Summer by Design

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Posters for our family rules/values

Summer: it’s a long stretch of unstructured family time that I look upon with exuberant idealism. And then I promptly fritter most of it away. And let’s be clear! I’m all for the frittering, so long as it’s relaxing and fun. But falling down the Facebook rabbit-hole doesn’t count. More often than not, escaping to my I-Phone inspires shame rather than pleasure. (Note: this is, sadly, a year-round problem.)

This summer, I wanted things to go differently. But how to break my lackluster patterns of behavior? I’ve been thinking a lot about that guilt-inspiring yet wholly true Pinterest quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

And then I read this inspiring blog post about designing a summer. And then I toyed with it a bit and implemented a few things for my family. And then I thought, “But I can’t post about this on my blog. Summer design is just about my most deeply held values, parenting choices, and life plans. That has nothing to do with religion.”

Sigh. (Hey, foot. Hold still so I can shoot you.)

And after I got over that particular misconception, I wondered if a post like this had any value at the tail-end of July. And I concluded that yes, yes it does. After all, I’ve got some experience to back up my story here… and one more month of summer to enjoy.

So here’s what I did! It’s pretty basic. First, I articulated our family values on three little posters. Then, the kids and I had a family meeting to elaborate on each value. We talked about what each one meant and brainstormed ways to live that value. I wrote down and illustrated our ideas (I’m no artist, but the drawings help our preliterate wee ones connect text and meaning). Then, we hung the posters at kid level in a high-traffic area.

Now, this last step is the most important and, unfortunately, the one I’ve had the least success following consistently. It involves coming back to our posted values and, as a family, incorporating them intentionally into our plans for the week. I was better about this in June, and it’s no coincidence that this was a fabulous month for us.

Worth noting: some of June’s success definitely comes from the fact that I spent a long time trying to distill our family’s values before sharing them with the kids. I wanted three statements that would be easy for all of us to remember and understand. At the same time, I wanted the statements to be flexible enough to stick around for a long time; the interpretation of each should be able to grow more sophisticated as the kids mature.

Here are the values governing our summer (and hopefully beyond) :

  • Take Care… of ourselves, our world, and each other.
  • Be Kind.
  • Savor Life. Play! Learn! Explore! Relax!

Great idea, right? And like I said, June was awesome. But in July, I got a little lazier about weekly family meetings. I didn’t intentionally revisit our values, either alone or with the kids. I also felt more harassed by the abundance of obligations I’d loaded into the calendar.

So, lesson learned for August: set clear boundaries and quit over-crowding our schedule. Also, stick faithfully to the weekly Monday family meeting. At that meeting, review our values. And yes, frame our chores and obligations in terms of our values. But even more importantly, invite each of us to choose an activity from the “Savor Life” poster. Prioritize those choices in the week’s plan. (Without a plan, I tend to be allergic to fun. It’s sad, but true.)

What are you currently doing to live your values? How could you kick it up a notch? And what are you plans for making the most of the rest of your summer?

 

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Good Samaritan for Grown-Ups

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This week, I’m inspired and challenged by author John Metta.

A friend’s online post recently turned me on to writer John Metta–specifically, an article he wrote entitled “I, Racist.” It was a thought-provoking gem of an essay that makes me ache to be back in an AP Language and Composition classroom. (Don’t be surprised if I rewrite this post at some point to include a lesson plan and Socratic seminar questions. I just might not be able to resist.)

While a quick perusal of Metta’s website yields a treasure trove of well-written thoughts I plan to peruse in depth, this particular text ties directly back to the Good Samaritan parable as well as the sermon my pastor gave this week. Certainly, it’s provoking some more challenging self-reflection on my part.

I strongly encourage you to read the whole text. If nothing else, I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts provoked by a brief excerpt of Metta’s work, below. 

Speaking on the Good Samaritan and institutionalized racism, Metta writes, “What if the person wasn’t beaten and bloody? What if it wasn’t so obvious? What if they were just systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life? Would you be so quick to help then?”

On Samaritans and Serpents

Know this about Big Sis: she has an amazing heart, strong emotional intuition, and boundless energy and imagination when it comes to solving problems. It should probably come as no surprise that, during our discussion of the Good Samaritan parable, this wise little five-year-old ended up schooling me.

I was prepped to provide all the profundity. I had an Arch Book covering the story! And we were going to brainstorm lists–one about all the ways that we already love our neighbors, another about what else we could be doing to extend and demonstrate that love.

An excellent opportunity to lobby for better treatment of Little Brother, I thought. And I can also make an anti-bullying plug before kindergarten starts. 

And yeah, I got up on that soapbox. Big Sis listened dutifully and even contributed appropriately to my pre-written script. Gold star! Lesson over!

But then she said, “Mom, I want to help the people who don’t have money. Those people we see who are asking for money.  I want to give it to them.”

Say what?

I wish I could tell you that I instantly had a brilliant and generous response. Not so, but at least I didn’t lend voice to my ugly inner thought process. It went something like this:

  1. An initial knee-jerk selfishness mixed with a healthy dollop of scarcity-mentality panic. I’m not sharing my money with panhandlers. They don’t deserve it! And I don’t even have enough for myself, despite the fact that I’m gainfully employed! 
  2. Surprised shame… I can’t believe I just dismissed the needs of an entire portion of the human population. I’m a jerk.
  3. … Quickly followed by justification. But I’m a jerk with a mortgage to pay. 
  4. Then some pain. Remember when Family Member X was living on the streets, hurting and hurtful, spending what he could get on drugs? I felt powerless to help him. I feel powerless now.
  5. And finally confusion. Why couldn’t we just congratulate ourselves on donating canned food and bringing casseroles to sick loved ones? How am I supposed to navigate this surprisingly challenging discussion about loving our neighbor? 

And then I did what all parents do: I handled it the best I could, full knowing I was probably missing opportunities or sending mixed messages.

We decided that I’ll start carrying extra snacks in my purse. We will offer them to anyone who asks for money. We are also going to set aside money throughout the year. Right after Thanksgiving or during Advent, we will have a family meeting about how to spend the money helping others. Big Sis will definitely have a voice.

It’s more than we’re doing now. It’s a good baby step to take. But it’s also a far cry from the radical love and hospitality that Big Sis was originally advocating. She wanted to take homeless people shopping and buy them whatever they said they needed. She wanted to give them her jar of scavenged pennies and birthday money. She wanted to buy them a house “because everyone should have a home, Mommy. It’s not fair.”

And I hated myself a little bit for telling her “Be less generous.” And it reminded me of all the times that I, in my capacity as teacher, inadvertently told my high school students “Think smaller.”

Which brings me to the serpent. Honestly, I’ve always hated the story of Eve biting the apple. The rampant lady-hating! The vilification of learning! And God as angry dad, just a-dolin’ out the punishments!  I’m a feminist, a teacher, and a hippie Lutheran… it pretty much pushes all my buttons.

But after my interaction with Big Sis, I considered the story in a new light. What do Adam and Eve actually learn after eating the apple? They learn shame. They learn fear. They experience pain and separation from God.

This isn’t exactly the brand of “wisdom” I’d hoped to impart as a teacher or as a parent. But how many times have I been a Serpent in the Garden, saying (and perhaps even believing) that “I’m just opening your eyes to reality” when, in fact, I’m pushing cynicism, conformity, or self-doubt? I do it to others. I do it to myself.

I am glad I ended the conversation by telling my daughter I was proud of her. I told her that she can make big things happen, that I’m glad she cares so much, and that she should always believe in herself and her capacity to do good.

Thanks, Big Sis, for teaching me yet another lesson about love.

A Place at the Table

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Our song of the day during worship this morning’s service was A Place At the Table. After a week of tough news in the United States, it was both healing and challenging to sing lyricist Shirley Elena Murray’s refrain: “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.”

Normally, hymns are hardly my favorite part of worship. I observe them politely while remaining essentially unmoved. But today’s featured song forced a bit of self-reflection that went a little something like this:

Sometimes, I feel stymied by the vast quantity of issues humanity has yet to surmount or, in some cases, even acknowledge. I feel helpless. I feel hopeless. I cling to the sour conviction that I am vastly under-qualified to  address personal and institutionalized prejudice against “others” (take your pick as to how we define those others at any particular moment).

But discouraging though my perceived helplessness may be, I suspect it’s actually the more pleasing alternative. What if I’m not helpless? What if, instead, I am paralyzed by fear?

Sure, I make parenting and personal decisions that I’d like to think have a positive impact on the world. But I could be doing more. What stops me? Fear. If I stand up as a stronger advocate for victims of injustice, some people may disapprove of my words and actions. Worse, some of the disapproval may come from people I care about. I don’t want to discover bigotry and/or ignorance in my loved ones. And I certainly don’t want to discover it in myself.

But my blind spots are there, whether I acknowledge them or not. I’m a product of my gender, my sexual orientation, my race, my class, my region, and my educational background. I have privileges I don’t even realize. There are ideas and realities to which I’ve never been exposed–either because they’re entirely outside my realm of experience, or because I haven’t been paying very good attention.

How can I be an advocate if I’m not an expert? How can I be an ally without co-opting or corrupting more authentic voices?

Beyond cultural issues, there are the usual human factors to consider. I can be cowardly, self-involved, and egotistical. I’m not always a good listener. And sometimes, I get so worried about causing or feeling discomfort that I avoid the difficult conversations and uphold a shameful silence.

“I’ll be more helpful when I have more time,” I tell myself. “I’ll contribute when I have more money, more knowledge, more patience, and more talent.”

Enough.

Today I’m admitting that I’ll never be perfect, and there will never be a perfect time to grow my own skills as an advocate or ally. But that doesn’t matter. My shortcomings are no excuse for holding back. Imperfect efforts are better than inaction.

The odds are that I won’t singlehandedly cause an amazing and newsworthy shift on behalf of human rights. But you know what? I don’t have to make headlines. I don’t have to be a visionary leader. I can be a courageous follower. I can join all the other humble people quietly building a more compassionate culture.

That’s the world I want to live in, the one Shirley Elena Murray describes in her hymn: “For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be. To work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born the right to be free.”