What I Told My Daughters

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God was always reminding the Israelites of the story they were dropped into at birth. The story that began long before they were born, before their people were even a people; the story that would continue long after any individual had reached the end of his or her life span. Old Testament scripture records those repeated remindings of identity, calling, and sacred responsibility, until those scriptures themselves became a perpetual reminder.

The New Testament writers likewise spent significant ink to remind the universal community of believers of who we are in Christ, of where our hopes are anchored, and of where our own little lives and this bigger thing called history are going. Apparently, our true names and stories are things easy for us to forget, to lose track of, to walk away from. Perhaps the gift of encouragement mentioned by Paul in Romans 12 is a thing evidenced mostly as a penchant for reacquainting folks with that main narrative and with their true identity in light of it—a perspective that dramatically alters how we experience the potentially discouraging details of our existences.

Sometimes the giving and receiving of that sort of encouragement happens naturally and spontaneously. But I would argue that, for most of us, it doesn’t happen frequently enough. It’s easy to let days fade into days while important things remain unsaid, sometimes until a loved one is on their deathbed and we suddenly feel the weight of that accumulated silence. One often hears at funerals words that might have encouraged the deceased had they been spoken days or years or decades earlier; words that might have named them and reminded them of their identity and place and purpose in the bigger story.

So maybe we should be grateful (even if begrudgingly) for those special days and milestone events that force us to step up to the plate (or podium) and speak those necessary and life-giving words that we might otherwise never muster enough “gumption” (as we termed it back in East Texas) to articulate.

My three daughters participated in a homeschool tutorial from sixth through twelfth grades. The tutorial families together organized annual graduation ceremonies for seniors. Much of it was what you’d expect from a graduation: the procession of scholars, the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the tassels and gowns, the commencement speaker, etc. But the core of the ceremony was a bit unique.

Each graduate’s parents would in turn leave their seats in the audience to ascend the stage steps and take the mic, while their child rose from their seat among the other graduating seniors and met their parents center stage. As they moved to their places a quick photo-montage-video of the student (typically stretching from newborn to present day) would play on the overhead screens.

There’s something powerful about seeing a life compacted in that way. Maybe because you realize how much hope and hurt and love and heartbreak happened between those two momentous moments of birth and graduation. Or maybe it’s because you’re watching other human beings at the cresting of a fulcrum, blinking and looking back at a whole season of life that is now suddenly gone and over and irretrievable save as memory.

Once the video ended, the guy running the sound board would switch on the mic and the parents would have 3 or 4 minutes to address their kid. Oh, and good luck controlling your emotions when you’re facing your own son or daughter in such a moment.

In one way it was awkward, yes. Gloriously so. And with such a diversity of parents and styles of parenting you never knew what you were going to get. Over the years we even witnessed a couple of cringe-worthy moments. But most parents recognized the beauty of what that brief little window might be, and took it as an opportunity to speak things that mattered. Things that you don’t want your kid to march off into life never having heard because, well, there was just never an obvious moment to speak them. Things that you’ve gradually stored up in your heart as this human being has grown before your eyes from an infant to a near-adult.

Beset by doubts, fears, insecurities and lies of dazzling variety, each of us desperately needs others to repeat back to us our truer names, to remind us of the bigger context we were born into, to bring us back again and again to that wondrous story and to locate us somewhere within it.

Doug McKelvey

In such moments there are a lot of laughs, a lot of tears, a lot of hugs. For most of the kids, it is clearly meaningful, and the awkwardness of it is actually part of what makes it endearing, even for those participating, because there’s an implicit understanding that the saying of some things matters more than our own passing discomfort in speaking or hearing them. Maybe it’s different for extroverts, but for someone with my duck-and-cover instincts it is no small thing to stand in public and choke up as I peel back self-protective layers so that I might speak truthfully to my daughter of her own story, of things that are born of love and sorrows and hopes deeply felt.

My first time taking that stage with my oldest daughter Anastina I had the good sense to know my own limitations and to play to my strengths. I’m not blessed with the ability to speak off the cuff, so I wrote out in advance what I would say to her. I saw it as an opportunity to remind her of her story, to speak to her her true name. To trace for her some of the dominant threads and themes of her life from her earliest years till that moment of graduation and transition.

I stumbled into the format by happy accident but, realizing in hindsight that it had been a good thing, when my second daughter Ella graduated two years later, I set out to improve upon what I had done the first time around. And by the time my third daughter Callie graduated this past May, I was tending toward poetry and I think I had found my groove.

Unfortunately, I peaked just as I ran out of daughters to graduate.

I share these three pieces that I spoke to my girls at their graduations, in the hopes that some of you might be inspired to find appropriate moments in which to remind your own children, or other family members or friends, of their stories, of the redemptive threads woven through their lives.

We are, after all, stewards of one another’s stories. And we would do well to see ourselves as such. For such stewarding is a most essential part of what it means to live in community. Maybe as we in the Rabbit Room continue to mature as a community, it’s a mutual service we can find ways to be even more mindful of.

Beset by doubts, fears, insecurities and lies of dazzling variety, each of us desperately needs others to repeat back to us our truer names, to remind us of the bigger context we were born into, to bring us back again and again to that wondrous story and to locate us somewhere within it.

[2013]

Anastina,

You were only a few years old when you told us your favorite verse in the bible was:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

Your heart was already resonating, from the earliest age, with the beauty of the complexity of creation, and with the act of creating it.

It meant something to you, that the heavens and earth were created. That there was a loving and creative mind at work who had thought of and made all these things, and who continued making them.

It moved you that this was a story we were living in, and the storyteller was crafting it. And oh, how you loved stories and making. A thirst for created beauty and the desire to re-tell that beauty through your own creations was a part of who you were from the beginning.

Chesterton wrote: “Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men [or young women!], but one…”

To see you now as a graceful, intelligent, talented, beautiful young woman, graduating, stepping into the next season of life, moving forward to further hone your ability to serve your Creator and to serve people by serving the kinds of stories that bring life, hope, joy and beauty into a world that has forgotten them but so desperately needs them now more than ever—as your parents and sisters and other family and friends, this brings us great joy. You still love so much of what you loved as a child. That is a great strength.

Chesterton also said: “If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.”

You were born to do such work Anastina. You were created and gifted for this purpose. To work with God. To bring the touch of eternal beauty into places where it has been lost, neglected and even forgotten. Believe that. And trust that as God has created you for his purposes, he will also equip and strengthen you and will order your steps.

So as one chapter in your own story ends and another begins, go with boldness, humility, and the love of your family and friends. We are with you. Congratulations!

[2015]

Ella,

Chesterton wrote:

“When one hasn’t a touch of the poet, one stands some chance of being a poem.”

And yet you, dear child, have somehow emerged as both poet and poem.

You are a gifted artist. You create beauty. And yet you are, in your winsome and graceful personhood, like a living poem as well.

We knew we were dealing with a very creative soul early on. I remember when your older sister came running to us in tears saying you had just slapped her, and you pulled out your pacifier and stated with full sincerity: “I didn’t slap her. I just high-fived her in the face.”

We knew we were dealing with a very merciful soul when we saw you at a tender age, up in the rope netting at the zoo, leading by the hand a frightened little girl you didn’t even know, younger than yourself, speaking sweetly and gently to her “It’s okay, don’t cry. We’ll find your parents. They’ll be down here waiting for you somewhere.”

You have always been sensitive to both the beauty and the brokenness of creation. The impulse to create beauty and to heal brokenness have always been, for you, like breathing. You can’t not do them. And you do both naturally and reflexively, almost without thinking. Creating beauty and addressing brokenness are like the inhaling and exhaling of the same breath to you.

This makes sense, as both are anchored in a love and a delight in a creation that was declared good by its Maker, and is therefore worth the costly work of grieving and of redeeming.

The courage of your convictions has also been remarkable to witness over the years, especially in one so young. When you believe something is true or right, it does not remain merely as head knowledge. You immediately and permanently order your life around it. That is rare. That is so rare. Don’t stop doing that.

“Seriousness is not the opposite of joy, but of superficiality,” Brennan Manning wrote. And you have been very serious about joy. So serious about it that when you encounter places in the world where joy is overshadowed by sorrow and oppression—places like the Nuba Mountains, or the cell where Miriam Ibrahim was unjustly shackled—you are moved to acts of compassion. Don’t stop doing that either.

DO remember that a deep and abiding joy is the only enduring root of active mercy, for nothing else will long sustain against the darkness and the temptation to despair. So cultivate your joy, child, and do not neglect it, that your mercy might be deep and enduring all the days of your life.

Go.
Create beauty. Extend mercy.
Your world needs both. Creating beauty is an act of mercy. And acts of mercy are themselves, deeply beautiful. The inhaling and exhaling of the same breath.

Breathe in beauty. Breathe in joy. Breathe in delight. Breathe out mercy and melody and life and compassion. Steward your gifts, and your passions.

“This world is dying,” Thomas Merton said, “of a contrived joy.”
Go, child, and live—in this world—a life that is a poem about a real joy; a poem of seriousness and delight.

And go into this next season of your life knowing that it has been and continues to be a delightful and serious joy to both of us to be your parents.

[2017]

Albert Einstein said: “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.”

Therein, Callie McKelvey, lies your path from here.

You were born into a family steeped in stories and poetry,
a family more shaped by words than by numbers.
And yet, you came to us without words
for those first few years of your life.
Specialists called it apraxia.
But maybe it was something more than just a neurological condition.
Maybe it was preparation for what was yet to come.

You came to us without words
but with a wild instinct for wonder,
a precocious and preternatural ability
to concentrate and to consider the world around you,
storing up all things that you could not yet speak of—
storing them up for later use,
as one might deliberately gather stones
for the building of a tower one day
beside the sea.

You made use
of your early silence.
You became a ponderer, a connecter of the far flung dots,
a soulmapper,
a hunter of deep order and harmony—
and we, your family,
did not even know it yet,
for you still could not speak of it.

You labored intensely for years,
mastering speech,
learning to give voice to your thoughts,
and only then, did we who loved you so in your long silence,
also begin to get an inkling of how deep those channels had been carved
in your wondering soul,
of how deep those still waters now ran.

You learned language, and with it, poetry,
which you loved as an expression of the eternal yearning—
and yet you did not find that poetry expressed only in words.
You heard it calling as well from other quarters of creation;
you found it in music, you felt it in dance,
you heard it whispering from from the night sky
and from the balanced equations that described the mysteries of the movements
of particles and planets.

And once receiving such summons
you stepped beyond the frontiers already cleared
and cultivated by your parents and siblings.
You surprised us, Callie.

Sensing that there was that same poetry written in the stars
flung across, and brooding in, the depths of that infinite expanse
you came naturally to a love of physics
as the language in which that poetry was best expressed.

You were born into a family more shaped by words than by numbers
but you came to remind us that the numbers
were also an elegant expression
of that same poetry and mystery,
and that the great poets and the great theologians
and the great composers and the great astronomers
were all always reaching for the same thing, whether they knew it or not.

Astronomer and theologian Johannes Kepler wrote:

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.
Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God
in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful,
not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else,
of the glory of God.”

We have loved being your parents, Callie McKelvey,
grateful for the privilege to observe and participate
in the journey and the story of your life to this point,
to see how you have been shaped,
by a crafting through circumstance both good and hard;

To see the diamond-formed gifts that have now been entrusted to you:
the resolve, the empathy, the love of the pursuit of truth and beauty and wonder,
the willingness to walk a good, hard path
that denies neither the deep joy nor the deep sorrow
of life as a pilgrim and a stranger
journeying through a landscape shattered,
yet in which there remain these scattered evidences of a lost glory
and these wild rumors of a fairytale redemption
that has somehow already begun and is also yet to come
and for which you personally yearn and labor
already bearing the tension of the now-and-the-not-yet within your own heart.

So let that right and holy tension ever shape and define you in this path.
Go and be that astronomer who finds that she can trace God’s thoughts amongst the stars.
Go and be that poet, who labors to translate the language of the great mysteries into human expression.
Go and be a woman of mercy and creativity and concentration and conviction,
leaving behind you across this short span of life, many lamp posts to light the way
for pilgrims yet to follow, and many signposts pointing them onwards.

Annie Dillard wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Go and spend your days, Callie McKelvey.
Invest them in the pursuit of the passion and the delight
that your Creator has uniquely crafted you to be the bearer of.
Do that, and you will do well in this life, dear daughter.

But not only will you do well, you will also do good.

Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).


5 Comments

  1. Shelbie Williams

    I read this article on a whim, yet leave deeply moved. Beautiful words, and even more beautiful daughters. You are a blessed man. Thank you for sharing your girls’ stories with us.

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