Winter survival guide

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

from The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working

Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working:

Okay. It’s okay. Just spend some time here with no internet. Sit with the boredom, with the antsiness. Don’t fight the tiredness, but don’t disappear into it, either. Stay present. Sit in the hard-backed chair. Sit up straight. See how it feels. See how your thoughts are different than when you’re slouching. Close your eyes. Open your eyes.

Write one true sentence. Write one lie. Look at the books around you. Wonder what you can learn from just their spines. Make an observation: There are 34 volumes in The Dictionary of Art, and only 29 volumes in The Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Wonder about those five less volumes. Wonder if they are because five books worth of music was never recorded, or if it was never even written. Feel the missing music in your bones.

Notice you feel a little less sleepy. Look out the window at the brick wall of a school. Remember your own school’s brick wall, when you were ten. Describe how it felt when you leaned against it at recess: Warm and hard, the rough edges catching on your clothes. You wanted to lie down in the grass, like you did in your yard at home, and daydream. But the kids would have laughed at you, so you leaned against the wall and watched them play. You were tired then, too. Recess was after lunch. There were two and a half more hours before you would find your little brother and walk home.

Wonder if you could write a story about walking home from school with your little brother. Think about it for a few minutes and come up with nothing. Feel discouraged. Don’t fight the discouragement, but don’t disappear into it, either. Use it. Describe it. Where do you feel it in your body? Your chest? Your arms? Notice that it makes you feel alone and separate from the other people around you. Wonder how many of the other quiet people in the library feel discouraged, feel alone. Write for them.

Write for them. Write your story about walking home from school for the other ten year old girls who felt alone at recess. Write it for the grown-ups in the library who were ten once. Write it for the ones who remember the prickly feeling of the school wall against their skin. Write it for the ones who have forgotten and only know that they are missing something in their bones. Write it for the musicians who would be in volumes 30-34 if they weren’t so tired and discouraged. Write till they know they are not alone. Write till you know you are not alone. Write till the musicians pick up their instruments and start to play. Write.

***

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

Save

For those who are depressed

The Arnold Arboretum at Dust

The Arnold Arboretum at Dusk

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
~ T.S. Eliot

Come for a walk with me, my friend. I know you are tired. I know that sorrow has settled into your bones like the ache from an old war wound. Come with me anyway. Lean on my arm. It is only a few steps to the forest’s entrance, and a few more to a bench where we can rest. I know the colors have gone out of your life and you cannot rouse yourself to remember them. I know. In the twilight the colors of the world are muted, and it will not sting as much when you can only see grey.  We can turn back anytime. Your bed will be waiting for you. Just come out for a few minutes.

Come for a walk with me, dear one. I know that walking is hard, now, that your muscles ache and you feel a weariness that does not pass no matter how much you sleep. I know that talking feels impossible, and that you fear if you do speak you will be unable to stop, and will wear me out with your words, crying over and over of your pain and despair. It’s all right, my friend. You do not have to speak, and if you do there is space in my heart and in the woods for all your pain. There is space for you, my friend, believe me. There is a drought in the world that can only be quenched by your tears, the infinite tears inside you. Come and weep, or come and be silent. Just come.

Come for a walk with me, Beloved. I know you feel nothing but loneliness, and being with people makes you feel even more alone. I know you feel lost and left behind, abandoned by friends and by the God you once adored. I know you feel a betrayal so sharp and real that sometimes you cannot breathe. I know that when I call you God’s Beloved it rings hollow, that if I speak the words of scripture that you used to love they now taste like sand in your mouth. Come into the whispering darkness of the trees at twilight and listen to the scripture there. Come into the shadows of the oaks and lindens until the darkness outside matches the darkness in your soul. And then listen to how the dark speaks its own language, one you could not hear in the bright light of day. If you do not hear it tonight, that’s okay, too. I will walk you home, regardless. I will trust your soul regardless. Beloved, I will.

Come for a walk with me, little sister, little brother. I have been here before and am older than you by a year or two. Let me hold your hand as you learn to walk in this new world. You have been walking for years in the daylight, but this is new territory, this westering world where the shadows trip you as surely as the stones. It is hard to walk, I know, but you can do it. We can do it together, little one. Underneath your despair I can see that spark of strength. Not everyone will realize how much it took you to step outside for these few minutes, but I know. Even if you collapse back in bed for the next twenty-three and a half hours, I know that the courage and strength it took to face the world for those few moments is almost unimaginable. I know you feel so weak, little brother, little sister, but you are strong in ways few people will ever know.

Come for a walk with me, dear reader. I know you have questions I cannot answer, and things in your life I cannot understand. But let’s go for a walk together tonight, away from the cacophony of the city, of the daylight, of the world wide web. Let’s step into the dusky woods together, the quiet dappled evening where the trolls and other monsters cannot follow. Let’s find one of the Ten Thousand Places, one of the hidden places where it’s okay to be sad and unsure, where it’s okay to ask our overwhelming questions and okay to let the answer be that we don’t know. I know you’re tired, and the day has already been far too long. You can rest soon, dear one, I promise. Only first, come, come for a walk.

***

Come for a walk on Facebook, too, if  you’d like to keep in touch.

The color of the lake

img_0581

Once the lake was its own color, one that even the oldest animals have forgotten and people never named, neither blue nor green nor silver. But as she gazed upon the sky she grew jealous and thought to herself that she was low and weak and plain, while the sky was high and fierce and lovely. So the lake turned herself into a mirror and learned to imitate every cloud and color of the sky.

Then people came into the world and the animals never told them that the lake had changed, so the people thought this was the way of the world. But all the while the lake was unhappy, beautiful as it was, and missed its own color but was not brave enough to turn back. And then one day, the people came to the lake to fill their water jars, and found that the water was gone, the lake was gone, and in its place real clouds and sky filled the lake basin. Then the youngest child bent to drink and would have fallen away had not his mother snatched him back at the last moment.

No one ever found out where the lake had gone. But the sky, who had loved the lake’s imitation of her so much that she had accepted the flattery without ever returning it, was lonely. So every now and then, on days that sway from rain to sun and back again, you can catch a glimpse of the lake in the sky, just for a moment — that certain color neither blue nor green nor silver.

~ Jessica Faith Kantrowitz

It’s been a rough summer here. My friend and housemate, Mark, and I were searching for a third housemate, I was job hunting, and the migraines were particularly bad. I’m not sure if it was the heat or stress or what, but the migraines haven’t been this bad in several years. I went for several long bike rides, but I got an awful headache after each one. There’s this weird phenomenon, which I’ve written about before, where I blame myself for the migraines, even though logically it doesn’t make sense. But I always have this feeling that I should have done something differently, should have slept more or less, eaten something different, exercised more — I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint it. It occurred to me the other day that it might somehow be connected with the guilt and shame I’ve always felt about eating and weight, that there was something wrong with me and I had only myself to blame. Ironically, the migraines make it impossible to exercise obsessively, something I’ve definitely done in the past. So even though I exercise as much as I can, and push myself to the point of a terrible headache, I still feel this vague sense of blame all the time. Mark keeps telling me, as I go over all the things I maybe could have done to prevent this latest migraine, that they seem to come no matter what I do or don’t do. So why do I blame myself? Does anyone else do that?

So anyway, the migraines have been bad, and I’ve been feeling burnt out in general. The other day I was having a particularly hard day — my car had been towed, I had a migraine, it was miserably hot and humid for the nth day this summer, and I’d just had a couple of the kind of random, awkward interactions that make me want even more to not have to leave the house. I was feeling exactly whatever the opposite of centered is — off balance, on edge, on the verge of breaking down — when I walked into Target and almost straight into a woman who I’d had a really difficult relationship with several years ago. She was looking the other way, so I had a couple of seconds to decide what to do. She was poised and put together, standing straight and tall, her blonde hair pulled into a casual ponytail, make up carefully applied and somehow not smeared with sweat like mine was. I knew if she saw me she would be smiley and confident. If she was thrown off by running into me she wouldn’t show it.

I wanted so much to be confident, too. Or, rather, I wanted my type of confidence to be as visible as her type. I wanted my outward demeanor to reflect the growth and healing I’d experienced in the several years since we’d last seen each other. These have been such years of peace and strength for me, and I wanted that strength to be enough to carry me in that situation. But it wasn’t enough, and I could feel it. So I turned, quickly, before she could see me, and walked out of the store.

Afterwards I felt so discouraged. When was I ever going to really heal? When was I going to be strong? But I realized that, actually, making the decision to walk out of a situation that felt unsafe to me was a strength. Choosing to spend my time and energy in ways that are life-giving and with people who build me up is wisdom and confidence. It just looks different than I wanted it to look.

I’ve been trying to write about this here, to share these thoughts with you, but I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to express them. But I wrote that fable about the lake a couple of days ago, and that contains some of what I wanted to say. So I’ll just leave you with this for now: You have your own color, your own beauty, strength, and gifts, and the world needs them. The world doesn’t need you to try to be beautiful and strong the way that other people are beautiful and strong. It needs your own particular, specific way of being. And sometimes — often, maybe — your particular strength and beauty come from the things that seem to you like weaknesses or flaws. That’s not a glitch in the system, that’s the way the system was designed. Your weakness is part of your strength. Your flaws are what make you uniquely beautiful. You will heal and grow, but that growth and healing will not make you someone else, it will make you more yourself — and that was the plan all along.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

 

On monsters and stars

Walden Pond

Walden Pond

I spent the day at Walden Pond yesterday. It was beautiful and peaceful, and even there I found myself thinking about terrorists and bombings, wondering what I would do, in which direction I would run. When I started thinking about the babies I made myself stop. Psychiatrists have descriptors of this kind of thinking: psychotic depression, or delusional depression. I think these are are inaccurate terms. If I had been in Nice, my thoughts wouldn’t have been wouldn’t have been delusions. They would have been prophetic.

Madeleine L’Engle said that we tell our children there are no monsters, that they are safe, but that is a lie. There are monsters, and we know it, and what we really mean is that the monsters will likely pick some other place to wreak havoc today. We mean we are safe-ish, probably, for now, and that the only way to stay sane is to live in denial about the ish. Some of us are just bad at living in denial. If I were in charge I would call it non-delusional depression. I’d call it paying attention.

But we do have to live our lives, and one thing about depression is that it makes it very hard to keep moving, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just being aware of all the pain in your own life, and your friends’ and family’s, and the world tends to make you just want to curl up into a ball and cry. And the problem with that, besides the fact that you are not really enjoying your one wild and precious life, is that you may actually be one of the people who can *do* something about someone else’s pain and suffering. Your awareness of it may not be, or may not only be, a mental illness, a descriptor penned in your chart in the sharp, quick script of an over-scheduled psychiatrist. It may be a call to action. Because you have to be able to see the monsters in order to fight them.

But you have to see something else, too. You have to see the beauty. You have to see the angels, the good, the God. Because in fact you are at Walden Pond, where the green of the trees and the blue of the sky swirl together in the water your body is moving through. You are — rather against your will, but still — sharing that particular cove with a large turtle, who has poked its head out of the water in a little triangle, and is assessing which way you are likely to go so it can go another. You are sitting on your towel, letting the breeze air-dry you, feeling that breeze with every tiny hair that it raises on your arms. You are walking further down the beach, coming around a bend, and finding a cairn in the shallow water, a miracle of architecture, made of stones, balanced on sand, rising out of the water.

S30A09781The monsters are real, but all of this is real, too. In A Wrinkle in Time the angel-like characters, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, take the children to space to show them the Darkness, a Thing that is threatening the universe, encroaching upon the earth and many other worlds as well. It is huge and horrible and terrifying. But then they show them something else:

The Darkness seemed to seethe and writhe. Was this meant to comfort them?

Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing…

“It was a star,” Mrs. Whatsit said sadly. “A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing.”

The monsters are real, but the stars are real, too. There is great evil and sadness in the world, but there are also the stars and the clear, good darkness of space. The star that gave its life in the book was fiction, of course, but there are real acts of love and healing every day. My swim through the glacier-dug pond was one. My prayer for my friend as we texted each other that we were struggling was one, and so was hers for me. The act of building the cairn was one, too. Any creative act is.  And I did not think of it yesterday, but a cairn is a memorial, too. Perhaps its maker was a prophet. Perhaps she was carrying the weight of the world’s grief, past and future, and shaped it into the best thing she could, a piece of art. Or perhaps she didn’t know what was going to happen in France today, but just knew that the monsters are real, and she flung her art out against them, a star into the night.

I can’t think of the babies. I have to stop myself. I’m not going to watch the news tonight, or listen to stories. But I am going to pray. And I am going to create. I’m going to write. And I’m going to hold the beauty in my heart, along with the pain. Let this be my prayer for anyone who reads this: Lord, let them see the beauty, too. Let them be it.

Love,
Jessica

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.

***

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