It is mid-morning on Wednesday. I am wearing a hoodie and a puffy vest as I type this letter. We’ve been enjoying a beautiful, sunny October, but our rental house feels damp and cold, even in my third-story office. One could wonder how hard it actually is, turning the heat on, but I might recall the time a repairman showed up to fix the heat last winter, only to later hang a bright yellow tag on the furnace in the basement, which ominously warned, “DO NOT REMOVE!” I was never clear about the danger we were in until another repairman showed up to repair the unit and remove the tag. It’s why I don’t dare fiddle. Anyways, we’re just ten days from moving into our renovated house, so we’ll easily survive the inconvenient chilliness, even if it means wearing hoodies, puffy vests, even parkas in the house.
I had to laugh when you mentioned, in your last letter, the multiple Merrill Smuckers I could find on Facebook if I looked. Ryan and I have both told our children that when we’re older, they should allow us no technology we can’t manage on our own. After the recent Facebook debacle with my mom, we reminded the kids again of the rule, and Ryan added, “That means no tv for Mom. Because she still can’t figure out how to work the remote.” It’s true that I can’t even manage Netflix on my own. It’s a good thing I’m a reader.
I so enjoyed your thoughts on “vocational holiness” in your last letter, how it calls us to set things apart, even set ourselves apart. I used to imagine a stark division between all that matters to God and all that doesn’t, but I’ve come to see that the messy, ordinary whole of life is his—though as you reminded me, there’s a certain focus that’s required for drawing a circle around what we’ve been given by God to do and to tend. We have to admit what falls inside that circle and admit what falls outside. In fact, there is no circle without the line, no shape to the whole without the definitive boundary of in and out.
I have to confess that I hate boundaries; I want capacities that are endless, energy and time that are infinite. No doubt there’s a lot of pathology in this (not to mention sin). But as I also realized in a recent session with my spiritual director, I think it’s also difficult for me to draw that circle because I feel everything that remains outside of it to represent a kind of loss. Worse, in facing the losses of the things I must leave undone, I can start convincing myself that I’m doing the wrong thing. Because if I were doing God’s will, surely there would be no losses, right?
Here’s a more concrete example of what I mean. We attend a wonderful church here in Toronto, and our family is quite actively serving in a variety of ways. But one thing I don’t do a lot of is meet with young women one-on-one. I don’t kid myself into thinking that every young woman in my church wants to have coffee with me, but I do know that many are looking for guidance on dating and marriage, on raising children, on balancing work and home. I see many young mothers, once a month, as I supervise the children’s ministry on Sunday mornings. I watch them herding their children down the stairs and into their classrooms, bedraggled by exhaustion, ridden with self-doubt. I know how valuable a longer conversation with them would be, if only to say: this won’t last! You’re doing great! I had that privilege of mentorship when I was a young mom, and I was so grateful for it. In a perfect world, I would be paying that time back, spending several mornings of my week to be with young moms, to pray with them, to encourage them, to tell them that they’re seen and known by God. In that perfect world, I’d even remember to follow up, texting to ask, “How’s it going now?”
But this is not a perfect world, and if I spent several mornings a week driving across the city or hosting women in my home, I’d never make my March 1 book deadline. One “loss” I’ve had to incur, in pursuing the writing life, is the investment I might make more widely and deeply in the lives of women in my church. It’s why I’m not likely, despite occasional nudges from my pastor, to take a staff position at church. I have a very limited workweek (probably 20-25 good working hours), so it’s become important to protect them. (With four children still at home, I have no less free time in the evenings or weekends.) It hurts to draw the circle around my time and admit, with grief, the good that remains outside. Maybe one help is remembering that the protecting of my time isn’t selfishness but the necessary “setting apart” I must do. And I do believe, at least in this season, that I am called to write books.
Earlier this year, I wrote a list of discernment questions to help myself decide between better and best when it comes to choosing how to spend my time. The first question I wrote down has by far proven to be the most helpful, and I think it’s a question about vocational holiness: “What am I uniquely gifted to do?” Don’t you think that’s a far different question than: Is this a good opportunity? Will I be good at this? Do I have time for this? Instead, it’s a question that asks me to think about my own uniqueness in relationship to God’s call of obedience: my desires, my experiences, my gifts, my opportunities. I wonder, Shawn, how you’d answer this question?
I am so excited for the podcast that you and Maile are getting ready to launch. I hope you’ll tell me more in your next letter. I am also subscribed to your newsletter and wanted to also tell you how intrigued I am by the title of your next novel: These Nameless Things. I’ve always loved that in Scripture, when God appears to someone, often the first thing he does is to call them by name. Names seems to figure so importantly in the biblical narrative, so you have me wondering about the trauma of nameless things.
Anyways, I look forward to hearing from you.
P.S. Can I share a quote from Tolkien that I recently ran across? I thought of it when you said you were created to tell stories. “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked:
Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)
Postmarked: Dear Jen (2)
Postmarked: Dear Shawn (3)
Postmarked: Dear Jen (4)
Postmarked: Dear Shawn (5)
Postmarked: Dear Jen (6)
Postmarked: Dear Shawn (7)
Postmarked: Dear Jen (8)
Postmarked: Dear Shawn (9)
Postmarked: Dear Jen (10)