Happy 3rd Birthday, Alden and Asa

To my dear Alden and Asa:

Today is your third birthday.  For your previous birthdays, I’ve written you open letters (open to the extent that anyone else actually reads our family blog).  Last year, I took a multimedia approach in celebration of your life, and the letter I wrote on your first birthday still rings true to me as it churns in the desperation of the fleeting time.

As the clocks tick, Alden and Asa, you continue to grow into distinct persons with different interests, gifts, and limitations.  While I write to you together again this year, I recognize that next year’s letters must be to you individually.  For now, I want to share something that I think will be applicable to both of you as you continue to grow.

Our family has a principle that you will learn over time--that you can take back words.  That is, if you overstate your case, blubber over-generalizations, shout something ridiculous, or say something hurtful, you have the opportunity in this family to take it back.  And, no matter what was said, it is as if it was never said at all.  At least in theory.  We have this rule because of my big mouth and my never-ending ability to bombast without regard to others’ feelings or, sometimes, the facts.  Without a doubt, it is a discipline to grant such sweeping forgiveness and forgetfulness; but we have chosen to err on the side of open communication, often at the cost of our egos and the sting that our ungraceful utterances and clumsy phonations can cause.

Outside of our family proper, however, you should watch your mouth more carefully.  I hope you will be bold but responsible communicators, never forgetting that there are some things worth saying without regard to the opinions or feelings of others.  There is, however, a much larger category of words and actions that can just cut people to shreds without any meaningful benefit or purpose, and you will have done evil and harm to others in a world already saturated with this type of darkness.  But all is not lost.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have caused hurt, your first inclination may be to do “damage control” to limit your own exposure.  If you want to move from birth to death without any meaningful principles or commitment to your community, then this will be fine.  But if you want to truly learn from your mistake and experience deep growth--even a proverbial re-birth--as a person, your only “damage control” should relate to the damage you have already done.  And this is the threshold step, to get over yourself and embrace a position of humility.

It is unrealistic and unfair to expect others to forget you ever did them wrong, and there may be very real consequences as misplaced words can easily destroy the closest of relationships. But, if you are want to demonstrate love and maturity, you need to embrace the seemingly antiquated practice of confession.  It is a cord of three strands: (1) admitting to yourself that you have done wrong; (2) telling the person you have injured that you feel true sorrow that you have taken any part in such an action; and (3) asking that same person to forgive you in such a way that you can still bind yourselves to one another for the rest of brief time that you still have to share on this planet.

You may not be forgiven, and there is nothing you can do in that situation but to cling to the sorrow for your actions and the fractures that they brought to a relationship.  But you may be lucky enough to come out in an even stronger communion with others because you have exposed your own real brokenness and vulnerability.  And that payoff is worth the cost of your exposure in a position of weakness.

My birthday present to you in this letter is my commitment to raise you in an environment where we allow you to practice confession and repentance knowing that you will experience forgiveness and reconciliation.  That our bond and experiences together will not be easily torn by words that we never really meant outside of a brief moment of frustration. That is the heart of the "take it back" principle. And my hope is that your mother and I will model this for you in a way that you can see the resiliency of the human spirit and that its capacity for forgiveness is a light in the darkness that could so easily overcome us.

Happy birthday, twins.  We love you, and, as long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it.

To Arthur, On His First Birthday

My dear son, my baby, you have now turned one year old.  In keeping with my habit of writing letters to my children on their birthdays, I offer this first letter to you.  Because you cannot read or even recognize alphabetic characters, I acknowledge that this letter is more for my own sake.  But I hope that you will read this someday and that I am still around for us to talk about it.  For now, I wholeheartedly celebrate your first trip around the sun.

Shortly after you were born, astronomers and other scientists measured, for the first time, the spin of an exoplanet.  They found that a day on this distended and far-flung planet lasts only eight hours.  We already knew that years on other planets in our own system have variable years.  Mars, 687 days--Earth-length days, that is.  Mercury, 88 days.  In such a cosmic context, you would be tempted to think that your year is an arbitrary calculation of ellipses and trigonometry.  

But in that time, buds of copper hair have emerged from your oversized head.  Teeth have pierced through your gums.  You have learned to climb stairs and also what happens when you fall down them.  And you have talked to yourself in ways that only you really understand (but that we pretend to know exactly what you are saying).  You seemed to never stopped smiling; it is hard to remember a night of crying or a fit of tears.  But, most of all, your hydrangea-blue eyes have opened wider and wider.

You were born in a time where the “struggle for existence”  seems to be the “struggle of existence.”  The week before your birth, two inches of snow brought Atlanta to its knees.  Children did not make it home from school that day, and parents did not return from their jobs.  I was fortunate to have worked from home that day.  But as the roads clogged with abandoned vehicles, it became clear that we would not make it to a hospital if you were to arrive.  Being ill-equipped for this adventure, I watched instructional videos about delivering babies in the home.  To be sure, there are some things you cannot “un-see.”  And, fortunately for you and your mother, the birthing sequence did not begin until after the roads had cleared.

We are lucky to live in a time and place where a long night after some snow is the type of occurrence that is a major “catastrophe” experienced for the calendar year.  It is easy to close your eyes, to shut them tight, and forget the very real push made by the inhabitants of this planet for survival against insurmountable odds.  Instead, you could be tickled by the fecundity of distractions seemingly designed to entertain you until your demise.  No one would blame you, but you would miss the most painful--and most meaningful--part of being human.  The gift of sweetness in our mortality.

In your birth, your mother and I set a clock, a timer, in motion.  There is a period of time (currently measured in Earth years but no one knows how long) during which you may choose to open your eyes.  The tincture of what you see will change as you change, but, make no mistake about it, it will likely be terrifying, even overwhelming.  You will see people do unspeakable things to other people, and there will be destruction and devastation from unseen hands.  The best among us will often fall the hardest.  There will be very little you will be able to control and even less that you will want to actually exert control over.  And in the end, you will find that all of your assumed power was complete impotence anyway.

Your nature will invite you to flinch and encapsulate yourself in a bizarre effort to transcend your lot.  But I invite you to keep your eyes open.  To not rely on injustice being made right in another world.  To not pretend that the world is manageable.  To not punch shadows for the assurance of your own value and righteousness.  To not expect a quick fix, apotheosis, or enlightenment.  And to not get your hopes up.

If you choose to see, your life will not escape you, and you will find, in the middle of this biological struggle, that simple beauty and moment and exploration and here and now are not only the best this life has to offer but that they are supremely better than the cheap imitations meant to distract you through your existence.

And that is the birthday gift to you: that you have a brief window of time to look around and see.  And I hope you will and that your mother and I can help you to do so, even as we look at the beauty, richness, and meaning that you give to our lives.  Your first year was anything but an arbitrary passing of time; it was filled with wonder.

Happy birthday, Arthur.