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?

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Social Justice for the Socially Inept: The New Jim Crow

Social justice for the socially inept(10)

I feel I have to start a lot of my stories this way, but, this really happened, I swear.

One day last fall, after a second cup of coffee, I was pushing the double stroller to toddler tumble time and brainstorming ideas for my blog, and I came up with “Social justice Sundays.” I was thinking of all the cool guest bloggers I’d have, issues I would help us to learn about, and suggestions I’d make for my readers to make the world a better place. Then, no joke, I accidentally pushed the stroller onto the heel of a handicapped, African-American man in front of me, causing his shoe to come off. I apologized profusely and tried to help him, but he ignored me. So I went on my way, chagrined, but still daydreaming about my blog series. Then it came to me — the perfect title and the perfect description of what I wanted to write about: “Social justice for the socially inept!”

Throughout my life I have tried in various ways to be an activist, a missionary, a helper, a world-changer, but most of my attempts have fallen short, often in almost tragically comical ways. I’ve gone to Turkey, Morocco, and Croatia, I’ve been to the sites of earthquakes and wars, I’ve been to church basements and homeless shelters, I did an independent study on Christian social justice organizations at seminary. I’ve awkwardly bought coffee and sandwiches for people on the streets, some who said thank you and some who swore at me. I called 911 when I found a man passed out late at night in a subway stop. I derailed a trip to the Boston Calling music festival with some friends in college because there was a homeless man passed out on the street on the way, and I was like, “What about the story of the good Samaritan? What would Jesus do?!” But all these attempts have felt bumbling and mostly useless.  I have chronic migraines, which limit my physical involvement in many things. I am very introverted and get overwhelmed quickly in social situations. I have high emotions and tend towards high anxiety, though I’m working on that. But for me, showing up at a civil rights march would be the opposite of helpful. I’d probably get claustrophobic and panicky, start crying, and need the medics to come give me oxygen.

But there are things I can do, things I am good at. I can read. I can listen carefully and think deeply about what I hear. I can write in a way that lets others know they are not alone. So I thought that instead of flying overseas to have panic attacks at refugee camps I’d try to share a little bit of what I’ve been listening to, and start a discussion about it. If you feel similarly frustrated, wanting to do something but not knowing where to start, please join me and fumble along with me. Here at SJSI, all are welcome, grace is given freely, and there are no stupid questions.

Two of my goals this year are to educate myself about race-related issues and to encourage my white friends to come on the journey with me. Incidentally, the white folks I know (myself included) are horrified at what America is coming to and will come to if Donald Trump is elected, but the people of color I know are saying that this is where America already is, and has been.

BGiM1

This thought has been making me nauseous for the past several days. Our nightmare is their reality. It’s tempting for me to want to close my eyes and go back to not knowing this. But yesterday’s primaries are making that impossible. And I don’t want to live in peaceful ignorance while others are suffering. I want to learn more, and to figure out what my part can be in changing things.

JimCrowSo I thought I’d start off Social Justice for the Socially Inept with a book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. I’ve heard this book is pretty brutal to read, which makes sense if you’re used to believing in the Matrix-generated world of a more or less safe and fair USA. A few weeks ago on Facebook I asked if any of my white friends would commit to reading this with me and several did. My copy arrived in the mail yesterday, solid and heavy in my hands.

Will anyone else join us? Will we take the blue pill and wake up safe and sound in our ignorance? Or take the red pill and find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes?

“The New Jim Crow is a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.” —Cornel West

Yours in the journey,
Jessica

Dear February: A break-up letter

brokenheart

Dear February,

Hey, babe. We need to talk.

I don’t think we should see each other anymore.

It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, well, if I’m honest, it’s a little you. I mean, I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this before, but you’re kind of high maintenance. I don’t mind putting work into a relationship, but when it’s always you throwing tons (literally) of snow at me, and I have to spend every weekend shoveling out my house and car, it gets to the point that I just can’t cope. When was the last time we did something fun on the weekend? Maybe these blizzards *are* fun for you, I don’t know. But for me, I think I need a month with a little more warmth, the occasional sunny day I can just cuddle with and be myself. You know?

And, listen, I’m sure there are girls out there who can appreciate you more than I can. People who ski, for example, or who hate being able to feel their fingers and toes. You should hold out for someone who likes you for who you really are.

I can tell you were really trying this year, and I want to give you credit for that. Those days where the sun broke through and your temperatures got up into the 50s were just lovely. But, to be honest, they just made the cold, snowy days that much harder. I know you did the best you could, February, but I think we just have to admit that we’re not right for each other.

What’s that? Who told you that? Well, yes, it’s true, I have met someone else. His name is March. He actually reminds me of you a little, in a funny way. He and I have plans tomorrow and — guess what? — he might have a snowstorm. On our first date, I know. He’s a bit of a fixer-upper. But I really think he’s open to change. He’s working on himself, you know? I told him how hard your dark, lonely evenings were, and he promised me that within a couple of weeks he’d have sunset moved to six thirty, and even seven. I know you like to stay in at night, February, but I’m the kind of girl who likes a nice walk in the evenings, with the sun on my back.

Still, I think March might just be a rebound relationship. There’s this other month I met online who says he always brings his girls flowers. Flowers, can you imagine? Did you ever think of doing that, February? Or is that too much of  a cliche for you?

Oh. Well, this is awkward — I forgot it was a leap year. I guess we have one more day together after all. So…what do you want to do? Come on, February, don’t be like that. Let’s end on a good note. What do you say — want to go shovel some snow, for old time’s sake?

Your friend,
Jessica

His name was Michael

Amanda, Mary, Laura, Glennon, and me at Old South Church

Amanda, Mary, Laura, Glennon, and me at Old South Church

This is not an indictment. This is not a call to action. I don’t write to accuse, myself or others, or to condemn. I don’t want to use this space to discuss issues or strategies. I am not an activist, right now, or a critic. I am a writer, a Namer, and this is a Naming.

His name was Michael and he died two nights ago on the steps of Old South Church. His name was Michael, the name of the archangel, the name that is a question: “Who is like God?” His name was Michael and he was 57 years old, and he was the Beloved child of God.

Last June I walked up the steps of Old South Church, worn out and bedraggled after a ten hour nanny day, and hugged four dear friends for the first time. Laura, Mary, Glennon, and Amanda sanctified that space to me, inviting me to the front, to sit in reserved seating and to cut in line and join them at the meet-and-greet at the end. I’ve never felt so special and included in a way that somehow included everyone at the same time. My four friends have magical arms, open wide enough to wrap around hundreds at a time, leaving no one on the fringe, no one left out, no matter how tired or bedraggled. Everyone in that church was in the inner circle, everyone, and everyone outside, too. Glennon and Amanda, Laura and Mary are creating ever widening circles, arms wide, and teaching me to open my arms, wide, too.

Michael died on those church steps on Wednesday morning. I don’t know if he had family or friends, I don’t know who else will write a lament for him. I do know that Rev. John Edgerton remained with his body to keep vigil as the ambulance was called, throughout the time the police and medical examiner were present, and until the body was removed, and I know that Old South Church together with Ecclesia Ministries – Common Cathedral are working on an outdoor memorial service for him, so I know that he will be named and mourned there. But I wanted to tell all who will listen that his name was Michael and he died on sacred ground. His name was Michael and he is part of the inner circle. His name was Michael and there is place up front saved for him, and open arms, and I know this, I know, because there was a place saved for me.

come-come2And you, reading this, what are you doing in the back, lingering in the shadows, when there is a place saved for you, as well? Come, come in, you are welcome here, too. Even if you have broken your vows a hundred times. There is a spot for you in the very first row, carefully marked with your name only, carefully saved for you. Come, come again, Beloved, child of God, come.

Rest in peace, Michael, Beloved, child of God. Rest in peace in the wide arms of God.

Love,
Jessica

*October, 21st, 2016 – I went to hear Eliel Cruz speak in Boston last night, and he extended the same wide-armed invitation to all the beautiful LGBTQ folks who may be not feel that they are being offered a place in their community. Beloved, child of God, come to the front where you belong.

Check out Together Rising, Say it Survivor, and Faithfully LGBT.

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How I finally learned to feed myself, part two

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

Mädchen mit Teller by Carl von Bergen

There are many different ways of wanting food, and many reasons for eating; there are many reasons for not eating, too. Last winter I gained seven or eight pounds because I couldn’t stop eating chocolate croissants — my daily rounds with the little girl I was nannying took us into cafes for bathroom breaks and for coffee, and there were the pastries, loaded with carbs and sugar, a perfect mid-morning treat, especially when paired with a second cup of coffee. Hunger for those croissants was primal, passed down from generation to generation over millions of years when not eating the food in front of you would have been madness, would have meant death. If any of those ancient people chose not to eat, they died, and their DNA was not passed down to me. Those who ate, survived. Our bodies developed complex, irresistible mechanisms to ensure that we ate — the hunger in our bellies is nothing compared to the synapses firing between our ears, the chemicals that light up our brain’s pleasure centers like a Christmas tree when salt or sugar hits our tongues. The frigid temperatures of last January and February, and the pounding of foot after foot of snow triggered every millennia-honed instinct to eat as much as possible, to put on extra fat to survive the winter. My genes didn’t care that I was wearing long underwear and sweaters, or that inside it was a cozy sixty-eight degrees. They had no concept that my body was already sufficiently padded with extra fat, that in fact losing rather than gaining seven pounds would have been healthier all around. They had been given one task, their prime directive: Make sure Jessica eats. And they did their job splendidly.

That summer, when I slowed down after a busy spring, I finally had time to look down at the scale (and to look at the pictures of myself at the Momastery event in June) and to realize that a little focus was needed to get back on track. I put myself back on probiotics which, beside their multiple heath benefits also had the helpful instruction, “Take three times daily on an empty stomach.” (The probiotics need to get to the intestines to do their work, which means they need to make it through the stomach without being digested. They basically sneak through while the stomach isn’t looking, i.e. while it’s not digesting any food.) This meant that I had to pay attention to what and when I was eating enough that my stomach was actually empty three times per day. I poked around online and made the guess that three hours would empty my stomach, plus another hour after I took the pill to let it pass through. Basically I stopped eating between meals, and in doing so, rediscovered the joy of eating when you’re really, truly hungry. I had big salads loaded with lentils and vegetables, an apple or two every day, toast and peanut butter in the morning, yogurt for a late night snack. Everything tasted so GOOD when I was well and truly hungry. I didn’t mess around with low-fat anything, I put olive oil and vinegar on my salads and ate cream-on-top yogurts, and I ate till I was full at meals. I began to feel at peace with the periods of not eating, enjoying the comfort of not having to think about food during that time. It just wasn’t time to eat yet, but it would be soon. No big deal. I could wait another hour.

I wasn’t starving myself, like I had in the past. The point of feeling hunger was so that I could eat well later. When I was starving myself, back in college, the point of hunger had been power, pure power over myself, my body, and my life. Nothing else mattered, and nothing felt as good. Then the pounds had melted off at 10lbs a month as I tried to eat around 500-1000 calories a day. Now, if I found myself at the end of the day having only eaten 1500 calories I’d have another apple, or a yogurt, or both. The goal wasn’t to starve myself. The goal was to feed myself. And I lost weight, but slowly, two or three pounds a month till I lost the seven I had gained and another seven after that. I wondered how I ever could have been so careless as to eat all those extra pastries. I laughed at last-winter Jessica. Then this winter came.

At first I didn’t notice much of a change. I breezed through December, eating a Christmas cookie or two here or there then calmly closing the box and putting it away. I stopped losing weight, but I didn’t gain any. Well, maybe I gained a pound. It was an exceptionally warm December, so that may have been part of it. Christmas Eve was 70 degrees. I made blithe plans to allow myself one chocolate croissant each winter month, since I liked them so much, patting myself gently on the head. Then January came and it got cold, and something switched in my brain again. I started eating two or three cookies at a time, instead of one or two, then following them up with chips. Instead of no snacks between meals I was having trouble eating only one or two snacks between meals. I tried getting back on schedule with the probiotics and letting my stomach empty before I took them, but a force greater than my will power had taken over. I laughed at last-summer Jessica. She obviously hadn’t remembered what it was like.

So here we are, one week away from February, and I have gained another pound, maybe two. My goal has changed from not gaining weight again over the winter to minimizing my weight gain. And, honestly, it’s not so much a goal as a hope. But I have come to accept this as natural. It’s okay. The winter will end eventually, and this year I will try to refocus earlier than June and get back to healthier eating. In the meantime, I’m not doing so bad. I make myself hearty soups with lots of beans and veggies, and some animal protein here and there. This afternoon I’m going to whip up some sausage, bean, and kale soup. And I allow myself a piece of sourdough bread with sweet butter on the side. Maybe in March I will give up the side of bread. But for now, I’d rather be at peace with my body than fighting against it. I’ve seen what happens when you pull the rubber band too taut: It snaps back with a vengeance. In college, after I lost sixty pounds in six months by starving myself, I gained all that back, plus forty five more. After months of not eating, the rubber band snapped and I couldn’t stop eating. Long after I was full, I’d keep putting food into my mouth: salty, sweet, savory, bland — anything to convince my body it wasn’t starving. Better to gain five pounds gently over the winter than to trigger my body into panic mode, into starvation mode.

Friends, be gentle with yourselves. Eat when you’re hungry. Do your best to stop eating when you’re full. When you don’t, forgive yourself. Nothing keeps the cycle of overeating going like shame. It’s okay. You’ll be all right. Brush and floss and go to bed. Wake up the next day, forgiven, and feed yourself again.

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How I finally learned to feed myself, part one

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A busman’s holiday: On volunteering and finding my purpose

 

photo by Christopher Jones

photo by Christopher Jones

For a few weeks now I’ve been volunteering at a homeless shelter, leading a play group for two hours so the parents can attend classes. I signed up for it last summer when the Planned Parenthood videos were breaking, not as a political statement but as an attempt to do something other than talking, writing, and debating. My Facebook feed was thick with posts that mostly demonized the other side, as well as calls for people to take a vocal position on the matter. I didn’t want to choose between the labels “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” If I had to be labeled, I wanted it to be, “person who works with kids at a homeless shelter.”

When I signed up last summer I had Wednesdays off, but by the time I did the training and received my placement I had started working Wednesday afternoons. So now I nanny Monday afternoon, then for ten hours on Tuesday, volunteer with kids Wednesday morning, pick up kids from school Wednesday afternoon, work another ten hour nanny day on Thursday, and then a six hour nanny day on Friday. It’s a lot of kid time, and I wonder if it might be too much. The wonderful woman who co-leads the play group with me called it “a Busman’s Holiday,” that wonderful old-fashioned expression that means that you do the same thing on vacation that you do for work. I love the kids — all of my kids — but I definitely find my blood pressure is a bit higher, the tension in my neck and shoulders a bit tighter both during and after my shift.

I struggle with it, because I’m good with kids, and it seems right to offer my best skills as a volunteer. But to be honest I’ve been wishing I could do some volunteering that involves lying in a dark room with my eyes closed and no one talking to me. Maybe medical testing? Donating a kidney?

Glennon Doyle Melton says that people often ask her how to find their life’s purpose, and she asks them, “What breaks your heart? That’s your purpose right there.” Whenever I ask myself what breaks my heart, the first thing I think of is old people. Except, I think they break my heart too much for me to be helpful to them. I think too deeply about how sad, lonely, and confused they must be, their bodies giving out on them, maybe their minds as well, not being able to go out and do things like they used to, being stuck at home or in a home. I feel it too much, and it doesn’t energize me, it makes me sad and depressed.

I can't figure out how to remove the "sample" stamp from this clip art, so I'm going to leave it as an ironic statement.

I can’t figure out how to buy this to remove the “sample” stamp, so I’m going to leave it as an ironic statement. This is a sample of a person trying to drive considerately: Actual drivers may vary.

But I have figured out one way to channel that particular heartbreak into good. When I’m driving in Boston, and people cut me off, swerve, make weird lane changes without signaling, or generally act as if they don’t understand how driving works — or how 2000 lb vehicles crashing into each would work — I try to imagine the drivers as little old ladies or men, nervous and confused, maybe having trouble seeing over the dashboards. And I tell myself that my job is to help the little old ladies across the street, providing as safe and encouraging an environment for them as I can. If someone cuts in front of me, I step on the brakes carefully and avoid the instinct to honk. Poor Gertrude, I think, she is just trying to get to the store to get half and half for her coffee. If we can see each other I give a smile and an encouraging wave. Here, dear — let me take your arm and help you across.

For now I’m going to keep going to the Wednesday morning play group for as long as I can. I’ve seen the dangers of pushing myself too hard, so I want to be aware of my energy level and my limits. But I’ve quit so many things in my life, and it would feel so good to see this through. So I drag myself out of bed Wednesday mornings, have my coffee with low fat milk and hop in the car for the half hour drive to the other side of the city. I can’t really do it, but I’m doing it anyway, for one more week at least. And while I’m driving to my Busman’s Holiday I step on the brakes whenever someone cuts me off, smiling and waving when I can (the coffee helps with this) and helping dear old Mathilda to get safely to her bridge game.

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