Why I Want My Kids to Be in Pain

I used to think it was a parent’s job to protect their kids from pain. Now I know, it’s a parent’s job to point their kids in the direction of the pain…

parenting

I failed my daughter.

It’s the end of August, we’re in a new town with new schools, and we’re walking toward the building where she’ll begin kindergarten in three short days. It’s our first back-to-school orientation in this new place, so we’re figuring it out as we go. And, as I look around at the converging crowd, I see moms and dads and grandparents with little human beings in tow, and all the big people are carrying big bags full of bulk Kleenex, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and vats of hand sanitizer.

I, in contrast, am empty-handed.

And my daughter is observant.

She looks up at me with concern in her eyes and asks, “Daddy, why are all the other kids bringing their stuff to school today?”

I’m tempted to respond, “Well, Sweetie, because those bags are bigger than you, and it will be impossible for you to carry it into your first day of school all by yourself along with your big backpack and the big lump in your throat, so every other parent is doing the completely obvious thing and getting the delivery out of the way ahead of time. You see, the other parents are smarter and probably just plain better than me. Also, though you will already feel lonely and alienated enough on your first day at a new school in a new town, I wanted to make sure you feel even more different than the other kids.”

Then, I imagine handing her a blank check for the years of therapy she’s going to need.

What I actually say is, “Sweetie, this is all new to us, so we’re making it up as we go. We’ll figure it out, though.” Meanwhile, the little kid inside of me who remembers what it was like to be on a first-day-of-school-in-a-new-town playground is off crying in some corner of my heart and quietly hating me for my incompetence.

After all, isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids from all pain and suffering?

3 Words to Keep You Sane During Back-to-School Month (Or Any Month)

The school year is a sleeping giant and it’s about to awaken from its slumber. Three words are going to keep me sane in the midst of the onslaught of activities. Maybe they’ll keep you sane, too…

back to school

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I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

It was the first annual community picnic for my wife’s upstart pediatric development center. Employees and families were invited, and six families who had already been served by the project were planning to attend. There was a hayride scheduled. And a cookout. And volleyball. And an array of other outdoor events. But right when it was scheduled to begin, the skies opened and flooded the land.

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Then, ninety-minutes later, as the rain continued to fall, we got a text saying the people had gathered anyway. Surprised, we piled into the car and, as we fishtailed down a muddy hill into the campground, we saw a small band of employees and families gathered beneath a pavilion. I did’t see a hayride, the volleyball court was a mud pit, and it looked like the festivities had failed.

I met the director of the center and told her I was sorry her first picnic got cancelled. She looked at me and smiled pleasantly and said, “Oh, it wasn’t really cancelled. Four families showed up and during a break in the rain, we went for a walk in the woods, down to the river.”

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Because I’ve been seduced by programming.

The One Thing Nobody Can Take From You (And What To Do With It)

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”

–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

acceptance

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“You can’t get everything you want. Just deal with it.”

I’m sitting with my two youngest kids on a log, in the North Woods of Wisconsin, waiting for Oldest Son to emerge from his two-week residential summer camp. Younger Son is getting nothing he wants—no air conditioning, no reprieve from the bugs, no LED screen to stare at, no sugar, no nothing—and I’m watching him gather his little internal army for battle.

“Some things you can’t change, buddy. It is what it is. Just accept it.”

I’m dispensing life lessons like crummy candy at a hot parade.

Now he’s poking Youngest Daughter, half-heartedly tripping her, his chin so far out it might tip him over, daring me to go to war with him. I decide it’s time to start disciplining him because even though he’s just being a kid—just testing out selfishness, just trying out entitlement—he needs to learn a lesson:

Refusing to accept the things we cannot change has consequences.

Reflections on Beauty (From Main Street U.S.A.)

Beauty. There’s an entire industry dedicated to it. But what if beauty isn’t something you can buy or paint on or put on? What if beauty isn’t even something you can create? What if beauty is a reality we cultivate and something in which we participate?

beauty

Dixon, IL (July 15, 2015)

I’m walking down main street in the small, rural town that was once my hometown and is, as of two weeks ago, my hometown once again. It’s my first official day as a writer in our new home. I’ve just dropped the kids off at camp, and there’s a conflict playing out within me.

I’m feeling pressure to race home and write something beautiful.

But up the block, there’s a coffee shop where people are gathered and laughing, and I haven’t had my morning dose yet. And one block further down the street is my wife’s new pediatric development center, Florissa, which I haven’t yet visited. And lining the sidewalks, from here to there, are hanging baskets, with thick cascades of pink and purple petunias.

Bountiful.

Beautiful.

It’s a July day that has dawned like the best kind of September day. Baby blue sky, mashed potato clouds, sunlight that kisses your face instead of slapping it. It’s the kind of day on which you don’t really need a breeze, but it feels just right anyway. I’d been planning to rush home to capture some beauty in words, but here, ambushed by beauty, I’m reminded:

You don’t capture beauty. It’s too big to be caught and too wild to be grasped. You don’t even discover beauty; you slow down, take a breath, and you let it find you. You make yourself available to it. You bear witness to it.

Dear Parent, Cut Yourself Some Slack

parenting

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Dear Parent,

You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.

We all are.

In the poker game that is parenthood, we’ve been constantly upping the ante for the last thirty years now. Our criteria for what it means to be a successful parent have gone through the roof, and it feels like there’s an awful lot riding on every card we play—we bear a tremendous sense of responsibility for the outcome of our children’s lives.

Dear Parent, you’re carrying more than your fair share of the burden, and you can cut yourself some slack for how your kids turn out. You just don’t have that much control over it.

Their personality will trump your performance every time.

Why I Like to Fight with My Wife

A healthy marriage should look a lot like the Stanley Cup Finals. This is what I mean by that…

marital conflict

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Last month, as my oldest son and I watched the Chicago Blackhawks win game six of the Stanley Cup Finals, he pointed out something a little startling during the post-game on-ice celebration. In the 1990s, when it was the Bulls bringing championships to Chicago, at the final buzzer, their defeated opponent would immediately sprint for the locker room, hiding from the victors and their joy.

But last month, the defeated Tampa Bay Lightning did no such thing.

They waited patiently, for many minutes, as the Blackhawks celebrated together. Then, both sets of men lined up, as they’ve been doing since they were little boys, and they slowly moved past each other, giving handshakes and hugs and warm words of affirmation.

Although the teams had been in conflict for seven very intense games, there was a palpable sense of unity, as if both teams were part of something bigger than a contest, part of a great tradition called hockey, part of a mutual admiration for each other and a mutual respect for a game they are all indebted to. As I watched, I knew the post-game handshake was revealing something essential about conflict:

Conflict isn’t meant to be won; it’s meant to make us one.

Where to Find Peace When Peace is Elusive

Progress is a good thing, but not the best of things. The best things are timeless things, because though they may not bring us change, they bring us peace…

mindfulness

Rehoboth Beach, June 16, 2015, 5:41am

A month before we move, I give in to the sentimental thing at the center of me, and I spend a day touring our old haunts in the suburbs—the claustrophobic apartment in which we spent our first lean and tumultuous year in Chicago, the town surrounding it where we lived and loved and laughed and fought, the little townhouse we bought a couple of towns over, a sequence of daycares and restaurants and parks and the nooks and crannies of several different suburbs. I’m planning to see these old familiar places and then let go of them with a tear or two.

But it doesn’t happen.

Instead, I’m confronted again and again with how much changes in a decade. Buildings have been torn down, trees cut down, and businesses shut down. Very little remains the same. In a way, the trip serves its purpose: it helps me let go by reminding me the things to which I’m attached are already mostly gone. Yet, it gives me something new to grieve.

I grieve the death of timeless things.

In Celebration of the Mundane

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

–Gustave Flaubert

adventure

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I can’t find anything.

We’re in a new house. With new light switches. And no place for my keys. And different cupboards. And a microwave with strange new buttons. And unmapped nooks and crannies. And boxes still taped up, holding answers, I’m sure, to many of the questions I’m asking. And all things are slightly different, which taken separately are pretty insignificant but when taken together amount to standing in the middle of the room, bewildered.

And for crying out loud, where is the toilet paper?

We’re in a new town. I’ve lived here before, but two decades will change anything, and where is the ATM, and which stores contain which groceries, and who provides phone service around here, and what time does the Walmart close because those screws I thought weren’t very important turn out to have been really important, and what are the rhythms of this place and how do we fall into them as quickly as possible?

We’re in a new routine. Actually, we’re in no routine. And, I think, only four days in, I’m ready for a routine again. I’m ready for regularity and order. I’m ready for normal and typical and mundane and boring. Not because I’m tired of adventure.

Because routine is the birthplace for adventure.

How to Look Fear in the Face and Say, “I Just Don’t Care”

“The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.”

–Henri Nouwen

gratitude

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On the morning we boarded a plane for the TODAY Show, I woke up in a panic. The house was February cold and the morning was February dark. I sat alone in my office and shivered.

I wasn’t shivering because of the cold.

I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I might turn back time and not agree to go on national television. I meditated. I prayed. I couldn’t find peace. But then my prayers were answered by a still, small voice inside saying the strangest of things:

Glitter in the air.

I reached for my phone, played the song of that title, and the lyrics I’d forgotten were a blessed reassurance: 

Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?

Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don’t care”?

It’s only half past the point of no return,

The tip of the iceberg,

The sun before the burn,

The thunder before the lightning,

And the breath before the phrase.

Have you ever felt this way?

For the rest of that surreal weekend in New York and at 30 Rock, as the fear would creep back in, I’d imagine our family with fistfuls of glitter thrown into the air and floating down around us. Crazy. Messy. A little bit out of control. But beautiful. Alive. Awake.

The Power of Friendship (When Friendship is a Verb)

The word “friend” is a derivative of the verb “freon,” which means, “To love.” A friend is a person. And a friend is a verb

friendship

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Two years ago, as my daughter was sprouting up through her fourth year of life, I was helping her put on a pair of jeans, and the waistband strained mightily. I asked her if she would like me to loosen it. She looked at me with puzzlement and asked, “Why?” So I found the stretchy strap inside the waistband and loosened it several notches.  I looked at her and asked, “Better?” This time, she looked at me with awe and she sighed,

“Oh my, that’s a lot of better.”

My daughter didn’t know how uncomfortable her pants were, because she didn’t know how comfortable they could feel. When dis-ease sets in like a slowly dripping faucet, we don’t notice it. We unconsciously adapt to it. This can happen to our pants. But it can also happen to our hearts.

We steadily, quietly get flooded by the almost imperceptible drip-drip of disinterest.