Happy Birthday, Special Boy!
I love how you giggle at the hilarious scenes in your favorite movies, or when I sing the night-night song silly, addressed to you, to Merry, and to the teeny baby in my belly. I love how strong your imagination is, how you inform me haphazardly “No, I don’t need to ride my bike, because I’m not going to school today” and how you chatter on and on about where each part of our new house is going to be. I love your affection and how you like to come up and put your hand on my belly and just rest there beside me, satisfied. I love how tickled you are when the baby kicks you. I love how good you’ve gotten at looking me straight in the eyes and talk about sin and seek peace, and I love how well you understand Jesus and how much we need him to fix the things in our world that aren’t right, how we need his gift of peace to bandage up ours when it breaks.
There was a special moment a couple days ago when you and Mommy & Daddy were all sitting on the foot of our big bed talking about very, very, very big things like sin and shame and hiding and confessing. (Not yet an hour old, it had already been a very yucky morning.) And I love how you understood it within the framework of Psalm 32, which you have by heart, every word: Keeping silent and hiding when we feel shame makes us waste away through our groaning all day long. Acknowledging our sin and not covering our iniquities brings forgiveness. I am so glad for these words and how deep they’ve dug themselves into your heart in these last couple months and how they give you a place to put your experience – how you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you will talk to me about your sin with a repentant heart, your words will be met with peace and affection and forgiveness EVERY SINGLE TIME. This, my son, is the truest thing in the world. Truer than shame, even though that’s true too.
At the moment you’re sleeping (I hope) on my bed upstairs. You were up very late last night and were too much of a pill this morning to be any good around people. Since it was too rainy to send you outside, I sent you to Daddy’s office for some introvert time while he practiced. You came down with him at 11:45, all the storm clouds gone, and Dad announced that you’d asked to go to church with him. So you grabbed your boots and went off all by yourself to sit for the Good Friday service and when you came back you told me how you’d done such a good job and you earnestly informed me that you’d sung “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” We ate lunch together and you crunched away at your sweet peppers, commenting happily that you like them now and also that you’re used to them. We are slowly teaching you that when you don’t like something it’s probably because you’re not used to it. And then I asked you again if you were four years old now and your eyes lit up. You’ve known for a long time that we were going to celebrate your birthday a week late since it was Good Friday, but you got it into your head to ask for a present there at the table, so I chose one for you from the stack of wrapped presents: the tiny diggers you helped me pick out at the store for topping your birthday cake. Pure happiness, those diggers, and now you are sleeping as quick as you can so you can get back up and play with them again.
Next week, my boy, we will party. You’ve selected your menu for the day and done me proud. For some bizarre reason you insisted time after time that you wanted tomato soup for dinner, which in the past you’ve felt very little love for. But you’ve held your ground and the tomatoes are in the cupboard. I’m pretty sure it is mostly an excuse for the grilled cheese, but I don’t mind at all. And for breakfast, of course, pancakes with strawberries and blueberries. Since endless rain is in the forecast we will find a dry place for our picnic lunch and instead of playing at the park we will divide up our morning between Wonderlab and BUGS, the gymnastics training facility that opens its doors one hour each day for tiny people to come and tumble.
You’re growing up so much and learning to articulate your thoughts well. Your calm and self control is growing, too, and I’m glad you can be the master of your heart and body. (Sometimes.) There are big, big things we need to work on, but more on that later. For now, I am tickled with how stinkin’ smart you’re getting and I can hardly wait to see you get down to work on your birthday presents next week: Snap circuits, a marble run, and your first jigsaw puzzle. Yesterday at Wonderlab I played at the water table with you for a long time and together we built a deep, rushing, narrow waterway that spilled into a waterfall. I left you there awhile and when I came back you’d re-engineered the waterfall to be a bridge and you’d added a new element: you’d stretched the pipe works just to your left over to your reservoir to feed into it from above. The complexity you created blew me away.
And then there was this morning. You asked me to read stories and after you went to fetch a second one you came back to sit beside me. Opening the book you said quite simply: “I’m going to learn to read.” I believe you. And while I will tell anyone who asks that I have no intention of initiating that process before you turn 6 or 7, I will tell them, too, that if you ask I won’t deny and that I fully expect you to be reading well before I ever decide it’s time you got to it. What I don’t generally add, but still think to myself, is that I expect you to be reading long, long before you are thoroughly potty trained or have a real concept of how to blow your nose. It’s just who you are, and I am slowly learning to go with it.
The big thing you need to learn right now – and it seems to be nowhere on the horizon – is a lesson we all spend our whole lives relearning. And even when we learn it, we’re not much good at the practice of it: Thinking about other people. Loving them like you love yourself. I’ve been recognizing at the root of so much of your frustrating behavior lately a completely self-oriented, self-centered mindset. You are the only important person in your world and that fact, while I think it is completely developmentally normal, translates into all kinds of behavior problems: bossing Merry around and trying to control her and throwing a fit when she won’t do things your way, seeing every toy as yours, every opportunity for pleasure as yours (and yours alone), scrambling to take what you want even if it means knocking someone over in the process. You live for Jacob, and Jacob alone.
This is so opposite of how I want you to live, who I want you to become, and it is sending me back to the very basics of Christian parenting these days: prayer and the reality of the Holy Spirit. If I want you to be anything other than completely selfish I know it will only come by the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in your heart, giving you love for others where there was only blind selfishness. I think this is going to be a main theme of this year for you – slowly going to work on your character (your loves), cultivating virtues and practices that replace raw selfishness. I think this because I am the mom, and I get to decide the agenda, I guess. But what I know for sure is that if I want to see any success in this, I need to remember to pray for you more than I do, because these are not things I can accomplish in you, and I know that if I try by my own devices I will turn you into a ghastly little Pharisee.
What I set out to write to you this month was about earning, and now it feels like an after-thought, but a worthwhile one, anyway, I suppose. It’s one of those huge things I want you to grasp before you grow up. The other day as I tucked you into bed for a nap you asked me to read you a story and I said no. You were disappointed, but sadly probably not surprised. Your face fell and you started to fuss at me. Feeling the frustration myself, I wondered why I didn’t just explain the whole situation to you – why we never have enough time for stories, why Mommy is terrible at just hanging out and playing with you these days, why you sometimes get asked to do things like “Hurry up and finish your food” or “We do not have time for silliness right now.” I hate all that, because I think it is so far from how a childhood should be, but we are stuck in this setting right now. Instead of just helping you sort through your frustration and move on I decided to give you a bit of a view of the story we’re in the middle of, and I want to give it to you here now, too, because it’s important.
These days we are stretched beyond our limits. We are working hard, endlessly, fast and exhausted. Daddy and I never have half enough time, and that’s even before we factor in the slow space we need to love you and Meredith well – to linger over dinner, read stories every day, bathe you often enough, listen to you endlessly. What you might not realize in this season of chaos and upheaval is that this is temporary. So I explained it to you that afternoon as I tucked you in: about a year ago Daddy & I took a hard look at how we were living and knew that it wasn’t what we wanted. We were too busy, and we don’t even value the concept of “busy.” So we began to re-imagine things, and when we’d imagined enough we began to execute. The only part we didn’t have the wisdom and experience to imagine was the process it would take to get us from the present we were dissatisfied with to the new present we imagined. So this year has been a learning year for us. It’s not that we never knew about earning and attaining before, but this year we have tasted it and we want you to know it, too. It’s a story we’ll always tell you when you’re old enough not to remember these early days: how hard this year was. How when you want something you have to work for it, and the work will take a long time, and you won’t like how it feels, and you’ll be tired, but you’ll keep going, and you won’t hate the work because you’ll know you chose it implicitly when you chose its reward. We moderns aren’t so good at earning. We’re used to ease and we’re used to things being quick and attainable. We’re good with credit cards.
If we’ve set our course effectively here’s what we have to look forward to: settling into a few years of sanity, living locally, deeply dug into worshiping communities that feed our hearts, time each day for what makes life good (stories and stillness and play and good food, together). The church that was such a bad fit for us liturgically, spiritually, and geographically – that church paid us a lot more than we are making now. But we arrived at a point last summer when we realized we didn’t want to exchange the good things and our own happiness and sanity for money. So Daddy pursued a different job. Too make that change possible we knew we’d need a different space to live in since we wouldn’t be able to afford to rent in this area anymore, so we started looking for tired old houses that could be bought for a song and transformed by what we do have: sweat (also blood and tears, but in our youth that wasn’t part of our expectation). And that’s how we got to this place where we can’t possibly read those stories you keep asking for. Not yet, anyway. But these days I’m thankful for your growing mind, and that you seemed to understand as I explained to you that all this working hard is to make a new life for ourselves so that pretty soon we will always have time to read you stories.
Strangely enough, the wisdom here that I want you to find has two rather disparate elements to it: First, work hard and earn what you want. That’s what true enjoyment is made out of, and nothing tastes as good as something you made yourself. Second, don’t work too hard. For your mommy, what this means is deciding that it is better to take out loans for Daddy’s doctoral work than to gather another half dozen piano students and play gigs on the side. Because the cost of those students, while they might earn us the money we need, would be the time and calm we want to love you and your sister (and your brother!) well as the little people you are. These years will never be ours again, and I’d rather pay loans until I’m forty than look back and wish I’d worked less and loved more.
The bottom line from both of these truths is the same: Money is dirt. I never knew before this year that a frugal, moralistic determination to “live within your means” and never, ever go into debt (as if that is the WORST thing) can be its own curse and folly. “The borrower,” I’ve always known, “is servant to the lender.” But when you grow up I want you to know what I’m slowly learning: Being a servant isn’t the end of the world. It’s not going to hurt you. In fact, you will always be a servant in this economy. God made the world so that we’d all inextricably, confusingly belong to each other every which way. I’m just glad to be learning how grey this whole business is before it’s too late to opt out of the rat race and embrace the rhythms I imagine.
So, Four-Year-Old Birthday Boy… Cheers! Here’s to the next four years being slower and sweeter than the first four.
I love you.