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Stop! In the Name of Life

by Richard J. Prystowsky

The other day, I was sitting with a younger colleague of mine at an end-of-the-school-year social gathering. She had brought along her two-month-old baby boy, her first child. At the same gathering, my 17-year-old son, who attends the college where I work, was socializing with his classmates. Thinking about my son when he was an infant, I told my colleague that I recall being able to place my thumb at the nape of my son’s neck and reach his waist with the tip of my pinky. I was tempted to ask my colleague if I could try doing this with her baby, but I decided simply to enjoy the memory of my son’s infancy.

The week before this gathering, my wife and I attended our older daughter’s graduation from the University of Alabama, where she received a PhD degree in social work. At a celebration party held in our daughter’s honor, I had a flashback: I recalled a beautiful spring afternoon when my daughter was perhaps nine or ten years old. She and I had impulsively decided to take a car ride together, heading nowhere in particular. We spent much of the car ride repetitively playing a game in which she would ask me first what my favorite animal was, then what my favorite color was, and finally what my favorite number was, and then would proceed to tell me that I was (for example) a blue horse with 17 legs.

Both of these flashbacks serve as a reminder to me that life is always in transition and that, as parents, if we are not present with and for our children, we will miss the many opportunities offered to us to be fully there with them. I recall that, when I stretched my hand across my son’s back, I experienced an awe at his miraculous being that remains with me to this day and that I was able to experience again as I watched him mill about, chatting with his friends. I also recall that, when my daughter and I took our drive, I played the guessing game with her with fervor, carefully considering each choice that I made, game after game. Every moment was a miracle. Each moment we were fully alive, greatly enjoying each other’s company. I felt this intense "aliveness" again when we celebrated together her recent academic achievement.

An old Jewish proverb states that "man plans and God laughs." John Lennon has given us a trenchant modern version of this wisdom in his famous line "Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans." Fittingly, this line appears in the song "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," John’s beautiful love song to his then-young son Sean. When John took some time off from what had been an extraordinarily demanding musical career, he didn’t hide the fact that he wanted to spend time being with his family. As he always did when he wrote from his heart, John deeply understood what he was writing about in his love song to Sean.

As did John Lennon, many of us homeschooling parents desire to stop running through life so that we can spend extended amounts of meaningful time with our families. But sometimes I wonder if, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet might say, we honor this desire more in the breach than in the observance. I wonder if, for example, we often place more importance on our children’s academic success than we place on our families’ just being together, enjoying each other’s company.

Whatever our reasons for homeschooling, we need to understand that even the best curriculum, workbooks, book report projects, lesson plans, or, at the other end of the spectrum, unschooling (in)activities are of secondary importance. Of primary importance is our ability to take advantage of the daily familial miracles that present themselves to us in each moment of our daily lives.

When a mother takes her ten-year-old son for a walk, for example, she might want to show him a tiny flower growing in the crack between two slabs of concrete sidewalk. She could ask him to look closely at the flower so that he experiences the miraculous wonder of the universe that is contained in that tiny flower. Just by sharing this experience with him, she will help him to understand that the entire cosmos came together to help grow the flower, whose life has no beginning and no end, "because," the mother might say, "nothing in the world comes into being out of nowhere, and, when this little flower dies, it merely becomes mixed into the ground and the air and therefore continues its existence elsewhere." The mother might also say, "Look closely at this flower, whose appearance is itself the miracle of life," a miracle that the mother, herself fully present for this experience, understands is helping us to grasp the notion of life’s continual state of being and becoming. If the mother has a spiritual life and wants to teach her son about God, she could do no better than to have her son be fully there with the flower and to be there herself, fully, with and for her son.

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches that we ourselves are like flowers. To help our children grow, we need to nourish them as we would nourish seedlings that we hope will manifest into beautiful flowers: By watering our children’s seeds of happiness, joy, compassion, and other positive qualities and attributes. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this process as "selective watering," in which, in ourselves and others, "[w]e water only the good seeds and refrain from watering the negative seeds," such as fear and violence (Peace Begins Here, p. 45).

Life is always in transition. Our children are always growing. We cannot stop these processes, whether or not we would want to. But we can stop our relentless running away from life so that we can be present as much as possible for both our own and our children’s lives. Otherwise, when our children become adults — or even young adults — we might experience feelings of regret as we realize that our children have grown up and that we missed out on so much of that growing up.

In his beautiful book The Twenty-Two Gates to the Garden, Steven Rosman presents a story about a royal family living in a world of mystical teachings. One day, the queen decides that she needs to find a teacher for her children, who are homeschooled. An Old Woman becomes the children’s teacher, having impressed both the queen and the queen’s children during her interview. Talking about her qualifications, the Old Woman had told the queen, "There is only One who knows all. I seek that One, and I shall endeavor to share that search with your children." And then she added: "Along the way, perhaps we will discover together the wisdom of the One whose voice calls out even from the simplest of thornbushes" (p. 93).

May your journeys with your own children also be filled with the joy of discovering life’s miracles and mysteries, which present themselves to us each moment but which we can experience only if we stop and then look deeply. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains: "Touch the present moment as deeply as possible and touch all the wonders of life that are there in the present moment. You can touch them not only with your feet, but with your eyes, your ears, and your mind." He continues: "You touch everything that is there — the leaf, the pebble, the little flower, the sound of the bird. You are completely free from the desire to run [from point A] to point B" (Peace Begins Here, p. 59).

Ultimately, when we practice being fully alive in the present moment, we understand that life itself is our curriculum and that being fully alive in the present moment is our ongoing project. If we cannot come home to this reality, then we will have missed what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "our appointment with life."

What better gift can we give ourselves than to keep this appointment? What better gift can we give to our children than our full presence? Perhaps during our familial journeys we’ll not always be able to stop long enough to smell the roses. But we will do well if, on a regular basis, we help our children understand both how to be present for and thus how to enjoy the deep mystery of even the simplest of thornbushes."

___________________

 

Dr. Richard Prystowsky and his wife, Charlie Miles, homeschooled their two younger children, both of whom are now in college. Formerly a profession of English and humanities at Irvine Valley College, Richard currently is the Division Chair for Math, Science & Engineering at College of the Redwoods. He is also the author of the college writing text "Careful Reading, Thoughtful Writing" and formerly was the editor of the education magazine "Paths of Learning." Dr. Prystowsky is also a popular and inspiring homeschool conference speaker and workshop presenter.