I was very late coming home from work last night – it was after 11 o’clock, and the whole family was asleep. I thought for a moment, as my wife turned over when I entered the room, that she might be awake in our bed, but she was quiet and still by the time I joined her. And so when I awoke this morning, I was anxious to see them all. I knew that the kids would have to run off to school soon and I would have to return to work, but I looked forward to the short time we had as I walked down the stairs.
Which made it all the more painful when, minutes later, I took the box of cereal from my son’s hand as he poured it, and sent him away from the breakfast table.
I would tell you that I long for simple moments of being with my children, times when notions and expectations drop away. I had just such an opportunity at the table this morning, as my boys found themselves possessed by silliness – each look from one brought the other practically to tears from laughter. Their voices rose as they called to one another, taking turns making faces just subtle enough to hold the expression for the few seconds it took to send his brother back over the edge. Knees knocked against the underside of the table as cereal squares spilled and milk droplets dripped off of their spoons.
I had the opportunity to witness and join them in this playfulness, this joy. Instead, I found myself simply wanting it to end. My body pulled back, my breath quickened. They laughed. I tensed. I told them that it wasn’t time to be silly and reminded them about their table manners. I sent them away.
I suppose there are legitimate reasons to help my children shape good table manners; in our relative world, they are important. But what am I teaching them about their laughter? And it goes beyond the table. My boys’ joy often finds its expression in moments that are loud and frenetic, unconstrained by any adult’s ideas about how it should look or sound. As they laugh and jump, as they delight in any noise they can make, they are meeting the world, living fully in what is offered. Unfiltered. Present.
In receiving the ten Grave Precepts of Buddhist practice, I vowed, recognizing that I am not separate from all that is, I vow to take up the way of not killing. This precept is often applied to the choice of whether or not we eat meat, or how we respond to a mosquito in the bedroom. But it also speaks to asking my boys to calm and quiet themselves, to experience and express their joy differently than the way in which they have found it. What dies then?
In receiving the Pure Precepts, I vowed to save all beings. But when I ask them to be something different because their expression of themselves is impeding the quiet I was hoping for, what does my response mean to them? What do they make of that experience when the world presents something so real, and their father tells them it isn’t right – not right now, not right here?
What am I teaching them about their laughter?
Back at the breakfast table this morning, I sat alone and wanting the moment, like many before it, to be different. Not because it was too noisy, but because it had now grown far too quiet. I went and spoke to my son and asked him back, telling him I knew he could use his best manners while he finished his breakfast.
At dinner later in the evening, he told me that he had tried to buy a gift for me at the school holiday fair. It was a baseball bat that was engraved with World’s Greatest Dad. He had seen it the day before and brought his money into school. I looked at him in silence for a moment as he finished telling me the story, about how they had sold out by the time he got there. I asked him to come sit on my lap. He had trouble sitting still, as still as I would have liked after another long day at work. But you can’t always sit still when you’re busy saving all beings. Or at least your Dad.