From stories that have been passed down through the Buddhist tradition, we know that the Buddha had to face many threats and hardships during his lifetime: his experimentation with extreme asceticism during his quest for enlightenment, assassination attempts, charging elephants, accusations of fathering an illegitimate child, unruly and undisciplined monks, and encounters with thieves and murderers along the roads he traveled during his ministry, just to name a few. But nowhere in the Buddhist canon have I found an example of the Buddha having to deal with a screaming five-year-old child who isn’t getting his way. Trying to be a Buddhist and a parent at the same time seems irreconcilable most days. One trick I use is to divide the day up into little chunks of time that for simplicity’s sake I’ll call my time and everyone else’s time. I keep an imaginary balance sheet in my head. When my inner accountant informs me that I haven’t had enough me time for one day, I immediately get grumpy. But what if all time could be viewed the same way? I have been rereading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a book I haven’t looked at in many, many years, and probably the book that comes the closest, in my opinion, to The Only Book on Buddhism That You’ll Ever Need. Listen to this passage from a student of Hanh’s who is also a parent: “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for my son, another part was for my wife, another part to help with my new baby girl, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with my son and my wife my own time. When I help my son with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!” I noticed this feeling last night when I spent time with my five-year-old son as he practiced writing his letters. Bathed in the light coming from the desk lamp, my head was bowed towards him as we both worked together, at one with the letters and sentences we were creating on the page. And my time became his time became our time became just time.
This happened before dinner tonight. The sun was just beginning to set. The bottoms of the bare trees were in shadow, but the tops were bathed in the otherworldly pink light that you only see for a few minutes each day. The air was cold. But a cold that was, combined with what was left of the sun’s heat, invigorating and life-giving, not the numbing cold we’ve been experiencing during the last four months here in Maine. This was a cold that made me feel like I could walk ten miles or more without tiring. We had about a half-hour of good daylight left and my six-year old daughter was asking to be taken to the church playground, across the street from our house. The playground isn’t much more than a Cedarworks playset nestled in the trees behind the church, but its proximity and relative seclusion makes us feel like it’s our own private realm. There is also a hill to climb that in the winter allows us a view of the Kennebec River, and woods to explore. I never miss an opportunity to make my children aware of the wild nature that is all around them, and the fact that beauty can be found even in the simplest things. Never miss the chance to do this if you are a parent. If children (and adults) are never taught to appreciate and find joy in the simplest things in life, they will never be able to get enjoyment out of the complexities, and when times turn bad as they sometimes do, they won’t have the inner strength to make it through life’s austerities. To be able to feel at home wherever you are, rich or poor, with not much more than a toothbrush and the clothes on your back is a good thing, I think, and Henry would agree. But I digress. So we walked over to the playground and as I was swinging next to my daughter, she asked, “Where do snakes come from?” I said that this was a very good question. Why was she asking? “Well, in school, the teacher was reading a story about snakes and one of the kids asked where the first snake came from and I know it didn’t just fall out of the sky.” “Well, I said, some people believe that god snapped his fingers and made everything appear all at once. But other people believe that all life started from very simple organisms that changed over a very long time and turned into all the animals and people we see today. This process took millions of years. It’s called evolution.” My daughter seemed to accept this as the more reasonable answer. Then the sun started to disappear and my ears got cold, so we went home for dinner. You just never know when you might get asked about snakes falling from the sky a half-hour before dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Today I was poor, but I had this moment with my daughter, and the pink sunset.
They say everyone has one book in them. At age 40, it might be too early to start thinking about posterity, but I often wonder what my one book will be. Unless I receive a sudden literary genius injection, it probably won’t be Ulysses or Moby-Dick. One thought comes to mind. As a parent, I have a worldview or life philosophy that encompasses my beliefs, personal ethics, and habits. This worldview is like an inner voice that guides my actions. We all have one, and of course it changes over time, but I try, every day, to instill in my children a little bit of that worldview. For instance, when my daughter reports on the misdeeds of her classmates (“Jacob stuck his tongue out at the teacher during story time”), I try to use that as a teaching moment about correct behavior. But sometimes, as all parents realize sooner or later, your better judgment can be overridden by frustration, sleep-deprivation, stress, or any combination thereof. That’s when you might resort to yelling something that your parents used on you like…”If Jacob jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” (That was a classic in my family, and not quite the message I’d want to send). What I’m trying to get at is that sometimes there’s a disconnect between your inner wisdom and your outer action. I guess right now if I had to choose, the one book I would write would be an explanation of my worldview, kind of a daddy’s wisdom book, for my kids to have in perpetuity. Not that mom or dad is always right. Certainly not. But at least if you write something down and it expresses your general philosophy of life, you or your children can refer back to it, and you could even say, “Well, that’s what Dad was trying to say.” But come to think of it, if this blog gets stored in the bowels of the WordPress server farm for all of eternity, then maybe I’ve already started writing that book to my children, right now, every day. And I can still hold out hope that one day I’ll finish my million-dollar screenplay.