Remember your training

rememberyourtrainingI had a small anxiety attack last night. I’ve been sick for three weeks and couldn’t sleep ’cause I was coughing so badly, and worried about my parents, and worried about our world, and my heart started beating too hard and I started thinking things that aren’t true, like:

Nobody likes me. Everyone is mad at me and probably talking behind my back about being mad at me. I’m a mess, and this panic attack is proof of it.

I didn’t believe those things, but my body was reacting as if they were true, panicking, trying to fight or to flee. But I remembered the things I’ve learned about anxiety and put them into practice. I took deep breaths — through my mouth, since my nose was hopelessly stuffy. I breathed Psalm 23 in and out: “The Lord is my shepherd” (in) “I shall not want” (out). I got through the psalm and I felt a little better so I did it again. Then I used my phone-a-friend lifeline and texted Gina. Good job, she said. Psalm 23 is what you pray when you can’t pray anything else. Then she prayed for me. I still felt unsettled, but my heart rate had slowed, and I knew that things would look better in the morning. Or at least that I would be able to think things through more clearly in the morning, and figure out if there was any reality behind the thoughts.

And sure enough, when I woke up, once two cups of coffee had staved off the cough medicine hangover, I asked myself: Do you really think your friends are mad at you? Do you really think they’re talking about you behind your back? And, no, I said, they’re not. And do you think a panic attack means you’re hopelessly messed up? No, I said. Everyone has bad moments, and we all have to get through them the best we can.

I love what Jen Hatmaker wrote on her Facebook page today:

Our family went to a Texas basketball game last week, and as always, it is hilarious to sit by Remy. She doesn’t understand sports and never picked up on proper cheering, so she has her own special brand of yelling. One of my favorites from last week was this (always said with full sincerity):

“Keep trying! Make it into the basket! Remember your training!”

LOL. Wondering if any of you need to “remember your training” today? Nine times out of ten when I face a dilemma, I already know what to do. I know what to choose. I know what to apologize for. I know what to hand over to God because He knows how to run his own world. I know who to call. I know to get my nose in the Bible. I know who to forgive. I know what to stop doing. I know who to speak up for. I know its time to get over myself. I know how to act like Jesus.

It’s all right there in the training.

Keep trying, sisters! Remember your training. Most of us know what to do; it’s just the doing of it that is hard. And truthfully, it isn’t even the doing of it that is so hard as much as the DECIDING to do it part. The worst of the battle is usually borne out in our minds; once we put our hands to it, we discover relief, healing, joy, peace.

I’ll go first. I have gotten sideways with someone and I am going to call her today. I could not, because women especially know how to fake it and sidestep and let unresolved conflict weaken a relationship until it is a ghost of its former self, but I’m going to press in. (WHEN DOES LIFE GET EASY??)

Remember your training. Do the thing that needs to be done.

When the depression and anxiety got really bad ten years ago my mom and various therapists tried to introduce me to breathing exercises, cognitive behavioral exercises, and various prayers like the welcoming prayer. I tried them, but at first they didn’t work. They seemed like such weak tools in the face of such strong emotions. It wasn’t until I’d practiced them for a while that they started working. When I read Remi’s exhortation to “remember your training” I thought of last night. It was because I’d practiced so much and sharpened my skills — by praying, meditating, doing yoga, and walking myself through the bad times — that I was able to perform the play I did last night. Even sick as a dog, coughing and going through tissues at an alarming rate, my training kicked in. To be honest, I didn’t really think it would work when I started breathing deeply and reciting the psalm. The anxiety felt too physical, too irrational. But just as the muscle-memory from years of training kicks in when an athlete feels the ball in her hand, my body remembered what to do. Deep breaths slowed my heart rate, the words of the psalm calmed my thoughts. Contact with Gina made me feel loved and important. And trust in the morning to smooth the rough, shaky angles of the night got me through.

Puffy eyes warm heart. :)

Puffy eyes warm heart. 🙂

How are you all doing? Is there something in your life you know how to do right now, but you just have to remember your training? Or do you need some more practice before it becomes second nature? Do you have all your life-lines in place? Should we have a team meeting before the big game? Alright, my metaphors are becoming jumbled, and it’s time for me to take some more cough medicine and go to bed. Hang in there, friends. Its winter, but spring’s a-coming.

Love,
Jessica

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Oh, and here’s the full Psalm 23 if you need it.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

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.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

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Activism needs introverts

img_2397The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
~1 Corinthians 12:21-26

Hi friends, how have you been? There’s so much going on in the world right now, and I’ve been wanting to — needing to — write, but my health hasn’t been great. Migraines, then a shoulder injury, then a cold, plus probably some depression, though the symptoms could be migraine symptoms, too.

My body’s limitations have been a frustration to me for most of my life, in how they limit my own well being and how they limit the volunteering and activism I so much want to be a part of. I am only working 30hrs a week right now, but that is enough to sap my resources and make it hard to do much else. I made it to a book discussion about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, but the other things I wanted to do in January — go to a SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meeting, go to the Boston Women’s March, go to Logan airport to protest the Muslim ban, go to the protest of the Muslim Ban at Copley Square on Sunday, get back to volunteering at Horizons for Homeless Children, volunteer as a baby cuddler at MGH — were beyond my grasp. Even making donations isn’t feasible for me as I struggle to not only pay the monthly bills but to pay off debt from when I was really sick eight years ago, though I did manage (very) small gifts to TogetherRising for refugee aid, and Black Girl in Maine (paying WOC writers for their work is important) and to contribute to having a sandwich named after a friend of mine who died from suicide ten years ago.

I spend a lot of time and energy wishing I had more energy, that my personality was stronger, that leaving the house didn’t make me nervous, that talking to people didn’t exhaust me. But I am trying to do less of that, and focus more on what I *can* do. I can think deeply about things, and I can write (albeit slowly) about them. I can listen well, and hold contrasting ideas in my head without trying to find a facile resolution. I can write (again, slowly) poetry and stories. I can support and cheer for others whose have more energy and extroverted personalities. I can babysit for friends while they go to protests.

I watched a wonderful TED talk the other day by Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective entitled Activism Needs Introverts. She had me hooked when she started out the talk by confessing that she used to hide in toilets (British for bathrooms). Here was someone who had dedicated her life to activism, to making the world a better place, and she was an introvert like me! I have hidden in toilets, on stairwells, on sidewalks, and many other nooks and crannies — and that’s when I could bring myself to leave the house. Sarah said that introverts are important to activism because they are good at slow activism, intimate activism, and intriguing activism. Do give it a listen — she speaks to extroverts, too, and she has the most adorable accent.

I know not everyone who reads my blog is an introvert, but many of you may have also been wondering what your part is in this strange new world we find ourselves in. In the bible passage I quoted up top, Paul is addressing a controversy in the early church about spiritual gifts. Some of the early Christians were doing extroverted, strong personality kind of things like preaching, prophesying and speaking in tongues, and looking down on other who didn’t have those powerful, charismatic gifts. But, Paul said, there are other kinds of gifts — wisdom, discernment, healing — that are not a flashy but just as important. Paul compares the church to a body, and says that even though different parts of the body have vastly different functions, they all depend on each other for survival. The arms, legs, and head may seem to be the most active and important, but without the quiet beating of the heart, the rhythmic breathing of the lungs, and the kidney and liver working to process toxins, the arms, legs, and head would be lost. We all have a part to play, and no one’s part is less or more important.

Frederick Buechner said that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What is  that place for you? What are you good at? Are you our lungs, breathing oxygen and peace in and the bad air out? Are you our liver and kidneys, processing the toxins of the world to keep us healthy? Are you our brain’s left lobe, thinking clearly and logically, solving problems and cutting through misinformation and sloppy thinking? Or our brain’s right lobe, seeing colors and patterns missed by others, creating metaphors, art, music, and fantasy that speak deeply to reality? Are you our legs, pulling on your boots and getting out there leading us into battle? Or our mouth, speaking truth to power, speaking with courage and kindness? Whatever you are, we need you. We can’t do it without you.

I love this Twitter thread by thirst trap thexology, who calls herself a “scholartivist”:

We’re gonna need folks to do a /whole bunch/ of different things in the coming years, so now is a good time to take stock of your skills

Do you have money? Support folks who don’t. Give to individuals doing work you can’t, give to bail funds, give to marginalized folks

The streets aren’t for you but you’re good at child care, cooking? Set up a daycare for activists during protests, make food etc

Lawyer? Defend protesters. Policy wonk? Find and exploit flaws in proposed and existing legislation, maybe come up with alt proposals

Artist? Writer? Creative? Dreamer? Give us space to escape to, help us imagine more beautiful futures. You’re so important right now.

Whatever you are good at, it can be of use. Put your skills towards a more beautiful future.

Every single one of you has a skill set that we will need. Every single one of you. Find your lane and work it. We need all of us.

I need you, You need me, We’re all a part of God’s body. You are important to me, I need you to survive.

I’m sitting on my couch writing this, shivering and coughing, covered up in several sweaters and a blanket. I wish I was sitting with the lawyers at the airport. (Those lawyers, man — they are giving me hope.) But I do not have that skill, or that ability. What I do have is my computer. I have my network of friends. I have my blog. And I have prayer, which I still believe in, even now, even more now, even more. Pray for me, and I’ll pray for you. March for me, and I’ll write for you. And one of these days, daggummit, I’ll make it to a protest, too. Maybe a sit in, because standing is tiring. But for now, I write.

Love you all. Thank you so much for reading.
Jessica

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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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The opposite of envy

img_1999My family had our Christmas celebration a week early this year to accommodate everyone’s schedule, so Mark invited me to his family’s Christmas dinner. It was a lovely time, with delicious food and fascinating people. I met people I’d heard Mark talking about for years, and found them every bit as interesting as he’d described. When we sat down for dinner I joined a table with Mark’s three sisters, a niece, and two wives of Randa’s husband’s brothers. I loved our conversations about work, introversion, and social media, and the fun of opening our Christmas crackers, sharing the jokes, and trying on the crowns.

A few days later, Mark’s sister Randa posted the picture above of our table on Facebook. It’s funny — when I sat down at the end of the table there was an empty seat next to me, but I figured someone would sit there. Karen, Mark’s sister (in the red crown) noticed I was all alone at the end of the table and tried to draw me in, which I appreciated. But I didn’t feel alone or left out, I just felt happy, surrounded by all those lovely, interesting people. I wasn’t expecting anything, wasn’t needing anything. But what I received was so amazing — great conversation, great food, the warmth of the fire, and even a gold crown. And after the picture was taken Mark’s other sister, Suzy, sat down next to me, filling out the table and completing the circle. It wasn’t until I saw this picture that I saw what Karen had seen — me looking alone and apart. It made me think.

I hadn’t felt alone at the gathering, partly because Mark’s whole family was so loving and welcoming, but partly also because being alone wasn’t the story I was telling myself. But to be in that place, where I could be sitting slightly apart and not feel sad and lonely, really feels like a miracle. I think it is a miracle. Because that was my internal narrative for nearly 40 years, that I was left out, different, doomed to be alone. I felt such pain for so long, when I was alone and when I was with others. Even in my family small things would make me feel slighted and unloved. There was a deep pit of pain at my center, and I spent so much of my life trying to find a community where I would fit in and finally feel at home. I caught glimpses of that community over the years, but could never quite make myself a part of it. In my college fellowship, in seminary, in Maine with friends who had a farmhouse and a band, at Park Street Church, in ministry with InterVarsity, and finally in an actual intentional community in Boston where I lived for seven years. There would be moments of warmth, sitting around a fire singing, or reading from a prayer book, eating a hearty meal, talking about God or literature. But then my inner narrative would kick in and I would feel outside, apart, misunderstood, left out. So as I sat at the table and broke bread with Mark’s family, it felt miraculous to feel whole, to be able to be present and happy without that deep inner pain.

It is a miracle, but it has also taken so much work. The Enneagram helped so much, as did Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and Esther Ekhart. It took years, but I rewrote my story. Instead of a story of someone alone and on the outside I started to tell of someone deeply loved and whole. I told the story of someone who was quirky and a little awkward, but also smart and witty and warm. I told the story of someone who loved being alone and creative, but could bring that solitude and imagination to her relationships. And then I told the story of a woman who could be a home for others, with a crackling fire and prayer books within herself, who could welcome in those who felt alone and outside. And when I learned to stop grasping and to let go of things and people I couldn’t have I found myself surrounded by love and friendships I couldn’t have imagined before.

It is an ongoing lesson, of course, and envy is still my besetting sin. When Randa posted this picture on Facebook I did feel a twinge of loneliness and envy. I wished I had leaned in to the picture and smiled better, wished I had photographic evidence of my inner feeling of inclusion. I wished I could prove to the world that I was “in”, that I was loved. But then I did what I have learned to do, from Henri, from Esther, from the Enneagram: I sat with the feeling without either running from it or letting it define me. I observed it, and asked what it had to teach me. I remembered that I am loved, that I am whole. And then I wrote about it, turned it into prose, transformed it into an essay that can hopefully be a warm, inviting home to my readers: Welcome to your community, welcome to the party. You are loved and whole and part of the family. You are quirky and maybe a little awkward, but we love that about you. Come sit at our table, take the seat by the fire. There is room for you here. We’ve been waiting for you.

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If you need help imagining the coziness, here’s some audio from the Gryffindor common room.

If you relate to what I’ve written, you might want to check out Henri Nouwen’s book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom or the practice of contemplative prayer as written about by Thomas Merton. You may also want to check out the Enneagram: Richard Rohr‘s book is a good place to start. (If you relate to envy as your besetting sin you might be a four like me!)

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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

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