Occupation Day

The Boy had occupation day at school today. He’s been excited about this for ages. The real treat, though, was when he went with K to pick up the Girl. The police officers directing traffic as school let out were all smiles when they saw him. One pointed out that, with his three bars, he was their superior officer.

Sunday

It’s been in the seventies for a couple of weeks now. The blueberries are covered in blossoms, and various trees are sending out leaves. So of course it makes sense for winter to get one last dig in before giving up for the year.

We were supposed to have a three-day week this week but because of two snow days earlier in the year, we lost them. My worry, hearing about the potential for snow, was that we’d lose our third and final make-up day, which is the Monday after Easter. Sure, having a snow day Monday would be nice in a sense, but at what price?

So the small amount of snow that dusted the grass — areas in the backyard that had nothing but soil melted the snow immediately — seemed a little threat. Only one thing to do: put the new police uniform on and spend the day chasing bad guys.

And play some games.

Falling Down

There are two trees in the back corner of our lot that worry me. One worries me as a cause of a potential problem; the other is the potential problem. They’re both tulip poplars, with one having a diameter of at least five feet. The smaller of the two has succumbed to some kind of disease or infestation or both. It’s been dying for a couple of years. The bark has just about completely fallen off, and the base of it is beginning to rot. It will fall of its own accord within another year or so, but I’m worried that the enormous tulip poplar next to it — the biggest tree by far that we have in our hard — will develop the same problem. If the sick tree falls, it won’t be a big problem, especially now that the top third of it fell this week, leading to a change of Saturday plans and extensive use of the chain saw. Falling of its own accord is not always an option, though: the large tree if it were to fall, would cause some major damage. It might take out a power line that runs behind the house, and it’s tall enough that it could even damage a house behind us.

Besides the fact that I’m not really what the financial ramifications might be for a tree falling on someone else’s property (from my rough research, we might be held responsible if it was a question of negligence, which would be more of what we’re doing about it now: nothing), there’s the simple fact that I love that tree. It must be at least two hundred years old, possible older, and so it’s a history lesson right in our own backyard. It was around when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. It was a large tree when Somme Offensive became the largest killing field in history to that point. In a country of new things, I value the old.

But falling down is a part of life.

As a Catholic, falling down has a spiritual, metaphysical sense to it: it requires a visit to the confessional. Like with the tree, there can be collateral damage when I fall down. A lie might tell someone could have far-reaching repercussions. The angry word spoken in spite might damage more than the moment. That’s what this Lenten season is all about — thinking about that collateral damage that accompanies sin no matter how we try to compartmentalize it. Our parish priest began a Lenten homily series on the nature of sin, and the communal nature of sin is a key Catholic teaching. We are responsible for our own actions, of course, but we always seem to rise and fall together.

As a parent, falling down is something my kids just have to do. They have to learn how to fall, how to absorb the impact without breaking bones or, later, hearts. More importantly, they have to learn how to get back up. That’s a lesson many of us never learn, I’m afraid. L has learned how to take a tumble and hop back up, or perhaps even laugh about it.

The Boy is slowly learning the same. Sometimes he’ll fall with a thump and hesitate for a moment before hopping up and proclaiming, “I’m okay!”

With L finishing up fourth grade, though, K and I have begun thinking about the simple fact that we’ll soon have to start thinking about considering middle school. (We’re masters of procrastinating at times.) That will begin a whole new cycle of learning: the broken heart. I don’t necessarily mean crushes that turn sour, though that too is in the back of the mind. I simply mean the cruelty with which teenagers can treat each other: the cutting comments, the fair-weather friends, the peer pressure, and all the sundry stresses of teen life.

But for now, sometimes it’s probably best not to fall down but just let yourself down, gently, and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those worries will wait. For a while.

Perfection

“I’ll never be an expert drawer!” E and I were sitting at the kitchen table after K and L had left for L’s pre-Mass choir practice, and E was trying to draw a sports car. He scratched out a basic wedge shaped attempt at a sports car, adding a deep arc for a driver’s seat, then put the pencil down and dropped his head into his hands. “I’m just not good at drawing!”

It’s tough reasoning with a four-year-old, and though I feared it feel ineffective in the moment, I thought perhaps he needed some perspective nonetheless.

“Son, it takes time,” I began. A thousand and one cliches seemed ready to rush from my mouth, but they were only cliches to me. “Everyone struggles at first when learning a new skill. No one is an expert immediately. It takes time.”

Yet his four-year-old horizon is not very distant at all. Later in the day, as we’re heading to a state park for a family bike ride, he will respond to his mother’s calming, “Only eight more minutes,” by counting to eight and demanding to know why we’re not there yet. At the sun-soaked kitchen table, though, his horizon was even closer. He flipped his sketch pad to a new sheet and tried again, with the same result. He crossed it out and again proclaimed, “I’ll never be an expert.”

I saw in this coming heartache, approaching frustration, a nearing narrowing of the Boy’s horizon. “What if he goes through life like this, thinking always that if it’s not perfect the first time, there’s no point in trying again?” I see it in my some of my at-risk students every day. They lack what, in edu-speak jargon, we’ve come to call “grit.” One girl experiences these frustrations on a daily basis: she wants to give up immediately if I offer any sort of helpful feedback that indicates the slightest flaw in her analysis. Unable to gain any perspective, she struggles with a stress she imposes on herself.

In the end, a lack of time saved the situation. Or at least put it off for a while. We got dressed and met K and L at Mass. As the homily began, it was as if the parish priest and the curria in Rome itself had seen our morning struggles and wove them into the day’s readings and homily. Father Longenecker was sketching the picture presented in the day’s readings. First, from Leviticus: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. A command from perfection for perfection. The second reading was from the first letter to the Corinthians: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. The Gospel reading from Matthew followed in the same theme: So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The notion that we’re called to be perfect, aside from proving that Christianity is not a good choice for anyone looking for an easy religion, put the morning sketch session into a new perspective for me. In his own way, the Boy was living out the callings from the readings. He must have looked to me as we look to God, frustrated at our apparent lack of progress. Our perspective on a human life must appear to him like E’s immediate frustration when he was unable to achieve instantaneous perfection.

After Mass and lunch, we headed to a lovely local state park to enjoy the unseasonably perfect cycling weather. We rode 6.6 kilometers (4.1 miles) and climbed a total of 86 meters (282.1 feet). A fair amount for a four-year-old.

He had to get off and push a few times, but his tenacity at some of the steeper portions of the short incline was impressive. It was a mirror image of the morning, for it was only toward the end of the ride that he really started suggesting, in words and actions, that he might not make it back to our starting point.

What made the difference? Why did he exhibit tenacity in one endeavor and not the other? Was it merely the physicality of the cycling, a tangible activity with a clear end? Was it the fact that a flawed sketch sits on the page and reminds him of his seeming failure whereas the road’s inclines simply disappear behind him? I sit here at the end of the day thinking that perhaps I should have the answers to those questions, and I realize that if I’m not careful, I’ll start doing the same thing he did with his drawing: why am I not the perfect parent? By now, such thoughts leave as soon as they enter my conscience, right? Hardly.

In the end, it was a reminder paradox that perfect days are perfect because aren’t.