The Only Thing That Really Matters

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Paulette and I have just spent a week with our 5-month-old grandson Paul, and I came away from the experience reinforced in my belief about what should matter most in our lives.  The short of it is the thing called relationships, and that encompasses a vast territory in this business of being human. 

I had a great time with Paul.  Paulette did most of the feeding/napping stuff, and I was around to lift, tote, fetch, change diapers, and entertain.  Paul loves to be carried, so we spent a lot of time in close verticality.  He’s at the age where his eyesight is fully developed, and he takes a keen interest in everything around him.  He wants to see, touch, feel, and put things in his mouth.  I provide a good bit of the locomotion to help him do all of that.

But it’s not all just toting the baby around.  Paul and I had a regular routine that includes educational and cultural development.  We sing together.  I am partial to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain,” and “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.”  Paul chooses to overlook my less-than-sterling singing qualities, and when I launch into one of the songs, his face lights up.  We play the piano together, and again, Paul doesn’t mind that my pianistic dexterity is mostly of the one-finger-at-a-time sort.  Paul plays one fist at a time, a much advanced technique.  I think I can hear some Chopin in there somewhere.

We also practice our Spanish.  Buenos dias, Pablo.  Como esta?  Muy bien, gracias.  Next we will advance to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from the original Spanish, of course.

The main thing is that we are simply together.  We are building a relationship that will be a work in progress as long as we are both on the planet together.  We will give to and take from each other in ways large and small.  I will have his back and he will have mine.  Paul will always know that no matter what he does or who he becomes, I will love him unconditionally.  In doing so, I’ll get the same back from him.

I explored the business of relationships in my novel Captain Saturday.  My hero, Will Baggett, is Raleigh’s most popular TV weatherman, pretty much caught up in his minor local celebrity.  But then suddenly and precipitously, Will loses his job, and in taking stock of the wreckage about him, he realizes that it includes his relationships with the people he should cherish most – his wife and nearly-grown son.  The story is how Will, laid low by fickle fate, tries to re-invent himself and re-capture those damaged relationships.  I’ve had a good number of folks say that reading about Will Baggett prompted them to take stock of their own lives and see if there are some things that need mending.  For a storyteller, that’s the ultimate payback. 

I think some of the most important relationships we build are those with people who are younger.  We all have somebody younger, and when we pay attention, invest time and energy in them, and let them know in a thousand ways that they’re important to us and themselves, we help them build good foundations.  In turn, it enriches our own lives.

I believe we naturally think a lot about relationships during the holiday season.  We remember those who are no longer with us, and take stock of our feelings for those who are still here.  Relationships can be tricky and tough, because we human beings are a messy lot and we are prone to get things tangled up when we deal with those we’re supposed to cherish.  But building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships is what life is all about.  We’re all connected, all precious in God’s eyes, and all worthy of acts of love and kindness.

We often hear about the things we can’t take with us – fame, fortune, etc.  I prefer to thing about the things we leave behind, the bonds we have with family, friends, and indeed all of God’s great creation.  That’s the only thing that really matters.

The Slow Death of Reading

When our daughters were very small, we sat them in our laps and started reading.  A captive audience, to be sure, but we found before long that we were the captives in one of the most treasured times we had with them.

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Our favorite book in those early years was The Three Little Kittens.   You probably know the lilting rhyme by heart: “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Mittens…”  We read that one book over and over and over.  The girls loved to hear it read and would often bring it to us, ready to settle in.  They soon learned the text by heart.  Paulette and I would occasionally change a word, just for fun.  “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Asparagus…”  “No, no!” the girls would cry, “it’s MITTENS!  Silly Daddy.”

Of course, we soon graduated to a much broader variety of books, but we kept coming back to Kitten Trio until the book literally fell apart.  It was not until years later that we saw the famous quote from award-winning children’s author Emilie Buchwald:

I’ve been thinking about all that as I hear more and more alarming news about reading (or rather, lack of it) in our modern world. 

The Washington Post reports on new studies by neuroscientists about how our brains process information.  Researchers are finding that we spend an increasing amount of time (five hours a day and climbing) on electronic devices – smart phones, laptops, I-pads, etc. – and that we are mostly skimming and scanning, rushing through text to find something that catches our interest.  Conversely, we are spending less and less time with more in-depth reading:  books, and the sort.  We are re-wiring our brains to dash pell-mell through the torrent of online information.  We cover more ground, but we absorb less.  We see it, but we don’t really get it.  Comprehension, it turns out, seems better when we read from paper. 

This is especially true for children, whose brains are developing patterns that will last a lifetime.  They are drawn to adults’ electronic devices and they learn to skim and scan.  Deep reading skills don’t get the nurturing they need.  From books.

There’s more bad news from a couple of other recent surveys:

33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

In 1984, only 8% of 13-year-olds said they hardly ever or never read for pleasure; today, 22% of 13-year-olds say that.

That’s all depressing news.  We live in a complex, fast-moving world and the problems we have to tackle, and hopefully solve, require deep, creative thought.  We adults are passing those problems on to new generations, but we’re not giving them the tools they need – comprehension, reason, the ability to make sense of complicated ideas.  They won’t find the answers flipping madly through e-mails and social media.  Those may be good tools, but they aren’t the essential ones.

If I had one wish for parents, it would be that we would read – a lot – to our children, and start as soon as they’re able to hold their heads up.  My mother did that for me, and gave me the gift of a fertile imagination, which has served me richly in a long love affair with words.

If there’s a kid near you – your own or someone else’s – grab the kid and a book, snuggle up, and start reading.  That’s true for parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, even older siblings.  Kids are mimics, and when we read to them, we let them know that reading is important and rewarding.  Once that sinks in, they’re hooked, and they can’t wait to learn to read themselves.  If you can find one, I suggest a copy of The Three Little Kittens to start with.  The asparagus thing, that’s optional.