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 Fourteenth Letter: Privacy Fences

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Dear Daughters,

We hired a local company to put up a fence for us a few weeks ago.

We’d talked about it for awhile, mostly in terms of safety and keeping you hemmed in a bit, but we knew it would have to be a pretty long fence and we couldn’t decide how to partition off the yard.

Houses in our 1950s neighborhood are pretty close together–though not nearly as close as those of most of my suburbia friends. Still, on one side, we’ve got a double driveway separating us from our neighbors. Or “joining us intimately to our neighbors” is perhaps a better way to put it, given the impossibility of keeping our lives separate from theirs, even if we wanted to. So there’s no place for a fence on that side.

On the other side, well, we’ve got an extra lot. It’s all wonderful green grassy yard, except the part we’ve dug up to plant a garden and the old, precariously still-standing trees. On that extra lot is a decades-old swing set, the pine-tree-green painted metal kind I played on as a kid. Perhaps because it is such a retro swing set, or because that extra lot is also on the corner of our block, the neighbor kids like to swing on it.

We’ve welcomed and encouraged them to play in our yard for the five years we’ve lived in this house, but it’s really only been this summer that they’ve finally started doing so. It helped that it got so hot back on mother’s day weekend that we got out the impressive kiddie pool and acquired a sandbox. But even during the preceding weeks, that ancient swing set became the highlight of the neighborhood, it seemed.

The more the yard got used by you and by the neighbors, the more we really wanted a fence. A picket fence. Four feet tall. Spaces between each slat. It wasn’t to block everyone out, just to keep them safer.

So we had a local fencing company come and give us an estimate, and then finally, after many weeks of rain, they arrived to build the fence. We knew they would do it in two days–the first day, placing all the big brace posts, and the second day, putting up all the pickets. It would seem miraculous.

And it kind of was.

Except that the posts they sunk into the ground the first day were all eight-footers. Eight-foot posts, every few feet, all the way around the immense side yard. It looked like we were building a fortress.

The truth is, I kind of judge people who have privacy fences, at least the kind of privacy fences that are keeping their yards private from the road. Sure, I understand putting up a tall fence along property lines–that’s what we did along the back, given the plethora of sheds and outbuildings and a leaky swimming pool our neighbors to the rear have–but, well, privacy fences are just so unwelcoming.

Which I suppose is the point.

After that first day, with these enormous posts in our yard, I worried that people might be judging us. I wanted to shout at every car that drove by: “Wait until tomorrow! It’s not a privacy fence! I promise! It will be pretty! Don’t judge us!

And that is ridiculous, I realize. Nobody cares what kind of fence you put in your yard. At least, most people don’t. I tried to reassure myself.

But then a friend of mine came to visit that afternoon, and one of the first things she said, when I pointed out that the posts would be cut down to four feet tall, once the pickets were up, was “I was going to say, you sure don’t seem like privacy fence kind of people.”

Then we invited neighbors over for an impromptu dinner out in the yard, and one of them said, looking at the eight-foot posts, “I didn’t think you seemed like privacy fence people.

So apparently I’m not the only one who has a category of “privacy fence people” in their minds.

The good news: We don’t seem like those kind of people.

The bad news: Our posts made us look like those kind of people.

It didn’t matter in the long run, of course. Within two days, we had the fence built and trimmed down to size. But it did get me thinking about what “kind of people” we are and how we present ourselves to our neighborhood.

We’re community folks. We’re hospitality folks. We’re it’s-okay-to-invite-friends-in-for-dinner folks. But do our neighbors know that?

I can say that I want our yard to be a welcoming place for the neighbor kids, but I don’t know the names of our older neighbors directly across the street from us. It’s awkward, five years in, but we’ve remained in that wave-from-a-distance kind of relationship. Trying to remedy this, I did walk their little dog back over to their house the other day when she showed up in our yard, and as a result I learned the dog’s name is Daisy. The dog’s name.

It’s a start, I guess.

I’m glad that people who know us know that we aren’t privacy fence people.

But what kind of people are we? Well, I suppose that’s always a good question to ask yourself.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

The Eighth Letter: Messy Houses & Being Real

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Dear Daughters,

When I was a little girl, I spent a few days each summer at Grandma and Pappy Lehman’s house. I walked in the morning with my grandma and her TOPS friends, learned how to weed a garden, played UNO in the evenings. Each summer, we’d spend a few hours cleaning her spoon collection. I slept in the purple bedroom at the end of the hall.

One of the best things about visiting Gram and Pap’s was getting to go to work with Gram because Gram was a cleaning lady.

I loved going into those big empty houses. They were never very messy or dirty, but that’s probably because Gram cleaned them regularly. My favorites were the ones that seemed like mansions to me at the time, the biggish homes in upper-middle class suburbia. The master bedroom beds were all incredibly high, which always seemed so fancy to me. I have friends who live in those kinds of houses now.

I don’t know if visiting Gram is when I learned to clean or not, but I sure did learn to clean early on. Cleaning—vacuuming, mopping, dusting, toilets, sinks—and doing dishes and sorting laundry and stripping the bed and remaking it: I don’t remember not knowing how to do these things.

Of course, I still know how to do them.

But I rarely do them. Only when absolutely necessary.

Or so it seems.

We bought this house in 2010, so we’re in our fifth year here, and I’m pretty sure it’s only been cleaned thoroughly twice—both times by your grandma, immediately following one of your births. By “thoroughly,” I mean that the baseboards were wiped down, the windows shined up, the closets sorted through.

It just isn’t a priority for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I don’t prefer a clean house. I like things to be picked up, and I don’t like the mess. I hate feeling the dirt under my bare feet and it annoys me when I find the shirt I want to wear in the dirty laundry basket.

In fact, having the house a wreck really does bother me and stresses me out. Just ask your dad. I especially freak out about the house being a mess when we are about to have people over.

Part of this is because I was raised in an exceptionally clean house with a bathroom that got scrubbed down every week, and this set the standard a bit too high for my own mental health.

And part of this is because I’m embarrassed to let people see my mess.

I wish the latter weren’t the case, but there you have it.

I distinctly remember visiting a friend of mine in Texas and walking into her kitchen to get something to drink. The sink was piled so full of dirty dishes that I couldn’t use the faucet to fill my water glass. I thought to myself, Wow, I really wish I was relaxed enough to have people over with this big of a mess in my kitchen. And then I thought, No, I don’t.

That was before I had children.

Girls, having you in my space perpetually disrupting things and making a mess—for example, pulling the books off a bookshelf I’ve just restocked—has chilled me out a little bit. A very little bit.

If I know people are coming over, I tend to do a quick once-over of wiping up crumbs, throwing all the loose toys into the nearest box or bin, putting the dirty dishes into the sink, if there is room in the sink. Sometimes I even look into the toilet bowl just to make sure it’s been flushed. Sometimes.

But you know what?

Sometimes people stop by unexpectedly. And the house is a mess.

That is life.

Recently, our friends stopped in with their new baby. Of course, I invited them in. I had to step out of the room for a minute when the nine-month-old woke from her nap, and when I came back in, our friend said, “I was just saying that I really love that your house isn’t picked up. It makes me feel so much better.”

That, girls, is profound. People need to know that life isn’t perfect. That it’s messy sometimes, maybe even most of the time.

If your friends—and heck, strangers—only ever see you with your hair done, with your car clean, your books in alphabetical order on our bookshelf, your life all put together, then they’ll never be able to be real with you. And real life is so messy.

So go ahead and disinfect that toilet bowl and throw your dirty clothes in the washing machine. I’m not saying you should be a bum. But I am saying you should be real.

And sometimes the ring inside the toilet bowl is what’s real.

Love,

Your Momma