The color of the lake

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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

 

 

 

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The shape of a home

Hello! Hi. It’s me, Jessica. I haven’t posted here in a long time, and I miss you. I miss my blog and the few folks who read it. Things just got very busy, and I’ve been overwhelmed and stressed. I needed to write, but I didn’t have the energy to do it. All my energy was going to work. I gave notice to a job that was too hard for me, but I gave two month’s notice, and those two months lasted a really, really long time. My other jobs asked for extra hours, and I needed the money so I said yes to almost everything.

It was good. Most of it was a lot of fun. I took the kids to museums, the beach, the zoo, parks, playgrounds, for walks in the woods. We played soccer, catch, baseball, tag, hide and seek, Jedi Knights, Ninjago, sword fighting, card games, board games, and lots of silly made-up games. I made snacks, packed picnic lunches, applied sun screen, cheered children on when they got discouraged, faked energy when I didn’t have it, and spent more money than usual on liquid energy at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Citifeed, and wherever else I could find it.

It was fun, and I’m proud of myself for pushing through and finishing well. I really cared for the family I gave notice to, and it was a hard decision and hard to say good-bye, but I know it was the right decision. I could feel my health slipping these past few months, and I learned the lesson the hard way that I need to stop *before* I’m completely burnt out. My last day I bought the kids pretty, knit hacky sacks and taught them how to use them. We had an awesome day. I started a joke where I would pretend to throw the sack but let go of it right before the throw so that it landed behind me, then scold the sack for not doing what I told it to do. They thought it was hilarious, so of course I had to do it a million times.

I cried when I left. The youngest, W, is 1 1/2, a tow-headed toddler who called me Mommy (he called his father and siblings that, too) and hugged me joyfully every morning. That age is my favorite, the sweet little games, the inside jokes that elicit belly laughs (he thought it was hysterical when I would offer him something and then pull it back and say, “Psych!”), and the complete trust — though not always without protest. He blended into my hip, the way each toddler I’ve nannied has for the past ten years, the way A did before her family moved to Colorado, and M before her family moved to Texas, and N before he started preschool and didn’t need me anymore, and Z before I left to pursue a ministry job. They feel like my own children, but they’re not, and when they leave I mourn their loss. My arms and my hip feel empty.

*****

The former Pinebank Mansion

The former Pinebank Mansion

A few weeks ago I took W for a walk at Jamaica Pond. It was a beautiful day. I had my Cafe Nero’s iced coffee, the breeze off of the pond was ruffling W’s blond hair and my salt-and-pepper hair, and we had no agenda except to follow our noses. We tossed pebbles and sticks into the water, ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the baby ducks and geese, and then made our way up to the Pine Bank Promontory overlooking the pond. The mansion that used to stand here was torn down several years ago, and in its place granite slabs were laid, flush with the ground, in the shape of the old house.

I started walking along the path made by the stone slabs, past the two majestic American Sycamore trees, and W fell into step behind me. We walked quietly, intently, as if perambulating this house was a sacred task assigned to us. Something in me felt wistful, and I realized it was the house that made me feel that way. The border of an old house, of a home lost to time, of a home that someone had once owned in the way that I have never owned a home, only borrowed them, shared them, inhabited them for a time. I pay rent to my landlords and I set up my things. I collect a salary from my employers and come to know their own homes as intimately as the family that lives there, the quirks, the feel of them. Which windows to open to create a cross-breeze, how to lift the gate before swinging it in so that it does not damage the lawn. The home that I have been in longest belongs to the family whose nanny I’ve been, off and on, for ten years. I never lived in a place that long, either as a child or an adult.

I dream about houses — it feels like almost every night. Sometimes the dreams are nightmarish, I’m back in an old living situation that was unhealthy, or I’m living once again with an old roommate who was difficult, and don’t understand why I’m there, why I let this happen again. Sometimes the dreams are beautiful; I’ve moved into a spacious mansion with lovely, sun-filled rooms. I set up my things and find I have more clothes, more furniture, more art and plants than ever before. And it’s mine. My house. My space. Not shared with roommates or borrowed from a landlord who can decide not to renew my lease.

I dream about that in real life, too. It’s one of the things I’ve always wanted, since I was young, along with a husband and children. My own house that I could organize, decorate, putter around. My own yard with flowers that I pick out and plant. I grieved the death of my dream of children in my late 30s. It’s still not impossible, there’s always adoption, but as an unmarried 42 year old with health issues and without a lucrative career to support a single-parent household, I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever have kids. It’s true that anything can happen. But it was important for me to let go of that dream in order to place my energy, love, and gratitude fully in the life I already have.

For seven years I lived in an intentional Christian community in Boston. There were some really wonderful things about the community and about my experience there, but there were a lot of things that were really unhealthy for me, too. I stayed longer than I probably should have, because of the wonderful things, but also out of fear. I was afraid of leaving the support of a built-in community. I was afraid of leaving my room, which had been a refuge for me during some extremely hard times.

But, oh, what a beautiful home I have stumbled into now. It’s so peaceful, so spacious, so sunny. It is a rental, and the landlady is going to want it back in a few years. It’s not mine. But what a lovely, soft place to fall for now. What a gift to have someplace to land after a leap of faith. My friend Mark and I found it together. Our current housemate is leaving, so the last couple of months have been made even more stressful by having to look for another housemate. But we found one, finally, in the eleventh hour, just as we found this place, just when we thought we wouldn’t.

As I walked around the border of the old mansion, W toddling behind me like a little duckling himself, I thought about houses past and houses present. I thought about how I have no idea where I’ll be five years from now, which house, which city, which housemates. And then I thought: But no one knows that, not really. Even Sadie, Sadie, married lady, with her husband and kids and bought-and-paid-for house doesn’t know what the future will bring. As someone once said: Anything can happen — and usually does. We don’t possess the future any more than we possess the past, except in our dreams and memories, and in mementos like these stones to mark what used to be. All we have is right now, what is right in front of us, rented or borrowed, given as a gift with no receipt, no life-time guarantee.

What I have right now is beautiful. What I have right now is enough.

How to write a blog post

Great blue heron

Discovering the Water’s Edge by Mark Slawson

“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
~from How to Write a Poem by Wendell Berry

I’ve been feeling discouraged lately. I have some foot problems and a knee problem that have been keeping me from going for walks and doing yoga, and I need that exercise as much for emotional health as for physical. I also need it for my work. I do two marathon days of 10 hours each with three kids, and I need to be strong to make it through.

I also had an argument with a friend the other day, where we were crossing wires and each hurting the other. We talked about it and we’re fine now, but it left me feeling familiarly frustrated with how easy it is to say something stupid or hurtful — how in fact it seems like the harder I try the more blunders and absurdities I end up adding to the list of things that haunt me at night when I can’t sleep. And then I drive in Boston and people are so mean to each other sometimes, and so angry.

I don’t get outside much in my current jobs. The little kids go from activity to nap to activity, and the big ones have to go straight home from school to do their homework. The boy I watch on Fridays is just a (very cute) homebody, and if we get out it’s usually just for a walk around the block. So I was surprised and excited when he agreed to a walk around Jamaica Pond this afternoon.

I wish my phone took better pictures, but believe me, it was lovely at Jamaica Pond today. Still, I was feeling low and just kind of dull, and the autumn colors weren’t stirring as much joy in me this year as they usually do. Also, the first thing we saw when we stepped out of the car was writing scrawled on the curb — a variation of the “call Sally for a good time” except with explicit details about what the good time would entail, and what I assume was the poor girl’s actual phone number. And I thought — people suck. I suck. Why can’t we all get it together?

Still, I was at a gorgeous pond with an adorable four year old, so I settled myself into my job description as a writer (via Frederick Buechner): “Pay attention.”

The water level at the pond was much lower than it had been the last time I was there. J and I walked on a little beachy area below the landscaped stones that usually mark the edge of the pond. We threw stones into the water, and then sticks. We examined fallen branches and played walking games that J invented. I told him there was a really cool tree I wanted to show him, and he put the hood up on his sweatshirt and put his little hands in his pockets as we walked. We acted on suggestions from both parties: “Let’s climb that tree!” “Let’s go up those steps and see what’s on top.” “I’ll take one step then you take one step then I take two then you take two.” “Let’s go see where the old mansion used to be.”

My feet hurt a little bit, but the red and orange maples and the slope of the hills were beginning to get through my malaise. We traced the outline of the old mansion up on Pinebank Promontory and read the little plaques with its history and the history of the pond. Then we looped back down towards where the car was parked. We still had 20 minutes till we had to leave to pick up his big sister, so I tried to think of something to do.

“Do you want to throw rocks into the water again?”

“Okay.”

We went back down on the drought-created beach, and started walking but suddenly there was a large flapping and a great blue heron moved away from us a few feet, startled by our proximity. We quickly went back up onto the path and sat down to watch it. I’ve lived in this area for nine years, and this is the first year I’ve ever seen a blue heron at the Pond. It seemed a little precarious. I’m used to seeing them in more secluded places. Jamaica Pond gets hundreds of visitors a day, lots with dogs. J and I watched as it resumed its slow stalk for fish, its long, S-shaped neck moving in concert with its feet. I explained that it was walking slowly like that so the fish wouldn’t notice it, and that when it saw one it would jab its long beak underwater and snap it up. Funnily enough, the heron’s walk looked a lot like one of the walking games we’d just been playing. J told me a joke:

“Why did the pelican get in trouble at the restaurant? Because he couldn’t pay his big bill!”

Suddenly the heron’s head jerked forward, there was a splash, and it came back up with a perfect little rainbow trout in its beak. It was exciting and dramatic and beautiful, and in that moment joy broke through to me again, celebrating the heron’s catch with a little boy on the path by Jamaica Pond. We watched for a while longer, chatting with others who had stopped to watch, and I exulted in their happiness, too. The heron caught one more fish while we were there, and missed one. People took pictures and smiled at each other, and laughed at J’s cute and wise comments.

It was a sacred place we’d stumbled onto, just yards away from the desecrated curb where we’d started. But there are no unsacred places, Berry said, and it’s true. It’s just that I needed the heron, and the maple trees, and J to help me remember.