The Sixty-Seventh Letter: A Tale of Two Friendships

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Dear Daughters,

So the thing is, once you’re a grown-up, and especially a mom, it’s really hard to make tried-and-true friends. Most conversations devolve into talking about your children: how big ya’ll are, how sick you are, quirky things you say and do.

I’ve never liked playdates for this very reason. I don’t like to sit and talk with other moms about being a mom.

Additionally, I don’t think that kind of chatter leads very often to friendship because there’s so much more to my life (to anyone’s life) than being a mom. For another thing, it’s plain old boring. Oh, and it’s also just annoying to walk that line between competition/judgement and appreciating one another’s experiences. Maybe that’s a mom thing, maybe that’s a woman thing, or maybe that’s a human nature thing, but it’s ridiculous. I think I was over that before you were even born.

Yes, it’s hard to make friends as a grown-up.

I have two close friends from childhood. Seriously, from elementary school! And we’re still good friends. I’ve actually texted with both of them multiple times today, believe it or not. Sure, we’ve had close seasons, and we’ve had seasons when we’re not that close, but when I finally emailed them to tell them I’d had a miscarriage but that I was now pregnant again and anxious and didn’t really want to talk on the phone about it but please pray for me, you know what they did? They said, “We’re coming.” And they came. Both of them. From different states. Because that’s what friends do.

And I have two other close friends from college. These women and I have shared quite a bit of grown-up life experience, and in the fifteen years since we’ve been friends, there has been some serious heartache and trauma in our lives. The change-your-life, knock-you-down, give-up-hope trauma that is hard to talk about, hard to witness your friends living through. But these are also the kinds of experiences that shape relationships and draw us into forced openness and vulnerability. This is how we heal, I think. And this is what friendship is: life through the dark hole of suffering, offering to shine in a flashlight when our friends are ready.

But since graduating from college and stepping outside the intensive relationship-building that can happen during that unique season, I got married and moved to two different states in twelve years. Two homes and new cities where we had to plant our own roots and make community and didn’t have family to flee to when we were lonely and wondering whether we would ever find anything in common with “these” people. (If you didn’t know this, people from Texas are really into Texas. People from Kentucky are really into Kentucky. So neither place felt like home.) I felt like a stranger.

But in both of those places, as my roots went down deeper and deeper, as we invested in our neighborhoods and churches and relationships, even as I felt alone, I grew friendships. It surprised me.

It’s hard for me to figure out how this happened. I would call up one of my old friends and feel like she really “got” me, and then look around at my relationships and think “nobody here gets me” and feel really, genuinely discouraged.

But I did grow friends. I still am growing them. And I think I’m getting pretty good at watering that soil and sprinkling on the MiracleGro or compost. (Let’s face it, sometimes you need the poop to get things growing.)

The more I’ve gotten to know women in my community, the more I’ve realized that lots of us are lonely and in need of true, deep, vulnerable relationships. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about friendship.

And I’ve decided adult friendships are hard for two reasons:

  • they take a lot of intentionality
  • they require longterm shared experience

What I mean by the first reason is that friendship does not grow by accident. If you aren’t working on a relationship (and by “working on,” I mean being intentional with keeping in touch, remembering what’s going on and following up, reaching out, showing emotional support, being transparent and vulnerable when you yourself are hurting and broken, and not being crabby when she doesn’t offer back what you think you deserve–there’s the rub), your friendship will not last. I’m not saying that if you do these things, this is friendship magic, but well, it kind of is magic. Be the friend want to have. That’s how grown-up friendships work.

What I mean by the second point—that friendships require longterm shared experience—is that you shouldn’t discount the value of staying put.

When I moved to the middle of small-town America eight years ago, I was planted (unwillingly!) right into the middle of a deep and long-lasting and multi-generational community. It was easy to feel sorry for myself as an outsider who didn’t understand all the inside references to major life events of folks I was living and worshipping alongside. But I stayed put. And I stayed put. And I stayed put. And soon I found myself living alongside an amazing community of women who, simply by being here in community with them, became my friends and support system and biggest cheerleaders.

Some of my closest friends in Kentucky have grown out of two separate groups I’m part of. One is a women’s small group at church that meets weekly, and usually at least one of us is crying at some point during our time together. (It’s also important, in growing friendships, to carry tissues.) We read books and study scripture together and talk about ideas together, but I think our sharing about real-life pain and being vulnerable when life is hard is why the soil has been so fertile for friendship.

The other group is my community of creative friends. (Some women overlap these two groups.) I meet monthly with a group of women who share our writing and our lives. It goes hand-in-hand, because we write what we know and experience. In the years we’ve been meeting, there have been losses of love and family, serious illness, empty-nesting, and both of your births. We’ve been through a lot, and we write about a lot, and we continue to gather even when we haven’t written anything because that is what friendship is.

Let me tell you two quick stories of friendship as examples of the surprising ways it can grow.

The first is relatively recent, but one that feels like a soul-mate friendship. A woman visited our church the Easter before I was about to have baby girl number 2, literally the Sunday before I went into labor. I must have been huge and uncomfortable. I saw her and her family across the aisle from me and took note of her little girl’s hair because it was so cute. A few weeks after my delivery, I ran into this woman at the library, which I had braved because my mom was in town. We chatted briefly. But then, you know, I had two kids at home and didn’t leave the house for months. Nearly a year later, I ran into her again at the library and mentioned church to her but she said she was going elsewhere, and I didn’t push it. A few weeks after that, I was about to start a new women’s ministry at my church and was pretty sure the Spirit was nudging me to tell her about it. I’m pretty good at ignoring those nudges, though, so I did. But then she came over to me and asked me straight up about church, that she was looking for a community. So I told her about the ministry after all. That was more than two years ago. She’s now active in our community, one of my closest soulmate friends, your Sunday school teacher, and part of my weekly women’s group. Her daughter is one of your sweet friends. As it turns out, she confessed to me after we’d been friends for awhile, that whole year when I was MIA and not going to the library very often, she was trying to track me down. She was feeling in need of community, and remembered my funky glasses, short hair, and Keen boots, and thought I might be someone she wanted to get to know. I say all of that, girls, to to point out that you never know how the Spirit will nudge you, and you never know how much the folks around you need a community until you reach out.

This second story is one of friendship that grew between me and an older woman in my church over many years. She is one of my close friends now. The first time I saw her was while she was giving a children’s sermon at church about recycling paper bags. She struck me as quirky but not someone I’d have much in common with. She wore fancy hats to church. She was a science and nature teacher and made funky art. (This makes it sound like we would be fast friends, but you’ll have to trust me that we weren’t.) At some point, she joined the monthly writing group I was part of, and I slowly began to get to know her. She loved the gentle stories and poems I wrote about my family, especially about my maternal grandmother who suffered from Alzheimers and had failing health, and my friend always encouraged my “sacrilegious religious” poetry. When Grandma passed, before you were born, I was touched at a card my friend sent me about the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren. She remembered losing her own grandmother, and knew the pain I was feeling. Then, after you two were born, she showered me with support, with handmedown gifts, with love, with encouragement to write my own story for your sake. It was through those interactions that our friendship really grew roots. I credit her with my writing to you so regularly, though she denies it has much to do with her. In the years I have known her and lived life alongside her, we have shared loss and illness and brokenheartedness, but we have also shared stories and hope and the healing that comes through articulating grief and pain. I also got my first pimento cheese recipe from her. We’ve organized public combined poetry readings and I love the way our stories intertwine so well. And that can all be traced back, I think, to her reaching out to me when I felt such a deep loss after my grandma died.

So I’ll say it again: grown-up friendship is hard. It takes lots of work. But when we have the courage to cultivate it, it is worth it.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is my prayer for you:

May you have soul-friends. May you have old friends. May you make new friends. May you have friends who have walked through your season of life before you. May you have friends you can pull along on the journey. And may you have flash-light holding friends when you need them.

Because you will need them

You will need all of them.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-Sixth Letter: Tiny Wonders

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Dear Daughters,

I found a set of fairy wings on the kitchen floor a few days ago, and when I picked them up–because a corner of one of the wings had been a few inches under the stove–they dragged a bunch of other stuff out, too.

A huge dust bunny, of course. That’s a given in our house. (No shame.) Also some shriveled Cheerios, and we haven’t bought Cheerios in some time. And then the top half of an acorn. Just the little cap.

See, last fall, a friend of mine had dried and shellacked dozens of acorns to serve as autumnal decoration at our shared poetry reading, and afterward she asked you if you wanted them to play with. You, of course, did. Some of them were spraypainted gold.

You love small things.

You have little treasure boxes and assorted bags where you keep your special items. You’ve kept those little acorns for many months now, though occasionally I find one crunching under my feet in the shaggy rug in the living room.

Acorns are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Anything small can make the cut, as far as what you ask to keep to play with. Clips or rubberbands. Coins of assorted countries’ currency. Little tiny snips of paper you cut out around words you’ve written with hearts. Rocks. Beads. If we let you, you try to sneak the plastic ring from the top of milk jugs.

And that’s not to mention all the small plastic cartoon figurines from myriad television shows that we’ve inherited from friends. So many small things. Everywhere. Underfoot. Under furniture. Hidden amongst the plastic dinnerware of your play kitchen. Piled in the bathtub of your dollhouse.

You love small things.

Of course, now that dandelions are showing up in the yard, you’re pretty obsessed with them, too. You pick them and want to put them in vases and make me smell them, you count them, you get excited when we walk by neighbors’ yards that are covered densely dotted with yellow. You think those people are really lucky to have such a pretty yard.

We’ve also got little purple and white flowers blooming on weeds throughout our yard. Because that’s the kind of yard we have. It’s mostly groundcover, not grass. These tiny flowers suit you perfectly.

A few weeks ago, the preschooler’s show-and-tell assignment was to bring something that could fit in your pocket. Your pockets are pretty small. You selected a plastic Coca-Cola bottle cap with the tiniest of snail shells tucked inside of it. I had to put them into a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get lost in your backpack.

You’d found the snail shell in the sand under the deck, sand that I repeatedly ask you not to play with but you can’t resist scooping up and “watering” out of your drink cup. You asked if you could bring the shell inside, and I agreed, once I was pretty sure there was nothing living in it.

And so it went to school with you for show and tell.

This tiny wonder of a snail shell.

I love your love of the tiny.

I love your wonder.

It frustrates me too, of course. I’m not going to lie.

It’s one thing to be asked to stop and smell the roses but dandelions? I don’t always want to smell them, especially after you’ve been twisting and yanking on the onion grass in our yard and all I can smell is that garlicky yuck I know you’re smearing on your pants as you come jogging over to me.

I don’t want to slow down to watch the bugs crawling on the deck, the ants dismantling an old goldfish cracker, the “spider” which is probably some other random insect but the toddler calls everything “spider.”

I don’t always feel like pausing to listen to a noise that is so quiet and distant it really doesn’t matter to me. But it matters to you. And you want to have a conversation about what it might be.

Yes, I can be a stereotypical grown-up who loses my patience with these interruptions. I’ll admit it.

But some days: some days I do pause, take notice, listen.

Some days I squat beside you, invite you up onto my wooden swing, garlicky hands and all.

Sometimes I encourage you to try to feed the robin in our yard who I know will always be just out of reach.

Sometimes I come over and inspect that hole by the picnic table and chat with you about chipmunks and snakes and why you may not poke your stick down there.

Some days I count out your “monies” with you, whether they are US currency or not.

Some days I agree to go hunting for the Katerina Kitty Kat figurine, or O the Owl, or the particular Daniel Tiger you’re looking for. (For some reason you prefer the one with the white T-shirt, rather than the red T-shirt or the red sweater. Why in the world do they make so many variations?) But I help you look under the couch cushions.

Some days.

Some days, I wonder at the tiny. Because you remind me to.

And most days, at some point, I wonder at your wonder.

But every day, girls, every day:

I wonder at you.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Sixty-Fifth Letter: Enough to Go Around

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Dear Daughters,

Last fall, my women’s Bible study group at church began working through the Gospel of Mark together. I particularly enjoyed reading N. T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone commentary, guiding the group’s discussion, and unpacking the tricky passages.

I’ve read Mark before, both in snippets and straight through in one sitting, and I’ve certainly heard a lot of sermons preached on it. In fact, Pastor Bob preached through the book of Mark over the course of one liturgical year in recent memory. Your dad even translated it when he was studying Koine Greek as an undergraduate.

So it’s very familiar to me. And at 16 chapters, it’s the shortest Gospel. It’s all in a rush, it seems, especially when you read straight through it.

But reading Mark as a group this time, especially with all of the summarizing and re-hashing of the themes every week last fall, really illuminated the Gospel for me in a way that caught me off guard. It’s not just short and speedy and simple. Nope, it’s downright radical, girls. Seriously. It’s upside-down Kingdom, challenge the status-quo, packed-full-of-symbolism radical. This is powerful stuff, this Word of God.

It’s always good to be reminded of that.

My group took a break from Mark to read a different book this spring, but we picked it up again during Lent, starting with Mark 10. To kick off our discussion, I asked my friends to think back over the first nine chapters of the book and reflect on what stood out to them.

I’m sure it was no surprise when I told them the three things I had been carrying in my heart these last months because, quite honestly, when I’ve got something on my heart, I preach it. All the time. You’ll know this about me someday.

The first was the radical pull-back-the-veil, reveal-things-as-they-really-are nature of Jesus’ baptism scene. How radical would it be for us to hear God’s message to Jesus as a message about our own calling as God’s beloved children? “You are my beloved child,” God says. You are. YOU.

The second was the Gerasene demoniac’s healing. This has always struck me as a strange one, the focus often on the demons requesting to go into a herd of pigs—talk about crazy stuff in the Bible! —but N. T. Wright points out something I had never thought about before. This man, this Gentile who had been tearing his body apart because of possession and illness, is not just healed by Jesus, but commissioned by Jesus. Jesus tells him to go back to his community—most likely a Gentile community, given the location—and tell what God has done for him. This man, this nobody, is actually the first apostle to the Gentiles. How powerful is that?

And then, lastly, the bread. Oh, the bread. I’ve been preaching about the bread every time I can.

God’s message throughout the Gospels is a message of abundance and provision. It’s the message throughout Scripture, of course, but it comes up powerfully in the life of Jesus.

Here in Mark, the disciples see Jesus perform radical miracles of the body and spirit, they hear him teach and explain a radical Kingdom of God, and they are sent out and tasked with doing miracles themselves. Mark tells us they do it. They actually cast out demons without Jesus there with them.

Then they witness Jesus doing another crazy thing for a crazy big crowd of people. They even help him do it. God transforms a measly amount of bread and fish into enough food for over 5000 people, and there are twelve baskets of bread leftover. Leftover, post-miracle abundance.

But then, and this is what stays with me: a little while later, the disciples are freaking out when a storm comes up and they’re on a boat without Jesus. But Jesus, once again being his radical self, comes walking out on the water to them. Mark says Jesus “intended to pass them by,” which evokes a lot of things, including Moses being permitted to see the full revelation of God from behind as God passes by him in the cleft. The disciples here are seeing something they cannot believe, and it scares them. When things calm down a big, Mark says, in passing, that they were scared and confused because “they didn’t understand about the bread.”

They see God in the flesh, but they did not understand about God’s provision. They saw bread multiplied for the masses, but they did not understand that God had sent the true Bread of Life who was big enough, strong enough, enough enough. They were themselves able to cast out demons, but they doubted the ability of God to cast away their fears.

If only they had understood about the bread.

If only they had understood about God’s provision.

If only they had understood about God’s abundance.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few months.

Do I understand about the bread?

Do I recognize the message of abundance the Gospel announces to the world? This is not a name-it-and-claim it abundance. This is not a reward-for-good-behavior abundance. This is not a give-and-you-will-be-blessed abundance.

This is the sheer, undeserved, over-the-top abundance of grace.

And it is for everyone. Not just you, girls. Not just me. Not just other pew-dwellers.

This abundance is offered to the most ornery of political leaders.

This abundance is offered to the shut-in across the street.

This abundance is offered to the registered sex offenders in our neighborhood.

This abundance is offered to the mom of the kid at preschool that kind of grates on your nerves.

This is radical abundance. There is enough to go around. It won’t run out. And offering it to others does not lessen the value of it, the generosity of it.

We Christians say we believe in the grace and love of God, but I worry that we don’t act like we believe in it.

I don’t think we act like we believe that it applies to others, that much is darn sure as far as I witness Christian behavior in my own community and on my own Facebook newsfeed, but I also don’t think we act like we believe it in our own lives.

And still I wonder:

Do I understand about the bread of heaven? Do I understand that this life is not my own? This house is not my own? That you are first and foremost daughters of God more than you are my daughters? Yes, I think that is the message of scripture.

This world is not ours. Our lives are not ours.

Everything we have is undeserved. And there is enough to go around.

If only they had understood about the bread…

I don’t know, ya’ll. I might still be preaching this message when you’re grown-up and reading these letters.

If I’m not, remind me.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-Fourth Letter: All Y’all Be Perfect

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Dear Daughters,

“If Jesus lived in the south, he would have said something like, ‘All y’all be perfect, as my father in heaven is perfect.”

One of the things I love about being in community and attending church with professional academics and theologians is that even our children’s moments occasionally talk about Greek. You, girls, don’t realize how special this is, nor how unique it is that many of the adults who move in and out of your daily life hold doctorates in their fields, your dad included.

On Sunday, one of our dear friends, whom you call “Mr. Roger,” offered the children’s moment. Mr. Roger’s children’s moments always begin with a small paper sack that he shakes a little bit and asks you kids to guess what it is in it.

This week, it was rocks. But not just any rocks.

These three rocks had been picked up by Mr. Roger from a river in the mountains of Chile. These rocks were nearly perfectly round. Rounder than eggs. They were beautiful.

Roger talked about how these rocks probably broke off of the mountains thousands of years ago, and that they used to be rough and jaggy. But over time, rubbing up against the other rocks, they got smoother and smoother and rounder and rounder.

At this point, I was pretty sure I knew where this mini sermon was going because who hasn’t heard it before? You know, iron sharpens iron, or something like it. How great community is because it makes us into better people. Yada yada yada.

Except that isn’t what Roger said.

The verse Roger wanted to talk to you about was Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.” Roger said that the implied “you” in that sentence (“YOU be perfect”) is actually a plural in Greek, that what Jesus is really saying there is “You all” be perfect, or “Y’all.”

And that maybe we should even say, “All y’all be perfect.” 

Roger unpacked the verse for you like this:

Maybe the only way we become perfect, the only way we are even on the road to being perfect, is when we are rubbing up against one another, getting our sharp edges made smooth. Maybe it’s impossible to do it alone.

And maybe we can’t even begin to be the person of God Jesus is talking about unless we first become the people of God.

Um, girls, for the record, this is not the message I like to hear.

I talk a lot about community and how important it is; it’s kind of my schtick. People expect it of me. In our church and group of friends, it’s basically like, “Hey, we need to talk about community (or outreach, or hospitality, or loving people, or life together), so I guess let’s ask Elizabeth to talk about that.”

But the truth is, I find community very, very hard.

I don’t like this notion that maybe part of my job in the whole scheme of things, the whole be-perfect-like-God-is-perfect calling of Christians, is to help sand down other people’s rough edges, and I definitely don’t want to think my rough edges need to be sanded down. I’m pretty good at sanding myself, thankyouverymuch.

But there it is, in Mr. Roger’s translation of the verse:

All y’all be perfect.

As my father in heaven is perfect.

That’s a high bar even just to aim at, let alone work toward.

Notice there’s no “if you feel like it,” no “if it’s easy,” no “if church makes you feel good, that’s extra great for you then,” no “but if you want to leave your church, that’s okay, too.”

I’m serious, girls. These are tough words.

But then again, the words of the cross are. 

And the words of the cross are the words we most need to hear during this season of Lent.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Sixty-Third Letter: How the Whole30 Confirms What I Know to Be True About Myself

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Dear Daughters,

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, bread.

Also, cheese.

Also, beans in my chili.

Also, rice with my curry.

SERIOUSLY, GIRLS.

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. 

Shocker.

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.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-Second Letter: On Princesses and Dinosaurs

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Dear Daughters,

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.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-First Letter: Why Not All of It?

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Dear Daughters,

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. 

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixtieth Letter: Handwriting Is My Jam

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Dear Daughters,

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.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Ninth Letter: Am I Sheltering You?

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Dear Daughters,

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.

Just sad.

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.

Love,

Your Momma