A friend messaged me yesterday morning and asked if we–that is, the two of you and I–had been outside playing in the snow at all yet.
Because yesterday we woke up to a wet and wintry white mix of snow and slush on the ground.
At the very moment I was listening to her message, I was standing PJ-clad in the dining room with a cup of tea and a candle lit on the table and my fuzzy slippers on my feet.
Definitely not playing in the snow.
Definitely didn’t have any plans to.
The two of you, however, were already outside. Bundled up and squeezed into last year’s snow gear–I’m really hoping we can make it through another year–you were already tromping around the yard, eating snow, you told me later. You managed to make a snowman, tried to climb the new ladder your dad nailed to a tree in the yard, repeatedly went down the slide, and made “chocolate” slush.
I dutifully made you hot cocoa when you came in from playing, literally wet through all of your layers of clothing.
This morning, again we woke to snow, and this morning, again, you went outside to enjoy it before piano lessons. And this morning, again, I stayed inside.
This, girls, is what I want to say: I am so glad I don’t have to pretend to enjoy playing in the snow anymore.
I’m so glad you are old enough to be outside by yourselves and entertain one another.
I’m so glad you have each other.
But mostly I’m glad I get to stay inside.
I don’t even mind that you still need some assistance in the bundling up and the un-bundling when you come inside. (If your boots weren’t too tight, I think you could probably manage that on your own, but it requires sheer force at the moment to get them on and off.)
Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy spending time with you. We spend a lot of time together. A lot. And not just because of the global pandemic. I will make art with you and read aloud to you all the live long day. There are many things I love to do, with you.
But I am not a snow-playing, sledding, snowperson-building mom.
Also, let it be known: I’m not an ocean-playing, sand-castle-building mom.
And while we’re at it: Nor a pool-playing mom.
It’s not like I can’t do those things, of course. I’ve successfully pretended to find joy doing them for many years, for your sake. Sigh.
When your dad’s around, he’s happy to do those things, thanks be to God. But when he’s not around, I’m so glad I can be honest with you now that you’re a wee bit older, and say, you know what, I’d rather not. You go have fun.
And you do.
There’s no huge moral lesson hidden here in this letter, girls. I just wanted it to be said: I’m glad I don’t have to pretend to be the kind of mom I’m not.
Part of me is ready for the new season, the new liturgical year, the cycle to begin again. In a way, I’ve been ready for months, because, well, 2020.
But somehow, paradoxically, I don’t feel quite ready for Ordinary Time to end.
Ordinary Time has helped me to feel grounded this year, after such a lenty Lent and the ongoing uncertainty of the world around us.
As a general rule in a normal year, I love November: that we get to kick it off with remembering and appreciated those who have gone before by honoring All Saints Day, that we get to wrap it up with Christ the King Sunday, remembering the end of The Story and the reason we keep on keeping on. Even better, this year, with Advent sneaking in here on Thanksgiving weekend, the month of November feels extra full and complete.
We also celebrated our family’s fourth Covid-19 birthday this month, which would have seemed unfathomable back in April when we celebrated the first one in quarantine.
And yet here comes Advent.
There is a season for everything.
A week or so ago, yet another friend told me she’d decorated for Christmas, but prefaced her announcement with “I know you don’t approve of this, but….”
It isn’t true I don’t approve of it, I wanted to tell her. I don’t approve of it as part of our family’s tradition, but I’m fine with other families having different traditions.
I’m known among our acquaintances as being someone who cares a lot about the liturgical calendar, and apparently our family’s progressive decorating and holding off on Christmas music and glam in favor of Advent-themed projects stands out in people’s minds. Because it comes up all the time, especially when others sheepishly tell me they’ve already decorated.
A lot of people this year–because the year is so overwhelmingly sucky–have decided that they are going to do more Christmas stuff. More decorations. More gung-ho. Earlier. Bigger. Better. More.
That’s not me. That’s not our family. Because we are more of the Everything-Has-A-Season kind of folks.
But today, the day before Advent begins, today you found a dead bird in the yard. Your dad wasn’t home because he was picking up our friends at the hospital, so I found myself lugging a shovel out of the shed and burying the bird’s body.
As I carried the shovel back to the shed, I thought about death and Advent and new life and the Coronavirus. I thought about what Ordinary Time means right now, what Advent means, and whether it’s a beginning or an ending and how it matters to the Kingdom. I thought about the changes to our family over the next few months and what opening our home and offering hospitality will look like. I thought about community and I thought about our friend’s daughter coming home from the hospital today. I thought about our neighbor pregnant with twins, another friend’s tiny foster baby unable to have visitation with her biological parents because of COVID-19, the difficulty of knowing how to love our literal neighbors and see Jesus in the least of these. I thought about your 97-year-old great-great-grandmother. Today I made a handlettered sign for another pregnant friend; yesterday I opened a card from my other grandmother that had been quite literally sealed with a kiss of lipstick. I also opened up a thank-you note from a friend whose father-in-law died of the coronavirus earlier this year.
I thought about all of these things, about life and death and hope and sadness and vocation and how we live all of them all the time.
No matter the season.
Yep, I got all of that from a shovel and a dead bird the day before Advent begins.
Recently, a friend asked me how my soul was doing these days.
She wasn’t asking about my salvation, of course. She was asking how I was doing, but asking it in such a way that it didn’t mean the generic “How are you?” It was like asking, “How are you really?”
“Meh,” with a shrug.
That was my answer.
It was as honest as I could be.
The truth is, I’ve been tired and cranky and hormonal and anxious and overwhelmed and aimless. Each of those things, at some point and time, on most days. (Yeah, yeah, there is some beauty and grace every day, too, but there are plenty of other letters you can read if you want that message. Not today. Today is the message of “meh.”)
But I was thinking about her question the next day as we drove out to the local farm to pick up our weekly CSA produce. I don’t know why it came to mind, but it did, and I realized I felt a little bit guilty about not really having a good answer about my soul doing Great! Awesome! Spectacular!
And then I started thinking about why I felt guilty or embarrassed or whatever it was.
As a Christian, and especially one raised in the evangelical church, I certainly have an ingrained sense of my “spiritual life” and what that should look like. I’ve honestly often wished I had more of a spiritual life, as in more spiritual and identifiable practices and disciplines I could point to as proving a solid spiritual life.
As if it were a separate thing from the rest of my life.
Now, don’t get me wrong or misread what I’m saying here. Of course, I do think spiritual disciplines are enriching and important. I see our family’s integration of the liturgical calendar as a communal spiritual discipline and practice to live intentionally.
But I do think we get a little confused if we think of those spiritual practices as our spiritual life, you know, as something separate from our nonspiritual life.
Are we having an unspiritual day if we don’t start off with reading our Bibles and prayer?
I think not, girls. And what if I forgot to look for God in the mundane today, does that mean God wasn’t in the mundane? Nope.
I just don’t buy it. When I see metaphor in a poem I read, or a movie I watch, or a question you ask me, that is a signpost of grace to me. A reminder of what is always true.
God is present to this moment. Eternally.
I knew someone who used to ask people what God had been teaching them lately. My mind always scrambled when I knew the question was going to be tossed my direction soon. Because I always felt the whole deer-in-the-headlights feeling of OH CRAP, GOD ISN’T TEACHING ME ANYTHING RIGHT NOW.
(For the record, I pretty much never use the word “crap” out loud.)
But guess what? I don’t actually think that’s true.
It is impossible that God isn’t teaching me anything right now.
Because God is always present to me, girls.
God is always present to you, too. I conclude your nighttime prayer with this every single night: And may you know that you are never alone because God is always with you and God will always love you.
I absolutely believe God is present, even when I’m feeling aimless and anxious and tired and grumpy. “Meh” about sums it up.
But I don’t feel alone. I believe God is right here in this anxiety and exhaustion and grump with me.
In fact, during one bout of insomnia recently, during the wee hours of the morning, I thought to myself, while tossing and turning, “This is when God gives visions.” I don’t know where that thought came from, but I remembered Jacob wrestling with God in the night, and the time when Jacob saw the angels coming up and down the ladder. In the night.
And then right there in my own nighttime anxiety, somehow, I fell back asleep, not necessarily confident that God’s visions are for such a time as this, but aware that they might be.
Due to COVID-19, our state allowed in-person early voting this year, so your dad and I have already voted.
Still, tomorrow is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in an even-numbered year: Election Day here in the United States.
Girls, I know that you already know that voting—in all its manifestations—is important to me. In fact, I think this might be the first year since you’ve been born that I had to show up at the polls without you. Normally we can walk a few blocks from our house to vote, and I’m definitely the mom who knows from experience that a double stroller can’t fit through the doorway of our local precinct’s location. The poll workers, who are often the same year after year, remember us.
Early voting this year is taking place at our public library’s community room, and given how careful we’ve been with masking and social distancing for the last 8 months, it didn’t make sense to take you with me to stand in line. (It was fast-moving, by the way.)
I’ve got a lot on my mind, but let’s talk about voting.
Some of the reasons I vote are pragmatic and logistical, especially on the local level, but most of my reasons are ethical. It’s about conviction, I suppose, a conviction that’s lived out in love, hospitality, and justice.
Pretty much everything for me comes down to love, hospitality, and justice, which surprises nobody who knows me in person and has talked to me for about five minutes.
So, here’s the thing: we vote with our ballots. I’m talking literally here.
We stick our ballots in a machine to get counted, or we drop them off at a ballot box.
And now let’s go metaphorically.
We get to plant that little ballot as a seed.
But that’s not the only way we vote for our convictions, girls. That’s not the only way we plant our seeds.
We vote with our actions when we show up at the polls, yes, but also when we show up with a casserole.
We are voting with our actionsall the time in ordinary ways. When we send letters to shut-ins, take a nondriving friend to run errands even though we had other plans, or pause to answer a six-year-old’s question after question after question. Also when we drop cookies off at our neighbors’ houses or turn off the lawn-mower to be a better listener.
We also get to vote with our purchases: second-hand, low-waste, organic, fair-trade, bulk, local.
Too, we vote with our wallets when we give away money—and then give a little more—rather than sock money away into savings accounts and retirement accounts.
We vote with our voices when we speak truth to power.
And when we go first in saying that things are hard right now.
And when we say hello to a homeless person and address her by name. And when we not only bless the food in front of us but pray for the people who have grown our food, worked in the factories and on the farms, driven delivery trucks and stocked the grocery store shelves.
We vote every day with the way we live our lives.
Every single day.
I guess it’s because of all of these things, all of these ways I see myself “voting” and teaching you “to vote” in our normal, everyday lived experiences of small decisions making big difference in the world around us, that I have been completely taken with the ASL sign for voting.
GET THIS: It’s the same as the sign for planting.
To vote = to plant.
We’re taking a sign language class on Thursday nights this fall—socially distanced and masked, of course—and last week we focused on election and government signs. We learned the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, and even my non-Pledge-loving self am moved by the actions of signing it.
But the first sign we learned on Thursday night was “to vote.”
And it’s the same as a sign we learned back when we learned signs for the environment. You hold your left fist up in front of you, and then you pretend you are holding a tiny seed between your thumb and index finger of your right hand, and you take that little seed and shove it into the dirt of your left hand. You plant your little seed into the hidden palm of your left fist.
You plant your seed like you plant your ballot like you vote with every small action in your life, girls.
It’s in the dark, unseen, often unnoticed.
Also, here’s the rub: it’s not about you. None of it.
Voting is not about you or about me.
This is important.
When I’m planting my vote in the ballot or when I’m planting my vote in the world, I’m not thinking about me, girls. It can’t be about me, or nothing’s going to grow.
And to some degree, I’m not even thinking about you, specifically.
I am voting for future generations generally, and especially for those we know as “the least of these.”
I am voting for our neighbors. I’m voting for the kids struggling to learn to sound out their letters in elementary classrooms, for the more than ten thousand children currently in the Kentucky foster care system, the one in seven food insecure children right here in my own county. I’m voting for the homeless person without a permanent address, the person without health insurance, the shut-ins with flickering screens communicating fear. I am voting for the prisoner longing for her family and for the prisoner who has already served her time but can’t get a job.
I am voting for those who are overwhelmed with confusion and anxiety. The single parents. The grandparents. Those who’ve lost jobs. Those who are working two jobs but can’t make ends meet.
And I am remembering that each of these people are real, beautiful human beings who have as equal of a right to safety and security and love and happiness as I do. As you do.
They are as made in the image of God as we are.
And, well, I can only hope that my little seed, my little vote, might make a difference.
Because there’s something I also know from gardening, girls. We always get volunteer plants many years after the seeds have been sown.
I sautéed some fresh-from-the-garden Swiss chard this morning with my eggs for breakfast, and we haven’t planted chard in years.
For more than a decade, your dad has teased me about my compulsive behavior related to rinsing out Ziploc bags. I turn them inside out, rinse them, and then prop them at random places around the sink to let them dry—the faucet, on top of used water bottles, that sort of thing.
I know that single-use plastic is a Big Deal Thing for a lot of people. In fact, I know a some who really believe that their refusal to use single-use plastic will somehow singlehandedly change the world.
I do not believe this.
But I do think it matters.
Maybe it goes without saying that it matters to the environment in some small way, but my rinsing out of the plastic bags in my life time—even if I use a thousand or ten thousand—will not change the number of plastic bags produced in America. If everyone stopped using them? Okay, maybe, but that motivation is not the best reason to do a good deed—doing it on the idea that if everyone else did it too it would then make a difference.
Honestly, I think you’d get really discouraged pretty fast if that’s what you hooked your conviction on. I don’t recommend it.
So, what I mean is, I think the reason washing out my Ziploc bags matters is bigger than that, and yet also smaller than that.
It matters because it changes us and the way we place ourselves in the world and, what’s more, how we relate to the world.
It matters precisely because it is an inconvenient thing to do.
This idea of inconvenience is way bigger than whether I rewash Ziploc bags or you use plastic straws.
(You don’t, by the way. Our children’s minister gave all of you metal straws last year when you did an environmental justice unit at church.)
Just to get the full scope of where I’m coming from, let me just outline our myriad family habits that have developed over the years related to the environment. (There are quite a few.) We don’t use paper napkins or paper towels and instead have piles of cloth napkins and lots of rags to sop up spills. We recycle what we can—plastic, metal, and corrugated cardboard–locally, which isn’t curbside, for the record, and requires a lot of basement storage and driving to the recycling center. Every few months we remember to drive our accumulated glass to the next city over in order to recycle it. We save newspaper and small yogurt cups for painting projects. You have a large box in the homeschool room where we save the items you want for “trash art”: plastic and metal lids, small trinkets, old ribbon, twisty-ties, you name it. We compost. We rarely have a full trash can on trash day. We accept hand-me-downs. We give hand-me-downs.
What I mean is, we try to live simply and do our part.
But even though we do all of these things, and have been doing all of these things for some time, and these practices are woven into the fabric of who we are as a family living in our community,it’s not like I actually want to do these things much of the time.
It’s not like they’re the easy thing to choose at any given moment. Even for me. Let’s be real.
Of course I would prefer not to have overflowing cardboard and plastic bags and three trash cans full of glass recyclables and a constantly half-full bin of “to donate” stuff in our basement and laundry room.
Of course I would prefer not to walk stinky compost out to the bin when my flipflops are going to get covered in dewy grass clippings.
Of course I would prefer to throw away, buy new, pay someone else to do XYZ. The list goes on and on and on.
Of course I would prefer to do the easy thing. Because I am a human being.
Because the easy thing is easy.
But the easy thing is about me, and you know what I see when I read the Gospel? That the Kingdom of God isn’t about me.
Are you thinking that was a great big leap of logic? Let me back up a minute.
Am I really saying that composting is about the Kingdom of God? I think I could probably argue for this on many levels, because I have actually written a handful of poems about the sacramental process that is composting, but what I’m trying to draw out here is both more than that miraculous mystery—and less than the mystery. (So many things are both more and less when we are talking about the Kingdom.)
But my connection today is simple: composting is a small and concrete task that makes me think not of myself but of others and the world that God created and called good.
Is rinsing out my plastic bags about the Kingdom of God? Or using your old cloth diapers as rags to wipe up the kitchen floor? Or any of the other annoying, less-than-convenient things we do? Are they really about the Kingdom? Yes! They are all small and concrete tasks that can remind me of my own preference for an easier option and also the privilege I have to make the choice to do something easier or harder. So many others don’t have that choice, girls. And that’s another part of this.
I could go on and on. Trust me, on some days, I do.
But this idea of choosing the inconvenient thing? It’s important.
Life would pretty much always be easier to not do the inconvenient thing. The hard thing. The awkward thing. Always, girls.
I’ve been feeling this with so many topics lately.
It would be easier to go-with-the-flow and not say “that isn’t true” when others I’m around say things that aren’t true.
It would be easier to just give up on the American church that often preaches prosperity and security more often than Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.
It would be easier not to be consistent with social distancing and mask-wearing, easier to let life go back to “normal.”
It would be easier not to wrestle with my own internalized racism and not work through challenging books. It would be easier not to try to talk with you about racial privilege and what it would be like to be nonwhite in this world.
But the Kingdom of God is not the easy option.
And that, well, that’s all I can manage to say about that for today.
Over the last few months of our socially distanced life, we’ve begun a new Sunday morning tradition: family bike rides.
It’s one of the perks of your getting older, to be honest, that we can do things like this. Just after your birthdays, for which you both received new bikes and helmets, baskets, bells, and water bottle holders, we optimistically purchased a four-bike rack that attaches to the hitch of our Outback.
So now, on many Sunday mornings after breakfast, we load up the bikes and head down to a local paved bike trail just south of our little town.
It’s a gorgeous trail: wide and well-paved, hilly but not too rigorous, beautifully winding through the back of ridiculously picturesque farmland. We manage to see quite a bit of flora and fauna as we ride—this last week, there was a turkey ruffling its tail feathers, a hummingbird, grasshoppers, and lots of flowers worth your commentary.
I could write about the solidarity of the trail and the encouraging words we get from the more hardcore biking population, or I could write about the grumpy bikers who reprimand us if we don’t behave according to the unwritten rules of the trail when we park alongside it. But I’m not going to.
What I want to write about is the tortoise.
As in, The Tortoise. The famous one.
You see, usually on these family bike rides, I am fourth in line, riding and encouraging the youngest member of our family. You know who you are. You say we are “bike buddies.” Zooming up ahead is your dad with the Bean. We know they’ll stop at our designated rest points, and we don’t worry about what they’re doing while we bike along, counting the bridges and the painted designs on the path, pointing out every single pokeberry plan that hangs over the fences.
Last Sunday, I heard myself say, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
It’s such a cliché and honestly I find it to be one of the more annoying sayings. Maybe it’s because I am a slow and deliberate person in just about everything I do—running? Definitely slow. Cleaning? Definitely slow. Making decisions? Definitely slow. But I feel resentful about the “wins the race” part of the moral.
Because I’m not slow and careful because there’s a race that is in need of winning and I think this is the best way to win it. I just am a slow and thoughtful person. It’s my superpower. And I’m okay coming in last place. Your dad teases me all the time about my lack of competitiveness.
Anyway, I said it, and since I couldn’t take it back, instead I asked if you remembered what it was from, and then we chatted a little bit about The Tortoise and the Hare and also about Aesop’s fables generally. You really love the fables and have an uncanny ability to recall them.
As we were talking, I remembered an audio version of The Tortoise and the Hare that we listened to a few years ago on a road trip. In that telling, the Hare is antagonizing all of the animals into racing him. He keeps bragging about how impressive his physical prowess was, and his motivation for racing is to prove that he was indeed the fastest in order to achieve broader acclaim.
Basically, the Hare is not just prideful and rude, but he is a great, big jerk.
When the Hare loses, it’s because he is too cocky. His loss actually has nothing to do with the tortoise’s slow and steady pace at all when you think about it. Any competitor would beat him. Because he is too cocky. Because he is a great big jerk.
When we listened to that fable in the car, I remember leaning over and telling you dad that the moral of the story is not at all “slow and steady wins the race.”
To some extent, the moral of the story is more along these lines: don’t be a great big jerk.
But if you really want to focus on the Tortoise, you could say the moral of the story is, keep on keeping on, even when others are great big jerks.
I feel like both of those are much better and more honest messages.
Because, of course, if the Hare hadn’t been cocky, the Tortoise would not have won. No matter how slow and steady he was. No matter how strong of moral character and conviction. He would have lost because the Hare was faster.
But the Tortoise kept going, which is really the best part of the whole thing.
What might be hard for you to imagine is that someone who knew me as a 17-year-old in high school–active in her charismatic mega-churchy youth group–might not recognize me now if they came across these letters or my Instagram account.
In the twenty (gasp! Twenty!) years since I graduated from high school, I’ve changed a lot.Everyone does, of course.
In the essentials, I can easily see how I am the same. But a lot has certainly changed.
Even things I wouldn’t have expected to–spiritual things like how I express my faith and understand the Kingdom of God, as well as life-choice things and priorities–have changed.
Trust me, I never could have expected to be a homeschooling mom. Not. At. All.
But yeah, things change, and I love that it still surprises me sometimes.
For example, as an adult, I have come to love the old hymns. Your dad grew up singing them, and though I was certainly exposed to a lot of them in childhood (and I come from a harmony-singing family), I wouldn’t have really considered myself a hymn singer twenty years ago.
Or at least, twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have considered hymn-singing “real” worship. Because let’s face it, hymns didn’t feel “alive” to me as a teenager, due to my very limited conception of what an active and alive faith looked like.
You, on the other hand, only know a worship that involves hymns. And we sing hymns a lot in our home. (We sing a lot of all kinds of music in our home.)
I really am going somewhere with this, I promise.
For some reason, I decided to be more intentional about teaching you hymns this school year as a supplemental and fun thing to do together. This week, we’re working through our second Fanny Crosby hymn of the year. We started with To God Be the Glory, and now we’re on the second verse of Blessed Assurance. We often sing the hymns we are learning as prayers at meals to practice them, and we work through them slowly, adding each verse and talking through the theology that it expresses. We define old, rich words and discuss their implications and metaphors (and yes, also talk about gendered views of God—you know the sorts of things I can be preachy about).
Two things have surprised me about this practice so far:
First, somehow, even knowing that I was going to explain them to you word by word and line by line, I didn’t anticipate this part of our day being such a theology lesson for you: atonement theories, salvation for the “vilest offender,” perfect submission, what mercy is, or, oh, hey, look, those three metaphors in a row add up to the Trinity! (I do love talking about the Trinity.)
I myself am learning to see more in these hymns I have long known, even in the familiar ones, than I expected to, and, here’s the other thing, I’m carrying their metaphors with me.
When Fanny Crosby writes about visions of angels descending from heaven and bringing with them “echoes of mercy, whispers of love” from above, I get to tuck that away and wonder about it. I get to, and I do.
Because I might not be literally seeing angels around me, or having a divine visions of God, but certainly there are ways I can hear echoes of mercy if I listen for them, even in these monotonous and ordinary days that seem to drag on and on.
Certainly those whispers of love are audible even here, even in this time of divisive political rhetoric, news stories of racial injustice and trauma, more and more people dying from a global pandemic.
Let me be honest, girls: I’m not doing a great job at hearing them right now, the echoes or the whispers.
These days, I’ve been feeling distracted or unsettled or heavy laden or all of the above. It seems that somebody I love is always hurting. It comes through on my text threads. Every day.
Honestly, the whole entire world seems to be hurting. And the lack of empathy for others’ stories is sending my highly sensitive soul into a tailspin. Some days.
And, some days, it’s not nearly so dramatic. In fact, most days there is just too much plain old ordinary repetitive life drowning out the echoes of mercy and whispers of love.
But I know they’re there, girls.
I know it. Even when I’m struggling to hear it.
So, I guess what I mean is, if I can help tune your ears to hear it someday, I’ll consider that a win.
And if you also love to sing the old hymns, well, that’s even better. I’ll sing along.
And just like that, over three months have gone by since I wrote my last letter, and nearly five months since we started living a strict socially distanced life.
I would say that amount of time passing without me realizing it is surprising, but I gather this is pretty normal for COVID life, girls.
In our normal pre-COVID life, we had so many markers for keeping track of our days, weeks, seasons. But that is not now.
Now life is daily.
That’s the best way to describe it. (Right now at least. Today. Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow.)
Some days feel long and relentless and exhausting, and some days feel short and I blink and they’re over. And sometimes it turns out that every day is apparently two weeks at the rate that we are flying through summer.
I mean, does it even still count as “summer” if we started our new homeschool year in the middle of July week? I’m not sure, and I don’t really care.
March, April, May, June, July, and now here we are in mid-August.
There are many things I thought I would be able to do at the beginning of quarantine that I haven’t done (finished my novel draft, for example, or written more of these letters).
And there are many things we have done during quarantine that have surprised me (the giant pool in the backyard, for example: we are not pool people; the herringbone brick patio I now can’t imagine our yard without).
And the truth is, there are many things that have remained completely normal about this summer: a huge box of peaches from The Peach Truck, five boxes of 25 pounds of tomatoes processed into marinara sauce, a weekly CSA of veggies and fruits from a local farm, reading and reading and reading, being outside and biking around the neighborhood, mowing the grass every week until that magic moment it gets so dry it stops growing, you two practicing your piano every day.
Some days we have followed a plan for the day. And sometimes we do not. Yesterday, before breakfast, you wanted to play outside, and it wasn’t hot yet, so I said yes. Actually, I said, go get dressed, I’ll bug-spray you, you can play outside all morning, and then we’ll come in and shower and have a half day of homeschool in the afternoon.
(One of my flexibility improvisations this school year, with that mid-July start, is allowing half days of school in our schedule as necessary.)
The truth is, one day at a time is about all I can manage, doing the task in front of me, being attentive to you and your questions, circling our conversations naturally back through difficult and imperative conversations about love, community, racism, justice, poverty, courage.
Some days you are fearful. Some days you are brave.
Sometimes I am too. Both on the same day, even.
And we keep on.
Recently I heard someone say that the truth is, we don’t know where we are in the progression of this pandemic. Are we still at the beginning? Are we in the middle? Are we near the end?
The experts don’t know, and we don’t know either.
There are days I am hopeful. Other days I am incredibly frustrated at the lack of care I see around me.
But most days, the days I spend with you, right here in our house, our yard, our pop-up pool, I’m grateful.
I soak in Vitamin D and your questions. We ride around the block and chant Shakespeare in iambic pentameter. We pay attention to butterflies and caterpillars and the heron that we’ve seen land on our neighbor’s house every few weeks this summer.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that in those things, I recognize grace.
During this strange season of quarantine, lots of folks are touting all the amazing things that they (or I) should be (and are) doing with their (my) time. As if this pandemic is a chance to start new things, finish old projects, be reflective, get stuff done, be uber productive. Take advantage of all the time you have at home! Marie Kondo those spaces in your life that are cluttered! Do that thing you have always wanted to do! Learn a new skill!
But recently I’ve been reading a lot of the opposite message, too. Lots of folks are going out of their way on social media to say, “Chill out, people, you don’t have to do anything with your time except get through this.”
Girls, can I be real?
I’m kind of resentful of both views, to be honest, and I’m as tired of other people telling me what I should be doing as I am of those giving me permission to not do anything.
Because, y’all, I have gotten a lot of things done. And I am feeling pretty productive and happy and peaceful a lot of days as I manage to check off items from my to-do list.
Because we don’t have commitments every weekend as usual, we have managed to deep clean, organize, and totally simplify both of the bedrooms upstairs, and your dad built an amazing inset bookshelf at the top of the steps. (Both of those things have been major mental-health improvements as well as physical space improvements.)
Last weekend, we finally got around to moving the raised beds along the fence, and digging up the iris and daffodil bulbs that have been growing up every year along our fenceline and in the corner of our yard since we had the fence installed—five years ago. Yes, five years ago, we said we were going to move the daffodil bulbs, and this year, thanks to Covid-19, we finally did.
So I’m kind of resentful that there are so many people telling me to chill out and stop making everyone else feel guilty about what they aren’t getting done.
Because though I’m not making anyone else feel guilty, now I am personally feeling guilty for doing something at all, as if there’s something wrong with trying to do something with my time, even though I haven’t been talking about it publicly. Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but I feel equally uncomfortable with others telling me to chill out as I am with folks telling me to do more.
Because even though I am being productivesome of the time, the truth is, it took me seven weeks of quarantine to finally dig out my novel and start working on it again. Reading novels I excel at—I’ve read quite a few in the last two months—but doing the hard work of committing to a novel-length writing project? Oy. It’s been hard. Many things have been hard.
And obviously I haven’t exactly been cranking out letters to you, though I did manage to write a letter to the littlest on her birthday last week in the private journal I keep for each of you. (Granted, I hadn’t written once since January of 2019, but I considered it a win that I wrote one at all.)
Girls, here’s the truth: I consider it all a win, whatever I manage to do on any given day.
And the things I don’t manage to do? Well, I just let them go.
Because some days I don’t do much.
Some days it really is too overwhelming. Just homeschooling you is enough. And some days that “homeschooling” turns into phonics games and bike rides and Spanish memory flashcards.
I guess what I want to say is this:
Whatever you do, whatever season you’re in, that is enough.
Please don’t feel guilty about being productive and busy.
And please don’t feel guilty about doing nothing but getting through the day.
Still, I feel like it always needs to be said: don’t let yourself off the hook either. Don’t lower your standards and expectations, just be flexible. Every day is a new day.
Simply put: be discerning.
Be discerning in what you can and can’t do. Let some of it go. Make an attempt at something else. Maybe the something else is just deleting over seven thousand photos off your phone and iPad in one morning—clearing your devices up to clear your mind up. That would have been me this morning and I feel like it was a monumental accomplishment.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Some days for me, paying bills is enough. And other days for me, I rock the to-do list and get a bazillion things done and plan for a gajillion more.
It varies day to day.
There is no should. There is no guilt. It just is life.
We are getting through this, and wherever you are, whenever you are reading this, you will get through it, too.
This afternoon is rainy, and we are all upstairs in my room. One of you is reading on my bed, probably a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book; the other is here beside me at my counter-height art table challenging herself with the slide puzzle on my phone.
Being allowed to use my phone for anything is a novelty, but her desire to challenge herself is not. I love this about both of you, the arbitrary challenges you set for yourselves just to see if you can do it. I’ll be honest, you probably don’t get this from me.
We are living through a season unlike any other in recent decades, this worldwide pandemic keeping us at home, forcing us to maintain distance when near friends and to get familiar with seeing folks in masks out in public.
One of the reasons I like writing letters to you is that I always try to imagine you reading them, try to imagine what the world will be like in that time: the world as a whole but also your own world and how you are experiencing it.
When you read this letter, for example, I don’t know how old you’ll be or where you’ll be living or what you’ll be doing, but I do know this: the world will not look like it does now.
I find that encouraging.
Whenever I can’t see the end of something or am worried about how it will turn out, I think of you, as an adult, discovering my writing and knowing that whatever event I’m writing about is solidly in the past. Because life does go on. Some things change. Some thing stay the same. But it keeps going on, even though I can’t, with my limited vision, begin to predict how it might turn out.
I did this a lot before and after the election of 2016.
And I am doing it a lot now.
Our life is gentle and slow these days. You two are easy to have at home, and I am grateful that prior to March of 2020, we had an established rhythm and expectation of days ordered by peace. The things that often added busyness to our days and weeks—namely, obligations outside our home—have been released for us into the nether.
And the truth is, it doesn’t make me too sad to lose some of those things.
Now don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of things making me sad these days. I feel the burden of the world’s brokenness more than I ever have. I am worried for the least of these in particular, those experiencing job loss, health instability, loneliness. I am worried for children in physically unsafe and food insecure homes right here in my community. I am worried for our legislators and worry that they are out of touch with average Americans, because I am so radically aware of how out of touch I am with the suffering of so many here in my own town, on my own street.
We have been fortunate during this season; though life looks different for us, at this point our biggest worries have not been life and death worries. They have been minor inconveniences.
And yet the world as a whole is groaning in pain right now in this season, girls, and it is easy to get overwhelmed.
But it is also easy to look for the helpers. There are so many helpers. So many people coming up with pragmatic and creative ways to offer hope to the world. So many people showing up when showing up is called for, even if they’re wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. So many reminders to reach out and love and encourage even if and even when and even so.
I am trying my best, girls, to offer hope. I am trying to live in the present, not in the what-ifs and what-mights and fear-mongering that has become commonplace.
But when I do start to wonder and wander into the future, this summer, next school year, the longer-term down-the-road questions of job security and economic downturns—when I get to that point, I look at you, and I take a deep breath.
Because I know someday you’ll be reading this letter, and I know this season will be part of history.
I anticipate it will be a significant moment on our historical timeline, a turning point for a lot of things, and that life globally will look different post-2020. But the truth is, even in that I may be wrong. Though I do know that for many people, family and home life will not be the same because this season has been drastically marked by loss and grief and heartache.
Still, I like to think about you as a grown-up, remembering this season. The afternoons up in my room. The new bicycles for your birthdays. The dozens of books you’ve read over the last few weeks. The birthday videos I asked friends and family to record for you.
I hope you’ll remember, even as the history books catalog the losses and tragedies and you learn about the wider scope of the pandemic and its aftershocks in coming years.
I hope you’ll remember.
And I hope you’ll mention this letter to me someday, asking what I remember, so we can compare what I have to say then with what I am writing today, this rainy Wednesday at the end of April, in the midst of Covid-19.