The tiger lilies and the phlox in my front garden always bloom last. Their annual emergence is my sure sign summer is here.
The days on either side of solstice are my favorite time of year. The days last so long, with 15 hours of glorious daylight. It’s usually temperate in Indiana, with highs in the 70s or 80s. The trees are fully leaved, young bunnies hop all around the neighborhood, and the flowers just keep coming. It’s so easy to feel happy as spring fades into summer.
Except that I’m not really doing them. I started a couple long-neglected yard chores but they remain unfinished. Except for a few long walks and one good bike ride, I really haven’t launched that fitness regimen I’ve long talked about. I haven’t finally cleaned and reorganized my garage. I haven’t given more time to the church or to the nonprofit I help run.
What I’m finding is that everything I normally do has expanded to fill most of the extra time — I’m taking things slower. With the rest of the time, I’m sleeping in a little and I’m stopping more often to breathe the air and look at my flowers.
There are two reasons, I think. First, I think I don’t really want to do those things. They’re just things I think I ought to be doing, and I blame lack of time for not doing them. I think we tend to naturally prioritize the things we want to do, within the time available to us. It turns out that sleeping and enjoying a little idle time were actually next on my must-do list.
But second, my life was toobusy before. I frequently burn the candle at both ends. Working only part time has let me ease up. It feels like a vacation. I’d like to keep some of this when I eventually return to full-time work.
Does this resonate with you? What do you say you want to do if you had more time? What do you think you’d actually do with that time?
This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.
I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.
What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.
I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.
But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.
Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.
I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.
By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.
But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.
I first heard this phrase when I first taught Sunday school at a particular church. A plaque on the door read “J.O.Y. Classroom.” I had to ask what J.O.Y. stood for. Outspoken Shirley, unofficial class spokesperson, shook her head at me as if I had been living under a rock since my baptism. “How have you never heard this?” She counted on her fingers: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. See? J-O-Y. Joy!” She beamed triumphantly.
I grimaced inside. Spare me a platitude-strewn faith. Give me depth and meaning.
Worse, this particular platitude is just dead wrong.
But I get it: this saying discourages self-centeredness. I support that. Christians are meant to serve. As Paul said in Phillipians 2:3-4 (NIV):
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
As with so many things in the Bible, however, you can’t just take one scripture and run with it. You need to see what other verses say on the subject and look for the bigger, and usually more nuanced, picture they paint together. Jesus takes a slightly different view in Matthew 22: 36-40 (NIV):
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus is on board with us loving God first: he calls it the most important commandment. But then he goes and places others on par with ourselves. Love your neighbor, he says, as yourself.
Why don’t these two verses perfectly harmonize? Well, Paul was writing to a group of Christians who lived in the Greek city of Philippi. They were in disagreement over some matters. Paul urged them toward harmony and unity.
Jesus, in contrast, was talking to a Pharisee, someone who had deep knowledge of Jewish law. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus and kept trying to trip him up on the law so they could have him arrested for blasphemy. Jesus deftly sidestepped an ensnaring question while sharing a profound truth.
Within that truth, Jesus used a key word, agapao. It’s translated as love, and it carries a strong sense of caring, of doing, of serving — even of sacrificing self. This is God-powered love, the kind he offers to us. He wants us to give that love back to him first. But then he says we are to give it to others as well as to ourselves — to borrow and adjust some of Peter’s words, to look to others’ interests and ours.
If we unfailingly put others first, we will soon run out of gas. We restock our resources when we love ourselves. We can’t serve others to the exclusion of eating and sleeping, or of paying our bills — we need to love ourselves at least this much. If we keep giving away all of our money and food, we will stay homeless and hungry. I can’t imagine that God calls any of us to that.
We also need to love ourselves enough to fully live the life God has granted us. Sometimes this is about reaching out and achieving, working hard to accomplish a goal. Other times this is about recovering from past life difficulties. It even involves enjoying and embracing the good life has to offer. All of these things give us strength and experience we can share with others.
And we should live our lives in the way God made us to live it. If you were given boldness, live boldly. If you were given quiet thoughtfulness, live quietly and thoughtfully. However you live, turn daily to God so he can shape you for his service.
In no way do I mean to promote a selfish life. I promote living to serve and living to have rich resources to give.
And in case it isn’t clear, I condemn an ongoing selflessness that depletes and diminishes you. You may temporarily be called to such heroism, but nobody can sustain it as a lifestyle. I worry that platitudes like this create a standard that nobody can keep, and lead Christians to feel needlessly guilty.
You are just as important to God as the next person. Jesus acknowledged that when talking to the Pharisee. Take good care of yourself, and generously give your resources to serve others.
My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:
First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”
Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.
Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”
These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.
My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.
At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.
Clearly, my memory had switched on.
I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.
I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”
I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.
A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.
I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.
20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.
Continuing a theme of thanksgiving, here’s a post I wrote in 2008.
A couple years ago a friend sent me a link to an article (which I can’t find now) about the virtues of thinking each day of three good things that had happened. She and I decided to try it together, e-mailing each other our list of three every evening. I was surprised to find that on all but the most challenging days I could find at least three pleasures, even as small as “I enjoyed my cheeseburger at lunch,” and recalling them actually relieved some of the day’s pressures. But optimism never swelled in me, as the article promised, and I started to lose interest. I think my friend did, too, because our e-mails became intermittent and then stopped.
One of the themes of Ecclesiastes is that life is difficult, so enjoy the good things God gives you while you have them. The book calls out several good things – spouses, children, youth, food, drink. The more I encountered that theme as I studied Ecclesiastes late last year, the more I thought about the aborted three-good-things exercise. I decided to give it another try – but this time, I would tell my three daily things to God, since he gave them to me.
In these prayers I soon found myself grateful to God for each day’s good things. Moreover, I started to see that God was there with gifts on every single day, and the more difficult the day, the more subtle – but sublime – the gifts. I started to feel like a child on Easter morning looking for hidden eggs.
Last Thursday I was driving home from a trip to Brown County with my sons when my car’s transmission started to whine, pop, and grind. I wasn’t sure the car would get us home, and we had 50 miles to go. I was worried about being stranded and about the repair bill. But I also felt the breeze softly touching my skin through my open window and enjoyed the long shadows the trees and cornfields cast onto the highway in the afternoon sun. As the car rolled with the highway through the old farm towns, my sons and I sang along with the CD playing. I really enjoyed the drive even though the car occasionally popped out of gear. Not long ago, I would have experienced and remembered only the worry. Looking for God’s daily gifts has made me more receptive to them when they come. And knowing that there are daily gifts takes some sting out of the difficulties. My mechanic just called to say the transmission is fried, and that it will cost upwards of $3,000 to replace it. I’m sure God has hidden a gift even in this.
Footnote: I replaced that transmission, and then promptly ran a red light and totaled the car. (Read about it here.) The gift hidden in all of this? I had only lately become financially fortunate enough that none of this created a money crisis for me, and these expensive events helped me to see it – and relax about money.
I was in the third grade when Indiana’s standardized math and reading test, the ISTEP, was introduced in public schools. I remember parents expressing fears that these tests would be used to drive what was taught and to rate teachers and schools. I remember school officials swearing up one side and down the other that it would never happen. Yet before I graduated from high school, passing the test became a condition of graduation.
My sons are in public schools. Until a few years ago, when the ISTEP moved from the fall to the spring, they complained loud and long about how the first month of school was just review for the test. They hated the boring repetition of material they already knew well. Teachers and administrators do it because school funding and their own jobs and compensation depend on how well their kids perform on this test. If their school does poorly enough for long enough, the state will even take over the school and run it. Nobody wants that!
Every fear of those parents from 1975 was eventually realized, although it took more than 30 years to reach the bottom of this slope so slippery.
I don’t like what the ISTEP has done to education in Indiana, and wish it would disappear. And I gather that the story is the same nationwide, thanks to No Child Left Behind. It has had the effect of industrializing our schools, by which I mean using statistical analysis as the primary or even sole means of driving improvement. It’s human nature to optimize around what’s being measured, to the exclusion of all other factors that would bring fuller success. My experience has been that this leads to great mediocrity.
I hear more about homeschooling now than ever. 20 years ago, only kooks and religious fundamentalists taught their children at home, or at least that was the perception. It seemed like they were primarily trying to shield their kids from the big bad world. But now I know everyday families who homeschool.
Many of those homeschoolers use structured lessons, but a growing number of them are turning their backs on that and instead lean on the family’s everyday life experiences and their children’s natural curiosity to drive learning. It’s called unschooling, an axiom of which appears to be that kids hate school because lessons are forced onto them and because they are forced to sit quietly in place for long periods. Unschoolers claim that children naturally love learning and through active play and exploration will learn everything they need to know.
That makes some sense to me. I was a good student and a compliant child, the perfect fit for public school. But even I suffered considerable boredom (and sore bottoms from the hard, wooden chairs) during long lectures on dull subjects such as history. I hated history when I was in school. Plumb this blog’s archives and you’ll see that I now love history, and that love blossomed when I explored the past on my own terms.
I see this in my sons, too. My youngest, aged 14, has has become interested in animation and video production. He wrote, shot with his camcorder, and edited a movie last year, starring plush toys of characters from the Angry Birds video game. And he has made short stop-motion animations by taking successive still photos of posed Lego toys, which he strung together in Windows Movie Maker. He makes short hand-drawn animations in Flipnote Studio on his Nintendo DS and shares them with other kids in a common online space there. For his last birthday, he asked for a Wacom drawing tablet and Flash CS6 so he could make sophisticated animations. He’s struggling to learn those tools, but he’s still trying. All of his trying has been self-motivated and at his own pace.
Schools, of course, have to structure learning and discipline. When you gather hundreds or thousands of children into a building, with one adult to every 20 or 30 children, it’s the only way to avoid total chaos.
My youngest son is reasonably bright but struggles with focus, organization, and attention. So he’s not quite as perfect of a fit for public school as I was. Now, his school has separate up and down staircases. I’ve visited the building; the staircases are wide enough to accommodate children going both directions. And the up staircases are usually not near the down staircases, so children have to go out of their way to use the proper staircase. My boy, who is fiercely independent with little tolerance for nonsense, decided to hell with it and began using whichever staircase was nearest by. Repeated infractions led to letters home and, finally, days of detention. I sat him down and explained: “There are 2,000 students in your building. Frankly, there are enough of you that you could overwhelm the adults. So they have rules that keep order. I agree with you that this one appears to be arbitrary and stupid. However, it is the rule. It is a hoop you need to jump through, and I expect you to jump through it. I expect you will always dislike it. I don’t blame you, actually. You keep right on disliking it, but you keep right on obeying it.”
I’ve had variations on this discussion with him over and over. He resisted learning his math facts in elementary school, declaring the exercise a waste of time. Given that I never learned my addition facts yet graduated from engineering school, I had a hard time arguing with him. And he struggled for several years with doing his homework. When I discovered the problem, he was handing in less than half of it. He said that it felt like needless busywork for him to do work in subjects he had already mastered.
Unschoolers claim that this stuff saps our kids’ innate love of learning and leads either to belligerence (which often gets medicated) or broken spirits (which often gets mistaken for successful compliance).
All of this really resonates with me. I want my sons to be free to explore on their own without being put into tiny spirit-limiting pigeonholes. Yet I hedge.
Mr. Hudson also sparked a love of mathematics in me. He did it in a very unconventional way. In my day, Indiana sophomores all studied geometry. It was the geometry of Euclid, the geometry of the plane, and it took all year. Except Mr. Hudson moved quickly through the material, teaching it all to us before Christmas. We were, after all, among the brightest students in the school; he challenged us to keep up. But he knew that all of us were highly focused on maintaining our grade-point averages, so he removed a critical barrier that helped us relax and enjoy the learning journey: he set the grading scale at 70-100 being an A, 60-70 being a B, and on down from there. His class was no easy A; even on that scale, it took effort to earn a good grade from Mr. Hudson.
After we finished the state-mandated curriculum, Mr. Hudson produced stacks of old texts he had saved during his long teaching career. Using them, he began to teach us about non-Euclidian geometries, spherical and hyperbolic. He finished with a week or two to spare, so making it up as he went he extended those principles to teach us the geometry of a teardrop.
I found it all to be utterly fascinating. I had always been pretty good at mathematics and could usually calculate the right answers. But after this, I was inlove with mathematics for its own sake, for the pure joy of exploring it. Eugene Hudson transmitted his love for mathematics to us, and it stuck with me. It was the climbing-the-mountain version of learning: we did it just because it was there; wasn’t it glorious? It was! And when I left high school for college, I continued my journey by majoring in mathematics.
The problem with letting kids find their own paths is that their limited perceptions offer little sense of the paths available to them. They know only the paths upon which they stumble – and those presented to them.
The things children find on their own must not be discounted or denigrated. My youngest son is interested in video production because he has found a community of kids making videos and uploading them online. It’s fun for him and he wants to be a part. Making and sharing videos may always be just a hobby that brings my boy some satisfaction. Or maybe this could lead to a career in TV or film production. Who knows. Whatever.
But to limit him to just the paths he stumbles upon would be a shame. So much else could yet captivate him were those subjects only introduced to him.
I almost certainly would never have fallen head over heels for mathematics were it not for Eugene Hudson and his buccaneer-teacher ways. His methods freed me to enjoy the ride and soak up all that great human minds had discovered about mathematics.
This, then, is the teacher’s great function: to introduce bodies of knowledge that hopefully will ignite a spark in some child. You can’t predict what those sparks will be. Only a handful in my geometry class were as enraptured as I was. For my other classmates, it might have been organic chemistry, or beat poetry, or local politics that lit their fire, had there been teachers able and willing to step off the state curriculum to teach these things.
Even if there are such teachers today, the current public education system gives them no room to wiggle. Eugene Hudson, who retired many years ago but is still with us, couldn’t do now what he did for me in the early 1980s. The clamps are down tight and curricula are set in stone. Children are shunted down the narrow path of a tightly controlled state minimum.
Schools constrained by tests like ISTEP provide little spark for young learners. It takes education in the wrong direction. No wonder homeschooling and even unschooling are gaining traction.
Sign up for my newsletter!
Sign up for my monthly newsletter, Back Roads, and be the first to know what I'm working on!