The Tension of Life

There is a tension of dark and light, dust and divine breath.

There is a tension of good and bad, heartache and humor, deep sorrow and overwhelming joy.

There is a tension where I feel I don’t belong because there are no answers or quick fixes, no boxes or formulas, no way of knowing if I’ll ever make it out.

There is a tension everyone either wants to resolve, avoid or deny exists and yet it is in that very tension where life in all of its fullness is found.

It is okay to be both sad and happy, lost and found, hurt and hopeful.

We try to be one or the other and fix both ourselves and others if bent too close to the sadness. We function in the safety of our emotional comfort zone and expect others to function in theirs, meanwhile dismissing their pain and only prolonging the process of their feeling too stuck, too sad, or too lost to continue on this journey.

Life is messy, being a human is hard. I say that hand in hand with the belief that life is good, and being a human to be a gift. But some days, I totally forget. I forget the goodness, I forget the gift, and I struggle.

I struggle in the unknown of pain and sorrow that isn’t even circumstantial, just present, and I don’t know why, which makes it seem even worse. When there’s nothing to pinpoint your pain to, it feels hopeless.

It’s when we think the hopelessness is our ultimate reality, our final truth, the end of our story that we consider giving up. What’s the point anyway? If no person, place or thing can fix this and I will always feel this way somewhere deep down inside no matter how many accolades, awards and acknowledgments I receive, what’s the point? There will always be a void and I can’t avoid it.

The truth is, sometimes I still don’t know. Even as someone who believes in a Higher Power and the gift of life and purpose in the pain and God in the details, some days I still just don’t get it. “Only God can fill the void,” they say. “I know,” I say, and I do know, but I still just don’t get this God I believe in and this Life that He “gifted” us with. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a gift at all.

I don’t need pad answers, I don’t need declarations of holding on and Jesus loving me. I know the answers in my head no matter how much they disconnect with my heart. I need to live in the tension of life being hard and good, I need to affirm to myself and others who feel the same way that we are not crazy, or too lacking in faith, or lost causes. We’re human and there’s not only grace for our humanity but also love for it… love for our human selves no matter what state we find ourselves functioning in.

I have to admit, sometimes saying “hold on” isn’t enough, but I can at least say, “you are not as alone as you think you are… not in how you feel or in what you think.” Sometimes it just takes one person to voice their struggle for someone else to say, “Oh my God, me too,” and in that small spec of commonality is a glimmer of hope in the connection of our humanity.

It’s often in our isolated hopelessness that we go to extreme measures to rid ourselves of it by numbing out or checking out, not knowing the pain and sorrow we are leaving in our wake, hurting those we’ve left behind and out of the process, leaving them to figure out the pain on their own while we took the easier road of self destruction. Self destruction never seems easier in the moment, but it is always easier than dealing with the pain that life holds, having to be awake for it, alert for it, and gritty enough to actually work through it.

Today I do no feel gritty. I do not feel like making the choice to live in way that life matters. I feel like disappearing into the darkness that is my room and numbing out to Netflix, no bad thing in and of itself, but if I continue to make small choices to numb out every time something seems hard, I will have practiced living the kind of life that gives up when things get too hard.

And so, with that said, I acknowledge the tough day, I say hi and I sit with it for a bit. I live in the tension of feeling dark inside while the sun shines outside of my window. I sit just long enough to own my feelings, to sort though my thoughts, to figure out what is me and what is a lie I’m believing. Some of it I write out, as I’m doing here. And then, when I feel a little more free to be me, not me the entertainer who everyone expects to make them laugh, but me on an off day when I myself don’t feel like smiling, I set about to go outside and take in life in other places… grass, flowers, trees… there is evidence of life everywhere.

What better example of living in the tension than the flowers and trees that have to break though the darkness of the soil to get to the light and grow till tall.

With that said, it’s time for me to go outside.

To those who are struggling, you are not alone, I grieve with you. And to those who are doing well, that’s great too, I celebrate with you. Both are okay.

May you live in the tension of the fullness of life today, feeling neither like you have to fix everything, nor like you have to give up.

Life is hard and good, and you are more okay than you think you are.

 

Super Bowl Recovery

The Super Bowl plays a significant part in my life, but perhaps not for the reasons one would think. This year’s Super Bowl played an even greater role due to it being on February 5th, which marks 10 years of me being in recovery and embracing the fullness of all life has to offer.

May we all look for hope in the little things, seek help when we need it, work hard, and know when it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the game that is life.

 

 

happy new year!

While this video is wishing you a Merry Christmas (why not wish merriment year round!?), it wraps up a bit of my year last year and what I’m learning about life and how to love well. I hope this year breathes refreshment and revitalization back into our weary souls.

If you’re looking for a fresh start and don’t know where to start, start with gutting, deep cleaning and rearranging your room. I’m finding that cleaning out the junk and getting a fresh perspective is already helping me approach what lays ahead.

May you have a hopeful new year, with bursts of happiness and the courage to press into the pain when necessary.

Hurricane Ditka

I made a mug cake for breakfast this morning. A mug cake is when you put the ingredients of a cake into a mug and zap it in the microwave until it “bakes” and it gives you the tiniest, laziest cake ever made. It’s delicious, as well as genius. It’s almost too easy, like dangerously easy, like I could make mug cake for breakfast everyday for the rest of my life and be totally content that I never got married or had kids. The combination of peanut butter and chocolate can make up for any great loss in life… except for weight loss.

Speaking of, I used to be a vegan. Technically I was anorexic, but literally I could have also been considered a vegan, it sounds more healthy than anorexic. When I did eat I avoided all meat, dairy, gluten, soy, wheat, and anything else made by man or God. I ate about three nuts a day, sometimes wrapped in lettuce. On particularly crazy days I would squirt a little mustard in the wrap. Best vegan wraps ever. I could have marketed them but I was too tired and cold to do anything. As a vegan I napped a lot, so I might have appeared aloof, and in some ways I was because I’m not sure my brain was getting enough fuel, but I was also very passionate about certain topics and I knew when to adequately express emotions over things like strawberries. Particularly when I planned to add a little variety to my life and have two strawberries for a meal.

I remember one time excitedly going into the fridge for my double portion of strawberries, only to discover that my mother (who had purchased the strawberries) had the audacity to eat the last of them.

“WHO ATE THE MOTHER-FREAKING STRAWBERRIES!?” I yelled (I wanted it to be known I meant business, but for as passionate as I could get about strawberries I could never bring myself to drop the actual F-bomb in my mother’s house). My mother was sitting calmly at the table doing some sort of paperwork and without even looking up she responded, “your freaking mother.” I slammed the refrigerator door and walked at a mildly fast pace up to my bedroom to cry. I would have ran but I was too tired.

I went to rehab in Chicago in February of 2007 and I’ll never forget it because the Chicago Bears were in the Super Bowl that year. First time since 1986. The pilot came over the intercom once we boarded the plane and said something to the effect of “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of whatever-whatever airlines we’d like to thank you for flying with us this evening to the home of this year’s Super Bowl contenders, DA BEARS!” And everyone on the plane, as if it was some sort of flash mob or IMPROV Everywhere skit, in unison all fist pumped the air and yelled “DA BEARS!”

A flight attendant came over the intercom and encouraged it by repeating over and over again, “DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS!” And everyone responded in unison, “DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS, DA BEARS!” I had flashbacks of early nineties SNL skits and Michael Jordan wearing a hula skirt while Chris Farley was having a sausage-induced heart-attack. It was then I realized I was going somewhere special, I was going to the land of HURRICANE DITKA.

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The SNL fangirl in me was excited beyond belief. But the exhausted vegan in me, still unable to fully admit I had an eating disorder, was a little terrified to be going to a place known for their hot dogs, deep-dish pizzas and polish sausages. “Perhaps I can introduce them to my vegan wraps,” I thought to myself. But then I thought about Mike Ditka and the fact that my vegan wraps were roughly the size of his pinky finger (if even), and I didn’t foresee that going over so well as part of a meal plan in Chicago. My meal portions consisted of their condiments used for an appetizer and oddly enough the thought made me laugh.

I will never forget that plane ride. People were singing and cheering and chanting. It felt like we were on the Polar Express on the way to see Santa Claus as played by Mike Ditka. No one started out knowing anybody but bonding over the same excitement made everyone family. I mostly just watched, terrified and amazed. Terrified of what food laid ahead of me, amazed by how passionate everyone seemed about something greater than strawberries.

Truth be told, I boarded that plane not wanting to live much longer, I was tired of living each day terrified of what it held, terrified of what I did or didn’t eat, terrified of my own self and my own actions. I was exhausted, and in my exhaustion, I felt stuck. I didn’t know how to get myself out of the patterns I had set. I was functioning in survival mode and survival didn’t seem like much of a reason to keep going. Hearing old SNL references to DA BEARS triggered memories of a time I had forgotten, a time when I was happy and hopeful and less bogged down by the expectations of the world.

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By the time the plane landed, I was curious enough to want to see this game that had bonded such a large group of strangers all hugging and high-fiving by the end of flight. To have something to look forward to other than an extra strawberry or a nut in my wrap was a feeling I had forgotten I liked. It had been years since I had been excited about something other than food. Something as simple as a football game gave me the tiniest inkling of desire, “I desire to see this game,” which in bigger terms could be translated into “I desire to live one more day,” and so it caught me off guard when I stepped off the plane feeling hopeful about going to the land of Hurricane Ditka to recover from Hurricane ED (In rehab most of us learned to name our eating disorder and most of us named it ED. I know it’s not that original, but we were tired).

The Bears lost and I remember being bummed, but when I realized I actually cared about something other than food, I found the slightest bit of excitement over the fact that I wasn’t numb, but in fact bummed. I entered Rehab the day after the Super Bowl and so began my long and slow process of seeking recovery, of discovering that I wasn’t just a tired vegan with misplaced passions, I was sick and I had been for a fairly long time.

I say this to say sometimes it’s not the fire on the mountain, lighting bolt experiences that wake us up or instantly cure us of our “diseases.” Sometimes it’s not the church service or the community service that gets us to step outside of ourselves to see that people need help and that we ourselves are a part of that people group. Sometimes comparing your pain to the pain of others and telling yourself to “suck it up cause it’s not that bad” isn’t going to be enough to keep you wanting to live until the next day. Pain is pain is pain is pain, and it is very real to the person experiencing it no matter how different each experience is.

Sometimes God works in the quietest, simplest and even funniest of ways, like through SNL skits from the nineties, an airplane ride of happy and hopeful strangers and the Chicago Bears getting a chance to reclaim their title since the 1986 Super Bowl Shuffle, to take us on a journey of healing instead of an instant snap of the fingers cure-all. Sometimes it’s the little things, as little as “I want to see that game,” that lead to the next little thing and the next little thing that all add up over time to become a very big thing called LIFE.

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I am where I am now because I boarded that plane to Chicago in 2007. The Chicago Bears played a surprising and odd role in my recovery, one I did not see coming. They gave me something to look forward to at a time when I was hopeless, and the thought of Mike Ditka eating one of my “vegan wraps” brought laughter to me at a time when nothing was funny. As I recalled the SNL skits of the nineties, I looked back on a time when I used to enjoy life and I began the journey of searching for that girl who got lost somewhere along the way.

I can’t sit here on this side of the story and say I am cured, but I can say I am better than I was, I am fully enjoying life and I still hope to one day share a burger with Mike Ditka (on a gluten-free bun, we gotta meet in the middle) with a vegan wrap as garnish.

I also still hope for a Chicago Bears Super Bowl victory. After all, a girl who wants to live is a girl who can dream.

fear has a seat

Hi Family! Well, it’s been a while, a LONG while, and I apologize.

The last we spoke about my book (or I wrote) it was Christmas time and I was in South Carolina packing up my childhood home and saying goodbye to my last Christmas in that house. Sorry to get all sappy so soon. The process was long and hard, but good and necessary and ultimately I’m glad I was at home to help my mom, be with my grandmother and get to know my brother better.

I’m back in California and this year looks incredibly different from last year. I’ve embarked on a journey of pursuing art (in all forms) and have rediscovered my love for creating not just with words but with color. I’ve been painting like a mad woman and even went mad for a little bit as I tried to figure out the difference between work and play when you do something you love. I didn’t know I had a little diva in me until I got to the point of thinking my friends weren’t as important as my time painting. I never want to forget the importance of people and that no amount of money will ever replace them.

It’s hard because painting is how I am trying to make a living, which I love AND it also requires a lot of work outside of a 9-5 job. BUT painting non-stop isn’t what will define me as a painter, it’s what will define me as a workaholic and no different from the people who are slaving away at their jobs missing out on life and the people in front of them. I love painting, but it’s not my foundation nor what defines my value and I have to admit over a short span of time I managed to forget that. HOW DOES IT HAPPEN SO QUICKLY!?!

That said, I’m still trying to figure out how to make this all work. People on social media would see me as having a blast… and that’s true… I am having so much fun living out who I was created to be and functioning the way I was wired to function as a creative. AND, I’m also scared. I’m scared because for as fun as this all is, there’s no safety nets or guarantees. It’s like surfing… fun when you catch the wave, scary when it’s not guaranteed you will and the big ones take you under. The ocean is beautiful and its power is scary.

I go from selling high end art pieces and feeling safe to three weeks going by without selling anything and uncertain as to whether or not I will be able to pay rent. It’s scary to be down to the wire with no funds in the bank account. But I gotta say, it’s worth it when you get that message at midnight that someone wants to buy a painting they just saw. A sigh of relief never felt so good.

Fear is a necessary part of the process, of any process. To not have fear is to not be human and to miss out on the exhilarating feeling of the fear being silenced as the LORD comes in with the last minute save. In order to be excited over provision, one must have first experienced the fear of being without.

I have welcomed fear as part of the process, part of my humanity, but (as I learned recently from Elizabeth Gilbert) I tell fear it is not allowed to make any decisions. I’ve recently painted a chair for fear to sit in while I am in the room painting. Fear creeps in and tells me I’ll never sell anything, I’m broke, I’ll never be able to do this. I thank fear for its concern, recognizing that maybe its just trying to keep me in check the same way it did when I was in the water that day and the waves were too big for my strength. “Thank you, fear, I’m just painting, no one is going to die, you can go have a seat.” This is my new practice instead of beating myself up or giving into fear. Maybe fear isn’t such a bad thing, we just have to know how to handle it.

All of this to say, that is what I have been up to and much of it has to do with the process of my book. As some of you know I submitted it in its completion back in December. It has failed the content evaluation three times. Each time I sanitize my voice a little more to meet the high standards of the Christian publishing company. With this last attempt I decided I couldn’t sanitize my voice any further just for the sake of being published. I have no interest in being published just to publish, I have an interest in sharing the cold, hard truth about the goodness and toughness of life. Everyone wants to say Jesus saves but nobody wants to say why or what from.

So, I’m having a hard time trying to figure out what to do. I am past the point of getting a refund and I’ve tried to submit to a few traditional publishers but with my last attempt came the cold, hard truth that nobody really knows who I am to care enough about what I have to say. Ouch. Rejection is a part of the process, I get that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

So I’m praying, and any of you who are willing, asking you for prayer too… about what to do next. I want to be willing to learn and flexible to change what I need to, but I also want to value my voice and the truth God has set me free to speak.

For now, I paint and I pray and I tell fear to have a seat.

Love, J

you will go far!

I am overjoyed to be able to paint this evening at The Back Porch Benefit Concert in Malibu, California. The event benefits Made in the Streets and the following newsletter will be posted where I paint to share about the organization and why I’ve decided to get involved as an artist. I love to paint with purpose, and I can’t wait to add some color to the evening with the power of story to the sound of music.

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Hi there! I’m a JJ who loves to paint, and while there is much to be said about that, let’s get to the point of this evening and what I’m doing here (by the way, I’m stoked to be here!) I was invited to come paint live for this event and curious as to what it was all about and who it was benefiting, I did what any good old fashioned person would do… I googled it.

I believe in painting with purpose because I believe I was created to paint, and not just paint but paint with the power of story in mind. And after my google search, so began the story of MADE IN THE STREETS intertwining with the stories I paint and thus bringing me here tonight.

I watched a short film about five students of MADE IN THE STREETS in Nairobi, Kenya. MITS is a school dedicated to not just getting kids off the streets, but offering them a fulfilling life in place of the emptiness and short-lived highs that the world has to offer. MITS is dedicated to nurturing the individual to be their true self, to not be defined by their circumstances, surroundings, or what they’ve been told about who they should be. Being our true self is something all of us need, no matter what part of the world we live in, whether we know it or not.

I love the power of story and how it can so beautifully be visualized in a movie or short film. Different people will always pick up or be drawn to different messages throughout a story. These are the three things that stuck out to me as I watched this short film by David Hutchinson:

1. Amina, a female student, was asked if she could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Her answer was men (boys) who disrespect women, men who rape and beat and abuse… that is what she would change so that it no longer happened.

2. Glue is the number one drug used on the streets of Nairobi for people to get high, check out, numb out and escape from the current state they find themselves in. It’s cheap, it’s available, it’s everywhere. The high takes away the pain for a moment, only making it more and more desirable so the pain doesn’t have to be dealt with once the high wears off.

3. At the end of the film a student named Moses, who aspires to be a chef and change the world around him, was asked “if there was one thing you wanted Americans to know about you, what would it be?”

His response: “I would want them to know… how far I want to go.”And so the title of the short film came about… HOW FAR I WANT TO GO.

Tonight as I paint I will be carrying these three things in my thoughts and prayers as I translate the music into colors. These three things will be the driving force behind the painting.

Why do these three things stick out to me?

1.) Amina. I cried at her response. I cried because it’s the most honest and beautiful response a young girl could give. For me, as a girl on the other side of the world who has also been affected by what Amina desires to change, I stand with her and admire her courage and her boldness to voice her distaste for injustice.

This isn’t to say men are the problem and women are the victims. This is to say there is a people problem… people seeking to satisfy the emptiness they feel, some with sex, some with glue, some with alcohol, some with work… fill in the blank.

There are moments when we all feel it, that emptiness, and there are things that we do to make it go away… for a moment. Given Amina’s experience, she desires to not see other girls go through the same thing, to not see men use girls to deal with their own emptiness… because someone who would violate another human being in such a way has to be just that… empty, or the opposite… full of pain refusing to be dealt with.

2.) I found it heartbreaking that glue is used as an escape, that even something as simple as glue, something meant to be helpful, something meant to keep things together is being used to harm and make people fall apart. This goes to show that it doesn’t have to be an obvious “bad thing” like drugs or excessive alcohol that people use to cope, creating a problem in their lives. People can take any good thing and make it “bad” based on how

they use it and what they use it for. It has been in our human nature to take something good and twist it so that it harms us, and then we blame that thing for being bad instead of owning our abuse of it.

Glue is not a bad thing and so long as glue is being blamed for the people’s problems, we will miss it. Glue is being used by people to deal with their problems and so in that sense it has become harmful to them. There was a problem long before the glue arrived. If we remove the glue without dealing with the heart issue, something else will be found to cope and we will spend a lifetime trying to remove things instead of nurturing broken hearts.

I found it interesting that I would be painting tonight because I use a lot of glue in my artwork. I use glue to secure in secret messages, ones of hope and love and life. I layer them on with glue and I paint over them so that each painting has a deeper meaning. I even take scripture, dip it in glue and attach it to many of my pieces. For me, glue holds the truth of my paintings together, and in that sense, for this evening, even the glue is being redeemed.

And not just the glue, but the people who use it. As I glue truth to my painting I pray for those who use glue as an escape to be set free from it. And while many people on the streets in Nairobi and elsewhere in the world need to stay away from glue, I will step in for them and use it for good, layering truth upon truth, love upon love, hope upon hope and color upon color, sticking it all together to form this painting that I pray brings a little more color into some of the world’s dark spots.

3.) Moses. What a beautiful name for a beautiful boy with a beautiful spirit. Of all of the things he could have said he wanted Americans to know about him, he said “I want them to know HOW FAR I WANT TO GO.” His drive inspired me, and not only did I want him to go far, but I wanted to go far too, I think we all do in some capacity, to live out more fully who we were meant to be. I was inspired by Moses being Moses, and because of that I wanted to be me, and though we may be different, it is vital that Moses be himself and that I be myself.

We are all wired and created so uniquely for a reason, and the more freedom we have to be ourselves, the more we can set others free to be themselves, encouraging them to not check out of life but to embrace it in it’s fullness. I think what the world struggles with is people who don’t know they matter and are valuable.

Each life matters. Each life. But most people either forget or they don’t know and so they either check out or they fend for themselves and before we know it, we’ve all turned against each other.

But the truth is, we are loved, all of us, we all matter and so we don’t have to fight each other to see who matters more or who matters at all. We all matter, each person matters, each story matters. I believe this is true because I believe there is a God who is made of love and so He created us out of love and His intention for us is love and He wants us to give and receive love. Some information got clouded along the way, as with any story told over a long period of time, but the basics are still there, that there is a God, who I often times don’t understand, but who I know loves us and sees us, even when (if not especially when) we are in those dark and hurting places.

I believe that this God wants us to go far, and I believe that those who choose to go far in life will. Moses, you will go far. Amina, you will go far. The other three people featured in the film: Francis, Dennis, Eddie, you will go far. David, who made the film, you will go far. And all of the other students, teachers, interns and volunteers at MADE IN THE STREETS, you will go far.

Those of you performing tonight, cooking tonight, speaking tonight, cleaning tonight, serving tonight, you will go far. Those of you listening and watching tonight, you will go far. So long as you make up your mind that far is where you want to go, you will go far. Moses, this American has heard you and knows this to be true about you… you will go far.

And so, it is with the names of the students from MADE IN THE STREETS, along with words that I believe were spoken over them or to them as I prepared for this evening, I began the canvas. I wrote the names and words on a blank canvas and this is what I will be painting over tonight, leaving the deeper message hidden behind the colors of life’s mess made beautiful. It is a composition of color and truth, hope and redemption, life and value, all held together with pieces of scripture, a little glue and a lot of love.

This message is just as true for all of us here tonight as it is for these students when they voiced their desire for it…

You will go far!

 

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(this is the canvas that will be painted over this evening)

 

See original newsletter here: MITS

See short film at www.madeinthestreets.org 

about jj

writing a book

Hey Friends, family and the like…

I’m finally writing a book… based on this blog.

And here’s how you can help make it happen!

CLICK HERE:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/it-s-called-a-spade/x/6955591

worn out shoes

I haven’t seen Michael in well over a month. I look for him every time I walk down Hawthorne, one of southeast Portland’s busier streets, packed full of vintage boutiques, ethnic restaurants, food carts, grocery stores and too many coffee shops to choose from. Truly, half the battle in going to a coffee shop is choosing which one to go to.

I met Michael outside of New Seasons Market earlier in the year. I was on my way to walk past him as he sat on the ground with his large backpack beside him when he waved his arm out and asked if I wanted to hear a joke. I pulled my headphones off and accidentally yelled, “sorry, what?” as if one of us were deaf. Kyle came and sat down beside him on a skateboard. Kyle is not yet twenty-one, has long curly hair that he hides under a fisherman’s hat and wears glasses that are almost the same size as his eyes. His oversized clothing hides his obvious small frame.

Michael is in his late forties, early fifties perhaps but I don’t want to offend him. Michael’s skin is leathery, but not in an offensive to vegans kind of way, in a way that suggests he has been through a lot, weathered some storms and still made it look good. He has dreadlocks down to his shoulders and I counted four different colors in them: blonde, brown, salt and pepper. His hair art includes a few wooden beads and one plastic orange spider. He wears a fleece pullover and a pair of jeans that have writing all over them. His eyes are bright blue and they are beautiful.

Though I haven’t seen him in a while, it’s his eyes that I think about most often. They were glazed over the first night I met him, but no amount of glazing could hide how blue they were. There he sat on the ground, waving people down, asking them one of two questions: “do you wanna hear a joke?” “do you wanna smoke some pot?” Of the two, I was glad I got the former, but that didn’t stop him from asking me the latter. Don’t worry, mom, all of those elementary after-school programs must have worked, I just said no.

“Do you wanna hear a joke?” Michael asked again as I removed my headphones. “Yea,” I said, “I love jokes!” He smiled and paused, Kyle looked at him, back at me then back at Michael. Michael’s smile made me smile, and so I smiled and I waited. “Shit,” Michael said, “I wasn’t ready, I thought you were gonna say no, hold on, hold on…” Michael scrunched up his face as he nodded his head back, obviously trying to think of a joke but coming up short. “I got one, I got one,” Kyle said. “No, hold on,” Michael said, and back and forth they went before I interjected. “I have a joke,” I said. Michael waved his hands at me as if he were slapping the air, “yea, yea, okay, yea, yea, you tell a joke…”

“What does Snoop Dogg wash his clothes with?” I asked, hoping they knew their nineties hip-hop/R&B, either that or assuming they knew a thing or two about Snoop Dogg since they offered me pot. They were both silent.

“BLEEEEE-ATCH!” I yelled as I waved one arm out.

“OOOOOOHHHHHH!” Michael yelled as he laughed, Kyle agreed with an “OOOOHHH” of his own. “OOOHHHHH, that was good,” Michael kept on, “that was real good, BLEEEE-ATCH!” and he stuck his fist out for a fist bump. I bumped his fist with mine and I laughed with them, not really wanting to leave but not really knowing how to stay.

“Do you want a cigarette?” Michael asked, and I debated for about three seconds before saying, “actually, you know what? Yea. Yea I do.” I don’t smoke. I mean, I used to, quite heavily in college, but I quit when I found out the boy I liked thought smoking wasn’t cute. Literally, he saw me smoking one night and said, “ah man, and I thought you were cute.” I quit the next day. Things never worked out with that boy, but I don’t regret it, I quit smoking… well worth it. So I don’t smoke now, but on occasion, every so often, the scent of a cigarette smells less like death and more like the scent of a carefree girl I’d like to hang out with.

I don’t know if I wanted to hang out with who I once was for a little while, if I wanted to hang out with Michael for a little while, or if I actually just wanted a cigarette and it felt liberating to say so without worrying what others would think, but I told analytical JJ to chill back for a minute and I reached for the cigarette. I asked him if I could sit down with him and he said “of course, sister!” It felt all too appropriate for him to call me sister; it felt right, like even though we were meeting for the first time we were in this life thing together, at least for that space in time, both struggling, in different ways, but both still able to smile.

Kyle offered me some leftover Chinese food that a passer-by had given him, Michael offered me a beer, I declined both saying the cigarette suited me just fine. “See, we’re friendly,” Michael said, “most people think we just wanna ask them for stuff, but I’ll offer people anything I have if they let me… I’ll even give em’ my pot.” I couldn’t help but wonder if it was less about giving someone pot and more about having someone to smoke pot with. I don’t think it matters which one, the mere fact that Michael wanted to either give what he had away, even if it was pot, or invite someone into community with him, even if it was over smoking pot, made him a beautiful human to me, and honestly, veritably characteristic of Jesus. I sat and watched people go in and out of New Seasons, many wondering what a girl in Hunter rain boots was doing sitting on the ground next to some “homeless” guys.

From what I gathered, Michael chooses to live his life the way he does. And while he is homeless in the sense that he doesn’t have a home, he is more of a wanderer and a traveler, made obvious by the large backpack at his side and worn out shoes on his feet. He shows up and disappears when and where he sees fit. He used to hitchhike everywhere and when I asked how he got around now he said, “I’m old, honey, I take the train.” He looked tired.

“What happens if you offer an undercover cop some pot?” I asked, “this isn’t Washington, you know? It ain’t legal on this side of the bridge.” Michael laughed, “Please, sister, the cops don’t care about pot. You know what would happen if they pulled up right now? They’d get out of their cars and say ‘Michael, we’ve talked about this,’ and I’d say, ‘oh, yea, I know, sorry officers, I’m leaving.’ And that’s it. All the cops know me. Everyone knows me. I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I’m just trying to make people smile… watch…” A guy with a baseball hat on was about to walk by us, “Hey man,” Michael yelled, “hey, I like your hat!”

“Thanks, man,” the guy said as he kept walking. “Yea man, you want some pot?” Michael asked with a big grin. I laughed because though I should have, I didn’t see that question coming. The guy declined. “He didn’t really smile,” I said. “Nah, but you did,” Michael laughed as he pointed at me. “OOOHHHH,” I said, “fair enough, fair enough.” We fist bumped again. “I’m not trying to get people to smoke pot,” Michael said, “it’s just all I have to offer. I offered it to you and you said no, I respect that. The difference is you said no and then you sat down. That’s rare. That’s why you’re my sister.” Maybe it was me just wanting it to be more of a storybook moment than it was, that is, if there are storybooks that involve panhandlers offering pot to strangers, but I swear I think his eyes twinkled.

After finishing my cigarette I stuck around for another hour almost. Michael asked if I wanted to hear a story and I told him I loved stories. He pulled out a newspaper from Helena, Montana dated from last fall. The cover story featured him and a Portland cat he rescued one night in the rain while on Hawthorne. Michael asked if I would read the story out loud, so I did.

When Michael rescued the cat he listed her as found on craigslist, but no one claimed her. Not knowing what else to do, he named the cat Tabor after Mt. Tabor near where the cat was found and ended up hitchhiking with her on his backpack for ten months. He hitchhiked down to California, back up to Portland and over to Helena, Montana. After traveling 3,600 miles together, Michael had a friend in Helena take Tabor to a veterinarian where a microchip was discovered and the owner was found. Tabor had apparently been missing since 2012 and her real name was apparently Mata. “I like Tabor,” I said as I paused in my reading, “I do too,” said Michael, followed by, “you’re a good reader. Keep reading.”

Michael returned Tabor to her owner in Portland and though he never originally wanted a cat, he had obviously grown attached to her after all that time together. Michael was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “I’m homeless. Depression is a big thing out there. That cat was a rainbow in a dark world. I didn’t want a cat in the first place, I just thought I was saving someone’s cat, and that’s what I’ve done. Now I’ve grown attached to her. My pack will be twenty pounds lighter, but a big hole, a big hole.”

While reading Michael would blurt out, “wait, can you read that part again? Read that part again!” I re-read his accomplishment of 3,600 miles, 20 of which Tabor walked and spending the rest on Michael’s backpack. I re-read any time he was directly quoted in the newspaper, “and that’s what I said,” Michael would say, “just like that, that’s exactly what I said.”

“This is amazing, man,” I said, “what a good story.” Michael was silent. “Do you ever get tired of traveling?” I asked him. It seemed as if he was close to saying yes, but before he allowed himself to cave he jolted himself up and semi-excitedly said “no, this is what I do, I love it, I love the road.” He changed the subject, “hey, you read really well, will you read something else? Do you need to go?” I had nowhere to be so I didn’t bother pretending like I did, “nah, I don’t need to go, what else you got?” He pulled out a book he had been carrying with him for an obviously long time and asked me to read a few incredibly funny excerpts out loud. I read to him and Kyle as we sat on the street corner,  people passing and Michael laughing loudly, straight from his gut.

There the three of us sat, Kyle, the twenty-year-old kid on a skateboard, Michael, the middle-aged vagabond with worn out shoes, and me, the thirty-year-old girl walking home from the grocery store, curious enough to want to hear a joke and lonely enough to want to stick around for a while.

Perhaps that is what I should be honest about, wanting their company. It’s funny because I planned to write about people needing people, coming from the position of Michael and Kyle needing people. I was going to be the people they needed, the one who took the time to look them in the eyes, notice how bright they were and stick around long enough to hear their stories and make them feel better. I was going to say things like “I’m sorry” and offer some sort of help that didn’t involve money or pot, encouragement, perhaps? A cough drop? One of my smiles? I was going to offer, not be offered something.

Michael was willing to offer up whatever he had, which for him was pot. And if you’re obsessively worried about the fact that someone was offering me pot, you’re missing the point. Besides, I learned how to say no to drugs in sixth grade, forgot by seventh and quit by college.

Years ago when I was in Africa I remember the same experience of people being willing to give whatever they had, which for them was usually food or chickens or empty water bottles. The point wasn’t what they offered, the point was that they were offering whatever they had. It’s interesting to me that I can think an empty water bottle is a wonderful gift simply because of who is offering it, an orphaned African child who owns not much else, and how I can be so offended by the same gesture that comes from a man who owns not much else except pot. If we take our eyes off of the thing being offered and look at the situation, they are very much the same. Some of the most generous people I have ever met in my life are people who have next to nothing. Those people include quite a bit of Ugandans and Michael.

What was it for me? What could I offer? Surely I could offer something if Michael could.

What did that even mean, “if Michael could”? Honestly, and this is ugly, it meant I thought I was better than Michael, and that if he could offer something then surely I could. And as much as I hate to admit it, the same holds true for when I was in Africa. I thought I had to offer the Ugandans something simply because they offered me something, simply because I was the one who was supposed to be coming to help them, not vice versa. That is one spade I absolutely do not want to call a spade.

And while I might have been able to produce some stickers and pencils for the kids in Africa as if I were Mother Teresa, I had nothing to offer Michael, save a few rolls of toilet paper that I honestly didn’t want to offer… so I didn’t. My toilet paper was Michael’s pot was the African children’s empty water bottles, it was all I had to offer, be it offensive or not, and I didn’t bother to offer it because it would put me out a roll or two. And I’m not saying Michael needed or wanted me to offer toilet paper, but I didn’t need or want him to offer me pot. It was the condition of our hearts, Michael the generous, JJ the greedy. A blind man would have certainly recognized Michael as the one who loves Jesus.

I kept my toilet paper and gave Michael my time… how kind of me. And while I say that sarcastically, I don’t mean to imply that giving time isn’t a good thing, it is, honestly, quality time is one of my love languages and I fully believe in it being a good gift. But I know when I’m giving my time out of love and giving my time out of pity, and when I give my time to someone I pity, it means I am functioning out of a place of thinking I am better than them.

I’ve had to bury my head in my hands multiple times while writing this out because the truth of it stings. I don’t want to beat myself up too badly because even with the best of intentions, so long as we are stuck in these earthly bodies I don’t think our motives can ever really be 100% pure. But I also don’t want to overdose on grace so I can excuse myself to continue living a life that allows me to think I am better than other people.

Perhaps this spade is a two fold, to reveal to you that I think I am better than other people and to reveal the truth to myself that I am not.

I hate everything about that sentence; in part because I don’t want to think I am better than other people, and in other part because I still want to be better than other people. I want to humbly be better than other people. Good Lord, what has two thumbs and is in desperate need of Jesus? This girl! 

The truth is, while I’m sure Michael enjoyed my company, I can’t paint the picture of JJ the do-gooder. Even if Michael did need or want company, I needed and wanted company just as much, if not more. I don’t think Michael and I are all that different, we just have different circumstances and a different pair of shoes.

It’s funny how the Lord works when you surrender your plans. I share with Him what I’m thinking when I set about to write, and then I ask Him to have His way with me. I seem to always forget how nauseous that prayer makes me as it often results in me seeing the offensiveness of my humanity. My plan in writing this was to impress people, to offer some advice on how they can love people better and notice people more and make eye contact and all that stuff that really is important, but not the point, I don’t think, of this post.

I don’t even know if I know the point of this post anymore, other than to be drawn back to the conclusion once again that no matter how many revelations I have or how much growth and progress I make, I still need Jesus. I hope that is always the case, that I will always need Jesus, and I know it is always the case whether I acknowledge it or not, so I guess that is what I hope, that I will always be able to acknowledge that I need Jesus. And you know what that means… being able to say I need Jesus is going to look a lot like being able to say why I need Jesus, it’s going to look a lot like continually revealing my humanity, exposing the ugly but claiming the truth that there is hope!

The two go hand in hand, ugly and hope, and oh how grateful I am that those two things won’t be present the day I see my Savior face to face, for ugliness shall cease to exist and no hope will be needed as He who is all I’ve ever hoped for finally stands before me (I think He’ll stand, who knows, He might be more of a sitter).

I told Michael when I left that night that I would look for him whenever I walked on Hawthorne, which would be easy because it’s basically the street I live on. And I do, I look for Michael, even when I’m just going to the grocery store or going for a walk, I’m always on the lookout.

Michael seems to be quite good at hiding now that he knows he’s being looked for. I don’t know if Michael and I will hang out on Hawthorne again or not, he mentioned heading out to Boulder, Colorado, but I hope I see him again, I sincerely do… not because I think it would be good for him, not because I want another cigarette (I’m back to quitting), not because I want to offer him something, not because I want to prove a point or get a better story to tell with more resolve, but simply because I enjoyed his company. Michael might have thought all he had to offer was pot, but it was his time that he was kind enough to give me. I don’t know how often he has heard it, but as I left I told him I enjoyed him and I thanked him for letting me hang out with him, he told me not to thank him and he called me sister. My heart felt happy.

I have a wandering brother who looks nothing like me, and a loving Father who loves us both as a son and a daughter. I don’t know how well Michael knows our Father’s firstborn, Jesus, but I know Michael takes after Him, you can tell by his generous heart and his incredibly worn out shoes.