Friday, August 12, 2016

The Wails of Summer

 Love is patient, love is kind.
I Corinthians 13: 4

     I adored having my three kids around the house all summer.  Their muted footfalls fluttered through the house like a scattering of rose petals.  Their sunny voices asked, "Is there anything we can do to help you, Mother Dear?"
     Welcome to Fantasy Island.
     I know why Labor Day is at the end of summer.  It's the day mothers question whether the fruit of  their labor pains was worth the price.  Ask us the question on Memorial Day and we'll bore you with sentimental memories of our child's first tooth or our wistful tears as they trotted off to kindergarten. Ask the question on Labor Day and we'll growl, "I'll give you three for a buck-ninety-eight.  Will that be cash, check or credit card?"
     School days, schools days, dear old Golden Rule days...
     The Golden Rule is mentioned in those lyrics to remind our children of the existence of rules.  You know.  Those guidelines parents set up in June, revise in July and throw in the trash compactor in August?
     You may not go swimming until one hour after eating. 
        One-half hour.
           Here, take a sandwich with you.
              Come inside when the street lights turn on.
                 Here's a flashlight.
                    Be sure to lock up.
     To be fair, the summer holiday involves compromise on both parts.  I was used to eating Snickers for lunch and the kids were used to pestering an adult who is unaware of their wide repertory of juvenile cons.  So, I stocked up on peanut butter and pot pies and the kids became buddies with the retired couple who lived down the street. (I sent the couple an anonymous thank-you bouquet every Monday, signing the enclosure, Your Eternal Friend.)
     Summertime proves to be costly for those families where both parents work outside the home.  Day-care expenses make you ask:  Not only are the kids out of school but I have to pay money for the privilege?
     Those of us who work at home dream of day-care.  It's a bit hard to concentrate when there's a trail of mildewing beach towels bisecting the house, the smell of burnt cookies wafting out of the kitchen, and the pulse of Meatloaf (the singer not the dinner) making me contemplate the construction of a stockade in the back yard.  (I wonder if the library has a how-to book, perhaps shelved under child psychology?)
     I should clarify.  I love my kids. Cross my heart and hope to . . . but they make me tired.  Lethargic.  Catatonic.
     I considered buying three season tickets to the Royals.  Let's see . . . 81 home games at four hours a game equals 324 hours when my darlings won't be asking me The Question.
     And what is The Question?  Come on parents, you can ace this quiz.
     Is The Question::
A.  We're tired, Mom, so what can we do now?
B.  We're hungry, Mom, so what can we do now?
C.  We're bored, Mom, so what can we do now?
     The Question is:  All, or any of the above depending on the barometric pressure, the peanut butter deficit, and the number of neighbor kids glaring at me from the doorway.
     On average, I hear, and attempt to answer The Question two hundred and eighty-three times.  I started the summer with good intentions – and good answers. 
     "Ask Erin over. Play school. Read a book."
     But around the seventieth asking (during Day 4 of summer) my answers, and my patience, began to show signs of sanity withdrawal.
     "Are you sure Erin's parents don't want another child? Go pick the lock on the school. Watch Forensic Files."
     I answered Question #274 with a primal grunt.  In response to Question #275, I snarled.  Intent on testing their mother's new vocabulary to the fullest, my children continued through Question #283 when they noticed my incisors appeared to be sharpening.  I never heard The Question again.  Hey, I don't raise no dumb kids.
     As the end of summer glows on the horizon and the aura of back-to-school entices, I realize there will be a time when I'll give anything to hear the thud of elephant feet and the wails of, "But, Mom, do we have to?"  I'll look back on these chaotic summers with a bittersweet reflection.  Guilt will sit on my shoulders until I admit my insensitivity.
     Ah, what the heck.  I'll risk it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Make Your Selection Please

"The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them."
Psalm 145:18-19

     When I'm trying to sort through a problem, I do two things:  I pray, and I eat candy.  One feeds my soul and the other, my sweet-tooth. Both come from heaven.
     On one particularly busy day, I was bothered by a particularly pesky problem. So as I buzzed through my to-do list, I prayed—at the stoplight, while waiting for the dry cleaning, while going through the car wash.  I didn't pray in generalities, but prayed very specifically because I wanted God to get it right.  Hopefully, He would agree with my solution, give His blessings, and everything would be grand.
     As talking to heaven made me want to taste a bit of it, I eventually took a chocolate break.
     The coins clattered down the vending machine's innards. Chocolate delicacies called to me like Sirens wooing Odysseus. Did I want rich and gooey (Snickers), rich and creamy (Reese's Peanut Butter Cups) or rich and crunchy (Butterfinger)?  If only I had enough calorie reserves to have them all.
     And the winner was:  rich and gooey.  I pulled the knob under the Snickers bar. 
     Nothing happened.
     I yanked the knob again.  Harder.  Maybe it didn't understand the laws of elementary vending?
     The Snickers sat there, glaring at me.  Gloating.
     After a quick glimpse around the vending area for witnesses, I gave the machine a smack with my fist.  The Snickers held firm.  But its neighbor, a low-fat granola bar, plunged into the tray.
     I retrieved the granola bar and stared at it.  How dare it think it could take the place of decadent chocolate. 
     I dug out more money.  I fed the machine a second time and carefully pulled the Snickers knob.
    I grabbed the sides of the vending machine and leaned against it.  "You're not listening!" 
    I pulled the knob again, pounding the glass above the Snickers at the same time, hoping to give it a push.
     A granola bar plunged off the edge to its death.
     "No! No!"
     I put a hand to my forehead, took a deep breath, and tried to calm myself.  My desire for the Snickers bar was nearing the obsession level.  I didn't want it anymore, I needed it.
     I rummaged around the bottom of my purse hoping for a scattering of stray coins. If only the machine took pennies.
Sixty-five. Seventy.  Just one more nickel.  I looked in the compartment that held my sunglasses. A crumpled receipt, a peppermint, a lint sculpture . . . and a nickel!
     I stroked the front of the machine, calming it.  "I'm going to try this one more time," I said.  "For your own good, and my sanity, please cooperate."
     I inserted the coins with delicate precision, giving the machine ample time to log in each new addition.  I had the Snickers knob in my hand when I hesitated.  I've pulled the Snickers knob twice and gotten a granola bar twice.  Therefore, it's only logical . . .
     I moved my hand to the granola bar's knob.  I bothered God with a chocolate prayer and pulled.
    A low-fat granola bar fell into the tray.
     I stifled a scream as I retrieved the final two granola bars.  With cool deliberation I stuck them in my purse, turned my back on the vending machine, and strode to the parking lot.  With amazing self-control, I held in my anger until I was alone in my car.
     I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand.  "Stupid machine!" I said.  "I gave it the right amount of change, I made the selection, I pulled the knob.  I did everything right yet it didn't listen to me!  It kept giving me what I didn't want."
     Hunger overrode anger.  I yanked a granola bar from my purse and ripped off the wrapper.  I tore a bite off the top and chewed vigorously as if extracting my revenge. 
     My chewing slowed. Not bad.  Not bad at all.  I took another bite and read the back of the wrapper.  It was certainly more nutritious than a candy bar.  Less fat, even a few vitamins.
    "Well, what do you know?" I said aloud.  I’d paid the machine, pounded the machine, stroked the machine, tried to outwit the machine.  I’d asked over and over for one particular thing only to have it give me something that was better than what I asked for.
     Unannounced, my pesky problem popped into my thoughts. I called up the prayer I'd been reciting and reeled it off.  But mid-sentence I stopped and stared at the granola bar.
     Had I been treating God like a vending machine: prayer in, answer out? Had I been paying Him with prayers, pounding Him with my persistence, stroking Him with easy platitudes, trying to outwit Him by asking over and over for His blessings on my will?  In answer was He offering me something that would be better for me than what I asked for?
     I put the granola bar aside and bowed my head, apologizing to the Almighty for my selfish nagging.  I thanked Him for the lesson He’d just taught me, and finally surrendered my problem to His capable hands.
     Pulling out into traffic, I knew my problem would be solved.  Wisely, fairly, and mercifully.  As far as the other problem I had in liking Snickers more than low-fat anything?  God would have to work on that larger issue another time. 
     I wish Him well.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Emptying Our Hands

“I spread out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”
Psalm 143: 6

     I am a multi-tasker. I never just watch TV: I knit, pay bills, needlepoint, or even read.  I never just go on errands:  I listen to audio books, brainstorm ideas, make mental lists, and think through problems.

     I pride myself on efficiency.  I rarely leave a room without taking something with me that needs to go elsewhere.  I rarely have one thought at a time, but two.
     This morning I began to reconsider my ways.
     I was at my coffee pot—a coffee maker with a carafe. My habit is to bring the full carafe into my office so I can refill my cup there (it’s more efficient that way, you know?)  This morning I picked up a clean coffee cup, some extra sweetener, and the carafe, then closed a cabinet drawer with my hip because I had no hands free. 
     Suddenly, it hit me:  I go through life with my hand’s full.
     Oddly, the thought did not come as a compliment, but a slap. 
     But how could that be?  How could a trait I’d always considered an attribute be presented to my conscience as a defect?
     I set the coffee supplies on my desk—dropping two packets of sweetener on the floor in the process—then sank into my work chair.
     I turned my hands palms-up.  My empty hands.  Surely doing many things at once was a good thing.  After all, isn’t the centuries-old idiom true:  “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”?
     Yet looking at my open hands I realized the gesture was a natural display of supplication and worship.  On impulse, I picked up my coffee mug with one hand and a pen in the other.  I looked at my hands again.
     The supplication and worship were gone.
     But it was good to work. “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks. (Ecclesiastes 10:18).  And one of my favorites, “Be strong and do the work." (1 Chronicles 28:10)
     But if work and being busy had become my focus . . . if I always kept my hands full . . .
     I took out my Bible, looking up “Hands” in the concordance. There were bad words associated with hands:  idle, lazy, evil.  But there were also good connotations:  train my hands, lay their hands, lift his hands, wash their hands, clap your hands.  All the negative phrases had the focus on us.  All the positive phrases had the focus on God.
     I remembered the story Robert Benson shared in his book, Living Prayer. He told of his time with some monks.  He noticed their serenity and asked them about it. They explained it this way:  "When we are walking, we are walking.  When we are working, we are working . . .”
     By being efficient, making multi-tasking an art form, and keeping my hands full, was I doing nothing well?
     I put the mug and pen down and made my hands free again—free to surrender, worship, ask, receive, and pray. They were free of the accoutrements of this world and open to the blessings of the next.
     I was reminded that there is a balance between busy and open hands.  What we accomplish when our hands are full is worth much more if we let go, and let God be a part of it. Pray and perform. Worship and work. Surrender and succeed. Adore and achieve.
     “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain . . . Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”  (Psalm 127: 1 and Colossians 3: 23-24)
      Let us empty our hands and fill our hearts for the Lord—lest He wash His hands of us.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Eluding the Perfection Police

"There, in the presence of the Lord your God,
you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice
in everything you have put your hand to,
because the Lord your God has blessed you."
Deuteronomy 12: 7

     I am not the best housekeeper. Our house has dust bunnies that I've made into pets. I see no reason to vacuum the carpet just to remove footprints. And I know for a fact that a few water-spots on my kitchen faucet will not cause a plague.
     It's not that I don't know how to be a perfect Suzy Homemaker. Hey, I’m well aware of Martha Stewart’s obsessions. Yet, after decades of marriage, nine houses, three cats, two dogs, and three kids, and six grandkids I've chosen to take it down a notch.
     When the kids were young and the perfection-police invaded our domain, I’d bark orders: "Carson, you cut a swath through the family room. Emily, hose down the kitchen, and Laurel, capture all the dust bunnies. I'll conquer the laundry.  Any questions?"
     Carson raised a hand.  "Why are we doing this? Is Grandma coming to visit?"
     "The pope?"
     I glared at them.  "No one's coming to visit.  We're cleaning the house for us. We do like a clean house, don't we?"
     Realizing this was a trick question, the kids looked at each other and shrugged. 
     "What's that shrug supposed to mean?" I snapped.
     "We'll help," Emily said, "but we don't understand why you're so . . . so . . ."
     "Zealous," Carson said.
     We all stared at him.  "Where did you get that word?" I asked.
     Carson looked at the ceiling, trying to remember.  "I think I read it in an article about wild-eyed fanatics who tried to take over some country."
     "Are you implying I'm wild-eyed?" I asked, brandishing a broom in the air like a sword. 
     My children's silence was my answer. I looked around at the morning newspaper strewn on the coffee table, a lone pair of shoes by the wall, the couch pillows which would only take a few moments to straighten. "Maybe I was exaggerating a bit," I conceded.  "Maybe things aren't as messy as I thought."
     The kids' shoulders relaxed. They'd been given a reprieve from the perfection-police, and their zealous mother—who was (and is) far from perfect.
     The perfection-police visit far less often now. The popcorn bowl in the sink, mail on the counter, a basket of socks that need matching, and a baseball hat flung over the stair post are not capital crimes. They're proof that a family lives here.
     And that is true perfection.