Ten minutes down in the playroom plus a dream from last night

Last night after dinner* I was standing at the sink washing dishes.  I had just picked up Wally’s tray when it became clearer to me than it usually is that this is not how I wanted to be spending my time, so I put the dirty tray back on the counter and joined Caroline, Jay, and Wally on the playroom floor.

The boys were occupying themselves, intensely focused and independent as they tend to be in the last minutes before bed when they intuit, perhaps, that even the slightest little whine will provoke a quick exit to the changing pad.  I turned on Pandora, the algorithmically enabled Internet jukebox.  The first song up was “Shake it Out” by Florence and the Machine, easily my favorite radio hit of the last year.  It’s anthemic and exalted and conjures exactly the kind of out-of-body sizzle that’s missing on an ordinary weekday night at home.  (I also predict it’s a song my sister will (or does) like a lot.  I hope she’ll let me know.)

I was sitting across an oval of wooden train tracks from Caroline and as the song played I realized I’d rather be sitting beside her.  I inched across the carpet towards her and upon reaching her side we put our heads together.  The noise of the room filled in around us: the music, Jay repeating, “Daddy can you help me,” Wally (who talks here and there these days) chirping to be read the large hardcover book he’d managed to tote all the way across the room.  We ignored them as long as we could, then Wally jabbed Caroline in the cheek with the corner of his book and we resumed being parents.  I thought afterward that this is how life feels most of the time: simultaneously abundant and just out of reach.

Which reminds me of one other thing I wanted to write about today.  I had a dream last night about Jesus’s disciples, which *definitely* counts as the first Bible-themed dream I’ve ever had.  They were two guys dressed in modern clothes, walking down a city street, talking to each other and trying to decide whether this guy Jesus they’ve been following around is the real deal or not.

For the last month I’ve maintained a tenuous commitment to reading the Bible.  I’m reading the Old Testament on my own and Caroline and I have been reading Mark together a chapter at a time a few nights a week before we go to sleep.  It’s a pious picture, I know, husband and wife reading the Bible together before bed but in practice it feels less momentous and the pleasures we take from it are more secular: the narrative is interesting, it’s important, and it’s always nice to read (and be read) aloud to.

The exciting thing about reading the Bible in a start-to-finish way, rather than jumping from passage to passage, is that you really feel the momentum of a whole new belief system coming into the world.  Judeo-Christianity has been such a dominant cultural force for so long that it’s hard to imagine it as the underdog.  But when Genesis opens there are no Jews and when the New Testament begins there are no Christians.  You know that in time these religions will come to dominate the ways in which billions of people frame their very existences on earth and it’s breathtaking to read about their nascent days in that light.

There is a striking symmetry between the Old and New Testaments. Both tell the story of an upstart trying to prove himself: In the Old Testament God is trying to prove himself to the skeptical Israelites; in the New Testament Jesus is trying to prove himself to the skeptical disciples.  Both God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament come bearing specific and sweeping morality codes: God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai; Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount.  And both God and Jesus have their own techniques for demonstrating their might: In the Old Testament God rains plagues on the Egyptians, parts the Red Sea through Moses, and provides manna from heaven; in the New Testament, Jesus performs miracle cures, walks on water, and transforms five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed a multitude.

Caroline and I have joked in light of these demonstrations of overwhelming power both the Israelites and the disciples seem a little obtuse.

Last night I read the chapters in Exodus where the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt.  They’re complaining to Moses about a lack of food (Ex 16:3), “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  Not days earlier these same Israelites had seen God part the Red Sea for them and then bring it back together to swallow up the advancing Egyptian army.  But now here they are, hungry in the woods, wishing they’d never left home.  You can imagine an exasperated God muttering to himself, “How many oceans do I need to rend before they’ll believe in me?!”

The same is true in the New Testament.  In a passage in Mark that I blogged about this summer, Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat and caught in a storm.  At the time the storm hits the disciples have already seen Jesus perform a number of healing miracles, but still they’re terrified that they’re going to drown.  After Jesus has calmed the storm he turns to his disciples and says, “Have you still no faith?”

The Israelites and the disciples are both a little slow to catch on.  At the same time, the leap of faith they’re being asked to take is so great.  I’ve found it fun to wonder how much evidence I would have needed before I would have been willing to entrust my life to an upstart God or a heretical fisherman.  A lot, I think.  So much, in fact, that it’s almost hard to imagine the standard being met.

*Korean-style short ribs that took all of 20 minutes to prepare and received the top honor handed out in the Hartnett house: “We could serve this to guests!”

A new strategy for Jay: Just knock it off

I woke up in the dark this morning to make Jay his toast and roust him from his crib for the short drive to preschool.  He’s never sweeter than he is these early mornings, full of funny three-year-old observations and totally compliant when I ask him to stick his legs out straight so I can pull his pants on.  It’s enough to make me almost look forward to getting out of bed an hour earlier than I usually do.

School mornings are great for Wally, too.  By the time I arrived back home today he was awake and up on the second floor with Caroline.  The bulge of his nighttime diaper was still visible beneath his bear pajamas.  Looking down at me from the top of the stairs, he brandished a yellow stuffed duck and brought it to his mouth for a demonstrable kiss.  At breakfast Caroline spooned him mouthfuls of raspberry smoothie (leavened with half ‘n half, to pack more calories onto his flaco frame) and I dished him pieces of soggy cereal from the bottom of my bowl- just the way he likes them.

The peace that reigns on school mornings is in stark contrast with all the other hours of the week when Jay and Wally are together at home.  The main problem is Jay who seems to be pathologically unable to be in the same room with Wally without taking his brother’s toys, blocking his way, or knocking him over.  The other night some friends were over and one of them, the husband, asked Jay what he likes most about his brother.  “Hitting him,” Jay said without missing a beat, and indeed his actions perfectly reflect his priorities.

Last night Caroline and I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones, the ballyhooed medieval fantasy series from HBO.  In one of the opening scenes this kind of authoritative horseman tells his scared comrade, “Get back on your horse.  I won’t ask you again.”  Caroline and I laughed out loud, because with Jay we always, always ask again.

We’ve tried a number of strategies to get Jay to leave Wally alone.  We’ve used a three-strikes-and-you’re-in-timeout system, we’ve taken away his favorite toys, we’ve stripped him of his bedtime books, we’ve talked with him about how much Wally loves him, we’ve tried to carve out special Jay-and-Daddy-Mama time, we’ve erupted in rage, and once or twice I’ve given to Jay as he’s given to Wally, smothering him with a faux-affectionate bear hug or hip-checking him to the ground and asking him, “So how do you think your brother likes it?”  It feels good in the moment even if it’s not exactly viable as a long-term behavior modification plan.

More often, though, Caroline and I feel confounded.  Last night after dinner Jay and Wally raced around the house and Caroline called out once again to Jay, “Leave your brother alone.”  As Jay zipped by on his plasma car (which has since been impounded, for transgressions relating more to furniture than to Wally), Caroline spoke for both of us when she said, “I would feel so ashamed if other parents could see us now.”

My most recent thought regarding Jay’s relationship with Wally was inspired by a passage I read in The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished last novel which I started two seasons ago and finished over the weekend.

The passage comes from the longest uninterrupted section of the book.  The beautiful Meredith Rand is describing to awkward Shane Drinion her experience as a teenager in a mental health facility where she was sent for cutting herself.  Rand explains that she had endless sessions with doctors all of whom tried to figure out the root of her problem- why she was cutting herself.  But one night she gets into a conversation with a low-paid ward attendant, a guy whose job is to make sure everyone’s taking their medications and no one’s jumping out the window.  The attendant tells Rand that understanding her problem isn’t necessarily going to help her solve her problem, and the emphasis on why she’s doing what she’s doing might even impede her ability to stop it.  Rand explains:

I didn’t know why I did it.  I’m still not sure, except he taught me that trying to analyze it or understand all the whys was bullshit- the only important thing was knocking it off, because if I didn’t it would land me right back in the psych ward.

Psych wards would be pretty crowded if beating on a younger sibling was enough to get you committed, but I think there’s something to this as far as our approach to Jay goes.  Since Wally was born Caroline and I have spent a lot of time talking about how having a brother has affected Jay and we try to tease out just what it is that might be motivating him to niggle at Wally the way he does.  It’s an interesting conversation but maybe one that’s beside the point.  Really, Jay just needs to knock it off, and if Caroline and I approach our parenting with that attitude, perhaps we’ll be more effective at making him do that.

Jay at night

Last night I tiptoed into Jay’s room long after he’d gone to bed.  He was lying on his belly, his head on his pillow.  The floorboards creaked beneath me and Jay stirred.  Eyes closed, he reached out a hand and felt along the top of his crib until he found his gray stuffed bunny rabbit.  He grabbed hold of it, pulled it down to his chest, and lay still again.

It happens often.  The smallness of Jay’s world and his devotion to it breaks my heart.

Growing Sideways from the pulpit

Yesterday was a watershed: It was the first time something I’ve written has been preached from the pulpit. Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor at the First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor used my most recent post about finding a smartphone on the playground in her sermon, “Life Together Welcoming.” The whole sermon is worth listening to. The section where Growing Sideways appears begins at 8:45.

Sunday’s cameo also provides a chance to write a little about church. Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I have been attending services at First Baptist regularly for the last three months. It feels somewhat momentous. Both Caroline and I had minor religious experiences as children: My family had gone semi-regularly to a Congregational Church until I was about nine and Caroline had attended Unitarian services with her parents into her early teens. But nothing since then.

I haven’t written about our time in church for several reasons: I didn’t trust that we’d keep going; I don’t have a lot of experience writing about religion in a personal context; and I would have had a hard time pinning down exactly why religion has grabbed me more now than in the past. Those three reasons still apply but I’ve decided to share some thoughts anyway- partly to clarify my own thinking and partly because I think that the act of approaching a new church can seem daunting, especially if, like me, you don’t have a long history of religious engagement. Given that, it seems like the kind of experience worth sharing.

Fourteen months ago on our drive out to Ann Arbor Caroline and I talked about finding a church in our new town. Our motives were fairly practical. It seemed like a good way to meet people in a place where we didn’t know anyone, and we knew we wanted to give Jay and Wally some exposure to faith early in their lives. Still, it took us almost a year to actually get out the door together on a Sunday morning

We chose the First Baptist Church because, as it happened, both of our nannies went there (it was a coincidence that our first nanny went there; when she left in May she put us in touch with a young woman she knew through the church youth group who has been taking care of the boys since then). We liked them both a lot and so thought maybe we’d like the other members of the church as well. I couldn’t say why we decided to go for the first time on the particular mid-July weekend that we did.  We felt self-conscious, of course, on our first visit: late to stand when it was time to stand, hesitant to sit when it was time to sit, and needing to read hymns and prayers from the program that everyone else knew by heart. But there were pleasures, too, even on that first visit: the music was beautiful, the people were warm, the sermon was smart, challenging, and useful.

So we went back, and after we’d been going for a month or two, Paul Duke, Stacey’s husband and co-pastor, drew me in close as I was shaking his hand on the way out of church and asked if Caroline and I might be available for lunch one day soon.

We agreed to the lunch but were nervous about it. We figured Paul and Stacey planned to ask about membership which we weren’t ready for. The night before the lunch Caroline and I got our talking points in order: There was a good chance we’d be leaving Ann Arbor in a year so the timing didn’t seem right to join a church; we liked First Baptist a lot but had no attachment to the Baptist denomination as such; and lastly and, to us most consequentially, we weren’t exactly sure that we believed in God.

So we were prepared to hold our ground at lunch but as it turned out there was no need. The conversation was easy and friendly.  Caroline and I talked about ourselves, asked them questions about how they’d come to Ann Arbor and where they saw their church going, and waded into some of the theological questions I’d been gathering as I’d listened to them preach.  Finally, after our plates had been cleared, I ventured that I felt out of place in church because I didn’t know what I believed about God.  Their replies, which were thoughtful and generous, made it clear that there is room for a range of visions of God and degrees of belief in their church.

It’s still too early to know what all this is going to add up to.  For now I can say that church has come to feel like a comfortable part of our weekly routine.  I look forward on Sunday mornings to the quiet in the pews that precedes the service, and to the first notes of the organ when the prelude plays, and to the sight of Jay running up to the altar for children’s worship, where he always tries to wedge his way in right next to Sue Ellen who leads the kids in prayer.  I don’t yet see myself as a churchgoer and the Bible still feels funny in my hands.  But it’s undeniably exhilarating to be doing something new.