Overcoming

“I did give up.”

The Girl was upset with ourself for not having completed the line course she had begged — absolutely begged — to complete. The longest. The most challenging.

K tried to talk her out of it, and the whole time the Girl was on the course, she was like this:

Of course there was no real risk: tourists are secured at all times on a security line with not one but two safety ropes. Still, both the Girl and her mother were somewhat frightened by the whole thing. And then there was the exhaustion: K tried this course some years ago and was unable to complete it. Her arms and hands gave out. She was hesitant to continue after the first obstacle, but went on anyway. L had exactly the same experience. Then came an especially challenging rope section, and K’s arms just gave out. But L kept on going, with much encouragement.

The last two obstacles seemed hardly to be obstacles to me: two long zip lines. And it was there that the Girl just gave out.

Afterward, the conversation: I tried to express how proud I was of her, how proud she should be of herself, that she completed so much of the course.

“You wanted to stop, but you didn’t. You kept going, when you were tired, when you were scared. You didn’t give up.”

“I did give up.”

Can you give up and not give up at the same time? I think so. Somehow the Girl exposed a truth about giving up and going on. It’s a step-by-step basis. It’s a step-by-step battle. And every step that overcomes fear or exhaustion is itself a victory.

The Boy had his own adventures.

Huntington Beach 2017

We put it off several times: once, because someone was sick; a second time, because the timing was no longer convenient. Did we put it off a third time? I can’t remember. But this weekend has been a long time in the making. We were originally going to spend last Labor Day weekend at Huntington Beach, but we ended up spending Memorial Day — that seems appropriate, timing-wise, as they two three-day weekends bookend the school year.

We first went about six years ago.

Huntington 1

We fell in love immediately. We went back again at some point, but none of us can remember when exactly. It was pre-E, for sure, but that’s about all we can remember. Perhaps the link above is to our second visit? it all gets smeared in the memory. I reread the entry and find this:

Her first beach experience, some two years ago, was moderately traumatic for her. The sound of the waves terrified her, and the waves were forever chasing her form the water’s edge when she finally got the nerve to approach.

This year was different.

That first time at the ocean was at Edisto, so this must be have been our first time at Huntington. Still, it’s only a year before the Boy’s birth: when did we go again, pre-E? Again, smeared it the memory.

So I want to set about to to write down all the details of this experience I can remember, knowing that if I don’t, I won’t remember it. But I set out doing so with the understanding that I will only pick and choose, letting the pictures do the rest.

The first day we arrived and, after setting up camp, headed out to the beach. The Girl took her boogie board out to test the waves; the Boy, after a few minutes, turned to the gigantic sand box that lay all around him. Then they switched. That pretty much sums up the entire weekend: playing in the sand, playing in the waves. After all, what else can you do at the beach?

But there were the subtle changes. L, no longer afraid of the water, gradually found the courage to go out with me a little further than before, looking for more boggie-board-able waves. The Boy was at first reticent to go far beyond the last little crests and bubbles of waves that had been churning inland for some tens of feet. He finally found the courage, with a little help from K and me, to go out further, and to require less of a reassuring hand while doing so.

Day two started at Brookgreen Gardens. “We’ve been here three times now — we have to go,” declared K. It is famous for its sculptures, a fact interested me and bored L — until she started seeing statues from Greek mythology, her current obsession thanks to the Percy Jackson series.

The final day — another morning on the beach.

A perfect weekend, over all.

Fishing

“Do you think I’ll catch a Clownfish?”

We were eating breakfast when this question came up. A typical Sunday morning: breakfast around half-past eight. The Girl off to choir practice at quarter past nine. The boys off to Mass about an hour later. That morning promised to be our normal, comfortable ritual. The afternoon, though, promised adventure.

“No, son. Clownfish live in the ocean. They’re salt water fish.”

“Plus,” added L, “they live in reefs.”

It only took him a few minutes to get the hang of it, and for a while, he was casting beside the Girl as she practiced with her new archery set.

A few bites later, he had another thought. “What if I catch a shark? I’ll have to be strong if I catch a shark.”

“I don’t think you’ll catch a shark.”

“Oh, right. It lives in the ocean.” He thought about things for a few more moments, then added, “All the fish I know are salt water fish.”

Playing in the water

Planning for the afternoon fishing trip really began on Christmas Eve, when our children following Polish tradition were opening their presents. Our neighbor, who goes fishing often, had bought the Boy a beginner’s rod and reel set, complete with a small tackle box. He was thrilled, and he was even more excited when I found a casting weight in my old tackle box downstairs and explained that he’d be able to practice casting in the backyard.

A few days ago, when our neighbor was packing up his gear and hitching his boat to the truck for a morning fishing trip, the Boy informed K that his rod and reel were, in fact, for nothing. “They’re not for decoration,” he explained. And so she told me when I got back home that afternoon, “You must take him fishing this weekend.”

I haven’t been fishing in probably close to thirty years. I can’t remember ever going fishing with my father — not because I asked and he refused. Fishing was simply not something we did in my family. My mother’s brother was very much a fisherman, and during one visit, he gave me a handmade graphite rod with a very sturdy reel with a tackle box filled with every imaginable worm-like, grub-like, and fish-like lure one could imagine. I was twelve, I think. I probably used it no more than half a dozen times, if that many.

Learning to untangle

In thinking about taking my own son fishing, I had a whole list of concerns. Some were reasonable: what’s the best type of bait to use at this lake when fishing from the shore. Some weren’t: what if I can’t remember how to tie a hook? But with muscle memory, that latter worry disappeared. But the bait? When I saw the lake, I realized that it really didn’t matter: we weren’t going to go onto one of the fishing piers because the Boy, having no practice casting with an actual hook, might cause disaster. (In fact, he caught my shirt once, but fortunately only my shirt.) Since the lake was so shallow with a gentle slope out to the deeper water, I knew he’d never cast far enough from the short to catch anything, so we tried a number of lures.

He caught nothing but my shirt. But he begged to go back tomorrow after school.

Sunday Vignettes

One: Alone Together

The Boy wanted to get into the Girl’s room; the Girl wanted some “alone time,” which we all do from time to time. With the two of them, that conflict is a frequent occurrence. As parents, K and I must balance the two opposing factors:

  1. The Girl needs to learn that she can’t be by herself all the time. She needs to have a relationship with her brother.
  2. The Boy needs to learn that he can’t play with L all the time, that she needs some privacy.

I feel like we need to be keeping score of the whole thing: one time forcing L to let the Boy in her room; one time getting the Boy to understand that the Girl needs some privacy from time to time.

Two: Countering

The Boy was looking for his Bugatti (toy, of course).

“I last saw it on the counter downstairs,” I tell him.

He thumps his way downstairs, wanders around a while. Then I hear him ask K, “Mommy, what’s a counter?”

Three: Special Music

During the announcements at the close of Mass, Fr. Longenecker pointed out the fact that the text of the communion hymn dates from the twelfth century and the music from the sixteenth. At that moment, several thoughts that had been swirling randomly in Mass coalesced.

First, at one point, I was thinking about how different a Roman Catholic Mass is from the church services I attended in my youth. All the smells and the bells have no correlation with the staid services we had. And yet there was a certain similarity: each service was identical in its format just as each Mass is identical in its order of liturgy. I suppose that’s true of all churches.

Still, our church being Protestant (though its members then would have begged to differ most vociferously), liked to suggest that if it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t do it. I found myself in Mass briefly wondering about the liturgy (for lack of a better term) the church followed: it’s no where in the Bible. I believe the pastor would have suggested it’s one of the traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2.15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.”

Thinking about it further, I remembered the little distinctives of our service. We had a short warm-up message called a sermonette. Google shows that other denominations use the sermonette format, but it’s certainly not a common feature. After the sermonette were announcements, followed by something called special music, then the sermon.

The special music was always some kind of choir performance or solo piano performance. Choral numbers were always selections from sacred music (but we had to be careful about that text!), but instrumental music was often some kind of classical composition. I choked down a laugh in Mass thinking about that, wondering if it was “special” music if it appeared every week.

Four: Divine Mercy

The first Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Since this particular celebration began in Poland, it’s a pretty big thing for the Polish community. At our church, we have a newly-consecrated shrine to the Divine Mercy with relics of St. Faustina and St. Pope John Paul II.

Not bad for a little Catholic church in Greenville, SC, home of Bob Jones University — probably the most virulently anti-Catholic school in the States.

Easter 2017

Easter is the highlight of the liturgical year, and so for Poles, it’s the highlight of social year in many ways. As with Christmas, begin quietly at home, breaking the evening’s fast (and the non-meat fast of the last several days) with treats from the baskets blessed yesterday.

Bread, ham, sausage, boiled eggs, a lamb-shaped cake, slivers of apple and orange, and a horseradish sauce. A simple meal, a somewhat humble meal.

It’s not like the equivalent for the Christmas Eve dinner. That will all come later. But the Boy is simply not waiting for anything more elaborate.

“One more piece of ham,” he chirps, sliding it to the side of his plate. “Save the best for last,” which he doesn’t — he eats it in a few moments, then repeats.

He downs four or five slices of ham, a serving of veggie salad, a large proportion of the orange, a couple of sausage hunks, some bread — he eats at least twice as much as L.

After breakfast, it’s off to Mass with us. I take the Girl an hour earlier for choir practice and sit in the pews, watching the brightening sky slowly illuminate the church.

Morning light as the choir practices

This is our first Easter in our new parish, and it’s parish’s first Easter in the new church.

All the colors seem to glow as a result. Or perhaps that’s still the sheen of newness. Likely a bit of both.

Mass in this wonderful space feels like it should: an explosion for all the senses. The altar servers process in, the first swinging a thurible and filling the middle isle with incense that drifts upward, catching rays of light and glowing. The choir is sublime. We kneel, stand, sit, kneel, cross ourselves. The physical beauty of the place surrounds us. The sweet Communion wine lingers as we head back to our pew.

Easter altar

In front of me, a young lady has brought a friend — boyfriend? — and he’s clearly not Catholic. I remember the first time I witnessed all of this. It was so different from everything I’d experienced growing up. “The smells and bells” forced out of me a begrudging respect as did the humble faith of the parishioners.

This young man keeps his hands in his pockets most of the time, rarely looks around, and seems bored. Perhaps he’s not having the same experience I did twenty years ago when I first went to Mass. Perhaps he is and simply doesn’t show it.

After Communion, the girl, still kneeling, eases back onto the pew, and her father, sitting to her left, places his hand on the small of her back and massages gently. The girl pulls herself back up into a full kneeling position. I smile at the universality of fathers: I’ve done that many a time with the Girl, but she’s never with us in Mass these days. Instead, she’s in the choir loft.

The children’s choir poses

I think about the obvious: there will come a time when the Girl might want to bring a young man to Mass with us. She’s already growing so fast that K and I can’t keep up with her, but right now, she says boys are disgusting.

“They’re always messing up things on the playground,” she often complains. “They steal balls, bother us, chase us.” How long will this last? Not long enough, I’m afraid.

Easter portrait

I can still get into my wedding suit, but looking at the picture reveals the sad truth: a bit of a gut has formed that pushes the jacket into slight wrinkles. “I forgot to suck it in,” I think to myself, remembering all the times my own father did something similar. Like father, like son.

In the afternoon, all the usual suspects come over. We eat; we drink; we eat; we laugh. After a while, a couple of us go out to hide Easter eggs for the kids. Some we hide in the open; some we actually hide.

In the end, a perfect day.

Helping Saturday

The Boy likes to help. That’s established. Everybody knows that, as he might say. Often his help is anything but help, yet it’s always welcomed: he’s learning, that’s what’s important.

Today, though, he was being genuinely helpful for a while. He’d seen me trimming some bushes, and while I was finishing up K’s decorative fence, he decided he wanted to trim. I showed him how he needed just to cut the branches that were extending above the sphere of the bush itself, and he seemed to be doing fine, so I went back to work.

Later, K pointed out that he’d cute a relatively large whole into the bush.

“It’s an animal trap,” he explained.

Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher

Friday Afternoon

“Daddy, you be Clemson. I’ll be the Cubs.” We’re not much of a sports family, but in the Greenville area, it’s impossible to escape Clemson. We get hand-me-downs in bright orange with a white paw print, and the Boy hears about the school’s athletic exploits at school, so he’s aware of Clemson as something that always seems to be on the periphery. The Cubs are even simpler: I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I watch a bit during the World Series, and with 2016’s being so historic, I couldn’t miss it. And of course I cheered for the Cubs. And so the Boy did likewise.

Mid-March Sunday Afternoon

Every day has a story in it. That’s what writers will tell you. “You just have to find the thread of the narrative and follow it.” Something like that. If that’s the case, the threads of our Sunday afternoon stories area always the same. They always weave about our little recreation area down at in the corner of our property.

First, there’s the green swing. “I call green swing!” one of our children — usually L — we shout when we head down the hill. Yesterday, before the kids went down (our Saturday evening threads are often the same as our Sunday afternoon threads), while the Girl was still getting ready in her room, the Boy whispered, “I call green swing.”

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.

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.

Growing Older

The Boy’s on a slightly different schedule at pre-school because of the lack of Monday sessions, so today was the 100th Day celebration. I’m not really sure why, but everyone was to dress up as an old person. E borrowed a cane from our neighbor and put on some new-to-him dress clothes (passed down from friends whom we gave L’s old clothes — it’s a circle) and looked positively dashing.

The Girl, while completing her chores tonight, slipped her tablet into an old purse and danced the floors clean.

“She’s almost a teenager,” K said.

She’s starting to look it and act it.

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.