Again I’ve shown up late to write to you. “Your day” came and went nearly two weeks ago now. There’s been a flurry of good things in our world that have gotten the better of me. Last time I wrote to Jacob seemed to be the beginning of it, and I wrote to him about home: about how it’s a place for others. I find we are good at this as a family. And since then there’s been a lot of that, with Auntie Becks here for a week, a huge party to celebrate our Joshua Levi’s baptism, and then we took home on the road and spent a week delighting not nearly long enough in a place that used to be home.
It’s been an exhausting month for me and I am in that depth of sleep deprivation that includes rather precarious traffic situations and the shocking inability to formulate sentences. Not only were we traveling, but you were sick, and then the rest of us were, and you were waking over and over each night, probably in part from your good-humored willingness to roll with the punches and sleep on the straight-up floor during our travels. Almost two weeks past the first sign of your drippy nose and you are still waking often and being incredibly crabby even oftener, which has me slightly suspicious that you might have an ear infection.
Still, you are a darling – astonishingly happy and articulate and even wise – and our world has been full of happy things, like a trip to a farm and another trip to an apple orchard, during which you managed to pee through a pull-up, drenching the only outfit we possessed within 45 miles of us. So there you were, wandering amongst the apple trees, not a stitch on but your little dress, feeling the breeze while I walked beside you, carrying the wreckage along. That was the day the full force of our recently-concluded road trip hit me, all the adrenaline finally gone, and I realized that I was completely incapable of saying words when confronted with a conversant grown-up.
I’ve been working hard this past month, since Daddy returned to school and our lives returned to some semblance of normalcy, to create what can become our family’s liturgy: a permanent thing that can grow as old and stable as a tree, a choreography that can nurture us and make space for our flourishing. I want to tell you about it today by way of more thoughts on the meaning of home. As I wrote to Jacob, Daddy and I feel deeply that “home” is a place with porous walls. But another facet of the jewel is rather paradoxical, and one I’m only just beginning to wrestle with.
First a back-story, and my inspiration. While traveling we got to spend time in the home of some dear friends who we hadn’t seen in two years. In a former life we shared together their home was nothing if not porous, obvious in part because – well – we were always there. Moving on and growing up, Daddy and I shaped our own concept of home from the inspiration we found there. In my best moments I like to imagine my table to be a place of half as much joy and welcome as theirs always was for us. But these days their lives have shifted and they’ve been in a season of quiet and even of solitude. Getting to intrude on that and witness what their home is these days was eye-opening for me, putting flesh to a ghost in the back of my mind – the ghost at the root of my pursuit of ritual for us.
What I saw was beautiful and peaceful, marked by habituated love and the choosing of space for it. Said my friend, you must realize that for every “yes” you must implicitly be saying some “no,” and to accept any one thing is to reject some others. I think this is a place where I am foolish, because for all my love of “yes” I often fail to really choose it because of my reluctance in the face of its accompanying “no.” But to try to have it all is unsustainable, exhausting. Really, impossible. In grasping everything you end with nothing. I’m pondering this. Pondering how perhaps being the family who always reads a bedtime story might mean not being the family who parties late. Pondering the wisdom of a dear single mom I know who doesn’t really do playdates, because that “no” is actually a “yes” to a pace and posture that she finds healthy and nourishing and safe for herself and her son.
What I’m coming to see is that home needs to be a place where nothing is more important than you, us, and our normal. It needs to be a sacred and private space. A place of beauty and flourishing. For us. Said my friend, it turns out that cultivating a beautiful home isn’t only for the people who come through its porous walls. It is for you, and this is noble and good and in no way frivolous.
These are things she said. The things she did spoke just as loud, and I smiled to see her disappear with her own little girl to nurture her and give her what she wanted her to have (herself, foremost). It was evident that for my friend, her tiny girl was no less important than the grown-ups; perhaps instead more important because she was not yet fully formed. I thought of my own tendency to let you and Jacob fall through the cracks of our porous walls, tossing you in bed hastily on a night when someone stops by unexpectedly; abandoning our normal to fit someone else in. In the end I think this is a failure to honor you. I think the message this sends is that you aren’t as important as these out-of-the-ordinary folks, or that you are not fully human since you haven’t attained “grown-up” status. That is the last thing I want to say to you.
What I saw in my friends and in their happy children was flourishing. Safety and peace and predictability. “We eat eggs and toast for breakfast. Every day.” “This is the music we listen to as we go to sleep. Every night.” Strange ideas to this improvisatory spirit of mine! But by all my craving of ritual I begin to recognize that spirit as a weak part of me, not fully formed, perhaps not as true as the longing for liturgy. Certainly not as good. Because in the normal and the routine there is space for love and space for flourishing. I think for the millionth time of Lewis’s defense of the old prayer book that his church wanted to replace: “But wait,” he worried. “This has been our dance floor. If you change the floor we will have to focus on it and we won’t be able to focus on our dance.”
So tomorrow launches this new normal that has been a full year in the making. We’ve literally created a space for it, and not just with the roof and walls of our new home, but with some very costly “no”s. I don’t teach piano anymore and I don’t run a non-profit and we don’t drive an hour to church and we rarely attend church on Sunday nights anymore and I don’t go to Tuesday morning mom’s group or sing in Tuesday night choir or plan our meals spontaneously. None of these things have been bad, but their absence is making room for new “yes”s, and I believe this is good.
I say we launch tomorrow, but there is a deep wisdom I’m learning, called patience, which means I’m taking the long view, hoping that the full extent of this “normal” I’m envisioning will perhaps be learned by spring. We’ll attain it by degrees, like the new community Daddy is a part of is learning the structure of a liturgy spoken simply before they learn to sing parts of it. I want to leave room for finitude, for fatigue, for real human messes. Wonder of wonders! I find for the first time since Daddy & I were married that we are not on the eve of any major life transition; there isn’t even one visible on the horizon, so it feels safe to learn our new dance slowly since we won’t need to change it for another anytime soon. So tomorrow we will not accomplish all I intend by the time we have to take Jacob to school, because you are not good at making your bed or brushing your teeth yet and I am not good at not improvising. It is going to take intention to live this way until it is a habit, and that’s OK. We’ll get there. This is a way of being, a choreography which I feel deeply committed to.
The reason is simple, really: I have seen you and Jacob adrift in the turbulence of the life we’ve lived thus far as a family. Even on easy days, crafting “normal” is an upstream swim in our chosen profession, and in the life of a student-Daddy. My own story, devoid as it has always been of this kind of rhythmic plodding through life, has made it all the more turbulent, and it is this way of being human that I am rejecting, saying “no” to. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much to say I’m judging it to be folly. I don’t want us to be adrift. Instead, I want for you and for me this other facet of “home:” security, predictability, peace. Identity. I want you to know how things are in your world. I want that certainty to shape you into someone who knows what it feels like to trust and to rest. (I find it shocking to realize that in my whole life I’ve never linked these two concepts – home and rest – to each other. I want you to know “this is how we do it.”
So while our walls will always be porous, I’m going to be thinking a lot in the next months and years about how to make these walls ourwalls, and how to honor our own flourishing (and finitude) by doing so – both yours and mine. And for now I have to tell you something that surprises me: I’m not completely sure what the goal is here. I feel sure it is good, but I’m not sure quite why. That answer, I think, will come as we learn who we are, as we learn to say “this is how we do it.”
I think it has something to do with identity and confidence and happiness and emotional health. I know right now my primary intent is for you to feel that you are of utmost importance to us. That you are valuable, lovely, and that you possess deep worth and dignity. That we take you seriously and recognize you and celebrate you and honor you. That we love you, in short. That our life being for the common good begins here at home, and that there can’t really be healthy giving of ourselves to others if we aren’t first fueling our own spirits – yours and mine. What I’ve seen in the last couple years is that the absence of “home” creates turbulence in us, and a lot of coping. It’s probably contributed to your nightmares this year and the horrible luck we seem to have as a family in the potty training department.
I’m not quite sure what this commitment to “normal” will look like for our family, though I’ve been putting so much time into its initial formulation that I feel like I’m studying for a major exam. But I do know that I’ve been craving it for many months now, and slowly I am learning to trust my instincts. So, here we are. I expect we will learn together what this way of life feels like, and I expect it will be very good.
It’s easy, I’m finding, to tuck you in at night with more thought to finishing the process than connecting with your spirit. Often our hugs are more about “Hurry up, I told you to hug me” than “I love you.” It’s easy to leave you there, still wound up, with warnings to be quiet and go to sleep as we race toward whatever evening work feels pressing, and then to waffle back and forth on whether to follow through with promised discipline if we hear you talk, or to celebrate the post-bedtime memories you’re making with your brother and pretend we can’t hear you. It’s easy to rebuke you for trying to manipulate us in those final seconds when you pull the “Can we have ice water?” stunt.
Instead I’ve begun walking us through a ritual that begins with tidying the toys before dinner. Then we prepare the table, eat, and clean up together, go for a walk if there’s time, sit for worship (you always bring the Bible and hymnal), get into jammies, pray and sing and hug and kiss as we’ve always done, and then instead of leaving you to unwind yourselves, Daddy or I will crawl into bed with you and read a story and then snuggle you a little while, helping you decompress from the day and think ahead to tomorrow. I know this will bring you peace and calm, and maybe the anxious clamor for one last pound of mommy-flesh in the form of a glass of water will dissipate into quiet satisfaction with all the day has held, and contentment to save the rest of the good things for tomorrow, since you’ll know for sure what tomorrow will be like, because “this is how we do it.”
It’s easy, I’m finding, to let you run around with dirt on your face and hair in your eyes, to smile as you run off with Jacob to the mud in the back and to celebrate this orphan-child look in the spirit of “free-range parenting.” And then in the spirit of efficiency (when you’re especially dirty) we scrub you down in packs of two and ship you off to bed.
Instead I’ve begun bathing you by yourself, on Saturdays before your nap. After you play awhile I come and wash you slowly, gently, smiling, talking. I rub your feet and your hands and then I dry your hair and let you pick out your favorite lotion. The word “massage” is now in your vocabulary, and by all this I am trying to teach you to honor your body. To love it. That I honor it and love it. I want you to be good at being human, and I want you to be happy in your own skin. I want you to love yourself, because you are lovely.
So here’s to “home,” my sweet Merry. To identity and confidence. To dancing and resting. You amaze me and delight me. And for what it’s worth, you should know that you amaze and delight every single person that encounters you. This, in turn, amazes and delights me all over again. By this I mean this thing I think almost every day but perhaps have never said here: “I can’t believe I get to be this girl’s Mommy.”
I love you.