SAM SEABORNE: “You know anything about chaos theory?”
MALLORY O’BRIEN: “I know it has to do with fractal geometry.”
SAM: “That’s about all I know too. But it has to do with there being order and even great beauty, in what looks like total chaos. And if we look closely enough at the randomness around us, patterns will start to emerge.” – The West Wing, “20 Hours in America”
We have a playlist we listen to every morning on the way to William’s school. Actually, it’s my iPhone’s “25 Most Played” playlist, and at that we only listen to the first four or five songs. I have to promise to play these songs, or William will sit in the hallway and pout about how his throats so bad that he can’t go to school, until I say, “Will, you want to listen to the ‘Little Song’ in the car?”
“Okay Daddy,” he says with a smile. He stands up, grabs his backpack, and off we go.
The songs we listen to in the morning are, in order:
- “Make a Little,” by Midland. This is a country music band named after our town, though they’re not actually from Midland. I’m hoping that William doesn’t know what the lyrics to “Make a Little” mean.
- “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” by Johnny Rivers, or as Will affectionately refers to it, the “Boogie Song.” This is actually the first song on the playlist, which we currently listen to after “Make a Little.” We’ve played this song a whopping 678 times since I purchased it. Great song, right? Wait until you’ve listened to it 678 times. You may not want to boogie to it ever again.
- “I Am A River,” by Foo Fighters. When William requests this song (and yes, no matter how often we play the same songs, he still asks for each one), we always repeat the same liturgy:
WILL: “Daddy, Ricker song. Ricker song!”
DADDY: “Say it right, Bubba.”
WILL: “Riiiivvvvvvvveeeeerrrrrrr song.”
- “Rolling in the Deep” and “Don’t You Remember,” both by Adele. We alternate between these songs depending on how bad the traffic is and what kind of mood Will is in. William has always had a thing for divas. Please don’t ever introduce Mariah Carey to him.
Other songs have come and gone in Will’s greatest hits – “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “Atlantis,” and “Stuck like Glue” come to mind – but the five I have listed are the Top of the Pops, the undefeated champions of our commute.
But this year, something extraordinary has happened. The planets have aligned. The eclipse has arrived. Yes, there’s a new song that William has begun asking to listen to…
“New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra.
You may have noticed that Will’s musical tastes are as eclectic as his Daddy’s, but I didn’t expect him to latch on to a showtune from Sinatra’s later period. Does he even know what New York is? Does he understand the meaning of the song? Does he know that Frank Sinatra sings the song? I’m not sure about answers to any of these questions. But he knows every word to it, and if I don’t have the “The New Yoke Song” playing when I pick William up in the car line after school, I get an earful. The Chairman of the Board has issued his decree, and I’d better follow orders.
Considering how fastidious he is about music in the car, you might assume the rest of Will’s life is arranged in orderly, neat rows; that is, until you walk into the dumpster fire that is his room.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Clark, you have a thirteen-year-old. This is normal.” But this is not mere laziness or messiness. He’s not Pigpen from Peanuts. No, William loves to arrange things in his room. This week alone, he has moved his bed to four different spots. Yesterday, he asked to clean his room. An hour later, when I went to check on his progress, I found the door was blocked by every single thing he owned.
Under piles of blankets, clothes, books, empty yogurt cups, and steamer trunks (it’s all very exciting as a luggage problem), I spotted one of his most prized possessions: his “Tidy Desk Award” from school last year.
I attempted to put it back on his bookshelf, a more suitable place of honor so I thought. I was quickly reprimanded: “No Daddy, don’t touch! That’s mine!” And he carefully tucked it back under a pair of shorts, right where he had left it.
These arrangement battles spill over into other rooms too. We’ve been having a month-long conversation about where the upstairs bookshelf belongs…
We’ve engaged in a scholarly colloquy about whether extra copies of my book would be best arranged in a floral pattern on the floor…
Or whether they should be stacked alongside his other favorite author, Mo Willems, in a suitcase…
Or whether the Mo Willems books are better suited for display on his bed.
There’s his demand that the refrigerator be stocked with chocolate milks and juice boxes arranged in rows of two.
Then there’s the 100 Years War over my sock basket. Unsatisfied with scattering his own clothes across the house, he decided to seize upon my socks, hiding them under his bed, pairing them with his own (I often find rolled up sock pairs where one is mine and the other is his), or just flat out tossing them into the floor.
It’s cute until you pull a sock up and your toes discover there’s day-old yogurt inside.
If you’ve had any regular contact with William over the last year, you know about his clothes obsession. It has been especially problematic at school. At one point last year, he was packing several shirts and pairs of underwear in his school backpack, then spending all his free time folding them into neat piles. Perhaps a future career at Gap awaits? At home, he will take a suitcase of clothes to the backyard, sit on the trampoline or under the cool shade of a tree, and fold them while listening to birds and passing cars. It’s his moment of Zen.
It may sound like I’m making fun of him, and I suppose I am trying to find the humor in a situation that can be incredibly frustrating for his mother and me, who would prefer to find things where we left them, and would prefer not to find yogurt in our socks. We’ve refrained from using words like “OCD” or “hoarding” to describe these behaviors, but there’s no doubt that Will’s brain is on the hunt for stimulation and pattern arrangement.
Not that I’m any different. When he holds a shirt up and smooths out all the wrinkles, I’m reminded of how I used to iron my cargo khaki shorts when I was in college (Carrie, thanks again for marrying me). Or when he arranges his books on his bed, I think about how I used to arrange every Hardy Boys novel on my bookshelf alphabetically by title, and even today how I arrange books by author and genre. I admit it – if I come to your house and observe your books haphazardly tossed on a shelf, I secretly judge you. How can you not have a system of organizing your books?
But that’s the thing about William’s room: he knows where everything is. He has a system. I just haven’t been able to decode it yet.
Last month for William’s birthday, we took him to Rosa’s (imagine that). As with many people with sensory disorders, Will only enjoys eating at a select number of restaurants. He wore the birthday cake hat (as is tradition in the Moreland family) and licked his nacho plate clean. Then he scarfed down the family’s bowl of chips and queso, giggling about getting cheese on my pants.
Then we went back to our house to open presents. As he unwrapped them and discovered he had received everything he had asked for – chocolate milk boxes, bags of White Cheddar Cheetos Puffs, M&Ms, and a Buzz Lightyear toy that he promptly broke – Carrie remarked that few other kids would find so much joy in simple pleasures. But what brought him the most joy, I think, was after the presents were opened. He carefully stacked all his gifts in an empty cardboard box, like it was a Tetris game, and scurried off to his room. He had work to do.
In Ephesians 2, Paul describes the work of Christ in uniting Jews and Gentiles, making “the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” in the church (Ephesians 2:15). He accomplished this through Christ’s death on the cross, which abolished the enmity that resulted from sinful disobedience to God’s Law. The cross, which vertically represents the peace God made with humanity, also horizontally works to “reconcile [Jews and Gentiles] both in one body to God” (2:16). As we find our place in “God’s household” (2:19), we discover we have not only a loving Father but also brothers and sisters in Christ. No longer are Gentiles strangers and aliens, but are “fellow citizens with the saints” (2:19).
Paul then uses a metaphor to describe the church: it is the Temple, the “dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Not an actual building, mind you, but the people: the church is the “whole building” which is founded on the prophets and apostles, resting ultimately on the cornerstone of Christ Himself. But Paul, not content to let us think that we ourselves are responsible for building the church, observes that the building is “being fitted together” (2:21). The phrase is in passive voice, as it is used later in Ephesians 4, this time to describe how the church is the body of Christ and individuals within it are “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part” (4:16).
The Greek word for “fitted” is συναρμολογέω (sunarmologeó), which from what I read is formed by combining the word for joint (ἁρμῶν – harmos) and the word for saying something (λέγω), which is transliterated legó. Ah yes, Legos, another of my childhood obsessions. I knew where every Lego block belonged in the sprawling city laid out across my bedroom floor. No doubt my parents looked at my room and saw what I see now in Will’s room: a mess. But the endless hours of connecting Lego blocks as a kid prepared me for the Legós work I do today, arranging words and ideas. What did Anne Lamott say? Writing, at the end of the day, is just putting “one damn word after another.”
Some days, though, the words don’t come. Some days, the pieces don’t want to connect. And some days, my world is just plain old scrambled eggs. As I write this, Samuel is burning off energy by doing donkey kicks and handstands in front of me, while William stands at the top of the stairs, wearing a bicycle helmet, tossing down Cheetos to the dog while laughing maniacally. If you think I’ve got life figured out, well I don’t. I still cringe when I read 1 Timothy 3:5: “If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?”
And yet, in times like these, I find great comfort in knowing that not only have I been saved by the grace of Christ, but even my good deeds have already been “prepared beforehand” for me (Ephesians 2:10). I am not the creator of my life: I am the workmanship, the art, the materials. And the Master, the Artist, the Carpenter is fitting me together with William, and with Carrie and Sam, and with you, into a holy temple in the Lord.
“Expectancy […] is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple. Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The Master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you are in the Master’s company.” – Rowan Williams, Being Disciples
Last week, after the shootings in Odessa that left several West Texans dead and many more injured, I anxiously stood in front of my students. Some of them had family and friends who had been shot, and they looked to me for wisdom and comfort.
But to my great frustration, I found myself mumbling a few trite phrases about how “we’ll get through this together,” and that was it. As a writer, nothing is worse than running on an empty tank. People expect you to have the right words, or at least some words, but I had nothing to give. The best I could do was ask people if they were okay, and then listen to their stories, which were heartbreaking.
Donald Murray once wrote, “I am never bored, because I am constantly observing my world, catching, out of the corner of my eye, the revealing detail” (Reading about Writing 76). That’s me: I’m always on the clock as a writer, looking for patterns and “the revealing detail” that cracks open the puzzle box and reveal the Master’s craftsmanship, the “fitting,” if you will.
Walking to my car after a meeting this week, I passed by some chalk art that folks had drawn in the university courtyard during a “community healing ceremony” after the shooting. Among a hundred or so messages, I focused on one that said, “What was meant for evil, God will turn it for the good.” It was a paraphrase of Genesis 50:20, a verse we treasure in our family.
But it occurred to me as I read it that those who were victimized by the shooting may have a hard time believing that. It might even come across as offensive. Yet I believe every word of that message. What was meant for evil, God will turn it for the good…in His time. The fitting will be done. We just have to wait patiently and expectantly for the Master to finish His work, which is often done in secret.
Later that afternoon I went to pick up Will from school. As I waited in the car line, I whispered the prayer I always say at 3:30: “I hope he had a good day, Lord. I hope he didn’t hit any of his teachers or friends. I hope he worked hard and learned something.” As I pulled to the curb, Will’s teacher accompanied him out. “Oh no,” I muttered. I flash-backed to the time one of Will’s teachers came out holding an icepack to her mouth because he had headbutted her.
Instead, she opened the door and informed me that she had been feeling dizzy earlier, and William had come behind her desk and hugged her, asking if she was okay. She looked at Will and said, “You knew I wasn’t feeling well, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Will said, beaming with pride.
“Anyway, he had an awesome day, Dad,” she said as she shut the door.
“Yes Daddy! Awesome day!” he exclaimed with a dimpled grin.
Then Will did what he always does. He rolled down his window, and began telling everyone goodbye. Several teachers – the pre-K teacher, the vocational leaders, even the Head of School – came out and waved back, as if they had been waiting for this moment all day. “Bye, Will!” they shouted with smiling faces.
“Bye, everyone! Have awesome day!”
In a week filled with tragedy and chaos, leave it to a school full of people with developmental disorders to show us how to put our lives back together. What had previously been a trite statement now was transformed into something profoundly true: we will get through this together by doing the simple things, the rote things, the everyday things, with all the love you can muster in your heart. Smile and wave at people. Look them in the eye. Pray for them. Hug them when they’re feeling down. Tell them to have an awesome day. Those are the good works prepared for us in times like this.
“For a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances” when it comes to relationships, C.S. Lewis once wrote: “A secret master of ceremonies has been at work.” Just as Christ chooses us for Himself, He also chooses us for each other. Our relationships are “not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. [They are] the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”
Yes, that’s what William does for me. He reminds me that the light will one day burst through. He teaches me that underneath chaos lies a deeper order. He reveals that a secret Master of Ceremonies, the Carpenter, is at work, fitting and holding everything together, and He’s making something beautiful and holy: us.
I thought about stopping the car to thank God for my son, but Will interrupted, “Dad, turn it on!” Oops, I didn’t have the song queued up. I hastily plugged in my phone to the stereo, and it wasn’t long before I heard him singing:
If I can make it there,
I can make it anywhere,
It’s up to you,
New York, New York.
The tears welled up in my eyes. I sang along at the top of my lungs, and we made our way home down old, familiar roads.