An Email I want to Share with You

Hi friends, in addition to it being the fast and furious holidays, the last month and half I’ve been swamped in my latest writing project: I’ve been finishing up the writing for a ten page magazine feature about refugees who resettle in Austin.  The project will also be displayed at a gallery exhibit in March. So, any hours I usually put toward blogging have been tabled as I finish the refugee project.  I’ll be sure to give you all the details about the magazine feature as well as the exhibit in a few weeks.
But now and again I get the chance to do some pubic speaking, (which I love) usually related to my book, Finding Home with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Billy Graham.  Last weekend, I spoke at a church.  After the service, I met some people who bought my book.
Then this week I thought to myself, I need to post something on my blog.  And then yesterday (sometimes God moves fast!) I got an email from one of the people I’d met at the church where I spoken last weekend. I’m pasting her email here for you to read.  I hope you see yourself in it too. Peace to you today.
“Hi Jess!
I loved your testimony on Sunday and I just finished reading your book.
I wanted to tell you about my experience of God’s peace like you had that day in Scotland.
I’m the OBGyn you met Sunday and I told you I have the opposite of anxiety.  I’m somewhat competitive (understatement) overachiever etc.
To become a board certified Obgyn, I had to take an oral exam after my first 2 years of private practice. The examiners question you over 3 hours referring to patients on a case list but they can ask you anything. The exam is notoriously difficult. The examiners want to see how you act under pressure.
The first time I took it in 1999 I failed. Honestly it’s the only time in my life I failed anything. It hurt. And it was the most important thing of my career because if you don’t become board certified the insurance companies won’t accept you as a provider.
I had to wait an entire year to take it again and compile a completely new case list.  The pressure was really on while I was studying. You can only take the exam 3 times total and if you fail all 3 you are done. Back to the drawing board. No OBGYN board certification ever.
I prayed and prayed while I studied. I had felt God had lead me to that point and I needed His help to put me over the top and pass.
One night, about  3 days before the exam I was getting desperate. There was just so much information and how did I know what they would ask??!!??  That night, I dreamt I was in the garden of  Gethsemane.  Jesus was there with Peter and Luke. (Luke the physician) (Don’t know why Peter) they were talking but Jesus saw me, looked in my eyes and said, “I know you. I know you know me. Everything is going to be ok.”
I woke up with that indescribable peace. I know you know it. I don’t think many other people have experienced it.
I nailed the exam and I’m living out my mission for God daily now.  I would do anything to get that peace back again. !!!
Thanks for your testimony and your book. Hope to see you in church again soon.”

Catching Up?

Moms and dads of small children need to find a way to reconnect with friends and family, apart from our kids. Too often I’ve made the mistake of scheduling a group play date thinking it will allow me time to converse with my adult friends. Group play dates at the park or restaurant with playscapes have their place in our social lives, but they just don’t suffice for the deep reconnecting required in adult friendships.
The group play date scene is a familiar one for moms and dads. You plan to meet your friends and their kids at the park for lunch. Adults are excited to see their friends. Kids are hungry. After the chaos of feeding the kids an al fresco lunch, the parents settle themselves at the picnic table, thinking our kids will simply take the cue and run off to play harmoniously with other children on the playground. Ah, we think, now I can really talk with my friends.
“So how have you been, Jess? My friend, Sara asks me.
“Well, I’ve been better. Lately I—“
“Mommy, I’m bored. Come push me on the swings.” My four year old is at my side.
“In a bit, sweetie. Mommy wants to talk with her friends for a few minutes.”
And that’s how the adult time begins. And ends. The parents spend the two hours at the park in futility…trying to pacific the children just enough so that I can get back into the flow of conversation with my adult friends. I don’t actually get to talk. And I certainly don’t get to hear how my friends are really doing. We all leave the park feeling frustrated with fractured conversations.
Of course, it’s better if, as parents, can adjust our expectations about group play dates. Narrow down the goals to say: Feed children. Shove straws into juice boxes. Push children on swings. Hug friends goodbye.
But if I want to really reconnect with my friends and family, I have to be intentional about scheduling it outside of mom-on-duty time.
Three months ago I got some great news. My favorite cousin, Brenda and her family would be moving to Austin, where I live. Brenda and I have not seen each other for fourteen years, but at one point in our twenties we were inseparable. At twenty-four and twenty-five years old we moved to Taiwan together for a year, sharing a drafty, one bedroom apartment, teaching English, blowing our Taiwanese dollars on bubble milk teas and all night karaoke. We were both single, childless and had zero plans for the future.
After our carefree year in Taiwan, Brenda and I both moved back to the states. Over the next fourteen years we both got married, tried out various careers and jobs and had two kids a piece.
And now, here we are fourteen years later living in the same city again. It’s a dream come true. She and I have so much to talk about. But I’m not going to make the group play date mistake. Yes, we will get our kids together to play, but not with the expectation that she and I will get more than one minute of talking time.
No, this reunion with my cousin requires intentional time away from my kids.
I want space and peace to sit face to with Brenda. She wants to get her Master’s degree, and I want to hear about that. In addition, I’ve never had the chance to describe for her the journey of writing my first book. I also want to tell her about the next book I want to publish.
And of course we need space to laugh. That’s what she and I do best. Friends who make you laugh deserve more than a text message and a laughing face emoji. So, I’m scheduling a sitter for next week so that Brenda and I can sit for hours at Austin Java and reconnect.
Moms and Dads need friend time too. In an age of constant distraction on our smart phones, added to the constant demands of small children, more than ever we need to intentionally step out of the grind. Schedule a sitter, then meet an old friend or a new one for drinks. Sit face to face. No phone in hand. Talk then listen. Listen then talk. Allow the other person room to be vulnerable. Laugh together at your own failed parenting moments. Cry if you need to because the world feels really scary these days, and garner courage from your friend’s company to go home to the family.
Repeat above scenario as needed.

The Long Pause of the Infant Stage

A few weeks ago my neighbor friend and first time mom of a three week old asked if I could babysit, so that she and her husband could go knock a few back for her birthday celebration.   I was tickled and honored, since I’d be their very first non-family babysitter.  Plus, who doesn’t want to babysit for an infant?  It’s like being handed a bowl of brownies and ice cream. Yes, please! Let me snuggle your newborn baby.
And so I did.  I came over, let my friend go on and on about her baby’s very specific, unique needs and personality and the exact way she likes to be burped (we’re all so detailed with baby #1) and then I settled in with that sleeping, 8 lb. hot potato in my arms to watch some old Office reruns.
And that’s all I did for three hours.  I sat… holding, feeding a bottle or burping a baby for three hours straight.  I watched enough episodes of The Office that Netflix felt the need to check for life with its “Are you still watching?” notice.
And it dawned on me that I am personally out of that PAUSE stage.  What I mean is, having a newborn is like pressing the pause button on outside productivity for a very long time.
As I sat there holding my friend’s sweet newborn baby, I realized a) how necessary it is that a new mama be afforded that long pause and b) that I’m not yearning for that PAUSE stage anymore.
Moms of infants need to be given so much time off from other responsibilities. When my first child was born I didn’t want to do anything but stare at him. And watch long hours of TV. While I also stared at him.  And then maybe take a nap, and if I was really feeling ambitious, take a walk with him.  The work world buzzed around me all day for months like that.  People writing dissertations, people starting a business, people running for public office.  But I didn’t have the bandwidth to care, nor should a new mom even be asked to care.  That long pause is exactly how her body recovers from birth, how she mysteriously reorients the priorities of her heart, and how she hosts and welcomes that dazzling, fragile life.
But what I also realized that evening of babysitting was that I don’t want to press pause anymore. I’ve wondered from time to time, do I want another baby?  Now I know the answer is a satisfied no. Not a reluctant no. Now is my season to get up off the couch and add my voice to the conversation.  The clock is ticking, but the flexing is appropriate because now I’m ready.   I’ve got four writing projects going at once, like plates I’m spinning in the air. I’ve got dreams I’m realizing, even now.  I have two children running up ahead calling, “Chase us, Mommy!”  And I gladly do.

My Next Project

I thought I’d take a minute here to update you all on my writing endeavors.  I continue to promote my little memoir, Finding Home with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Billy Graham through book signings and speaking engagements.  (By the way, I now have on my website a “speaking” tab. If you’re interested in having me speak at your church, book club or women’s event, please contact me: here )
But in terms of the writing I’m doing these days, my focus has been on a project about refugees that resettle in Austin.  The project is a joint effort between myself and photographer, Ashley St. Clair. http://ashleystclair.com
Over the last six months, Ashley and I have spent hundreds of hours interviewing and photographing refugees from around the world that are seeking to make a new life in Austin.  We’ve titled the project, “Refugee is Not My Name.” Working from the assumption that Austinites are open-minded and welcoming to newcomers, “Refugee is Not My Name” is an artistic bridge between refugees and the people of Austin. Through Ashley’s compelling portrait photographs and my short, digestible written vignettes, viewers can, in essence, get to know some of the individual refugees that have resettled in the capital city.
To a large extend the refugee community of Austin remains isolated, though they ride the same buses as you and I, though they shop at the same HEB and their children attend the same schools as ours. Language barriers can keep refugees from reaching out to their English speaking neighbors. In addition, cultural and religious differences often inhibit them from taking a step toward Americans.
The aim of “Refugee is Not my Name” is to allow a wide sampling of individuals from the refugee community to show their faces, say their names and make their unique voices heard.
By nature of the word, refugee these individuals can never return to the country their hearts call, home. After waiting many months, often years, these refugees have landed in Austin and strive to make it their new home. “Refugee is Not my Name” is an artistic effort to welcome these new neighbors from around the world to our beloved capital city of Texas.
In December, 2017, “Refugee is Not My Name” will be printed as a feature article in Tribeza, an Austin curated magazine with wide readership.tribeza.com  It is our aim that this publication serves as a springboard to launch the more complete version of the project as a full gallery exhibit. It is our aim to have a gallery space secured for the exhibit to launch in January or February, 2018.
I’ll keep you updated as the publication of “Refugee is Not My Name” draws nearer.  I am so excited for you to discover some of the refugees that I have gotten to know over the last year. They are incredible individuals.
Here’s a photograph I took of Ashley photographing Basim, a refugee from Iraq.  Basim was a violinist for 19 years in the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra.  He now lives in Austin where he seeks safety and a new musical adventure.

Pissarro’s Washerwoman

Miraculously the traffic wasn’t bad on my way to work yesterday morning. I had a few minutes to myself in the car. So I pulled up “A Washerwoman” by Pissarro, the featured painting on the Met’s Instagram feed for the morning.  My heart sunk. All that gorgeous paint and this is it? This is how you wanted said washerwoman to be memorialized for all human kind? If she got to see the canvas when Pissarro took a pee break, I guarantee she wasn’t impressed. Crestfallen, in fact. Utterly horrified, quite possibly. This is how I look? I didn’t think I looked THAT bad. This is my lasting impression?
Sometimes someone takes a photograph and you’re in the background. Is that how I look when I’m just going about my day? Who finds me beautiful with such an ordinary expression on my face. Did I think I looked beautiful that day?
This washerwoman…she is utterly pedestrian. The trees and hint of yellow sunflowers in the background are a cruel contrast to her grunt work. The background seems to sing of everything Spring. She just washes. Drab clothes and fine silk. She washes all it, all day long.
Her back is starting to hunch, the arch is beginning.
Her feet are flat and dull. They’ve never worn heels. I hate that they never will. I’ll bet she isn’t even 35, but physical labor is cruel to beauty. She is thin, not because it is fashionable but because she’s broke.
She can’t get calories to stick. She sweats them off. Her arms are thin, sinewy. Her arms make her money. Vigorously she washes peoples clothes, all day long.
But then you take a step forward, if you can see this painting in person at The Met or if you increase the image size here you see its finer points. Every inch of the painting is made up of small patches of pure color. And you realize that the pedestrian subject is not the masterpiece here. The painter’s eye is the point (pun intended). If the painting is about anything it’s that color is flaming in every ordinary human being.

Pissarro uncapped every color tube available and called it all so good. He said all colors belong. The ordinary woman’s face is rendered in rich, youthful pinks and reds. Every color on the spectrum has been used to paint her forearms, they blaze with browns and gold and blue and green. Point by point, up close she is a study in color. From far away she is utterly ordinary. Up close she is knit together by a revolutionary eye. God, open our eyes!
Matthew 13:16 “But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear.”

Pack-N-Play Wisdom

One of the only baby items I still own is a Graco Pack n Play. It folds up nicely into itself for easy storage. Ours has traveled on many airplanes all over the country. It was one of those baby gifts I received when I was pregnant with Ace over 7 years ago that I still pull out and use when we have visitors with little ones.
This week we had some friends stay at our house. They have a 2 year old. So, I hauled out the Pack n Play again from the garage.
When you open the Pack n Play there’s this curiously bold message from the manufacturer right there in the center of the mattress. It reads, 

And wouldn’t you know it that every time I open the Pack n Play, my first impulse is to push down that center handle, just like the message tells me NOT to do. When I forget to heed the warning, and instead push the center down first, the rails just won’t lock. All my efforts are in vain and I end up cursing and sweating because I didn’t do the correct thing first.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the moms and dads that tested the prototype for Graco’s Pack n Play first tried to push down that center rail too. So the manufacturers printed the warning right there in the center, right in our line of vision. “STOP!”
The very word, STOP implies that whatever efforts I’m exuding are fruitless. “STOP what you are doing” it says. STOP and reorder your behavior.
So often I try and tackle my day in an ineffectual order. From the moment my eyes adjust to the morning light and my brain tells me it’s time to start again, there’s a way to make the day flow with order.
If I begin correctly, it can be a day full of grace and humor and my actions and words can be infused with wisdom and clarity. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” In essence this verse is saying, “STOP. Do not push this center down until all four rails are locked.”
I’m working my way through the Psalms this summer. One or two each day. And I am finding what many wiser people before have said but you have to experience to believe: that starting my day by reading the ancient, inspired texts of scripture positions me for a rich, beautiful day. I don’t mean a perfect day—that’s only going to happen if I’m on a yacht in the Mediterranean. No, perfect isn’t what I need for everyday mom life, just grace. Lots of grace and a sense of companionship with God. No other endeavor reanimates this relationship like the scriptures. They linger with me all day, like a great conversation with a friend, and alter me in the most trying moments.
Tomorrow, start your day with a STOP.  Stop before you get out of bed.  Reach for that Bible laying somewhere nearby.  Hear from God before your mind downloads any other information. See if that reordering of your behavior doesn’t alter you in all the ways you long for.

 

Party Girl

At sixteen someone handed her a red Solo cup
filled high with cheap beer
and said, let’s go to talk to boys.

She got a job and the cup turned to glass
with wine smooth enough to make small talk
nice.

Then she moved to a city where cool people lived
she left the party with a buzz
and a head full of poems to write.

But now at parties,
she weaves through the crowd
excuse me, sorry, excuse me,
toward a window, where she can stand alone and look out.

It isn’t that she doesn’t want the party.
It’s just that she’d rather be like this
a whiskey cradled in her hands, a view
and the company of friends and strangers
at her back, warming her shoulders like a winter fire.

So that late that night when her husband asks,
she can answer honestly,
I had a really good time; it was just the kind of party I like.

 

Lessons from Surfers and Skaters

Vacation gives you that mellow space to just settle in and be observant. The calendar is not pressing. No house to clean. Minimal work required. And if you’re lucky, someone saintly is keeping your kids for you.
This week, I’ve had that kind of vacation with my husband. My in-laws have had our children in El Paso for 5 days, and B. and I have traveled out to Huntington Beach, California for some seaside respite.
I’ve been sitting on a beach towel watching the surfers. And I’ve been sitting on the boardwalk benches watching the skateboarders. Here’s what they’re teaching me.
One surfer yesterday stood on the beach, his board laying next to him. He widened his stance and did several squats in a row. Down, down down he’d squat, warming up his quads and hamstrings…those necessary muscles for jumping up onto the surfboard. All the while he never took his eyes off the water. He gazed a hundred yards out, out there where the surf breaks, where he was set to be. I liked his hyper focus. It was vulnerable. It was sharp and ready.
He was assessing the waves. And mentally turning down the volume on distractions. His whole body—his sun bleached hair and leathery tan skin said, I’ve done this before. His physique was wiry and strong. It said, I ’m prepared for this. And his steady gaze on the waves said, I’m committed to this.
The surfer has practiced his sport. He is either a seasoned surfer or he will be one day. It doesn’t matter. Only the work of practice matters. Practices always gets it’s reward. By nature of repetition, we improve.
Then I watched the skateboarders. Their practice said the same thing.
I watched a boy who was 9 years old, the youngest one in the group. He’d start at the top of the ramp, drop his board and hop on. Down he’d sail on the board, only once he’d pedal his foot on the ground to increase momentum.  After that one foot thrust, he’d come to the lip of the opposite ramp and up he’d fly. In the air he’d take another risk—he’d twist his body at the waist and his feet too, so that his board would flip over. And that was the moment for which he practices, that he might land both feel on the board again. That his two feet might find their footing on the wood after the jump.
As I watched him I considered how all his practice is for that particular moment…to gather his speed, strength and sheer will to complete the trick.
Practice gets it’s reward. In fact, practice is it’s own reward. Athletes know this deeply. The surfers and the skaters at Huntington Breach reminded me that practice is the aim. You can’t hate learning if you want to be very good at something. The great Brazilian soccer player, Pele said it precisely, “Everything is practice.”

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me– practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9

The Bounce House Affect

“Hey J, I think Iris is scared to go down the slide,” my husband says. “You need to get in there and help her.”
Here we are again, another kids party with a bounce house, and I’m being overcome by bounce house syndrome, aka: poor parenting.
“But I don’t want to go in there,” I mumble through my enormous bite of bagel and schmear. My eyes start to droop; I’m getting sleepy. Any parental vigilance is slipping away fast. It’s the bounce house affect once again.
I don’t know what it is about these giant inflatable playgrounds that have the strangest affect on parents, myself a classic victim. The moment my kids remove their hot garbage shoes and socks I mentally check out. “Have fun,” I yawn as they tumble through the greasy flap. And I’m off to find someone over twenty to chat with, or better yet, go get myself another bagel from the refreshment table. Carb coma, here we come.
Something about that black mesh net on the bounce house befuddles my vigilance about safety. A minute ago I was worried my daughter might step on a red ant pile as we walked through the grass.
Now she’s tumbling around a rubber sweat chamber with kids thirty pounds heavier than her and I’m like, “Oh, cool, they have Austin Java here.” And I’m walking away from my unattended children in the bounce house. I can’t really see what’s going on past the mesh net, unless I put my face up to it. Chances are I’d get a fast broken nose by a body-slamming toddler, so I stay back, in fact, I stay way back. I tell myself it’s better this way.

It’s like I NEED the chance to not care. It feels so good to walk away from the contained chaos. It feels like an honest to goodness 20 minute vacation. I’m stirring cream into my coffee and chatting it up hard with another mom when one of my offspring finds me.
“Mom,” Ace runs up. He’s already sweating. His clammy hand pulls my arm, “A boy in there pushed me!” And what comes out of my mouth next is the bounce house affect in full force, “Well, get in there and rough somebody up!”
It’s me saying it. I mean I can hear the words exit my mouth, but I don’t recognize myself.
Ace smiles big and sloppy, like I just said, “I want you to throw your vegetables against the wall at every meal.”
He runs away leaping for joy…cause his world-class mom just told him to push little kids.
I’m about to call him back and say the right thing. But my head is foggy. The whir of the generator that keeps inflatable play inflatable has lulled my conscience once again.

Wikipedia tells me that bounce houses, in all their gleeful variety, became popular during the 90’s, which would explain why I don’t remember playing on them when I was a child of the 80’s. Weirdly, bounce houses have become features at parties in over 6 different countries. If you type “inflatable” into Google, the algorithm will finish that commonly typed word with “rental industry.” It seems you can’t have a kids party without inflatable play.
Perhaps bounce houses are becoming the equivalent of yesteryears nearly always safe neighborhoods, where it was just fine to ride off on bikes with friends.   When tired Mom could say, “Go ahead, have an adventure with your friends for a few hours.” Off you’d go on bikes into the woods while Mom sat with her coffee and bagel with schmear. A few minutes of alone time with heavy carbs is all she asks for sometimes.
It isn’t likely that we, the parents, will return to a trusting cultural standard any time soon, so we make do. We call the bounce house rental company and have them haul over a giant rubber castle. Our kids will love it, we think. And they do.
The bounce affect will overcome all the parents at the party. And for a brief time we’ll feel that all is well.
“Mommy, I went down the slide all by myself!” Iris is at my side, drenched in sweat.
“Ata girl” I high five her, and off she goes again, back through the greasy flap, into the weird and wonderful realm of THE BOUNCE HOUSE.

Let’s Have Some FUN

My daughter turns three in two days.
Then my little sister turns 36.
Mother’s Day is next.
And then my 40th birthday, in three weeks.
I want to slam on the breaks,
even as I mark down plans in my calendar for July.
Now I understand what made time feel slower when we were children:
It felt slower when we were children because we weren’t making any plans for the future. Only dreams.
Each day was entirely fresh and round, not linear like it is for adults. Not start with the alarm at 6am, then each hour whizzing by on the right like highway signs.
Children don’t count by hours. They count by fun. “I had fun that time when I….” “Remember when we went to that fun carnival?” And parents scowl and scratch their heads and try to recall it.
“Oh yes, you remember that? It was two years ago!”
Kids don’t notice the time, only the degree of fun or engagement they experience.
My son called it the best day of his life last Wednesday when I bought him a butterfly net from the $1 bin at Target, and then we went directly to a pond (actually a sewage runoff, but who’s stopping us) and chased moths and one butterfly. But it was FUN because we weren’t’ trying to be anywhere else. Mommy didn’t check her phone once. It wasn’t an hour of time. It was fun in bold, like primary colors.
So watch me now because I’m all about having FUN these next three weeks before I turn 40. And don’t let me stop there. In my next forty years, Lord, keep me silly. Keep me grounded yet laughing. Keep me in the moment that is timeless.
(This post is dedicated to the Queen of FUN, Suzanne Honeycutt)

 

Who is the Happiest Person? The Giver.

I once heard a pastor say: “Do you know who is most excited on Christmas morning? Not the wide-eyed child, not the woman who thinks she might get an engagement ring. But the giver. The person who knows he’s giving THE perfect gift is the happiest person on Christmas morning. When you give a great gift, you are the happiest.”
Those words rang through my mind when I got the opportunity to deliver the perfect donated gift to one of iACT’s refugee students.
In addition to teaching English with iACT, I am a free-lance writer. For the last 6 months, my main writing project has been about refugees who resettle in Austin. My photography partner, Ashley St. Clair and I have been collecting life stories from the refugees in iACT’s ESL program. We plan to introduce Austin to these incredibly courageous, tenacious refugees through dignified portraits that Ashley takes and through my provoking, written vignettes about their lives. In order to write the vignettes, we must interview the refugees to hear their stories. Last month Ashley and I interviewed Lambert, an 18 year old from Tanzania.
Lambert was born and raised in one of Tanzania’s largest refugee camps. He is 18 years old. He has never experienced any life outside of a refugee camp, until now. Lambert, his six siblings, his mother and his father arrived in Austin, Texas three months ago to resettle and make a life here.  As Ashley and I interviewed him (through an interpreter) it became very clear that Lambert is passionate about music.  So much so that in the refugee camp he would sneak into the makeshift church and teach himself to play the songs he heard during church service. “Something inside me had to play what I heard. Something in me must play music. But I must learn the skills of music. I don’t know the music notes.  I want to play music all the time.”
After the interview with Lambert, Ashley and I turned to each other and said at the same time, “We’ve got to get Lambert a piano keyboard.”
It took exactly two days to acquire a keyboard for Lambert. I sent an email out to some friends asking if someone had a keyboard they would like to donate. Some friends forwarded that email. A woman I’ve never met was so moved by Lambert’s humble beginnings that she went right to Straight Music store and bought him a brand new keyboard, stand and headphones. And I got the privilege of delivering this gift to Lambert.
Lambert’s whole family greeted me and Ashley in their parking lot when we arrived with the keyboard. His little siblings jumped up and down when we they saw the keyboard box, as I pulled it from my trunk. Lambert’s bright white teeth proved his happiness. He couldn’t stop smiling. He took the keyboard from me and we all went into his apartment. Six sets of hands tore open the box in less than 30 seconds.  Then Lambert hushed them all and took his keyboard to the kitchen table. He plugged it in and put on the headphones. And then he disappeared.
It was as though he closed a door. He was still there in the room, but he wasn’t. He was deep down into his own happy place of musical discovery. He was playing his new keyboard and he wasn’t about to stop.

When Ashley and I finally left, Lambert was still at his keyboard. His mom had to nudge him to wave goodbye and say thanks.
But Lambert didn’t need to thank us, and the woman who actually bought the keyboard said, “Tell him he doesn’t need to thank me.” She got the point and so did we. Lambert’s ardor for musical discovery was thanks enough. As I drove away, I realized I hadn’t stopped smiling all evening. I wished everyone I knew could have been there with me to deliver that keyboard. I know a lot of people who need that kind of high…the high that only comes from giving.
I considered again the irony about giving things away: it actually fills you up. To give, is to get. “The generous will themselves be blessed.” Proverbs 22:9. Such concentrated wisdom in that simple line. Giving a good gift feels almost healing. Feels like scratching an itch that nothing else can get at. It feels like you hit the target, the bull’s-eye…the main ingredient to happiness.

 

The Most Precious Things

When you move around a lot you can’t purchase big souvenirs. Big stuff means big moves. Means more packing. Means you need more space to show it all off. So during our years on the road with the BGEA my parents made a wise decorating decision: they re-purposed an old type tray to hold tiny special trinkets, often ones they found in a city where we lived. They didn’t buy great furniture. They collected great, miniature memorabilia.
That type tray is still hanging in my parents’ dining room. In each tiny cubbyhole is a little piece of our family’s history. When I visit, I like to spend some quality alone time in front of the type tray. It smells like Old English wood polish and cracked leather.
I gingerly pick up certain objects in the type tray: the one inch by once inch Bible (if you get a magnifying glass you can read it. It really is the book of John in the world’s smallest font.) Or my father’s white leather baby shoe or the thumb-sized, spray-painted chunk of the Berlin Wall. Also in the type tray is the little dog mitten my mom sewed for a dog who raced in the Iditarod the year we lived in Alaska.
When my six year old son was two years old he took a liking to teeny tiny toys. He wanted to always have one in his hand. I think he meant to call them, “littles” but the word that came out was “giggles.” It became his word for small special objects…giggles. It was the perfect word, one that our family adopted. And over the next several years he collected all sorts of giggles: tiny animal figurines, little trains, shiny rocks.
Last week I found an old type tray in my in-laws garage, so I brought it back home to Austin. I spray painted it and today I surprised Ace with it. He was speechless with happiness as he placed each giggle inside just the right cubby. I gave him some quality alone time with his type tray. But as I walked away I had to ponder it all.
Why do modest objects feel most precious in the end? Why does holding a tiny trinket make your heart beat faster? What is God’s love toward small, seemingly insignificant things?
Micah 5:2 “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
Matthew 17:20 “He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Psalm 91:4 “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”
It is God’s pleasure to set us down right where we should be.  He delights in the smallest of treasures.  He wants us for his own.   I have only to dwell in his delight and from there springs my felicity. 

 

Musings on First Days in the New House

I still don’t know which light switch does what.
Which way do I turn the key to lock this door?
What day is trash day?
Does this window face west?
It’s too hot. It’s too cold. Squinting at an unfamiliar thermostat.
Waking up in the night to use the bathroom… reaching out my arms in the dark to feel the way. My movement here isn’t muscle memory yet. I still feel like I’m visiting.
The day we moved in I noticed the laundry room smells like wet dog and cinnamon. What exactly went on in here?
The fans in this house are quiet when they turn. I’m a fan of quiet fans.
Three trains go by each day. One in the morning, and then one in the evening. And then one again in the middle of the night. So far I never mind the one in the night. “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance.”
The kids aren’t used to stairs. We go slow on them together. Holding railings. Holding hands. I never want to reach the landing.
I’ve dubbed the living room: “space of air and light.” It’s my favorite place in this house…so far.

 

Never Say Never

Never Say Never
I taught for ten years in middle and high school English classrooms. Then I published my first book and stopped teaching altogether.   I wanted to focus solely on my writing career. So I was pleased to take on the writing end of a photojournalism project about refugees in Austin.
With my photographer friend, Ashley St. Clair, I began observing refugees at iACT’s ESL classes. We went once, sometimes twice a week to their English classes. We assisted students with whatever lesson they were working on that morning. Sometimes one of the teachers would ask Ashley or I to teach a portion of the lesson.
I said I’d never teach again, but somehow I didn’t mind guest teaching those mornings at ESL. Moreover, I began to enjoy the chance to flex those pedagogy muscles. I found myself daydreaming all week about ways I would like to teach this or that particular lesson. After a month I realized that, in fact, I wanted to teach again, but not just any students… I wanted to teach English to refugees.
When a position opened for permanent teacher with iACT, I quickly applied. Now I find myself back in the classroom. But teaching is different for me this time. For one, teaching refugees is the classroom management jackpot. They are adult learners who are voracious to learn the English language. There are no disciple problems and certainly none of the teenage angst that permeates a middle school classroom.
Instead, teaching refugees is about building trust. I make sure to show them that first I care about them as human beings, only then can I show them how to use and apply the English language. I try to filter every lesson through the lens of practicality. What English do refugees need to build a life in an entirely foreign culture?
As refugees, my new students come with tragedy. And as their teacher I bare this burden with sensitivity. I must. I wouldn’t be a conscientious teacher if I didn’t.
At the same time, I try everyday to show them hope. Hope for their futures here in Austin, Texas. I say to them in English every day, “Your English is improving because you work at it. Well done. Keep learning.”
I once said I’d never teach again. But that was before I’d ever seen a classroom of refugees: pencils ready, books open, eyes wide and hearts open to begin a new life in Austin.

Why I Made Vegetable Soup for My Refugee Students

In addition (and in perfect compliment to) free-lance writing, I’m teaching English One a few hours a week to refugees from around the world.
I stand up in front of them everyday and I see the questions about me on their sober faces. But we have no common language. I’m teaching them English as fast as I can. So that they can ask me all their questions. So I can ask them all of mine. So that they can order food in a restaurant or read the labels at grocery store. This week in class we discussed vegetables. It was serious stuff. They took copious notes about the variety of peppers available to them here in Texas.
In your whole life you’ve probably never said the word, turnip as many times as I did in two days. Over and over again I had the students repeat the names…”bro-co-lli…carr-ots…po-ta-tos.” They were eager to learn it all. But food is only conceptual unless you taste it.
So on Thursday night I made a big pot of vegetable soup in my crock pot, packed with as many veggies as we have studied. And I hauled the pot to class the next morning. One volunteer brought fresh bread to add.
I ladled out soup to each refugee. Once every student had her soup I said, “OK, now tell me what is in Teacher Jess’s soup?” They slurped and literally shouted vegetables at my face in English, “Carrots!” “Green beans!” “Garlic!”
It was fast-paced and frantic. You would have thought it was an auction. There was no taking turns to speak. It was everyone at once. It was exactly what I’d hoped for. It was the first time I didn’t have to pry a timid English word or sentence from them. They were speaking English and didn’t have to think about it because their mouths and bellies were filled. It was out first exercise in trust, and it was the very first time I had ever seen some of them smile.

“Food is our common ground, the universal experience.” –James Beard



The Sounds of a House

We think we’ll remember details. But if we don’t write them down we forget. Before I move out this little house I want to describe some of the sounds that make this little house what it is.

2:00pm
At this house the sunlight in early afternoon warms the French doors that lead to the back deck. The glass heats and makes a sharp, loud popping sound! It can really startle you. There you are rocking the baby in her room for an afternoon nap and Pop! Tick! Crack! You think the word, intruder. With the baby on your shoulder you pad down the small tile hallway to discreetly check the French doors.
Nothing. Nothing stirring. Just hot sunlight on the doors. Huh, you think. This sound will take some getting used to.
3:00pm
The mail truck revs to get up our hill. I hear the driver’s boot on the gas pedal. 30 second pause. Then he revs again. Next mailbox.
4:00pm
I lay a blanket in the living room. My baby boy plays inside the afternoon pools of sunlight on the living room floor. This is my wonderment hour. The light dapples through the branches high up on the west side of the house. This is when I like living in this house best.
5:30-6:30pm
Our dog will bark at least three times in this stretch of time. Once for every neighbor coming home from a day’s work. If the kids leave their bedroom doors open, she will rush their windowsills, nudge open the curtains with her nose to be the nosy neighbor.
6:45pm
The sound of my relief. B. Sterling’s key turning in the lock on the front door. But his house key was poorly made, so the sound is like a dull saw. In goes the key—grating sawing sound. Dog barks. Kids scream. Daddy’s home! I let myself feel tired.
7:30pm
The toddler’s door is sticky. Too tight for its frame. I lay her down in her crib; she’s in that tenuous half-asleep state. She could be startled…or could drop into blissful rest in seconds. Tip-toe to her door to leave. Turn the cheap, brushed metal handle. The door squawks. I cringe. Every single night, the same sound. It will squawk again in the morning when I go to get her up.
9:00pm
Summer night. Both kids in bed. The coolest place to relax is the living room. The ceilings is low and the fan hanging down whirls at top speed. I read in prone position for hours. My only interruption is bemusing: the sound of the light chain and the fan chain rhythmically nudging each other. Tick tick, tick they talk to each other all evening like that.
10:00pm
Cleaning up dishes. Making lunches for tomorrow. A thin, strained, high pitched sound… something electrical zinging. I look around, then up. It’s the cheap IKEA halogen lights. Means a bulb will go out soon.
2:00am
A rainstorm wakes me up…the days before we installed gutters. A constant flood of water cascading down the roof just outside our bedroom window. It feels like being inside the cave behind a waterfall.
4:00am
Our newborn baby cries. I groan but get up. The fatigue weighs a hundred pounds. It’s hard to keep moving. My husband snores on. I could weep for envy. I open our bedroom door and step into the hallway. Of all the difficult feelings of new motherhood I find this one the most bleak. The feeling of loneliness in the night when my baby cries for me. It seems the whole world is being restored by deep sleep except me.
But as I step into our little hallway I glance down the hall all the way to the small kitchen window. Not only does the little window look west, but it looks west from the top of our hill. Little window; long view. I can see all the way to 290. I can even see the lights in Johnson City.   And if lights, then people. And if people, then I am not so alone in the middle of the night. The baby’s door squawks as I open it, but her cry levels down a touch when I whisper her name. “Sshhh,” I tell her, “Mama’s here.” Already her first and deepest blue memory is the tone of my voice in this little house.

Quick! Realtor Showing Our House in 15 minutes!

Grab laundry basket. Dump clean (wrinkled) pile back into the dryer.
Drop clutter and counter top objects into basket: coffee maker, toaster, baby’s toys, bills, magazines, TV remote, phone cords, stuffed animals, homework: all into basket. Slide basket into corner of garage.
First the toddler’s room. Empty diaper pale. Hide pale in closet. Straighten crib sheets. Resent this need to pretend. Tidy anyways. Toddler crying. “Why are you hiding my toys?” Hug toddler. Steer her out of tidied up room.
Then the 6 year old’s room. Toys on every corner of the floor. Markers without caps against baseboards. Panic.   I need another laundry basket. Make do. Toys into hamper. Markers into box. I’ll find caps later. Wipe baseboards fast. Sweating now.
Bathrooms. Yuck. Toothpaste drool against side of sink. Spray everything with cleaner. Wipe with frenzy. Close toilet lid. Flush.
Almost done. Double check master. Clean enough.
Shoes on. Let’s go. Locking door.
The dog!
Kids and dog into car. Pull up trash can. Start the car.
Exhale . Drive to Target. Ramble around and pray someone falls in love with our little house.

 

We’re Moving!

9 minutes away, that is.  But still, if you’ve read my memoir, moving houses is a big deal for me.  It usually is for all of us.  I’ll be dedicating my next several blog posts to the process of moving to a new house in Austin with my little family.

I can say in total honesty that in the last three days I have cleaned nearly every inch of my house. Inches I have avoided cleaning. Dusting the legs of the nightstand and the two inch shaft between the wall and the fridge. Vacuuming with the skinny attachment on, reaching all the way back under my son’s bed. This kind of cleaning feels like time traveling to the past. The vacuum sucks up toys we’d given up finding years ago.
Years ago…8 years ago we bought this little house. No kids, not even a dog yet. The house felt spacious yet cozy. Now it feels cramped and smells vaguely of soiled diapers.
Yesterday, once the kids were in bed for the night, B. and I recaulked the bathtubs, patched up nicks on the walls with fresh paint and restained the patio. I didn’t get in bed till well after midnight. My hands were raw from cleaning products and marked with stain and paint.
But it felt like the right work to do. (When I’m trying to process feelings into words, the most direct route is through physical labor of some sort.)
This I know: It will not be easy for me to leave this little house. Just because we’ve found something bigger and better, it will hurt to say goodbye.
I picture the last time I’ll open the front door and walk out of this house. The thought catches in my throat.
Twice, at nine months pregnant, I’ve hobbled out our front door with empty arms and have returned home with a newborn baby. I’ve brought both my children through this front door.
As I sat in my front hallway patching the walls with paint, I saw our shabby front door with new eyes. Every inch of a house tells a story. And I love to write stories…

20th…Come and Gone

I wanted to attend my 20th high school reunion.
It’s taken 20 years to get over myself enough that attending felt like a healing, restorative thing.
I had planned on being there. I had circled the date in my day planner. I even looked up flights. But then the week of it approached and it became obvious that we would be on the road traveling in the middle of Kansas the night of the reunion. I wouldn’t get to attend.
I was so sorry that I couldn’t go. I looked hard at the photographs that people from high school posted on Facebook the day after the reunion. I knew those faces like an old pair of jeans.   Most of them I haven’t seen in 20 years, but yet their smiles, their noses, their eyes were so familiar.
I was sorry that I didn’t get to hug old friends. And more sorry that I didn’t get to make new ones with familiar strangers. I wanted to apologize to certain people. I wanted to say I was such a jerk in high school. Because I mean it now. I know I was. I was stuck up and sassy to the point of exclusion. I wanted to hug old boyfriends and laugh. And tell each other, you still look great. And I wanted to feel really young again with the people who share my same memories.
I hated missing that reunion.
I realize now that it’s true. So much of life is just showing up.
reunion-500x164

 

May I Have Your Eyes?

Getting older wasn’t something I noticed much in my early twenties. What I mean is, time then seemed to crumble off in manageable bites, like feta cheese. Bite sized and easy. So many delicious moments to myself, so much time ahead of me.
Then I turned thirty. I had a moment when I looked around and felt lost. How did I get here, and what is this place called? Is this old? With time, I decided no. I shopped at Anthropologie- stayed busy in my teaching job. I happily tossed out clothes that I had kept from high school. Good riddance, silly girl. I felt generally in control of the pace of life. Like on a bicycle.
Then at 33 I was slammed with a powerful longing to have a baby. I had one. Then a few years later I had another. Then I quit my job to stay home with the kids.
And now suddenly, I’m on the cusp of turning 40. Is this old? I’m getting out the big, fat eraser and redrawing the START and STOP lines. Maybe old is just a notion. It’s a vague collection of impressions about grandparents from your childhood. I can redefine old if I want to.
But even as I buy wrinkle cream and color my hair and follow links online to the newest, trendy stuff to make me feel invincible, God is talking to me.
It goes like this:
Every morning when we arrive at her classroom door, my son’s Kindergarten teacher bends down, smiles big and bright at him, then reaches up and cradles his face in her hands. And then she says, “Good morning, Ace. May I have your eyes?” She’s asking him to turn his attention from all the distractions around him. She’s asking for his eyes to lock steady right on hers. Only when he turns his gaze on her does she tell him what he needs to do first to make the school day go well. His first instructions of the day start when he turns his eyes to her.
In my last year of my thirties, God says to me when I first wake up, “Good morning, Jess. May I have your eyes?”
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

eyes

 

 

How to Avoid More Trouble in Life

Times being what they are, I crave a prescription for peace and happiness. I want our country to be safe, my kids to be safe. I want us all to have long, full, fulfilling lives. Everyone wants that. How do we get it?
What’s remarkable is that in Psalm 34:11-14 David beckons us to hear his godly combination to unlock that life:
“Come my children, listen to me;
Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,
Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it.”
Then again he echoes the same prescription for happiness in Psalm 37:3 “Trust in the Lord and do good…”
We will have trouble in this world—our Lord said we would. But David says there’s a way to not make more trouble for ourselves—by turning from evil, both in actions and in what I speak.
What impact could the Church have on the unredeemed world, if we could simply eliminate gossip?
speak-no-evil-challenge

To Hide or to be Made Known

Introduction for Psalms 25-28
Because of the Fall in Genesis, it is our deep nature to avoid God after we sin. We would rather hide. Hide behind the cares of life, behind busyness, behind an inflated sense of usefulness toward others. But all the while my sins are before me, blocking communion with the Father, and my heart is miserable because of it. My husband, B. Sterling wrote a song called, “Brave New World” and one line from it captures this struggle in us: “To hide or to be made known.”
I need David’s direct plea with God to startle me in my hiding, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord”(Psalm 25:7). I am flooded with relief; He approaches me in my shame with love and readiness to forgive again. “My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy” (Psalm 28:7).
In the cool of the day the Lord comes looking for me. “Where are you?” he calls to all of us. Come out from hiding with confession and repentance. Then you’ll be able to say again like David, “The Lord is my light and my salvation”(Psalm 27:1).
bad-hiding-under-box

 

The Falling Leaf

Perhaps you find yourself lowly in spirit right now. Shabby and lowly. You think to yourself, But it’s only the start of the school year. How can I already feel so threadbare?
In fact, that’s a curiously favorable place to be. Jesus said, “Blessed are the lowly in spirit “(Matt 5:3). Blessed are you if you find yourself at the end of your rope.
Resist the urge to rescue yourself from the threadbare place inside with trivial fixes to the outside. Instead, come to Psalm 22 lowly. The psalmist will put your very groanings into words. They were our Lord’s words on the cross. Meet the broken Savior there again.
Then you’ll be ready for the restoration we are promised in Psalm 23.
Now it is October. You might be walking or driving and see a leaf fall from a tree. Ask Him to help you comprehend the falling leaf. Ask Him to meet you in your lowly place and reveal what in the world it means to be blessed for it.
falling-leaf

The Necessary Stillness for Making Art

The news headlines are screaming for your attention. Friends and family are elbowing for attention on social media. But you are a creative type trying to carve out space to do your art. You translate life best through creative endeavors. And you need freedom from the noise to create your art, be it writing, painting, music, or any other artistic expression. Is it possible to turn off the technological chatter? And why is silence so necessary for making art?
It helps to imagine creativity as a shy child. If you can imagine it like this, you’ll see why you need silence for creativity to blossom. Is a shy child going to share her feelings in a loud crowd? Not likely. She needs a quiet, comfortable space to open up. She needs some coaxing to speak up, reminders that she won’t be interrupted. Reminders that her voice is utterly unique, and that you want to listen. In the same way, your creative voice will not speak up unless you silence the distractions and invite it to speak. You’ll be amazed at your artistic output if you deliberately shut off the technological noise and listen to your inner shy, creative spirit.
Ask yourself this: are the writers, painters, photographers whose work you admire most tweeting all day long? Are they writing long, cumbersome rants on Facebook or posting selfies on Instagram? Most likely the answer to all of these is no. They are offline for long stretches of the day, their heads down doing the creative work…carving out an artistic expression of life in quietness.
But you need to market your art on social media, you say? Some experts suggest that for every hour you spend promoting yourself on social media, you should spend five hours doing your craft, unplugged from technology.
It can be hard to shut down our devices. Little alerts object to your self-imposed cloistering. So how do you quiet the technological clamor? Here are just a few practical tips that I’ve found very helpful:

  1. If you are working for a long stretch of time on a creative project, why not set up an auto reply email message. It takes just seconds to do in your email settings. You can even make it funny: “Going off the grid to tap into my creative side…wish me luck! Be back soon.”
  2. If text interruptions come up while you are writing or drawing (which they will) just send a quick automated reply: “Hey, working on my book/poem/song…will call soon.” Your people want you to get your creative work done.
  3. Try and do your creative work at the same time every day. This is helpful for two reasons: A.) It’s a good habit for your brain: I tune out noise from 8am-10am. Creativity (like that inner child) likes routine…likes predictability. B.) It reminds other people not to poke you if you if they don’t really have to. Oh, that’s right, she works in her studio at this time.

Everyone needs breaks from the onslaught of technologically provided information. But artists must take a break from it. Try turning off the devices for short periods of time each day, then gradually stretch yourself toward more stillness. Your creative inner child will thank you.
stillness

The Best Kind of Vacation

I like to post this piece just after Labor Day.  It reminds me what kind of vacation I look forward to for next summer. Maybe you can relate? Share this post if you can.

The best kind of vacation
Is a putting off of things to do that for once is healthy.
A scrap the to do list
A crumple it up and drop kick it to the curb of your mind.
That’s a vacation.
Once that’s done and out of the way, now wipe your hands, roll up your sleeves
and take a nap.
The kind that goes too long. When you wake up and don’t know your own name
with a pool of drool on your pillow. And your limbs tingling
from the humility of gravity.
A deep sleep in the heat of the day.
Open the suitcase, and let the insides ooze their way out day after day.
Don’t sort. Don’t rearrange. Don’t refold.
See your vacation in expanding concentric circles around the suitcase.
Resist the urge to feel useful.
Don’t clean up.
See what happens.
Of course, I’ve had the other vacations too. The ones with foldout maps
of the old city. Of guide books and diesel and the museum closes at 4pm,
So let’s hurry.
These are grand. And photographic. And smart.
But you never quite know what to say about them afterward.
When someone asks, How was your vacation?
No, come mid- November I won’t daydream of on-the go
All engrossing, pavement slapping vacations.
I’ll dream of the supine kind,
with my hands, my head and my feet still for hours.