You know how sometimes you try to take a cute picture with your family?
And then your son decides that he does not want to be helpful….
And then he is really not helpful.
This weekend we climbed a mountain. Quite literally, we hiked the Garcia Trail up at the back of Azusa, up past the overly proud, white “A” emblazoned on the hill, up to the cross that is frequented daily by students from the expanding Christian college next door.
“I’ll never do that again,” you told me, as did your sister.
It was slow going. You were afraid of the sheer cliff that sat alongside the narrow path, and though you were never in any danger, the higher we got, the more you sounded like a kid mounting a diving board. We had to hold hands most of the way to the top. Your sister was not much better. It was a complaint parade with grunts like a timpani and whines like a clarinet, with stops under every shady overhang we could find.
On the way down you and I walked a few feet in front of the girls. I told you about being a leader and being brave, and how when times are hard, your family needs you to be a brave leader.
“Hm,” you said. I think it was assent.
I wonder how much these moments will sink in over time.
Up at the top, the cross is ironically graffitied. I’m not sure who decided that was appropriate. It overlooks a vast 180 degree panorama of LA, all the way to Catalina island, and on the other side an equally sized panorama of national forests, spotted with reservoirs. Cars wind through a lonely valley road, far enough away to seem like a silent movie of a leaf floating down a river.
Here I’m struck with an irony that we climbed to the cross. I mean I get it, but it’s all wrong. That first cross initially sat atop a hill, and placing them on top of hills today is sort of an implicit declaration of superiority and finality. Jesus’ cross and our crosses are the parentheses that swallow all the history in between. But theologically, it’s all wrong. We don’t climb to the cross; it descends to us. The whole point of the cross was that our climbing up was ineffectual, and so he climbed down. The cross was ultimately replacing our useless ladders with his working one. So I’m afraid I’ve emblazoned on your memory an image of intense perseverance that earns you a view of the cross, when what I want you to know is that the perseverance was all on his part.
I wish I had told you that too, but perhaps this will make more sense later.
I’m digging through drawers at my parents’ house, looking for stole-me-downs [(n.) stuff you take home from your parents’ house], and I’ve come across a pile of old papers and photographs. They are valuable the way a foreign currency is valuable – only to the person who comes from the same place. The place is my childhood, a country of one. I’m the only traveler who would look at these and think I had found something worth keeping.
There are letters I wrote to my mom from camp, newspaper clippings of a diatribe I wrote to the Editor in high school, yellowed pictures of a school play. I found things I drew when I was daydreaming. It’s all wrapped in a dust sarcophagus that makes me sneeze.
So much goes into the making of an adult. In this country, typically tens of thousands of dollars of expense, schooling, training, coaching, discipline. If the ingredients of a recipe cost this much and the cooking took this long, you would expect an extraordinary meal. You kind of think most adults should be marvelous instead of mundane. Maybe we are. Maybe we are simply so surrounded by one another that we take each other for granted.
I’m mixing a couple of recipes of my own. We take pictures of them with Gramma and Grampa, which will in this generation will never yellow. They will go in a digital file somewhere, numbered, and be forgotten for a generation. They will not make anyone sneeze when they’re discovered.
There are certain key ingredients. Today I took them to church. At the lunch table, we talk about the faith. We talk about what Jesus thinks and what the Bible says. We talk about what it means to be good. In my room, I’ve found notes from the first Bible study I joined in college. Someone made sure that was part of my recipe along the way. I’m making it the most important part of theirs.
To me, the recipe is worth every penny. If I accomplish nothing else, I hope that my children are my masterpiece. Somewhere deep in my soul I find a longing to make sure that they have everything they need and become everything they want to be. I am crafting a work that will last forever.
The fourth thing I want my kids to know this Christmas is actually one they will not consciously notice, though it undergirds everything they do.
A psychologist friend once told me that the way your family shapes your identity is like a potter shaping a ball of clay and then leaving it in the sun to dry. Before it is completely dry, you can still leave fingerprints on it, but it’s hard to do much with the original shape. Our families are that early potter that do most of the shaping of personality, habits, and drive.
As we gather for dinner at my in-laws house this year on Christmas day, I will go with my usual reservations. They are a family that has a lot to say, and I generally hide quietly in the corner through most of our gatherings. I will have had a couple of aspirin in advance. I love my extended family, but you’re talking about dropping someone with the personality of a librarian into a fiesta.
But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
And I want my kids to know that the nuclear family: dad, mom, and the kids, is an essential building block of all society that must be preserved. I want them invested in the idea of family universally and the experience of their family particularly. We continue to cheapen family in America by making marriage inessential and child-bearing optional. First we assimilated divorce and then cohabitation. Now there are flippant voices calling for the mainstreaming of adultery and serious voices reshaping marriage altogether. Deconstructionists are trying to tell us that this is inevitable and only fair.
What we’re doing is messing up the best chance the potter has.
So kids, pay attention to how your grandparents act and what your aunties say and how the cousins are the same and different from one another. They are some of the most sure access you will have to self-understanding. And be sure when the day comes that you are making Christmas plans of your own with family members we have not yet met – family is essential.
I’m teaching my four year old daughter the more complex virtues, the ones that come after the virtue of not eating Oreos off the floor and using the potty. We’re now working on humility. The other day she is staring at a picture of herself and she says to me, “I’m so cute.” She’s four, so don’t hate her for being beautiful.
I tell her, “Honey, you shouldn’t say nice things about yourself. You should let other people say nice things about you.”
She says, “We could take turns.”
“No,” I say. “You should say nice things about other people and let
them say nice things about you.”
She stares at the picture for a while longer, and then says, “I’m so…I mean, I like you, Papa.” These are complex things. They take time.
I’m on the phone a few weeks ago with a nice customer service representative who has nicely messed up my order three times, and I’m gritting my teeth and being nice. When the phone is hung up, and the room is quiet, and there is no more representative to hear me say it, I whisper, “Idiot.” And my daughter, with perfect intonation, parrots, “Idiot.” I’m a bad father. I’m a bad person. Where did I get the right to parent? These are complex things. They take time.
I’m teaching her how to draw. I wrap my hand around her hand that’s wrapped around the crayon. We make strokes and scribbles together. I think about the shaping of her hand, and how it was carved out somewhere on a genome that I half wrote.
“I’ll do it myself,” she says, and pulls away. My own genetic matter arguing with me.
The whole of my spiritual experience comes from the feeling that when I father, whether I screw it up or stay in the lines, there is a Papa somewhere else who is wrapping his hand around mine.
“I’ll do it myself,” I tell him, and someone sighs.