Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Could You Please Not Look at Me Like That?


Faces. Toys with faces. That's where the trouble starts. I have always had a serious issue with thinning out (code for discarding) our children's old, broken, or outgrown toys. My biggest struggle has been with the toys that look back at me while I'm dropping or stuffing them into an oversized plastic trash bag.

My wife, God bless her, can sweep through a stash of treasured toys with the compassion of an industrial wet/vac. She has the gift of seeing plastic, cardboard and paint where I see Woody, Percy and Po. She does not understand my struggle. For her, my pain is simply a ploy to put off cleaning the over crowded playroom. I don't agree, but I do have to consider that some truth might lurk within her assessment. I've learned to re-listen to my wife's "input," and have discovered much. That's one of the gifts of our sacrament.

It is true, cleaning out the playroom, whose rug has not been sighted since Christmas vacation, is not my first pick for quality together-time. But it is a job that needs doing. Our children have never been the kids who get too many toys. They basically wait for Christmas or their birthdays. Aside from that, it's the little semi toys that come with a kids meal, or the take homes from their friends birthday parties. Throw into that mix the occasional grand prize stuffed animal gleaned from "the Claw." But our eldest is 10 and the youngest is nearing 8. Toys add up. They accumulate. They cluster and pile. They gather in drawers labeled "lined paper." They hide down couch cushions, and the stuffed variety especially like to assemble on bunk beds and along playroom shelves. So, enjoy the task or not, I agree that it needs to be done. It's kind of like thinning out deer. Someone has to do it. But when it comes to bagging my quota of tossed away toys, it truly is a trial for me. Let me present my case.

First, the faces really do bother me. Specifically, the stuffed animals and the action figures (a plastic Calliou or Boots may not technically qualify as an action figure, but for brevity's sake I will stand them alongside one legged Spiderman and Gaston.) As a Dad, I have immersed myself into my children's world, gone along on the ride with them. I watched the Wiggles with them. I learned the songs and danced the dances with them. I collected Blues Clues and pretended not to guess until the third clue with them. Their make-believe friends became my friends. As my kids moved from rug crawlers to two wheel bike riders, I delighted in their delight. I learned to squint and see stars instead of street lights. My kids taught me wonder again, and how to lean just enough into imagination to see life in a cloth face. So, it hurts a little to shove Tommy Pickles into a trash bag. I feel a little guilty watching one of the Country Bears tumble into the abyss of crumpled drawings and broken crayons. (Don't even get me started on drawings - another post.) The faces wear human expressions, and more than that, they were important to my kids, and even though they are now outgrown, some of them still are important to them. Why else do we always schedule the toy purges for times when the kids are not around?

Second, I have a well exercised imagination. I am very much to blame for giving some of the life to these "items." It has become a bedtime tradition with my daughters for the assortment of stuffed kittens, monkeys, baby dolls, and pokemen to come to life in the land of blankets. The drill goes like this: Dad, while tucking them in, drifts suddenly to sleep, which is the queue for whichever stuffed creatures are nearby to come to life and spontaneously partake in a mostly whispering, sometimes giggling, and sometimes (too loud) laughing "playdate." The girls have become very creative and are usually ready with themes, such as Animal Olympics, Animal Idol, Hide & Seek or just random silliness. I can't be too certain. As I've said, I'm already asleep when things kick off.

With my son it has always been all about the action. Heroes and villains, battles and quests - even in blanket land. We would begin by choosing teams, playground style. Certain characters were "protected" from my draft. I would never even think about picking Robin, Knuckles, or Optimus Prime. Still, He-Man, Donatello, and a couple of Bat Men would suffice. It really didn't matter who I picked anyway. His side always won. Eventually.

Imagination, like a muscle, gains strength the more it is used. The problem is, the same child-like "eye" that sees the kitten in the cotton also hears a plaintive "meow" as said feline is bagged away.

The third thing is probably the most telling. The passing of toys is a graphic reminder of the passage of time. When my son was two, blue was his favorite color. He had a non poseable, cape-less Superman that he carried everywhere. Superman had a bald spot on the back of his head from my son's thumb. Within a year it was Thomas the Tank Engine. Still blue. Cooler toy. More friends and accessories. Robin followed, with a color preference change to red. Next came Raphael, the red bandanna'd Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (at least he had an Angel's name), then Optimus Prime, and then Knuckles from Sonic. Each of these favorite toys represents at least a year in my son's life. Learning to walk. Loosing the first tooth. Starting Kindergarten. I used to lie close to his sleeping two year old face and ask God, "Can I get a thousand years of this moment in heaven." I made the same request when he was three. And four. And so on. I am so blessed that God has lent these three young souls to my wife and I. That He has loved us into a family. As a dad I am humbled and proud to watch them become: my son, the soccer playing graphic artist with an eye on his sister's guitar; my eldest daughter, who has already written a song on her little sister's guitar (and performed it publicly twice, with her sister); and the youngest, who seems to be in the biggest hurry to move forward, to keep up with her older siblings, and whenever possible, to pass them.

I love this day, where we are as a family now, and I can't wait to discover the road ahead with them. I pray it is an eternal road. But even now, a certain toy can make me ache for the younger them, and remind me just how fast this temporal life plays out. And so, things become symbols, and symbols become metaphorically weighted and harder to throw out.

I know my wife will understand when she reads this. And then she'll say get over it and hand me another bag. She's right. They are just toys. Material things which will pass and be replaced. But I know she feels it too. Her weakness is clothing, but she has a solution. When she discards their old play clothes, she cuts a swath of material from it first and keeps it. She is planning on making a quilt at some point down the line. Maybe I could save pieces of their toys and construct a sculpture. No - all those faces would just make it creepy.

NOTE: discarded toys and clothing are of the stained, torn, drawn on, and hairless doll kind of variety. Clean, usable toys and clothing are donated to charitable organizations - faces and all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Candle Wishes


Another birthday. I've racked up quite a few of these. It's funny, the association we have with that one calendar square that marks the day on which we were born. On that day, each year, we are made to feel special, honored, and wished well by our family and friends. Just for being born. Not for being a father, or a graduate, or someone's valentine. Just for being. That's nice. Hazzah to birthdays.

I had to work today, but I was treated to a 5 AM hot breakfast and coffee, and got a birthday hug from my wife and all three children! Each of the kids leaned briefly out of their dreams to smile and breathe "Happy Birthday Daddy" and "I love you Daddy" into my ear. I didn't wake them selfishly. I was keeping a promise they had all procured at bedtime last night. Besides, it's summer vacation. They easily tumbled back into whatever dreamscape I had borrowed them from. They were all rightfully asleep again by the time I left for work at 5:30.

Now it's only a guess, but I suspect that there may be cake tonight, and that my wife and kids will possibly sing "Happy Birthday" to me, and more than likely there will be at least one symbolic candle on the cake which I will be responsible for extinguishing (a literal application of 1 candle for each year would lead to all of the clich├ęd scenarios including, but not limited to, smoke alarm soundings and retinal image stamping.) The responsibility of "blowing out the candles" carries with it the entitlement of a birthday wish. The birthday wish rules are as follows: 1.) the blower must make the wish prior to blowing out the candles; 2.) all candles must be blown out for the wish to be granted; 3.) the wish cannot be audibly spoken to others or it is invalidated.

I've never put much faith in wishes, although I feel they are harmless enough. I do make them. I think I categorize wishes as little prayers. When I make them, I make a mental hop from the wished upon object to the true hearer of wishes. In that way, the wish becomes a prompt for prayer. A reminder to pray. I put a lot of faith in prayer. All of my faith actually. My prayers and the prayers of others.

It's interesting to note, when contrasting wishes and prayers, that we light a candle when offering a prayer, and we extinguish one when making a wish. We wish on "blown out" birthday candles. We wish on falling stars. We wish on coins tossed into a fountain. Extinguished lights and lost treasure. There seems to be a pattern of wishing on diminished things. At least a connection of the wish to a loss or a cost incurred, unless the birthday candle wish is more appropriately linked to the accomplishment of the snuffing by way of the huffing and puffing, and not with the metaphoric loss of light. I know. Over thinking.

A prayer is a thing begun, a cry called out, a sounding to God. When we light a candle, the flame represents our prayer, reminds us that our prayer speaks on throughout the day and into the long dark hours of the night. Our prayer continues to burn in the presence of our all knowing God long after we have moved on, returned to our cares and our distractions.

There is the tradition of wishing on the evening's first star. "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight . . ." This image more fits that of the lit candle. Here's an idea. The next time you see a "first star," attach a prayer to it and watch as it flickers before the God of the cosmos. Watch next as all of heaven fills up with more stars, and know that your single prayer has been joined by the prayers of the entire mystical Body of Christ. Soon candles fill the sky as heaven and earth joins your prayer. Cloistered nuns interceding on your behalf, the infirm and suffering who join their trials to the work of Christ. The rosary ladies at daily mass. The email prayer-chain warriors. Saints and angels. The most forgotten souls in Purgatory. All of them saying amen along with you, helping to carry your petition before the face of our great and generous God. Hazzah to the pray-ers.

This will be my wish tonight, my prayer, actually: that our great, mighty, and awesome God will hear and hold each of our prayers. That our God will visit us like the sleeping children that we our, seek us out in the midst of our dreams, and whisper into our hearts. That God will smile when we reply with our imperfect and half awake prayers, when we speak into His ear, whisper that we love Him, before slipping back into the distracting dream that is our temporal world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Be Not Afraid

   A church carnival is a great place to confront fear in a safe (for the most part) simulated environment. Books and movies can invite our minds to enter dark cobwebbed passageways without a candle, and to conjure up treacherous obstacles and horrifying monsters, but a carnival ride puts our body in the game. The rides are designed for maximum scream factor, within a church carnival budget. We're not talking 6 Flags here, but the creaking, spinning, rising, and dropping carny rides can get the job done. The target audience is the tweens and teens, whose healthy limber bodies tend to better endure the physical retching and tossing without actually physically retching and tossing. This is especially true for frequent flying. Nothing is more disheartening than to triumphantly dismount the Hammer of Death after 3 minutes of absolute chaos with your arm adhered around a six year old, smiling and laughing the entire time in order to more convincingly model courage and coolness, and then to have the said six year old squeal, "That was awesome, Daddy! Let's do it again!" I remember one "thrill attraction" in particular which had my youngest daughter so blissfully excited that the ride operator smiled and sent us past the load/unload position for a second tour "on the house." She could not believe our luck, while I laughed along with her and internally screamed the silent scream.

   I think it's a good thing for our children to test their courage with campfire stories and carnival rides. I still remember my sister's thrill at the close of one summer when she finally forced herself to step off of the high dive at our local public pool. The little victories are critical in preparing us for the larger tribulations we will in time confront. As an adult, I have learned to put my trust in God. I place my fears before God in prayer, and then move on in confidence that "God's Will" will indeed be done. This addresses fear at a faith level, but it doesn't necessarily free me from feelings of anxiety or concern. Not yet, anyway. I'm a work in progress.

   For me, the carnival ride is a perfect metaphor. I know that the ride will end well. I have watched others encounter the ride before me, and as I buckle myself in, I remind myself that the danger will be mostly an illusion, but while I'm strapped in and the "fun" is underway, feelings of fear are expected. Just as rides are engineered to fool our senses into thinking we will fall out, or that the car will leave the track, the trials and tribulations of this 88 year (plus or minus only God knows) temporal life can seem much more critical, or frightening, or hopeless than they truly are,  seen outside of the context of a firm faith in eternal life. Eventually, the ride ends well. It might get bumpy and I might lose my egg roll lunch - but it will end, and forever will just be getting started.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pentecost Sunday | LOLSaints

A smiling nod to Pentecost Sunday linked from the truly LOL blog LOL Saints . Laughter and lessons with each post! LOL Saints has been nominated for a couple of Catholic New Media 2009 awards. Be sure to vote at CatholicNewMediaAward.com.

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