That sweet, bright sound
of voices raised in play
that so few minutes past
were raised in whines.
Thank you, God, for the magic of
Today Princess Imagination turns seven years old. She has been talking about and planning this day for months. I, on the other hand, don’t quite feel ready.
This post, however, is not about my ambivalence about my daughter’s fast progress through childhood. It is about the question of how to celebrate this milestone in her journey. In the context of her intense discussion of her upcoming birthday I had plenty of reminders about this opportunity, and since writing is the way I process my challenges and joys, it was obvious to me that I wanted to write something.
I took a few stabs at something that would be appropriately expressive of my huge pride at being her mother.
I tried the format of a letter telling her what I wanted her to see in herself.
I tried an explanatory list of “seven” amazing things I see in her – one for each year.
But none of these formats were quite clicking. They felt forced.
And then I re-read a poem that she had spontaneously inspired through her play a few months ago. It is just a sensory description of a common place childhood moment, but that is what makes it feel right to me in this context.
Celebrating her childhood is not about formulas, or lists, or deep, expressive analysis.
It is about the amazing joy of watching her live ordinary moments, and rediscovering simple joy in that observation.
like a little globe of sunlight
captured in a ball of childhood delight
floating for the benefit of her bright eyes.
Smooth and soft
not burning as the touch of sun drops should
from playful fingertips.
It tastes like laughter
filling up her mouth with bubbling joy,
sweet salivation wetting lips
that part in breathless expectation
Her tiny nostrils flare
as dust and cornstarch
beaten from the air by flailing arms and flying fingers
tickle her delicate nose, tempting a sneeze
to join the riotous sounds of celebration
giggles and squeals
weaving a complicated dance
between bright, one-syllable commands
But then the sharp report
and for one frozen second
air itself contracts to mourn the loss
– – –
but then the swirling, active fun refills the space
so lately occupied by her little drop of sun…
the next balloon is pink.
Parenting has changed me in so many ways, and more than one of them has involved a deep transformation of my faith. It would probably take an entire blogging series to unpack what I mean in that sentence, so I am not going to try here. The one pseudo-explanation I will offer is this totally inadequate (though complicated) declaration: It is really hard to teach someone about God when the person you are trying to teach is stuck very solidly in the concrete thinking phase of intellectual development, while one’s own faith development has taken a more than thirty year and highly convoluted journey through rather fundamentalist thinking that nearly killed it, and left it simultaneously disgusted by self-satisfied certainty and still yearning for its comfort.
And so, it has been like the first breath of air inhaled by lungs released from some heavy weight, to realize that my struggling words are not the primary vehicle by which I am teaching my children, and particularly not my son (who is far less caught in his head than either me or his big sister). The relationship between words and verifiable truth is rather inconsequential to him. Far more important is the joy of the moment, especially if that moment involves connection.
As it turns out. I’m actually learning a lot about God from my son.
Finding God Playing With My Son.
If feelings could in color show
your face would paint a bright rainbow.
No mask of dim restraint you wear
and eyes’ communing thus impair.
No, as I gaze I see your soul
as though cavorting on a stroll
across the smooth and mobile skin
that God saw fit to dress you in.
And those communicating eyes
invite me to abandon lies —
of competence, or ennui —
that push others away from me.
Your smile pulls me, draws me in
where love is full, divisions thin,
to join in work where you employ
all efforts bent on building joy.
And when I step into that world
I find the Source, who has unfurled
a shining lens to cast out strife,
refract the light of Love in… life.
I’ve sometimes struggled recently
with my lack of certainty.
I’ve chafed at mystery and doubt
I’ve called for Truth to just come out
To show a face that I can know;
To answer questions here below;
To save me from the sting of words
in claims of Truth I find absurd.
But now I see, God made the choice
to speak in a sweet, giggling voice,
that in the QUESTIONS finds delight
more real than knowing what is right.
God is the one who here invites —
along with my pretending knight —
to know Truth as a little child,
imagination running wild.
There’s freedom in the world of play
that teaches me to live TODAY,
and in that living, to KNOW Love
that flows in laughter from Above.
This post hails from the beautiful sun-drenched, ocean-breeze kissed, ever-friendly land of California. The kids and I are temporarily “home,” and aside from a nasty head cold and the absence of the patriarch of our little family (thank you for staying in Milan to work, Tyler, so that we can have this wonderful life! We miss you!), life is good!
One particular manifestation of that goodness occurred yesterday, thanks to the creative thinking of Papa. He suggested a surprise trip for the kids to one of the local outdoor malls. Not to buy anything (other than ice cream), but rather to play in the amazing walk-in water feature that was apparently designed expressly for the purpose of delighting children on hot days. The “water feature,” for lack of a better term, consists of one central fountain/statue with a waterfall flowing down the back, surrounded by 30 or 35 grill-covered water-spouts that shoot up sprays of alternating heights for the pleasure/soaking of the children running over them.
My first thought as we approached this phenomenon of child-entertainment, contemporaneous with the delighted squeals of my children, was that this must be the greatest idea ever! The evidence of at least 40 children (ranging in age from approximately 18 months to 12 years) giggling and shrieking with delight quickly confirmed this initial assessment. When I noticed the designated “stroller parking” in a specially designed niche, the experience was complete. I was really home! I was back in a land where families are expected to do things together, and where, as a consequence, public space designers don’t devote their attention exclusively to one age group or the other. Not only can I look forward to nearly 4 weeks in which every restaurant I go to will have a children’s menu, and almost all public restrooms will have baby changing facilities (we don’t need them any more, but I still consider this a sign of advanced civilization), but even the shopping malls have made a supreme effort to balance the needs of children and parents. Looking around I completely understood the indulgent, relaxed smiles of the accompanying parents and grandparents lounging on the abundant supply of chairs surrounding the play area. This was a good experience for them, not just their children. They could sit in the shade watching the little ones’ delight in a context that didn’t require a separate trip and an expenditure of entertainment cash. They could divide their time – one adult staying to supervise while another stopped into a shop to make a purchase. I imagine at least one of the solo parents in evidence had probably negotiated whine-free shopping time with the kiddos: “If you can give Mommy 15 minutes to try on shoes, we’ll play in the water fountain before we go home.” Although there was no evidence of it that day, the parents could even join in if they so wished. In fact, when we go back, I think I just might!
For my American readers, this soliloquy might seem a trifle exaggerated, so perhaps I should explain. Two days before departing on this visit I received a survey from an English-speaking mom’s group in Milan. The survey was trying to collect information on baby/toddler/child-friendly resources in the area. The survey listed nine categories for which they were collecting information, and I struggled to produce answers for even four. For example: “restaurants offering healthy children’s menus” — well, since the only restaurant I have ever encountered in Italy that offers any children’s menu is McDonalds, and I don’t think Happy Meals qualify as healthy… sorry. “Restaurants that are otherwise child-friendly — including high chairs, play cots, diaper-changing facilities, etc.” — we have sort of re-adjusted our definition of child-friendly since moving to Milan. That now means restaurants that understand to bring out the children’s plate of pasta in bianco (plain pasta, no sauce) as soon as it is ready and that don’t give you dirty looks about the excess noise and mess that accompanies young children. “Facilities that provide private space for breastfeeding mothers” — I used to get strange looks for covering myself with a nursing wrap while breastfeeding in public because most mothers just whip it out … there is no perceived need for a private space. I have accepted the differences about how things are done in my new home, but I am still aware that my American assumption that we will do most things together as a family (rather than leaving the children with a sitter or the grandparents when I go out) means that the world we go out to will not be precisely designed to meet our needs. I can live with it, but it is oh, so nice to experience the alternative. So, in keeping with the patriotic theme of this particular week in the year, I LOVE AMERICA!
The gush of appreciation that welled up in my soul as I settled into my chair, however, was followed immediately by a surge of anxiety. If my quick guesstimate was right, there were significantly more children running around the water fountain than there were spouting water jets. This was a recipe for conflict. I braced for the inevitable collision when two tikes made for the same spurt of aquatic fun, or the cry of complaint that “the girl in the pink isn’t sharing!” In their natural state, children have this tendency to be selfish hedonists. We, as parents, try to moderate this intrinsic quality, but that effort takes years of consistent struggle. I was certain that we would have a problem within five minutes of entering the fun zone.
But the minutes passed and I heard nothing but laughter and exclamations of excitement from my children. Five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes, and no disputes. My anxiety slowly ebbed into incredulous amazement. There was no fighting. It wasn’t just my two little devilish angels. NONE of the children were fighting! They were just running and jumping and waving their arms wildly through the spray, and miraculously NOT hitting each other! In fact, in nearly an hour of water play I observed only a single glancing collision and one mild confrontation. The Gigglemonster had gone to investigate the reason that three children were standing crouched over a temporarily dormant geyser, and “the boy in the Lightening McQueen pants” had apparently told him to mind his own business. He shared this indignity with me, and then went back to playing. That was it!
If by nothing else I was flabbergasted by the apparent spatial awareness being displayed by my two little ones. I have been toiling literally for years to try to adequately explain the concept of not pushing past people when you are in a confined space (i.e. – when exiting an elevator, walking on the stairs, going through a door, etc.). We have talked about courtesy & kindness; we have evaluated the unnecessary nature of injuries that sometimes result; we have applied the Golden Rule and Jesus’ teaching on “the last shall be first” (that’s the only thing that has made any discernible impact so far, and it’s usually followed by a proclamation that “I’m really first, because the last shall be first.”). Despite all my parenting efforts, they still seem oblivious to the space being occupied by other people’s bodies when they have a destination in sight. And yet, in that chaotic context where their entire attention seems riveted on the water spurting from the ground, I saw my children flawlessly veering from their set trajectory to avoid a collision, and even pausing in their headlong race to allow another child to cross their path. This was nothing short of miraculous!
Then, disaster! The water spurts stopped. For some reason (likely water conservation, given the drought) the sprays shooting up from the ground took a break, leaving the horde of water-mad children with only the single waterfall flowing down the back of the statue. As the elimination of their amusement dawned in their disappointed faces I anticipated the mad rush of squirming, slippery little bodies endeavoring to claim their spot under the one remaining flow. I perched on the edge of my seat, ready to jump up and rush to the rescue if the scrum produced casualties. But, my vigilance was unnecessary. A good number of children abandoned the game now that the geysers had disappeared, but around 25 remained, gathered in the general vicinity of the waterfall, and then… took turns!
Again, perhaps my expectations have been a bit jaded by my last two+ years in the land of the anti-queue. I have become accustomed to the expectation that a new register opening at the grocery store immediately draws shoppers in inverse relationship to how long they have been waiting – since those at the end of the line can most quickly and easily shove their carts into the new line. I have learned that the only way to prevent new arrivals from jumping ahead of me in the line to enter the subway car with my stroller (and then plant themselves squarely in my way as I try to maneuver through the narrow opening) is to ram that wheeled conveyance into their shins or run it over their toes. I have drawn too many blank stares when I have attempted to politely suggest that people respect the line of people waiting to weigh their produce rather than just shouldering their way to the front. Italy has cost me my faith in the sacredness of the line.
But, even in America, to see such polite and considerate group behavior from a mass of frolicking children?! That really seemed amazing. And so, as I watched my suddenly considerate offspring waiting patiently for their dousing, and then quickly moving out to provide space for the next child, I pondered the motivation for this consideration. I found it in their smiles.
JOY! I was watching a group of children bursting and bubbling with joy. And this joy melted away the petulant selfishness that too often mars the faces of those from one to 92. The fun was too marvelous to be spoiled by bickering and shoving for position. Much better to watch the enjoyment of their peers and build their own anticipation of how fun it would be to dunk themselves under the spray. What is more, the children weren’t looking out for number one and the rest be damned, because the rest were part of their joy. The water sprays would have been fun if Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster were the only children present, but they were much more fun with everyone else. The joy was contagious, it was exponential. Each squeal of delight from one child drew an echo from two or three others. They were reveling in the group experience and in that joy they found unity.
That realization was sweet with just a tinge of sadness. Clearly, our world is in great need of more unity. From the wars that ravage too many countries to list, to the economic exploitation and crisis that mar nearly every life on the planet, to the renewed anger and name-calling that have been stoked by last week’s historic Supreme Court decisions, we are a broken and divided species. I try to protect my little ones from that truth to a large degree, but the truth is that some of their playmates from yesterday will eventually land on the other side of some issue or resource that they hold dear, and then where will be the joy?
And so, I have written this story as a reminder to myself, and to them, of what they are capable of. I hope I will remember to pull this out when life is no longer so simple for them and they are struggle to know how to love their enemies. The child with whom they have to share the water is not really an enemy, and yet in knowing how to share their joy with this playmate, they are demonstrating their understanding of the ultimate unity of humanity. We are all better off, we share more joy, when we see the needs of others as well as our own, and work together to meet all needs. True joy is not maximizing one’s own joy. True joy is sharing it.