The Eighty-Sixth Letter: Changing Seasons

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Dear Daughters,

Today is Fat Tuesday.

Where I grew up, we called it Fastnacht Day, and even the secular world ate donuts in those parts. Seriously, radio DJs across central Pennsylvania broadcast from outside fire houses and various hometown businesses selling “fastnachts” as fundraisers on this particular Tuesday morning every year. (The senior women in my mom’s rural Methodist church took pre-orders in the weeks leading up to Fastnacht Day, and you could request the cinnamon sugar variety or just regular old boring ones.) Fastnachts are a particular kind of donut, and truth be told I didn’t really like them that much.

But I do feel a bit nostalgic about donuts on Fat Tuesday, and I’m a fan of enjoying a little splurge on the day before we head into Lent, as it was in the earliest custom of celebrating Mardi Gras.

Oh, hey, I guess I should mention that I’m not eating grain, dairy, sugar, or legumes right now. Yeah, it’s a sad day for me. Probably been my least-fattening Fat Tuesday on record.

But I have been thinking a lot about seasons and how they change.

I’ve been thinking about how your dad and I try so hard to live the liturgical calendar in meaningful ways, but every time it circles around, life keeps circling around, too, keeps making the experience richer but also, some years, more exhausting.

This year mostly feels full, rather than chaotic, but full to the brim, and my shoulders, I’ll admit, are a little tired with helping my loved ones bear burdens. In all the good ways, I mean.

It’s what life is like when you’re living the Kingdom, living the seasons alongside others, witnessing the mountains and the valleys of the journey.

So many journeys.

Seasons change.

Life changes.

But we keep putting one foot in front of the other, whether or not we ate donuts on Fastnacht Day.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Tomorrow is also Valentines Day.

Friday is Chinese New Year.

Your cousins are coming to stay with us this weekend.

A week ago, a friend had a tiny, tiny premature baby who weighed less than two pounds.

Yesterday my amazing friend came home from the hospital.

Today, one of you woke up with pink eye.

Next week is our homeschool co-op’s Spring Break.

The week after that, a friend is scheduled to have her fourth C-section.

Another dear, sweet friend is embarking on an adoption journey that will take many months and much hard work.

One of your dad’s cousins is getting married in a few weekends, and we’ll get to spend good time with the extended Wise clan.

Your grandparents will be here the following weekend.

One of my childhood BFFs is changing jobs and moving to a new state at the end of Lent.

Right now, as I type this, multiple friends are praying for parents with late-stage cancers, waiting, seeking peace.

Friends I’m journeying alongside have chronic illness, mental health struggles, children making difficult decisions.

A friend is beginning her dissertation.

A friend is working on her marriage.

A friend is starting a business.

So many friends with so many seasons and so much change.

Life changes.

And we keep on going, together.

Sometimes eating fastnachts. Sometimes gathering for prayer.

Sometimes just showing up, or sending a text, or opening your door to your neighbor, looking that stranger right in the eye and asking how she is doing.

Sometimes just breathing, putting a stamp on a postcard, closing your eyes and enjoying the sunshine on your face.

Welcoming in a child with pinkeye, celebrating Chinese New Years with a dancing dragon while eating Thai food on Fat Tuesday.

This is how you live community.

This is how you love your people.

You live in the season you’re in.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

The Sixty-Eighth Letter: Death and Life and Alleluia

Five Easters Ago...

Five Easters ago, taken a few short weeks before the first Bean was born.

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday was Holy Saturday.

We transplanted oregano I had rooted in water from last year’s herbs and then had nursed all winter long in small pots scattered around the house. It felt like an appropriately liturgical activity, getting our hands dirty together, trying to teach you to be gentle with the roots, appreciating the way new life can come from cuttings of old plants, watering the fresh soil. We’ll see if they survive.

Your dad also built a 20-foot long raised bed to plant our ten baby tree saplings in. They’ll live there for this next year or two and then get placed into their forever homes, flowering beautifully as so many central Kentucky trees do. You played with earthworms while your dad and I broke up the soil.

We had neighbors over in the morning for an Easter egg hunt, which I confessed on social media I didn’t feel much like doing (okay, not really at all) but was grateful we did, hopeful in the building of relationships, so strong as I am in the conviction that loving our neighbors has become such a cliche in Christians circles that we forget Jesus actually might mean our literal neighbors.

We let you open some Easter gifts while Facetiming with family.

We ate Thai food for dinner with friends.

Your dad prayed at dinner, mentioning our particular prayers for those who are mourning, those who are dying, those to whom the whole world feels dark and lonely and sad. He mentioned that we wait this day, Holy Saturday, knowing what death feels like, knowing that Jesus has died, but also knowing that because of this death we know life and freedom and light. Life gets the final word. But we dwell in the death for a season because we must.

Yesterday, the mother of one of our sweet friends from church died.

Yesterday.

Yes, yesterday while so many children across our town and state and country were picking up Easter eggs and gorging themselves with candy, our sweet friend lost her mother.

This is the tension of Holy Saturday.

This is the already/not-yet tension at the heart of our faith.

This is the reason I love the liturgical calendar so much.

We don’t always “feel” the seasons we are walking through. And sometimes we feel them too much. Life in this broken world is real and painful and dark. And carrying lilies down the aisle this morning at church will not change that.

It just won’t, girls.

Now, the truth is, most of us will pretend that it does. Most of us will open Easter baskets, get all fancied for church, take posed family photos in front of beautiful flower beds (if the isolated thunderstorms in the forecast don’t gather overhead), and we will stand when the congregation stands and we will sing “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and we will ring our bells every time Alleluia is said. And I, too, will ring a bell. My grandmother’s beautiful pink glass bell.

But I will also remember my grandmother’s death, and I will remember the year I carried a lily down the aisle for her, and I will see my friend who lost her mother a few weeks ago carry a lily down the aisle for her, and I will remember when you toddled down the aisle and carried a lily for my grandfather, and I will hug my friends with broken marriages and sad hearts and anxieties about their children and their parents’ health, and we will all say Alleluia even though we are hurting inside.

Because being the people of God, saying “He is risen indeed,” doesn’t mean life doesn’t hurt big time.

And when you’re an INFJ like I am, a highly-sensitive person, an empath, and you feel the weight of the world’s burdens like I do?

Easter doesn’t make that go away.

So my tears will probably flow over a bit today, because Easter is so full with love and beauty and grace. But we only have it because of death and suffering and darkness.

I feel like I want to say that to you every Easter, my sweet girls.

I want you to open your Easter basket and love the beauty that is inside (and it’s not candy, by the way–none–just art and silly putty and puzzles and rubber frogs because why not). I want you to love the banners and the procession and the bells and the orchestra. I want you to learn to chime in “Risen indeed” when someone greets you with “He is risen!”

But when you are older and reading these letters, I want you to know that it’s okay when you don’t feel like Easter.

And I want you to keep in mind that there are others around you pretending to feel like it, pretending that their hearts aren’t broken and full of sadness.

And that’s okay, too.

He is risen, girls.

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Thirty-Sixth Letter: Hope, Accomplishments, Extravagance

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Dear Daughters,

I read a novel recently about a woman with a head injury who suddenly had no memory of the last ten years. She thought she was 30, but she was actually 40. She thought she was newly married, but she was in the process of getting divorced. She had no knowledge of her three children’s existence.

But the poignancy of the novel, for me, was her realizing the person she was discovering herself to be at 40, whom she was seeing with fresh eyes since she didn’t have any memory of turning into that person, well, she didn’t like her 40-year-old self. She had become the exact kind of woman she always kind of resented.

It sounds pretty contrived, now that I’ve tried to summarize it in a few sentences, but it really got me thinking. Would the me I was 10 years ago recognize the me I’ve become? What would my 23-year-old self think of my 33-year-old self? (She’d probably be surprised to find I had birthed two babies, for example, which was not on my to-do list.)

My first full-time job out of college was being the assistant to the director of recruitment and academic technology at Baylor’s Graduate School. On my annual self-evaluation that first year, I put as a 5-year goal “Write the next great American novel.

I was kidding, of course, and my boss told me I should probably change my answer, but the truth was that I knew that job wasn’t my forever job, and it seemed ridiculous to pretend my five-year-plan had much to do with that position.

You’ll notice I haven’t yet written a novel. But I do have a chapbook of poems, so that’s something.

I got an email this week from a high school acquaintance. Since I’m not on Facebook, this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen this woman since we graduated 16 years ago, and even in high school we weren’t really close friends. We had Phys. Ed. together one year, I do remember that.

She sent me a message through my website, a brief note to say simply that she’d had a conversation recently about faith and hope with one of her friends, and it reminded her of the speech I gave at our graduation in 2000. She wanted to encourage me that my words had stayed with her this decade-and-a-half.

The speech I gave at graduation. Whew. That feels like a long time ago.

I was a really outspoken Christian in a large public high school, and so my speech–I was valedictorian–offered the gospel message, to no one’s surprise. It offered hope. It was a little cheesy, of course, quoting Mother Teresa and Emily Dickinson and others, but it offered hope. And it got a standing ovation.

Because hope is always a good message.

Some days it makes me grimace a little to think about my high school self, because let’s face it, I’m not so preachy these days. I have a quiet faith, a thoughtful faith, a compassionate faith.

But, the truth is, I’m still proud of the young woman I was. At my ten-year high school reunion, people I barely knew came up and and told me how meaningful my friendships with them had been. Because I was sincere at 18. I cared about people. I was compassionate and confident, kind and smart. I was tall without slouching. I was voted “Most Likely to Win the Nobel Peace Prize” of my graduating class.

Sometimes I think about what I’ve accomplished in the 16 years since I’ve graduated, and it doesn’t seem like very much. Not compared to friends from high school who, for example, work for NASA. And unless there are Nobel prizes for being able to push a double jogging stroller with 75 pounds of child in it, I’m pretty far from that sort of achievement.

Most days, I’m okay with that.

Most days, I look around our house of IKEA furniture and hand-me-downs, decorated quirkily with my paintings and your paintings, and I’m okay with this life your dad and I have built together. I’m okay with the physical world of it–our modest house and yard, our cars, our neighborhood, our church–and also the intangible parts of it–our friends and loved ones, our community in which we’re invested, the people who cross our lives unexpectedly but deserve our time, our attention, our eye contact. (It’s those intangibles that really matter. It was those intangibles that mattered when I was 18, when I was 23, still matter at 33, and will when I’m 43.)

Most days, when I think about raising two human beings in this world, two little human beings who are such mini-me’s already, I know that if you ended up turning out like me, I’d be proud of you. And even if I do nothing else with my life except raise you to be compassionate and courageous, I’ll be proud of myself.

Most days, when I sit in the swing outside and watch you play in the yard, creating impossible and nonsensical games together, I’m okay with the peace that comes from late-morning sunshine and a flexible season of life that allows me to enjoy it.

Many days, I’m even embarrassed by the extravagance of it.

Because my life is extravagant, here in the sunshine, great American novel or not.

I don’t know that my 23-year-old self would be able to recognize that sort of extravagance.

But I do, at 33. And I hope someday you do, too.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Thirtieth Letter: Storytelling & “My Whole Life”

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Dear Daughters,

I recently spent some time hanging out with a dozen elementary school students during an after-school reading program. I was their weekly “special guest,” invited to come and share for about twenty minutes–to talk about myself for a little bit and then read something. The program director actually suggested I might want to read something I had written.

I began to think about what it is I “do,” what it is that is the thread connecting the various things I write and the way I see the world.

So I decided to talk about being a storyteller.

I took some samples of my writing and art that don’t seem connected–the journals I keep for each of you, my chapbook of poems, an article I’d written, the interview with Over the Rhine, a canvas I’d painted after hearing a friend’s sadness–and told these second- through fourth-graders that these diverse forms were all ways of telling stories.

And, I told them, they were storytellers, too. They had stories, they were living stories, and they could write stories, or draw stories, or tell stories in their own ways.

I emphasized storytelling as I shared about myself, and I emphasized it by reading some excellent picture books about storytelling and the way our stories are passed between generations of people, and I emphasized it by giving them each a single subject notebook from the dollar store.

I have never seen such excitement over notebooks before, girls. It was amazing.

After showing them their bounty, I didn’t want the message to get lost in the thrill of notebook-choosing. I wanted to remind them of all the things we talked about as ways of storytelling, how they could tell stories, how each of them had a voice that was worth sharing. I said they could write poems, or draw pictures, or journal about their days. And then I asked the group, “What sorts of stories will you write in your new notebooks? What will you write about?

The first little boy to respond gasped, “MY WHOLE LIFE.”

My whole life.

Wow.

I loved his answer.

I loved his optimism.

I loved that he actually believed he could write his entire life, all nine years of it.

I loved everything about that afternoon because our lives change when we realize that they are stories, that we are living a story worth telling, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the difficult, the long drudgery of boring seasons, the astounding grace of joyful seasons.

I have the privilege of writing with words, typed into computers, handwritten in notebooks, but even if you aren’t a writer or an artist–and you probably won’t be–you have a story, girls, and not just a story to tell but a story to share.

I believe we’ve all got stories, and we’ve all got ways to share them. It’s about being present in the moment, present with others, present with ourselves. And being thoughtful. Deliberate. Honest.

Maybe you’ll share a piece of your story by listening carefully to a client or a cashier, share your story as you run marathons or build bridges in Africa, share your story as you argue a case in a courtroom or design a website in your pajamas.

No matter your vocation, you’ll have stories. So many stories. But you know what? They’ll all add up to one Story, if you look for it. And when you find it, I hope you share it.

I’m excited about your story.

I’m excited about my story.

I’m excited about our story.

Come along with me.

Love,

Your Momma