Practicing with Children

Puzzling

~by Christine Gough

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We are knee deep in the middle of summer these days and as a teacher with two boys at home–ages 6 and 10–we create a summer bucket list each year.  Rather than seeing this list as a prescriptive, stressful agenda of to-dos, it actually gives our days a little structure and allows the boys to have some fun things to look forward to and traditions to anticipate.  The Summer Bucket List helped us four years ago when we were moving to Corvallis.  The boys were 2 and 6.  Moving is hard on everyone and so we wanted to be very intentional about the time, creating space for good closure as well as fun adventures, exploring and bonding as a family.

I have talked about our Summer Plans here (https://thesestones.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/summer-lesson-plans/ and https://thesestones.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/summer-bucket-list/) but as the kids get older, the list changes.  Some items remain the same, and then we spice things up with new ideas as well.  Certain traditions have remained no matter our location (7-11 free slurpee day, S’mores, picking berries, joining the summer reading program, heading to the beach, etc), but this year, I added something pretty flashy…doing a puzzle.  I know.  The virtual pinnacle of summer excitement.  But puzzles tend to be good for slowing down and focusing my two busy boys that seem to be in constant NERF gun battling mode or fighting to use screens or running amuck throughout the neighborhood.  So, I invested in a breakfast puzzle and planned to also have breakfast for dinner.

We worked on it on a sweltering day, while eating popcorn and drinking smoothies.  We took breaks.  We worked silently.  We became addicted.  My husband had to pry me away from it at 6:30pm reminding me that I was the parent and we had children to feed and adult duties to complete.  Parenting.  Such an interruption when I was channeling my 75-year-old future self.

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After taking a two-day break, we went back to the puzzle with new energy, ready to finish it up last Monday.  Our family arrived in town on their roadtrip, and they started helping.

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In no time, we finished!  But…..not quite.  ONE side piece was missing.  Tablecloths were gently lifted, puzzle boxes were searched, the dog bed was examined, I looked through all of the deck boards on my hands and knees with a flashlight to see if the missing piece could be found, but nope.  Gone for good.  Or at least, gone for now.

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The kids took it in stride and ran off to play with their cousin, but I was having a harder time.  I am a list maker and I live for the sense of completion of a project, a procrastinated task done, a school year well finished, a Saturday morning to-do list complete, or….a puzzle.  I finally let it go, but left the puzzle out on the deck for two more days, hoping for a miracle.  Finally, last night after the wind had attempted to pick the puzzle up and it was folded over like a tidal wave, I begrudgingly put it back in the box—-all NINE HUNDRED, NINETY-NINE pieces, wondering where that one lost puzzle piece was hanging out.

And as I always do, I started thinking more about the narrative going on in this experience.  As a book lover, and story-driven devotee, I look for the underlying narrative, the lesson and the theme, no matter the time or place.  I found myself connecting this puzzle situation to the last year of our lives.  I went back to work full time as a teacher last fall.  Both my boys and myself spent our days under the same roof and my full-time work inevitably changed our family dynamic.  My brain was going 100 miles a minute all the time, preparing for lessons, making lists, finishing observations, preparing supplies for projects, correcting papers, creating worksheets, deciphering math lessons. My husband and I had to act as a relay team, passing the baton between errands, meeting, tasks, sports practices, or extracurricular commitments.  I often felt that if one little thing went wrong, the whole delicately balanced charade would collapse.  We ate out more, we missed some experiences because frankly, MOM WAS JUST TOO TIRED.  Try as I might, to get all the pieces to perfectly fit together to make the bigger picture complete, it was a mirage.

I remember myself as an eager-to-please high schooler, writing bible verses all over my bedroom on self-created posters.  Matthew 5:48 was there amongst others, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”  That was the goal–perfection.  To be like God.  To have all A’s.  To be involved in a balance of clubs, sports, and music activities at school while investing in leadership opportunities at church.  I was seeking perfection.  All the puzzle pieces perfectly snapped together.  And it’s something I still struggle with today.  I know I must emote it as my eldest will sometimes look at me in our  biggest moments of frustration and say something along the lines of, “I can’t live up to all of your standards!  I am not PERFECT!”

Eugene Peterson reimagines this same passage of scripture, however, and in the Message, he translates Matthew 5:48 as this:  “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  There is no wording about perfection, rather generosity and graciousness.  And this, friends, is our calling.  God lives TOWARD us, 24/7, with generosity and gratitude.  God is gracious to us.  God is FOR us, even when we aren’t whole, when we have a piece missing or are lost.  God doesn’t require perfection, but a generous and gracious life.  While that isn’t easy most of the time, I do find that the days, or moments, I manage to “live generously and graciously” toward others, I can be calmer about the missing pieces to the puzzle.  I can handle life’s question marks with less anxiety.  I can be present in moments of liminality.

There will be countless opportunities to practice generous and gracious living this summer, the upcoming school year, and beyond.  I will need to model it in the hardest of places–my own family and my classroom.  But maybe?  I will have to just add it to the Summer Bucket List.  It won’t be a line item to be checked off, highlighted, or completed.  But an ongoing narrative or theme, a way of living.
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