Letter #10: Advice about shopping

Dear Aglet,

I’ve noticed two attitudes toward shopping: in one view, it’s a fun, recreational activity; in the other, shopping is a cringe-inducing, groan-worthy chore to be gotten out of the way with as soon as possible.

I’m somewhere between the two extremes; I act like I have the second attitude because I suspect I inwardly have the first one and I don’t want to admit it. Any shopping spree tendencies I have, I actively suppress. Repress. Squash.

(This is mostly because I hobnob with Job’s proverbial turkey, as will you unless your parents do something extraordinary. I’ve got no plans to be a business tycoon or a world dictator, so you, Aglet, will probably start out your life without much excess.)

Both kinds of people, curiously enough, are prey to the same trap of impulse buying. The first sort does it out of a desire to have the thing–whatever it may be–and there is pleasure in obtaining it, so there, they’ve bought it. Dangerous habit, maybe, unless you’ve got plenty of funds to spend without thinking through what you buy.

But the other sort of person might do the exact same thing, just for a different reason! I’ve seen it and done it myself, Aglet. You finally succeed in dragging yourself to the store for some long-contested necessity, and then one of two things happens: either you spend as much time as you can, comparing price and quality and agonizing over the perfect, thriftiest choice; or you scan around for the nearest, cheapest thing that will fit the bill.
Depends on the day.

And then you just…buy it. You probably don’t go home to think about it first, because that would mean coming back up later and shopping again. And when you finally take the thing to the counter and it rings up and IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ON SALE LIKE THE PRICE TAG SAID IT WAS, you probably don’t contest it, because like whatever, just get me out of this place.

And that’s where you have GOT to strike a balance between the two extremes, Aglet (talking more to myself here). You MUST choose between saving your money and saving your pride. The silly part of your brain is going to tell you, “Now, Jo, just man up, tough it out, and pay the extra money.” But Don’t You Listen, Son.

The person who rationally thinks through “I have this much money set aside for this, and I can’t afford to just buy something on impulse” will probably make herself motion to the cashier and ask to put the thing–whatever it is–back. And it will not feel good, or cool, or adult-y.

It’ll probably feel cheap, and miserly, and OH-My-Goodness-It’s-Just-A-THING-Why-Can’t-I-EVER-Make-A-Decision? But you can handle it, Aglet, and the next morning will be a new morning, and you can try again to find whatever-the-thing-was-that-you-needed.

And (cross your fingers), maybe you won’t have buyer’s remorse.

So here are two practical pieces of advice about finances–and they’re pretty much the only assets I have to give you, so far, so listen up:

  1. Decide whether you care more about (a) taking care of the resources you’ve been given or (b) avoiding feeling “weird” because you realized you can’t actually afford that thing just now.
  2. Ask God for enough, and no more. There’s a great proverb (30:7-9) that goes like this:

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches–
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

What I’m not saying is that having a lot of money is inherently bad or evil, or that you must take a vow of poverty to please God. What I am saying is that “poor” and “rich” don’t always mean what we think they mean, and a very little may be enough if, through it, you are reminded that it is God who provides what you need.

You may be given lots of money to take care of, Aglet, in which case you’ll need godly wisdom and a generous heart.

Practically speaking, a smaller budget (if you stick to it) might give you a built-in defense against your equally built-in bent toward materialism.

Love from your future (hypothetical) grandma,

Jo

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Letter #9: In Defense of Letter-Writing

Dear Aglet,

Let me explain something. I’m writing these letters to you during the tail-end (or maybe it’s smack dab in the middle, I don’t know) of a cultural shift from print to web. From handwriting to typing to texting.

Bookstores to e-books.

Cabinets to clouds.

Even noting this fact makes me a grandma, I’m so late to the game.

My point is, people my age aren’t writing letters to each other. It makes me really sad. See, I love checking the mail, because there’s nothing like the feeling of opening the mailbox and seeing my name on a good, well-stuffed envelope, which some nice person thought to send me.

[Note: we don’t necessarily count the nice lady or fellow who sends the bills in this group of people, however worthy they may be].

AND. And and and. What I love even MORE is sending such a letter. Oh, the joy that comes to this introvert when she has the chance to write down all her thoughts in a hopefully-coherent-but-still-poetical way and then bombard some poor soul with the whatever-it-is that gets written down.

It’s a lovely sensation. It’s so lovely that I’m borrowing from forty years in the future when you might actually be in existence, Aglet, and sending you these letters now. I don’t expect a reply–which makes it easier.

I’m also writing a dear friend in real life, and realizing how much patience is required in letter-writing. I had to wait to send the letter, and I have to wait a few days to properly imagine his opening the letter, and then wait a few more days to even begin anticipating a response.

I’m realizing how much patience I do not have.

But it makes it easier, in a way, to think of our communication in terms of days, weeks, and months, rather than the previous manner of hours and minutes, when a flurry of texts could be sent simultaneously. [In your case, Aglet, communication is decades away, which is at once delicious and terrifying to consider.]

Patience is a learned gift.

What a blessing, then, for someone who desires patience, to have a chance to learn it, and, I pray, learn it well! I love tangible things–even something as simple as opening a real mailbox, rather than clicking on a button which then does its code-y thing and redirects me to more code that’s been translated for me to read. The latter is cool enough, but my opening of the mailbox: that is the miracle.

To be reading what someone far away wrote down for me. To be able to understand without the aid of some other technology. To know that time was taken in the writing, and deliberation taken in the sending.

We appreciate what we think is worth waiting for. And, in the waiting, we have the privilege to hope–a peculiarly human thing to do, I think.

Sincerely,

Your Grandma, Jo

 

Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

I’m heading west with my parents and a sister–it’s my turn to drive and I find myself completely Hyped. Up. on caffeine, mentally penning a letter to you, my dear, future, hypothetical grandchild.

You might be tempted to think it’s because I’m bored by the treeless terrain of the Texas panhandle. Most people where I live say there’s nothing here.

But I find the nothing beautiful.

I love being able to see to the horizon, feeling how the land goes on for so long. And as the sky expands, growing bigger and bluer and wider, I feel my soul expand in a way I can’t explain, quite. I start feeling more hopeful, maybe, more at ease, than when my view of the heavens is restricted by the tall pine trees.

Not that I don’t like trees–I do like them (just ask my college president)–and I’m glad to be where I am, generally, but every now and then, it’s nice to go west and stretch a little.

I’ve inherited it from my dad, I think: the restlessness that occasionally comes and can’t be shaken off or distracted. Herman Melville prescribed for this rising of the spleen a good long sea voyage, but for my family, the cure is going west until the wonderfully desolate land meets the sky. Perhaps the two cures are not very different–both satisfy the urge to see far on all sides. Both calm, at least for a time, the crawling feeling of confinement.

I used to dream of living out here, of having a ranch near Saint Jo, Texas, where I’d live, hermit-like, in a small yellow house with a little dog named Joe Gargery and a big sheepdog named Chesterton (“Chester,” for short). The dream is still appealing, especially when I feel the impatience of loving imperfect people or the ensuing, awful realization of my own glaring flaws. Then the independent spirit comes upon me and I want to be off where uncertainty is gone and I can see with clarity.

I crave certainty, Aglet.

But when I am told what to do, or how to do it, I resent it like the wretch I am, and I prefer the former ambiguity. At least control my own indecision.

Paul, in his letters, said he’d learned the secret of being content in any situation. I think I’ve learned the opposite–I manage to be restless and discontent any time, any place. But I wouldn’t call it a secret or a gift.

Slowly, very slowly, maybe I’m learning that I’ve had many plans and many dreams, but that happiness doesn’t depend on them turning out perfectly, or even coming true at all. That’s not to say I should suppress all my desires and ambitions, more that I should be wary of where I hang my hope, and my heart, and my happiness.

I find myself in my early twenties and I’m thinking about what I want my life to be like, about what would possibly fulfill me, and I sense that the stakes of living a worthwhile life are at once terribly high and wonderfully low.

If I think that this is all there is, I ought to scramble to get all I want and make all the happiness I can, even if it only lasts for a little bit.

If I think there’s something else, though–something beyond this world and this life–it at once raises the stakes and lowers them. I would have more of an urgency to do what’s worth doing, regardless of how exciting it feels at the time, knowing that my source of satisfaction is in Christ. It would mean I could choose what I do and be motivated by more than simply what makes the most money, and yet my job wouldn’t be what fulfilled me.

And it would mean that your future, hypothetical grandfather (my “Mr. Mister”) needn’t be a flawless sort of Mr. Darcy in order for us to love one another or find joy together. It would mean, even, that I might never meet Mr. Mister and my life would still have meaning and fulfillment. I might go on great adventures and weather awful sorrows.

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

Sometimes tears come in the loveliest of situations, reminding me that this isn’t all there is; that I haven’t experienced perfect joy yet; that there is a longing that won’t be quite answered by anyone or anything, wherever I live. Even the open horizon becomes monotonous, and I grow bored with the same mountains that astonish me. My capacity for gratitude is smaller than I want it to be, and my appetite for wonder is really pretty dull.

It’s curious that such a yearning could be a comfort, or that a desolate place could be beautiful. Strange, that horizons bring hope, or that feeling so small could bring joy.

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo

Letter #6: The Power of Words and the Absence of Coffee

Dear Aglet,

Yesterday was sunny and gorgeous and I was glad just to be alive, breathing in the spring air.

Today was dark and rainy and I hadn’t had any coffee.

If local weather patterns and the absence of caffeine make as much of a difference in my mood when I’m a grandma as they do now, heaven help us, Aglet. Specifically, heaven help you.

Possibly by the time you’re around, they’ll have discovered caffeine is this CRAZY addicting drug (no way!) and they’ll regard my generation as the last of the foolish human societies who imbibed ridiculous amounts of this drug in an attempt to become as gods and work around the clock without consequences.

Maybe it’ll be illegal by the 2040s, and caffeine will be the drug of choice for business men and women, the only ones who can afford to enhance their alertness with impunity. Some poor menial will get busted Thursday because his eyebrows were raised too high during a boring staff meeting.

There’ll be a society formed to help wean people off their caffeine dependencies, full of men with disheveled faces and women with crazy hair, all horribly grouchy, attempting to function as normal human beings.

It’s in that age, Aglet, that I’ll tell you of the delightful days when was young, and getting together and drinking caffeinated beverages was the thing to do. My own parents got me started on it and thought nothing of it–how they’d just reduced their daughter to one of those weirdos who is bummed out all day FOR NO REASON except they’re tired, also for no reason.

There’s almost always reasons, Aglet. People like to blame sad days on the weather, or their hormones, or not having had their fix (of coffee), but I’m not sure why we can’t just sometimes have sad days and admit there might be valid reasons for being sad.

It’s okay to be sad sometimes.

There are lots of reasons to be sad in this world, Aglet. They have a lot to do with how the world is and how the world ought to be, and all the myriad of instances where that doesn’t line up.

I forget how powerful words are, either to lift up or to tear down. They can also wear someone down, through a consistent negativity that’s like clockwork in its accuracy. A thoughtless or impatient word somehow comes out faster and easier than does a kind word.

Tonight my lovely mom–your great-grandmother–noticed I was down and came to the college to talk with me. She bought us ice cream and told me some stories about when she was in college. Later I did some talking, and she listened, and I realized that the kindest thing she’d done was to notice that I seemed sad and ask me about it.

How often do I take the time to ask people if they’re alright? I’m not saying I need to badger people to tell me every detail of what they’re thinking, but if I had to pick a thing that’s truly worth spending time on, it might be in making myself available to listen, or speak good words to someone. Not out of an attempt to fix them, as if being sad is always a thing we must fix (often we don’t have the power to heal their situations), but out of a consideration for the person. Out of a love for them.

My mom needed to do taxes tonight, and instead spent two and a half hours visiting over some ice cream. And oh, how I love her for it.

Letter #5: A Small Yellow House

Dear Aglet,

I am writing a memoir, which is ridiculous considering how young I am and how far I have to go yet before I have any wisdom or experience or whatever. Somehow it’s more excusable, I think, to write about one’s childhood to someone who is younger, and a future hypothetical grandchild certainly fits the bill. So here you go, you and whomever is unfortunate to stumble across these silly letters in the meantime. Read, if you want to, the first chapter of a (hypothetical) book entitled “A Place Called Waldo: Some Essays About Growing Up Slowly.”

Love, your grandma,

Jo

Before I came on the scene, there was a young though balding man with a fiery red moustache and dishwater-blue eyes whose wife was young and trim and black-haired. She had brown eyes. Their house was nice and small and it sat on the corner of N. Methodist Street in a town called Red Oak. There was a porch, complete with swing, and the house was paneled a pleasant, light yellow. In the backyard there grew some grand old pecan trees, and in a small corner, a dusty, overgrown path circled a lovely mossy well. Lemon balm curled up over the stones of the well, and peppermint plants.

I don’t have much to say about the man and woman when they were really young; I don’t know what they talked about or what they did for fun. By the time I knew them they were the parents of four kids, soon to be five, and my father had lost a little more hair and my mother wasn’t quite as trim. Their eyes were the same as before, though. I don’t remember doing anything but playing in the yellow house; in the yard with the chickens; in the garden with the garter snakes; in the stinky but eminently climbable photinia tree. Playing, playing with my two older sisters and my brother, Tim. We made up all kinds of games, and all of them are a blur in my mind. The best and most dangerous game was flying.

My mom had, and still has, some knack for carpentry, and built not just a double-bunk bed, but a triple. Three beds were stacked with the three girls sleeping one on top of the other, Lydia (the second-oldest) probably a good eight or nine feet above the floor. “Flying” involved climbing to the top of the structure and jumping off with arms spread, until the unceremonious thump onto the carpeted floor ended one’s short, but thrilling, flight. Often my knees ended up braced under my chin, so that my teeth clacked and the breath was knocked out of my chest. The worst episode, however, happened to Lydia, then around seven or eight years old. For some reason there was an old army helmet on the floor having belonged to one of our grandfathers during a world war; perhaps Tim had been playing soldier. Somehow when Lydia flew from the bed, she landed in such a way that her head struck the very real, very hard helmet. I have a vague feeling that my parents put a stop to flying soon after that.

I have glimpses of life at Red Oak, mere flashes of memories, more like short, moving photographs than things that happened tangibly. A snapshot here, a snapshot there, of birthdays and parades and one, single snow day, which covered the back yard in an inch or two of easily spoiled white wetness and melted within a few hours. I remember that my obsession with candy motivated most of my actions as a four year old, and drove me on one occasion to eat every Milk-Dud my brother had hoarded so carefully, leaving only one piece in one of the boxes as a pitiful penance. When my father took me to work (a great treat), my time was divided into three occupations: weaseling candy from his colleagues; hiding a spiky rubber ball in his file cabinet for him to find later; and being terrified of the “dragon” outside his office. In one of the trees that scraped next to the window, there was a compact, black thing attached to a branch, which moved every so often and made strange noises which both frightened and fascinated me. I still am not willing to say for certain the dragon was a security camera, because how can one ever know for sure?

There was a church we attended where, depending on whom I sat with, I was bribed with candy to behave during the service. Mrs. Moon always gave Big Red cinnamon gum, but Mrs. Anita only shushed. You had to wait until after the service to get the good stuff, from the pastor when he stood by the doors with an offering plate full of candy for the children. There were acolytes at the church, who impressed me with their robes and responsibilities of lighting and extinguishing the candles in the sanctuary. If you had asked me my life’s ambitions at age five, they likely would have been two-fold: to be an acolyte and to eat candy. My favorite part of the service was hearing the grownups recite the creeds—it’s one of those snapshots I mentioned earlier. There are green glass windows, which though blurry, let in the sunlight in a uniquely Sunday-morning manner, and the pew is very hard and my legs can’t reach the floor, but my back feels the pew resonate with the voices of the congregation as they say the same words as they did the week before, in the same way as they did the week before: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

As it turned out, we moved from Red Oak shortly before I was old enough to acolyte (if that can be a verb), and we didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in the new church we attended. One would think the old rhythms would have faded over a decade and a half, but they haven’t. Snatches of creeds and liturgy remain: “…I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…come to judge the quick and the dead…” Recently I visited a church which had congregational reading, and while the words were familiar, and it felt strangely comforting to be speaking the same things as everyone sitting around me, my adult tongue was a little halting in its response.

I guess I’m not really old enough to be writing a memoir, if that’s what this rambling story is. I ought to be out living rather than reminiscing about what life was like when I was a kid. If this story is worth anything to me and to you, maybe its worth will be in remembering a long, lovely childhood and recognizing that endings aren’t all bad. I am trying to grow up now, after an awfully long time of not wanting to, after a great effort to cling to the person I was and the people I knew then.

Letters to Aglet #4: Take Notes

Dear Aglet,

Grandma Jo here. I can’t help it–every time I think of how the world might be when you’re growing up and I’m growing old, I wonder if you’ll still use pencil and paper or if everything will be typed onto a screen and stored in a cloud. That just sounds futuristic. Not that it doesn’t happen plenty now, but at least these days there are young dinosaurs like me who still do things the old-fashioned way. Well, sometimes.

Recently some classmates and I got in trouble with a professor for not having taken notes during a guest’s presentation. That got me thinking about why it’s even useful to take notes: why it is necessary that every member of my class jot down several lines of incomprehensible summary of the speaker’s life-story (wasting paper and KILLING TREES, aaaaah) when the reality is that probably none of us would keep whatever notes we took. All that paper would just be thrown away/recycled by those of us who care enough to make the effort.

Well, Professor argued, it would have looked professional. It would have shown that we cared. It might have indicated that we appreciated the time the speaker took to come talk to us. And it would have been a gesture of respect for his life-story.

SO, take notes, Aglet. Be professional. Take notes.

Also. When there is something that you want to remember, take notes.

Around the same time this whole professionalism-thing happened, I realized what a horrible note-taker I’ve been at church. I found all these bulletins with absolutely nothing on them, and then I found one–exactly one–with notes from a sermon that I had come back to again and again since the fall when it was preached. One, Aglet, out of two-and-a- half-years-worth that I might have had.

I remember admiring people who took notes during the sermon. Not when I was a kid, mind you–back then I just drew doodle and passed notes with my siblings. But when I was older and realized what a good thing it is to have a preacher who preaches God’s Word, then I would look over and think, hey, good for that person, writing this stuff down. I didn’t think about why they were writing it down until church changed and I was relying on my memory for things I’d learned and ways in which I’d grown. I didn’t have any specifics–I could maybe remember certain topics or passages my pastor had gone through, but most of what I had was a vague sense that, yeah, this man preached the Bible and I was thankful for it.

Except for this one sermon.

It’s on prayer, Aglet, and I’m not going to try to recreate the sermon for you (I can’t, anyway), but I’m going to write down on here some things that I remember because I took notes that Sunday. It’s more for me than for my future hypothetical grandkid, honestly.

It starts out like this:

The evidence of following Christ is bearing fruit, living in obedience to Christ (John 15:4-8). Jesus is the source of our bearing fruit.

And then I have written three wonderful Scriptures having to do with God’s assurance of keeping those he saves:

John 6:37. John 10:28. Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding in Christ is not the way we bear fruit. It’s the means by which God causes us to bear fruit.

What follows is a mixture of Bible passages and questions and applications and it seems that I personalized them somewhere along the way. So modify the pronouns accordingly, Aglet.

1. Be a woman of the Word (2 Peter 1:21)

-If it’s really God’s word, how does my treatment of it show my attitude toward God? (John 14:15; Deuteronomy 6:6)

-Let testimony about God drive me to worship God and live in Christ (Colossians 3:16)

And then I’d written:

“Oh God, help me delight diligently in Your Word.”

2. Be a woman of prayer

-Pray simply

-Pray humbly (Luke 12:32)

• God delights in giving us gifts because it glorifies His goodness.

• We come boldly only because of Christ.

-Pray expectantly (Job 38)

• When He doesn’t give what we want, how we pray demonstrates how trustworthy we believe God to be.

-Pray regularly

• We pray, not only when we need something, but because we find rest and love and satisfaction in Jesus.

The last thing I’d written down was something I’ve probably known most of my life, but that Sunday it pierced me like a lightning bolt and it was as if the news were brand new:

Christ called me before I wanted anything to do with Him, and claimed by His grace my wayward heart.

Write down the important things, Aglet. And don’t take for granted that you’ll always have a faithful pastor to teach and re-teach you the glorious Gospel. Don’t even take for granted that you’ll have weird, random letters on the internet penned by your weird, future, hypothetical grandparent.

Take notes, sonny.

Merry Christmas,

Your (increasingly strange) Grandma,

Jo