

We learn that the one we committed ourselves to is cherished and precious like nothing we ever grasped or imagined.

We learn to be humble and thankful in times of joy and gracious and hopeful in times of suffering. We learn the mystery that those words, so often spoken about richer or poor, sickness and health, take on very real meaning in the hot forging fires of life.

We learn that whatever else may fall apart, whatever else may evaporate before our eyes, whatever trials life visits upon us, if we are together we can endure.

Marriage is the first place where we perhaps truly understand what it means to love someone so much we would rather see ourselves suffer or die than have it happen to our partner.

It is hard to impress upon the young, but in a marriage properly tended, in our own small Garden of Eden, love only grows deeper and wider with every passing year, every financial struggle, every wrinkle, every illness, every success and every day, or night, spent together.

Ultimately we find that looks and wealth come and go, but as we are made more and more into one, the greatest gift is their hand in ours, their warm body sleeping next to our own. This is an ageless, timeless blessing.

This is part of the mystery. The discovery that love is not contingent. That it is not contingent on youth or beauty, success or power. That it simply grows; possibly deepest in trouble, despite how we all hate to pass through it.

Over the years and decades, we become mysteriously intertwined. We are made one by our vows, but we are transformed into one by time, by shared stories, by shared goals and struggles, by neurochemistry… for all we know by genetics as each physiology impacts the other.

If you doubt me, ask those people you know who have loved long and well. It is hard to put into words, but in marriage, in time, the things we thought valuable and desirable fade away, and we desire our beloved above nearly all.

So much so that we cannot fathom, especially in youth, the phrase ‘tell death do we part.’

But that’s where the mystery delves deeper and more wonderful. What we are learning in the mystery of marriage, as wonder after wonder reveal themselves, is that our marriage is a microcosm of the love of Christ for the church.

It teaches us to love unconditionally as he does. It teaches us to love without fail, with no term limits or expiration date. It teaches us to love when we are wounded and when we are hopeful. It teaches us to forgive and love more and more. And it teaches us that all of this is an end, THE end, in itself. We do not love for meals or laundry, for support or company. We love because in love we reach God.

And there is one more thing. This love of Christ for the church will carry us beyond. The painful mystery of separation in this life is not in our power to overcome. But it is in his power. And that is the promise.

Our love for our spouse will be interrupted one day. But it will go on for all eternity in the Kingdom of God as every tear is dried and every sorrow comforted. And in that place we will see the kind of love for all that we in our mortality took a lifetime to learn for only one.

A mystery indeed.

And today, we are witnesses as the story of wonder and mystery begins once again in these two young lives about to become one..

So let there be joy and laughter in all our hearts as we witness things far beyond our comprehension and realize that mystery is all around us today.

Mothers are People First

Mothers are People First

This was my Mother’s Day column in the Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/12/mothers-day/101521348/

I have been graced by a long line of mothers. I had two grandmothers who loved me dearly, and who (though they have passed from this life) remain dear to my memory. My own mother Sharon was, and remains, a wonderful woman who raised me gently and with endless help and encouragement. My mother-in-law Carma has ever been kind to me, and treats me like a son.

My wife Jan is an incredible mother, who has dedicated her life to our children, going so far as to homeschool them for many years. She is indulgent and patient with them and they are always in her thoughts and fervent prayers. She is a Godly mother like all of the mothers in my life.
Having praised these women, let me say something shocking that we forget all too often on Mother’s Day. Although we seem to have a ‘cult of mama’ here in the South, mothers are just people like all the rest of us. They are capable of love and hatred, they can be supportive and destructive. They may lift their children up or tear them down. (Both the stuff of various books and movies.) They have good and bad days, and decades. Mothers were once mere girls, then they were lovers or wives. Along the way they accumulated hopes, dreams, stories, successes, failures and wounds of their own.
Because they were not born mothers, but become mothers, they bring all of these things with them when they bear, or adopt, children. So into the wonder and chaos of motherhood they bring their humanity. And humans, mother or other, are imperfect.
These imperfect people we call mothers are often subject to some nasty treatment. Sometimes, we confine them to their maternal roles. As if all they are capable of is producing and raising kids for the future. Jobs? Degrees? Achievements? Passions? Irrelevant, as some women are subordinated to motherhood by their families, and are not encouraged to attain the full glory of the various reasons for which God put them on the earth.
On the other hand, modern society often says to moms, ‘sure, you can choose to be a full-time mother, but what a disappointment you’ll be to all of the women of the world! Career and education are so much more useful and interesting than caring for mere children! What a waste of your potential!’ As if raising human beings, loving and caring for them, were no more exciting or important than having fish in an aquarium. While ‘choice’ is a powerful mantra, the choice some women make to focus on motherhood is sometimes unfairly viewed as failure.
The third option is perhaps cruelest of all. It tells mothers to be everything. Raise perfect children, and feed them lovely, healthy meals, engage them in all activities and make them super students. Simultaneously, rise meteoric through the corporate world! Never say no to a new project, a new goal, a better job! Stay thin and beautiful and do all things as they appear in glossy magazines. ‘Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan,’ or else be a pathetic loser.
Mothers, meanwhile, struggle with just being people. Like everyone else they have fears and anxieties, sorrows and addictions, illnesses mental and physical. Some mothers are close to ideal, others will wound the ones they bore. Some, overwhelmed by their own troubles, simply cannot raise children, while others make it look effortless. There are those mothers who are stars in business, government, professions, athletics or other fields. And yet, all too many never have good jobs or educations. Some mothers land in jail.
The thing is, mothers are are neither gods nor angels. And it is cruel of us to expect them to be either. They will not always accomplish everything they dream of and sometimes their children will be less than they had hoped despite their best efforts. Sometimes children will be disappointed with their mothers, fairly or not. This is reality. This is life in a fallen world.
In the end, we should celebrate the many gifts and sacrifices of all mothers. Simultaneously we must remember that mothers deserve, as do their children, to be loved for who they are. And given grace despite who they are.
So love your mom this Mother’s Day! But along with dinner, flowers or the assorted gift offerings you bring, give her the freedom to be perfectly imperfect. Just like you and just like me.
Happy Mother’s Day moms!

A Happy Family and God’s Beautiful, Abominable Creatures

Call me Dr. Doolittle…

Once upon a time, a loving couple moved from the cold, bleak land of Indiana to South Carolina and bought a house in the woods. It was a lovely first home, and they enjoyed all their time in the house. While they were there, they learned about the beauty of nature; the birds, the raccoons, the deer; the ice storms that shattered trees, the flash floods, the brush fires, the stray dogs trapped in the creek, the giant hornets nests in the woods. It was beautiful all around. Nature is awesome!

Then, after they had brought four amazing children into the world, they said to one another: ‘What the heck! Let’s move further into the wilderness!’ And they had someone build them a house of logs, high on a hill near the state forest. While it was being built, they discovered rattlesnakes. Which are natures wonderful creatures. And soon after it was built and they moved in, they learned about wild hogs. Just one more amazing thing in the yard.

In time, the family learned all about the veritable Noah’s Ark that their home had become. Having grown up without scorpions (how poor life was!), the family learned to shake out shoes and watch where they stepped. Inside the house as well as outside. Gradually, centipedes stopped in. ‘Hello human family, we’re God’s creatures too! And we sting like everything else! Welcome!’ By now the family was not only amazed but mildly annoyed. They learned the centipedes are much harder to kill than scorpions. They felt sad doing it. The first time.

A charming family of giant rats lived under the porch. Such a cute family! And they set the dogs on them, who went to work with canine glee. The dogs later made peace with most of the forest creatures and started to completely ignore them.

One magnificent, exciting year, the family saw a cute little lady-bug (or what they thought was a lady-bug) in the kitchen. And the next day they woke to find, oh, about ten-bajillion of them hanging out all around the house and in the house and in their food and bathroom and on the windows and drapes. Some in the family, it turns out, were allergic to them and wheezed and developed rashes. But oh they were so cute. The family sprayed a chemical around the doors and windows that, years later, still seems to kill the creatures and probably cause cancer.

The house in summer was all abuzz with wonderful things. Carpenter bees slowly, with great dedication, began to bore holes all over the wooden beams of the big log house. The children made great sport of swatting carpenter bees with badminton rackets. It didn’t really help, but a dead bug is, well, you know. Eventually it is believed that the house, like a great building of brittle Swiss cheese, will collapse and kill everyone. Except the bugs, that is! Isn’t that wonderful? Nature…who knew?

Later, various wasps began to engineer amazing nests on the log house; which then developed into entire wasp civilizations. The wasps loved the house, and the family, so much that sometimes they went to bed with them and took showers with them! Stinging is like hugging to wasps. Except it really isn’t. The people engaged in campaigns to kill all the wasps, and enrich pesticide companies. The wasps are silly and always come back. The wasps live in the attic above the bedrooms too. We’re all a family.

Then stink-bugs came, and what a joy! They sing their happy, buzzing sounds all day and night, inside and out, and land in cooking food and brewing tea and onto the hair of unhappy females in the house. And when smushed, they smell terrible! What fascinating little nightmares. The family was told that stinkbugs prey on ladybugs. Isn’t that just a kick in the pants?

Lately, above the bedrooms, there have been noises. Adorable, furry bats have appeared in the big log house on the hill. Flying around inside the house, dropping onto the table. What incredible creatures! They are, apparently, rooming with flying squirrels. Will either of them eat the stink bugs?

The family still loves nature. Maybe, part of loving God’s critters is being in a constant struggle with them. At least then you learn about them in person, not from some sterile display or chapter in a book.

Maybe, just maybe, an apartment in the city would be nice sometimes. Because the creatures, so far, are winning.

New Year’s Eve With My Best Friend

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Official link not up yet at the News website, but I’ll post it when I can.

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I remember being an adolescent, ringing in the New Year with my family. My mother a nurse, and my father a pastor, we just weren’t big ‘party people.’ Their mantra (which is now mine) was ‘nothing good happens after midnight!’ (I have plenty of anecdotal doctor stories to back up that assertion, by the way.)
We’d shoot some illegal fireworks off, or fire a gun from the back porch at midnight, and we’d eat some shrimp as the ball dropped in far-off, sparkling, exciting NYC. Then mom and dad usually fell asleep early and I wished for something to do. They were busy folks, and reasonably tired, so New Year’s Eve wasn’t much different from any other night. My wife’s childhood memories were similar, as her parents worked hard and rested when they could. Furthermore, those were the ‘dark ages’ when the Internet wasn’t part of life, and communications to the rest of the kid world were restricted to the house phone and the postal service. (Can you imagine?)
So it was no surprise that Jan and I celebrated a remarkable event on December 31st. For the first time in 22 years, we spent New Year’s Eve together… with nobody else. No kids, no relatives, no friends. Zero.
We aren’t opposed to enjoying the holiday, mind you. Over the years of our dating and marriage we’ve had lots of wonderful New Year’s Eve celebrations, from small affairs with friends to dress-up evenings in crowded restaurants.
We’ve had many parties at our house on the hill, with plenty of food and fireworks, bonfires and chaos. We’ve had church youth group events where dozens of young people played capture the flag in the freezing cold, the night illuminated only by flashlights, after which shivering teens (and leaders) warmed themselves by the fire and passed out on the floor from fatigue.
Most years the attendees were simply bunches of our kids’ friends and our own, along with as many family as possible, whom we promised that the fun and laughter would outweigh the danger of stray bottle rockets, brush fires or jackets set on fire by sparklers.
But this year, all of our ‘children’ from ages 15 through 22 (not so much children now), had things to do, people to see and places to go. Based on our own experience as young people, we could hardly blame them. And rather than try to make them feel guilty, rather than be stuck on some dead-end, potentially toxic nostalgia, we said ‘be careful and have fun! Keep us posted where you are and what you’re doing!’
I had worked all day in the ER and arrived home, where Jan had a yummy meal waiting. I took dinner to our room where we settled in for a very, very uneventful evening. Good Clemson parents, we periodically paid attention to the score of the Clemson-OSU game. Good former homeschool parents and life-long nerds, we watched Tolkien’s Return of the King on TV. We weren’t cold, nobody around us was intoxicated, we didn’t have to drive anywhere and the wait for food was non-existent.
I seem to recall learning that Clemson had won, and the dark forces were pouring out of the gates of Mordor, right as I said, ‘I love you baby! Happy New Year!’ At that point the dark forces of fatigue enveloped me and I was out around 11:30. Jan, with more fortitude than I, stayed awake until after midnight.
Emotions are funny things. And we humans can keep lots of competing emotions in constant tension together. That night, even as we missed our children and thought back on all the beautiful, laughter-filled evenings of the past, we were buoyed up by the deep, underlying love and friendship that we have had since our first date almost 33 years ago. We rang out the old, and rang in the new together, with joy and contentment.
Parents everywhere should try to remember that as wonderful as our kids are, and as delightful it is to spent time with them and others, our marriages are the deep, holy bond that will remain, and see us to the end. We know there will be parties again. But party or not, the best New Year’s Eve, the best day, the best night, the best life, is the one we spend together.
How do the vows go? In sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, at parties or at home with only you? I do. Always.

Back to School Blues for a Former Homeschool Family

Lately I’ve seen a lot of photos on the Internet of parents cheering and jumping for joy as their kids were packed off to start a new school year. Mom is giddy and the kids sour-faced as summer comes to an abrupt, but long-expected, halt.  Sure, they’re staged but the message comes through.

http://www.today.com/parents/moms-celebratory-back-school-dance-goes-viral-8C11041602

http://www.fox13news.com/trending/187237945-story

I used to hear parents say the same.  ‘Man, I can’t wait for school to start!  I have to get these kids out of the house and get things back to normal!’  I found it interesting.  I mean, I get it.  Kids, all kids, are loud and messy; grumpy and dirty, sometimes sick, always eating or sleeping.  But then again, they’re kids.  They can be equally funny, happy, joyous, entertaining, sweet, kind and helpful.  On the balance the good far outweighs the bad.

The way I see it, we signed on for it.  OK, maybe it was a romantic date and a glass of wine, but one way or the other, we brought them into this world and they are delights.  Not only so, they are the future.  The future of our families, our very DNA.  And they are certainly the future of our nation, our civilization, our various faiths or ideologies.

Perhaps I’m coming from a different perspective.  By way of full disclosure, we spent a lot of years home-schooling.    Some years, school was all year long, even if in lower doses. (Latin or geography in the pool, etc.)  But one reason we did it was that we knew our time with the children was ultimately short, and we wanted to make the most of all of it.  And we did, whether having class at home or visiting National Parks, every bit was a delight.

Fast forward.  One went to college, then another. And our youngest two are in public high school, a sophomore and a senior.  Mornings are no longer times of lavish breakfasts and learning/laughter around the table.  The clock is ticking, the bells waiting to ring.  The school year is not open for our exploration and delight; it is determined by the state and woe-betide anyone who runs afoul of the sanctum sanctorum of the 180 days of learning!  (Even if the last twenty or so are often spent doing remarkably little.)  Our lives belong to the state, in a sense.  Our trips can only happen when others take trips because everyone is on break together; on the approved break.

Our dining room, formerly known as class-room, is lined and packed with books and notebooks.  With old science kits and well-worn texts, as well as novels highlighted and annotated.  There are files with test papers kept for records or nostalgia.  The desktop computer once shared by four kids is sleeping; as it has for probably a full year or more.  The kids have moved on to their personal lap-tops. Perhaps the desktop dreams of those days gone by.

There are living remnants.  Our youngest still do homework under the bright lights of the dining room.  They still work on that expansive table which once housed our own kids and visiting co-op homeschool students, who were taught Latin by my well-organized and gentle bride.  (The same worn table where many holiday meals have been shared.)

Backpacks still lie about, and the two who remain at home still laugh when they aren’t stressed over AP exams or some other crisis.  We still go through food; and the older two visit and leave their mess, their empty soda cans, their laundry.

It’s still sweet.  But it changes every year.  As it should, I suppose.  But having watched the transitions, having seen our school house population shift and dwindle, I can tell you that every year when the kids go to school I am anything but joyous. I am broken and sad.  My playmates leave; as if I were the pre-school sibling, wishing I could go along, nose pressed to the window, counting the hours until their return.

 

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I walk around the yard, looking for them; for echoes, foot-prints, fleeting memories of summer delights.  In the house I sometimes walk past empty rooms; but seldom look inside at first.  It makes me miss them more.

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Every year I reflect; did I do it right?  Have we prepared them?  Did we miss something?  How could I have used the time better?

Yes, I know. It’s probably pathological.  But my point is merely that when the kids leave, Jan and I don’t celebrate.  Oh, we celebrate their growth and learning.  But we mourn just a bit every time.

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Sure, most of the photos and videos are just jokes.  Everybody, I think, misses their kids at least a little when school starts back.  But I wonder if any parent, jumping for joy as the bus pulls away, considers the chiral image of the scenario.  Will there be a day when you visit the adult kids, and as you leave they cheer? They post photos:  ‘mom and dad finally left!  We’re all so happy to get things back to normal!’  Maybe.  Kids remember.  And they know when they’re wanted, and when they aren’t.

Enjoy every minute. Celebrate the good times, the successes and joys.  Remember the hard ones.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s best not to cheer when the kids go away.  Because they’ll really go away, and go their separate ways, before you can play ‘Celebrate’ and dance your heart out.

And I suspect that if they feel welcome, it’s more likely they’ll come back to visit in years to come.