A Sacred Walk: Parenting as a Way to God

Nothing has taught me more about the constancy of God’s presence and continuing creation than being a parent. From the moment Simon slipped from my body with his hands stretched out, reaching for the Light, I have experienced his presence, his relationship with his father and me, as an expression of God’s love for us. Don’t get me wrong: there is as much muck and struggle in that relationship as in any relationship between child and parents; but even in the struggle—maybe especially in the struggle—I see God’s work. Each day there are moments when I perceive the mystery of a greater parent at work. When Simon was a baby and we rode the train into Center City Philadelphia, he would smile broadly at each passenger he encountered and try to make a connection. If someone was standoffish, he would get frustrated and work harder to get a response. I was inspired by how each person was for him a new and wonderful surprise. In parenting I’ve found that keeping that connection central in my relationship with him is key—trying to be aware of the Spirit palpable just beneath the surface and struggling to communicate with that, both in him and me.

Parenting has been an experience of the sacred ordinary, encountering God by surprise sometimes several times a day. I believe my job is to awaken to these moments, to listen for them and witness them fully, and to respond faithfully as they arise. When I can’t, I’ve made a practice of talking this over with Simon. We end each day with me lying next to him in his little bed, talking about the blessings we experienced in the day, the times we saw glimmers of God, and the times when we weren’t so faithful.

This has given me many opportunities to tell him how much being with him and watching him has been a blessing in my life and to tell him I’m sorry when I’ve acted out of anger, or been hurried, or made a bad decision. Sometimes the sacredness of a moment can be discerned in hindsight. This practice has been a way for him to start noticing God in his life, too. Recently he spoke about how much he appreciated a friend, a boy, and said, "When I grow up, I’d like to marry him. It’s okay because mommies can marry mommies and daddies can marry daddies." Another night I was slow in initiating our "blessings" conversation. He said, "What about blessings, Mama?" I told him that his huge smile when I came home had been a blessing, and that my walk from his school to work with the bright day and approaching spring had been another. When I asked him what had been blessings in his day, he said, "Oh, my whole day was a blessing."

About a year ago when Simon was almost four, we were in the car, heading home when he asked me, "Mama, who will die next?" Several people close to us had died in the past year, including my mother. I replied, "No one knows when they will die, but Nani (his name for my mother) and James were very sick and we don’t know any one right now who is very sick, so maybe no one close to us will die anytime soon." Then he asked, "Mama, when will I die?" I said, "I don’t know, but you are very healthy and young. It’s likely you will live a long, long time, probably more than 3,000 weeks." He asked, "Mama, will I live as long as God’s love?" I replied, "Yes, God’s love will be with you as long as you live, and when you die you will be with God’s love." I don’t know what inspired his question, but four months after this conversation a very close friend of ours was diagnosed with terminal cancer and two months after that, Simon was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect requiring serious surgery. I listened and noticed his understanding, so young, that dying is happening all the time, that each of us is vulnerable, and that God’s love is very long.

Simon draws all the time: pictures of oceans with long eels and spiky-toothed sharks, pictures of smiling trains on tracks, or his friends in forts or on islands eating coconuts. One time when Simon was four, we had dinner at a friend’s house and Simon noticed some special objects set nicely on a corner shelf. I watched him walk to the shelf, come back to draw, and then go back and look again. He drew most of the objects on that shelf, arranged together: a bowl of glass balls, a stone egg with a wooden figurine of a woodsman, and a little porcelain teapot with tulips on it with a soapstone mother. When he drew the teapot, he first drew the bowl of the pot and the spout, then looked at it again and added the tulips. He drew six pictures and arranged them next to the objects he had drawn. He then invited each person present to pick out a picture, gleefully presenting his work as a party favor to each guest. I constantly witness his creative energy, his acute awareness, and his willingness to share his gifts.

For a while now Simon has drawn various versions of Noah’s ark; he loves animals and the story has fascinated him. He draws large ships with elephants and giraffes sticking out, floating in oceans full of whales and fishes. He also draws rockets filled with animals, flying to Mars and visiting aliens. One time he was quietly building in the living room and then invited me in to look at his creation. He had made a construction of little chairs and milk crates, reminiscent of Noah’s ark with many of his stuffed animals carefully cradled throughout and the word "oloeoon" taped to a board, raised aloft. Simon told me that this sign said "alone," that he had created his "alone ship," on which he could sail away all by himself. I love that he understands the importance of solitude, but likes to have quiet companions along for the ride.

Once recently I drove Simon to school and he wanted to take his yellow boots in with him. He hasn’t been that good at bringing things home from school, so without thinking, I said, "No," brusquely and without explanation. He got very upset and I told him, rather harshly, that he couldn’t take them in because he wasn’t good at bringing things home again. I parked and he cried and was angry. He was slow to get out of the car and resistant to heading in to school. I was firm, unyielding, and Simon continued to cry. I was thinking of how I was supposed to handle this, be firm, not give in, and be the authority, but I knew underneath that I was being unreasonable. Finally, I took a breath and asked him why he wanted to bring the boots into school. He told me that he couldn’t climb a mountain of snow in the yard that hadn’t yet melted unless he had boots; that he hadn’t been allowed to climb it the day before and really wanted to. I told him my concern that he hadn’t been good at bringing things home and that if he promised to make every effort to bring these home today, he could take them in. I told him that if he could show me that he could remember to bring them home, I would be more willing to let him take things in to school.

Simon cheered remarkably, took the boots in, climbed his mountain of snow, and brought the boots home again. When I’m able to stop the voices that tell me how I am supposed to be a parent and instead step back and listen to him and my own inner guide, we are both able to get what we need and to respond respectfully to one another.

Simon’s surgery, a repair of a constriction of his aorta, was scary and hard on Graham and me. Simon took it in stride, though. He packed his things the day before the surgery and said, "I’m all set for a nice stay at the hospital." Even now he says that his hospital stay was fine. But for me his surgery and his subsequent seizures have been reminders to pay attention, enjoy him, and listen.

Since two weeks after Simon’s surgery, most mornings he and I take the El train to 30th Street Station on the way to his school. On the train he peers out the window, looks at his reflection, and often draws pictures in his little journal. When we get off the train, we walk past the huge art deco train station and post office. He often balances himself on the cement border of the sidewalk, sometimes "tight- rope" walking across the metal rods that are all that is left of some of it. We cross the street and Simon runs to the edge of the Market Street bridge to look at the Schuylkill River, to see how dirty it looks today and whether any seagulls are about. He races me across the bridge, sometimes pausing to smile at a homeless man who often feeds the seagulls there. He gets to the end of the bridge and stops in a little nook under a two-foot stone eagle where I can’t see him. He says "boo" when I catch up with him, then races down the ramp to walk along the river.

We pass a big mural of a whale in the ocean, where homeless men and women are often asleep beneath it on little ledges, with their shoes lined up in neat rows on the nearby steps. Simon hides behind a column at the end of the ramp and peeks out at me again, with a huge smile on his face. We round the corner next to the river and he stops to look over at it, often flinging one rock in and watching it splash. He continues on, climbing the big rocks on the grass, then races under the Chestnut Street bridge to wiggle in and out of the young redbud trees planted there. He races me to the railroad tracks and we always check to see if we can find whether the penny we left there the day before has been flattened. Simon climbs a hill of rocks and comes rushing down as he continues on around the corner toward the park near his school. We pass the community garden and the street on which his friend Anna lives, then walk down a little side street of blue and brown row houses behind his school, lined with maples and gingko trees. He races me to the door and we take the elevator up to his preschool, always full of paint, pattern blocks, children’s bright art, light, and quite a bit of love.

This walk is my favorite part of the day. It feels sacred to me—this chance to walk with him, to be with his ebullient self and walk in a place that feels to me to be a little microcosm of the problems and possibilities of the contemporary world. Simon experiences our walk with delight and wonder most days, and it is a blessing to be able to see this world a bit through his eyes.

Lucy Duncan

Lucy Duncan is a member of Goshen Meeting in Goshenville, Pa. She serves Friends General Conference as associate secretary for programs and the bookstore. She is also co-clerk of Quakers United in Publications. Lucy lives with her husband, Graham, and son, Simon, in the caretaker's house of Friends Southwestern Burial Ground in Upper Darby, Pa. Lucy has been a platform storyteller since 1983.