Saturday, March 22

Face the Complexities of Work

Dear Jacob,

This is hard work.  Each day I start by considering what is the compelling story and what does that story actually say.  Most of the time what comes out is not what I anticipated and the story takes me someplace else. That's typical when I write fiction and the characters take over their own lives, their sense of agency typed out by fingers that don't feel like mine. But when I'm telling the stories that shaped my real days of breath and gain and toil I'm continuously surprised that they teach what they do.  The hard work comes in not getting in the way.

Doing hard things can physically drain us and push us into weakness and fatigue.  Our hearts can be both filled and deflated at the same time, our minds expanded past their limits, walls of old-thinking crackling down all around. Our brains are actually wired to scout the most efficient pathways, conserving energy for the importance of the beating heart. The body seems to lay the path for us: keep the main thing the main thing.

The past two weeks I've been working.  I've been pushed to my limits of knowledge, skill and relational intelligence. My desire to do my desperate best for the benefit of others has simply knocked up against the ever-present clock and I found myself nightly asking for "just six hours" to rest so I could rise early and start again.  The projects I've completed (so thankful they are past tense) reminded me what it is to be a learner and what it is to be a servant. I don't wish to be that pressed again but I do sense the satisfaction of good work done well.

You have never been one to embrace work.  As a small baby your work was to eat, sleep and poop. You had two of those down pretty well.  The third one left me combing books and websites and mom-friends for ideas to get nourishment into your body without the stress and strain. You seemed fine with the ordeal, falling fast asleep during every bottle. I was the emotional wreck. How could feeding a baby be so hard?  But it was and you endured because I held you near, sometimes splashing water on your naked body, and said this is just what we have to do.

Walking was work. You determined to postpone it entirely until you were fifteeen months old.  One day while we were in the woods you decided to practice your skills for the very first time, propelling yourself across our pastor's camping tarp with wobbly satisfaction.  And we proudly watched all chunky twenty-eight pounds of you and said, "Finally."

Poor Ben had an even tougher experience.  Once he was up and cruising around fairly well, we threw him a curve and took him camping in a plot on a hill.  Every time we stepped out of the truck, he'd go rolling down to the tent.  He'd learned to walk in complete flatness and now he had to adjust for elevation.  We often find that the work we signed up for is not the work that we produce.

Family is exactly like this too.  What we envision doesn't always emerge and we find that living in a family is not actually for our ease.  Some days, yes, there is comfort in being known and protected and enjoyed. But family might be the hardest work there is. When you live in a home with people you didn't choose it feels sometimes like a sinister deistic plot to destroy you.  But the truth is that while it's not sinister, it is indeed deistic and it's a plot to see you rise to a new life. In family we learn to push through hard things and we can be satisfied by the changes they bring. Of course, we can find ourselves unsatisfied but that's a demeanor of our choosing.

There are some days when the socks seem to multiply in corners about the room, bowls half-full of cereal encrusted milk teeter at the edge of the counter, towels lie wet and crumpled on the bathroom floor and the remnants of boys all about the house exhaust me. There are some days when I can't create peace between the three of you for any amount of money or threat or ice cream.  There are days when children empty my account of grace long before they ever deposit a dime.  And I worry and quarrel with myself over how to elevate the situation, hoping that you will magically all go off to college with some semblance of civility and decency and respect.

I read a beautiful memoir last month by a mother who said, "That's what a family seems to be, a team of your biggest fans who are also more work than you could ever imagine."  Here's what a mother knows when she's teaching her middle son to finally sleep through the night long after his first birthday.  Here's what a mother knows when she's washing and folding the same pair of pants week after week, again, finding them crumpled on the floor.  Here's what a mother knows when she's waiting in the dentist's office for the son with the abscessed tooth and two fillings done all in one day.  Here's what a mother knows when she's wishing Mother's Day wouldn't be full of fits and tantrums from the sons she longingly wants to celebrate.  Everything is work. In order to rectify and renew we must work and push and announce and counter and build to that end.  Blaming, resting, resisting, avoiding, denying -- these only move us toward atrophy.

And it's never enough; none of our domains is safe. Relationships are work. Learning is work. Saving is work. Loving is work. Building, achieving, restoring anything at all is done through effort, intention, passion and nerve.  "Work is so foundational to our makeup that it is one of the few things we can take in significant doses without harm.  Indeed, the Bible does not say we should work one day and rest six or that work and rest should be balanced evenly but directs us to the opposite ratio.  Leisure and pleasure are great goods, but we can only take so much of them."  This is spoken by Tim Keller, a man who has worked hard to bring the kingdom of God to the good people of New York City.  And still there is work to do.  We need more workers to do it.

I thought that I was going to write a different story.  When I looked at that photo of your dad letting you go into your first steps I thought it would be a story of heart-filled love and hope, a story of anticipation filled and of a progeny launched.  Once again, that's not the story that surfaced.  And it was hard for me to let it befall.