Like Little Children

Matthew 18:3:  “And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

A story passed through Quaker circles about a young child and his baby sister.  The boy’s parents overheard him whispering to baby Sis.  He said, “Tell me all about God.  I’m starting to forget.”

Daughter Annie and grandbaby Ava stayed with us for a week in June.  When I picked up Ava and looked into her eyes, she looked straight back at me.  Her pupils widened as she scanned my face, but she took in my appearance without judgment.  She studied me with clearness, without prior assumptions.  Her innocence gave me a sense of open horizons, of a cloudless blue sky.

Ava trusted us to feed, clothe and clean her, to give her comfort, and to encourage her when she tried out new skills.  Surprises, hunger and waking up alone made her cry.  But as soon as we met her needs, tears dried up.  She smiled and did a happy dance when she greeted the next person she saw.  Fears and the memory of discomfort didn’t stick to her.

I can see the great benefit of becoming “like little children”, but Matthew 18:3 puzzles me.  How do we return to a childlike state?  We spend a long time learning to act like responsible adults.  Can we pretend that past troubles, current troubles, possible future troubles don’t bother us?  Can we live from moment to moment in clear wonder?  Can we trust in the goodness of God’s plan for us?

Perhaps the answer lies in trying to see the world with fresh eyes.  New possibilities open when I wait to pass judgment on a person or situation.  Or give myself room to adjust my attitude.  An uncle always greets me with a jibe, a poke at my self-esteem.  I took offense and avoided him when possible.  But one day, it occurred to me that he was just inviting me to play a game.  The next time he insulted me, I returned the favor.  He grinned:  I had met him on his terms.

Anxious, painful situations can lead to insights when I stop resisting experience.  Speechmaking took on another flavor when I focused on the interaction between my pulse and the audience response.  Flopping became a vivid field of discovery. 

Pleasant moments can develop from discomfort.  I trimmed the bushes in our yard last week.  After a half hour, my shoulders ached.  Thorns had scratched my forearms.  Mosquitos feasted on my calves. I looked up and noticed the crepe myrtle at the end of the driveway.  Fuchsia blooms stood out against a backdrop of green leaves.  Well-being flooded my mind.  I no longer minded my condition as I became immersed in the beauty of the flowers.  

Getting Accustomed

Bryant, Annie’s husband, returned from a trip last night. He bunked with a travel buddy at their condo and came by this morning to collect wife, daughter, and two dogs. They had stayed with us for a week.

I spent part of the morning helping Annie collect and pack a mountainous load of baby gear. Judy and I held and played with Ava while Mama rushed from last minute job to last minute job. The dogs scurried and whined. They sensed change in the air and feared getting left behind.

They left about an hour ago. The house seems a lot quieter. I’d grown accustomed to seeing Ava on Judy’s lap or crawling around her play pen. She babbles and calls out a lot now. She smiles when we say silly words that tickle her fancy. One morning last week, Annie told Ava that her diaper pail smelled like “broccoli poop”. Baby giggled. Whenever we wanted to distract her, we’d fall back on saying,”broccoli poop!”

I made eggs for me and Judy after Annie and family pulled out of our driveway. The dogs had grown accustomed to gathering at my feet whenever they heard the rustle of a cheese wrapper. (I melt cheese on a slice of bread to round out my breakfast.) I put a few slices of cheddar on whole wheat and looked down for begging supplicants, but no doggies looked up eagerly.

The house had been crowded with a high chair in the dining room, play pen in the back, and a crib in a back bedroom. Now we have wide open spaces to wander in and about. I no longer have to look for obstacles to step around. No animals, toy or live, obstruct my path, but I keep stepping carefully.

I miss the sound of Ava waking up in the morning most. She disrupted my sleep, but would spend a half hour sweetly cooing and babbling after first stirring. I sometimes wake up fighting the undertow of nightmares, but Ava’s presence in the next room gave me a sense of calm and well being when I first sat up in bed.

If I went in to greet her, she would look at me expectantly. I changed her diaper one morning. She patiently waited for me to figure out how to unsnap her night onesie, undo the diaper, rediaper, wrestle a daytime onesie over her head, and guide wiggly arms and legs into holes in her outfit. She seemed to appreciate the care even if delivered clumsily and with puzzled hesitations. It’s lovely to look into the eyes of complete trust.

Annie and family are staying in Orlando for the next few months. We look forward to seeing them often, watching Ava grow, sharing the struggle and sweetness of meeting the needs of child. But I think that this last week was a special gift.

A Star Ascends

Ava and Judy

I brought out pictures of Ava, our granddaughter, taken when she was a few months old. The older women at church nodded, smiled, and passed the photos around. I said, “I think that she’s really intelligent, so aware. She looks around intently as if she’s taking it all in.”

One of the ladies hesitated then said, “Now, everyone thinks that their grandchildren are exceptional.” She gave me a knowing look as if she’d concluded that I had already begun to delude myself. I thought, “Well, you’ve never met Ava.”

Ava and Annie have been staying with us for the last week while Bryant, Ava’s Dad, is off on a trip. Judy and I have helped take care of Ava. Having had an opportunity to observe her at close hand for an extended period of time, I must say that my original estimate of Ava’s intelligence was wrong. She’s actually a lot smarter than I originally assumed. Not to mention irrepressibly cute, athletic and inquisitive.

Now I know that some of you are smirking. You think that I’m just besotted by her exceptional good looks. But Ava’s more than a pretty face. She’s got substance and style. When she smears baby food on her person, she considers first then acts with bold panache. The rapid swipe of the back of her hand across the underside of her nose speaks of decisiveness and passion.

She’s become quite a linguist. We’re not sure how many languages she speaks, or how many she can use within one word or sentence, but she declaims for minutes at a time while adding dramatic gestures. Sometimes she throws in imitations of animal calls to accent points deserving special attention.

Ava shows signs that she’s developing a scientific mind set. She experiments with gravity, dropping objects and repeatedly standing up and sitting down. She tests the tensile strength of spoons, stuffed animals and plastic toys by inserting them into her mouth for thorough gnawing. Pretty much anything within her reach becomes part of her exhaustive studies.

She’s also a people person. When she enters a room, she engages the first person she encounters with an appraising stare followed by a smile. Before new members of her entourage understand what’s happened, they find themselves holding Ava, playing with her, letting her guide them around the room as she grasps their fingers. She’s already a charismatic leader.

As a budding genius and socialite, she does occasionally show signs of a high-strung temperament. She cries easily when unintentionally losing her balance and requires reassuring words to restore her calm. She demands immediate comfort when tired while not taking into account the collective fatigue of her attendants. She calls out for attention if left in a play pen without proximate companionship.

Some might call her high-maintenance, a diva. But I say that stars can’t be judged by the same standards as the rest of us mere mortals.

Think on These Things

While shopping for groceries, an unimportant matter got to me. The local Publix decided to rearrange the pharmacy section. I couldn’t find artificial tears for my wife. Broke down my normal resistance and asked a clerk. She directed me to shelves just below the pharmacist’s counter. I found an area half the size of the former display lacking the specific brand my wife uses out of necessity. Aaaargh.

I went back several times to search again as I often fail to notice things in a jumbled mess of brightly colored packaging. Nope. Not there. I began to mutter (not quite under my breath) as I envisioned an extra trip to Walgreen’s to pick up the artificial tears. Not that big of a deal, but I already felt spooked. Covid-19 fears hover whenever I leave home.

I got home and reported the news to my wife. She ordered the artificial tears on line while I unpacked, washed, sterilized the groceries. Problem solved.

Today I woke feeling glum. Worries lay like a damp blanket on my spirits. I went back to work on a commission ( a graphite dog portrait–don’t tell my grad school profs) and finished it in about twenty minutes. I knew that I had gotten close the night before but felt pleased that it practically jumped off the easel. I contacted the person who had commissioned it and sent her a jpeg. Got a positive response back. Job complete.

Blossom, graphite on paper, 14×11″

Went outside and began to staple screening to the two-by-four frames on the front porch. I had been itching to start this part of the project all week and felt satisfaction in completing two sections before lunch.

Sat down with Judy to a simple meal. We talked about our granddaughter and favorite memories from the time when we raised little children. I felt happy and content. The gloom that dogged me earlier vanished like an unpleasant dream. I told my wife that being with her, sharing stories made everything okay.

She recently said, “Remember St. Paul. ‘Think on things that are happy, pure, kind, positive. I can’t remember the exact quote, so I just make up the words. The point is, think about things that lift you up.'”

Painting for Ava

Tangled

I started this painting with my granddaughter, Ava, in mind. Her mother asked me to make something lively and colorful for the baby. I began by painting interlocking shapes. I allowed the splotches and irregularities of the gray underpainting to suggest initial forms, then improvised more shapes in response to the arrangements already laid down.

Tangled (stage 2)

After I covered the canvas, I began to make adjustments to the composition and to develop tonal and color transitions. I added details and accents to areas that looked a bit dull. Now I have to guard against turning the painting into a mad carnival riot.

Tangled (stage 3)

Also have to work on outside edges throughout. I’ve focused on the middle at the expense of the rest. The blue bowl shape in the lower left quadrant still seems too dominant and may require further intercession. Or I may have to add another shape (or two) projecting outward to the same degree as the bowl. I am satisfied, for now, with the mellow color harmonies that mostly contrast oranges with greens. I remember seeing that combination in illustrated children’s books from the 60s.

I’ve notice plant and animal forms emerging from the mess. I see a dinosaur, a snake skull, a carrot, a pipe, a bird, leaves and a head. I’ll have to ask daughter Annie if they appear too scary.

I’ve learned, however, that editing a painting’s content too closely can kill its spirit. If “Tangled” proves unsuitable, then I’ll start another for Ava.

Home

We said goodbye last night to Annie, Bryant and baby Ava. They were gracious hosts under trying conditions (Annie is finishing her doctoral thesis; the virus news is all bad.). Ava, at five pushing six months, is clear-eyed and curious about the world around her. She registers complaints but can be soothed easily once the discomfort is understood. She looks you straight in the eye with innocent acceptance and wonder. She’s trying to figure out who all these people and dogs are, what they do. She smiles frequently but only laughs when an unexpected delight tickles her.

Judy and I went to a nearby park and nature preserve a few days before we left. A meandering path wandered between stands of scrub trees, reeds, cattails and weeds. A round, red, metal navigational buoy flung inland by Hurricane Irma (?) rested at the base of a stand of trees. A lake could be glimpsed but not approached. Impenetrable thickets blocked the way, but a sign emblazoned with the image of a bull gator still warned visitors to avoid feeding wild animals.

Our stay at the air-b-n-b smoothed out. The bangs and loud voices that disturbed us the first night intruded occasionally, but no repeats of the neighbor woman’s highly operatic moment occurred. Traffic noise woke me up each morning at 6. The house still seemed sterile and institutional at the end of the visit. But time spent there didn’t dampen my spirits more than a stay at a cheap motel would have.

We pulled into our driveway at 3 this afternoon. The garbage in the trash can out front stunk; the interior (sans air conditioning for the last four days) carried an unusual funk. Dust and clutter left behind still reminded me that a good house-scrubbing is in order. But the plants in the back yard and the paintings on the walls greeted us as familiar friends. We felt relieved to have our privacy back, happy to be home.

Two Dogs and a Baby

The doorbell rings. Daughter Annie’s two dogs, a whippet and a terrier mix, erupt in high-pitched aggressive barks and growls. Annie restrains the dogs as I open the door. Two men wearing Brink’s Security uniforms smile and greet me. The closest one tells me that my neighbors have been very happy with their service, that they’re running a special promotion. Can’t hear much of the terms as the dogs continue to voice objections to the strangers’ presence on the porch. I cut the man off and say, “We’re not going to buy.” The second man grins as our current alarm system begs at high decibels to be released: interlopers must be chased off the premises.

Annie and Ava

Two days later, Annie decides to replace the tires on her car. Judy and I agree to babysit. Baby Ava sleeps contentedly in a light swaddle in a crib in the back room. I wash dishes and begin chopping vegetables for a pot of chicken soup, our supper dish. Ava wakes with a start, cries tentatively. She’s not distressed but wants to let us know that she might be heading there.

When I stand over her crib, she beams wide-open-eyed with an expectant look on her face. She’s not going back to sleep any time soon. I unfold layers of cloth that encase her like mummy-wrap. She seems pleased. Judy enters, asks if the diaper needs changing. “Oh no,” I tell myself. I haven’t changed one in nearly thirty years. Ava protests briefly when a wipe contacts her skin. I struggle with a plastic diaper trying to remember which side goes where. I tell Judy, “I think I’ve got it backwards.” Judy says, “No, it’s right. Wait. I think it’s backwards.” I fumble around until Ava is properly rediapered.

Her skin looks a bit red, so Judy suggests that we open a few windows to cool down house and baby. I open the front door so that fresh air can flood past the screened door.

Ava’s sits on Grandma’s lap and looks around contentedly for a few minutes. Then, her face scrunches up in abject despair. She cries bitter tears as Judy and I come to the conclusion that baby’s hungry. Judy says, “Look in the refrigerator door. Annie left a bottle.” I can’t find it. A car passes by and the terrier barks at it. I call out over the barks, “It’s not there!” Judy yells, “Look in the door, behind the mayonnaise!” I shout back (the terrier is barking now at two girls walking down the street), “I’m standing here looking at the mayonnaise. There’s no bottle. But there’s an old bottle on the counter.”

Judy hands me Ava, who now cries louder than the terrier can bark. Judy checks the bottle and says, ‘It’s still cold. Annie must have forgotten to put it in the fridge.” She heats water to warm the bottle.

I walk Ava to the front door, shut it, and order the still-barking terrier to desist. He retreats to the sofa and grumps. He was only doing his job. What’s the old guys problem?

Judy feeds Ava while I return to cooking supper. I warn her that we might have to eat late. Judy doesn’t care as long as she’s got a baby to hold.

Judy and Ava

Judy eventually needs a break. The soup bubbles in a pot. All I have to do is make biscuits. I take Ava. She rubs her eyes and yawns. Nap time? Judy rejoins me as I struggle to rewrap her in the swaddle. Ava doesn’t approve of my clumsy technique. “Keep her arms down!” “Her arms are down!” “Not any more!”

Ava cries after we leave her behind in her crib haphazardly swaddled. She usually fusses for a few minutes then drifts off to sleep. Not this time.

We unwrap her and put her in a onesie. I take her outside. Ava stops crying immediately, stares at fluttering leaves on the magnolia as a light breeze puffs past. Clouds dim the sunset light to create a golden glow. I see a flock of ibis pecking around on a lawn up the street. I walk Ava toward them so that she can take a good look.

My back starts to complain. I’m not used to carrying a baby around. I give Ava back to Judy and retreat to the kitchen to bake. We take turns eating supper as we rediscover, much too late, that we can’t manage to sip soup while holding a wiggly baby.

Annie returns after a two-hour wait at the tire shop. Judy and I slump with relief-fatigue. We’re not in babysitting shape. Our skills are rusty. But Ava is a sweetheart, so we’re willing to retrain.

Gramps and Gram Visit for the First Time

Annie and Ava
Bryant and Ava having “tummy time”. Sedgewick pondering the changed state of affairs.

Driving to Miami is no one’s idea of a picnic, but Judy and I had a strong motivation to make the five hour trip from Orlando. We wanted to hold Ava, our first grandchild.

I had a two-day gap in my schedule this week, so we loaded up the car and took off this Thursday. The turnpike holds a few mysteries for the uninitiated. Some stretches are covered by photo plate reading, and others require tickets. Some entrances are clearly marked. Others, especially at the jumbled service plazas, inspire puzzlement. Some exits only properly service cars with transponders. Folks bearing paper tickets must travel on to other exits, visit towns they had no intention of visiting, and double back. Traffic gets progressively more cutthroat once one travels south of Palm Beach. Construction zones multiply.

Annie, Ava and Bryant seemed properly exhausted. A new way of life requires tough adjustments. Ava mostly slept and ate. Her cries were plaintive but not unreasonably demanding. She calmed down readily once basic needs had been met. She kept her eyes closed for the most part, but peeped at us occasionally. When unwrapped from her swaddling blankets, she stretched her arms, legs, toes and yawnnnnnned. The world, if I’m interpreting her reactions accurately, appears unexpected but untroubling. She’s too bleary to worry much about anything.

Judy and I spent a lot of time holding her. We marveled at how small and frail she seemed. We’d forgotten over the last 30 years what newborns are really like. I felt calm and peaceful once she settled in on my stomach. I wanted to join her in baby slumber land.

I walked her around the apartment, rocked her in my arms, sang a few songs. K.C and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” worked well. Steady rhythms and innocuous lyrics soothed her. Might have to sing soft 70s rock at the next visit. I draw the line, however, at “Muskrat Love”. My sweet granddaughter will never experience that horror if I’ve got anything to say about it.

Unexpected surges of happiness and mellow joy struck me on the drive back to Orlando. I had a bit of extra pep in my step during class yesterday. Ava is here, and we met her.