Loving My Neighbor(hood)…

So, here’s the thing, or maybe a whole lot of things… you know how in the Bible it says to love thy neighbor? Yeah, it actually says to love thy neighbor as thyself. Welp, I love myself a whole lot. I probably have Pinterest boards in my soul about how much self-love I have. And, I don’t mean to brag, but they’ve probably been re-pinned, and shared. A lot.

Just kidding.

I get the whole love thy neighbor thing. In theory.

I live in the Perry District, a cornucopia of wonderful people. Rich, poor, middle class, self-employed, unemployed, and deployed, all within walking distance. We have a Buddhist temple, a safe haven for LGBTQ youth, a weekly farmer’s market, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians,  Non-Denominational churches, and even a church of missionaries TO the United States FROM the Philippines.  If that’s not telling, I don’t know what is.

But, still. Perry. It’s where Atheists, Agnostics, and Christians all walk the same cracked sidewalks, drink the same delicious coffee at The Shop, and avoid the same over-sharers at the Thursday Market. I love it.

I did not, however, realize how much I love it, until recently.

Now, we have had this house for over 9 years. I have seen a lot of people come and go. The well-meaning, and kind, Scott, with his harsh and unfriendly, pharmacist fiancée. The amazing gospel singer, who told it how it is (seriously, one of my favorites). The drug dealers that required multiple calls to the police because of butcher knives in the front yard, but still said hello and wished us a Happy Easter. The family where the kids wore clothes two sizes too small, ate every bite offered to them, and still had hearts of gold. The single mom who brought home a different guy almost every weekend for sleepovers, for two years, but never looked happy. And let’s not forget, the woman in her fifties who threw all-weekend keggers,  but never forgot to invite us. Beer is good for breast-feeding, she said, repeatedly. She even named her cat after our daughter, and came over to tell us so. Many, many, times.

When she left, a very nice man who had PTSD, from fighting for our country, moved in with his son. They were amazing. Like, the kind of people you bake for, just because. But eventually, he moved after buying a house with his fiancée, who I am not kidding you, is a sweeter soul than I will ever be. And a classical musician, who put up with my family playing our piano much, much poorer, than she could have.

There are new families, just finding their way. And older families, where just the parents are left at home, who are sifting through their new reality of empty nests, and empty arms; together, but still alone.

There is joy, and acceptance, and nods between neighbors.

We sit on the front porch, and say good morning and good evening to passerby. Friends walk or ride their bikes over to my house for tea, and leagues of deep conversation.

This place, this rickety wooden porch, has become my adult diary. It has born witness to thousands of conversations. It has heard the whisper of secrets, held sun-soaked bodies sharing wine and stories. It has stayed quiet, and sure, during heated conversations, refusing to fall under stomped feet and the slinging of angry arrows. It has groaned, obligingly, under the weight of my large family, as we decorate for Christmas. Too many cold bodies, over and yet under dressed, all clinging to strands of light in the darkness.

It is where I sit in the mornings, coffee and journal in hand. It is where I end the day, tired, but unafraid. This place is the alter where we lay down our burdens, where the weary find rest, and new mercies are waiting. It smells like tomatoes, and sunscreen, and Starbucks. It is surely the messiest corner of Heaven.

It is the blind I sit in, as the world rushes by. It is the welcome and goodbye for all of my children’s coming and goings, the arbor under which my babies are growing.

It is quiet one moment, a rush of loud conversation the next. A dance between wet and dry, comfort and splinters, our alternate living room during summer’s tempestuous run. It is the vantage point from which we view the changing of the seasons. It is the orchestra pit from which we bare witness, as the trees shake and sway, in eternal dance, to the wind’s barely audible symphony. It is where we sit still, and learn to listen.

Perhaps, this is where I will gather the strength to be kind to my most annoying of neighbors.


Maybe this is where I will sit when I learn to forgive.

Or maybe, this is where I will be when I grasp how to turn the other cheek, to stay silent when others rage, butt in, and proclaim themselves the saviors of a neighborhood that didn’t need saving.




Why. (The Big Announcement)

My family and I have big news. Like, life altering, bigger than big, news. Drumroll please…

We have decided to homeschool. (And, no, I’m not pregnant.)

Now, before you get the tomatoes out, before you boo and jeer and wave me off like an annoying housefly, I will explain myself.

First, I am just as surprised as you are. Okay, maybe a little less, but still. This is not what I had pictured. I am the girl who never played house as a child. Instead, I played businesswoman. I took imaginary phone calls that my imaginary secretary put through to my imaginary desk. I yelled orders into invisible phones about profits and lawyers, and selling enough of our latest fashion line.

Where other girls were imagining themselves in an apron, I dreamed of large, firm, shoulder pads, swathed in expensive fabric. I can’t help it, I was born in the eighties. I wanted to swim in the waters of change and commerce, to wade deeply into my own education, and out lap the competition.

I did not want to be a mother, unless maybe I lived in New York and had a fulltime nanny. The husband was optional. Eh.

So, when this all came about, I was more skeptical than optimistic. Just, stay with me.

Many months ago, we started looking into a place for our soon-to-be seventh grader to receive his middle school education. He’s a sensitive soul, not cut from the same cloth as most of his peers, so we knew it would have to be different. He is smart and funny, brave, and kind. He is shy in a way that belies all that he has going for him. He has struggled for the last several years to stay on task, not fidget, and complete assignments.

He has trouble comprehending simple math problems, but can pull out abstract solutions from some unseen hat. He takes more time to write a paragraph than most children, but learns quickly in a one-on-one setting. He knows the backstory to every Star Wars character ever created, and has empathy for their alien struggles, as if they were his own. He is emotionally aware, and has a truly good heart. He has morals and ideals, and is brave enough to share his struggles. He compiles pages of notes, data, and summaries on non-school subjects that interest him. But if he’s not interested, well, you better get ready to dig your heels in.

Here’s the thing, that’s just him. And I love him, just as he is.

While I want to refine him, I don’t want to change him. I want him to be his wonderfully artsy, creative self. I want him to explore the world and fulfill his destiny.

So after a bazillion, which could be a slight exaggeration, dead ends, we landed on the path that had been sitting in front of us all along.

Then, after that was settled, someone said, “You know, Jessica, I think you should just homeschool all your babies. And here’s why….” And everything she said made sense.

My husband and I spent night after night talking about it, but he was instantly all in. Which is crazy, because he has always been against home education. I, took longer to be convinced. This was after all, going to land mostly on my unpadded shoulders.

We prayed and talked to people on both sides of the fence. I know several trusted teachers and homeschoolers, all of whom were open with me, and invested their time and experiences to answer my questions. I took tests online to find out my children’s personality/learning styles, and my personality/teaching styles, to see if we were a match. It felt a bit like trying to donate a kidney. I looked into Online Schooling, Homeschooling, Un-Schooling, Unit Studies, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, Part-Time Schooling, Private Schools, and more.

It’s enough to make you have to stop and catch your breath. So I did.

I said a child-like prayer with my balled up fists, that if this is what I am supposed to do, then I want this and this and this. And you know what? All of those things happened, exactly as I asked. Cue the Twilight Zone theme song…

My daughters had been asking to be homeschooled for months. One had even announced to her class that she was, in fact, going to be homeschooled, before we had ever even discussed it as a possibility. Kids. But also, kids.

My kids are amazing. And so are yours. That doesn’t mean that you have to homeschool to love them. It’s like everything in parenthood, we all just do our best.

I am a big believer in public education. And private education. And, when done right, in homeschool. It’s like breastfeeding or formula, I have my own say in what goes into my kids, you do whatever you think is right for yours. No judgements. Kids are all different, so different educations just makes sense.

Eventually, we landed on a pretty awesome combination of Unit Studies and Un-Schooling. We found an awesome co-op that offers everything from sign language classes to aerospace education, as well as art and socialization. And, I’ve got to say, I am pretty excited about all of it. Like, I haven’t had this much peace or excitement about something in a long time.

We’ve been doing trial runs this summer, with little breaks in between. Just 2 hours, five days a week. And here’s what I didn’t expect: it’s changing everything. Already, my kids are being kinder, and more respectful. They are looking out for each other, and being accountable. I had a great lot already, but you guys, things have just gotten better. I literally cannot wait to spend time with them. I can see the wheels turning in their beautiful minds, watch as they connect dots and concepts. I get to be the one to see their eyes alight with knowledge for the first time.

Now I get it! This is why people teach, isn’t it?! This is why people grow up to be teachers. It’s magic. It’s like breathing rarified air, and then getting to share it with the future.

This has been the best summer we have ever had as a family. I’m not just teaching, we are learning together. We are a family of explorers, on an adventure. I can’t believe I missed out on so many years. This is wonderful. And also, a lot of work. Kudos, seriously, to all of the teachers.

The other day I got to be the one to explain a concept about direction to my son. Then we hopped in the car and showed him firsthand, and he got it. Like, really got it. I felt unstoppable. Not just me, but US as a whole. Like there isn’t anything that we can’t learn or do or become.

And yes, we are over $900 in, already, for curriculum and variables. But my kids are excited to learn, and I can’t think of a better use for our money.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no.

No, I will not suddenly start wearing long denim skirts, or button up dress shirts, or comfort shoes.

I will not change the way I vote, or learn to churn butter. Okay, I might learn to do that because, well, home-made butter(!). But I won’t be raising twits, or socially awkward nerds. I will be expanding hearts and minds, and laying down a hypothetical shoulder padded life, for what really matters. And I know it’s going to be worth it. Not just for us, but for all of you. Because I will teach them the curriculum, but also to look for the truth. I will teach them to love, to help the poor. Will do my best to instill character, and moral backbone, to fight for immigrants and the marginalized, to see beyond circumstance and value all lives. I’m not just teaching them one plus one, I get to intensively show them what it means to have compassion.

Childhood is short, and I don’t want to waste a minute of it. These, right here, are probably the best years of my life. These are the days people wistfully look back at and miss. I don’t want to miss it while I am still in it.  And this is my chance.

So, you guys, I’m taking it.



The Seeds We Sow…

The tips of my fingers smell like tomatoes. Or, more accurately, like tomato plants. Not the actual fruits, but the leaves and vines surrounding them. It is one of my favorite smells. If you add the smell of fresh mint, and sun warmed raspberries, you would have the smell track to one of my happiest childhood places.

My great grandmother, Ellie, knew how to grow everything.

She lived in a buttercream little house, in farm country, across from a huge field where wildflowers and wheat abounded. She had gained permission from the farmer who owned that field, and so we got to run and play in it as an extension of her property at our weekly visits. I can personally assure you that it is very hard to grind wheat into flour, using only your teeth. But, I can also tell you from experience, that there is a particular kind of magic about how the wind sweeps gently through a wheat field, especially when you are lying on your back amidst the rows, looking up, with nothing between you and cornflower skies.

Her own yard seemed just as infinite. It was a place where the miraculous kissed the mundane, and created something sacred through their union.

Wild strawberries hung overhead, herbs and vegetables grew lush and green in defiance of a too hot sun, and the air seemed to hold the constant promise of hope.

This was a place where things grew. Where nature seemed to bow to the sweet artist inhabiting this plot, where sunsets curtseyed and held their orange-pink skirts grandly to both sides, until the sky itself was alight in the tulle ruffles of the day.

This was a place where loud, too quickly growing children were accepted, and encouraged to play.

I remember a circular bit of earth, covered only in grass, and a blue plastic pool. The kind with a molded slide inside, shaped just so in a factory, for small children to spend hazy summer days . This too, became a place where things sprouted. Where life rose, out of the ashes. A dirt streaked 1980’s watering hole, filled and overflowing with enchanted waters.

In these waters, I was formed, again. One day a mermaid, with a tale long and shimmering green. The next a lifeguard, swimming from ocean to ocean, rescuing open water victims that bore an uncanny resemblance to my younger brother. Other days it was a trough, a place we led invisible livestock to hydrate against the harsh prairie life, ala Laura Ingalls, pre Wilder.

When the sun turned white, and came low to whisper her flame soaked secrets to the ears of the earth, my Grammy and Mom swept us inside. There in the shaded quiet of the house, we feasted on the days harvest, and tuna sandwiches unlike the ones my mother made.

We listened to my great grandmother’s stories of growing up spending summers on a houseboat, of coming-out balls, and life as a debutante. It was there, in the living room, where plates held fresh bread with homemade butter, and minds danced with dreams of what might lay before us. It was on the stoop of her past, that my sister and I built the foundation for our futures.

Even the front porch was filled to the brim with life. Dachshunds tittered back and forth, always eager to be petted and loved. Huge aloe plants in painted ceramic containers, lined the porch, in silent anticipation. Grouped together beautifully, they sat, ready and waiting to be broken open so that they could fulfill their destiny. A sunburn, a scrape, even a little hand turning the pages of a book too quickly and wincing at the sudden sting of a paper cut, and crack! Clear gel would spill obediently from it’s borders, and soothe the hurting.

Everything at her house seemed to live at least two lives. The one she bought it as, and the one she created for it to keep living. Which also explains why nothing in her refrigerator was what was actually labeled on its container. Plastic never died, it was just reassigned. This was the hallmark of a woman who had lived through the great depression, and more than one war. Nothing was wasted. And beauty could be found everywhere you looked.

I didn’t know her when she was younger, so only through stories have I met the version of her that had more than one bad marriage. The young mother of two, so sad and abused that she used to turn the gaslight on and put her head into the open oven and breathe. I never saw her cower. Never watched as a man told her what she would and would not do, never saw male hands reach towards her not to embrace, but to bruise her delicate skin.

Even now, I have a hard time reconciling that part of her life, to the parts she spent sharing with me.

I used to carry her black leather purse around grocery stores. I wore the strap as a badge of honor. While the knowledge that it was unfashionable, tickled at my temples, I was too proud of her to be ashamed. This purse belonged to my great grandmother, and she trusted me to carry it. Because I knew who she was, I thought everyone at the store would also know, and they would hold reverence to the fact that I was her armor bearer.

She was a warrior, this woman. She was small in stature, but large in life. So self possessed that it was captivating. So skilled with a paint brush, that it made you catch your breath.

She loved horses, and teddy bears, dolls, and tiny details. She seemed to belong in one of the many books that she read. As if her own skin was just the cover to all the stories bound within.

She loved delicate things, and had hands that looked just as my own mother’s do. She had sad eyes, and a generous heart.

She was a woman who knew how to love.

Even as I sit here, on my own front porch, surrounded by repurposed containers, holding peppers and zucchini, roses, and five kinds of tomatoes, I am amazed. My children play and splash, float and sink, skim and swim, in the waters of their own pool. My Grammy’s namesake, my daughter Ellie, looks over at me with those same eyes. She is smiling in a way that reaches past her eyes, so deep is her joy that it must affect her hairline. “We are explorers!”, she yells, and splashes again.

The water sprays her sister, and into the garden bed. The smell of tomatoes, and growing things hangs on the wind. “Yes, we are.” I reply, just as she jumps back in.





Before You

Before you, I was selfish. Before you I was vain. I had a sincere lack of patience. I had only myself to look out for, just me to feed and clothe and bathe.

Before you, I was different. I knew little of real fear. I did not think to question the motives of every man who speaks to little girls. Did not entertain the what-ifs of others, constantly, while driving down the road.

Before you, colors held one tone only. I did not know that blue can beam a thousand different shades. Didn’t understand that no two sets of brown eyes look the same. I grossly under estimated how many ways there are to incorporate pink into a single outfit.

I didn’t waste my gas driving to find the end of rainbows. Or  to chase the last bit of sunlight at the end of a summer day. I had only twice danced in the rain. And if I’m honest, I had forgotten how to pray.

I didn’t know that hearts can grow past the point of breaking, that arms and thighs and stomachs are not the only things to bear the scars of too quickly changing.

I did not stoop low, nor did I reach very far above. My thoughts were of myself first, and last, sandwiching the mystery meat of what other people were thinking, about me, in between.

I didn’t realize how many questions would always go unanswered. Or how good and bad that can be.

Before you, each smile was a practice run.

Before you, my grandmother’s China was intact. Also, I had nice things.

My shoes and purse were where I had left them the previous evening. And never, not once, did I try to put on boots, only to press my toes into a wad of stringy gum, two legos, and a small stuffed pig. I did not know that exactly five Cheese-Its fit in the DVD player, but that six Cheese-Its is just asking for it to break.

Before you, I did not sing lullabies at night. Did not read books that are illustrated and rhyme. I did not cuddle even though I was exhausted, did not guide little hands to the bathroom in the middle of the night, through darkness.

Before you, I dreamt of hailing taxis in New York’s autumn rain. I imagined that I would be an actress, on Broadway’s grimy, yet exclusive and glittering stage. I craved a warm, supportive audience, to validate me in all my ways. I wanted busy and bustle and danger lurking in shadowed alley ways.

I wanted to be the sun, the moon, and stars to someone. Their reason for waking, and dreaming, and sleeping. I wanted to be The One, so badly I could taste it. Or maybe not taste it, but write about it, semi-poetically, at my favorite downtown café.

I used to imagine changing the face of the world, in ways big, and grand, and noteworthy. I did not know how quietly true heroics tip toe in, how they shed you of the flashy cape and clothe you instead in humility. Did not believe that love is the only real super power, or in its ability to change everything. I did not know for certain that kindness is the kryptonite of hate.

Before you, I did not know how to be a servant. Was not limber enough to reach past my insecurities and find the bits of courage hiding inside of me. I did not realize how protective I can and would need to be. I did not understand that my entire world could fit on my lap and in my arms. I never used to cry as summer ended and the first day of school started. Or, hypothetically, in a parking lot outside of summer camp drop off.

I owned far too many pairs of shoes. And slept through the night, regularly. Like, every night that I wanted to. I showered whenever I wanted, and did my hair and makeup daily. I never spent more than $50 for a weeks worth of groceries. I know, that sounds crazy.

Before you, I knew everything.

I did what I wanted, when I wanted, knew where to go, and who to blame. Life was mine for the taking.

I was unencumbered.

I was free. 

But then you came along, and saved me.


The Aftermath

You probably don’t know this, because, well, only a few people do. But, a few weeks ago I was going to file a legal separation from my husband. Not a divorce, not an I-give-up-forever, but an I deserve better, our children deserve better, even you deserve to be better.

Not that my children have any idea, because they don’t. Those years of acting classes have really paid off, in the fact that my children, blissfully unaware miracles that they are, have no idea what has been going on. While at times the tension has been palpable, they are buoyed by the grace of living in a happy bubble of backyard swings, freshly baked goods, and lots of cuddles. In their world, homework is the worst thing that happens to people. Mothers worry, but without reason, because nothing truly bad ever occurs.

That world, is not where I live. My address seems to be more at the crossroads of Hope and Redemption. But hope can hurt sometimes, can’t it? At times, hope feels like a hollow arrow, sharp and cutting. It’s lightness feels deceiving, as if the helium of everything I long for is slowly seeping out of its mylar wrapping, and poisoning the air. And while Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, I might remind you that feathered creatures need regular cleaning up after.

Redemption is wonderful, but also means that you have something you need redeemed from.

So there we were, at an impass. Our marriage resembled a traffic jam behind a 12 car pileup, at rush hour, on a busy highway. Probably with smoke, and more than one case of whiplash. My dreams and expectations had collided with the speeding metal of his choices, and left both of us crumpled and needing rescued.

And then. (Still two of my favorite words.) And then, against all odds, the miraculous happened. Love stepped in, its light clawing at the cracks in our self-involvement, pushing at the stone walls of hardened hearts, and changed everything.

While I have not daily seen limbs regrow and the lame walk, I do believe in miracles. Both the mundane and the extraordinary. But this one, came after I had given up. This one, waited until so long after the sun had gone to sleep, that I believed it would stay dark forever.

And yet, there it was. In all of its light bearing, heartbreaking, splendor.

So now, I find myself in a place I wasn’t expecting. Still with my husband, and without the luxury of giving up, or even of dealing with the big things later. Only now, I’m struggling.

When things came to light a few weeks ago, they brought a kind of darkness with them. Now, sure, it was all darkness that was coming out, and I understand that the monster has to walk out of the closet and through your room in order to get to the backdoor and leave your house. But when things have been hidden from you for years and then are suddenly revealed, you might feel that perhaps you were happier when the closet door was closed and you were unaware of why your guts were being twisted in suspicion that, perhaps, there was something lurking beyond the door.

Now, after everything has been illuminated, I feel a bit discombobulated.

You know those pictures of war torn villages that seem to fill up our newsfeed? The ones sandwiched between cute kitten videos and the latest on the Kardashians… Well, that is what I feel like. I feel as if I am walking around in rubble. No longer in the dark, but under a warm sun, yet, still, surrounded by rubble. I feel raw, and angry. I feel forgiveness having a tetherball match with self-righteousness, my heart the ball being batted back and forth, between the two  mighty fists.

I wake up and determine that I will be nice. I go over it in my head, and imagine my words being laced with kindness. I picture myself scattering mercy, like flower petals and glitter, over my husband as he sits in the enchanted forest of our dining room, surrounded by gnomes and woodland creatures. I will make him coffee, French press, just the way he likes it. Then, I will make him a lunch that Martha Stewart would want to take credit for. I will do this, while blessing him with the melodic sounds of my harmonious voice, my vocal chords coated in a sweetness that Disney princesses have yet to achieve. Heck, I might even waltz with the broom as I sweep the kitchen, and wear a dress to do my housework.

And then I go downstairs.

I walk past the Keurig machine, and start grabbing baggies. I scan the pantry, feeling indignation and self pity. I imagine that I am Cinderella, and I remind myself to be kind to Lucifer/Wicked Stepmother/Ugly Stepsisters today. And then he walks in behind me. He makes his coffee, and actually hums, in the way only someone can hum when they feel no guilt. He is free, and I am chained.

My tongue spits words laced with hurt and fury. The law of kindness rolls to the side, unable to be digested, or even uttered. I feel alone. And hurt. And so angry. I do not feel responsible for his choices, but I do feel the weight of their destruction. I feel the grey concrete, strewn around me, rocks made of what was supposed to stand. I see the pops of color amidst the chaotic seen, the trinkets of what I wanted, amongst the broken beams. I am grieving.

While I know that we can build anew, I also know that I didn’t want to have to.

Even after experiencing the miraculous, even after Grace ran after us, overcame us, I find myself reeling. Maybe even lame men who are given the chance to walk again, stumble, and stub their toe. Maybe they ache in ways they hadn’t, sitting idle on the filthy street. Maybe I have to grieve to become whole.

Maybe I don’t have to know. I just have to keep going.


My husband had a friend that always challenged him with one word: Proof. It was a paragraph, neatly condensed into five letters. Proof meant everything from I’ll hold your beer, to I don’t believe you at all, and you’re gonna have to show me.

Proof. We say it now, though his friend passed away several years ago. Or, maybe we say it because his friend passed away, and parroting him, keeps him here longer. Either way, it has become an indelible part of our conversation, another sort of familial shorthand, not entirely decipherable to the casual eavesdropper.

Sometimes, we say it after days of striving. When words have hard rigid edges to them, and our bodies have separated long enough for an unkind chill to form between them. Sometimes, the one most humble and brave enough to try to broach across the chasm by saying I love you, is met with the mumbled dissent of, “Proof.”

Other times, it is a flirty come-on. A one-word pickup line in response to a compliment. It is a daring, giddy antithesis of rejection. It is an invite and RSVP all rolled into one.

We use it to challenge each other to rise above their fears, and accomplish what we are capable of. We raise it in conversation, like the opposition to white flags of surrender. This word, it binds us together. It transforms one of us, suddenly, into Rocky, the other into Adrian. We take turns, alternately being the one in the ring, and the one who inspires the other to keep fighting.

Lately, things in our marriage have settled a bit, not unlike an old house. Yes, there has still been odd creaking, and the random startles of things you didn’t know where coming. The pops of old radiators, letting off hidden steam, then silence. But also, a kind of quiet peace, as we huddle together, our foundation sinking deeper into the bit of earth we are borrowing. Our walls, like hard sponges, soaking up the sounds of laughter, until joy hangs like an invisible pennant from the beams.

Proof. We don’t say it as much now, in this season, and I couldn’t think of why until this morning. Then I realized, it’s because we show it. Our words have been given wings, or maybe, feet. Yes, feet are more our style. They are the harder, slower, more determined way, not given to flapping and an easy out. They are a constant process, requiring rest and tenacity. They stumble, and get hurt, the littlest parts of them prone to breaking. But they heal, and they bring you where you needed to be going, even when that isn’t the direction you set out in.

It is not a secret that my love language has been receiving gifts, probably for my whole life. From the time I was a small child, I craved them. A stick of gum meant more to me than a held door. An actual present, no matter its cost, could make my heart swell to tsunami levels. If people give you gifts, they must absolutely love you, and if they don’t, well, then they must not. That’s about how black and white I felt about things. And, I’m ashamed to say, I acted accordingly.

The thing is, that love, just like the people who feel it, looks differently on everyone.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s because I am a slow learner and have a patient teacher, but I think I can finally see that now.

This year, things have gone in a dramatically different direction than past years. This year, (partly because of the great basement cleanout), I asked for acts of service for my birthday. From everyone. I have enough stuff. What I need is to know that I have people who will come alongside me and work. Or at least sit beside me while I work.

My husband thought that this was a great idea. He probably never saw it coming from his gift-needy, commercializing, consumer of a wife. The girl with impossibly high standards, who watched too many movies growing up and still believes that John Hughes should direct her birthday, complete with a music montage, every year. But there it was, and he agreed wholeheartedly. “Make a list,” he said, “one item for every year. Things I can do to show I love you.”

That’s quite an undertaking, as I am now more of a winter hen than a spring chicken. Thirty six things, people, thirty six. And truthfully, I only made it to 28 things, because I ran out of real ideas and felt intoxicated by the possibility of the things I had already written. My list contains everything from ‘help me rehang and space my gallery wall’ to ‘take over bedtime duties one night so I can Netflix’. Sounds amazing, right? Having someone help make your life easier or prettier, instead of throwing money into the winds of commerce and hoping you like what’s hidden in the tissue paper. Yeah, I think so, too.

And yet, something strange has happened. Everyday this week, I have been showered with gifts. People just stopping by with handmade jewelry and throw pillows, the Apple product I have wanted for the last six months, a surprise envelope of cash, and yesterday, a vintage sterling silver locket that my husband had bought secretly and had re-chained at a jewelry store. How I love jewelry with a story of its own. I have been dreaming of a heart shaped locket of my own (without the hair inside, ew) since I was a little girl, but had never told my husband.

When he gave it to me, I asked if I was dying and everyone knew it but me, because this is just too much. It feels surreal and lovely in a way that Sara Crew must have felt upon waking in a warm, furnished attic towards the end of A Little Princess. Even if it’s all a dream, it’s been wonderful.

How many years I have wasted, striving and dropping hints like heavy metal bombs, searching for evidence that I am loved. And finally, when I sit back and choose to just let life happen, filled with the knowledge that I am okay, that my life is okay, it shows up.

Around my neck something beautiful hangs, but the truth is that my husband gave me his real heart long ago. I just didn’t see it. I was too busy looking past it, hoping to dig out validation from a pile of presents. But it wasn’t there. It was standing beside me, holding my hand while our children were born. It was disguised in a plumber’s uniform, going to work every morning to support our family. It was never available at Nordstrom or any online retailers. It was here, in the miraculous mundane of every minute together.

On this birthday, I was given the best present that I could ever ask for: Proof.





Misspelled Identity

My sister and I have embarked on a monumental task. We have a goal, an endgame. We are laser beam focused, spurred on by small successes and a vision of glory.

No, we are not planning a summer hike up the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro or backpacking across the continental United States. We are cleaning/de-cluttering/and deeply organizing my basement. If you had seen it before we started, you would understand why this feels so herculean. And also, why you have not been invited to see it.

My basement is where memories and half-filled cardboard boxes go to die. It is the keeper of things. The space for taxable good intentions and not-yet-started Pinterest projects. Bicycles, baby clothes, and broken toys create a macabre consignment section. Birthday banners and rolls of 90% off Christmas wrap commemorate with each other about their unused potential. Awards (that I forgot I won) from college lay on their sides, the bin mate of old Jonathan Brandis teen beat posters and New Kids On the Block buttons as big as my daughter’s face. Not the 3 year old, the 8 year old.

My basement is unfinished, mostly not insolated, and probably boasts a proud lineage of descendants from the first spider families to move in when our home was built over a hundred years ago. I think if I looked close enough, I would see a tiny gallery of golden frames on one of the beams, showcasing this patriarchal history.

And while I love all the woodwork, leaded glass windows, and pocket doors that come with living in an old house, the basement is not my favorite. It’s probably more accurate to call it a cellar, but as there is no wine stored down there, that title seems terrifying. Especially since the original furnace still works, which makes me both grateful, and sorry that I spent so much of my childhood watching scary movies.

So, there we were. Standing on the concrete floor, trying to live out the homemaker’s version of Pretty in Pink, and make something beautiful from something far less than appealing. “Oh, look what I found, Jess,” my sister called from across the dungeon. She handed me an unassuming silver bin, it’s lid snapped shut on only one side, and laying askew. I opened it, not thinking anything of it. Isn’t that usually the way great things come to us, wrapped in the ordinary and waiting for us to look further?

Inside this bin was a cobalt box that I hadn’t seen in years, probably a decade or more. My brain prickled with the beginning of recognition. Opening the box, I found dozens and dozens of cards and letters from my grandfather, 18 years worth. How had I forgotten that he always wrote to me? I couldn’t fathom.

I stood there, the foam soles of my Nikes pushing back against the hardness of the floor, and melted. I read letter after letter, card after card. I will confess to you that when I was done, not only was I crying, but I was different.

I had forgotten that I was so loved.

So often when I think about my childhood lately I think about all the lack. But I was loved, you guys. I was loved enough. And somehow I forgot that.

My grandpa was the kind of person you could make a movie about, and still not understand after an hour and a half, just how great a man he was. I knew it as a child, and I knew it when he passed three weeks before my high school graduation. But knowing it as an adult feels different. Reading those letters, felt like reading a crucial chapter of my life that I had accidentally left out.

Everything these days seems to be about identity. We are broken up into columns and rows of who’s and what’s and ins and outs. We are divided, united, and talked about. We are a people condensed into two hundred words or less, a profile page that shows us at our best.

My name is Jessica Rae. I am a wife, mother, friend. I work with foster kids. I like to write, and shop (thus the horror-filled basement). I enjoy travel and the arts, time with my family and friends. I like belly laughs and good wine, and movies with happy endings. I love poetry and music, and orange colored days, when the sky fades from blue to sherbet to the palest ballet of pink. I love people, people are amazing. I love kindness, and mercy, but also justice. I have freckles on my right upper arm that exactly replicate Ursa Major. I love the truth, and those who are brave.

I, I, I. It’s a lot, right? A lot of I’s? But we know this, right? We know exactly who we are, what we are, what we want to be, and feel the sting of what we aren’t, don’t we? And yet, somehow when I was making my lists, I forgot to include that part of who I am. I am loved. I belonged. I was welcomed, and cherished.

A man with dancing blue eyes loved me with fatherly affection. He thought I was worth writing those letters. Even though he worked six days a week, from open to close, standing on tired feet, hands wracked by arthritic pain, he still wrote. He still visited. He showered us with gifts in his home. He taught me how to fish, and to clean and cook what we caught. He took us camping, and out for walks. He gave me his time and attention, and his misspelled words. And, if I’m honest, that seems like more of a gift. The letters aren’t perfect. They have probably at least 3 misspelled words each, some more.

And while my sister and I will keep plunging forward, for that day, I had found what I was looking for. The box is sitting on my dresser now, where it belongs. I see it when I wake up, and when I go to bed. Those feelings of lack can stay with the spiders, they don’t fit in my house anymore. Truthfully, they never did.

I’ve replaced them with words that fit. Words that are actually a part of who I am.

I am Jessica Rae, and I am “verry verry loved.”