When Books Get Tiring

No, I'm not above posting a cute cat picture as a way to draw traffic.

I’m a reader. Love to read. Love to read so much that I currently have a stack of books on my office floor that is approximately 5 feet in height. Love to read so much that almost all of the wall space in my office is filled with bookshelves, and those bookshelves are crammed full of books–on the shelves, on top of the shelves, books on top of other books. So please know that what I’m about to write comes from a place of deep love.

I’m bored with books.

Not all books, mind you, just the ones I’ve been reading lately. Admittedly, my scope has been narrow–as a youth pastor, I’ve been reading a lot of Christian books lately in an effort to improve myself as a pastor. I’ve read or re-read everything from Desiring God to Crazy Love to Mad Church Disease to Transformational Churches to Influencing Like Jesus, and I have to say:


Now, this is a generalization. One of the things that I love about books is that each one, no matter how boring, has the capacity to surprise you with a sudden turn-of-phrase, or a burst of insight, or a brilliantly delivered line. The books I mentioned above are no exception; each have their moments. But as a whole, the Christian stuff that I’ve been reading (most of which calls the reader earnestly to live a full, vibrant life for God) is flat. Dull. Lifeless.

I can’t put my finger on it, but if I had to offer a thought as to why these books bore, I would have to say it’s due to the fact that too many of us Christians are concerned with how to live life than with actually going out and living it, and the books we read reflect that. It’s the Age of Insecurity–are you a good enough person? Do you know enough? Do you love enough? Do you give enough? If so, how do you manage it? If not, what keeps you from living your best life now? (©Joel Osteen) In the end, you’d think that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are paranoia, depression, repression, fear, conceit, and self-loathing.

I mean, by comparison, Woody Allen’s neuroses are small.

Of course, no one is forcing me to read these books. There’s not a gun to my head. But lots of people are buying these books and using them for guidance on how to live life better. People are obviously dissatisfied with the direction/trajectory of their lives, and they’re seeking answers. This is good. That they’re seeking them from books that make you want to end your life rather than finish reading them is a problem.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with people writing books. I want to write books. I want to publish books. I think books are a vital contribution to the world, and one of the best gifts given to humanity. I think that the authors of the books I mentioned are deserving of credit for what they’ve written because their books have helped many people.

But we have reached a place where the words written on the page do not suffice for the ache, the lack, in a person’s daily life. There’s only so much we can learn by proxy; at some point we must get out and live life. And in living life, share it with other people. There’s a crackling to that kind of living; an energy and a pulse that can’t be found anywhere else, not even in the world’s best prose.

Perhaps the issue isn’t with the books as much as it is with the reader, and in this case that’s me. Maybe it’s my time to get out and live a fuller life, do a better job of becoming the person I want to be instead of reading about how to become that person. The tools are at my avail; I don’t need anything more than what I already have. I just have to make myself do it. I have to choose to live.

And by living, here’s hoping I bring life back to the pages I hold so dear.

Hello Kitty: The Last Day of Childhood

The Destructor has been chosen...this freaking anime cat will take away my daughter's chldhood tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up earlier than usual. I will most likely have to rouse my daughter from her bed and usher her into the kitchen, where we’ll begin our normal morning routine. Only it won’t be normal anymore. There will be changes.

She won’t have the option of starting her day with her usual televised friends. She won’t be able to lay about in her nightclothes, playing with her dolls or ponies, until her mother or I insist on her getting dressed. Chances are she won’t even have time to bug her little brother. Ella will get dressed, get fed, put her hair into a bow, and together we’ll walk up the street to her bus stop.

Tomorrow, my daughter, bedecked in Hello Kitty, will say goodbye to the only life she’s known.

Over a single night, all that my family has known will change. And it will be a significant shift, one that will not correct, one that will not return to us except in brief stints known as winter, spring and summer break.

I was doing okay with that reality for the past few days, but much like the evening before major surgery, or your wedding, or any other life-altering day, I’m starting to feel a little less confident and a little more wistful. Almost panicked, even.

Do all people experience these kinds of shifts in the same way? Is it the singular feature of parenthood to feel more acutely those changes in your child’s life that signify maturation? I looked at the faces of other parents this morning at church and couldn’t detect any anxiety on their parts. But I could feel my heart beating wildly with each minute slipping by. I watched Ella play with her friends after the luncheon at our church and all I could think about was that at this same time next year she would be a completely different Ella. She wouldn’t be a precocious pre-K girl anymore; she would be something other, something undefined, something unpredictable.

Something foreign.

Of course that’s only true if I neglect to undergo this metamorphosis with her, and there is a real part of me that wants to scream, “No, this can’t be happening!” I feel as if somehow some giant, faceless force is attempting to wrench my little girl from my hands and take her somewhere I cannot go.

But the truth is, if I do not follow her on this new path, it will not be because I was forbidden; it will be because I chose to stay behind, cradling the past as fiercely as I once held her. This scares me because I can see the temptation of it and feel the pull towards that choice, but I know if I pull back and hold onto my memories of Ella’s early childhood as the basis for how I see and interact with her, I will lose her twice. Once, because she will move on and grow up and become herself as she is meant to be. Twice, because my memories will fade and, having made no new ones, I will be left with a dissolving image even more foreign and frightening than I could imagine.

So I will wake up tomorrow and get her out of bed. I will hold her longer than I normally would because I know that it will be the last time I can pull her into my embrace with the guarantee that nothing will happen to her unless I let it. I will crave that sense of protection that has safeguarded us both, even while we both knew it was a facade. I will let her go, my heart ripping to pieces and rebuilding itself only to rip into pieces again, and I will fix her a Pop Tart. Or a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Or a bag of Frosted Flakes. Or maybe even a stack of pancakes, though I doubt that because she’s not really been into pancakes recently (just one more sign of the advancing of time). I will hurry her through her breakfast because, for the first time in her life, she will have a schedule that she must keep, a schedule that is enforced by a new entity that is greater than mom and dad and must be obeyed. She will have to dress and get medicine and brush her teeth and check her backpack and put on her shoes and clean her room and trek the Green Mile to the bus stop where her life, her young and frail life, will be forever changed by the opening of those big yellow doors and her first steps onto the Cheese Wagon.

In short, tomorrow morning I release my second-born, first-surviving child into the maws of the masochistic rat race that consumes us all with the same ferocity, while simultaneously losing my own divine illusion of control.

Two innocences for the price of one.

I can hear her singing now, a random yelp to herself and her friends “the Stuffies” that means nothing more to me than the very essence of her purity of soul. I hear it, and I tear up at the thought that some bruiser of a fifth grader may make fun of her tomorrow in the hallway. I hear it and I fill with rage at the very notion that someday some clumsy oaf will make an advance against her will and quite possibly she might feel helpless to resist.

Some people see the first day of Kindergarten as a bittersweet memory that signifies their child is growing up and will soon embark on new adventures.

I see the first day of Kindergarten as quite possibly the first steps to Hell. Or at the very least my own descent into madness.

It’s so bizarre, really, just how much of how I see the world is revealed through Ella’s venturing out into it. How contrary my internal thoughts are to the way I’ve presented the world to her. I’ve raised her to believe in herself, to believe in the powers of goodness and honesty, to trust her own innate creativity and intelligence and to resist the corrosion of conformity for as long as she can.

And all the while, I’ve harbored this festering hatred for the world I’ve painted with such caring detail. In essence, I’ve either lied to my child or to myself, and perhaps both; I’ve spent too long, it seems, dancing between two worlds instead of just inhabiting one.

Tomorrow, then, is my day of reckoning.

Will I choose to follow my daughter into her new world and do my best to reinforce those values and beliefs that I have instilled in her in order to help her become the very best person she can? Or will I hide, like a coward, in a hell of my own making, succumbing to the worst of all possible fates: being a wretched little man, afraid of the world and its unpredictability, who loses his beloved daughter because of his own weakness?

For better or worse, I must choose. As much for Ella’s sake as my own. And the choice will make my world radically different, for the good or the bad.

Who knew a day filled with excitement and potential and squeaky new Hello Kitty accessories could be so metaphysical?

Ella Goes to Kindergarten Camp, Dad Goes to Pieces…

Ella, the Kindergarten slayer.

My brain is normally a jumble of thoughts, some connected, others disjointed and meandering around like a bored relative at a party. But today is especially tough for me – while I’m working on my fall calendar, teaching plan for the year, and just in general trying to have a peaceful mental breakdown, I’m constantly distracted by one monstrous question that threatens to consume for the rest of my natural life:

How’s Ella doing?

This morning, Rachel and I (along with Jon) escorted Ella to her first day of Kindergarten Camp. That’s right – they now have practice runs for Kindergarteners. Brilliant move. I don’t remember if I had such a thing at my disposal when I was a kid; it’s certainly possible, but somehow I doubt it. I can only vaguely recall the emotional horror of being escorted to the bus stop by mom and placed inside the foul-smelling yellow beast’s belly. The feeling of insignificance as older, larger, aggressive kids swarmed in anarchy around me as I clung tightly to my lunchbox and stared at my brilliant white new sneakers. The sense of fear that enveloped me as I moved with the teeming masses into the cavernous opening of the school and navigated the absolute bedlam of the hallways. Thinking long and hard on this, my best impressions are fear, smallness, lostness, worry, anxiety.

It’s a very cinematic memory. I think it has a Michael Giacchino score.

In fact, the emotional core of the memory is so strong that even as I walked into Ella’s school today, I felt those same stirrings in me, only amplified because I was considering my child’s future. I looked at Ella’s thin little body, walking tip-toe across the great waxed floor, her tiny pink shorts and shirt shrinking against the massive white block walls, and all I could think about was: Heck no. She ain’t coming here.

The hallways were ridiculously long, the walls barren and bereft of color or style. The color scheme (mute whites and greys) combined with the fluorescent lighting made me feel as if I was dropping of my gifted and rare child at some secretive government lab where they specialize in stripping the unique and beautiful people of their souls (which, come to think of it, is the official mission and vision statement of Gwinnett County Public Schools…ba-dum-cha! Thank you, I’ll be here all week!). It felt wrong, taking my daughter into some weird amalgamation of an Aldous Huxley/George Orwell novel.

And public school architectural theory has changed quite a bit since I was in school. The colors used to be warmer and more inviting, for one thing, and the office, cafeteria and the library were all closer together. At Ella’s school the office is an intimidating bank of curtained windows to your far left once you walk through the front door, the kind of darkened, curtained windows you would imagine Drs. Mengele and Frankenstein collaborating behind. The entryway, instead of being small and cozy, is a massive swath of tile burnished to a high sheen (a sign of exceptional custodial work, may I say), the vast majority of which is white so as to give the entryway an even larger sense of space. And the library, despite its welcoming exterior and warm interior, seems to be only a mirage far across the expanse of whiteness.

It’s like Dr. Zhivago.

The rest of the school is laid out on a simple grid, like New York City or DC, though when you don’t know the grid it seems anything but simple. All in all, it’s a cold, empty tomb. And here I was, walking my daughter into the heart of it with only a Hello Kitty lunchbox at her side. I suddenly thought of Ella, suspended by her feet from a ceiling of ice, kind of like Luke Skywalker in the lair of the Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back. I was overwhelmed by the image; I mean the least I could’ve done was give Ella a good blaster. Or a lightsaber.

We got Ella to her class without me sharing any of my thoughts with her or Rachel, and once we got to the actual room, a magnificent burst of color and texture and shapes and warmth burst into sight. But despite the homeyness of the surroundings, there was still the second greatest fear of all school-aged kids: the teacher. She turned out to be the daughter-in-law of one of our neighbors, a young woman with a nice smile and gently burning auburn hair. She let Ella choose her own seat (at the green table) and offered her some paper to draw on. Ella sat down without hesitation and happily scribbled away, as if she had no fear. Me, I would have been terrified; if the teacher is the second greatest fear, then the first should be obvious – classmates. Those walking, talking abstractions we call fellow students, the ones you don’t know, aren’t sure how to get to know, and secretly worry will not like you in the slightest.

As a kid, I would have recurring nightmares in which I was the sole focus of my classmates’ collective rage and hatred, and I would be surrounded by them in their pitiless fury, their faces gone, replaced by smooth, featureless skin that made them all the more inhuman and unknown. I hated the first day of school, the great mystery of whether or not I would have an ally already in class, the torturous tension of having to learn an all-new set of people and their accompanying foibles. But my daughter, thank God, seems not to have inherited this part of my personality. In fact, she didn’t seem to care in the slightest about the horrible unanswered question before her: who’s in my class? She just colored. And sang.

I ended up having to take Jonathan out of the room because he was threatening to completely disassemble it, and so I didn’t see how Ella reacted when Rachel finally left her alone. I imagined her, so small and innocent, sitting at the slightly too-large table coloring in a daze and then suddenly snapping to and realizing: I’m alone. What would she do? Would she panic? Would she call out for me to come to her rescue and wonder why I didn’t respond? Would she suddenly come face-to-face with the greatest horror of human existence, that despite the presence of family and friends who love and guide us, in the end our lives come down to our ability to live them on our own?

I almost hyperventilated. Metaphysically speaking.

Rachel found Jonathan and I wandering the halls and we talked about the school, its size, the relative blandness of the color palette. Suddenly Rachel looked at me.

“I forgot to tell the teacher about Ella’s allergies and asthma!”

She darted down the hall, and Jon and I slowly followed after her. I wondered how Ella would respond to Rachel’s reappearance. Would she want to go home with her? Would she cry out for the comfort and safety of her mother’s embrace? The minute passed like decade. Finally Rachel came around the corner.

“I told the teacher about Ella. She’s thinks it’ll be okay.”

“How was Ella?” I asked.

Rachel smiled. “She looked at me, pointed to the door, and mouthed, ‘Go away, Mommy!’ Guess she won’t have any problem coming to school.”

For the first time that morning, I felt a natural smile break out. My daughter is not me, not full of my random worries and thoughts, not paralyzed by my innate shyness. She is her own brilliant little person, and I know – despite her innocence, despite her curiosity, despite all of my personal fears – that she will be just fine with school and beyond.

A father couldn’t ask for more.