All that I have and do not have

IMG_0257[1]“One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”
~Cheryl Strayed

I used to feel like an empty pit, a void of nothingness filled with all the things I wanted that I did not have. How can I explain? I wanted to be so many things, to have so many things, and the least reminder of the things I was not or had not would fill me with despair and bitterness. This bitterness was equally against myself for not living up to what I thought I should, and against the world, for not giving me what I thought it should.

Does that sound overly dramatic? Or does it sound like your own internal world, too? Or both? I wanted big things, like to be thin, to be graceful, to be consistently good at academics, to be creative in a productive way instead of a theoretical one, to have a boyfriend and eventually a husband, to have my own kids and my own house, to be wiser than those around me and yet to fit in and be one of the gang. That last one was big, maybe the biggest: I wanted a group of friends, a place to feel comfortable and to belong. I also wanted to be strong and self-confident, to be able to express myself well, to stand up to bullies and to be compassionate and gentle to those who were suffering.

And I wanted a myriad of small things. My craving for those seemed endless and impossible. I wanted one of those expensive colored pencil sets that come in tins, not cardboard. I wanted a nice winter coat. I wanted a purse that was stylish but big enough to fit a book or two. I wanted an orange scarf. I wanted red shoes. I wanted a wok to cook in. I wanted pretty throw pillows. I wanted enough jeans that fit so that I could wear a different pair every day of the week. I wanted a cell phone and, later, a Blackberry, back before iPhones when Blackberries were the thing.

When I would see something that I wanted, that someone else had, I would be overwhelmed with a sense of loss and with self-loathing, How can I explain? I was intelligent, creative, spiritual, wise, adventurous, brave, kind, and gentle. I traveled the world, met fascinating people, wrote passionate essays and papers on theology and missiology, earned a master’s degree, served in many different ministries, lived with international students, taught ESL and the Bible, wrote songs and performed them at coffee houses, and explored the city with my homeless friends. When I look back on my 20s and 30s I’m amazed and grateful at what a full life I had.

Yet all of these accomplishments and experiences would disappear in a split second into that endless void inside of me when I saw something I wanted but couldn’t have. A beautiful skirt in a store that I knew didn’t carry my size. A friend’s apartment with an herb garden in the kitchen window. I wanted my own herb garden, and as soon as I felt that desire I felt the correlating conviction that I would never have it. Such beautiful, simple things were never to be mine.

Of course, the small things I wanted that filled me with despair were all symbolic of the big things. The colored pencils were symbols of the disciplined creative life I wished I had. The herbs and throw pillows were symbols of the home I’d always wanted to make with a husband and kids. The cell phone and Blackberry were symbols of the friendships and community I craved. And the desire for material things in general was symbolic of my fears that I would never be responsible and accomplished enough to have a good job that let me buy nice things. All of them were symbolic of my deepest fear, that there was something wrong with me, that I had a fatal flaw that would prevent me — as bright, creative, wise, compassionate, adventurous, and gentle as I was — from ever being whole.

(By the way, if you strongly relate to everything I’ve just written, you, too, might be an Enneagram type four.)

These days, though, do you know what? I do feel whole. I’ve been thinking about this lately because I have many of the little things I’ve always wanted. I have one of those fancy tin pencil sets. I have pretty throw pillows. I have a house full of plants (perhaps I have gone overboard on the plants), and a pot full of peppermint growing on my front porch. I even have an orange scarf and red shoes. And these little things make me so happy. I don’t take them for granted, because I wanted them for so long, and because I’ve been careful and strategic about buying them, slowly, over the years, when I’ve paid my bills and have a little bit left over. Maybe it makes me a bit materialistic, but mostly, I think, it just makes me grateful, and I don’t think there can be much wrong with gratitude.

But it’s funny, because the big things that I always wanted, for the most part, I don’t have. I don’t have a husband, or kids of my own. I don’t have a house of my own. I don’t have a group of friends or a nearby community, and in fact I had to leave the community where I lived for seven years because I couldn’t make myself fit there. I’m not thin, though I’m not nearly as fat as I used to be. I’m not graceful or that certain type of strong I’d wanted to be. I don’t express myself well in conversation, or stand up well to people who intimidate me.

It’s funny because I would have thought that the life-lesson of my 40s would be that the small things don’t matter, and the big things do. But the fact is that the big things *do* matter the most, they just matter in the letting go. When I turned 37 and was still single, I went through a grieving process of realizing that my dream of a husband and kids was probably not going to happen. I don’t know why it happened at 37 instead of 40, except that maybe I needed it to. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, letting myself walk through that grief clear-eyed, but when I had walked through it I found that something deep inside of me had healed. I no longer defined myself by what I didn’t have, but by what I did.

And it struck me that I’ve gone through a similar grieving process with the other things as well — with my dreams of being thin and of finding community. Grieving them and then letting them go allowed me to feel a wholeness and fullness that I never could before. I still crave them now and then, I still get jealous of those who have those things, but that jealously isn’t the bottomless pit that it used to be. It is just a feeling that passes, like the clouds passing overhead; it does not define me. And I recognize this as a miracle.

As for my dream of having creative discipline, of dedicating myself to my craft, well, here I am at Starbucks writing this essay. I’ve been here many weekends over the past three years, and I’ve been on my couch many mornings and evenings, writing essays and poems, and even a story here and there. Three of my blog posts have gone viral, and I’ve had two essays and a story published. And I’ve met some wonderful women who are also writers, and we even have a community. It’s online, it’s not the in-person gathering I always dreamt of, but it is life-giving and good. It took letting go of the things I didn’t have in order to claim the things that were in my reach. I had to learn to not define myself by what was lacking in order to turn to the beautiful things that were being offered to me. And in the end I’ve found that all that I do not have is nothing compared to what I have.

 

Follow Friday, or What I’m into these days

Follow FridayI’ve been wanting to do another Follow Friday post for awhile now, but I could never remember it on an actual Friday until today. And then, of course, I had to spend a considerable amount of time on Canva making a clever and pretty banner for the post (with elephants! do you like it?), so now Friday is almost over, but I think I can still squeeze it in.

Podcasts

Beautiful Writers Podcast

I discovered Linda Sivertsen and her Beautiful Writers podcast when Glennon Doyle Melton did an interview with Linda and Martha Beck. I was blown away by the peace, wisdom, and strength of those three women in their hour-long conversation. If you are a writer, a feminist, or just a lover of truth and beauty, I highly recommend that interview. And I can’t wait to check out more of Linda’s podcast.

This American Life Pandora station

I just got my first iPhone, after several years of the cheapest, non-smart phones I thought I’d done my time, and the new SE was only $299 through Virgin Mobile. It’s really fun having a new little toy, and one of my most exciting discoveries was that Pandora now has a This American Life station. If you’ve never listened to This America Life, it is basically the grown-up equivalent of asking your dad to tell you a story. You never know just what you are going to get — stories range from a 60yr old lifeguard suing the state of New York because he doesn’t want to wear a speedo, to stories of young people dating in a Greek refugee camp — but almost all of the stories are fascinating, and they’re narrated with a sense of humor and depth by Ira Glass.

Blogs

Ed Cyzewski

I’ve known vaguely about Ed for awhile –we have a lot of mutual friends and we follow each other on Twitter — but a couple of his recent posts have really stuck out to me. He is a Christian author who, like me, has an M.Div. but didn’t end up in ministry. Besides writing books, blogging, and doing freelance writing, he also hosts a website The Contemplative Writer which “provides daily prayer practices and soul care for writers.” I particularly enjoyed one of his recent posts on working through fear and anxiety, There is Life on the Other Side of Our Fears.

Facebook

Bunmi Laditan

Bunmi is the creator of The Honest Toddler, hilarious tweets and posts (and now a couple of books) from the perspective of a child. But when she writes as herself, on her Facebook page, she is even more hilarious, brutal, and profound. I love honesty, and it doesn’t get more honest than Bunmi’s vulnerable sharing about her anxiety and depression and how hard it is to be a mom of three young children. She shares the bare truth, but she does it with the skill and timing of a writer/comedienne, and the grace of one who has learned the hard way that the only way to make it through is to relentlessly love and forgive ourselves. And her responses to comments are filled with that fierce grace, as well.

Twitter

Dave Epstein

If you live in Maine or Boston, and are a bit of a weather nerd / obsessive compulsive like me, I highly recommend following meteorologist Dave Epstein on Twitter. He writes the weather blog for Boston dot com, and his twitter posts are full of additional information — like how this summer’s drought is affecting August’s temperatures — and often up-to-the-minute information about storm systems passing through. Dave also shares one of my biggest pet peeves about living in Boston: Why do all the good thunderstorms seem to fade into nothing before they hit us??

Me, too, that's where I live! Where are our thunderstorms??

Me, too, that’s where I live! Where are our thunderstorms??

Katie Mack

Katherine J Mack is an astrophysicist and freelance science writer from Melbourne, who already had a solid following when J.K. Rowling catapulted her to well-deserved fame by tweeting the best response to a mansplainer ever:

globalwarming

Obviously she is my new hero.

Instagram

Chase Photos

Until last week, I referred to Instagram as “that elitist social media site that won’t let you join unless you buy an expensive smart phone” and pretended I didn’t care that I wasn’t invited. But now I am in the club, and this first photographer is one of the main reasons I’m psyched to be there. Chase is the 13 year old son of a friend of mine, and his photographs are just gorgeous. I love seeing the things he captures, and seeing the world through his perspective. And last week he blew me away with this short essay:

I’m Chase. I’m a 13 year-old Asian/American boy who lives in a nice neighborhood. I have two parents who wholeheartedly love me and support me. I am lucky enough to attend a great school at which I mostly achieve good grades. I’m on the road to success. More likely than not, I will live a long, healthy, happy life, retire comfortably, and die in a hospital bed surrounded by my loving family and friends. I will be free to do whatever I want, whenever I want, within reason, of course. Pop quiz: which identity of mine allows me to have and keep these privileges? Is it because I’m a guy? Because I’m straight? Because I’m not black? It is hard to accept but the answers to these questions are YES YES YES. One of my good friends at my privileged, clean, SAFE school gets better grades than me and is one of the most humble, kind people I have ever met. It is saddening, but in this harsh world none of that counts. Certain police officers will pull him over, maybe if he’s speeding or even just “looking suspicious,” as so many of my dead fellow humans have, and in their eyes, in their heads, they will not see a kind, gentle young man with siblings he deeply cares for and a family that needs him. They will see his skin and he will be infinitely more likely to die than I would be if I was the one getting pulled over. My many queer/gay/trans friends who are so good to everyone they meet will be bullied and beaten and shunned and abused. Such is the way of things. Women, literally half of our population, are shamed every single day for how they look or eat or dress. Women are not objects. Gay people are not disgraces. Black people are not poison. Everyone is their own beautiful self. Yes, even the white supremacists and the homophobes and the anti-feminists / all-around jerks. You guys got some work to do, but still. If you feel a spark, go chase it. I’ve been told I’ll do great things when I grow up. How about now?

As Chase’s mom often says, the kids are all right.

Kelly Youngblood

My last follow is a photographer I just discovered today through Ed Cyzewski. She takes beautiful photos and pairs them with short reflections. Apparently there is a thing called visio divina, which is like lectio divina but instead of meditating on a short scripture verse you meditate on an image. I’m intrigued!

***

Thanks for reading, everyone! And if you’re interested in following me, I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

What have you been into lately?

 

 

 

Claim your space

awomansjobWhen I first bought a bike as a grown up, I also bought a pamphlet about biking in the city, and there was a section entitled CLAIM YOUR SPACE. Bikers, the pamphlet said, have as much right to the streets as anyone. If it’s safe for you to ride on the edge of the road and let cars pass you, fine, but if the safest place is in the middle of the lane, even if you’re slowing down the cars behind you, you’re allowed to be there. And I hopped on my bike with those words ringing in my ears: CLAIM YOUR SPACE. YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO BE HERE, a right to your portion of the road, whether or not it is convenient for anybody else.

And if you still need incentive to claim your space, on the road and in this life, here is a poem by Naomi Replanski.

Housing Shortage

I tried to live small.
I took a narrow bed.
I held my elbows to my sides.
I tried to step carefully
And to think softly
And to breathe shallowly
In my portion of air
And to disturb no one.

Yet see how I spread out and I cannot help it.
I take to myself more and more, and I take nothing
That I do not need, but my needs grow like weeds,
All over and invading; I clutter this place
With all the apparatus of living.
You stumble over it daily.

And then my lungs take their fill.
And then you gasp for air.
Excuse me for living,
But, since I am living,
Given inches, I take yards,
Taking yards, dream of miles,
And a landscape, unbounded
And vast in abandon.

You too dreaming the same.

I wrote the paragraph above, about claiming your space, as a comment on a video Glennon Doyle Melton shared. And, guess what? Among the many people chiming in and saying they wanted to claim their space, too, was a man whose comment was something like, “Hey genius, the roads are for cars! Get off of them!!!”

As if we needed to be reminded that when we do take up the space we need to ride, to breathe, to live, there will be those who push us back, and try to shove us to the side. They try to scare us, because it’s a vulnerable position being on a bike, exposed, among steel-enclosed cars. But we have the right to be here. Our life itself is our passport. We are here and, incidentally, we are important. That space we take up is important space, in which we do work that no one else could do. If we shrink to the edge, that work will be lost, and the world will be the worse for its loss.

Your space is yours. Take it. Claim it. Inches, miles yards — as much as you need. I’ll be on the road with you, cheering you on.

Love,
Jessica

 

In which I blatantly steal Mary Oliver’s idea for a poem

You do not have to quit Facebook.
You do not have to turn off your computer and cell phone two hours before bed.
You do not have to fast from social media for a month,
read a Russian novel, meditate for an hour every day,
or wake up before dawn to go for a run.

All you have to do is close your eyes for a minute.
All you have to do is take a deep breath for a change, feel the oxygen flow to your
arms and feet and head.
All you have to do is step onto your porch and notice the sunset,
sleep in an extra ten minutes and
maybe put some real cream in your coffee for once.

Rilke wrote to his “neighbor God”
That the wall between them was very thin:
A cry from either of them would easily break it.

Why have you been doing nothing, out of fear that you cannot do everything?
Listen, all that stuff is lovely, good for you even,
But all that is required is a word.
One real word, spoken through the wall.
Or if you can’t think of anything to say,

Just take a moment to listen.
One moment. And maybe one the next day, too.
And even if you spend the rest of the evening binge-watching Netflix
I promise that moment will be enough to break down the wall.

***

Go to my Facebook page to read the original Mary Oliver poem and the Rainer Maria Rilke poem.

On monsters and stars

Walden Pond

Walden Pond

I spent the day at Walden Pond yesterday. It was beautiful and peaceful, and even there I found myself thinking about terrorists and bombings, wondering what I would do, in which direction I would run. When I started thinking about the babies I made myself stop. Psychiatrists have descriptors of this kind of thinking: psychotic depression, or delusional depression. I think these are are inaccurate terms. If I had been in Nice, my thoughts wouldn’t have been wouldn’t have been delusions. They would have been prophetic.

Madeleine L’Engle said that we tell our children there are no monsters, that they are safe, but that is a lie. There are monsters, and we know it, and what we really mean is that the monsters will likely pick some other place to wreak havoc today. We mean we are safe-ish, probably, for now, and that the only way to stay sane is to live in denial about the ish. Some of us are just bad at living in denial. If I were in charge I would call it non-delusional depression. I’d call it paying attention.

But we do have to live our lives, and one thing about depression is that it makes it very hard to keep moving, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just being aware of all the pain in your own life, and your friends’ and family’s, and the world tends to make you just want to curl up into a ball and cry. And the problem with that, besides the fact that you are not really enjoying your one wild and precious life, is that you may actually be one of the people who can *do* something about someone else’s pain and suffering. Your awareness of it may not be, or may not only be, a mental illness, a descriptor penned in your chart in the sharp, quick script of an over-scheduled psychiatrist. It may be a call to action. Because you have to be able to see the monsters in order to fight them.

But you have to see something else, too. You have to see the beauty. You have to see the angels, the good, the God. Because in fact you are at Walden Pond, where the green of the trees and the blue of the sky swirl together in the water your body is moving through. You are — rather against your will, but still — sharing that particular cove with a large turtle, who has poked its head out of the water in a little triangle, and is assessing which way you are likely to go so it can go another. You are sitting on your towel, letting the breeze air-dry you, feeling that breeze with every tiny hair that it raises on your arms. You are walking further down the beach, coming around a bend, and finding a cairn in the shallow water, a miracle of architecture, made of stones, balanced on sand, rising out of the water.

S30A09781The monsters are real, but all of this is real, too. In A Wrinkle in Time the angel-like characters, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, take the children to space to show them the Darkness, a Thing that is threatening the universe, encroaching upon the earth and many other worlds as well. It is huge and horrible and terrifying. But then they show them something else:

The Darkness seemed to seethe and writhe. Was this meant to comfort them?

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing…

“It was a star,” Mrs. Whatsit said sadly. “A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing.”

The monsters are real, but the stars are real, too. There is great evil and sadness in the world, but there are also the stars and the clear, good darkness of space. The star that gave its life in the book was fiction, of course, but there are real acts of love and healing every day. My swim through the glacier-dug pond was one. My prayer for my friend as we texted each other that we were struggling was one, and so was hers for me. The act of building the cairn was one, too. Any creative act is.  And I did not think of it yesterday, but a cairn is a memorial, too. Perhaps its maker was a prophet. Perhaps she was carrying the weight of the world’s grief, past and future, and shaped it into the best thing she could, a piece of art. Or perhaps she didn’t know what was going to happen in France today, but just knew that the monsters are real, and she flung her art out against them, a star into the night.

I can’t think of the babies. I have to stop myself. I’m not going to watch the news tonight, or listen to stories. But I am going to pray. And I am going to create. I’m going to write. And I’m going to hold the beauty in my heart, along with the pain. Let this be my prayer for anyone who reads this: Lord, let them see the beauty, too. Let them be it.

Love,
Jessica

Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working

Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working:

Okay. It’s okay. Just spend some time here with no internet. Sit with the boredom, with the antsiness. Don’t fight the tiredness, but don’t disappear into it, either. Stay present. Sit in the hard-backed chair. Sit up straight. See how it feels. See how your thoughts are different than when you’re slouching. Close your eyes. Open your eyes.

Write one true sentence. Write one lie. Look at the books around you. Wonder what you can learn from just their spines. Make an observation: There are 34 volumes in The Dictionary of Art, and only 29 volumes in The Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Wonder about those five less volumes. Wonder if they are because five books worth of music was never recorded, or if it was never even written. Feel the missing music in your bones.

Notice you feel a little less sleepy. Look out the window at the brick wall of a school. Remember your own school’s brick wall, when you were ten. Describe how it felt when you leaned against it at recess: Warm and hard, the rough edges catching on your clothes. You wanted to lie down in the grass, like you did in your yard at home, and daydream. But the kids would have laughed at you, so you leaned against the wall and watched them play. You were tired then, too. Recess was after lunch. There were two and a half more hours before you would find your little brother and walk home.

Wonder if you could write a story about walking home from school with your little brother. Think about it for a few minutes and come up with nothing. Feel discouraged. Don’t fight the discouragement, but don’t disappear into it, either. Use it. Describe it. Where do you feel it in your body? Your chest? Your arms? Notice that it makes you feel alone and separate from the other people around you. Wonder how many of the other quiet people in the library feel discouraged, feel alone. Write for them.

Write for them. Write your story about walking home from school for the other ten year old girls who felt alone at recess. Write it for the grown-ups in the library who were ten once. Write it for the ones who remember the prickly feeling of the school wall against their skin. Write it for the ones who have forgotten and only know that they are missing something in their bones. Write it for the musicians who would be in volumes 30-34 if they weren’t so tired and discouraged. Write till they know they are not alone. Write till you know you are not alone. Write till the musicians pick up their instruments and start to play. Write.