Meditations & Musings from Jess
- The Culmination of a Year and a Half of Creative Work February 20, 2018
There is so much evil lurking in the world…it’s tempting to allow myself to get paralyzed with fear or doubt in a supremely loving God. But it’s now, more than ever, that we need examples of peace-keeping efforts to flood our news feeds. We must be intentional. We need to dwell on all that is good, holy, praise-worthy and noble. (Phil 4:8)
It’s in that spirit that I want to share with you the culmination of a year and half of creative work between myself and photographer, Ashley St.Clair. For over a year we have interviewed, photographed and shared life with recently resettled refugees in Austin. We named our project, “Refugee is not My Name.” The theme of our work is that all refugees share that label, but they each have a name. They are as special, unique and complicated as you and me. They are as fiercely loved by God as my own children. Do you believe that? I do!
Tribeza magazine ran a sample of our project in their community issue this month. If you haven’t yet, would you please read my article and short stories of these refugees?
But Ashley and I have always planned that our project would be a complete gallery exhibit. And it’s happening next month here in Austin! On Thursday, March 22 from 5-8pm our project will be on full display at The Gallery at Lewis Carnegie. Come sip wine, gaze at stunning portrait photographs of refugees from 13 different countries, ranging from children to adults. Let you heart by refueled by the enduring human spirit. Let your compassion be reignited in a world gone mad with fear and violence.
Be there to give me a hug and let us spur one another on toward these three things which remain: faith, hope and love. Get tickets for the exhibit here:
Here’s a behind the scenes photo from an interview Ashley and I did with Aya, a refugee from Syria. She and her family are so thrilled that she’ll get a good education now that they are resettled in Austin. She wants to be a pediatrician one day.
- An Email I want to Share with You January 19, 2018
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.
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? November 28, 2017
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 October 18, 2017
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 September 20, 2017
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 August 22, 2017
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 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.