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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Family Prayer? Oh, Please!

Coming home in the evening is always an adventure for me. It won’t be hard to explain phenomenon. You see, I have eight children. To be fair, there are only six living at home now and one of those is an adult and gone most of the time. That still leaves five to fill our small home with music, questions, television, arguments, horseplay, laughter, bad attitude, and everything else you can think of. When I step in the door I might have a seven-year-old head butt me in the lower abdomen. Maybe my nine-year-old will take my hand and drag me to her room to see how she rearranged it. My sixteen-year-old might grab the keys she has been waiting impatiently for and take off to her friend’s house. My wife might ask the rhetorical question, “Did you forget to pick up our daughter at dance class again?” and I will have to drive the ten miles back to town to get her. I never know what it’s going to be.
As a general rule our household is not run on a strict schedule. Dinner time can fluctuate several hours. There may be a particular year-old TV series being watched in marathon mode on Netflix. Almost always there is music flowing (or crashing) from my teenage daughters’ rooms.  Two or three computers are in operation at once featuring games or Facebook pages.  Often my twelve-year-old and my seven-year-old will wrestle from one room to another until, invariably, the seven-year-old ends up crying and running to Mom. At any rate, in the evenings the home buzzes like a beehive.
Bed time can be stressful. Depending upon the activities of the evening I have seen bedtime range anywhere from 9:00 pm (rare) to 12:00 pm (also rare, thankfully). Stress levels go up just due to be tired and cranky or because of the coming demands of the next day. But with five kids and two parents each living their own lives the activities and goals at the end of a day can be discordant.
This is why I am all a-wonder each night lately, when, at about 9:00 pm, I call out, “Scripture time! Prayer time!” the seemingly impossible happens.  Usually within a few minutes family members will start straggling into the living room. I would like to paint a picture of smiling children entering the living room in single-file with their arms folded excited for the evening devotion. Well, picturing that in my head and getting the creeps, maybe not that picture. But no worries because that doesn’t happen. They straggle in and plop down in furniture often with looks on their faces that say, “Let’s get this over with.” Some lose patience and leave while waiting for those who make an art of straggling and have to be called back. Some bring their scriptures to earn the bribe, er, treat I give doing so. Eventually all five and the wife arrive. It always feels like we are missing someone so I have to count. After the inevitable, “Can we hurry, please?” we begin.
Wherever we are in the scriptures we each read just five verses and turn it over to the next person. I’d like to say that reverence reigns during the reading, but usually there are side conversations occurring or foot wrestling matches. But sometimes there is some actual scripture discussion or related stories. It’s cool when that happens.  After the last five verses are read kids start dropping to their knees for family prayer. This part of the evening can be a little trying because those on their knees often have to wait for two others to end their discussion before getting to their knees. Then comes question, “Whose turn is it?” I’m always amazed at how long this discussion can take.
“I said the morning prayer.”
“The morning prayer and the evening prayer are on two different cycles.”
“Well, that means it’s your turn.”
“No, I said it last night!” and it goes on.
Eventually the prayer is said and everyone gets up and actually starts preparing for bed. I’m always amazed to see how the “buzzing” has stopped. Somehow making this personal contact with each other (and with God) reminds us that we are “family” and not just roommates.  Sisters go off chatting together.  The younger kids rush off to brush their teeth so that we can read some more “Calvin and Hobbes” together. My wife and I sit for a moment in wonder and thankfulness that the kids, even the teenagers, come to this event each night when called.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Doing Macho Things With My Daughters

A cheery fire sends warm , flickering light through the window of the wood stove as the family gathers round enjoying the warmth. Yes, this is the magic of a wood stove in the home. The magic quickly fades away when I send the call out, “Time to bring in more wood.” The kids suddenly find reasons to disappear to their chilly rooms where the heat of the fire does not reach. The magic is gone, when, in the mornings I find that I cannot build another fire because the ashes in the stove are too deep. Then I find I cannot shovel out the ashes because the ash bucket is already full. That means pulling on some boots and sneaking out in my bathrobe in the pre-dawn dark to empty the bucket. Those cheery fires do come with a cost.

Recently it was wood cutting day in preparation for the coming winter. When I bring this up to my kids there are groans. They know how much work cutting wood is. There is a lot of sweat and no glamour to hefting up a log that is too big to put your arms around and carrying it across uneven ground to a trailer. Repeating this one hundred times leads to very sore bodies and a dread of the next wood cutting day.

My three older boys are out of the home now and are not available to help anymore (they will grin when they read this). On this wood cutting day my fourth son was at scout camp and couldn’t come along either. I actually saw him grin when he learned he would be missing the family event. This left my two older daughters—one sixteen and one fourteen. So much macho work to do and my only help are girls. Sigh.

I learned that girls can bring with them many surprises. My first surprise came when neither of my daughters complained when I told them we would be going to cut wood on Saturday. Oh, I could see the groan in their eyes, but no negative words escaped their lips. They certainly had other plans for their Saturday and they knew how much work this was going to be. I was moved by this maturity in them, but tried not to show it.

My second surprise came when they didn’t mock me when the first tree cutting went all wrong. I figured the tree would fall a particular direction and cut a notch on that side. When the tree leaned back on my saw, trapping it, I had to cut with my backup saw on the other side. The tree fell into the thorniest, thickest brambles on the mountain. My girls witnessed the whole macho fiasco and said not a word. I was grateful.

After I cut my way in to where the fallen tree lay I got to work cutting it up. My girls, without any direction from me, got to work carrying these rather large logs to the pickup and stacking them there. This is when my third surprise came. My girls started singing as they worked. When my saw wasn’t running I heard beautiful voices dancing around the notes of songs they have learned in their respective choir classes. This was far more pleasant from the kinds of noises that boys make when they work.

We loaded up my truck and came home stopping for drinks at a local convenience store. We were covered in sawdust, dirt, and charcoal from half burned logs, but we were happy. My girls took a macho job, completed it quickly, and added grace and beauty to the task in a way that guys could never do. I think I would rather have my daughters with me for all my macho tasks.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes and My Children

I grew up reading the comics in the papers.  When I happen to run across a paper today the comics page is still the first thing I look for. Papers are losing their audiences to the Internet, but I am happy to see that the comics have made the technological jump. Every day I have a ritual of going to the comics page at and reading select comic strips. There are many fine strips found at this site (and of course there are other sites), but one comic strip that is not found there is Calvin and Hobbes.  Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, was a purist when it came to his art. Calvin and Hobbes was his art and he did not want it tainted by commercialism. In other words you won’t ever see a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon series on TV or Calvin and Hobbes t-shirts and coffee mugs. Calvin and Hobbes exist in Watterson’s comic strip and nowhere else unless you count the hearts and minds of millions of human beings.

I have the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Calvin and Hobbes. I bought it many years ago, read it, and then shelved it as my life went on. My three older boys discovered Calvin and Hobbes at some time in their lives and we enjoy quoting from the strip now and again. My other five children no nothing of Calvin and Hobbes. The strip had been out of circulation too long by the time they grew old enough to appreciate such art. But the other day I ran across my anniversary edition and decided it was time to introduce my younger family to this most amazing little boy and his ferocious stuffed tiger.

My two teenage girls aren’t of the disposition to have me sit and read the comic strip to them. Maybe if I leave the book out they will pick it up on their own and enjoy the wonderful experience that is Calvin and Hobbes. My too youngest children, on the other hand, still enjoy me reading to them and when I mention the word “comic” they are there.

Each night we lay across the bed and read a week’s worth of Calvin and Hobbes. I’ve learned that Calvin and Hobbes is an adult comic strip in spite of the age of the main character. My two youngest kids aren’t rolling over with laughter as we read. In fact, I find I often have to explain the humor of the various situations. Despite the work it takes to read this comic, both kids seem to appreciate it. We take time to look at the visual art; at the facial expressions of Calvin and other characters. They are starting to pick up on how the space monsters, dinosaurs, and private eyes are Calvin’s day dreaming view of the world and how those day dreams make his world so much more interesting. They are starting to pick up on how Calvin’s calling his clone a “total jerk” is actually a critique of himself even if he hasn’t realized his own jerkiness yet. They did giggle when Calvin’s parents spoke of simplifying their lives and then stared at Calvin as he happened to walk by and Calvin looked out at us and said, “I hate it when they stare at me like that.”  Like me they find it easy to like Space Man Spiff, monsters under the bed,  and food that attacks.

I know that these two kids are getting half the humor in the strip, but still, each night, they ask, “Are we reading Calvin tonight?” So something is happening and I know I am having a ball reading it with them. I’m pretty sure that as they grow up they will remember Calvin and Hobbes and their love for them will grow. I will be proud to have been the one to introduce them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How To Make Marriage Work

The day of our marriage almost 29 years ago.
Marriage is the ultimate test in life. The majority of those who try it will fail at least once in life. Think about it. You take two individuals--each with their own wills, dreams, and desires—and put them in an endless situation where they have to work together as one to attain goals in this world. How is that supposed to turn out good? The truth is that it cannot turn out good unless both members of the marriage follow one rule—that is to place the happiness of their spouse above their own happiness.

That is such a simple rule to type and comprehend. Still, it is almost impossible to live. There are four little “gotchas,” any one of which will break the “rule” and destroy the marriage.

  1. The first gotcha is that both members of the marriage have to be fully participating in placing their spouse’s happiness over their own. If only one spouse is participating the marriage will fail in one way or another. But before you complain that your spouse isn’t living this rule see gotcha number 2 and 3.
  2. The second gotcha is that one spouse cannot be demanding that the other spouse be participating in this rule. The rule is broken unless it is being followed without any coercion whatsoever
  3. The third gotcha is that you cannot monitor how well your spouse is following the rule. Monitoring your spouse’s success at following the rule is breaking the rule and will break the marriage.  You monitor yourself and that’s it.
  4.  The fourth gotcha is that the rule must be followed for as long as the marriage lasts. There is no respite, reprieve, or vacation from living the rule.

Is it any wonder why marriages fail? Following the rule is asking a human being to be more than a human being naturally is. Perhaps this is what marriage is all about. We human beings are naturally selfish. A successful marriage requires that a man and a woman become something greater than what they were on the day of their marriage. Isn’t that interesting? Marriage is something that can make the world a better place by making human beings better beings.

I think most of us older, married couples will see a young couple who are courting and get a little sentimental about “young love.” The young couple will be seated close to each other in the car as if the short ride to the cinema is too long to be separated by a few feet. Then there are the loving looks between them that just melt our hearts. And yet when I hear their protestations of love for each other I almost want to laugh (or maybe cry) because I know there is a very, very good chance that their marriage will end with them hating each other. When they tell me they love each other I want to respond, “Come back still married in twenty years and I might believe you.”

I have been married for 28 years. I was 23 and she 18 when we married. That fact that we are still married now is a miracle. No, maybe it isn’t a miracle. A miracle denotes a mysterious act of God. While I think that our marriage is miraculous I know the miracle only happened due to decisions my wife and I made.

Our marriage was troubled from the beginning. Tolstoy, in the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina states that “Happy families all happy the same way. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I disagree with this great author. You may get a lot of writing material out of a family’s unhappiness, but the unhappiness always stems from the same cause—selfishness. I caused unhappiness in my marriage due to selfishness, only I didn’t recognize it as that. In spite of the reason for my unhappiness I remember making two decisions that made all the difference in my marriage.

  1. We had children fairly early on in our marriage. I had seen first-hand what divorce does to children and I decided that I would not make my children pay for my problems. I decided that I would never leave my wife, no matter how unhappy I was.
  2. My second decision was where the miracle was born. Eventually (I’m a slow learner)it made sense to me that if I was determined to stay with my wife no matter what wouldn’t I be a fool if I didn’t try to find a way to be happy in the marriage? I mean how much virtue can there be by choosing to stay with my wife no matter what and choosing to be miserable the whole time? I may as well look for praise and happiness by standing in ice cold water for no real reason when there is a dry pair of socks and warm boots setting on the bank nearby.

Barbara and me 29 years and eight children later.
In the days, weeks, and years that followed my decision to be happy in my marriage I must have stumbled into learning how to live “the rule” (a miracle perhaps). All I know is that I have discovered that I have the loveliest, the most graceful, the most courageous, and the most thoughtful wife a man could have.  The “mosts” could go on a lot longer, but I don’t want you to get sick of the sweetness that I savor.

Barbara and I have years to go on this Earth. We have five more children to raise, financial pressures to deal with, uncoordinated dreams to coordinate. I am not afraid. Now that we have found our footing all of these challenges represent an opportunity to learn to love each other more.

I love getting to know couples who have been married forty and fifty years and longer. When I see them hold hands and chat pleasantly I know that their love hasn’t come easily, but was forged in fires that destroy lesser marriages.  These are the gold medalists of the relationship Olympics; the superheroes of Gotham City. Move over movie celebrities and pro athletes; the people who really make a difference that matters in this world are those who find joy in marriage.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Puberty and Death

I think the word “puberty” is a word that makes us all cringe a little. We humans do not go through a true metamorphosis as, say, butterflies do, but neither do butterflies go through puberty. Puberty is the time of the great crossing over—from childhood and innocence to adulthood and carnal knowledge. A child who experiences puberty certainly doesn’t suddenly become an adult, but he or she has entered a one-way gate to adulthood. After passing through that gate childhood will always be that greener grass on the other side of the fence that actually haunts us during our more difficult times in adulthood. Puberty is a kind of death—the death of childhood—and I believe it can be mourned legitimately at certain private times in our lives.

I have eight children. My three oldest are grown and on their own now. They each reached puberty and I didn’t really notice.  Family life was so busy and they grew up fairly easily. With a six year gap between my first three children and the oldest of my last five I feel like I am raising children again for the first time. These last five children I like to call my second family. The two oldest of my second family are girls and both have reach puberty. Perhaps I mourned for the death of my older children as they reached puberty and started into adulthood, but I just don’t remember. I am mourning deeply for the death of my little girls. I am grateful the puberty isn’t true death, but as my little girls reached puberty they stopped holding my hand. I went from being their hero to being their enemy at times when they wanted something  and I had to say “no.” I say things now and they roll their eyes. They say things that I can’t comprehend.  They keep secrets from me. Yes, this is growing up and has to be expected. I support them and love them and pray for them. I do see in them the grace and beauty of the butterfly emerging from the cocoon as they move into womanhood. But there are moments when I will mourn for my little girls and not be ashamed.

The other day my nine-year-old daughter raised her arm to proudly show me a hair in her armpit. She has watched her older sisters move into puberty and is curious and unafraid. Maybe she is even anxious. I do not share her enthusiasm. I was very happy to see that I saw nothing in her armpit. I was very happy to understand that the fact that she was showing me was the sign that she was still a little girl—my little girl. Oh, Lord, let me have three or four more years before my last little girl dies and becomes a young woman.  I will go for lots of walks with her and we will hold hands. I will twirl her like a dancer as we walk like we always do. I will listen to the stories she tells me about her little friends. I will revel in the sight of her walking through the room with dolls in her arms. I will keep reading to her at night for as long as she lets me.

Of course, if life goes well, she will become a young woman. Our relationship will change as it has with my two older daughters. But that change is not a negative change; it is just a change. In my two older daughters I find two newly-born young adults. I can talk with them in ways I never could when they were little girls. When they aren’t angry at me they show me such love and consideration. Like their mother they bring grace and beauty to my life. This death called puberty is a sad thing and it will always make me mourn. Yet there is life after death—life that can exist only because of this death—and the possibilities of beauty, love, grace, and growth found in this new life are endless.  I mourn for my little girls, but I find great joy in my young women.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dad Is a Game of Chinese Checkers

          Ten years ago I was in a career that had me travel one to two weeks a month. I checked in with my family daily over the phone, but I missed a lot of family doings. My life has changed since then and I have had the pleasure of being able to come home to my family each night. With five kids still at home there is still plenty of family excitement to enjoy each day.  Recently I accepted a work at home job, but am required to spend seven weeks in a training program. The training is far enough away that I am staying with a family member who lives closer and only coming home on weekends.  I came home for my first weekend on Friday and there were some joyful “Dad!” and “Daddy!” greetings called out from my younger children. Even when you are tired there is a beauty to those words, especially when they are directed at you.

                These children immediately wanted to do something with Dad like go for a bike ride.  I was suffering from the classic “I’ve just come home and am tired so let me rest” malady.  My youngest child, Story, had the answer to this. He pulled out the Chinese Checker board. Chinese Checkers was a way to do almost nothing while doing something with the kids.  They pulled over an ottoman and set up the board for four players for me and three of my children.
                The danger of Chinese checkers lies not in the difficult of the game, or in the possibility of lost tempers, but in the accidental “bump.” Do you know what I mean? The colored marbles rest in shallow holes on the board. It takes only a small bump to cause a majority of the marbles to unseat from their places and roll about in chaos before finding a new spot on the board. This usually puts an end to the game as no one can remember where all the marbles were before the bump.
                The ottoman we were using was sturdy, but there were three kids  kneeling around it resting their elbows on it as they studied the board. Time after time I saw the marbles quiver ominously. With all my adult foresight I said, “It will be a miracle if we get to the end of this game before it gets bumped.” My ignored my prophetic statement as if I were just a senile old man used to blurting out things like, “Back in my day kids knew how to behave!”
                Story is just seven-years-old. He has lots of energy that, when confined to one place like when playing a board game, is expended in wiggles. He is smart and perceptive, but there is a high percentage chance that when he pours milk into a cup he is going to overpour and leave a milky mess on the table. He was the child leaning nearest the Chinese Checker board. After another ominous wave of jiggling ran through the marbles on the board I took control.
                “Take your elbows off the ottoman,” I commanded. He didn’t respond very quickly so I had to say it again giving him the evil eye. He obeyed this time and sat back on his knees frowning. He had gone from intense, smiling interest to frown in .25 seconds. I could see why; there was no way for him to see the board or be very close to it without leaning on the ottoman. In one fell sentence I had taken a fun and exciting time with Dad and ruined it like rain on a parade. Yes, I felt bad. I didn’t have to think too deeply to understand that I was caring more about the game than I was about the kids playing it. The adult in me justified with, “It won’t be a fun game if it gets bumped.” Some other part of me said, “It won’t be fun playing the game if it isn’t fun playing the game.” That may or may not make sense to you, but at that moment I understood.
                When Story, out of necessity put his elbows back on the ottoman so he could study the board and make his move I didn’t say anything and was happy to see he had already forgotten my  sharp words and left his elbows there.  We soon were into the middle game when most of the marbles are out in the middle of the board. All of us were studying the board hard to find any multi-hole moves when it happened—someone knocked on the front door and Story bumped the Ottoman as he turned to see who it was. Marbles rolled everywhere.
                “I said this would happen,” I said to my oldest daughter as she walked through the front room. It was important that someone recognize my prophetic powers as "Dadman" because the little kids were laughing as if ending the game this was the funniest thing that had happened all day. She just nodded patronizingly. When I looked at Story as he scooped up marbles to put them away I saw his bright smile. The game had ended prematurely, but he had had fun. It was then I realized I had had fun too.