The Eighty-Eighth Letter: Daffodils, The Oscars, & Me

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Dear Daughters,

This may sound shallow, but I wish I were the kind of person who saw all the Oscar-buzz movies, threw a party on Oscar night, and cast a pretend ballot for the nominees I thought would win, all the while drinking champagne. Because I love movies and the Oscars and reading about celebrities and subscribing to Vanity Fair (and Vogue, go ahead and judge), but let’s be real:

I fell asleep at 9 pm last night.

Also, many modern movies make me feel all panicky and unsettled inside and can’t be watched before bed, so I tend not to have actually seen any of the new releases. I just read about them in my magazines instead. It’s not the same.

Girls, I’m okay with the me I am, the woman who falls asleep. Because she is also the woman who cuts off her daffodils and brings them inside, the woman who makes the most stupendous dippy eggs, the woman who adores the kiddos she works with at an after school reading program, who has found such joy in homeschooling you and watching you become a stellar reader, the woman who makes beautiful things and writes beautiful things and loves people well and reads good books and is always asking questions.

But I’ll be honest that I do have glimpses sometimes of a me I wish I were, a me that I’m not.

It’s not a jealousy thing. It’s not, “Hey, look at what that woman over there is doing, I wish I were doing that.” It’s not, honest. It’s not that I want to do more and achieve more and have more.

No, it’s more like I have an idea of a person I want to be if I were an imaginary version of myself.

For example, she would be better at caring for her skin and her teeth and exercising, but I would want her to be someone who does it because she enjoys it. Because it brings her joy. (I’m not great at these things, and honestly I kind of resent them as necessary parts of self-care. My imaginary self would not.)

This fictional woman doesn’t necessarily have a clean house (though that would be nice, especially if she enjoyed cleaning, as some of my friends do), but she probably doesn’t lose her temper nearly as much as I do. She would be better at some things (gardening, for example) and less stressed about other things (replaying conversations in her head, for example), but overall, it’s more the fun things I think about. I wish I were someone who liked camping, for example, but I really just don’t. That’s a pretty random example, isn’t it? Let’s see… I wish something like pedicures or massages sounded like fun, rather than one more thing to schedule. (I can’t even get doctors appointments scheduled, so I’m rather hopeless.) I wish road trips sounded like adventure rather than to-do lists. I wish I liked shopping. I wish I could listen to podcasts, but I can’t. They take too much attention and I can’t multitask. I prefer silence. Ah, yes, there’s another one, I often wish I didn’t need so much silence, and I wish I could multitask.

Ah, and there is irony in admitting this one: I wish I didn’t over-think everything.

I wish I weren’t burdened down by the struggles around me, didn’t have physical reactions to stress, that I could just let things go. I wish I didn’t need to process process process.

But that’s the me I am, the woman who falls asleep watching the Oscars and instead just reads about the highlights the next day.

Girls, don’t get me wrong. Here in my mid-30s, I’m at peace. With my daffodils on the dining room table. With my dippy eggs for breakfast. We did readaloud and learned telling time and had piano lessons this morning and I had reading camp this afternoon and leftover beef stew for dinner and I’m about to pick up a good novel.

So there is peace here.

Still, I do want to be someone, someday, who doesn’t fall asleep during the Oscars.

But I have a solution for that. Someday, maybe, we can watch them together and you can keep me awake.

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

The Thirty-Ninth Letter: Why I Need the Quiet

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Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, I was playing in my room with the littlest, who was pretending to “beep” (that is, “sleep”), and I noticed that the eldest was being very quiet in the living room.

Everything okay, Bean? I asked, from my room. “Yeah,” she hollered back.

It was still very quiet. I followed up. Whatcha doin’ out there, sweetie?

“Just looking out the window,” she said.

Just looking out the window.

When I was young, my stepmom sometimes came into my room in the morning before school and she’d find me sitting on my bed, seemingly doing nothing. When she asked what I was up to, I’d say, “Just thinking.”

Just thinking.

Just looking out the window.

When your dad and I first got married, it would drive him a little bit batty if he was sitting and reading in a room–your dad is often reading, as you know, even when flossing and brushing his teeth–and I came and sat down and didn’t pick up a book. I would just sit there, because I was thinking. He would put his book down, and wait for me to start talking, assuming there was conversation to be had. I just wanted to sit.

I told him I’d be happy to pick up a book and pretend to read if he wanted me to, but I was not going to be actually reading.

Now, eleven years later, he is in the habit of pausing in his reading to ask me whether I’m waiting to have a conversation with him, and if I say, no, then he goes back to his book and tries to not let it bother him.

I am someone who really likes to sit and be quiet.

While it has always been true, I didn’t realize just how much this is the case until I had children.

Just after the eldest was born, my friend Mary Lou confessed to me how difficult is was for her after her girls were born because of being an introvert. Once you have kids–especially when they are young and still breastfeeding–none of your life belongs to you anymore. Your body doesn’t belong to you. Your preference for sleep patterns doesn’t belong to you. You aren’t able to make space or time for any of that alone-quiet-peace introverts crave.

I’ve never really considered myself an introvert, nor would most people who see me lead small groups or read my words publicly, so the way I interact with the world–and the way the world interacts with me–has always confused me a bit.

I’m not good at multi-tasking, and prefer instead to devote all of my energy to one task, without background noise. I’m easily distracted if too much is going on because I can’t focus on anything. I don’t typically notice when a CD in the car begins to repeat because I’m not listening to it. I’m driving or I’m thinking. That’s it.

I am slow and careful and sensitive and thoughtful, but if there are distractions to be had, I get flustered easily.

Which means that as a mom, I get flustered easily.

You know what? Though I never would have admitted it before, until last year, I had this hunch that my need for quiet was a weakness. Sometimes I heard myself saying things light-heartedly to friends or family who seemed to accomplish more in a day than I ever could, who seemed to sleep less than I did and be very efficient with jobs and kids and life, things like, “My mental health requires me to get sleep” or “I’m just too too cranky if I don’t have downtime.” Or something like that.

But I felt it was a weakness. Really. If only I were more focused, I would think. If only I were more motivated, I would think.

I’ve felt at times like I was simply not as capable as my friends, my colleagues, the bloggers I read. These people do so much with their time and, some of them at least, really seem to enjoy Doing All The Things.

When I first came across the category “highly sensitive person” last year and read the characteristics of such a person (some studies say 15-20% of the population might be HSP), I felt like someone was describing my interior life to a T.

I’m not kidding. What I thought were my own strange neuroses, these things that made me feel wimpy and even inadequate, were on that list.

I cry easily. Caffeine affects me like crazy. I feel the weight of others’ burdens. I process slowly and take a very long time to make decisions. I don’t like loud noises, chaotic and unpredictable environments, or violent movies or television shows. I’m prone to anxiety and depression. I have a really good sense of smell. It takes me a very long time to decompress after a busy evening. I am sensitive to criticism. I worry a lot that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. I’m detail oriented and notice when things aren’t right. I make lists, lots of lists, so that nothing gets overlooked when we’re packing. It’s important to me to be prepared, to not face unexpected things–because I expect everything. Also, aesthetics matter to me–I am moved by beautiful art and beautiful spaces and beautiful books.

What I know now is that all of these things are related to the fact that I need quiet, that I like to sit and think.

And what I also know is that this thoughtful sensitivity, this quiet-craving, is not a weakness. True, I can’t achieve what others can achieve, whatever that means.

But who cares?

Because my lack of day-to-day achievement is a blessing.

How so?

My slower pace enables me to see and appreciate beauty in otherwise overlooked minute and mundane details.

I’ve realized that it makes me better able to emphathize. I notice when people are hurting. I’m pretty good at following-up with people and keeping track of what’s going on in others’ lives.

And whatever vibe it is I give off, it’s one that strangers pick up on. They talk to me. 

All of that to say, I need the quiet to process all of these things, to process my life. And I need rest. Space to breath. Notebooks to write in, post-its to make lists on. A beautiful pen with which to write those lists.

Motherhood doesn’t allow for a lot of that, but I do what I can to make it happen. I hire a babysitter. I designated an upstairs spare room as my art room. I’m writing a poem every day this month as part of a local writers’ initiative. I set my alarm to get up early and enjoy a cup of tea before the day begins. I don’t set very high goals for the day and instead take moments as they come: Meghan Trainor dance parties while washing dishes, belting out Over the Rhine in the car when I run a salad over to the church for a funeral lunch, soaking in our time together on colorful Adirondack chairs in the yard on a beautiful afternoon.

This is not the kind of person who climbs the corporate ladder and becomes CEO, the person who makes six figures, has myriad followers on Facebook, the person who tries to squeeze more hours into a day.

This is the kind of person who repurposes an old canvas and writes a poem about it.

This is the kind of person who can call life sacramental–and believe it.

This is the kind of person who listens for the still, small voice.

This is the person who might, some days, hear it.

You know what that voice says?

Rest.

Be still.

Have peace.

And I do.

I think you do, too.

Because sometimes, when something makes me cry and the eldest sees those tears, she comes over to me and gently rubs my arm, leaning against me, without saying a word.

Love,

Your Momma