Monday, March 29, 2010

The mountains tremble

The size of a mustard seed. That's how big my fifth baby is right now—one itty-bitty millimeter. Doesn't seem like much, does it? But, come to think of it, Abraham was once that size. And the Queen of Sheba. And Alexander the Great. And Caesar. And Saint Augustine. And Charlemagne. And Joan of Arc. And Martin Luther. And Rembrandt. And Shakespeare. And J.S. Bach. And Jane Austen. And Winston Churchill. And You.

There was a time when every celebrated character in history was invisible to the naked eye. 

A tiny mustard seed. Not even enough to add some zing to a sandwich. But great and terrifying things are happening under the microscope. The womb is a fearful and wonderful workshop—secret and dark and mysterious—where, out of the formless void, a "let there be..." calls forth something that once was not and now is.

Only a mustard seed. But a mighty tree is in the making, in whose branches the birds of the air will come to build their nests.

Just a mustard seed. But I can feel the mountains tremble. The mountains, after all, know something we do not; they know what moves them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Too shy shy

An unfriendly man pursues selfish ends; he defies all sound judgment.
—Proverbs 18:1

Yesterday at church, two of my boys walked right up to some adult members of the congregation to shake hands and greet them with a friendly hello. It's a seemingly insignificant gesture of kindness, but around here it's a big deal. It's worthy of a sticker on the reward sheet when we get home. Going out of their way to be friendly is not easy for my kids, but we work on it. A lot. That it takes practice is something their mother knows all too well.

When I mentioned in a previous post that I have a tendency toward being a recluse, I wasn't kidding; it's a predilection I've had to fight hard against. I relish moments of "alone time." But these days, alone time tends to be pushed aside by "kid time," and "husband time," and "church time," and "school time," and "sports time," and all the other "times" that come with having a growing family. And that's as it should be. But sometimes the level of noise and activity involved with having four little boys—who spend a significant part of each day thundering through the house making martial sound effects—can be rather overwhelming and exhausting.

Even social events as joyous as weddings have left me feeling so drained afterward that I've been tempted to sit in a quiet corner with a mug of tea and a book for the rest of the day. I recall being sent to my room as a child (after having a spat with my brother) and feeling like I'd just been handed a free pass to solitary bliss. I used to dread my own birthday parties.

Yep. Introvert. That's me. Recognizing my introverted personality type was easy. Recognizing that this personality type came with some serious pitfalls was another thing.

It may seem obvious, but somebody else had to give me a (metaphorical) kick in the head before I discovered that my "shy girl" demeanor had ethical ramifications. I never wanted to be lonely, but putting myself forward in a social setting was, for me, the emotional equivalent of running blindfolded along the edge of cliff—not a risk I was willing to take. Right up through high school, I was under the impression that shy is "just who I am."  

But then one day, shortly before starting college, I had a conversation that utterly shook my "shy girl" self-perception.

I was at some sort of informal event at my pastor's home, and I ended up chatting with my pastor's wife during the course of the evening. I don't recall the preceding dialog, but as we talked, I mentioned, only in passing, that I'm "just shy," and that "I don't like introducing myself to strangers," which, to me, seemed like a fairly neutral statement of fact. I guess I expected this good woman to nod sympathetically and let the comment slide past. But she didn't. She stopped me before I could go on.

Now, here's the inspirational, Hallmark card bit of this story: With a calm smile, she told me, "Well, Hannah, maybe you just need to get over yourself."

That was it. And then our talk proceeded to some other topic.

But ouch. What was that supposed to mean? Those may not have been her exact words, but it was something very close. And what she had said cut me—like a surgeon's knife.

She wasn't being rude. Far from it; this was love at its boldest. She clearly knew me better than I knew myself and was simply throwing aside the "personality" lingo and exposing the heart of my "shyness" problem—a problem that I had not particularly wanted to see. Of course my parents had encouraged me for years to be more friendly. But hearing someone else tell me so was a shock. Perhaps this was a real issue that I needed to deal with.

"Well, Hannah, maybe you just need to get over yourself." Maybe... All right, more than maybe.

Why wasn't I willing to go out of my way to introduce myself? Before, I would have said that it was simply "because I'm shy." Nothing wrong with that, right? But as soon as my pastor's wife said what she did, I realized, to my chagrin, that there was, as a matter of fact, something very wrong with that. The truth is, that my unwillingness to shake hands and start a conversation was not just a personality quirk. It was a failure to love my neighbor. The sad fact was that I cared more about my own comfort zone than about making other people comfortable; I was more concerned about protecting myself from seeming foolish than about risking a (very minor) embarrassment in order to show love to those around me. If I didn't feel like being sociable, then I thought I was justified in ignoring my duty to love other people. I guess I was just too important to look out for the interests of others.

I wasn't being "shy." I was being selfish. I needed, in short, to get over myself.

Those words had hurt. A lot. They wounded my pride. But "faithful are the wounds of a friend." She knew exactly what I needed to hear. And, as I was about to begin college with a bunch of total strangers, the timing could not have been better.

I'd like to say that ever since that day I've been a willing handshaker to anyone in need of a friend. But, even after 14 years, I'm still working on it. Getting over myself is probably going to be a lifelong pursuit. But that it is a pursuit at all is something I can be very thankful for. Discovering that my shyness might be a temptation to fight was a huge revelation, like seeing myself in the mirror for the first time. And now that I have four children, friendliness—love in the little things—is a trait we are constantly encouraging in them as well: Smile! Shake hands! Say thank you! Tell the nice lady your name!

I realize, of course, that one's personality is not infinitely malleable and that for an introvert to suddenly attempt to become the life of the party is going to be an uncomfortable scene for pretty much everyone. But insofar as one's personality—introvert or extrovert—comes with a certain set of temptations, those temptations must be resisted; personality type is never a valid excuse for sin. Blabbling thoughtlessly to strangers is not an urge I've ever had to resist. My temptation is, rather, to lose patience with the constant noise and clamor of the children God's blessed me with. My tendency is to pretend not to see the unfamiliar and unattractive face of the lonely-looking lady over in the corner. That, for me, is the struggle—to overcome my own discomfort in order to bestow love.

That unexpected word of advice from my pastor's wife didn't magically turn me into an extrovert, nor will it ever. I'm definitely still an introvert—a home body. I may not feel like saying hello. But, over the years, those tendencies have lessened. By God's grace, I enjoy large social gatherings far more than I used to.  I do like my own birthday parties these days—now that I'm too old to have them every year. However, I'm far from turning into a party animal. And to this day, going out of my way to meet new people gives me a case of the butterflies. But thank God that I had a friend and teacher wise enough to show me that doing what I feel and doing what is right can be two very different things. And I'm thankful to be able to pass on that stark bit of wisdom to my kids: Maybe you just need to get over yourself.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The greatest show on earth

On Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the birthdays of my two youngest sons, Paul and Asaph. Paul is four today, and Asaph turned two on Friday. I know that every mother says this each time her child has a birthday, but I really, truly can't believe how fast the time has gone. My "baby" is two? How did that happen? All I did was put Cheerios and strained carrots into his mouth, and poof! I now have a walking, talking, sword-wielding boy in front of me. My little Paul is now learning to play piano and sound out words. Is that possible? Is there some astonishing sleight of hand at work here?

I can tell you what happened. But I absolutely cannot tell you how. This wasn't my doing. I had nothing up my sleeve. No trick cards. No false doors. This is the real deal. This kind of magic has the makings of a sell-out Vegas attraction—only better.

David Copperfield, you can't impress me. I know someone who can turn water into wine. He can do it with a (magic) word in a moment, or he can do it with rain and vines over months, but he does it all the time. What can you do, Mr. Copperfield?

I know someone who can turn coal into diamonds. Do they do that in Vegas?

I know someone who can transform tomato soup and grilled cheese into flesh and bone. No smoke or mirrors involved. And I don't have to buy tickets to watch it happen. Can you do that, Mr. Copperfield?

Unlike in Vegas, this is the kind of show that attracts biologists with clipboards. They sit, unmoved, in the audience and observe the magic. They describe it in minute detail—right down to the molecular level. They write articles in scientific journals and make Discovery Channel documentaries about it. But they can't tell us anything—not anything—about how all this is happening. Or why. They might use the word "because", but they don't really mean it. All those impressive charts of the digestive process and the breakdown of chemical elements for use by various cells amount to nothing more than journalistic observation.

The biologist might say, "The kidneys convert vitamin D into calcitriol to help the body absorb dietary calcium and phosphorus into the blood and bones." But in spite of his impressive, Latinate words, he is doing nothing more than telling us, in essence, that the kidney has just pulled a rabbit out of its hat. The scientist is simply another spectator (albeit with a good pair of opera glasses) recording his experience at the greatest show on earth. He has no backstage pass.

We think that, because we've seen something a hundred times, we can understand it. Because we can describe what we saw, we believe we can explain why it happened. But that is the only illusion taking place in this venue. What's happening in front of our eyes is no illusion; it's magic in its most genuine sense. The medieval alchemists believed that lead could be turned into gold. But I believe in the far more improbable notion that a single cell can turn into an oak tree, or a sea cucumber, or Barak Obama. Ladies, and gentlemen, children of all ages, it happens in real life! Why isn't anyone selling tickets?

Four years and several gallons of milk can turn my helpless infant into a talkative preschooler. Throw in a few more years and a mountain of sandwiches, and that preschooler will be big enough to drive a car. And his voice will have changed. What a brilliant performance! And I've been invited to watch from the front row. Could there be a greater privilege?

Sometimes, I admit, raising small children seems to be something less than magical. Sometimes a day at home with a group of busy little ones can feel like an eternity—an endless cycle of diapers and drool and discipline. But then, I blink and realize that the baby has (abracadabra!) grown into a toddler. Right here, under my nose, a jaw-dropping transformation is taking place. Suspend your disbelief. (Suspend your unbelief.) Enjoy the show. The Bellaggio has nothing on the nursery.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Copper Plates and Incredible Manitoba Animation!

As I've been organizing and purging closets this week, a few large boxes of posters and art projects have surfaced. Some of the things—mostly my old drawings and prints—are just so awful, I can't imagine what possessed me to keep them. But a few of them are so fun, I wish I could find enough wall space to hang them.

One thing I'd love to find room for is this huge glow-in-the-dark Van Gogh reproduction I painted in college on nine sheets of poster board. I had this in our kids' room for a while in Dallas, and it took the place of a night light. It does bring back good memories.

I also came across this oil pastel drawing. I'm not sure what I think about it. Maybe if I had a beach house in Hawaii I'd get it framed. It's very, um, bright.

In another box, I found a tall stack of my old intaglio prints, which I'm rather fond of, but they don't translate well into digital photos, because they have a lovely 3-D quality about them; they're printed using a copper plate that leaves an impression in the paper. I still have the plates, too, which have formed a nice patina during their ten years in storage.

Among the things that are definitely better off in hiding? How about this perfectly creepy drawing? My only excuse is that it wasn't my idea; the assignment was to take a photograph and distort or abstract it somehow. Yikes.

And then there's this lovely self portrait. I wrote "Planar Analysis" in the corner, so I guess this was an assignment, too. Thank goodness. I'd hate to think that I came up with the inspiration for this from the depths of my own soul.

But of the things I didn't make, this poster is probably the greatest treasure I unearthed this week:

This was on my wall for a very, very long time while I was growing up. My dad was, at one time, the head of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Idaho, and during that time he ended up with a number of Canadian-made films. Of all those VHS tapes, Incredible Manitoba Animation was the best loved, and we must have watched it at least 100 times. (That probably explains a lot, come to think of it...)

Finding this beautimous poster made me realize that it's high time I introduced my kids to these very strange cartoons. I hadn't thought about them in years, and then, as though it were a sign, the very day that I found this poster, I was looking at a friend's blog, and this video was posted there!

The Cat Came Back:

Coincidence? I think not. Surely it must mean that I was destined share these cartoons with the world! Or at least with the handful of people who will read this blog post.

So, as my very special treat to all of you uninitiated into the weird and wonderful world of Manitoban animation, I am posting a few of the cartoons here for your edification and enjoyment. You'll thank me later. I hope.

Getting Started (for the piano player in your life):

The Big Snit:

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