Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it

teaI woke up early to write, but what does it look like to write this morning? What does it look like to write with the election three days old? What does it look like to write when your neighbors have called the police to have your car towed, and someone has keyed your car, and then your neighbor comes over to say, “This is not that kind of neighborhood?” What does it look like to write when Leonard Cohen has died and you hear the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Roots as directed at you in some small way:

See I’ve been patiently waiting for this moment
To rise up again, that’s the way I was molded
And as the last one standin’ as the rest of them foldin’
Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it.
And I am not throwing away my shot.

What does it look like to write when the essay you’re working on is about something that happened ten years ago, and you had been writing it from a place of peace and perspective but now 2016 feels like it has no wisdom to offer 2006?

What does it look like to write when someone you love is sick and you don’t know if they will live to see you publish your first book, and the pressure and sorrow of that leans against your pen and weighs down every word?

What does it look like to write when the President-Elect is someone whose name you swore you would never write, even in your journal, not out of hatred but because attention fuels his chaos like oxygen fuels a fire? If this were a novel it might be an interesting narrative device to have a character without a name, a whole book in which he is referred to only obliquely. Vonnegut could have done it well. But this is real life, and Vonnegut is gone, and the fire has caught hold of the highest office in the land, and how can you write a story while the world burns down and not mention the arsonist?

What does it look like to write this morning? Last night I came home and told my housemates that our neighbor, who had called the police on us, had said he would come by that evening to chat. He said he wasn’t the one who keyed our car and, “Let’s not escalate this.” Mark and Allison and I touched base, but Allison had a bad migraine from the stress of it all, so Mark and I said we would talk to the neighbor when he came. We were tired, and really wanted to change into sweatpants, but we kept our “nice” jeans on and waited for the doorbell to ring.

I stood in the kitchen while my dinner was cooking, and breathed deeply, and tried to pray. All day and the day before, messages of love and sorrow had been coming in on my phone, by text, by Facebook, and by Twitter. My friends and I needed to feel each other near, and so we sent warm-breasted homing pigeons to each other with tiny messages tied to their legs: “I love you.” “I’m thinking of you.” “You are needed here — don’t despair.” I breathed deeply and tried to relax my shoulders which were tensed to hear the jangle of the doorbell, while my phone made soft little chirps and coos and I could hear the rustling of the pigeons’ feathers as they landed.

And so I breathed deeply, filled the kettle with water, and put it on the stove for my neighbor.

I don’t know what it looks like to write this morning. I don’t even know what it looks like to pray. My neighbor never did come over last night, and so I went to bed and set the alarm as I’ve been doing lately, to get up early and write as I watch the sunrise. I didn’t get anywhere on my essay about 2006, though. I don’t know what it looks like to write in November of 2016. But I do know how to breathe deeply. I’ve been working on that. I do know how to strap a tiny message to a pigeon’s leg and send it out into the night. And I know how to put the kettle on. I learned that just last night.

So that’s what I wrote about today. And, friends, readers, listen — I love you. I’m thinking of you. You are needed here; please don’t despair. As Glennon says, stay close. I have tea and coffee, and my kettle will be on, here at Ten Thousand Places and on my Facebook page. This morning I recommend English Breakfast, or maybe yerba mate (after coffee, of course). Whatever the “how” of writing, I already know the “why” and it’s you.

All my love,
Jessica

To my white friends: Four things we must do today

Last year, in reaction to Sandra Bland’s death after an illegal arrest, I wrote a post to my white friends about four things we could do. The things I named were to listen to the stories of people of color, acknowledge their feelings, lament and mourn along with them, and acknowledge our own complicity as having benefitted from a system that gives us privilege and advantages, and not having fought hard enough to break down that system.

I named those four things as a place to start, and while I still think they are, the news of today calls for something more. 

1) Listen. Yes, we need now more than ever to listen to the stories and testimonies of people of color, acknowledge their pain, and lament along with them.

2) But also intentionally and carefully create space. More than listening, acknowledging, and lamenting, today we need to create space for people of color to grieve without inserting ourselves into the conversation. Too often our attempts to empathize turn into co-opting  the discussion and centering our own pain. A lot has been written about how much more attention and weight is given to a white woman crying than to women of color. Yes, we are hurting, and we must find ways to take care of ourselves, and places to talk and process. But the place for that is not in the comment section of a black woman’s Facebook post, or the public space of Twitter where our voices and pain overshadow those of minorities. Talk to other white folks, in private, and come back when you are ready to stand on the sidelines, in a support role, and center the voices of the marginalized. If you’re not ready to do that today, just listen quietly. 

3) Acknowledge our complicity. While I still think this is vital, I have learned a bit since I wrote that about how such statements come across to people of color. I do think there is a place for them, but I also think we have to do a lot of this work in white spaces, rather than calling on people of color to bear with us during the process. And I also now realize that there is a huge element of guilt and the desire for affirmation even in this process. We act out of a desire to assuage our guilt and be seen as one of the “good” white people, rather than out of a desire to actually make a change. Most of us have mixed motivation. But we have to keep checking ourselves and each other, asking what our motivation is and what the effects of our words are — their fruit, as Christians would say. People of color are tired of hearing words come out of our mouths and never seeing any real change.

4) So, don’t talk about it, do it. Join your local Showing Up For Racial Justice chapter, support Black Lives Matter and other groups fighting for racial justice. (I’ll attach some links here this evening.) Organize and attend protests, sign petitions, make phone calls, hold your elected officials accountable, and start thinking about what it would look like in your own life to give up some of your privilege in order to raise up others. Think about what you would do if it was your own sons and daughters stepping out every day into a world that wasn’t safe for them — and then do that, and keep doing it. And don’t do it for “cookies”, to prove that you are one of the good guys, or to assuage your guilt. The goal should not be to be a pure and shiny white person. The goal should be safety and equality for all people. Until that is accomplished, we have failed, no matter how good we look wearing a #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt in our profile picture. 

That’s what I’ve got for now, friends. 

With all my love,

Jessica 

I and thou

img_1322If you know a second language, even a little, I highly recommend reading the Bible in it occasionally. Especially if you’ve read and re-read your first-language Bible so much that the words have grown stale, maybe even painfully so. A different language, with different grammatical structure and different vocabulary can make the stories seem new and fresh. And it can give you a glimpse of the cultural assumptions and biases that even the best Bible translations bear.

This morning I’m reading the Gospel of Matthew in my halting French, and then some poems in (even halting-er) German by Rainer Maria Rilke. “Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manchesml.” Did you know that in German there is a formal “you” and an informal “you”? The first you use with your elders, professors, or acquaintances. The second is for close friends. This is the one Rilke uses here to address God: “Du.” “Du Nachbar Gott.” “You, neighbor God.”

Did you also know that English used to have a formal and informal “you”? But over time, for various reasons, the informal one fell out of use, till now we almost exclusively use the formal, which is “you.” The informal, which you use with close friends? — “Thou.” “Thou,” is the informal, the intimate address, the way you speak to someone close to you, when you have left the corporate gathering and are back at home with just a few friends. When you have loosened your ties and your belts and are sprawled out on couches, relaxing. “Thou,” is how lovers address each other, as in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s poem The Rubaiyat:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

“Thou” is the word that the those who produced the King James translation of the Bible chose to use when people address God, as in Psalm 23 when David says,

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

And it is the word that God and God’s angels use when they address people, such as in Matthew 1:20 when the angel says to Joseph,

Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

It is one of the ironies of the evolution of language that as “thou” fell out of use in English yet remained in the King James Bible, it began to be seen as not just archaic but formal, and even beyond formal — a special way of addressing God that made God seem distant, high up in heaven while we were on earth. The word that used to evoke an image of good friends relaxing together (shown vividly in the last supper, when the disciples were eating together and “the disciple that Jesus loved”, thought to be the author of the Gospel of John, was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom”) — that very word began to evoke a separation between us and God, we here on earth, kneeling on hard pews, begging for scraps from one high above us. Not Rilke’s neighbor God. Not David’s God who is beside him at his meal, anointing his head, filling his cup.

But the German and the French retain that distinction — in French the informal you is “tu”. I had to look up the word “crains” when I read it in La Bible in Matthew 1:20 this morning — “Joseph, descendant de David, ne crains pas” but I discovered not only that it is a conjugation of “craindre”, to fear, but that it is in the informal tense as well. “Joseph, close friend, descendant of David, do not be afraid.” (words in italics are mine)

Martin Buber, an Austrian-Jewish philosopher, wrote that everything in life is either an I-it relationship, distancing the other, or an I-thou (Ich-du), relationship — intimate, without distance between ourselves and the other, mirroring our relationship with the ultimate “thou” which is God.

“Thou, neighbor God,” says Rilke, or, as Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy translate it, “You, God who live next door” —

You, God, who live next door–

If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking–
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble easily

it would barely make a sound.

This morning I’m curled up on my couch with a cup of coffee. I haven’t had a shower yet, and to be honest, I really need one. But I’m not here with a distant God who I have to get dressed up for. I’m here with a close friend, one who knows me intimately, whom I address as “thou.” One who anoints my head, and maybe even leans over and pours me a second cup of coffee, or a glass of water. One who was on the other side of the wall, but the wall was thin, so we spoke the word — “thou” — and broke it down. There is no more wall. There is no more distance. Just I and thou, together.

***

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For those who are depressed

The Arnold Arboretum at Dust

The Arnold Arboretum at Dusk

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
~ T.S. Eliot

Come for a walk with me, my friend. I know you are tired. I know that sorrow has settled into your bones like the ache from an old war wound. Come with me anyway. Lean on my arm. It is only a few steps to the forest’s entrance, and a few more to a bench where we can rest. I know the colors have gone out of your life and you cannot rouse yourself to remember them. I know. In the twilight the colors of the world are muted, and it will not sting as much when you can only see grey.  We can turn back anytime. Your bed will be waiting for you. Just come out for a few minutes.

Come for a walk with me, dear one. I know that walking is hard, now, that your muscles ache and you feel a weariness that does not pass no matter how much you sleep. I know that talking feels impossible, and that you fear if you do speak you will be unable to stop, and will wear me out with your words, crying over and over of your pain and despair. It’s all right, my friend. You do not have to speak, and if you do there is space in my heart and in the woods for all your pain. There is space for you, my friend, believe me. There is a drought in the world that can only be quenched by your tears, the infinite tears inside you. Come and weep, or come and be silent. Just come.

Come for a walk with me, Beloved. I know you feel nothing but loneliness, and being with people makes you feel even more alone. I know you feel lost and left behind, abandoned by friends and by the God you once adored. I know you feel a betrayal so sharp and real that sometimes you cannot breathe. I know that when I call you God’s Beloved it rings hollow, that if I speak the words of scripture that you used to love they now taste like sand in your mouth. Come into the whispering darkness of the trees at twilight and listen to the scripture there. Come into the shadows of the oaks and lindens until the darkness outside matches the darkness in your soul. And then listen to how the dark speaks its own language, one you could not hear in the bright light of day. If you do not hear it tonight, that’s okay, too. I will walk you home, regardless. I will trust your soul regardless. Beloved, I will.

Come for a walk with me, little sister, little brother. I have been here before and am older than you by a year or two. Let me hold your hand as you learn to walk in this new world. You have been walking for years in the daylight, but this is new territory, this westering world where the shadows trip you as surely as the stones. It is hard to walk, I know, but you can do it. We can do it together, little one. Underneath your despair I can see that spark of strength. Not everyone will realize how much it took you to step outside for these few minutes, but I know. Even if you collapse back in bed for the next twenty-three and a half hours, I know that the courage and strength it took to face the world for those few moments is almost unimaginable. I know you feel so weak, little brother, little sister, but you are strong in ways few people will ever know.

Come for a walk with me, dear reader. I know you have questions I cannot answer, and things in your life I cannot understand. But let’s go for a walk together tonight, away from the cacophony of the city, of the daylight, of the world wide web. Let’s step into the dusky woods together, the quiet dappled evening where the trolls and other monsters cannot follow. Let’s find one of the Ten Thousand Places, one of the hidden places where it’s okay to be sad and unsure, where it’s okay to ask our overwhelming questions and okay to let the answer be that we don’t know. I know you’re tired, and the day has already been far too long. You can rest soon, dear one, I promise. Only first, come, come for a walk.

***

Come for a walk on Facebook, too, if  you’d like to keep in touch.

The color of the lake

img_0581

Once the lake was its own color, one that even the oldest animals have forgotten and people never named, neither blue nor green nor silver. But as she gazed upon the sky she grew jealous and thought to herself that she was low and weak and plain, while the sky was high and fierce and lovely. So the lake turned herself into a mirror and learned to imitate every cloud and color of the sky.

Then people came into the world and the animals never told them that the lake had changed, so the people thought this was the way of the world. But all the while the lake was unhappy, beautiful as it was, and missed its own color but was not brave enough to turn back. And then one day, the people came to the lake to fill their water jars, and found that the water was gone, the lake was gone, and in its place real clouds and sky filled the lake basin. Then the youngest child bent to drink and would have fallen away had not his mother snatched him back at the last moment.

No one ever found out where the lake had gone. But the sky, who had loved the lake’s imitation of her so much that she had accepted the flattery without ever returning it, was lonely. So every now and then, on days that sway from rain to sun and back again, you can catch a glimpse of the lake in the sky, just for a moment — that certain color neither blue nor green nor silver.

~ Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

It’s been a rough summer here. My friend and housemate, Mark, and I were searching for a third housemate, I was job hunting, and the migraines were particularly bad. I’m not sure if it was the heat or stress or what, but the migraines haven’t been this bad in several years. I went for several long bike rides, but I got an awful headache after each one. There’s this weird phenomenon, which I’ve written about before, where I blame myself for the migraines, even though logically it doesn’t make sense. But I always have this feeling that I should have done something differently, should have slept more or less, eaten something different, exercised more — I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it. It occurred to me the other day that it might somehow be connected with the guilt and shame I’ve always felt about eating and weight, that there was something wrong with me and I had only myself to blame. Ironically, the migraines make it impossible to exercise obsessively, something I’ve definitely done in the past. So even though I exercise as much as I can, and push myself to the point of a terrible headache, I still feel this vague sense of blame all the time. Mark keeps telling me, as I go over all the things I maybe could have done to prevent this latest migraine, that they seem to come no matter what I do or don’t do. So why do I blame myself? Does anyone else do that?

So anyway, the migraines have been bad, and I’ve been feeling burnt out in general. The other day I was having a particularly hard day — my car had been towed, I had a migraine, it was miserably hot and humid for the nth day this summer, and I’d just had a couple of the kind of random, awkward interactions that make me want even more to not have to leave the house. I was feeling exactly whatever the opposite of centered is — off balance, on edge, on the verge of breaking down — when I walked into Target and almost straight into a woman who I’d had a really difficult relationship with several years ago. She was looking the other way, so I had a couple of seconds to decide what to do. She was poised and put together, standing straight and tall, her blonde hair pulled into a casual ponytail, make up carefully applied and somehow not smeared with sweat like mine was. I knew if she saw me she would be smiley and confident. If she was thrown off by running into me she wouldn’t show it.

I wanted so much to be confident, too. Or, rather, I wanted my type of confidence to be as visible as her type. I wanted my outward demeanor to reflect the growth and healing I’d experienced in the several years since we’d last seen each other. These have been such years of peace and strength for me, and I wanted that strength to be enough to carry me in that situation. But it wasn’t enough, and I could feel it. So I turned, quickly, before she could see me, and walked out of the store.

Afterwards I felt so discouraged. When was I ever going to really heal? When was I going to be strong? But I realized that, actually, making the decision to walk out of a situation that felt unsafe to me was a strength. Choosing to spend my time and energy in ways that are life-giving and with people who build me up is wisdom and confidence. It just looks different than I wanted it to look.

I’ve been trying to write about this here, to share these thoughts with you, but I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to express them. But I wrote that fable about the lake a couple of days ago, and that contains some of what I wanted to say. So I’ll just leave you with this for now: You have your own color, your own beauty, strength, and gifts, and the world needs them. The world doesn’t need you to try to be beautiful and strong the way that other people are beautiful and strong. It needs your own particular, specific way of being. And sometimes — often, maybe — your particular strength and beauty come from the things that seem to you like weaknesses or flaws. That’s not a glitch in the system, that’s the way the system was designed. Your weakness is part of your strength. Your flaws are what make you uniquely beautiful. You will heal and grow, but that growth and healing will not make you someone else, it will make you more yourself — and that was the plan all along.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

 

All that I have and do not have

img_0445“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.

 

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