What book do you want to read tonight?
I ordered a copy of Boynton’s The Going To Bed Book for my niece’s soon-to-be-in-the-world son, Declan. It was a favorite of my own two boys, given by my friend Diane. I’ve read it hundreds of times, and all that reading has worn the corners and spine soft.
The story starts at sunset and ends with everyone fast asleep under a bright moon. In between, the animals do all the going-to-bed activities – bathing, brushing teeth, exercising, and saying good night to each other. Like all great literature, familiarity makes it more interesting rather than less. Like all good picture books, it presents a the world in a smattering of simple words and captivating images. From these early books comes a love of learning and an appreciation for beauty.
How do you give someone else the world? How do you reveal the pain and joy of life? What is the best way to point out the wondrous things that surround us, and the ones that live within us? There are many answers to such questions. Still, the way of the children’s book is one of the best: Go with simple words. Point out the small miracles of daily life – moon, stars, ants, baths. Paint a picture when possible. Read it over and over until it becomes part of you. Give it a good ending. Share it with others.
The moon is high. The sea is deep.
[Boynton, Sandra; The Going To Bed Book; New York: Little Simon, new edition, 1995]
A friend of mine decided in her late 20’s that she didn’t want kids. She just couldn’t see giving up what she wanted to have a child. She had a certain order to her life, with enough time to devote to work, husband, and hobbies. She had more than enough money for a comfortable life, home and vacations included. Another life, especially a young one, wouldn’t fit into the life pattern she had created. While she enjoyed playing with my two sons when they were young, she didn’t want high chairs and pediatricians and diapers and plush toys. It’s been almost two decades since then, and she hasn’t regretted her decision.
If I hadn’t had children, would I regret it? I don’t know. I’ve always thought of children as bringing something into life, not taking something away. I changed my life pattern when they arrived, but I didn’t lose it – I just added more people.
I don’t think any of us were put on this earth for the sole purpose of having children. Life is too big for such a limited view. Mostly, I think we are here to be a delight to God and others, whatever that involves. Children or no children, that’s a truth I’m not willing to give up.
For the first Mother’s Day in fifty-five years, my mother won’t get a card or flowers from my father. She won’t join him at the kitchen table for an early morning coffee, and they won’t watch birds and squirrels run around the yard from the back porch. For the first time, my mother is a widowed mother of four instead of a married mother of four. The story of her life has a loss that wasn’t there last year.
I will do the usual Mother’s Day things this Sunday: send my mother something, call her and my sister to wish them a wonderful day, and spend time with my two sons and husband, Dave. As is our tradition, I will pick dinner and dessert. I will relax while my sons set the table and Dave makes the meal. We will enjoy an hour over good food, and I will open cards and presents. As always, I will be surprised and touched by what each of my sons and my husband chose for me. Later, I’ll say a prayer of thanks for the family I was born into and the one that grew out of my marriage.
Next year, my older son won’t be home from college in time for Mother’s Day. In five years, my younger son may be living too far away to come home for a weekend in May. It will be a new chapter in my life story – something my husband, sons, and I will live into as we turn the page of our current one.
Who knows when, I’ll wake up on Mother’s Day without my husband, or he’ll wake up without me – a first after years of marriage. One of us will grieve and remember the past; the other will already be in the unknown adventure beyond this blessed life.
Love brings joy and it brings grief. New life enters families and so does death. But this I know for certain: there hasn’t been a single day in my mother’s life that she hasn’t been loved. I’ve been loved in every hour of my life. There hasn’t been a single moment in my children’s lives that they weren’t loved. With all the love surrounding each one of us, surely what comes as we journey through death into the cosmic book of life will be blessed beyond understanding.
Blessings for all mothers, blessings for all daughters and sons. Amen.
At town meeting the other day, one of the town leaders bragged about how the town’s stabilization fund was growing even faster than expected – a rousing success for everyone. What she didn’t say was that the fund was growing faster because money had been taken from an already underfunded school system and public library, among other things. The town budget looked better, but the quality of education and access to necessary resources through the library were both severely restricted. The larger story beyond the municipal spreadsheet had a different tale to tell about what was good and necessary. What gains a family if its savings account is growing but everyone is hungry?
Narratives within narratives, stories within larger stories. My life’s story is part of the many narratives of my family, my town, my place in history, and my planet. I am not the author, I am not the sole focus of this story that is creation, and I’m incapable of jumping out of my story and seeing the whole book of life. There is more beyond what I see and what I understand, and forgetting or ignoring the bigger story may very well harm others.
May God grant me wisdom to do no harm, strength to repair the hurts I cause, and forgiveness for the harm my limitations bring.
A few years back, dear friends moved hundreds of miles north. Their son was running with a rowdy crowd, heading into trouble. They traded in the seacoast and quick access to Boston for pine trees and ski trails, a large school for a small one. Changing addresses changed their lives, reshaping their family story and their son’s individual narrative. What was a leap of faith years ago is now a wise decision seen in hindsight.
Lead us not into temptation, we pray. Save us from the time of trial, we pray. In changing their narrative, I think God did.
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 21:24
This weekend, I went to see where my older son will live come Fall semester. It’s a beautiful campus in Pennsylvania, and a place where he’ll have many adventures that I’ll never know about. A good friend of mine lives a few miles away from campus, and we stayed with her and her family Sunday night. Life obligations and hundreds of miles kept our visits rare, and most of what I know of her family comes from Christmas letters and occasional emails.
The last time I saw her children in person was a dozen years ago, her husband even longer ago than that. From toddlers to teens, career changes and new houses, there’s very little in our lives that is the same as when we lived closer together. It’s been even longer since she and I lived on the same dorm floor in seminary. Yet, she is still a dear friend and her life means so much to me. I am grateful to be a recurring character in her life adventure, and honored that she is an important one in mine.
I can’t say exactly why a particular person becomes a friend for life. It’s a grace to love and be loved, and a mystery. But I know why Diane is a friend: in her life story, I can read the love of God.
New Year’s Eve, 1989, I went out with good friends. We were on different paths, but so glad those paths had crossed. We decided to meet in Portsmouth for a glass of champagne every year, as many of us that could.
A few weeks later, Deb began training as a physical therapist; Bonnie continued to build her portfolio for graphic design; Jen moved to Boston and an interior design program; Lauren and I both went out of state – for her a corporate position in North Carolina, for me a seminary program in New Jersey. While each of us kept up with our friends who stayed local when we returned home, distance, schedules, and finances didn’t allow us time together.
In New Jersey, I worked at a Mexican restaurant a short walk from my dorm. Late Friday night before Christmas, Lauren walked in. She was driving back to North Carolina, her brother happened to catch a basketball game in town, and they dropped in for dinner on a whim. We got our holiday toast and a happy reunion – my first and best Christmas present that year. An hour later, we were in our cars heading in opposite directions.
Two days later, Lauren’s mother called me. Would I be interested in working as a counselor for teens in a residence program for a semester? She wanted to fill that position before she left hers as the program’s director at the end of the week. Lauren had told her about our chance encounter. We met the next day, I took the position; she left at the end of that week before I began.
I told this story to my friends over a new year’s brunch. All of us agreed that Jung was right: synchronicity is real. But I think it’s more than just expected and important encounters. Sometimes, crossing paths changes the whole journey. A decision to keep in touch, an unplanned late night encounter, a job leaving and a position filled: my life story would be very different without those crossing paths and chance encounters. Change the story, change the blessing. I’m grateful beyond words for the story I’ve lived – and for the crossed paths that brought blessing into its chapters.
The Gospel of John ends with one of my favorite sentences:
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21: 25)
How many stories are there from Bethlehem birth through Ascension? Millions upon millions, I suppose. One person meets another and their life stories unite, ever so briefly or over many decades. Jesus the man of Nazareth touched so many, Christ the Son so many more when the Spirit moves over the face of creation. There isn’t a single story in creation untouched by Christ because all came to be through him. The Book of Life contains the world: how could the world contain it?
But my story is smaller. Smaller, but connected to so many other stories. The lives of friends and strangers are in the book of my life, and my life is in theirs. I doubt there’s a person alive today whose life isn’t connected to mine through these life stories. Yours included.
In a God created and Spirit sustained world, how could it be otherwise?