How beautifully you are growing up! You’ve blossomed into a darling, smart, tender little toddler this month and there’s just no baby left. You weaned yourself without either of us really even noticing. The baby days are all gone. In their place are days full of your sweet, stubborn, and fun-loving personality. You love to hang out with Jacob, to pick on him, and to give him kisses and feel his hair. Together, you love to tear through the house shrieking at the top of your lungs, chasing and giggling. You love giving hugs to all kinds of people, and whenever you get ahold of my phone you hold it up to your neck and walk around saying “Hi” over and over again.
You also love to hold my little Book of Common Prayer and you’ve begun to sing this month. You sing while you hold that book, you sing in church or when we have worship at home, you sing with us at bedtime sometimes, and you just sing when you’re playing happily. We’re starting to notice little melodic snippets in all the babbling, and we think you are completely darling.
You need lots of TLC. You thrive on being with us and you are so affectionate, handing out hugs and kisses all over the place. There have been a lot of crocodile tears when you’ve been in bed alone, both before falling asleep and after waking up. You take your naps in the basement bedroom now which you seem to enjoy, but you rarely wake up happy and you rarely go to sleep without crying for 10-20 minutes. It seems like you just want to be with us. The other night you were coming up on an hour of crying and I finally went down because my Mom Instincts told me to. I picked you up against my better judgment, sure that when I put you down I’d have only fanned the flames of your fury. But I held you anyway, and sang, prayed, talked to you in your ear. Then I put you down and tucked you in with your baby and your monkey and your special blanket and you went to sleep without another fuss. Since I’m coming to see that you thrive on contact the way Jacob thrives on solitude, I am trying to do my best to give you a lot of it. So often after you wake up from a nap too early we will have some special time together, like this past Sunday when you snuggled on the couch with Daddy and me. You are never happier than in those sweet moments.
You have lots of funny little ways. You yell at the top of your lungs when you find pretty much any sort of animal, a roar that only a one-year-old girl could come up with. Other than that you have modulated your voice a lot lately and you don’t yell nearly as much as you used to. Instead your moments of urgency are more subtle, intense little chants. (These happen most often at the table, when you are tired of scooping bites for yourself and you want someone else to do the spoon-loading for you, at which point I remind you “Say, ‘Help, Mommy!'” and you instantly respond, “Hup, Muh-muh-muh.”)
You like to bump down the stairs on your butt, but you are wisely afraid of falling, so you just give a little squeak and expect me to come hold your hand. You are scared of the vacuum cleaner but your fear is growing into a timid curiosity and you point to it and calmly say “Baa-Pee” and wait for me to explain it to you again. You’ve erupted into unexplainable sobs several times recently and I’m starting to suspect that you are stubbing your quick little toes on furniture. You walked into a wall earlier today and I’m sorry to say this propensity is genetic and you got it from me. So I just come over when you cry and give you a big hug and then it seems to be better quickly.
You love to say “YES!” when I ask you “Meredith, do you love Jesus?” every morning at breakfast. And you love, love, love to hold hands when we pray. In fact, we recently changed up the way we sit at the table so that Daddy was no longer sitting between you and Jacob but between me and Jacob. But you just can’t seem to accept the thought of not holding both of our hands as we say grace, so you reach for Daddy insistently and I’ve given up my share of his hands so that you can have it. It just melts my heart, every time, how you love human connection of every sort. You revel in those moments when everything is just right and we’re both holding your hands.
Your hair is getting longer and thicker finally, and I brush it every morning, which you love. You are sitting up in your chair at the table all by yourself with no more apron to tie you safely in. You are understanding all my directions, and ignoring most of them, sometimes while looking right into my eyes. When I shake my finger at something and tell you it is “no touch” you still point to your own little chest as if to reinforce the command and demonstrate that you understand it. And when I tell you to come, or give you another command that you don’t obey and you get a little spank, you’ve begun to reach around and give yourself your own little spank of sorts, almost like that’s the sign language for “Oops, I was naughty.” You have this impudent sense of humor. And the first words that come to my mind to describe the way you approach life are “zest” and “flare.”
Yesterday you “helped” me fold the laundry, grabbing a handful of things out of the basket and tearing down the hall to go stuff them into random drawers in your room. Fortunately I was able to redirect your energy toward grabbing stuff and throwing it into my lap or into another nearby hamper. You also like to help throw things in the trash or flush the potty, and when someone is washing hands you are twitching to get in on the action, which often sets your brother hysterical as you try to carve out a chunk of space for yourself on the step stool. This has been your contribution to the potty training adventure you’ve witnessed the last few weeks.
Daddy and I have been spending a lot of time the last couple weeks thinking carefully about what we want our days to look like. Our days are the increments God gives us for living, and if we want to create a life for our family that reflects our vision of the good life, it needs to happen in the now. It’s easy to say “I want my kids to love prayer” or “I want my kids to be wise and virtuous.” As this new year began I was thinking in terms of imagination, not resolution. I had been feeling buried under clutter of every kind – spiritual, emotional, physical – clutter in our schedules, clutter in our pantry, clutter in our affections. It’s made me sluggish and unproductive, and I wanted a change, but I didn’t know what to ask or what to “resolve” in this new year (because of the clutter!). So what I asked was “What do I envision when I look ahead to this time next year? What does our “good life” look like? And then, one day at a time, I am trying to build it. This building happens on a foundation of grace, grace, grace – God’s gracious, lavish, extravagant grace, and I will never be able to emphasize that to you enough. And it’s this grace that cradles us on a day like yesterday – I day when, according to my “vision of human flourishing” I should have been writing this letter to you and not eating cake. But Wednesday had drained me dry and yesterday I felt peace in leaving it all to the wind, resting in God’s tenderness towards us. I want our lives to be characterized by that sense of God’s generosity to us and his compassion on our frailty. But I’ve digressed.
I also want to create rhythms for us to walk in that offer up to us, prepared and plated, our good life. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel every day. It’s like C.S. Lewis writes about in Letters to Malcolm, as he is belly-aching about the changes to the Prayer Book: The liturgy is a dance floor and when we learn it our hearts are free to dance with abandon. When we are forever attending to the floor we don’t dance as much or as well. So this year is beginning all about rhythms, and I want to record them here for you. Many of them we’ve been doing for a long time. Some of them are new. We are learning them well and I am seeing you and Jacob thrive in your familiarity with them. You exude confidence. You know what comes next and sometimes you or your brother will prompt me for it if I’m not delivering.
Mostly, these rhythms I’m referring to are rhythms of worship, like a simple, organic, toddler-sized version of monastic hours. It has been humbling and inspiring to see how it’s training me to have my heart turned toward God at all times. It’s Psalm 25: “To you, O Lord, we lift up our hearts.” So that is what we’re doing: lifting up our hearts, a dozen times a day, and I am seeing the fruit of it not only in your life and your brother’s, but in mine.
So in the morning after we get dressed and tidy your room we pause to pray: I pray for you each with my own words and then together we pray the Collect for Grace found in the service of morning prayer from the Book of Common Worship. (We altered the language a tad so it could send natural in your mouths as you grow.) Then we say the Lord’s Prayer and (oh, the excitement!) sing the Doxology. Then, of course, The Morning Smooches. Then we’re upstairs for breakfast and I as fix your meals we begin our little litany: “Jacob? Do you love Jesus?” “Yes!” “Meredith, do you love Jesus?” You say “Yes!” as soon as I say “Meredith.” Then, as a way of defining “Christian” as “those who love Jesus,” I ask, “Christian, what do you believe?” We recite the Apostles’ Creed. Then “Christian, what is your only comfort in life and in death?” And we recite the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Usually at this point Jacob says something predictable about how he’s going to “live for Him,” which is how the catechism ends. When breakfast craziness winds down I speak the first four verses of Psalm 34 – “…O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” We’ve been working on “worshiping Jesus with our ears,” i.e. sitting quietly while Mommy reads the Bible. So this is what we do, and we pray for ears to hear and hearts to listen, and all my babies say “Amen.” We sing a morning hymn, read Scriptures on virtue and pray simple prayers asking for these virtues, and then we sing “Jesus Loves Me” as the signal that we’re done and it’s time to gorge ourselves on our favorite stories.
At lunch time we’ve begun reading a couple verses of the day’s corresponding chapter of Proverbs and talking about what they mean. This usually involves me elaborately and vividly describing a scenario (probably one that already happened that morning) in which one or both of you might choose to be wise or foolish, and what the outcome would be. Jacob calls these “Prombums,” and begs that we read them several times, and sometimes at breakfast and dinner, too. At naps I get a few minutes alone with each of you and for you it is a story and a quick song-and-prayer. For Jacob it’s a Bible story chapter book, a chance to kneel down and talk about confessing our sins and thanking God for His blessings, and a snuggle with our routine nap time song. I am looking forward to when you grow into this little liturgy, too.
At dinner Daddy and I have spliced together a litany for us to pray. We chose this for several reasons: We want you to grow up in a family that prays, and in a family that prays for all the things we want, and in a family that wants a very particular set of things, intentionally. We want blessing for the church, peace for the world, and the list goes on and on. Praying these things gives us space in the midst of life’s crazy pace to speak before God of what we want. So when we pray for the sick and all those who care for them, maybe one night we are thinking of ourselves and maybe one night we’re thinking of a friend who had brain surgery. The pre-established litany is ensuring that we cover all the bases, whatever they happen to be that day. No matter the specifics, the vision is still the same, and a lot of thought went into the words we chose. We believe that the daily engagement of our imaginations, structured by this skeleton, will shape us to want the things we want to want. If you are reading this and understanding that sentence I think we will have done our job. This, in the end, is the point of all these devotional practices. We hope they will shape you to belong to Christ and His Kingdom and to find that belonging your highest joy and deepest identity.
At bedtime things haven’t changed much since they began to evolve when Jacob was a baby. We sit on the couch and Daddy prays, we recite a Psalm together, read a tiny chunk of Scripture and talk about it, sing a hymn, Mommy prays, and then we march to bedtime, where we sing again, Daddy prays, and the only thing we’ve added is the corresponding Book of Common Prayer Collect – the one that begins “Lighten our darkness, O Lord.” Then it’s Smooches and Squeezes and that’s the end.
I sense a great responsibility that comes with our choice to structure your lives in this way. It’s a responsibility to teach you that the floor is for dancing on, and dancing is only beautiful when your heart is given to it. It’s a responsibility to teach you two things together: to dance on an established floor and to walk by Christ’s side each day, in a spontaneous, fresh, personal, improvisatory way. (Hence the intentional inclusion of extemporaneous prayer, too.) It’s a responsibility to know you and know how your soul takes to these rhythms. For myself, there’s been almost no blessing in my Christian life greater than having explored The Lord’s Prayer as a structure when I was in 8th grade. I am daily thankful for the way predictability and rhythm has facilitated my communion with God. But if you ask my sister, your auntie, she will not speak so well of the sorts of things I love. For her, they might damage instead. What I’m trying to say is that while this is what we believe will truly cause each of you, individually, to flourish, we hope to always be careful not to let you get lost in the shuffle, get wounded or chafed by something that doesn’t fit you, or let your eyes get glazed over with boredom and indifference.
And this is where I come back to what I said at the beginning: Grace, grace, grace. We are going to need so much of it. Every morning I’ve been walking a couple blocks as I pray, and every morning I find that this is what I am praying for: Grace, to cover all my sin. Grace, to keep us thriving. Grace, to inspire us to flourish. Grace, to cradle us when we are weary of the effort. Grace, to pursue it all with humility. Grace, to keep it all in balance. Wednesday Grace, because every day is new, and yesterday’s manna has gone stale and it’s time to gather more. And if we try to dance this dance on any other source of energy than grace, grace, grace it’s going to be nothing but ugly and deathly and that is the last thing we want for you, you lovely, sweet, affectionate, darling, tiny person. We want you to flourish and to be truly, deeply happy and we’re pretty sure this is how.
I love you.