Meditations & Musings from Jess
- 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.
- 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.