distraction and the discipline of presence

When my children were little, I noticed an interesting behavior pattern. If we started the day with TV, it was difficult to get them to take interest in anything else — including each other — for the rest of the day.

I hated this, because it meant I had to be on my A-game for the first hour after they woke up because asking and needing began the moment their eyes opened.

It was so very, very tempting to hush and soothe them with Little Bear while I changed diapers and got sippy cups — and it meant I could probably close my eyes for just a few more minutes and snuggle with whichever of the four climbed into my lap while the rest stayed contentedly mesmerized.

When the weather was good, the extra eyes-half-open doze through a few episodes wasn’t too detrimental to the flow of the day. They could always be diverted by dirt.

But if it was rainy, which of course it was 99% of the first year we lived in Tacoma, well, Game Over. It was either let them watch a video or referee endless fights over Lego pieces, Hotwheels, gummy fruits, and all the “he said I couldn’t do its” they could dole out (apparently, this is the worst thing brothers can say to each other; it either turns into a dare or a brawl).

TV was a buffer. A babysitter. A break. I’m not knocking it. I might owe some of my sanity to my children’s two-year-old vhs/dvd obsessions, which were, in order: 101 Dalmations, Toy Story 2The Iron Giant, and Finding Nemo. (My kids watched Finding Nemo a lot…lucky me, baby #4 turned out to be a terrible sleeper.)

What I’ve discovered, however, is that if we repeatedly soothe our kids with video in all its forms when they are small, they are very likely to soothe themselves with it when they are older.

When my oldest ones became teenagers, “Turn off the TV!” was my delightfully judgmental greeting to them the minute I walked in the door from work. I say it often. I say it to myself.

Train up a child…

A few generations of us have been doing this for a very long time now. Watching numbs us to exercise, chores, homework.  We turn on the TV for background noise, for something to talk about when the conversation lags.

And if we’ve been distracting ourselves, numbing ourselves, soothing ourselves for most of our lives with TV, Netflix, whatever, it’s just second nature to need it to unwind, to avoid loneliness, to avoid sorrow. Just like in the toddler years, distraction can be a welcome relief.

But if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s become a problem.

A few years ago, like practically everyone I know, I picked up the habit of scrolling through my smart phone if I woke up in the night and couldn’t sleep. Just a warmer and cozier way to do what I’d done since 1995 when the Internet made Craigslist my new best friend.

And streaming Netflix?

I streamed five seasons of Madmen in the wee hours of the morning for three weeks before my daughter went to college. Don’t judge me for it. I judge myself. Madmen had all the “charm” of midnight in a 70’s bowling alley — smoky, boozy, sexy. Way, way too much depravity for me. But, I do have a weakness for the well-written drama, and I was a copywriter on the creative team of a marketing agency, and Peggy’s copywriting woes in season 3… well, I could relate.

Distraction. I wanted distraction and entertainment so I didn’t have to feel all the feelings of letting go.

A few months later, a dear friend and I began to talk and read about giving God space in our minds and hearts and how sometimes that means feeling the feelings we’ve tried to numb and asking God to heal hurt and being patient while He does and not trying continuously to pour on our own temporary anesthetic. To ask God to awaken us to the present, to live in the present, and to take it as it is. To be okay being uncomfortable. To be attentive to our lives.

This is an exercise — a prayer — I have to come back to again and again because numbing is my default.

Awareness of God’s presence. A prayer I would BE present in my own life.  That days would not be for “getting through” but for real, active living.

And it’s a prayer best prayed the moment I wake up. A simple word: presence.

Because if I start the day catching up on the latest Downton Abbey, and then remember that when I asked a friend “what are we all going to do when this is over” his response was “Poldark,” I will have to check it out. And what do you know, the whole first season is free on Amazon Prime…

Game. Over.

(“Wow! Mom did all of our laundry! Thank you so much, mom!” Say the teenagers, usually required to do own laundry. Who knew we had a whole Poldark season’s worth of dirty clothes?)

* * * * *

Don’t you envy people who live off the grid? Don’t you think, “If I could just toss all my electronics in a landfill I’d be happier”?

I kind of do.

But I wonder…

Would we just fill our minds with something else? With novels? With nature? (Sign. Me. Up.)

I think we would.

Because the adversary is bent on distraction, and it would still take discipline to open my eyes and see.

I need that discipline.

* * * * *

P.S. If Pixar’s Wall-E (oh the irony) was too subtle a critique on distraction, consider reading Neil Postman’s book, written in 1985, entitled Amusing Ourselves to DeathTo be honest, it’s too much for me and makes me feel trapped in the Matrix. I prefer Walden because it just seems easier to flee. But that’s not 21st century reality. Somehow, we have to reclaim our lives from distraction right where we are.

Here’s a little taste of Neil (remember, this was written long before we could carry our entertainment in the palm of our hands):

“The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about four and a half hours a day, every day (by age sixty-five, a person will have spent twelve uninterrupted years in front of the TV).”

“…No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are… This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

“It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

“People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985

dear mom who is trying to do everything right

Somewhere in that picture, there’s a baby.

She’s wearing her “in case the ultra-sound was wrong” turned “emergency backup clothes for when I don’t get out to the shared laundry” blue long johns. (It was a good thing I had several back ups.)

I put this picture in her baby book, captioning it: Mommy was afraid she’d make a mistake! and laughing at myself a little. I had just had baby number three when I wrote it — bathing a baby wasn’t such a big deal anymore.

But the first bath? I remember reading the list in the What to Expect Book carefully and following every detail. Like I was making a lemon meringue pie. Or replacing the water pump in a car. I had never washed a newborn before! I needed detailed instructions. And when I took a step back to see what the supply list looked like in real life, well, I had to take a picture.

But it was only the beginning of trying to do it all right: crying it out, pacifiers, potty training . . .

It’s funny, looking back . . . Our first three babies each came home with a different instruction for how to lay them in their crib. Side, tummy, back . . . and car seats changed from front to rear facing. It was a struggle to keep up with the latest thing that’s best for your baby. I didn’t always. I couldn’t.

Twenty years have passed since that first baby bath. And I’ve made more mistakes in parenting than 25 year old me would care to know. She would judge me. Me and my dirty van and my belly fat. Because she was determined to get it as right as possible.

I’ve had to learn to relax a little and be okay with some imperfection. I mean, I was the mom with the birthday themes you couldn’t buy party goods for at Party City — making fancy cakes and invitations. And look at me now — I sent a cake mix, cup cake liners and candles to my college girl to help celebrate her 20th birthday and didn’t even think about frosting til I walked out of the post office.

But I have to be honest with you, every now and then an accusing voice says you did it all wrong, it’s because you didn’t ____  and other sorts of things accusing voices say.

So I listen for a minute, or a while, or a season, and try and separate the truth from the lies. And then I have to tell myself some truth: So many of the things we think are important for our kids just aren’t.

Sleeping all night by three months old? Not necessary.

Preschool? Not necessary. (Unless it’s for mom’s sanity.)

Having their own room? Not necessary.

A smart phone? Not necessary.

How do I know these things? Because none of them were a big deal until our lifetime.

Babies were born and bathed for generation upon generation without What to Expect. And babies slept next to mom for warmth and protection and were probably nursed back to sleep so they didn’t wake pa and the other kids up before morning chores. And in some states, still, kids aren’t required to be formally educated until age 8 — long past pre-school.

Oh, mom trying to do everything right, do you love your children with your whole life? Then you already are doing it more right than you know. Forget the trappings of baby and childhood that are all the rage today and gone tomorrow. Think of what lasts. It’s not the latest must-have your child needs. It’s you.

You are showing your child God’s love through every bath you give, every meal you make, every nose you wipe, every dream you encourage, every time you drop them off or pick them up when it’s totally inconvenient.

And in the middle of all that business of life, you are going to make mistakes.

But that love you have for your child, that sacrificial love, is going to carry you and that child through all the mistakes you are going to make — and all the mistakes that child is going to make because she’s not perfect either. Love, dear mom, covers a multitude of sins.* 

So why do we stay up so late then, and get up so early and wear ourselves thin and ragged?

Sometimes it’s love, yes. But I wonder sometimes if it’s because we’re trying so very, very hard to do it all just exactly right. And perfectionism doesn’t translate so well into love.

Love your children with you today. Love them even if it gets really messy and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

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*1 Peter 4:8

 

 

dear mom who feels the darkness

It has not been a quiet week in our town.

Poulsbo, Washington sits on Liberty Bay 18 miles across the Puget Sound from Seattle. Our “Little Norway”is full of Scandinavian charm and actual Scandinavians.

On a clear day from various hills around town you can see the Olympic Mountains to the west and Mt. Ranier to the southeast. Woods hide flaws here. And tides mark time.

But this week, our hearts are raw from shock, fear, alarm, and now grief over yet another young person in our little town overcome by darkness.

As parents, we are shaken, and moved to pray deeply, from broken hearts, for our kids. To love them more clearly, more vocally. To give them hope that darkness passes.

Honestly, sometimes, it feels like it never will. The world outside is war, and disease, and death. And school is fear. And tragedy hits home.

Sometimes, it feels foolish to hope. Every day the headlines are worse.

They see it, too. They know. They can count. One every year, my son said.

* * * * *

Dear mom who feels the darkness,

I feel it, too. So heavy. A darkness consuming days, raining sorrow.

Inescapable dread, eclipsing joy.

It’s so hard to see in the dark. My eyes are old. And tired of seeing pain. I bet yours are, too.

But night does not last forever.

This is a promise we can trust. We have evidence every day as night passes into dawn.

Tell your children you love them and pray they will hear and embrace the truth that God loves them and has a purpose for their lives.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord . . . Jeremiah 29:11-14

And tell stories of when you were nearly overcome by darkness, but you reached out to God for help and he helped you even when the situation looked impossible.

“Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful . . . . the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic.” G.K. Chesterton

And pray always, dear mom who feels the darkness, because you are fighting a spiritual battle for your children’s lives.

* * * * *

The silver rectangle in my hand with the cut out flower was a gift from a teacher for working in my youngest son’s kindergarten classroom. She gave it to me for Christmas just weeks after my husband lost his job and we lost our home. It was the darkest time of my life.

Hope was the thing I needed most desperately. I needed to believe God had a future for me, for Dave, and for our family.

And He did.

But I could not see any of it for a very long time. Not just days, but weeks and months.

The walk through darkness does not have to end in despair. Cling to hope and pray through til the light dawns again.

May Your unfailing love be with us Lord, even as we put our hope in You. Psalm 33:22

* * * * *

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dear mama who worries

Dear mama who worries,

I will admit it. I worry all year long. September to June. You, too?

I schooled, and home schooled and schooled again through various moves in the early days of my children’s education. But in the summer of 2006, I was too overwhelmed by all that was going on in our home to take on another year. My boys had so much energy. And I was struggling to get myself out of the house, let alone out of bed.

I needed help. So we sent our middle boys to school.

Just four weeks later, on October 2, I wanted to pull them out forever.

My heart has never stopped aching since that day. Maybe yours hasn’t either.

On that day, I learned that if evil can find it’s way into an Amish school, evil can find children anywhere. And the ache deepens day after day as I understand more fully, over years and releasing just  what that means.

No matter how hard I try to protect my child from harm, I can’t be there every moment. And even if I was? I am not a super hero. I’m not even an armed guard.

The ache is a longing now. A longing for things to be set to right. For wickedness to end.

* * * * *

It is an act of faith to let our children out the door every morning.

And every morning, we commit our precious children here and far into God’s care. Whether they are 5 or 11 or 14 or 20 or . . .

And after every tragedy, whether in a school, a theater, or mall, or car, there is a time of fear and we face the temptation to pull them in close and never let them leave our side ever again. Not ever.

I think every mama on this Monday morning will say a prayer. Whether she believes in God or not. Because someone has to watch them. Someone, please.

Watch over my babies. Keep them safe. Protect them from evil. 

Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

* * * * *

I happened on a word of comfort tonight . . .

from a woman who reminded me that we begin to worry for our children before they ever leave our body.

I am a woman of prayer. It sounds bold-faced to write it down, but there it is. I write it anyway. Prayer comes easily to my spirit – perhaps it is because a former pastor of ours once told us that the same part of us that worries is the part of us that prays. I knew I could worry constantly, so that meant I could pray constantly. — Sarah Bessey

We carry our babies next to our hearts. We love them deep inside before we ever see them.

* * * * *

The world is broken, but evil is no part of God. And He sends His angels to protect. At every moment, they fight. And we pray

a Psalm of protection for our children . . .

Long ago, my favorite writer wrote a song for the children in his care:

This I declare about the Lord:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
He is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday . . . .
For he will order his angels
to protect you wherever you go.
They will hold you up with their hands
so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
You will trample upon lions and cobras;
you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet!
The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me.
I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer;
I will be with them in trouble.
I will rescue and honor them.
I will reward them with a long life
and give them my salvation.

Psalm 91, a song of Moses

Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

* * * * *

Dear mama who worries, I do, too.

But today can we breathe those worries into prayers? All day long.

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