of spiders and scariness (a pre-Halloween challenge)

photo credit Rebecca Gant. This was in her garden. Which is why I will not be.

A couple of years ago, I discovered trail running.

I love running in nature, and I love autumn, and I am thrilled to be living in a part of the country that offers both, and for months at a time.

You take the good with the bad, though.  And you could certainly argue that there is something bad about fall around here.

A dangly, sticky, creepy, crawly, hangy, sneaky, and sometimes hairy thing.

Spiders.

I have lived in the Missouri river valley for a total of 12 years. I grew up, on the other hand, at 6200 feet, and the local fauna, while impressive in their own right, were much less horrifying. Living here, I have seen creatures that would have sent my Wyoming schoolchild self running into . . . well, Nebraska.

Except that I would run north. Because: spiders.

I have made some progress around my phobia. I don’t have actual proof for you, because have spent most of the last decade grabbing a projectile rather than a camera, but I have encountered orb weavers and crab spiders, wolf spiders and enough recluses to become thoroughly bored of them. And also, jumping spiders (my least favorite because, well, they jump. And so will you. It is wrong.)

And I have survived them all.

I have outlived them, in fact.

Which brings us back to this fall. Where running meets homeschooling, in that a couple of times each week, my older son and I take to the trails while Silas is at preschool.

don’t be fooled by the civilized-looking trail marker. anything could happen in here, people. and I will probably scream when it does.

There is a story here.  It happened a couple of weeks ago on one of those amazing crisp-air, blue-sky mornings that only fall can offer.

I was excited to reach the first fork in the path so I could run a few circuits of the white trail. Soeren was excited to examine every object in front of him. And that was fortunate, because it is how I avoided stepping on what Soeren identified as The Second Largest Spider I Have Ever Seen. (It is not, I will note, the second-largest spider I have ever seen. I spent part of a summer in Costa Rica, which is a country populated by people who appear to be peaceful, yet who will reliably launch a full-scale military assault against a two-inch gecko in a shower stall. Those same people also appear to be rational, yet not one of them batted an eye while tarantulas the size of salad plates claim space on the sidewalks at sundown. Costa Rica is a beautiful and worthwhile travel destination . . . and it’s the “Switzerland of Central America” only in the way that Tim Burton’s land of Halloween was the true home of Santa Claus.)

While probably not a tarantula, Soeren’s spider was, if you are someone with misgivings about arachnids, rather heinous. Furry. Marked with dramatic lines and swirls. Camouflaged almost perfectly in the dappled sunlight of the leaf-lined trail. And large enough to neatly cover the top of my shoe. Had it walked onto my shoe. Which it did not.

[Makes the sign of the cross before continuing to type]

I offer, as evidence of my progress, my ability to make comments appropriate for a parent of a science-loving child, and for a minister-in-training who is mindful of the Interdependent Web of Which We Are All a Part.

It is true, however, that I did this while backing away slowly.  Subsequent conversation as follows:

Soeren: You don’t like him, do you?

Me: I like him fine. Over there.

Soeren: I don’t think he’s going to hurt you.

Me: I don’t think he’s going to hurt me, either.

Soeren: You’re not even standing on the trail anymore.

Me: Yikes! I mean . . . you’re right.

Sooooo. [deep breath.] I’m gonna run now.

Soeren: I’m gonna stay here and investigate.

Me: Ooohkay.

There are some things that I would like you to know before I tell you the next part of this story: I have been terrified of spiders for most of my life. I have spent parts of nights awake after seeing one in my room, afraid to close my eyes in case it walked on me. I finally learned to kill them on sight, because this at least was preferable to wondering where the object of my fears was at any given moment. I once launched a full-on administrative (and pesticidal) offensive, when volunteering in an old house that was truly overrun with recluses. And until the house in which we live now, I bug bombed every space I ever inhabited before moving in—and not for the bugs. For the spiders.

I am, to put it mildly, an unlikely candidate for arachnid coexistence.

And yet, at first grudgingly, and then in a spirit of détente, and finally with an open curiosity that astonishes those who love me (and also, somewhat freaks them out), the truth is that things have changed.

I wrote about the beginnings of this, from a different angle, a couple of years ago. I’m as surprised as anyone, but it turns out that the things I was saying to Silas back then were not just lip service.

I really do think that spider is of God, as I am. And once I realized that I couldn’t rationally refuse to acknowledge this, I also could not help but act differently. And then, to think and feel differently.

Results, thus far:

*I left a spindly little spider in her tiny web in the far corner of my room. She never bothered me, nor, to my knowledge, I her. Eventually, she disappeared. I don’t worry about it; I wish her well.

*I considered the many, many recluses scrabbling around in the night in an old house where people slept on pallets on the floor, and weighed that frightening number of spiders (xxxx?) against the number of people there who were ever bitten (0).

*And just the other day, Silas came running in from the yard to bring me to see a black spider the size of a small hamster sunning himself on our doormat. We counted his eyes, declined to invite him inside, and speculated, later, on where he might have gone.

I wouldn’t say that arachnidae and I are friends, exactly, or even allies . . . but I’m working on something like appreciation. And leading the way has been curiosity. With respect trailing right behind.

And so, I am sad to tell you what happened next. Which is this: The experience of nearly stepping on the camouflaged spider fresh in my mind, I headed down the trail. I made the turn. I leaped over the muddy area separating the trailhead from the uphill climb onto the ridge. I tucked my chin. I watched my feet.

I ran full-body into a large web extending between two trees.

Now, perspective: I run a lot, which means I actually run through webs, or parts of them, very frequently. And occasionally, I even end up with an actual spider on me, too (this is actually rarer than you might think—orb weavers are extraordinarily canny about getting out of the way when something big trip over their guide threads). In those moments, that spider is at least as eager to be off of my person as I am to remove it; orb weavers are much, much smaller than their webs would lead you to believe. Also, they are in no way dangerous.

Orb Weaver Spider

I know all of this. I know it in my head. Sometimes I know it at a gut level, too.

But on this day, friends, I utterly lost my shit.

I ran through that web and within one second, I had thrown my phone, screamed bloody murder, smacked myself upside the head, and knocked my sunglasses so far into the brush that I thought I’d never find them. I DID never find them. Soeren found them. I think it’s because he’s closer to the ground. Or perhaps it was because Soeren wasn’t searching while simultaneously hyperventilating and clutching at the air near his head and face.

And since that morning, I’ve been doing some thinking. About where fears become phobias, and memories become trauma, and also, about how kneejerk impulses might become immediate, unreflective actions. The last time I played Wii Fit it suggested that my reaction time is not so great. But friends, I know better. I may not be able to react intentionally or constructively as soon as I would like, but I can definitely react quickly.

In fact, I am pretty sure we all can—even those of us who never can make it down the fake ski slope or head the soccer ball can move effortlessly to defend ourselves from perceived mortal threat.

This is simply a human reality, right? Soeren told me the other day that he wishes he had more instincts. Sometimes I wish I had fewer, or different ones, at least.

I’m going to preach about this soon . . . the sermon’s called Something Wicked, and before I deliver it, I’m going to lead the congregation in an exercise: assembling our own personal monster.

I doubt that monster will look like a spider, but for those of us for whom it might, I also offer an alternate possibility:

Someone I know—a colleague—took a walk.

Through a graveyard.

At midnight.

Speaking of assembling monsters—how many things might we fear to meet in this situation? How many of those fears might even feel perfectly logical?

Personally, I don’t need come up with any additional answers, because what Lisa actually met in that graveyard just happened to be none other than a spider. And its web.  Which she walked through, in the dark, face first.

And in the end, her glasses looked like this:

photo credit (and, let's be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

photo credit (and, let’s be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

Which I can report because those glasses were not thrown into the bushes. Rather, they were held carefully, with honor for the magic of the evening and respect for a weaver whose work was inadvertently destroyed.

I have been thinking about this–was thinking about it even, as I calmed my breathing and removed the stray web pieces from my forehead.  And I wonder: how might I walk with such wonder and poise, even through the scary places?

How, in fact, might we all?

I have a theory . . . let’s call it a sneaking suspicion . . . that calmly confronting our fears might be a skill worth practicing.  In our congregations.  Where the spiders have different names, and are sometimes shaped more like elephants.

And I think we have the tools to do it.

Let’s talk more about this here.  But first: let’s do it in person–Kansas City, October 5th, 11:15 a.m.

See you at #allsoulsKC.  With . . . just maybe . . . Something Wicked.

j

I did not fight the law . . . and we all win

I’ve been on the fence about sharing this story–where, and how, and if.

It’s not really an impression I want to leave you with, and it’s so simple to explain that I’m taking Soeren to visit my grandmother this week. And even if I tell you more of the truth, the easy thing is to tell it funny.

I can tell you about our late departure from Lawrence on an afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. I can describe trying to make it all the way to Cheyenne to avoid the hell that is a hotel room in western Kansas with Si and Ren. I can tell you about the dry pavement, the absence of anyone else even on the road, the clear, starry night. I can share that we were making excellent time to Wyoming, and that we shared a laugh with a sheriff who seemed truly reluctant to write me a ticket . . . but then it turned out my driver’s license was back home in Lawrence, sitting in the center console of my car (we drove Craig’s.)

Not laughing? I can’t bring myself to make the jokes any more.  I also could not look myself in the eye if I contested this ticket.

Friends, I was going 94 miles an hour. My husband was in the passenger seat. Our two sleeping children were in the back.

The truth is, speeding is my vice. I never thought of it this way . . . I never thought of it much at all, actually, except occasionally to complain about the unreasonable-seeming speed limits on various roads. I have places to be, you see. And I could get there so much FASTER without these inconvenient restrictions. And yes, it’s expensive. But mostly only if you get caught.

In the meantime, my tendency to speed has caused familial concern and quips (Craig has joked that my title upon ordination should actually be “Reverend Leadfoot”)–but nothing has happened to convince me that I should observe posted speed limits.  In fact, I’m not sure this ticket would have either.  Not for the long term.

And then, in passing on FB, I saw this clip in my newsfeed a few weeks ago. I’m not sure which of you shared it; it doesn’t matter. I knew just reading the tag line that it was for me.   I don’t mean that you particularly intended for me to see it.  I mean that the universe did.

The spot hit home, and devastatingly, as I knew from the second I saw it that it would.  In fact, I read an article about the PSA series and what they were trying to accomplish with it before I watched the clip. Because I was stalling. Because I didn’t want to see.

Once I did watch, I knew that change was coming. (I hope you’ll watch it, too; it’s embedded below this post.  But in case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll give you what you need to know.  It’s not graphic at all, and yet is utterly soul-searing.  It’s two drivers.  One is speeding.  The other has made a momentary mistake of judgment.  They are suddenly standing outside of their cars, talking.  Trying to negotiate.  Trying to change things.  But it’s just too late.  There is a child, about Soeren’s age, in the back of one of the cars . . . we watch his face, and his father’s, as everyone realizes that there is nothing to be done at this pont.  The take home message is that if you can’t find a reason in your own driving, in your own family, to slow down, then perhaps what will register is that sometimes other people make mistakes.)

I’ve spent the intervening weeks in Chicago, not driving, and that has given me some time and space to think.

For instance, I have thought–believe me–of calling Kit Carson County to plead my case. I’m a mom of two, driving 400 miles into a snowstorm to appear in court for a speeding ticket–is there any possibility of a diversion? I’d laugh, apologize, ask for understanding and a larger fine.

It might be successful. I don’t know . And I won’t know. I am not going to do it.

Instead, we went this morning to rent a car with 4-wheel drive. The “midsize SUV” I reserved turned out to be a Suburban XL, in black. We are not making this easy.

I realize that this may not seem like much of a story for a post this dramatic. I was driving really fast and . . . someone told me to stop it.

Herein lies the grace, however–and it’s that grace, that possibility of a resurrected future, the kind you get to claim BEFORE you lose it–that leads me to share this with you. I am driving to Colorado for me. But I am telling this story for you. I made a mistake, in a larger pattern of mistaken thinking, and NOTHING HAPPENED. Thank you, God, for this blessing and this opportunity.

I don’t believe in penance, but I do believe in learning through action. That means we become different by being differently in our spaces, relationships, and routines.

Know, then, that if you see a large black SUV on I-70 today driving slowly and officially, it’s not the secret service. It’s me, practicing skills to keep my kids safe . . . and yours, too.

As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

climb-own-risk

Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

rocks

As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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For my dad, on Father’s Day

turtle rock trail, Vedauwoo

Walk softly, like the Indians.  Take long strides. 

This is lichen.  That’s a beaver dam.  These are brook trout.  Rainbow trout.  Walleye.

This grass has roots you can eat.  Don’t touch those mushrooms.  Don’t eat these berries.  Don’t drink this water.

This is a handhold.  This is a foothold.  These roots will hold your weight; those won’t.  Pick a spot when you jump.  Use your knees when you land.  Find a cave in a thunderstorm.

This is a starling, a meadowlark, a hawk, an eagle.  This is a nest.  This is why you don’t touch it.

This is Saratoga.  This is Thermopolis. Evanston.  Laramie.  This is where you are from.

Those are thistles.  Those are stickbugs.  Here are moths . . . here are hundreds and hundreds of moths.  This is a vacuum.  This is your ceiling, safe again.

This is your grandmother, your great grandmother, your grandfather, your great grandfather.  These are my cousins.  These are your cousins.  These are the people who love you.

This is a mountain.  This is the prairie.  This is new snow, chilly air, bright sunlight.  This is what belongs to all of us.

Walk softly; take long strides.  This is who you are.

 j

photo-13 - Version 2

parenting and other cruelties

It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway.  His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps.  He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end.  He disappears.  Si walks away from me, without looking back.  And then he is gone.

And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind.  I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.

And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins.  He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear.  Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!  

That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel.  And so, this was for show.  Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing.  We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.

Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent.  Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention.  The weight, the risk, the fear.  Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.

Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time.  The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right.  I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.

And it’s not just my kids.  Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet.  Save Things.  And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.

Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town.  Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky.  Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them.  Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.

He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground.   He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.

Honestly, he seemed untroubled.  At the very least, he was not visibly panicked.  That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us.  He was beautiful.  He was hurt or sick.  He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain.  Surely I should do something?  I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that.  He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.

I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window.  I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else.  I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird.  I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night.  And then I stood up and walked away.  I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*

I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again.  I haven’t looked for him, either.  I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.

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It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging.  The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green.  These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.

I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it.  They are heartbreaking, a bit.  A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it.  Except that here it has no chance.  This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot.  And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something.  Fix it.

I don’t, though.  I just feel.  I just think.  My grief is not for these trees.

There is no way around it, and also no way through.  I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent.  Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me.  I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.

And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom.  In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be.  To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.

I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud.  I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.

I’m trying to understand.

j

 

my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:

 

In these moments

when what we perceive most acutely

is our own smallness,

when we cling to things we cannot keep

as we are called to love what cannot stay

 

Comfort us as we grieve our failures,

Our incapability, our losses.  

Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,

our children

not as something of or belonging to us,

but as they are . . . as themselves.  

 

And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,

that we may take and recognize our joy

as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.

 

Amen.


*Ok, I looked back once.  I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore.  So I waited a minute.  And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.  

the interdependent web(s in our garage)

The other day as I buckled Si into his carseat, he declared, “I like ‘pidahs!” This surprised me; of late, anything that evokes a mere suggestion of 8 legs or skittery movement–things that could represent “spider” only to my son and to Joan Miró–tends to elicit screams and frantic hops from my toddler.

I accept as part of my daily ration of mommy guilt that I somehow Did This.  Confined spaces, public speaking, and spiders; I regard these things with equal parts horror and awe, and in the last example I can only assume I have transmitted those feelings to my child.  In fact, spiders frighten me so much that I have overcome my aversion to killing them. Psychologically, it feels much, much worse to have seen one and wonder where it has gone (and when it might come back to crawl on me) than to simply grab a tissue, take a deep breath and have done with it.  In my semi-conscious worldview, spiders are to be respected but never trusted, and must die or accept voluntary repatriation to the outside if I see them.  So, perhaps it should not have come as a shock that the next statement out of Si’s mouth was, “I like to ‘mash them and ‘tomp on them.”

It was a surprise, though–the cavalier brutality of preschoolers (or is it that of little boys?) always is.  I climbed plenty of trees growing up, but I also liked dresses and dolls and playing quietly with my sister; my two boys, despite my having carried and birthed them and regarded them each day in wonder, remain something entirely Other.  Parenting them is not unlike a hostile takeover: I look around what formerly was simply my house–my life–and discover that things have been retitled and repurposed, as have I.  And I continue to wait for the inevitable adjustment: does their play need to be this wild?  Must their voices be so loud?  Need my every possession become a direct object of verbs so active I worry that our walls may not survive them?  They will change, or I will, or we will continue our mutual wearing-down of one another until college (them) or medication (me), or both.  In the meantime, they–particularly my younger son–manifest a delight in destruction that is a bit unsettling.

Where those destructive urges are applied to other living things, I feel I must draw a line, one that takes into account not just behavior, but ethics.  And sometimes–now I wonder just how often–I use off-the-shelf Parent Theology to do it.  “Are you taking good care of God’s creatures?” I ask my two-year-old.  I am not sure how it started, but I continue to ask this particular question in large part because it’s highly effective.  Five-year-old Ren invariably looks abashed and then calibrates his movements oh-so-carefully, lest he further disturb part of the Lord’s menagerie.  (I have to say, I love this reaction.  Actual worry about other living things, whether it’s motivated by concern for the creatures’ lives or out of fear that God might be looking down and frowning, seems to lessen the odds that the children are on the road to sociopathy.  Which . . . well . . . sometimes we wonder.)  There are evidently limits to the question’s power, however.  My wily toddler regards me seriously for a moment, then announces, “Imma tell God not to put ‘pidahs in our garage!”

Fair enough.  And this statement addresses a conflict that I have a hard time reconciling myself: how should we deal with the place where my space and someone (something) else’s overlap?   As Unitarians, we believe in a just allocation of resources, which we sometimes explain to our children as, “one for you, and one for me.”  When we’re talking about people and cans of food, this makes perfect sense.  When we’re talking about my house and the ravenous colony of sugar ants that invades it every spring, it makes no sense at all . . . except that, sometimes, I still feel like it should.  I put off calling the exterminators until everything sweet has been thrown away or banished to the freezer, and when Dmitri finally comes, I feel terrible.  “You have to get the eggs,” he explains.  He has a friendly smile, a slight accent, and two kids my own children’s age, and I forget for a moment that we are talking about poisoning things.  “We’ll just spray the colonies under the downspouts–they won’t be able to save the eggs.”  Eggs?  They’re going to try in vain to save their eggs?  I must look horrified; Dmitri puts a hand on my arm and says, “You do not have to give to them the house.  They have other places to be living.  This is yours.”

And so it is.  And sometimes maintaining this place of ours involves poisoning other living things.  (Of course, this is true, and it’s not limited to ants and the clear chain of events between my calling the exterminator and their deaths–how many of the things we use, enjoy, or do in and around our home involve a cost in lives of other creatures?)  That I know this and sometimes think about it doesn’t mean that I believe we indeed ought to give our house to the ants.  Nor are we vegetarians, and there is plenty in our home that is neither free-trade nor fair-trade, possibly in the most damaging sense of that phrase.  We accept tradeoffs each day, and we try to educate ourselves and to do better when we know better.  Thinking about the ants, however, brings an awareness that it’s hard to answer my children’s questions around the choices that we make in this area while simultaneously trying to instill in them a code of ethics based on concern for others, and for the interdependent web of all life (that would be UU principle number 7, for those following along at home).

The larger problem then, where moralizing to my offspring is concerned, is that this “caring for God’s creatures” standard is either arbitrarily applied or impossible to meet.  It’s easy enough to trot it out when I feel concerned by my children’s behavior, but try living by it yourself.  Ren has his own version of the question, though his tends to be voiced as an exclamation: “That was a LIVING. THING!”  This phrase–generally howled by a small person laid prostrate at the murder of one or more members of phylum Arthropoda–is the bane of Montessori parents everywhere.  I mean, we love that they teach respect for all living things–but do we really have to mean “all?”  Literally, all of them?  What would that sort of respect look like?  And how do we balance it with the other realities of our lives, for example the desire to eat bananas unsullied by fruit fly eggs or to shower in the basement bathroom without reenacting scenes from Arachnophobia?

Clearly, I do not have answers for these questions.  For the time being, we do the best we can in each moment to reason clearly, and to talk with Si and Ren in a way that makes our reasoning plain.  Or we do, sometimes.  In other moments, it seems so much simpler to borrow the voice of God and issue proclamations–Take Care of My Creatures–that are rule and explanation both.

Perhaps our real religious commitment is not to reach a particular conclusion about ants or spiders, but to continue to wrestle with the questions, and to do it in front of and alongside our children.  This is a struggle, to be sure, but perhaps in our children themselves we have the best equipment possible.  Mine can spot spiderwebs, and hypocrisy, from 100 paces.