Monday, September 30, 2013

Silencing the Censor

The kids didn't have school Friday thanks to the county fair. We had planned to head to the parade that morning and then take advantage of the free fair entry for students after, but when we woke up that morning, even Abby, our most vocal parade-attendance advocate, said she would rather have a quiet morning at home.

We are all introverts, the four of us. After busy weeks of school and sports and parties and stimulation, the kids especially needed a day of nothing. Nowhere to go. No one to see. Just one, long, unscheduled day to color and make-believe and ride bikes and otherwise relax. I was more than happy to oblige.

At first, the kids played separately, Ben in their room pretending something with sound effects and props made from household items, Abby coloring princess pages on the family room floor. They were perfectly content, absolutely at peace in their respective solitudes. I picked up the book I borrowed from the library the day before, The Artist's Way, and read with only the occasional interruption to admire a new finished picture.

After a while, Abby pulled out a book she received for her birthday with instructions on how to draw animals. Benjamin found his way to her side with his own drawing board, and the two sat on the floor drawing together for over an hour. At times, Abby would look at Ben's picture and say, "Oh, Ben, that's great." Other times, Ben would say, "Abby, what are you working on now?" They didn't talk much, both happy simply to be near each other. Companionship in its truest form.

At some point, Benjamin grew agitated with his drawing. Frustrated, he said, "I'm a bad drawer."

Without hesitation, Abby said, "Don't say that, Ben. If you say that, you will believe it."

I marveled that this principle, one that is difficult for many grown-ups to grasp, had flowed out of my six-year-old's mouth so readily. We've been talking about this idea more and more lately, as the kids meet with greater challenges in their childhood worlds, faced with decisions about how to respond to perceived failures or their own insecurities: the importance of making accurate statements about ourselves, statements that do not define us by one action or mistake or failure.

Just nights before, Benjamin had a rough warm-up in the batting cages before his baseball game, and as he walked to the field for game time, a stream of negative self-talk filled the airways. "I'm not a good hitter," he said (though hitting is actually one of his strengths). "I don't want to play in the game tonight" (first-game nerves getting the best of his courage). As we walked the sidewalk through the fields together, I gently encouraged him to revise his statements. "I had a tough warm-up," "That wasn't my best batting practice," "I need more practice," I suggested. Anything that recognizes this is one disappointing performance instead of deciding he's a hopeless performer, anything that leaves room for improvement, growth, miracles, surprises. Because saying he's a bad player isn't true, but he can make it true if he believes it. Sports psychology, any psychology 101.

That's why, ever since I first internalized this concept from the book Siblings Without Rivalry when the kids were wee, I've tried to avoid making blanket generalizations and labels about my kids, all too aware of how doggedly persistent words, judgement, can be. Having revised my own words about them, I'm trying to help them do the same.

"You're not Mommy, Abby," Ben said on the floor, his voice laced with frustration. Abby--who often handles Benjamin's irritation with the qualities of rubber, allowing his jabs to bounce off her rather than absorbing their impact--continued drawing.

I decided to step in here, affirming Abby's willingness to speak up and echoing the truth of what she said.

"She's right, Bug," I said to Benjamin. "Better to say, 'This is a bad drawing' or 'This didn't turn out well' rather than 'I'm bad at this.' Especially since just yesterday you talked about what a good artist you are."

As is often the case when kids are given a lecture or advice, Benjamin gave the minimal response, determined to maintain his bad attitude.

I asked him if I could share something I was reading.

Lately, he's been interested in hearing about the books I read. Books have become a common language between us, one that holds even if our own words fail us. The night before, we sat on my bed together, reading side-by-side. I laughed aloud at a passage from Rowing to Latitude, a memoir about a woman who has rowed thousands of miles along the Arctic's edge. He asked me what was so funny, so I read him the passage. As a teenager, she attended a camp where they kayaked in the ocean. As they rowed back to shore, her group found themselves surrounded for a few miraculous moments by whales, which no one believed when they returned--until they inhaled. Drenched in whale spout spray, the kayakers reeked of rotting fish. For weeks, no matter how many times she showered, this girl stunk. The smell was so bad that when she started school a week after her camp, she was called to the principal's office to discuss her hygiene. Benjamin found this predicament hilarious, laughing and laughing in his cutest, uncontrollable giggles as I read.

So there in the family room, I asked him if he'd be willing to listen to something in my book, and he agreed. I told him that this book was written for artists to help them create. Then I read this passage about self-criticism, with a few paraphrases and ad hoc revisions where the language exceeded his comprehension, substituting his comments about drawing where she drew on writing examples:

"...we feel we never do enough and what we do isn't right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The censor says wonderful things like, "You call that writing? What a joke. You can't even punctuate. If you haven't done it by now you never will...' And on and on. Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor's negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice..." (p. 11).

He looked at me while I read, and when I made eye contact with him after I finished, his eyes had softened, his pupils no longer the tiny pinholes they had been in his defensive posture. Mommy's words echoed by an authority: the Censor is always a liar. Perhaps they are worth considering? Benjamin returned to his drawing, persevering in his work despite his frustration.

I went back to reading to myself.

The author goes on to liken the Censor to "a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard." I do believe this correlation. The serpent does slither around our lives, hissing accusations, declaring defeat, inviting us to judge ourselves wrongly, with shame and fear and failure. We believe we are hopeless, when in fact we have been created in the very image of God. We proclaim a false word about ourselves, and come to believe this shadow identity. We allow one bad practice to derail our desire to play the game.

We see ourselves properly only when we surrender our negative proclamations, our Censor, our self-judgment, to the one Word that trumps all others: Jesus, whose judgement is mercy, grace, and love unconditional. When we believe that Word, light enters darkness, truth exposes lie, and we are defined by Him, transformed in His image.  Little by little, day by day, with each thought taken captive to Truth, the Censor's words are silenced, replaced by the living Word, who says, "I created you. I have a plan for you. I see you are more than the sum of your failures. Get out in this world and play your heart out without concern for being perfect, for I am using even your imperfections to win this battle against the serpent."

It starts small, with the discipline to not label ourselves and those around us with our failures. But this discipline is a powerful shield against the Censor, the serpent. I pray that my children will trust me as I coach them to revise their thoughts and words, and come to believe the Truth of who they are: beloved masterpieces created to fill this world with faith, hope, and love--truth serum in a world bullied by the hisses and whispers of a slithering Censor.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Headed to the Poor House with Love

Abigail turned six over the weekend, and this birthday was marked by a love of American Girl dolls. Josh and I have not encouraged this interest, largely because we hope one day we can afford to send our children to college. Nevertheless, a few friends in her inner circle received dolls in the last year, and so the desire took root and grew in sweet, innocent, six-year-old girl fashion.

Over the summer, she poured over her AG magazine, circling the items she was interested in, discussing the merits of the different dolls she was considering, informing me each day as her favorite doll and accessories changed. She day-dreamed about these dolls like a middle schooler about a crush. One day she said, "Mommy, I just can't stop thinking about my American Girl doll." Her eyes sparkled and her lips curved sweetly into a smile.

We decided to make the doll a reward for finishing the huge Hooked on Phonics set she's been working through for the last year. The set consists of five boxes of reading materials that begin with basic letter sounds and consonant-vowel-consonant words like "cat" and "fit" and end with more complex phonograms like "igh" and "kn." By the last box, she was reading words like "string," "knapsack," "phone," and "shimmer" in increasingly longer books and stories. The whole set is a behemoth task for a five-year-old, representing hours of dedication and work. To encourage her investment, each individual box she finished came with a small prize, and the American Girl doll became the grand prize. Toward the end of summer, her motivation for her doll was so great, she worked her way through the fourth box in a weekend, insisting we read together in every spare moment we had.

So it seemed appropriate that her birthday follow this love. We made reservations at the cafe in the AG store for her and two little friends to enjoy a small dinner party. She finished her fifth and final box of the set just days before her birthday weekend so that she would have her own doll to bring to the party, where they have highchairs for the dolls, who are served with tiny teacups and plates when the girls receive their drinks and meals.

The night before her birthday celebration, Josh, Benjamin, and I drove her to the store to pick out her doll and one accessory (the prize for completing her fourth box). She walked the store thoughtfully, carefully considering all her options before settling on Josefina. She radiated gratitude and joy, carrying her doll gently, adorning her with her little accessories, and smiling that coy smile of hers that comes out when she can't contain her inner delight.

All summer, Benjamin and Abby had been discussing which doll accessories he would get her for her birthday. So that night at the store, Ben pulled me aside and said, "I want to get something that Abby can wear to her party tomorrow." The store sells matching outfits for girls and their dolls. Since her party at the cafe was to be followed by a slumber party at our house, I suggested a set of matching pajamas, which he agreed would be perfect. I made the birthday purchases out of Abby's sight, shook my head at the price tag, and then we all went to dinner together, Josh and I exchanging smiles as we observed Abby's excitement. "It's happy new mommy day for Josefina," Abby proclaimed over mac and cheese, embracing this role completely.

Toward the end of dinner, Benjamin sidled up to me to whisper in my ear, "Mommy, I want to get Abby a bed for Josefina."

I heard the love in his voice but said quietly, "You'll have to talk to Daddy about that, because I think we've spent all our birthday budget already," catching Josh's eyes across the table.

Ben walked around the table to his daddy and whispered his desire in his ear. With Abby engaged in her care of Josefina, Josh mouthed across the table to me, "How much?"

I shrugged my shoulders that I didn't know. "Probably a lot," I mouthed back.

Josh turned to Ben and said, "Why don't we go look and see." So while Abby and I took care of the bill, they went back to the bastion of girly-ness, two boys who adore our little girl, to see about a bed.

I watched the door, waiting for them to walk back out, wondering what they'd decide. A few minutes later, they emerged with a large bag in hand, smiling. As we climbed in the car together, Josh said, "I just can't say no to our son when he loves her so much." We drove home through the rain, Abby cradling her doll in the backseat, my heart glowing with affection for my husband.

And I thought, this must be how God reacts to us. When he sees us giving to our brothers and sisters on earth, sharing lavishly, illogically out of a pure heart of love, I'm sure He must say, "Sure, Son. Go ahead and get that for your sister. I'll find the money somewhere. Give freely. I'll figure out how to pay for it."

Something about the whole exchange rang profoundly true.

The next day, Abby dressed her doll up for the party, enjoyed a sweet dinner with friends, and came home to find matching pajamas laid out for her and Josefina with a little bed next to her big bed for her doll. Ben couldn't contain his excitement, telling her all about the bed and how they chose it. When he started to walk out of the room to show Abby something else, she ran up behind her brother and threw her arms around him, saying, "I love you, Ben."

And when Abby opened the rest of her birthday presents two days later, she shared her new crafts and activities freely with her big brother, without concern for how much he was using her gifts. It was all freedom, all generosity, from a spirit overflowing with gratitude and joy.

We love because we've been loved. We give because we've been given. We share because we've received abundantly. And in this communion of love, the very heart of God, whose resources know no limit, is revealed.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

All-American Night

Benjamin had his first baseball practice ever last night. By the time practice began at 6:30, the sun had retreated enough to cast a warm, sunny glow over the fields, leaving the temperature comfortably warm. A mild breeze kept the bugs at bay. We walked down the path to the green lawn near the batting cages to find his coach and team, Ben and I both quiet, butterflies in our bellies, wondering how this new endeavor would go. Texas takes their kids' sports seriously. It's a different level of intensity than we've experienced in our mountain town's leagues.

Abby, of course, bounced down the path, chattering away, oblivious to our nervous energy.

Josh has been working with Ben on his fundamentals since we signed him up for the season. During Abby's Thursday night soccer practices, they bring their mitts, balls, and bat to an empty corner of the oak-shaded field to work on throwing and catching, batting and fielding. I watch them from where Abby plays, heart overflowing with affection for my husband, whose patience and encouragement instill confidence in his son. More important than the skills is the time. After a summer apart, Benjamin soaks up Josh's undivided attention, visibly swelling with contentment as they swing, scoop, throw, catch. The skills follow.

We met the coach, an affable dad with a presence that put us both at ease. Benjamin joined the other kids in warming up until they called him into the batting cages. He made contact with most of the pitches, hitting a few with solid power. His coaches made a few corrections to his form, and Ben listened, hitting a solid line drive after adjusting his stance. My mama heart swelled with pride in this little man who's worked hard these last several weeks and who receives instruction like water. He is growing up, my little boy. Pushing himself to try new things, devoting himself to improvement, recognizing the cause and effect of effort and growth. 

I exhaled. He's going to have no problem here.

Ben rejoined the other kids on the grass, alternately fielding grounders and catching the fielded balls. My attention moved back and forth between him and his sister, who practiced cartwheels in the grass until her hair matted down around her face from sweat. 

Every time she landed correctly, she beamed at me, all pride and glory. Determination abounds in her, too.

The sun continued to drop so that, by the time we moved to the baseball field for the second half of practice, the sky was colored pink and orange and purple. 

I watched Benjamin sprint the bases while Abby tried to capture the sky in my phone. 

"He's a good runner," I heard one coach say to the other. 

Ben ran over to the fence with a grin:"I think they like my speed!" he said, and ran back to the line.

Abby looked up at me with a face that shone adoration for her big brother: "I think Ben's a good player," she said.

"I think so, too."

It was the loveliest evening: baseball, cartwheels, sunsets, joy. Quintessential Americana. 

I'm not sure what it is about life here, but it feels easier, somehow, to give the kids opportunities to try more, to step out in independence, to work and accomplish more of what they desire. Perhaps it's just a matter of timing. They're old enough now to handle an occasionally later bedtime, a fuller schedule. Perhaps it's the weather: warm and breezy evenings that insist on being enjoyed. Perhaps it's the proximity of activities to our home that allows us to spend more time doing and less time driving. 

Whatever the case, life feels rich at the moment. The kids are happy. Not in the superficial sense, but in the deeply contented and fulfilled sense. Two nights ago, Abby walked up to a little girl during Ben's soccer practice and struck up a conversation, asking her which school she goes to ("Me, too!"), who her teacher is ("Oh, your class is across the hall from mine!"), what her name is ("Mine is Abigail"). It was an actual conversation initiated by my newly poised and engaging little girl. At some point in the exchange, Abby said, "Come on! Let's go admire the stars and stuff," and off they skipped into the grass under the Texas sky. I turned to this little girl's dad after they left, and we both chuckled aloud at the cuteness.

In all aspects, from their new school to their new activities to their responsibilities here at home, they are working hard and seeing their efforts rewarded. They are developing confidence, a sense of self, an awareness of who they are in this world, a willingness to step out of the known and secure to engage new people, new activities. They are maturing before my very eyes.

I'm still not sure why God initiated this move to Texas, and I'm certain the answers will continue to unfold with time, but for now, watching the kids thrive is all this mama could ask for.

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