Saturday, October 19, 2013

Seven-Going-on-Everything

He's seven-going-on-eight, but he sounds just like his father, and every conversation is peppered with words I can't believe he knows.  From the backseat of the car, he talks and talks without a break, moving from one story to another without any kind of transition.  One minute, he's telling me everything I never wanted to know about arthropods, and the next he's telling me about learning to play volleyball in gym class.

He'll be eight tomorrow, and he is this perfect wiry, breezy thing, all ribs and elbows.  Every day I am amazed at how stubborn he can be, at how earnest he can be, at how gentle he can  be.  I love to imagine him in the gym, his wiry limbs akimbo as he learns to serve a volleyball.  I can feel his excitement radiate up from the backseat, carried on this wave of words.

"This is a spike," he says. "Look mom, you have to look at me.  This is a spike."  I glance in the rear view mirror to watch him mime the move.  "This is a set.  And this is a bump."  I peek up in the mirror to watch each move.  He says, "See the bump? That's the bump, with your hands together like that.  But I'm terrible at it."

Sometimes when he's talking, I see him as a kind of tremulous, overfull balloon of innocence that the world is salivating, slathering to burst.  His eagerness wells up, bubbles out of him.  His simple joy, that thing we call being childlike, it radiates from him.  I take doses of it against the chronic disillusionment that has settled in my chest, drinking in like a tonic the simple euphoria he can find in almost anything.

But every so often, I start to hear the first strains of that virus, that disillusionment, color his voice.  He is starting to learn defeat, starting to be colored by the jaded vocabulary of people whose words are barbs.  This is how you play volleyball, but I am terrible at itWhy even try, his tone says, because I'll never be good at it.  I might as well just give up now.

--

For me, it was running.  I had to suit up in my P.E. uniform and take that damnable Presidential Fitness Test, and in a grassy field next to my elementary school, I became versed in defeat and in shame.

I was the slowest one in class, and I finished the last lap alone.  The embarrassment of being watched by all my classmates would have been enough to sting, but just to drive the point home, my coach stood there lobbing cruel jabs at me as I shuffled desperately for the finish line.  My classmates, my friends, laughed as he berated my slow pace.  I kept pushing forward, miserable, every breath burning my lungs like I'd inhaled shards of glass.

When I came over the finish line, my face beet-all-over and my lungs screaming, he read my time off the stopwatch around his neck and spat more hateful words at me.  "That was terrible.  There's no reason for you to run that slow.  That was absolutely ridiculous."

I just stood there and cried silently, right in front of the whole class, this red-faced, terrible girl who was broken and slow and ridiculous because she could not even run one freaking mile.  It did not even occur to me that he could be wrong, or that those words might be entirely inappropriate for a teacher to say to his student.  After all, everyone else had run their laps in a time that wasn't ridiculous or terrible, and they had done it without their lungs burning like they were trying to breathe under water.

--

He is seven going on I-already-know-everything, his childlike effervescence so susceptible to turning into distrust and apathy in the coming years.  Right now, he is over the moon for his first fish tank, newly set up and waiting for its fist occupants tomorrow.  He experiences a near manic bliss over an afternoon with a stack of construction paper, a pair of scissors, and a fresh roll of scotch tape.  So much of the shine is still on him; so much of the fairy dust is still in his eyes.

And yet, he announces one day that he doesn't like to sing in front of people, and he tells me from the backseat of the car how he is terrible at a move in volleyball though he's played the game just twice in his life.  Already the vocabulary of defeat infects his language.  Already, though he's not quite eight years old, he is quick to tell me what he can't do.  Already there are things he has given up on entirely.

I tell him, from the front seat, that I doubt he's terrible at volleyball.  I remind him that thinking he's going to fail at something will pretty much guarantee he fulfills that expectation.  I assure him that two days of learning to play volleyball is not nearly long enough to decide whether or not he is good at it.  I suggest that maybe he could try doing something for the joy of doing it, without grading himself on it or letting other people tell him how well they think he's doing at it.

And, though I don't say it, I pray silently that his innocence and his exuberance are tenaciously rooted in him, that they will be nearly impossible to blast out of him.

Then, I tell him the story of how I decided I was terrible at running because of one bad experience as a child.  I tell him how, because I let that experience color my view of myself, I spent two decades not realizing the reason I ran so slowly that day was because I had asthma and was smack dab in the middle of my first asthma attack.  When you decide you are terrible at something, I say, that becomes louder and stronger than the truth. 

The truth, for me, is that I am still a slow runner.  But, this morning I put four more miles on my new running shoes, and I haven't needed that old inhaler in a few years now.  It's a truth that has taken me many years to dig out of the ashes of those ear-splitting messages of defeat.

"You're almost eight," I tell my oldest son, "and you have so many years of life coming, so many things you will get to experience.  Why would you want to cut yourself off from something you may find out you really love to do?"

You're right, of course, he tells me.  But then he falls silent and watches the freeway flash by outside his window, and I can't help but wonder how far gone he is already.  He's seven for one more day, and then I will have lost that year forever.  Tomorrow, he will be eight.  Have I said enough?  Have I listened carefully enough, beneath the talk of arthropods and gym class, to the real story he is trying to tell me?  Because he's seven-going-on-everything, and I can hardly keep up with him already.  He's seven-going-on-eight, still a soft and malleable thing in a world that's barbed and rigid, and I can only hope the tremulous balloon of his innocence will hold for one more year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All We Like Sheep

{Today I'm writing as a part of a synchroblog celebrating the release of Addie Zierman's book When We Were On Fire.  I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I have loved reading Addie's blog How to Talk Evangelical, where she has been writing her way through the often cringe-worthy hallmarks of being raised in the Evangelical tradition while delicately addressing what it feels like to have moved from being "on fire for the Lord" to feeling burned out by that once-bright flame.}



There is an old recording of my older brother around the age of two reciting Isaiah 53:6.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he lisps in the high voice of a toddler.  "All we like sheep have gone astray," my mother corrects him.  "All we like sheep has gone astray," he announces, catching the emphasis but not the correction it contains.

I don't even know if that recording still exists anywhere outside of my memory, but it remains for me this weighted piece of evidence that explains much about my youth.  From the beginning, it felt like my brothers and I were born to be Christians.  It was inconceivable that we would stray from the good words our parents were stitching on our hearts.

My father is a pastor.  My grandfathers on both sides were pastors.  The world of little plastic communion cups and steeples adorned with peeling paint and hymnals nestled in strange holsters in the backs of pews: that was my world, that was my place.  I can still smell those basement rooms with linoleum floors and folding chairs where we ate casseroles at potluck dinners and the same pastel mints at dozens of baby showers.

It was all part and parcel of my identity, and I knew I would never, could never leave that world. 

See, I was born in the early hours of a Sunday in July.  My father told me once, as we ate at the IHOP in the town where I was born, that he sat in that very same booth and ate pancakes a few hours after my birth before driving an hour back to our little town to lead the music at church.  I understand my mother was back behind the piano the next Sunday.  If I had been obedient enough to show up on a Tuesday, I wonder if she would have missed a week at all.

I used to tell people I might as well have been born under a church pew.  I'm not sure how I expected it to come across to people, but I meant it as a kind of brag.  Despite everything that had been drilled into me about how salvation was supposed to work, I still wanted to claim it as some kind of birthright.  I still felt the need to tell people I was born into it, that I didn't choose it, but it chose me.

And yes, I would have called myself "on fire for the Lord" in those days.  I was fluent in Evangelical, too.  I had a pink leather bible and a prayer journal and a closet full of Christian t-shirts.  I would have seen you at the pole every September, and when I did, I would have invited you to the bible study I helped lead after school in one of the chemistry classrooms.  And if you'd come to the bible study, I could have told you my testimony right there on the spot (somehow making it sound more exciting than "Hey, what can I say? I was born into this!") before nonchalantly throwing out an invitation to our Friday night youth group lock in.

To be honest, it's hard to imagine myself as I was in those days.  The way I tend to remember it, that old costume just came apart at the seams one day. But in truth, it was years of trying to tamp down unanswered questions, singing those praise songs louder and louder to drown out the hum of the uncertainty gaining momentum within me.  It was too many days of feeling like a marionette, just believing I was supposed to wave my arms and walk to stage left according the the script I had been given.  More and more, I felt like being the good Christian soldier meant being a caricature of something, a showman, an act.

I think perhaps the person I am now was birthed in the parking lot of a church in southern California one night just after dusk.  Of course, I was born into the sterile room of a West Texas hospital, so I guess I should say I was reborn into this person one night in the church parking lot.  Which is fitting, of course, since Christianity was always supposed to be my rebirth.

That night at our weekly bible study, I started thinking about all the cruelty and pain in the world.  All the rape, all the murder, all the hunger, all the loneliness.  I started thinking about all the things that never felt like they had lined up for me, all the strange passages in the bible I couldn't make heads or tails of, all the questions that could only be answered with vague platitudes or promises that we would understand more when we got to heaven.  And suddenly, that big youth group room seemed to shrink down around my ears, and I stepped out for some air.  I knew people would think I'd gone to the bathroom, but instead I walked downstairs, across the dark floor of the gym where we had played volleyball an hour before, and out into the parking lot.

There, next to the sidewalk that ran between the gym and the main church, was a broken metal pole that had been cut down but never removed from the dirt.  Probably once it had held a sign about who was allowed to park there or where visitors could find the nursery, but someone had cut the metal pole down to about 18 inches tall and left the base in the dirt like a mangled, iron tree stump.  And for some unknown reason, I started to kick at that old metal stump.

I didn't even know I was angry until I kicked it once, and then it felt so good, I kept kicking it over and over until the sole of my shoe was ripped from the leather and my toe was pouring blood inside my sock. When I was finally done, the old base of that pole had been dislodged from the earth, and everything in me had come unmoored, too.

Afterwards, I sat down on the curb to check out the damage to my foot, and in the silence I could feel the cold place in my chest where the fire had burned right out of me.  That act of defiance, that petty vandalism, was the rending of my character's costume, the snapping of my marionette strings.  Sitting there in the quiet parking lot, I understood instinctively that the pretty facade of faith I had been tediously holding together had finally ruptured.

 "All we like sheep have gone astray," I remembered.  And from the burned out hole in my chest, I felt the biting cold of fear that I would be just another lost sheep.  Gone astray, turning to my own way.  I knew the on fire days were gone, and I thought bitterly that I hadn't asked for any of this.  I was born into this, I said to myself.  I didn't choose it, it chose me.

But I gathered myself up, a clumsy adolescent in broken tennis shoes, with the sole flapping all the way across the gym and back up the stairs to that bible study room.  They were closing in prayer, so I kneeled down, ignored the throbbing of my split open toe and the throbbing of my ruptured identity, and I prayed, "Well, Lord, what now?"  My toe bled into my sock and my leg ached all the way up to my hip, and I knelt there waiting for someone to say amen.  So be it.  So maybe I would wander, maybe I would go my own way.

And maybe, just maybe, I would still find my way home.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Six Years Ago Today

Before becoming a parent, I never quite realized how my child's birthday would feel like a kind of spiritual anniversary to me.  One year ago today, I say to myself, two years ago today, three, four, five years ago today, life came out of me and screamed bitter cries over the injustice of that sacred act.  No matter how different they look from year to year, I always remember them as they looked the moment I first saw them: furious at their expulsion, limbs nervously flailing, faces all scrunched up and slimy, their tiny bodies the most beautiful, terrifying sight I could imagine. 

Six years ago today, our Lincoln came into the world, angrier and scrawnier than his brother had been, a teeny little barrel-chested screamer who just cleared seven pounds as he bemoaned the cold shock of being laid on the delivery room scale.  I remember thinking, after the near ten pound bowling ball his brother had been, that seven pounds and one ounce was awfully small.  I remember the few minutes we had with him in the delivery room, me with my neck craned from the operating table trying to see everything, trying to memorize everything, while my doctor made cryptic comments about too much bleeding and could I stop moving while she tried to sew me back up. 

Six years ago today, Linc's life began not with balloons and shiny, wrapped up gifts, but with that gritty, biological baptism from which we all emerge.  And for a brief few minutes (who knows how many minutes it was really, though it seems so few in recollection), he was just another healthy baby and we were just another set of ecstatic parents begging to hold our slimy little miracle.  We had time to take a family picture, and for him to be laid on my chest for a few seconds.  But so quickly the whispers turned nervous, and our little barrel-chested screamer was rushed from the room.

See, for us, Lincoln's birthday is also the anniversary of his diagnosis, and the hard truth of it is that our memories of the day reflect about five minutes of undiluted celebrating and about 23 hours and 55 minutes of confusion and fear piled on top of the wonder and joy we expected to be feeling that day.  That first day, we heard the words Down syndrome, we read the ominous handout the hospital offered us to understand what this diagnosis would mean for our son, and we cried and rallied and cried some more.   Probably no more than an hour after his birth, our Lincoln was moved to the NICU and fitted with all manner of tubes and wires.  By the end of his first day, we had met our son's cardiologist, neonatologist, and speech therapist.

That day six years ago was a long, intense roller coaster.  From those seats by Lincoln's shallow, plastic crib in the NICU, we just could not imagine what year one or two would look like, much less year six or sixteen.  So, we decided right away that we would not even try to imagine how his life would unfold.  We would just be along for the ride.  We would let him show us what he could do instead of letting everyone tell us what he most certainly could not do.

We didn't know how year six would look, so we resolved not to get caught up worrying about it.  Instead, we would love him right then in that moment, and we would keep loving him moment by moment, not crossing bridges we hadn't come to yet, not fretting over what  struggles he might or might not ever face.

And so, with that decision, Linc's birthday also became a day of remarkable freedom for us.  We wouldn't be bound to what people thought our son would or should be, we wouldn't be slaves to worry over the things that could go wrong his health, and we would learn to live in the moment, enjoying every single day we had with our son.  Even those long days in the NICU.  Even the croupy nights and the days when the only word he spoke was a constant and emphatic NO (okay, we're still in those days a bit, I fear).
 
During those NICU days, the tubes and wires coming off Linc's body tangled every time I tried to pick him up, and I fretted to Sam that I would never get the hang of holding him with all that baggage tying him down.  But Sam reminded me that slow and steady does it, and he helped unwind the tubes and lay our son in my arms.  Last night, as I frosted birthday cupcakes, I fretted to Sam that I would never get the hang of taking Lincoln out alone, that I would never learn to manage his stubbornness or teach him to stop bolting away from me at top speed.  But Sam reminded me that slow and steady does it, that it's okay to cry because some days this is hard, but that we don't have to take on the challenge of all the days at once.  We only have to take on this day, that for this day we had survived and in the morning our baby boy would be six years old.

I always think of Lincoln's birthday as the day we were all born into a new kind of life, a rich, full, scary, hilarious, messy life. So happy birthday, Lincoln.  We have loved you in every moment of your six years of life.  We are so grateful to have you, and we thank you this year, as we have on all your other birthdays, for teaching us to let go, again and again, day by day.