The Archaic Art of Writing Letters

A year ago, we armed ourselves with spare change, loose dollar bills, and whatever other monies we could muster up from around our house, and spent an hour or two in the card aisle at Target. And then again this Spring I did the same at the National Gallery of Art's gift shop. Our aim: buy cards. We bought a birthday card for every member of our extended families and then a stack of "special" cards. We could have just bought a box of generic cards, but wanted the card itself to be as special as the act of sending it felt. It's December and as much as I want to complain about the lateness of a package I ordered a month ago that has yet to arrive, I am married to a man who works for the USPS headquarters and whose job it is, in part, to distill data about why packages don't arrive when they should. So I withhold my frustration this year.

Barely has our postman—whose name is Brendan—stepped up on our stoop before Harper has run to the door, barking, and shoving her still small enough snout through the mail slot in the door. Brendan always chuckles and waits until she pulls it back before shoving the mail through—cards, mailers, packages that fit. And then Harper does what dogs since the genesis of any postal service have done, gathers what she can in her small mouth and trots it back to me as if to say, "See what treasures I have brought you?" when, really, she has done the smallest work of all.

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W. H. Auden, wrote,

And none will hear the postman's knock Without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

I have been thinking of how easy it is to remember friends these days. If it weren't for my real life friends scattered all over the globe, I might have done away with any or all of my social media accounts more than once. But I love their babies in real life and am far from them in this life, so double tapping is sometimes the best I can do to say, "I love those chubby thighs and I love your new haircut and I love your kitchen renovation and I love your wedding and I love how your puppy makes you smile and I love your laugh and I love your taste in books and poetry and music and aren't you glad we're friends?"

But it is awfully hard to be real life friends when we're scattered so, and don't you ever feel forgotten? I do.

It is December though and Christmas cards aplenty come and birthday cards, them too. Packages galore, envelopes stuffed full, smiling families sitting still in a one in a million shot (Come now, do you think any of us believe that was your first try or your fiftieth?), letters, and reminders that we're not forgotten in real life. (Double taps and "likes" on Facebook don't count.)

I counted up the weddings I've been a part of in my life and there were more than 20 and less than half but more than a quarter of those have gone the way of divorce or have wobbled on the edge of it a time or two. It is easy, I think, to celebrate. But, a friend tells me this week, it is easier for her to mourn with than celebrate, and I think of the slowly ebbing stack of cards in my desk. One sent out each month right before another anniversary of a young friend's death. I want his mother to know she is remembered because to feel yourself forgotten is a worse thing than most of us can bear. It is easy to celebrate, maybe harder to mourn, but what is important is to remember at all.

It all makes me think of David's Psalm after he'd been taken by the Philistines at Gath,

You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? (Ps. 56:8)

Christmas is a warm and lovely time for many, but it is a hard and fallow time for others. There is no guilt in this, demanding that we invite in those we'd rather not, but sometimes the simple act of remembering someone who may feel forgotten may warm us and them more than we planned or expected. I cannot do much for those in Aleppo today, as much as I ache to, but I can give a meal or ten to families in Aleppo. I cannot hug or laugh until our sides ache with my friends like family all over the world, but I can love my neighbor and somehow my far away friend and drop a note or two in the mail. It's small, it's slow, but it's simple and sincere and perhaps it will keep count of some tears of the good sort.

 

It occurred to me today that if you don't follow me on Instagram or FB, you don't see my incessant posting of the pup above. She is my best friend sometimes and easily the greatest threat to getting any housework done all the times (you try making a bed, folding laundry, mopping the floor with a pup who thinks it's all a game.). She's thirty pounds of cute though. 

What the View of Delft and the Shepherds at Night Teach me about Watching

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 9.07.24 AM A few months ago a friend who had moved recently and was living in yet another temporary place, with not so beautiful views, posted an image on social media. As I scrolled through, it caught my eye and reminded me of another image, one I love and have looked at often. It was painted by Johannes Vermeer, who, cliche as it may be, is one of my favorite artists. He was called the artist of light for many reasons, not the least of which was his use of the camera obscura. Vermeer's command of light, shadows, and color was unparalleled in his time.

View of Delft has always been one of my favorites of his, though I don't know why. I can tell you a hundred things I love about The Milkmaid or The Lacemaker or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it's harder to explain why I love the View of Delft. I think it's the sky. It always reminds me of a scene from the film adapted from Tracy Chevalier's fiction work based on The Girl with a Pearl Earring. In it, Vermeer asks Griet what color the clouds are. She at first answers white, but quickly changes her answer to grey, yellow, blue, as she looks at the clouds with the eye of an artist instead of a bystander.

When my friend posted her image from a dorm room in Chicago, recently moved from across the other side of the country, in a new place, a new rhythm, new everything, she was trying to see the beauty in a downtown scape where beauty seemed hard to find. I messaged her and showed her the image from Vermeer, noting their similarity, and the similarity of our lives at present. Change is hard and what locals find beautiful can seem ugly to newcomers. The only antidotes for this are either perpetual optimism or time. Few of us are gifted with perpetual optimism, and so most of us must settle for the latter: time.

. . .

Yesterday Nate and I drove 40 minutes to a church many have recommended to us since we moved here. We could see why, we felt at home there almost immediately. After the service Nate engaged the older couple sitting in front of us and we talked for a few minutes. As we were about to put our coats on to leave, the wife said, "Could I pray for you first?" And she did. And tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. It was the first time since we've moved here that someone has prayed for us with us. It held the faint resemblance to something I loved—and missed.

. . .

One of the things I love about Vermeer's painting is that to us, it is still, a moment captured. But to Vermeer, it was in motion, perpetual motion. The water moving, the people walking, the ships docking, the scents smelling, the noise bustling. It was alive and not at all clean or probably very beautiful to the bystander. It was life being lived, thinking the clouds were white and the water was blue. But they aren't at all, are they? There are myriads of color here. Nothing is quite what it seems. It takes time and love to make this painting beautiful, just as it takes time and love to make life beautiful.

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I could stare at this painting for hours, but I rarely stare at my life here for hours. I want to get through it, move on, settle down, live in a home, adopt children, start our lives. Yesterday we had a taste of what life might be and what has felt plain white, turned grey, and yellow, and blue for a moment, a taste of what is actually happening in our todays.

My reading is in Luke 2 this morning, "And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." I have been to those fields in Israel and they do not look like much. It is a rocky region, set low in a valley, covered in scrub. There was little beautiful about the field, and even less, I would guess, at night. But these shepherds faithfully kept watch, not on the field, not on the night, but on their sheep. They did what they were meant to do, undistracted by the field or the night in which they did it. I want to be like this. The shepherds and Vermeer and my friend's photo reminds me that I can.

God is doing something with today. He is not wasting it. I remind myself of this often, every day, every hour. There is more than meets the eye today, and much more still waiting to meet my eye today if I will look for it.

Strangers, Growers, and Foragers

Writing a note to a stranger, even a stranger you feel like you know, can feel scary sometimes. Will I matter? Will they care? Will they even read it? Will they respond? Will they think I'm silly? or a stalker? Those are the questions that have gone through my head on more than one occasion. I've been grateful for the writers I've read for years and how they've responded when I reached out. One of my great sadnesses is that it takes me so long to reply, especially to emails. I wish I could give every single email you've all sent me its due response right away. Sadly, I usually take a week twice a year or so and just try to only respond to those letters, which I know might make some of you feel overlooked or unimportant. I just wanted to say thank you to you today. Not only for your words to me, but for your courage in saying them, and also for your patience in hearing back. That's all. Just thank you. Truly, some of my favorite relationships have come through writing. They are all a reminder that we're called to be is faithful to the Word of God and to the Spirit inside of us, but it is the work of Christ that reconciles and redeems. I'm grateful for the relationships He's forged with men and women all over the world with me. It's no small gift.

Yesterday one of those women gave me a birthday blessing on a Facebook group page we're a part of. It was from Lewis's Prince Caspian and I wanted to share its whole context with you today,

“Aslan" said Lucy "you're bigger". "That is because you are older, little one" answered he. "Not because you are?" "I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."

I loved that and was grateful for it. Part of growing older is experiencing more difficult circumstances and hard ground, but part of it is also finding God more sufficient, more gracious, more kind, more holy. I watch many of my peers cave to the pressure of the world to find themselves bigger or their views more important or falter on orthodox truths of the Christian faith, and I am heartbroken because there is a subtle lie being believed there, that their view holds to a more gracious and loving father than mine and He allows what has not been allowed for centuries. But that isn't the whole story, is it? We cannot let only our view of God's love grow, but not His holiness. Or our view of God's grace to grow, but not his righteousness. We have to hold up the whole worth of God, as much as our feeble hands and hearts can do. We find him bigger as we grow. It reminds me of the book by Ed Welch which has been very influential in both Nate's and my life, When People are Big and God is Small. We have to get that right, friends, and it's God's love and grace that allows us to stumble around in our pursuit of getting it right. I love that.

I loved this piece from A. J. Swoboda called A Journey as Old as Humanity Itself. If you feel restless in life, church, faith, or family, I recommend it.

My parents were lovers of history and we all grew up in a part of the country ripe with it. When it comes to American history in particular, I feel very well versed in it. I was grateful for this piece in The New York Times about being liberal and going to book camp.

I did not want divorce to be a part of my story, but I am the child of divorce and married to a man who walked through it (against his will), so I find myself gravitating to narratives about it. I want to grow in empathy, while still valuing the covenant of marriage. Jason Gray's words encouraged me.

My best and oldest friend arrived late last night and we ate pie in bed together (Nate is gone on a business trip). Today we are going to go thrifting and foraging for nature things. She has no fear, unlike me. We have always been the perfect complement of friends: she, outgoing and vivacious, me, shy and pensive. I love spending time with her because there is no one on earth who knows me as well as she does. For over twenty years we have walked through ten-thousand things together, and there's a comfort in it that cannot be replicated. One beautiful aspect of it is I remember years and years where I wished to be more like her, and as we have grown up, we have met somewhere in the middle, while still retaining distinctive attributes. We have rubbed off on one another in a rich way and I couldn't be more grateful to have the influence of her on me.

I hope you enjoy your weekend friends. I know I will.

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Buckwheat pancakes are an indulgence we all could use a little more of. Just saying. 

Here I Raise my Ebenezer: How this Discipline Buoyed my 2016

The gift of hindsight is a blessed one in the life of faith. A friend told me once that faith isn't faith if you can see where you're going, so the presence of Ebenezers in our lives is a proof God knew we'd need them. "Oh, look!" we can say, pointing at the thing God did back then, "We know He must be aware and present and caring for us now just as He was then." And then we breathe and walk on through the storms and circumstances of today. Hindsight vision, in the Christian faith, is always 20/20. It was with this expectation that I began a discipline in January of this year. When I began, I expected all the life-change we'd experienced in 2015—dating, engagement, marriage, moving, new church, new job, job loss, miscarriage—would begin to settle in 2016. I was wrong. 2016 brought more of the same, and much more difficult internal hardship than the external change of 2015. I look back now and see how God put this simple discipline in my path at exactly the right time and for exactly the right year. Never has there been a year of my life when what I would need most were small, simple, faithful disciplines.

In December of last year Ann Voskamp offered a free print-out of twelve verbs for the new year. Pursue, be, expect, give, and so on. You added the nouns yourself and so I did. I wrote out twelve index cards with twelve challenges on them and when the first of each month came, I prayed for wisdom about which one to choose next.

There were months this year, are still months this year, when breathing itself felt hard. Panic took ahold of my heart and mind, rendering me powerless against fear, insecurity, failure, stress, and sadness. I am no stranger to this panic and it was a close enemy of mine for years, but it has been far from me for the past six. In 2016 it came back with a vengeance and left nothing untouched. Normal, everyday acts become fearful. Faithful commitments have become difficult. Simple relationships have been terrifying. Much of that had to do with the instability of our lives the past year and a half. I have been afraid to move my feet in any direction, even planting them deeper, for fear. There's a lot people don't know and many have made assumptions about our direction, church search, the reasons we want to be planted in one home for at least two years, our desire to be out of D.C., and more. It has often felt like even voicing my fears brought more judgement and so it was just better to be quiet. These small disciplines again and again and again reminded me of the One Thing I could do today by the Spirit's help.

I don't know where you are or what kind of year you've had or want to have. I don't know how unmoored and unanchored you feel. I don't know what you're afraid of or excited about. But if you're struggling to pick up your feet, your head, your eyes, or your heart, this might be a small discipline you can do with the Spirit's help. He helped me this year. I tacked these index cards above three different sinks in three different places we lived this year and every day when everything around me was shifting and turning, I would remember and breathe and do what the card said.

If you're looking for a small, simple, easy way of pursuing stability in an uneasy world, here's Ann's post with the free printout from last year. Below are each of my cards, and how the Lord worked in my heart with the discipline on them. Feel free to read on, or stop now. I record them here mostly for my own benefit and remembrance, but also because I hope you are encouraged by my Ebenezer.

January

J A N U A R Y  :  Live with Less We were nearing the end of our savings account after four months of Nate's unemployment and no job on the horizon. Pinching pennies everywhere. I have always been frugal, but I had never had a mortgage or a husband to be so affected by our financial situation. Learning to live with less in every way pressed into me not simply with a budget, but learning to ask the question: do we actually need this? or have we just grown used to having it? Things like good coffee, craft beer, grass-fed meat—these were luxuries we just couldn't have. And we were okay. God was our provision, we would say to one another often in January. Not my paycheck. Not Nate's. Not our savings account. God alone.

February

F E B R U A R Y  :  Let go of expectations In early February, although we tried hard, the only job offer was in D.C. We bought our house in Denver planning to stay there forever. As we began to pack boxes and explain our early departure, I was mourning deeply in my heart, not only my own expectations, but others. It was during this month Nate and I began to say to one another almost daily to this day, "We can only be faithful to the Word of God, not to an outcome." We had many expectations during the month of February and I think it's safe to say not one of them happened in the way we wanted it to, but God.

March

M A R C H  :  Embrace Limitations March came in like a lion and went out like one too. We spent five weeks living above a stranger's garage on the edge of D.C. Everything was new and foreign and frightening for me. Nate was gone from dusk until dawn. We knew no one. Everything took longer because traffic was nuts. I was trying to learn the metro system. I was afraid of being home alone and was home alone all the time. We heard gunshots and sirens at all hours of the day and night. All of our stuff was in a storage unit in a dangerous part of town so, once again, we were living out of suitcases (less than eight months earlier, we lived out suitcases in an AirBnB for six weeks in Denver too). I felt my limitations in a way I've never felt them before and just had to learn to embrace them. God was teaching me to drop my expectations of what our life would look like, and put my hope in Him.

April

A P R I L  :  Believe God's faithfulness By the end of April, we had five different buyers sign a contract on our house in Denver and all five backed out with little to no reason. We were hemorrhaging money at this point and were looking down the road at foreclosure. Everywhere we looked it felt like we were being taken from, stolen from, and lied to. I look back now and know with absolute confidence no one had malicious intent, but have you ever just been in a place where you felt like that? That's what April felt like. The poet said, "April is the cruelest month," and for us it seemed true. I had to remind myself daily that God was faithful, and all that was required of me was to believe His faithfulness, even if I didn't feel it.

May

M A Y  :  Learn to garden I have not always liked to garden and have not learned to do it well, but a wise man once said, "If you work with your head, sabbath with your hands. If you work with your hands, sabbath with your head." So much of 2016 was me alone with my head and I knew I needed to just do something with my hands. We were still bleeding finances though, and even buying a small packet of seeds felt like an indulgence I couldn't justify. We did our best to clear out some overgrown gardens in the front yard and plant some little bits. I also went home to New York and brought back a plethora of raspberry plants, lilac shoots, and other things from home to put in our yard. We didn't know how long we'd be in this house, but I wanted to do my best to do the physical act of planting in hopes that it would grow some roots of another kind in my heart.

June

J U N E   :  Engage emotions I think I can safely say this was one of the most challenging challenges of my year. For all the writing about emotions and the soul and such that I do, I'm actually pretty terrible at engaging my own emotions. I fear being too emotional, or driven by my emotions, and so it seems easier to just ignore them altogether. Nate and I began seeing a counselor in June, though, because our first year of marriage had been so emotionally fraught with pain. In our first meeting, our counselor said after hearing us talk for a bit, "You guys are both clearly very intelligent, very smart people, but I wonder, do you feel anything?" It was like the floodgates opened in me then, and the entire month of June I cried. I'm not exaggerating. I cried every day. It didn't feel productive. It felt wrong. And yet it also helped me to feel period. I was able to start mourning some of the Really Hard Things from the year. I reminded myself daily that God wasn't surprised or ashamed of my emotions, that he made me and loved me.

July

J U L Y  :  Daily Repent After the emotional dam broke in June, I found July to be a month of repentance. Mostly to God, but also to Nate. It felt like every day there was another conversation about how I failed to communicate, serve, be honest, etc. He is endlessly patient with me, and always forgiving before I need to ask, but July felt like a mac truck hit me and I took him down with me. I think July was a month when I learned what a godly and faithful man God had given me. I thought I knew it before, but July it really sunk in. I was a miserable wreck.

August

A U G U S T  :  Give what I can with His help In August we were finally back in the black financially. We still weren't bringing in anything extra, we had sold the house, losing nearly 100k, but were able to pay off the debt we'd incurred to the penny. I knew we were able to breathe a bit financially, but I'd grown so used to not buying anything that the thought of giving anything away felt scary. God had to unclench my fingers around our resources again and teach me to give out of the grace we'd been given. He also taught me to pay attention to how our giving affects others. I think in western Christianity, we like to give anonymously, and I don't think that's always wrong, but there's blessing too in being able to rejoice with others when their need is met. This was a good lesson for me in August.

September

S E P T E M B E R   :  Do things outside September weather in Virginia was hot and humid, and I'd hoped to be able to do more outside in September, but with a puppy who can't abide temps over 70 degrees, my options were limited. I tried to sit on our back porch and work as much as possible, and walk Harper (drag Harper) a couple times a day. I love being outside and so this month didn't feel too different than other months. It was a good reminder to be intentional about it though.

October

O C T O B E R  :  Break bread with others At this point in our year, we knew that staying in D.C. wasn't going to be a long term plan for our family. Nate's commute is at minimum three hours a day, at least once a week it gets up to four hours. This seems to work for some families, but that, combined with the cost of living here and a few other reasons, made it clear to us that we couldn't stay here. We have tried to be faithful to open our home to new friends and make a place at our table for anyone. We've found it harder here than we expected, and I think a lot of that is because we and others know we're not here long term. This was a challenging card for me because I think it was the first card I really didn't want to do. I was exhausted from trying to build relationships in Denver and then leaving them, and now knowing we'd be leaving again, I felt like it just didn't matter. God used the presence of one family in particular here, though, to soften my heart. We don't see them as often as we saw friends in Dallas or Denver, but knowing they're here, and we love them, has been enough sometimes. What did happen a lot in October, though, is we had a revolving door of out of town friends and family. I changed the guest room sheets no less than eight times during October and that itself was a blessing. God knew this challenge wouldn't look like what I hoped, but it would still be a good challenge for October.

November

N O V E M B E R  :  Be unbusy After the busyness of October and the looming deadline of a big project for me, we called a moratorium on visitors for November. I didn't let email, phone, writing, people, or chores master me. I had two objectives, to finish my deadline and to love my husband well. I didn't listen to podcasts, read articles, read the news, read Twitter or Facebook. I didn't talk politics with anyone. I just kept my head down and worked. And at the end of the month, the world still turned just as faithfully as it has since creation. Who knew?

December

D E C E M B E R   :  Grow in peace We are still in December, obviously, but already I have been learning about the steadfast love of the Lord never changing. Our year has been full of transition and it has not been easy. I want nothing more right now than to be rooted, anchored, moored, and planted. My wildest dream in the world right now is to live in the same house for two years. Partially because we want to start the adoption process, but partially because I just want to be still, have community, build relationships, invest in and be invested in. But God has not unveiled His plan to us yet, and so all I can do is say, "God, You still hold tomorrow. Give me the gift of peace today." And it is enough, it really is.

 

When am I the Older Woman?

My birthday is this week. I will be 36 years old. When my mother was 36 she had five children. Most of my 36 year old peers have more than one child, some of them have children nearly out of their teens. I feel old and whether I like it or not, I am getting old. I notice it in a myriad of ways and places, aches and awarenesses. I know I am still a spring chicken to many, but this is the first birthday I feel older than I am, instead of younger. I think that's telling. Last week Jen Wilkin wrote an article on Ligoner on Mothers in the Church. I highly, highly, highly recommend you read it. As I mulled over it again this morning, I thought to myself: at what point do we daughters ever feel like we stop needing mothers? I sure haven't gotten to that place. I crave older women in my life constantly, and have a dearth of them locally in this season. This question led to another, more potent one though: at what point am I the older woman other women desire to learn from?

I'm sure there are some women out there who feel like they carry around enough knowledge for all humanity. Wisdom drips off their tongues and experience from their hands. I am not one of those women. I constantly feel a deep insecurity that I do not have what it takes to be a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter. And I constantly want leadership around me showing me the way, holding my hand, righting me, getting me back on the path, reminding me. I have always felt like a child and as much as this birthday marks how old I am getting, I think I will always feel a bit like the one who never has never grown up.

How many of my sisters feel the same way? I know most of us do if only because the number of women looking for mentors outweighs the amount willing to mentor. We all want teachers but none of us want to be one. Since I was a child in church I have watched mentoring program after mentoring program fail in churches because the numbers are always so lopsided.

The answer to my question this morning, "At what point am I the older woman?" is: today. Today I am the older woman. Even when I was 19 or 25, I was the older woman to a younger one. I have always been, and I will always be an older woman to someone. Aging gracefully means accepting not only the wrinkles and aches and experiences, but also accepting the responsibility of being older than someone else. There's no shame in that, even if you're 19 or 25.

I have always said to whoever asks for mentoring from me, "Gladly, willingly, but you must know it will probably look differently than you imagine, and also, you must recognize and accept the responsibility of mentoring others." The only prerequisite for preaching the gospel is knowing the gospel and even the most infant believers knows the gospel. And, which is more, the telling and retelling and refining of what we believe about the gospel is what gives the gospel feet and hands in our own lives. I know of no better discipline for the growth of the gospel in my life than the actual work of making disciples.

The other night in our Advent reading we read about the Annunciation, the incredulous news that Mary would bear the Son of God, even as a child-virgin herself, and how she responded, "Let it be in me according to your word." I was struck in that moment of her willingness, her submission to doing something wildly more difficult than her young body, mind, and spirit, could imagine.

I want to encourage us, sisters, with that today. Today, we are mothers, if we will submit to the age we are, and not the age we want to be. Let it be in us.

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(This is Nancy Hull and she has been my Mama-Nan since I was 23. She is the best example I know of a woman who throws age to the wind and mothers whoever comes across her path, regardless of their age or hers. I love her for it.)

If you're in high-school, find a girl in middle school and show her what it means to grow into a godly woman, going against the grains of societal norms, give her gospel language for issues like sin, peer pressure, body shaming, etc.

If you're in college, find a high-schooler who has no idea what she will encounter in the wild world of college, and how she can stand firm in it. Teach her how the gospel enables us to walk in freedom.

If you're a young mom, set a regular place for a college student at your table. That's it. She will become part of your family, hold babies, fold laundry, etc. She just will, trust me. Teach her how the gospel is hospitable, but also bids a man to come and die.

If you're single longer than you planned or hoped, find some girls in their early twenties who are sure their life is over if they're not married by 23. Show them how full the life of gospel-centered singleness can be.

If you're a mom of middles, go on over and rock babies at a young mom's house, just for a few hours. Let her take a shower. Embody the gospel by being hands and feet.

If you're married without children, consider also, some young moms who might need a friend, another adult voice in her day. Show her that the gospel is elementary and takes the faith of a child, but also grows into more than milk someday.

If your children have flown the coop, that mom of middles needs some reminders that her foul mouthed 13 year old isn't going to be that way forever (Raising hand. Sorry, mom.). Remind her again and again that the reality of the gospel is that it changes people, takes them from dark to light.

These are just a few ideas, there are a thousand more. Feel free to comment with ideas or how you make it work in your season, or how someone made it work for you. Lives are changed through the act of mothering, sisters. Go, and mother.