Saturday, July 22, 2017

Surprised by Joy

All parents of young children come to understand that the word "early" takes on a new meaning when crossing the threshold into parenthood. Whereas, before kids, 7:00 felt early, waking up, now, anytime when the clock reads 7-something is easily considered sleeping in.

Anything before 6-something is early, anything before 5-something is very early, and anything before 4-something elicits a GOD PLEASE HELP ME prayer that runs on repeat until the sad realization dawns that--yes, the day is truly starting.

So when, earlier this week, our sons came into our bedroom and the clock read 9-something, my first thought was, what phantasmal force has refrained our kids from doing that which they have been programmed to do every single morning of their little lives until this particular morning?

The more honest rendition of that thought was something like, HUH!? followed closely by, WOW! and then subsequently by, OH NO!

Jen and I waited, listening as the trained spies that we have so expertly become (all parents double as secret agents, complete with their own repertoire of skills and shenanigans), and heard whispers. Tyler, age eight, was instructing Ben, age three, as to where to put certain household objects.

"Spray" could be heard.  

"Glass" could be heard.

"Basement" could be heard.

At which point my legs flew off the bed and I scrambled as close to the top of the stairs as I could to ensure that neither of my kids was about to perish.

We could charge admission to our basement, since it could easily double as a thrill ride for any kid under the age of six. Come one, come all, to the terrifying tyranny of concrete floors awaiting your descent on thin wooden steps that bend with your every footstep and which have no rails to protect you as you make your perilous way downwards!

(Full disclosure: I have a slightly unnecessary and exaggerated sense of fear about stairs. But still.)

I waited, however, at the top of our stairs, and Jen and I continued to listen to our two boys, attempting to discern what they were engaged in so thoroughly as to let us sleep in until the afternoon (as anything after 9-something qualifies as, essentially, the afternoon.)

Our boys emerged, alive, from the basement and then proceeded to discuss how to wake us up for the big surprise.

"We can jump on Daddy and Mommy real big in the stomach, like this!" Benjamin brainstormed, then proceeding to--I assume--show is older brother kind of jump with which he conjectured it would be wise to awake his full-term pregnant mom and his stair-anxious dad.

Thankfully, Tyler gently declined that idea, and suggested instead that they jump into our bedroom and loudly announce they had a surprise awaiting us.

"Okay!" Ben replied, ever the little brother ready to follow his big brother into anything.

"Let's go really, really quietly until we get to the top, okay?" Tyler announced.

"Okay!" Ben shouted as loudly as he could.

They began their ascent to our bedroom, and I raced back to the bed, leapt on top, and tried to look as though I was a hibernating bear who had not been awake since Fall.

"SURPRISE!"the boys roared.

Jen and I, wielding our ever sharp skills in the crafty arts of astonishment, sat up in shock and wondered to one another what could possible be happening.

Benjamin, forgetting his older brother's sage counsel regarding jumping-on-people's-stomachs promptly jumped on m stomach and almost let the soon-to-be-baby feel his leap, too, but Tyler announced, "Come downstairs!" before he could.

We all peddled down the stairs and Jen and I utilized our we-really-are-astonished astonishment.

Celebrated author C.S. Lewis once wrote a potent autobiography of his journey to faith over a lifetime of reading, study, friendship, and deep thinking, entitled Surprised by Joy. Soon after the book was published, he also met and married an American poet named Joy Davidman--a surprise for an Oxford professor who had come to believe that he might never have what people called romantic love, or a partner in marriage.

These two surprises for Lewis are much deeper than mine--much longer and much more meaningful--and yet on this particular morning, as the clock reads 9:36, and I have just arisen, my joy swells.

As I look around, I see that our boys have spent the morning, as we slept in, cleaning.



Jen and I looked at one another with that mix of surprise and delight that neatly evades definition but can be expressed by any one of a number of monosyllabic expressions.





We said them each, repeatedly, as our boys walked us through all of their morning work.

I was probably a bit to effusive in my praise and gratitude, considering the erudite or terrifying (depending on your natural proclivities as a parent) book, Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in which they demonstrate that traditional praise can be debilitating to kids. (Aaaah! What about SO MUCH OF EVERYTHING I SAY TO MY KIDS!?). 

But the sheer level of the joy--and the extreme nature of the surprise--have me forgetting my need to focus on the hard work and I go all-out in my effusive gratitude and praise.

Because I remember too many mornings waking up when the clock said 4-something.

Because I remember too many nights staying up long after the kids were asleep and the house was clean, and the clock said 10-something, and I have 43 essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God  to grade before report cards were due tomorrow, or to make a writing deadline, and I all I wanted to do was cry and shout loudly I CANNOT DO IT. I DO NOT HAVE WHAT IT TAKES.

Because I remember that parenting is a job where, even when you feel like you're making some solid, wise decisions, that just meas you about to get slapped with a surprising bad--how could I have made THAT decision?

Because no matter what our struggles, when we are truly and deeply surprised by the kindness of another, it runs deep with us and we remember it and it strips away our fears and foibles--if only for a little while.

Years ago, my wife began a small challenge to us as a family: to become RAKATEERS: or, Random Acts of Kindess (-ateers).

It was very cool. And as I watched her concoct fun schemes like buying neat local jewelry and then stopping by a McDonald's to ask if those behind the counter would be interested in it as a gift, it made me smile. I loved seeing the precise moment when someone received a small bit of a joyful surprise.

This past winter, I felt as though there were many of us who could have used a little more sense of being surprised by joy. Instead, the major headlines seemed to hold forth with surprises of despair, pain, intolerance, and fear. Indeed, fear, protectionism, and lack of compassion seemed to win at the polls and that defeat trickled to many other areas.

But the small moments of joy were still present in the ever-resistant acts of kindness that I saw in my own 7th graders, in our greater society, and in the voices of friends and fighters who stood up for one another with compassion and courage.

And, yes, I even was grateful to receive some small moments of being surprised by joy myself, this late wake-up being not the only one, but one of which I am particularly fond.