The Ninety-First Letter: Birthdays Are Not the Most Important Thing

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Dear Daughters,

Flashback to the morning of the eldest’s birthday:

Bean: My birthday is the best day of the whole year.

Me: What about Christmas?

Bean: Jesus was born.

Me: What about Easter?

Bean: Jesus rose from the dead.

Me: Yeah, so I think you won’t be getting your birthday into the top two days of the year any time soon. Sorry.

And then you told me that your dad had basically said the exact same thing to you last night.

So he and I are on the same page. #parentingwin

Girls, you’ve both had birthdays in the last few weeks. I love that you have them less than two weeks apart. And they’re bookended by birthdays of one of your grandpas and one of your grandmas. It makes it feel like this is “birthday season,” in addition to the Kentucky Derby, the college graduation, your piano recital, Mothers Day… sigh. So. Many. Things.

We didn’t have a party, but I did try to go out of my way to make sure you felt special, because I know we don’t do a lot of gifts. (Intentionally so, but more on that later.)

You got to drink chocolate milk in the morning, which is unusual for house, even though I’m pretty sure you know other kids get it regularly. You got to pick your birthday dinners and the colors of your birthday cake—hotdogs and macaroni and cheese and grapes and a purple cake with pink icing; pancakes and egg casserole followed by vanilla cake with white icing—and we had our sweet friends over to share it with us. We had small presents for you both—plastic dinosaurs and playdoh; artsy science books and a nature journal—and our friends made themed birthday hats for us related to your interests of dinosaurs and birds. In fact, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there is still a giant dinosaur helium balloon floating around the ceiling on the first floor that your crazy aunts brought us. Also, we did a family trip to a local animal reserve on the weekend between your birthdays; on the eldest’s actual birthday, we met some friends at the local orchard.

My point is this: we do celebrate birthdays. I feel like we celebrate them and celebrate you a lot. Just not in the presents and party sort of way that has unfortunately become the norm. (I’m not talking just in a social media out in the wide world kind of norm, but in our very own community kind of way.)

And so also this point: birthdays are not the most important thing, and if I’m going to fault on the side of anything, it’s going to be under-celebrating, rather than over-celebrating.

Not all of my mom friends agree with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure they think I’m weird on this thing.

Recently the eldest announced matter-of-factly, “Some people get hundreds of birthday presents.” It actually really bothered me that you’d said this, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I asked what you meant. You gave me the example of one of your friends’ birthday parties from a few years ago. Though there weren’t hundreds of presents at the party, it did seem excessive to me at the time, and I remember having to explain to you that there are lots of ways to celebrate birthdays. I tried to make excuses for the excess. There was an entire table of presents, a small cart of presents, presents piled under the table, and a new bicycle.

Girls, let me just clear the air: don’t ever think I’m going to let you open that many presents at one time.

That will never happen. Not on your birthday. Not on Christmases. (Okay, maybe someday if you have a baby shower or a wedding shower, but I kind of hope that I’m raising you to never want so much stuff.)

I love you very much, and your community loves you very much, and of course I’m teaching you that God loves you very much, but I promise you this: you are not that special.

In addition to being opposed to the consumerism of birthdays, the excess of the parties and gifts, I am worried about how that center-of-attention, open-all-the-presents type of party shapes children’s understanding of themselves, of how love should be expressed, and of how God calls them to live in the world among hurting people.

And I have once again crossed the line into preachiness. Sigh.

Girls, I don’t know how you’ll feel about our family traditions once you’re older. You might remember pangs of jealousy when you see others opening a ton of presents on their birthdays, when you hear how much your friends got for Christmas. (I actually look forward to being able to chat with the grown-up you about these things in the same way my parents occasionally ask me how how I used to see the world when I was a kid.)
But there’s one more thing I want to write down for posterity’s sake, so that you can get a peek into my heart.

I would actually love to buy you all the presents and give you all the presents. I see things all the time that I know you would love. They are not crappy toys made overseas by slave workers. They are learning activities, art supplies, books and books and books, solid and well-built equipment, seriously beautiful toys. When I see things I know you would love, it is hard for me not to buy it for you. But I don’t buy it for you.
I don’t buy it for you for many reasons. One, because you really have enough, and I want you to learn what it means to have enough. Two, because I truly believe that your creativity will thrive when you are free to make and do and run and design and write your own narrative. Three, because I want you to love libraries, to love playing outside, to consider the possibilities of a cardboard box, rather than read instructions on a put-together toy. Even if that toy is amazing.

What I mean is this: I love to give you gifts. Don’t ever think that it’s because I don’t like shopping that you don’t have a lot of birthday presents. (I mean, I don’t like shopping, but that’s not the reason. We do have Amazon, after all!)

And for the record, I did buy too many gifts for you this year, but after wrapping them, I decided to put them aside to save. Some of them will be given by the tooth fairy over the next year. Some of them will go with us on an upcoming trip as a special travel treat. Some of them might make it until Christmas. We’ll see. But you didn’t get them for your birthday.

So you see, I do need to keep myself in check as well. There is a tendency when you love someone to want to give them more.

Always more.

And in our world, that “more” is usually more stuff. And fancy parties.

I’m working really hard for it not to be that way in our house. It does take work. And I’m guessing you’ll have a lot of things to say about that some day.

Love,
Your Momma

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The Eighty-Fifth Letter: Snow Day

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Dear Daughters,

There is no snow on the ground today, but the public schools called off because of potential ice hazards.

I heard the rain in the wee hours of the morning, the rain that was supposed to turn over to wintry mix and ice, and I couldn’t stop from checking my phone when I got up to go to the bathroom whether schools were cancelled.

That’s probably a weird compulsion, my wanting to know about cancellations that don’t really impact my life at all, other than the fact that our church activities get cancelled if school is called off on a Wednesday. But as a general rule, our family is not impacted by the public school cancellation policy. It’s one of the beautiful things about homeschooling.

But, still, I always check the delays and closings tab on the local news website because I have to know if schools are closing. It’s silly.

I think it’s probably because I remember what it’s like, that excitement of finding out school had been cancelled for the day. I remember lying in bed in the still-dark morning, trying to listen for the scrape of snow plows on our usually busy street where I grew up in central Pennsylvania. The traffic sounds were slower on those mornings, more muffled, but it was the scrape I was listening for.

I can still hear that sound clearly in my mind, even though here in Kentucky our street rarely gets plowed, and when it does, it’s usually a pick-up with a plow hooked onto it.

Y’all, it’s not the same thing.

Later you can tell me how mean I am about this, but I don’t actually give you snow days “off” this year. Not completely off at least. If there’s actual snow on the ground, I do let you take breaks to go play in it. And we make hot cocoa. And we spend a lot of time looking out the windows. Still, I make you do our minimum school activities of reading, piano practice, and having family readaloud time.

Even on “snow” days.

On Monday, I was brushing about an inch of light, super-fluffy snow off of the car to head to piano lessons. (Public schools had cancelled but the slush had already melted off the roads by 10 am.) As I cleared the car, I noticed just how beautiful the snow was. I could see the little crystals of snow stacked up with air between them, or so it looked to me as I fluffed them away with the broom.

When I pulled the car forward so that your door lined up with the sidewalk your dad had salted before he left for work, to keep you from traipsing through the snow, I was thinking about how rarely I have to drive in bad weather, and how my perspective about what constitutes “bad” weather has significantly changed since I was a teenager.

What I mean is, I’m a big wimp.

One time when I was in high school, after a two-hour delay, I was driving to school with my friend Olivia in the passenger seat. There was a lot of snow on the roads, way more than I would drive in now, and at one point, I pulled from a minor neighborhood road onto a busier street that headed down hill, and as I made that turn, the car just drifted right off the road into a snowbank on Olivia’s side. Well, first, the car glided completely out of my control into head-on traffic but then turned the other way and drifted into a snowbank without, thankfully, hitting any other cars. But there we were when the car came to a stop, us hyperventilating a bit, the car smushed into the snowbank.

I wonder if Olivia still remembers that one.

I wonder why the heck I was allowed to drive my car in that kind of weather.

I am pretty sure I would have a panic attack now if anyone asked me to drive with that much snow on the road. I am not exaggerating.

Because my perspective has changed. Also because I’m a wimp now. No shame.

During my undergraduate years at Houghton College, I can remember going out to my car, parked behind Walldorf House, and needing to clear more than a foot of snow off the top of it. Clear a path to the exhaust pipe, clear off the whole area around the drivers-side door, turn the car on so it would start melting ice as it warmed, and then the long slow process of pushing the heavy snow off the hood, the windshield, the roof. I have rarely seen snow like that as an adult. Thank goodness. My mental health is more stable because of it.

The problem really is that we moved to Texas the summer after we graduated from Houghton. And after four years in Texas, we moved to Kentucky, where we’ve been now for almost ten years. And okay, in Kentucky we occasionally get crazy ice but rarely the kind of snow I used to have to dig my car out of.

I won’t compare the quality of the roads or the abilities of the drivers by region because it isn’t fair. Kentucky’s resources for winter care of the roads are limited.

But I’m honestly happy to live in a place that basically shuts down at the threat of snow. The flexibility of our normal days, your schooling, my working, our life together, makes it so that snow days and hot cocoa add a beauty to our life, not a stress. If the roads happen to be “bad,” or its too cold for the 1999 Volvo’s engine to start, your dad just bundles up and walks to work.

And if school is cancelled on a day when there is absolutely no bad weather, like today? Well, we just go about a normal day.

Except church was cancelled.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Seventy-Fourth Letter: The Me I Want You to Be

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Dear Daughters,

Last week, the five-year-old announced that you wanted to be just like me when you grow up. You were watching me hand-letter a sign, as you are prone to do, standing there mesmerized, and so I knew what you meant: that you wanted to be an artist like me, that you want to learn to hand-letter, that you want to be a painter who makes beautiful things. Some day.

But, I’ll be real, when you said you wanted to be just like me, my first thought was about all the ways I hope you are not like me. I thought about how often I lose my temper, for example, how I can be unreasonable with my expectations. How I worry too much, get anxious and listless and unsettled inside. How I need to self-talk myself down off the ledge. How I’m selfish and prideful and really want to flee some days. Maybe even every day at some point, if I’m honest with myself.

Sure, I would love for you to be an artist or a writer, or an academic like your dad, but more than that, I want you to be many other important things. I want you to be brave and vulnerable, courageous and compassionate, calm and trustworthy and loving, truth-seeking and honest, full of conviction and kind, articulate and dissatisfied with the status quo.

I am some of those things, but I am not all of those things.

I’m not saying I’m a failure when I get worried, when I snap at you and scold you and am unreasonable. I’m a good mom, and I know I am. But I wonder sometimes how to teach you to be brave when I myself do not feel brave, to teach you not to worry when I myself am worried, to teach you to love strangers when I myself want to be by myself.

And the truth is, I can only take it one day at a time, one moment at a time. And in some of those moments I will fail.

Right now I am sitting outside at the picnic table and the two of you are playing explorers in the yard. (I want you to love being outside, even though it’s not my favorite thing.) You’re picking green beans and putting them into your sandbucket. And you’re eating them. (I gave you permission. I want you to love the garden and fresh food and crunchy beans.) You’re hot and sweaty already. (I want you to know it’s okay to not always be comfortable.) You’re crawling up the slide backwards. (I want you to know it’s okay to be creative in interpreting the rules.) You’ve got bug spray on your legs and sneakers on your feet. (I want you to know how to care for yourself.)

Yesterday you were barefoot and sliced your foot open on a broken walnut shell. I was working on a poem up on the porch but you began screaming and sobbing about blood, and that was the end of poetry for the day. I was annoyed, even as I cared for you, but I want you to I know that I will always choose you over any project in front of me, even if I do it begrudgingly some days. I am still becoming my best self; there is still work to be done. Your foot is still hurting today.

In recent weeks, I’ve had some opportunities to show you in small ways what brave and courageous looks like, even when I have not wanted to. I flew with the two of you to visit your grandma at her beautiful island home. The trip requires two flights to get there, and two flights with two children and one adult is not exactly my favorite traveling situation. (Also, less importantly, I played with you in the ocean despite my ridiculous and unaccountable fear of sharks.) And then last week, I drove the two of you to Pennsylvania so you could see your new cousin, two sets of grandparents, a great-grandma, and your great-great-grandma. Girls, this kind of trip, no matter how many times I do it and no matter how many times it turns out okay, is tough for me. On Wednesday night before we left, I lay awake in bed for hours and tried to think of all the reasons I could to back out of our trip. For hours.

But we went and we got to see some loved ones. We got to meet your brand-new cousin and get baby snuggles, finally got to meet my college friend’s husband. We went to Perkins with Great-Great-Grandma and she gave you each four quarters. We ate candy and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches with Great-Grandma and her dogs made you cry. I got to see a childhood best friend and her girls, and we took a picture with our matching Subarus.

In other news, I also turned the wrong way on the turnpike and had to go thirty miles out of my way. I went west instead of east on interstate loop in bumper-to-bumper traffic and made an already-too-long trip even more interminable. I kept my cool both those times. I really did. Outwardly.

But this is life: I did lose my temper a few times in the car, by the end, especially on the way home when interstate construction extended our drive by four hours. I yelled and even cried more than once. Literally cried. I was not at my best, but I’m a work in progress.

I feel like I’m still recovering, two days later. Maybe it’s because there had been so much weight following me around while I was trying to be brave for you and pretend I was not as overwhelmed as I was. I don’t single-parent well.

Yesterday, I didn’t unpack and do laundry. (For the record, the basement flooded twice while we were gone, so laundry would have been impossible given the furniture piled up in the laundry room. Your dad is the real superhero who vacuumed up dozens of gallons of water twice, moved furniture, propped up carpets, made myriad Lowe’s runs, and now has fans blowing on everything.)

By the end of the day yesterday, the sink was full of dirty dishes and I did not wash them. I did not even look at the to-do list from before the trip that I knew was mostly incomplete. I did not pay the stack of bills, even though I knew that the end of the month was approaching. I saw the pile of crafts and artwork that had accumulated at the end of the school year and planned to take photos of all of them so I could finally, finally toss them out. But I didn’t. I left the table and the buffet covered in art and mail and craft supplies.

But you know what I did do? Your dad and I said morning prayers together. I took a shower. I took you to gymnastics class and then to the playground to play just for the fun of it. While on the playground I surprised myself by showing you how I can still hang from my knees on the monkey bars. When we got home, I cut a jar full of day lilies, a few branches of rose of sharon, and flowering thyme to put on our dining room table. I did not clear off the table first. Not a bit. I chose to add beauty instead of organizing the chaos. Then I went back outside and cut three jars of fresh oregano and basil to keep them from flowering, and I brought them inside to the windowsill above the sink. Then I went back outside and cut some fresh mint to brew sun tea on the back porch. During quiet time, I hand-lettered some postcards. You followed me around and commented on everything I did.

And I did not mention to you how I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. I did not tell you about the things I was not accomplishing.

Instead, I helped you see that life is in the one-moment-at-a-time experiences of cutting flowers and pinching basil and picking green beans and making beauty.

Because I really believe that if I show you that often enough—what bravery feels like, what beauty feels like, what love and compassion feels like—even if I’m floundering inside, well, I really believe that I will someday become those things myself.

And then you can be just like me when you grow up.

I’ll be okay with that.

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventh Letter: Patchouli & Typewriters

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Dear Daughters,

After a long and difficult week, today I saw my reflection in the car window while picking up our Thai food takeout and I cringed just a little bit. I was wearing my favorite winter jacket—a circa 1978 reddish brown leather jacket with a faux fur collar, courtesy of your dad’s mom, my mother-in-law. Back in 1978, it was a gift from your Papa when uncle Ryan was born. Since she is tall and I am tall, it fits me better than pretty much any coat I’ve ever owned.

Did I mention the faux fur? It pretty much rocks.

There I was sporting this ridiculously retro jacket and my boots and skinny jeans, and I was carrying Thai food takeout—most of it with tofu in it—and I had my giant sunglasses on, and I was about to crawl into our 1999 Volvo stationwagon.

It was, well, so perfectly cliché in a typewriter-in-the-living-room-next-to-the-MacBook hipster kind of way.

Or at least that’s how it felt until I got to our friends’ house with the takeout and I got to eat my pineapple fried rice with tofu, no spice, thank you. And the toddler picked out all of the tofu from her plate to eat it first because it’s her favorite part. (She calls it toe-food.) And we cracked open some homemade dill pickles to have on the side and cheddar cheese, because everything is better with chunks of cheese. And we laughed and joked and loved with our best friends after all of us had survived a terrible, no good, very bad week.

It wasn’t cliché, girls. Not then. It was life.

Over the holidays I was able to visit with one of my favorite cousins. He and his wife are the sort of cool people I have always wanted to be, even back when we were all teenagers together. They wore patchouli before I even knew what patchouli was and shopped at vintage clothing stores. She was the first young person I knew with a tattoo and had a bleachy streak in her hair. They went to college in San Diego. They are awesome people.

As I hugged him hello, he still smelled like patchouli.

No joke.

They live in small-town Pennsylvania now and homeschool their kids; he’s an art teacher at the public school; they talk about nitrate-free bacon.

Maybe because I have always wanted to be like them—free spirits and yet somehow grounded, passionate, and fun—when I catch myself actually being like them, I feel like maybe I’m an imposter.

An imposter with my fair trade coffee and chlorine-free diapers and homemade babyfood.

An imposter with my second-hand clothing and compost bin and church that has a community garden.

An imposter with my retro pyrex bowl collection and arm-knit infinity scarf and, yes, typewriter we pulled out of your grandparents’ barn.

But at other times, most of the time, really, I feel at home in my skin, in my clothes, in my car, at home eating our tofu Thai food around our second-hand dining room table. With friends. Always with friends.

On those days when I don’t feel like an imposter, don’t care that on the outside I look like a hipster cliché, that, for goodness sake, I really think that typewriter is beautiful, I realize this, this is who I want to be.

So, girls, I guess what I want to say to you today is this:

Be who you are. Love people. Care about what matters.

Don’t worry about the rest.

You know, I’ve been thinking—I don’t wear patchouli, but I might start. It smells like earth and happiness.

And life.

Real, lived life.

Your Momma