august 20, 2007
A dozen years ago, when our twin sons were toddlers and my transmission went kaput, I spent one long afternoon in a car dealership in Augusta, Maine. As the hours slowly passed, one of my fellow waitees - watching as I tried to distract and entertain my wiggly boys - suddenly revealed herself as an oracle of the gods.
"A boy turning 15 is God's way of helping parents accept that he will leave home someday," she proclaimed out of the blue. "Until 15, it's hard to imagine not wanting him around."
I thought, first, "Shutup, lady. Who asked you?" Then, "I'll always want my boys around because they'll be delightful teenagers – bright, perspicacious, engaging and kind." I couldn't imagine a universe where these boys weren't under my constant gaze – to protect, to teach, to cuddle, to read to, to joke with, to love so fiercely.
In many ways, now that they are 13 and a half, I still can't imagine a world where they are out of my line of vision for more than a week at a time.
But it's a world I'm approaching.
On Saturday, my husband Scott and I picked up our sons, Martin and Colin, after a two week stint at Bishopswood, our diocesan camp. Colin, the more reluctant camper, was finished, whereas Martin, a true believer, was to return for another week after being treated to lunch, ice cream, and a trip to the Rite-Aid in Camden to restock flashlight batteries and sunscreen.
Later in the day back at home, Colin and I lay flopped on the porch reading. Colin, a fast and sophisticated reader, was intent on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about white-collar unemployment, "Bait and Switch." I looked up from Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land," finally out in paperback. This beautiful child of ours, so interesting and complicated, so funny and demanding and kind, is growing up. Over the last year he and his brother have become so much less needful of us, not as people, but as parents. I'm learning to cede control over things that don't matter and learning to back away so they can make mistakes and learn from them. As they enter eighth grade next month, I vow to be less the homework bitch and more the homework angel…available for intervention when called upon but otherwise, "You're on your own, kid."
I look at them and see how far they’ve already reached beyond me…in math, in music, in reading, in skiing, in the formation of their personal political philosophies. I marvel at Colin's vacuuming up "War and Peace" unabridged as a seventh grader and delight in Martin's poetry and memoirs and his ability to stand up and blow an amazing sax improv solo the moment the band director gives him an imperceptible nod. Still I nag and repeat myself constantly. I still holler, "Don't you give me that look" and "Knock it off with that tone" on pretty much a daily basis.
In less than 18 months, when they turn 15 on New Year's Eve next year, they may turn into awful people, but I think not. I hope not. I hope our love and care and frankly less-than-perfect example of how to live this life will have been enough to see them through to the day they walk out our door and beyond.
As I looked at Colin reading and enjoyed the pleasure of his quiet company, all this swirled though my highly distractible mind. How does this pattern of parenting and growing independence play out in our own walk with God?
Having come to faith as a teenager in an evangelical church, my daily personal walk with Jesus was constantly at the top of my mind. For years I prayed and read my Bible daily or felt guilty when I didn’t. I chose a Christian college where I met my husband and made many good and lasting friends. As a junior I transferred to a southern women's college and became involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and was confirmed in the Diocese of Southwest Virginia the week I turned 21. The presence of God hovered over me like a benevolent seabird throughout those years: nipping, nagging, loving, and keeping me safely near shore.
In the years since it's not that I've lost the ability to sense the presence of God or really need it any less, but perhaps God – having accompanied me so closely to a certain juncture – is trusting me to get it right with a less supervision.
I'm beginning to wonder if what we experience as children and, for some of us, as parents in this world doesn't teach us how God functions as a parent/creator in the realm of our Christian faith. When we turn the equivalent of 15 in Christian years (however long that takes for each of us), does God start to treat us differently – not because we're annoying – but because we've earned a measure of trust? And does that freedom allow us to flourish and grow into stronger, more Christ-like disciples than we'd be if we were more closely shepherded and nudged along the way.
Yesterday, we went out on Damariscotta Lake in our motorboat with Colin and our friends, Rachel and Jay. We live on a millpond and to get out to the open lake we must motor under a bridge. For years, to safeguard my personal sanity, I've reminded the boys to duck so they wouldn't fatally clunk their heads on the unforgiving steel girders a few inches above us. (Actually, I used to sing the chorus of the Erie Canal song – "Low bridge, everybody down…" – until last year when they begged me to stop being so profoundly embarrassing.) As we approached the bridge and yelled out to the kids who were jumping from above to hold it a minute until we passed through, I was about to remind Colin, who was sitting in the bow, to duck his head. Suddenly, as my mouth opened, he dutifully bent over, well beyond need.
"Jay!" (who was sitting behind Colin and at 62 knows enough to duck), I barked. "Duck your head!"
Apparently, unlike God, I need someone to nag.