A letter for Noah on his fourth birthday

Happy birthday, buddy!

I’m so sad that I can’t be there today to give you a squeeze, and watch you open presents, and eat cake – no doubt with green frosting. It is missing these family moments that make me the most sad about living across the country.

All things considered though, pal, your mom and I have done a really good job of keeping up with each other. We text almost every day, so I know when you have a cold or when you’ve said something cute or when you’re driving her crazy. But, she’s really good about listening to you and FaceTiming me when you say you miss me. And I will forever love that her inclinations will run that way, toward face time, toward seeing her people.

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So, I can’t be there today, but I’m confident that you already know that I’m celebrating you from my tiny cube in my cold Michigan town. I’m going to bet you already know that you have been on my mind all day. I’m going to guess you already know that I’m praying for you today from a heart that is just wild about who you are, that is just so glad you are on this planet.

Noah's birth day

I feel a bit like a broken record, saying the same thing year after year, but it remains true year after year. You have changed me, buddy, in the best possible ways.

Before you were here, the last place I would have wanted to be was a four year old’s birthday party. But today, I want nothing more than to jam pizza in my face while you use my pant leg as a napkin.

Before you were here, I was not the one to wrestle on the floor, or kiss boo-boos, or change diapers, or give baths, or read books before bedtime.

But somehow, I have become a person who does these things. Better, I have become a person who does the things with great joy.

Every time I wrestle on the floor with you, or kiss a boo-boo, or change a diaper, or give you a bath or read a book, I think maybe I get to experience just a little bit of the delight we bring God. Because nothing is better than being in the same space with you, and I think maybe that’s they way he feels about us. I wonder if his heart fills the same way mine does when you crawl into my lap with a book, or when you snuggle up under my chin watching Octonauts, or when you throw your arms around my neck in a big hug. I wonder if he is thrilled to take care of us in all the little ways we need caring. I’d guess so because really, it’s just about love.

auntamber

Thanks for that, pal. For teaching me a little bit more about how God loves. I wouldn’t have understood that before you were here.

You have taught me to slow down, to hold my tongue, to be kind, to laugh with abandon. You have taught me that messes can be cleaned, that nothing is more important to someone than your presence, and that you can never hear “I love you” too many times.

You have taught me that when you’re really excited that someone is around, it’s okay to show it. And that when you’re really sad that someone is leaving, it’s okay to show that too.

You have taught me that when you really love someone, there really is nothing you won’t do for them.

Even the most not-kid person will become a kid person when it’s really love.

And we know, you and me, that we couldn’t be happier about that.

Noah_happy babysitting

As always, with all my love,

Aunt A

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Winning big

lottery tixThis week, my dad won the lottery. Not the $500 million Powerball, but still…enough that he had to take his winning ticket to the city office for his payout.

“We’re getting new cell phones this weekend,” he’s declared. I love him for his simple want, since he hasn’t had a new phone in more than four years and he just wants to be able to take better pictures of his wife and the dogs. I love that his loves are also quite simple.

This win comes at the time when my folks really needed a win. Dad’s been without a job for more than a year, and to say that it’s been a hard season would be an understatement. He has been hired for a new position, but waiting for security clearances from the government has been holding him up, so my parents have just been waiting for months for things to click into place. I’ve watched them wait well and trust God and pull together, but I know they needed a win. And I’m grateful on a soul level that they got one.

Because my parents are awesome in ways that I can only hope to be. They are generous, and welcoming, and wise. They’ve always provided well for my brother and me, and they didn’t blink twice when I had to move back in after finishing grad school. My dad showed up with his truck and he hauled my furniture out of my townhouse and back into my high school bedroom. My mom bought a new rug, and a blackout curtain, and a big red chair I could read my books in.

I have always known I have a home with them, and I have always known that where they are is a safe place.

They have always been my best cheerleaders and my biggest fans, and when I threw everybody for a loop by deciding to give up a career as a therapist to instead become a writer, they weren’t thrown at all. My dad looked at me and said, “I always knew this is what you would end up doing” and “This is what you were born for.”

My mom and I were chatting a few weeks ago about a couple of books she’s been reading, favorites of mine she thieved from my bookshelf, and it spun into this conversation about what we love about these writers, about church, about God, about each other. And when I thanked her for being so supportive and for letting me live at home rent-free and how glad I am to experience living with them as adults who like each other, my mom said, “This is what we can do for you, so we’re doing it.” And then she added, just a little bit teary, “We see God working in you. We don’t want to get in the way of that ever.”

Like I said, my parents are awesome. They deserve a win.

My dad and I were dreaming about what he would do if he did win the $500 million Powerball. He said he would build a compound somewhere with a small rancher house for him and mom and the dogs, and a small house in a different part of the compound for my brother, I’m guessing so there’s someone to shovel snow and mow the lawn. He said he’d build me a house too, more library than house, so I could write peacefully, if I wanted it. When he said he wanted this compound to be somewhere in Ohio so that my mom could be close to her sister, I said I love the house idea but I have no real desire to live in Ohio, so would he consider paying off my student debt. To which he said, “Absolutely!”

Dreaming is fun.

And while I appreciate the dream and the new cell phone, and while I think it’s particularly cool that my dad won the lottery, I think the big win is that it doesn’t really change our family too much.

We’re simple people with the simple want to take care of each other. And that, to me, feels like the biggest win of all.

Family places

I often tell stories about my Tuesday Night Bible Study. Not about the things we talk about together, because that is sacred, but about those women and what we have come to mean to each other over the years.

We’ve been Church for each other when being in the local church has been disheartening, and when we’ve wanted to walk away from it altogether. We’ve been prayer warriors when the days have been hard and the nights rocking babies or writing papers have been even longer. We’ve been cupcake bakers celebrating birthdays, and casserole makers mourning losses. We’ve cried and laughed and hugged, and have logged more hours together than we’ve logged with some of our oldest friends.

We are each other’s people. We are community.

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“When you walk with someone, listen to their story, carry their burden, play with their kids, that’s community. When you pray for them in the middle of the night because their face popped into your mind, when you find yourself learning from them and inviting them more and more often into the family places in your life, that’s community, and wherever you find it, it’s always a gift.” –Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

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Part gym, part reception hall, all fun.
Part gym, part reception hall, all fun.

The thing about being somebody’s people is that it means sometimes being in the family places means you are literally in the family places, like a wedding.

It means that sometimes you spend a Friday night hanging stars and laying out place cards with table numbers, helping to turn an elementary school gym into a reception hall. It means that you sit down with your friend’s Aunt Pat and you listen to stories about Buffalo, New York and growing up in the projects. It means you put on a sundress and a pair of flats, and you use your Saturday helping your friend’s sister’s wedding be an unforgettable time of celebration, making sure the champagne stays cold and the tea and lemonade containers stay full. It means you stay long after most the other guests have left, stacking chairs and taking down stars and mopping floors to turn the reception hall back into a gym. And it means that after your friend’s sister has finished opening her gifts with her new husband, you hear your friend when she talks about how quiet life is about to get now that her sister has moved out.

Because this is a family place, and family places are sacred. They are as sacred as the Tuesday night time we spend together with our Bibles open.

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I think maybe the blurry line of what is sacred is the gift of community, because I can’t tell anymore when I’m with these friends when one holy moment ends and another one starts. I think maybe God has met us more in moments when we’re sitting on the floor knee-to-knee talking about our days then He has in some of the forced conversations we’ve had following the questions in some book. And I know He was with us in that gym-reception hall this weekend when we mopped and talked and showed up for one of our own.

This is community. This is a family place.  And even if you find it in an elementary school gym, it is a gift.

For Beth, on completion of her PhD

Grateful we look better than we did in middle school.
We look better than we did in middle school, at least.

We went to Coakley’s on Friday night, a little pub in Havre de Grace that we both love, and she told me about her first week of classes, about what scared her and about what excited as she looked forward into her first semester as a professor. Over cold beers and hot pizza, she told me that she felt born to do this work, and that the blood and sweat and tears of the last decade were more than worth it.

The last five of those years Beth had spent working on her degree abroad, immersed in all things Scotland – Scotland of the past, and Scotland in the now. She wrote emails filled with stories about Patrick Hamilton and Sir David Lindsay and John Calvin, and about Andy and Claire and Katherine who were studying alongside her. And it all seemed right, like she was exactly where she was supposed to be – because she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

And from the Stateside bedroom in my parents’ house while I worked on my own degree, I rejoiced for her and missed her in equal parts.

When we got home from the pub on Friday night, we were met by her parents and a couple of young ladies from their church. And while Beth and I scooped ice cream for everybody and laughed at things no one else would have found funny, we answered questions about how long we’d known each other and told the story of how we’d become friends in the first place.

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She popped her head into the middle school Sunday school room and asked, in a voice too chipper for that hour of the morning, which one of us was Amber. I didn’t know her beyond recognizing her face as one of the girls in my mom’s freshman Sunday school class, but I affirmed that I was who she was looking for anyway.'farolero' photo (c) 2007, Eduardo - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

“Mrs. Patty told me you know the words to ‘Good Morning’ from Singin’ in the Rain! Can you tell me? I want to write them on the chalkboard in the other youth room.”

I didn’t sing them, but I told her the words.

“Thanks!” she chirped back, and she skipped back down the hall to the high school room.

And before church was over that day, we had a plan to get together the next weekend to watch Singin’ in the Rain.  Which, as they say in the old films, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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I think about the girls of that story, the middle schooler and the high schooler who couldn’t have been more opposite in personality, and I don’t think they would have believed that eighteen years later they would still be friends. I don’t think they would have believed the weight that their friendship would carry, or the value they would hold in each other’s lives. I don’t think they would have believed that they would become family to one another, and that their sisterhood would survive moves across states and moves across oceans. Or that as sisters they would mourn and celebrate, and speak some of the hardest and best truths into each other’s lives.

But, maybe that’s how it is for some the best things in life – you just don’t see in coming. And maybe the room to surprise you is a gift.

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So, Beth, this one is a celebration of you, and the friend that you have been to me.

This is for that way-too-chipper high school freshman who loved history and wanted to see other people get excited about it too. This is for the undergrad that found a place in academia, and found the way she studied to be worship to the God who has stood the ages. This is for the Master’s student who learned to research and write, and for the PhD who brought it to completion in a thesis she can be proud of.

And this is for my friend, who has had a dream through the entirety of our friendship and has seen in realized this week as she took control of her own classroom. This is for my friend, who is doing exactly what she was born to do.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Death Cheerios: getting the flu and being family

Thursday morning I woke up before the sun fairly certain I was dying.  Okay, not really. I had the stomach flu, but I tend to get a little dramatic when I’m sick.

Friday morning I got a text from the BFF that she and her hubby were suffering as well.  After a couple more messages back and forth, we concluded that the Great Infector was their one year old.  They live with him, so of course they caught it.  And earlier in the week I had sat in their kitchen with Noah while Jesse made dinner, and with her permission, eating Cheerios from the floor that had (probably purposefully) been dumped from his snack cup.

'Eli and Cheerios..' photo (c) 2008, Gramody - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Yes, I am that person who eats Cheerios from the floor.  But, when Noah’s chubby little fingers come at my face while his face is thrown back in laughter, I can’t say no.  It’s was after all just a couple of Cheerios, right?

Wrong! They were Cheerios of Death.  (And by “death,” I mean the stomach flu that passed in 24 hours.)

My parents and I were supposed to be in Ohio this weekend, visiting family whom we haven’t seen since my grandfather’s passing last month.  My parents left Thursday morning and I stayed home, fairly certain they would return from their weekend to find me writhing and dying in the same spot they left me.

By Friday morning, I was of course feeling much better and was happy to humor texts from my dad about how I was doing and offering full reports on who was being taken down by Noah and his Death Cheerios — his parents, his aunt and uncle, his Mimi, his Aunt Beth.

To which my dad, a man a few words, replied back, “That kid’s got talent.”

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My dad made another crack about the whole family being taken out by the “noahvirus,” and I laughed. My dad’s a funny guy, but he’s not that funny.  I laughed because good ol’ Noah took down his Aunt Amber because she was dumb enough to eat Floor Cheerios, and I laughed because it still makes me happy, after so many years, to be counted as family to these people.

Because this messy, flu-ridden, on-the-floor life is what family is all about.

It’s about people who show up for you with Gatorade and saltine crackers, who clean your house when you can’t pull yourself out of bed, who send text messages to make you laugh and prayers to aid your healing.  It’s about the people who hug you when you lose a loved one, and who cry with you as you process the loss. It’s about the people who’ll get on the floor and play with your kids, putting their life on the line for a couple of Death Cheerios.  (Alright, I may be a bit biased with that last one.)

And these people, Noah and the ones he took down with his noahvirus, and the people I couldn’t be with in Ohio because I had the flu – they’re my people.  They’re my family.

All of them.

So, what about you? Who are your people?  And in what on-the-floor ways are they showing up for you?

My buddy, my pal: For Noah on his 1st birthday!

Megs and I sat on the floor tonight, stacking Megablocks and shamelessly bribing Noah with animal crackers to get him to walk between us unassisted.  The rest of the family was in the kitchen, finishing dinner and setting the table, putting the last touches on the birthday celebration of our favorite one year old, who tonight giggled his way on wobbly legs across the living room, to me and then to Megs and then to me and then to Megs.

“And you were worried you weren’t going to know what to do with him,” Megs scoffed at me as Noah, my sweet neph-in-love, tumbled into my arms and I kissed his cheek, both of us laughing.

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Surprise!
Surprise!

I couldn’t have guessed a year ago the kind of relationship I would have with this tiny person.  Because a year ago, I didn’t know how to change a diaper, or size baby clothes, or break down a banana in a way that prevented it from being a choking hazard.  I feared I would drop him, or not know what to say to him, or generally cause him some kind of irreparable harm.  A year ago, I was worried.

The thing is, though, I had nothing to worry about.  Noah and I just flat like each other, and I know this to be true.  Because even on my worst days, when anxiety has kicked me into seeking isolation and I can’t stand the thought of being around people, I’m always excited to see him.  And because even on his worst days, when he’s tired from cutting teeth or having a cold, his face lights up when I come into his house.  And because even when he can’t tell me himself, his mom, wonderful BFF that she is, tells me almost every day, “Gosh, he just loves you so much!”

And while it probably shouldn’t anymore, the kind of relationship I have with this tiny person surprises me.

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We make toys out of all things! :)
We make toys out of all things! 🙂

Noah’s my buddy. He’s my pal.  And today is his birthday. So, this day requires celebration.

Dear Noah, today I celebrate you.  You are curious and eager as you discover and explore, and you’re reminding me to live in the world with eyes wide open.  You’re starting to walk now and you get up quickly after you fall down, and I suspect this will be a character trait we see play out throughout your life. And you aren’t afraid to belly-laugh when something strikes you funny, and that laugh is as beautiful a piece of music as any symphony that Beethoven composed.  You enjoy being in the company of the people whom you love, and let me just say as someone whom you love, there is no greater gift. 

Dear Noah, today I celebrate being your aunt. I was a different person a year ago, rougher around the edges and spread too thin by too many people and too many activities.  But you, dear nephew, have forced me to soften and reconsider what’s important.  Showing up for the people you love, and being counted on by them for support and encouragement and truth-telling: these things are important. Thank you for reminding me.  Thank you for teaching me that sometimes the best relationships don’t need a lot of words. The best relationships are the ones filled with kindness and hope and a whole lot of laughing. The best relationships are the ones that allow God to show up and surprise you.

Happy 1st birthday, dear Noah! You’re the best surprise of my life.

All my love, Auntie A

We don’t know the whole story…

Every Thanksgiving, I make the two hour trek from suburban Baltimore to the West Virginia home of my aunt to spend the holiday with my dad’s family.  It’s always loud and funny, and no one escapes the day without at some point being the punch-line of a bad joke.   I know this before I go, so I usually walk away totally unaffected, having spent the day with my family, who is as sarcastic as I am.

Usually.

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Aunt: So, we all need to keep our eyes open to find you someone. What are you looking for?

Me: [Eyebrow lift and silence]

Dad: Gainfully employed.

Me: With health insurance.  It’s funny how important that becomes as you get older.

Grandma: There’s a really nice girl at our church….

Me: Yeah, that’s not so much on my list of criteria.  Being a man is also important.

Uncle: Well played.

Grandma: Let me finish! There’s a nice girl in our church who met someone on Christian Mingle, and they’re getting married.  Maybe you should think about that. 

From scambook.com

Me: Those sites run $35 to $60 a month. No thank you.

Grandma: I’ll pay for it. You don’t really want to let $35 dollars a month stand between you and the guy you could marry, do you?

Me: So, we’re really talking about this, huh?

Grandma: I’m just mad so mad at him! Where is he already?

Uncle: Wow. Hasn’t even shown his face and already in the dog house. You’ve got to feel bad for the guy.

Grandma: Well! Nevermind.  He’s a slacker. You don’t want him anyway.

Me: [Eyebrow lift and silence]

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I’ll admit to contributing the conversation, albeit sarcastically. The reality is that I hate talking about my dating life (and I really hate other people talking about my dating life), and I especially hate talking about my dating life as of late.  Because I don’t like to talk about how I dated a really nice boy this summer and now we’re not dating for all sorts of complicated reasons that boil down to the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t know how throw his energy into getting well and a new relationship at the same time.  And I definitely don’t like to admit that I still think about him every day and pray for him constantly and hope (perhaps a little pathetically) for a someday reconciliation.  But, here I go admitting it.

Why am I sharing this?  Because the conversation with my family got me thinking that we don’t always know the whole story.

My family assumes that I’m not dating, that I haven’t met anyone, that there’s no one I’d like to bring to our holiday table.  And it’s just not true.

I am dating. I actually met someone that I thought about bringing to family holidays, but he got sick before that could happen and he’s pouring his energy into other things right now – like staying alive.  And because I was invested in that relationship with him and still care about his welfare, I’m not over that nice boy I dated this summer.

So, I’m DEFINITELY not getting on Christian Mingle.

And I’m committed to working harder to not make assumptions about the people in my life, because I don’t know their whole story.   And I want to give them space to tell their stories in their own time to whoever they want to tell.

Maybe by next Thanksgiving I’ll be ready to talk about who I am or am not dating.  But then again, maybe I won’t.

Either way, the space to NOT talk is definitely something I would be thankful for.