Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Married Dating With Children

CAVEAT: this is not a Woody Allen-esque "How To" piece.

I remember when Ashley and I first started dating. Oh, those magical times when we would just lose track of the hours we would spend together, and not only because we had both fallen asleep on the couch watching TV. Work and the demands of our jobs were ever-present (curse you, money needed to exchange for goods and services), but that was it as far as distractions went. Both of our families lived hours away, so there were never times when our parents or siblings would show up unannounced and cart us away for time with them. We'd occasionally need some "Me Time," but other than that, we were almost always together. For meals, for movies, for going to the bookstore (hey, remember those things?), for coffee - you name it.

Then we got married.

The first 22 months of our marriage were pretty much the same as our dating life, except this time there weren't two separate apartments to return to at the end of the day. Our lives, like our laundry, intermingled and became a blur of oneness. Other than we had moved to Miami and were naked a lot more, it seemed like marriage had changed nothing about our lives or our relationship.

Until March 2009.

After Kai was born, we suffered from First Time Parent Syndrome: we all but stayed rooted to our apartment; not out of fear of exposing him to EWWTHOSEDIRTYGERMSFROMFILTYPEOPLE, but because it was just...easier. No internally hearing the theme from Mission: Impossible while we tried to time out if we could load up a car seat and diaper bag, run to a restaurant, eat, and get back before the Banshee-like lungs of a newborn shattered the tranquility of the other patrons (or God forbid, he cried all the way home in the confines of the car). Our families were even further away thanks to our moving to the bottom right corner of the United States, so getting someone to watch our little critter while we snuck away was all but impossible.

Since I was a stay-at-home dad by this point and was unintentionally morphing my Myers-Briggs typology from "Extrovert" to "Introvert" due to almost no social interaction save for the clerks at Publix or Target, Ashley beautifully gifted me with one night out a week to either go to the local brewpub to meet up with some friends or head over to watch Doctor Who with a buddy of mine.

After Kai turned one, we moved to South Carolina. Now closer to our families (but not TOO close), and with a toddler whom we felt incrementally better about leaving in the care of others (for approximately 60 minutes at a stretch), we actually took the opportunity to go out as a couple sans child.

Like, six times or something. From 2010-2013. We even went totally nuts and for two years there took an OVERNIGHT! TRIP! (literally overnight and back at the 24 hour mark) on our anniversary.

Again: not because we're "those" weird parents who can't leave their kid, but because - honestly - it became the norm. The easy thing to do. We were a trio and it was just how we were. Part of the beauty in this was Kai always had the opportunity to feel loved, special and included (even though part of the time he may have felt unloved, abused, or oppressed because "No, we are NOT going to Zaxby's for dinner AGAIN."). It was genuinely special and hopefully gave him a bit of a strong foundation of love in his life.

Since I was still a stay-at-home dad, and had to start up an entirely new social circle, Ashley again beautifully gifted me with one night out a week to go to the local craft beer joint. (You'll notice a theme emerging at some point.)

Until July 2013.

After Eli was born, we started to fall back into the routine of "second verse, same as the first" with how we were after Kai was born; namely, we were about one ring away from becoming Gollum and staying in our cave, never to emerge into the light. Like with Kai, part of it was necessary (you can't just cart a newborn anywhere), but something had changed. Something was different. Something was new.

Ashley's mom had retired and moved to Columbia late last year. To help us.

Which meant we could go out as a couple, preferably to restaurants that didn't have a Kid's Menu.

Other than going to the local library on Saturday mornings to steal their wifi while I worked on some writing assignments, my "Me Time"/talking to adults outside of the home had slowed to a trickle save for about every other week hitting up the local brewery for an hour or two. Ashley's only outlet unfortunately was work, and although she has friends there, there's not a lot of social intermingling one can do when one is still tethered to a breastfeeding child that requires sustenance every three hours or so.

So we decided that - for practical reasons (baths, meal times, and all the other incidentals a kid needs) - in lieu of a "date night" once a week, we'd have a "date day" on Sunday afternoon. This way, we could time the need for bottles and naps with our need to just take a freaking break and be with each other.

Needless to say, we kinda stink at it.

Not counting our staying home and not going out due to the Great Sinus Plagues of Late 2013 and Early 2014 which meant we had not one but two sick kids to coddle, we tend to not take full advantage of the time we can. We'll go grab a meal with food that would make Kai gag - and then pick up the kids. Or we'll go see a movie a few months after it's been released - and then speed back to pick up the kids. It's not that we believe they somehow have overpowered Grandma, tied her to a chair, and have ordered Pay-Per-View episodes of Power Rangers Megaforce, but it's that we stink at being a duo now.

And that's not an entirely bad thing.

Kai and Eli see us hug, they see us kiss, they see us playfully pick on each other, and they see us fight (healthily), which means they're hopefully going to grow up with a moderately grounded idea of what a loving couple should look like. And I'll go on record saying that Ashley is the most loving, attentive, caring, nurturing, and fun mom imaginable. These boys explode with joy when she is with them, and I find it impossible to imagine a time or scenario where she wold not be the best mom ever.

These days when we fall asleep on the couch, it's due to exhaustion and not because we're just so comfy cuddling each other. When we lose track of time, it's from having to wrangle two monkeys and not from a deep conversation about faith, life goals, or what the hell is going on with Lost.

We're making baby steps towards dating again. We're striving towards relearning this lost art of being with each other and not with checking the phone to see if Grandma has texted us.

It's the simple act of attempting to recalculate our life math: 1 + 1 = 1. 

We'll just carry the other 2.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Parent. Baby. Repeat.

With all love and genuine respect to Nick and his blog for allowing me to parody his title. Really, though, if you don't follow his blog or Twitter account, you're missing out on a lot.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, which just goes to show that nine times out of ten, people who have multiple children aren't geniuses.

Parent: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results.

Yeah. That never works.

My journey as a stay-at-home dad has been well documented in numerous places, so I'm not going to bore you with the details yet again (nor will I encourage you to buy a copy of a certain book). What's interesting is looking back on my first four years with Kai  and viewing it through the lens of what typically happens in an academic cycle of a student who is starting college:

First Year - I have no idea what I'm doing. Stayed up late a lot. Ate poorly. Overextended myself. And a lot of my old friends didn't want to hang anymore; "You've changed," they said.

Second Year - Starting to get into a rhythm. Made a lot - a LOT - of Sophomoric mistakes. Still trying to find who I am and get a balance in all this. Cut back on the late nights.

Third Year - Rut. Feels like I've been doing the same things over and over. Tempted to just drop out.

Fourth Year - WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S TIME TO GRADUATE (TO PRE-K)? THE TIME WENT BY TOO QUICKLY! I'M NOT READY (FOR HIM) TO LEAVE AT THE END OF THIS YEAR!

And so on.

Not that Child Two equals graduate school, but you get the basic gist.

Elias was a bit of a surprise to us. Ashley and I had just started the discussions about me returning to the workforce part-time once Kai began school when the studio "green-lit our sequel," so to speak, thus ending the need for me to revise my resume. And while we never had an in-depth discussion on if I would/should stay home for Round Two, we both just made it an unstated thing that I would.

Bear in mind that I don't regret making this choice - again. That I feel staying home - again - is the right thing for me to do in this season of my life. And that I'm not distraught nor upset by another go at building my upper body strength by repeatedly carting around a car seat and diaper bag.

I'll admit that at first, I thought Eli didn't like me. Here I was, with him as a SAHD since day one of his life, daily and repeatedly administering various lotions and cremes to his private areas, giving him food, baths, playtime, and reading to him. Yet, when his brother or his mom walk in the room, he lights up. Ecstatically lights up.



Kai = plaything. Mom = lovecuddlehuggyperson. Dad = servant.

Not that he didn't (and doesn't) smile at me, but there is a euphoria that apparently is created in his little heart when someone other than the Bald Guy Who Changes MY Diapers comes into view. However, these days the only way he is willing to nap is if I hold him, with his head balanced in my left arm close to my heart.

Clearly, I hate this.

Any parent of multiple kids will tell you: raising Child One is an exercise in establishing your learning curve in parenting. So if/when Child Two comes around, you're absolutely certain you've got this. You already know exactly what to do in any given scenario.

The two biggest flaws in this "logic" are: (a) in the interim time between kids, no matter the gap, you forget a lot. Most of it. Only Pavlovian responses to crying, soothing, and suppressing a gag reflex at the mysteries found in diapers remain; and (b) each kid is different. Drastically. What it took to tame Thing One will not be what it takes to tame Thing Two.

It's not been hard to observe the differences. What has tripped me up is honoring the differences.

So I've had to relearn what it takes to be the primary caregiver while simultaneously trying to balance being a dad to multiple kids at once. Learning to not let the needs/demands of one overbalance the needs/demands of the other has been challenging, and Lord literally knows I've not been perfect at it.

My kids are on two different cycles - and I'm not just referring to their sleep patterns. Both need hugs, both need time with each parent individually and collectively, and both need to be seen as a person in their own right. Repeatedly telling myself to not expect the same results with Thing Two four years after first trying them with Thing One has been a hard, hard lesson to live through. Mainly because it would be just so much easier - for me - if I could just parent on autopilot.

I just need to relax and embrace the insanity that is parenting.

Or rather, re-embrace. 

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Snack By Faith, Not By Sight

It was one of those things we always took for granted when we were kids.

It was never a question of territory, permission, or if it was acceptable.

We just did it.

We raided fridges.

Our own. Our friends'. Sometimes in the homes of perfect strangers when our parents would drag us off to a dinner party featuring sandwiches or casseroles of questionable origin (meaning: green vegetables).

And the adults - for the most part - never questioned it. We were never denied access or what we sought. We were met with kind smiles, comments of "Of course you can eat that," and a feeling like we were welcomed. Free.

I'm not sure when it began to change. Puberty, when we all started to become a little more self-aware and self-conscious? High school, when hoards of free-range teenage boys pillaging the contents of a refrigerator not your own was seen as less cute and more rude? College, when we left our places of origin to forge our identities and returned home as someone slightly different and out of phase with the world we left?

I remember the first time I felt uneasy about going into my own parents' fridge to just...grab something to eat. I was in my early 20s, and the fantasy of self-replicating money coming from a bottomless source had died off thanks to my being out of college and paying my own way. Suddenly, those infinite sodas or numerous bags of chips had a cost associated with them. Not that I miserly doled out each Ramen noodle I consumed in my own apartment, but I knew. I knew there was something different about what I had always felt was freedom.

And it was less of a shift in my wallet than it was in my heart.

This. This was not my house any more. It was my parents' house. As such, there were rules, etiquette, and niceties to follow. Rules I imposed upon myself, because I seriously doubt there would ever have been a time when my mom or dad would have turned me away.

I look now at my own kids, one of whom has no issue with walking up to my fridge, grandma's fridge, the kid down the street's fridge and asking for something, and the younger one, who - once he starts walking & talking - is going to undoubtedly parrot what he sees his older brother doing. I love that they feel that freedom, that welcomeness, that openness that speaks love into them (and their stomachs).

But I also know that one day, it will change.

And like me, it will mostly be from rules they impose upon themselves.

But sadly, also from rules others deem they should follow.

Because these rules don't just apply to life, but also to faith.

...

It was one of those things we always took for granted when we were younger.

It was never a question of territory, permission, or if it was acceptable.

We just did it.

We raided God's fridge.

And He never questioned it. We were never denied access or what we sought. We were met with a sensation of a kind smile in our heart, the Spirit gently whispering "Of course you can eat that," and a feeling like we were welcomed. Free.

I'm not sure when it began to change. Puberty, when a child-like faith seemed more a social liability than a calling of the heart? High school, when questions and doubt were often met with scorn from the same adults who were supposed to lead us? College, when it was time to "grow up," put away childish things, and learn to act under rules that highlighted and preferred maintaining the perceived norm and less on passion?

I am still uneasy about going before God to just...ask. To just seek. Sometimes to just be.

And it's more due to a shift in my heart than it is in heaven.

Because there are - clearly - rules, etiquette, and niceties to follow. Rules I imposed upon myself or have allowed others to impose upon me, because I seriously doubt there could ever have been a time when God would have or will turn me away.

And it's not as if I approach in an attitude of arrogance in my asking that some feel they are entitled to under the "rightness" of "just pray for healing and God will heal," or "just ask for a burden to be lifted and God will take it away," or "if you have enough faith/name-and-claim/whatever you ask in Jesus' name." It's that I feel unworthy at times - from sin, from thinking there is more I must do or say - and that the door must remain shut and to never know if that little light inside will be on should I open the door or not.

I forget. I simply forget that I have free access to God's fridge.

To fellowship and communion. To worship as it speaks to me. To love others as I am loved, with no fear, judgment, conditions ("hate the sin, love the sinner"), or question. To ask for wisdom in struggles if freedom is not to be immediately granted.

To a life that can be - and should be - more than what I allow it at times.

I need to hold to this promise when I feel I am unworthy. I have to learn to demonstrate to my kids what love and freedom look like.

I simply need to grab the handle and pull.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Out of the Silent #PlanetCCM

This is my little contribution to my friend Dianna Anderson's #PlanetCCM synchroblog. If you've never taken the chance to read Dianna's work before, you're robbing yourself. She is one of the most intelligent, intellectual, and at times polarizing writers in the Christian field these days. If you walk away from her blog without having had at least two to three challenges to the way you think about issues, you didn't read her words well enough.

As an old school Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) fan, I have to make a confession: I kinda hate today's Christian music market, and the majority of the popular praise and worship songs just annoy me to death.

But to be fair, part of my attitude comes from a little bit of jealousy.

The Dark Ages

I grew up in northeast Mississippi. Having been born a tad too late and a lot too far right geographically to have been immersed in the "Jesus Music" craze that was sweeping the country, we remained in our nice, safe, sweet-tea laden cocoon of who and what was appropriate and Biblical based on our social norms. In the 1970s-1980s, clearly this region was the focal area in the country for where major paradigm shifts in the Christian culture were to take place.

We had one (1) AM Christian radio station that played CCM by the artists we were supposed to listen to: Evie; Twila Paris; Steve Green; Wayne Watson; Benny Hester; and so on. The majority of the cars on the roads had somewhere on them a purple bumper sticker with the call letters of the station and a white ictus fish on it so we could demarcate who was driving around town safely listening to Dino instead of the Oak Ridge Boys. It was like being in a club that almost everyone belonged to.

And we were told it was right and good.

But despite the crush I might have had on Amy Grant, something in me didn't feel settled,  didn't feel as uplifted and fulfilled by the music I was told was the best for me. By the time I was in middle school and was old enough to be in the church's youth group, I had mastered the art of tuning the radio on my Sony Walkman late at night to a local rock station so that I could at least try to understand why Madonna might be crazy for me, why men wore hats, or any of the other various odd comments my friends would make about the - gasp - secular music they listened to. Because the way they described their songs was with a passion I didn't feel for what I was listening to.

But still, I was told my music was right and good.

When we were lucky enough to have "contemporary" music in our church services, it was exclusively on Sunday nights, sung only by the youth group choir, safely hidden away from the eyes and checkbooks of the participants in the TV broadcast of the morning service and the adults who might find the notion of teenagers singing in four part harmonies accompanied by synthesized music offensive. We could have our music, but just not in church. Or at least not in a church service where such a style of music might come across as being validated by the church. Oh, sure - Amy Grant's Straight Ahead and Russ Taff's Medals might both be upbeat, but they were still safe. Our musical theology was demarked with the safety of a blue cassette or a red barrier that ended in Cr02.

And we were told that it was right and good.

And I believed it.

Until around 1986-1988.

The "B" Side

I suppose it's only poetic that right about the time I got my driver's license was when my outlook on CCM changed for me. I could sit in my car and blast away The Big Picture from a very non-"Friends"-themed Michael W. Smith or hear DeGarmo & Key get all bluesy with Commander Sozo and the Charge of the Light Brigade or Streetlight, but they were still..."our" artists. More in the church and of it than not. And while I didn't dislike them per se, the teenager in me who was struggling with the notion of rebellion and independence was tethered musically and theologically to a codependent church system that honored the pattern of a ten-song album, five songs per side, with one slow ballad per side fit for air play and that honored Jesus.

Because I was told that was right and good.

Loud, but right and good.

I still remember the first time I hit play on my cassette deck on an album from a group I'd never heard of before but took a chance on due mainly to the psychedelic album cover. There was a slight hiss through the speakers, and then I heard that cadence of drums in "Consider" from Chase the Kangaroo by the Choir.

Everything changed.

From there it was a snowball effect of artists - Leslie Phillips; Mark Heard; Steve Taylor; Daniel Amos; Adam Again; the 77s; Mike Knott; Charlie Peacock; the Violet Burning; and so many others. My disposable teenage income shifted to mail ordering One Bad Pig or Absence of Ceramics cassettes and special ordering The Throes and Breakfast With Amy from the local Christian bookstore. I devoted hundreds of hours to words that captured me and fed into my heart the very thing I felt I had been missing for years before while spinning endless Petra and WhiteHeart albums.

Stories.

These were not verse-chorus-verse ballads designed to uplift written by groups looking for a Dove award or an accompaniment track to be sold in the local Christian book store. They were artists, sharing painful and sometimes brutally honest lessons on life, faith, love, and why blowing up abortion clinics is just a stupid, stupid idea.

But more than that, I didn't feel as alone. Through these artists (some of whom I came to know in person in later years) I felt connected with a tribe of fellow lovers of music outside my city, state, and region. I found comfort and connectivity in the albums discovered hidden behind display stands of 4Him, Glad, and Carmen. I no longer felt like I was the only one discontent with the squeaky clean songs approved for the air.

To me, this was worship music. Because it was honest.

But it wasn't right and good.

To my church, at least.

Higher Ground and Higher Education

Looking back, I now know there is no way stylistically, functionally, or socially my church - or truthfully, any church then or now - could have or would have approved the playing of or performing of the majority of the songs by these artists. Oh, but how I longed for it. We could stop playing "Crack the Sky" and move on to "Love Is Not Lost" or "Dig."

I now know now these aren't the songs written for or designed for corporate worship as we understand it. Voices can be, have been, and often are raised in unison singing "Darn Floor, Big Bite" - but in a concert setting. I might raise my hands and sing "Pray Naked," but that would never pass with the Senior Adults.

These are not ballads. These are not anthems. These are not crafted for boys in skinny jeans to sing while playing an acoustic guitar.

These are not right and good.

So how, it was posed to me, exactly can they be feeding my heart with the message of Christ if the lyrics are allegorical, meant to be interpreted, and not something easy to understand?

Because - you know - that's not like the Bible or God at all.

When I graduated high school, I packed up my CDs - the ones that meant the most to me - and left for college, leaving the church in many ways behind me. Like many first-year students away from home for the first time, I struggled to fit in, even with the campus ministries. Some of them were just extensions of our youth groups we'd graduated from. They were cut-and-paste, far too non-ironically like the lyrics of "I Want to be a Clone" for my taste, and so...I stopped. I dropped. and I holy rolled away.

For the better part of a decade, I wasn't a church-going Christian. I'd swing by on the odd visit, especially if someone I knew was speaking. I'd stopped my morning quiet time/devotional/fill-in-the-blank prayers a while back. I'd all but become the very kind of Christian that the 15-17 year old me would have mocked, felt pity upon, and prayed for due to my lukewarm and backslidden nature. Church as an institution meant pretty much nothing to me.

But.

I never stopped "Consider" -ing.

I may have been captured in time and space away from the church, but those CDs - the very ones by the very artists I was told were no good for me - they were the tethers back to a foundation of my faith that has continued to grow. And yes, I still have most of them. Some of them have been lost to multiple moves, ex-girlfriends, or eBay, but my iPod still holds hundreds of CDs and thousands of songs by people I'd venture to guess 90% of the modern church has never heard of.

And today, you can cut on any Christian radio station to hear a ballad, anthem, or worship song crafted for on-air play as well as in worship in church. The lines between the two have blurred and overlapped so much that many modern CDs basically serve as a playlist for worship leaders. They are songs written to connect - for under five minutes time each - in worship with the Spirit.

And this is right and good. Genuinely.

It's not what feeds me, but it can be right and good.

Just don't tell me what feeds me isn't.

The songs that tell of more than reaching down with a sloppy, wet kiss. The ones that don't seem as if they'd fit in with worship around the throne once we reach Paradise. The songs that tell stories of struggles and not just adoration. The ones that question and don't just praise. The songs that never made it to airplay and never will.

They are right and good.

I for one look forward to one day Gene Eugene teaching those Passion kids a thing or two about song craftsmanship.

And that will be right and good.

And probably an utterly brilliant collaboration.