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.

The shape of a home

Hello! Hi. It’s me, Jessica. I haven’t posted here in a long time, and I miss you. I miss my blog and the few folks who read it. Things just got very busy, and I’ve been overwhelmed and stressed. I needed to write, but I didn’t have the energy to do it. All my energy was going to work. I gave notice to a job that was too hard for me, but I gave two month’s notice, and those two months lasted a really, really long time. My other jobs asked for extra hours, and I needed the money so I said yes to almost everything.

It was good. Most of it was a lot of fun. I took the kids to museums, the beach, the zoo, parks, playgrounds, for walks in the woods. We played soccer, catch, baseball, tag, hide and seek, Jedi Knights, Ninjago, sword fighting, card games, board games, and lots of silly made-up games. I made snacks, packed picnic lunches, applied sun screen, cheered children on when they got discouraged, faked energy when I didn’t have it, and spent more money than usual on liquid energy at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Citifeed, and wherever else I could find it.

It was fun, and I’m proud of myself for pushing through and finishing well. I really cared for the family I gave notice to, and it was a hard decision and hard to say good-bye, but I know it was the right decision. I could feel my health slipping these past few months, and I learned the lesson the hard way that I need to stop *before* I’m completely burnt out. My last day I bought the kids pretty, knit hacky sacks and taught them how to use them. We had an awesome day. I started a joke where I would pretend to throw the sack but let go of it right before the throw so that it landed behind me, then scold the sack for not doing what I told it to do. They thought it was hilarious, so of course I had to do it a million times.

I cried when I left. The youngest, W, is 1 1/2, a tow-headed toddler who called me Mommy (he called his father and siblings that, too) and hugged me joyfully every morning. That age is my favorite, the sweet little games, the inside jokes that elicit belly laughs (he thought it was hysterical when I would offer him something and then pull it back and say, “Psych!”), and the complete trust — though not always without protest. He blended into my hip, the way each toddler I’ve nannied has for the past ten years, the way A did before her family moved to Colorado, and M before her family moved to Texas, and N before he started preschool and didn’t need me anymore, and Z before I left to pursue a ministry job. They feel like my own children, but they’re not, and when they leave I mourn their loss. My arms and my hip feel empty.

*****

The former Pinebank Mansion

The former Pinebank Mansion

A few weeks ago I took W for a walk at Jamaica Pond. It was a beautiful day. I had my Cafe Nero’s iced coffee, the breeze off of the pond was ruffling W’s blond hair and my salt-and-pepper hair, and we had no agenda except to follow our noses. We tossed pebbles and sticks into the water, ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the baby ducks and geese, and then made our way up to the Pine Bank Promontory overlooking the pond. The mansion that used to stand here was torn down several years ago, and in its place granite slabs were laid, flush with the ground, in the shape of the old house.

I started walking along the path made by the stone slabs, past the two majestic American Sycamore trees, and W fell into step behind me. We walked quietly, intently, as if perambulating this house was a sacred task assigned to us. Something in me felt wistful, and I realized it was the house that made me feel that way. The border of an old house, of a home lost to time, of a home that someone had once owned in the way that I have never owned a home, only borrowed them, shared them, inhabited them for a time. I pay rent to my landlords and I set up my things. I collect a salary from my employers and come to know their own homes as intimately as the family that lives there, the quirks, the feel of them. Which windows to open to create a cross-breeze, how to lift the gate before swinging it in so that it does not damage the lawn. The home that I have been in longest belongs to the family whose nanny I’ve been, off and on, for ten years. I never lived in a place that long, either as a child or an adult.

I dream about houses — it feels like almost every night. Sometimes the dreams are nightmarish, I’m back in an old living situation that was unhealthy, or I’m living once again with an old roommate who was difficult, and don’t understand why I’m there, why I let this happen again. Sometimes the dreams are beautiful; I’ve moved into a spacious mansion with lovely, sun-filled rooms. I set up my things and find I have more clothes, more furniture, more art and plants than ever before. And it’s mine. My house. My space. Not shared with roommates or borrowed from a landlord who can decide not to renew my lease.

I dream about that in real life, too. It’s one of the things I’ve always wanted, since I was young, along with a husband and children. My own house that I could organize, decorate, putter around. My own yard with flowers that I pick out and plant. I grieved the death of my dream of children in my late 30s. It’s still not impossible, there’s always adoption, but as an unmarried 42 year old with health issues and without a lucrative career to support a single-parent household, I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever have kids. It’s true that anything can happen. But it was important for me to let go of that dream in order to place my energy, love, and gratitude fully in the life I already have.

For seven years I lived in an intentional Christian community in Boston. There were some really wonderful things about the community and about my experience there, but there were a lot of things that were really unhealthy for me, too. I stayed longer than I probably should have, because of the wonderful things, but also out of fear. I was afraid of leaving the support of a built-in community. I was afraid of leaving my room, which had been a refuge for me during some extremely hard times.

But, oh, what a beautiful home I have stumbled into now. It’s so peaceful, so spacious, so sunny. It is a rental, and the landlady is going to want it back in a few years. It’s not mine. But what a lovely, soft place to fall for now. What a gift to have someplace to land after a leap of faith. My friend Mark and I found it together. Our current housemate is leaving, so the last couple of months have been made even more stressful by having to look for another housemate. But we found one, finally, in the eleventh hour, just as we found this place, just when we thought we wouldn’t.

As I walked around the border of the old mansion, W toddling behind me like a little duckling himself, I thought about houses past and houses present. I thought about how I have no idea where I’ll be five years from now, which house, which city, which housemates. And then I thought: But no one knows that, not really. Even Sadie, Sadie, married lady, with her husband and kids and bought-and-paid-for house doesn’t know what the future will bring. As someone once said: Anything can happen — and usually does. We don’t possess the future any more than we possess the past, except in our dreams and memories, and in mementos like these stones to mark what used to be. All we have is right now, what is right in front of us, rented or borrowed, given as a gift with no receipt, no life-time guarantee.

What I have right now is beautiful. What I have right now is enough.

On yoga and standing in lines

TrinidadandTobagoAt the dollar store just now a whole line of us were trapped behind a person who was buying $288.78 worth of stuff in dollar increments (that is the actual number — I watched her painstakingly count out exact change). People were getting frustrated, but me — I had just given up. “This is my life, now,” I thought. “I’m going to be in this line forever.” So I made the best of it, rolled my shoulders back as Esther Ekhart had taught me, checked my spinal alignment and pretended I was doing an important yoga pose: Tadasana With 32 Rolls of Toilet Paper.
 
When another register finally opened up, I gestured for everyone else to go ahead of me. I felt like I had made a spiritual commitment to this line, and I was kind of interested in seeing the end of the story happening in front of me. How much money was it possible to spend at a dollar store? And what language was the woman speaking to her friend as they pulled yet another frilly tutu and a set of popscicle-makers out of their bottomless shopping cart? It was beautiful, rolling, lilting. I fought the impulse to repeat their words out loud.
 
One of the women I’d let go to the open register passed me with her purchases and said, “You’re the most patient American I’ve ever met! You belong in the Caribbean, where the lines are even longer than this, all the time!”
 
I belong in the Caribbean! Yes, of course! It all makes sense now. If you need me, I will be online searching for real estate in Trinidad and Tobago.

On selfies and self-love

I took my first selfie back in 2006 and it was a revelation. It felt like art, like self-examination and self-discovery. When I joined MySpace and then Facebook and could post and share those photos it became almost a political act. To post a selfie was to say, “Look how beautiful I am!” and society doesn’t quite approve of that. If you are beautiful, you are not supposed to brag about it, and if you are not conventionally beautiful you are supposed to accept your place and not go against convention. Either way, you are not supposed to believe in your own beauty. For one thing, where would all the makers of beauty products be if women got out of bed already loving ourselves? And there’s a snarkiness there, too, we women judging each other. A pretty photo taken by a friend is okay, but put the camera in our own hands and we start to whisper, “narcissist.”

I love the camera in my own hands. I love to paint portraits of myself, to see my different angles, to turn the camera on when I am sad, or celebratory, or angry, to see what that does to the muscles in my face. I have learned about myself through taking my own picture. And I have learned to love myself, too. We are strangely disconnected from our own outward appearance, especially those of us who tend to be lost in thought. Sometimes when someone speaks to me I startle, surprised that they can actually see me, when I myself feel far away, as if I am watching the scene around me through a screen. It’s good to see myself on the screen sometimes. It’s grounding. I feel more present, I feel like a spirit with a face and body, more like the people whose faces and bodies I see every day.

I take my picture in bed sometimes. I took it when I was lying in bed, sick with migraines and depression. I took it when I gained 50lbs and lost it. I took it when I cut my hair and as it grew back. I took it when I was brave and went for a walk in the autumn leaves, back when leaving the house was an act of courage. I took it when I was even more courageous and waited for the T to take me to a job interview. I took pictures with the kids I nannied, and with friends. Last weekend I took a series of selfies as I sat at Starbucks and the library, writing, investing in my dream, dressed in my favorite, most hopeful colors.

Look how beautiful I am. Look how beautiful I was, fat and thin, sad and joyful, messy-haired and made-up all nice. And you are beautiful, too.

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The world wants me to write about it today

“Pay attention. As a summation of all that I have had to say as a writer, I would settle for that.”
~ Frederick Buechner

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
~ Mary Oliver

The world wants me to write about it today. It’s been throwing itself at me, quite shamelessly. It will do anything, it seems, for a bit part in one of my stories. From the moment I left my house the water sparkled at me like some reverse paparazzi, wanting its flash bulbs to be the news on page six. At Starbucks I tried to write my blog post about finances, but an apologetic woman sat across from me, asking in a soft, Germanic accent if there was room for her and her friend, while the Chinese family at the other end of the table nodded and gestured to her, making the word “okay” seem like both a full sentence and a solemn ceremony.

A few minutes later I glanced up to see the Chinese man holding his hands in front of him, empty palms open like a book, staring silently and intently at their pages, and the man on my other side answered his phone with a click of his earpiece and earthy Russian syllables rolled out of his mouth. I paused to take a selfie for Facebook — the intrepid writer hard at work — and when I cropped it I saw I had also captured a woman behind me wearing a head covering, hard at work on her own laptop, a novel buried in the soft furrow of her brow.

“Slow down!” I cried, “Let me choose — I write slowly.” And I fled to the library, hiding in a study carrel with just enough room for me. Safe, I thought. But I glanced over and caught the eye of the man in the carrel next to me, just as he was glancing over at me, and his brown skin, shoes kicked off and tie slung over his shoulder called out to be described. What color tie? Purple, with green stripes, and the shoes looked like loafers–

“Wait! Stop!” I called again to the flamboyant world. “That’s not my job right now!” I glued my eyes to to my computer, trying to write the post, copying and pasting. But the library turned out to be a dangerous choice as a myriad of childhood memories ran up and demanded to play on my page. How many times had I ridden my bike the two miles to the local library and spent the afternoon exploring the worlds within that sacred world? What was the name of the street? What was that smell that drifted out of the Italian restaurant as I biked by? “Tell about it,” the memories insisted. “Tell our story.”

So I ran to the park, a pond surrounded by trees, benches, fields. I grabbed my notebook — there was work to be done! But just within the gates a Korean wedding party gathered for a picnic, laughing loudly as I scurried by, dodging inspiration. (How would I describe the smell of kimchi? Sour? Vinegary?) Then I ran straight into a group of women dressed head to toe in black hijabs, making me suddenly aware of my broad, naked face, my bare hair flowing in the breeze (chestnut, with shiny wisps of grey). But I was restored to modesty as I rounded the corner by a scene from the cover of a romance novel — a young Hispanic woman dressed in a sleeveless, backless, flowing pink gown, with two muscular men holding out swaths of the fabric as a crew of four photographed them. Coming closer I saw the plot twist — the woman was pregnant, and cradled her belly proudly, shaping the dress around it. “Now there is a story,” the world said, pulling out all the stops: “Write it!”

Full to bursting I rushed up the hillside to sit in the crook of a fallen tree that would take me half an hour to describe. But I can’t, I don’t have time, because even as I write this a man has kicked a soccer ball near the pond and his shoe is flying into the air with it — he is hopping on one foot, laughing and shouting in Arabic. He is hopping right now, I tell you — he is bending down in the wet grass to retrieve his shoe. Did I mention the color of the grass? Did I tell you about the ragged feel of the trees after a long winter and a blustery early spring? Did I describe the slow perambulation of an elderly couple, leaning on each others’ arms for support? Did I write about the woman sitting in the crook of a fallen tree, writing furiously in a notebook as if the world were tugging at her sleeves? Did I get it all?