Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Touch-Me-Not Seed

My oldest son is seventeen years old now and is in a kind of funny stage between goofy boyhood and thoughtful manhood.  One minute he's as playful as a little kid and the next minute he's all surly and uncooperative.  Like the new whiskers on his face, his interest in girls continues to grow.  The hormones can be outrageous at times.  He is an amiable and sweet person by nature, but occasionally, his temper flares and he becomes moody and argumentative.  But that's only sometimes and even then he seems to be more level-headed than I was at his age.

He and I are relearning our relationship these days as he needs me less (or in entirely new ways) and I have begun to lean on him more.  He's a big kid (about 6 foot 3) with a size 13 shoe, and so he finds that he is often asked to reach, carry, and toil for his aging relatives.  He cooks for his siblings on nights when his dad is away and I can't face the task.  He mops for his grandmother, does "bull work" for his grandfather, and is the guy we can count on to look after the critters, both domestic and wild, who depend on us for food and care.

As I was doing my rounds checking on various members of the family, I noticed my son in the front yard as he was about to take his grandmother's elderly dog for a walk.  He asked me to come along with him so I joined him on a meandering tour of the backyard.  We walked back past the bench among the pine trees and down the little hill, under the arbor and over to the poor where the water was smooth and still.  It has been raining a great deal lately and the pool is almost overflowing.  Likewise, the creek, dry before last week, is flowing and overflowing now.  We watched it rush over the rocks while we looked for touch-me-not pods to burst.  When he was a toddler, I showed him how to look for the fat expectant ones that burst in your fingers at the slightest touch.  Today when I pointed out the best ones to him, instead of bursting them himself, he carefully removed them from the parent plant and brought them to me so that I could have the honor.

 As I think about the gentle courtesy of this, I also remember the times when we have walked together in the snow or after a rain when he automatically puts his hand on my elbow to steady me.  He was my baby for so long that it seems funny that now he is so much taller and stronger than I am.  I have always been very protective of this child and have, on more than one occasion, become very fierce with those I felt threatened him.  I carried him, hovered over him, and guarded him from dangers seen and unseen--and now he is almost all grown.  It seems funny that without being told that this is the way of things, he has adopted the role of protector and has begun to fuss over me.  I suppose that's the way of things.  Plants produce seeds and the seeds grow to maturity.  Why should I be so surprised that the little boy in the floppy moo-cow hat became the tall man next to me with the deep, resonant voice and the scruff of beard on his chin?  These things happen.

He and I are not done with our walk together.  There is a much more I need to teach him before he is ready to walk on his own.  And as an anxious person, I can't help but be nervous about all of that.  I do not know what world stretches before him.  As we walked back up the hill toward the house, we discussed our shared concerns about the environment and the problems of greed and meanness among people of power.  His voice, like his pace, was slow and steady. He possesses a rich vocabulary and is articulate and wise, but he needs people to listen patiently.  He is deeply intelligent rather than quick and arrives at his conclusions (and his points) in his own time.   He can be ponderous, but also profound.  He is kind, gentle, and peaceful.  I have worked hard to nourish that impulse in him and it has grown beyond my expectation.

In a hour or two he'll be arguing with his siblings or insisting upon the unreasonable.  I'll be irritated with him about the clothes on his bedroom floor or for the water he's likely to track into the house from the pool.  I'll criticize his posture ( "stand into your height!" ) or his communication skills ("listen!") or I'll be telling him to "be more respectful to your father!" or "wear a clean shirt!".  I'll be giving him reminders.  "Did you brush your teeth?" and "Did you remember deodorant?" and "Have you fed the pig?"  And I'll enjoy those moments too because it means he still needs me to make sure he doesn't have pizza sauce on his face and that he goes to bed at a reasonable hour.

 I like to fuss over him.  I want to fuss over him because as long as he permits it, I have not yet lost the boy.  Still, more and more these days it is the man I see rather than the boy.  Even as I fuss and hover, he sometimes trades exasperation for indulgence and gives me a reassuring hug.  The time is close when this touch-me-not seed will spring away from me and seek his own ground.  Sometimes it feels like the slightest breeze will send him on his way and he will belong to the world instead of to me..

But not yet.  Not yet.  The time is not yet ripe and so he is still with me.  Meanwhile, he is learning how to be a man, how to be an adult, how to be himself.  And I am learning to understand that while I will always be his mother, he will not always be my boy.


Monday, July 7, 2014

The Horrors of Social Hour

The worst part of meeting for worship is the part when it ends.   Someone on the other side of the room smiles and extends her hand to the person sitting next to her.  Everyone looks up and around stretching backs and legs and shoulders that may have cramped a bit in the long, quiet hour.  There is, in that moment, a sense of refreshed newness, like awakening from a deep, spiritual nap.  I like that bit.  What happens next is the miserable part.  Inevitably, like a slow motion nightmare, the person sitting nearest me who is not either my husband or one of my children turns to me with an outstretched hand and I have to shake it.  And then I have to arrange my face in a smile and say something appropriate.  Then, most unmercifully, someone else will want me to repeat this painful process.  This is the social part of meeting for worship and it is, for someone as painfully introverted as I am, an ordeal.

I have strategies to deal with this unpleasantness.  I make myself very busy with my children.  I find that by fussing over my children by brushing the hair out of their eyes or speaking to them with great concern or focused maternal interest, I'm able to avoid some of those handshakes.  I also become very busy with my pocketbook or other belongings.  Fussing over coats, hats, books, bags, and other things helps a great deal.  I think of this as my Kanga strategy.  By fussing over Roo and behaving in a slightly frazzled, benevolent, and maternal manner, people excuse my lack of social interest.

Of course, this method is less effective now that my children are much older and clearly no longer in need of my maternal attention.  I still fuss over my 6 foot 2 seventeen year old but eventually that just looks weird.  Clearly he doesn't need me to fix his hair, brush crumbs off his face, or hover over him.  He has known how to put his own coat and hat on himself for some time.  My kids' relentless maturity has necessitated the more frequent use of some of my other strategies.  One of my favorites is to become invisible.  When my more gregarious husband is making nice with the other people in the meeting, I dart through the crowd toward the door.  Avoiding eye contact, I attempt to look like I have something I need to do "over there".  I then find a way to move into a more empty room.  When that room begins to fill, I move to wherever people aren't and repeat this pattern until it is time to go.  I utilize the "Oh, I forgot something!" face and then go upstairs (and then downstairs and then upstairs again).  The point is to be on the stairs or in the hallway or just outside the door where people are not.

Sometimes people corner me and I have to talk to them.  On a good day, I manage to smile in all the right places and make the right social noises.  I remember to show great interest in them and to ask them about themselves in a non-threatening way.  Other times I mumble monosyllabic responses to their questions and look frantically toward my husband to help me.  When they turn toward him, I smile weakly and then pretend to fuss over one of my children or scurry off to a less populated part of the room where I marvel at how interesting the (fill in the blank) is.  Isn't this an interesting (window, book, pamphlet)?  I should look at it very closely and with focused concentration (at least until that clump of people threatening to notice me and maybe even speak to me moves to the other side of the room.)

Church suppers are especially awkward.  People get their food (how do they do that so easily?  I'm so afraid I'll make a humiliating mistake!) and then sit down together to eat and talk.  Eat and talk!  As if each of these activities was not perilous enough on its own!  I try to find a seat off to the side (and sometimes not with my more gregarious husband who is insensitively having cheerful conversations with people rather than helping to smuggle me out of the building.)  I occasionally get up as if I've forgotten something and go hover "Somewhere Else" and then come back into the main room to find my children and fuss over them briefly before again finding an excuse to leave the room again.  Fuss, hover, become fascinated by inanimate object, etc.  Don't make eye contact.  Stay close to the door.  Jet as soon as possible.  This is my meetinghouse survival plan.

It isn't that I dislike people or even that I'm afraid of them.  I'm not misanthropic (much) or shy (entirely).  It is just that I prefer to watch people than to interact with them.  If I could send out a beam of gentle concern to the whole meeting in a sort of non-verbal way that did not involve having to actually say anything or touch anybody, that would be great.  I'd love to be a Deeply Meaningful Spiritual Presence, but instead I'm just awkward and uncomfortable.  As hard as I try to become invisible or to shrink so small that no one notices me, inevitably, at the end of meeting for worship, someone will turn to me with an outstretched hand.

Perhaps you have met someone like me in your meeting.  Perhaps you have thought that person was unfriendly, socially impaired, cold, or distant.  Maybe you even thought they were an asshole.  Perhaps you've wondered about people like me.  Perhaps you've felt sorry for us or wondered why we bother coming to meeting at all.   Perhaps you are right.  I too have considered these very things.  Why am I so unfriendly?  Why do I bother coming at all?

 The answer is that despite my awkwardness and seeming aloof disinterest in other Friends, I keep showing up because in the silent waiting worship, I am capable of reaching out with the kind of concern and attention that I cannot show during the social hour.   Though I am uncomfortable navigating social spaces, in silent worship, I am a part of a community which allows me to feel that I can touch deeply and be deeply touched.  When you spoke in meeting, my heart was pounding in sympathy and appreciation.  I may have a tough time making eye contact with you, but when the silence deepened, I  was there with you in the stillness between breaths.  Hand shakes and hugs make me want to squirm right out of my skin, but in the midst of our silent worship, I am moved to tears by my sense of being gathered together in love.

Please accept the fussers-over-children, the corner dwellers, and the early-leavetakers.  Accept the monosyllabic responders and the frantic out-of-here darters as among the faithful Friends.  We may be awkward as hell, but we are no less committed.  Indeed, consider how in love we must be with the worship to be willing to so torture ourselves during coffee hour.   How I wish I could be a friendlier Friend!  Every Sunday when I scurry off to my corner to kick myself for not knowing just how the magic of casual conversation works, I wonder if I should forget the whole thing and just stay at home.  Perhaps, I worry, other Friends also wish I would quit.  Or perhaps they don't notice me at all.  (God knows I try not to be noticed!)  All I can say is this--and I do hope that in the end, it is enough:

I may duck away from you or look slightly panicked when you reach for my hand at the rise of meeting, but a moment ago, when no one was looking, my heart was full of love for you, and I was holding you in the Light.