You know what I’ve been thinking a lot about for the last week? What’s been on my mind every few minutes? Especially in those minutes where I calm my mind and try to find peace?
Nope, nothing holy or sacred or inspirational or Lenten, but rather:
A hot, steaming cup of PG Tips black tea with milk and sugar.
Also, bagels and cream cheese.
Also, peanut butter.
Also, beans in my chili.
Also, rice with my curry.
Here’s the deal.
I am giving a no-dairy, no-legume, no-sugar, no-grain eating regimen a try in order to figure out why I just don’t feel well physically, emotionally, the whole gamut. It’s a regimen known as the Whole30, but a rose by any other name… Or something like that. I’m always messing up colloquial sayings. It makes me endearing.
You know what doesn’t make me endearing?
How much I feel like griping about all the food I’m not allowed to eat.
Because guess what?
I get to eat a lot of really amazing food on this regimen, and, well, let’s face it, I just don’t even care most of the time.
Like for breakfast the other day, I had a fried egg sauteed with broccoli and spinach and herbs d’provence. Do you know how good it was? Do you know that this is the exact sort of thing I would order in a restaurant if I went out to eat for breakfast? Seriously. The exact thing. Except probably with cheese. But what I wanted to eat was a bagel and cream cheese, and so I felt grumpy about it.
Do I love vegetables and fruits? Do I love seeds and nuts and eggs? Yes, I do! I love these things. But this last week, I’ve felt a bit resentful of them.
And so I’m realizing something about myself, once again.
I am absolutely a selfish human being. It’s been about as blatant as it can be. I want what I want when I want it, and I don’t want to be told I shouldn’t get it.
Even when it is for my own good.
I have done my fair share of fasting in my lifetime, and I think fasting is an important discipline that Christians these days don’t like to adopt because it makes us uncomfortable, but as silly as it sounds, this has been worse for me than fasting.
The truth is, I’m a week into this thing, and I’m actually feeling pretty good. I’ve been a little less grumpy the last few days about my decision-making, and I haven’t been craving my hot tea near as much. (For the record, hot tea is allowed on the Whole30, but I want mine with milk and sugar something fierce, so I had to rule it out for myself.)
So there’s been some progress.
But, girls, I am so selfish, and it’s become so striking to me, and I am feeling pretty convicted about it.
After getting married and then, eight years later, having babies, all of which taught me in painful ways just how selfish I am, I can only think of one other experience that has caused these emotions to well up in me like this.
Offering radical hospitality.
I’m serious. This selfishness down in my gut I’m dealing with this week is similar to the feelings I’ve had when we have had others living with us.
I have long said that offering radical hospitality has been the best way to learn how selfish and prideful I am. (And if you’ve ever heard someone tell me that I had a “gift” for hospitality, you’ve heard this schpiel before. I have a low tolerance for this whole “gift” business when it comes to hospitality. Hospitality is hard work. I have a “conviction” of hospitality, but I don’t think it’s any easier for me than for anyone else.)
Because when people who are not your family are all up in your stuff, in your business, eating your food, and not putting your utensils back where you want them to be, and leaving only one scoop of peanut butter in the jar…
And now I’m back to peanut butter again.
These seemingly unrelated things–marriage, parenting, the Whole30, and radical hospitality–have really dug into the core of who I am as a profoundly selfish person. They are ways we intentionally limit ourselves, where we say for the sake of the end game, whether that be for our relationships or health or the kingdom of God, we will be vulnerable and needy and frustrated and have to deal with it even though we will want to give up sometimes.
But there can be no wimping out.
You don’t change your mind about your beloved spouse because he leaves the back door open in all kinds of crazy weather.
You don’t give the baby back to the hospital because she keeps interrupting you while you’re trying to type up a blog post.
You don’t kick people out when you’ve invited them in.
And you don’t quit this eating routine for the sake of peanut butter.
Instead, instead you make homemade almond butter with a little olive oil and sea salt to smear on your banana.
Because, I mean, come on, a selfish girl’s still gotta eat.
While breastfeeding the eldest, I read a lot of books. Given that she took forever to eat, and I didn’t have an older child constantly jabbering at me, it was not long before I coopted your dad’s Kindle and learned to love the one-handed ebook. I also got a lot of hardback books from the library, because they were heavy enough to lay open on my lap unassisted. It was all about logistics for me.
One of those library books was called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a journalist’s well-researched discussion about early childhood gender formation in America, and the way, in particular, young girls learn the narrative of what it means to be a woman from media, marketing, and culture. Despite the title, it’s not just about princess culture (or American Girl culture or modesty or Disney movies, though all of that is in there), but about the messaging and potential concerns about the differences in the ways boys are marketed to (as explorers, geniuses, adventurers, tough guys) and girls are marketed to (cute, sassy, pretty, glam, even bratty).
It’s not that most of this was new to me, as I’d researched early childhood gender socialization as an independent study while a sociology major during undergrad. Gender socialization and how we learn to be well-rounded human beings in our communities is a topic that is important to me and has been for some time. It’s one I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and thinking about. I rarely talk about it, though, because it’s something other moms don’t particularly want to talk about.
So that’s a little bit of background.
Recently a friend gave us some hand-me-down princess dresses—and plastic heels, and a necklace, and fancy gloves.
You two love to wear these dresses.
I took a picture of you on that first day we opened the bag of hand-me-downs and sent some of my friends an accompanying text: “And so it begins…”
It’s been pretty cute that you don’t really know how to “play princess” because you don’t have context for it. (To the extent you know the names of the princesses, it’s from books and your friends at preschool.) So for now, “playing princess” is very similar to “playing family,” which means you basically assign roles to everyone and then set up the area where you are playing into a house. And then you move on to playing other things while wearing your princess dresses and clunking around in the plastic heels.
You call the shoes “tap shoes.”
A few months ago, a woman stood beside me in a very long line at a consignment sale as we watched a little boy being silly. Very silly. Goofball silly. Rambunctious and active. This woman turns to me, sees that I’m holding girls’ clothing, and sighs, saying that girls are so much easier at “this” age, but once they are teenagers, well, she’s heard that reverses itself.
While I was pregnant the first time, so before I knew if I was having a boy or a girl, more than one of my boy-mom friends said they preferred the crazy and chaos and rambunctiousness of boys who are “all boy” to the “drama, drama, drama” of teenage girls.
I hear “he’s ‘all boy’” all the time, by the way. And there is a general understanding about what “all boy” means—rambunctious, loud, active.
And I hear all the time that boys are so much easier than girls in the long run.
One of my best friends—who is a mother of boys and a girl–has said in a joking voice that one thing about raising boys that is preferable to raising girls is that with a boy, you only have to worry about one penis; with a girl, you have to worry about all the other penises.
I mean, it’s funny, right?
On the surface level, it is. I get that. It’s funny.
But all of these conversations about what boys are like and what girls are like make me uncomfortable as a mother of daughters but also as a woman and as a human being created in the image of God.
This cultural myth of the dramatic teenage girl who is such a handful and can’t be controlled and doesn’t get along with her mother?
I just don’t get why that’s the dominant narrative we continue to tell ourselves and expect in our families.
It’s like the terrible twos.
We expect it, we label it, and as it turns out, we embrace it. We are resigned to it.
I’m not saying middle school and high school aren’t rough. They’re tough years. They’re hormonal years. They’re the years children learn to be adults by figuring things out for themselves.
But I’m not dreading those years with you, girls. I’m not.
I think it’s foolish to assume we can’t get through it with grace. Yes, of course it will be hard in ways I can’t even imagine now, but I will not assume you will be unmanageable. I will not assume you will be disrespectful. I will not assume that the drama, drama, drama will come.
That’s not fair to you.
The thing is, I wasn’t a dramatic teenager. And I have plenty of friends who never got sassy and bratty and dramatic. I don’t ever remember slamming my bedroom door or wishing my parents would just die. That’s a trope.
And you know what? Even at your preschool, I know boys who are not rowdy and chaotic but serious and gentle.
I don’t mind that you wear the princess dresses around the house. (Though we do have a rule that they can’t be worn outside the house—none of this princess dress to the grocery store nonsense.)
Your dad pointed out that the littlest reminds him of Monica from FRIENDS in the episode where she cleans her apartment in the wedding dress. It cracks us up.
I don’t need to go on a rant about princess culture generally and the Disney princess movies in particular. I’m sure by the time you’re reading these letters, you’ll know where I stand on those things. I think they are troubling, but lots of things are troubling. It doesn’t mean you can’t wear the dresses. As long as princesses are just one thing you play among other wonderful and imaginative things, I’m okay with that.
I will say in brief that the main problem with the whole princess thing to me is the way it becomes the dominant narrative through which some little girls can see the world.
But you are not those little girls.
You walk around in Cinderella’s dress with yellow plastic heels, and you’re still growling with your hands up as claws, saying you’re a big, scary bear.
You wear your dresses while you’re putting together a puzzle of the Amazon rainforest, or while you’re building a tent with the old king-sized sheet hanging off your bunk-beds, or while you’re coloring with markers in a coloring book that is not princess-themed.
Yesterday, the littlest put a canvas bag over her shoulder and said she’s a mommy dinosaur going to the grocery store. Because of course mommy dinosaurs need to go to Kroger.
We have a small princess figurine who gets carried around with Daniel Tiger and Katerina and Miss Elaina. It’s pretty great because the princess is usually a stand-in for Teacher Harriet. I’m good with that.
Yes, as long as princesses are just one narrative among others, just one story among others, just one game among others, I’m good with that.
So, go ahead and wear those dresses.
Wear those tap shoes.
Heck, strap on fairy wings.
I don’t care what you sport as we read Rosie Revere, Engineer, and Ada Twist, Scientist, again and again and again. Those your favorite books at the moment.
I’m good with that.
I’m a stickler about a few things.
One of them is tithing.
It is not a cool thing to talk about, especially not in my circles, but I was raised to take tithing seriously, and so I do take it seriously. When I was little, I’m pretty sure I was made to tithe off of my allowance and even off of the money we got in birthday cards. Yes, growing up, there was a strong sense of this money not being mine to begin with and so we gave back to God a portion, a tenth, in order to remind ourselves that it really all belongs to God, that none of it really belongs to us.
In today’s world, I think most of us could use a little more of those reminders that what we have is not really ours. That it is all gift. That we deserve none of it.
It might help us stay away from the what’s-mine-is-mine mentality that not only keeps us from helping our neighbors but also makes it difficult for us to see them as equally deserving of our own way of life.
It’s not polite to talk about money though, so I don’t say these things out loud, don’t say them in public.
But let me tell you a story.
The eldest has been joining us for “big church” for some time now, and I was reading an article recently about the importance of children seeing their parents–literally seeing us–give of our time and our resources. The article specifically mentioned letting children see their parents put money in the plate at church, if the family attends a church that passes the plate. It talked about the potential correlation between children who witness their parents giving of time and talents and tithes on a regular basis and those who grow up to be regular givers themselves.
After reading this article, I realized that it probably didn’t send the best message that I was often passing an empty plate. As I said, I do tithe, but I write a check once a month, because it’s our habit, instead of once a week. So the majority of weeks, we don’t drop something in.
As a result, I decided, if it’s a symbolic gesture for you anyway, I’ll start giving you a little bit of cash to put in the plate yourself. In the past, this always seemed a little silly to me.
And that brings me to the story for today.
On Sunday, I had grabbed some cash from my wallet that was all folded up on itself. I pulled two dollar bills off of the wad–there was only ten dollars in the wad, but it looked big to you–and I handed you the two single bills. You saw that I was putting the rest back in my wallet.
“But why not all of it?” you whispered to me.
I tried to shush you.
“WHY NOT ALL OF IT,” you whispered louder, assuming I hadn’t heard you the first time.
I tried to shush you again, and gestured toward the plate as it approached.
You really didn’t want to let it go. “But why? Why not all of it?”
And it was about that time that I heard those words in a new light, not as a literal question about that wad of cash, but a question to me about life and what it means to offer ourselves to the Kingdom of God.
Why not all of it?
Why are we not willing to give all of ourselves?
Why are we so quick to pull the two easy dollars off the wad and toss them in the plate and assume we’re good to go, that we’ve done our part?
God isn’t asking us to do our part. God is asking us to give our lives.
Why not all of it?
When we get mad about politics, we think it’s enough to start calling our representatives. But God wants all of us, not just our phone calls and emails.
When we get frustrated at broken institutions like our school systems, we think it’s enough to just protect our own interests and make sure we (and ours) succeed. But God wants all of us, not just our feeble attempts at safety and provision for our own families and neighborhoods.
When we look around at our empty sanctuaries, we think it’s enough to lament the absence of young people and resolve to make our services more relevant. But God wants all of us, not just our work to make Sunday morning more fun. God wants us to to be loving people, offering our whole selves to our relationships, inviting people into our lives, not just our sanctuaries.
When we look around and see that all of our friends look just like us and live in houses just like us, we think it’s enough to go serve in a soup kitchen or donate our leftover and used goods to a local shelter. But God wants all of us, which might hurt a bit. Actually, it will hurt a bit. I promise. It might mean selling that house. At the very least, it means inviting people who are different from us into that house and joining together over food and fellowship. It will take all of us.
Or, let’s take it to the real, everyday annoyances of life. Because that’s where we can really get uncomfortable. It’s too easy to shrug off the general, big problems.
What about when I get frustrated at the frequency with which the neighbors’ dog has been escaping their yard? I want to think it’s enough to put him back in the yard and grumble about it to your dad. But God wants all of me, all of my relationships, all of my time, not just my mediocre attempts at community.
What about when I lose my temper with you? I think it’s enough to say, well, that’s the way life is with young children, right? It’s tiring and exhausting and mind-numbing, and you really should have just listened the first time. But God wants all of me, not just my good days and prayer times and Bible reading. We should be growing in those tough moments too. We should be learning grace and offering grace.
What about when the stranger walks by our house in the middle of the day, when the kids with heavy backpacks get off the bus down the street and look discouraged, when the neighbors have forgotten yet again that it is trash day: am I just doing the minimum? Or am I offering my whole life?
Why not all of it? you asked.
And I guess what I’m trying to say is this: you’re asking a good question.
The Gospel requires all of us.
I have, as long as I can remember, loved to write longhand on paper.
I have also, as long as I can remember, practiced my handwriting.
I don’t know what that makes me, but certainly some level of nerd. I remember in my teens when I started shifting my lowercase ‘a’ intentionally to look more like a typeset ‘a’ because I had noticed it in someone else’s handwriting and thought it was cool.
This means I have always been aware of letters and how they look on the page.
And I guess this means that I have been a typography nerd before I even knew what the word “typography” was.
Fonts matter a lot to me. And by that I mean they matter a lot more than they should. To me, fonts have personalities and they send underlying messages. So when an email or a sign or a book or magazine uses a font that sends a different message than the words themselves, I feel the same tension as when there are actual typographical errors on the page.
Yes, I’m that kind of nerd.
I remember practicing to write with my left hand in elementary school on the off chance I would break my right arm. I suppose I’m still able to do that, to write with my left hand, but I haven’t tried in a long time. I did try this evening to write backwards in cursive, as I used to in middle school. I remember exchanging notes with my friend Jess Kisner in backwards script back in eighth grade, holding the pages up to the light to read them easily as the backwards script reversed when read through the page. Why did we do this? Surely we knew anyone who obtained the secret note would be able to do the same thing. But at least, I suppose, nobody could read over our shoulders as we wrote those notes to each other.
When I was in high school, I began experimenting with what I would now call hand-lettering. I remember taking quotes and trying to make each letter of each word an artistic image or creative design. I remember, especially, writing out “every man’s death diminishes me” during one of our state government school programs at the capitol building. Clearly I was paying attention to the program. Clearly I’ve always been left-leaning in my convictions.
As I was an academically minded nerd, I didn’t take many art classes, even though they were offered by my large public high school. We actually had a great art program. But I spent my days enrolled in AP classes to get the weighted GPA, even then with the goal of valedictorian, which is only mysteriously important to me now as I look back on it.
As an adult in my twenties, I discovered an Austin-based graphic designer & typographer. I was looking around at his website and I had an epiphany. If I had known that people did this sort of thing for a living–that people studied and developed fonts and letter-based designs–the whole trajectory of my life may have been different. Isn’t that strange? I remember emailing your Uncle Stephen a link to the guy’s website and saying, “DID YOU KNOW PEOPLE DID THIS AS A JOB?”
Seriously, if I had it all to do again, I would have taken more art, and I probably would have learned some graphic design along the way.
Because letters are so my jam.
I’m fortunate that as a mom of wee ones in my thirties, I have managed to carve out an art life. The “fortunate” part is that I’m part of a community that loves art, and I have artsy friends who are also squeezing art into their lives, who are organized enough to get together for weekly meetings to work through The Artists Way or Walking in the World, workbooks on creativity and calling and vocation and art.
I have a writing group made up of writers who also make art. These women commission me to paint for them. They are my biggest cheerleaders. Well, apart from your dad, who is by far the best encourager there is. He tells me I’m awesome all the time, and he believes it. Your Grandma Troutman also tells me I’m pretty great, pretty much every time I post a new letter. And your Uncle Stephen jokes about being the president of my fan club. So I’m definitely fortunate to have people who cheer me on when it comes to art.
But seriously, let me get back to this handwriting thing.
I love handwriting. I love to write. I love to copy down quotes. I love to hand-letter them into artsy designs just because. I like to make lists, as I’ve mentioned once or twice in these letters. I love to send real letters, with stamps and everything. I don’t know what it would be like to just sign my name to a generic card because I am kind of compulsive about writing out long messages to people. It’s like I just hiccup and suddenly there is a paragraph on the page.
I do love my handwriting. I’m such a nerd. I like to practice writing. I like to read about lettering. I like to read about fonts. I like to practice fonts.
And I love that you are learning to write your letters. I’m so excited to teach you cursive. I love how you sit beside me and watch me letter in my notebooks. “That’s so pretty, Momma,” you say, over and over and over again, as I write and doodle or paint my letters and sayings and verses.
“That’s so beautiful, Momma.”
“Good job, Momma.”
“You’re a good artist, Momma.”
You’re the sweetest little encouragers.
I have been impressed already with the way you seem to have an eye for design and image and beauty and style. Not because you like my art, but because you care about how things are. You take note of beauty in nature, and you notice when things are different. You comment on colors and designs. You love catalogs because of the repeated patterns, and you especially get a kick out of the fashion designs in my Vogue.
Sometimes I think I might be imagining it, but your dad has noticed, too.
It gives me hope that you, too, love design and art and beauty.
It gives me hope that you like letters and colors and layout.
It gives me hope that you might be a nerd just like me.
Sometimes I worry that I am sheltering you too much.
Okay, actually, I worry about this a lot.
You really got bothered by the Ghost of Christmas Future in the Mickey Mouse version of A Christmas Carol this last Advent. The Mickey Mouse version. Your dad and I did not see that coming. But, of course, it’s about dying as well as greed, hostility, selfishness, and callousness, and you take those things to heart.
Because you are sensitive souls. Especially the eldest.
Sometimes I worry that you are sensitive because I am protecting you from Bad Things. Because you don’t know how the world “is.”
I look around at my community and it looks pretty homogeneous, and so even though we make an effort to buy books for you with diverse protagonists, and we even ask others to buy them for you, I still think sometimes, Am I sheltering you too much?
Yesterday, after we marched with our small town to remind others and ourselves that we stand for equality and that there is still work to be done, I talked to you about Martin Luther King, Jr.
I started out by talking out about how we are all children of God, created in the image of God. This you understood. This you embraced. Because this you know.
But then I told you that there are some people who don’t believe this, and that before I was born, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who helped us to see how unfair it was to treat people differently because they looked different from us. He was a preacher and people listened to him. But not everyone was happy with what he was saying. People said bad things and did bad things.
As your eyes welled up with tears, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. You cannot wrap your brain around someone being mistreated because she looks different than you do. You get sad when you see sadness. You cry when I cry, even if you don’t know why. I know this about you, and I saw it in your eyes, but it was important to me that you knew the truth of this story.
Still, I didn’t know how much truth to tell. When you asked if Dr. King was still alive, I told you he was not. You wanted to know what happened, and so I told you.
This was too much truth, and I could see it in your expression as you processed, in the change in your breathing. You got nervous.
I switched gears and talked about Old Testament prophets instead. And we talked about people in the Bible who died because others got upset when they preached truth, when they preached the message that God needed us to hear.
I kept circling around to the message that we are all children of God, how important it is to remember that we are all created in God’s image. This seemed like the thing to focus on. It’s also on my mind because of a Desmond Tutu book I’m reading.
But your little brain was still working, and despite your insistence that you were okay, those blue eyes were filled with tears.
That’s when I realized it. It is scary to you that people have died because they believe we are all children of God. It is scary because you believe we are all children of God. Because your dad and I believe we are all children of God.
I checked again to see if you were okay because you have this habit of trying to be brave. You say things like, “I’m fine, but my eyes are just watering,” when you are not fooling anyone. Your heart is so sensitive.
You asked to be excused from the table, and you went into your room to play.
A few minutes later, you began to sob. Loudly. You came out of your room, sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing.
I sat down on the big gray chair in the living room to hold you, to offer comfort, knowing what it is like myself to be overwhelmed with emotion at the pain of the world. I asked you if you were afraid, and you told me, No.
“Just sad,” you said.
This morning, awake at 4 am with insomnia, I began to think again about whether you are too sheltered from the bad of the world.
The thing is, on a lighter note, it’s hard for me to get too worked up that you find Disney bad guys scary because you haven’t yet been made numb to the archvillain cartoon type. The fact that you haven’t been exposed to the bad guys means you also haven’t been overly exposed to the “good” guys, the princes saving the princesses, or the princesses themselves, which are to some degree just as dangerous, given the concerns they introduce regarding self-image, cultural biases, and understandings of what happily-ever-after love looks like. So I don’t care that you find caricatured scary dudes scary. The fact that you’re sheltered in your media exposure is fine with me.
But what about real life?
Well, I know that your dad and I have gotten a lot of things wrong in the last four years of “real life” parenting. I know that our faith calls us to love more, be more vulnerable, live less selfishly, speak truth more openly–and to teach you to do the same. We often fail at this. Over and over and over again, we fail. We are aware of these failings most days, and I hope we continue to challenge ourselves to live more faithfully to our callings.
But when it comes to sheltering you, to worrying about whether you’re exposed to enough “bad” things, well, I think I need to let this worry go.
For example, not many two- and four-year-olds have attended, in the last six months, their town’s first gay pride festival and picnic, witnessed their mother heading to the polls–twice, actually, given that the first time I went our precinct had run out of paper ballots–attended a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth fundraiser where we heard about state environmental and political concerns, and marched in an MLK day parade sponsored by our NAACP.
That’s real life, girls.
When you ask questions about people watering their lawns, we talk about water supply issues in Africa. (I’m not above a little indoctrination.) We talk with you about the great work your grandpa is doing with ex-convicts in Pennsylvania, and how he studies the Bible alongside inmates and visits those who don’t have friends or family members to visit them. When you talk about Christmas presents and Santa, we talk about the least fortunate. We make you sort your belongings and give things away on St. Nicholas Day. When we collect items for a Christmas Share-the-Joy family in our community, we talk about how there are very real people living in our neighborhoods who don’t have enough food to have a Christmas dinner, who don’t have fun things like brightly colored toothbrushes and yummy watermelon fluoride-free toothpaste. You walked with your preschool class to the food bank on Main Street and took a tour.
And the truth is, it’s not all words. You have been exposed to people who are different from us, but I work really hard, even when my heart isn’t in it, to not let you know that they are different from us.
We have friends and acquaintances with a variety of incomes, but we treat them all the same. We have shared our table with folks on fixed incomes and government assistance, who otherwise eat in soup kitchens, and we share our table with college professors. We try to treat them all the same. You have shared your goldfish and your sandbox with neighborhood children who don’t have milk in their homes to eat with their breakfast cereal, and you’ve shared your sandbox with children of dual-income earning parents. I try to teach you to treat them all the same.
When there are shady characters passing us on the street, and I have that stirring of fear so enculturated into me, that distrust of the stranger, it is important to me that you see me greet them with a friendly “Hello.” I refuse to teach you stranger danger, because I do not think that is the gospel message. (Many of my mom friends disagree with me on this. But we disagree on a lot of things. Like princess movies.)
All of that to say, when I read the Gospels, especially the words of Jesus, I know that we have miles to go before we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. I know that there is work to be done inside these four walls, and there is work to be done in our neighborhood, and there is work to be done in our city, our state, and our country. There is a lot of work to be done. I could be loving better, offering more hospitality, making more deliberate strides toward repairing the divisions I see in this world. We have not yet done enough.
Still, I do not think you are sensitive because you are sheltered, because you haven’t been exposed to enough bad things, because your world is curated and protective and safe. No, quite honestly, I think you are sensitive because I am sensitive. A lot of it is genetic.
But to the extent that it isn’t genetic, I want to affirm your sensitivities, your quickness to feel the pain of others, and not unwittingly numb it out of you by overexposure. I want to affirm your sensitive soul because it shows me you are on the road to compassion, journeying toward a heart breaking over the suffering of this world, toward an awareness that this world is not the way God intended it to be, toward a vocation to love.
And that is right where you should be.
I’ve been thinking about this calling to a sacramental life—a calling to seek the holy in the everyday humdrum and monotony of raising small children, of serving our neighbors, of loving our community or at least trying to, and in finding the cracks to shine the light in. This search for the sacramental keeps pulling me forward and revealing itself to me as the vocation that gives my life meaning.
Don’t get me wrong.
I like my—what should I call it?—“day job.” I love writing poetry and making art. I feel called to it. Most of the time I like proofing and writing articles, and I even know the joy of a nit-picky copyediting job well done, of the intense focus needed for InDesign formatting and layout. And, of course, many days, I love raising you and seeing you grow and learn and create and ask difficult, insightful questions. That’s part of my day job too. I even love chopping vegetables. Sometimes.
But all of these pieces of my life, as much as I am called to them, make up what continues to feel like the larger picture that is my vocation: seeing where the sacred breaks through.
Maybe that’s everyone’s vocation to some degree or another, I don’t know. But it feels real to me, this calling.
Your dad and I are making an intentional effort this calendar year to cultivate a habit of morning and evening prayer. The book we use, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, has already walked us through some well-known Old Testament passages this first week of January.
A few days ago, we had Jacob discovering that “surely the Lord is in this place.” And he wasn’t even aware of it.
We had Moses being told to take off his sandals before the burning bush because the land he was standing on was holy ground.
The Lord was in that place.
That place was holy ground.
I remember learning in Introduction to Christianity, one of our required undergraduate courses at Houghton College, that a “sacrament” is a visible sign of invisible grace. (Google tells me that this definition is attributed to Augustine. Maybe so.)
A visible sign of invisible grace.
So the thing is, Jacob’s dream and his wrestling with the angel sound like exceptional moments of God’s interacting with humanity. Serious exceptions to the general, widespread experience of being a human being in the world.
And Moses before the burning bush sounds like a crazy thing that only happens in the Old Testament. It’s unusual to say the least. Even for the Bible.
History tells us that these are sacred stories. These are sacred stories of sacred places. Moments when God’s presence broke into our world. These are stories worth telling precisely because they are exceptional. The people of Israel told and retold (and still do tell) these stories to their children.
But you know what?
I’m not convinced these stories are exceptional, at least not in God’s presence breaking into our world, our time, our lived experience.
I’m convinced that God breaks through and reveals God’s grace to us all the time. It’s us. We’re the problem. We’re in the way. The stuff of life is in the way. The clutter is in the way.
I’m convinced that even our everyday mundane moments can be conduits of God’s grace, can be sacraments, can teach us something about God and the way God works and will continue to work in the world.
What we have to do is look for it.
What we have to do is see it.
What we have to do is proclaim it.
There’s an old-fashioned word for you. Proclaim.
Surely the Lord is in this place.
The place we are standing is holy ground.
Girls, I don’t know how else to say it.
That’s what living sacramentally means. That’s what I want you to see, to know. It might be one of the most important things I teach you. This place is holy ground.
It’s what enables us to love our neighbors. To welcome the stranger. To see that those who drive us the most crazy and make us the most angry are made in the image of God. Just like us. To understand that we aren’t special or privileged but as deserving of God’s grace as everyone else. Which means we are undeserving of it. And yet, God’s grace breaks in.
So I will proclaim it. Over and over and over again, I will proclaim it.
This place where we are learning to do life together? Yes, that’s what I mean. This place. It’s holy.
This shared driveway.
This dinner table.
This swing set.
This snow-covered sidewalk.
All of it.
There are certain times of year, certain moments, certain markers, when I feel like I should write you letters in the hardcopy journals I keep for each of you. Your birthdays, for example. On every birthday, in an ideal world, I would write you a letter. First days of school, maybe. After significant world events, controversial elections, perhaps.
When you were really little, I often wrote updates after your doctors appointments, to record your growth and development. I was more attentive then, I suppose.
After I failed my thesis defense, I wrote a long letter to each of you about my embarrassment and disappointment but also about how you win some, you lose some, but you keep on keeping on. The next day, when I found out I didn’t actually fail my thesis defense, I went back and affirmed the message of the day before, even though the circumstances changed. You win some. You lose some.
Before I go on overnight trips away from you, I try to write you brief “I love you” notes in your journals, just in case. That’s my morbid what-if tendency sneaking through. I really do think to myself as I write, what if this is the last note I ever write to you?
But generally, I’ll admit, I’m not great at getting around to writing in your journals.
Before Christmas, I tried to catch up a bit. I really did try. But even now, typing this, I realize I forgot to mention you were Thing 1 and Thing 2 at Halloween. Don’t Halloween costumes seem like something you might enjoy smiling at when you’re a grownup reading through the journals? Maybe I’ll go jot that down. But probably not. Hopefully there will be a photograph in the Shutterfly book for the fall.
When Christmas itself rolled around, I thought I better write something to the eldest about your complex relationship with Santa–not believing in him and yet not completely convinced he doesn’t bring other kids presents. But it’s hard to capture that complexity and I gave up quickly.
And then here came New Years, and I thought, now this would be a perfect time to write about my hopes for the future in your journals because, well, because it’s New Years. And that’s the sort of thing people do as they head toward a new year.
Then suddenly it was actually January 1 yesterday, and I knew I better get to it. Except I didn’t know what to write. It’s unusual for me because truth be told I don’t tend to suffer from writer’s block. I usually jot down notes and then go with the flow but–gah!–last night, I couldn’t really get past the brainstorming, free-writing, list-making stage for my review of the previous year, let alone articulate a vision for the new one.
This was as far as I got: I made two lists, or quasi-lists. They were list-like but with lots of scribbles and doodles.
One was called “2016 was the year…” and the second was called “2017 will be the year…”
So, in lieu of a brilliant meditation on your mother’s growth over the last year and her hopes and dreams for the future, I present to you instead my stream of consciousness quasi-lists from my writers notebook:
2016 was the year…
I didn’t keep up with my planner, bullet journal, or morning pages. I read 40 books. Seriously. 40. I read all 7 Harry Potter books and watched all the movies. We had a new water line dug in our yard. The eldest got her hair cut pixie short and started preK. The youngest began writing her name and drawing people. We went to Oxford without children. The girls flew on an airplane, saw the beach, and built a sandcastle for the first time. I went to Sante Fe for an art workshop and met some amazing new friends. We went to Waco without children. Fear won in America. I realized I was less moderate than I thought. I began seeing my vocation as cultivating a sacramental life. I joined Instagram. I rejoined Facebook. Your dad finally had that shoulder surgery. We hiked the Natural Bridge path at Red River Gorge. We attended our town’s first Pride festival. I made an Advent calendar for the first time. I applied to be on Survivor. I got new glasses finally, the nerdy English major kind. I started writing my first novel. We became diaper-free during daytime hours (finally!). I read my poems and displayed my art publicly at the arts and cultural center. You got a dollhouse for Christmas and moved into bunkbeds.
2017 will be the year…
I run a half-marathon (okay, run-walk). I begin wearing a watch again. We invite more people in. We have regular potlucks. We build relationships with our neighbors. I serve more, offer more, to the least of these. I leave my phone alone throughout the day. I memorize the Magnificat. We develop a morning prayer and evening prayer habit. I set up my Etsy store. I cut out caffeine. I finish my novel. I self-publish at least one book. I only read books I already own. I develop a morning routine again, rising early. I go on a writing retreat (already scheduled!).
I mean, girls, the former is not exactly a list of achievements and the latter not exactly a list of resolutions. Will I even do these things? Will I not? Does it matter?
Because, let’s face it, no matter how much I work at it, much of the day-in and day-out of life is none of these things on my 2017 list.
None of them.
And that’s why I have a hard time writing you a letter about the year ahead. Or the year behind. Much of daily life cannot be catalogued into lists of achievements and milestones and goals or even hopes and dreams.
A large chunk of my daily life is reminding you to focus on your food during meals, chopping vegetables, wiping bums, singing and singing and singing and did I mention singing, and blow-drying my hair, which seems to be getting bigger and bigger the older I get.
Daily life is answering question after question after question, teaching you to read and think and create and love, taking you to preschool and picking you up, going to church, chatting with the mailman, pausing for conversations with strangers if they need to talk, making eye contact, buckling and unbuckling carseats.
Daily life is texting to keep up with friends, to check in and follow up, to remind them of prayers offered and ask for help when I need it.
Daily life is the pace of grace. I stole that from somewhere, but I am determined to embrace it. Daily life is not busy and doing and hectic and stress. It doesn’t have to be. It’s patience and love and gratitude and lying in bed next to you and play-with-me-momma and can-I-please-have-one-more-minute?
Daily life is lost tempers and apologies and exhaustion, but it’s also painting together and playing memory again, and the twelve days of Christmas going the whole way until January 5.
Daily life, for me, is lists upon lists jotted in all sorts of journals and notebooks and post-its and index cards, but no obligation to do and achieve, just to record and release and trust that what needs to get done will get done. Because if the neighbor needs to talk, that’s what needs to be done. Because the friend needs a ride to Walmart. Because the moms need to get together and vent and drink decaf coffee and affirm that we are not going crazy. Because a candle needs to be lit and we need to talk at a preschooler’s level about how wax works. Because the soup needs to be cooled and we need to talk about how ice melts. Because the magazine needs to be cut up, the dollhouse needs to be reorganized, the wooden mushrooms and the felt carrots in the play kitchen need to be sautéed, and the marbles need to swirl down their tubes and dance through the pinwheels and clatter to the floor.
What is daily is boring. What is daily is mind-numbing. What is daily can wear me out. But what is daily is also shaping us, teaching us, nudging us, and offering us grace.
This, I guarantee you, will be 2017.
We will live the pace of grace.
And I have my watch on already.
So that’s something.
Your dad offered the children’s “moment” today at church.
(Yes, we are still old-school enough that we have a children’s sermon, but at least we try to sound a little less old-school about it by calling it a “moment.”)
Your dad is amazing, and I love how excited the eldest was to go up front with your daddy up there. You always love these weeks.
Your dad had all the children lean way back, as far as you could, and look up at the sanctuary ceiling. Then he had you rock back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, while he SHHHH‘d into the microphone.
SHHH. SHHH. SHHH.
Then he asked you what it felt like.
You see, the ceiling of our church is solid wood. I don’t know anything about wood building materials, but the visible ceiling is completely wood, with wooden boards one direction, all lined up, and then these big wooden beams, like a rib cage, across it.
Because of the shape of the sanctuary, it’s actually, incredibly, quite reminiscent of the inside of a boat.
SHHH. SHHH. SHHH.
Like the wind during a storm.
The church is a boat.
You kids got there really quickly. I was impressed. The church is a boat.
The capital-C Church is a boat, too. Or it should be.
The Church is a safe place in a storm, when Jesus is present; it is large enough to hold all of us, all who crawl on board.
That’s pretty cool.
And then your dad said something else, looking up at the ceiling again. Those wooden beams, the wooden structure, was a lot like a manger, too.
That SHHH. SHHH. SHHH. might be Mary’s voice, calming a baby.
And just think: we’re in the manger with Jesus.
It’s like the baby Jesus, this God-man, who was lying down on straw in this wooden framed manger, jumped up and flipped the manger on its head, to protect us, to keep us safe.
And there is space enough for all of us. Radical, upside-down, safe space, for all of us.
Enough space for the believer and the doubter, the cynic and the faithful, the college professor and the jobless, the worn-out mamas and the aging grandmamas, the teenagers who are less than pleased to be present and the elderly man taking a nap in the back pew.
And for those folks we are hesitant to include? Those who make us uncomfortable when we read about Jesus’ call to love our neighbors? Those people who are different than we are?
There is enough space.
In the manger.
In the boat.
That’s the message of Advent.
That is the message of the manger.
That is the message of our faith.
And that was the message of Faith Baptist Church this morning, during a children’s moment, with the kids lying on your backs, rocking back and forth, back and forth.
One of our daily Advent activities last week was to make paper chains, the old-school kind made out of strips of construction paper. When I wrote that entry on our Advent calendar a few weeks ago, I didn’t have anything brilliant in mind. I thought it would be a fun way to decorate a little bit for Christmas, since we do it progressively throughout the season, but that was about it.
Then, the day we were to make it, I thought, I know! We’ll write down the names of people we’re grateful for, one on each strip. And I gave myself a little metaphoric pat on the back for being such an amazing mom.
And it was a good idea. We’ll probably make some sort of annual tradition out of it.
On the day we made the chains, though, I also said that we would pray for everyone as we wrote their names down. This did not really happen. And, quite honestly, “writing down people we are grateful for” turned into “listing everyone the four-year-old knows.”
It took a lot of prompting to just get the important folks written down–grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles–because the list got a little cluttered with the names of parents of the eldest’s friends, the names of children of my friends, the names of teachers and random people who go to church with us. Yes, it’s a pretty eclectic group of folks listed inside these paper chains that hang in the living room.
But there is beauty here, in the hodgepodge.
As I was prompting the eldest for names, I mentioned the girls’ great-great-grandmother. As it so happens, the youngest shares a name with this amazing woman. We love Great-Great-Grandma Troutman. She’s one of my favorite pen-pals, and we write back and forth every few months. She even sent me some money to buy some little gifts for the girls for Christmas. Great-Great-Gram is in her 90s.
We wrote her name down, and then, not to be left out, the eldest suggested we also write down the name of my maternal grandmother, with whom the eldest shares a name. I paused momentarily, thrown off-guard, because she passed away before you were born, and I had only been thinking in terms of friends and family members who are living. But the eldest didn’t notice my pause. She kept repeating it: “Momma, Grandma Clara, write her down, I’m grateful for her too!”
And, of course, we did write her down.
Because, of course, I am grateful to this beloved woman. I’ve written a lot about her, and think of her often. I miss her and, in some ways, am surprised sometimes to realize she is gone, surprised that my girls have never met her, surprised that she never knew me as a mother.
A few months ago, when I was asked to share my faith journey at church, I began thinking about my spiritual inheritance. I thought of my grandma and I thought of others who’ve nourished me on my journey. It’s so important to consider these things, girls. It’s important to know our roots.
And water our roots.
I think we do that by remembering and telling stories. I think we do that by loving other people in the ways we have ourselves been loved. I think we do that by realizing we are not special, we are not deserving of the love that has paved the way for our journeys, but we are fortunate that the love did indeed do just that.
Because it did. It does.
Yes, I am so grateful to my grandmother, to all of my grandparents and great-parents who’ve passed on but left pieces of them behind for me to ponder in my heart. There’s Ginny’s chocolate chip cookies and tapioca pudding. Grandma Woodward’s drawn out “niiiiiiiiice.” Pappy Sands’s Twin Tamarack campground and coach bus. Pappy Lehman’s Uno-playing and swiping of the shot glass from that bourbon tasting when he visited us in Kentucky. Jeanie-Beanie’s signature on our birthday cards that included her imaginary friends. Doc’s “slow, Catholic way” of parking his boat. I can hear him saying that.
And those are just the first few that come to mind.
There are also my friends, too, who have passed, who remain with me in real and special ways. I think of Katy, especially, with her teapot and cookies and linen napkins. Don reading his love poems at the church talent show. Marilyn always coming over to greet our guests at church, saying she was my Kentucky grandmother.
I have been fortunate to know and to love so many people, fortunate to have been loved by so many people. And so have you.
It would be impossible to make a paper chain that captured all of this love, all of this gratitude.
But it makes me happy that we’ve got a small reflection of that love strung up in the living room.
Two more weeks of Advent, girls.