Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sometimes, I'm an idiot

In Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, she describes the familiar scene in a coffee shop where two people – friends, lovers, perhaps spouses – sit at a table, each surfing the web or texting someone else on their laptop or cell phone rather than interacting with the human being sitting across from them.

This kind of “alone together” can seep into our interactions (or lack thereof) with children, too.  Instead of being fully present, sometimes I find myself instead using my cell phone to take pictures so I can remember the moment with a grandchild, rather than actually experiencing it.  One of my photos shows six-month old Anastasia trying to peer around the phone to see where I’ve gone. 

It’s harder and harder to be fully present to “this” moment in “this” place with “these” people, when the rest of the world is so readily available quite literally at our fingertips. Oh, I’m not complaining – I love the ease of information, the infinite possibilities.  Right now I’m on a plane 38,000 feet in the air, nothing out the window but clouds below and sky above, but I can exchange email with my 93-year old father or peruse my online photo albums or look up a quotation from Richard Feynman or find the words to a forgotten poem.

But sometimes we really do need to be fully present to one another, especially to the children. As their caretakers, we are called to be instruments of the love with which God gazes on them, to take immediate delight in their accomplishments as they create mud pies or build block cities, learn to crawl or dance or swim. To be there, simply to be wholly there.

I feel (this is embarrassing) bereft and somehow vulnerable if my cell phone is not in my pocket or right next to me.  But I am also more alive and attuned if sometimes I can walk away from it and just “be.”  I can see my grandchildren better when I’m looking at them unencumbered, not through a lens, not already crafting in my head the email I will send along with a photo.  

It’s all really just about hanging out with one another in real time. God’s constant call into community reminds us that we’re not meant to go it alone, not even alone together.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What if....

Gratitude, I read long ago, is the first spiritual impulse, a spontaneous “thank-you” to the universe. Jane Goodall reports that even chimpanzees dance with delight at the sight of a waterfall, and I suspect that all of us treasure moments and memories that surprised us with impulsive joy. Such moments are gifts of grace, unearned and unsought.

But life is also filled with quieter joys, subtler moments and glimpses we might miss unless we’re looking. Today I want to share the story of how I learned to look, and to encourage you to help your children look, too. Simply by looking for blessings, we are blessed.  – I wish I had begun this practice when my own children were young.

A memory from my last year of teaching: Sandwiched between gray snow and a mud-colored sky, I sat in the car and watched colleagues trudge by, heads bent against the March wind, shoulders hunched under the weight of books and papers. Downing the last of my coffee, I looked at the list on my lap:

            March 27
·      upside down cat, purring through meditation
·      lamb and lentil soup
·      softening silhouettes of tree branches
·      first worms of spring

Only four. I needed one more, one more thing for which I’d been grateful over the past 24 hours. As I read through the list again, I was caught by the worms I’d seen on my morning walk, reminding me of Marilyn’s exuberant pronouncement: “I can’t wait till it’s spring, when there’ll be bats in the air and worms in the ground!” Marilyn was an Animal Science major, finishing her degree back in 1969 while I was finishing mine in English. We shared a love of books and animals and fishing, and the first worms of spring always reawaken memories of those years. And suddenly I knew the last item:

·      the gift of friendship

I tucked the list into my briefcase and prepared to face the day.

I still have that small list, along with literally thousands of others from eleven years of keeping track. It’s quite a collection of memories.

During the eleven years I practiced intentional gratitude, I was never sure if my ongoing morning ritual “armed” me for the day or “opened” me to it, but I do know that it made a difference: I carried less resentment, less anger, even less fear. As e. e. cummings wrote, I found that “the eyes of my eyes were opened” once I began to scavenge the days for gratefulness, for what was good.

I’ll be honest here: left to my own devices, I probably would have given up the practice after a year or so and fallen back into grumpier ways. What kept me going for those eleven years was sharing my daily gratitude list with a colleague.

Every school day – literally every day; we never missed one – the two of us managed to find one another in the momentary lull before students arrived so we could share what was on our lists.

Our lists included everything from the color of dawn to matters of social justice, from our families or our cats to a great student essay, food and books and birds, kindness and the texture of a wool blanket – and if we could think of nothing else, we gave ourselves permission to start our list with “a place to live, work to do, food on the table….”  Over time, we discovered that by having to look for “things for which to be grateful,” we became more attuned to beauty, to goodness, to possibilities, to hope. Instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop, we watched for the next blessing.

This, it seems to me, would be a lovely habit to instill in a child, this business of being on the lookout for “things for which to be grateful” – for blessings. At our Family Service on Sunday morning, we always ask everyone what they might like to thank God for, and the children always have answers: an uncle who got a job, their cat or dog, a chance to ride horses, Spiderman, their mom or dad, ice cream. They already have the impulse to be grateful. What if we cultivated it? What if we all shared gratitude lists at home, day by day, for eleven years?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Suffering, joy, and blueberry muffins

The psalmist writes,"You speak in my heart, Lord, and say, 'Seek my face.'  Your face, Lord, will I seek."

Jesus tells his disciples, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

At our Baptism, we agree to "Seek and serve Christ in all persons...."

Following this thread, what all this means is that to see the face of God, we only have to look at other people. God dwells in each of us.

That explains why the universe operates as it does, this intricate dance of interconnectedness. It sounds like a platitude to say that the suffering or joy of a child a thousand miles away affects the wellbeing of our own children, but at the quantum level, it's true because all of us are both creatures and bearers of God.

I just read in Christian Wiman's book My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer about "scientists measuring the radioactive decay after such large-scale events as September 11 or the 2003 tsunami in Indonesia. It turns out that nuclear decay, which is, if not a constant, as close to such a thing as we can get, inexplicably increases after these events. As if contingent matter echoed or shadowed or even shared our sufferings (and our joys!). As if creation itself cried out with us."

I don't know how creation itself is responding to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, but looking at the ripple effect of that verdict in cities around the country, certainly there is clear evidence of that intimate interconnectedness.

And as I read about the Royal Baby Watch in Britain as the due date slips past, the anticipatory delight that infuses that whole country offers another example of humanity's shared and sacred dance.

-- And just how, you might ask,  does any of this have anything to do with how we should tend the children in our care?

I'd suggest that one way to help heal the world is to give our children a chance to play, to create, to delight -- and so to bring joy into the dance. Our interconnectedness, after all,  isn't just a grim dirge of shared suffering but has the chance to be healing, even celebratory. (We also, as the grown-ups here, have a responsibility to "seek and serve" others in Christ's name through involvement in local or global issues, and as the children grow up, to involve them in this work as well.)

And so, on this midsummer Monday, I want to share my grandmother's recipe for blueberry muffins, and invite you to involve the kids in making them. Baking is such a good reminder of how all sorts of different ingredients can get mixed up and turn into something delicious for sharing. As you smell them baking, think of how that aroma is spreading out like balm into the whole world.

Ruth Hyde Hanford's Blueberry Muffins

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Line a muffin tray that makes a dozen muffins with muffin papers.

Mix or sift together:

 2 cups unbleached white flour
 1 cup sugar
 4 teaspoons baking powder
 1 teaspoon salt

Separately mix together

 1/4 cup melted butter
 1/4 cup milk
 two large eggs

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix lightly. If it's too dry, add a couple more tablespoons of milk as needed. Don't over-mix.

Then add

 2 cups of blueberries -- fresh are lovely, but frozen (defrosted) blueberries also work just fine

Fill the dozen muffin papers with the mixture. (If you prefer smaller muffins, you might be able to make another half dozen.)

Bake at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes (closer to 15 if you make smaller muffins).

Read Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal while the muffins bake, and you might see the face of God even in the bears.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Goblin-to-Go Story: a royal blue elephant, a park bench, a family of teddy bears, driftwood, and a visiting stuffed sheep

The green goblin dangled his legs over an unfamiliar branch. He had just arrived by Owl Express, jumping from back to back of the owls that carried him here to his cousin's tree.

From where he sat, he could see beyond the nearby houses and yards to a shady park with a small pond.

"What's that in the middle of the pond?" he asked his cousin, the turquoise goblin.

"Oh," she said,"it's an elephant."

"But it's blue! I thought all elephants were sort of gray."

"You'll see," laughed the turquoise goblin, scrambling down the tree. "Come on!"

The goblin cousins clambered over fences and around corners until they reached the park, and sure enough, right in the middle of the pond was an enormous royal blue elephant, his raised trunk spraying water that sparkled in the early morning sunlight.

"He's a fountain!" exclaimed the green goblin. "I thought he was real."

"No," said his cousin, "but he's still fun. Can you swim?"

"Of course I can!" the green goblin answered.

"Then let's go," the turquoise goblin said as she dashed into the pond. The green goblin ran in after her, and they swam out to the elephant. They took turns climbing up the elephant's tail, all the way onto his back, then jumping back into the water. It was so much fun that they lost track of time.

All of a sudden they heard laughter and voices, and when they looked, four mothers were settling onto a park bench while a group of children raced around the park tossing teddy bears into the air.

The goblins hid behind the elephant's hind legs. "Now what?" asked the green goblin. "How can we get back to land without the grown-ups seeing us?"

The turquoise goblin whispered, "Follow me. If we don't splash, and we don't get too close, they'll just think we're big frogs," and she led the way to the far bank.

Safely on shore, they made their way around to the park again to watch the children play. The three boys and two girls each had a teddy bear. There were two brown bears, a black bear, a polar bear, and one bear with golden fur. The children had set up a piece of driftwood as a table and placed the bears around it as though they were all one big family. Now they were gathering acorns and clover to feed the bears.

"Hello!" they heard the mothers call, and they saw another little boy come galloping into the park holding his mother's hand. In the other hand he held a big stuffed sheep with curly horns.

His mother sat down on the soft grass next to the park bench. "Look," she said. "Your friends are all down by the pond."

The boy ran down the hill waving his stuffed sheep. "Look what I've got! Can he join the party?" he asked, wedging his sheep into the circle of bears without waiting for an answer.

"But that's not a bear!" one of the girls said, and grabbed the sheep. She grabbed it so hard and so fast that she lost her balance. The sheep went flying through the air, but the girl tumbled into the pond.

Without even thinking, the two goblins dove into the water and pulled the little girl to shore. The other children looked on, astonished, then they cheered "Goblins! Goblins!" and they all helped their soggy friend back up the hill as the goblins quietly swam away.

By this time, the mothers had dropped their coffee mugs and were rushing to see what had happened.

"Sally fell in, but the goblins saved her!"

"But she threw Henry's sheep!"

"What goblins?"

"The goblins saved her!"

"Are you ok?"

"Goblins came and pulled me out."

"What goblins?"

"Is my sheep ok?"

"How many goblins?"

Amid the confusion, the turquoise goblin whispered to her cousin, "I bet we'll get breakfast for this. I've helped Sally out of trouble before, and her mom is one of the grown-ups who knows about me. I wonder if she knows there's more than one of us today."

And sure enough, after all the mothers and their children had gone home, the goblins checked the back steps of Sally's house and found two bowls of oatmeal. "Peaches and cream!" the turquoise goblin exclaimed. "My favorite!"

The green goblin happily ate his share, though he did miss the maple and brown sugar oatmeal that the families back home always left for him.