January thaw

img_2122Good morning, friends. How are you doing this winter? Is anyone else having a hard time making it through? I’ve been fine, really, but even when the winter is relatively mild it feels like everything is just a little bit harder. Getting out of bed has been harder. I’m hyper-responsible (which comes from a deep fear that I’m irresponsible) so I hardly ever wake up late, much less get to work late, but there have been a couple of mornings lately that it was really, really hard to gather the energy to crawl out from under the covers. Life in general feels hard, but then there’s this upcoming inauguration and fears — which are already being realized — that some hard days are ahead for our country. I have an undercurrent of stress and anxiety that I think many Americans share, and I’m worried about us as a nation. This kind of constant stress isn’t good for us. I’d like to buy us all a coke, except not a coke because it’s full of high fructose corn syrup and chemicals. I’d like to buy us all a smoothie. Or a massage. Or a yoga class. Or, you know, affordable health care.

My own faith, and deep inner peace, comes from the belief that even though everything is not going to be okay, I am going to be okay, deep down in the core of me, where the one who created me and loves me breathes with me. Every breath reminds me of the presence of the Spirit. All I have to do to return to that presence is to breathe. That I am deeply known and loved and held is true, just as it is true that terrible things are happening in the world, and terrible things are going to happen. Holding these two truths together in my heart, in my body, in my breath is the challenge and the hope of this winter.

A friend of mine has chosen the word resistance as her word for 2017, and I wish I could join her. I want to be strong, I want to feel like I can do something to fight for justice and fairness in this scary new world. Or, you know, affordable health care. But I honestly can often barely get out of bed these days. I go to my nanny job, I run my errands, go to physical therapy for this foot problem I have and to the chiropractor for this back problem, come home and cook dinner, take my migraine meds, and then collapse into bed again. Just getting through the day is about all I can manage. I think my word of 2017 might be something like basic survival. Yet that is resistance, too. George MacDonald wrote:

Let us in all the troubles of life remember – that our one lack is life – that what we need is more life – more of the life-making presence in us making us more, and more largely live. Let us rouse ourselves to live. Of all things let us avoid the false refuge of a weary collapse, a hopeless yielding to things as they are…he has the victory who, in the midst of pain and weakness, cries out…for strength to fight; for more power, more conscious-ness of being, more God in him.

I woke up this morning sore from the chiropractor’s appointment, tired from work, and feeling a migraine coming on. But I woke up. I roused myself to live. And I sat on my couch and opened my computer to write to you. I greatly admire my friends, and those like her, who are gathering and organizing and doing something to resist, to fight. And I also greatly admire my friends who are fighting just to get out of bed in the morning. I am trying to admire myself for that, too. Weariness draws us into despair, but instead of giving into that despair, we rouse ourselves to live. We wake up each day and get out of bed. We take deep breaths and remember that God is with us. In the midst of our pain and weakness we cry out for strength and life. And while we wait for the winter to be over we keep moving through it, doing our best each day. That is resistance. That is courage. That is enough.

Love,
Jessica

P.S. If you do have a little extra energy and want to be involved, your local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice is a great place to start. Among many other things they send a monthly list of action points, including a commitment worksheet and follow up encouragement. http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/about

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Journey through anguish to freedom

the-sower

The Sower, by Vincent VanGogh

Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
~Psalm 126

I’ve been reading Sabbatical Journey by Henri Nouwen, his journal from the last year of his life. Of course Henri doesn’t know it is his last year of life as he is writing, and many of his thoughts are for his future plans. He was only sixty-five, my parents’ age. It’s hard sometimes to read his thoughts about the future, his plans for ministry and writing. The journal goes through August, 1996, and he died of a heart attack in September that same year.

Eight years before he wrote this journal Nouwen suffered a period of intense depression and spiritual struggle which he wrote about in another book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. Mark gave me this book about eight years ago when I was going through my own period of depression and struggle, and reading about Nouwen’s experience, and the wisdom he gleaned, helped carry me through my own anguished journey. It feels significant to me to be reading Sabbatical Journey (also given to me by Mark) eight years after The Inner Voice of Love, just as Nouwen wrote it eight years later.

img_2037Last night I came to this paragraph in the journal, about a visit from Nouwen’s dear friend Nathan. It was written in July, 1996, two months before Nouwen’s death:

In the early evening Nathan and I had a nice dinner. At one point we talked about the anxiety that had been plaguing me during the last few months. I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to put my inner burden on my best friend, but, in the end, I am glad I did. Nathan told me that he found it hard, not so much to listen to my pain, but to realize that I had walked with it so long without sharing it. I explained that it had not been possible for me to talk about such things on the telephone, and he understood. That was a comfort for me. I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.

I read this, curled up on my quiet couch on a winter evening, hands wrapped around a hot cup of tea. Nouwen’s time of depression eight years prior to writing that lasted for about six months. My own, eight years ago, lasted longer — two years, perhaps, with another three or four before I was well out of it, and another year or two before I left the community that had been such a mix of security and trauma, comfort and conflict.

Nouwen wrote his journal with the intention of publishing it. He was going to do the editing himself, but after he died his friend Susan took on the task. After I read that paragraph last night, I set down the book and picked up my own journal. I feel I share so much with Nouwen — the inner struggle, a long-time experience living in community, good friends to walk through my life with me, and the desire and calling to write down my experience to give to others. Nouwen wrote around forty books in his life, books full of such wisdom and healing, such intimacy with God and striving to live a life of love and service. His writing helped me and so many others move through anguish to freedom. Yet even at the end, two months before his death, he wrote that stark, honest sentence: “I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.”

I imagine him, curled up on his own couch, journal in hand. He had so much insight, so much wisdom to give to us. But in the end, his greatest gift was his honesty and vulnerability. We all desire healing and strength, but when the apostle Paul begged God for his own thorn in the flesh to be taken away, God did not heal him, but said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Here, let us be willing to be weak in front of each other. Let us teach each other out of what we do not know as well as what we do. Let us learn to value each others’ weakness as well as strength. Let us say to each other that we find it hard, not to listen to each others’ pain, but to realize that we had walked with it so long without sharing it.

Love,
Jessica

***

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Winter survival guide

img_1948 “All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.”

from The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

Has anyone else had kind of a hard year? Mine wasn’t bad — in fact it was very good in many ways — but there were a lot of hard things. Migraines were worse this summer and fall than they had been in a long time. Our housemate that we really liked moved to California and Mark and I had to put a lot of time and energy into finding and adjusting to a new one. My nanny job ended and it took several months to find a new one. And my dad, who has a degenerative muscle disease, transitioned this year from using a walker to a wheelchair. And the election was, and continues to be, hard.

One of the lessons that my forties has taught me is that hard things are not necessarily a tragedy, but a  part of life. If you spent all your energy trying to make life easy and good you would have very little time left to actually live. Pain and struggle is as much a part of life as joy and happiness, and in some ways are much better teachers. Living in New England teaches me this, as the ebb and swell of the seasons bring such joy and beauty along with pain and difficulty. The heat of the summer worsens the migraines, and the darkness and cold of the winter brings the emotional struggle of seasonal affective disorder as well as the physical challenge of shoveling snow, negotiating parking and driving in the narrowed city streets, dealing with my own colds and viruses as well as those of the children I nanny, and having limited options for activities with the kids.

If I could invent the perfect climate for myself it would have five months of spring, five of autumn, and one each of winter and summer. Just enough heat and cold to get a taste: We would have the month of summer and the month of winter off of work for intensive barbecuing, beach-going / skiing, Christmas and Hanukkah celebration, snowman-making, etc., and then the days would revert back into my sweet spot: 60-70 degrees during the day and just chilly enough at night to snuggle under a warm blanket.

But in real life here in Boston, winter seems to stretch out for five months. The days start getting dramatically shorter in November, and for many people the associated seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, starts even earlier. The end of daylight savings time plunges us into darkness at four o’clock. December doesn’t usually have much snow, but the cold and dark set in for real. And then January and February hit, with their frigid temperatures and the possibility of several feet of snow. Some years are colder and snowier than others, but you never really know what you are in for till you’re in it. March is called the beginning of meteorological spring, but every New Englander knows that, though you may get a day or two of warmish weather — a day or two of lambishness — March is really much more of a lion like its wild, sister winter months.

But the winter days are part of life just like those in the spring. I want to live those days, too, and not just count them down till my preferred days arrive. I don’t want to spend half my year watching the clock. At the same time, the coming spring is part of the winter. The joy to come is part of the sorrow, just as the sorrow flavors the joy. Just like life. And one of the most wonderful things about winter to me is that on its very second day the light begins to return. With the coldest months of the year still ahead of us the days are already lengthening, giving back the morning and evening light that the summer and autumn took from us. (And the bittersweet opposite is also true: On the second day of summer the days are already shortening.)

So one way I survive the winter is by marking my calendar for the light’s return. Since I’m not always awake for the sunrises I focus on the sunsets. The earliest is in mid-December, 4:12pm. By the winter solstice, December 21st, it has already inched back to 4:15, and we only have to wait till January 9th for a 4:30 sunset. 5pm is February 2nd, 5:30 is February 26th, and by the time we go back to Daylight Savings on March 12th we are already at 5:47 which then becomes 6:47, and even those who have to work till six have the light for their commute home.

img_1738Another way I survive the winter is by attentiveness. I have limited light so I try to pay attention to it more. I try to go to bed early and wake up to watch the sunrise. I try to get ready for the early sunset by going outside around 3:30, enjoying the slant of the winter sun and the sharp outline of the bare tree branches against the winter sky. If I can’t go outside I at least look out the window. And when I am home for the sunset I light a candle to acknowledge the transition. I can’t keep the sun from setting, but it feels good to be a part of the process. It isn’t just happening to me, I am allowing it, even welcoming it. And I celebrate the fact that I can recreate the light and warmth of the sun inside my home.

The winter has barely started. It may be another mild one like last year, or it may be brutal like the year before. It’s not going to be easy. But it is a part of life, just the same. And the joy that comes with the first thaw of spring would not be as pure and full if the winter were not so dark and cold.

***

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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

 

 

 

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.