What My Sister Taught Me

I’m firmly convinced our genius is at least partially coded into our childhood play. Want to get an idea of how those first graders will change their world? No need to read their spelling words. Just show up at recess.

But I don’t know about all that yet, because it’s 1985 and we’ve got the day ahead of us, no plans but the Barbie world. We huddle over the pile of pink goodness ready to piece out what belongs to whom today. I’m eight and it’s my big sister’s turn to pick first.

myquillyn and emily

I study her choices carefully – the pink cabinet, the blue and pink pillows, the cushy sofa. These three must be the top items in the pile since she chose them first. I end up with a lopsided table I don’t know what to do with. Barf me out.

Days later, it’s my turn to pick first. I know just what to do! Pink cabinet, blue and pink pillows, cushy sofa. Yes!

I look up at her after my clean sweep, unable to hide my victory smile since I obviously just chose all the best stuff. Instead of reacting, she ignores me, and picks the table with the uneven top. Wait, is she trying to psych me out?

What is this? No anger? No you just got all the good stuff lecture? Not only that, she just chose the worst thing in the pile.  The worst thing!

How am I supposed to know how to make my Barbie house beautiful if my teacher keeps picking different furniture?! How am I supposed to know the best stuff if she keeps changing her mind on what the best stuff is? I am having a total cow.

Look at her over there in her corner, busy setting up her awesome space. I lean to one side to watch her work and notice she has that crooked table looking just fine, using it as some kind of loft-like bed for Skipper. I look back at my first-pick choices and they don’t look so great now.

I vow to choose the lopsided table next time. But next time always comes and no matter how I try to catalogue and then copy her choices, it makes no difference. It didn’t matter what she has to work with. She will make it look great, no matter how imperfect the pile.

And while it may on the surface seem like an older sister’s evil plan to make her little sister crazy, I think it simply comes down to this: her gift is that she sees differently.

The Nester's House

That feeling of discontentment, of missing out, of not having something vital I needed to make beauty showed up during those long days of play. I blamed it on the lopsided table and my lack of first pick, but these weren’t my problem.

My problem was I didn’t yet know how to trust my own ideas, couldn’t see beyond the obvious, and wasn’t willing to take a little risk.

My sister had eyes to see the usefulness in the mess and the beauty in the lopsided. Part of her art, even back then, was her eyes could see potential.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned I can have those eyes, too.

Myquillyn didn’t immediately apply this to her real life. But it was always in her, this ability to somehow see beyond the obvious and envision something no one else could.

The Nesting Place

What my eight-year-old self would’ve have done to get my hands on some kind of guidelines for how to have a Barbie house I loved. If only she could have written down her secrets!

Well now she has. And the best part is, her secrets aren’t as secret as you think.

She finally wrote a book is for all the little sisters of the world who doubt they have what it takes to make home (or life) beautiful, waiting for permission and courage to create, take risks, and be ourselves.

Over the years I’ve learned these things from her, valuable lessons practiced in my own home that spill over into everyday life.

The Nesting Place Contentment

She didn’t teach me the best color to paint my walls. She taught me it’s okay to paint my walls the wrong color.

She didn’t teach me where to put my furniture. She taught me it’s okay to move my furniture around.

She didn’t teach me the right way to hang a curtain. She taught me there isn’t only one right way to hang a curtain.

She didn’t lecture me on the latest trends. She taught me how to discover what my own trends are, that’s it’s okay if they’re different from others, and it’s okay when they change.

She didn’t point out what’s wrong with my house. She taught me how every house has a silver lining and home is wherever we are.

homeShe taught me that my house isn’t just about a house. It’s about trusting yourself, making mistakes, trying new things, inviting others in. It’s about community and communion, healing and wholeness, memories and tradition, love and loveliness and hope.

The Nester's House

I truly believe what I said before, that hints of our personal genius hide in our childhood play, what I also like to call our art. I’m so glad my sister had the courage to hold on to hers, to listen to what makes her come alive, to ignore the naysayers who said she was doing it all wrong.

You have a genius art too, and it doesn’t have to be the e equals mc squared kind. It might be the relational kind, the insightful kind, or the kind that moves in the midst of fear. Whatever it is for you, it’s evidence that you are made in the image of God and the first step to uncovering that could simply be finding freedom in your own home.

The Nesting Place

This lovely book – The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful – is finally available everywhere today! Get yourself a copy, your mom a copy, and don’t forget your little sister.

Love you, Sister Girl. So happy you said yes to writing this book. I don’t know how people get on in the world without a big sister to teach them things. I’m so thankful for all you’ve taught me.

nesting place

What We Need When We Are Uncertain

My sister Myquillyn and I shared a room until I was in fourth grade. We nailed stuffed animals to the wall next to the bed we shared and giggled when we were supposed to be sleeping until Mom would fuss at as from the living room to quiet down.

sisters on a planeWe grew up with cats having kittens in the shed, a tire swing in the backyard, and grandparents living right around the corner. Mom brought out the white tablecloth for birthdays and our friends  lived right next door. We basically played outside all summer until Mom called us in for dinner.

But then, at the end of fourth grade, our family moved from that little white house on Gladstone Avenue in Indiana to a little yellow house on Greenway Drive in Iowa – six hours away.

Leaving the place we had always known for a place we knew nothing about was scary in the fourth grade. But one thing made it less scary – knowing my sister would be there, too.

Not a lot has changed in twenty-five years.

kampala, uganda

When Shaun asked if we would be willing to travel again with Compassion, he sent one email, addressed to the pair of us because he is a smart man and knows two sisters are better than one. It took us a few weeks to decide for sure, not because we doubt Compassion, but because we doubt air travel and things of that nature.

In the end (or the beginning depending on how you want to look at it) saying yes was a lot easier knowing she would be there with me.

When you are uncertain, it helps to have someone remind you what is true – someone who knows you well, who sees you, and keeps track of you – not just your body but your soul.

My sister does this for me in life and she does it for me on this trip. And today I realized it’s the same thing Compassion does for children.

Today Wess told us that Compassion commits that every child will be three things: known, loved, and protected. 

Sounds a lot like having a sister.

Compassion Bloggers Uganda 2014 - Day FourI was feeling weary this morning when we arrived in Katwe, a slum neighborhood here in Kampala. Myquillyn, Wess, and I were heading back to the home we visited yesterday, the one where the joyful mother gave us chickens.

As we made our way up the hill where Joseph and his mother Rose lived, I remembered the words from the t-shirt I had on, a phrase from a song called BloomYou bring beauty to the darkest places.

I wanted it to be true today.

Yesterday when we first met her, Rose was embarrassed that she wasn’t dressed more for the occasion of our visit. She kept putting her hands on her head, smoothing out her skirt, motioning behind her to the one room she shares with her son Joseph as if she wanted to change her clothes. We weren’t able to stay long then, assuring her she need not change and we would be back tomorrow.

Today, she was ready and she dared not utter any such apology for her appearance. Because this:

Compassion Bloggers Uganda 2014 - Day Four

Compassion Bloggers Uganda 2014 - Day Four

roseAnd there it was, the beauty in today’s dark place.

We sat down with Rose and heard her story through a translator, learning she has a life-threatening illness and has worked hard to secure Joseph’s future. Rose knows, loves, and wants to protect her son. I can’t think of a better partner for her than Compassion, an organization who makes it their goal to ensure every child is known, loved, and protected.

But here’s the twist: though she is sick, Rose is not despondent. She is determined, faithful, and prepared. She trusts God, has a heart of deep gratitude, and a dignity that I don’t understand but fully experienced in her presence.

Her hope was timid, but it was there. Because Joseph has a sponsor through Compassion, Rose doesn’t have to face her uncertainty alone.

When you are uncertain, it helps to have someone remind you what is true – someone who knows you well, who sees you, and keeps track of you – not just your body but your soul.

My sister does this for me. Compassion does this for Joseph and Rose. And you can do this for a child today.

Beauty already exists in the darkness. Do you want to be part of it? Here’s some beauties to choose from.

Since Myquillyn and I visited the same home today, she’s sharing Rose and Joseph in her own Nester way. Visit Nesting Place to read and see more about sisters, family, and what makes a home.

More From Uganda

A Message From 13 Year Old Pastor Amon for You by Shaun Groves

The One Thing I’d Tell My Mom by Joy the Baker

Letting Go of the Right Dream by Brianne McKoy

The Worst Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making by Jeff Goins

And you can read all the posts from Uganda on the Compassion Blogger page.

Artists and Influencers: they’re teaching me about love

 One of my classes in college required every student to take the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis. This wasn’t just an abbreviated online questionnaire. This was the full battery designed to measure, according to their website, “eighteen dimensions of personality that are important components of personal adjustment and in interpersonal relationships.”

loveThe results of this test came back in a graph, with words like composed and lighthearted at one end and their opposite traits, nervous and depressive, at the otherWe had to meet with a counselor to discuss our results.

You can imagine why that is, what with nervous and depressive being possible outcomes.

I considered myself to be a fairly well-rounded person. Though I knew this was a measure of personality and there wasn’t a right or wrong, the good girl in me figured there was a more right result and I anticipated a nice, somewhat even line through the middle of the paper – not too nervous (simmer down, Scooby) but certainly not too composed (so exactly what it it you are hiding, hmm?).

When I got my results back, I’m fairly sure my face turned an immediate shade of Valentines red because at the top of the page, right in the middle, was the word subjective with the opposite trait, objective way down at the bottom.

One guess where Emily’s line nearly went straight off the page.

I measured so subjective on that test they may as well not have had objective on there at all. Ninety-nine percent subjective, people. I wanted to cry about it but that one percent objectivity I had rolling around in my bones thought better of it.

I remember my counselor saying something like, It’s the extremes we want to pay attention to.

Well. I suppose that meant we were extremely subjective. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t deny it either. As I moved through life, if I didn’t feel it, then it simply wasn’t true. My experience of life and my beliefs about God and you and everything else were based, in large part, upon how I felt.

I was in my early twenties when I took that test. You could have told me a hundred times that love isn’t a feeling, but in my mind, if I didn’t feel loved, then I wasn’t. End of story.

Learning what real love is has been a slow awakening. I could write about all I’m learning of love from my husband (who has taught me more than anyone) or from my parents (who have been married for 40 years now). But as I think about it and as I’m challenged to keep this series as present as possible, there are two people who are teaching me about love these past few weeks more than anyone else.

My twin daughters.

Really, all three of my kids are teaching me about love. But the girls, since they came first and their birth marked the beginning of that time where everything-will-now-be-different-in-your-life-forever-more, they seemed to have influenced my idea of love more ferociously than my third baby.


how my twin daughters are teaching me about love

The question for me was never do they love me? I knew better than to look to feel loved from tiny helpless babies. Instead, I struggled through foggy days and endless nights, wondering as I fed and diapered and comforted, do I love them? 

I knew I loved them in the way a human person has regard and respect for another human person. But I was still learning what it meant to be a mother, to be the only mother they will ever have. Is this what it’s supposed to feel like to be a mother who loves her babies?

This is a question I struggled with a lot during those first few years of motherhood.

My girls are nine years old now. They are in the same class at school and this year we’ve watched as they’ve started to share secrets more than ever. They choose together more than they choose apart. They hold hands and skip. It’s delightful to watch. I recently asked them both: Who is your best friend, you know, besides each other? And do you know they both said the same thing in response?

She’s not my friend, she’s my sister.

love sistersI realized then something I’ve known about love but hadn’t yet been able to define: True love is often so fierce and so thick that the feelings don’t have space to surface. My girls love one another deeply, but I don’t think they have loving feelings for each other. At least, not yet.

They are learning to love one another in action the way I know they love in their hearts. And I learn about love as I watch them.

When they were small, I wondered if I loved them enough. But now looking back, I realized I was asking that question even as I was in the middle of loving them. I fed, clothed, protected, nurtured, and comforted them. I moved into their chaos and I still do.

Love moves. Love acts. Love does.

Love and faith are more closely related than I ever realized before. When the feelings of love aren’t there (and honestly lately, they are rarely there in the relationships that mean the most to me), I have to rely on simple truth and daily action.

My feelings do not determine my capacity for loving. If I re-took that Taylor-Johnson test now, as a mother and a wife and a grown up person, I believe it would show different results. But even if it didn’t, I’m okay with it.

Who is teaching you about love and what have you learned?

This is the fourth post in a series and I’m going to end it here for now. I look forward to considering the artists and influencers who are teaching me about art, community, and marriage in the near future when I have less deadlines to meet. So far we’ve covered the topics of writing, home, church and today, in honor of Valentines week, love.

seven reasons why I can’t keep my eyes dry

A big week. Thanks for being awesome and supportive and putting up with me and my big self talking about the new book. I’m feeling small and thankful and emotional. Here are some reasons why, besides the obvious stuff.

1. Friday Night Lights is over. It’s been over for nearly two years for normal people. But I’ve been waiting to watch it on Netflix because I didn’t want it to end. This week I finally said goodbye to Tami and Coach Taylor and Tim Riggins and Buddy Garrity. It’s sad is what it is.

2. Annie Downs wrote a book. I spent some time with Annie this past weekend. Her book and my book released on the same day for the same audience and can I just be very honest with you? We are technically competitors. But it doesn’t feel that way. At all. The truth is, I’d rather do this with her than without her.

You’ve heard me talk about her book. It’s called Perfectly Unique and y’all? Annie is. She is all kinds of crazy brave and courageous without being obnoxious about it. She has a sweet mix of funny and normal and faith. She is a true friend and a great writer. So I’ve been thankful for her, for the unique relationship we have as writers of books for teen girls. It’s a gift to have a partner in this. Buy her book. And then? Read her letter to her teenage self. It is exquisite.

3. I’ve been thinking through things about church, about the shape of our souls, the beauty of community, the sacredness of truth. Lately, I feel like I’m changing a little everyday. It hurts and also is lovely. The Man and I pray together every morning and there’s something about love, coffee, prayer, and front porch sitting that gets me all teary and thankful.

4. My sixteen year old self needed a lot of tenderness and I didn’t realize it. I wrote a letter to her and I tried to be as honest as I could, to put myself back in that time and feel all of those emotions. It worked. I am a hot mess. And also?

5. Reading other people’s letters is slaying me. I still can’t tell why yet. Even the funny ones are bringing out weird emotion in me that I didn’t expect, can’t explain, and won’t try to.

6. On the Shores by Melissa Helser and Johnathan David Helser. First of all, they were so gracious to let us use their song for the Graceful video (by the way, the video was directed by Jason Windsor and was awesome). This song is powerful and living and every time she sings hallelujah, I have to raise up my hands.

7. The twins have made up a language. It’s ridiculous and awesome and just sounds like a lot of z’s. But they are 8 and they have their own language that they understand. I watch them and I am overcome with emotion, thankful they have a person, a sister. A gift.

What is something bringing out weird emotion in you lately?

graceful for young womenStill writing those letters. If you would like to join in, we would love to read it. Simply write it on your own blog and come here this Friday, September 14 to link up. Here are all the details. Some of my favorite writers who are writing letters today:

Annie Downs – I linked to it up there but I’m putting it down here because I don’t want you to miss it.

Stephen Martin – I love Stephen’s writing and his letter does not disappoint (you should check out his book, too) And also I feel kind of awesome that four men agreed to write letters. Stephen is one of them.

Mary DeMuth – Mary is an early mentor of mine. I’m thankful for her and her willingness to join in.

Kristen Strong – She read Sweet Valley High books as a teenager. Automatically love her. Her writing is lovely and kind.

Gary Morland – My dad wrote a letter. He is also a man. You can learn a lot about your family by having them write letters to themselves.

dear me . . .

Dear me at age 16,

So you finally got your braces off and you really do look great. That retainer you picked is going to last you forever, though, so you might want to re-think the purple.

emily freeman toe touch

I see you there as you drive to the baseball field, Peter Gabriel loud on the radio. Slow down, for the love of pedestrians. Don’t rush through these days.

That shortstop is cute and he likes you back. He will end up asking you to the prom. I know it seems like he’s so much older than you, but he’s only 17 and he’s nervous.

You will go together with Chris and Heather and you will have fun and you won’t get into trouble. But in two months, that shortstop will move to Utah and you will never see him again. It will crush you. You won’t remember anything about this summer because your heart will be so broken.

I beg you not to let that happen. Let your girlfriends in. Ask them to the movies. Laugh until your sides hurt. Even though you’ll never see the boy again, there are a couple of girls in that mess of people you hang out with who are true friends.

emily freeman

Talk to Mom. Go shopping with her. She loves that. Ask her to show you how to make her chicken and noodles. She prays for you and for the man you’ll marry in a short 8 years from now. He’s worth the wait. Thank her.

You know all that advice people wrote in your yearbook last year? “Never change!”

Don’t take it.

Change will be one of your greatest teachers. You’ve already thrived through two big moves. There will be two more. So when Dad tells you next year that you’re moving to Detroit, face your last year of high school as a grand adventure. You’ll only live there a year anyway.

Go to a U of M game. Learn how to say “car” like a Michigander just because that’s funny. Take a book to that coffee shop in Birmingham. Learn how to be alone. Laugh at yourself. Breathe in the smell of the hardwoods in your bedroom.

Write down the name of the color you paint your walls because when you get married, you’ll search for the perfect coral-orange and won’t be able to find it.

You know that pull you feel to be by yourself sometimes? That scatteredness that comes when you don’t have time to stare out the window? Listen to that space. That isn’t a character flaw and there isn’t something wrong with you.

I know you’re torn sometimes between going out on the weekends with your friends and hiding at home in the closet. You will choose your friends nearly every time. Might I encourage you to test out the closet?

You hate your feet and your ears that stick out, but begin now to embrace both the things you like and the things you don’t as God’s unique making of you.

I’m not going to tell you to love every part of your body, but one day when you meet your first daughter, you will see your feet differently. And when you have your son, you will smile at those ears because they aren’t just his – they are a heritage gift passed down from Dad, Grandma Morland, and Great-Grandma Dorothy. You are a person who has people.

That’s me in … prison? No. Cheerleading camp.

You just made the varsity cheerleading squad and I know you worked hard for it. And even though people think you are confident and accepted because of that, I know the truth.

You feel somewhat invisible and slightly unimportant. Even though you’re on the squad, you don’t really feel like you belong.

Mrs. Smith told you your English paper was strong and well-written. Listen to her. Ask her questions. Practice writing. You won’t remember for a long time how much you love it. But it will come.

You see things about God as being black and white. Soon, you will begin to see varying shadows of gray. That’s okay, it really is. Even though Dad has only been a believer for five years, sit down with him. Ask him your questions.

The way you choose to deal with your pain and questions may be different from some of your peers. But we are all wounded. Be kind, to them and to yourself.

You think being a good girl is the goal of your young life. You are secretly exhausted and in a few years, you will begin to wonder if it is all worth it. You will think you don’t have a story to tell. But you do, and it’s beautiful.

You have a great reputation, but that isn’t the most important thing. The goal is love. The older you get, you’ll realize that there isn’t a “right” way to pray, there isn’t one “right” way to do Church, and no one really knows what they’re doing.

I don’t know if it will be overwhelming or a relief to tell you this, but mostly I still struggle with some of the same things you struggle with. I’m learning to bring those things to God more quickly and without shame. That’s a big part of growing up.

You cry easily and you’ve been made to think you are too sensitive. You will spend a lot of time trying to change that about yourself. I hope you will learn to embrace your tears as kind companions, tiny hints to where your heart beats strong.

Spend time with your sister. She’s in her first year of college and she finally doesn’t think you’re a dork. Use that. Drive to her dorm, spend the night, ask her questions. You won’t live in the same town forever but one day she will be your best friend. It starts now. Live it up.

Find your brave yes. Fight for your strong no. When it’s time to move in a way that will affect change, honor the courage it takes to start.

Sometimes it will look like simply showing up, and that will be hard for you because you will feel useless. Speeches and banners aren’t the only ways to inspire change and movement. Sometimes simply opening your hands and releasing outcomes to God is the bravest thing you can do.

Your words have powerful potential. Learn to use them with conviction.

You are loved and you are safe.


P.S. You will wear heels at your wedding. This is a bad idea. I strongly encourage you to find some flats.

graceful for young women

If you would like to write a letter to yourself as a teenager, we would love to read it. Here are the details.

Basically, write it on your own blog and come here Friday, September 14 to link up. Choose a graphic to include in your post. Here are some of my favorite writers who are writing letters today:

Stacey from 29 Linoln Avenue – We grew up in the same town in Indiana, which is bizarre. I love thinking of her doing life just like me, except not.

Allison Vesterfelt – She tells herself 3 stories and they are beautiful and powerful.

The Nester – My sister. Y’all. This is just too much. I’m dying.

The winner of the small group gift pack is Elizabeth Maxon! Congratulations. I sent you an email.