It was a warm April afternoon – the kind of day that woos buds from the earth and birds back home from their sunny southern holiday. A friend, who had recently moved several states away, was in town for a visit. She planted herself in the wicker chair on my back porch. Within minutes of arriving, she shared the details from her latest adventures and offered a taste of what had been churning in her heart. I drank in her words, the clean air, and a hot cup of mint tea. A light breeze kissed the moment. Souls connected. We both found rest.
Until a face appeared on the other side of the glass door. My child, who only minutes earlier had received clear instruction not to interrupt, was pointing frantically to a few large words scrawled on a piece of computer paper. A note to me, I was certain. Most likely asking for permission – to do something other than have quiet room time. I tried to ignore the resourceful offspring who had slipped stealthily into the scene. My friend was facing me and her back was to the door. Unaware of the shenanigans taking place behind her, she continued to talk. I struggled to keep my eyes focused on her – pretending not to notice the intruder looming behind the glass. I was fully committed to ignoring disobedience rather than rewarding it with attention. But after several minutes, the child’s pointing had graduated to sweeping charade-like movements. Arms were flailing. The dog started barking. The battle of wills was over. My campaign to ignore poor behavior had been defeated. I excused myself from the conversation, opened the glass door, and discreetly reminded my intruding offspring of our previous agreement. After a half-hearted apology, said child turned and scampered upstairs.
While returning to my seat on the porch, I mumbled a few words of explanation for what had just transpired then attempted to return to our previous conversation. My friend’s lips parted slightly, and she drew a short breath as if she were going to speak. A few seconds passed. She exhaled and said nothing. But the corners of her lips tilted upward, as if to betray her attempted silence.
“What is it?” I asked. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing really,” she responded. Then after a brief thoughtful pause, her carefully chosen words tumbled out. “I was just thinking that you’re dealing with the same behavioral issues that you were when I met you several years ago.”
She was right. We spoke briefly about the challenges I’ve had with that particular child, then we dropped the topic of parenting to pick back up whatever we had been discussing before having been interrupted.
I know and trust my friend. She possesses wisdom gained only through years of experience and observation. She is slow to offer her opinion – particularly when it could be controversial. There is a cost for such honesty. It takes courage to step into the life of another and to speak truth about what you see. She cared enough about me to risk rocking the boat of an easy friendship.
Yet even knowing what is true about my friend, and even believing that her words were meant for my good, I couldn’t help but feel a flinch of defensiveness. If she had only seen the larger picture. It had been a long day. I’d been preoccupied with meeting a deadline and preparing for the upcoming weekend’s company. I’d been unusually unavailable to my children, and their need (?) for my attention was legitimate. My friend had been correct in her assessment of an ongoing problem. And my kids had experienced an abnormally hard few days. Both were true.
In the days to follow, I didn’t give much thought to our conversation. My friend’s words didn’t hover over me, waiting to convict poor behavior – or even worse – poor parenting. What did change, however, was that her gentle observation had given me a glimpse of what was true. The demands of parenting, the monotonous routines of daily life, and a house full of beautifully-yet-desperately flawed people inevitably distort my already-skewed vision. A parental astigmatism that prevents me from seeing the hearts of my children – and my own heart – clearly. Our brief conversation had improved my sight.
One autumn afternoon months later, a similar scene unfolded on the same back porch. Wise words spoke truth, stirred my soul, and improved my parental eyesight. They were words spoken not from the mouth of a friend, but found in the pages of a fairy tale.
I’d hoped for a brief hiatus from a busy afternoon by curling up with The Wise Woman by George MacDonald. Hours after opening the book, I emerged from my reading with a strange (yet familiar) sense of disruption. It was the same chain of feelings I’d experienced while talking with my friend only months before: Exposure. Denial (or shame or justification). Contemplation. Readjustment. Clarity. Freedom.
In The Wise Woman, MacDonald brings into focus the foolish, selfish hearts of two very different girls – which are really the foolish, selfish hearts of us all. He exposes the relational astigmatism of the girls’ parents – which is the same distorted vision suffered by every mother and father. We don’t see ourselves clearly. We don’t see our children clearly. Yet there is One who does. Who intervenes and exposes in order to reconcile. Who allows temporal hardship and heartbreak for the purposes of making us “lovely creatures.”
There is One who endures, persists, woos, rebukes, encourages, and disciplines. Who sees through our shallow efforts to live life on our own terms and for our own glory, yet never gives up on us.
We live in the truest of fairy tales. And at the end of our story, when we come face-to-face with perfect Wisdom, I imagine our conversation will echo the one between a naughty princess and the wise woman:
“Will you forgive all my naughtiness, and all the trouble I have given you?”
“If I had not forgiven you, I would never have taken the trouble to punish you. If I had not loved you, do you think I would have carried you away in my cloak?”
“How could you love such an ugly, ill-tempered, rude, hateful little wretch?”
“I saw, through it all, what you were going to be,” said the wise woman, kissing her. “But remember you have yet only begun to be what I saw.”
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If you haven’t read The Wise Woman, I’d highly suggest your doing so. Particularly if you have tweenagers. It’s not a long story, and it’s one that’s best read with your child. Read (aloud if possible) then talk about it together. Consider mapping out a simple reading schedule and invite a few other families to join you. The story provides excellent fodder for introspection (both for parents and kids) and is worthy of discussion within a group setting.