The Hundred-and-Twelfth Letter: A New (Home)School Year

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Dear Daughters,

We started school this week, so I guess this is the requisite back-to-school post.

I knew this year would have a different feel to it since both of you are home every day and officially “in school.” The past two years, the Goose has always been at preschool two or three days each week, but now she’s in Kindergarten, and the Bean is in second grade.

I realize it’s only been two years since I led a child through Kindergarten curriculum, but apparently I’d managed to forget just how hands-on it can be. Still, we’re making progress each day with figuring out how our schedule will (or won’t!) work. All I can say is, I assume parents who homeschool a half-dozen kids at home are significantly more organized than I am.

I spent a lot more time planning this year, knowing that homeschooling two would be considerably different than homeschooling one child, especially when the first child was an independent and focused child like the Bean. This summer, I worked on a daily, subject-by-subject schedule, printed off our state’s academic standards by subject for each grade, and wrote a report about what we accomplished during our last school year, organized by subject and addressing the surpassed academic standards.

I’ve even read a few books about classical education to get my mind kickstarted, and let me tell you, I would never have imagined spending my free time reading philosophy of education texts would be something I would choose to do.

I also spent time this summer considering what I want our homeschool goals to be—not according to academic achievements or tasks I want you to be able to accomplish, but rather related to the larger, grander life pursuits I want you to reach for, and of course the habits we need to cultivate to get there. So I thought I’d include that here, in this letter, so that years from now, that doesn’t get lost in the abyss of school files.

But first, this week:

It’s been tiring, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised I’ve ended up with a summer cold.

Our days felt long, and each afternoon, I needed to hear the nudge I felt: whatever you do is enough.

Just because we don’t check off every box, every day, doesn’t mean we aren’t rocking this thing called homeschool. What it more likely means is that I have too many boxes on our to-do list. (I should probably apply this principle to my “real,” non-homeschooling life, too.)

This week, in addition to homeschooling, I was also working on an exciting project for a local nonprofit and also spending time brainstorming plans for what an afterschool reading program for public school students might look like this fall. I was also thinking about our church involvements, mowing the grass, sucking on cough drops, and buying school supplies. I was also getting up early to run with our neighbor… or getting up early to not run with my neighbor, like this morning… or not getting up early at all because this cold is kicking my butt. This week I was also checking in with friends and family in far-flung places, and checking in with friends right here in our little town, and making plans to spend time at the library with your new homeschool co-op teacher in order to assuage some of your fears.

I was also evaluating what it is I should be spending my limited time on, but also offering myself a lot of grace.

Because, let’s face it, this week I also lost my temper too many times, wanted to run and hide too many times, and drank too many cups of tea. (Just kidding on that last one.)

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: at some point every day, I want to quit this homeschooling thing. (Of course, at some point every day, I want to quit this motherhood thing, too, but that’s an issue for another day!)

I want to quit, but I don’t. And part of the reason I don’t is because I have not just all the feels but all the conviction: conviction about educational philosophy, conviction about how I want you to spend your days, conviction about cultivating your habits of attention. I love hanging more knowledge on your pegs of learning, making connections between the various subjects we’re studying, and giving a big-picture education.

I want you to work hard and rest well and you yourself see the connections between what you’re reading in books and what you’re seeing in the world.

And yes, I want you to see me juggling a thoughtful life with the tug of Kingdom work always refocusing me. I want you to see how much grace we need to get by, offered to one another and to ourselves. There are so many things I love about homeschooling that are unexpected surprises to me.

I started out with practical reasons to homeschool: because you were an early reader, because I wanted art and music to be central to your curriculum, because the public school schedule doesn’t line up with the college schedule, because we travel to see family and I want a portable education.

But now, it’s all these other things, too.

Girls, do you want to know what it is I hope and dream for you on this homeschooling journey?

These are the goals I typed up this summer and tucked into our daily schedule binder that (I hope) are shaping how we do school this year:

to cultivate

            compassion & empathy

            courage & wisdom

            wonder & curiosity

to love

            God

            one another

            other people

            beauty

            books

            learning

to foster a joy (and proficiency) of reading all things: all subjects, all genres

to nurture an interdisciplinary worldview by making connections between disciplinary knowledge, especially as connected to the “pegs” of our classical curriculum

to incorporate creative expression through music and/or art every day

to develop the ability to converse with others, especially those different from us

to exemplify how Kingdom-work is incorporated into daily life and rhythms

It’s a list of ideals, I guess. But you know what? I’m okay with that.

At the very least, it’s where we’re headed on this homeschooling journey.

Here’s to another year, girlfriends!

Love, 

Your Momma

 

The Hundred-and-Eleventh Letter: The Myth of Neglect

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Dear Daughters,

Earlier this spring, we had a lovely assortment of flowers and plants on our front porch. We had marigolds, ferns, and gerbera daisies, as well as a few others whose names I never got to know.

At first, we had a struggle with a squirrel repeatedly unearthing some of the potted plants. That was finally solved after I dumped hefty amounts of chili powder into the pots, though the cause and effect cannot be scientifically proven. Eventually, the gerbera daisies quit  blooming, though I continued to water them to keep their greens lush. Then, after hosting two rounds of lovely finch eggs in the fern on the north side of the porch, the fern got infested with some sort of mite and had to be disposed of. In recent weeks, the plants began to shrivel, I watered less as we got busy with other projects, the heat got worse, and here we are, with a less-than-welcoming front porch of dried-out plants.

During the recent spate of hot and sunny days, when we had to run errands during the day, I would park the car in the front of the driveway to take advantage of the house’s shade, and so we were using the front door more often than usual. (Normally we park in the back and use the back door.)

Using the front door means I can’t blame the plants’ neglect on my lack of noticing.

Nope, I noticed.

And I decided I was not interested in making time for the outdoor aesthetics of the house that were not absolutely necessary when there was so much work to be done inside the house (the kitchen renovation), inside my head (homeschool planning), and inside my heart (encouraging and loving my people and my community, which I take seriously as Kingdom work).

The plants moved to the bottom of the priority list–actually, right off the priority list–and other things were taking precedence.

Because we are always, girls, always making choices about what is important to us and how we are spending our days.

What I mean is, I could easily make a list of all the things I’ve neglected this summer. Here are five things off the top of my head–

  1. The Garden: Take a step around the corner of the house, for example, and note the knee-high weeds in the garden that barely constitutes a garden.
  2. The Novel: Just last week at reading camp, one of the other volunteers asked me if I was still working on my novel. Gulp
  3. Writing Goals: I had pretty high expectations for what I would be able to do this summer. I have myriad ideas for poems, letters to you here as well as in your individual journals, Instagram posts. 
  4. Photobooks: I am behind in making photobooks. At the very least, I thought I would have by now made the annual school-year-art-project photobooks for both of you.
  5. The Summer Routine: I really thought I would get into a routine to give our summer structure. I did not. And it seems silly to me now that I ever thought this was a possibility.

But am I neglecting these things? That isn’t exactly true. Or at the very least it is misleading to characterize it as neglect.

Most of us use the word neglect (as in, I neglected to do that) as a way to distance ourselves from the action. It’s not exactly saying that we accidentally didn’t do it, but it is usually used to suggest that we didn’t have much choice in the matter. In fact, I would say “neglect” is most often used to say that we were too busy to get around to doing it.

And maybe we were “too busy.” But I’ve written before about the myth of busyness, and that we all have the same amount of time and many of us need to take more responsibility for how we are choosing to spend our time. It’s one of my things.

I feel similarly about neglect. Did I neglect the marigolds in this little pot in the photograph?

All I can say for sure is this: I didn’t make caring for them a priority because I made something else a priority instead.

And if I start labeling things as “items I’ve neglected,” I’m suddenly dealing with the baggage of an unfinished and impossible-to-finish to-do list. It turns the freedom of choice and priorities into guilt and shame. Yes, I know we could all be doing more and being more and squeezing more in. But we shouldn’t be doing that. Squeezing in more. Feeling bad about what we aren’t choosing to do.

No, girls, don’t frame your priorities like that. Don’t catalog the things you’re neglecting. Focus on the things you’re choosing to give precedence during this season. Embrace those things, and let the rest fall away.

Focus on the things you’re called to do. (And stop cataloging what others are or aren’t doing.)

And when in doubt, always choose the Kingdom work of hospitality. That’s one of my soap boxes, too.

Because Kingdom work is, for real, always a priority.

As is going upstairs right now to listen to you put on a homemade puppet show performance of the song “Baby Shark.” You already gave me a handful of pennies to pay my price of admission.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Hundred-and-Tenth Letter: Ordinary, Extraordinary Summer (Part 2)

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Dear Daughters,

I am apparently the type of mom that, after a day of playing outside and getting hot and sweaty, sends you in for showers before dinner, but just after you go inside, I grab a pitchfork and unearth the first round of our potatoes that grew out of the rotten potatoes in the cupboard, and the whole thing is so miraculous, that first revealing of golden globes of grace (look at that alliteration!), that I just can’t resist calling you back outside to see the harvest for yourself, to let you dig right down into the dirt with your own hands, even though when I holler up to you from the back door to come, you tell me you’re already stripped of your dirty clothes and in the shower, so I tell you to put anything on, even clean clothes, I don’t care, because you have got to come pull these potatoes from the ground yourselves.

Yes.

I am apparently that type of mom. Who knew? I surprise even myself sometimes.

I’m told I give off a vibe of being practical and plan-y, but really, what I want to be is full of wonder and spontaneity. 

Yes, what I want to be. I’ve been trying this summer to be more attentive and open to possibility, rather to my plan.

I’m also apparently the type of person to whom an acquaintance from church I don’t know really well says, “You look like someone who likes kale. Do you like kale?”

In fact, I do. And I eat kale. I like giving off the kale-eating, green-smoothy-drinking vibe.

But I am also the sort of person who can only handle finding so many little caterpillars in her bag-full of kale she so graciously receives from this acquaintance, even if she’s drowned a whole bunch of them by washing the kale thoroughly.

So there you have it. I’m not always full of wonder, even if I do find the life cycle of caterpillars fascinating and the lacy holes they are able to make in kale quite lovely.

Yes, I’m working on being attentive this summer. Not always succeeding, of course. There are moments every day when I want to pull my hair out and just throw in the towel on this whole parenting thing (figuratively!), but no more than all parents, I think, and probably less often than a lot of my friends who are counting down the days until the school year starts.

So in an attempt to just be flexible and attentive, I didn’t make a big summer plan, apart from our calendar obligations. I didn’t make a summer bucket list. I didn’t plan all the fun things. I never really got around to making much of a daily routine for us, as good as that looks in other people’s lives on Instagram. Summer just kept speeding on by at full speed.

We went to as many library programs as we could, we had VBS, a week off, then I taught for a week of Faithways Academy, had a week off and a homeschool practicum, then tore out our kitchen the following weekend, then had reading camp for a week, and then had another week off. And here we are, at the end of July.

The kitchen is still in-progress.

But it’s been a summer.

The eldest is reading a mile a minute.

The youngest is complaining that her best friend is reading too much and isn’t playing with her enough.

Early on, I did make a list of a few things I hoped we could do together over the course of summer, ways to be intentionally creative. I called it (on the post-it that marks where the list is in my planner) a “making things list.” Making things. We did a few of those things. Not many. I encouraged you to go ahead and get out your clay and use it all up. (It didn’t work–the eldest still saved a few colors for later.) We made hand sewn pillows. (They were supposed to have buttons on them as well, but you didn’t want buttons.)

I didn’t have you work on your stories I had planned. I didn’t make a photobook of your art projects from last school year. I didn’t plan a schedule for next school year.

We didn’t do any science experiments this summer, which I kind of cheated by calling that “making” things anyway, but we did follow a free art tutorial to draw the Saturn V rocket this week in honor of the anniversary of the moon landing.

We didn’t practice baking and cracking eggs, but we did make hardback junk journals, even though the youngest just wanted to make one out of a paper bag instead with no pages, and she insists on calling it her iPad.

We didn’t learn to knit or crochet, not even arm-knit, which I was pretty sure I could teach you, but we did tie-dye, and your dad even tie-dyed one of his old white shirts, so we can be matchy-matchy if we want.

Our adult schedule shifted a bit this summer too. We had to cancel potlucks because of the kitchen renovation, but I did help with a bereavement meal and look forward to taking food to a friend who just had a baby. We also graciously accepted a meal in the worst of the chaos. And you’ve eaten the majority of your weekday lunches at the summer meals program at our local elementary school.

Apart from the potatoes and some volunteer tomatoes, we didn’t garden at all, which is unusual for us, and the raised beds are covered solid with weeds and grass, and even our little slate patio around the grill is more than ankle-high with weeds, but we do have mint going gangbusters, and until the crazy heatwave a week ago, we had a healthy batch of oregano. I call that a win.

I’ve continued to mow and water my orchids inside, but I let the pots on the front porch shrivel up.

I have not been writing you letters as often as I’ve been getting ideas, but we did have a tame turkey loose in our neighborhood last week and it was hysterical the way it was trying to get into everyone’s front doors.

We still have huge chunks of torn-out green linoleum on the back porch, but you two worked together to make an incredible tent out of kingsized sheets in the guest room while we were working on the kitchen.

And I’m good with all of it. 

All of it.

Every single ordinary, extraordinary thing that did get done and that didn’t get done. That was planned and that was accidental. That made us laugh and that made our hearts heavy. That bloomed and that shriveled.

I’m good with it.

Though I do sort of wish I had written a few more letters because all of this attentiveness has been giving me All the Ideas!

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Ninth Letter: Ordinary, Extraordinary Summer (Part 1)

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Dear Daughters,

Today is a perfect day.

It is not too hot, the tree branches are swaying in the breeze, and the dappled shade in the yard is in constant, gentle motion. I’m sitting on a plastic Adirondack chair squarely in the middle of the yard as I write this. The two of you are playing with a neighbor in the yard, going back and forth between treehouse-restaurant-sand-baking and balancing on the slack line your dad set up before he left for work this morning.

This morning, I got up and met a neighbor outside for a run—okay, not a “run” per se, but a series of jog/walk intervals for thirty minutes. We all had breakfast. Your dad left. The Bean worked on your math workbook while I read some Magic Schoolbus books to the Goose that are due back at the library tomorrow.

We got a little lost enroute to a juggler performance in the low-income part of town, and since you’re oblivious to the adult categories of suburbia and poverty and income distribution, you told me how beautiful the neighborhood was we were circling around and meandering through–beautiful, you said, because it was so green (overgrown, I would have said, unmown grass, shaggy bushes, but beautiful in your eyes).

I ended up pulling out my maps app to get us to the right park, and we enjoyed the free “outreach” program provided by our library.

We got home in time to braid hair and lather up sunscreen, then leave again to meet another neighbor family and their double stroller at the corner to walk down to our local elementary school’s summer meals program for chicken patty day. After lunch, we played on the playground, eventually walked back up the enormous hill for quiet reading time at home, and now here we are, living an ordinary summer afternoon.

Ordinary and extraordinary, I think.

It’s been cool enough to have our house windows open all day without the A/C kicking on. I’ve got a fresh-mint-and-oregano seltzer water in a mason jar beside me, my old paint jeans fraying at the knees, a wrist brace for a tendonitis flare-up after a painting project yesterday, and my feet bare, with just a hint of a flip-flop tanline, enjoying the dancing clover.

Did you know that, girls? That clover dances? There’s so much to see when you look for it.

As my laptop battery runs out, we’ve got a plan for homemade stromboli for dinner, which is basically the same as homemade pizza and we just had that three days ago, but whatevs. I need to move my Adirondack chair a few feet back because the shade has shifted and my jeans are getting toasty, though the breeze its still amazing. Your dad has a meeting tonight, and we’ve already picked a readaloud book for the time he’s away. You’ll need showers for sure after all of this outside-sunscreen-sandy time. Later, we’ll stick a star sticker on a handprint canvas to mark the passing day, a just-started-yesterday tradition we’re working to incorporate into this ordinary, extraordinary season. Your dad will close the day out with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which you’re listening to for the first time.

That’s what the day is, girls.

Today.

It’s not profound in its parts, but it is in the whole, mostly because I’m paying attention, I guess.

I don’t always pay attention. I don’t even know if I do most of the time, but sometimes, sometimes I do. Sometimes I notice.

And sometimes I write it down.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The Hundred-and-Eighth Letter: In the beginning was the Word

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Dear Daughters,

In the beginning was the Word.

In the beginning, God created.

In the beginning, God spoke words.

We have a small canvas in our dining room that your uncle painted about twenty years ago. It kind of looks like a dark cliff with a reddish brownish sky behind it, and there are words painted across the bottom in such a way that they run off the canvas. It looks like this

In the beginnin—
        God cre—

To be honest, it’s not excellent art. Even your uncle would say so. But it fits well up there among the abstract paintings you’ve both painted over the last few years and some of my early handlettered canvases.

I like it because it lets the creative act be in process—perpetually in process. 

Yes, in the beginning, God created.

But in the now, God is still creating.

And CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, points to God’s ‘eternal now’ existence to show that our “today” is as present to God as that first day of creation was/is.

So in the beginning, God created.

And right there with God, was the Word.

And the Word was God.

***

We just wrapped up our second year of homeschooling. The year before that, during our foray into this new season, we learned the first seven verses of John 1 in both English and Latin. I can still say them and sing them. Who knows if you can.

Here are verses 1 through 3:

In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God.
This was with God in the beginning.
All things were made through Him.
And without Him, nothing was made, that was made.

What does it mean that the Word was God? That the Word was with God? That Jesus is the Word?

Because that’s of course how the church has interpreted these verses, that Jesus is the Word of God. And Jesus is God. And the Trinitarian God is eternal, so from before the beginning.

Goodness, it can hurt your head if you let it, trust me.

But what about this idea that Jesus is the Word?

Well, let’s see. Creation is spoken into existence. (Or sung into existence, if you’re reading The Magician’s Nephew.) And Scripture tells us that all things were created through Jesus. Through the Word.

Without Jesus, nothing was made. Without the Word.

Without words.

***

Now, I get that I’m a writer, and a handletterer to boot, so I have a particularly high view of words. Of the written word, the spoken word, the crafted word.

I love words.

And I’ve been thinking about what difference it makes to my own faith journey and to the Christian church as a whole that we attest to Jesus being called the Word of God.

I’m teaching a weeklong class this summer on worship and hand-lettering, and I’ve called it “Worship, Welcome, and the Word.”

I chose that title last fall when I decided on the theme for the class, and back then I wrote up a blurb to explain the theme, but it wasn’t until recently that I really sat down and started thinking through and preparing for our class time discussions.

What does it mean to our worship services that Jesus is the Word, and that the Word was with God from the beginning—that the Word was God?

When we talk about churches we attend, Christians in general—or at least evangelical Christians—tend to talk about preaching and about worship style.  Why do we do that? Why do we choose churches based on this criteria? But that’s what we do. Is the preaching good? we ask. What’s the music like? 

I want to move beyond that. And I think we do that by the middle W in my class title—Welcome. 

Thinking about Jesus as the Word, and thinking about worship through the lens of words, can really open up our discussions of worship and the role it plays in welcoming others into the Kingdom.

We are quick to put Jesus at the center of our services—which is, of course, important!—but we tend to focus on Jesus as the way to heaven, or Jesus as teacher, or Jesus as shepherd, or Jesus as the suffering servant. All good things. All important.

But what about Jesus as the Word?

I’m still working out how this matters, because I have this hunch that it does.

Our worship services are full of words, aren’t they? Preaching and praying and singing and making announcements and reading lots of words from the 

Bible, the Word of God, we call it—it’s a very wordy faith. We hang words on our church banners, print them in our bulletins, and post them on our Facebook pages. Words, words, words.

The Gospel message is more than lowercase w words.

It’s about the power of the Word and how that transforms the power of our words.

The words we use when we talk to one another, yes, within the walls of our church, but even more so when we are outside of the church being The Church. Yes, maybe in those moments and conversations and relationships most of all are when the words we use reflect the Word.

Or should reflect The Word.

Words can welcome.

Words can exclude.

Words can wound.

Words can warm.

Words can draw boundaries and lines in the sand. (Jesus literally drew lines in the sand one time—remember what happened next?)

Words can offer safe spaces for vulnerable conversations, me-too words saying you are welcome here in this space, and yes, I know it is hard.

Girls, I really think words matter. How we write them, how we say them, how we feel them deep inside when we’re struggling to pray. All of this. All the words. And they matter because Jesus is the Word.

The Word now. The Word from the beginning.

This matters.

And when there are no words, there is still The Word.

In the beginning.

Now.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Seventh Letter: May Day Dew, Motherhood, & the Incarnation

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Dear Daughters,

This year, my own momma’s birthday is on Mother’s Day.

But the truth is, I didn’t think much about Mother’s Day or my mom’s birthday this week. You know what I was thinking about this week?

How much my haircut makes me look like my mom. It does. And when I sport a visor or a ball cap? Might as well just call me Bonnie.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and am stunned. Sometimes I hear my laugh and can hear her, and her sisters, and her mom laughing through me. All of the idioms about nuts not falling far from the trees? I’m basically a baby tree.

An acquaintance of mine saw a copy of my first book of letters recently and told me he thought that the dark-haired woman in the photograph on the cover was me. He did a doubletake when he realized it couldn’t be me, given the age of the photograph, and that I must be the little girl in the photograph. That photograph is thirty years old.

The woman in the photograph is my mom, of course. And he couldn’t believe it wasn’t me.

This week, heading into Mother’s Day, I realized I’m the exact age my mom was in that photograph. It’s on the book cover because it hangs in our hallway in a frame, one of the mementos that inspired me to start writing these letters in the first place, wondering about my mom at my age. We did the math last weekend when she was here in town visiting for your birthdays. We were walking home after preschool pickup and a lunch picnic at the park.

The exact age. My age. My mom’s age. Right there in the hallway.

Mom told me last weekend that her grandma—your great-great-grandmother—was freckled and fair-headed and used to say that if you washed your face with the morning dew on May 1, it would lighten your freckles. I love that story for so many reasons, including the fact that I had never heard it before—and of course I Googled it; it’s a folklore-ish custom about May Day dew having magical properties—but I especially love knowing there was a me generations ago in my family tree with freckles just like me, especially as my freckles get darker and heavier every year, and I look more like my mom, as your freckles crawl across your noses, even though I make you wear visors all the time.

You look like me.

Which means you look like her.

*

On Mother’s Day, the truth is, I’m usually feeling conflicted. For one thing, I just don’t care about Mother’s Day as a holiday. Maybe I’m not sentimental enough, I don’t know.

Also, I think it gets much of motherhood wrong. Too much. Mothering is hard and heart-breaking, holy and absurd, mind-numbing and exhausting. To get through it, with grace, we need space to say those things and not feel ashamed that our lived experience is nothing like what we expected this season to be like. (I know, I know, feel those things and say those things in order to make that kind of space, but a lot of women don’t have that freedom or support.)

Let’s put it this way: One Sunday a year for thanks-so-much-you’re-the-best-mom-ever does not do mothering justice.

And don’t even get me started on all the clichés attached to motherhood in our culture, maybe especially in American church culture. We sometimes will try to be more inclusive by wishing Mother’s Day to all of those who are “spiritual” mothers, but let’s be real for a minute. That caveat doesn’t cut it. I’ve written before (and yes, gotten preachy about) our lack of sensitivity on Mother’s Day related to infertility, justice issues, complex family systems, and grief. Girls, you know how sensitive my soul can be. There have been many Mother’s Days when I myself feel weighed down with the pain of this broken world.

What about those mothers whose parental rights have been removed by the state? What about those mothers who are suffering from addiction and abuse but trying their darndest to work out their home plans to get their children back? What about those mothers in refugee camps, separated from their children, or unsure of their children’s survival? Or fleeing unsafe homes, cities, countries—some on foot, unable to feed their children, unable to keep them safe? What about those women who have become mothers through traumatic assaults? What about those in our own community without resources to be advocates for themselves and their children? What about women (and men) who were abused by their mothers? Where do they fit in? What about women who are childless through no choice of their own? Those who have grieved the loss of their children? Who are caring for children in chronic pain, with broken bodies, discouraged spirits? And what about those who are grieving the loss of their mothers while holding their newborn babies? Those waiting on the opposite side of the globe from their soon-to-be-adopted babies for bureaucracies to make the call about their family’s suitability?

The more questions I start asking about Mother’s Day in my heart—no matter how much I love the footprint-butterfly Mother’s Day craft you brought home from preschool—the more questions I have about what it means to be a mother in this world, and the more I feel sadness or at least ambivalence about the holiday as a whole.

*

Girls, it’s not that I’m not full of gratitude on this day.

I’m grateful for my mom, who encourages me and loves me and tells me I’m doing a great job raising you. She’s strong and brave and inspiring, and has great hair to boot.

I’m really grateful for all the moms I’ve got in my life. Seriously, I’ve got an incredible number of strong women who have mentored and loved me through the years, more than I deserve, really. 

You have three more-than-spectacular grandmas, multiple more-than-phenomenal great-grandmas, and a spry 95-year-old great-great-grandmother who writes us snail-mail letters with real stamps. Just look at the loopy penmanship on the birthday cards you’ve received over the last few weeks—a testament to the generational love pouring over you! We’ve also got women in our church who care for us, knowing how far we are from our family, and make sure we feel loved all year long. All year long.

So there are many women and mothers to whom I am indebted, and I hope I do a good job of expressing my gratitude all year long.

But I also hope that I am working to provide a space and cultivate a community that is working to come alongside women who don’t have a support system, who are grieving and broken and feel forgotten among the bouquets of flowers and Hallmark greeting cards that litter our social media feeds and advertisements. I want all women to know they are loved on this day, and their stories and experiences are valid and safe and worthy of attention.

*

Mother’s Day falls during Easter, which means that every year we get to think about motherhood in the context of the Incarnation. One of the beautiful things about the Christian testimony of the Incarnation is that we have a God who knows what it is like to live in a broken world. We have a God who knows what it is like to feel grief at the loss of loved ones, to feel abandoned, to know that life in this world is not the way it was created to be. We have a God who often taught through narrative, turning stories on their heads to show us that we are asking the wrong questions, that we’ve got our priorities wrong, that we’re loving the wrong people, and we are missing out on participating in the Kingdom because we’ve forgotten that Jesus’s face shows up in the least of these.

That’s what the Incarnation teaches us.

That making space for the least of these—listening to them, touching them, inviting them into our homes and our lives—is what living the Gospel is.

So I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe we could use a little more of that Gospel message on Mother’s Day, and maybe we can go ahead and stop wishing women who are perfect strangers, whose stories we don’t know and don’t have a right to, “Happy Mother’s Day” at the grocery store.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Sixth Letter: Fancy Cursive & Plain-Jane Hospitality

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Dear Daughters,

A few weeks ago, I made you a framed poster of the cursive alphabet for our homeschool room. Considering that I am a hand-lettering artist, making such a simple poster ended up taking a lot more deliberate focus than I expected. You know why?

Because I am in the habit of making my own cursive too fancy.

When you were first learning cursive—by which I mean, when you first started imitating the writing that you saw me painting on my canvases—you did it the way of faux calligraphy, like you saw me doing. You thickened your downstrokes. You added flourishes and curly-cues at the end of words. It was adorable, you trying to make your words look like mine. But when we actually started school for Kindergarten, and I wanted to teach you how to practice cursive as part of our handwriting lessons, I had to get you writing regular old plain-Jane cursive.

And it was hard.

For both of us.

It was hard for you because you wanted to make it look fancy. You saw what I was doing and wanted to do it too. (That’s hard for grownups, too, trust me.)

It was hard for me because I could hardly remember how plain cursive looked. It had been a long time since anyone expected me to make my cursive so ordinary, so normal, so everyday.

And so there I was a few weeks ago, writing out the cursive alphabet in pencil, and erasing, and doing a letter again, and erasing, and doing that letter again, simpler this time, sometimes even asking you, “Is this the way your handwriting book has you make a letter ‘W’?” that I found myself feeling the weight of a metaphor.

Girls, it is often during these sorts of tasks, as I lean over a table, eraser in hand or pencil tucked behind my ear, doing something over and over again, that I feel like I figure things out. Call it a nudge of the Holy Spirit, call it the synchronicity of the Universe, call it just the results of thoughtful attention, but I often get my best, deepest thoughts just then, during an ordinary, repetitive task, and often when you are underfoot.

So here it is: the cursive-writing-is-like-hospitality metaphor.

It is hard, in this busy life, to offer ordinary, everyday, plain-Jane hospitality.

It seems to me that when we get in the habit of seeing our homes in terms of picture-perfect Instagram boxes, or when we think HGTV and dinner parties and Fixer-Upper as real-life, or when we simply aren’t living up to our own standards of how much laundry needs to be done or dishes need to be washed or self-care needs to happen because life is so full and we just don’t have time to squeeze in any kind of dinner-planning or invitation-offering or front-door-opening, well, that’s a good sign we have succumbed to the problem of fancy-cursive hospitality.

If our lives are too full to fit in hospitality, it’s because we’re making hospitality too fancy.

And we have forgotten what hospitality is.

It is not a gift given to a certain few.

It is not meal planning and fresh flowers and multiple courses of food.

It is not waiting until the green linoleum is replaced or the yard is neatened up or we finally take the plunge and hire someone to clean our bathrooms for us. It is not waiting until the kids are no longer having quiet time in the afternoons or we have a weekend open where we can actually catch up on XYZ or get to that specialty store to buy that special thing or maybe even just to vacuum the floor. We wait and we want the perfect time and the plan because we like plans and there is so much to do all the time but trust me there has got to be a break here somewhere and then I promise I will finally plan to invite those people over…

No, girls, just no.

Hospitality in the plain-Jane form is this: living life alongside other people. Simply inviting them in to what life already is.

That’s the part that’s easy to forget.

Yes, that part when we invite folks into what our life is, not what we want it to be or what we think it is for other people or what it might be for us in an ideal world on an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

But to what life is. Today.

Because there is no such thing as an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

For the record, I’m not talking here about radical invite-strangers-to-your-dinner-table hospitality. I mean, I do think we are called to that, and I can be kind of preachy about it, too, but that’s not what I mean here.

No, I’m talking about opening our normal life to share a normal minute.

And not making it fancy.

I’m talking about a potluck of chili and fixins and assorted desserts and water and coffee and too many people to fit comfortably in the house so thank goodness it ended up being 60 degrees and sunny today. I’m talking about mud in the grass and three families who can’t make it because of illness and one child who gets sick outside before her momma even gets a chance to eat the peanut butter pie she brought. I’m talking about just-met-them-last-night new friends chatting with known-for-a-decade old friends, and we’ll figure out how to let people wash their own dishes even though that makes things awkward kind of hospitality.

And, girls, let’s be real: I’m also talking about genuinely not feeling like doing it but doing it anyway, even after we realize it’s the same weekend as a million other commitments and we’ll be out late the night before and it’s the beginning of a long, busy month, and the week before is the polar vortex, and does anyone even care if it’s the Super Bowl, is that a good reason to cancel, no, okay, let’s just do it, and we do and it is good because that is what hospitality is.

Yes, that is what non-fancy, plain-Jane hospitality is.

Y’all, shared life on a normal day will never, ever be convenient.

But we do it anyway.

Because I want you to know how to write cursive.

And I want you to know how to share your life.

And I want you to know it is all hard.

Really hard.

But all good, too.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Fifth Letter: Christmas, Birth Narratives, & Being a Rockstar

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Dear Daughters,

“Why is their nativity empty?” you ask about a neighbor’s creche today as we walk around the block to stretch our legs. Their stable is still on display in their yard but the three-foot tall plastic figurines of Mary, Joseph, and the whole kit and caboodle have been put away for the year.

“Because most people take down their Christmas decorations by New Years Day,” I tell you. And you stop in your tracks.

Literally, you stop, and look at me like I have just said the craziest thing you’ve heard all day.

Today is the ninth day of Christmas, girls. Nine ladies dancing.

This year, we stayed home for Christmas and had family in and out at various times. It was good to see folks, and good to have so much down time, especially because we have all been passing around a virus and not always feeling our best. We got some house projects and organization done. We opened little presents each day of Christmas (and will for three more). We’ve read So Many Books and played So Many Games of Guess Who? and Spot It! and Uno. Also, Legos. We’ve had a great Christmas.

And still it drags at times, girls, I’m not gonna lie.

On Sunday, I told your dad that I wasn’t feeling very Christmasy. That I was kind of frustrated because we did so many special things for Advent and I had such a rich Advent season but then here was Christmas and I felt blah. Why wasn’t I more celebratory? And how do you make it feelmore celebratory, apart from more presents and pizzazz. How do you celebrate quietly and still feel celebratory? I didn’t know, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just after that confession, I picked up an Advent devotional we’ve had for awhile but I haven’t read in a few years. It is meditative and thoughtful and, I noticed as I grabbed it, has readings through Epiphany (January 6). I thought I’d start there to reinvigorate Christmas.

The introduction to the book considered the deep theological implications of birth and its connection to our creation theology. I’ve always found the connection between birth and creativity fascinating, so I wanted to read more. Among other things, the introduction talked about how significant the “begats” are to the Gospel story—the generations of births—that happen long before Jesus was born, but then, of course, the culmination of his birth, the significance of the incarnation and what that means for us today.

Girls, birth itself is significant—at once significantly risky, significantly profound—but that’s true for anything we birth, not just biological birth.

Still, putting the book down, I thought I would try to shift my less-than-Christmasy attitude by focusing on the obvious births in my lives: your births.

I guess maybe it’s strange but I turned to the pages in an Advent book to try to “feel” more Christmasy, and I came away from them contemplating birth narratives.

About a year after each of you were born, I tried to record your birth narratives as honestly as I could. Both narratives—in Word documents—are long and rambly, like much of my writing, and both reveal me to have felt quite traumatized by the experiences.

Girls, hear me out: I could hardly get through them. Tears were streaming down my face as I relived the births through my own words and memories.

I think it’s important for you to know that I do not sentimentalize childbirth in the least. I do not say it is the most beautiful experience. Not at all. It was easily the hardest thing I have had to endure, and maybe precisely because of that, I felt like an absolute rockstar for having survived it. (I mean, an absolute rockstar combined with postpartum hormonal mess, but still: rockstar.)

And here’s what I wanted to say today, girls: I had forgotten that I was a rockstar.

As the years have gone by, childbirth has seemed like a normal kind of thing.

I had forgotten that I had done this really, really hard thing because quite honestly the difficulty of those particular moments has over time faded into the background with a lot of other difficult circumstances connected to life in a broken and wounded world.

But as I reread those birth narratives this weekend, I let myself cry, and then I closed my laptop and said to myself: Self, you are a Rockstar.

Actually, what I said to myself was more along these lines:

Self, why are you so bogged down by the tasks you have in front of you? Why are you finding the finishing of your first novel so difficult? Why does that feel like it is looming? If you can survive unmedicated labor with trauma—twice—and make it through with fistbumps, you sure as heck can draft some more words. Nothing else you have on your to-do list can even come close to what you have already survived—and survived with grace.

You have birthed human beings.

You have birthed an intentional, sacramental life.

You have birthed creative projects.

You have birthed community.

But of course, I haven’t really birthed anything.

Not on my own.

Which is how we get back to Christmas and creation.

It’s God’s work that we are privileged to birth into the world. We partner with God, every time we create, whether we are creating human beings, or books, or cookies, or love.

Which is a miracle, right?

That we get to partner with God?

That God chose to come down as a baby and live as a human being and partner with us?

Yes.

It really is a miracle.

And in your birth narratives, there’s a miracle, too.

Not just that your dad and I survived them, but that we have you.

(I know, I know, it’s a little sappy to say so, but it’s Christmas for a few more days.)

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Hundred-and-Fourth Letter: Christmas Rolls Gently In

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Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was the fourth Sunday of Advent, and today already is Christmas Eve. Tonight you will play Silent Night on the piano at church and dress up like an angel in the children’s nativity. Tomorrow you will find your stockings full.

But today, it is not yet Christmas.

Yesterday we got out the last of our Christmas decorations. I unpacked our full ceramic nativity set that was painted by your Grandpa Troutman’s mom, my special grandma Ginny, who passed away when I was in high school. I set out all the pieces—even baby Jesus, even the Magi. Because I want the set to be complete, and I want to remember Ginny, and I want you to be mesmerized by the beauty of the angel, which you tell me is your favorite piece of the set.

Yesterday I moved our journeying Mary and Joseph and their donkey over to our empty creche, to prepare for their son’s arrival. This evening the shepherds will arrive.

Yesterday we lit another candle in the yule log. We read a story from our Jesse Tree book. You made special cards for each of us during quiet time.

We have one ornament left to color today.

This morning, your grandma and grandpa left after a visit for the weekend. The day after Christmas, another set of grandparents will arrive.

But right now, we are in the in-between.

There is so much fullness in the in-between, girls, and so much broken-heartedness in the in-between.

I mean “in-between” in the larger sense, of course.

Advent is about the already/not-yet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. But the truth is, all of life is the already/not-yet. Our life of faith that we share together and practice together is just an expression of the deeper truth at the core of all that is: God created the world, God broke through into time in the most humble and surprising of ways, God offers us hope and salvation, and God wins at the end of the story.

But we live before the end of the story.

Which is why we keep telling the story and living the story.

The liturgical year is one way of remembering the most important things, of telling the story of our faith over and over again, of helping us live the story even when we don’t feel like it because everything we see around us seems to contradict it.

Notice I said “seems” to contradict it—I sure don’t believe it actually contradicts it. I believe that if we have God’s eyes, we see grace and hope breaking through all around us in miraculous ways every single day. But it doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time.

On Christmas Eve, I think of my Pappy Lehman, who passed away in 2015 on Christmas Eve while gathered with family in Pennsylvania. I was states away, here in our house with you, when I got the call. That loss will always be wrapped up in Christmas Eve for me.

And so will the loss of Ginny every time I unwrap the ceramic nativity she painted or place on the tree the angel ornaments she gifted me.

But there is also so much joy and wonder on this day as Christmas rolls in gently, on candle light, on the notes of the piano I can hear coming through the floor as you practice your carols again and again just for the fun of it.

It is Advent and it is Christmas and it is beautiful and difficult.

It is joy and it is loss.

It is beauty and it is chaos.

It is light and it is dark.

Because that will always be life in the already/not-yet.

Always.

Merry Christmas, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

The Hundred-and-Third Letter: On Repetition and the Pink Candle (Advent 3)

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Dear Daughters,

You helped me rake the leaves this week.

That we were still in need of raking our leaves this third week of December is surprising. And that you were able to be so helpful for much of the task is also surprising, given how wet and heavy the leaves were and that we had to rake them from the back of the driveway out to the road. But you do love to help, and I am appreciative, even if you did prefer the big, nice rake with the squishy handle that I bought for myself last year.

After a certain amount of time, though, you were happy to go play in the treehouse with our neighbor girl while I furiously raked to try to finish up before your dad got home and (or?) before my shoulders gave out.

Oy. Raking is hard, thankless work.

Pretty much every time I rake, I think about the desert monk Abba Paul from the early centuries of the church. One of the stories passed down in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that Abba Paul would weave baskets and then, after a day of basket-weaving, he would take the baskets all apart and start over again. (Depending on the story, sometimes he burns them all.)

The baskets weren’t the point for Abba Paul. The task was the point.

The task was valuable in and of itself.

Even though it happened day after day.

Maybe even because it happened day after day.

That’s what I was thinking about while I raked this week.

When our leaves first begin to fall from our old, tall trees, we mulch them into the grass. And then they fall a little bit more and we pile them into our compost bin. And then they fall a little bit more, and we pile them into our raised beds that have been put to sleep for the winter. We rake and we mulch and we pile and we still end up with lots of leaves to deal with. So we rake them out to the road and eventually a big leaf-sucking truck comes by and takes them away.

But sometimes the truck doesn’t come. And sometimes the leaves blow away. And sometimes they blow back down the driveway after we have spent so much energy raking them out to the end of the driveway.

Alas.

It feels like we’re burning up the baskets we just finished weaving.

But here’s the thing, girls: the fact that we have to do it again and again doesn’t make it less valuable of a task.

There are lots of things we do that we know we will have to do over and over again.

Dishes. Laundry. Mowing the grass. Setting the table. Reading Tyrannosaurus Rex versus Edna the First Chicken. Disciplining children. Practicing the piano. Braiding your hair.

Also: praying.

Practicing the liturgical calendar is also an exercise in repetition (and, I’ll be honest, frustration). The pink Advent candle was lit this week, and there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background as to why, but one of the things is that the joyful, pink candle reminds us that we’re halfway through Advent. It’s a reminder that HEY, YOU MADE IT THIS FAR. It’s the promise that we can make it the rest of the way until Christmas. Don’t get discouraged, the pink candle says. It’s coming. It came last year. You made it last year. It will come next year. You’ll make it then, too. But keep on going, friends, because Christmas is coming.

Again.

And again.

And again.

That’s the pink candle.

A sign-marker on the repetitive road that is the cycle of the liturgical year to say—here it comes again, y’all! Be joyful!

And in our case, it means, go ahead and get out the rest of those Christmas ornaments. And it means go ahead and turn on that Christmas playlist, you’ve waited long enough this year.

So there’s meaning to this whole repetitive liturgical calendar.

And there’s meaning to the whole repetitive life we live.

Because so much of life is repetition.

To be honest, I believe that the most important things in life are repetitive. I’m serious. The spiritual practices of prayer and reflection and attention? The care-for-people things? The how-we-love-better things? All repetitive.

And the repetitive things are the things that shape us, our habits, our bodies, and even our souls, girls.

Do you know why my grandma was able to sing the old hymns and pray lovely and heartfelt prayers long after her mind was no longer living in the present?

It’s because she sang the old songs and prayed heartfelt prayers her whole life.

Her whole life.

Girls, that is the life I want for you. A life of the daily repetition of grace. The daily and boring and humdrum and yet absolutely astounding practices that cultivate a life of grace.

Of accepting grace.

Of offering grace.

It’s still Advent, girls. But Christmas is coming.

Love,

Your Momma