The Fifty-Fourth Letter: These Are Not the Best Moments

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Dear Daughters,

While on the road last week, enroute to Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, we stopped at a Panera for dinner in West Virginia. (The two of you are always more happy with a bowl of macaroni and cheese than just about any other quick food options.)

As we waited for our little buzzer to light up and signal that our food was ready, I noticed an elderly couple looking at us from a nearby booth. I’m used to people looking at us when we are out as a family because, well, your dad and I are really tall.

Let me just say as a sidenote that I don’t feel abnormally tall most of the time, but given the number of strangers who comment on it, and the number of people who stare without commenting, and the number of strangers who obviously look down at my feet to see if I am wearing heels, well, I must look pretty tall out there in public, especially when I am with your dad, who is six inches taller than I am. And after bold strangers ask how old the two of you are, they are typically in disbelief at your height as well. Sigh. We’re a tall bunch.

My point is, when these strangers were studying us in Panera, I didn’t pay much attention to it. But then, after our food came, in the chaos of trying to make sure everyone had what they needed and dishing out the bowls of mac and cheese onto the plates so it would cool faster and tearing the top off the squeezey yogurt so you could eat them, the older man spoke to us, and he started off by saying something very strange.

“I really don’t like you,” he said.

Now, that is not normally how one strikes up a conversation with strangers, but I could sense that he was someone who needed to talk, and though his words were awkward, I had this hunch that maybe he was trying to be friendly, not abrasive, so I acknowledged him and encouraged him to continue.

“I seriously don’t like you. You know why?”

I didn’t, but I was sure he was going to tell us.

“I’m old.”

And by that, he meant that we were not old.

He proceeded to remind us, in a rambly sort of way, to enjoy these days when we are young and have young kids because he used to be young too and one day he woke up and he was old. He missed being young. He missed having his family around. He knew we couldn’t imagine it, but trust him, we needed to enjoy being young. We will be old before we know it. And, by the way, Happy Thanksgiving.

His wife came back, we wished him Happy Thanksgiving, and then they left.

My first internal reaction was sadness: I was sad that this man was sad, that even despite his attempt at humor, he was emanating regret.

But then, well, my sadness turned into less-than-compassionate annoyance. Here’s the deal, girls: as a mom of young children, I hear this message all the time.

All. The. Time.

And while I know it sounds ornery, I just need to get something off my chest.

One of my pet peeves is being told by strangers to “enjoy these days,” to appreciate the time I have with my children while they are small, to count my blessings because time goes by so quickly, before I know it my kids will be grown and out of the house. So enjoy it. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Blah blah blah.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t young folks who need to hear this message, who would find it encouraging. But I kind of resent the assumption that I am not already doing this, that I am not already able to live in the moments and appreciate the beauty that is here.

Granted, I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I have not wanted to appreciate the beauty of these days–there have been times when I have wanted to flee (on the worst days) and longed for the minutes to pass more quickly (on the best days).

But right now, in this season, I am doing a good job living alongside you, enjoying the stunning and creative human beings you are, even as you exasperate me and I lose my temper more times than I like to admit. And so, when I am told to appreciate these days, I kind of resent the idea that any stranger feels like she needs to pass on this wisdom of a life well-lived, when implicitly this person is admitting that she did not do a good job of appreciating life when she was young. That really does sound ornery. I guess this is one of my buttons.

I work hard to live a life of gratitude and grace. It’s a daily struggle. And I often fail. But I’m on the path, girls. I’m on the path.

I see the hunt for the sacramental in these ordinary moments as one of my primary callings right now, not just as an example for you of a well-lived life but as an encouragement to others who need to see that hope is possible in the drudgery of the ordinary.

The other thing I resent when someone tells me in a chipper voice (or a somber voice, because, let’s face it, it can go both ways) to appreciate these moments because I will someday wake up and I will be old and have all these regrets–well, what I resent is the suggestion that these moments, here when you are young, are the best moments, the moments I will most miss later. These are not the best moments. And the future moments are not the best moments. All of the moments are the best. All of the moments are moments we are called to live fully, to love fully, to be aware of grace and live sacramentally. All of the moments. All of the seasons. Sometimes it is harder than at other times, and I’ve often suspected, even after talking to older moms, that in the extreme exhaustion of raising small children we have to work the hardest to find grace, but it is still here.

What I want to say to you, girls, today is this: I am living in this moment, right now, alongside you, and I am loving you and appreciating this life we share. I am feeling the late-afternoon sunshine dance across my laptop keys as I type this, and I see how beautiful it is. I am listening to an episode of Daniel Tiger in the background, hearing a deep belly laugh from the eldest, watching the youngest drink her milk with crazy bedhead. I’m sitting beside an empty mug of tea. Our white Christmas lights are glowing on our bare tree. I’ve still got my boots on because we are heading to some friends’ house for dinner, but I took my big earrings off to try to motivate myself to go outside and rake some leaves.

These are the silly details of a life that make me smile.

These are the details of the life we share.

These are the details of a life of gratitude.

I will not wake up surprised to be old one day.

I will not wake up surprised that you are old enough to read these letters one day.

Sure, the time is going quickly, quicker than I can even believe sometimes, but the moments, well, they’re the same every day. They’re full of promise. They’re full of grace.

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Twenty-Eighth Letter: Bread in the Wilderness

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Dear Daughters,

I was thinking recently about the Israelites in the wilderness, after Moses tells them that God is going to provide bread for them to eat. The next morning, they wake up and there’s this flakey stuff on the ground, and Exodus tells us that they didn’t know what it was. They called it manna, which literally means, “What is it?”

It didn’t look like bread, girls. It was nothing like bread.

We lose the wordplay that emphasizes this part of the story when we call it simply manna today. We hear manna mentioned in sermons and don’t think much of it. But when we say, “God provided manna,” we aren’t saying “God provided sustenance,” we’re saying, “God provided something unrecognizable.”

They called it “What is it?”

Or, you could say, they called it “What the heck?”

Actually, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that calling it manna was a bit like calling it “Are you kidding me, Moses?” A bit like calling it “I don’t know what ya’ll are thinking, but this ain’t no bread.”

This was not the bread that was promised.

Those of us who grew up steeped in scripture and in church tradition hear the word “bread,” and we hear all the connections and metaphor we’re meant to hear—not just Jesus as the bread of life, but the last supper and communion and the bread and grape juice, the loaves of bread that multiplied to feed five thousand families, the breaking of bread that opens the eyes of the disciples in Emmaus to see that the risen Jesus is among them, Elijah promising the widow that her flour will never run out.

There’s a lot of bread in scripture. A lot of provision in scripture. A lot of promise in scripture.

But this flakey stuff the Israelites find all over the ground?

It doesn’t look like bread.

It doesn’t look like what was promised.

I was thinking about all of this on a grumpy day a few weeks ago. It was one of those days I didn’t particularly feel like being a mom.

Are you kidding me, Moses?

I didn’t feel like reheating my tea in the microwave again, eating my lukewarm egg on cold toast, choosing between leaving the bathroom door unlatched to let you come toddling in or closing the door and listening to you knock, knock, knock, Momma, Momma, Momma

This ain’t no bread.

I didn’t feel like the incessant chatter requiring my constant response that is conversation with young children—in the car, at the dinner table, whispered in bed at 5 am.

What the heck?

I didn’t feel like giving up my quiet time in the afternoon to a crying toddler, didn’t feel like playing playdough or getting bundled up to go outside or coloring in coloring books, didn’t feel like letting you “help” make the cookies.

This is not the bread that was promised.

Yes, that’s what I was thinking. This is not the bread that was promised.

And what I meant was: This is not fun.

This is not what I want provision to look like.

This is not the bread I want to eat in this season.

I want to go and bake my own bread, thank you very much. I want cinnamon rolls and French toast and bagels and a sub from a central Pennsylvania pizza place.

So there. Honesty for you.

Sometimes, this is not the bread I want to eat, and so I am not very grateful.

Sometimes it feels like all I’m doing is scraping the flakey stuff off the grass every morning and pretending it’s nourishment.

I figure that’s okay. I’m in good company. Forty years later, it was still nourishing the Israelites, this not-what-I-thought-was-bread stuff, this are-you-kidding-with-me stuff.

Because, of course, it was the Israelites who had it wrong. They didn’t recognize it, but it was exactly what was promised.

It was bread.

It was provision.

It was hope.

It got them through the desert.

But I can guarantee you one thing—they sure were tired of it by the end.

Love,

Your Momma

 

The First Letter to My Daughters

Daughters,

There’s a small framed photograph in the hallway outside the downstairs bathroom, just above the thermostat.

From the wood paneling in the background, I’m pretty sure it was snapped in the late eighties in our apartment in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where my dad finished up his BA at Messiah College. This one is a color copy of the original, slightly grainy and dark. In the image, my great-grandmother is flanked by my mom and my grandma, and my brother and I are standing in front of them. Four generations of women. I’m probably about seven years old.

I pause and look at this photograph a few times a week. I can remember my great-grandmother’s passing a handful of years after this photo was taken, perhaps the first funeral I attended, and I remember my grandmother’s passing, just a few years ago.

What strikes me about this image is that my mom is now older than my grandma was in this photo.

I am grateful for the good relationship I have with my mom. We text and FaceTime and talk on the phone regularly. She’s come to stay with us after your births, though missing each of them by only a few hours. She’s called me for recipes, I’ve called her for garden advice.

This may seem strange, but I realized something recently: As good as our relationship was and is and will continue to be, I just don’t remember my mom as she was in this picture. In her thirties. Before the divorce. Just having finished her RN degree. With a big perm.

I am in my thirties.

The interesting thing about aging is that I don’t remember people as they were in old photographs; I can only remember them as they are now. I see snapshots and think that I remember moments, but I don’t really know the people as they were. I can’t hear their laughter or see the way pants puckered or smell the perm. I don’t remember what worried them or what they watched on TV. It’s as if my mom was always the mom she is now.

I love my mom in her sixties. She’s amazing. And way more fashionable than she was when this photo was taken, by the way.

But what was she like in her thirties?

That’s what this blog is about, I suppose. Trying to offer a small piece of who I am so that you will know and you will remember. Trying to help you know the me I was when you arrived on the scene, the me I was when I was learning what it meant to be a mother, the me you’ll hopefully still be able to find in the me of my sixties. Or seventies. The me who struggled a lot and cried a lot, but also loved a lot and cultivated a life of community and courage and compassion around her daughters.

Basically, I want you to know me.

Welcome to my world, girls.

Your Momma