Daryl, (Never) On His Own

Daryl recently attended a summer camp out of state with a friend. His dad told him to be sure to send us a picture every day.

By the end of the first day, there was no picture. No surprise.

“Where is today’s picture?” I asked in a text. “How was it?”

He responded the next day with this:

That was it. No text, no nothing. What a punk. I said as much in the conversation that ensued.

(My husband responded first. I was calling my son a punk, not my spouse.)

That was Day 2 and the entirety of the conversation. Notice he left me hanging.

Day 3 brought more silence and no picture. I gave up. You honestly shouldn’t expect much out of a thirteen year old boy.

And then, nearly 48 hours after I asked my questions, he responded, “Yeah, it was cold and sometimes scary.”

Then… then… he sent a picture! Unprompted! And it wasn’t of his feet in socks he’d probably been wearing for several days. It was an honest-to-goodness quality picture of a creek surrounded by trees from a hike he had gone on.

He topped it off by carrying on a conversation with his dad about the hike and what he had purchased as gifts for his siblings. When his dad told him he loved him, Daryl responded, “I love you too.” And that’s when I knew.

The boy was ready to come home.

He’s typically an aloof child and not very expressive of his emotions. But one of the best things about him going on a trip like this is the quality of hug I get when he returns.

He actually hugs back instead of waiting patiently for me to finish and he’ll stay in the hug as long as I want. For minutes even. I sometimes wonder if he’s just being tolerant of his mother. My husband is pretty sure that he does it because he needs the hugs too. Which makes me all sorts of warm and happy inside.

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I Wonder – Hal Goes To Church Camp

The kids are off to summer camp this week. It’s Hal’s first time and he’ll be there all week – at age six. That’s a little younger than the camp usually allows for all week attendance but the half-day camps weren’t the same week as Jane’s and he’s only 3 months too young and I really didn’t want to make the drive twice. And the camp is small and accommodating.

So they are off to camp. Daryl is in the same small cabin as Hal, just on the other side, and Jane’s cabin is across the road. They’ll see each other at meals and probably a lot of other times during the day. Like I said, it’s a small camp. I hope frequent contact with each other is a good thing, not bad. I’m a little worried because Hal’s counselor said that Hal’s group is all at the older end of the age range. I hope they don’t exclude him or find him obnoxious. I have little hope that he’ll brush his teeth or change his underwear, but I guess that’s part of it.

When we were packing for camp, I noticed that the suggested packing list didn’t include pajamas (or shirts or underwear, but I digress). So I told Hal, who usually sleeps in just his underwear, to go get some. I went into his room to help and saw him grabbing his winter fleece alien pajamas.

“Oh, no, Hal,” I said, “you can’t take those to camp! It’s summertime and you’ll be in a cabin and it’s way too hot. Let’s take your summer minion pajamas.”

He clutched the PJ’s to his chest and said in the most pathetic, plaintive voice he could muster, “But someone that I care about very much gave these to me and I really want to take them with me to remember them!”

“Hal, I gave you those pajamas.”

Without missing a beat, he said, “And I care about you very much!”

“Well, that’s good. I gave you the minion pajamas too, so we should be good.”

He wasn’t happy but knew he’d lost the battle. I fully expect to hear all about how the air conditioner in the cabin was run on high and he was freezing all night because I wouldn’t let him take his alien pajamas.

I wonder if he’ll even remember that he has pajamas. I wonder if he’ll be comfortable changing clothes in front of those other boys. I wonder if the counselor will make sure he wears sunscreen. Or his hat. I wonder if he’ll remember to put his dirty clothes in the bag we gave him for that purpose. I wonder if he’ll wash his hair or just stand in the shower. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.

Funny, I don’t remember wondering this much about the other two their first week at camp. Am I getting old? Or is this just the way it is with the baby of the family? I wonder.

Another Almost-Botched Birthday

We came close to botching another birthday this past weekend.  At least this time, I had help from the birthday girl.  Jane made some friends at summer camp this past summer and her birthday wish was to get to see them.  She assured me that this was attainable because “we all live within 2 1/2 hours of camp.”

There is no point in employing logic when planning with a teenager.  It is lost on them that two people that are 2 1/2 hours from a given location are not necessarily close to each other.  They could, indeed, be a solid 5 hours from each other.  And when only one or two of these people can drive, it seems unlikely that parents would be willing to drive them somewhere to meet another kid from camp.  As she named the towns they each lived in, I found it unlikely we could make this get-together work.

But I am a loving and devoted mother who wants to give my children what they want when possible.  So I first said to find out who was available on that particular Saturday and who was able to travel.  She crafted the text request in such a way that no one answered about whether they were able to travel any distance away from their homes.  One answered that he would be taking the SAT in the morning but was free after.  One said maybe.  One said yes.  One said no.  The local girls, who would be transported with us wherever we went, said yes.

So I said, “Ok.  Tell them that we are going to have your party somewhere at 3:00 Saturday afternoon.  We will pick the somewhere to be as accommodating as possible for the people who are able to come.  See who can be there at that time.”  Same answers.

So then I checked a map.  I already felt like I was having to pull teeth to get any decisions made on this get-together.  After studying the map, I picked a town that was just over an hour from us and also from each of the two yeses.  It would be a longer journey for the maybe, but maybe he could get to the guy closest to him and catch a ride.

“Ok,” I said.  “Tell them the party will be at a park in Townville and see who can still come.”

“Which park?” she asked.

“I’m not going to spend the time picking a park until I know for sure that people can go there.  If either one of those guys bails, then we’ll move the party to the other person’s town.”

“Mom!  We are not irresponsible 10 year olds who say yes to parties when we don’t know whether we can go.  We are responsible teenagers who know what we are doing!  They said they could go.  They know it will be in the {general nearby metro} area.”

“I’m done with this conversation,” I said, and walked away.  Her notion of space is weak as the chosen town is not in the area she described.  After getting dinner in the oven, I tried again.

“Jake can’t come.  He says it’s too far,” she said.  I bit back the urge to point out which one of us had been right about the need to share the location with people.  I merely asked her to confirm with the other person whether he could travel or whether we should travel to his town.

“So at this point,” my husband asked me later, “we are planning a party around one person?”

“Basically,” I said.  But surely one of these friends would be better than none?  I told her to give the boy my phone number so his mother could call and talk if need be.  Several days went by with me pinging her each one.  By Wednesday, I still didn’t know what we were doing.  It distinctly felt like everything was falling apart.

Finally, the boy responded.  His mother said it was too far away and reminded him that he had another party to go to that day anyway.  Ok.  So now what?

She fretted over not being able to get people together for her birthday.  She mentioned a popular girl at school that had dozens at her party.  I said the quantity of people at the party was not nearly as important as how much they mean to you and vice versa.  She seemed to be getting down.

Finally, she named a science museum she wanted to take her local girlfriends to.  I stayed home with the boys.  My husband took the four girls and dropped them off at the museum while he checked out a nearby art museum.  Then he took them to her chosen hamburger joint and a Hot Topic, where they got matching shirts.  One of them then spent the night.  The next day, I delivered her to a movie theater that was showing the “one weekend only” One Direction concert movie.  She didn’t take any friends because none of them are One Direction fans.  Just her.

All in all, I think she had a good birthday.  But it was looking kind of sketchy there for a bit.

Imperfect Humans

Several weeks ago, Jane flooded the laundry room while doing a load of laundry. How did she manage that, you ask? Well, a few months before that, we discovered problems with our septic tanks.

Just as my husband left on a trip this past Spring, it rained, the tanks filled, and we lost all ability to use the facilities, shower, or wash clothes (the washing machine inexplicably drains to a tank). I very competently (if I do say so myself) dealt with the crisis, but we were not left fully operational.

Most noticeably, our washing machine would not reliably drain without backing up. So… well… we started snaking the drain for the washing machine out the window and attaching the end to a garden hose to drain.

This was not to be a long term solution.  But we were busy and it became normal.

Only Jane failed to put the hose out one day.

Her daddy came around the corner of the house to see water pouring out the seams of the window. He got pretty upset at her. We both thought it was a strongly incompetent act on her part. How could she forget? I thought for sure that after that, none of us would ever forget the hose again.

And then… I asked my husband to wash a load of laundry while I was at work last week. He did. And walked up to the front door later to see water pouring out from under it. This time, the water ran the full length of the laundry room, into our entry way, and out the door.

I thought about this for a little while and it reminded me (on a much different scale, of course) of a time period over a decade ago when there appeared to be a rash of parents leaving their infants in the car when they went into work and the babies died.

People I talked to were all horrified at the incompetence of those parents. “How could anyone possibly forget they had their child with them?!”

How, indeed. I knew the answer. They were distracted. They were probably out of their routine. The baby was asleep. I once drove to work with infant Jane in the car because the route to the babysitter’s house was the same as my route to work and my husband usually took her. I headed down the familiar road and went on autopilot. I remembered her as I parked my car, but a few more thoughts about work, and I might not have.

Empathy. Being able to see yourself in another person’s shoes. To recognize yourself in another person’s humanity rather than seeing them as an incomprehensible, inhuman anomaly. I suppose sometimes it can’t be done… but I suspect it can be done much more than we realize.

Jane exercised some questionable judgment at summer camp this year. Some of her friends misinterpreted it and one of them is still mad at her. He’s not completely without merit but he is certainly showing a lack of empathy. While watching the slide show, I saw pictures of each child holding the bowl they had decorated for a mission project. Kids from the previous week had constructed the bowls. Jane’s had a defect so she wrote “Imperfect Human” on it. A reference to the bowl. And its maker. And herself. And the boy mad at her. And her dad. And you. And me.

All of us are imperfect. Sometimes that has little consequences… like flooding the laundry room. Sometimes big… like losing your child. We can’t simply say we would never do it just because we never have. Or because we don’t want to admit that we could.

Editor’s note: Jane read this and told me that her bowl actually had a dot between “Imperfect” and “Human,” meaning she considered the words to be synonyms.  I don’t think that alters the meaning or significance of anything I wrote here but it is, in my opinion, an even deeper observation on her part.

Trusting and Creating

As I said yesterday,we are back for our third year at a family art conference.  We  attend our art class for three hours each morning with optional mini courses in the afternoon, worship each evening, and  enjoy a beautiful location that allows for hiking, swimming, resting, and enjoying God’s great creation.

One of the hardest lessons for people to learn is to silence their inner critic.  We each have a tendency to compliment others’ work while dismissing our own.  Why can we see the beauty in other people’s creations so much easier than we can our own?

This year, the worship leader spoke about how our God is a creating God and since we are created in His image, we are creators too.  All of us.  We are all artists.  We all have that capacity within us.  She pointed out that it doesn’t matter how good your work is, how well received it is, how perfect or flawed: you are an artist, regardless.

We call people who have children parents, she pointed out, regardless of whether they are any good at it.  So, too, you are an artist, regardless of your skill level.

The idea here was to get people to relax and create.  And love their creations.

It’s easier for the kids.  They love what they create.  It takes years of effort on the part of our society to drive all that hope and creation and self-love out of them.  And if we can’t stop society’s effect, it will take years of attending events like this one to add it back in.

I chose to take stained glass this year.  It was recommended that I bring a pattern or picture that I’d be interested in doing.  My first thought was of Van Gogh’s exploding Tardis:

doctor-who-van-goghs-exploding-tardis-poster

I was not surprised when I was told it was too much.  I had some back up pictures.  One was of the backside of a sunflower.  It was interesting but not nearly as difficult. That’s all relative, of course.  It might be easier than an exploding Tardis… but it was still an ambitious project.

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I put in a lot of hours outside of class.  Two or three afternoons and a couple of evenings.  There were 60 pieces, many of them tiny.  They had to be cut, trimmed, ground, fitted with copper foil around the edges, placed together and held in place by horseshoe nails.  (As a quick aside… do you have any idea how terrifying it is to hammer a nail right. next. to. your glass creation?!)  Then I had to solder all the seams – front and back, attach the lead border, solder it to the seams, and clean it all up.

I finished though and it looks gorgeous.

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A lot of people stopped by to check out our work.  A number of people insisted that this couldn’t be the first time I had done stained glass.  They didn’t believe me when I said I had never done it before.  This kind of reaction was, in my mind, both complimentary to me and healthy for them.

Other comments, which were also complimentary to me, seemed perhaps unhealthy for them.  At least, if you are looking to believe that we are all artists.  They would say stuff like “your whole family is so talented” – as if somehow being married to a potter made me more of an artist.  I know they were just telling me that they liked my work and felt I was talented.  But I couldn’t help but hear a tone of “well, we’d expect such work out of you… but me…”.

The thing is, I don’t think of myself as an artist most of the time.  I’m an engineer and a mother and a wife.  My life is full of non-art stuff.  I told my husband the other day, “I’m an artist one week out of the year.”  It’s this week.  At this conference.  When I can devote almost my entire self to creating something.

And that’s where the talent lies, I think.  In taking the opportunity and making the most out of it.  Removing the distractions and the self-criticism and just doing it.

am an artist… as it was described in our opening worship service.  I am not an artist in the way that most of us think about it.  I’m not more talented than the person across the table.  I don’t have some innate skill, some gift.  I’m you.  I go into every project thinking I can’t pull it off.  And every year I do.  And you can too.  You just have to believe in yourself.

So, please, do yourself a favor.  Go out there and create something.  Think and dream and design and build.  You won’t regret it.  The sense of accomplishment is worth all the frustrations and failures along the way.  Trust me.  Better yet, trust yourself.

Magical Camp

We are once again at the family art conference that we’ve gone to for three years now. And it continues to be a magical experience for us all. Most of the people here have been coming for years and we’ve finally been here enough that I’m starting to feel like I know people and am known by others.

This year Hal got to join the Young Artists group instead of the nursery.  Technically you are supposed to have completed Kindergarten but that’s a loose rule and “they” felt he was ready.  He’s having a blast.  According to his big brother, he’s quite the disruption.  Big brother seemed surprised when I told him I had received the same report about him by big sister the first year we were here.

Jane is taking Landscape Painting with acrylics.  She now loves to paint and is doing remarkably well.  My husband is trying his hand  at Digital Photography and, while he claimed earlier in the day yesterday to dislike it as an art form, is now enjoying himself immensely.  I’m doing Stained Glass and once again managed to pick an overly ambitious project.  And once again, with a wonderful and supportive teacher, I’m pulling it off fairly well.  Although I’m having to put in some extra hours outside of class to get it done!

The big story of the week so far though has been Daryl.  Daryl has fallen in love with a charming three year old girl named Mia.  He is smitten.  And I mean that in the healthy, he’s-going-to-make-an-awesome-daddy-one-day kind of way not the man-that’s-kind-of-creepy way.  He plays with her and takes care of her like he’s never done for his own little brother.

When Mia loses her sword (again) after slaying the mighty dragon, he tells her to climb to safety in the covered wagon (where monsters, including dragons, apparently can’t go) and then, after making sure she is safe, goes and retrieves another imaginary sword to slay yet another mighty dragon.

When she falls down, he’s right there, making sure she’s ok and picking her up again.

When she decides to take off her shoes on the wood chip covered playground, he carries her on his back so her nice little white socks don’t get dirty.

When she wanders over to said playground during the outdoor worship service, he follows her to keep an eye on her, carefully watching her when a group of teenagers from a different camp invade the space.

And during musical chairs, when she falls down as everyone scrambles for a chair, he puts his hand on a chair and calls to her to come take it, thereby being out himself but preserving her participation in the game.

He’s been simply charming.  And now everyone thinks he’s an amazingly sweet kid.  Which I suppose he is… just not all the time.  And not typically with his own siblings.

My three earlier posts this week were scheduled before we left.  I’ve had very limited time here, my days filled with many wonderful things.  This one is just a light brushstroke but I hope to find some time later today to blog about the deeper things that come from being here and being fully an artist for one brief week that I can share in the morning.

Until then, I encourage you to break out of your box  today.  Try something radically new!  It does wonders for your psyche.

Choosing the Right Summer Camp

Our older two kids were at a church camp last week.  They have never been to this particular one before but since it’s the one for our denomination (Presbyterians), we hoped they would like it.  They both went to a non-denominational, for profit one further away with some friends (also from our congregation) for the two previous years, as well as a Lutheran one before that and Jane had attended a Methodist years ago.

I say all that to demonstrate that we have had a perhaps higher-than-average exposure to a variety of church camps.  The Methodist and for profit ones were very large, the Lutheran one fairly small, and this new one extremely small.  All were in remote wooded areas with cabins.  All were a week long.  All involved some outdoor activities, worship, Bible study, and more.

Our friend that invited us to the for profit camp loves it.  She adores it.  She says it is perfect for her kids and they do indeed love it.  We were not all that comfortable with it the first year but the kids had a good time so we sent them back a second year.  They still liked it that year too but our unease had increased.  When Jane attended a Presbyterian youth conference the following week and said she liked it better than the other camp (which I will now call ‘Camp A’), we decided to make a change.

This year, we sent them to a nearby Presbyterian camp (which I will now call ‘Camp B’).  The friend whose kids go to Camp A said that she had gone to Camp B growing up and felt that Camp A was right for her kids.  To some extent, our differences can be explained simply by personality and preference.  The smaller ones are more to our liking because we like smaller, more intimate settings – that’s why we deliberately chose a small congregation to join.  We don’t like a lot of pomp and circumstance.  We don’t care for big production.

Camp A has counselors lining the road as you drive up, yelling and cheering.  As you get out of the car, you are approached by a counselor with a microphone who asks your camper’s name and then announces it to the camp over a loud speaker.  The kids are bustled into brightly colored two-story cabins with huge animal heads over the doors and a fire pole and slide from the second floor to the first.  There’s a huge flashy water park style area with a big slide, falling water, jungle gym.  The closing ceremony has the camp director bounding up on stage with a microphone and a lot of hype and energy.  It is intoxicating.

That’s for the younger kids.  The older camp appears more subdued.  But we weren’t allowed to accompany Jane to her cabin.  And when she was twelve, her counselor decided that even though her swimsuit was a modest one-piece fitting the guidelines, Jane was simply too well-endowed to be allowed to swim without a shirt on over it.  I’ll be honest – this angered me.  Young girls have such tremendous body image issues and an early-developing girl is particularly self-conscious.  This encounter scarred her.  I had to listen to her tell me for months after how much she hated her breasts.  She’s beautiful but was already learning to hate herself and this camp played a role in that. It smacked of the attitude: Cover up the girls rather than teach the boys.

That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for us.  At least, for me.  But we’ve spent a lot of time analyzing our feelings and trying to sort out the rational from the irrational, to make the right decision.  After all, they could attend Camp A with friends.  Camp B, they’d arrive with just each other.

Camp A is expensive.  Through a couple of funding mechanisms, it ends up not being personally that expensive for people from our church, but someone is still paying a lot of money for it.  It’s also a lot farther away: 4 hours one way vs. less than 2 for Camp B.  That means sixteen hours total on the road vs. seven.  They also have theme nights every night, which means you have to acquire special outfits for them to change into in addition to their regular day clothes.  And there’s a snack bar that they can visit every day: more money.  And junk.

Camp B costs considerably less.  It’s closer.  There are not any special wardrobe requirements.  And the snack bar is only open on Saturday when you arrive to pick them up.  In fact, you are specifically told not to send snacks as they are not allowed to have food in the cabins and to not send money as there is no place to spend it.  I see this as fewer distractions and fewer unhealthy behaviors.

These are practical concerns, though, not spiritual or programming.  Surely we’d be willing to spend the extra money and extra time on the road if our children were getting more out of the experience?  Within reason, yes.  So how was this new, very small camp?

They loved it.  I could tell before I even had a chance to talk to Jane that something magical had happened for her.  They both got into the car after the closing worship gushing about how great the camp was.  How it was the best they had ever been to.  How they both want to become interns and then counselors.  They definitely want to come back and how much better it was than Camp A.

Now, I’m not a fool.  They just got done with Camp B – of course it beats the pants off anything they did a year ago.  It’s still fresh on their minds.  They reported loving Camp A too.  Still, I listened carefully to what they said and discovered some insight, I think, into why our family and our friend’s family respond so differently to the notions of the two camps.

Our friend told us that her daughter loves Camp A because “there’s something going on 24/7.  They are always going!  That’s what my kids love!  They are busy kids – they want to be active!”

Our kids are busy too – during the school year.  In fact, I’d say that both families are likely guilty of over-scheduling.  But my kids preferred the slower paced camp.  They liked “Vespers”, where you lay out under the stars and relax, maybe go through some guided meditation, maybe just commune quietly with God.

When the Camp Director at Camp B addressed the parents, he said, “Your kids are the same kids you dropped off here.  We didn’t turn them into Jesus Kids.  They are the same.  Hopefully, we planted a seed that will grow into something in years to come, but we didn’t completely change them in one week.”

And therein lies the difference.  I think Camp A believes that they can make a radical shift in a child’s life on the spot.  They misinterpret (or maybe just misrepresent) the mountain-top high the kids all leave with as something that lasts forever, instead of something that wears off after a few days.  I’m not saying Camp A doesn’t plant a seed too – it does.  I just appreciate the more modest perspective of Camp B.

I also think it’s a mistake to program every minute of a child’s time.  I was watching a video recently where the person was imparting a lot of information.  He was rattling it off quickly and I wanted to consider something he said and process it but I couldn’t or I’d be missing the next point.  It went too fast.  I couldn’t absorb it.  It was enjoyable but not much stuck.  So beyond entertainment, what was the point?

I think that Camp B (and the conference Jane went to) recognizes that kids need downtime to think.  To pray.  To get to know each other. To relax.  To shut off.  To just be.  The fundamental difference between the two camps’ approaches, I think, is a matter of trust.

Camp B trusts the kids to arrive at the right answers if they are given space to get there themselves (with some guidance, of course).  They trust the kids to be responsible if left to choose their own activities.  They. Trust. The. Kids.

Camp A needs to drive the message home.  It needs to tell the kids what to believe, what is right, what is wrong.  It needs to keep them busy so they can’t get into any trouble.

I freely admit that I could be wrong.  After all, my pondering has been about why I think Camp B is better than Camp A, so of course my conclusions are going to trend toward flattering portrayals of Camp B and non-flattering of Camp A.  And my values are going to seem more important, more significant, more weighty than someone else’s, making a camp that more closely matches my values seem more important, more significant, more weighty than one that doesn’t.  I get that.

One final perspective came out of our Dave Ramsey course, specifically the lesson on marketing.  It’s ironic that I’m getting this perspective from there since Dave Ramsey is also highly marketed with a lot of hype.  Then again, he doesn’t fault the marketers for their efforts, he just wants you to be aware of what they are doing and why.

Camp A is marketing itself to me.  All that hype and flash is about selling itself.  To make it seem special and unique and bigger than life so that I will bring my kids back.  Because, let’s face it, if the kids don’t come, the camp doesn’t pay the bills and doesn’t make a profit for the owners.  And if that happens too many years in a row, they have to shut the doors.

But isn’t that true for Camp B, you ask?  Kinda sorta.  But being part of a denomination and supported by some churches means that is has some funding sources to draw on.  And since it isn’t drumming up all that hype, its expenses are much less.  Marketing is expensive.

To me, it’s like going to Disney World vs. a family get-together.  Yeah, Disney World is a big deal and exciting and fun… but family is family.  And family doesn’t have to keep me busy.  I can just enjoy their company.

And that’s what my kids did last week.  With just under 50 kids in the whole camp – all age ranges – they knew everybody.  Everybody.  By name.  And loved them all.  And enjoyed their company.  And that’s worth more than a water park and a high ropes course any day of the week.