What Gets Me Through the Day

School starts this week.

For the first time since I began my career, this does not paralyze me with anxiety.

I am entering into my fourth year as a public school educator. In the past, the start of the year has come with a great deal of stress. There is the extreme awkwardness of what to say to a room full of new students on the first day of school. A significant amount of physical adjustment is required to adapt to new schedules, new routines, and new dynamics in the classroom. I always lament that I did not “do enough” during the summer, and therefor wish I had more time to be on break. Until now, new school years have started almost exactly the same way.

I think I am reaching a place where I have been doing this just long enough to feel like I know what I’m doing. I have tried a few things, and I now know what works and what doesn’t in making a connection with my students during the first few days of the new year. I know how to pace myself so that I do not crash at the end of the day. I know what difficulties to anticipate, and avoid or deflect accordingly, so that I can focus on what I love about my job.

So, here I am, still very early in my career, but gaining experience. Dare I say it? I am excited about my first day of classes.

It happened faster than I thought, too. It feels like just yesterday I was in my first education class in college, wondering if I was making the right choice. Student teaching, my master’s fellowship, and looking for a job are all complete. Things I remember believing would never happen have come and gone, and I am on to new aspirations.

I am amazed that despite my mistakes, my frustration, and my brashness, despite my selfishness, foolishness, and pride, life is still good. If I had to be truly honest with myself, I know that I do not deserve good things. Even the “good” things I have done were acted out according to my own agenda. Yet, in the end, I am blessed.

This convinces me that life is a gift, given to me out of the goodness of the heart of our Father. It is given not because I earned it, and not because I had the strength on my own to work my way here; it was given to me simply because I am loved.

So, when I go into work tomorrow and I do not have fear over what is coming, I know it is not because of my amazing talent as a teacher or my extraordinary perseverance as a human. Time passed and events occurred whether or not I participated, and somehow I have made it to this day. No, I will wake up excited tomorrow simply because I am loved, and loved fiercely, without reservation, without condition, so much so that despite my own weakness, failure, and imperfection, our perfect Father pours His perfection out upon me. When I wake in the morning, the King who maintains galaxies by force of will alone will condescend to whisper in my ear, hold me up, and see me through the day. In all His might, in all His wisdom, he chooses to give me such gifts.

How could I not love Him?

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So Long, Summer!

The sweet smell of dry grass signals that summer is on the wane.  The nights become lighter, cooler, and with the sunset an electricity drops like dew onto the streets and lawns of the neighborhood. It is the tense energy of students returning to school, of people venturing out of doors in twilit hours to enjoy a long-awaited break in the crushing heat of August.

I am sitting on my balcony, leaning back in a faux-wicker chair.  The unseasonably crisp evening brushes my cheeks and forehead, beckoning me to close my eyes. A fish jumps, making attempts at low-flying dragonflies, in the small pond below where I sit. Spreading, bleeding oranges, reds, blues, and purples of the western sky seem to sing to me, raising a melody in some secret place reserved specifically for this moment. I inhale deeply, taking in a bouquet of aroma: grass cut for the last time, charcoal grills and too much lighter fluid, and a light hint of rain all suggest the season is preparing to depart, like a tasteful party guest who wishes to leave without making a scene.

I spend the moment in my mind, replaying the many, many events that have passed this summer.  It seems to have gone by too quickly, but I realize every day was filled with some blessing.  I spent time with a friend as he stepped into the next stage of life.  I experienced the climax of one of my most beloved literary franchises.  I witnessed students, who had formerly given up the motivation to ever do so, awaken and become writers.  I celebrated the beginning of a new family and met many new friends while doing so.

I was once again blessed with the emergence of new life into the world, into my home, into my arms. My ragged little existence has, somehow, been allowed to be a part of something beautiful.  My son and my daughter adore each other, and they adore my wife and I, and, oh, how we adore them.

It strikes me that this is only a reflection…a refracted image… of what is yet to come.

Before I can begin to dwell on excitement of a new school year, the smell of text books, the new school supplies, a new cadre of students, and the still unrolling path ahead of each one of us, I am summoned away from the serenity of the evening.

My daughter must be wrangled into pajamas.  The dogs must be walked and fed.  Toys need to be put away, and dishes should be washed.  Eventually, I must lay down in bed and drift along the sliding passage of time.

I step back into my apartment and I am greeted with a loud, “Daddy!” My daughter grabs my hand and drags me back to her room, ready to show me some new wonder she has discovered.  My wife holds my sleeping son while she brushes her teeth.

The evening’s musings fade like smoke on a breeze, and I am enfolded in overwhelming bliss.


I Will be Found by You

I am back.

It was a long weekend, and I discovered many new things.  I had not previously been to Michigan, and I was pleasantly surprised.  The Ann Arbor area was green…densely, overwhelmingly green.  I’ve never seen trees with such vitality.  The drive from St. Louis to Michigan was beautiful.  The weather, while warm, was pleasant and refreshing.  The air seemed clear and clean.  It was a busy, fast-paced time, and I met many, many new people, all of whom I liked.  I have decided that I am greatly looking forward to visiting my sister-in-law and her new husband. Blessings, especially health, wealth, and family, to them both.

I have had a great deal pressing on my mind lately. I am in one of those times in my life when I am weighing and contemplating many heavy options.  A decision must be made.  A decision must be adhered to.  When I find myself in such a phase in my life, I am typically preoccupied with a couple of thoughts.  The first is, “What if I make this decision, and it turns out to be a HUGE mistake? What will happen to my family? What will happen to me?” I have been through this before when I decided to go to grad school immediately after finishing my bachelor’s degree, and the decision affected my then newlywed wife.  Now, whatever decision I make not only impacts my wife, but my two young children as well.

The second question I ask myself is, “Who will be hurt if I make this decision? What relationships will be damaged? Will they ever be repairable? Is this worth it?”  I fear that when I have to make a big decision, there are people who will view it as a choice over or against them.  My friends and my family are my highest values.  The thought that I might ever hurt any of them when I might have prevented it often keeps me awake at night.  The impact on close friends and family is one of the first and foremost things I take into consideration when weighing a major life decision.

I have been wrestling with one decision in particular throughout the course of the past few months.  It has drained me. I have traveled the spectrum of emotions. from broken to arrogant, from defeated to angry. At the apex of it all, I attended my lovely sister-in-law’s wedding.  I went there to watch my sister-in-law marry a fantastic man.  I went there to take care of my wife, who was the maid of honor, and my children, one of whom was also in the wedding.  I simply wanted to be there and do my best to serve my current and soon-to-be family.  Then, at the wedding, someone was asked to share a passage from the book of Jeremiah.  It is a passage I have heard many times, but on this particular occasion I was taken aback by nuances I don’t recall noticing previously:

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare [2] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Here are, in short, a few things that awakened me during this particular reading:

It says that when seventy years have passed, the Lord will fulfill his promise.  Seventy years is a long time.  Probably longer than I will live.  But, God will honor his promises.  So, if I make the decision I am considering, I may not quickly know the purpose or see the reason why I was stirred to do so, but that does not mean that God was unfaithful.  Just because the tomato does not ripen on the vine as I sit and watch does not mean that natural law has ceased to apply. Sometimes…many times…our Father’s plans are bigger even than my own lifespan.

He plans to give us a future and a hope. This does not imply that we will immediately understand all that happens to us.  It does not mean that we will always see the results of the actions we take here on Earth. Our Father did say not to worry about what we would eat or what we would wear, indicating that our immediate, material needs would be met.  But here He promises us something more than meeting our temporary physical needs.  I so often get caught up worrying about how to pay the bills, how to provide, how to lead my family away from destruction.  I almost always forget that there was much, much more meant to be accomplished in this life.  We are given a promise of a future. We are given promise of a hope, which suggests that there is more to come.

Finally, I love what it says in verse 14: “I will be found by you, declares the Lord[…]”

I will be found by you.

I will be found by you.

(I did not shoot this video on my way to Michigan.  I found it on YouTube.com)

So, in the end, there is nothing I can do to escape God’s love.  I must make a decision. But, inevitably, I must also find God.

“What if I screw up?”

…I will be found by you…

“What if it’s the wrong decision?”

…I will be found by you…

“What if someone is hurt by my decision? What if I hurt my family? What if I run out of money? What if I lose my job? What if I lose my house? What if all I have worked for falls into utter irrelevance?

…I will be found by you.

There is nothing that can be done about it.


Suitcase

I apologize, but I do not have a post for today. My family and I have spent the week getting ready for a trip to Michigan. By the time anyone reads this, we will be well on our way to Ann Arbor. We are going up there to watch my sister-in-law get married.

Anyway, when you have to pack for an extended trip for four, it can be quite a task, especially when half of the traveling party are very small children.

I plan to get through it by pretending that I am Aragorn, and that they are hobbits.

Not that I intend to compare my sister-in-law’s wedding to the War of the Ring (but there will be rings…), or Ann Arbor to Mordor.

The point is that I ran out of time to write anything for today. I will be back on Tuesday with regularly scheduled blogging.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and, in light of our travels, enjoy this song:

And in honor of Tiffany Risner (not for long…) and Chris Mullins, enjoy this song:

Ha ha…this song makes me happier than anyone could ever know. See you next week!


The Fruits of the Day

Summer has gone by way too quickly. I know that there are still a couple of weeks left, but they will fly by, too. I hate feeling as if time is pouring through a colander. I just want things to slow down a bit. I want to notice everything.

My daughter is speaking in completely coherent sentences now, and my son is getting larger and brighter, rapidly moving out of the infant phase. I suppose this is good; despite my contribution to the parenting around here, they seem to be doing just fine.

It is just such a mixed bag, watching your kids grow. It is overwhelmingly, fiercely joyful whenever they do something new. This is, every time, tainted with sadness, though, because it also means they are that much closer to being grown up. I am just selfish enough to want them to be my babies forever.

I guess I’ll have to take it one day at a time. I need to understand when it is appropriate to shelter and protect them. I will need to figure out when and how to let go when it is time.

Being a father is such a humbling and frightening duty, but, oh, how it rewards. When my daughter kisses my cheek or whispers, softer than butterflies, into my ear, it fills me with deep-welled strength. When my son recognizes my face and grins with abandon, my haggard, weary heart shatters away to reveal within it a new, vibrant heart.

This is why I said that watching my children grow makes me joyful, though, instead of happy: joy does not imply that I will always be happy, and I think that happiness is overrated. Having joy simply means that I will be at peace, content with the fruits of the day, and left, in the end, with hope of things yet to be. Sometimes this means I must let go of something that makes me happy for the sake of what is coming. It means I have to believe that this is not all there is, and that someday there will be something more, something true.

And, yes, I often remind myself…something is coming; as sure and as strong as the sunrise, there will be joy.


Mother Land: For Jonathan

Today I would like to share a poem that I wrote for a friend. He’s actually my best friend. I met him during my freshman year of college. We lived together for three years, and we have been friends for nearly a decade. He and I grew up together; we became friends during the time in which we began to put childish things behind us.

Shortly he will be moving back home to Texas. This is a blessing, because he will soon be joined by the woman who is to be his wife. Even though this is a good thing, I am sad because it is a milestone; it is one of those things that represents another thing that is much more significant. It means letting go. It means continuing to grow up, which is something I had wished was over.

It also means there will be joy. Joy for my friend who will soon, as a poet once wrote, “taste the stronger side of love.” Joy for the children that will come. Joy for the fortification of a family. Joy for the first blessing, and all that will come hereafter.

Jonathan, even though I am sad that your are moving so far away, I cannot tell you how proud of you I am; it would be impossible to write here. I cannot tell you how happy I am for you, for the coming of new things. I pray that your home will be filled with overwhelming, fierce Joy. I love you and your fiance. You have been like a brother to me; you have been a brother to me.

***

Mother Land

For Jonathan

When you return to the place that nursed your youth,
the land that will cradle your children
in the palm of her hand,

do not forget where we were taken in and
adopted as brothers.

Do not forget the front porch in Missouri,
remember every single cigarette and every drop of whiskey;
recall the words we shared in her house.

Do not forget her that nourished us until,
one day, we woke as men.

Michael Hylton, 2011, St. Louis, Missouri


Little Conversations

A couple of days ago, I was getting my daughter ready to leave the house. This is a routine I’ve gotten pretty good at. First, I let her choose an outfit from one or two options. Then, I let her get herself out of her pajamas, and I change her diaper. She puts on her outfit, and then I fix her hair, and I have to say that, for a dad, I can style her hair up quite nicely. Finally come shoes and socks. Throughout this whole process we sing songs and play whatever games come to mind. She makes preparing for the day just as bright as the morning sunshine.

My daughter is at a really cool age in her life; she is beginning to be able to have little conversations with us. I think it is really interesting to hear what she has to say, especially in the mornings when I get her dressed and ready. She’ll talk to me about what she wants to do that day, or friends she wants to see. She asks about her little brother, where he is, what he’s doing. She tells me about her toys, and she will frequently jump topic, just enough to keep it interesting. My favorite thing is when she holds my face between her two tiny hands, pulls me in close, and tells me she wants to give me a kiss. If you have never seen a man turn into a pile of worthless goo, watch one kiss his daughter. Anyway, my point is this: she rarely has trouble anymore telling me exactly what’s on her mind. If she knows the words, she tells me. If she doesn’t know the words, she improvises until I understand.

On this particular day, however, she did something I’ve never seen before. We had just finished a lively round of the “ABCs” song. She had on her clothes, a pretty purple, green, and white dress from my sister, and white sandals. Her hair was up in a ponytail and her teeth were brushed. She was about to walk out of her bedroom to go find her brother when she just stopped.

She looked down and sagged, like someone had just let the air out of her. I asked her if she was okay, and she only pouted and sat down on the floor, never taking her eyes off of the ground. I walked over to her and asked if she wanted to go find Brother, and she simply shook her head slowly from side to side. I asked her if she wanted breakfast, or Mama, or the dogs, and I even got so concerned as to offer an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. To all of these she merely indicated “no.” She just looked…sad.

I went over and sat on the floor beside her. Without hesitation she slid up into my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck, and buried her face into my shoulder. I embraced her and rested my chin on the side of her neck. I began to rock her back and forth. I could feel her sadness ebbing and flowing in and out of me as she inhaled and exhaled softly. With each breath, however, I could feel it leaving her. After about three minutes of sitting in silence, she pulled away, said “thanks,” and walked out the door.

Those are my hands.

From time to time I am given a little glimpse of how God loves us. This is not to be confused with “why,” because His reasons are inexplicable. No, here I refer to His modus operandi, His actual methods and procedures.

My relationship with my daughter is often like looking into a microcosmic mirror. I get sudden and strong emotions. I have been prone to them all my life (just ask my mother…), and when I was younger I frequently struggled with how to cope with them.

The other day when my daughter experienced such an intense and brief wave of sadness, I knew exactly what to do; she is the flesh of my flesh and spirit of my spirit. I just embraced her and felt sad with her until the moment passed. In the same way, Our Father knows exactly what we need, when we need it, and why. We are His children. Why would a father withhold any good thing from his son or daughter?

When I have a deep need, some inexplicable longing that rises from the darkest ribbon of my spirit, why would I turn to anyone but my Father?