Northern Retreat

When it comes to parent-child relations and the “quality versus quantity of time” debate, “quality of time” adherents are often rationalizing skewed priorities.

Parents cannot spend enough time with their children during the first ten years of their lives. 

Parenting is the most selfless act imaginable.  Effective parenting entails putting your child’s needs before your desires on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis year after year.

I’m far from a perfect parent, but I’m proud of my wife’s and my work and the young women our daughters are becoming.  I’ve accomplished a fair share of things, but without a doubt, I’m most proud of who my daughters are becoming.

Why ten years?  That’s fairly arbitrary, but three of four years ago I remember having a conversation on the way to school with A, age 15, that is etched in my mind.  The specific words aren’t as memorable as the vivid feeling the conversation engendered.  It had something to do with friends, choices, the importance of schooling, delayed gratification, and planning ahead.  She cut me off midstream and completed “the talk” in her own words.  It was as if I was seeing the future, hearing what she’s likely to tell my grandchild on the way to school in two or three decades. 

It was an epiphany.  We were done.  Give her a driver (with navigation), a frig filled with food, and she could damn well live on her own. 

Ten years of affection, reading together, attending violin recitals, talking over dinner, commitment.  Ten years of trying to put her needs before my desires.  I enjoyed the process, but at that moment, felt even more moved by the result.

Intellectually, I knew A would forge her own path after high school; I just was caught off guard by how mature she already was.  Part of me was saddened that she would never need me in the same way, but I knew I had to accept it as a natural part of the cycle of life.  I had an intense joy that’s tough to put into words. 

We’re probably a more modern family than we’d like to admit.  We try to be countercultural and resist the urge to over schedule ourselves.  But it’s two steps forward and one back.  There’s an ebb and flow, but too often we get overscheduled, drive too much, and don’t spend enough time together, unplugged, and fully present. 

Maybe the best way to flee the grasp of modernization is to retreat on occasion.  In 2003, thanks to my university, we retreated to Chengdu, China for three months.  I was the site director for our study abroad program at Sichuan University.  We separated ourselves from our friends and regular activities, lived in a small apartment without an internet connection, walked all over together, dealt with homesickness and cultural differences together, played ping-pong and made new friends together, and as a result, deepened our bonds.

If you’re reading this on Monday, February 4th, we’re probably half way over the Atlantic in transit to Hamar, Norway, 83 kilometers north of Oslo, where, thanks to a Fulbright grant, I’m doing guest teaching at a university. 

Our first shared experience was preparing together.  And we just learned our “semi-detached, tiny, but cozy” guesthouse won’t be ready until February 25th so it’s three nights in a hotel and two and half weeks in an apartment in a museum 30 minutes away.  Most importantly, we’ll bop from place to place together.  It will be the first of hundreds of new experiences that we’ll share together.  Instead of five minutes of conversation after school, or ten during dinner, we’ll once again be living in very close proximity, experiencing interesting and challenging new things together on a daily basis, leaning on each other, and once again, deepening our bonds. 

My hope is we’ll be changed as a result of our Northern retreat, both individually and collectively.  When school and full-time work begins again in September, and we return to our regular routines, I hope there’s a legacy of intimacy that helps us better manage the pace of modern life and relate to one another and others with even more patience, kindness, and love.


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