The full story of Christmas and what our response should be, summed up in a gorgeous song. This is why I celebrate….
An over-scheduled life has me struggling with a nasty bout of writer’s block. In an effort to get the creative cogs turning, I began sifting through some of the posts hanging out in my “drafts” bin. I came across the following essay (which is over a year old) and thought it might be good enough to share. Although the child and the situation have changed, I’m currently struggling with this same parenting issue. As you’ll see, I astutely predicted that would be the case.
I am sitting on the edge of the sofa in the late afternoon sunlight. Ace is standing beside me, bow in his right hand, upright bass supported by his left. He keeps absent-mindedly tossing his head to flick the hair out of his eyes and attitude is oozing out of him like hot lava. He is disgusted with me and I’m trying desperately not to return the favor. I sigh and look out the window. Why must everything be so hard?
“OK,”I say, “Play it again and I’ll clap the beat for you.” He groans and slumps his shoulders. As I mark a steady beat, he barely attempts the notes. It’s a pathetic effort and he knows it. I resist the urge to grab the bow out of his hand and bonk him on the head with it. Instead, he takes the bow and bangs his bass with it.
“Play it again.” I state this with authority and very little emotion. It is taking every ounce of self-control not to explode. I can tell his disgust is multiplying by the second, but he makes another attempt and there is improvement. I’m pleasantly surprised and Ace can tell. Do I detect a smile? No, it’s a smirk.
“Play it again,” I say.
“What?!” he asks, truly incredulous. “I’ve already done it three times.”
“Only one time well and that won’t make you a better bass player,” I respond. As he rolls his eyes – wait, did my baby boy just roll his eyes at me?! – I try to explain that practice teaches his fingers where to go so he won’t have to look at them every time he changes a note. I tell him that practice puts the music in his head so that he doesn’t have to work so hard reading it on the page. I end my mini-lecture by saying practice is the blood, sweat, and tears that make the performance so sweet. I believe I’m making a solid and highly motivational argument. Ace’s eyes glaze over. All he hears is “Blah, blah, blah”.
I sigh again. I can’t help myself. “Do you like playing the bass?”
“Yeah,” he replies. I know he’s telling me the truth. When he does take this seriously, he creates low melodious tones that resonate through the house. He desperately wants to play the electric bass, too. We’ve promised he can start taking lessons in the summer as long as he makes a good effort with this classical instrument first. He’s not holding up his end of the deal. I get updates from his strings teacher at school after every lesson and they are getting progressively worse. Secretly, I feel like it’s my fault. I’ve been so preoccupied with my own school and work that I haven’t been paying attention to the quality of his practicing. He’s been flying under my radar unnoticed for too long and now things are falling apart. I’ve forgotten that even practice skills need to be taught. I shake my head as I think about this.
“What do you want?” I ask, looking directly into his hazel-colored eyes. I want him to say that he wants to be a great bass player.
“I want to go over to Alex’s house.” This matter-of-fact statement makes me laugh because I’m not expecting it. Ace isn’t smiling.
“Well, then, once more through this song and two times through the next two.” Ace bangs his bow on the bass for the second time and groans in frustration. I’m on the verge of losing my cool.
“If you don’t do what I’ve asked, you won’t being seeing Alex tonight at all.” I’m resorting to threats and I hate myself for it. Ace finishes practicing because he knows I mean it. It’s a painful five minutes. I’ve frustrated him to the point of complete apathy. The bass whines and moans through the notes. Was there even a melody in all that screeching? It’s so awful, I can’t even tell. Aaron resists any of my advice and argues with me when I tell him he’s playing a G instead of an F#. By now, everyone within earshot just wants this to end. When he’s finished, he rests the bass on its side, tosses the bow on the couch, and walks toward the front door.
“Same time tomorrow, then?” I say brightly. He doesn’t even turn around.
I throw myself back against the cushions and close my eyes. For all the joy and pleasure I get of out of parenting, at the moment I can’t decide if it’s worth going through these hassles. Does it really matter if Ace practices his bass regularly and well? Should I be creating situations like this that frustrate my children to the point of anger? Why am I constantly second guessing myself and my parenting choices? Once again I find myself marveling at the complexity of parenting tweens and teens, the layers of meaning that seem to permeate every encounter. The terrible twos were a piece of cake compared to this. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting work and I often don’t feel up to the challenge.
Teaching my children to strive for excellence is very important to me. I believe it honors God when we do our best regardless of the circumstances. When activities and responsibilities are fun or encompass favored skills, talents, and interests, excellence is easily achieved. The ballgame changes considerably, however, when the task at hand is boring, disagreeable, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. The interesting thing about this striving for excellence is that God makes no distinction between situations in which excellence comes easily and those in which is does not.
Colossians 3:23-24 says: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord your are serving.
Striving for excellence even in the difficult or boring things has been a very hard concept for my kids to grasp. Understanding and application is requiring significant amounts of failure which has been hard on all of us. With Ace, it’s his skill with the bass and his desire to rush through the things he hates (like homework) to get to the things he loves. For Buddy, it’s learning over and over that effort made towards assignments is directly related to his grades. Lovey, who is the farthest along in developing the character trait of excellence, still did poorly on a scale review in band recently because she didn’t feel the need to practice. Poor grades, weak performances, pitiful cleaning attempts – it really doesn’t matter what it is because it is all relevant. Every situation is an opportunity to practice the pursuit of excellence. The kids are slowly learning that if they slack off in the boring or hard parts, they have no hope of excelling when the rubber meets the road. There have been many scenes like the one Ace and I have just endured. I’m pretty sure there will be many more.
As I consider all of this, I recognize that I really cannot teach this life lesson to my kids. The learning comes from living out the choices they make, dealing with the consequences, and learning from mistakes. Trying to control their behavior too much just postpones the real learning opportunities and makes the consequences potentially more serious. My job as The Mom is to offer guidance and insight that encourages them to recognize the benefit and satisfaction of a job well done. As hard as this is for me, I need to let the mini-Whimseys fail if their choices and behaviors produce that outcome. Then, I’ll help them pick up the pieces and work through what went wrong – the failure needs to be experienced for real understanding to take place. For Ace, this means helping him develop good practice skills and setting the expectation of practicing 15 minutes everyday. Then, it is up to him. How he does during his lesson is directly related to the effort and commitment he chooses to apply.
The next couple of years flash before my eyes and I feel tired just thinking about it. More and bigger battles are yet to come; it is inevitable. No doubt, it would be much easier to allow the kids to wallow in the mediocrity of things poorly done. So. Much. Easier. I wouldn’t have to endure frustrating instrument practices, whine fests about cleaning bedrooms, and heated discussions about how poor grades couldn’t possibly be —–‘s fault even though —— never bothered to study. However, if I don’t encourage my kids to work toward a particular standard, I’ll be practicing my own version of parenting mediocrity.
My attitude and reactions during the difficult times have an impact on whether these struggles are helpful in moving the kids along the path to maturity or turn into stumbling blocks. God has blessed me with three incredibly bright and challenging children and I want to do this parenting job well. My goal is to do the very best I can to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to give life their best effort because they love God and want to give Him their finest. This means helping them develop the skills they need to do a great job, cheering them on, allowing them to suffer the consequences when they fall short, and being honest with my own shortcomings and failures. I “work for the Lord” when I diligently and lovingly support and guide my children in developing the desire for excellence (not perfection) in the nitty-gritty of their lives.
I open my eyes and lean forward to pick up a piece of sheet music that has drifted to the floor. For a brief second, I find myself wishing for the Terrible Twos again. The very worst of the toddler years is nothing compared to this parenting teens thing. The last fifteen minutes hasn’t been fun. But, I’ve already decided I’ll be doing it again. It’s my job and I will work at it with all my heart, as working for the Lord. I just pray that God will bless my imperfect efforts and grant me an extra measure of self-control because hitting my son on the noggin with his bow would be a definite hindrance to the cause….
Ace has come a very long way since I first wrote this post. This photo was taken at his Spring 2013 concert. The practicing has really paid off!
On a Tuesday evening in June of 2010, I walked into a nondescript classroom at a satellite campus of Albright College. The room was packed with about sixteen strangers, all looking as nervous as I felt. That fateful night we were bombarded with general information about the Accelerated Degree Program offered by Albright, and the Applied Psychology track in particular. I left four hours later completely overwhelmed but very excited. I was going to finish my college education approximately twenty-two years after I started it.
From the original group that met that night, eleven of us persevered through the program. Every Tuesday night for twenty-two months, we met for four hours to study subjects like Group Dynamics, Abnormal Psychology, and Statistics and Research Methods. Courses lasted five weeks and almost every one required hours of reading, lengthy papers, and presentations. My professors came from diverse backgrounds ranging from social psychology and business management to human resources and education. They educated, inspired, and befriended us. In the midst of the grueling schedule, my cohort became a stable group of friends who encouraged and supported one another.
I do not use the word grueling lightly. For my part, I often sweated blood completing assignments. Just for kicks, I tallied up some of the work I’ve done over the last two years to earn my degree. For my major area of study, I’ve written 51 papers (348 pages total with a mean of 6.82 pages per paper), given thirteen presentations that were approximately 15 minutes each – all accompanied by Powerpoint, and read at least 83 empirical psychological research studies. Many of the research papers I wrote were over 10 pages long and written in APA format. I can’t even begin to count the number of pages or chapters that I’ve slogged through (sometimes entire textbooks), or the number of statistical calculations I struggled to complete. My capstone project was a research study evaluating locus of control and level of education in relationship to adaptability to coping with stress. I created, designed, and executed the study with the help of my professor, Dr. Lora Kasselman. The survey alone included over sixty questions. Deciphering the results, figuring out the statistics, and writing the subsequent paper was a monumental task.
In addition to my major studies at Albright, I needed four general education courses to complete my degree. For English Comp, I studied, took, and passed a CLEP exam. The other three course requirements were fulfilled at the local community college. (I’m an adjunct professor there so my courses were free.) Two of the courses were accelerated with a heavy reading and writing load and two were Internet courses that required me to be on-line almost daily. Just for these three courses I wrote 11 papers with a total of 56 pages (averaging 5.0 pages per paper). I also did two presentations (with Powerpoint) and did a ton of writing for on-line discussion questions and group interactions. In my infinite wisdom (not!), I took the two accelerated courses during Statistics and Research Methods and the full semester Internet course while I was working on my capstone project.
Looking back, I’m amazed at what I completed. I honestly don’t know how I did it. No wonder it felt like I didn’t have a life apart from school. The reality, though, was that I did have a life – a busy, complicated one. So did everyone else in my cohort. We had marriages, children (four of which were born during the program), jobs, homes, and numerous other responsibilities. During the course of our education there were relationship issues, health problems, and job changes. We constantly struggled to balance the requirements of school with the other important areas of our lives. In this regard, I felt like I actually had it a bit easier than most of my fellow students because I worked part-time and my kids were mostly self-sufficient. Many people had full-time jobs, young children, or both which made a successful attempt at higher education even more difficult.
Personally, as a non-traditional student, I often felt scatter-brained, distracted, and unavailable to my family. Over the past two years the Whimsey clan has walked a very fine line between barely organized and total chaos. Many, many sacrifices were made. Through it all, my husband was my rock. He endured my whining, my moments of self-doubt, and the occasional temper tantrums with grace and humor. He was my editor, my voice of reason, my shoulder to cry on, and my financial backer. Saying I could not have done it without him is the understatement of the century. My kids routinely dealt with a dearth of clean clothes, an empty pantry, my absent-mindedness, and my almost constant involvement with the family computer. In return for my benign neglect, they have been my biggest cheerleaders. I survived and thrived because of the support of my family.
When I walked into that room the first night, I was already determined to do my very best. If I was going to commit to this endeavor, I was going for the gold. Those nearest and dearest to me would testify that I have poured myself into my classes and my assignments, always working for the goal of graduating with honors. Yesterday afternoon, my efforts were rewarded when I realized a long-held dream. I graduated from Albright College with highest honors and a Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology, wearing the cords of Psi Chi (International Honor Society of Psychology) and Alpha Sigma Lambda (National Honor Society for Non-Traditional Undergraduate Students). In all of my forty-three years on earth, graduating with such distinctions has been one of the most deeply satisfying moments of my life. It was also incredibly moving to graduate with a group of individuals who I know worked just as hard to realize their own dreams as I did to realize mine. With the bagpipe processional, the enthusiatic commencement speaker, and the cheering of family and friends, it was truly a day filled with happiness and celebration.
[ During the Processional ]
[ My exceptional (and goofy) cohort ]
[ Oh, Happy Day! ]
[ Our biggest sacrifice was our sanity ]
Earning my Bachelor’s Degree is one of the most difficult and challenging things I’ve ever done. The sweetness of reaching this goal is directly related to the depth of sacrifice (for myself and others), the cost (financial and otherwise), and the Herculean effort involved in the process. Had it been a less costly endeavor, it would not be so precious to me. God, in his infinite wisdom, knew exactly how I would feel at this moment in my life. He had King Solomon describe it in the Book of Proverbs:
A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul ~ Proverbs 13:19
At this moment, my soul is overflowing with sweetness….
April has turned out to be my least successful month so far in the Reading Challenge. I’m not surprised or the least bit discouraged, though. Writing some of the last papers of my undergraduate career, compiling two portfolios, and dissecting the data that comprises my capstone research project must be worthy reasons to slack off in the pleasure reading department. Graduation is looming large and I have a pile of books just waiting for that time when I’m my own person once again. I’m anticipating that I’ll make up lost ground pretty quickly in the next few months.
As April draws to a close, I’m only working on one very interesting and very short paper for an on-line Culture and the Arts class, and the completion of a very long and very involved research study requiring a twenty page paper (which is almost written) and a thirty minute presentation. The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to blind me. I couldn’t be happier! I also couldn’t be happier with the two books I did manage to finish in the midst of all that other madness this month.
- Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. At its core, Shadow if the Wind is an atmospheric coming of age tale about a motherless boy set in Barcelona, Spain after WWII. When Daniel is eleven years old, his father, a bookshop owner, takes him to a secret library containing rooms full of old and forgotten books. He is allowed to choose one book to keep and care for. The book he chooses, or rather the book that chooses him, is called Shadow of the Wind. The author, Julian Carax, is shrouded in a mystery that consumes Daniel and propels him on a life and death adventure. The story of Daniel, and consequently of Julian, is wrapped in an excellent depiction of Spain struggling to recover after WWII. Rich and detailed character development made the reading intriguing and pleasurable. Just one warning: Shadow of the Wind is rather dark and spooky, addressing heavy subjects like evil, regret, cowardice, and the consequences of beliefs and actions (well-intended or otherwise). It is an excellent and very satisfying read, but don’t expect too many warm fuzzies. (4.5/5 stars)
- An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. A quote from the prologue:
“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
From this staring point, Miss Taylor proposes that the whole of the natural world is The House of God, or Bethel (from the Hebrew). Altars exist anywhere in this world where we human beings have met or meet up with God. To the author, a Yale-trained Episcopal pastor turned world religions professor, God is “the Really Real” or “the More” that we humans are always searching for. In essence, the altars are places of relationship: with our own bodies and selves, with the natural world, with other human beings, and with God. These relationships and experiences draw us close to “the Really Real” God of the universe.
Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a single practice that helps us to recognize God in our everyday lives. Some of the most significant practices to me are Paying Attention (Reverence), Saying No (Sabbath), Being Present To God (Prayer), and Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction), but I could easily devote entire posts to many of the practices in the book. No practice takes special knowledge, skills or tools. They just require a focused awareness and a desire to recognize and experience God for who he is.
For anyone the least bit curious about a meaningful spiritual life beyond the four walls of the church, this is a fabulous book with real life applications. Very wise and sincere counsel is packaged in Ms. Taylor’s engaging and accessible writing style. I think An Altar in the World might be one of the best books I’ve read this year… (5/5 stars)