Happy Birthday, Jacob.
You are amazing and Daddy and I are more and more proud of you every day. This month has been a big one for you. First there’s that small matter of your turning five. That was a total marathon of awesomeness, beginning with Nana & Papa’s presence over Holy Week and beyond to the zoo, wrapping up with Patrick’s presence on the day we celebrated, spilling over even past that in the form of leftover birthday cake three days in a row. I’m telling you, buddy, We are Birthday Professionals.
That’s not even counting what you were doing this morning, three days after the celebrations (building a lego Batboat with Daddy), or what you’ll be doing this weekend, road tripping just the two of you…
To fully appreciate the jackpot I’m talking about, let’s just tally things up: At breakfast, a prism (“A prison!” This is gonna be SWEET!”) and Robert McCloskey’s Lentil. Later in the morning, a quick visit from Hannah who had a handmade dragon card for you with some tiny sticker “gems” enclosed. After Daddy got home from class, an adventure to Dick’s Sporting Goods where you both bought your first fishing poles. At lunch (downtown Chipotle by your request), a package of cheap styrofoam gliders to build at the park with your friend, and a wooden sword and shield all the way from a toy maker in Portugal. It is painted with a red cross just like in St. George and the Dragon. After lunch, chasing bubbles, flying gliders, playing St. George & the Dragon, and sharing chocolate milk and cookies with Caleb, your bestie from preschool. While Merry & Joshua had quiet time, a trip with me to the music store to surprise you with your very first piano books and a promise of lessons to begin this week. (We played trap sets together awhile.)
And then things got serious once we were home: Patrick, Nicole, and Tabitha assembled and Mr. H and Maddie (of course) and we opened presents before dinner and dragon cake, while the grill heated up for hot dogs: From Nicole, Batman Legos, a Batman matchbox car and action figure, and a traveling Connect Four game. From Patrick, The Cat in the Hat. From Mr. H and Maddie & “BIG Jacob,” our very first kite and a tackle box to go with your fishing rod. From Gramma & Grampa, a tiny box of four more Tegu blocks. From Mommy & Daddy, two little envelopes announcing your road trip with Daddy and your first class: a beginning gymnastics class for the next eight Saturdays. And then the showstopper, the one I saved for last because I knew it would eclipse everything and everyone: From Nana & Papa, the present you begged for: A big ambulance, the same size as your fire truck (3rd birthday) and police car (4th birthday) to finish out your fleet. (It makes even more annoying noise than the other two cars do!)
Like I said: the jackpot. I think my favorite part of planning your birthday was leaning towards gift concepts that were less about stuff and more about experience. Fishing with Daddy and piano lessons with me, a road trip and a gymnastics class – this feels like stuff that will make life good in a way that toys ultimately don’t. And with this birthday Daddy & I have a sense that we’ve launched your formal education, which is a satisfying realization even if only because of how non-traditionally we’ve done so.
Our plan for your education is still largely improvisation at this point, but we know it isn’t going to tow the line for these first years. We’ve developed a concept to replace kindergarten and we are calling it your Christopher Robin year. More about that another time. But this year and next year are preschool, because our primary goal for you as a child is to be a child. Your years as a student will come soon enough without rushing. But in the meantime, it tickled me to realize in retrospect that we were channeling our inner Plato by beginning you with music (for the soul) and gymnastics (for the body). I think this is so very, very good, and I think it is sufficient for these next couple years.
We have plenty of other things to attend to, anyway, and play seems to be the best place to bump into them. You are, in fact, bumping into some pretty big, hard things these days. Like greed and contentment and control and friendship. This is enough curriculum for now.
At bedtime the other night you cried your eyes out because you were not awarded the same snuggle that Meredith was. When you challenged us that you hadn’t snuggled all day I reminded you of two pretty quality snuggles you’d had, at which point your cry turned into a lament at the injustice of “only two snuggles.” But you are growing so much, figuring out your place in the world – how important you are, but how important everyone else is, too.
At school things got a little rocky this month. One day your buddy saw me in the halls at pick up and announced to me with righteous horror (tinged with awe?) “Jacob got on red today!” You have a traffic light system at school and “staying on green” is a pretty big deal. Unfortunately you dumped rocks on your friends’ heads at the playground, threw fits at your teacher when she reproved you, knocked over the water of the girl who said she didn’t want you to sit beside her at snack time, and (the part I tried not to laugh about until I was in private) responded to a frustrating moment while everyone was gathered for Calendar Time by blurting out “Dammit!”
I couldn’t make this stuff up. We got to the bottom of it and we’ve been seeing you work hard to sort these things out. The heart of it, I discovered as I probed that afternoon, is that you want the other kids to be your friends and you are frustrated because it’s not working. So we talked about tools (you are good with tools) and what tools are appropriate for what jobs. When I asked you what kind of things you try to do to get people to be friends with you, you weren’t embarrassed to list them: If they don’t listen, you scream at them. If they run away, you chase them.
These, my dear, are the wrong tools. They are the tools that bullies keep in their pockets. And so you’ve learned the concept of a bully and we are working closely with you on it, helping you recognize the little inner bully that wants to be you, helping you choose Friend Tools, instead. Bullies scream, control, chase, and push. They are rude and angry. Friends listen, let go (instead of controlling), and love. They are generous and gentle. On that Red Light day we took away all your prized possessions. We didn’t do it vindictively, we explained that you would need to earn them back by practicing at school: a toy for using friend tools, a toy for going the whole day without bully tools, a toy for receiving instruction from your teacher respectfully. That first day back at school you got three toys back and you proudly told us that you hadn’t even needed your teacher’s help to tell the girl whose water you knocked over that you were sorry and you shouldn’t have done that. Apparently she said “It’s OK” and you were friends again.
We were so proud of you. But maybe more to the point, you were proud of you. And you are trying. And it is working. (I’ll tell you someday about how this means you are just like your Daddy.)
My favorite story from this month might be your words to Hannah on Easter Day as we partied. We’d looked ahead to that party sugar-less weeks through Lent. Worship was exciting and festive. You wore your tie and felt at least as important as you looked. There was cake and wine (you got a few sips) and Easter baskets for you and Meredith filled with sidewalk chalk, bubbles, seed packets, and jump ropes. You were outside reveling in everything and I’ll let Hannah’s own words tell it:
…my dear nearly-five-years-old friend Jacob looked at me and said, with great happy sincerity, “Today is so much fun I want it to be today again so we can have the party again together. You know what I’ll say to God tonight when I pray? Dear God. Please make it be yesterday again. Amen.” We don’t get the same joy again, I wanted to say to him. We got to have our cake and eat it too… but only once.
I can’t think what is a better window into your little soul than those words. It’s going to be hard and beautiful to help you shift your perspective to the place where these feelings find their truest expression in delight and joy and satisfaction instead of greed and grasping. But the raw material under that greed is truth, beauty, and goodness, and I love it.
I will close this far-too-long letter with a few thoughts on worship, because it’s where I’ve been musing this month and I need this as much as you do: What I have to say is quite simple and occurred to me in a the space of a few tiny moments on Easter.
The first moment was when I chose not to micro-manage you, simply to overlook your bad attitude as you got fidgety and tired of participating in the liturgy. I felt frustrated about this, wishing that you were engaged in the joy of it all instead of distracted by your own inner noise. Disappointed for you. But as I began to reach for you I remembered that you’d been in church now four days in a row. We went together Thursday and Friday and you went on Saturday – a late, long vigil service, while I stayed home with your sleeping siblings. You were tired. Not just tired of worship but sleepy. Instead of urging you on I decided to celebrate: my amazing four year old has experienced and participated in the whole journey of Holy Week worship for the first time. That’s enough.
The second moment was my own inner disappointment that Easter wasn’t feeling any more magical for me than it was. (Which was basically not magical at all.) I was tired, Joshua is at a very squirmy age, and I was dealing with some sort of pesky stomach crud that had me feeling like first trimester pregnancy for the whole of Holy Week. All in all, I wasn’t into it. I had choked up on the drive to church while we recalled the hymn we’d finally get to sing again: “This is the feast of victory for our God! Alleluia!” The sound of you and Merry singing that is beyond beautiful, and as I drove down 3rd Street I thought “Oh crap. If I’m already misty-eyed I’m not going to make it past the first hymn without full-on tears.” But as it happened, that was the most emotional I got for the entire day of worship and feasting. I noticed it and, surprisingly didn’t feel too disappointed. It seems like I’m learning to be gentle with myself. Gentle with you.
The same gentleness came into play on the second Sunday of Easter when I recalled my emotional and physical exhaustion which made Easter feel so unexciting, and agreed with myself that I’d have other chances to sing O Filii et Filiae and hear about my good brother Thomas. Second Sunday of Easter, after all, happens every year. This year I spent it sleeping in and sending you to church with Daddy to hear about Thomas without me, while I went alone to Church #2.
This all felt OK despite my idealism because of the final moment, the one I keep remembering, a passing, seemingly insignificant instant buried in the many words at the sacrament on Easter morning. This year it turned out to be the loudest moment of all Easter in my ears: “…not as we ought, but as we are able…” This is our worship. It is tired and distracted. It is not what we envision. It gets derailed by sleepy attitudes. It misses important moments all over the place. We just don’t have the capacity, you and I and the people sitting beside us, to enter into the realities of heaven as we could, as we will eventually. For now, it is good that we acknowledge our finitude and frailty. And it is beyond words to realize that God receives this worship from us, just as it is, because of Jesus. Because He made us and He knows us and He loves us. It is enough.
I love you.