A Conversation with my Teen about Lunch, God, and Dinner

In adoration yesterday this conversation came to me. i know I need to have this very conversation with my kids as they start to transition into adulthood. I promised this conversation back in the letter I wrote a few years back about the deeper reality of Santa Claus. I get a lot of ideas in adoration. But I knew I just had to write this down. It’s only a start, but it’s a start.

In it I imagine Aaron coming home from school with a complaint.

Did you pack my lunch this morning Dad?

Yeah. What about it?

Really, Dad? Juice box? String cheese? Animal crackers? You even cut up my grapes.

You used to love that stuff.

Yeah, like when I was like four years old.

In fact you wouldn’t eat a whole lot else back then. What? This lunch not good enough for you anymore?

Dad, I’m older now and this just doesn’t cut it. I need meat. Bread. Something to fill me up. At least make me a sandwich. You don’t have to cut my food up for me.

Yeah I know that. I gave you that lunch to make a point.

I knew it. It’s never just lunch with you. Amiright?

You know me well.

So what’s the point?

You outgrew your lunch. What is your ideal lunch now?

Pizza, burgers, cheese sticks, tacos. You, know. Real food.

Yeah I thought so. I was like that when I was your age. Look where that got me.

Oh no, is this a nutrition lecture? I think I have some studying to do…

No, no. Just pointing out that you will outgrow your current ideal lunch like you outgrew the one you loved when you were five.

I don’t think so.

I sure hope so. If you eat like that until you’re my age that diet will straight up kill you. It’s developmentally appropriate for you to like that food right now.

But you don’t let me have it that often. So…

So… I know that you’re there, but I also know you can’t stay there. You need to learn the grown up versions of things. You can’t always eat what’s easy, what’s most pleasurable. You can’t always eat for yourself. When you are older, you eat for others’ sake as well.

(blank stare)

You know how I told you that when you are an adult your job is to live for others in some way. You need to eat to be healthy and strong so you can be around for others. When you have children you will need to eat as an example for them. You’ll need to eat for your wife to show her that you’re serious about sticking around to love her and not abandon her. You eat for a lot of reasons besides, “Mmmm… that looks yummy.”

You’re not making adulthood seem very appealing.

Well, it’s not developmentally appropriate for you to think so yet. That’s okay. But as your father I have to nudge you along.

So this is a nudge? So you’re trying to get me to eat more salad or something?

Nope, I want you to get to know God better.

That was random. I thought we were talking about eating healthy and stuff.

We were. Do you know what the word “segue” means?

Nope.

It means to make a smooth transition from one context or subject to another. No segue for you. Stay with me. Do you believe in God?

Um… yeah, I guess. I’m supposed to, right?

It’s okay to say no.

I didn’t expect you to say that. I want to say no because I just don’t see how something like God can exist in the real world.

Then say no.

No. I guess I don’t believe in God.

You know what I hear when you say that?

What? That I’m grounded?

You’ve outgrown your five-year-old lunch.

You’ve lost me.

The God you thought you knew. The God described to you in bible stories when you were in preschool. The wise bearded superman in the sky. That’s not God. That’s more like Zeus. A primitive image. That’s an image of God that you’re supposed to outgrow. It was appropriate to describe God that way to you because that’s an image of benevolent, powerful authority that you could relate to. Something that looked like a parent, which at the time was pretty much your whole world. We weren’t lying to you then about God. We were just cutting God up into pieces before we served him to you.

I see what you did there. Like the lunch, right?

You always were a clever one. Here’s the first thing any adult has to understand about God. You can’t understand God. Anything you say about him is imperfect. Any God that fits tidily in your brain is a rather sad, limited kind of God. God is bigger than that.

Okay, so you’re going to get to the part where you tell me what God is?

Patience, grasshopper.

Grasshopper?

Sorry. I’m old. Remind me to see if we can find “Kung Fu” on Netflix. Anyway, any image of God is limited and imperfect. But some images of God have benefits that exceed their limitations. They help you develop your faith at a certain stages in your progress. You are supposed to outgrow them. Use them to seek him, but don’t cling to them. Do you know what “idolatry” means?

Worshipping statues and stuff?

It means confusing the symbol with what is symbolized. Worshipping the image that points to some aspect of God instead of God. Any mature Catholic should at least be partially agnostic because he knows his understanding of God is woefully inadequate. That there is way more he cannot say about God than what he can say.

Well, if God can’t be known, why bother?

I didn’t say God can’t be known. There are images of God we can know are true. And those images can be very helpful. But – remember this well – when you find yourself questioning your belief in God it means that the limitations of your concept of God have outweighed the benefits for you. Part of that image is still probably true, but you’ve outgrown it.

So I don’t believe in God like I did when I was five? And I need to change my image of God?

Yeah. Kinda.

So anyone can choose any image of God they want? Just what feels good? That doesn’t seem right.

Well, you sure can do that. Too many people do. They select a God that fits in a convenient box and keep him there. But no, that’s not right as I, and the Church, see it. We hold in common that there are some things that the Church says are definitely true about God. Then there are some things the Church says are definitely not true about God. But there’s way more that no one can say about God.

That’s if I believe the Church’s version of God, right?

Right. I hope, eventually, you will.

Why?

Because I am your father and I want you to grow up and be a fulfilled, happy person.

I do not see how a concept of God will do that for me.

It won’t. God. The real, living God. The God of the Catholic Church and the Judeo-Christian tradition will help you do that. Everyone has a “God” whether they call it that or not. The one you choose to follow makes a big difference in your life.

Even atheists have a “God?”

More or less. But it would be very impolite for you to say that to their faces. Their connotations of the word “God” tend to be negative. Probably because they’ve obviously outgrown whatever image of God they had as children. Somebody either crammed it down their throat for too long or they did not get help in finding their next understanding of God. Imagine your parents insisting that you eat string cheese and animal crackers for lunch your whole life. “God” to them is a lot like the limited, sad God I mentioned earlier. I don’t blame them for not believing in God. But they still have something that functions for them as “God.” We all do.

So what kind of God does an atheist believe in?

Remember, that’s not polite to say. But everybody has some context that guides the “Why” and the meaning of life. Science can tell us lots of facts about the world. But meaning has to come from somewhere else. People have to answer questions like, “What is the purpose of life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my best life?” When they are presented with the findings of Science – I am a big believer in science and reason – something provides the “So what?” There are lots of ways to answer those questions. Some are somewhat helpful, some help you coast aimlessly through life, and some are downright disastrous. Everyone chooses something that defines their context and meaning.

What if they refuse to choose?

They can’t. Saying that life has no meaning, that we are pointless, that everything is random is still a choice just like deciding that Love is the guiding purpose and meaning of existence. At some point you choose. Even those who just go through life following their biological urges, instincts, and desires are choosing with their actions if not their conscious minds. My first hope for you is that you make a conscious, reasoned choice, whatever you decide.

And so you want me to believe in your God.

Will all my heart. Actually I think you already do. I think your mind just has to catch up with your heart. You have a lot of love in your heart. I can see it through your actions. I am confident you have a lot of experience with God.

Okay, so catch my head up. Explain to me how I’ve experienced this God I don’t know how to believe in with my head.

I will, but not all at one time. We’d be here forever. But I can give you a few short things to think about until we have time to talk again.

And I bet that will be soon.

Because we’re on a roll.

Is that what you call it? Fine.

Well, to start, the name “Yahweh” in the Old Testament translates roughly into “That which holds all things in existence.” You do exist, right?

As far as I know.

Me too. And I am grateful for that fact. There is a famous theologian who said, “God is not a being. God is Being.” About sums it up.

God is Being? That’s it?

Imperfect image, remember. One of the oldest, least incorrect ones. But still an image. But, to me, it’s the most basic experience of God. I am. That’s what God told Moses to say who God is, remember? “I am.”

Pretty basic.

But here’s the next thing. The book of Genesis also tells us that God created the world from nothing. That means at some point there was nothing, and there was something. Creation “Ex Nihilo.”

So who created God?

God is not a being, remember. God does not do time. God just is. God is Being.

So you say.

So the bible says. And we have to decide that we’ll believe that.

Why should I?

Because, well, think about the implications of creation “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. At the beginning, God was God. Perfectly cool with being God. He did not need to make some little followers to adore him that he could boss around. God does not need anything. God is just God. So that means that, if creation wasn’t for him, it was for us. Creation is a gift. And then after he created, he pronounced it to be “very good.” We are very good. A gift from God.

So I should just believe that because the bible says it? We know the world wasn’t created like that.

Sure. Genesis is not a scientific document. It’s a theological document. The creation story communicates truth, not scientific fact.

So why should I believe that everything is a gift and my existence is “very good?” Why shouldn’t I believe everything is just random or that life has no meaning?

If everyone has to choose the way they see the world anyway, I want to see it in a way that makes the world more fulfilling and meaningful for me. I want to choose a worldview that is consistent with the stirrings and yearnings of my heart. I love and want to be loved. I have passion. I am grateful when I receive a gift. I am relieved when somebody forgives me and we’re cool again. I experience God in my heart. I want my head to keep up.

Okay…

And I want my actions to be guided by this way of looking at the world. Because I know that my experience of the world is better when I choose to love others and when others choose to love me. God is love. And that sets the agenda for everything. If you let it.

I thought God was Being?

Limited image, remember? The next least incorrect way to think of God is that God is a special kind of love. A love that gives itself for the sake of the beloved. “Self-gift,” if you will. Remember when I said that everything is a gift? That’s God pouring himself out. Emptying himself out for our sake. Everything in the world is oriented to that kind of love. It holds all things in being. We can work with that or we can work against it. Our choice. My job as your father is to convince you that working with it is the best choice.

Or I could choose to see the world some other way.

You could. Many people do. Some people don’t see why they should give themselves away in love. They think that’s a sucker’s bet. There are many people who go through life looking out for “numero uno” and that’s it. It’s just that, I don’t think that’s truly what’s in their hearts. They’re just confused, lost, or hurt. I don’t want to believe anybody is just plain selfish by nature, even when they are habitually selfish. Creation is fundamentally good, right?

That you say.

So which world do you want to live in? The one where people love each other and look out for each other, even if it means sacrificing for one another? Or the world where everyone has to earn their right to live? Where might makes right? Where everyone looks out for only themselves?

You make that second choice sound like a bad thing. Kidding.

Well it’s not my choice. You can live in that world if you wish. Many do. I choose love. Love isn’t magic. It doesn’t make the hurts and sufferings of this world go away. It does not magically shield you from bad things. It just is a way of approaching the world that makes the most out of suffering and hurts. It is a way of life that reaches out and helps others get through the hard times. You live this paradox where, to truly live, you give up your life. To lead, you have to serve. To gain, you have to give everything away.

Again, you’re not making it sound attractive.

Well, let me put it this way. Without God, you would not be here. In this famiy I mean. If mom and I were just looking out for ourselves, if we were not looking for ways to pour out our lives as a gift to others, as God does, do you think we would have adopted you? Every payday we’d have been like, “Woohoo! Let’s go party and buy stuff!” If we didn’t believe in God’s brand of Love, we’d never spend thousands of the dollars we earn on you. We’d keep it for ourselves. We’d be a lot richer right now. But we’d also be miserable and wretched. Because selfishness is not the path to any kind of happiness or fulfillment. To me, living as if the God of Love, who created the world as a gift and judged it to be very good, is the best way to align my life so that my life is fulfilling and has a meaning that transcends my little span of time on earth.

So, it’s time for dinner….

Provided by God, aka Love, in the form of your Mother who used her time after work to do more work so that you could be fed. She could have just plopped down and watched TV, you know. So that stroganoff you’re about..

Stroganoff! Yes!

That Stroganoff you’re about to eat is yummy. Not the healthiest choice, maybe, but a tangible experience of God’s Love. Brought to you by a woman who is devoted to that kind of Love. So that’s why we pray before dinner. And your responsibility is to receive that love, be grateful, and respond by giving yourself as a gift in kind.

You’re hinting that I should offer to clear the table.

That’s a start. Also I want you to think about God as Love. Creation as a gift that is very good. And what kind of world you want to live in. I also want you to know more about who God is. To be cool with the idea that the “superfriend in the sky” does not exist, you need a better idea of who, what, whatever, God is.

But… we don’t have time for that because we’re about to eat…

Stroganoff, yes. But here’s something to think about. God is a relationship. Not a person. A relationship.

Um, okay.

That’s what we mean by the Holy Trinity. But that’s another day. My brain is full and my stomach is empty.

I’d say that it looks like the reverse is true but that would not be very loving of me.

I’ll show you love. Come here and let me smack you.

To be continued. (No, I don’t smack my kid. Very hard. In front of people.)

 

Poem: Indulgence

Tonight I somehow had the luxury of having time to read some, write some, in silence. No TV, relatively few demands from he outside world. With three kids at home this is a rare thing indeed!

So I had time to add some lines to a few that came to me on my drive home tonight:

Tonight I request the pleasure of your presence. And nothing else.

Not your considerable charms. Not the entertainments of your smile.

Just the You of you. Here with me.

To do Nothing In Particular. To be blessed and idle.

(How indulgent! How extravagant! How deliciously deviant

would be a night of nothing shared with you!)

No silence is awkward if it is welcome.

It is not Boredom if you don’t call it so.

Every empty space need not be filled.

With me on one side and with you on the other,

Such blessed space is all I need.

Poem: The Preferable Fire

Found something I wrote a year ago that I forgot. I wonder how many pieces of myself I’ve left out there, unremembered and uncataloged. Anyway it’s a piece of poetry I’m almost not too embarrassed to share:

I can offer you only my life.

Having been with you longer than not

My life is as much yours as it was ever mine.

I have nothing else to offer, nothing

that is not made cheaper by saying that I own it.

My love for you is a friction between the man I am

and the one I am becoming for you.

Love demands friction, which

sparks the glow of my better nature.

St. Augustine says a man’s heart can never truly rest;

he cannot escape relentless desire.

So if indeed my soul must burn,

Yours is the preferable fire.
— Cody Clark, 2011

Why A Rebuilt Transmission Makes A Great Valentine

So with an ominous whine the transmission in our family van is demanding a prince’s ransom. The lumpy couch and our other household squeaky wheels will have to wait.

Thirteen hundred dollars. Reason enough to contemplate what we’re buying.

That total mystery of metal, that complex cylinder propelled us to so many places. A scrum of gears that coaxed so much forward motion out of what would have been fruitless rotation. Our progress came from an intricate gnashing — gritting, if you will — of teeth.

Transmitting motion. Your foot to the pedal — to the pistons — to the axle — to the wheels — to the road — again to our feet, safely at our destinations. Forward.

Onward. To family adventures and Sunday dinners. To emergency rooms and romantic getaways. Even out of the paths of hurricanes. Forward. Onward. Together.

So when what moves us forward wears down, I reckon we owe ourselves thirteen hundred dollars to rebuild it. If the fluid gets low and our teeth wear against each other in a grating clash, can we do anything but scrape out the metal shavings and set some sturdy new gears?

Because when we mesh, we move. Unless we clutch each other, we’re just spinning in place.

I promise to always rebuild the transmission. I promise to spend whatever it takes to get us moving again. I desperately love the feeling of moving forward with you, side by side, to wherever love sends us.

So, at least for me, a rebuilt transmission does quite nicely as a Valentine.

Open Letter To My Kids About Santa Claus

Okay, kids, I admit that I haven’t been telling you the whole truth about Santa Claus. I will say that I do really still believe in him. It’s just that he’s a lot different to me than you know of him so far.

Up until now the Santa Claus you know is basically a character from a story. While much of that story is made up, meaning it is not fact, there is a lot of truth in the story of Santa Claus.

It is true that there is a parental presence out there that exists primarily to give you all good things and help you experience the wonder of the Christmas story. It is true that your willingness to receive good things and anticipate Christmas with excitement and joy are what light up the whole season. It is true that your willingness to believe, your openness, your eagerness, and your joy are examples for us adults to remember as we approach the gift of the incarnate God. Adulthood tends to be a wonder-killer. You kids protect us adults from becoming disconnected from wonder.

So, yes, we put on a “play” for you of sorts. The play teaches a lesson about a fundamental truth of life – that Love makes it a joy to give to others and it is essential that we be open to receive from those who love us. Yes, the stuff about reindeer, elves, chimneys and stockings are mostly folklore. But it’s a fun, magical, and wondrous story. And stories, fun, and imagination are the best way to teach young children the fundamental truths of life.

So, you say, Santa Claus isn’t real after all? Well, yes, I say, Santa is quite real. But not in the way you’d know yet. The other kids who’ve been telling you that Santa is “just your parents” are very wrong.

Santa Claus is bigger than just a story of a man who goes around giving gifts. Santa Claus was St. Nicholas, a real saint, in the historical sense, whose generosity to the poor was legendary. The historical St. Nicholas points us to the generosity in the gift of God’s very self in the baby Jesus. Santa Claus, Sinterklass, Father Christmas, the legend, is a global icon of the spirit of giving. But in modern times, what some might call “reality,” Santa Claus is the body of all people, many of them parents, who embrace the joy of giving good things to those they love, communicating the wonder of Christmas, and pointing to the ultimate Gift of Love made incarnate in the Christmas Story.

Ever wonder why I don’t really care what I get for Christmas? It’s because I get to experience being part of Santa, Santa being part of me, and Santa being something much bigger than me, a human image of an eternal truth that stands for the ages. I tell you that being on the adult side of Santa Claus is way cooler than experiencing the childhood Santa Claus story.

So why not just tell us the truth from the beginning, you ask? Well, we have been telling you the truth. At the kid level. At age three I could have given you a theological explanation, a historical description, and an explanation of the difference between “truth” and “fact,” “reality” and “existence.” And you would justifiably have tuned me out in two seconds. How do you explain wonder, generosity, the idea of Love made visible through a tangible gift to a small child except through a story? Such a wonderful truth is bigger than mere facts.

And so you’re at the age where you are ready to know more. You are ready to start helping make the wonder happen for younger children. Or worse, kill it for the younger kids by making them feel silly for believing in Santa Claus. You can already start to experience the joy of the giver. But to get there, you needed to experience the wonder for yourselves first.

Look, when you were a baby we fed you formula. Later we gave you soft food and cut stuff up into little pieces. Even now we give you only the food we think you are ready for, challenging you gradually to expand what food you experience. Were we lying to you because we didn’t set you down to a plate of Thai curry at age three? No, we just make the world of food age-appropriate for you. Your palate won’t be fully-formed until you are an adult and you can appreciate bitter foods more. Mom and I just this year took Hannah to one of the restaurants we go to on our dates. Her eyes were opened to a whole world of gourmet food she had never seen before. (Food you would find quite yucky, by the way). Were we keeping the truth of gourmet dining from her? No, we were just waiting until she could appreciate it with the proper perspective.

So the Santa Story is kind of like that – a crusts-cut-off, kid-food version of a very profound truth of life, delivered in the form that best suited the way you experienced the world — through stories, fun, and imagination. Now you’re ready to see a little more. And you have the responsibility to help the younger kids learn about Christmas in the way it suits them, not you.

It turns out that many of the realities of being older are going to make the things you believed as a younger child seem silly or quaint. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way we all grow up. Remember that there is no “lie” in the Childhood version of the Truth. It’s just that there is a wider, more wonderful, truth that you will experience when you are ready. Remember this in a few years when we have the talk about God and the Holy Trinity, okay?

And, by the way, you’ve all been very good this year (mostly) and Santa Claus will not forget that.

Love,

Daddy

Looking for Zita Marie

One of my favorite poets ever was one I remember from back in the early days of the internet when Usenet was abuzz and poets cliqued, critiqued, and flamed each other on a discussion group called rec.arts.poems. My fave was a scientist/poet called Zita Marie Evensen. I loved her poems. Anyone who could conjur the phrase “bitchin’ heuristics” and weave quantum physics into love poetry was alright by me.

What little internet archeology I had time for did not turn up recent traces of Zita Marie Evensen. I was hoping to find her chapbook on some small press site or a blog of her post-Usenet adventures somewhere in the ether. Instead I found evidence that she might have gotten scorched in the flame wars that eventually burned down most of Usenet. Maybe she went on to write more poetry. Maybe she shares it only with a certain lover. Maybe she jots it in the margins of her day planner as she strolls about the halls of (what? academia? a hospital? a secret weapons facility?) wherever it is she weaves poetry, love, and science into the cloth of her society.

I figure I’ll just scoop her poetry out of the cold archives of rec.arts.poems and place it here on the windowsill of my new blog. If only to give it some light. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she’ll send me a “cease and desist” letter asking me to return her poems back to digital obscurity. And I would comply, provided I could have her book in my poetry collection.

please forgive me for i have sinned
———————————————-

please forgive me for i have sinned
my last confession was a timeless while ago

i blithely sang songs to the stars
and thought the melody so sweet
not knowing it’d fall back as rain
and waken dreamers from their sleep

i fashioned a nosegay out of  words
seeing that i have nothing to give
but as i walked back to myself
i crushed the petals with my feet

i held the seasons of your mind
keep  summer-spring forevermore
looking out in space and time
you heard frosted windows break

i gave my poems for you to read
like one red rose   a simple gift
how could i know
how could i know

***

zita maria evensen
c1993 aug 28

and one more…

i am one rainbow someone
——————————————

that’s who i am
i see no borders
i am a crossword genome
of cosmic stardust and
the elemental woman

i am very selfish
with my laughters and my pains
you have no right  no right
to see my marble box
of calico agates and black stones
– i refuse to scream
or cry or go to
wide-web confessions

instead  i will tease you
to laughter   paint you
merry-teary words
teach you bitchin’ heuristics
of love and loving
and dance with stars
at mind-warp speed

i am a rainbow someone
who knows  who knows
i own my hurt
and you have no right
to share them

but silently ever
so silently
i will make sure
you understand

/zme
(c) 1 juni 1994
[rewrite]

To the guy who wants to leave

My response to a guy who posted to a forum who was contemplating leaving his wife of three years. Ended up being kind of a manifesto on fatherhood and marriage that made me think of my father and how he said exactly the same thing to me, but through the way he lived his life when I was a boy. Thanks Dad.

Dude, both your thoughts and feelings are correct. You are being selfish. And your feelings are totally natural and valid.

Who would blame you for feeling the way you do? You’re young with a lot of energy and potential and a wide world of prospects in front of you. You are now confronting the idea of Forever. Your relationship with your wife is no longer New and we all like that feeling of New. The idea of verging on Fatherhood scares the shit out of many good men. Yes, the grey days of responsibility will clamp down around you and you cannot just up and take that adventurous transfer to Lima or buy the Harley and take a four week rambling trek across Baja. Many of us want to be someone extraordinary and being a family man seems so, well, ordinary.

What makes us men and not boys is that we are not directed by our feelings. We take control of our feelings, set our minds on something, and build it. At some point, you choose your mission in life. None more noble than to build a household and grow a family. But no matter what mission you choose, you have to build it past the point that it quits being new. Anything meaningful you commit to becomes a daily grind. But deep meaning, lifelong fulfillment, and true joy can only be found by grinding away. The only way out is through.

Don’t seek the dopamine rewards of New Experiences at the expense of slogging thru the familiar dailiness of devoting your life to something bigger than you. Because keeping your options open is a prison of its own.

As for kids, I always say that I am blessed that I didn’t venture into adulthood without children to protect me. I thank God every day that I have a family to challenge me, disturb me, and not let me rest for too long. They are how I keep from being completely self-absorbed. Which is, in my experience, a particularly common mode of hell I wish to avoid.

A Valentine's wish to all my married friends

The upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday does not do your kind of love due justice. To me, you are all badass ninjas of sacrificial love. You are heroes who deserve your own ticker-tape parades complete with helium balloons of cartoon characters and limos full of local radio personalities.

When I see you at your next anniversary, I want you to tell me that your wedding day was nowhere close to the happiest day of your life. I want to hear about that so-called bad day last week when the car broke down and you had to share a coupon meal at Denny’s because your spouse had to pick you up in the minivan instead of preparing the standard chicken dinner. I want to hear how even that day was profoundly more joyful than your wedding day because it was lit up by a billion decisions to love each other over your life together. And by the quiet assurance that a billion more will follow and the flame, though it flickers, will never go out.

Thank you for being brave enough to choose this life of love and light. I thank you in advance for choosing to stoke the embers every time it becomes hard to keep the darkness out. Couples like you are the lights I need to find my way. We all need you to shine. So I toast to the flame you lit on your wedding day and pray that it grows brighter each day.