The Eighty-First Letter: Busyness & Keeping the Lights Along the Shore

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Dear Daughters,

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy 
from his lighthouse evermore, 
but to us he gives the keeping 
of the lights along the shore.

This morning began at 4 am when the fire alarm in the downstairs hallway began to chirp. After the third chirp, I woke your dad. He stumbled into the hallway to wait with me for the sound because I can’t reach the alarm in the upstairs hallway. After another chirp, it was obvious that it was coming from the downstairs hallway, which I could have reached.

After a drink of water, we went back to bed. I tried, at least. A little while later, I heard crying in the hallway, and knew it was you. Whenever you need to go to the bathroom, you wake up your big sister and ask her to come with you. Half asleep, she agrees, crawling down out of her bunk bed. She always wants to deposit you in front of our door, but you don’t want to be left alone in the dark. That’s where I found both of you this morning. I sent number one back to bed and accompanied number two to the bathroom, and then you asked to crawl into bed with us.

When I am struggling to sleep, I like having you there to focus on. I rub your back. Listen to your breathing. Accept the arms you reach toward me. I often fall asleep deeply to your steady breathing at that point, and my back aches as a result the next day. This morning was no different. You and I slept that way until long after your dad and big sister got up. I woke to the Bean practicing her piano, which I assume was your dad’s way of gently waking us up.

Let the lower lights be burning! 
Send a gleam across the way! 
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, 
you may rescue, you may save.

Mondays always feel like they are full of promise to me. I’m good at to-do lists, and this week’s is long, as we head toward Thanksgiving next week. There’s art to work on, some pieces that need to be finished by this weekend, writing deadlines fast approaching if I want to meet some personal goals, and normal homeschooling and church commitments, of course, which are myriad this time of year. There’s company at the end of this week, and other company next week. The preschool Thanksgiving feast is Tuesday. Wednesday night is the community-wide meal served at the elementary school. There’s our own potluck Thanksgiving meal, followed by a regular Thanksgiving meal tailored to our own preferences. And more pie, because, pie. Always pie. There’s deacon family communion next Sunday. Today is the last day of the after-school reading camp I volunteer with, but that means a special program on Wednesday to celebrate the students’ achievements. Tomorrow night we’re celebrating birthdays with friends and Thai food, so there was cake to be made, cake I hadn’t planned to make until 4:30 pm when I realized if I were to ice it tomorrow, it would need to be cooled tonight. Tomorrow morning is our weekly co-op, and there is no time in the morning. Friday is your dad’s birthday. Sigh.

The promise of Mondays? Well, it usually fades at some point while jotting down my lists and checking the calendar and texting back and forth with your dad about the to-do items we forgot. Signing up for health insurance. Renewing the car registration. Ordering more contacts. And we still haven’t decided about the organic, heritage breed turkey.

Dark the night of sin has settled, 
loud the angry billows roar. 
Eager eyes are watching, longing, 
for the lights along the shore.

Girls, there is always more to be done than I am able to get done. More than anyone is able to get done. People are busy, and everyone says so, and everyone is tired. The more I think about real relationships and being vulnerable and cultivating a community that supports one another, the more convinced I am that the go-to answer to “how are you?” being “busy, busy” is really hurting our communities. It’s pretty much as unhelpful as “fine” in shutting down all conversation. Yes, I know, life is busy. Everyone is busy. But how are you?

And what I want to say is this: I’m at the point in my life where I’ve decided to embrace busy-ness as an opportunity to only focus on the lighthouse light, to focus on keeping the lower lights burning.

What I mean is, because there is always going to be more to do than I can do, I’m going to go ahead and say yes to lighthouse things. And not worry about items that fall off the list. (Or rather, that get put on next week’s list and the week after and the week after.) Instead of saying no, today I agreed to help with worship planning. I agreed to think about new banners for our sanctuary. I said yes to texting and keeping in touch with broken souls and loved ones in transition and doing happy dances alongside those who are rejoicing.

And today I decided to take you to Starbucks for cake pops after piano lessons. Because YES. Cake pops. Snowperson cake pops. And peppermint mocha. After sitting for twenty minutes in the drive-through line, listening to “Oh, Babylon,” “Lower Lights,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “This Little Light of Mine” at your request, I’ll have you know, from the hipster hymn compilation CD we have in the car. (Yes, we still have a CD player.) And as those songs played, and you conjured up sweet dreams of cake pops, and analyzed the behavior of all other cars in line, including the SUV with the enormous dog in the backseat, I started making a list of all the beautiful and ordinary things filling up my life. Some are to-do list items that are now checked off. Some are just extraordinary ordinaries. Some are just grace-in-the-mundane altars-in-the-world. But this list is much more life-giving than a to-do list of items that won’t be getting done this week.

Let the lower lights be burning!

It’s a list of things like that we always holler and clap when we drive under the railroad bridge in our town.

Like that today when we left the house, there was a leaf plastered to the hood of the car with its stem sticking straight up in the air, and it cracked both of you up the whole drive to piano. It never blew away.

Like watching the five year old learn to draw a Treble clef in her piano theory book.

Send a gleam across the way!

Like how I overheard child number one helping child number two get dressed this morning: “No, you need to sit up in that chair. No, this chair. Give me your foot. Okay, here’s your first sock.”

Like that your babysitter today helped you draw and cut out an assortment of animals for a pretend zoo. It includes but is not limited to a goldfish and a blue whale, a worm and a cow, a baby chicken and two goats.

Like that I came across the three year old this morning sitting in front of the frig playing with letter magnets humming her nursery rhyme songs to herself.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman…

Like knee-high polkadot socks.

Like snowboots with crunched up leaves inside them.

Like using coconut oil on my face instead of lotion.

you may rescue…

Like finding a small Tupperware of buckeyes and bourbon balls I froze last Christmas in the freezer.

Like avacados being eighty-eight cents at the grocery store.

Like sitting across from your dad, while he reads Dorothy Sayers, and I drink a hot toddy and write you a letter.

you may save.

Like life.

A busy life. A full life. A beautiful life.

Say yes, girls. There is always time for lower-light things. For lighthouse things.

Love,

Your Momma

The Seventy-Eighth Letter: To-Do Lists & Kingdom Work

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve jotted lots of notes to myself in recent weeks listing items I want to write to you about. Memories I want to capture. Nuggets of wisdom that seem worthy of recording. What I’m learning about life, about mothering, about myself.

The problem is that I know that the things I manage to record for you in these letters and in your individual journals take on significance. Those writings begin to outweigh actual memories—in a way they become the actual memories in this season.

And that’s okay, but it makes it hard to start writing sometimes. Especially when what I want to write feels ordinary, a brief glimpse of the sacred in the midst of what is an otherwise ordinary life.

For example, Tuesdays are exhausting. I’m writing this on Tuesday. I’m exhausted. I had a rough night last night insomnia-wise, and this morning our weekly homeschool class met, which means I lead two and a half hours of activity for a group of nine 4-6 year olds. They are a sweet bunch of kids, and I’m enjoying it significantly more than I expected to (or than anyone who knows me at all expected me to). Even the rowdy kiddos are charming and kind and I have such compassion for them.

There is probably nothing short of providential intervention going on there, by the way, stepping in and giving me patience, offering me glimpses of the holy in the midst of squirming and interrupting. I believe in providential intervention, even on this small scale.

That said, Tuesdays still exhaust me, even though it’s fun and rewarding Kingdom work.

We got home this afternoon, and I painted while you had some brief quiet time. After that, I offered to let you go outside and play. I’m convinced that unstructured full-body creative play is key to your brain and body development as well as your creativity, and it’s one of the reasons I homeschool.

As usual I have a long running to-do list, but I decided to put it aside and rest myself. I made a cup of tea, grabbed a book I’m reading, post-its, a pencil, and my planner-prayer guide-journal, and sat down on the back deck. As I breathed and reflected and enjoyed my tea, I decided I did want to write you a letter after all, so I went inside to get my laptop.

I began to write.

And then I was interrupted.

As usual.

The youngest came over to announce that her sister “FOUND AN ANT CAWWYING SOMETHING WIWWY WEIRD! YOU HAVE TO COME SEE!”

Seriously, child? (This is what I thought to myself.) I do not want to come over there to check out an ant. I’ve seen ants. You’ve seen ants. They’re kind of all the same. I’m doing some important meditative work here. Also, I’m writing you a letter. You will appreciate this someday. Sigh.

And then, and then I felt this little nudge I’ve been feeling a lot the last two weeks. It’s a small and quiet question that I feel deep in my heart:

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

I’m serious. I can feel that question in my heart. What is important to the Kingdom of God? It comes in striking contrast to however I am feeling. And you know what I always hear as the answer? It’s always clear as day. It’s this, as cheesy and obvious as it seems:

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

It’s like a little catechism question that just pops up out of nowhere.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Okay, let’s be real. It’s decidedly not out of nowhere. It’s been popping up whenever I’ve been frustrated or worn out or just want to do what I think is important. Because if it’s on a to-do list, it must be important, right?

It has happened when I’m all set to work on a big project and a text comes through from a friend asking if she can stop by.

It has happened when I’m outside and a neighbor walks by who wants to talk.

It has happened at book group meetings, reading group meetings, church meetings. (Maybe it’s because of my general distaste for meetings that makes me in need of the Spirit’s nudge.)

It’s happened often enough that I told your dad about it. He and I have long kidded about my ability to collect “stray people,” as he calls them. Whether they are strangers or friends or neighbors, people I encounter in my ordinary life often stop and talk. And I mean talk about serious things, not just fluffy chitchat.

Why is that?

And why is my instinct always to be a little bit annoyed on the inside, even when I know it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be?

Well, that’s probably why I am continuing to learn this lesson, here in my thirties. And that’s probably why the nudges aren’t slowing—if anything, they’re coming more and more often.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

I had a meeting a few weeks ago and it was running long and I really just wanted to go home and go to bed but clearly someone needed to get something off her chest and needed someone else to listen to her. I heard the question again. What is important to the Kingdom of God? People…

I came home from that meeting, apologized for being late, and posed the question to your dad: What is important to the Kingdom of God? We chuckled and sighed. Yeah, yeah. We both knew the answer.

The thing is, you are people. You are the Kingdom work in front of me. So are my neighbors. So are strangers who cross my path. So is my friend whose mother is dying of cancer out of state, my pregnant friend in Texas, my grandmother who deserves another hand-written letter.

And yes, of course my art and my writing and my editing and my long to-do list are ALSO kingdom work. They are. Using my gifts for the Kingdom is Kingdom work.

But this. I keep hearing it.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

I can’t get away from that still small voice nudging me to this conclusion:

Interruptions are as important to the Kingdom of God as the to-do list is.

It happened yesterday when the five-year-old really wanted to make a craft out of your Solar System coloring page you’d brought home from the library last week. You had conceived of the whole idea yourself and brought me a paper towel tube and the string, but you needed me to cut holes in the tube, figure out how to fish the string through, look up the order of the planets which I should know but don’t. It was a minor request but I was planning to finish up my class prep and begin dinner, and the craft was not urgent but I had already put it off twice when you asked me before. I also knew it would take longer than you thought. I knew it would eat up the rest of the afternoon until your dad came home. Because these things always do.

But then came that nudge again.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Sigh.

So we made the Solar System with the blue sun. And it did take the rest of the afternoon. And we ate dinner late.

But it is such a privilege to see your mind figuring things out, dreaming up crafts, seeking answers to questions you are barely able to articulate yourself. If I can’t pause and acknowledge the beauty of you, of life alongside you, I probably shouldn’t be preaching a Gospel of sacramental living to the world.

And now back to the “wiwwy weird” thing that the ant was carrying this afternoon.

Well, I got up, put down my laptop—which by the way was down to 4 percent battery and I just hadn’t realized it—and she was right. It was pretty weird. It was a yellowjacket. The ant was carrying a yellowjacket up the trunk of a large tree in the corner of our yard. We watched it together for awhile climbing on the tree bark, and we wondered about God’s creation and how we never cease to be amazed.

What is important to the Kingdom of God?

People are important to the Kingdom of God.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Eighth Letter: Holy Ground

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Dear Daughters,

I’ve been thinking about this calling to a sacramental life—a calling to seek the holy in the everyday humdrum and monotony of raising small children, of serving our neighbors, of loving our community or at least trying to, and in finding the cracks to shine the light in. This search for the sacramental keeps pulling me forward and revealing itself to me as the vocation that gives my life meaning.

Don’t get me wrong.

I like my—what should I call it?—“day job.” I love writing poetry and making art. I feel called to it. Most of the time I like proofing and writing articles, and I even know the joy of a nit-picky copyediting job well done, of the intense focus needed for InDesign formatting and layout. And, of course, many days, I love raising you and seeing you grow and learn and create and ask difficult, insightful questions. That’s part of my day job too. I even love chopping vegetables. Sometimes.

But all of these pieces of my life, as much as I am called to them, make up what continues to feel like the larger picture that is my vocation: seeing where the sacred breaks through.

Maybe that’s everyone’s vocation to some degree or another, I don’t know. But it feels real to me, this calling.

Your dad and I are making an intentional effort this calendar year to cultivate a habit of morning and evening prayer. The book we use, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, has already walked us through some well-known Old Testament passages this first week of January.

A few days ago, we had Jacob discovering that “surely the Lord is in this place.” And he wasn’t even aware of it.

We had Moses being told to take off his sandals before the burning bush because the land he was standing on was holy ground.

The Lord was in that place.

That place was holy ground.

That place.

This place.

I remember learning in Introduction to Christianity, one of our required undergraduate courses at Houghton College, that a “sacrament” is a visible sign of invisible grace. (Google tells me that this definition is attributed to Augustine. Maybe so.)

A visible sign of invisible grace.

So the thing is, Jacob’s dream and his wrestling with the angel sound like exceptional moments of God’s interacting with humanity. Serious exceptions to the general, widespread experience of being a human being in the world.

And Moses before the burning bush sounds like a crazy thing that only happens in the Old Testament. It’s unusual to say the least. Even for the Bible.

History tells us that these are sacred stories. These are sacred stories of sacred places. Moments when God’s presence broke into our world. These are stories worth telling precisely because they are exceptional. The people of Israel told and retold (and still do tell) these stories to their children.

But you know what?

I’m not convinced these stories are exceptional, at least not in God’s presence breaking into our world, our time, our lived experience.

I’m convinced that God breaks through and reveals God’s grace to us all the time. It’s us. We’re the problem. We’re in the way. The stuff of life is in the way. The clutter is in the way.

I’m convinced that even our everyday mundane moments can be conduits of God’s grace, can be sacraments, can teach us something about God and the way God works and will continue to work in the world.

What we have to do is look for it.

What we have to do is see it.

What we have to do is proclaim it.

There’s an old-fashioned word for you. Proclaim.

Surely the Lord is in this place.

The place we are standing is holy ground.

Girls, I don’t know how else to say it.

That’s what living sacramentally means. That’s what I want you to see, to know. It might be one of the most important things I teach you. This place is holy ground.

It’s what enables us to love our neighbors. To welcome the stranger. To see that those who drive us the most crazy and make us the most angry are made in the image of God. Just like us. To understand that we aren’t special or privileged but as deserving of God’s grace as everyone else. Which means we are undeserving of it. And yet, God’s grace breaks in.

So I will proclaim it. Over and over and over again, I will proclaim it.

This place where we are learning to do life together? Yes, that’s what I mean. This place. It’s holy.

This community.

This neighborhood.

This shared driveway.

This dinner table.

This couch.

This swing set.

This dollhouse.

This snow-covered sidewalk.

All of it.

Holy Ground.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-Second Letter: This Is Today

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Dear Daughters,

Today, I drank too much caffeinated hot tea with sugar and whole milk. I wore big earrings, big hair, big boots, and no make-up. I wore my grandfather’s blue-green plaid shirt. It is Veterans Day. He was a 101st airborne paratrooper.

Today, I remembered it was the last day to donate Thanksgiving food pantry items at the preschool, and I had forgotten to add them to our grocery list, but we keep Annie’s macaroni and cheese in pantry. So today, we gave what we had.

Today, I sat around a table with some fellow artist friends, and we shared a time of candid lament. We planned a retreat. We ate donuts. We laughed over a Good Housekeeping article from 1955 about the qualities of a good wife, which apparently involves cleaning and cooking and not complaining and dusting before your husband comes home from work. The toddler then spilled milk all over the table.

Today, I signed a permission slip to allow the eldest to walk to the food pantry next week during a morning at preschool. I smile to think of that beautiful image–a row of two-by-two hand-holding children pulling a wagon of food up to Main Street so that local families can have a Thanksgiving meal. This is exactly the work I want you to see and do and know.

Today, I listened to a friend read poems she’d written to voice the pain of sexual assault. She had never read them out loud before, but she bravely shared publicly at a symposium on sexual violence. Reading anything out loud takes guts. Sharing pain vulnerably takes courage.

Today, I struggled to write a community prayer for our worship service on Sunday, knowing that even in our church it is hard to speak openly about divisive issues.

Today, at preschool pick-up, I learned that not all parents of preschoolers are as thrilled as I am that you will be visiting the food pantry in person next week.

Today, I texted with a friend who is going through a divorce.

Today, I addressed a handful of postcards to send to strangers.

Today, the eldest asked why I had a safety pin on my shirt, and I teared up explaining that some people don’t have anyone safe to talk to about important things, and that this pin means I am a safe person. I told you, this pin means people can talk to me about important things, things that make them sad. You told me, “When I’m a grown-up, I might have one of those to put on my shirt.”

Today, I showed the eldest how to write an “A” in cursive.

Today, I sat bundled up in a scarf and sweatshirt at the picnic table, typing away on my laptop, while you asked me repeatedly if you could take off your sweater because it was too hot. It is currently in the 50s and breezy.

Today, I did not cook or clean or dust. I have not dusted in months. But I did eat two jelly donuts. Today.

Today, you brought me a pile of dirty pebbles and sticks, cradled in your dress, and announced that it was your Thanksgiving dinner. And that you’d invited all of your friends to share it with you. I didn’t have the heart to scold you for the dirt on your dress, so we talked about Thanksgiving instead.

Today I wanted to write so many things.

I didn’t.

Love,

Your Momma