a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

a letter to emma

hi there, princess. it’s me, ryan. your dad. the one with the lower voice who you hear every once in a while when you’re trying to nap. or when you’re in the middle of your water aerobics routine.

you’re not far away at this point. very soon you’ll be joining us here, in the world, rather than reclining in the warmth of your mother’s womb. and we can’t wait to meet you.

we’re getting things ready for you here. picking out clothes for you to wear. setting up your bed. and tucking away plenty of fuzzy blankets. the world is getting ready for your arrival.

and i know you won’t be able to read this for a while yet, but i wanted to take the time to write you a note. i thought i’d give you a heads-up on the world that’s preparing for you, so you can prepare for it.

now, i haven’t been here for long–less than 30 years, at this point–and i’m far from having things all figured out, but i have been here long enough to take note of a few things. and so i thought i’d scratch them down for you, hoping one day they might be helpful for you.

some of this may be helpful right away. other bits will likely not be helpful until years later. and the rest, well the rest may not be helpful at all.

and if, for some reason, it turns out that none of this is all that helpful by the time you’re old enough to read it, i apologize. but know i’ve given it my best.

your mother

to start, i thought i’d tell you a few things about your mother. you’ll be spending a lot of time with her, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know her for yourself, but i’ve known her for some time now. more than 10 years, i guess. so i have a bit of a head-start, and i thought i’d give you a few pointers.

first, and most importantly, the thing you should know about your mother is that she has been waiting for you for a long, long time. in fact, you should know that you are your mother’s dream come true. it may not always feel like it, particularly when you get to the age of 13 or so, but it’s true. ever since i’ve known your mother, she’s dreamed of welcoming you into this world.

and so, on those more difficult days, never forget: long before you showed up, your mother dreamt of holding you in her arms. that will be true whether you’re 16 months or 16 years old.

the second thing you should know about your mother is that she likes her sleep. i tell you this because, if you want to earn some major points with her someday, let her sleep in. and then bring her breakfast in bed (preferably pancakes with chocolate chips). she’ll smile at you with the kind of smile that stole my heart years ago if you do.

thirdly, you should know your mother sees things in black and white. and i love that about her, mostly because it’s very unlike me. if you want to have a long conversation as you think through things, you will find i’m the man for the job. but if you don’t have time to waste and you just want a straight answer, you’re probably better off asking your mom. she’s a straight-shooter.

the last thing i’ll tell you about your mother is that she likes gerber daisies, peanut butter and chocolate (especially together), fuzzy socks, and puzzles. she does not like bananas, spiders or feet.

i could go on, but that should be good for now. i have a few other things i want to tell you that i hope might be helpful.

love

perhaps it’s good i started with your mother, because the next bit isn’t quite so nice.

you see, the thing is, emma, you’re being born into a world with a lot of wounds. i’m very sorry to say it, but we haven’t been very good to one another. the people who came before us weren’t very good to each other, either. nor were those who came before them.

and so what you’ll find as you move through life is a lot of brokenness. and hurt. you’ll find people have a hard time trusting one another. you’ll find people getting frustrated over things that really shouldn’t matter all that much. you’ll find people saying mean things and generally acting pretty ugly to one another a lot of times.

but don’t take it personally. it’s not about you. it’s about all of us. and the pain we share.

you didn’t create this pain, but you will be born into it. just like all of us. and like all of us, you will be asked to carry an overwhelming amount of this pain. more than seems fair. more than you can bear.

i’m very sorry about that, but my hope is that you may be able to help do something about it. in fact, my hope is that your life may be lived in such a way that you might help to heal it from the inside out.

now i know that seems like an awful lot to ask of you. and i know you’re probably asking yourself how you are possibly supposed to help heal the wounds of this world that has been broken and hurting since long before you arrived.

my answer? with love.

and yes, i know. i know that sounds terribly idealistic. i know it is sounds so simple. and it is. but it isn’t, at the same time.

you see, if you want to make a difference in this world, emma, if you want to help heal the brokenness and the hurt, you have to love.

love those who show you love. love those who don’t. love those closest to you. love perfect strangers.

and no matter how useless or thankless it seems, keep going. not to be noticed, not to be rewarded, but simply because you believe in it.

mother teresa, a woman who left us before you got here, and a woman who not only believed in love, but who embodied it, has this great quote where she says,

“do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. what we need is to love without getting tired.”

i hope you find a way to love like that, emma. without getting tired. if you do, the world will be better for it.

work

now i know it’s a little early for me to be talking to you about work. don’t worry. for the first 18 years or so of your life, we’ve got you covered. (and probably for a while after that, the way things are looking at the moment).

but eventually, there will come a time when you have to start thinking about what it is you want to put your hands to. we all do. here are my thoughts for when you begin to think about this.

when it comes time to consider what it is you’d like to invest your time doing, don’t over-think it. instead, trust your heart. you’ll find, as you go through life, that you like certain things. you’ll also find you dislike other things. you’ll find there are things you’re pretty good at. you’ll also find there are things you’re not so good at.

if you can, find a way to combine what you enjoy doing with the things you’re pretty good at. if you can do that, this world will not only reward you for your work, but you will find that the world will be rewarded by your work.

Truth

another thing you’ll find in this world is that everyone has questions, and everyone is looking for answers. people want to know why we’re here. they want to know where we’re going. and they want to know what happens when the curtain of this life comes tumbling down.

you’ll find, as you go through life, that people offer a lot of different answers to these questions. you’ll find some people who say their answer is the right one. and you’ll find others who say all answers are right, just as much as the next one.

we’re going to spend a lot of time together, you and i, so you’re going to find out very early on what i believe. and you’ll probably even be influenced by my beliefs. but i’m honest enough with myself to admit that there will come a day when you start poking around to find the source of Truth for yourself. when you do, here are three things i hope you’ll think about.

first, when you’re considering whether something provides answers for life’s great questions, ask yourself, “does this help make sense of what i know about the world around me? or, instead, does it sound like something someone would make up, out of some sort of wishful thinking?”

secondly, and order is important here, ask yourself, “is this aesthetically pleasing?” what i mean by that is, when you’ve found something that you think makes sense, ask yourself if it’s actually attractive, as well.

and then, lastly, after you’ve done all that, ask yourself, “does it make a difference with the pain and the hurt of this world?”

i say order is important because if something simply doesn’t hold water, in the first place, then don’t bother with how much you’d like it to be true.

but, if you find it seems reasonable enough, in light of what you know of this world, then go on to ask how it satisfies your taste for beauty. when you hear it, does it make you smile? does it make you smile uncontrollably? while not necessarily a guarantee of Truth, beauty seems to be an awfully good indicator of it.

and then, when you’ve done all that, ask yourself whether it actually makes a difference with the brokenness of this world. i can’t imagine Truth suggesting we run from the brokenness and pain that surrounds us. i can only imagine Truth healing it. any offer of truth that doesn’t do something to heal the pain and hurt of this world is too thin to be True.

i think what you’ll find when you’ve really considered things, emma, is that Truth is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. you’re not likely to find that all of your questions are answered with a watertight solution, but if any attempt at an explanation for our questions does not satisfy both of these requirements, and if it does not then actually attempt to make a difference with the brokenness of this world, be careful how much you trust it.

and one more thing, while we’re on this topic: there are going to be many, many people who disagree with you once you’ve arrived at a particular position. and plenty of them will be much more intelligent than you.

don’t let that bother you. but don’t shut them out, either. listen to other people’s questions. go deeply with them, and allow them to critique your ideas, as you do theirs.

but at the end of the day, when you still have questions and their arguments still scratch at the back of your mind, don’t believe or disbelieve something simply because of what others say. believe in what you think to be true and beautiful because of what you know of the world around you. at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that will provide a solid foundation for anything you hold to.

a handful of thoughts

i’m sorry these final thoughts don’t fit into any neat categories, but here are a handful of thoughts i wanted to share with you before i go.

there are an awful lot of things in life we don’t get to choose. friends is one exception. i hope you surround yourself with great friends.

i hope you surround yourself with the kind of people who love you enough to tell you the truth, even when it hurts. and if it hurts you to hear, know it hurts them to say.

if you’re hurting or struggling or lonely or confused, and you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one, remember, you’re probably not. there’s an awful lot of us. because of that, there’s someone who has likely been where you are who can help.

growing up, my grandpa (your great-grandpa) used to say, “if you see something that needs to be done, go ahead and do it. don’t wait to be asked to do it.”

i think that’s a pretty good rule. except if it’s your mom’s things left out. if that’s the case, know they’re probably there for a reason and don’t need to be picked up. trust me on this one.

i mentioned this previously, but you’re going to find things in life that you’re pretty good at. i realized i should also tell you, you’re going to meet people who are better than you at whatever that might be.

don’t let that get you down. do what you cannot not do, and do it in the way only you can.

and on a similar note, remember that we’re not likely to always be the best, the smartest, the fastest or the strongest, but we can always choose to work the hardest at whatever it is we do.

one thing you’ll come to learn is i married your mother, in large part, because she has one of the biggest hearts of anyone i know. i love that about her. i also inherited a big heart from my parents, which means you can expect to have one yourself.

two warnings about that: first, guard it. be careful. you will find your heart often leads you to love people in a way that they might not always return. and that can hurt. others aren’t always going to love as you do, and expecting them to can lead to disappointment.

at the same time, be careful you don’t guard your heart so much that you don’t allow others to feel its warmth in a way that makes their life better. that is, after all, the reason you have it in the first place.

as a girl, and later as a woman, you’ll have the temptation to believe that you ought to be defined by your body. i hope you don’t. i hope you know that you’re so much more than that. cs lewis, an author who has helped me out a lot, as you’ll come to learn, once wrote, you aren’t a body, you have a body. you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. and i think there’s a lot of truth in that.

on a similar note, one thing i hope you learn to avoid is allowing others to determine your value. what i mean is, know you are worth more than what others might think of you. or not think of you. you see, living to please others is like starting a race that has no finish line. if you can avoid this, you will save yourself an incredible amount of time, energy, and hurt.

at the same time, know that the greatest experiences in your life will come from the times you put others before yourself. they’ll come when, in one way or another, you were serving another. it seems counter-intuitive, i know, but that’s how it goes.

you’ll also find, as you go through life, that the most rewarding experiences will come from the greatest challenges. i wish it weren’t the case, but it seems to be a universal truth. knowing this, in advance, can help when you’re facing those challenges.

and, lastly, when life brings you to a point where you simply don’t know what to do, when you have to make a decision and you have no idea how to move forward, imagine yourself having to explain your decision to your future son or daughter one day (when you’re much, much older). that’s what i did with you, long before you arrived, and it helped me with some of my most difficult decisions.

see you soon

well emma, you’ll soon be making your way into this world. and we’ll be here waiting for you. like friends and family at the airport after a long flight. we’ll be wearing smiles, and we’ll be crying. well, i will be. your mom claims not to cry when she’s happy.

but here’s the thing, princess, no matter how dark this world will seem at times, know that you never have to go it alone. not ever.

when this world is overwhelming, when pain and fear is so great you want to run and hide, i want you to know this: your mother and i are here for you. and we love you. we love you with the kind of love that doesn’t make any sense. we loved you before you entered this world, and we will love you long after you arrive. we will always love you, with the kind of love that doesn’t get tired.

and at the end of a long day, a difficult month or even year, when you still have questions, you’ll find me waiting. patiently. you’ll find my lap to crawl in and my ears attentive. and when you’ve grown too big for my lap, you’ll still find my ears patiently waiting. and then, as now, i’ll give it my best.

see you soon, princess.

love,

your dad