Danielle carried him out of the bedroom, his hair tousled from a restless night. He smiled and his eyebrows wrapped around his face in a cartoonish sort of way. Today is the last Monday I’ll count Pax’s age using months. Next Monday, he’ll be a year and two days old. It will also be Christmas Eve, and the day we brought him home from the hospital.
It’s serendipitous that we came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, baby in tow, preparing to celebrate another baby. Saint Ephrem the Syrian said that at Christmas a baby grabs the reigns of the universe.i Our reigns were also taken by a seven and a half pound ball of flesh—though, in a less cosmic sort of way.
All babies, not just the salvific kind, wield tremendous amounts of power. A newborn’s yawn disarms the hardest soul. Go ahead and try not to smile. A child’s complete reliance demands every minute of your day. All of it. It’s a full-time job and not a once a week, for an hour, kind of a thing. All hail King Baby. I’ve had pregnant friends tell me, “I’m going to make my baby’s schedule when she’s born. I’ll still have a life outside of baby.” And that’s when the universe gives them a baby with colic.
When we were pregnant with Eden, one friend put it to me like this: “Every day is more difficult, but I can’t imagine life any other way.” That seems right. And I think I could say the same thing about anything that really matters.
Luckily, Paxton has been gentle with the reigns, by not pulling them as taut as he might. There has been plenty of slack—quiet dinners out, decent sleep, and self-entertainment. Still, he holds the reigns. All it takes is one missed nap or an incoming tooth and I remember that I don’t captain this ship. This morning, I set up a barricade around outlets and wires because he was chewing on an I-Phone cable like a wad of bubble gum. To spite me, Pax staggered straight to the coffee table and swiped my cup of coffee to the ground.
“Uh oh!” he chirps.
It’s an apt first phrase for our species. We come into this world delicate and beautiful, and while the beauty remains, we immediately start making a mess of things. Or, maybe it’s parents who make a mess of their children. That will depend on your theology of original sin and sin, or maybe Family Systems Theory. What’s clear is that children are more like bulldozers than flowers. Last month, I gave Paxton the silent treatment for half a day when he pulled my computer off the table and caused irreparable damage to the hard drive. Uh oh.
And he smiled. He smiles all the time.
My favorite part of Monday is putting him to sleep. Pax reclined on me, facing outward, nestled into me like I’m a La-Z-Boy. The soft, morning light shone through the crack between the broken, crooked curtain and window casing. He grabbed my finger like it was a life preserver before he sunk into deep waves of sleep. His shirt rode up and his rolls hung over the elastic waistband. I’d have laughed if it wouldn’t wake him. Most mornings he hits himself in the face to stay awake, or he flicks his bottom lip up and down, but today his eyes rolled around, flipped upward, and eventually closed. He snored like an old man.
When Paxton woke up from his nap he cried out, “Uh oh!” (I usually feel the same way). He woke up crying after his second nap, because he wasn't quite ready. He quickly fell back asleep to Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Daytime consists of the simplest forms of entertainment: standing and falling. He pinballs from the coffee table to the couch, to the side table. He falls over. Most of the time he’s looking to swallow some object that will end his short life. I’ve already pried the remote control from his hands twice, as he tried to pry out the silver batteries. I chased him when he crawled down the hallway. He stopped, turned his head, and giggled. Then, he kept crawling away.
Nothing’s extraordinary, but everything is extraordinary. Nothing’s unique, but everything is unique. Objectivity doesn’t exist with your children. As far as I’m concerned, mine are the best. Is that how God looks at us? I wish I could look at others in the same way.
When we walk into Eden’s school to pick her up from class, Pax grabs my left thumb when someone starts talking to us. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s reassuring for both of us—we’ll survive the small talk. Pax misses his sister on Mondays. She makes him laugh like no one else. Eden misses him, too, I think. She ran to him, wrapped her arms around him, planted one on his cheek, rammed her fingers under his flabby arms and said, “tickle tickle.” At home, he laughed when Eden asked Alexa to play Can’t Stop the Feeling. He flung his arms in the air just like her.
My life has the potential to be interrupted by a flash mob of dancing and I'd have it no other way.
I should mention that Pax eats—he eats a lot. If there’s a plate in front of him, and food is on it, then life is good. When he wants more to eat he says, “Mmmm,” which isn’t at all demanding. It’s more like a southern-passive way of asking for more food. I interpret it like this: “Mmmm. That apple pie sure was great. It’s a shame I only got one slice.” We gave him strawberries, rice, and other vegetables that he shoveled into his mouth by the fistful.
The day ended soon, but not too soon.
I work night hours so I had to leave right after dinner. I made it home to hear a story with Eden, but Pax was already down for the night—at least, the first shift of the night. He ended up in our bed at some point and we wrestled with the dark until his eyes rose to meet the sun and we rose to meet him. Almost a year ago we held him in our arms on winter solstice, the longest night of the year, just as the sun rose. With every passing day and year, the sun rises a little more over horizon revealing who he is and who he is becoming—who we are all becoming—it happens Monday after Monday.
i. This was Jason Byassee's observation here
Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.
We had a small window of time between rain showers to get our hands in the dirt and deliver the plants to their forever home—soil that would give them ample space to plant their roots.
This is the first year that Eden can participate in our garden. And by participate, I mean that she will make the whole enterprise more difficult. Gardening with a two year old sounds romantic, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we gave her a shovel and told her to get her hands dirty because this is how we learn to become human beings—Adam, from the dirt, or adamah. My own dad tolerated the muddy boots, squashed plants, endless questions, and hampering hands when we were children, and I will do the same with mine.
Norman Wirzba, one of my professors at Duke, calls gardening a form of catechesis, or instruction about becoming humans. Or, it’s Wendell Berry who says that gardening is a habit of the mind, though I’m not sure where it’s written. When we start to play in the dirt, we are reminded that we are made from it, created to serve it, and remain dependent on it for our survival. One day we’ll return to it. "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Gardening is not utilitarian for my family. We only have a few plants that will not produce enough fruit to justify the labor and headaches, not to mention the expense.
It’s the beginning of a long lesson in discipline, patience, and attention.
I grabbed a hoe and Eden grabbed a small, plastic rake to start to break up the soil and remove the weeds. There’s already a lesson here—deep care must be taken to provide the best conditions for something to grow strong and produce fruit. Weeds grow effortlessly, while it takes tremendous care and attention to nurture something delicious. If you don’t tend to your life, your soul, the next time you turn around it might be full of briars.
Our collaborative labor didn’t last long; she took two or three swipes at the ground before discerning that ‘this is hard.’ It was humid from the morning’s rainfall and obvious that it would be much easier to drive two miles to Ingles and get a perfectly round, red tomato. Or better yet, we could pinch both sides of a bag of goldfish crackers and pull it open.
Why are we digging in the soil?
I'm afraid that the work won’t get easier. Just wait until a groundhog comes and takes off the top of the plants or the aphids get hungry for a little sap. If it were easier to grow food, then millions wouldn’t go without every day. We learn to thank the hands that care for our daily bread and harvest each fruit—drive it from farm to market. The self-emptying of others keep us full. It’s an act of prayer. Our hands fold in the dirt we offer thanksgiving for the goodness of lives, creation, and our particular place in the world.
As we dug a hole for the first plant, I accidentally struck an earth worm with the shovel. It began wiggling and writhing around in the dirt, much like I had pulled a fishing hook through it. I picked up the worm, held it, invited her to touch it. This was traumatic. She took off toward the opposite end of the yard. It’s hard to look at suffering. We'd rather pretend that our food doesn't have to die--that we won't suffer or die. You can ignore this inconvenient fact at the supermarket, but on the farm you become an active participant in life and death. The worm may live, but countless other microorganisms will die. As my professor said, “How do we become worthy of receiving another’s death?”
We place the plants in the dirt, which is Eden’s favorite part of the whole experiment. She pushed the mound of dirt closer to the stem, and pated it down. The dirt became wedged in between her fingernails and skin. It is good, even when navigating fungi, infestations, and temperamental heat and rain, because something delicious will emerge. It’s an act of hope. There will be seed, a plant, and then a bell pepper will hang from a stalk in her own backyard. And she may not care for the taste, but she’ll learn about hope—it only takes a seed for new creation to bloom.
When I was a little older than Eden, I planted a green bean plant in a small container and cared for it and watered it all summer. The plant sprouted one bean fruit by the end of the season. But I was the mediator of the whole miraculous process, seed to fruit. I harvested the bean and told my mom that “I wanted to be a seller of green beans.”
Isn’t this our vocation? Our Gardening God brought us forth from the dirt of the ground and we’re called to participate in the miracle of life. We serve the soil and it serves us. We become more human, or more of whom we were intended to be, reflections of God.
Every day we go out and check the plants. “Nothing yet,” I say. “We’re still growing.”
Pax: a greeting signifying Christian love ; kiss of peace.