Jacob: 55 Months

Dear Jacob,

So much for that half-birthday cake. I spent that day with the stomach flu. Every week or two you ask me for it and I keep saying maybe, we’ll see.

I love watching you grow and learn. You’re doing a lot of both in the margins of endless hours with your cars and trucks and emergency vehicles. Your size 6 pants that you were swimming in two months ago are fitting just about right now.

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I love seeing you begin to take possession of the call to “receive instruction.” It’s listed on your dry-erase chart on the fridge right along with brushing teeth and taking out the trash. I love that more often than not these days, when I get on your level and talk something through with you, it sinks in. One time a whole day’s attitude changed after two minutes of gentle rebuke in the van.

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I loved seeing your delight the other day as you spelled your name all by yourself for the first time, lining up fridge magnets on the floor and feeling amazed at yourself. I love hearing you comment over and over again things like “Joshua. That starts with J!” or perhaps, depending on the day, “Joshua. That starts with G!” You get really excited, too, when you see a row of numbers, like the other day when you noticed the numbers at the top of the grocery store aisles. You can count to forty pretty successfully by yourself now and you are starting to figure out how to read a digital clock.

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Your use of numbers is sometimes hilarious, like when you announced with great sobriety and self-confidence that when you grew up to be twenty-nine, then you would definitely be able to handle eight kids. Your words, not mine. Or the way your superlative of choice these days is “one hundred and thirty one” as in “I ate one hundred and thirty one bites, can I be done now?”

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You enjoyed your very first Halloween last weekend, dressing up (the world is full of surprises) as a fireman. You got lots of mileage out of your borrowed costume, wearing it to school on Thursday and carrying your beat-up old fire truck along for show-and-tell, wearing it to a Spooktacular organ concert the next night, and wearing it, finally, to go trick-or-treating with three little princesses on Saturday.

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I want to get you memorizing things, because your brain is just so sharp and strong. It only takes a couple days for you to memorize a hymn or Psalm that we begin to work on in our evening worship times. I feel pretty sure that you could recite the entirety of your current favorite story (Make Way For Ducklings) by heart if given the chance. I’ve been enjoying nudging you in this direction by leaving off lines from your current favorite poem, A. A. Milne’s King John’s Christmas. You get such a kick out of it and ask for it regularly, and now we’ve begun to talk about what will be in your Christmas stocking. Batteries, for one thing, for the electric guitar and the fire truck.

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All these are things you are remarkably good at, and they’re not the only ones. There’s your brother, and I wonder if you’re so good at him because his programming isn’t very subtle: insert attention, get hilarious response. That baby adores you. He has eyes for you that he doesn’t even have for me, not to mention giggles. He studies you earnestly, endlessly. And you oblige with endless attention. What leaves me particularly thankful and awe-struck is the way you demonstrate your ability to empathize, and to read another human. This is not an ability I’ve been sure you possess, and it’s a gift to me to watch it begin to blossom in this relationship you’ve begun with your brother.

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I want to write to you this month about the things you’re not good at, and what I want you to know (and do) about them.

You’re not good at staying on task. You can’t focus on anything unless it is adequately stimulating for your brain. You are smart as a whip, and you have the wiring of an engineer. So if I can feed you things that engage you on this level, flying chariots wouldn’t be able to drag your attention away. But 99% of the time you are (ahem) Easily Distractible.

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I’d be rich if I could make money off of redirecting you. “Jacob, you’re supposed to be doing the trash. Why are you talking to Joshua? Why is the trash bag in the middle of the carpet?” “Jacob you are supposed to be doing the trash. Why are you going outside to the trash cans without gathering it from the house first?” Half the time these queries are met with an instant, silent course-change and the tiniest hint of grin that recognizes your own weakness: “Oh. Oops. Silly me.”

What I mean to do about this is pretty simple: First, I mean to give you a lot that will engage you so you can feel your brain working at capacity, doing the dance it’s good at. Second, I mean to hound you. Kindly, patiently, with lots of encouragement, but I will hound you. What I mean is, I am not giving up on you and labeling you as “that kid who can’t focus.” I mean, maybe sometime it will be useful to label you as ADD, and if that time comes I’m not afraid of it and I don’t want you to be, either. We’re not pretending that you’re not bad at this stuff. But the only thing that deficiency means is that you will be working a whole lot harder at it than most people, and then you’ll be good at it. Good enough, anyway. And that will be satisfactory.

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It’s the same with empathy and emotional engagement. You are no good at this. It means I am constantly feeding you scripts: “Jacob, she’s crying. Look at her. See her face? You shouldn’t still be having fun if she’s crying. Jacob, you need to go over there and you need to touch her arm where you hurt it and you need to say ‘Oh, Merry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you! Are you OK?'” Some people come up with these ideas on their own, and I’m hoping maybe eventually you’ll be one of them. For now, I’ve got your back. And I’m not labeling you as “that kid who can’t relate to people.”

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I guess the point I’m trying to make is that your deficiencies are OK. They are real and significant, but everyone has their own set of them, so you have nothing to hide. The question I want you to ask is “What am I going to do about this?” I don’t want you to be a victim to it and I don’t want it to fence you in. I want you to live a rich, functional, healthy life in which you can focus on taking out the trash and notice when a friend is having a bad day, and all that means is we have our work cut out for us, you and I. No shame here: just taking responsibility. Committing to be all that you can be. For happiness and for love.

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Speaking of responsibility, we talk about it endlessly and it is a concept I think you are starting to get, even if the execution is a little rough most days. For you it means your shoes and the food on your plate and putting your backpack and your bike helmet away. It means that little dance that happens in the morning that starts with making your bed and ends with taking out the trash and joining me on the couch for worship. Those things are your business. Not mine.

We’re learning a few ground rules for how responsibilities get handled in the Powell house: First, no silliness in these moments. Second, focus. Yeah – that one. It’s tough. So we’re talking about times when you have to focus and we’ve decided there are three: when you are handling your responsibilities, when a grown-up is talking, and during worship. I think this is a set of simple ground rules that will grow with you nicely. For now, it means I can call your bluff when you’re giggling downstairs instead of making your bed, or spitting instead of brushing your teeth. Later, it will grow to mean all sorts of things.

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On the other side of the equation from all this is something else I’ve been learning and pondering when it comes to things you aren’t. One afternoon I was commenting to a dear friend of our family’s that I worry sometimes that you don’t feel loved enough, since we are on top of you all the time for this and that. I feel like Daddy and I don’t find enough opportunities to celebrate and affirm you. We don’t delight in you as much as we theoretically could.

Hannah had an answer ready for that which was exactly what I needed to hear. “I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t feel unloved,” she said. And then she told me a story from that morning at church. She’d seen you and tried to engage you in conversation: “Hey Jacob! How are you?” You didn’t even slow down as you ran past her, answering her question happily, easily: “I’m four and a half!” After all, “How are you?” doesn’t seem to be a question you care too much about at this point. Her observation was that your lack of self-awareness (part of that list of things you aren’t good at) makes the issue pretty simple. You don’t spend a lot of time sitting around wondering if people love you. I mean, heck, most of the time you don’t even notice when you are hungry or need to pee. You just do your brainy, distracted thing and everything else is not worth your trouble.

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So this is me, not worrying about whether you feel loved. Your happy, confident, thriving. You are learning not to be a jerk to your friends. You are learning to compensate for your distractible personality by choreographing important things and learning them like a dance. You are learning to look at me when I talk to you and not to answer me with a big whiny “What!?” or “Why?” If I’m tough on you, it’s because I want you to handle these issues as a preschooler so you don’t waste time thinking pouting is a good tactic when you’re an adolescent, or spending all day staring out the window past your studies because you’ve never experienced focused work before.

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But you can rest assured that I love you. I love the heck outta you. I love your smartness, your simplicity, and even your hilarious compulsion to leave anything and everything mid-stream. Especially your shoes. I’m not out to change any of this, just to equip you to be your own master.

I love you.

Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 54 Months

Dear Jacob,

Apparently your half-birthday has snuck up on me, so I am going to have to see to a half-cake tomorrow. We have this stupid little tradition that we are pretty attached to. We don’t really celebrate, we just make a single round cake layer, cut it in half, stack it up, and call it a half-birthday-cake. Then Daddy sings the half-birthday-song, you blow out candles, and we all take a general air of scoffing at our own silliness.

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As we snuggled in your bed tonight you told me you wanted one of those planes with a remote for Christmas. And a sled. (Of course Merry wants one too, and a little remote plane because she’s little.) And a replacement for your dilapidated three-year-old Christmas ambulance that you still play with. Tall orders, boy.

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This month was delightful – visiting with Auntie Becks and driving to Minnesota and back. It was so precious seeing you sink your proverbial toes into being with Grandma Lynne & Grandpa Al again. I could tell you didn’t ever want to leave, and that you felt like you’d come home. You love that place so much, and it was sweet to be there again after so long. Sweet, too, to see you play with little Judah, who is your senior by only three months. You were babies together but it ended too quickly when we moved here more than four years ago now. We’ve been back a few times, but this time, finally, you two were old enough to notice each other, and you went tearing around the driveway, two boys on a single trike, and it was beautiful.

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Other than that, business has been as usual. We are settling into new routines and you are growing so mature and articulate, even self-controlled. You’re growing adventuresome and not as bound to your fears (You climbed to the top of a big structure at the playground the other day to my surprise!) Sometimes you are so dear and sweet I can hardly believe it, like that morning at Grandma Lynne & Grandpa Al’s when we all woke at once to Joshua cooing a greeting, and your head popped off the pillow to see me still in bed. “Mom!” you offered, “I can take care of Joshua while you keep sleeping!” So you went and talked to him and I stayed in bed.

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You are finally able to really internalize and own instructions like “Stop freaking out and say that in a calm voice.” There are so many things you’re coming to understand, and it’s a treat to see you growing up. You’re growing into this awesome friend of mine, and I just really like to have you around. I love our new practice of including in our three hours of household quiet time in the afternoon an hour in which you’re often playing on the carpet right at arm’s reach from me. And I love when you’re down in your room for quiet time how you quietly tramp up the stairs to use the bathroom, grinning at me but never saying a word. I think you’re proud that you’ve mastered this Everest of yours finally, and I am too.

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You’ve got this little “responsibility” chart on the fridge and it’s fun walking through it with you and seeing you taking greater ownership of it each day. There are seven things: 1) Make Bed & Put Away Jammies 2) Go Potty & Get Dressed 3) Breakfast 4) Brush Teeth 5) Trash & Recycling 6) Worship 7) Receive Instruction. That last one is there so we can try for one last smiley-face in dry-erase marker each morning, representing that you’ve gotten all the way to the ripe hour of 9:00 a.m. without bucking against my leadership. That smiley face is rare and hard-won so far. But the rest of them are coming easier and easier and we’re getting to the point where you’re a genuine help to me. I love that you are a contributing member of our tiny society.

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Speaking of tiny societies, you have one now that I have no part in. Preschool is going along nicely after two months. It’s fun to see your love for and comfort in that place, and your affection for your teachers and your ease with your “mates” as you called your classmates the other day. I love your spacey answers when I ask you what you did, and somehow I even love that as a result your world at school is still very much a mystery to me. This month, something new: Many of these photos were taken not by me, but by your teacher, a sweet late-middle-aged lady whose first name I can’t even remember, who loves you even though she hardly knows me. You went on your very first field trip this week, to a local working farm. There was a high ratio of adults to kids – about 1:2 – and you were one of the few who didn’t have a parent along (that bit about your 3mo brother and your mommy’s anxiety in crowds). So I think you ended up as a bit of a pet for your teacher. Later as she was sending me these photos by text message she commented that the water pump was your jam: That if I ever needed water pumped, you were the one to call. I laughed and told her if she’d given me a list of everything on that farm I would’ve picked that in advance as your favorite. “I think he’s going to be an engineer,” I said. “Not a bad thing to be!” she said. I agreed.

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One of my favorite moments of this month was just yesterday, as I saw you and your sister play for hours with a pack of friends from the church we’ve recently joined. We met up on a Thursday morning at the park and you ran in a pack, having all the fun there was to have. After half our group had left and the rest of us had eaten lunch you got up with Meredith and two other little people the same size as you two and went back to the playground, and their mom and I watched with joy as you engaged each other and appreciated each other and actually, genuinely played together. This makes me so happy – the fact that you’re experiencing the seedlings of real friendship; a sense of a belonging: “these are my people.”

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One hilarious moment (there were so many!) I never want to forget happened on a quiet morning here at home. I was on the carpet – doing yoga, playing with Joshua, mindlessly surfing the web – I can’t remember. You and Merry were lost in play as you so often are, spontaneous, improvised, together play. It’s always full of imagination and narrative and ingenuity. It’s always so simple and straightforward, like the morning you burst into the kitchen from outside and I struck up conversation: “Whatchya doin’?” “We’re coming in to call Michael at headquarters because there’s a family of ducks walking down the street and there’s very much cars honking! And my name is Michael, what’s your name!?” These moments, and the evidence they give of the endless books we read, are so normal and yet so hilarious they catch me off-guard. I love your growing delight in stories, and the straight-up giggles I got out of you reading my most recent re-discovery: The Little Bear books. But I digress.

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It was a regular lazy morning at home and I saw you and Merry sit up at the table and pick up the laminated Litany we pray from each night after dinner. And there you were, having your own little worship. Bless your heart, you eloquently, seriously strung together every clause you could remember from that long prayer, creating your own little strands of utter nonsense, which Merry would answer with great sobriety, “Lord, have mercy.”

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Liturgy is a big deal around here, and I like to hope it’s not so much a style that we’re choosing that you may or may not shed someday, though to some extent I expect it always will be only that, and I hope I have the good sense in twenty years to appreciate whatever you’ve internalized as your vision of flourishing. But still, liturgy around here is just a platform for the age-old truth, beauty, and goodness, and I was delighting in it once again this morning as we walked home from “dropping Daddy off” at school, our Friday morning routine. We had this liturgy that used to go down every morning as I fixed your breakfast back in simpler days when it was just you and our baby girl. We were so faithful with it that you knew the Apostles’ Creed and the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism by heart before you were three. But life’s been crazy and you’ve barely retained any of it. I made a brief attempt at reinstating it at breakfast but it’s just too chaotic these days, and there are other things that need to fill those moments. The other day as we drove to school I realized it fits nicely into those little car rides, or in this case, a stroller ride. It is fixed, always the same, but it is a springboard for all kinds of good conversations. It reminds me of that text in Deuteronomy about talking of the law “when you walk by the way.”

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I want to capture it because I eventually want to crystalize some of the work we’ve done (I don’t pretend we’re not professionals, your daddy and I) for the sake of other families who are interested. More than that, I want to capture it for me, and for you. So here it is, our morning liturgy for “walking by the way:”

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“Meredith? Do you love Jesus?”
“Yes!”
“Jacob, do you love Jesus?”
“Yes!”
“Christian, What do you believe?”
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…” The Apostles’ Creed, entire
“Jacob, does Jesus love you?”
“Yes.”
“Why does Jesus love you?”
“Because I belong to him.” (This was your toddler-answer two years ago, more profound than any I could’ve contrived.)
“How do you know you belong to him?”
“Because of my baptism.”
“Christian, what is your only comfort in life and in death?”
“That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ… The First Answer from the Heidelberg Catechism, entire, ending …[Christ] makes me wholeheartedly ready and willing from now on to live for him.”
“Jacob? Are you going to live for Jesus today?”
“Yes!”
“How are you going to do that?”
And then we launch into a conversation about things you can do or be that will honor Jesus. Usually this culminates in mention of being, as we call it in our family, “Jesus-Disciples” (as in, those who love Jesus-Bread and Jesus-Wine). And this morning as we rehearsed this routine once again I think I hit on our ending:
“How will the world know that we are Jesus-disciples?”
“If we love one another.”

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It’s a mouthful, all this, but it lasts little more than five minutes, and I like to hope it will shape us more and more as we let it sink in.

That’s all for now. Happy half-birthday, big guy.

I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 53 Months

Dear Jacob,

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This is going to be the letter where I write to you about other people, and about how many wonderful people we have in our lives, and about how good you are getting at loving them.

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It’s on my mind, since today was quite literally a revolving door of friends. At 10, while you were at preschool, eight moms gathered with over a dozen kids, mostly under the age of 4, for a brunch here to kick off a year of community. I brought you home from preschool as the first of them was leaving, and before many more had gone Tabitha had come in the front door on her way back from campus. She ate leftovers and swept my floor and held Joshua and we co-existed for a couple hours. Before she left, Nicole arrived, bringing Daddy with her from the class they’d just finished. And, as she was leaving, another friend came with her three precious children, all older than you, all internationally adopted with unique needs and a mommy who is doing an incredibly grace-filled, peace-filled, love-filled job of nurturing them. They were excited to play with you little people, and so above the din of shrieking laughter and clattering marbles we talked awhile and our kids filled each other up. They left at 5:00 in time for me to microwave some leftovers for dinner.

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Today was out of the ordinary, but not by much. Having settled into our new routine with Daddy back in school after a year off, and having finished most of the work on our house and the process of adjusting to life with Joshua, we are finally living the way we love again. It can best be summed up by pointing you to two wise men and their wise ideas. The first, Aristotle. His thought shaped me back in high school when I fell in love with his idea in the Nicomachean Ethics that the purpose of having things is to enjoy them amongst friends. Put succinctly, “My life for yours.” The second, James K. A. Smith, modern philosopher, whose essay entitled “Marriage for the Common Good” made concrete our inclinations and expressed our hearts so well when we read it last summer. Rather than saying worse what these two prodigious minds have said best, I will leave this paragraph to stand as a bookmark. Read these.

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Then there are the times when it’s time to close our doors and turn in on ourselves, and those times are growing sweeter and sweeter, too. For one thing, we are having them. It’s not that we’ve lacked solitude: but over the last year the solitude has been a necessity borne of stress. We’ve literally had no time for social life since last winter when we bought this house and I was sick-pregnant. “Hanging out with friends” meant inviting them to come help us demo a wall with a bit of wine and cheese on the floor in the next room. Now the dust has settled and we have actual friends coming over for nothing more than food and fun.

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But as I was saying, solitude is something we’re finding sweet these days as we craft and practice new rhythms of loving each other. It’s not just that we’re alone together in the hustle of endless responsibilities, it’s that we’re choosing solitude so that we can notice each other and learn how to love each other. Two recent Sundays we’ve spent well, once taking the temporarily-adopted dog with us to the local ice cream hut and sitting on a bench along the town’s main street eating ice cream and hot dogs; the week before we spent three hours playing together at the children’s science museum before walking back down the trail to our car, which was parked at the grocery store, where we picked up frozen pizza and pre-made cookie dough and came home for a movie night. Tuesday nights we’re devoting to you guys, too, which this week meant playing beanbag toss, reading library books, and just being.

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It’s a whole new world we’re discovering, a world in which you are more than just our responsibility; you are our people. We’re enjoying your company. You’re growing up enough that I can say “It’s quiet time” and trust you to sit inches from me playing Legos and leaving me alone. I get my Mom-off-duty time AND we get to hang out with each other, all at the same time. As it turns out, I like hanging out with you. You’re a cool guy. You do cool stuff, you’re smart and kind, and you have cool things to say. I like you.

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Seeing you learning how to relate to friends is exciting for me because it’s something I know doesn’t come naturally for you. You are an introvert to the point of manifesting a lot of traits on the autism spectrum, and it has always been exhausting to be your mommy with people around. Almost as exhausting, by the looks of you, as it is to be YOU with people around. So I’m glad you’ll be in preschool on the days when my mom-friends and I hang out. This preschool thing is just all-around working for us. And I’m sure it is a big factor in how you are learning to love other people and treat them with dignity and respect. But even though I’m glad to be loving you by sheltering you from these extrovert-fests, I am excited to see you learning how to be with people.

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I see it in how you’re beginning to engage Joshua and take delight in him and seek his company and even take responsibility for his well-being in little ways. The relationship just beginning to unfold there is beautiful. But I see it most in how you’re coming to treat Meredith. Not only are you being less selfish toward her and spending less time in self-preservation mode, but you are actually going out of your way to give yourself for her sake. You offer to help her down from the high barstools. You help her with things she’s playing with. You guys did a whole puzzle together yesterday as a team and I didn’t even know until you proudly invited me to see. Best, you have this built-in sense of generosity, almost like you feel it as justice: Instead of hoarding, you think the obvious thing to do with a package of Skittles or a chance to give the dog her treats is to divvy things up with Meredith so she can share in the joy. Don’t ever stop doing this. I am so, so, so, so proud of you for this. Aristotle is too.

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Then there’s the hilarious matter of the things we DON’T share with friends and how definitely you articulated this concept the other day. You’re completely used to the sight of me breastfeeding Joshua and it doesn’t phase you one bit. I love that you are learning this part of human life. In fact, the other day you were sitting with me while I was feeding him and suddenly you grinned and articulated your engineer’s mind. “Joshua is so cute when he’s connected to The Boob!” you remarked with delight. This completely caught me off-guard and I was laughing about it the whole day. For one thing, there was no acknowledgement that it was, to be specific, MY Boob. Nope, it is just The Boob. Like The Fridge or The Kitchen or The Other Communal Food Sources that we all depend on. And funnier still was that word “connected.” You use it in a million strange ways, and all of them evidence your engineer brain. You completely crack me up.

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Fast forward a few days and we were sitting around the dinner table with one of our dear friends who’d come from out of town for a visit. You’d just returned from preschool and she was engaging you in conversation. Talking to Joshua, I made some silly remark about how he was The Boob Drinker, or something like that. You thought this was hilarious, and Claire asked you if perhaps you were going to tell this joke to your friends at school. Without an instant of hesitation you responded “No, because you don’t talk about nakey stuff with friends.” So apparently you DO listen to me sometimes.

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I think you’re going to do just fine.

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I’m just so proud of you these days, how quickly you’re growing in abilities and in wisdom. How well you articulate your ideas and how eagerly you ask questions. How the nursery leader came to me after church on Sunday to tell me that while you were there (you join them during the sermon for the preschool Bible lesson) you were a huge helper with the younger kids. How you are beginning to take ownership of your responsibilities, quietly coming upstairs in the middle of quiet time to go potty with no prompting, just a sweet returned smile when you I grin my approval at you as you head back down the stairs.

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You are a pretty great kid. I have this awesome suspicion that I’ve barely even scratched the surface of how much I’m going to enjoy you in the next ten or twenty (or fifty) years. You’re awesome.

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I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 52 Months

Dear Jacob,

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This morning when you got up you requested that we sing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Last night as you went to bed we recognized that you were feeling a little nervous on the eve of your new adventure and we talked and prayed together about it. This morning you were all eagerness and it spilled out into this urge for a song.

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Today you went to school for the first time. Since I am intending to home school you (for the early grades at least) this is your rite of passage.The start of 1st grade will feel anti-climactic. We want you to experience the rhythm of “going” to school and the discipline of a teacher and a classroom and peers – all things we want you to learn to respect. And (let’s be honest) I want to experience a little breathing room; this is partly for me.

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I wish I could’ve captured the private look on your face as I sang from my station flipping pancakes: “He’s got Mrs. Gebhardt in His hands…” It was a delightful idea to you – that God’s hands were for your teacher, too – and I witnessed it, quiet, not drawing attention to the moment, just treasuring the opportunity to see your heart just a tiny bit.

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Saturday morning we went to Target for school supplies. We went at 8:30 a.m. so we wouldn’t have to shop amongst crowds. We went two days before the local First Day of School because your mom was homeschooled and it only just occurred to me to read the teacher’s email carefully and marvel at the concept that you would be responsible to bring school supplies. Apparently, in this world they call School, kids come to class on that first day loaded down with the things they’ll need. It’s not the teacher’s job to acquire the glue stick and markers. Since I’m from this weird planet where I never stepped foot into a standard school building on a standard school day for standard school purposes any day in my life, I found this surprising. Who knew? So there we were, picking from the dregs of the marker and glue stick selection.

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I was proud of you there in Target: We walked in and your eyes took it all in there in that first $3 aisle of enticing clutter. You wanted all of it, and each request was qualified with “for school,” as in “Mom, I should get THIS for school.” It was not a good start, and I paused to explain that you were being greedy, wanting everything you could see. I showed you our list, and how your teacher – the leader in this situation – had prepared it for us. Our job was to find everything on the list and to not show up to class with a bunch of miscellaneous ideas of our own. And like magic you took the responsibility in stride, calmly making decisions about what sort of markers and what sort of pencils. Then there we were, standing in the Lego aisle, and you studied the pictures on the boxes with easy contentment, not feeling the need to own, just to observe, and you didn’t even notice me pick out a present for you and slip it into our cart.

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(Congratulations on your first set of Legos, by the way.)

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So you had your first day of school and it was all very relaxed. You proudly wore your orange backpack, asking me to remind you what the characters on it were. (It’s Star Wars, baby boy.) You smiled for a few too many pictures. Together we found your teacher, found your locker, found our places. It was a unique moment: I was as baffled as you about this “school” thing, wondering where a locker would be, wondering whether to ask questions of the teacher or stay out of her way, wondering when I was supposed to leave. I unpackaged all your markers and crayons and put them in the pencil box she’d prepared with your name on it. I helped you write your name on a paper and then marveled at how well you traced it. I kissed you goodbye and walked down the hall to the front door in awe of your eagerness and calm. And then three hours later I was back, trailing Patrick behind me – a spontaneous surprise – enjoying your accounts of the playground and learning about the beginning of the world and the days of the week, and discovering (no surprise) that while you didn’t remember any of your peers’ names, you did remember that there were 13 of you in total.

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I’m loving watching you grow up. I’m a sentimental mommy, always grasping at what’s fleeting, always leaning in for one more snuggle before you grow ANOTHER day bigger. But I’m realizing what a treat it is to watch you get bigger, and I’ve seen a lot of it this month. You’re taking responsibility for so many things, you’re learning to communicate so well and to manage yourself. You understand your little world and you are thriving in it. (Never mind the return of Potty Phobia; at least this time you’re still using it, just trying to get out of flushing it.) When you want a drink, you get it for yourself. When your hands are dirty, you wash them for yourself. You are even learning to manage your own daily chore – emptying the waste baskets and taking the trash and recycling down to the garage.

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As if a first day of school weren’t passage enough, I got to witness another beautiful moment in your unfolding world this week. Friday we had an all-day visitor, a 6yo boy who needed a place to be while his mom was at work for the day. Somehow his mom and I recognized immediately that the two of you were wired the same, and I am so thankful for your presence in each other’s lives. The three of us and our temporarily-adopted dog Mocha headed to the park in the middle of the afternoon. As I walked behind you, managing Mocha on her leash and pushing the double stroller with Gabe’s scooter in it, I watched the two of you team up to get your bike up a big hill and I was in awe at that moment: You have a friend. Someone you want to be with for no reason, just because you enjoy being in each other’s company, even if it involves dumping handfuls of sand down your shirts together.

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I stood in the parking lot of our local city park on Friday, shouting-distance from the two of you – the fulcrum between you. You were there together but separate, an introvert’s playdate. You were tired of the team work and each had your own idea of what to do. So there I was, watching you, and I got to thinking about this new way of motherhood, so different from the intensely involved, physical season of the first few years, which is all I’ve known yet. Being a mom is about silently facilitating and witnessing: sitting on the sidelines with the stroller and the dog, doing nothing while you ride your bike around the empty basketball courts to the left and your friend digs his toes in the sand of the volleyball pit to the right. I was there to keep you safe but just out of reach, letting you grow into yourself by yourself. You’re doing your own thing and I’m just here, essential but so unimportant.

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I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 51 Months

Dear Jacob,

It’s the middle of summer, though you wouldn’t know it for all the cool, rainy weather we’re having. For the second year in a row it’s gotten the better of our tomato plants, and in two weeks of rain they’ve lost all their promise, the dense, deep-green foliage now spindly and pale from drowning.

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The other day I sent you and Merry out in your rain boots to play in the pouring rain. The temperature was in the mid-70s and you played happily together for an hour until you finally felt chilled and came in, dripping wet, to a warm bath. I hope you’ll have many more chances to go out in the rain this summer. I’ve been remembering my early ambitions as a mother not to say no to fun for risk of a mess, and I’m afraid this past year or so I’ve been too overwhelmed and distracted to let you get properly dirty often enough.

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At the moment you’re down in the basement where Daddy’s almost finished framing the new rooms. I told you your quiet time could be spent helping him and riding your bike. You have a brand new orange bicycle with training wheels and a helmet. It was a gift from Nana & Papa upon the arrival of Joshua, and you’ve taken to it like a fish to water. You’re so good at riding it, and so strong, that you hardly need the training wheels, except that you would have trouble navigating how to handle stopping, or slow moments like tight corners. You love your bike and I’m so proud of you for how well you remember always to park it in the garage with the helmet on the handlebars whenever you hop off even for a moment.

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These days we are laughing often at your developing sense of humor and mannerisms. The first two weeks after Joshua was born you attended two VBS camps in a row, leaving home every morning and coming back around lunch time. I think maybe it was the time you spent hanging out around so many other kids, most of them bigger than you, but somehow you seem to have a more big-kid take on things these days, right down to your facial expressions. Combine this with your fresh haircut and how fast you’re growing and I have a genuine big kid.

As if all that weren’t growth enough, I have to tell you how proud I am of your growing ability and interest in handling yourself: you are pretty much potty trained finally (FINALLY) and pretty good at taking initiative for it. In fact, we’ve started the next phase of this process: getting you up just before we go to bed at night to have you go potty in hopes of eventually training you to stay dry at night, but for now to at least not wet through a diaper by every morning. (Little victories.) The best thing, though, is how competently you can get yourself dressed or washed up or even bathed with almost no help or coaching. This is such a help to me since my hands are full with your baby brother so much. And you seem proud of yourself, taking delight in your achievements. I love how eager you are to help with chores, and how you take ownership of the things I ask you to do. It still hasn’t occurred to you that these little tasks are a pain in the ass, and you feel special when I ask you to carry out the recycling or trash.

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Of course, if I ask you to work on a big task like cleaning up the toys – anything that takes extended, repetitive involvement – you sing a different tune, making big claims about how tired you feel, way too tired to do all this work all by yourself.

Your vocabulary these days often includes generalizations such as “all this work” or “all the time” or “every day.” I’m finding this interesting because it reminds me of me. You experience the world vividly, enormously, dramatically. Let me try to explain what I mean.

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Often we have to rebuke you for your attitude at the end of a thing. You make these sweeping complaints like “I don’t EVER want that to end!” or “I want to stay at the park ALL THE TIME” or “Why do I not get to do that NEVER EVER?!” The flip side of these statements is when you say something like “Miss Nicole, I want you to come over EVERY DAY” or “I want to have this kind of food EVERY TIME.”

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Before I go on, I must include a tangent on the subject of rebukes. See, you are a stubborn man, and one of your biggest challenges is your unwillingness to receive correction or instruction. We talk about it often, explaining the difference between wisdom and folly when you all too frequently whine this ridiculous line: “I don’t love it when you say serious words to me.” It’s not often that an instruction or rebuke gets met with anything but struggle, us continuing to press an issue until your will bends reluctantly to ours, but a few times, and increasingly often, you’ve been different and there’s very little that makes me feel more delighted with you and proud of you than when you turn at my instruction and look me right in the face and cheerfully, without being compelled, respond the way we’ve labored to train you. It’s a joy to see you beginning to bear wisdom’s fruit already.

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But back to the issue of your dramatic perception of everything, and your huge capacity for appreciation or disgust. Everything in your world is a big damn deal, and while it drives Daddy and me crazy most of the time, I can see beauty here too. And while we want to teach you when it’s not appropriate to care (like when the kitchen faucet is resting over the right-hand basin instead of the left-hand one – about this issue I have begun to teach you the concept of Being Obsessive) and when something is legitimately, objectively No Big Deal, I don’t want to think we should or even can change the size of your heart.

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You are a glutton for all things good. You’d never be able to decide how many cookies is too many, and you never want to switch gears when you’ve got a good thing going. Never is this more apparent than at bedtime, which you earnestly protest. When you finally accept it you begin a series of stall strategies, asking for a reading night, or a story, or a chase-and-tickle, or ice water (you claim your throat is tickly).

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The other day as I listened to you go on in this fashion, and perhaps as you responded to my customary question “What do you want to do tomorrow?” with “I want to read books ALL DAY LONG”, it reminded me of the birthday card my very wonderful uncle sent me a few years ago. I was in college and I was surprised and touched to receive his greeting in the mail. When I read the message on its cover I was awe-struck at his choice of that card for me. How did he know? And beyond that, how did this random person being quoted get inside my heart and verbalize it? That card stayed pinned to my desk throughout my years in college and I saw it and felt my heart resonate with it every single day.

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I think this greeting card’s claim is yours, too, as it is mine, and I love that we have this passionate, perhaps even gluttonous personality in common. As for how to harness it with wisdom…? Well, that’s something I’m still only beginning to try to figure out. I have no idea who John Burroughs is, but I know he belongs in our club:

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

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I love you.

Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 50 Months

Dear Jacob,

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For three weeks we’ve lived in our new house and a week from now our new baby is going to be born. Big stuff is happening in our world, and we are all feeling happier than we have in a long time. The dissipating stress is almost tangible at times. I’m noticing big growth in you and it’s an understatement to say that Daddy & I are enjoying that. In fact, it’s certainly contributing to our dissipating stress. And all our assumptions are being confirmed: you have been a stressed out, freaked out little man this spring. We see you unwinding in our new house. There is little I enjoy more these days than watching you deep in play with your trucks or your trains or your marbles on the big open, sunny, carpeted space beside our new kitchen. I haven’t seen you play like that maybe in a couple years. And like a little sub-creator, I am looking at it all and Seeing That It Is Good.

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And while it’s more than a stretch to say that you’re finally finally finally finally finally potty trained, you are actually actively potty trainING again and the fact that you are capable of conversing about the subject and feeling accomplishment and interest instead of fear and shame – well, I’m calling it a win. Meanwhile, you are well on your way to a successful career as a beat-boxer. Just before he left for South Bend, Patrick (with Nicole) taught you the song from the Lion King. But when your best buddies are professional musicians you have to expect that there will be multiple layers of counterpoint involved in a simple song, and so now you and your sister start with “Awimbowop awimbowop…” and then one of you brings in the words: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…” But you really shine when it’s time for the third layer, and you start to splutter “Boots and cats and boots and cats and boots and cats” just like they taught you. At first you were laughably bad at this. Now you wander through your day spontaneously breaking out in vocal percussion under your breath at any juncture.

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This morning you are helping Daddy load up the splintered remains of the old basement into a fresh dumpster. Your sister is strolling through the house in her rain boots with her baby stroller, saying things like “Now I’m going to Lowes,” enjoying the expanse of this place. I’m at the kitchen counter finishing off a second breakfast and taking pills in hopes of whipping an awful cold before the baby is born. I’ve reheated my morning tea at least six times, so I’m feeling very stereotypical as a mom. In a little while we’ll go meet up with friends from our new church for some simple backyard summer fun and then stop on our way home to check out the brand new local market that just opened down the street from where we used to live. Word on the streets is they had mangoes for $0.17/each the other day and someone’s Facebook mentioned a sale on gelato. Tonight we’re hosting our first huge party, a reception for dear Mr. Neswick, back from his new post in Portland for his final Howells recital. You’ll already be asleep by the time the party starts, but there’s been much talk about the cake and I’ve promised to save you a piece.

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I thought I’d take this chance to muse about the Holy Spirit a few moments. Pentecost Sunday was two weeks ago and we celebrated with our precious friends Robert & Liesl & Baby Peter before they transplanted themselves to Louisiana for a new life. We wanted to begin imparting to you and Meredith the sense that this day in the year is a big deal. It felt like it at our house: roast beef and a whole feast laid on the table, wine, an extravagant dessert, and bright red geraniums everywhere – they’d adorned the altar that morning and then been given as gifts to the musicians at Daddy’s church. In church I felt disappointed: there wasn’t much said about what the Holy Spirit actually does and is, just some poetic suggestions that maybe we don’t know and a cute stretch to suggest our orange chairs might remind us of the Holy Spirit. Since they’re almost red.

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Still, I was struck by the weight of this day and this season: the idea that the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the end of Church Year, the denouement of the whole Christian story… for now any way. And how fitting that this season which we call “Time after Pentecost” and “Ordinary Time” is so very long until we arrive at the true end: Christ the King, and then, again, Advent. For six months we’ll stay here, ordinary, and if we do well we’ll steep in it. We’ll dig ourselves deep into what it means that the Holy Spirit has come. Isn’t this the meat of the Christian life? For six months, the Christian story, but for these six months, the Christian life: all the things Paul and the rest told us about what it means to live, as we say in our house, as “Jesus-Disciples.”

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Wanting to pursue this further I opened a beautiful English hymnal from our shelves to the section on the Holy Spirit and began reading. What I found was more than faint hope of sensing the Spirit and cute words about wind on the seas and orange chairs. There was so much to say and it was concrete – enough to actually fill the space of these six months and commission us with identifiable work to do.

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Come, Holy Spirit, come,
Let thy bright beams arise;
dispel the sorrow from our minds,
the darkness from our eyes.

Cheer our desponding hearts,
thou heavenly Paraclete;
Give us to lie with humble hope
at our Redeemer’s feet.

Revive our drooping faith,
our doubts and fears remove,
and kindle in our breasts the flame
of never-dying love.

Convince us of our sin,
then lead to Jesus’ blood;
and to our wondering view reveal
the secret love of God.

‘Tis thine to cleanse the heart,
to sanctify the soul,
to pour fresh life in every part,
and new create the whole.

Dwell, therefore, in our hearts;
our minds from bondage free:
then shall we know, and praise, and love
the Father, Son, and Thee.

(Joseph Hart, 1712-68)

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Then there was another, which captured the message of John that Pastor Moon (he baptized you) preached five years ago on Pentecost before you were born. I’d listened to it in the kitchen as I’d made brownies before church that morning, and awed at the Spirit’s work of leading us to Christ, of showing us the glory of Christ.

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Come, Holy Spirit, like a dove descending,
rest thou upon us while we met to pray;
show us the Saviour, his great love revealing;
lead us to him, the Life, the Truth, the Way.

Come, Holy Spirit, every cloud dispelling;
fill us with gladness, through the Master’s Name:
Bring to our memory words that he hath spoken;
then shall our tongues his wondrous grace proclaim.

Come, Holy Spirit, sent from God the Father,
thou Friend and Teacher, Comforter and Guide;
our thoughts directing, keep us close to Jesus,
and in our hearts forevermore abide.

(Robert Bruce)

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I thought about these things a lot last week. I also noticed your changing disposition as you have eased into our new world here at home. I thought about this season where we are called by the Holy Spirit to the sober duty of putting on Christ. I thought how I can see already your growth into self control, and how much we need to cultivate and practice this not just as nature’s by-product of a stable life but as something we must choose (by command) by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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It’s not something we’re very good at as a family. Worn down, stressed, exhausted, Daddy & I feel so often that we don’t treat you guys kindly or patiently or gently enough. I find myself indulging my natural frustration borne from exhaustion and over-work and complete lack of margin. I take it out on you because I have power to do that. That’s the scariest part of parenting to me – the power you have by nature over your kids. I don’t think there was a single day last week that I didn’t see my own sin in how I treated you or spoke to you. Always I knew why, and the why is important, even if it doesn’t absolve. You weren’t listening (you were over tired) and I was in acute pain (over pregnant). It happens in this broken human world, but it doesn’t mean it’s not sin. Every day I felt resolve to treat you better, and I knew that could only come from the Holy Spirit, from being a Jesus-disciple instead of following myself and serving myself.

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Sermon #2 on Sunday (our Sunday thing is weird, go with it) was from Colossians. Our pastor talked about circumcision – about how God makes us weak in the place where we feel strong. That resonated with me – that one thing I wish I didn’t screw up that I screw up every single day. And then he talked about PF Changs. How he’d been in the Atlanta airport and he had money to spend and he knew he really really wanted PF Changs and he went to great lengths to get there and wouldn’t – couldn’t be distracted – by Chick Fil A or any other good-enough option he passed at every intervening gate because he wanted PF Changs. That, he said, is how we need to pursue Christ: wanting him enough to give us blinders to everything else.

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This is what the Holy Spirit does for us: shows us Christ and little by little teaches us blindness to other loves. But like the season of Pentecost and Ordinary time, it takes a lifetime. This is what I want for you, sweet boy, and for me. I see you growing, changing, becoming stronger and wiser every day. The things you’ve struggled with in the past year are gradually falling away and when you cry you can pull it together and when you sin you can talk about it and when you are feeling greedy or angry you can take control and choose something else. This is big. So very big. And I am proud of you, and eager for you, and hoping that somehow (by the Holy Spirit, that is) you and I will get there.

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I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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Jacob: 49 Months

Dear Jacob,

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These days you are changing and growing fast. Your body is growing so large and tall – you look like a six year old! I’ve been noticing your beautiful face – your whole beautiful body – afresh the last few weeks, seeing how your tiny features are planted in the center of your big soft face; how strong and large your hands are becoming; how skinny and muscular your boy’s body has grown to be. You are stronger and more adept. Your style is changing, too – growing with you. I was talking with some other moms last night and one of them was saying how she’d heard boys experience a surge of testosterone around age 4-5 that changes them. It made perfect sense to me, because the last few days I’ve been thinking “Oh Crap. Here we go.” about the things you do.

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I’ve always been very hands-off and permissive. You are welcome to do whatever you like. It’s been easy because you’ve been cautious. Until this past week I’d think nothing of your playing with my heavy wood-and-metal garden tools. Yesterday I saw you wield one of them and my heart almost stopped when I saw new bursts of strength in your body. You can do more than drag it like a darling little thing now: you can raise it above your head and chop at the ground. With a vision of what else you might do – intentionally or otherwise – with that potential weapon, I heard myself saying what I’d never said before: “Jacob, that is not safe for you to play with unless Mommy is helping you. Please go put it away.”

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An hour ago as we were all in your room preparing you and Meredith for naps you stood up on the tiny wooden rocking chair and proceeded to rock backwards into the ladder of the bunk bed. Daddy began, and I heard the words he was about to say, as they changed. “Jacob, that is just about the dumbest…” He trailed off, “That is ONE OF the dumbest…” He hesitated: “That is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen you do…” And remembering this week he finished: “…in the last 24 hours.”

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It used to be that we spent endless time coaxing you to take a risk or two. Hours and hours were spent in the pool last summer before we finally convinced you to jump into our arms. You’ve always been aware of risk and wise – or perhaps even cowardly – about it. It all changed, seemingly overnight, in the last week. Yesterday I looked out the back door to see what you were doing and stopped you just in time. You’d dragged the neighbors little trampoline right over to the edge of the rough wooden picnic table (all this on a rock floor) and had just climbed to the top of the picnic table, poised for a jump. My mind was blown, not just that you would do that, but that you weren’t afraid to do it. (I didn’t let you do it.)

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The way you told the story of Friday to a friend who’d come for dinner on Friday night as you sat on my lap watching an invalid’s share of TV was surprisingly full of guile: You’d had an accident, you explained, and a nail had gone into your foot. Actually, you were hanging out with Daddy while he was beginning to build the banister in our new house. He’d just pried up an old strip of wood flooring and had set it beside him, nails pointing up. Suddenly there you were, standing on the board, gently testing those nails with the bottom of your shoe. And just as Daddy opened his mouth to say “Jacob, stepping on nails is not a good idea,” you put your weight down on one, 100% foolish boy-curiosity. Needless to say, it went through your shoe and into your foot, and that was the last you walked until midday yesterday, when you’d forgotten about it enough to go pull the picnic-table-trampoline stunt.

The summary of all this is: You are making me old.

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What I’ve been wanting to tell you lately is about craft and what you do and what you will maybe do someday. You informed me with great seriousness the other day as we sat eating lunch in our shambles of a new back yard that if my pipes were ever broken all I had to do was just call you on the phone because you were a plumber so you knew how to fix pipes. You looked me straight in the eye and spoke with serious confidence. I didn’t laugh at you or tell you how cute and funny you were, I just thanked you and said that sounded like a good idea. The fact is, you do know about fixing pipes: loads and loads more than I ever will. You aren’t a plumber yet, but you aspire to be. And when you’re not aspiring to be a plumber you are aspiring to drive a delivery truck or to be the guy who takes care of traffic lights if they aren’t working.

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Our contractor, a wise man in his 50s with two grown sons, told his sons they had to go to school before they were ever allowed to cast their lot with the hammers like their Daddy. He’d never imagined another life for himself, picking up his dad’s work where he’d left it off. Never having gone to school, he had no other options for a profession and sometimes, as his buddy ages, I think he regrets that. But he is clearly proud of his trade, and there is no doubt about the reality that it is more than a trade to him – it is an art and a craft. He just wanted his boys to find out if there was anything else out there. Turns out one is brilliant in the IT world and one is becoming a pastor.

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I think we academics – the sort who grew up assuming college was the next step of the dance after high school graduation, and college was important because it was a pivot into grad school and career – we often operate by an implicit snobbery, looking at “blue collar” work as though it is for lesser mortals. What I want to say to you is that this is not true. If you grow up feeling as though you’re making less of yourself by choosing to be a plumber once you’ve had a fair chance to weigh the options – or just as bad, if you grow up feeling as though we think you’re making less of yourself… What a failure this would be! If there’s one thing I’ve observed this spring it’s that there are deep layers of skill, excellence, nobility, and human strength and wisdom in the trades that don’t seem to reach as high as academia can take a person. So if you end up being the guy who plans the sewers or monitors traffic to prepare for a construction project or fixes the traffic lights or even fixes my pipes, I will be so proud of you. And if every stranger that ever meets you is an indication, this is very likely. Within 3 minutes of talking to you, everyone remarks to me that you are going to be an engineer.

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While I painted our new ceilings last week I listened to an audio recording of a new book by Peter Korn, a master woodworker. He described the discontent with what he saw in his father’s generation – the assumption that if you weren’t working a meaningless desk job you weren’t affording yourself the security and comfort you might – and how it led him into tradesman’s work, and how tradesman’s work led him into a deep understanding of the spirituality and nobility of it; how in it he discovered himself over many decades and had the opportunity to reflect on what makes life worth living. His book is called Why We Make Things and Why It Matters and I hope you’ll read it someday.

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This morning I read something else that made me think of you and of all this, a letter of advice written by a young man to his friend in 1958.

…As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important…

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What I’m trying to say is this: When you grow up I hope you will have the joy of soul to know what you are good at and what you love. And then I hope you will have the freedom of soul to do it without regard to anyone’s estimation of you (except your wife, I guess). And finally, I hope you will have the integrity and strength to do it as well and as fully as you possibly can, just because you believe that’s the only way anything is worth doing. And if you want to know what this looks like, my best advice is to take a look at your dad.

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I love you.

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Love,
Mommy

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