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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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.

 

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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.

The Italian word for prayer

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

I have a somewhat big decision to make, one that I’ve been thinking about for several months, and I’ve been pretty stressed about it. I’m so bad at making even small decisions, and the big ones can overwhelm me. I keep settling on a course of action, and trying to make it stick, but then the pros and cons will start circling back again. I’m trying to focus on the pros, that there are good things to both paths, and everything will be okay either way. I know this. But it’s not just the cons that haunt me, it’s the decision itself. I get this way even when I have to decide whether to go out for the evening or stay in. Sometimes a migraine can come as a relief, making the decision for me, even as it frustrates me with my limitations.

My friend Judith McCune Kunst is teaching a poetry class in Italy this month. Before I tell you how this ties into my big decision, let me share one of my favorite of her poems, which was published in The Atlantic in March, 2000.

THE GUEST

When Chiqui asked me if my sleep in her house
had been good, I told the truth with a sweep
of my hands: The mattress sags, I said, and left
for Spanish class.
                     She dragged the mattress
off its frame and propped it in the narrow hall.
She pulled the larger, slightly newer mattress off
her and her husband's bed and hauled it
back to mine.
                     Now when Chiqui asks me
how I've slept, I lie: Just fine, I say,
though by this time I've learned
the Spanish word for shame.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from that. It took me several before I could breathe properly again.

Are you ready to continue? Okay. So Judith is teaching a class in Italy, and ten days ago she posted on Facebook that she was traveling to Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis, and said to message her with prayer requests and she would pray for us in that holy place.

If you had asked me what I needed to cope with this decision-making process, I would have probably said a better to-do list, a wise advisor, or for something to happen that irrevocably made the decision for me. I realize now that this was a serious lapse of imagination. What I actually needed, and what was provided, was for a poet friend to pray for me on a sacred pilgrimage.

The nature of my decision is that I can’t really take any action on it until the end of April. There is data I won’t have till then, either. So it will be a few more weeks before events are set in motion, before I can stop thinking about it.

But in the meantime, my friend’s prayer perches like a soft bird on my shoulder, like the gentle animals to whom Saint Francis is said to have preached the gospel. I always thought they must have known it already, that Good News that we humans try to pass on to each other in broken English and Spanish and Italian. I think the birds are born knowing it. I think that’s what they sing to each other about, on these April mornings when I’ve dared to leave my bedroom window open a crack, their sweet songs reaching me in my slumber and cheering me for the day ahead.

I think the birds of Assisi already knew the gospel, but I think they still listened intently to Francis as he preached, their little heads tilted as the medieval Italian words filled their ears. Jesus referenced birds when he said, “Your heavenly Father knows what you need.” He already knows. But we pray for each other anyway. I imagine the great-great-great — and far beyond that — great-grandchildren of Francis’s sparrows tilting their heads to listen to my friend as she prays by the slender cypress trees. And God is there, too, his head inclined, nodding intently, even though he already knows.

***

You can read more of Judith’s poetry and prose, including updates of her month in Italy, at her website, www.judithkunst.com.

Finding God in the Ruins: A book review and giveaway

FGitR“Sometimes it feels as if God has invited Himself into my pain, when I had hoped to be invited into His healing. We want a God who heals our wounds, but it seems we have a God who heals our hearts.”
~ Matt Bays

When I first signed up to be part of the blog tour for Matt Bays’ book Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain, I was excited to be a part of promoting the book of an author I already loved. Two things have happened since then: I read the book and loved it even more, and, even before the official launch and blog tour could begin the book took off like wildfire, word of mouth, Matt’s message of hope in despair spreading from heart to heart, from friends to friends of friends, each person who read or even heard about it telling others: Get this book, now.

So now my time has finally come to tell you about Matt’s book, and, well, you might already know about it. It is a bestseller on Amazon, in several categories. Ann Voskamp wrote about it. (Read a excerpt from Finding God in the Ruins on New York Times bestselling author Ann Voskamp’s website: http://bit.ly/1Pa4R7C). Laura Parrot Perry wrote about it. If you search Finding God in the Ruins on Facebook or Twitter you will see post after post by people who have found this book and found hope and redemption in it.

But on the off chance that you have not heard of it, I’m honored to have the chance to share it with you. And I have a copy to give away! Keep reading for details.

Matt Bays grew up in a hell that he didn’t fully understand. His stepfather was abusive and his older brother learned to replicate that abuse. Matt grew up, got married, and went into ministry, and tried to push away those memories and keep them buried in his past. When he finally realized he couldn’t live like that anymore, and started seeing a counselor to try to articulate his pain, he began to uncover truths not only about his own life but about how broken the church can be in providing support for those who are speaking up about their struggles and their doubts.

For years I had longed for the church to be a safe place where I could reexamine my faith with fear and trembling and anger. I needed it to be a place where I could ask the tough questions — where I could expose God’s short sale on my life, on Robert’s life, on Keegan’s life, on yours. But the church wasn’t the place I’d hoped it would be.

I’m guessing my church would have given me six months to work things out rather than the six years it would take…

Matt writes honestly about getting angry with God, walking away from God, even giving God the middle finger. As he faces the memories and pain of his childhood, and the present pain of his sister’s cancer, he rages at God for not providing healing. But it is through that rage, through that honest baring his heart, that he discovers God’s presence with him in the wreckage. As the title of the book suggests, Matt finds that God doesn’t remake his life into something different. Instead, God sits with him in the ruins. Just like Frederick Buechner wrote about Job, “God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.”

But Matt does not stop with his own story and his own encounter with God’s absence and presence. Matt wants to free us, too, to tell our stories, to be unafraid and to trust that their is enough grace for us, whether it takes us six months to work things out or six years, or more. “Healing has no map;” Matt says:

every person’s experience is different. But if your journey is going to be successful, expect at some point to end up back at the scene of the crime, staring at the wreckage. People will tell you to move on, and they are partly right. But if you have tried and can’t seem to, you must go back and see what happened with new eyes. And then you must try to tell your story without trying to make it palatable — for anyone. You have to tell the truth — the whole truth — expecting the painful passages to come when you do. If it gets to be too much, take a break. Dog-ear the page and return to it when you’re good and ready, but plan to finish the book because there’s a beautiful ending to it.

Matt Bays meme 1

Matt writes with the eloquence of a poet, and with the heart of a pastor. He offers us his story, and whether we relate to the specific details or not, Finding God in the Ruins makes us feel less alone.

***

I have a copy to give away! Just leave a comment here or on my Facebook page and I will pick one commenter at random to receive Matt’s book. *Update 3/23: soundtek won!*

On Matt’s website you can find a free sample chapter, a trailer/music video, and links to places to order the book.

You can find quotes and links from the other bloggers in the tour here.

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I received a free advance copy of the book in return for my honest review.

God will make clear to you: On disagreements and doctrine


This weekend I’ve been thinking again about how often the question, “What do you believe about X?” is used to determine whether or not someone is truly a Christian — X being any number of things such as homosexuality, abortion, heaven and hell, universal heath care, which political party is more “Christian”, and on and on. It is a question that goes all the way back to the Anabaptists and whether baptism should be given in infancy or at the age of understanding and profession of faith, and back before that to the split between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son or just from the Son, and back even further than that to the early church over whether non-Jewish Christians had to be circumcised. When I share a perspective that challenges my readers, they often respond with a doctrinal question aimed at clarifying whether or not I am a “true” Christian. The idea is that if I answer the question correctly, they will consider what I’ve said, but if I answer incorrectly, they will dismiss me as a false Christian, and gladly dismiss the uncomfortable feeling that there might be something to what I have said.

I love these readers, actually. They are some of my favorite people, because even in asking the question they are taking a step outside their comfort zone. I get a lot of commenters lecturing me, scolding me, and scoffing at me, but the ones who ask questions, even if the question is aimed at discrediting me or putting me in a doctrinal box, show an openness to a response. A question opens up the possibility of a conversation, and a conversation opens up the possibility of a relationship, and a relationship opens up the possibility of finding common ground, not necessarily in doctrine and beliefs, but in our spiritual orientation, the direction in which we are facing and the person towards whom we are moving. For Christians, the common denominator is not our stance on heaven and hell, or our views on baptism, or the way we vote. Our common denominator is Jesus, “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2.

So when one of my readers asks me, “What do you believe about X,” I first of all thank them. I am genuinely grateful that they have read my words, and thought about them, and taken the time to respond. And then I tell them this:

I am a professed Christian, and have read the Bible many times. The thoughts in this post and in all my writing reflect a deep, life-long meditation on God’s word and a continual seeking to conform my life to my Savior’s. Over the years, I have come to feel that, “What do you believe?” isn’t as helpful a question for us Christians to ask each other as, “How are you directing your words, your actions, and your life towards Christ?” You and I have different interpretations of some parts of scripture, and have come to different conclusions about X, but we are both seeking to know, love, and serve God through Jesus Christ. So we have the most important thing in common! I cling to the promise of Philippians 3:15, that, “…if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” If we both keep our hearts and our feet turned towards Jesus, our steps will move us nearer and nearer to him. And even if we are in very different places doctrinally, if we are both moving towards Christ then we will somehow, mysteriously, be moving closer to each other, too.

Love,
Jessica