Meditations & Musings from Jess
- December 10, 2021
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. I’ve been distracted by a writing project I hope to have completed this spring. And I’ve had my life shaken up a bit by some recent health challenges. Here’s a little literary life update. As always, thank you for being my readers and friends.
When I was 16, living in Philadelphia, I developed an autoimmune condition called Reynauds. When my body was cold, I lost blood flow to my fingers, toes and knees. Since then, I’ve battled Reynauds any time the temperature drops below 60. It’s been an irritating, often painful condition. Many times I’ve felt embarrassed when people have pointed out that my hands look blue. On more than one occasion I have shoved my swollen, blue hands into my pockets when someone wanted to take a photo together.
Fast-forward to my late thirties. I began experiencing flairs of join pain in my fingers, toes and elbows. So I added some DHA and other supplements to life and that seemed to take care of the problem for a time.
Then when I turned 40, the joint pain returned and it was intense. Some mornings I couldn’t walk very well on my feet…they just ached too badly. A few times I had to open doorknobs with my wrists. Typing on the computer was challenging, and as a dedicated writer, that scared me a lot. I knew something more serious was happening in my body, but I just didn’t know what. The pain was insistent that I pay closer attention.
This past summer B. Sterling and the kids and I spent a week at the beach in Galveston. It was a wonderful week of sun and swimming with my little family, but during that week, my joint pain was the worst it has ever been. My hands were swollen and felt as though I’d slammed them on concrete. My feet throbbed and ached constantly. I took Advil every four hours, just to be able to play on the beach with my kids. Not only that, it seemed that everything I ate wasn’t working for me. My whole digestive system was angry with me. And I felt a touch of depression lurking in the shadows. I couldn’t make sense of it all. I decided that when we went home to Austin I would get my blood work done right away.
So, in many ways, it didn’t come as a surprise then when the rheumatologist sat me down a few weeks later and said definitively that I have Rheumatoid Arthritis. She showed me my blood work and said my ANA antibody levels were some of the highest she’s ever seen. “Your immune system is attacking itself. And your Lupus indicators are very high. You don’t show the outward signs of Lupus, but you need to get on the medication that can control the RA and keep Lupus from manifesting.” It was really alarming information. Much weightier than I’d expected to hear.
Then the doctor did something I’ll never forget. She very gently reached out and took my hands in hers. She slowly touched my fingers at the joints. She pressed on the swollen tops. She turned over both hands to examine my palms, pressing each finger. It was a strange moment. I felt suddenly like a child, very vulnerable. Since I was 16 my hands have caused me pain when I’m cold. I’ve felt embarrassed of them, dismissive of them. But it’s also my hands that I write with. The very gifts God has given me are manifested through my hands. Every single day I jot down ideas for a poem or a story with my hands. When I write long-hand I remember my child self. Handwriting is a link to your inner child. My hands give life to the words in my heart. She looked at me and said kindly, “I would be able to tell from a mile away that you have Rheumatoid Arthritis. Your hands say it all.”
I left the doctor’s office in tears that day. I was scared by the RA diagnosis. But I also felt strangely seen. The weight of hiding the pain, discoloration and swelling in my hands was called out gently. The doctor and my body told me softly but intently, “It’s time to pay attention.”
That was this August. Since then I’ve eliminated all grains, dairy and most sugar from my diet. I’ve gone on a medication to control the RA and resist Lupus. For the first time in my life, I can hear my body. When I don’t eat inflammatory foods I feel amazing. When I do eat inflammatory foods my body hurts.
And more than ever I see my hands as beautiful. They’re more wrinkled every day. And some days they still ache. But they are the same hands that get it all done in this family. That cook, clean, wash, wipe away tears and write feverishly when the spirit hits me. And God willing they’ll bring you my first collection of poetry this spring.
Isaiah 41:13 For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”
- Braces and Baseball July 20, 2021
God knows the number of hairs on your head but what about the number of teeth in your mouth? To what extent does God care for me, or my family? Two years ago, our orthodontist friend said he’d fit Ace for some braces to help make space for Ace’s top teeth to come in straight. At the appointment our ortho friend took some panoramic photos of Ace’s mouth, then he sat us down in his office after he took the X-rays. “I’ve got some strange news for you guys. Ace seems to be missing seven permanent teeth.” Ace started to cry immediately and covered his mouth instinctively. We felt like the roadrunner right when he realizes there’s no ground under him. Our eyes were like saucers. My jaw dropped. “Are you sure?”
“Yep, pretty sure. Look…” He pointed at various gray spots on the X-ray. “Seven of his baby teeth do not appear to have permanent replacements under the gums.”
I glanced tenderly at my son. Suddenly I pictured him as teenager looking like the old man in Pixar’s movie, “Up.” Inverted, shriveled lips at sixteen because he has no teeth. I gulped and tried not to show my alarm.
But I was alarmed. And when I told B. Sterling the news that evening he was just as worried. I tossed and turned in bed that night. Finally, at some awful hour I got up and went downstairs to the couch to think and pray. As I sat in the quiet dark house I was able to pinpoint what I felt about Ace and the teeth issue. And it was this: what if God doesn’t care about my child as much as I’ve believed He does? What if this reliance I have in God for my child’s life is all in vain? A sticky, inky fear slid through me. Nobody wants to feel that their kid’s formation was a madcap assembly job in utero. But what if…. Suddenly I feared that God was like a mealy mouthed politician who wouldn’t admit He’d made errors with my child’s health. Mistakes were made. Authorities have been notified. I reminded myself: it’s just teeth. It could be so much worse. And that’s completely true. But a parent’s heart craves a deeper assurance, not comfort by comparison.
A few weeks ago I took Ace to a pediatric dentist to get his opinion on the matter. He confirmed what our orthodontist had seen on the X-ray. Ace is definitely missing seven permanent teeth. “But let me put you at ease a bit,” he said, “Amazingly, Ace is not missing any of his front permanent teeth, so cosmetically he’s in good shape. Just protect those baby teeth on the sides as long as you can.” Then he turned to Ace and added, “So make sure to wear your mouth guard when you play baseball.”
And that’s exactly where we find ourselves right now. I’m sitting in the stands watching my son grab his glove and shove in his mouth guard as he runs out to the baseball diamond. Delicate teeth or not, my son wants to eat, sleep and breathe the game of baseball. And as his mom, I have this strange sort of déjà vu as I watch him warm up on the pitcher’s mound. A peace comes over me…that feeling that we’re right in the pocket. Right where we need to be. As though there’s already a photo album of these days. As though He knows the number of hairs on my child’s head and the number of teeth in his mouth. As though this is the present that was already planned for.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
- How to Have a Great Summer April 21, 2021
When I was 12 years old I created my own library. I called it, Samson Public Library, and I operated it right out of my own bedroom. Diligently I taped card catalogue forms into the backs of every children’s book in our house. Then I arranged all the books on my shelves by authors’ last names. And lastly I waited for my family members to come “check out books” from my library. I waited… And I waited…
My two children think this is the saddest, funniest thing they’ve ever heard. “Did your brother and sisters actually check out books from you?” Ace asks with a tone that reveals he no longer thinks his mom was ever cool. Nope, I smile. Not one book. Iris is gentler, “Oh poor Mommy. I feel sad for you.”
She pats my shoulder like you would to a drooling old woman in the nursing home. “But you have to admit, Mommy. It was a little weird to make your own library.” And then my two children let loose their giggles at my expense.
They aren’t wrong, either. It was weird of me. But things that make you weird as a child are usually still true of you deep down as an adult. We just forget. Or we get better at hiding these parts of ourselves.
I still love books. I love owning them, holding them. I love re-reading books and running my hands over the pages or binding as I contemplate the characters and plot. I love and miss libraries. I hope our libraries open up again soon.
A few weeks ago I ran into an acquaintance. To my delight she immediately asked me, “What are you
reading these days?” It’s a great question that I feel like people don’t ask enough anymore.
“I just finished a fun novel, so I don’t know what to do with myself.”
She nodded. “Same. When I finish a book I’m lost all over again.”
I thought about that as I drove home that night. How the dog-earned page of a book is like a compass—reading an engaging book keeps you straight. If you’ve got a good book then you have an evening. Or a great weekend. Or a perfect bubble bath. A smooth flight. Better than a glass of wine after a long day. Slip into my cool sheets and pick up with the story where I left off. How being in the middle of a riveting book is one of the best things this side of heaven.
My neighbor friend, Mary told me that one time, when she was single, she was supposed to meet a guy for date but she never showed because she couldn’t put her book down. “I figured there’d be other dates. But I had to keep reading. I was at the best part.” I love that story. And sadly, I feel like some of us have lost that romance with books.
In 2021 it appears that our self-awareness has turned on itself. We scroll through our social media news feed, hoping for a post that will ignite the same endorphins we used to get from books—a well-crafted
story that is both particular and universal, lifting us from reality while also validating it. But social media can’t give us that. Social media is not literature. You can’t be lost in a book and take a selfie at the same
time. More than ever we need authors. Not “influencers” but authors.
This summer I will do better because I haven’t forgotten that a good book feeds the soul. I’m heading over to Half Price Books, and I’m not leaving till I’ve got a stack. Classics, poetry, cookbooks and best of all, novels I’ve been meaning to read for years.
The months of biting our nails over Covid numbers, distance learning woes and vicious elections are thankfully a little bit in retrograde. Warm summer days are head. Don’t miss the opportunity to reignite that romance with literature again. Your inner child-librarian will thank you.
- Hands Inside the Language February 15, 2021
I’m writing a new book these days. And I’m also teaching English as a second language to middle schoolers. Maybe those two pursuits don’t seem of equal weight at first, but you’d be surprised. I am every day. Teaching ESL is like looking at the pond water sample under a microscope. Now I truly see what’s there. There’s nothing like teaching the most basic parts of the English language: I am. You are. He is. She is. We are. They are. You begin to know why you know what you know.
In the evenings I go home and apply everything I know that I know about language into crafting a story. But I don’t forget the beauty and simplicity of mastering one’s “to be” verbs. You have to love the building blocks. Perhaps an analogy might be a chef who both grows and cooks the food. Who digs with a trowel the hole in the ground and places in a simple seed. Gets his hands dirty. Stoops a bit low. Then waits and watches. When the freshest, most delicious vegetables grow, his joy is doubled to cook them into a fine dish. He knows his ingredients from beginning to end. I like a job like teaching ESL to immigrants. It keeps me humble. Teaching English as a second language gives me hands into the whole spectrum of language development and mastery. Every day I am intrigued.
I’ve taught adult ESL. And now I teach ESL to 12 year old. These kids are the lucky ones, not the adults. Adults can only hope for the mental acuity to translate fast. That’s as good as it will get for adults. The first language will always reign for adults who try to learn a foreign language. But for kids who get immersed at a formative age, their brains will actually grow both languages simultaneously.
I have a funny, energetic 7th grade boy in my class this year named Alberto. He’s from Honduras. He’d never stepped foot on American soil until last year, when he started sixth grade in Austin at 11 years old. Last week we went outside to the soccer field when we had 20 minutes of class time to spare. Alberto told me in nearly perfect grammatical English, “Ms., It’s so hard when you first get here and don’t speak English. Last year I didn’t know any words in English. It was so difficult.”
I point out the obvious victory inherent in this confession, “But here you are telling me in fantastic English how difficult it was to learn English.” He smiled, an awe shuck sort of smile.
Then he ran off to catch up to the soccer ball. In ten years Alberto will be 22 and there will be only a wisp, a faint hint of a Honduran accent when he speaks English. Most people won’ t even hear the accent by then. And the memory of not knowing English for him will be a dim, distant thing. Something floating away as a blurry memory of childhood. He won’t be able to remember his Honduran self without the English mind. He’ll tell himself in English what life was like before he knew English.
This is the strange gift of immersion. The gift of forgetting when you didn’t know what you know now. And despite middle school being a generally awful time in life for most people, my ESL students are truly the lucky ones. They refresh my sense of wonder at our capacity to give and receive language.
- Reminder to Self: Don’t Over Complicate It. December 30, 2020
It’s hard to stop and simply be with my needy children. Lately I’ve been keenly aware of this struggle. Perhaps it’s because it’s Christmas, and I’ve got a hundred things to get done for my job or around the house, so that I can finally relax. (That’s what I tell them.) But if I’m honest I know that it goes deeper than that. I’ve cultivated a life of frenetic distraction. I’m out of practice with the art of simply being present. And worse, I’ve lost faith in my own capacity to be so still. Just sitting without my phone? Without an agenda? But just “holding space” for my children? I’ve forgotten how to do it. But yesterday as I stood in my kitchen watching water boil in my new electric tea kettle I realized I’ve been making it all so much more complicated than is necessary. A memory came back to me from my childhood that infused me again with confidence in simple companionship. I was thirteen and it was our first 24 hours of living in Scotland. We were renters in a row home in Glasgow. None of the furniture or art was ours, and certainly none of the kitchen appliances. They all belonged to the owner of the home. It was my first time with real jet lag. It was the middle of the night in Scotland, but my body didn’t think so. And being already a very anxious child, I was undone by the unfamiliar surroundings. My siblings were all asleep; I felt totally alone. I walked down to my parents room and cried to my mom.
Mom got out of bed and put on her robe and with total weariness sagging her shoulders muttered, “What do you need Jess?” It was a plea. I could imagine on the inside she was crying, Help me help you because you are by far my most needy child.
I didn’t know. I didn’t have answers. I just needed some simple comfort.
She sighed, tightened her robe and whispered, “Come on.” We trudged down the long wooden staircase, around the corner and down another narrow hall. We didn’t know the house at all. We felt our way in the dark. Into the kitchen (which was where Mom naturally solved all our family problems).
Mom looked around the unfamiliar space. She had barely even entered the kitchen since our arrival the day before. Dad had gone to the store for a few basic things: bread, cereal, milk, butter and eggs, coffee and tea.
She went over to the electric tea kettle. “I’ve never used an electric one” she murmured quietly. It was some awful hour in the middle of the night. Whispering felt right.
I stood next to her, a disheveled, distraught teenager. She filled the kettle, put the lid back on and clicked the red button. Sure enough, it buzzed to life inside. The red button clicked itself off and she poured the steaming water into a mug and dropped in an herbal tea bag. Then she opened the loaf of white bread and made a piece of toast in the toaster. She spread butter on the toast. Then she cut it into four long strips. “Finger toast” Mom’s signature- “you’re not feeling well. Eat this.” –dish,
Then she brought it all to the table and we sat. I ate each buttery “finger” and sipped the tea. I remember Mom sat across from me and didn’t say a word. Just leaned her elbows on the table and held her head in her hands. She let her eyes close, then open, then drowse again. It was the middle of the night. I sipped and nibbled. Every buttery inch soothed me. Every sip warmed up a cold pit in my belly.
There wasn’t any point in talking. We wouldn’t solve my teenage angst. It had to run its course. And I had to learn to find God in the midst of it. I had to struggle.
Mom was exhausted, but I knew she’d sit with me until I finished the tea and toast. Though my teenage woes felt complicated, what I needed from my mom that night was not. I needed something profoundly simple: quiet companionship. Tea, toast and a present mom. I suppose Mom walked me back to bed after my tea and toast. But I don’t remember. It doesn’t really matter. She’d already given me exactly what I needed.
- One at a Time October 19, 2020
All teachers know that an empty classroom is just a drab, silent space with desks. Unless a crowd of students is present, the space doesn’t seem to hold any magic.
But here we are seven months into the pandemic and the fall of a new school year. No teacher in America will tell you that their teaching scenario is unfazed by Covid. Every teacher is having to do his or her job in a very, very different way. And in the district where I’m teaching, this looks like a hybrid of in-person and virtual teaching. Most parents have opted for their children to stay home and do their classes virtually. But some parents need to work, so the district has allowed those students to be on campus, albeit hooked up to computers to do their lessons virtually.
So I have found myself in a very odd role for the past two weeks. I am a Zoom teacher to the kids who are all home plugged in at home. And I am babysitter to one solitary student in my classroom.
That’s right. I said one solitary student in my classroom. On the first day of in-person school Carmen walked into my room with her backpack and mask on. In a muffled voice she looked around at all the empty desks and asked, “Am I the only student?”
“Yes, I m afraid so.” I hated to have to admit it. Her shoulders fell. A look came over her that I could read exactly. It said, Oh, silly me to have thought things were going back to normal.
That was Monday. And Carmen and I quickly both discovered that we had a lot of empty time between Zoom classes. She and I found a bag of lollipops in my desk, left over from the previous teacher. They were slightly soft but she and I both chomped on about four a-piece.
I picked goo out of my teeth and asked her about her classes that morning. “Pretty boring” she muttered, without making eye contact.
On Tuesday, during our free time she and I took sidewalk chalk out to the track area. I drew the school mascot. Carmen drew hearts and wrote her name in a flourishy, flowery style. It was hot out. There wasn’t much to talk about.
On Wednesday, we bounced a small rubber ball all over the track. It was 11:30am and already 90 degrees. “Don’t you want to take your sweatshirt off” I kept asking her because I’m a mom and worry about things like overheating. “Nope” she said even though her face was really red. We refilled our water bottles inside the building. “It felt good to exercise. I actually miss gym class,” she said behind her mask. We laughed together that Covid has made her miss gym class.
During my planning time on Thursday I left school to get some Starbucks. I decided to get one for Carmen too, but make hers a decaf I told the barista. When I got back to school and handed the icy, whipped cream topped drink to her, Carmen said, “Wow, thanks, Miss!” She drank it during her next Zoom class.
On Friday, she and I were both bleary-eyed from so much screen time. “Let’s walk some laps on the track” I said when she and I had both finished lunch early. The air was pleasant and the sun was mercifully hidden behind some clouds. We walked casually, almost like to two people who’ve chosen each other’s company. “Tell me about your parents” I said. “Where were they born?”
And Carmen started talking. Really talking. “A little town in Chihuahua Mexico. And my grandparents all still live there.”
I asked question after question. Tell me about your Abuela’s cooking. How does she make her tamales? How spicy is her home-made salsa? Tell me what your Abuelo plans in his fields. Where does he sell his harvest? Suddenly I had the clarity and time to really listen. There were no other distractions. No other students. “My grandparents’ adobe house stays cool in summer” she said, “and it always smells like carnitas and spices.”
I looked up at the sky and the passing clouds. This is just fine, I thought. Just like this. A little shade, some pleasant conversation and a description of Mexico—a place I’ve never been and one would like to see one day. It was the first time all week I felt my shoulders relax. I stopped wishing there were more students in my classroom. I stopped being discouraged about it for those laps around the track with my one and only student.
And I remembered again that one matters. In teaching, the aim has always been that one student at a time lights up with knowledge and understanding. Had I forgotten that? Had I forgotten that a lesson for thirty students is of equal value to a lesson written and taught for one? In my spiritual life this is bedrock truth as well. “Or what woman who has ten silver coins and loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to say, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin. Luke 15:8-10
I had forgotten. The searching for and finding of one is worthy of gratitude.
“Do not despise the day of small beginnings. For God rejoices to see the work begin.” Zech 4:10
Tomorrow during our free time, I’m going to introduce Carmen to the game of Scrabble. Who knows what new vocabulary she’ll develop from it. We’ll take it one word at a time
- What Do you Love about Time at the Ocean? July 31, 2020
Like most people around the world, our family has not ventured too far in the past five months. We haven’t taken any airplane rides. The most we’ve done is drive to El Paso to shelter-in at my laws house for a change of scenery. So we decided with just a few more weeks of summer break that we wanted to take a short trip to a beach on the Gulf coast. We rented a little house with another family, packed up our cooler and all the beach things we’d need for a few days and headed east out of Austin. As I expected, the time at the ocean was just what our family needed. And it got me thinking….
The thing I like best about the ocean is the way the wind and crashing waves makes talking less of an option. It’s hard to hear people at the beach unless you’re right up close. I find it blissful to simply sit and watch my people play in the muffling wind. Where I might have corrected a behavior or spoken up, I don’t at the ocean. No point. They wouldn’t even hear me unless I got out of this camping chair. So I wave and smile. They’ll work it out. I find myself smiling more than usual at the shore. I smile out at the waves and my children on the boogie boards. I smile up at the seagulls. I smile even while I’m readjusting the blanket that’s gotten sandy again. A smile and squint become one and the same at the beach.
And then there are smells. At the ocean I think about time periods past. How smelly life probably was in ages past. My 21st century nose doesn’t like a briny wetness. That mineral fishy odor that is the marina. The shore is both fresh and putrid. Sometimes in the same breeze. I feel how modern I am. How offended I am by anything less than the smell of a Target superstore. My daughter runs from the water to my chair. “Mom,” she’s screaming, “Mom!” I smile up at her. She’s holding a drippy seashell. “Mom, smell this shell.” I laugh and do. And the odor is unmistakably not land dwelling. I am the foreigner here.
At the beach I finally feel like my kids play…. in a way that I find fascinating. They run to the water’s edge and splash. And then in the next moment they are sitting in the sand by themselves, digging and humming a tune only they know. Completely and totally absorbed in their own tactile, sensory moment. I don’t dare interrupt. My daughter is digging a hole and holding up clumps of sand to examine, right to her face. My son is walking at the edge, head down riveted by what gets upended when the wave recedes. I could watch them play like this all day. I would like this to go on and on. Never return to a screen. They are the least self-conscious and the most beautiful here at the beach.
And as for me some complicated things seem simpler and simple things seem profound when I’m staring out at the ocean. I guess it’s the sense of perspective you get there.
Even though part of me wants to cradle fear, a different, more lasting piece wants to nurture hope. A pandemic has taught us that we can plan for tomorrow, but we can’t know what the days will hold. I want to trust God more. But God, help me to trust you more! I look out at the waves. Fashion me into something like them, Lord. Over and over again, I release. I guess this is what it means to be fully alive.
- Unmasked June 11, 2020
Another slow humid morning in central Texas. The kids got up before me. I see evidence of several bowls of cereal strewn around the kitchen counters. There’s been television. A lot of it. You know your kids have watched way too much TV when they’re bodies are sprawled in various directions across the furniture. Little people willing their muscles to hold still for another episode. Iris is doing a headstand on the rug with her legs flopped on the couch. Ace is on his third Z Bar… I can tell from the wrappers on the coffee table. He’s leaning on the couch arm rest in such a way that he’s about to tip over.
I wonder where I should start. Coffee? Feed the dog? Water my flowers? Coffee, definitely. I pour it, add milk and shuffle to the living room. I want to start the day by reading the Bible. I do, but my attention drifts. Unconsciously I pick up my phone and tap Facebook. Scroll through the news feed….suddenly it’s like a hundred opinions yelling in a small room at the same time. Uggh. Why did I pick up my phone. I drop it on the couch with a thud. I feel utterly helpless and muted in the face of current mass suffering. To put it mildly, how should I be living during these tumultuous times? The information (accurate or not) is stifling. I want God to lift this mask and help me breathe and understand how I should best live.
11am. I turn off the television.
The kids beg for more TV. I hold my ground. Nope. Find something to do.
I start to make lunch. They’ve dug up some twine and have fashioned lassos. I’m stirring the powdered cheese into the macaroni. “Can we lasso the dog?” At least they asked first. I glance down at our 11 year old dog, Lupe. Her wet black eyes plead with me: Let’s you and me escape for a nap!
Sorry, Lupe you’re going to hate this. “Sure, you can lasso Lupe, but only around her tail, not her neck.” I know full well this won’t end well. Iris is giggling and throwing her rope at the dog, which misses by several feet every time. But to all our amazement Ace ropes the dog on his first throw, right around her tail. Iris squeals with delight and Ace is so stunned by his good aim that he tips right over into Iris. She falls and hits her head on the kitchen counter. I gasp. Oh crud. It looks like she’s whacked the sharp corner. I rush to her and quickly check her head and see to my relief that its just a little red bump. She’s grimacing. Waiting for my face to tell her how much it should hurt. I smile. It’s only a tiny bump. It isn’t bad. Mom fast, I reach into the freezer for an ice pack. And that’s the moment, right then. As I reach into the freezer because the bad thing isn’t as bad as I feared it would be. And it only needs the mild remedy of an ice pack for 10 minutes. A surge of unlikely joy comes to me. I feel seen in a way that I have been aching for. It’s a minuscule moment. It has no relevance on the rest of life or humanity. But right then I feel God with me. I feel the Holy Spirit bring a buoyancy. A feeling like floating down the San Marcos river in an inner tube. The only concerns are what’s the river doing down the way. And pleasant fragmented conversation with friends. I haven’t felt seen and buoyant in months. No one has on planet earth. Unaccountably, I feel joy. I bend down, eye to eye with my daughter and lay the ice pack right on the little red bump, which is only the size of a pinkie fingernail. I smile and mean it. Unprompted Ace says, “I’m sorry, Iris. It was an accident. I’m sorry.”
I look at them both as I hold the ice pack to her head. I see them, in the same way I suddenly feel seen and valued in all my flaws by God. There’s been so little breathing room for three months and I didn’t know how afraid it’s made me. I’ve been tight lipped behind a mask, stoic, frowning at the horizon line. How’s it all gonna turn out. Dubious that my family will still be as I want it to be when the pandemic eases, when protests give way to real change for Black brothers and sisters. I’m just one mother trying so hard to keep a pandemic out, while trying to show her kids how to let love in for every skin color. How am I doing, God? I’ve been afraid to ask. I didn’t realize how tense I’ve been at trying. Tense from fearing failure. Tense because there isn’t any other time for change but right now. I know that. And yet most days my hands feel bound by the immediate distractions of daily domesticity. But right now, kneeling on my grimy kitchen floor, it feels like someone divine has lifted off my mask and I can breathe again. I feel a cloud of witnesses, like my godly grandparents, like heroes in the faith, like friends who have passed on, cheering for me. Cheering for us all but cheering with confidence that we are able. I am able to complete the tasks that have been appointed for me. Good tasks like writing and teaching, like standing up for the rights and value of all humanity, and like laying a balm on my child’s small wound. It’s all good work; all of it matters. I take a big deep breath and release it, unmasked.
2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
- Solidarity April 22, 2020
I’ve tried to write some thoughts during these days of sheltering-in. But I just keep coming back to questions, not answers. If I could, I would like to sit across from you at a bustling coffee shop and ask if you feel these things too. For now, my digital reaching out will have to do. You are not alone. Does it seem like the birds are singing louder on your street these days of quarantine?
Do you miss your grandparents who have passed away even more now?
I feel parched for the wisdom of their lifetime—of wars, economic depressions and poverty. More than ever I wish I had learned more from them.
Do you swing almost hourly between gratitude and grumpy?
Are you completely bored with everything your blessed spouse has to say? Does it feel like you can’t possibly cook and clean up one more meal for your grown-ass children who are starving all. the. time?
Are you straight sick of your own inner narrative?
How many times can a parent break up a sibling argument in one day before she herself breaks out in hives from stress?
What is the actual damage to the brain of a child who watches this much streamed television? What’s the actual data on that?
How many times can one refresh a news feed before it’s considered insane, gerbil-wheeling behavior?
Are you nagged by this feeling that you should be using this time to create some really incredible art? Do you take a nap instead and then feel exponentially worse afterward?
Can you be your child’s only playmate one more time today?
Have you stopped counting carbs, gluten, lactose, alcohol intake? When is the last time you put on mascara?
What does it say about me that I can stare for nearly an hour at a wall and not have any clear, cohesive thoughts? Has my brain shut down in some areas? Have I developed cerebral gray matter for lack of social stimulation?
Why can’t I just get lost in a book? I now have so much time. Why can’t I just read a book? What is wrong with me?
Does it feel really exciting to turn your car on and drive to the grocery store? Do you hear old songs on the radio like it’s the first time ever?
Does anyone else feel happy to be going to the grocery store, (or anywhere) and then in the next breath feel afraid because you’ve just left your safe little house?
Have you looked at photos of yourself on your phone from two months ago and wondered who in the world is that person?
Could she ever have imagined there would be a global pandemic in just weeks?
Have you realized because of social distancing that you really do need people? Are you amazed, humbled, awed by the discovery that your best self is not an island?
Are you praying wild and wonderful prayers for days to come?
When your friend’s laughter at the dinner table is all that is so contagious? And are you longing like me, to be healed by it?
Are you holding fast as best you can to hope? Me too.
We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
- A Refuge During Coronavirus March 13, 2020
For about three weeks now, I’ve been counting. Counting on the CDC to present me with concrete data, so that I know my risk level. I’ve been counting on disinfectant to do what the labels promise. Counting on my news app to refresh every 20 seconds with more hopeful headlines. Counting the number of cases in Texas, in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New Jersey, Michigan, New Hampshire, Illinois, and on and on… dots on the worldwide map that aren’t dots, but the people I love. I’ve stood in the grocery store, staring at empty shelves and counted on one hand how many rolls of toilet paper are in my house. Grim outlook, I tell you. And I’ve been counting sheep at night in bed because it’s getting harder to fall asleep when the world is sick.
But all this counting isn’t adding up to peace. And way down deep in my gut and in my heart I know that the absence of Coronavirus does not equal the presence of peace and refuge. In the style of beloved author, Anne Lamott, I hate that this is true! I really hate that my soul requires the blessed assurance of a higher love, regardless of a pandemic.
Perhaps it’s because I have lived in central Texas for 15 years, enduring the scorching sun that I’m literally and figuratively drawn to the idea of respite and refuge in the shade. So many times I’ve stood in the blazing sun, squinting, sweating, searching my surroundings for a few square feet of shadow to stand under. Many a time, I’ve awkwardly crouched under a paltry hackberry tree, in hopes to cool off even one degree.
I want refuge for my body from the elements, but I also crave it for my heart when I feel so exposed to fear. Apparently this value I place on shade as a refuge has been a thing for, well… everyone….since the beginning of time. In fact, it’s a common theme in the Bible.
I feel like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:3, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” I feel you, good sir. These days, I feel afraid. I wish I had a deserted island that my family and I could run to. But I don’t. And neither did Elijah. Instead, he ran to the shade of a broom tree. He knew he couldn’t manage his fear unless he got himself to a place of refuge. Under its shade he fell asleep. And when he woke up (probably a little less afraid because sleep helps) God told him to eat something. (God is wonderfully pragmatic like that). After he ate, Elijah then found a cave to sleep in for the night. He went from shade to shade, rest to rest, refueling as he went and trusting in God as best he could. And that was enough.
So, I’m claiming Psalm 91 to get me from refuge to refuge in these strange days of Coronavirus. When I feel afraid, I’m running in my heart to the shade of God’s love. Do I believe he loves us? We all have to wrestle with it now. I believe God wants me to reach out to him for shelter from fear. Now is the time. Now is the only time.
I’m opening my Bible (not my news app) this morning to Psalm 91. As I read the ancient words, I feel my skin cool, as though I sit under the shade of a rocky overhang in the desert. The heat from my head lifts in this shade. My temperature lowers and my breathing gets easier in the shadow of this rock. I’m trusting this shelter…I’m counting on it. And He’s enough for my needs right now. “Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91: 1-2