E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life
My Mornings with Maggie
There are three important morning disciplines I try to shove into my schedule between the time I wake up and the time I get my daughter up for school at 6:30:
- Devotional time
I also have a morning chore so as to make my wife feel smiley about me later: I empty the dishwasher.
School is almost over, so I have 2 and 1/2 more weeks left where it’s just my daughter and I up in the morning (with the occasional visit from one of our sons who inevitably wake up and want food or a drink or help with the remote at just the ‘right’ time – you parents of small children probably understand).
The problem is that 6:30 comes well before I’m done with my three disciplines.
I always push to get a bit more writing in, so I get her up at 6:40 instead of 6:30. Then we rush and I’m way more grumpy than I’d like to be.
I’m like an ornery drill sergeant barking orders:
“Eat your breakfast!”
“Brush your hair!”
“Brush your teeth!”
“Where are your socks?!?”
It’s funny because sometimes it’s like she doesn’t even notice my curmudgeonly lack of patience. She just keeps trying to talk to me and tell me little stories and share her morning thoughts (which are many). To use the old well-worn joke, if you looked up ‘Morning Person’ in the dictionary, high likelihood you’d find a picture of my daughter.
I’m grumpy because I didn’t get either exercise, devotions, or writing in. Now we’re running late (because I didn’t wake her in time). All she wants to do is talk. All I want to do is move her through the morning process.
The Clash of Disciplines, Parenting, and Being a Dad (or Mom)
The reason why I included the longish quotation above is because is that, although I’ve not written a novel, it seems to be a lot like life – as Doctorow lays it out and Lamott observes.
We can plan out the structure of our lives and decide on the goals for all our efforts. We can instill disciplines (personal and family-focused) in order to get us there. We can set our schedules in order to accomplish our disciplines.
But then there’s this thing about who is sitting right there with me, two or three feet in front of me. Eating her cereal and drinking her juice. That person could care less about what my endgame is. She just wants her daddy to listen to her.
I’m so dead-set on getting her to be diligent about her morning routine while I harbor latent frustration that I didn’t get my stuff done. I fail to enjoy those little morning moments nearly as much as I should.
We never ultimately know where our children will end up. But I have a feeling if we milk every bit of face time we can with them, then our chances are much better that things will end up more fine than not fine.
Seeing Two or Three Feet In Front of Me
Novelists often try to force their characters into prearranged story lines. According to Doctorow, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes the novelist has to simply be present with the character in each moment and help that character make the next decision.
The original plot line might get preempted by the growth of the characters, rendering the original plot lines dishonest, if the novelist forces the characters into them against their will.
I’m taking a long way to say this: I have written plans that should lead to having a fulfilling and meaningful relationship with my wife and children. But real life and relationship don’t happen on paper. They happen when we sit two or three feet away from someone else and do the next right thing with them. We listen. We share. We laugh.
Plans are guides. They are helpful guides, but they are simply our vision of an ideal future and our best guesses as to what disciplines will lead us to that vision of an ideal future.
Intentional, Yet Present
It’s good to be intentional and to identify the disciplines, both personally and relationally, that we should build into the flow of our time that should lead to hoped for results.
But we also have to learn how to read the room. It’s much more important to be absolutely present in any given situation than it is to be preoccupied with whether we checked our boxes off or not.
To appeal to Scripture, Jesus was extremely focused on His mission, yet how many times was he interrupted? He would take those moments and care specifically for the person who came to Him.
My disciplines are fine. And, honestly, sometimes Maggie requires some firm encouragement to move things along. She’s 7. But the main thing? Listening to my daughter (or my boys or my wife if any or all of them happen to be around).
How long will my daughter try to talk to me if I have to shush her so I can get other things done? At 7 years old, she can be as persistent as Sam I Am in Green Eggs and Ham. She really won’t let me not listen.
When will she give up or become less excited about sharing her stories with me? Will I look up and two or three feet in front of me will be a blank stare and a steady diet of those grunted faves of teens: “Fine”, “Nothing”, “Okay”, and “Whatever”?
So at breakfast… I’m not always completely interested in the stories, but I am interested in Maggie. I want her to know what it means to be listened to and be heard.
Someday, I’ll need her to hear me, and if she’s not used to being heard by me, will she actually listen to what I have to say when it’s something she really needs to hear?
The dishes can wait. God will understand if I don’t have 5 more minutes of prayer. My body won’t die if I don’t get my jog/walk in.
It’s that girl across the table, two or three feet away, that’s important.