Friday, September 21, 2018

Comstock Chronicles: Walking to School

Set out this morning to Hoover Elementary school. The morning had a tinge of coolness, a precursor to fall. It inspires me to decorate with pumpkins and start using the oven again. In his stroller Benny gazed heavenward, turning to the right and left with quizzical looks. I don't think he can see the branches of the podocarpus and ficus and magnolia trees, but he sure does give that impression.

The children sprint ahead and chase each other around the stop-sign pole. At the corner of Broadway and Greenleaf sits a man on the edge of a brick pilaster. He looks like a sailor with his worn attire and leathery skin. He is smoking.

Lee stops and stares. Uh oh, I think.

"What's that?" Lee asks.

The man waves his hand with the cigarette. “Oh, it’s just a thing," he replies.

I've caught up to Lee by now but I haven't any idea what I ought to say to either man or boy. So I say nothing aside from the regular announcement that we are now crossing the street. Walking fast seems like the best option at this point.

“It smells like skunk!" Lee postulates loudly as we step onto the crosswalk.

"Lee! Don't talk about other people like that!" That's what I wanted to say, but we were still within earshot of the man and once again my embarrassment strikes me dumb.

I didn't realize until my return home that there actually was a dead skunk laying in the gutter not far from where the old sailor smoked. Of course, seeing the skunk caused me to be even less sure of what I should've said. I just hope the man knew he was sitting beside a dead skunk.

We continue up Broadway. The children pretend to be chickens by flapping their elbows. Occasionally, they stop to gather flowers or scratch their mosquito bites or skirt a gate with a barking dog. Partway up the first block, they sit on a picnic bench that's on rollers in someone's front yard. I'm tense as they do this for fear that the owners will come out and see us and . . . well . . . I don't know what they'll do. Probably just give us a scolding or a dirty look. Yes, I think it's the scolding that I fear or perhaps the accusation that I've allowed my children to do something they shouldn't. What sort of mother must I be! Letting my children play in other people's front yards! However, I highly doubt that the owner of that house enjoys his roller picnic table as much as my children do.

Further up the road we pass by what the children once called the witch's house. It's an alley house with peach stucco, black awnings, and Spanish roof tiles. Their front yard is tidy even though it is crowded with various animal and angel statues, a parrot cage, bird baths, and gnomes. On the sidewalk leading up to the door is a life size replica of a growling black bear. It must be the bear that inspired the name "witch's house." The children peer at the various objects behind the wrought iron gate as we walk by.

One day we saw a man coming out of that house. He was carrying a little girl's princess dress. Rose gazed wide-eyed.

"I'm just going to give this away," the man said to me. "Would you like it for your girl?"

"Oh, no thank you," I replied.

Further up the block, Rose scolded me. "Mommy, I wanted that dress! Why can't I have it?"

I wasn't sure of the answer. Why couldn't she have that dress? Did it matter that that man was a stranger? Was it rude to say no? Was it strange to say yes?

I'm really a most dumbfounded mother about almost everything except questions that can be answered "no." Since that day, the children have ceased calling it the witch's house. As we near Lou Henry Hoover Elementary, more families join us from the adjacent streets. Lee calls hello and urges me to catch up to other families. I ask him if he knows the other people.

"No," he replies. "But they go to my school."

He can tell because of the uniforms: red or navy blue, cotton polos and khaki shorts. Rose has already explained to me on multiple occasions what kind of jumper she'd like to wear when it's her turn to go to kindergarten. "A little skirt with little folds going up and down and with little shorts underneath," she says.

We encounter two crossing guards on the way to school The first one has a white mustache and tanned skin. He wears a neon hat and vest and never smiles or speaks. He grunts and makes vague hand signals. I've tried "Good morning" and "Buenos dias" and "Thank you," but the most I've gotten out of him was a throat clearing.

The second crossing guard is always smiling and greeting us, "Happy Monday!" or "It's minimum day today, my friends."

I hug Lee goodbye, if he'll let me, and then watch him march up the cement steps and in through the double doors beneath the art deco stone carving.

“I’m so tired, Mommy," Rose says. "I’m evaporated.”

"I think you mean exhausted," I say.

Rose rides on the stroller's handle on the walk home. Benny is usually asleep by then, but this doesn't stop Rose from talking to him off and on. She tells me about her five-year-old birthday party plans or she describes her Halloween costume that has yet to be purchased. At least once, she'll request a Bigwig story, which are stories I make up about our rabbit trying to escape from our backyard. But I like to save these stories for teeth brushing or bedtime.

On Camilla we pass a man using an electric waxer on his vintage red mustang. He is so intent on his work that he takes no notice of us. I make a split second judgement about the futility of something so temporary while Rose comments, "Mommy, that car sure is shiny."

Later, I take Rose to preschool, return home to feed Benny, and then put him down for a nap. After a snack and some tea, I check facebook and am surprised to see one of my facebook friends has posted a picture of her husband waxing a red mustang. I've never met this gal, but I've been blessed by her candid posts over the past few months. She recently lost her mother-in-law.

The text beneath the picture reads, "Today I came outside to yell at him for not helping me with the kids and caught Drew waxing the Mustang his mom used to drive in high school. I slowly backed away. Grief is weird."

This rare window into another's grief has properly placed my split-second judgements. In fact the situation causes me to question my assumptions of all the people I see on my walk: the smoking sailor, the crossing guard, the owners of the rocking picnic table, and the families walking to Hoover Elementary. What if I assumed everyone was a facebook friend grieving? Sure would cause me to look and think with more grace.

Monday, September 17, 2018

you . . . you . . . ME!

Lately, we've been reading a number of children's books about pride: Mustache, King Hugo's Huge Ego, and Yertle the Turtle. They're funny because they're ridiculous. They're also rather true.

I don't mean that once upon a time a king was so full of himself that his head inflated to the size of a hot air balloon, or that the ruler of turtles once stood on top of all his fellow turtles so that he could see his vast territory. I mean that we get fat heads, and we like standing on top of each other.

I do it multiple times a day. I see someone with more or less than me, I compare, and then I come to the conclusion that either I'm better than they are, or they must think they're better than me.

Really, it's impossible not to notice the differences between myself and others. Some houses are nicer than mine. Some women are more beautiful than me. Some mothers are not as organized as I am. I have more kids than most. I haven't experienced as much hardship as some. And my kids are better behaved than so-and-so's.

The comparison isn't the problem. It's the conclusion that possessions or knowledge or skills make me better than others.

It's a loathsome quality quite easy to spot in others. It's what made Disney's Gaston say, "And don't I deserve the best?" And it made the evil queen try to kill Snow White to remain the fairest of them all. It caused General Ratcliffe in Pocahontas to sing, "My rivals back home, it's not that I'm bitter, but think how they'll squirm, when they see how I glitter." Then of course there's Scar, Jafar, Shere Khan, and Ursula who all attempted murders in order to be on top.

In children it's quite easy to spot because they say it so blatantly. "I got a donut and you didn't." "I can jump farther than you." "You're saying it wrong!"

As adults we hide it a bit better.

Aloud I say, "Oh, is this your first baby?" but in my heart, I say, "Aha! I have more experience than you in mothering."

Aloud I say, "How nice that you get to travel to Hawaii!" but in my heart I say, "Must be nice to have so much money that you can travel around and vacation wherever you like! You probably think you deserve it!"

Aloud I say, "Thanks, that's an idea," but in my heart I say, "How dare you tell me what to do as if you knew how to run my life better than me!"

Aloud I say, "Oh, are they having marital troubles?" when in my heart I'm say, "They haven't figured out how to do marriage as well as Phil and me."

It's priding myself on how much I've learned about pride and thinking, "I wonder if so-and-so has learned as much as I have about pride. They sure could use it."

It's a sickness alright. A sure way to turn myself into a me-monster inside-out. Brian Regan's stand-up comedy The Me Monster says it quite well. It's pointing at everyone else and saying, "You . . . you . . . you . . . ME! See that? See the difference?" And the cure can only start when I recognize that I'm sick. That doesn't mean saying, "Yes, I've got a pride problem," But recognizing it in the midst of the situation.

This is rather difficult to do because making myself out to be better than others feels so good. It's actually a salve to my feelings of insignificance. If I can prove that I'm better than someone, then I must have some value. So the cure to pride must also be the cure to feeling insignificant. And feeling insignificant runs deep down into my heart.

The cure must be more than a bandaid of positive thinking. It's not enough to just stop feeling insignificant. We have to actually BE significant. And significance is something that's given rather than seized.

Think of it as a bunch of toys sitting on a shelf trying to prove to one another who is most alive. The Teddy bear and the porcelain doll can argue all they want, but until the good fairy comes along and taps a toy with her magic wand, they all remain motionless and dead on the shelf. Or think of it as a crowd of blue-collared workers arguing who'll look the nicest at a presidential party. But until the president actually invites them to the party, it doesn't matter that they wear tuxedos or tutus.

If all of us here are born mere humans, then only someone who is more than man can lift us out of our simple, common humanity into something greater.

I think you know the rest of the story.

But in case you don't, yes, Jesus died to lift us out of our humanity. But asking him to save me one day won't cure me of my pride everyday. Hence, my problem.

It's asking him to save me today, and then believing that when God looks down at me, he sees Jesus and says, "You're good enough." To believe that Jesus has made me good enough is to stop thinking that I need to be better than someone else.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Comstock Chronicles: Arguing in the Car

Today was a special day for the children. Rose went to Auntie Celia's house for lunch, book reading, and flower arranging. Lee had Grandparent's Day at Hoover Elementary. They also had a slumber party at the Stevens' house after school.

The children's overnight backpacks were already loaded in the car when I went to pick up Lee. However, Rose still tried to pack several additional purses as well as her foam sword and golden belt that she uses like Wonder Woman's lasso. I told her she could only bring one toy and somehow she managed to convince me to bring along a stack of artwork, a school worksheet, and five little acorns stuck on popsicle sticks instead of the toys.

While getting in the car, she asks for help seeing as her hands are full. I take her stack of papers and put them on Lee's booster seat.

This of course creates a problem when we pick up Lee. In a panic, Rose calls out from the back seat, "Mommy! You forgot to move my papers!"

"I can't reach them," I tell her. And besides, it is too late. The traffic attendant has called Lee's name through her megaphone, and he comes trotting down the grassy hillside in front of the school to our car. He opens the door and drops Rose's papers onto the car floor.

I brace myself for an explosion. But instead Rose leans over baby Benny and says, "Look Benny! Look who's here! Your favorite brother! Aren't you so happy to see him?"

To which Lee replies, "Rose, that's rude to say that. Mommy, today we watched a movie in my class. We watched two movies. Peter Pan and a truck movie. And Grandma and Grandpa Stevens came to my class and I had lunch with them!"

"Lee!" I exclaim. "What Rose said was not rude. She was welcoming you."

Rose bursts into tears. "Mommy, I want Grandma and Grandpa Stevens to go to my school! Why didn't they come to my school?"

Lee goes on, describing the movies he watched in class. Rose continues to cry.

I wonder how to remedy all this: Lee's uncharitable words and Rose's sorrow at not having the same special day as Lee. She'd had her lunch with Auntie Celia. Wasn't that enough?

In the meantime the traffic attendant signals to me, and I roll down my window.

"Do you have any other children to pick up?" she asks me. She's obviously confused as to why I am holding up the traffic.

As I drive off, I begin my speech. I point out exactly what I think of the children's reactions.

Lee responds with, "I'm plugging my ears."

And Rose says curtly. "You dropped my papers on the ground, Mommy!"

I breath deeply and begin to pray. What is there to say? Is there anything really worth saying? I am so disappointed about having to cut off my son's report for the day. He rarely gives me reports of his days. I do wish to hear it, but I doubt that I'll get anything from him now.

We drive down Painter and then onto Whittier Boulevard. I wonder if I should try to explain things again or if the children have already moved on.

"Mommy, how big is Benny's bottom?" Rose asks from the back seat.

They have moved on, which is good although my blood pressure is still rather high. I answer, "The size of two peaches." I get a mental picture of this and decide that Benny's bottom is probably smaller than two peaches, probably more like the cleavage of one peach, but that is hardly worth clarifying.

"I would still love to hear about your day, Lee," I try. To my relief, Lee volunteers more. The story is different this time. Different movie. Different activities with Grandma and Grandpa. I never really know what's true or not with that boy.

Rose corrects him on one point in his story, and he flares up again. "You don't know everything, Rose. You don't know how cars are made and you don't know how concrete is made and you don't know how trees grow and you don't know how big is the sky and you don't know all those things."

"I know about a lot of things, Lee," Rose replies. "I know a big word. What's that big word that I know, Mommy?"

I smile as I turn onto Colima. "Nocturnal."

"Yes. I know Jie-urnal. And I know what scavenge means. That's when they get lots of things because there's no food in the winter. And I know a lot of things, Lee. I know addresses and I know that God is big and I know that Bigwig is safe and I know lots of things."

I decide to interrupt this impressive display of knowledge to inform the children that their grandparents don't want to have two bickering children over for a slumber party, and unless they want to return home, the fighting must stop and apologies follow.

They apologize with a touch of sarcasm that I didn't know was possible in their voices. Thank God, for grandparents and slumber parties!