The Eighty-First Letter: Busyness & Keeping the Lights Along the Shore

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Dear Daughters,

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy 
from his lighthouse evermore, 
but to us he gives the keeping 
of the lights along the shore.

This morning began at 4 am when the fire alarm in the downstairs hallway began to chirp. After the third chirp, I woke your dad. He stumbled into the hallway to wait with me for the sound because I can’t reach the alarm in the upstairs hallway. After another chirp, it was obvious that it was coming from the downstairs hallway, which I could have reached.

After a drink of water, we went back to bed. I tried, at least. A little while later, I heard crying in the hallway, and knew it was you. Whenever you need to go to the bathroom, you wake up your big sister and ask her to come with you. Half asleep, she agrees, crawling down out of her bunk bed. She always wants to deposit you in front of our door, but you don’t want to be left alone in the dark. That’s where I found both of you this morning. I sent number one back to bed and accompanied number two to the bathroom, and then you asked to crawl into bed with us.

When I am struggling to sleep, I like having you there to focus on. I rub your back. Listen to your breathing. Accept the arms you reach toward me. I often fall asleep deeply to your steady breathing at that point, and my back aches as a result the next day. This morning was no different. You and I slept that way until long after your dad and big sister got up. I woke to the Bean practicing her piano, which I assume was your dad’s way of gently waking us up.

Let the lower lights be burning! 
Send a gleam across the way! 
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, 
you may rescue, you may save.

Mondays always feel like they are full of promise to me. I’m good at to-do lists, and this week’s is long, as we head toward Thanksgiving next week. There’s art to work on, some pieces that need to be finished by this weekend, writing deadlines fast approaching if I want to meet some personal goals, and normal homeschooling and church commitments, of course, which are myriad this time of year. There’s company at the end of this week, and other company next week. The preschool Thanksgiving feast is Tuesday. Wednesday night is the community-wide meal served at the elementary school. There’s our own potluck Thanksgiving meal, followed by a regular Thanksgiving meal tailored to our own preferences. And more pie, because, pie. Always pie. There’s deacon family communion next Sunday. Today is the last day of the after-school reading camp I volunteer with, but that means a special program on Wednesday to celebrate the students’ achievements. Tomorrow night we’re celebrating birthdays with friends and Thai food, so there was cake to be made, cake I hadn’t planned to make until 4:30 pm when I realized if I were to ice it tomorrow, it would need to be cooled tonight. Tomorrow morning is our weekly co-op, and there is no time in the morning. Friday is your dad’s birthday. Sigh.

The promise of Mondays? Well, it usually fades at some point while jotting down my lists and checking the calendar and texting back and forth with your dad about the to-do items we forgot. Signing up for health insurance. Renewing the car registration. Ordering more contacts. And we still haven’t decided about the organic, heritage breed turkey.

Dark the night of sin has settled, 
loud the angry billows roar. 
Eager eyes are watching, longing, 
for the lights along the shore.

Girls, there is always more to be done than I am able to get done. More than anyone is able to get done. People are busy, and everyone says so, and everyone is tired. The more I think about real relationships and being vulnerable and cultivating a community that supports one another, the more convinced I am that the go-to answer to “how are you?” being “busy, busy” is really hurting our communities. It’s pretty much as unhelpful as “fine” in shutting down all conversation. Yes, I know, life is busy. Everyone is busy. But how are you?

And what I want to say is this: I’m at the point in my life where I’ve decided to embrace busy-ness as an opportunity to only focus on the lighthouse light, to focus on keeping the lower lights burning.

What I mean is, because there is always going to be more to do than I can do, I’m going to go ahead and say yes to lighthouse things. And not worry about items that fall off the list. (Or rather, that get put on next week’s list and the week after and the week after.) Instead of saying no, today I agreed to help with worship planning. I agreed to think about new banners for our sanctuary. I said yes to texting and keeping in touch with broken souls and loved ones in transition and doing happy dances alongside those who are rejoicing.

And today I decided to take you to Starbucks for cake pops after piano lessons. Because YES. Cake pops. Snowperson cake pops. And peppermint mocha. After sitting for twenty minutes in the drive-through line, listening to “Oh, Babylon,” “Lower Lights,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “This Little Light of Mine” at your request, I’ll have you know, from the hipster hymn compilation CD we have in the car. (Yes, we still have a CD player.) And as those songs played, and you conjured up sweet dreams of cake pops, and analyzed the behavior of all other cars in line, including the SUV with the enormous dog in the backseat, I started making a list of all the beautiful and ordinary things filling up my life. Some are to-do list items that are now checked off. Some are just extraordinary ordinaries. Some are just grace-in-the-mundane altars-in-the-world. But this list is much more life-giving than a to-do list of items that won’t be getting done this week.

Let the lower lights be burning!

It’s a list of things like that we always holler and clap when we drive under the railroad bridge in our town.

Like that today when we left the house, there was a leaf plastered to the hood of the car with its stem sticking straight up in the air, and it cracked both of you up the whole drive to piano. It never blew away.

Like watching the five year old learn to draw a Treble clef in her piano theory book.

Send a gleam across the way!

Like how I overheard child number one helping child number two get dressed this morning: “No, you need to sit up in that chair. No, this chair. Give me your foot. Okay, here’s your first sock.”

Like that your babysitter today helped you draw and cut out an assortment of animals for a pretend zoo. It includes but is not limited to a goldfish and a blue whale, a worm and a cow, a baby chicken and two goats.

Like that I came across the three year old this morning sitting in front of the frig playing with letter magnets humming her nursery rhyme songs to herself.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman…

Like knee-high polkadot socks.

Like snowboots with crunched up leaves inside them.

Like using coconut oil on my face instead of lotion.

you may rescue…

Like finding a small Tupperware of buckeyes and bourbon balls I froze last Christmas in the freezer.

Like avacados being eighty-eight cents at the grocery store.

Like sitting across from your dad, while he reads Dorothy Sayers, and I drink a hot toddy and write you a letter.

you may save.

Like life.

A busy life. A full life. A beautiful life.

Say yes, girls. There is always time for lower-light things. For lighthouse things.

Love,

Your Momma

The Twenty-Ninth Letter: What I Do All Day

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Dear Daughters,

I remember once when we lived in Texas—long before you were born—talking with an acquaintance of ours who stayed at home with her young daughter and, at the time, was expecting her second. I was curious about what sorts of activities she did with her daughter during the day, but then I made the mistake of trying to ask about it. In fact, I worded it in about the worst way possible: “So, what do you do all day?” I asked.

I cringe now, remembering how I felt when I said it, realizing how awful it sounded and knowing I couldn’t take it back or reword it once it was out there, hanging in the air awkwardly.

What do you do all day?

Granted, I didn’t mean the question the way it sounded—I wasn’t accusatory or incredulous but rather seriously curious about what sorts of fun things her daughter enjoyed doing—but the truth is that I had no idea what it meant to stay home and take care of children. I had no idea what it took to keep small human beings from killing themselves, which of course is the minimum required, and certainly no idea what it took to be a good, attentive parent.

I had no idea how hard it was to do even the most basic of tasks while caring for young children. Everything is magnified to the nth degree.

I am now, of course, more than aware. Trust me.

Let me tell you a story.

This morning I decided just before breakfast, around 8 am, that we would go to the food co-op in Lexington and then be back for lunch, because I had a meeting at the bank at 1 pm.

Now, I know enough not to overschedule—one small accomplishment for the day is quite enough, and going to a single store is often that one small accomplishment.

So, we eat breakfast.

Then I get the toddler dressed. Put a ponytail in her hair.

Then I remember that we have company coming in to town tonight so I better strip the bed upstairs and check on the state of that bathroom. I patiently help the toddler up the steps. Stripping the bed involves letting the preschooler help take the pillowcases off. Keeping the toddler off the bed. Keeping the toddler from going down the stairs by herself. Keeping the toddler from getting into my art collages across the hall in the art room. Then I go downstairs holding the toddler’s hand and the sheets in my other arm, dropping a pillowcase, waiting for preschooler to come back up the stairs to get it.

Then I gather up some towels to put in the laundry with the guest sheets, and we all go down the stairs to the basement to get it started. You take turns pretending to crawl on the floor and “hide” under a chair that is inexplicably in the laundry room. I convince you we do not have time to build a tent in the TV room. I check the dryer—before breakfast, your dad had already started a load. It’s still wet in there after one full cycle, so I start the dryer again. The dryer repairman is coming tomorrow.

I start the washing machine with the sheets and towels. We go back up to the main floor, slow step by slow step.

Then I remember that the store I’m going to has glass recycling, which we don’t have in our town, so I load all three bins of recycling into the back of our car. I’m pretty proud of myself for remembering to do this. I figuratively pat myself on the back.

Then the toddler needs a diaper change, which reminds me that it is garbage day and I need to take the stinky bag out to the curb, where the garbage can is already sitting. I remember that the kitchen trash is also full, as is our downstairs bathroom trash. I take all the trash out.

Then I realize I still haven’t gotten myself dressed for the day, so I do so, deciding that short sleeves and flip-flops are adequate because it’s drizzly but will probably warm up by the time we get to the store. And I hate to deal with jackets while we’re at a store. I spritz myself with perfume instead of showering and put some eye makeup on.

I remember that it will need to be a fast lunch before my 1 pm meeting, so I start water boiling on the stove to hardboil some eggs. Both of you love egg salad. I silently applaud myself again for thinking ahead.

Then I get the preschooler dressed, and we have a discussion about what matches and what doesn’t. Let her decide about her hair. Find a matching headband.

Then I pack snacks for the drive down in the car, and add sippy cups of water, and make sure we have a change of clothes for both girls, in case of motion sickness, as has happened before on this drive.

I remember to put the eggs in the pot of boiling water.

I become aware that it is taking a ridiculous amount of time to get ourselves ready for the store. I decide I will write a letter to you about it later today, and so begin to catalog in my mind all the tasks that I’m doing and you’re doing and how funny this might seem tonight as I relive it.

I remember that we need some bulk items at the store, so I take the canisters for flour and sugar and put them out in the car. Go me. I remember to grab the cloth bags. I make a list of items we need to get at the store, so I don’t forget while we’re there.

Then I run back down to the basement to check the dryer—this time, it’s dry—so I empty the dryer and put the wet sheets load in and start it again. Run back upstairs.

I move the eggs off the heat.

Both girls get shoes on; the toddler also gets leggings. The preschooler goes to the bathroom one more time.

It is now 10:15, more than two hours after I decided to go to the store, and we are ready to go.

I usher you out onto the deck in front of me, grab my phone and purse and diaper bag, and pull the locked door shut behind me, tugging hard to hear the latch click… and at that exact moment I realize the keys are still inside the house. I look at the car helplessly, and then raise my hand to shield my eyes so I can see through our glass back door. The keys are hanging right inside the door. On the hook. Where they belong.I push on the door, just to check, but it’s locked. Well-locked.

Sigh.

Your dad is in his executive cabinet meeting, so I try calling your babysitter, who has a spare key to the house, and her phone goes to voicemail twice. I realize for the first time just how cold it is outside, considering none of us is wearing a jacket. It’s in the low forties. It isn’t drizzling, but everything is still wet. I walk us over to our friends’ house, just around the block from us. They have a keypad lock on their back door, and I know we can get inside and be warm there, while we wait to get in touch with someone.

At their house, I take your wet shoes off, give you your car snacks and waters, and go find a charger for my phone, which is compatible with theirs. I plug it in and let you watch Dinosaur Train for a few minutes, mooching their wifi.

I get a call from your sitter and find out that she has the key but can’t get to us because it is the first day of class at the seminary—can we get to her down on campus, about a mile away? Yes, we can.

I pack us all up again, and we walk back to our house, get the double stroller out of the shed, the double-thick outdoor blanket from the back of the car to bundle you up, and head down.

I’m still in short sleeves and flip-flops, pushing seventy pounds of child in a double stroller, but we’re making progress, I think. Everyone I pass is bundled up in a hoody or winter jacket. I make it to campus and get the key, about the same time I admit that there is no longer time to get home, get in the car, and drive to Lexington and still be back for my 1 pm meeting. So instead I promise you a cupcake from a bakery up on Main Street, as a reward for being so good and noncomplaining all morning.

The bakery is closed.

I try to go inside one of my favorite boutiques in order to get us warmed up for a few minutes and the double stroller doesn’t fit through the historic building’s door.

So I truck it home, now having gotten more than a day’s workout in, though still incredibly cold, and by this time, you’re disappointed you aren’t getting a cupcake and also begin whining that you’re cold.

We make it home, and I splurge and let you drink some homemade cocoa while watching more Dinosaur Train. You spill it on your shirt and pants.

I make lunch–egg salad–and then begin the process of getting you ready for quiet time, changing diapers, getting the preschooler’s bedtime friends out of the room as well as her clock that lights up, and getting her a clean outfit. I put her cocoa-covered clothes in the sink and wash them out. Just before laying the toddler down in her crib, I happen to check my phone and see a text from your dad. Are you coming to the bank?

It is 1:05. And I’ve forgotten about the meeting.

It’s only a few miles away, so I holler to round you up, attempting the impossible task of rushing you, and the toddler indicates that she has yet another dirty diaper in need of changing. I change it. We get in the car. We make it there at 1:15.

That is a day in the life, girls. A day in the life.

What do I do all day?

Well, let me tell you…

Love,

Your Momma