It is one thing to choose less for oneself. It is another thing entirely to make that same choice for your children.
We always want more for our children. More than we had. More than we are.
What kind of parent holds their child’s small hand and walks in the direction of less?
In some ways we have chosen less. We try (and fail, and try again) to choose less noise, less hurry, less stuff. We choose fewer activities, fewer commitments, fewer toys.
We limit sugar and entertainment (which, paradoxically, makes apple cider doughnuts sweeter and family movie night more fun).
But, mostly, and perhaps most significantly, less is chosen for us.
There is never enough money and there is never enough time for all that I want for my kids.
Yes, I want sewing lessons and music lessons and art lessons. Yes, I want a pool pass and movie tickets and restaurant meals. But I have four children and limited funds, and I say “no” a lot because “no” is the only thing I can say.
When I choose less for myself, I must trust in God’s provision. His protection. His presence. Yet I seem to believe that I am meant to be God for my children. As if I am the one who provides. As if I am the one who protects.
But my provision is faulty. My protection imperfect. Even when present I give myself with impatience rather than love.
Yet I would fill all those gaps with more. I would build a high wall – made of stuff and experiences and extra curricular activities – in order to launch my children into a future I cannot even begin to see.
It turns out that having less to give requires letting go.
Having let go, having placed my children in the hands of the only provider and protector, the one who has secured a future for each of them, I am freed of so much fear.
I am released to love them. Freed, even, to give good gifts without worrying that I must give every gift.
Living with less where our children are concerned might sound peaceful. It might sound idyllic. And, at times, it is.
Without the pool pass, there is the creek and the slip ‘n slide. Because of severe food allergies, there is more made-from-scratch food enjoyed together around our own table.
But often it feels as if we are jagged pebbles tossed together in one of those toy rock tumblers.
We cannot escape one another (because there are fewer camps and activities to take us in different directions).
We cannot stop hurting each other (perhaps because we are bored, or because we are not distracted by a screen, or because we are human).
This, then, is my prayer, this is my hope: that through constraints and tears and a thousand petty squabbles, we are becoming gems.
He stood, leaning on a shovel, taking a break from digging out tree roots in my neighbor’s yard. He was on one side of the split-rail fence. I was on the other. He looked past my shoulder, watching the chickens scratch and peck.
He said, “I like your chickens. Your home. It is like my country. It is like my home in Mexico.”
He’d been in our home for days. He and his team. Drilling holes. Snaking pipes behind plaster walls. Jonathan told me later what he said as they stood, talking, out in the yard.
He said, “Your home is so peaceful. It reminds me of my country. It reminds me of Vietnam.”
I doubt that a red-brick farmhouse in Pennsylvania looks like Mexico. It seems unlikely to me that it looks anything like Vietnam. But there is something about this house on a hilltop. This old house with its gardens and chickens and songbirds. Something about it whispers Peace. Something about it sings Home.
Most miraculous of all, to me at least, is that the whispers are louder than the noise of my four children (or my own responses to those children). Louder than brothers fighting or toddlers tantrum-ing.
Whispers so loud, so insistent, they make grown men pause. And remember.
And dream of home.
As long as Jonathan and I have been making homes together (whether a tiny apartment, a city high rise, a suburban split-level, or a century-old farmhouse) visitors have said the same thing:
Your home is so peaceful.
I have heard those words with gratitude but also with detachment. Because surely that peace had nothing to do with me? It wasn’t something I created or controlled.
It was a gift. Always and only a gift.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. It is a presence. It is a place.
It has a prince.
It is a gift. But like so many good gifts, it can also be cultivated. Like soil.
We can slap down some concrete and rid ourselves of all that bothersome dust. Or we can grow tomatoes. Or flowers. We can sow peace. We can water it. We can watch it flourish.
Like gardening, it is hard work. It is a daily discipline.
How do we cultivate peace? In our hearts, our homes, our communities?
I think we begin by making room for it.
So many of us, myself included, live with too much. Too much in our closets and too much in our day planners. We see an empty shelf, and we fill it. We stumble on an empty moment, and we pounce on our to-do list. We feel some hunger and we rush … to the pantry, to the television, to the computer.
And then we wonder why our lives, why our world, is saturated with conflict and worry. Loneliness and hurry.
Peace begins with simplicity. Is simplicity the soil, the water, the sun? I don’t know. My understanding is limited, my metaphor possibly faulty. I don’t yet fully grasp the relationship between the two, but they are related.
I think they may be more deeply related than I have ever known.
I used to think that simplicity was a lifestyle choice. I am beginning to think it is the only way to follow Jesus.
Simplicity is the way of the child. The way of a rich young ruler who says yes and gives everything away. Simplicity just may be the door to the kingdom of God.
I have in mind a series of posts. Not because I have learned “Ten Lessons” or “Five Secrets.” It is only that I am noticing patterns in my past. Patterns that suggest it is possible to practice simplicity and cultivate peace with more deliberateness and passion.
And I want to talk about that here. With you.
I am more than a little bit afraid. Afraid of the price I must pay to walk this way. Afraid of sounding preachy if I talk about it.
But I am also hopeful. Excited, even. Simplicity is as heavy as a cross on my shoulder. But the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of the prince of peace, is an upside-down kingdom. And that heavy burden?
It is the light yoke, the easy burden of freedom.
I grew up in Texas. In that place, it is possible to be surprised by spring. A river of bluebonnets might bubble up overnight. A heatwave might suddenly stake its claim on a handful of early February days.
Here, among rolling Pennsylvania hills, spring is never a surprise.
We wait so long for spring, and its coming is so slow, that no change appears without being watched from a great distance and for a long while. The view from my office window today is as brown and bleak as ever, but for days, weeks, even, I have watched the buds on the forsythia swell.
The snowdrops in the lawn do tend to pop up without warning, but no sooner have I noticed them than my two-year-old daughter has flattened the whole patch with one pink, rubber boot.
Observing a northern spring, I realize how small a great, new beginning can be. I dream of spring all winter, but the dream comes true only in fits and starts. In much waiting and a great deal of work with shovels, rakes, and pruners.
I once dreamed of becoming a mother, but the dream was realized in sleepless nights and temper tantrums (hers and mine).
I once dreamed of a farmhouse home, and the dream came true as we cleared hornet nests from behind every window shutter and poison ivy from every fence and tree.
I once dreamed of becoming a writer, and that dream came true through the slow, daily accumulation of words.
But dreams are like spring.
There will always be some moment of joyful recognition. Some moment when the dream drifts down around you. Light, like dandelion fluff, but real enough to see and touch.
Perhaps when the baby says I love you. When a friend says your home is so peaceful. Or, maybe, when you read the proposed back-cover copy for your book and burst into tears. Because, for the first time, the book with your name on it sounds, even to you, like a good book. Like the kind of book you would love.
It is like the moment when the magnolia opens its first pink blooms. It won’t matter then that I’ve been studying those gray buds all winter. It won’t matter that I noticed the first narrow edge of pink weeks ago.
I have lived enough springs to know that I will always greet that moment with astonishment.
On the Friday after Christmas we piled our over-stimulated, over-sugared children into the car and drove. We were chasing peace and quiet down the backroads, and we found it.
The three-year-old had fallen asleep and the big kids in the backseat had stopped pinching each other when we drove straight into a flock of children.
Startled, I noticed a one-room Amish school on the top of the hill to our right. The schoolday had just ended.
Slowly our car parted a sea of boys in straw hats. Next, we inched our way past a dozen little girls circling the tall figure of their teacher.
One tiny girl with a heart-shaped face tilted her black bonnet to flash a smile through my window. She gave a little jump and waved both hands in greeting. The wind caught her cloak, and I saw a flash of its royal blue lining.
She looked so much like a little bird.
Our car moved on, but I kept thinking how vulnerable they seemed. All those small children flitting like birds on the edge of the road.
I turned back to look again at my own little birds, two of them sleeping, two of them staring outside at the passing farms.
I’m not sure I would have given it much more thought, but Sandy Hook is branded on our hearts, and I can’t stop seeing the flashing blue of that little girl’s wings.
How do we keep them safe?
It wasn’t that long ago evil invaded a classroom of Amish children (did those girls also skip and smile like little birds?).
Some say our schools need guards with guns. I have no rational argument to make against that proposal. All I know is how much it hurts me even to imagine it. I love our public schools, but I don’t think I will ever send my children out to classrooms guarded with guns.
I want my children to live unafraid, but I don’t want them to find that courage in a gun.
When I imagine that Amish schoolhouse – when I see it again silhouetted against a blue sky at the very top of a high hill – I see forgiveness. I see love.
I see children who may not be safe but who are free. Free from fear. Free to love the stranger in their midst.
I have always said I believe love is stronger than anything. Stronger than hate. Stronger than death. Stronger than whatever weapon humanity will come up with next.
I have always said what is only now being tested.
Because now I send my children out into the world with only the protection of an old, old prayer.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.