In “The Book of Virtues,” William J. Bennett writes, “In self-discipline, one makes a disciple of oneself. One is one’s own teacher, trainer, coach, and ‘disciplinarian.’”


And, well, on this here Tuesday, isn’t that a punch to read? That you are your own disciple. It’s a strange way of thinking. Unsettling, maybe, to realize we have such a responsibility and power of authority. That the way we think, the voices we mic in our minds, have a great bearing on who we are and what we will become.


Of course, that’s simple. A one plus one equation. That what we believe has immeasurable bearing on us. Still, I think the word “disciple” elevates the idea. It’s intentional (or it should be); it speaks to study and practice and ritual. This might be somewhat circular reading, and I’m a little sorry for dragging you through this written processing with me (though not sorry enough to delete it, hah!). But, what a powerful way of terming it – us as our own disciples. It feels very sneaky that this word has been hiding within “self-discipline” all along and it’s taken this wonderful commentator to parse it out. (Perhaps you have known this all along, dear reader, and in that case, I doff my hat.)


 

If you ask my father who he was as a child, he will be brutally honest. He will make a face using every facial muscle, wherein his eyes fly up into his skull and everything else tightens. He’ll use words like “terror” and “rascal” and you will start to wonder about that boy.


He has told us how he lit his basement on fire with gasoline, and how his father had to leap through the flames to claim him, and his mother had to care for the burns all over his body. I’m not sure this was malicious, but his father told him to stay away from the gasoline, and the thing got knocked and spilled itself in rivers to the water heater. The danged thing flamed all over.


I think there was some consternation over that boy for some years. He was a fighter, for sure. A neighbor kid sicked their dog after him once, and he still has the scars to prove it. He learned to run, and if not run, then to grit and anger it out. He was called names at school, and he let them know he didn’t take to that. He told my brother early on to keep cool under pressure. Ignore the bullies, laugh at the easy teasing, because the worse way is to burst your own self into flurry flames and fisticuff the justice.


What I’m saying is, the man is not the boy. He will tell you that it was the Lord who tempered him, and I wouldn’t question that. He was a kid who God searched out. He changed, really changed, and everybody saw it. The passion is still there, the grit and determination, but as the healthiest disciples know, there’s a greater power than they at work, refining the inherent qualities.


 

I was scanning an article about a recent case, where the jurors are facing a heavy decision – as they always are – about which way to turn the verdict. It’s heavily politicized – as everything is – and they were warned by the judge to not let anyone’s opinion sway them. There are some mighty opinions weighing in, and I can hardly imagine being able to shrug them all off, slipping, as they are supposed to, into some utopian state of pure right judgment.


It made me think of Bennett, though, and his virtuous book, which we discussed in rings and rounds at the start of this piece. He tells the reader in the introduction that none of the stories inside will tackle the touchy discussions of the day. But, he adds, “a person who is morally literate will be immeasurably better equipped than a morally illiterate person to reach a reasoned and ethically defensible position on these tough issues.”


My best friend gave me this book after my son was born. She said her momma used to read it to her and her sisters when they were young. It’s old-fashioned and wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed diving in even a little. Grab yourself a copy, if it sounds intriguing. It strikes against today’s world like a ringing gong, and I like it.


The boy is sick (again) with the beginning of something, and he asks politely to watch a show, so I say yes of course to the sick little sweetie and we plop on the couch. He’s been around kids for, really, the first time this year. Sunday school and the best friend’s little, some quick playground friendships, that sort of thing. So now we’re going through all the common ailments a little boy might get.


One thing has become very clear this year. The kid does not know a stranger. This is a foreign way of being for me, but I like watching him work. He spies a child (could be his age, could not) and then he cranes his neck into their face and asks them questions that demand an answer. “What are you doing? What’s your name?” If they are too young, they wordlessly look between him and their mother. If they are too old, they say “go away” and tighten their circle, or else, sometimes, take him in as one of their own.


One such time there was a grasshopper involved. The kids were pretending it was a scorpion, and one of the older girls informed the group importantly that scorpions only live in the *desert,* which is a key piece of information when you’re five. One of those things you tuck away in your knowledge bank. And then one girl climbed a tree and another fretted that she would never get down. All the rest played in the dirt, and there was my boy in the midst of it, talking and watching and, generally, being his happiest.


One of the great pleasures of being a mother is just watching your child be. Many mothers have said this, and I happily join the chorus. They are different from you, even if they are similar, and they gobsmack you with the way they tackle the world. It’s like an everyday miracle watching them laugh, really belly laugh. Or watching them learn kindness; watching them hug a friend without a moment’s thought because they love them, kissing you on the cheek, picking up something without prodding. It’s a downright shocker when they defy you soundly for the first time. You know it will happen, you think you’re prepared, then – wham! – they do it and you’re like, “who told you this was okay?” Then you go on loving them in those myriad parental ways. You learn about yourself, you grow, you regress, you change, and holy moly you pray.


You know, some nights I lay down thinking we’ve got this parenting thing down pat. (You can laugh, but you know the feeling.) Other nights I’m pretty sure the roof has caved and that all is a charade. You start envisioning black and white striped uniforms, ya know.


Maybe, if you know a parent who is doing a good job (not a perfect job, but a good one), tell them about it. Use a particular, something you see in their kids that they’ve been nurturing. It’s like having a realignment. We get some things twisted, get some knots in our muscles, with all these hard-work days, and we need someone to come along and say, you’re really doing the work here, and it shows; good job. This type of encouragement parents us parents, keeps us on the straight and narrow with our chin up. These are long, long days and minute years – isn’t that what they say? Sidle alongside us for the journey and we’ll love you forever.


The neighbors across the way are flying South, and so, selling their home and purging all the things that might weigh down their flight. One such thing is a precious grandfather clock. It was made, my neighbor said, by an Amish friend who owned a business many years ago. He has passed now, and his son is aging, but this clock is bright very new looking still. It's face holds the sun, for the day, and the moon, for the night. They bequeathed the clock to my parents, with instructions to pass it on to us one day, because my son fell in love with it when he saw it.


It's been quiet for over twenty years. It takes a specialty clock worker to come and align it right, make sure the weights fall correctly, before it will tick the time away. (My mom, ever faithful to these kinds of things, has already scheduled for someone to come out and look at it.) And, once a day, the owner must dawn the delicate pair of white gloves stowed in the body of the clock and gently pull on the weights, so that the time will remain pure.


It is interesting to think all that a person might amass in twenty years. Twenty being relatively short, when talking about a life, but in particular twenty, since that is how long these dear neighbors have lived across from my childhood home. I didn't know they had a treasured clock these twenty years. But all of us on the block knew that Clarence would get the tractor going after the first snow and plow everyone's drive. And that he would do this after every snow, so that no one ever worried about being late for work or stuck inside. He just did it. I knew, having watched their cat a time or two, that they doted on a little grey boy, whose name I have forgotten. Sweetest thing. Lost, after some years, like my own cat, when the coyotes got brave and started bravado-ing through the streets. They are the sweet neighbors. The raised on the farm neighbors. The ones that many in the neighborhood will miss, even if they didn't know them at all.


How does one gain such a reputation in twenty years? How does one gain it in more years or in less? I guess the same as anything else. One thing, one day at a time. And then you've got more than a Florida condo can hold, and you've got friends and acquaintances stalling your leave with visits, hailing beloved memories and harking you well - all these things fit for better homes than we'll ever see here.