Outside your Father’s care

I tried to rescue a baby bird the other day. There were six of us trying, actually, two adults and four children, playing in the backyard for two hours while a bird cheeped steadily every minute or so, and an anxious mother robin fluttered around the trees above us, calling to her baby to come to her. We humans wanted badly to help, but the problem was we couldn’t figure out where the little bird’s cries were coming from. When we stood next to the shed it seemed to be coming from the shed, but when we went into the shed it was clearly coming from outside. The mom and the two five year old girls tried on and off to look for it, and the toddler helped out by saying, “Birdy!” every time he heard the chirps. The three year old was mostly otherwise occupied. But me, I was obsessed. So much so that I was concerned I wasn’t doing my job as a nanny. I tried to focus on the kids, but the chirping kept calling me back to the search. My compassion and motherly instincts were working hard, but also my inability to back down from a challenge. There MUST be a way of finding that bird. I could do it, I knew I could.

Still, the kids were my priority, and I was also concerned that they not be too upset about the lost bird. I tried to reassure them, even as I was searching, that the bird was alright.

“Oh, I forgot!” said the five year old that was under my care, the bright, imaginative Louise that I wrote about here. “I can understand bird language!” She went over where the noise seemed to be and listened for a moment.

“I was right!” she said. “That’s not the sound of a bird in distress.”

“Oh good!” I said, pretending to believe her, and she and her neighbor-friend went back to their game. The mom went around the corner to work in her garden, the toddler and the three year old played in the sandbox, and I tried to focus on them, to pay attention for my own sake as well as theirs. One of the main reasons I’ve been nannying for the past eight years since my ministry job fell apart is because being present with small children is so therapeutic for me. Watching a one year old play in the sunshine while the breeze ruffles my hair is as good to me as an anti-anxiety medication. There was my health, my centeredness, right there in the sandbox. Pay attention, Jessica, I told myself. But:

Chirp chirp!

That was a bird in distress, no matter what Louise said. It was almost time for us to go inside. The kids’ dad would be home soon and I wanted to give them a snack. I checked to make sure all the kids were safe and occupied, and then I went over to that corner of the yard, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and listened.

Chirp chirp!

I peeked at the kids again, then resumed my breathing and listening. I took a step forward.

Chirp chirp!

To the left, I thought, and took another step. I squatted down. Then I opened my eyes and I was in front of a blue bin, full of balls and other outside toys. Could it be?

Chirp chirp!

I slowly, carefully began to remove the toys from the bin. Suddenly I heard a fluttering sound from the bottom. My heart skipped a beat. I’d done it! I was about to rescue it! I kept removing toys, even more slowly and carefully, my head full of visions of the bird flying away free, of a joyful reunion with its mother. Then, finally, I removed the last toy, a frisbee leaning against the side of the bin, and under it was the terrified little bird. I gently tipped the bin over and called to the kids:

“I found it! I found the bird!” And then my heart sank. Instead of flying out of the bin, the bird hopped out, and I saw that all of its tail feathers were missing, and some of its wing feathers as well. It hopped around to the side of the house and I blinked back tears.

“Okay, Louise and Manny,” I said, “Time to go inside.”

From the dining room as we ate our snack we could see the baby bird, still on the side of the house.

“Look!” said Louise, “Its mother came to find it!” Its mother was there, indeed, chirping at it, and feeding it. I tried to be enthusiastic about it for Louise’s sake, but I wondered if the baby had any chance of making it. The mom could feed it on the ground, but she couldn’t protect it from predators. I had worked so hard to locate and rescue the little bird, but it seemed like that rescue had been in vain. It all seemed deeply unfair. Many baby birds die, I know. But this was my baby bird. This was the one I’d left my baby humans to save. This was the one I’d used all my powers of centering and quieting myself and listening to search for. This was the one I’d found.

To be honest, I don’t want to write the second half of this blog post. I don’t want to look for deeper meaning, for reassurances, for the presence of God. I just want the bird to be okay. I want to write another story like the one where Louise and I rescued a little dog, and brought him safely back to his warm home and loving owner. I want to write about a joyful reunion, not a tragic one.

I don’t want to, but I’m going to anyway, because I do believe that God is present in everything, the good and the bad, and I am committed to paying attention to that Presence. In Matthew 10:29 Jesus speaks about a sparrow falling to the ground. Some translations say something like, “Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent” or “your Father’s permission.” This makes it sound God has been asked by someone — maybe Satan? — if it’s okay to kill the bird, and God has said yes. But the New Living Translation has it as, “without your Father knowing it,” and the New International Version says, “outside your Father’s care.” I like this idea much better. The sparrow never stops being within God’s knowledge and loving care, even when the time comes for it to die. It is held in love, in life and in death. And so are we.

Jesus goes on to say, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” How intimate a way to express God’s love and knowledge of us. We are under the care of someone who has held us, who has touched our body with gentleness and attention, separating each strand of hair to count them one by one. God holds us with this same gentle attention in death as well as in life.

And there’s another story from the Bible that comes to my mind. Many people know the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed by a whale (or big fish) when he refuses to preach God’s warning to Nineveh. As the story goes, Jonah prays inside the whale, God saves him, and he then goes to preach to the people of Nineveh, who listen to him and repent of their evil ways. But there is an epilogue to the story, a follow-up to Jonah’s role in the drama. Jonah is angry with God for forgiving the Ninevites, and God feels that Jonah needs one more lesson to understand God’s compassion. So God makes a plant grow, which shelters Jonah from the hot, Middle Eastern sun. Then, the next day, the plant dies, and Jonah is so hot and miserable and angry that he wants to die. Then God says to him:

“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The story ends there, and we never know whether Jonah understood what God was trying to say. But I thought of it when my heart broke over the injured baby robin. It is easy to have compassion for a creature who cannot speak, cannot insult me or offend me, cannot honk at me in traffic or be mean or inconsiderate. But how much compassion do I have for those people in my life who have hurt me, or angered me, or just made my life harder than it has to be? How much concern do I have for the messy, smelly, frustrating, broken people who are worth more to God than many sparrows? How much time am I willing to spend — listening for them, eyes closed, breathing deeply, then slowly and gently moving things out of their way until they are free?

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For those of you who read my post about apartment hunting — good news! We found an place! It’s not perfect, but it has many good things about it, and I look forward to turning our pros and cons list into prose and poetry.

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

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And three books that I’ve read recently and highly recommend:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray is an excellent introduction to contemplative prayer for Evangelicals and others. Cyzewski vulnerably shares his own stories and struggles with spiritual anxiety within Evangelicalism, and describes how silence, contemplative prayer, and other practices like the Examen, and canonical prayers helped to calm his anxiety and reconnect him with himself and with God. He draws on the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Richard Rohr, and others to describe the benefits of contemplative practices contrasted with the activity-based and results-based practices of the Evangelical world. As someone already familiar with the subject I wondered if the book would have anything to offer me, but I found Cyzewski’s story to be personal and compelling, and I enjoyed rereading some of my favorite quotes and stories from Merton, Nouwen, and Manning. I definitely recommend this book for those interested in learning about contemplative prayer, and I think it will be an enjoyable read even to those already familiar with the practice.
I was given an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Light is Winning is a fascinating read about a man who has overcome spiritual trauma as both a child and an adult, worked through bad theology, and come to a place of deep faith and hope. Hoag tells his story with compassion and humor, making space for the reader’s experience and perspective. My favorite part was chapter 3: A Problem With Authority, especially Hoag’s discussion of sociology professor Josh Packard’s research into those who he calls the “dones” who have poured years of energy into the church and have finally given up, exhausted. I found much to relate to in this book, and I think many struggling Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals will, too. I will definitely be recommending it to friends!

If you like social justice and want to see the veil pulled back on capitalism, then this book is for you. If you like The Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books and have always wished that someone would write a guide to economics theory with the same wit and ease, then DON’T PANIC, this book is for you! Seriously, this is one of best books I’ve read in a long time, and well worth the price, especially when you consider, as the book will reveal, that MONEY IS JUST A LIE WE ALL BELIEVE.

Click on the images to see the books on Amazon.

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On women (bloggers) and authority

“Look! Look! Look!” cried Lucy.

“Where? What?” asked everyone.

“The Lion,” said Lucy. “Aslan himself. Didn’t you see?” Her face had changed completely and her eyes shone.

“Do you really mean——” began Peter.

“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan.

“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.”

“Where, Lu?” asked Peter.

“Right up there between those mountain ashes. No, this side of the gorge. And up, not down. Just the opposite of the way you want to go. And he wanted us to go where he was—up there.”

“How do you know that was what he wanted?” asked Edmund.

“He—I—I just know,” said Lucy, “by his face.”

The others all looked at each other in puzzled silence.

A few weeks ago Christianity Today published an article by Tish Harrison Warren entitled Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere. The article suggested that there was a crisis in the church because women bloggers were writing and teaching without clear ecclesiastical (church) authority. It engendered a lot of discussion on Twitter, which I spent quite a bit of time reading. There was the usual hyperbole, anger, and miscommunication that happens in online discussions, but amidst that were women of various backgrounds and perspectives engaging in genuine dialogue, wanting to understand as well as be understood.

The issue, in some ways, is very complex, and it is not my intention to dive into it all here. There is, for example, the whole 2000 years of church history, with debates about who is in charge beginning almost as soon as there was a church — Paul challenging Peter, Apollos challenging Paul — and continuing with Rome breaking with the Eastern Orthodox church in 1054, the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, and the church I currently attend leaving its denomination a few years ago for doctrinal reasons — and tens of thousands of breaks and schisms in between, resulting in an almost uncountable number of current Christian denominations. Then there is the issue of women being in leadership at all, which is still, sadly, debated.

But I am not here to discuss church history or ecclesiastical structure. I am here today to tell you a little of my own story. And here it is:

As a Christian, woman, blogger, I am not under anyone’s authority. I tried it: It didn’t take.

“Her Majesty may well have seen a lion,” put in Trumpkin. “There are lions in these woods, I’ve been told. But it needn’t have been a friendly and talking lion any more than the bear was a friendly and talking bear.”

“Oh, don’t be so stupid,” said Lucy. “Do you think I don’t know Aslan when I see him?”

“He’d be a pretty elderly lion by now,” said Trumpkin, “if he’s one you knew when you were here before! And if it could be the same one, what’s to prevent him having gone wild and witless like so many others?”

Lucy turned crimson and I think she would have flown at Trumpkin, if Peter had not laid his hand on her arm. “The D.L.F. doesn’t understand. How could he? You must just take it, Trumpkin, that we do really know about Aslan; a little bit about him, I mean. And you mustn’t talk about him like that again. It isn’t lucky for one thing: and it’s all nonsense for another. The only question is whether Aslan was really there.”

“But I know he was,” said Lucy, her eyes filling with tears.

“Yes, Lu, but we don’t, you see,” said Peter.

“There’s nothing for it but a vote,” said Edmund.

“All right,” replied Peter. “You’re the eldest, D.L.F. What do you vote for? Up or down?”

“Down,” said the Dwarf. “I know nothing about Aslan. But I do know that if we turn left and follow the gorge up, it might lead us all day before we found a place where we could cross it. Whereas if we turn right and go down, we’re bound to reach the Great River in about a couple of hours. And if there are any real lions about, we want to go away from them, not towards them.”

“What do you say, Susan?”

“Don’t be angry, Lu,” said Susan, “but I do think we should go down. I’m dead tired. Do let’s get out of this wretched wood into the open as quick as we can. And none of us except you saw anything.”

“Edmund?” said Peter.

“Well, there’s just this,” said Edmund, speaking quickly and turning a little red. “When we first discovered Narnia a year ago—or a thousand years ago, whichever it is—it was Lucy who discovered it first and none of us would believe her. I was the worst of the lot, I know. Yet she was right after all. Wouldn’t it be fair to believe her this time? I vote for going up.”

“Oh, Ed!” said Lucy and seized his hand.

“And now it’s your turn, Peter,” said Susan, “and I do hope——”

“Oh, shut up, shut up and let a chap think,” interrupted Peter. “I’d much rather not have to vote.”

“You’re the High King,” said Trumpkin sternly.

“Down,” said Peter after a long pause. “I know Lucy may be right after all, but I can’t help it. We must do one or the other.”

So they set off to their right along the edge, downstream. And Lucy came last of the party, crying bitterly.

When I say I tried being under authority, what I means is that I tried it for decades, with many different churches, pastors, supervisors, “house parents” and vaguely defined “community leaders.” By “didn’t take” I mean it made me seriously ill physically, emotionally and spiritually. It took me years to recover, and in some ways I am still recovering.

Not all the relationships of authority were bad. I’ve had great mentors, employers, and teachers. I studied under many amazing professors at seminary, did internships under wonderful pastors and lay leaders. The difference, I’ve found, besides the people themselves, is that in the great relationships the authority was clearly defined and limited. In the bad ones, the ones that did the damage, the authority over me was broad and poorly defined. Employers in Christian organizations gave me advice/instructions on my living situation, friendships, healthcare. People claimed authority over me I had never agreed to by virtue of their age and gender.

They dropped off to sleep one by one, but all pretty quickly.

Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name. She thought at first it was her father’s voice, but that did not seem quite right. Then she thought it was Peter’s voice, but that did not seem to fit either. She did not want to get up; not because she was still tired—on the contrary she was wonderfully rested and all the aches had gone from her bones—but because she felt so extremely happy and comfortable. She was looking straight up at the Narnian moon, which is larger than ours, and at the starry sky, for the place where they had bivouacked was comparatively open.

“Lucy,” came the call again, neither her father’s voice nor Peter’s. She sat up, trembling with excitement but not with fear. The moon was so bright that the whole forest landscape around her was almost as clear as day, though it looked wilder. Behind her was the fir wood; away to her right the jagged cliff-tops on the far side of the gorge; straight ahead, open grass to where a glade of trees began about a bow-shot away. Lucy looked very hard at the trees of that glade.

“Why, I do believe they’re moving,” she said to her self. “They’re walking about.”

She got up, her heart beating wildly, and walked towards them. There was certainly a noise in the glade, a noise such as trees make in a high wind, though there was no wind to-night. Yet it was not exactly an ordinary tree-noise either. Lucy felt there was a tune in it, but she could not catch the tune any more than she had been able to catch the words when the trees had so nearly talked to her the night before. But there was, at least, a lilt; she felt her own feet wanting to dance as she got nearer. And now there was no doubt that the trees were really moving—moving in and out through one another as if in a complicated country dance. (“And I suppose,” thought Lucy, “when trees dance, it must be a very, very country dance indeed.”) She was almost among them now.

The first tree she looked at seemed at first glance to be not a tree at all but a huge man with a shaggy beard and great bushes of hair. She was not frightened: she had seen such things before. But when she looked again he was only a tree, though he was still moving. You couldn’t see whether he had feet or roots, of course, because when trees move they don’t walk on the surface of the earth; they wade in it as we do in water. The same thing happened with every tree she looked at. At one moment they seemed to be the friendly, lovely giant and giantess forms which the tree-people put on when some good magic has called them into full life: next moment they all looked like trees again. But when they looked like trees, it was like strangely human trees, and when they looked like people, it was like strangely branchy and leafy people—and all the time that queer lilting, rustling, cool, merry noise.

“They are almost awake, not quite,” said Lucy. She knew she herself was wide awake, wider than anyone usually is.

She went fearlessly in among them, dancing herself at, she leaped this way and that to avoid being run into by these huge partners. But she was only half interested in them. She wanted to get beyond them to something else; it was from beyond them that the dear voice had called.

She soon got through them (half wondering whether she had been using her arms to push branches aside, or to take hands in a Great Chain with big dancers who stooped to reach her) for they were really a ring of trees round a central open place. She stepped out from among their shifting confusion of lovely lights and shadows.

A circle of grass, smooth as a lawn, met her eyes, with dark trees dancing all round it. And then—oh joy! For he was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight, with his huge black shadow underneath him.

But for the movement of his tail he might have been a stone lion, but Lucy never thought of that. She never stopped to think whether he was a friendly lion or not. She rushed to him. She felt her heart would burst if she lost a moment. And the next thing she knew was that she was kissing him and putting her arms as far round his neck as she could and burying her face in the beautiful rich silkiness of his mane.

“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,” sobbed Lucy. “At last.”

So as a writer, as a blogger, I am not under anyone’s authority. But I do have a lot of really smart, wise, loving friends and family, old and young, Christian and not. I listen to their advice. They listen to mine. Sometimes they’re right. And sometimes what they tell me doesn’t jibe with my own experience or what I feel God is speaking to my heart. Then I’m so glad they’re not my pastor or supervisor, because I am free to say, thank you, but God is calling me in a different direction.

The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.

“Welcome, child,” he said.

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

For a time she was so happy that she did not want to speak. But Aslan spoke.

“Lucy,” he said, “we must not lie here for long. You have work in hand, and much time has been lost to-day.”

“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so——”

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that … oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?”

Aslan said nothing.

“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right—somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”

“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”

“Oh dear,” said Lucy.

“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”

“Do you mean that is what you want me to do?” gasped Lucy.

“Yes, little one,” said Aslan.

“Will the others see you too?” asked Lucy.

“Certainly not at first,” said Aslan. “Later on, it depends.”

“But they won’t believe me!” said Lucy.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aslan.

My authority to write, to speak, to tell my story, does not come from having a pastor or a bishop or a priest overseeing me. My authority comes from Jesus who said, “Talitha koum” — “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” My authority comes from the angel at the tomb who said to the women, “Jesus is risen — go tell his disciples.” My authority comes from Jesus who spoke alone to the Samaritan woman at the well, and in whom many believed because of her testimony. My authority comes from the book of Revelation where John wrote, “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” My authority comes from Peter and the prophet Joel, who said, “”In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” My authority comes from Jesus’ last words to his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” My authority comes from the Spirit within me, from the fire in my belly that compels me to write.

Friends, do you have something to say? I believe so strongly that if you have something inside you longing to be expressed, there is a good change that it is something someone else needs to hear. Have you been waiting for permission to speak? Good news! You are free! We have been waiting around for someone to unlock our chains, but it turns out the chains have been loose the whole time. All we have to do is stand up straight and step forward in faith, and they will fall off of us.

Love,
Jessica

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As always, I have more to say but I am running late. Come follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and join in the conversation! (I’ll tell you a secret: I’m feistiest on Twitter!)

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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.

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Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it

teaI woke up early to write, but what does it look like to write this morning? What does it look like to write with the election three days old? What does it look like to write when your neighbors have called the police to have your car towed, and someone has keyed your car, and then your neighbor comes over to say, “This is not that kind of neighborhood?” What does it look like to write when Leonard Cohen has died and you hear the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Roots as directed at you in some small way:

See I’ve been patiently waiting for this moment
To rise up again, that’s the way I was molded
And as the last one standin’ as the rest of them foldin’
Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it.
And I am not throwing away my shot.

What does it look like to write when the essay you’re working on is about something that happened ten years ago, and you had been writing it from a place of peace and perspective but now 2016 feels like it has no wisdom to offer 2006?

What does it look like to write when someone you love is sick and you don’t know if they will live to see you publish your first book, and the pressure and sorrow of that leans against your pen and weighs down every word?

What does it look like to write when the President-Elect is someone whose name you swore you would never write, even in your journal, not out of hatred but because attention fuels his chaos like oxygen fuels a fire? If this were a novel it might be an interesting narrative device to have a character without a name, a whole book in which he is referred to only obliquely. Vonnegut could have done it well. But this is real life, and Vonnegut is gone, and the fire has caught hold of the highest office in the land, and how can you write a story while the world burns down and not mention the arsonist?

What does it look like to write this morning? Last night I came home and told my housemates that our neighbor, who had called the police on us, had said he would come by that evening to chat. He said he wasn’t the one who keyed our car and, “Let’s not escalate this.” Mark and Allison and I touched base, but Allison had a bad migraine from the stress of it all, so Mark and I said we would talk to the neighbor when he came. We were tired, and really wanted to change into sweatpants, but we kept our “nice” jeans on and waited for the doorbell to ring.

I stood in the kitchen while my dinner was cooking, and breathed deeply, and tried to pray. All day and the day before, messages of love and sorrow had been coming in on my phone, by text, by Facebook, and by Twitter. My friends and I needed to feel each other near, and so we sent warm-breasted homing pigeons to each other with tiny messages tied to their legs: “I love you.” “I’m thinking of you.” “You are needed here — don’t despair.” I breathed deeply and tried to relax my shoulders which were tensed to hear the jangle of the doorbell, while my phone made soft little chirps and coos and I could hear the rustling of the pigeons’ feathers as they landed.

And so I breathed deeply, filled the kettle with water, and put it on the stove for my neighbor.

I don’t know what it looks like to write this morning. I don’t even know what it looks like to pray. My neighbor never did come over last night, and so I went to bed and set the alarm as I’ve been doing lately, to get up early and write as I watch the sunrise. I didn’t get anywhere on my essay about 2006, though. I don’t know what it looks like to write in November of 2016. But I do know how to breathe deeply. I’ve been working on that. I do know how to strap a tiny message to a pigeon’s leg and send it out into the night. And I know how to put the kettle on. I learned that just last night.

So that’s what I wrote about today. And, friends, readers, listen — I love you. I’m thinking of you. You are needed here; please don’t despair. As Glennon says, stay close. I have tea and coffee, and my kettle will be on, here at Ten Thousand Places and on my Facebook page. This morning I recommend English Breakfast, or maybe yerba mate (after coffee, of course). Whatever the “how” of writing, I already know the “why” and it’s you.

All my love,
Jessica

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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, though I’m not nearly as fat as I used to be. 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 two 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 world wants me to write about it today

“Pay attention. As a summation of all that I have had to say as a writer, I would settle for that.”
~ Frederick Buechner

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
~ Mary Oliver

The world wants me to write about it today. It’s been throwing itself at me, quite shamelessly. It will do anything, it seems, for a bit part in one of my stories. From the moment I left my house the water sparkled at me like some reverse paparazzi, wanting its flash bulbs to be the news on page six. At Starbucks I tried to write my blog post about finances, but an apologetic woman sat across from me, asking in a soft, Germanic accent if there was room for her and her friend, while the Chinese family at the other end of the table nodded and gestured to her, making the word “okay” seem like both a full sentence and a solemn ceremony.

A few minutes later I glanced up to see the Chinese man holding his hands in front of him, empty palms open like a book, staring silently and intently at their pages, and the man on my other side answered his phone with a click of his earpiece and earthy Russian syllables rolled out of his mouth. I paused to take a selfie for Facebook — the intrepid writer hard at work — and when I cropped it I saw I had also captured a woman behind me wearing a head covering, hard at work on her own laptop, a novel buried in the soft furrow of her brow.

“Slow down!” I cried, “Let me choose — I write slowly.” And I fled to the library, hiding in a study carrel with just enough room for me. Safe, I thought. But I glanced over and caught the eye of the man in the carrel next to me, just as he was glancing over at me, and his brown skin, shoes kicked off and tie slung over his shoulder called out to be described. What color tie? Purple, with green stripes, and the shoes looked like loafers–

“Wait! Stop!” I called again to the flamboyant world. “That’s not my job right now!” I glued my eyes to to my computer, trying to write the post, copying and pasting. But the library turned out to be a dangerous choice as a myriad of childhood memories ran up and demanded to play on my page. How many times had I ridden my bike the two miles to the local library and spent the afternoon exploring the worlds within that sacred world? What was the name of the street? What was that smell that drifted out of the Italian restaurant as I biked by? “Tell about it,” the memories insisted. “Tell our story.”

So I ran to the park, a pond surrounded by trees, benches, fields. I grabbed my notebook — there was work to be done! But just within the gates a Korean wedding party gathered for a picnic, laughing loudly as I scurried by, dodging inspiration. (How would I describe the smell of kimchi? Sour? Vinegary?) Then I ran straight into a group of women dressed head to toe in black hijabs, making me suddenly aware of my broad, naked face, my bare hair flowing in the breeze (chestnut, with shiny wisps of grey). But I was restored to modesty as I rounded the corner by a scene from the cover of a romance novel — a young Hispanic woman dressed in a sleeveless, backless, flowing pink gown, with two muscular men holding out swaths of the fabric as a crew of four photographed them. Coming closer I saw the plot twist — the woman was pregnant, and cradled her belly proudly, shaping the dress around it. “Now there is a story,” the world said, pulling out all the stops: “Write it!”

Full to bursting I rushed up the hillside to sit in the crook of a fallen tree that would take me half an hour to describe. But I can’t, I don’t have time, because even as I write this a man has kicked a soccer ball near the pond and his shoe is flying into the air with it — he is hopping on one foot, laughing and shouting in Arabic. He is hopping right now, I tell you — he is bending down in the wet grass to retrieve his shoe. Did I mention the color of the grass? Did I tell you about the ragged feel of the trees after a long winter and a blustery early spring? Did I describe the slow perambulation of an elderly couple, leaning on each others’ arms for support? Did I write about the woman sitting in the crook of a fallen tree, writing furiously in a notebook as if the world were tugging at her sleeves? Did I get it all?