The longer I am the mother of four children, the more I understand the science behind birth order theory. It seems fairly certain that you will always be the fun-loving, naturally charming, baby sister of the family.
I am constantly wavering between guilt and thankfulness as I watch you grow up in the chaos and shadow of your three older siblings. One guilt for example is that there are significantly fewer evenings where all of us happen to be home and ready to eat at the same hour, and even fewer evenings that I manage to find the energy to shop for and make a proper dinner. While I like to think you consistently eat two to three square meals a day, I am certain you eat way fewer green things and way more sweet things than any of your siblings would have ever been allowed at the age of 10. The evening or so a week when all six of us are home to sit down to a proper meal around our large circle table in the breakfast room, I am always filled with nothing but thankfulness. Thankful that many of our dinners include an extra friend or two to feed. Thankful that everyone always seems just as thankful to be together as I am, even as annoyances are freely expressed and arguments often break out. Thankful that the conversations are rich in meaning, ripe with controversy, and full of grace. This is of course quite different than the weeknight dinners we shared when Kori Jane was your age, and you were still a toddler. We still play the occasional dinner table games that used to dominate our mealtime conversations, but rarely do we make it through one round of “Two Truths and a Lie” without some exciting, interesting, or upsetting event someone encountered that day sparking a lively discussion or debate.
It is true that most often, you are wishing everyone would stop talking about teenage drama, current events, and theological truths, but there are plenty of times when you are jumping right in and asking one of your precocious and thoughtful questions. Many times, I fight the urge to change the subject, but instead I opt to silently cringe as you are exposed to subjects and vocabulary I was frantically trying to shield your siblings from at your age.
Even when our dinner table conversations leave me with some explaining to do, I am still thankful that you are growing up watching your siblings as they learn to think for themselves, really listen to others, defend their beliefs, disagree, give grace, vocalize doubts, and ask hard questions. After all, there is no better place in the whole world for those conversations to happen than around a dinner table. In fact, it might not only be my favorite place to have hard conversations, I daresay it is the ONLY place I feel comfortable having the hardest of conversations. At least in any sort of way that will prove meaningful, productive, and unifying.
There is no doubt that we are a passionate family with strong convictions and deep-rooted beliefs, but my sincere hope is that we are not known outside the walls of our home only by the convictions we hold, and I certainly cringe to think that we would ever be categorized or known by the way we voted in the last election. Better yet, unless you have dined at my dinner table, I prefer that you don’t necessarily even know who I voted for in the last election. Being that we have just come out of one of the most charged and divisive presidential election campaigns in US history, politics have been a topic of dinner table conversation frequently over the last year.
Last month, Lacey, it was your question that sparked what might be my very favorite dinner conversation of the year so far! You asked, “is Jesus a Democrat or a Republican?” First there was silence followed by awkward giggles and knowing smiles carefully exchanged, as we all wondered where this evening’s conversation was headed.
While somehow, I had never bothered to directly ask myself this question before, the answer was quite obviously, “neither.”
“Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.” Not only that, but Jesus was also not American, he did not speak English, and he looked nothing like our blonde-haired blue-eyed family. The constitution was not the law he preached, followed, or quoted, and His allegiance was not to any government, race, gender, political cause, or even to his own family line. When He laid down his life it was not for the sake of His country or for any social or political agenda at all. He laid down His life because He loves people, and He especially loves broken, hurting and sinful people- people like us.
As Pastor David frequently likes to remind us, “Jesus would probably be far too conservative for the liking of most Democrats, and far too liberal for the liking of most Republicans.” I don’t think this means that Jesus would necessarily not have voted in this last election had He been alive and living in America today, but I do not pretend for even a second to know the mind of a sinless, all knowing, and perfectly compassionate Savior. His Kingdom is not of this world. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. Who among us has understood the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct Him?
As you know from so many dinner table conversations, your parents proudly exercise their right to vote and have openly shared which policies each of us are most sensitive about. And while we always vote, we do not always cast matching ballots, nor do we expect that all of our children will always cast matching ballots. I hope that you will one day choose to take advantage of the privilege and duty you have as an American citizen to vote when you turn 18, but far more important to me than your political affiliation will be how well you love people- especially the people who think, look, act, and vote differently than you.
Please do not hear me say that you should not hold strong opinions or convictions. On the contrary, I want all my children to be compassionate deep thinkers who know what they believe and why they believe it, but I also want you to leave space for others to believe something different without judgement or personal criticism. We can never fully know the life experiences, natural bents, or the various relationships, hurts, joys, and griefs that have shaped another person’s world view. But what we do know is that God has placed in each of us unique passions, experiences, and gifts that He means to be pursued and shared as we seek to be instruments of peace in a desperately needy and broken world.
Please also do not hear me say that you should keep your strong opinions and convictions to yourself, and avoid hard conversations at all costs. On the contrary I want each of you to be passionate advocates for not only peace, but also for truth, justice, and love. The question to me is not whether we should be having hard conversations, but rather the worthy question is when and where we should be having these conversations. Of course, there are not black and white straightforward answers to this question, but I implore you to give them thoughtful consideration, nonetheless.
Hard conversations tend to engage our emotions as much as our intellect and therefore they have tremendous power to divide or to unify, and to harm or to heal. I have made a deliberate choice to try to only engage when there is potential to unify and heal, and I make that determination by asking myself the when and the where questions.
For me, difficult conversations are worthy conversations WHEN I know and love my audience and they are convinced that I love them despite any of our differences, WHEN I have been asked my opinion, and WHEN I have had time to weigh the consequences of engaging in any such a conversation. I’ve chosen the practice of avoiding having high-stake conversations on a whim, among people who are unwilling to listen and learn or who are easily offended, and on any digital platform- especially social media. It is incredibly sad to me how often the very conversations we avoid having face to face with people we know and love, all too often flow freely over the internet. We make blanket statements sure to hurt and offend someone, we hide behind news articles that prove our points and spout statistics that think for us.
Possibly even more important to me than asking when to engage in difficult and complicated conversations, is asking WHERE to engage? In my experience, the most meaningful, unifying and healing place for hard conversations is around a shared meal. This is why there are no off-limit conversations around my dinner table, and also why your vocabulary, your questions, and political acumen at the age of 10 might be a little more mature than I’d prefer.
Even so Lacey, may we be a family who is known foremost for our love, compassion, good deeds, and an extra spot at our dinner table. May our dinner table conversations always be full of deep and meaningful questions, controversies, opinions, wonderings, and observations. And may each shared meal end with a sense of unity and healing, not because anyone has been convinced of anything, but because we have all listened, we have all learned, and we have all felt loved.
Daddy and I both for different reasons hoped that our first child would be a boy. I’d always dreamed of an older brother, so I thought it would be ideal for my oldest to be male, but for your sports loving Daddy he dreamed of shooting hoops and playing catch with his son in a way that he never got to do with his own father.
Of course, once our first child was born a baby girl, we decided that we’d like another girl so the two of them could grow up sharing secrets and clothes. How thankful we are that we don’t always get what we want!
Well son, we set out to prepare for your arrival by creating the perfect sports themed nursery covered in soccer balls, baseball bats, and football goals. There was a coordinated quilt, floor rug, crib bumper, lamp shade, and these ball shaped pillows that we were convinced would be your favorite toys!
When you were born, we dressed you in Astros and Texan’s jerseys, and as soon as you were old enough, we signed you up for little league. After the first game Daddy offered to be extra hands on the field so he could stand nearby and whisper play by play instructions to you. Left to your own devices, you were lost with your head in the clouds completely unaware that you were part of a team fiercely competing for a win. Big sister Kori has always enjoyed being a part of anything that includes friends, snacks, and competition so she was eager to join whatever sport was in season. You never really seemed eager about much outside your own mind, but we signed you up for soccer anyway. We’d had a deal with Kori that for every time she scored a goal, she would get a scoop of ice cream! After you blankly wandered around the field your first game, we changed the rules for you so that every time your foot touched the soccer ball you would get your scoop. While I think you might have had two scoops the entire season, at least it kept you running back and forth with the other players giving the appearance that you were playing the same game as everyone else.
Basketball was the next and last organized sport you ever played, and that is when we decided to give Cub Scouts a try. Your Daddy found himself in the first Boy Scout uniform of his life leading your little Troop in flag ceremonies and earning badges. I remember him coming home after a large area wide Boy Scout event and sharing his curious observations. For starters you did not interact with any of your peers the entire night. Despite your aloof wandering during the Pack Leader’s lesson, it turns out that you had been listening because when dismissed for free time, you headed straight to the only station that piqued your interest. You sat alone the rest of the evening immersing yourself in a new world of pawns, rooks, and queens while everyone else spent their time floating between archery, football, and the various other stations. Your favorite Boy Scout event was the visit to Brazos Bend State Park where your troop stayed late into the night to stargaze from the enormous observatory. You amazed everyone there including the presenters with your questions and in-depth knowledge of all things space. You shared rather obscure details about each of the planets as well as a convincing and articulate argument explaining why Pluto should still be considered a planet. You were 6 at the time.
If it ever bothered your Father that you were not into sports or stood out from your peers, I could never tell. While often confused by your curious interests and behaviors, he remains eager to connect and engage with you, and he has always been proud to be your dad. He however never managed to bring himself to wear that Boy Scout uniform with pride, and thankfully for him, scouts was no more your thing than sports.
Your sporty bedroom lasted only a few years, and at your request was replaced by a ceiling covered in glow in the dark star stickers, and bedding and posters covered in spaceships and planetary bodies.
It was not just your lack of athletic ability, and your love of chess and outer space that set you apart from your peers at a young age. You started reading at 3, learning the periodic table at 5, solving rubix cubes at 8, doing algebra at 10, and auditing a class in Chemistry at Rice University at 12. By 14 (a freshman in high school) you had taken all the most advanced math, science, and computer science courses your high school offered, and had perfect scores on not only your math SATs, but on AP and SAT subject tests as well. This current school year, at the age of 15, you were invited by the Department Chair of Chemistry at Rice University to help do some research for the Center of Theoretical and Biological Physics. When the two computer programming languages that you had previously mastered proved too slow to run the molecule simulations you had built, you learned a third programming language and rebuilt the simulation in a matter of days. And next month, at the age of 16, you will graduate from high school.
I realize how impressive that all sounds, but what few realize is that for every one of the incredible gifts you have been given, you have also been given some weaknesses. This year has been especially difficult as the only high school classes you’ve had left to finish are in subject areas in which you do not tend to excel. PE for one! And then a bunch of humanities courses that have demanded you to engage in tasks that you find tedious and dull. When you are interested in something, there is no limit to what you will discover, learn, and remember, or how long you will be engrossed in the learning. You seem however to lack any ability to focus or work hard for any amount of time if you are not interested in something, or if a task is in any way repetitive. Unfortunately, you consider things like eating, chores, selfcare, homework, and organization as some of the most uninteresting, tedious and repetitive tasks demanded of you. And things like social skills and practical tasks are just about as unintuitive to you as computer languages, advanced mathematics, and theoretical physics are to the rest of us.
School was not created with a kid like you in mind, and it makes perfect sense that you almost failed first grade math, struggled to find a school where you fit, and you remain even now on a non-traditional path. Traditional or not, the path you have been on has not been easy and this year has proven particularly difficult for us both, and for our relationship! While you carry the burden of an insatiably curious mind that takes you places you never intend to go, I carry the burden of trying to get you where you are actually supposed to be.
When you were younger you never much minded my incessant reminders and questions, as long as you were allowed ample time to wander around the yard deep in contemplation and ample paper to write down your mathematical theories in the form of charts, graphs, and equations. You have always been happy, affectionate, and kind even when my reminders and questions bordered on nagging or yelling. You were content to be carted around to your siblings extra curriculars-usually the ball fields or the theatre- as long as you were permitted to wander off alone to wherever your curiosity and creativity took you. I assume you enjoyed your weekly 45-minute piano lessons since you never complained about going, and I know you enjoyed your occasional chess and pokemon tournaments. But by far your favorite past times have always been freedom to wander around thinking deeply and solving complicated puzzles and problems of all sorts.
Being your mom has always brought me tremendous joy but also tremendous frustrations. I wonder how someone with such a powerful mind can struggle with such basic tasks. I sometimes wonder if you will ever live independently, and then in the same minute I wonder if you might one day make a major discovery that changes the whole world. I wonder why you have been given such unbelievable gifts only to be matched by your unbelievable struggles. But I also rejoice in the beauty and complexity of your heart, mind, and soul knowing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that your Creator has a plan and a purpose for your life- a plan and purpose that likely looks nothing like my wonderings might imagine.
I do know that part of His purpose and plan for my life is for me to be your mom. I also believe that He has been preparing me for that unique responsibility and privilege my whole life. For one, he gave me just a pinch of a couple of your strengths and a couple pinches of some of your weaknesses. I had (and have) this tendency to obsess over problems or puzzles that need solved, and while I never seemed to be able to focus on the right thing in a classroom, I have this strange ability to focus on certain things with such intensity that the rest of reality fades away. I know this drives you kids crazy when I am lost in my writing, problem solving (not math of course), or a good book, and I do not even hear you screaming my name or notice your hand tapping my shoulder. I can be impulsive and even absentminded, and practical skills are less intuitive to me than the creative, conceptual, and abstract. While there is much that I don’t understand about your mind, I believe I understand you more than most. When I am tempted to feel like a parenting failure, I remember the many differently abled children I’ve worked with who have grown up misunderstood or blamed (even in their own homes) for things that they have no control over. Even in my most frustrated moments, I do know that your struggles are not your fault.
Another way the Lord has prepared me to be your mom is to provide me with a 15-year career in Special Education and Consulting, where I have had the privilege of advocating for differently abled children and consulting with families hoping to help their struggling children find a place to belong and succeed. This year in moments of desperation, I have had to remind myself of the very same words I have spoken to other parents over the years in their moments of desperation. I’d ask if perhaps what needed to change was not their child’s behavior or performance, but rather their own expectations of their child’s behavior and performance. Or maybe what needed changed was their child’s environment, or their teacher, or the tools being used. I’ve encouraged parents to not measure a child’s success or worth by grades, test scores, a single teacher’s opinion, or even a single hard year. I’ve told parents to look for growth and not perfection, and I’ve warned parents not to set a bar so high that they don’t accidentally join the rest of the world in setting their child up to fail.
Even though I believe all of that to my core, I know I make many of the same parenting mistakes I’ve coached other parents through, and to say we have struggled lately is an understatement at best. You struggling under the burden of bars set too high in some ways and too low in others, low grades that do not reflect your intellect or define your worth, and endless lists of dull and tedious tasks for you to complete all in the name of getting into a good college. And me, I have struggled under the burden of setting you up to succeed and reach your full potential in a world and education system that seems hell bent on setting you up to fail.
While I know that college is not for everyone, I can’t help but ask myself where other than a university would your uniquely gifted mind be appreciated or enabled to soar? And with colleges now requiring a well-rounded resume, and hyper focusing on class rank and grades for their admissions decisions, what choice do we have than to play the college admissions game. I know the game is killing you, but there is just so much at stake- what choice is there but for us to squash all your curiosity, creativity and happiness, and lay it all down at the alter of education and college admissions.
At some point this year you missed another important e-mail from a teacher, and forgot about yet another due date just after I had spent one more of my afternoons advocating for you behind the scenes. My frustration poured forth in a tidal wave of exceedingly harsh words spoken at exceedingly loud volumes. As always you were as disappointed with yourself as I was with you, but I know it has been my disappointment and harsh words that have hurt you the most lately.
I knew we needed a new plan and new tools, maybe even a whole new set of expectations. But more than all that, I needed my happy son back. That is when I reached out to a trusted counselor who could see things from the outside and asked for some help.
This is the same counselor who had helped me following Hurricane Harvey devastating our home. Even after everything lost had been put back together or replaced, I continued to struggle to find normal. I struggled to reengage with friends even though I had always thrived by being around people, and I struggled to reengage in daily rhythms and routines which had previously brought me such joy- I’d all but stopped reading, writing, and even making family dinners during that long dark season. Somedays I really struggled just to get out of bed, and I longed for the me that found joy in a full schedule and a full house.
I will never forget the day that counselor encouraged me to consider the racecar. After describing in some detail, the unique design of cars specially created to travel around asphalt tracks at extreme speeds, it did not take me long to realize he was describing me. He told me that cars that are designed to go fast are not designed to carry heavy loads. In fact, heavy loads prevent racecars from preforming at full capacity or with any precision or control. They struggle to stop in the pits to rest or refuel, and they swerve and skid getting back to the track until they reach their optimal speed. The faster they drive the more in control they are.
I got it. I was struggling to feel any sense of control because Hurricane Harvey had forced me into the pits. I was scared to get back on the track and start driving again because I felt so out of control. I suddenly understood that until I started driving (and driving at the optimal speed) I was going to continue to feel out of control. Once I gave myself permission to put my foot on the gas, the heavy loads left behind by the trauma and losses of the previous years started to fall off. I certainly still need to rest and refuel and occasionally there will be heavy loads needing carried, but it is helpful to think about and own the unique ways I was created. I was created to go fast, and it turns out that it is true that the faster I go the more in control I seem to be.
So what did my counselor have to offer me after I shared the joys and frustrations of raising a absentminded mathematical whiz? Well, he started by asking me questions. In response to my fourth proclamation that there is so much at stake, he says, “I keep hearing you talk about all that is at stake, what exactly is at stake?” I tried to explain that you can learn more in one day than the rest of us will learn in our lifetimes, and how there certainly must be some moral obligation tied to that. Even as I stumbled over my words, I realized that the only eternal thing at stake is your soul and the souls of those God means to bless with your gifts. All your gifts- your powerful mind yes, but also your kindness, faith, humor, creativity, integrity, and compassion. Then when I described our daily run-ins with boxes left unchecked and zeros in the gradebook, he asked me where exactly it was safe for you to fall apart. He helped me see that if I was the one who was setting the standard for your success, then you would have nowhere safe to go when you failed to meet unreasonable standards. And since life tends to be full of seasons of failure, he encouraged me to let the world set the standards for success and let home be a safe place for you to learn, grow, fail, and succeed. Then when I told him that I am looking forward to a day when I can just be your mom again, he asked me what exactly it might look like for me to just be your mom in this season. I thought back to the hours we used to spend playing nerdy board games, discussing your latest theories or computer programs, snuggling up to a good movie or book, or laughing at some silly meme or video. I thought back to the hours you used to spend just being quiet, unable to share your theories with me or even write them down because there were not yet words or equations to express them adequately. I’d beg you to give me just a glimpse of your thoughts, but until they were more fully realized I’d have to just let you be. There has simply been no time to learn, create, or to just be while getting through school.
Then it hit me- you are no racecar, Cade. You are not even a streetcar! I think son that you might be an excavator. Of course, I only know what an excavator is because (when you went through your transportation obsession as a toddler) you corrected me once as I pointed to one and exclaimed “look- tractor”. You are one slow moving, deep digging, powerful machine- created not to travel large distances at high speeds, but rather created to settle into one place and dig around a while. No wonder we both have felt so out of control this year. Here I am trying to reach my optimal speed while dragging this big heavy excavator around my racetrack. We are both exhausted and dizzy from doing things that we were not designed to do.
I am eager for you to walk across that stage next month and receive that piece of paper that declares you finished with high school. Not because it will say anything about your value as a person, but because it will mean that you can stop checking boxes and get back to thinking, puzzling, learning, and creating. You can get back to what you were created to do- digging! We have all agreed that there is no hurry and for now college can wait. Or maybe God’s plan for you does not include college at all. You have been offered a paid position as a researcher at Rice University starting this summer, and maybe you will have time for a class or two in subjects you enjoy. My only concrete plan this next year is to be your mom- to talk, learn, read, play, and laugh together, and to watch with pride as you wonder and wander, grow and create, fail and succeed in the safety of our home.
Over a decade ago your Daddy easily let go of his hopes of playing sports with his son once he realized that you were not created for that, and he began instead to engage, encourage, and even celebrate your love of outer space and all things math and science. Today I am letting go of my hopes of you being a speedy racecar like me, and embracing instead the fearful and wonderful design of my deep digging excavator.
Thank you for being so full of grace for your momma as she too is still learning, growing, failing, and succeeding.
I feel sorry for everyone who has never discovered the intense magic and utter delight of a soak in a hot bath. There is nothing for me this side of heaven that quite compares to the sensation that spreads as I sink down and let the water engulf me. And then even after the initial sensation subsides, I feel refreshed as my adrenaline levels are reset and the surface worries of the day are washed away. My mind begins to process all the burdens, conflicts, happinesses, and joys that have been keeping me rushing around. It is also a chance to focus on all the things in life that really matter…that is until one of the things in life that really matters come crashing into my bathroom with a new crisis that needs solved, a new creation that must be shared, plans that need approved, or just to ask me if I know where they might have left their shoes. The same conversations will often follow.
“Mom, how many baths are you going to take today? Are you almost done?”
“5 more minutes, and I’ll be out.”
“Please hurry, this is important.”
And depending on how many baths I have already had that day or how many thoughts and worries need processed and washed away, I might respond with a bellowing declaration that “THIS IS IMPORTANT TOO” or I might grab a towel and tell you I am on my way even as you continue to knock.
Just yesterday you found me lost in my haven, and after I asked you to leave me alone, you once again reminded me that “baths are disgusting.”
Oh Hallie, you of all my children could benefit from finding a haven of your own. I say this because you of all my children are the most like your mother. It is perhaps one of the reasons that we have such a deep understanding of one another, while at the same time such little patience for one another.
I admit that I am often harder on you than I am on your siblings. I do see so much of myself in you, for better and for worse. Many of your personality traits, your gifts, and your passions I am beyond proud to claim as being passed down from my side of the family tree, but many of your struggles and weaknesses were no doubt also from my genetic line. There is something insufferable about seeing your own weaknesses and quirks reflected back to you in the form of one of your children, and there is something deep in me that longs for you not to struggle in all the same ways I continue to struggle even to this day.
Yesterday when you interrupted my bath, I was in the depths of self-reflection. And when you urgently demanded my attention only to once again ask a question that you had previously asked (hoping that this time you would get a different answer), I was moved to realize that I too was once again asking God questions that He has already answered for me. We really are cut from the same cloth my child.
Of all the things that I should like to keep you from struggling with, I should like to keep you from struggling to believe that what God says about you is true. I want you to have a deep abiding knowledge that you are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, meant to be a gift to other people, and meant to reflect the glory of your Maker. I long for you to fully embrace your uniqueness from the tips of your toes to the tops of your nose.
If you ever do decide to try a bath, I don’t mind sharing the tub in my bathroom that Daddy had built just for me, as long as you clean it when you are done! As you lay there be sure to look out that small window that was perfectly placed to provide total privacy while also giving me a peek into our back yard. In that tiny frame is a world of treetops that I have come to know intimately.
Right there in the front is the Sycamore tree that your Daddy and I planted not long after we moved in. We were told by many that we would regret ever planting it as it is generally regarded by most as too large and too messy. In fact, the reason that we chose the tree is because of its extremely fast growth, promising that we would be able to enjoy its shade while our family was still young. And my how we have enjoyed the shade and the beauty of our Sycamore Tree over the last decade.
Those treetops I’ve explored during my baths have taught me many things, but most importantly I’ve learned that people are a lot like trees. I am still learning to accept and love my kind of tree, our kind of tree perhaps.
I believe we are the Sycamore trees Hallie. For starters we are big (in personality and passion) and, we make a lot of mess (both literally and figuratively). Known to be one of the most identifiable and distinguishable trees means of course that we do not get lost in a forest, but rather tend to stand out in the crowd even at times when we desperately desire to fit in. And no doubt, middle school (that insufferable season you find your self in at the moment) is a place where there is no space allowed for those of us who do not fit in.
Sycamores are an unusual and quirky species. They change with the seasons and they change quickly. I think that’s what some would regard as unpredictable and impulsive, but I’d rather like to think of it as spontaneous and creative. Sycamores produce huge, beautiful, and interesting leaves and unusual pendulous fruit that hangs on barren branches through the winter waiting to drop in the spring. Once the leaves have all fallen to the ground, Sycamores may look dead for much of the rest of the year, especially due to the fact that they also shed layers of bark as they grow, magnifying their unique unkempt appearance much of the year. And to be certain, Sycamores are the only trees that shed. The flakes of brown, grey, and green bark fall off revealing what lays beneath the scaly peeling surface, which is a tender, smooth layer, white like ivory. Sycamores are actually known as The Ghost Tree because of the appearance of death in the winter against the backdrop of the rest of the forest.
But just as suddenly as our leaves and bark fall off, we will once again burst forth in rapid growth showing outward evidence of the life that has always been inside. We briefly produce inconspicuous flowers in the Spring, but no one remembers those in comparison to the unusual quality of our massive leaves, crooked branches, peeling bark, and hanging fruit. I do sometimes wish people would notice the flowers hidden beneath the mess, but I’ve learned to be content knowing that the Creator sees them; that He glories in them but no more than He glories in my leaves, branches, bark, and fruit.
There are not many climates that the Sycamore can thrive in or even survive in, and we deeply feel the impact of the wind and the rain in ways that other trees do not. We are soft on the inside becoming more and more hollow with age. We allow birds, bats, insects, owls, and even bears to burrow into our hearts and find shelter within. Our sap can be a source of clean water for the passerby that needs refreshed, and many find nourishment in our leaves and fruit. The impact we have in the lives of others is significant, but as we give much of ourselves away, it can often leave us looking bedraggled by the end of the season (or even by the end of each day). But we are a resilient tree, often growing back after being cut or damaged, and surviving circumstances and situations that would kill others. Then we just go on creating magnificent leaves and fruit, shedding our rough edges and providing food and shelter to refresh and sustain others that God sends our way.
You won’t likely find any fine furniture or wooden masterpieces created using Sycamore wood, but our wood has been used to make many useful things- a bucket, a cutting board, or even a canoe. We are simply too busy tending to the needs of others or flitting between the next idea or passion to bother with the fancy things of life. I’d love to be able to wear mascara without it smudging or white pants without getting them stained. I’d love to make it a whole day without throwing my hair into a messy bun, to have shoes that aren’t scuffed, painted fingernails without chips, or lunch without spills. While Sycamore trees are both soft and strong, their most beautiful qualities lie far within their hollow trucks.
If you look to the left of the barren Sycamore in my bathtub window you will see branches of the mighty Oak tree. While its growth is certain, it looks much the same as it did the day we moved in- steady, stable, and faithful. I believe that your father is the mighty Oak. His foliage is much less messy than our own albeit much less interesting as well. His changes with the seasons are more subtle and he almost always shows signs of life. He grows more slowly, but his roots are deep and his shade is refreshing both in and out of season. He is strong and the storms he endures seem to barely bend his branches if at all. It’s the best kind of tree to climb, and the tree in our yard where we have chosen to hang our backyard swing. While his leaves are smaller and more uniform than ours, they are predictable yet beautiful. All year long the faithful Oak tree provides acorns for the squirrels, invites the children to play among the branches, and offers his shade to both friends and strangers alike.
Still further out the window towering over both the Sycamore and the Oak, you will see the Pine Tree from the neighbor’s yard looking down in wonder at the trees below. She looks mostly the same in every season and even as her needles fall new ones are taking their place. She thrives in much colder climates where the Sycamore trees cannot grow, but she survives in any climate because she is strong and determined. The Pine is also faithful, dependable, and mighty but in much a different way than the old Oak. She wonders at the shorter trees below- especially the Sycamore who is so easily tossed about by the wind and the rain, and who seems to look dead much of the year. She wonders why we don’t stay green in every season, and why we leave such messes in our wake. You won’t often find a tree swing or a fort in a Pine because they are so tall, and their leaves (usually called needles) might poke you if you get too close.
I’ve managed to get close to a few Pine trees in my time, and for the most part it is worth getting poked to be close enough to smell their sweet refreshing aromas, touch their sticky sap, and marvel at their unusual cone shaped fruit. I’ve also known some Maples, Weeping Willows, Elms, Birches, Pecans and Apple Trees in my time. Each one beautiful in its own way producing a unique fruit in season, but each one also perplexed by my peeling bark ever revealing a bit too much below the surface for anyone’s comfort. Perplexed by my asymmetrical gigantic leaves leaving messes in my wake, and my dark winters followed by sudden changes with each passing season, strong wind, or torrential rain.
I admit that I too am sometimes perplexed by my too muchness and too messiness. I understand how the other trees might mistake my crooked branches and hollow trunk for flaws, as I have struggled at times to see the beauty in their purposeful design. Like you, my teachers were always especially confused by the inconsistencies in my behavior and performance, and particularly annoyed by the distractions that I seemed to accidentally create. Daily I’d spill a drink, loose a pencil, or trip over my own foot. Sometimes I’d get lost in an idea and completely miss the entire lesson, and even more often I would drag a classmate into my idea and again be scolded for talking too much. While I knew in my heart how badly I longed to make my teachers happy and fit in with my peers, I was never able to quite figure out how to make my leaves smaller, my branches straighter, my bark tougher or my trunk more solid. I spent much of the first few decades of my life trying to be a little more like the Oak or the Maple. I even consulted with some friendly Pines who’ve encouraged me to stand straight and tall, fight against the wind, and not be so easily moved. I’ve tried and tried to be a different kind of tree, believing the lie that my kind of tree was wrong. But I finally learned that being someone else’s kind of tree is not only a miserable business, but it is also a fruitless one. I was created to be too much and too messy for some people’s liking. God meant to make my trunk hollow and my branches crooked, and every time I am tempted to ask Him to help me be more like the Oak, He reminds me once again that I have been fearfully and wonderfully made by Him just as He meant me to be. Sure He wants me to be the best Sycamore Tree I can possibly be, but He has no interest in me trying to become a Pine Tree or even a faithful old Oak.
Sometimes I am hard on you Hallie, because I forget that Sycamores are beautiful, but sometimes it is because I don’t want you to still be learning to love yourself when you get to be my age. I want you to see the purpose and beauty in God’s design for you now, and I want you to be the best darn Sycamore around.
My bathtub American Sycamore tree is not technically a Sycamore tree at all, it is technically a plane tree. To be precise it is a Platanus Occidentalis, also known as the American Plane, the Western Plane or the Occidental Plane. Here is what God says about His purpose for all the trees- even the plane.
“I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive. I will set in the dessert the cypress, the plane, and the pine together, that they may see and know, that they may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” Isiah 41:19-20
When you interrupted my bath yesterday, I had just noticed the very first bud open on my bathtub Sycamore- the first tangible evidence of Spring. The first sign of life that this tree has shown in months. It gave me hope that this long middle school winter that you have been stuck in, a winter full of isolation, fear, a pandemic, political unrest, injustices, racial tensions, conspiracies, divisions, and rejections- that this long winter has not killed you. Perhaps us Sycamores really do feel the burden of the storm more heavily than most. Perhaps this winter has seemed especially dark, cold, and long, but my child, you are not dead. Indeed, you are very much alive evidenced by the fact that even is distress and trial you continue to refresh others with your flow of clean water. In and out of season you give shelter and nourishment to anyone in need, and more often than not you notice someone else’s needs long before they ever need ask for help.
Perhaps you will one day find that you are not too old or too cool for soaking in a bath of your own, but if not I hope that you will find some means of processing and washing away each days thoughts and worries. After all us Sycamores feel many things deeply even as we willingly carry the burdens of others. No matter how long, dark, and cold this winter might feel, you are not dead, you are loved, and you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Go stand tall right next to the Pine, considering and understanding together that the hand of the Lord has created you just exactly as He meant you to be.
You are 16. A high school junior. In fact, you have just started the second semester of your junior year. We were warned that junior year would be brutal, and that right about now you would be ready to throw in the towel. You are no doubt just as sleep deprived, over committed, under nourished and overwhelmed as all of your other high school junior friends. A typical day for you begins at 6:00 AM when you rush off to Chi-Fil-A for an early morning study session before the first bell even rings. Between classes you continue cramming for an upcoming quiz, or you are busy responding to the never ending stream of texts, emails and social media messages from family, friends and teachers alike. During lunch you head to the school theater where you either have student directing responsibilities or you are busy rehearsing for an upcoming performance. I hope that you usually find time to swallow a few bites of the lunch I pack for you. For years I made you pack your own lunch or you’d have to eat from the school cafeteria, but that was before the demands of high school consumed your every waking hour. Nowadays I have no concerns about you not having enough responsibilities, and instead I now worry that you have too many. I also worry that you are not eating or sleeping enough, nor are you able to really take enough time to think about who you are or what life is all about. The least I can do is throw some food in a bag in hopes that you get enough calories to make it through another day. After school you almost always have additional school commitments- making up a test, a club meeting or most often another theatre commitment. Once you finally get home you will only take a break from homework long enough to join your family for dinner, however the days of you leading our dinner games or our long heated dinner debates have been replaced by your desperate pleas to be excused within minutes of taking your first bite. While I’ve no doubt that you love your family dearly, you simply have little time to invest in meaningful relationships just as there is just no time for you to invest in your favorite interests and hobbies- no more craft projects for me to clean up, no jewelry making, poetry or short story writing,no reading for pleasure, no more political and ethical debates or family game nights, and no more kitchens covered in flour and eggs from Kori’s gourmet cooking and baking night after night. And the only singing I regularly hear coming from your room is your stressed out attempts to hit the notes that might guarantee you a role in the next school musical. Afterall, everything depends on being cast and the competition is brutal. I’m not sure when high school extra curricular activities became more intense than most full time adult careers, but here we are. Sometimes I wonder if I am seeing your lifelong theatre passion dissolve into nothing more than overwhelming theatre pressure. Most of your theatre friends have been in private voice lessons, dance classes and have acting coaches on top of their daily tutoring, sessions with their college consultants, and test prep classes. I wonder how other families manage the price tags and time commitments involved, but perhaps the outside help they receive somehow lessens the stress and pressure they are under. Being that I was a first generation college graduate that started at the local community college, I still struggle to understand everything that goes into college planning and admissions. We’ve dabbled some in SAT Prep and voice lessons for you this year, but I have yet to understand the value they have added to your already stressed out schedule.
On a good night you will hand me your phone by 11:00, and turn out lights within the hour. I know you hate turning in your phone each night, but I am so thankful that you are forced to disconnect- even if only for 6 or 7 hours while you attempt to get some good sleep. Sometimes I wish someone would make me turn in my phone at the end of the day so that I too would disconnect from the onslaught of social media posts displaying your friend’s college visits or college acceptances, the school district texts and emails about the endless upcoming events and reminders, the news stories and blogs that tell me stress and busyness is the key to success, and the online shopping and brainless entertainment that allows my mind to disengage from the stress and pressure of the day.
Of course while just laying there in your bed trying to doze off you are likely worrying about GPAs, SAT scores, what to wear to an audition or school dance, college applications, future careers and of course cast lists. A day in the life of a high school junior in 2020 is NUTS!
I realize that I am painting a rather depressing picture of your life, when in reality you are anything but depressed. You are truly thankful for your quirky family and your large but close knit group of friends. You recognize and regularly express gratitude for the abundant comforts and opportunities you have been given both in and out of school, and you find a deep abiding joy in your faith- even in the day to day chaos.
But today, in the midst of the chaos I noticed something (or someone rather) that woke me from this junior year trance that we are stuck in. I saw something that took me back to memories of my own high school worries and chaos. Worries about getting a job at 16 to help my parents pay the mortgage, and worries about whether or not Dad would show up sober while often hoping he would not show up at all. Today I was also flooded with memories of the stories my own mother told me about the worries and chaos of her high school years. Worries not about what she would eat, but rather if she would eat. Worries about whether her family would be relocating forcing her to be the new kid once again, and worries about how she could avoid any one noticing that she was wearing the same outfit for the third time that week. Then I remembered her brutal junior year when she found herself pregnant and forced to actually throw in the towel, no matter how much she longed for a brighter future.
Kori, this morning we slept through our alarms, or perhaps in the rush of getting to bed the alarm was never set. Either way, we woke you up with only minutes to spare, so instead of packing your lunches I rushed around helping to get you and your brother out the door. As you ran to the car with me chasing after with water bottles, I promised to bring you both lunches to school later in the day.
In an attempt to supplement the fast food in your diet, I boiled some eggs, sliced a perfectly ripe avocado and a juicy green pear, and toasted a grilled cheese. Avocado still green and sandwich still warm, I walked into your high school expecting you to be waiting at the table just next to the front doors like you often are on the days I deliver lunch. But it was not you sitting at that table. Instead it was a timid (dare I say petrified) looking girl sitting alone picking at her school lunch tray. Due to overcrowding in the cafeteria, students often seek refuge in other corners of the school including the front lobby. In fact on this muggy January Houston day, the other tables and benches in the lobby were overflowing with groups of students laughing, talking and eating together. I could not help but notice her, and wonder why she was alone and what her story was. As I waited for you, I tried to catch her eyes so I could smile or even say hello but she was determined not to draw any attention in her direction. There was something tragic about the look in her eyes as she stared at the half eaten chili dog and orange slices on her white styrofoam tray. Something about that look in her eyes caused me pain and made me wonder what her story was. Was it much like my story? Or maybe it was like my mom’s story? Was she new to the school, or had she just not found a place to belong? Would this be her only meal today? Was she scared to go home or maybe was without a way to get home or even without a home to go to? I tend to think that she was not worried about cast lists or test scores. I wanted to ask her, to tell her that life would not always be the way it is today. I wanted to tell her that junior year will eventually end- that high school is really not the end of our story- that in fact it is barely the beginning.
And when you had still not shown up to collect your lunch after several minutes, I decided to move a little closer to her table in hopes that our eyes just might meet. I realized that some old lady’s attempt to cheer her up might be even more humiliating than allowing her to sit alone in silence trying to be invisible. So then I just started hoping that you might notice her when you finally showed up to gather your lunch. I hoped you might notice her and share a smile or even a brief conversation.
But alas you rushed into the lobby, out of breath from running all the way from the theatre. You smiled at me with your genuine grateful smile, and profusely thanked me for bringing you lunch. You were there just long enough to inform me that you were in between practicing scenes and needed to get back to work, but not without first telling me that you loved me. I love you too Kori- more than you will ever be able to comprehend.
I hope someone loves that girl the way I love you. I hope that she finds a place to belong. I hope that she will look up from her tray long enough to notice that there is more to life than whatever she is walking through right now. This is still only the beginning of her story.
And I hope you know how much I love you. I hope that you will forever remain thankful for the comforts and opportunities you have that are not common to all of us. I hope that you will be the one to help others find their place of belonging. And I hope you will look up from your busyness once in a while and notice that there is so much more to life than whatever you are walking through right now.
It is tempting to believe that life begins and ends in high school- that cast lists and score reports, college acceptances and event invitations determine not only our happiness today but our future success. Rest assured that junior year will end. Life will not always be the way it is today. High school is not the end of your story, nor does it really determine what tomorrow holds. And as CS Lewis once said “there are far far greater things ahead than any we leave behind.” Believe that, live it and share it with the stressed, the hopeless, the hurting, the broken and the lonely all around you. Lord knows that I am forever changed because someone looked up long enough to notice a floundering, lost high school girl, and because of that I found hope and a place to belong for all of eternity.
About six weeks ago you turned nine years old! Almost double digits! For months I had been planning to sit down on the 30th of September and write you a lovely birthday letter about how precious and unique God has made you. I even started it at one point but never got past the second paragraph. This should not come as a huge surprise to you since all nine years of your life you’ve gotten the leftovers and hand-me-downs, and you learned early on that it is up to you to keep up and make yourself heard! So is the life of the baby of the family- especially an eccentric, creative, busy family such as ours. Thankfully you have no problem keeping up or being heard.
So here I am writing some words to you on Thanksgiving Day which also happens to be the week of your sister Hallie’s birthday- it is not at all the words I have been composing for you in my mind the last several months when lying in bed at night. It is not the words that I have prayed for you over and over, nor is it the things I’ve treasured about you in my heart that my mind has not yet found words to express.
Nope- sorry to have to tell you this, but it is a word about your siblings- Kori Jane age 16, Cade age 14, and Hallie who turned 13 this week! And now that Hallie is a teenager, we are on our own kid. There are now officially three teenagers sharing a roof with us. That means we are surrounded! Surrounded by a swirl of activities and events, football games, school dances, parties, friends, extra loads of laundry, theatre rehearsals, SAT prep, tutoring, and mountains of homework. We are surrounded by competing sounds from various technological devices- tic tocks, youtube videos and Netflix shows- as well as the sounds of moods swinging, feet stomping, doors slamming and music blaring. In many ways it is very similar to having a house full of toddlers except the smells and sounds have changed dramatically. The music is much more tolerable for one, but the parenting hours are actually much expanded. They do have a bedtime, but it’s more of a goal and not a rule which means that the last words I speak before I climb into my own bed are often- “go to bed.” And the first words I speak are “get up- you are late!” There are the sleepless nights too, however it is not due to teething, croup, a wet pullup or a monster under the bed, rather it is due to wishing you could mend a freshly broken heart, wondering if they are safe at that new friend’s house (while tracking them on their phone), knowing they will make mistakes but hoping it’s not a mistake of the lifechanging sort, and praying that they know how much you love them even though that very day you spoke a plethora of words you wish you could take back.
I know that being a kid surrounded by teenagers is not always easy although you must admit it has its perks! Like the fact that Kori was not allowed to watch SpongeBob until she was 7 years old, but it was your favorite show at the age of 7 months! And maybe you are exposed to more colorful language than I’d like with so many of your sibling’s friends coming and going, but how many kids get to have a bunch of teenagers dressed up like the Descendants show up to their birthday party. So, you’ve never been to the weekly library story time (or been to a library at all for that matter) and you were not in dance, gymnastics, soccer and t-ball by the age of 3. You have however always had someone to teach you how to do a cartwheel, read you a book, kick the soccer ball around the yard, play pretend with you, go on a bike ride or snuggle up with a movie.
One thing that has not been easy for you recently is that there are a growing number of times that you feel alone in our house which is always full of activity and people. A growing number of times when you realize that being the baby is no longer enough to guarantee the attention and affection of your older siblings. I distinctly remember a couple years back on your brother’s 13th birthday when you burst into tears at the realization that he was now a teenager. One teenager was more than enough for you after watching Kori and her entire world grow and change. Your exact words were, “he’s never going to be home anymore, and he won’t ever want to play with me.” We tried to explain to you that your oldest sister has always been ready for the next adventure, and even as a child was always on the go. As she was growing up and becoming more independent, being on the go meant being busy with friends and activities more often because she had more freedom to do so. We assured you that while Cade was most certainly growing and changing, we doubted very seriously if your introverted brother would suddenly cease to be a homebody. But still there were and are changes happening in your brother- his body is clearly changing, his voice is changing, his interests and moods are changing and there are certainly an increasing number of times that his bedroom door is closed and he is not ready and willing to drop everything to play with his sisters.
The reality is that there are physical changes, chemical changes and emotional changes going on inside of all three of these complicated beings called teenagers that live in your house. And believe it or not these changes are even harder on them than they are on you! So, I have a few words to share with you sweet Lacey as our home is now being overtaken by teenagers. Afterall, I have a feeling that we are both going to need each other to survive!
Have grace on them! There are a ton of changes happening that we can see, hear and smell- we can easily observe them growing taller, stinkier and hairier all the time! But these are nothing compared to the changes we can’t see. Think about the happy caterpillar who is content to explore the safety of his little butterfly weed, happily eating aphids and leaves day after day while never once thinking about the world beyond. That’s what its like being a kid content to explore the tiny world that has been set before you, and never bothering to question what lies beyond the safety and security of the home where you were born. Then suddenly everything changes- the caterpillar finds itself in the most awkward and uncomfortable of circumstances- suddenly trapped in a cocoon and completely out of control, going through miraculous changes both internally and externally, having no clue what lies ahead or what they will be, and finally realizing that the world is much bigger than they had ever fathomed. As much as you want to spend all your days on milkweed journeys with your siblings, they are no longer caterpillars. It is not that they do not love us or the homes where they were born. It is just that they are in that awkward and uncomfortable stage of life- a stage where they are rapidly changing, constantly feeling out of control, starting to realize how big the world is and wondering what they will be when they finally spread their wings. True they are no longer caterpillars, but they are not quite butterfly’s yet either. And just as we see Kori Jane fighting to emerge from her cocoon and open her beautiful wings – we see Hallie at the beginning of her transition. I know it is hard to not take it personally when they appear to be ignoring us all locked away in their cocoons, or when they suddenly seem more interested in the world and the people beyond our cozy little milkweed plant. It’s hard not to get angry and annoyed when they respond to us in unexpected, unusual or unkind ways. And it’s hard not to be confused when they suddenly begin to question and contradict all the things that you continue to cling to with childlike faith. But they will not always make you so sad, angry, annoyed and confused, and I promise you that they still need us more than they realize and love us more than they show. So have grace on them Lacey-lots and lots of grace!
They’ll be gone before we are ready! Your nine-year-old brain can’t yet fathom how quickly years fly by. Your nine-year-old brain is not thinking about the world outside our milkweed home, or where butterfly’s go when their wings are fully formed and strong enough to fly. My 40 something brain is actually still struggling to fathom that in less than two years’ time the first of my babies will be taking flight. I still remember with clarity the day each of you were born. Kori Jane’s appearance into this world is one of only a few times I’ve seen tears in your Daddy’s eyes. When Cade was born, I immediately fell in love with that cone-head even as Daddy whispered in my ear “you just gave birth to an alien.” Hallie made her arrival 13 Thanksgivings ago and took us all by surprise when she came out a girl. And Lacey, the looks on your siblings faces the first time they laid eyes on you will be forever etched in my memory. It seems like only yesterday that you stole their hearts in a moment but in reality, that was nine years ago. Yet in nine more years you will be the one spreading your wings and taking flight. So let’s make the most of the years to come as together we treasure each moment- even the stinky, confusing, and frustrating ones- knowing that all of the moments are fleeting.
You’ll be a teenager before I am ready! And as much as I’d like to believe that my sweet little Lacey Bug will never need deodorant, wear a bra, take drivers ed or the SAT, be embarrassed by her mom or roll her eyes in disgust at Daddy’s rules, the reality is that you will be one of those alien teenagers long before I am ready. Before we know it, you will begin growing wings of your own. You will feel awkward and out of control and you will need grace- lots and lots of grace. Ideally, we will have made most of our parenting mistakes on your siblings, but realistically we will just be too tired to reinforce all the same rules. I just hope when that time comes that you will remember that you need me more than you know, and that I love you more than you can possibly imagine.
Don’t forget to have grace on me! If you think that having teenage siblings is hard, just wait until you have teenage children. You feel things you have never felt before- you hurt in ways you have never hurt and experience a deep joy you never knew possible. Some days you want to kill them and the very next day you are begging God to keep them alive. You helplessly watch them learn things the hard way and fight the urge to help them struggle out of the cocoon. You find yourself saying and doing all the things you swore you’d never say or do when you became a mom. And then you wish you could take half those things you have said or done back. It’s hard and the very hardest part is yet to come. So have grace on me Lacey as I watch your siblings learn to fly. Have grace on me when they start flying away and have grace on me when I’m not quite ready to let you spread your own wings and fly away one day.