Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Driving by Braille

 The sun has long since disappeared, transforming familiar farm landmarks into a grainy ultrasound image only a trained technician can decipher.  Thankfully, my resume proves me well qualified. 

Those white ovals in front of me? They’re softball sized chunks of crushed concrete,  serious landmines best avoided if I don’t want my wheel jerking out of control and turning my 36-year-old knees into ground meat.  The dark blobs randomly peppering the white gravel? “Gumball” seeds from the gum tree, what I refer to as “rumble strips” that warn me of  the sharp right-hand curve ahead.

Every evening, I sit astride Maw Maw’s antique turquoise bike with the un-cool but ultra-useful metal basket.  There are no gears to shift, no hand brake, and no razor thin tires to reduce friction as I traverse this quarter mile stretch of gravel separating my family’s home from my in-laws’ end of the farm. 

The children go upstairs for their baths, and I set out four times before returning indoors to the routines of mother and wife.  For two miles, I am completely free.  I spend the drive's length alone, always in a race to beat the darkness and the rising moon.

The man-made wind blows louder in my ears as I move from the flat concrete surface of our carport.  My legs pump hard, trying to pick up easy speed from this slight downhill descent over the culvert and past the swollen, rain-infused swamp.

From there, I dance quickly left, then right, swerving to avoid the three water-filled potholes where a new culvert is waiting to be installed.  As I drive by the largest hole, something unseen disturbs the muddy water’s surface tension.  Later, when I pause there to learn the secret of its depths, I’ll see a small frog kick lazily across his own private swimming hole and sit on the shore.

Purple martins look down on me as they perch outside double decker apartments.  Their beady black eyes watch intently to protect babies still tucked inside their almost too small nests. The already empty nesters sit in pairs on the electric line overhead, all chattering constantly.

On my second loop, an angry mockingbird yells warning to the other little birds who haven’t heeded darkness’ call to turn in for the day.  Moments later, I interrupt an owl’s pursuit.  Its large swooping wings stop mid-air as I come into view, allowing the little bird to escape while the owl takes invisible refuge atop the already darkened treetops.  
 The grainy too quickly turns to blue-black darkness; the gibbous moon glows brighter in the increasing contrast so that by the second mile, its luminescent brightness illuminates my path just enough to discern where the gravel ends and the hay field begins. 

Now, with the moon casting deep, deceptive shadows that play tricks with my eyes, I must drive by Braille.  The rumble strips; stretches of rocks thick as quicksand; and hard, wheel-flattened strips for building up speed--I feel all these textures through my fingers that grip the handlebars tightly.  Without even thinking, I automatically translate the road's meaning from my fingertips to my feet.

Pump harder.  Speed up here or you'll never make it up that hill.  Ease up.  Coast for five seconds or you'll spin out.

Most evenings, I beat the moon.  Then, there are those nights like this when pots take longer to scrub or our family returns home late from evening worship.

Even then, I crave these few moments alone when I can run away from home and abandon (at least for a few minutes) everything I must be, do, think.  Out there on the road, it's just me, the creatures of the night, and God.  I pray. I drive. I sweat.  And then I come home again, turn the door's knob and open myself back up to the arms of a family who is always glad at my return.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Summer: Let The Bucket List Begin

School officially ended yesterday, making today the first true day of summer.  No matter that the calendar places June 21 as summer's starting point--the earth seems to agree this season's start should revolve around the school calendar.  Just last week, the temperatures suddenly spiked above 90 degree, bringing the heat and humidity just in time to warm up our swimming pool for a daily splash-fest against the late afternoon sun.

I know there are some parents who dread having to fill almost three months with activities for their children, but our family is quite the opposite.  It's not about "keeping them busy" but about doing and being together.

The twins have longed the most for Wyatt to rejoin them.  Although he plays the role of the bossy older brother all too well, he also makes a great partner in crime for those treks through the Little Hundred Acre Wood, fishing expeditions for tadpoles in the swamp, sword fighting, or imaginary play in the club house.

Summer is as close to timelessness as one can get, a short period when anything is possible if you can only dream it (and your mom says yes!), when the constant pressure to watch the clock is no more.  Morning alarms are turned off, days extended to allow for that extra story or game.

There is freedom to go off the map, explore uncharted territories you only thought you didn't have time for before.  Routines aren't completely done away with but are made anew, huge chunks of time filled with different activities that speak more of childhood and fun rather than the rigid molds of adulthood our society seems so eager to press our children into.

From sunup to sundown, the farm is--and will continue to be--a bustle of random summer activity.  Riding bikes down the gravel drive, holding a dozen reluctant "teenage" chickens in the coop, reveling in the daily egg found in Gertrude's nest, creating their own puppet shows, coloring by number, enjoying time with mommy on the sofa in daily half hour reading marathons, using stamps to create get-well-cards, continuing with each day's reading lesson, and love, love, loving the library's Summer Reading Program.

And that's only day one.

Soon will come hours spent blueberry, blackberry, and tomato picking, enjoying family on the North Carolina shore, making life sized Scooby Doo monsters out of cardboard refrigerator boxes and tempera paint, Wyatt learning to type, handwriting practice for everyone (dear me, yes!), learning our books of the Bible, and even Wyatt excited to be starting piano lessons in two weeks.

And today?  We started out with a messy bang, the children beginning to make a Bumblebeeto piñata for our Skippyjon Jones themed Back to School party this upcoming August.
Yes, before noon on the first day of summer, six little hands were mother-approved to be stained purple, turquoise, and hot pink from making cards with stamps and then were covered with flour and water paste.  At one point, Emerson was wearing more paste than the newspaper coated strips placed on the piñata. It was messy.  It was also laughter in a bottle.

Long before the school doors shut for the academic year, this mother had created a bucket list that I have wondered just how we could squeeze it all into such a short period of time.

Maybe we won't.  Maybe, instead, we'll find another path of interest to pursue, some other craft project the children haven't dreamed up quite yet.

But whatever we do, it will be real living.  And it will be together as a family.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kindergarten Graduation: A Study of Two Boys

This little boy will soon be nicknamed "Tigger" for his ever-present bounciness, but for now, he stands uncommonly stiff, hands shoved deep in his pockets, thin lips pressed into a tight, insecure smile that never reaches his eyes.  There are no tears and no arms clinging to his mother because he is proud and excited to finally be going to school and riding the bus for the first time.  Kindergarten has been a long time coming for a boy with a late December birthday.

Still, the plastic smile that never breaks into the easy grin his family all knows and loves literally shouts of fear hiding behind the pride and anticipation.  A mother can tell these things.  Those puffy bags under his eyes will remain for several weeks until he grows comfortable with the new early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine so alien to his childhood thus far.

Khaki shorts as stiff as his smile hang long past the knees, only inches above silver and red tennis shoes with that new plastic smell.  Even the polo shirt buttoned high to the top (at his insistence) demonstrates just how far into his shell he's hiding.

Around his neck hangs a promise of security--if he somehow gets lost, all he has to do is show someone--anyone--the name tag with his bus number and his teacher's name, and all will be well.  In his book sack is his contact information, in case he forgets, more promises of safety. 

Overall, it is an image of a little boy who has spent five years secure and protected with his family, a boy whose faith has not yet met with any opposition, whose body hasn't quite caught up with large ears that stick out too far, whose rounded cheeks still show more little boy than young man.
This second boy opens his mouth in a smile that reveals two missing front teeth. His face shows no fear, no quiet pride, no anticipation.  Instead, the wrinkles across his brow reveal childhood impatience to go, a "how-long-do-I-have-to-say-cheese, daddy?" look.

Hands that once were invisible now hold something important--a love letter written all by himself for his teacher to express his love and appreciation for her one more time before breaking for the summer.

Now several inches shorter, the wrinkled, khaki shorts reveal bruised, scuffed, and battered knees atop well-muscled calves, quite strong from two months of riding his bicycle without training wheels up and down the quarter mile gravel drive each afternoon. The shoes are his second pair this year, and even they are already looking at early retirement, their backs permanently broken down by his unconscious slipping them off and on as he tries to sit and stand still. The polo is still buttoned to the top, a "fashion don't" I haven't been able to break.

Long gone are any tangible promises of security--the name tag round his neck, the bus number attached to his book sack.  The consistency of routines, themselves, offer their own comfort and security.

His head reaches higher on the door, indicating how much taller he has grow, but his face shows the most difference.  Unlike nine months before, this boy no longer has ears too big for his body.  Even the chubby cheeks of childhood are slowly turning into the slim contours of maturity.

Here is no longer a little boy but a young man who never dreamed of all the wondrous fun he would have over the past nine months.  He is a young man who has developed confidence in himself and who has seen how faith in God is a daily difficult choice that few practice; who has made friends and lost loves; who has been confused by the rules of childhood relationships; and who has kept picking himself up and trying again even when it wasn't easy.


I know some mothers cry at this rite of passage, and I'm sure I will shed my fair share of tears at some point.  But for now, I simply feel gratitude.  From Wyatt's first day of Kindergarten to his last, our family has seen the hand of God, blessing us as we obediently sent our son out into the world after homeschooling him through K4. 

Thank you God for sending Wyatt a Christian teacher to lovingly work alongside us to educate him. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Our Family: Crawfish Burials & Mexican Fiestas

Meet my family.  

This is the nine of us at our completely-impromptu Sunday best, with my mother asking me "Did you bring your camera" after I'm already at her house and "Do you know how to work the auto timer?" when the instruction book is somewhere at home, its spine still uncracked.(Thankfully, I'm not opposed to pushing every button with those indecipherable symbols to figure it out).

This is us--slightly neurotic, definitely exhausted, a good bit high strung, and always flexible.  We fly by the seat of our never-need-pressing dresses and our just-put-your-coat-on-and-nobody-will-notice shirts.

Still, it still seems strange to see so many smiles in one shutter click.  

We began as only four--my mother and daddy, brother, and me. Thirteen years later, even the dining table and its eight chairs that I bought because I wanted it to be big enough really isn't.  Each time the nine of us gather for a meal, we have to drag in an extra chair from some other room of the house.  And when our extended family and friends partake with us, out come the piano bench, the rolling office chair, and whatever other seating options we can cobble together. 

My brother and sister by marriage are the ones on the far right--blue polo shirt and royal purple dress.  Johnathan is the Navy chaplain and Liza works with CASA.  Both just recently left Washington D.C. and moved to North Carolina, one of those routine government-change-of-assignments that will take them (and us) all across the nation and around the globe. 

In the midst of the once-every-three-or-four-years-move, they left the chaos of unpacked boxes and well-wrapped china to come for a quick visit.   

As you might expect, our daily lives simply stopped.  Last weekend was a whirlwind love fest, Louisiana style, of course.  

There was a valiant attempt to make a homemade hummingbird cake for mother's birthday, two chances to worship together at both our churches, a Cinco de Mayo fajita fiesta, and a crawfish boil (along with several crawfish shell "burials" around GrandMama's yard, courtesy of my powdered-sugar-war-painted daughter).
Then, there was the ever-coveted time playing with the world's best Uncle Johnathan.  Nobody can elicit giggles, race on bicycles, or play ball better than my brother.  Nobody.
Each time Johnathan and Liza leave to return back to their home, I believe there’s no more that could have possibly been crammed into their visit.  Yet, at the next gathering, we seem to outdo ourselves again.  And each time they are no longer with us in the body, all I can say is, “One day, there will be no more goodbyes.” No more.

Oh, how I long for that one day.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Importance of Daddies at Day's End

As late afternoon winds find rest, the cloud of dusty flecks disappears from those last lingering rays of auburn sunlight hesitating over the treeline.  Early summer mosquitoes begin to buzz aloud, seeking a sweaty heat source while day's birdsong suddenly goes silent.

My oldest son, Wyatt, and I linger long near the swamp's edge to scoop up more tadpoles, maybe even catch one of the elusive, tiny frogs filling the surface under cover of night with bubbly, algae-colored eggs. 

Soon will come the slim green frogs and transparent geckos lining the walls of our house, all in search of moths ever-hovering near the porch lights.  Against a backdrop of rubbing cricket legs will come the squeaks of flying squirrels, the eerie hooting of owls on their tin-can phones, calling and answering from both sides of our house. 

In the midst of all this normal winding down at day's end with my family, husband noisily plows up the back yard plot of land he bombed with poison just two weeks ago.   Rain is coming tomorrow, the perfect time to break open the earth and scatter purple grass seed on bare earth.

While "poison" might seem a bit extreme, it's not...well, not if you live on a hay farm where the field is literally fifty feet from the front door.  For some reason, the Alicia Bermuda hay does not respect the invisible line between mine and theirs.  They don't even pretend to.  Instead, their runners sashay over into my yard, almost flaunting their transgression and daring me to do something about it.

Ceding the land back to the field isn't really an option, though, because the hay's open-sod nature allows too many weeds to take root.  The end result is a winter yard that is more weed than hay.  That's wonderful if you're Amelia and adore anything that can possibly be considered a "flower" but not so wonderful if you'd really like a real lawn some day.

And so, husband plows and rakes and then plants by hand.  It's not long before four little feet join in the "fun," two of which soon find freedom to squish bare in cool dirt.
Although it would go faster without their "help" and even though their assistance will put him finishing the task by headlights after dark, husband patiently bows his six foot frame to give the twins each a turn cranking the handle on the spreader.

Amelia and Emerson walk behind him, following in daddy's footprints, then run off in search of bright purple dots to cover with dirt, a task which grow harder with each dimming minute. 
Mother's Day is just three short days away and I know some men are going to be scrambling to find that perfect gift for the mothers of their children.  I like tangible "I love you" gifts as much as the next woman, but when everything is said and done, very little makes this mother happier than seeing her children spending time with their daddy.   This gift of time will last longer and have a more far-reaching impact than anything you can buy in a store.

There's just something about that lingering of a father and child at the close of each day that brings me peace and comfort, a heart warmth that says no matter how chaotic and uncontrollable life may be around me, here in this moment, at least, all is well.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cause and Effect: Are We All Bound Together?

The concept that my life is bound to your choices doesn't strike me as that far fetched.  How else do you explain my grocery bill each week.  I certainly don't purchase any more food than I did a year ago.  If anything, I purchase less.  Still, with OPEC driving up the price of oil, drought in the mid West, an unseasonably cold Spring up north, and inflation affecting everything from toilet paper to crayons, it just makes logical sense to believe that not only am I effected by my environment but also that my choices affect you and your choices affect me.

Several years ago, a movie The Butterfly Effect espoused much the same view wherein small, seemingly inconsequential choices ultimately have seemingly unrelated (and sometimes catastrophic) results down the road.

In Chris Brauns' newest novel Bound Together: How We are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices, he makes a similar argument.  Brauns' first two chapters are interminably tedious as he approaches his premise from the hypothesis that most people don't truly believe in what he refers to as the "principle of the rope," that we are inextricably bound to each other in good and bad.

Yet, once he feels the reader is convinced she is "roped" to others' choices, Brauns' narrative improves significantly as  he explains how this principle plays out in the doctrine of original sin, wherein all mankind is "roped" to Adam's bad choice.  Despite being "roped" to sin, mankind has a choice to burn that rope and join himself by a stronger rope to Jesus Christ.

Here's the rub, though: to be bound to Christ, one must be bound to the gospel of Christ, which requires that one first know the true gospel, the Word of God.  Additionally, to be bound to Christ, one must be bound to each other in Christ in a local New Testament Church.  As Brauns says of this need for Christian community,

"God's plan is not to change us as individuals; the principle of the rope means that our union to Christ also unites us to others who are connected to him in faith.  As a result of our union, we are mortared into Christian community.  The principle of the rope means that God will use the relationships we have with others in the body of Christ to change and transform our lives.  God will use our new connections to confront our sinful habits, remind us of truth, and bring healing and victory to our lives. But this can only happen if we are roped into Christian community and involved in a Christ-centered local church" (p. 87).

Brauns concludes in his last chapter (which is, by far, the best writing in the entire book) with a call to avoid the trap of radical individualism, warning:  "If we Westerners continue to see ourselves as islands, the future will be very dark. Cultures and countries cannot flourish apart from a deep recognition of solidarity that only Christ and his church can make happen" (p. 163).

The interesting thing is that this principle is important not just for Christians.  Anyone's life can benefit from understanding how his actions affect others and how others' actions affect him.  Yet, if a person is to reach the fullest plan God has for him in this life, s/he will only be as effective as possible when linked together through the gospel of Christ within a Christian community.

Chapters 4, 5, and 10 are the best in terms of content, but in all honesty, Chapters 6 - 9 were exhausting to read.  These chapters do a good job of applying the principle of the rope by using Scripture to explain how one's joy, marriage, family, and even fear of death are better understood in light of one's belief that everyone's decisions affect another.  Still, they are what I'll call "plodding" chapters, which I had to slog through.

While this is not likely a book that will radically change your life, Brauns' thesis is valid and his warnings about the dangers of radical individualism along with the strong need for Christian community are extremely important in our present culture.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Speaking "Alternate English"

We Bought a Zoo.  It had been advertised as a family friendly movie, albeit one the critics weren't exactly thrilled with.  That was fine with us.  In the past few years, "award-winning artistic masterpiece well-loved by the critics" has come to mean insanely weird, difficult to follow plot, or pushing some politically-charged agenda. 

Besides, fine art has become less than important since three young children came on the scene.  Or maybe it's just that I'm older and tired from the busyness of life so that when I have the chance, I want my movies to be entertaining, not draining.  I want to see on screen the way life should be, not the way life is.  I want the bad guy to get his comeuppance and right to always win.  I want justice to prevail, sin to have very real consequences, and for those consequences to be immediate, not in the after life.  Oh, and I want the happy ending.  Always.

Yes.  I want the fairy tale.

Don't get me wrong.  I love historical fiction.  I believe in the importance of reliving horrific events from our world's history.  They remind us to avoid those mistakes in the future.  They demonstrate just how sinful man is at his core and how low he can sink when given the rope to carry out those innate, twisted desires.

But as a general rule, "family-friendly" movies have become of utmost importance to me as a parent.   What's more, the closer I grow to God, the less I want to fill my own mind with what I refer to as "smut."

As you might imagine, I usually wait for movies to hit television before I DVR them.  By that time, most of the language has been chopped, even if the verbally polite audio doesn't match the moving lips, and inappropriate commercials can easily be zoomed past.

We Bought a Zoo, though, was a $5 after-Thanksgiving-sale purchase.  And it was PG.  Perhaps that's my problem. When I think PG, I remember when the producers of E.T. wanted a PG versus a G rating to draw in an older audience, so they added a single irrelevant curse word to the script.  My how PG has changed.

Husband and I previewed the movie one date night, me squirming uncomfortably with each curse word and completely out-of-place sexual innuendo made to Matt Damon, who was playing the part of an obviously grieving widower. 

Family friendly?  Not for my family.  All I could think was "My children will never be able to watch this!"

A few weeks later, I picked up the DVD case and just happened to glance at the back cover where I read "Includes English Family-Friendly  Audio Track (Alternate Audio)."

Intrigued, I popped in the DVD and went to the main menu.  Beneath "Play" and "Scene Selection" was "Language."  I clicked, and the different language options were the expected ones: English, Español, and Closed Captioning for the Hearing Impaired.  But then, there was a fourth option: English Family-Friendly (Alternate Audio).

By changing the language of the video, I could watch a cursing-free version of the film.

At first, it was amusing.  I was and am honestly thankful the company gave me the made-for-TV audio.  Yet, the label has troubled me ever since.

According to Hollywood, my household speaks a different language than the bulk of society.  We don't speak English.  We speak alternate English.

Alternate English.

When did a clean mouth free of curse words become alternate versus mainstream? When did a cursing-free household become marginalized as so different as to be the odd-man-out?

It's a sad commentary on where our society has gone, where it's headed, and why Christians need to take a stand in their own homes.  If the 78.4% of Americans who claim to be Christians would ask God to help them bridle their tongues and speak like Godly men and women, well, you get the point.

Scripture tells us out of the mouth can't come both blessing and cursing.  In other words, our hearts can't speak two languages.

Our children must see us as parents and Christian mentors practicing this "alternate English" in our homes.  Otherwise, they will never be able to bridle their own tongues, will never master this strange language, which grows stranger by the hour.