The Hardest Thing In the World

I have a lot of friends who are becoming mommas, and I know a lot of mommas adjusting to new Christmas traditions as children grow up and grow their own families. So, with Christmas getting close, I thought I’d share what I wrote for my momma last Christmas. Thank you to all the amazing women who mother, whether they are your own children or the ones placed in your path.

Do you know what the hardest thing in the world is? Christmas shopping for your mom. Not because you don’t know what she likes, or what size she wears, or what she may have bought in the last few months, but because she’s your mom.

This is the woman who knows what your heartbeat feels like from the inside. This is the one who’s spilled blood and tears for you. Who’s wiped up, wrung out, washed away your own various bodily fluids. This is the person who’s carried you, physically, then spiritually, mentally, emotionally, through all the years of your life. Who sacrificed time and sleep and health to make sure you had freedom to play and explore, that you were well-rested, that you got well soon.

I stand befuddled, looking at green-stoned necklaces and plastic-wrapped CDs, wondering how, how can I give such little things to the one who has held me, my hopes, my heart with gentle and strong hands, the one who brought me into this world?

These things are merely tokens. I wish I could show her instead all the glowing memories and precious gifts she’s given me. If I could give her one gift, I think it would be this: to let her see herself through my eyes for a few moments. How every time I laugh I think of her and thank her for teaching me to laugh loud and brave. How gorgeous her face, which glows with happy smiles and glowers with protective anger. How I see now that her secret beauty is in her eyes, which sparkle with youth and always look for the chance to help, and taught me to do the same.

I wish she could see for a few moments that she taught me what Love looks like: bright, shining, turned towards heaven. I wish she could see how well she loved and let go, so this scared baby bird wouldn’t stay always at home. I wish she could see the breath-taking beauty of loving four children as different as the four seasons, of her making childhood magical, of her being the best mother-friend a girl could ask for.

I finally settled on one little thing to buy. But at Christmas, Momma, I hope you know how much I (and we) appreciate you doing the hardest thing in the world: being a momma.

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Arrive empty.

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Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

I don’t know about you, but everywhere I look these days, I am running into the “Self-Care” craze. It seems to be the backlash to the busy-ness of today’s culture, in the same way that slow food is the backlash to fast food, or the KonMarie method is the backlash to our rampant consumerism. This craze has leached into the Christian community as well, the idea of “putting on your own oxygen mask first” running rampant through the blogs of Christian culture.

In the midst of the saturation of this message, I came across an idea the other day: “Arrive empty.” I wish I could remember the source. I believe they meant giving it all in their endeavors, exploring the world, finding themselves, and so forth, but my brain latched onto the saying in another way.

I have been given the Spirit of the Living God, and I am not meant to be a hoarder of love or light. I am meant to give, in His power and grace. No where in scripture (that I can find) did Christ instruct, “Make sure that your own cup is full first. Then share the water with everyone else.” He commands us, in words and in example, to love, give, live sacrificially.

I am so conflicted in this area. It sounds wonderful! “Taking care of yourself so you can take care of others.” Many Christian writers cite Christ’s example of withdrawing from the crowds to rest. But Christ’s time of rest was always still centered around His Father’s work. He withdrew to pray (Luke 5:16).

I think this is what we as Christians miss when we buy into the “putting your own oxygen mask on first” mentality. It smacks of the American gospel (which is being shouted from the hilltops right now), not of the gospel of Christ. Christ withdrew to rest in the presence of the only One who fills us up, who gives us true rest: His Father. We are not meant to seek out rest, or self-care, as our source of peace. As Christians, we already have this source, with us and within us.

I think it is so important to listen to the callings and joys God has given you, and to not be so busy doing that you don’t have time to listen to His still, small voice or notice the green shoots of growth the Spirit is cultivating in you. But I think it could be so easy to slip into the mindset of, “I am owed Me Time. I am owed The Little Shiny Pretty Things of Life,” while forgetting that Christ says, “Come to Me, and I will give you rest.” 

True rest isn’t found in clinging with iron-tight grip to my time, my needs, my my my. It is in trusting God to give you the rest you need.

I have to concede that I speak from a place of extreme privilege. Other than my job, my home, my husband and our almost two-year-old marriage, my responsibilities are few. I have lots of kids running around at school, but I get to come home to quiet. I’m not exactly lacking in the “me time” area.

But hearing this message in so many places, I started asking questions. Where is the line between needed rest and indulgence? How much of this is biblical, and how much is our culture, trying to sell one more cup of “restful” coffee, one more candle needed for “relaxation”, one more self-help book trying to help you find your “best life”?

So here is my prayer for today:

Lord,

Let me see what is truth and what is a bill of sale. Help me to find true spiritual rest. Help me to have time to rejoice in listening to your voice, to use my talents, and to be filled by You.

Help me to distinguish what is indulgence, oxygen mask, you-are-owed-this culture. Let me not be one of those surrounded by a nest of shiny things and plentiful time while others are left in the cold. Let me be one pouring out so the Spirit can pour in.

Let me arrive at heaven’s gates, emptied but filled.

Amen.

P.S. As I continue to puzzle and pray through my thoughts on self care culture, I’d love to hear yours!

To Sarah, Autumn 2013

On October 18, 2013, B took me on a quiet autumn walk and asked me to be his wife. In the days and months after we got engaged, I was joyful and excited and humbled and honoured. But I also encountered an emotion I did not expect: fear. So, two years later I’m writing a letter to that fearful girl. I wish someone had told me it was okay to be afraid.

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To Sarah, Autumn 2013,

Hey, girl. I know you have a lot of feelings these days, most wonderful, one unexpected and bothersome: fear. None of the movies or 19th century novels you love show the heroine questioning her choice in marriage. Charlie D never shows Esther wondering if Woodcourt really is as wonderful as the papers write, or if they’re right for each other.

I know it seems surreal and unearned. I want you to enjoy the whirlwind of being a bride, but I  know that the weight of this decision is pressing you down. I know it’s not like the movies. That you weren’t expecting life to go this way, that you had hunkered down in your heart to wait, not planned the perfect wedding. Trust your judgement. Trust (even more) the prayers that have been bathing your life and his life from the beginning. Know that fear is okay. “Doubt does not mean don’t.” Feelings are wonderful and interesting companions, but they are nothing to build your life on. Instead, look at truth.

Kindness will carry you far. That way he can make you laugh will carry you through storms small and large. A heart willing to learn is the rarest gold in marriage, as my 1 1/2 years have taught me. Warmth of character means much more than checks on a checklist. A man who values your heart is a prize never to be released. And love for God? Marriage is big, larger than your fears or fancies, and only Someone bigger than the two of you can sustain it.

Welcome to this roller coaster ride of wedding planning. You will laugh; you will cry. But please, don’t let fear be the leader of this journey. Hold on to Hope, and the greatest of these, Love. But for the days when fear does win, know this: the hardest and most beautiful days of your life are ahead. Love is like a tree, different in each season, but always reaching up and growing deep. Be of good courage. You have made a brave choice, and the Lord will bless you for it.

Here’s to faith and the unknown future!

Mrs. Sarah Doolittle

P.S. We all have our own brave choices. Sometimes that’s staying single, or saying no when the “red flags” are waving, or moving on from heartbreak. All require trust and a brave heart, and stepping into an unknown future. I pray God meets you wherever you’re being brave today. 

An Open Letter to Labour Day Weekend

Dear Labour Day Weekend,

You’re here again. And I am halfway through you. The best is yet to come, because we all know Sunday night with no Monday morning looming ahead is one of the top three best things in the world (along with waking up early Saturday morning and realizing you don’t have to get out of bed yet and Christmas Eve).

I wish I had a better relationship with you. For weeks, you are the most lovely, shining, golden thing. You are the hope that first day of school when my heart and mind ask a la David After Dentist, “Is it going to be like this forever?” And I can say, “No, it won’t be like this forever, because Labour Day Weekend is coming.”

But then you come. And I am so thankful you are here, because after three years of starting a new teaching job every August, I arrive at your gates exhausted and reeling from lack of thought, sleep, and personal time and space. Here lies salvation, I think to myself. This weekend is the key to my getting it back together, to hearing my own thoughts again, to restoring all the little things I’ve broken from neglect over the past four-and-a-half weeks.

And now here I am, at Sunday afternoon, realizing the impossible weight I’ve placed upon your three-days-width shoulders. No, I cannot catch up on home and school and all those little personal goals I’ve set in the breadth of 72 hours. I crave days without to do lists, rest, quiet. I crave not feeling the constant breath on the back of my neck of something undone.

That is not this time of year. There will always, always be something to do. Papers to grade, lessons to plan, problems to solve, things to wash, clean, cook. So how do I rest, amidst all the undone? How do I quiet the worries and let my heart be still?

I am a chapter in to Emily Freeman’s Simply Tuesday, and I feel like this book is coming at the perfect time. The tagline is “Small moment living in a fast-moving world”. From her blog entries, I know Freeman, like myself, is a slow processor. I am excited about all the “me, too!” moments I’ve already experienced while reading, and look forward to many more. Maybe in these pages I’ll find a few hints.

So, Labour Day Weekend, I guess this is mainly a note of apology. I am sorry for placing impossible expectations on your shoulders. I hope one year to meet you with a clear head and graceful heart. For now, I’ll try to live you out, one moment at a time, thankful for the short space to catch my breath, read a little, and reconnect a few dots. Thanks for being a beacon of hope, and a last hurrah of summer.

Love always,

Mrs. Doolittle

P.S. How do you find rest amidst the craziness of life? Do you have daily rituals? A sacred time or space? I’d love to get your ideas as I attempt to bring some calm back into my life.

Summer Reading: Surprised By Oxford

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“I still remember the birdsong. Despite the walled gardens, the magnificent castle-like buildings, the cobblestone streets, there is always birdsong in Oxford.” – Carolyn Weber

When I was in 7th grade, I fell in love with a group of writers called the Inklings. After devouring The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I started reading everything I could about J.R.R. Tolkien and his friends. I discovered that, of course, he was friends with my favorite childhood author, C.S. Lewis, and that they both attended and later worked at a magical place called the University of Oxford. I have a vivid memory of sitting outside, reading a biography of Tolkien sometime in the 8th grade, and promising myself that some day, some how, I would make it to this magical place that birthed such gifted writers and thinkers.

Spring of 2010, my dream came true. As part of UGA at Oxford, I attended the University of Oxford (more specifically, Keble College). I lived in Oxford, I studied in Oxford, I participated in way too many cream teas at Oxford. And I bought way, way too many books (40 pounds worth, and I mean weight, not money). Five years have passed since my great Oxford adventure, and I was growing a little homesick for the old buildings, green meadows, and “dreaming spires”.

Enter Carolyn Weber’s spiritual memoir, Surprised by Oxford. In the mid-90’s, Weber attended Oxford University as part of her graduate studies. While there, she started asking a lot of questions about Christianity, which until then she had considered an ignorant and cultish religion. Spoiler alert: over the course of her first year of study, she converts to Christianity.

I enjoyed Weber’s memoir so much. It is beautifully written, intelligent, and contains frequent references to Keats (my dead poet crush) and the Romantics. Weber is gifted in writing conversation, which is fortunate, as they make up the bulk of the book. Her conversion came not as a sudden thunderclap over the head, but in a slow, steady changing of her heart. She speaks with professors, scientists, and her own friends about what she is learning or asking, and through these conversations, she comes to faith.

There were so many good quotes and ideas throughout the book that I took several pages of notes while reading. One of those notes was, “I wish I could send this book back to high school Sarah.” A lot of the questions she struggles through are questions I wrestled with as I made my faith my own. She comes to conclusions that are full of “grace and truth”.

I’d highly recommend this book to lovers of Oxford or literature, or to people with questions, who wonder how one can be a person of logic and a person of faith. I wanted to shout “Hooray!” any time she wrote about a place I recognized, whether it was a physical place in Oxford, or a place of grace I’ve come to in my own faith. This book is a love story – to a place, to a God who pursues, to a love of learning – and I think you, too, will be Surprised by Oxford.

Bye-Bye, Baby Car

IMG_8007When I was in middle school, I had things planned out. When I turned 16, I was going to have a light blue convertible Volkswagen Bug. I was going to work at Borders and drink lots of coffee. My boyfriend – because of course I would be dating by 16! – would work at Borders, too. And he was probably going to be a werewolf (I probably loved Remus Lupin a little too much).

When I turned 16, I drove a green Altima with squeaky hubcaps (but don’t knock it – that Altima is now on its sixth driver and is lovingly named Forest). I worked summers helping at my father’s military surplus company. I was still 8 years away from my first boyfriend. The dreams that 14-year-old Sarah had planned for 16-year-old Sarah hadn’t quite panned out.

But eventually things worked out. In college I worked in an education library, which was like working at Borders (R.I.P.) except 1000x better. That whole boyfriend thing took a couple of tries, but worked out exceedingly well (high five, B!). And I never drove that light blue convertible Beetle, but I did drive a deep blue hatchback affectionately known as Baby Car.

Lots of times when I’d look at that car, I’d think about the plans I made for myself, and how things turned out, in such different shades and ways I’d never have imagined at 14 or 18 or even 24. Late bloomer, I imagined myself with a house of cats and the companionship of books until close to 30. And I was content. But somehow I ended up a bride before ever being a bridesmaid. Life has turned out so differently than what I imagined.

This isn’t a post to show how well things have turned out for me. I am so grateful for where I am now, but there have been times when things aren’t going as imagined. I’ve been that girl, watching the years tick by, wondering when the job, or the boy, or the whatever it is that was supposed to come along by now hasn’t. I cultivated an attitude of waiting, of anticipating, like a child on Christmas Eve. Soon, I would tell myself. Soon soon soon. It became my mantra.

Meanwhile so much was happening. Good friendships forming, trips of a lifetime taken, life lessons being learned. One thing is certain in life: time will pass. Things will happen. But sometimes when the things happening aren’t what we had planned, we feel suspended, stuck.

1 Corinthians 7:3-11 was brought to my attention by the study we’re doing in our small group, “The Illumination Project”. The author, quoting her ESV study Bible, paraphrases the verses: “For now, stay put. Be content in the situation where God has placed you. If you’re married, don’t seek to be single. If you’re single, don’t seek to be married. Live God’s way, one day at a time, and He will show you what to do.”

What I didn’t know while I cultivated this attitude of waiting is that even when things happen, the big plans that suddenly come sooner rather than later, when you have trained yourself to live like it’s Christmas Eve, you always live that way. Even when the plans come through, no matter how they come through.

Only in the last few months have I realized how I am still living like it’s Christmas Eve, even though I’ve had my book job, and my boyfriend, and my Beetle. I’ll still live like it’s soon soon soon. But my library job has come and gone. My boyfriend is gone; he’s now my husband. And last Saturday I said goodbye to my Beetle. Eight years passed with Baby Car. Eight years of plans and dreams and becoming. I didn’t think I would, but I cried when I gave up the keys.

So, to you I say: don’t live life thinking soon. No matter what you are waiting on, cultivate an attitude of contentment now. I am just now beginning the slow and steady process of living now now now, knowing I am exactly where God would have me.

IMG_8008So now I have Scout the CR-V. She is reliable and has a lot of space. She has the room the Doolittles will need to grow at some point. And I know eight years with her will pass. Quickly. Until then, it’s summer and I am content with now. Not because it’s exactly what I had planned, but because it’s better. It’s where God’s loving and imaginative hands have placed me.

Summer Reading: Intro & Sarah Addison Allen

This summer, I was determined to “rediscover” reading. As a child, I rejoiced over the Summer Reading List that most students dreaded. I have memories of excitement bubbling up in my stomach as my mom took us to Borders (R.I.P.) or Barnes & Noble to purchase our needed novels. I loved the smell of the unexplored books, knowing how much I would gain from their pages. I remember distinctly devouring the entirety of one slim book the day that school let out, before summer had even started.

Now that I’m on the other side of the classroom, summer reading isn’t a requirement, and sometimes falls by the wayside. This year I discovered an invaluable resource in the form of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading List. I haven’t followed it strictly at all, but used it as a starting point. One of my favorites so far has been Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells.

Garden SpellsIt’s been so long since I read any light-and-fluffy modern fiction, but this was the perfect reintroduction to the genre. It was sweet, Southern, and about sisters, with just the right amount of common magic. The main character, Claire, is comfortable in her enviable old house with its magical garden until her estranged sister and her young daughter come into town. The plot and ensuing romances are predictable, but the heart of the novel is so pure that I easily overlooked that potential fault. Allen’s books dig deep into the landscape and social norms of the South, which grounded the novel enough that the magic did not feel forced or faked. I ate it up in the first couple of days of summer, and it left me hungry for more.

Lost-Lake

Since Garden Spells, I’ve read two more of Allen’s books: The Sugar Queen and Lost Lake. Both were good, with the same mix of Southern roots and magic. Ghosts even come into play in their plots, but what Southern author can stay away from ghosts for very long? I preferred The Sugar Queen, which is a cozy, autumnal read set in the area around Asheville, North Carolina (where Allen grew up and currently lives). Lost Lake has a lovely cover, which attracted me to it, but lacked the interest of her other novels. It was a fun summer read, though, set at an aging summer getaway in the depths of south Georgia, with flashbacks set in Paris, which immediately endeared the novel to me.

Sarah Addison Allen has published three other novels: The Peach Keeper, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and First Frost. I began The Peach Keeper this morning, which promises to be a sort of murder mystery. I recommend Allen’s books to anyone looking for a light summer read with a lot of heart and a bit of magic.

Now, your turn: What are you reading this summer? Light reads? Required? I’m always looking for more recommendations!