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-Fourth Letter: The Me I Want You to Be

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Dear Daughters,

Last week, the five-year-old announced that you wanted to be just like me when you grow up. You were watching me hand-letter a sign, as you are prone to do, standing there mesmerized, and so I knew what you meant: that you wanted to be an artist like me, that you want to learn to hand-letter, that you want to be a painter who makes beautiful things. Some day.

But, I’ll be real, when you said you wanted to be just like me, my first thought was about all the ways I hope you are not like me. I thought about how often I lose my temper, for example, how I can be unreasonable with my expectations. How I worry too much, get anxious and listless and unsettled inside. How I need to self-talk myself down off the ledge. How I’m selfish and prideful and really want to flee some days. Maybe even every day at some point, if I’m honest with myself.

Sure, I would love for you to be an artist or a writer, or an academic like your dad, but more than that, I want you to be many other important things. I want you to be brave and vulnerable, courageous and compassionate, calm and trustworthy and loving, truth-seeking and honest, full of conviction and kind, articulate and dissatisfied with the status quo.

I am some of those things, but I am not all of those things.

I’m not saying I’m a failure when I get worried, when I snap at you and scold you and am unreasonable. I’m a good mom, and I know I am. But I wonder sometimes how to teach you to be brave when I myself do not feel brave, to teach you not to worry when I myself am worried, to teach you to love strangers when I myself want to be by myself.

And the truth is, I can only take it one day at a time, one moment at a time. And in some of those moments I will fail.

Right now I am sitting outside at the picnic table and the two of you are playing explorers in the yard. (I want you to love being outside, even though it’s not my favorite thing.) You’re picking green beans and putting them into your sandbucket. And you’re eating them. (I gave you permission. I want you to love the garden and fresh food and crunchy beans.) You’re hot and sweaty already. (I want you to know it’s okay to not always be comfortable.) You’re crawling up the slide backwards. (I want you to know it’s okay to be creative in interpreting the rules.) You’ve got bug spray on your legs and sneakers on your feet. (I want you to know how to care for yourself.)

Yesterday you were barefoot and sliced your foot open on a broken walnut shell. I was working on a poem up on the porch but you began screaming and sobbing about blood, and that was the end of poetry for the day. I was annoyed, even as I cared for you, but I want you to I know that I will always choose you over any project in front of me, even if I do it begrudgingly some days. I am still becoming my best self; there is still work to be done. Your foot is still hurting today.

In recent weeks, I’ve had some opportunities to show you in small ways what brave and courageous looks like, even when I have not wanted to. I flew with the two of you to visit your grandma at her beautiful island home. The trip requires two flights to get there, and two flights with two children and one adult is not exactly my favorite traveling situation. (Also, less importantly, I played with you in the ocean despite my ridiculous and unaccountable fear of sharks.) And then last week, I drove the two of you to Pennsylvania so you could see your new cousin, two sets of grandparents, a great-grandma, and your great-great-grandma. Girls, this kind of trip, no matter how many times I do it and no matter how many times it turns out okay, is tough for me. On Wednesday night before we left, I lay awake in bed for hours and tried to think of all the reasons I could to back out of our trip. For hours.

But we went and we got to see some loved ones. We got to meet your brand-new cousin and get baby snuggles, finally got to meet my college friend’s husband. We went to Perkins with Great-Great-Grandma and she gave you each four quarters. We ate candy and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches with Great-Grandma and her dogs made you cry. I got to see a childhood best friend and her girls, and we took a picture with our matching Subarus.

In other news, I also turned the wrong way on the turnpike and had to go thirty miles out of my way. I went west instead of east on interstate loop in bumper-to-bumper traffic and made an already-too-long trip even more interminable. I kept my cool both those times. I really did. Outwardly.

But this is life: I did lose my temper a few times in the car, by the end, especially on the way home when interstate construction extended our drive by four hours. I yelled and even cried more than once. Literally cried. I was not at my best, but I’m a work in progress.

I feel like I’m still recovering, two days later. Maybe it’s because there had been so much weight following me around while I was trying to be brave for you and pretend I was not as overwhelmed as I was. I don’t single-parent well.

Yesterday, I didn’t unpack and do laundry. (For the record, the basement flooded twice while we were gone, so laundry would have been impossible given the furniture piled up in the laundry room. Your dad is the real superhero who vacuumed up dozens of gallons of water twice, moved furniture, propped up carpets, made myriad Lowe’s runs, and now has fans blowing on everything.)

By the end of the day yesterday, the sink was full of dirty dishes and I did not wash them. I did not even look at the to-do list from before the trip that I knew was mostly incomplete. I did not pay the stack of bills, even though I knew that the end of the month was approaching. I saw the pile of crafts and artwork that had accumulated at the end of the school year and planned to take photos of all of them so I could finally, finally toss them out. But I didn’t. I left the table and the buffet covered in art and mail and craft supplies.

But you know what I did do? Your dad and I said morning prayers together. I took a shower. I took you to gymnastics class and then to the playground to play just for the fun of it. While on the playground I surprised myself by showing you how I can still hang from my knees on the monkey bars. When we got home, I cut a jar full of day lilies, a few branches of rose of sharon, and flowering thyme to put on our dining room table. I did not clear off the table first. Not a bit. I chose to add beauty instead of organizing the chaos. Then I went back outside and cut three jars of fresh oregano and basil to keep them from flowering, and I brought them inside to the windowsill above the sink. Then I went back outside and cut some fresh mint to brew sun tea on the back porch. During quiet time, I hand-lettered some postcards. You followed me around and commented on everything I did.

And I did not mention to you how I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. I did not tell you about the things I was not accomplishing.

Instead, I helped you see that life is in the one-moment-at-a-time experiences of cutting flowers and pinching basil and picking green beans and making beauty.

Because I really believe that if I show you that often enough—what bravery feels like, what beauty feels like, what love and compassion feels like—even if I’m floundering inside, well, I really believe that I will someday become those things myself.

And then you can be just like me when you grow up.

I’ll be okay with that.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fiftieth Letter: It Just Feels Full

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Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, I had to walk by Christmas trees and ornaments at WalMart in order to get to the mums. The mums! In October! Which is the perfect time to purchase mums for your front porch.

And there were the Christmas trees.

Sigh.

Forget Advent. Forget Thanksgiving. It’s not even Halloween yet, girls.

I was perturbed.

Maybe it’s just me, but I want to appreciate the mums and pumpkins and cider and colored leaves on the trees. I don’t want to move on to the next thing, to answer your questions about why we can’t buy that bin of silver balls, to talk about how pretty that wreath is.

I want to enjoy the swingset in the cool breeze, taking you out on a run without having to slather you in sunscreen, painting pumpkins and maybe even that random decorative squash a friend gave us that is shaped like a character out of Veggie Tales. I don’t want to start counting down to Christmas, and worry about what our travel plans are for Thanksgiving, and Christmas lists and gifts and painting a Jesse Tree.

It’s too much, it’s too fast, the calendar is too full. It stresses me out.

Well, it does when I look at it that way.

But sometimes I don’t look at it that way.

I glanced at my monthly calendar this morning and was astounded at All The Things on the schedule. It’s felt a little hectic the last few weeks, and no wonder. It has been.

All The Things distract us and keep us busy, All The Things pile up and wear us down, All The Things fill up our weeks, our semesters, our days, our moments.

But there was a moment of grace this morning. I felt a distance when I looked at the calendar because I realized that All The Things are things we do; they are not the things we are. They are what we do but they do not determine the way we do life.

I am more convinced than ever that a full life does not have to be a stressful life. A full life does not have to feel like a “busy” life. Full might mean doing a lot of things–or it might not.

It’s more like a way of approaching the things on the calendar. Because the calendar will be full regardless.

A full life is about being present.

Being attentive in the moments.

Breathing.

Enjoying the warm breeze, or the cool breeze, the feel of those soft mum blossoms as I water them every day. My mom tells me that’s how you keep them alive.

For me, it’s taking the time to write, to make art, to create, to paint. It’s reading a novel instead of watching TV. It’s putting down the novel to set you up to paint a pumpkin.

I was astounded last week when I sat down to go through these fifty letters and the poetry I’ve written over the last four years, to sift through the words I’d forgotten I’d written in order to share some of them publicly at a poetry and art night at our local arts and cultural center. Girls, there were so many words. I’ve written so many words. But I’ve been so tired for four years, girls. So tired. How could this be? It perplexed me. It still does.

Being present means seeing the way grace is already present in my life.

Being present means slowing down to really see beauty.

Because when I slow down in the moments, the days slow down too, the whole life slows down.

The busy-ness becomes full-ness instead. The activities become separate from the way we feel about the world.

And that full-ness, even when I’m bone tired, becomes happiness.

That sounds trite, doesn’t it? To say that I’m happy?

Of course, I’m worn out and frustrated and on the verge of losing my temper a lot of the time, too, more times than I like to admit, but when I do that whole being-attentive-thing? There is peace there. There is happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the truth is, I didn’t really want to scrape Cinnamon Life out of the carpet this afternoon. But I did it. And for some reason, as I sat on the floor, there was peace there.

I did not like extending my shopping trip to WalMart yesterday by stopping in the bathroom for a potty-training two year old. But I did it. And, okay, there was not peace there. You spilled my purse on the floor. But there could have been, I can see that. If I hadn’t lost my temper.

I haven’t really wanted to read a Harry Potter book every week for the last four weeks. But I’m doing it. Making space for these enormous books in my life—750 pages this week, girls–means making space for good discussions in our house on Thursday nights with college students and friends.

I didn’t want to do my freelance work from a desktop computer tucked halfway into a hall closet last week when our ethernet cable went bad, but I did it. And even found it amusing at times, working in a linen closet.

Most days, I don’t want to rise early to have some quiet before you wake up, and some mornings I don’t, but some mornings I do.

I don’t like to wash the dishes or do tedious chores like folding laundry, but when I’m willing to see grace here, I’ve found in that tedium surprising moments of meditation when I’ve least expected it. I was asked at my poetry reading about inspiration and writing habits, and I realized that most of my ideas for poems and blog posts come when I’m chopping vegetables.

This, girls, is a happy season. It’s a tiring season. It’s a full season. There is much to do and places to go and ministries to serve and friendships to build and art to make and you to love and hold and snuggle and teach.

Sometimes it feels stressful, if I let it.

But most times, it just feels full.

And happy.

Love,

Your Momma