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. 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 several 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.




Wrapping up 2015 and setting intentions for 2016

Setting her Intention by Jessica Kantrowitz

My attempt to draw the Anjali Mudra. She is naked for aesthetic and symbolic reasons, and not at all because I don’t know how to draw clothes.

I’ve written about how Savasana, the meditation at the end of a class is one of my favorite things about yoga. Another of my favorite things is setting an intention. At the beginning of the class you place your hands, palms together, in front of your heart and decide what your intention is going to be for the class. You decide it yourself — the instructor never tells you what it should be. It can be anything you want: to be present, to strengthen your body, to connect with God, to let go of anxiety, or anything else you feel you need.

Your hands in front of your heart — Anjali Mudra — seal your intention. I’ve been doing it in other areas of my life, too, like before bed, sealing my intention to rest and not worry about the next day. Or on the way to work, sealing my intention to be focused and engaged. I’ve been doing it on a broader basis, as well, for years and even decades. It’s different from a to-do list or a list of New Year’s resolutions because it holds itself: You don’t have to do anything more once your intention is sealed in your heart. It’s not something you strive to accomplish. It’s more like turning in a particular direction so that your natural movement takes you where you’ve decided to go.

For me, for the last two years, this has had a lot to do with writing. The rest of this post is a summary of the last two years, my intentions and what has come of them. If you only have a few minutes, though, and want to skip to the action point of this post, here it is: What is your intention for the coming year? Is it different from last year? Take a few moments to sit with your eyes closed, hands together in front of your heart, to breathe deeply, and to consider what direction you want to turn for 2016. Set your intention, and then let go, trusting that you have placed it in your heart.

In May of 2014 I turned 40 and I set my intention to write. In a post entitled Forty: A preface I wrote:

I have some ideas, some thoughts I’d like to share, some stories I’d like to tell. I have some inklings and some convictions, some anecdotes and some parables, some bluntly factual reports and some metaphorical fictions.

They’re in me. I feel them brewing.

Ever since I was five or six I’ve wanted to be a writer. I still have stories from those days, mostly about cats and unicorns, with an overabundance of commas and adverbs. I’ve kept up my writing in various ways over the last thirty five years, through journaling, writing poems and short stories, several brief attempts to formulate novels and, most recently, blogging. I sent stories to literary journals in my late twenties, had a writing partner for a while in my early thirties. Yet I remember thinking, as early as college, that as much as I wanted to write, I didn’t have my stories yet — my life experience to draw on. I kept writing anyway. But I had this strong feeling that it wasn’t until I was forty that I was going to be able to write anything real. That feeling has stayed with me.

Three weeks ago I turned forty. And I feel it. It’s time.

For a while now I’ve been thinking about what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird:

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

There are other people in my stories. Some haven’t behaved that well, and their bad behavior is part of my story. But, still, this doesn’t feel quite right to me. *I* haven’t behaved well in other people’s stories. And other people have blogs (and theoretical book deals) too. So I’ve been worried, not wanting to be unjust or to write to validate myself at another’s expense.

But then Glennon Melton posted this the other day:

When internet writers ask me for advice- one of the first things I tell them is: ”If you can avoid defending yourself for being human, you might have enough energy to keep writing. Don’t defend yourself, and don’t get your needs confused. You don’t need to be right- you just need to write.

So, I am going to write, knowing that I may not be right about everything, but knowing, too, that I have to write. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer,” said Maya Angelou. “It sings because it has a song.”

I have a chronicle, a myth, a fable; I have a memoir and an apologue. I have a saga, a romance, a spiel; I have a scoop and a cliffhanger. I have a song.

After that post I started blogging more frequently and writing longer posts, more like essays than the brief observations I’d been posting before. And that year I wrote, among other things, a post entitled Things I’ve been wrong about for most of my life, part one. It was the processing of a difficult time in my life, and of a difficult relationship, and I needed Anne, Glennon, and Maya to help me know how to write it. To tell my stories. Not to be right, but to write. Not because I had an answer, but because I had a song.

On New Year’s Eve of 2014, I set my intentions for 2015:

My new year’s resolution this year is to mostly keep doing what I’ve been doing, because I think I’m on the right track. I will not be dieting because diets make you fatter, and I will not be hitting the gym — though I would love to, actually — because I have a bunch of little chronic injuries at the moment. The one big thing I want to do next I’ve already signed up for: A writer’s workshop through The Frederick Buechner Center at Princeton Seminary. I am really excited about it. It’s the first time I’ve spent money on my writing, the first time I’ve been to a conference in seven years, and the first time I’ve been to a seminary in nine years. Don’t tell Gordon-Conwell that I’m cheating on them with Princeton.

But the things that I want to focus on next year are the same things that I’ve been focusing on this year. Nothing new or particularly ambitious. But they work for me.

1) Be the best nanny and editor I can — focus on being present and paying attention.
2) Write weekly (I can’t swing daily right now, but I’m getting good at weekly).
3) Do yoga and bike when I can.
4) Keep seeing friends and family in person as well as connecting online.
5) Eat mostly healthy food and resist equally the temptations to eat too much and too little.
6) Look for ways to connect with God, and don’t be discouraged when I can’t find Him in the same places I used to.

To briefly touch on nos 1 and 3-6, I did those things mostly well, but not always. Being a good nanny got harder when I moved from a family with one little girl to one with three children under five. I felt like a good nanny a lot less. But I think I still mostly did my best, so that counts. I did yoga and biked when I could, but a knee injury slowed me down, and when my wheel broke at the end of the summer I made the difficult decision to pay down my debt and wait till the spring to get my bike fixed. I saw lots of friends in person, and stayed connected with many others online. I ate too many pastries when the winter got tough in February and March, but I started eating mostly healthy again in the spring. And I did keep turning my focus toward God, setting God as my intention and focus again and again throughout the year, even though that looked different in 2015 than it did in, say, 2006 when I was doing daily Bible readings and intercession-style praying. Prayer in 2015 looked more like a deep breath and lifting up a person, a thought, a worry, a hope, a fear, a praise, or simply gratitude to God.

Back to writing. Thirteen days after I’d set my New Year’s intentions, my friend Glennon shared Things I’ve been wrong about for most of my life, part one on her Momastery Facebook page, and 30,000 people read it. Thirty thousand people read about a time in my life when I’d felt isolated and alone in my confusion and struggle, and hundreds of them said, “Me, too.” Thirty thousand people read something I’d written, which is kind of more than I’d ever dreamed, except that in my dreams they were holding my book in their hands. My 12 year old self was impressed but confused when I told her about it. We hadn’t published a book, so were we a writer or not? The internet is a weird and wonderful place, I told her. You’ll get used to it; but not really.

For three weeks in a row there were blizzards Sunday into Monday.

For three weeks in a row there were blizzards Sunday into Monday.

At the end of January, 2015, it started snowing, and pretty much kept snowing all the way through February. For a couple of months most of my blog posts were about the weather and living through it in Boston:

The darkest night of the year

Florida: A true story

Boston in January


Of monster and men

Consider the birds of the air

Dear February

Before we move on from that topic, I would just like to add that there was so much snow in Boston last winter that it didn’t completely melt until July 14th. Here is the NPR article for proof.

On April 1st I moved on from the weather to write about something that had been weighing on my heart for a long time. Someone who disagreed with my essay asked me why I felt I had to write it, and I said: It wanted to be written, and I couldn’t write anything else until I did. Bake for them two went viral on a scale I never expected, and I have spent a lot of the rest of the year trying to figure out what that means for my writing career. Was this my big break or just a freak vicissitude of the internet? Where did I go from there? Was this a subject about which I had more to say? I processed with my writer friends, two of whom rolled up their sleeves and helped me wade through the 1500+ comments (thank you, Judi and Heather!!). I went to the writer’s workshop and was able to pose some of my questions to Rachel Held Evans, as well as other wonderful writers and editors.

by Denna Jones

by Denna Jones

Some of my questions had answers, and some of them still don’t. But one thing going viral taught me is that I don’t have much control over what happens next. All I can do is to keep writing whatever is on my heart. I’ve had posts I’m proud of only reach 100 people, and others gain traction and reach 500, 1000, or 15,000 (the latter was my June post about Sam and Anne Lamott). But I don’t get to decide which ones catch on. All I can do is keep writing what is in me, and keep being curious about where and for whom my writing might be relevant. Going viral didn’t lead to a book deal, but it did help to get noticed by editors at Think Christian and The Good Men Project, who published my Bake for them two piece and my Sam and Anne Lamott piece, respectively. (The Good Men Project also gave my piece the gorgeous artwork above.) And that, in turn, helped me to write a respectable author’s bio.

The answer to, “Do I have anything more to say on this subject?” turned out to be, yes, but really only three things. In my follow-up posts to Bake for them two I wrote about why we need to stop saying “love the sinner, hate the sin, about how my dad’s choice influenced my own, and, in answer to those who asked me why I as a Christian supported gay marriage and full inclusion of LGBT people into the body of Christ, my testimony.

In September and October, continuing to follow my intention, I took part in a six week writing contest for Mythgard Institute. This was pure fun — I got to write micro-fiction and even a poem, inspired by Tolkien-related prompts and specific word limits and guidelines. They are going to do it again next year if anyone would like to take part. I was completely surprised and honored to win the literary prize (judges’ choice) for my “minute mystery” and the popular prize (readers’ choice) for my poem. They will be a part of an ebook, available soon from Oloris Publishing. (My twelve year old self was much more impressed that we won an award for writing a story than she was by going viral for an essay. She still doesn’t get what an ebook is, but, honestly, I don’t either. A book with no pages? Maybe in another 29 years we will start to get the hang of things.)

I swung and missed a few times, too: I entered a poetry contest and another micro-fiction contest that I lost, and sent three or four article proposals to magazines that were turned down. But rejection letters are badges of honor, and proof that you are writing and moving forward. I also received the discouraging news that it was next to impossible to get a book of essays published unless you already had a successful book, or, “Unless you are Anne Lamott” as one editor told me. But that is good information, as well.

I have some ideas for where I’d like to go in 2016. But, since the best laid plans of mice and men “gang aft agley” and since “We live the given life, and not the planned” I am not focusing so much on specific goals or resolutions. Instead, I am setting the same intention I did back in May of 2014: To write. My friends Heather and Glennon shared with me this great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she wrestles with similar struggles, and comes to the same conclusion: Write. I probably won’t go viral again in 2016. I may not get a book deal, or publish another article, or win another contest. But I know what I will be doing, week after week: Paying attention to the world around me and then sitting in front of my computer trying to organize my thoughts and write them down.

Other intentions for 2016:

1) Be the best nanny and editor I can — focus on being present and paying attention.
2) Look for ways to actively work for racial justice.
3) Do yoga, bike and walk when I can.
4) Keep seeing friends and family in person as well as connecting online.
5) Eat mostly healthy food and resist equally the temptations to eat too much and too little.
6) Look for ways to connect with God, and don’t be discouraged when I can’t find Him in the same places I used to.
7) Keep breathing deeply, forgiving myself and others, and letting go of pain from the past.
8) Read books!
9) Go outside!
10) Take care of myself, even if that means saying no to things I really want to do, or that others really want me to do.

What about you? What are your intentions for 2016? Let me know in the comments. And thank you so much to all of you who have visited Ten Thousand Places this year, who have shared my posts, and especially to those who have left such thoughtful comments, even those that disagreed with me. Will, Brian, Meredith, Hope, Suzy, Juanita, Rachel, Soundtek, Somewhat Anonymous, Judith, David, Dawn, Mary, Linda, Elaine, SueAnn, Cindy, Liza, Michelle, Frodo, Beth, Debbie, Steve, Scarlett, Alethea, Julianne, Donna, Mike, Rachael, Monique, Olivia, amgregory, patiencewithquestions, joyfulmelody, Robyn, taracope, and everyone else who took the time to share, your words meant so much to me. I hope to see you back here next year.




Birdsong and girlsong



It had been a hard day.

One day last week I’d been working from home and struggling with how much there was to do, and how many things were falling apart (my car, my teeth, my finances). Worse than that, I hadn’t had time to just be and process all these things, because I had to just keep doing them. I was feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from my own heart and mind. Does anyone else find that unprocessed feelings build up and create a sense of chaos? I need to get them out, by writing, drawing, or just spending time thinking.

Finally, that evening, I closed my computer and my to do list, and went for a walk in the arboretum. It was a beautiful warm spring evening, with a perfect cool breeze. A stillness seemed to settle on the world, and on myself, as I walked up Peter’s Hill and down the other side, past Conifer Path, and around to where the short, twisted pear trees gave off an intriguing scent. And — the birds! There are so many birds in the arboretum. In Jamaica Plain I was used to seeing robins, sparrows, and the occasional cardinal. I know the songs of all of those. But here there were so many more, and they were singing out with the joy overtakes birds in the mornings and evenings. “…everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!” as Huckleberry Finn said.

The birds’ clear song, the cool breeze rustling the trees, and the movement of my arms and legs began to clear my heart and my mind, and the stress of the day began to slowly sink through my feet into the ground. It was just what I needed. Another half hour or so, I thought, and I would be better, ready to go back home and re-engage with my life.

Then the birdsong was interrupted by the tinny sound of pop music coming over a cheap speaker. I looked up and realized I was gaining on a group of three girls, one of whom was holding up a smart phone blaring this unholy sound. They were walking slowly — I was gaining on them but by the time I passed them and got away from their music I would be almost home, and my chance to enjoy the peace of the evening would be ruined. I slowed down, debating whether to try to pass them or take a different route, and they glanced back and caught my eye.

I gave them a look, I’m afraid. I don’t know how it came across to them, but in my heart at that moment I was thinking, “I don’t want you here, you’re bothering me.” A grown-up look, a scolding look. And then, while still trying to decide where to walk, I began to notice things I hadn’t at first. The girl with the phone was lagging behind her two friends. She was overweight, and struggling with the slope of the hill. Her friends were encouraging her, calling her forward: “You can do it! Keep going!” She was holding the phone up in the air, the music helping her to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This was *her* evening, too — her triumph at getting out of the house, her healing walk. And I had given her a look.

I moved onto a side path, away from the music and away from my guilt. Hopefully they hadn’t noticed my look. I said a prayer for them, as I faded into the woods and their music faded away. And I said a prayer for myself for a better heart. Back amidst the trees and the birdsong I felt peaceful again. It is so much easier to love people when they are just a thought or a memory. So much harder to love when they are right in front of you. Next time, Lord, I prayed. Next time let me give an encouraging smile. Next time let me be as pure and joyful as the birds, who didn’t begrudge me my presence in their woods, who sang out just as joyfully and freely as if they had been alone. Next time let me see the girls’ beauty first, before I judge them. Next time let me love my neighbors as myself, even when they are playing pop music.


JESSICALAPTOP - FreshPaint-24-2015.02.13-08.49.33
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all my artwork lately has been landscapes. In my dreams I pack for a trip night after night, but the dream always ends there. I think I may have mentioned in passing that Boston hasn’t been the easiest place to live for the past three and a half weeks.
JESSICALAPTOP - LinesBut look at these places. Don’t you want to go explore them? I draw with my finger on my computer’s touch screen. I love the oil paint setting of the paint program. It looks so real, like real, thick paint spread by real brushes. It’s such a visceral experience, moving my fingers across the screen. I usually “paint” pretty quickly, in broad strokes at first and then maybe a few small details at the end. My arm gets tired quickly. Real painters must build up muscles after a while.JESSICALAPTOP - Lines 2
But it’s such a right-brained experience, to just draw, quickly, without thinking too much about what I’m drawing. Then I can sit back and take in the picture, and notice things about it I didn’t do intentionally. The calm orange and active blue and white in the first picture (going against the nature of the colors); the quiet cove in the second; the winding path in the third.

And all landscapes. The long view, pulled out, not a person or a tree in sight. Sky, ocean, mountains. I look at my own drawings and want to know the story set in them. Who travels to these lands, and what does she find there? I’ve been trying to write stories, too. Maybe they will begin in these drawings. Stay tuned.

The book I could not find


I was quite taken by the forward facing sheep.

Yesterday I picked up one of my favorite books from childhood, Ed Emberly’s Drawing Book of Animals. It’s a simple, step by step guide to drawing various animals, starting with an ant — which is a dot — and proceeding through more and more complicated animals.

Emberly dedicated the book to himself as a child, a gift to himself of “the book I could not find.” IMG_0915

How perfect! What better reason to write a children’s book than to send it back in time to the young and hopeful you. And to young and hopeful Jessica, who drew –or tried to draw — almost every animal in the book. I can remember being afraid of attempting the dragon on the last page, and asking my mom to do it for me. She said no, that I should try to do it myself. But I don’t remember how it ended. Did I draw the dragon? Anyway, I shall, perhaps tomorrow, forty not being too old at all to draw one’s first dragon. Tonight, though, I was too tired to slay a dragon, so I drew several animals from the middle of the book instead. And I drew them all in purple, because I wanted to.

IMG_0911 IMG_0910


This is Eddy. He is an assistant editor. I drew him for Mark to help him with his work. The best thing is, he works for peanuts.


Update: Here is the dragon, as promised! Only 34 years in the making.
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