"Don’t be a writer. Be writing."
- William Faulkner

Meditations & Musings from Jess

  • Pack-N-Play Wisdom July 17, 2017

    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 July 5, 2017

    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

    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 June 18, 2017

    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 May 28, 2017

    “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 May 5, 2017

    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 I 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. April 17, 2017

    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 March 30, 2017

    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 March 7, 2017

    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 February 16, 2017

    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 January 31, 2017

    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