erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Picture created by Steve Hankins

Teachers—especially this one—like to have control.

We have seating charts to control where students sit, lesson plans to control what they do, and disciplinary procedures to control how they behave.  Good classrooms are all about teacher control, and if they’re really good, nobody notices.

Control may be fine, even necessary in the classroom.  But not so much in life.  Like a hairy monster climbing out of its cave, that ugly piece of me can find its way out of my classroom and make a horrible mess of how I relate to people.

Consider, for example, an evening with my parents.

They made birthday dinner reservations for my wife at one of the oldest hotels in Colorado—the Cliff House.  We couldn’t wait.  And the anticipation was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t really talked with my parents for weeks.

Arriving late, we creaked our way up the steps of the 150-year-old front porch.  Mom and Dad were already seated in the dining room, but instead of looking over the menu or having a conversation with each other, someone was talking to them.  He stood over them wearing his cowboy hat, looking a little too informal to be a waiter.

“This is my daughter-in-law, Deb,” Mom said with a huge smile on her face.  “And this is Joy our granddaughter.”  The gentleman shook our hands, one by one.  “And here’s our son, Erin.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, smiling and throwing my jacket over the back of my chair.

“This is Gary.  He’s from Rifle!” Mom was excited because so much of our family’s history is there.

“And he just played guitar for Steve Taylor,” she added.

We all gave polite “Wows”.

Dad came over to our side of the table, giving each of us hugs, but not Mom.  She was trapped.  Gary stood between her and the rest of us, still hovering over her.

“This is the road I was talking about just outside Rifle,” he said, pointing at his phone.  Mom looked, and then he started scrolling for more pictures.

Getting a reprieve as he scrolled, Mom smiled.

“Good to see you guys.”

“You too Mom,” I said.

The waitress arrived to take drink order, and still, Gary continued scrolling.

What is his deal? I thought.  The control monster inside me was starting to wake up.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I just can’t find the picture I wanted to show you.”  He kept scrolling as the waitress passed out our menus.

No way this is happening!  I shouted in my mind, anger rising inside me.

The waitress went over the menu options and asked if we had questions.  My dad asked about the special.

“Oh, here it is!” Gary shouted triumphantly.  We all looked up at him as he leaned over my mom.  He put his phone in front of her with another picture of Rifle.  “I’m a rock-climber,” he said, “and I got this from the top of one of my climbs.”

I started practicing how I’d tell him to leave. . .

It was very nice meeting you, but we’re trying to have some family time here.

Or better yet. . .

Hey buddy, what planet are you from?  Pick up on the social cues!

But Mom wasn’t giving any social cues.  Instead of trying to get him to leave, she leaned in and commented on the pictures, asking questions about the details of his life, laughing at his jokes.

“I’m sorry to keep all of you,” he finally said.  “I deal with some autism, so it’s hard to know when to stop.”

The minute he mentioned autism, all my frustration, all my desire to control and get rid of this “interruption” stopped roaring and slinked back into the dark cave of my heart.

He laughed a little, and we laughed with him.

“That’s okay, Gary,” my mom said, the cheerfulness in her voice crushing any lingering awkwardness.  “We’re all celebrating Deb’s birthday tonight.”

“Well, happy birthday,” he said, nodding at Deb.

She gave a gracious “thank you,” and then he asked a question.

“Do you mind if I get my guitar later and serenade you all with a song?”

We all hollered our approval, and he left.

I breathed a little easier.  The conversation, the storytelling, the good food all came just like I’d hoped.  For the next hour, the evening was finally under control.

Then, just after I’d taken my first bites of trout, Gary was at our table again.  But this time, he was holding one of the fanciest black guitars I’d ever seen.  It looked like an instrument from the Star Wars cantina.

“If it’s alright with you, I’d like to sing a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.”  He nodded at Deb and then lifted his guitar close to his chest.

“I can’t play this without the most important lyric of all,” he said, charmingly.  “Remind me of your name.”

“Deb,” she said.

Then he started playing, picking strings, changing chords, and singing with pure, unadulterated joy.  He was like a kid swinging on a swing set, pumping his legs to take him higher and higher.

And he took all of us with him, getting us caught up in the moment.  People turned in their seats to catch the show, to watch us sing along and smile at Deb.  When he finished, the restaurant exploded with applause.

“You all have a good night,” he shouted.

“Thank you, Gary!” my mom said, waking us from our wonder.

Watching him walk away, with the applause and magic still lingering, I looked at Gary’s “interruption” with new eyes.

I wasn’t in control, and I was grateful.

In my classroom, kids coming in late or announcements on the intercom are the festering thorns, waking the control monster inside me.  But here’s some truth—I’ll never be in control.  That’s God’s job.  And there’s freedom in knowing that.

I want to be more like my mom. She knows interruptions are moments that the Author, for whatever reason, has written into our story, so she receives them gratefully.  She finds beauty in them and smiles.  Maybe someday I’ll get there. And rather than grumble when the Garys of the world come to my table, I’ll let go, offer them a seat and enjoy.

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