A Juggling Act

By

My family regularly attends children’s storytime at the Nashville Public Library where Library Pete, The Professor, and Mary Mary regale attendees with stories, rainbow drawings, singing, and the continuing puppet adventures of Cedric the Dragon, Spanish Fox, JJ the Lamb, and Tommy Dog. Beyond all the puppeteering aimed at the kids, though, the proceedings are layered with witty banter intended for the parents as well. I like this.

At one point, the Professor juggles colorful rings while singing a song and Ellis, our oldest boy, immediately took to this.  He returned home to find a frisbee-like juggling ring of his own and promptly informed us that he was the “perfeshor”, complete with the final act of placing the ring on his head all crown-like. Once we picked up on what he was doing and saying (he still spoke Babel-like at the time), we were astonished at what a one-and-a-half year old was able to comprehend and retain.

Since I’m anxious to relate to — and impress — my son, my wife gave me a juggling set for Christmas, complete with a how-to guide, colorful practice handkerchiefs, and three beanbags. I took up the challenge and quickly advanced to a daily regimen of juggling (by which I mean repeatedly dropping) beanbags.  With a few minutes of practice each morning, I slowly got the hang of it. At the very least, I can keep the three balls moving through the air in something resembling a circle, if only for a few seconds at a time (a veritable eon, in the hands of a novice). The best part is that Ellis excitedly joins me by throwing around the “han-ker-chips”, as he calls them, in playful mimicry. This, I truly enjoy.

The same monotonous repetition required to learn a new skill is currently swamping my life. My ever-present acedia wants nothing to do with the “rinse, clean, repeat” cycle of being an exhausted and exasperated father of two very young children. You parents will, no doubt, understand these mundane rigors. I become apathy at its personified best — or worst.

I wake in the early morning and glance in the mirror at the bags under my reddened eyes and realize, with grudging acceptance, that this day will likely be as utterly predictable as the one before.  It will be no less riddled with repetition than either yesterday was or tomorrow is likely to be.  It is a drug of drudgery that hardly elicits an “hurrah” from the shambles of my spirit. Wake me up when today is over, I grumble. And so it goes with acedia, that devil-god laying claim to my shoulder, neighbor to the self-righteous chip.

Repetition surrounds me the way a rolled-up rug encases a poor soul run afoul of the mafia. Though I wiggle, squirm and fight, I cannot escape. I imagine there is an abundance of beauty and living art in our daily monotony, as Kathleen Norris observes in her insightful book, Acedia & Me, but I have yet to discover anything abundant in it save frustration, or anything lively save my own resistance.

Practice and repetition are neither glorifying nor pleasurable, just ask any athlete. But perhaps the glory is never meant for the individual doing the repeating. Like juggling, it holds less enjoyment than frustration for me, the practitioner, but its greater fame is that of bringing something pleasant to the beholder, to those who witness the feat. In the case of my learning to juggle, my son invariably grins and seeks to mimic the act with the aforementioned handkerchiefs. Glory be, we learn together.

I find myself, perhaps foolishly, selfishly and naively, wishing the current days away as if they were curses instead of blessings. Longing for what I don’t have is classic covetousness. It is a blanket of ingratitude that is all too human in its near-sightedness. As my pastor has been hammering into my head the past few weeks, we revel in the unseen promise of tomorrow at the cost of today’s grace and beauty, we give testimony to the revelation of things to come, and curse our proclivities for mistrust and false identities which have become “normal” or “everyday” in our hearts.

In the ordinary, monotonous, and acedia-ravaged days to come I hope to pray a more perfect prayer.  May repetition be the means through which God, in his ironic clearinghouse style, continually unveils our daily need of Him. May Self surrender to that ever-unchanging will. May rote rehearsal reveal glory in the gift of every new day.  And may my beloved son see grace in the hands of a fumbling juggler.

Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


30 Comments

  1. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    This is the stuff.

    EP: “I find myself, perhaps foolishly, selfishly and naively, wishing the current days away as if they were curses instead of blessings. Longing for what I don’t have is classic covetousness. It is a blanket of ingratitude that is all too human in its near-sightedness. As my pastor has been hammering into my head the past few weeks, we revel in the unseen promise of tomorrow at the cost of today’s grace and beauty, we give testimony to the revelation of things to come, and curse our proclivities for mistrust and false identities which have become “normal” or “everyday” in our hearts.”

    This fellow fumbling juggler is grateful for an eloquent exhortation to better affections.

  2. Jonathan

    I find myself praying for more bean bags to juggle. Or better yet, flaming battons and razor sharp knives so as to further impress the onlookers (oh how pride comes before the fall). God, in the meantime, is repetitively asking me to stop dropping the precious bean bags He’s given me.

  3. Jonah G.

    “And may my beloved son see grace in the hands of a fumbling juggler.”

    That, my friend, is finding the “sacred in the mundane” or “the sacred in the everyday”. Good stuff… we struggle w/ the mundane constantly, and it’s amazing how drastic that mundane can change with a slight paradigm/perspective shift.

  4. becky

    One of my pastor’s best sermons was about the eternal significance of the ordinary. His point was that how Jesus lived the 30 years of average, mundane days that we don’t read about in scripture is just as essential to our salvation as how he lived the day that he died. So keep juggling bean bags. From God’s perspective that may be the most important thing you can do.

  5. E

    Great post.

    I’ve wondered how God defines success and how I can do better in terms of aligning perspective.

    We should work hard, that seems pretty clear. But I’m not sure God wants us to be as focused on production and efficiency as our corporate models would suggest. After all, the One Who made us, made us to sleep 30% of our lives. What a horrible waste of time! Over 50 years, it is more than 100,000 hours of wasted time, even if you don’t sleep as much as you need to.

    Clearly God doesn’t think so, and I need to learn to not think so either.

    Yes, it seems silly to talk about sleep as non-production. But that is how I tend to approach my job and an overwhelming amount of life’s activity. I would love to adjust to a better and more balanced approach.

    So my prayer, in response to the post, is that Father would lead me to balance here and make me, and the lives I touch, all the better for it.

  6. Nathanael

    This is so good, so true and so timely.
    What was that parable about those who are faithful with little?

    These are truths we need to relearn and relearn and relearn.
    Thanks for this well-written reminder, brother.

    Shalom

  7. Tony Heringer

    “And may my beloved son see grace in the hands of a fumbling juggler.”

    He will Eric. These early parenting years are a grind to which I owe my current Starbucks addiction. Then they become teens, grow even older and move away. Then as Billy Crystal famously bemoans in “City Slickers” we will say “Why don’t the kids call?”

    I gave my 15 year old daughter a great big hug Sunday afternoon. She had been away from home for a week and as she hugged back a memory flooded my mind. There was an ache for my “little peach fuzz” that I carried around in my arms. I have a picture of that little girl in my arms. She is smiling an pointing at the camera and I’m the proud papa. That’s the image that was in my mind as this young woman hugged me – still her proud papa.

    With possibly apologies to Paul, these days you are in now, are but a light and momentary affliction. But they carry with them the weight of glory that God bestows through the blessing of these little ones. They will go by so quickly, so savor each one as best you can dude. Someday, Lord willing, you will be the proud papa looking with awe at the young man your son has become.

  8. Drew

    I learned a new word! Acedia!

    When considering the ordinary, daily monotony, I can’t help but constrast “acedia” with what appears to be its opposite: “ritual.”

    If acedia is marked by monotony and repetition that is spiritually draining, ritual is the flip side — imbuing the repetition with the spirit and with meaning.

    I grew up in a liturgical congregation, and for me, the repetition of saying or singing those memorized phrases and verses presents a strong connection to the holy. Though the church we now attend is quite a bit more “low church,” I still find myself running the old liturgy through my head in moments of meditation. Though it’s easy to let one’s mind wander and make liturgy into empty words and phrases, a mindful recitation is, for me, a way to connect to the presence of the divine.

    Geez, that sounds pretentious.

    Anyway, in the struggle to make meaning out of the daily drudgery of parenting small children (I’m there!) I find it helps to think of these as spiritual practices and disciplines. I tell myself that all these regular struggles will count for something someday, (and perhaps I flatter myself in the process). And somehow, fighting (once again) with the four year old over how many bites of vegetables she must consume before she can leave the table has some holy and profound side effect. (Heh.)

    Ah, parenting! If we really knew how absolutely and completely children take over our lives, the human race would die out. : )

  9. becky

    Drew said: “If we really knew how absolutely and completely children take over our lives, the human race would die out.”

    This is so true except, maybe, for the part about the human race dying out. When you love someone this much you’re happy to let them take over your life. After my neice was born I remember thinking, “What did we ever talk about before she arrived?” Watching her be adorable was our full time obsession. Eleven years later she is still adorable, but we have gotten back to conversing about other topics occasionally.

  10. kevin

    Beautiful post, Eric. Good for you for seeing it from the inside while you’re there. Now if you can just still remember it next week, you’ll be doing well, or at least better than me.

    I think it’s in our nature to want the more exciting and fear the drudgery, especially when our surroundings are designed to make us restless and unhappy with what we have. (Rant against media and marketing deleted.) Sometimes I find myself having to actually say to myself “This is it, and it is good. I am BEING redeemed. This life is what God has for me, in all it’s beautiful simplicity and monotony. I don’t live in a Hollywood movie.” And I don’t think I’d want to, really.

    SD- I echo you echoing Eric, better affections indeed.

    Drew/becky- There are a lot of things in which the pain may outweigh the joy is seen in advance, kids being one of them. If we made a pro/con list, sometimes it just wouldn’t work on paper. The ruin our lives in one sense, don’t they? But I for one am glad that I didn’t have that list before, because mine have blown my world apart changed me like nothing else, ever.

  11. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Kevin, indeed, if I can manage to remember any of this next week (or tomorrow, for that matter) then I’ll have made a tiny step forward in my ongoing education.

    On paper (and in the occasional ramblings of my mind), children absolutely wreck what once constituted a pretty darn cush life. Hindsight 20/20. Now, if I may be so self-absorbed, self-promotional, and so cheesy as to quote a song on my new, about-to-come-out album, “Chrome”. The song is called “I Will Go With You”. I wrote it for my two boys with this very sentiment in mind:

    Born to life so frail
    You looked as weak as wine
    You both ruined AND you made
    This house I once called mine.

    Lastly, this post owes much to the editing skills of our very own Pete Peterson. Long live the Nudge Buzzard.

  12. Robert McB

    Jonathan – Thanks for adding the cherry to the top of Eric’s sundae. The striving for more exciting and attention getting endeavors is indeed a tempting lure . . . and I so consistently fail to acknowledge the preciousness of the bean bags I have been given.

    E – You remind me this morning (and I needed to hear it again today) that God does not call us to be successful, He calls us to be faithful.

    Eric – Thanks for a beautiful, insightful post. There are so many dimensions here that haven’t even been scratched – the difficulties of taking on new spiritual disciplines that with practice become natural, God’s pleasure when we take a childlike interest in His endeavors, seeing the divine in the mundane, the list goes on and on. Truly an outstanding, thought-provoking, God-focussed piece. Thank you, thank you.

  13. Robert McB

    Jonathan – Thank you for putting the cherry on top of Eric’s sundae. I so often find myself looking for the more adventurous, attention grabbing opportunites while dropping the bean bags for which I am responsible, and how easy it is to lose sight of just how precious those bean bags are!

    E – You remind me this morning (and I really needed to hear it today) that God does not call us to be successful, He calls us to be faithful.

    Eric – Thanks for a beautiful, insightful post. There are so many dimensions here that haven’t even been scratched – the difficulties of taking on new spiritual disciplines that with practice become natural, God’s delight when we take a childlike interest in His endeavors, seeing the divine in the mundane. The list goes on and on. Truly an outstanding, thought-provoking, God-focussed piece. Thank you, thank you.

  14. Drew

    Okay, maybe the human race wouldn’t die out. But maybe . . . maybe only completely selfless people would have children. : )

    (Wait . . . then the human race *would* die out!)

    Having kids might put on the brakes, but we were probably driving too fast anyway.

  15. Aaron Roughton

    Eric, great post as usual. It’s amazing how God uses more than one avenue to communicate simple truths into my thick skull. After a frustrating bedtime for my 3 kids, (I was just happy they were put away) my mom called to say she had come across a picture of me and my brother when we were very young. It made her pine for those days, and she said she wished we could be that age again. She wanted me to know how much she loves me. Then she read me a poem that my dad wrote for me when I was first born. I had never heard it before, and I can’t remember it word for word, but the first part echoed the sentiment of your lyrics to “I Will Go With You.” It said something like “When you were born I thought of the lands I’d never see and the things I’d never do. None of them compared to you.” Combined with your eloquent post and the subsequent comments it was like a kick in the gut of poor fatherhood. Thanks. I think.

  16. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Eric,

    As a kid who grew up doing to a large degree what I wanted (reading and playing music), having kids was a shocker to my psychology. I wasn’t used to being so needed, either by my wife or the babies. As time wore on I have more and more embraced that internal suffering produced by that sandpaper where the legitimate needs of others meet my immediate desires; it has been a long road for me to begin to learn to do the right thing.

    I think the embracing of this inner frustration as the present cross, as the discipline and love of the Father who wants to make us into shining gods and goddesses, is the turning point where we begin to move into being who we are really meant to be. I often say having kids is the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mine are now 9 and nearly 11. God has continually used my children as a crucible to form character in me through my love for my children.

    I love my son and want him to learn to be a real man – therefore I must open myself up more deeply to God to show me how to be a real man myself. I want him to know how to love a woman – therefore I must open myself up to God to love my wife as Christ loves the church, and gave Himself for it. I want my daughter to be a real woman, and want her to be strong and yet vulnerable – therefore I must treat her and her mother as strong and yet treat treat tenderly. My daughter may likely marry a man who resembles me, because I am forming a picture of what a man is.

    These truths have produced in me an agony to be more than I am, or can be – and can only be through reliance on the one who is greater than me: Christ in me.

  17. Breann

    All too often, I seek the one “big thing” I can do with my life that will make it inspiring and significant. I fight the mundane and fear disappearing in everyday routine. When you wrote, “[Repetition] holds less enjoyment than frustration for me, the practitioner, but it’s greater fame is that of bringing something pleasant to the beholder, to those who witness the feat,” it made me think that maybe it is in the commonplace that I learn to die daily. Maybe these everyday moments are the “big thing.” So, thanks for writing this. I needed the reminder.

  18. Peter B

    What else can I possibly add? I love this place, this gathering of like-weaknessed sinners who hunger for grace and share it when they find it.

    Okay, there is one thing to add. If you’re trying to juggle three balls by moving them in a circle, then you’re doing it the hard way.

    Thank you for opening up yourself — and our selves in the process.

  19. Janna Barber

    Tony, I was shocked when I found out that song was written by two men. Me and my prejudices. Guess I’m not familiar with how it works in the singer/songwriter/breadwinner/yet home a lot w/kids families. And strangely enough this post and comments, for me anyway, go right alongside some conversation here awhile back, where Ron Block talked about what people said to him about only making Christian music. What’s the homemaker equivalent? Only buying Christian groceries?

    Eric, good thoughts and great words.

  20. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Janna, Andy or Randall may drop by and explain more about that song, but if not, I remember them mentioning the songwriter process for Sacred included phone calls with Danielle and incorporating her thoughts into the song.

  21. Peter B

    Given that part of the song is a mother talking (singing?) in first person, I guess it’s a little of both. Great, great song… if a bit hard for my tired wife to believe in the “good mess”.

  22. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Who – or what – is this “Caedmons Call” that everyone keeps mentioning? Is it some radical new therapy? And why would Andy or Randall (whoever they are) be calling my wife, Danielle?

  23. Tony Heringer

    Jana,

    I really hadn’t thought of it that way. But all writers have to write from different perspectives – whether it’s a different sex or culture. I’m reading a Louis L’Amour book where the main character is a young woman. The grizzled L’Amour does a fine job of communicating her thoughts and feelings. Harper Lee created one of my fictional male heroes in Atticus Finch. Finally, I will give a shameless plug to our own Pete Peterson. He is finishing up a book where the main character is a woman. So, I’m glad my little post jarred this thought for you.

    This is priceless: “What’s the homemaker equivalent? Only buying Christian groceries?” Amen and amen!

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the additional insight. It would be good to hear from Andy and Randall if just to hear from them. They are rare guests in this space.

    If they consulted Danielle those boys are truly wise men as that song seems to get into the stuff of everyday life for a mom – especially the mom who would end of singing their song. But, most of us dads, if we have been paying attention (and we certainly are guilty of not paying attention), could give a similar voice to this “good mess” that our wives tend to each day. God bless ‘em!

  24. Tony Heringer

    Eric,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to hijack the thread. It really was something you inspired. 🙂

  25. Janna Barber

    ep – Such witty banter, stop, I can’t take anymore! Pretty sure it’s the other Danielle, since the song is from 2004 and little Ellis was a mere twinkle in your eye. btw – Met John in ’96, married in ’97 and Sam born in ’99, not familiar with this “cush life” you mentioned.

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