Paper and Ink

It was the paper that caught my eye. I’d thought it was stationary, had assumed it was store-bought, sheets packaged 100 to a box. Scattered on laminate countertop, the stationary’s intricate floral pattern held my gaze. I bent closer to look, picked up the sheet and held it up to my face. And that’s when I saw: the paper was not store-bought.

She has no Hallmark, no Target, no aisles stocked with vibrant papers and elegant designs. She has no fancy felt-tipped colored markers, no Sharpies, no 164-box of Crayola crayons. She’d drawn the blossoms by hand, petals penciled meticulously onto plain white sheets like magnolia blossoms on snow.

She’d drawn them just for us. A gift. And I almost didn’t notice.

I struggle to write letters to our girls in Africa. I dread it, in fact, because the gulf between Nebraska and Africa gapes so wide. And I don’t simply mean in miles.

What to write to girls who have so little? That we just returned from palm-lined beaches for our Christmas trip? That we are taking our young son and his five friends bowling for his birthday party? That we recently repainted our older son’s bedroom, bought him new curtains and a new comforter to replace the ones that were not-so-worn?

“Dear my lovely parents,” she writes in elaborate script. And my heart bleeds. I can’t even get through the greeting without eyes blurring.

She tells us about her studies and preparation for upcoming exams: “I hope to do wonders!” she writes, and I nod as I read through the blur. She shares a bit of good news: she’s been elected prefect of sports and games at her school, “a dream come true.” And always, always, she prays and loves us from afar.

"I always pray to God to give you a long life in this world and to help you with your daily activities," she writes. "And I pray to help my youngers in their studies." Her friends are praying too, and her siblings. They all pray for us – the ones who have virtually nothing pray for the ones who have so much.

I feel a sick pit in my gut.

By the time I finish the letter, fold it in half and in half again and slip it back into the wrinkled envelope, I’m wrecked. I’ve read the letter aloud to Brad, Noah and Rowan. The kids don’t get it. They half-listen, interrupt with inane questions, quickly move on to Legos and dominoes after I’m done reading. They simply don’t get it – they can’t possibly understand how little Neema and Mary have.

And then, the realization hits: I don’t get it either.

I can’t possibly relate to their lack, their loss, their lives. I can’t possibly understand the daily hardships they face. I can’t possibly relate to the depths of their faith and hope. I’m no better than my kids. I don’t see it either. I read the letter; tears spring to my eyes; I feel the guilt pang.

And then what?

I move on. I forget. I tuck their letters into the manila folder labeled “Neema and Mary.” I file the folder in the proper drawer and then shut the cabinet tight.

And so today I  pray that God will open the eyes of my heart. I pray that he will give me eyes to see beyond paper and ink. I pray that he will give me a heart that feels more than the passing pang. And I pray that he gives me the courage to remember my daughters in Africa, and not just in the moments before I slide the file cabinet shut tight.

I pray that he engraves their stories, their very existence, forever on my heart.

“You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not in ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)

Heidiopia  – (February 17, 2011 at 5:46 AM)  

God's reality check, Michelle... I think he's already opened the eyes of your heart to those precious girls. He is alive and well.
Blessings, my friend.

Marge –   – (February 17, 2011 at 6:40 AM)  

What I've learned from being on mission trips and being with people from third world countries is that they are a very joyful people, those who know the Lord anyway, and their focus is on others, pleasing the Lord, their families and friends and helping and praying for others. Yes they would like the nice things too but that isnt their focus. They have always looked up to those who come and help them and I often wonder if I could really live up to what they see me to be.

S. Etole  – (February 17, 2011 at 7:02 AM)  

Your heart unfolds in beauty and love.

Cheryl Smith  – (February 17, 2011 at 7:05 AM)  

Beauty, all of it! The handscrolled curlies, the words being written on your heart, and now on ours? God, turning beauty from ashes.

Robin –   – (February 17, 2011 at 8:21 AM)  

I can "so" relate to your comments. We sponsor a 12-year-old boy in China through World Vision. My 12-year-old son loves to correspond with him but it's hard for me to write because we have so much compared to him. Thank you for your words. They have inspired me to write to him -- about anything and everything. If he's like my son, he'll be thrilled just to receive mail. And hopefully our love for him will be felt through our words.

I Live in an Antbed  – (February 17, 2011 at 8:58 AM)  

It is hard. We have children that we support and it is hard to know what to write. But, it's just the writing that is important. They just need to know we are thinking about them. I'm glad you wrote this today, because we owe them each a letter.

Terri Tiffany  – (February 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM)  

I hear your heart and I bet those girls do too:)

kendal  – (February 17, 2011 at 11:01 AM)  

dear my lovely parents.

oh. that's all i have. oh.

Kim  – (February 17, 2011 at 11:20 AM)  

Oh that verse...with
her beautiful words and faith in circumstances we can't imagine, she's inscribing on your heart with the Spirit of the living God ... and now, thorough you, making little lines on mine.

Jennifer  – (February 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM)  

Oh, how beautiful, Michelle--your daughter, her flowers, your heart. Thank you for sharing.

Lori  – (February 17, 2011 at 12:39 PM)  

Michelle, Yes I get it and I also don't get it...this is so beautiful. And yes, the gulf seems so very wide between here and there. But we can always relate to each other through the love of Christ, bless you for loving them! Lori

jasonS  – (February 17, 2011 at 2:44 PM)  

Amen. We can be so content to feel the love for a moment then move on, but God lives there and gives us grace to love as He does. Great thoughts, Michelle. Thanks.

Tiffini  – (February 17, 2011 at 3:08 PM)  

yes...i pray this also..this was a gift

The Farmer Files  – (February 17, 2011 at 4:40 PM)  

Her own script, how personal. How it makes her more than just a photo tucked into a folder. Thanks for sharing this.

Ostriches Look Funny  – (February 17, 2011 at 9:01 PM)  

I think that in someways they are richer than we are. Probably in more important ways. I wish I prayed more. I wish I cared more.
You are a beautiful letter, you know.

Sandra Heska King  – (February 17, 2011 at 9:32 PM)  

Oh, Michelle. I am right alongside you. I struggle so with what to write to our Nduta in Kenya, and it seems sometimes my letters sound so stilted because I'm so careful about what I say. While she talks about carrying water from the river, I pull down a crystal stemmed glass, fill with ice, and fill with fresh clean water. I take so much for granted.

LaVon Baker  – (February 17, 2011 at 9:46 PM)  

All I can say is.. Wow.

My hearts says... Wow.

My head says... Wow.

My eyes say... Wow.


amandatdodson  – (February 18, 2011 at 1:34 PM)  

I love this. I read it early in the morning this week and it stuck w/ me throughout the day. Thank you!

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