The Seventy-Second Letter: On Productivity & To-Do Lists


Dear Daughters,

Sometimes I write drafts of letters to you and then don’t share them. It’s usually when I’m feeling rather blah about life on a particular day, when I’m not feeling productive or focused on the tasks at hand but instead just want to crawl into bed and read my book and let you watch a show on the iPad. (Unfortunately for me, you don’t actually want to watch shows when you could be doing fun things like building a playground out of our living room furniture or running around the yard making soup from grass and weeds and sticks and leaves.)

On those blah days, sometimes albeit rarely, at the end of the day, I catalog what the day has been, and sometimes, it helps me to cultivate gratitude. Because I know, even when I don’t feel like it, that in every day, life has been accomplished.

In every day, grace has been offered and received.

In every day, there is reason to refocus my eyes.

But most days, when I most need that, when probably all I need to do to see is blink a few extra times, I don’t manage to. My day feels blah. Nothing seems profound. What I write is bland.

Tuesday was one of those days, the first day home after our vacation. I was having one of those days with all the feels. It’s now Friday, and I’m only slightly better. But I re-read what I drafted on Tuesday night, and I can see now that it wasn’t nearly as low of a day as it felt in the living of it.

Because in the living of it, I couldn’t see the holy of it, not at first.

But now I can.

So I’m offering Tuesday’s letter after all.

Here’s what I wrote on Tuesday night, after you were in bed, while your dad practiced his upright bass in the basement, as I tried to refocus:

Today did not feel like a productive day. I started it off bright and early with a to-do list of things I might want to consider accomplishing.

I did very few of those things.

At the very least, I should have done some laundry.

No, at the very least, I should have emptied out my suitcase from our trip last week. We got back last night close to 11 pm, and I’m pretty tired today, but there are damp swimsuits in a grocery bag inside that suitcase, so yes, I should have emptied it. I didn’t. It’s still on the bed as I type this.

And lest you think I might sneak in a sense of accomplishment when I head upstairs in a few minutes to go to bed: don’t worry. I will simply move it onto the floor and add it to the to-do list for tomorrow.

Today I took the eldest to her fifth year well visit and we waited 45 minutes for the doctor. I wasted the time at home before and after the appointment by chatting with your babysitter, instead of using that expensive time to check items off my to-do list. While we chatted, I drank hot tea with milk and sugar, even though I’m pretty sure both of those things are bad for me.

After the sitter left, I had thought we would go to lunch with your dad but then he ended up too swamped with work, and honestly I didn’t really feel like eating out after the airport food we ate yesterday. So, instead, I scrounged up a lunch that didn’t require a grocery run: tuna salad and crackers (and an apple, pickle, and cheese) for you, carrots and almond butter for me.

During lunch, I texted a few friends to let them know we’re back in town and ask how they are. I was without cell service on vacation. I chatted on the phone with Ms. Ashley, both of us lamenting what we were not doing and mentioning what we should be doing.

We finished lunch and I let you color for a few minutes before quiet time began. The youngest surprised us by writing her name legibly.

I planned to mow the grass during quiet time this afternoon, and even slathered myself with SPF 50, changed my clothes, put on a visor and old sneaks, and filled the mower with gas. Then the mower engine didn’t sound right and kept banging and puffing out black smoke. It puttered out when I tried to force it to mow under those circumstances. I called your grandpa to ask for advice, and we decided I probably couldn’t fix it. I came inside, still covered in sunscreen, and drank another cup of tea and read my novel. Actually, I also registered you both for VBS, and registered myself for Lexington Poetry Month. I did not pay bills, though it’s the end of the month and they’re all waiting for my attention on the table.

After the youngest kept coming downstairs for unimportant reasons, and then began crying in bed when I told you to stay upstairs, I decided to load us in the car and accomplish at least one thing officially on my list. We went to Wilson’s Nursery to buy tomato and basil plants. It’s nearly half an hour away but I didn’t care. I packed a snack and waters for you, grabbed your sunglasses, and we left. I let my phone tell me how to get there so I didn’t have to think about it.

Then, because Wilson’s was having a Memorial Day Sale all week, I ended up buying ten vegetable plants, including peppers and cucumbers, three basil plants, and six mini succulents. I thought I would make a little succulent pot for our neighbors who just brought their preemie baby home from the hospital, and who can ever have too much basil?

We got home, and then walked over to our other neighbor-friends’ house and borrowed their mower. I was still determined to mow.

But first: garden.

You tried to help by getting garden rakes and shovels from the shed, but let’s face it: you’re just not that helpful and very likely to injure yourselves as the two of you maneuver a shovel with a handle as long as you are.

Your dad arrived home and got the mower running (by sheer force of will, it seems to me), and mowed half the yard while I was still transplanting and figuring out where to put ten veggie plants when we already have our raised beds pretty full of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, beans, and baby blueberry bushes surrounded by carrots. I decided the hydrangea beds across the yard can each house a tomato plant. (The hydrangeas have turned a stunning magenta while we were away—who knew?—but wilted quite a bit in today’s heat. I hope they will recover when we water.)

I accidentally broke off a cucumber stem. I picked the green beans that have popped into existence in the week we’ve been gone. I weeded the herb bed. The oregano is now two feet tall and the thyme is circling the mint to win the award for most invasive herb we own. I pinched the smallest leaves of my new basil plants to stimulate growth. Your dad snipped off our leaf lettuce that is getting out of control, and we decided the grownups will eat salad for dinner. He sent you in with an armful of lettuce to put in the sink. I finished transplanting the succulents and tried to decide if the pot needs a bit of decoration before giving it away as a gift.

Seven o’clock was quickly approaching at this point, and we hadn’t eaten dinner. I ran inside to rinse the basil leaves I removed during transplanting, and I smushed a spider that crawled out of the sink’s lettuce.

Under the lettuce, the sink was full of the dirty dishes I did not wash today. Even the breakfast dishes were at the bottom of that pile.

While your dad watered the produce and baby trees and hydrangeas (and previous years’ Easter lilies, which seem to be blooming too), an AT&T salesman stopped by to try to sell us new internet service, even though he came to the door earlier in the day and I had told him ‘no’ once already.

I mowed the remaining half of the yard—and paused to chat with the neighbor and see how the baby is doing–and then mowed the part outside the fence while your dad prepped dinner. And fed you both dinner. I returned the mower.

Your dad was nearly finished with your bath by the time I sat down to eat my salad.

I joined in for bedtime routines of singing and praying and tucking-in, ran downstairs for the forgotten fuzzy blanket, gave permission for a final bathroom run.

And then I showered.

I started the day with a shower today, thinking I was off to a productive start. I ended the day with wet hair once again and don’t feel the least productive.

Because it’s too easy to judge productivity with the lists that didn’t get done.

We have two cucumber plants, two pepper plants, six tomato plants, three basil plants, three small pots of succulents to keep and one large to give away that we didn’t have before today. And our grass is mown. I checked in with friends and caught up a bit.

And when your dad turned on my iPad this evening—my special iPad for my hand-lettering and digital design work that seemed to go on the fritz and have severe hardware issues while we were away—well, he turned it on and miraculously it worked.

I feel like that’s something worth adding to my list of achievements for the day. Even if it had nothing to do with me.

Because I’m kind of thinking now, having typed up the day, that very few of my daily achievements have much to do with me anyway.

It’s all sacred, girls. These little moments.

It doesn’t matter what gets crossed off the list.

I haven’t looked at the list in hours. It got pushed to the back of the counter at some point earlier today and I haven’t grabbed it since.

I’m not complaining. Lists help keep me organized. I love making them. I love crossing things off of them.

But, y’all, lists aren’t life.


Your Momma




The Fifty-Fifth Letter: Paper Chains and Gratitude


Dear Daughters,

One of our daily Advent activities last week was to make paper chains, the old-school kind made out of strips of construction paper. When I wrote that entry on our Advent calendar a few weeks ago, I didn’t have anything brilliant in mind. I thought it would be a fun way to decorate a little bit for Christmas, since we do it progressively throughout the season, but that was about it.

Then, the day we were to make it, I thought, I know! We’ll write down the names of people we’re grateful for, one on each strip. And I gave myself a little metaphoric pat on the back for being such an amazing mom.

And it was a good idea. We’ll probably make some sort of annual tradition out of it.

On the day we made the chains, though, I also said that we would pray for everyone as we wrote their names down. This did not really happen. And, quite honestly, “writing down people we are grateful for” turned into “listing everyone the four-year-old knows.”

It took a lot of prompting to just get the important folks written down–grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles–because the list got a little cluttered with the names of parents of the eldest’s friends, the names of children of my friends, the names of teachers and random people who go to church with us. Yes, it’s a pretty eclectic group of folks listed inside these paper chains that hang in the living room.

But there is beauty here, in the hodgepodge.

As I was prompting the eldest for names, I mentioned the girls’ great-great-grandmother. As it so happens, the youngest shares a name with this amazing woman. We love Great-Great-Grandma Troutman. She’s one of my favorite pen-pals, and we write back and forth every few months. She even sent me some money to buy some little gifts for the girls for Christmas. Great-Great-Gram is in her 90s.

We wrote her name down, and then, not to be left out, the eldest suggested we also write down the name of my maternal grandmother, with whom the eldest shares a name. I paused momentarily, thrown off-guard, because she passed away before you were born, and I had only been thinking in terms of friends and family members who are living. But the eldest didn’t notice my pause. She kept repeating it: “Momma, Grandma Clara, write her down, I’m grateful for her too!”

And, of course, we did write her down.

Because, of course, I am grateful to this beloved woman. I’ve written a lot about her, and think of her often. I miss her and, in some ways, am surprised sometimes to realize she is gone, surprised that my girls have never met her, surprised that she never knew me as a mother.

A few months ago, when I was asked to share my faith journey at church, I began thinking about my spiritual inheritance. I thought of my grandma and I thought of others who’ve nourished me on my journey. It’s so important to consider these things, girls. It’s important to know our roots.

And water our roots.

I think we do that by remembering and telling stories. I think we do that by loving other people in the ways we have ourselves been loved. I think we do that by realizing we are not special, we are not deserving of the love that has paved the way for our journeys, but we are fortunate that the love did indeed do just that.

Because it did. It does.

Yes, I am so grateful to my grandmother, to all of my grandparents and great-parents who’ve passed on but left pieces of them behind for me to ponder in my heart. There’s Ginny’s chocolate chip cookies and tapioca pudding. Grandma Woodward’s drawn out “niiiiiiiiice.” Pappy Sands’s Twin Tamarack campground and coach bus. Pappy Lehman’s Uno-playing and swiping of the shot glass from that bourbon tasting when he visited us in Kentucky. Jeanie-Beanie’s signature on our birthday cards that included her imaginary friends. Doc’s “slow, Catholic way” of parking his boat. I can hear him saying that.

And those are just the first few that come to mind.

There are also my friends, too, who have passed, who remain with me in real and special ways. I think of Katy, especially, with her teapot and cookies and linen napkins. Don reading his love poems at the church talent show. Marilyn always coming over to greet our guests at church, saying she was my Kentucky grandmother.

I have been fortunate to know and to love so many people, fortunate to have been loved by so many peopleAnd so have you.

It would be impossible to make a paper chain that captured all of this love, all of this gratitude.

But it makes me happy that we’ve got a small reflection of that love strung up in the living room. 

Two more weeks of Advent, girls.


Your Momma





The Twenty-Fourth Letter: Gratitude and a Full Life

letter 24

Dear Daughters,

Life has been full.

I don’t like the word “busy.” Everyone is busy. Busy is overcommitted, flustered, multitasking, doing, and going. Busy is the struggle to find time that doesn’t seem to be there.

Full is in making time.

Making time for a full life is staying in bed to cuddle with a sweaty child who arrived in the wee hours of the morning instead of rising early to write my morning pages.

A full life is playing pingpong while a preschooler circumnavigates the table. It’s cinnamon sugar cookies for a trivia night fundraiser, campfires and s’mores on Saturday night, Sunday morning bran muffins, and a Mary Kay open house.

A full life is hot black tea with milk and sugar every morning, children who take ages to finish dinner, dealing with congestion at 4 am…getting another cup of water, dosing Benadryl, falling asleep on the couch with a no-longer-lap-sized baby breathing heavily through the timer light kicking on at 5 am. It is a de-scaled humidifier, abhorring Wal-Mart but going there anyway, and eating lunch at Chick-fil-A so often the three-year-old says “my pleasure” instead of “you’re welcome.”

A full life is a child who sings “Through many dangers, toils, and snares…” as well as “The doc is in, and she’ll fix you up…,” who asks beautiful questions about Jesus being in her belly, and says spontaneously, “All of the days I love you, Mom.” A full life is a baby who shrieks “Yay!” when I tell her that Daddy is on the way home, who “counts” for Hide-and-Seek like this: “Nine…Nine…Nine…Nine…”

A full life is leading a women’s Bible study, meat-heavy Wednesday night dinners at church though we’re primarily vegetarian at home, looking forward to Advent, gifting spray-painted mason jars.

A full life is a preschooler who says her mom’s job is “artist.”

A full life is a 12-week Artists Way class winding down, writing an Advent devotional, a poem about cardamom, getting inspired at the Peddlers Mall.

A full life is signing up to bring Crockpot macaroni and cheese to the preschool Thanksgiving feast, a child who remembers her Sunday school lesson about the Ten Commandments, who out of the blue said “Saul was good at being good” (quoting her children’s Bible), who continues to think that Goliath is the best Bible story, who can write her name and spell her sister’s name.

A full life is taking the time to go to the library, to spell out words and practice letters, to collect leaves until every window and arch is covered with construction paper leaf flags. A full life is a monthly reading group at Panera, buying fundraiser items from the neighbor kids, loving on Lulu-the-Cat, our neighbors’ pet who lives in our yard and prefers our porch to hers. A full life is scarves and gloves and snotty noses outside but going outside anyway. A full life is too dark at 6 pm to go running on uneven sidewalks covered with leaves.

A full life is the large tupperware on the toddler’s head, a homemade grape costume and comments about Fruit of the Loom, and a list of gratitude for November.

A full life is being grateful for the simple things that make up a full life.

A full life is a grateful life, girls.

A full life is gratitude.

A full life is grace.


Your Momma