from the lunch lady

Today is my last day of work as The Lunch Lady for an amazing group of preschoolers. I woke up early this morning to write a letter to my kids that I’m sure they won’t necessarily be able to grasp now, but I wanted to post it here as a place for them to always come back and find it should they ever forget who they are and how much they are loved. I have so much more to say about my time spent in Lunch Lady Land, many stories and pictures to share, but for now I shall just share this letter and take in the last few moments of my morning, before taking my last walk to work where I will fix my last lunch and hear “THANK YOU MS. JJ,” from that amazing group of preschoolers one last time.

 

Hello My Little Friends,

I have already started tearing up as I address this letter to you. As you know but may not have added up, I have been your lunch lady for the last year and three months. The time has come for me to say goodbye to you all as I set off for some new adventures in my life, but I wanted to be able to tell you all how much I love you, how much I will miss you and how much life you have to offer this world.

You are currently in preschool. You’re short, you’re cute and you have a whole world and a long life ahead of you. I have never addressed an audience this young, so bare with me as I try and figure out how to relay a message about life that involves a lot of beauty and a lot of scrapped knees and things gone missing, like toys, and playmates that might move away, and all of your baby teeth. Has anyone told you yet that you will loose all of the teeth that are currently in your mouth? You will, and it may be easy or it may be hard, but don’t worry, you’ll get much better and stronger teeth in return, more durable for the long road ahead.

Life is going to be a lot of that, things gone missing and getting found again, and lost again, and found again, and sometimes not found again, but sometimes replaced with something better. It’s okay to cry when things go missing. Crying is okay and very necessary, don’t ever let anyone tell you not to cry. There are so many things in life worth crying over, so many things that hurt our feelings or bruise our elbows, and when we feel hurt it is most certainly okay to cry. And crying doesn’t just have to happen when you are sad. Sometimes I cry simply because the sky is so beautiful and smiling just doesn’t seem to cut it. Sometimes I laugh so hard I cry. Sometimes crying makes me just as happy as not crying, and so I say to you, dear boys and girls, it is okay for you to cry. Plus, you never really grow up enough to grow out of crying, so you might as well learn to embrace it. That means to welcome it into your arms and give it a big ol’ hug as you learn to love who you are, how you were made and the emotions you were given.

So there’s that… crying is okay.

And there’s also this… you all have the most beautiful smiles! I’m back to crying again as I think about each one. Some of them are bright red, others are a lighter pink, some are crooked with character and some are straight as can be. I usually see them covered in food, which quite honestly is one of my favorite ways to see them as you enjoy the food I make for you, but whether drenched in spaghetti sauce, hidden behind chocolate or clean as a whistle, I love seeing you smile. A smile is a language in and of itself as everyone you meet in life, no matter where they come from, no matter how different they look from you, everyone understands what a smile means. This makes a smile a very powerful thing… some of you already know this as you try to smile your way out of trouble, so while I say use smiles often, be careful with them… they may get you out of trouble, but not learning a lesson is way worse than getting in trouble… I promise. Oh, and girls, smiling is way better than makeup… no amount of makeup can make you look  half as pretty as having a smile on your face… I promise that too.

You should know that much like the lunch room, life is going to get messy. Life is full of messes. We can clean up real good and wash our hands and brush our teeth and change into a clean pair of pajamas and maybe even have some sweet dreams, but each day is different and some of those days are going to look squeaky clean and some of those days are going to look messier than your toy box exploding in your bedrooms. While I don’t advise going about trying to create messes in life, you can certainly expect some messes, even embrace them (remember that hug thing) and still enjoy the life you’ve been given.

Somewhere along our journey together, me as your lunch lady and you as the precious little mouths I feed, I forgot that life could get messy, especially in the kitchen, and I forgot what life was about as I tried to cover up my messes instead of cleaning them up. Cleaning up a mess is much better than covering it up… I promise. Thank God for Ms. Mackenzie, who came in to help me do the dishes and clean up all the messes I made on my own but would have never been able to clean up without help. Know that it’s always okay to ask for help; no mess is too much for someone who loves you to step in and help you. Try your best to hold onto people who aren’t afraid of your messes, they are few and far between (that means hard to find). Be sure to say thank you when someone steps in to help you clean up. I shall set that example for you by saying thank you to Ms. Mackenzie now…

Thank you, Ms. Mackenzie, so very much, for stepping in, for lending a helping hand and for not being afraid to take on my messes. You are more beautiful than you know, and not just because you help clean up after me.

So remember that, life is messy, but with just the right cleaning crew, it can and will be oh so fun! Ask for help, say thank you. I so hope you all learn to write, as a hand written thank you card is one of the best gifts to give and receive. Remember how I said smiles were powerful? So is saying thank you. I will never forget the sound of you all screaming “THANK YOU, MS. JJ!” just before I was about to wonder if all the work I did in the kitchen was worth it. Let me tell you now, every once of effort I put into creating your lunch was worth your smiles and the sound of your voices yelling thank you.

I wish I could wrap your little and brilliant minds around just how much I am going to miss you. It was not an easy decision for me to make to leave The Sunshine School, but Ms. JJ needed to take care of herself, which meant she needed to step out of the kitchen for a while. You see, I forgot some very important things along the way, but the most important thing I forgot affected me the most and I want to share it with you to store in your pockets and purses to maybe pull out and look at somewhere along your own journeys.

I forgot that life isn’t about being the prettiest or the coolest. I forgot that for as cool as Spider-Man is and as beautiful as Cinderella is, life is not about being a superhero or a princess. I forgot that while I love my best friend, life isn’t about saving a seat for my best friend only to leave someone else out. I forgot that life isn’t about being the king of the mountain or the queen of the castle. I forgot that making pretty food doesn’t make me have a pretty heart and saying “look what I can do” never feels as good as saying “look what you can do.”

I lost sight somewhere along the way and I forgot what life was about…

Jesus.

Life was and is and always will be about Jesus whether we remember it or not, so I find it most helpful to try and remember. My heart was sad for a long time, simply because I forgot about Jesus, and so that is what I hope you remember more than anything else, more than your sandwiches that looked like faces, more than Ms. JJ dancing in the kitchen or the puppet who has surfaced in our last few days together, I hope you always remember who Jesus is.

Jesus saved Ms. JJ at a time when she needed it most, at a time when her mess seemed too big to clean up, and he rounded up a cleaning crew and got to work. Life is about Jesus. And because life is about Jesus, that means life is about people, because Jesus is about people. The best way to love Jesus is to love yourself (because you are a people) and to love other people, to invite them to sit next to you, to help them clean up, to smile at them, to say thank you.

My heart is excited and heavy as I think about you all going out into this world. My prayer more than anything is that you would know you are loved. You are so deeply loved. Knowing whether we are loved or not shapes a lot of who we are and how we treat people, and so the simplest way I can think to pray that you would never forget Jesus is to pray that you would never forget how loved you are.

I’m quite sure your attention span hasn’t held out this long, perhaps I should have addressed the Jesus thing first, but perhaps maybe one day when you are older, you can come back and read this letter and be reminded of the time you spent in a place called Lunch Lady Land within the county lines of The Sunshine School. Perhaps you can be reminded of how good your food was, but more importantly how much your lunch lady loved you, but even more importantly how much Jesus still loves you no matter what you’ve done, no matter what road you’ve taken, no matter what age you come back and read this letter.

Though I am not ready to think about not seeing your faces every morning, the time comes in all of our lives to take the next road. Kindergarden is soon ahead of you and so our ways would have parted soon enough anyhow. I’ve never been good at saying goodbyes and so I used to avoid them, but I’m learning that you just never really know what life brings you, which sometimes includes bringing something back you thought you had to say goodbye to. So this isn’t goodbye, at least not forever, because who knows when and where we might see each other again, be it at the grocery store in a few weeks, or a few months from now when Frozen comes to the cheap theater, or ten years down the road after I’ve written a book a two. Did I tell you that yet? I want to write books and tell stories… and make no mistake that my time spent with all of you helped shape that. And because some of you have already started asking, yes, I am going to cook for myself at home.

As I bring this letter to a close I want to leave you with one more thing, and I mean it… I’m here for you. Yes, I’m moving on to new things, but should the time ever come that you’ve forgotten some of things I mentioned above and you need an encouraging word, or a cleaning crew member, or a smiley face sandwich, even if it’s twenty years from now and the smiley face sandwich is more proverbial than literal, all you have to do (as I may have lost my memory by then) is say, “Ms. JJ, you were my lunch lady, and I’ve forgotten some things along the way.” I’m here for you, and I’m for you. I’m in your corner, cheering you on, even if I have to do so from far away.

So cry when you need to, laugh a lot, smile big, get dirty, hug the mess but don’t leave it there, find a good cleaning crew, ask for help, say thank you, be nice to people, be willing to give up your seat instead of save a seat, nourish those little bodies with lots of good food, be a kid as long as you can but don’t ever be afraid to get older (adulthood isn’t as scary as I thought it would be), love each other, love your teachers, love your parents and guardians, love people. Love Jesus, and never, ever, ever give up.

Life is worth every bit of breath you have to breath it in. Even on the toughest of days and the most sleepless of nights, life is so incredibly beautiful. Don’t let it pass you by, live it up and live it well.

It is with great appreciation for my time spent with you that I say goodbye for now.

I love you, my little friends, I really, really love you.

With much love and much muchness,

Your Lunch Lady, Ms. JJ

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journey

I currently have 38 drafts saved in my Tumblr account. Unfinished and unpublished, none of these drafts occurred within this new year and I don’t even know how many of them occurred within the last year. I suppose I wrote a few times last year, but mostly I just posted pictures of food and became really unhealthy in the process.

Somewhere along life’s journey I got lost… again. I look back on the life I have lived over the last thirty years and much of it consists of getting lost, finding my way again, getting lost again, finding my way again, and so it goes… again and again.

I used to think I would arrive at some point where I finally found it or did it or became it and I don’t know if I ever really knew what it was, but I knew it didn’t involve getting lost and having to ask for help. To finally arrive meant I no longer needed help and I would have thought that by the time I reached thirty I would no longer need help, with anything really.

I don’t know why I thought this, I don’t know if someone told me this along the way or if I just conjured it up in my head all those times I played “journey” as a kid. Yes, while most other girls played house, making tea and cleaning for their pretend husbands and babies, my sister and I were playing “journey.” We would pack our bags with blankets and apples, along with markers and paper to make maps and together we would pretend we were run-aways or adventurers going on a long journey, never actually arriving to our destination. The game was all about the journey and what happened along the way, it was never about arriving to a certain spot because we never actually arrived to a certain spot, unless dinner was ready then we would arrive home for dinner, but in the game there was no arriving. We would set up camp in a tree for a short while, long enough to snack on an apple, check our maps and catch our breath, but always we continued on our way through the “mountains” of our surrounding neighborhood. For the record, there were no actual mountains, just the imagination being played out on the flat coastline of South Carolina.

The beautiful and sad thing about the imagination of a child is that at some point you grow up, and at some point you start hearing the voices that tell you you need to grow up, you need to succeed, you need to accomplish, you need to arrive. I don’t know at what age I realized that it seemed more important to arrive somewhere than it did to journey somewhere, but my guess would be middle school. I think anybody who has made it through middle school has a right to blame a lot of their issues on middle school. I think Flannery O’Connor said something to that effect, but I can’t be so sure as to quote her verbatim.

I’m not blaming middle school for my getting lost time and time again, there comes a time in life when the same old excuse loses its validity as an excuse at all; I’m just citing middle school as a possible starting point for thinking the day would come when I would finally arrive, even if I hesitated to arrive at all.

I love road trips, I have always loved road trips, and most of what I love about them, if not all of what I love about them, is the road itself, the state of being in which you are constantly on a journey. Whether I am merely heading to the grocery store, a friend’s house or a national park I have yet to see, there is always the slightest bit of disappointment upon the arrival, not because I don’t want to be there, but because the journey has in some way come to an end. I look back and it makes sense to me that I played “journey” as a kid instead of “house,” I never wanted to be still, I never wanted to settle down, I never wanted to arrive, I just wanted to journey.

At thirty years old, I still have yet to arrive, and perhaps this is what I have come to accept about life, that while there is a time for everything, even being still, life in and of itself is a journey, and we will never actually arrive on this side of eternity. For a restless heart like mine, I take great peace in knowing that I am not expected to arrive, at least not to a state of perfection, of having it all figured out, of knowing it all, applying it all and being it all. On this side of eternity I am already who I always wanted to be, a sojourner. Perhaps I was on to something as a kid and I forgot along the way as I grew up and sought out perfection instead of character.

I have made a lot of mistakes in the last few years, some the result of an intentional poor choice and some not at all, some I wasn’t even aware were mistakes until I took a second to look back and notice the wreckage. I say that to say I’ve messed up, time and time again, mostly because I have been trying so hard to finally arrive instead of slowing down enough to take part in the journey. I’ve been racing to a finish line that I don’t even necessarily want to get to because it’s not only unrealistic, it’s lonely. Nobody is perfect and so even if I did by some bizarre, unnatural twist of fate reach that goal of perfection, I can guarantee you that I would be there alone, and alone in this world is not somewhere I want to be, not a place I want to arrive.

I cannot undo things that have been done in the past any more than I can take back words that have been spoken. I can only own my part in the damage I have done, seek forgiveness where it needs to be sought and move forward from here, finding my way yet again on this journey of life, reminding myself that you are never too old to ask for help.

My job is coming to an end this month and a new journey is beginning. I am a mix of nerves and excitement, peace and chaos, confusion and clarity, dark and light, dust and divine breath.

My plan, my hope, my prayer is to write more in an effort to live more. I feel most alive when I am writing and mainly because it means I have actually been living, which is where my best writing material comes from… life. If writing is evidence of life then last year looked a lot more like death than life. You don’t have to look much further than my Tumblr archive to see what I mean. You will find pretty pictures of sandwiches that look like animals and vegan desserts made from twigs and berries, but you won’t find much past that. You won’t find many stories about life, about people, about hope and redemption, about grace and forgiveness. You will find bright colors and perfectly positioned subject matters, but you won’t find any warmth or any subjects that actually matter (save the few faces of some adorable kids, those faces matter).

Perhaps a blog is a lame place to start, but I am lame and in need of a new start, and so I am starting in the best way I know how, with writing, even if just on this blog. I am taking a baby step in a new direction on this long journey of life, extending grace to myself when I lose my way and grace to others when they lose theirs. After all, whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.

Traveling mercies, seventy times seven, grace upon grace,

jennie joy

 

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