Anger beauty

JessSwimmingOn Monday I was mad that at forty-four years old I am still struggling with my eating and with body image.  On Wednesday I read this article about obesity and was angry about all the years that society and even doctors have lied to women and made us unhealthy in the name of health. On Thursday I got a letter from a woman who had gained weight and said she hated herself, and I was furious that my self-image and that of so many other women has been decimated by this toxic culture since we were very young. All week I’ve been pissed off reading reactions to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account of sexual assault, and reading the #WhyIdidntreport hashtag, realizing again and again how many of us women have been sexually assaulted and then shamed about it. I felt the anger in my body. My muscles felt tensed and taut and strong. My blood flowed faster. My skin warmed.

On Saturday I went to the gym and in the locker room I changed into my bathing suit. I walked by the full-length mirror on the way back to my locker, head down, thinking about goggles and kick boards, then I made myself come back and look at myself. I gained twenty pounds last year, and another five this summer, and I’d been fixated on my stomach and thighs, how much bigger they felt and looked, how the skin lay unevenly after years of losing and gaining those same twenty-five pounds. I’d been walking bravely from the locker room to the pool this past year, but it was not because I thought I looked good — it was because even though I thought I didn’t I was determined to not let it stop me.

I had done so much work to accept and love myself twenty-five pounds ago, but this recent weight gain seemed to unravel all my self-confidence. I looked in the mirror because I wanted to learn to love myself in the present, how I was on any given day, not wishing I weighed what I did in 2016, or looking forward to what I hope to weigh in 2019. I wanted to be em-bodied, not lost in my mind like I was for so long, sometimes so much that I was surprised that people could see me. I wanted to be friends with my body, and a part of her. But I still expected to have mixed feelings when I looked in the mirror. I expected to like parts of myself, but not all.

Instead, what I saw was a perfectly-fleshed, fully-bodied woman. I was beautiful. The flaws I expected to see were probably there, but I would have had to search them out and I didn’t. I looked at myself like I would look at another woman I saw in the locker room, noticing her kind and open face, her long legs and statuesque figure, her pale skin against the black of her bathing suit, her short, asymmetrical hair. I was younger than I expected, too. In my mind I had become middle-aged, lumpy, gray. But my eyes were bright and the highlights in my hair were silver.

I didn’t look angry. But I have a theory. I think the anger of the week is what made me beautiful. I think I spend so much time trying to fix the parts of myself that were broken by this horrible, toxic, misogynistic culture with self-love, and ministering to my likewise wounded friends and sisters and siblings with kindness and love — and that is good and necessary. But sometimes I think it can turn into just one more thing I need to fix about myself. Anger turns that feeling outward, towards the culture that hurt me and others and is still hurting girls and women today. When I am angry at the right things it draws the poison out of my own body. Anger strengthens my muscles, stirs my blood, prepares me for battle. Anger reunites me with my body, and reminds me that my body — like all bodies — is good.

Love,
Jessica

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Books I can’t wait to read:

Fat and FaithfulFat and Faithful: Learning to Love our Bodies, Our Neighbors, and Ourselves, by J. Nicole Morgan. It is well past time that we address the convergence of the culture of body-shaming and (white) Christian culture. I am so grateful to Nicole for writing this book, and I want everyone I know to read it. You can order it here.

 

 

 

 

 

A Light so Lovely

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, by Sarah Arthur. I met Sarah at a writer’s conference where I basically sidled up to her and said, “Hi, can I sit with you? Did you know there are famous authors here?” not realizing she was a famous author herself. Nevertheless she was delightful and welcoming to me, and as a personal favor (i.e. a complete coincidence) has written a spiritual autobiography about my favorite author, Madeleine L’Engle. I did a bunch of research myself two years ago for an essay that I never wrote, and uncovered some sad and fascinating things about Madeleine’s life. I can’t wait to read Sarah’s take on it. You can order it here.

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Searching for community

“Suddenly I realized – two people isn’t enough. You need backup. If there are only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.”
~About A Boy, by Nick Hornby

“You will be too much for some people. Those aren’t your people.”
~Karen Salmansohn

“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
~Frederick Buechner

It was a long summer. I finally caught up by phone with my friend G last week and we filled each other in on some of what we’d been up to. G and I are best friends from college, and have known each other for twenty-six years now. She’s married with a ten year old son, I’m single and living in the city. This summer she found her stride leading weekends of deep healing at her church. I didn’t go to church at all this summer (I’m writing this in my parents’ quiet apartment as they attend church this morning) and made it to just two meetings of the small group I (sort of, obviously) attend. Both experiences have been healing for us.

I spent seven years living in an intentional Christian community. Seven years. Before that I was in seminary for eight years, and did a live-in internship, as well as various ministries — leading worship, teaching the Bible, facilitating small groups, leading youth group, teaching ESL, and traveling overseas to observe ministries there. In college I got so excited about the student ministry that I went to two small groups every week, in addition to the large group meeting. I have always craved community, and I have always tried to cram myself into it. And I have almost always left — or been forced to leave — with experiences of burn out and even trauma.

I know so many others who have had similar experiences to mine. Part of it is because of foundational flaws within the groups themselves — their theology, their power structures, their emphases, their focus on the needs of the majority to the detriment of those on the margins. Part of it, I think, is just the fundamental inability of people to get along with each other. The more people you have, the more perspectives and personalities, and the harder it is going to be to come up with a way of organizing ourselves that everyone agrees with.

But what are we supposed to do with this, given the other fundamental fact that we need each other?

I don’t know the answer to this question. But earlier this summer I spent a chunk of the little money I had in savings to fly to Seattle to see my aunt, cousins, and some dear friends I’d lived with in the community several years ago. The week I was there was one of the most beautiful of my life. I stayed part of the time with my friends and part with my aunt, and every day I spent with people who loved me and whom I loved, having great conversations, encouraging each other, cheering each other on. It was exactly what I’d always wanted community to be. Of course I was only there for a week, and I was on vacation, so that added to the idyllic nature of the trip. But it made me both happy and sad, to feel that kind of community I’d been searching for and then to leave it.

Near the end of my trip to Seattle I got the news that my father had fallen out of his wheelchair and been injured. I had plans to go up to Maine later in the summer, to see more old friends and some new ones and to eke out a little more vacation time, but instead I spent most of my free time driving up to help out my parents. Dad has a degenerative muscle disease that has slowly disabled him, and the fall gave him a concussion that seems to have advanced the disease. He is still faithfully doing ministry in the New Hampshire jails, but he has to be driven there in his wheelchair van. (You can read more about his work on his blog, Visiting Jesus in Prison.)

My dear friend and housemate, Mark, has been away since April. We moved from a three-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom last summer, so with Mark away I have been living by myself. I love many things about being alone, but it has been a bit lonely, too. I email with Mark, and shoot texts to friends when I feel lonely, but I miss having a friend right there to touch in with every day. I don’t need — or want — a lot of interaction, but it is really good to be able to share a little bit about my day. I think I’ve been the worse for it, emotionally and intellectually. I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much: The little things I used to quickly process with Mark every evening have become jumbled up in my head so that the big themes can’t get out around them. He’s coming back this week, though, yay!

The thing about my friends in Seattle, and G, and Mark, is that they’re old friends. We’ve had conflict, but we moved through it, and our affection for each other is now firm. Settled. The only way to make more of that kind of friend, though, is to plow through the weeds with new friends. So last week I fought of inertia and social anxiety and went to the Labor Day cookout that my small group was having. I’ve been going there, sort of, on and off for a year now, and I was delighted to find this Monday that some of those friends are starting to feel like old friends. That community is starting to feel more like my community.

Of course now that I am settling in they’re changing it — the group has gotten too big so they’re going to split into two. When I heard this news I wondered who was going to lead the new group, and for a brief moment I thought, *I* know how to lead small groups. Then I laughed and shook my head. As grateful and proud I am of my friend G for being a leader at her church, I’m not ready to go back to that myself. I may never be. But I think I am slowly finding my own way of doing community. I am piecing community together like a quilt. Seattle friends and family stitched together with my parents in New Hampshire, Suzy, Gina, and Judi outside of Boston, Laura in Connecticut, Matt and Judith in Indianapolis, Miriam, Sarah, Claudia, and Ivy in Boston, Mark in the next room over. It is not as easy as going next door where 4-12+ people were hanging out on any given night. But it is also not as hard. Go figure.

If you are reading this and feeling lonely and excluded, first of all, you’re included here. I want my blog and all my writing to be inclusive and community-focused. If you’re here, you’re in, you’re one of us. Second, don’t give up. The place where you are — your church, your school, your current group of friends — might not be where you find your community, but you will find it. Your people are out there. And they are looking for you, too. The party isn’t complete without you.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

Another damn post about migraines

I am lying on my parents’ bed, half on my back, half sideways, trying to balance the computer while holding my body at an angle that at least minimizes the throbbing pain. It’s August 4th. I’ll tell you why I’m counting the days in a minute.

I drove up here yesterday, after three long nanny days in the heat and humidity, to supposedly help out my parents as my dad recovers from a fall out of his wheelchair. Instead I’m lying here watching my mom do all the work.

There is a lot of pain. Then there’s the nausea, vertigo, sensitivity to light and sound. I have meds that might cut the pain a little bit, but I have another full week of nannying before I can refill my prescription, and only three doses left, so I can’t waste them on a weekend. Plus there’s a thing called a medication overuse migraine, and I took meds all week to get through the nannying.

I’ve written all of this before.

Right now I’m just thinking about what a waste of a day this is, and how many days have been similarly wasted. I have things I want to do. I want to do my laundry and my parents, and help my mom sort through what needs to be done to apply for a home aide. I want to write the essay that’s been growing like a baby inside me for a month now. I’m past my due date, but I’m too tired for labor, so my belly swells and swells.

I want to move my body, to feel fresh air, to get my heart rate up, to lose the twenty extra pounds I put on last year, that I can feel wrapped around my bones and muscles like extra layers of clothes. I want to go to the lake that’s only a mile away from here and swim. It’s August 4th and I’ve only been swimming once so far this summer, back in June, in an indoor pool. I love swimming. I love exercise. I also love lazing around the house some days, but I’d like it to be because I’m in the middle of a good book, or because I biked twenty miles the day before and need a break. Not because standing up sends the blood throbbing to my head, and spins the world around me like a tilt a whirl.

My next neurology appointment is August 17th. I’ve been trying to get in earlier, because I spoke to my doctor and she said she thinks she can get the prior authorization for my insurance to cover the new migraine medication, but she wants to see me in person first. That was two weeks and maybe four migraines ago. I’ve lost count. Two weeks to go. How hard can it be to wait another month, when I’ve had these migraines since I was young? But each one is just as hard as the last. Pain, nausea, boredom, frustration. And now — hope. But a mixed hope.

It’s a hope mixed with a kind of pre-survivors guilt. What if I get better, but others don’t? What if this is it, a real treatment finally for migraines (which it seems like it might be) but meanwhile those with fibromyalgia and depression and the terrible illness that debilitates one of my best friends and the degenerative muscle disease that has put my dad in a wheelchair continue to suffer? And what if, after all of this, it doesn’t help anyway, or I’m one of the very rare people who has a bad reaction?

I have an essay I want to write about that, too. But right now I have to close my eyes, because these few paragraphs were written at a cost. Don’t worry about me, I’m okay. I know what I need to do to take care of myself. I hope to be back soon, with a bouncing baby essay to show you, forgetting the pain of labor in the joy of new creation.

Love,
Jessica

***

In between migraines I wrote this piece for Sojourners on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweets, and Lin said I made his day!

Check it out!

I also loved this other Sojo piece by Joy Netanya Thompson about Queer Eye, which Bobby Berk retweeted! What a week for Sojo contributors!

Come follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and join in the conversation! (I’ll tell you a secret: I’m feistiest on Twitter!)

On pain and forgiveness

pain_scale_graphic_499_202It’s cool and raining now. I woke up this morning to the sound of the rain on my house and the maple tree behind my house. There is always a moment when I wake up and don’t judge myself or the day. I just hover in my renewed consciousness, my new awareness of my body, its breath and skin, bones and sinews. Then I ask, not in words but a kind of probing: What kind of day was it yesterday? What did I do, and what happened to me? Am I waking up proud and grateful, or disappointed and frustrated? Do I need to talk myself through things? Do I need to tread lightly because I exacerbated my foot or back injuries? Did I have a migraine yesterday and is it still there? Did I stay up too late? Did I overeat? Did I fight with a friend?

Yesterday morning I woke up after a really bad migraine, probably a nine out of ten on the pain scale for parts of it. I didn’t have to have such a bad one. Unlike some of my migraines, which ebb and flow into each other, this one had a clear beginning Friday evening, and I have meds that might have kept it from getting full blown like that. But the neurologist told me to try to take breaks from the meds when I can, so as not to develop medication-overuse migraines. She said if it’s a day I don’t have much to do to consider just riding it out. Sure, I thought Friday night. I can do that. Saturday’s free and I’m used to the pain. But this one got really bad, and by Saturday evening I was having trouble coping.

When it was at its worst I craved ice cream — and specifically Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia — so badly I cried. I’ve been eating pretty well lately, so there were no sweets of any kind in the house. I ended up pouring milk and honey over some of Mark’s oatmeal, and that sort of worked. While I was eating, and for half an hour afterwards, the pain went down to an eight. And I thought, as I have many times in the past few years, of how hard it had been when the migraines were this bad almost daily. I thought, as I have many times, that I forgive myself for things I did trying to cope with the pain, for overeating so much that I gained fifty pounds, for leaning too heavily on Mark which was really hard for him, for not being able to gently and gracefully navigate all the community stuff which was going on at the time, for being panicky and self-focused sometimes in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve been through this process already, and have been able to forgive myself, but this weekend I felt like that forgiveness settled even deeper. The mind has mechanisms to make us forget how bad pain really is, so as much as I feel I remember it, when it returns that intensely it brings back the memory of exactly what that particular pain means. When I was in it on Saturday I forgave myself again, and felt a settling deep inside me. I know I hurt people, and I don’t minimize that. But I think it’s miraculous that I did as well as I did, and that I’m doing as well as I am now. I did my best. I really did.

Yesterday morning I woke up and took stock. The worst of the pain was over, but the other migraine symptoms were still there: fatigue, vertigo, difficulty thinking, and sensitivity to light and noise. It was the perfect spring day for a hike or bike ride, but I took it easy and drove the mile to the soccer field instead of walking. The eleven year old who I’ve known since he was two months old played a fierce game, running around out there like a miniature MLS player with his blond fauxhawk. I was having trouble concentrating, but I happened to be paying attention at just the right moment, when he scored an amazing goal from almost midfield. It was awesome to be a part of his pure joy and pride, and awesome that my presence there meant a lot to him, that he came over to me after the game and basked in my praise.

I thought about yesterday’s pain and self-forgiveness, and I found, as I have before, again and again, that forgiving myself had freed me up to forgive others. Just as my self-forgiveness settled in deeper, I found myself able to let go even more of wrongs that others had done to me. Coincidentally, I had happened to watch a short video of Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about forgiveness earlier that day. “I really believe when someone else does us harm, we’re connected to that mistreatment like a chain.” She said that forgiving someone breaks your connection to that hurt. Forgiving someone, she said, means saying, “What you did was so not okay that I refuse to be connected to it anymore.”

I was thinking about the video throughout the day, and suddenly I realized I was able to cut a few more of the strands connecting me to not only my own shame from that time, but the pain that others caused me as well. I don’t minimize what they did, either, but just as I was doing my best through a lot of pain, I feel like they probably were as well. I’d believed that before, and forgiven them before, but yesterday felt like it settled in a little bit more. Like when you’re lying still on your back at the end of a yoga class, and without even realizing it you suddenly relax a muscle you didn’t know you were tensing, and your back cracks with relief.

After the soccer game I drove home, but then walked the quarter mile to the store to get something for dinner. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was on sale, two for $7, so I bought myself some Cherry Garcia and some Half-Baked as well. This morning when I woke up, after a moment of pure joy at the sound of the rain, I had that movement of coming into awareness. And I remembered that I’d eaten more of the two pints than I’d intended to. But I also remembered the pain of the weekend, and the new, deeper forgiveness. So I took a deep breath and let that shame go, stretched my stiff body, made myself some coffee and peanut butter toast, and began my week.

To all of you who may be struggling with shame, or with a tie to wrong that has been done to you — I know it’s so hard. Keep at it. Keep recklessly forgiving yourself, and very carefully forgiving others, recognizing that part of forgiveness is learning what boundaries you need to set to be safe.

Love to all of you, and happy Pride!! “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. Cannot be killed or swept aside. Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” ~Lin-Manuel Miranda

Jessica

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Devils and angels

migrainedepression

from Deviant Art — I’m looking for the artists name, hang on…

“If you take away my devils, my angels may flee as well.”
~Rainer Marie Rilke, my paraphrase

 

There was news of a medical breakthrough this morning, and it was relevant to me. There’s a medication that prevents migraines. I don’t say there’s a new medication to prevent migraines, because there really weren’t any old ones: Everything doctors use is off label, which means it was developed for another purpose but was found to improve migraines in some people. In other words, if it works it’s kind of a fluke. For my migraines right now I’m on an antispasticity medication developed for cerebral palsy, and an anti-psychotic developed for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. I don’t have cerebral palsy, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. But those meds help enough for me to work 32 hours a week, so long as I rest most of the other 136 hours. It used to be worse. But it could be a lot better.

When I woke up this morning — with a really bad migraine — I opened Facebook and saw that two of my aunts had sent me the article about this new medication called Aimovig, I read the headline and then ignored it for the rest of the day. I had just been to see my neurologist a couple of weeks ago, and she hadn’t mentioned anything about it. In fact, she’d had me start another off label medication, this one for high blood pressure. (I don’t have high blood pressure.)

I don’t have a lot of hope, and I don’t need much right now. I’m doing a lot better than I was, though it was hard to explain that to the doctor after she’d asked how many times a month I had a migraine and my answer was almost every day. See, I have two kinds of migraines, sort of: An underlying daily mixture of fatigue, nausea, dizziness, light sensitivity, pain, and other symptoms that almost never goes away but that I can function under, and more painful breakout migraines, that are much harder to soldier through. I have the latter about 10 days a month. But I used to have the breakout migraines almost daily. There were a couple of years that I could barely get out of bed, much less hold down a job, exercise a little, and find joy in life. It could be a lot worse.

My dad commented on the link my aunt shared, leaving such a lovely compliment to me and my writing, and said, “I have often thought and prayed about how much more she could do if only she could be freed from these awful migraines.” He and my aunt discussed whether insurance would cover it. But I didn’t think about it much. I didn’t even read the article until later in the day when another person shared it and said if it was true it would change her life. Then I thought: It would change my life, too. But how would it?

I let my thoughts wander to fantasy, where I’m more comfortable sometimes than reality. I can’t really think about getting better — I have to concentrate on getting through each day. But I can fantasize about it, like I fantasize about winning the lottery sometimes, or getting my dream house. What would I do? With all that extra energy, extra time I didn’t need to spend taking care of my high-maintenance head? The answer, in part, came easily: First, I’d exercise. I’d have such a go at that elliptical machine, ride my bike miles and miles, swim till even under the water I could feel my body sweat. I love exercise so much, during and after. I love how I feel when my body is in shape, the muscles under my skin, the strength. But now I get a migraine every time I have a cardiovascular workout. I have to limit myself to 20-30 minutes, and even then I have to walk carefully afterwards to avoid head rushes, eat within half an hour of the workout, make sure I don’t have anything important to do in case I need to lie down. Without the migraines — I’d get in shape, that’s what I’d do. And then?

I think I’d do what I’m already doing. Nannying. Writing. Cultivating friendships. I’d just nanny a few more hours a week so I can start putting money into savings. I’d write more, not just when the migraines allow me an hour or two of reprieve. I’d make plans with friends without worrying about whether I’ll be able to go out for lunch AND go to work the next day. Oh, and I’d actually do some social activism, instead of just thinking and writing about it. Basically, I’d show up more.

Some things I’d hope to keep, like the space that the migraines create to rest my body, mind, and spirit. It might actually be harder without them. I rest now because I have no choice. Maybe I’d fill up my time too much, get captivated by the money I can make by working more and more, spend so much time with wonderful people that I lose the centeredness that being along brings. Maybe I’d lose the drive that having something to fight against gives me. Or the depth of insight that pain offers. Maybe my angels would leave with my demons.

I don’t think so, though. I’ve made friends with both the angels and the demons now. I’ll be okay if this new medication doesn’t work, and I’ll be okay if it does. But I know there are so many people who suffer more than I do, whose lives would be vastly improved. It really could be a miracle cure for millions.

I hope so.

Peace and health to all of you. I hope whatever pain is in your life teaches you what it’s there to teach you, and then leaves gracefully.

Love,
Jessica

 

Getting to yes

Photo by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to teach six-year-old Louise about the improv rule of “yes, and.” Louise and I have a lot in common: We’re both big sisters with a little brother, we’re both creative, we’re into colorful clothes and jewelry, we love reading and imagining ourselves inside our our favorite books. We both half believe in fairies and tell each other stories about them. We’re also both pretty stubborn and like to have things our way, and we don’t like anyone else telling us what to do. We have a lot of fun together, but I think it’s hard for her that I’m not a parent or teacher but I’m still in charge of her. She pushes back against that, often preemptively, by telling me what to do, and correcting me whenever I make a mistake — and often when I don’t. Like,

“Let’s get our coats on, Louise!”

“No. It’s not a coat, it’s a jacket.”

Or, if I call it a jacket,

“No, it’s a coat.”

I like to think that I’m a fairly patient person, but being constantly corrected is hard on a girl. I find myself tensed, knowing it is coming. I try to choose my words carefully, to not say anything inaccurate or open to misinterpretation, but of course that’s an impossible thing in general and wouldn’t do any good in this situation anyway. I try to shrug it off, but it builds up. And so, one day last year, I told her that I try to say, “yes, and,” to people, instead of, “no.”

“Like, ‘Yes, it’s a coat, and another word for coat is jacket.”

Louise glares at me. “I already know the words yes and and. Stop trying to teach me things.”

I smile in what I’m sure is an irritating way and switch to the ever-useful tool of distraction: “What should we do after school today?” or, “What earrings do you think I should wear tomorrow with my blue shirt?” Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. She really would only be satisfied with me saying I’m wrong and she’s right. But even though kids push against us and argue, I know it’s good for them on a deep level to believe that the adults responsible for them are smart and competent. I try to admit when I’m really wrong — that’s good for kids to see, too — but I also want Louse to know she’s safe and in good hands.

“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. I’m actually one of the best nannies in Boston,” I tell her sometimes, and she smiles. I tell her some of my nanny tricks for kids her little brother’s age: “Make everything into a story. Like when you’re changing their diaper, say, ‘Once upon a time there was a little boy named Manny who did NOT like to have his diaper changed.” Manny, listening to us, says, “Tell me another story about Manny!” Louise laughs and tells him a story about himself. Sometimes she tells me she wants to be a nanny when she grows up. We really do have a lot of fun together.

“You’re fired!” she yells at me another time, in February, when I make her put on her snow boots to go out instead of her ballet slippers.

***

This is the rule of “yes, and” as described by Tina Fey in her book, Bossypants:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

***

I read Tina’s essay four years ago, and I’ve been pondering it ever since then. It’s instinctive to react defensively when someone says something I disagree with. I think it’s instinctive to feel misunderstood and to try to argue, to explain myself. What would it be like to start with a yes instead of a no and see where that takes me? And if there’s really nothing there I can say yes to, then maybe there’s just nothing to say? Maybe I can just walk away from that conversation, or that relationship, and refocus my energy on places and people that are moving the scene along. “This can’t be good for the wax figures,” they say, and I am suddenly seeing what we’re doing in a whole different light. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the same people whose ministries are deeply healing are also deeply funny. Glennon Doyle. Laura Parrott Perry. Matt Bays.

I invited Matt to a contra dance last week and his response was, “I don’t even know what a contra dance is, yet somehow I’m still ALL IN.” I need people like that in my life. Also people who understand that I will probably be in bed by the time the dance actually starts this Saturday but fully intend to make it one of these days.

***

I try again to introduce the yes, and concept to Louise, on a day that she’s being particularly no-ish.

“There’s a game of make-believe that grown-ups play onstage,” I say, “and the rule is that you always have to say, “Yes, and,” to the person you’re playing with.”

“Grown-ups play a make-believe game?” she asks, laughing, fascinated.

“Yes!” I say. “One says something like, ‘We’ve been walking in this woods a long time, I hope we find shelter soon,’ and the other person has to say, “Yes. And…’ and then add something to the walking in the woods idea, like, ‘Look, there’s a fairy in that tree!’. If the second person says, ‘No, we’re not in the woods, we’re in the desert,’ then the first person says, ‘No, we’re in the woods,’ then we never get to find out what happens when they meet the fairy.”

“Let’s tell the story about the fairy!” Louise says, and Manny says, “I want a story about Manny!”

“Yes! And a story about Manny!” I say.

So we begin. After all, everything is a story, if you tell it right. And an even better one if you tell it together.

Love,

Jessica

***

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