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Sunday, May 28, 2006

From Day to Z


Loving an ungrateful child

It was one of those days. My wife had her turn yesterday (and probably the day before and the day before and the day before...) and I had my turn today. This three day weekend is coming, as it often does for me, at the end of a hectic and draining period at work. Things at the end of May are always a little crazy and I usually have less energy and effort to give to home life during this season of the year. But that busy period has now passed and with the Memorial Day weekend here I’ve been trying to make up for some lost Daddy time as well as tending to an overgrown lawn and a house where Newton’s law regarding entropy is in full evidence.

Yesterday, my wife offered (to my daughter) to take her swimming at the YMCA when her brother went down for a nap. They returned two hours later, my daughter’s hair still damp and my wife’s spirit dampened. In fact, she seemed royally pissed that, at that point, the baby had napped for almost 3 straight hours giving me time to clean up the kitchen and get several things accomplished while having a little time to myself. In 15 months, he’s probably taken fewer than a dozen naps of that endurance and here, she had let one be wasted on me. My wife on the other hand had spent the last couple of hours bludgeoned by the demands of a very precocious, very strong willed and very five, five year old girl. Sometimes it seems with our daughter that if you make a special effort to shower her with attention, she’ll complain about the water pressure.

After the swimming, I had a share of time with her yesterday myself which was mostly free of the complaining and ungratefulness. Maybe because I catered to her too much out of a sense of guilt. My solo time yesterday with the kids was pleasant and relatively easy till it was punctuated by a moment of horror as I found myself in a bookstore still in possession of my 15 month old son, but without my 5 year old daughter. Thankfully, my wife had trained her well what to do in those circumstances and we were reunited after only a brief lifetime of terror - maybe 2 minutes all together. I’ll write about that one in more detail sometime, but it’s too fresh right now. Suffice it to say that moments like that one make you realize that parenting is sometimes like spending 8 straight hours juggling a Faberge egg, the Hope diamond and a large vial of nitroglycerin. It’s monotonous, but also requires constant vigilance and skill to ensure you don’t damage something delicate, lose something priceless or blow us all to kingdom come.

So... today. I woke with a nagging sinus headache. I had wanted to visit that other church because I feel a restlessness and hunger within. The church we’ve been attending for the last few years has great kids’ programs and Olivia likes it, it’s theologically tolerant enough for my wife to feel mostly comfortable there in her openly doubting state of mind, yet unapologetically still Christian, which in my experience is not always the norm in more moderate or liberal congregations. But the services are soooooo dry.

I can deal with the strict order of worship. There was a time in my life where I was rebelling against my earlier and most Methodist roots and I didn’t want anything to do with a church that knew far enough in advance to notify the printer on Thursday what scriptures would be read and hymns would be sung come the 11:00 hour on Sunday. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Where is the Charisma - in the Biblical sense? I digress. Anyway. So I can deal with the order of worship. But the hymns in a high church Presbyterian congregation just don’t stir the cockles of this southern boy’s heart. If I had my choice, I’d probably prefer what a friend of mine from college once referred to as the earnest-bearded-guys-with-guitars form of worship, but if it has to come from a hymnal, let it at least be The Old Rugged Cross, Blessed be the Tie that Binds or Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I don’t know where they found the hymnal we use, but I swear I don’t think they’ve ever sung a song I heard elsewhere. They all have the feel of something like "Glorious God who didst diagram the sentences of creation and conjugate the present pluperfect tense of our faith, grant us thy grammatical mercies and instill us with thy ever-present state of the demonstrative."

In addition to the mind-numbing hymns, there are the sermons. I like both pastors and enjoy having a conversation with either of them. But I DON"T WANT SOMEONE READING TO ME. Yikes. If you can’t just speak from the heart, or talk off an outline or something, what’s the point? E-mail the text of your sermon to me and save us both the time. I’ll skim it while I’m doing a system scan for viruses or downloading an acrobat reader upgrade or something. Sheesh. I think my dislike of someone reading a prepared text makes it hard for me to get much out of messages which are probably okay content-wise.

We came home, had lunch and then O and I decided to go to the movies. We’ve only done that once before and it was something we had planned on doing sometime this weekend. With summer’s heat (and more notably, humidity) finally arriving in Nashville like a belated horde of huns, the idea of sitting in air conditioned darkness itself appealed to me. Having a movie to watch at the same time was gravy. So we went to "Over the Hedge" which I have to say I enjoyed. I’m not recommending it mind you, I don’t recommend kid’s movies one way or the other. What’s okay in one household is highly objectionable in another. You can’t win when recommending "family" movies (at least not consistently enough to make worth experiencing the losses) so I don’t do it. One family will object if a bug gets squashed. Another will tolerate all levels of violence in kid’s movies but will freak out if "poop" is mentioned just once. There. It’s about time "poop" made it’s way into my blog.

So the movie was fun. She liked it. I actually laughed out loud a few times. I even sprang for popcorn and a sprite to share which cost nearly as much as the tickets, but that’s pretty cliche to complain about. Afterwards, we did some other things she wanted to do. I could feel the tension slowly building as I said "no" to more food after the movie or spending much more on overpriced trifles. When we got back to the truck to head for home, the meltdown occurred. I opened her door and let her climb in herself while I went around to my side. I left her door open (she likes to close it herself). She was straining and trying to pull it closed, but the truck doors are kinda tough to pull closed so I grabbed her free arm to help give her some leverage. "You’re grabbing me!" she says. "I’m trying to help you pull and stay in your seat. I don’t want you falling out your door." I tug with her and the door slams shut. That was the trigger. She’s screaming, in near tears of fury "That’s not how I wanted to do it!" "Ahhhhhhrrrg!" I try to say something corrective to her, but she screams back, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I eventually cut her off and forcefully say "This is why your mom and I get so frustrated. You got to go to the movies. You had popcorn and Sprite. You got to walk around the mall and see things you wanted to see. And then the door on the truck doesn’t close exactly the way you want and you started yelling about it! It makes us feel like you don’t appreciate anything and all you want it your way, all the time, everyday."


So where’s the surprise? Extra! Extra! Five year old wants her way all the time. Film at eleven.

And I’m yelling about it. Making her feel guilty. Everybody wants his way all the time. Olivia is just forceful and confident and honest and young enough to tell everybody about it. I want my way all the time. But my wants are more complicated and... eh, it’s sounds too lofty to say sophisticated. Sometimes those ways involve wanting my children to have fun so I let them watch a video on a Sunday afternoon and I listen to the Titan’s game on the radio instead of watching it. Oooh. Big sacrifice. I want my wife to get some adult-interaction, so I agree to watch the kids in the evening so she can go to book club even though sometimes I’m worn out at the end of the day and don’t have the energy to put the kids to bed. Wow. What a marytr. If I’m honest, deep down, I can be as selfish as Olivia appears at times.

I wanted to go to that other church and had probably been sulking about it most of the morning. I wish the cassette player in the car hadn’t gotten screwed up because some else’s toddler was in the front seat unsupervised for a moment and put quarters into it. I wish the house wasn’t cluttered so much of the time. At least I wish it wasn’t cluttered with stuff other than my own. I wish my wife would quit color-correcting her photos on the computer so I could get on there and play solitaire or write a blog entry. I can be petty. Trust me.

I’ve been intermittently reading bits of a book called "Let your life speak" by Parker Palmer. He writes and lectures and speaks about vocation and calling. One of the essays mentions hearing Dorothy Day, the catholic social justice activist. She scandalized Palmer by referring to the "ungrateful poor" in her lecture. He’s shocked by this till he realizes what she means is don’t give to the poor expecting gratitude. Give only if you have something you must give. Give if the giving is its own reward. Okay. So take "give" out of those sentences and replace them with the verb "to parent." Read them again. Hmmm... But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? Of course you love as a parent not out of the expectation of getting the love back. Otherwise, I guess every parent would retire at the teen years. I hope, as I’ve heard it said before, that no one really is changing all those diapers and wiping those chins because he’s afraid that there will be no one there when he’s old to change his diapers and wipe his chin. God’s little cycle of irony.

But being a parent involves teaching your child gratitude, right? It means helping them not to have a complaining attitude, it means traversing the narrow and treacherous mountain path between loving them and spoiling them. Sure it does.

When I was yelling at her in the truck for yelling at me in the truck for the door not closing the way she wanted, I was not in the place of detached yet loving instruction in virtue and character. I was pissed at this ungrateful little girl who’s throwing a tantrum over something I didn’t understand after doting on her all afternoon. No matter how loud she was yelling, I wasn’t hearing what she was saying. And she probably wasn’t hearing the message from me I wanted to convey. Or at least the message I wished I wanted to convey.

Looking up some Dorothy Day stuff on the Internet (ah, the joys of instant research - how did I ever get through college term papers without it?), I found an article that referred to her love of Dostoevsky’s the Brother’s Karamazov. I liked that one as well. Although I must admit when I read it, I don’t think it was out of a love for the book itself, but out of a desire to have the accomplishment and prestige of having read the great book. The article referred to an exchange early in the book between a woman and Father Zosima. Again, I must admit I didn’t remember the passage discussed in the article. Mostly what I remember about Zosima is the crisis of faith for Alyosha when the old priest dies and his body starts to stink. This exchange Zosima has is with a woman who professes a desire to do great works for the poor and needy but who doesn’t ever embark upon these works because she doesn’t think she could bear it if one of these poor souls complained or was ungrateful.

Zosima tells her of a doctor who told him similar things. "...‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love individual people.’..." Zosima continues "A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. Imaginary love yearns for an immediate heroic act that is achieved quickly and seen by everyone. ... A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and, for some, it is a whole way of life." Sounds a bit like a quote from Catcher in Rye I mention in an earlier blot. Hmmm... A theme.

So I’m trying to teach my kid gratitude and thankfulness, and I can’t worship because the hymns are too wordy? I’m trying to convey unconditional love and I wonder how much of the time am I really motivated by trying to get a sense of personal satisfaction from fulfilling my roles (father, husband, neighbor) well? I misplace my daughter for a few moments in a store and mixed in with the horror that someone may have taken her who will do unspeakable things, I find myself in the midst of my panic thinking that "my wife will never forgive me."

I fear every good work is tainted with selfishness if we dissect it long enough. Maybe it’s inherent in our species. So can I expect my daughter to learn true gratitude? Or am I simply using parental guilt to teach her to mimic gratefulness well enough to be socially appropriate?
Help us out Father Z. Is there any hope? "...But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal but, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever–at that very moment, you will have achieved your goal and will recognize the miraculous power of our Lord, who has always loved you and has secretly guided you all along."

A whiff of comfort. I guess it’s all God’s fault. Maybe while He’s busy working on us all, I can get him to punch up the lyrics on those hymns as well.