It’s You, Baby

It’s morning rush hour as I inch along in my gray car on a 10-lane, gray highway beneath a swollen, gray sky. The whole world is a heavy gray and the weight of it all seems to rest right in the center of my gut which turns with a groaning sound. Start, stop, start, stop. Inch, break, inch, break. Sweat beads on my brow which sucks because today is a day that I have actually and carefully applied makeup. I dab at my forehead with a crumpled napkin from the center console.

On the passenger seat next to me is my travelling-reading bag which I’ve toted around to several schools who have invited me out to read my book, “Tink the Bravest Donkey,” and talk donkey rescue with their students. Within the bag are several signed copies of my book, the actual blue boot that Tink the real donkey used to wear, my laptop, a Tink story board, and little bracelets to give away. I’m on my way to an elementary school to read for several different groups and for reasons which I’m unsure, I’ve spiralled into a full on panic attack.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, not by a long shot. As a person living with anxiety, it’s not uncommon for my mind to spin out without warning at the most inopportune times. I used to think there was something wrong with me—like physically wrong—when this would happen. I’d be fine, going about some mundane task, when all of the sudden, I’d start having trouble breathing in. Was something wrong with my circulation? Was I having a heart attack? Stroke? Only in the past couple of years have I understood that these symptoms were not physical sickness, but unrest from deep within my mind.

Google maps (my forever driving companion) tells me my exit is in half a mile, but still, it takes me nearly 15 minutes to get there because of the heavy traffic. Inch, break, inch, break. I’m so worried that the giant, shiny pickup truck that’s been riding my tail with what must be only centimeters between us is going to bump into me. Why won’t they back off? Why do people do that?

I feel nauseous and the idea of being sick to my stomach only deepens the worry that I’ll have to take a vomit break while trying to read my story to eager students. You have to breathe, I tell myself over and over, but it’s about as useful as telling my dog to stop barking when the squirrels chirp at her from high up in the branches. Try as I might to pull my breath down to the bottom of my lungs, over and over it breaks at the base of my throat.

Finally, I exit and pull off to a gas station on the corner of a busy intersection and park in front of the Stop-n-Shop which advertises Monster Energy drinks, buy one get one free. I imagine two of those would make your heart explode. Mine feels like it might right now. I’d planned my commute to get to the school about 20 minutes early, so I have a few minutes to spare. I unbuckle my seatbelt, lean back in my chair, turn up my music, and close my eyes.  

I’ve learned over time that panic attacks are not situations from which you can just “calm down” because they’re not a mood and at least in my experience, they’re not even circumstantial—at least not consistently. They’re sporadic, sudden, and often inexplicable. In the case of this morning, am I nervous about doing several presentations at this school? Sure, a little. Who isn’t nervous to perform no matter how well they know their subject? Also, this is my first children’s book: it’s a really big deal to me. But I’m not afraid. I’m not panicked about it. This attack is coming from somewhere else—somewhere deeper and over high heat. It’s water bubbling up and beginning to boil because the fire’s hot under that pot.

After several minutes of trying to picture jellyfish-like movement of my breath, I open one eye to look at the clock and realize that I need to be on my way. I don’t have time to sit here and wait for the panic to pass, so I sit up, pop myself on the cheeks a few times, and back out of my parking space.

In my mind as I near my destination, I start reciting lines from my book. “Cock-a-doodle-doo, what’s with the shoe?” The kids love this part because I ask them to make rooster sounds with me (and as loudly as they can). I also recall a comment on one of my Instagram posts a while back where someone told me that the rooster is their child’s favorite character.  “‘Cock-a-doodle-cool!’ The rooster said.”

I pull into the school’s parking lot and grip my steering wheel tight. You’re going to be fine, I tell myself again and again, even if I can’t quite believe it.

I check to make sure I haven’t smudged my makeup, grab my travel bag, and head towards the school’s front door.



I’m happy to report that the presentations I gave all went wonderfully. It seems that as soon as I got busy with the task at hand, there was no more oxygen left for panic to consume. The children were amazing, the staff was amazing, and I suspect that donkeys gained some new, little advocates.

I write about this because there are many of us out there—many of us with anxiety, panic, and depression in our brains and I for one have spent a lot of time scared and ashamed to admit it. I’ve feared judgement, distrust, and condescension because to much of our society, mental health is still wildly misunderstood and often pushed aside or swept under the rug. The more we avoid talking about it, the more stigmatized it becomes and the more myths about it perpetuate. Studies show there are 40 million people in the US who have anxiety disorders. That’s no small thing. And it also means you’re not alone.

So my victory I share with you in case you might need it as a tool in your toolbox: apparently the remedy to my sudden and inexplicable panic was busyness with something that I couldn’t (and certainly didn’t want) to wiggle my way out of. I put one foot in front of the other until without me realizing the shift, I was breathing normally again. The distraction must’ve snuffed out the panic attack. I suppose it’s along the lines of what we give oxygen to is what will live and breathe—although I recognize that it’s not always that simple. An anxious mind rarely has the ability to compartmentalize, so it’s not always easy to pick and choose what you allow to breathe. But who knows, maybe in some instances, it’s exactly what’s needed.

The bottom line is this: your mind is a beautiful thing—lined with panic or not. It’s powerful and complex and nothing to be ashamed of. Love and care for it deeply and always because it’s you, baby. It is your most powerful tool, your most valuable asset, and it’s you. You are worth nurturing. You are worth taking the time to understand. You are worthy of love. You as you as YOU.

DSC04931-01-01.jpeg

 

A Big Thing: Read Across America Day

As a writer and an anxious person, I spend a lot of time dissecting small stuff. I live for small stuff. Tiny moments. Little pieces of much bigger things. I want to see and understand every single brick because otherwise, the house won’t make sense to me. This can be annoying to others because I’ll get hung up on facial expressions or word choices, refusing to skim over the details when trying to get to the bigger picture. It’s why I obsess over things and find myself in the wee hours of the morning, staring out into the darkness with snippets from my past playing on repeat in my mind which have been mulled over to the point of non-recognition.

Because of my obsession with the small, when big things happen, I’m often rendered speechless until the bottom feeders of my anxious mind have had a chance to devour the meat off the bones of the big thing, ultimately breaking it down into something small enough to wrap my head around. It’s why I wait so long to publish posts on my blog after big things have happened. So many of my posts have said things like “I’ve been trying to write for days about [insert event here] but just haven’t been able to find the words” or other, similar statements.

For days now, I’ve been like a snake with the shape of an egg in my throat: full, unable to speak, and so unbelievably happy because last week, a really big thing happened. It’ll likely be months before I unpack all the perfect, little details of that day, but I can’t wait that long to share and to thank the people responsible for making it happen.

Last week, I was invited to read my recently released children’s book to the students of McDougle Elementary School for “Read Across America Day” and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best days of my life.

DSC05014-01.jpeg

This was the first opportunity I’ve had to read my story to anyone other than my own kid and the few people who helped me out during the editing process and so of course, I was nervous. I wondered if the children would receive it. Would it be meaningful to them? Would they get the message? Would they even care enough about donkeys to pay attention?

Yes. Yes to all of it.

I’ve since been told that many McDougle students went back to their classrooms and drew pictures of donkeys. I’m told several students have said they want to rescue donkeys when they grow up. I’m told that students have come back to check out books about donkeys in the school’s library.

DSC05008-01.jpeg

I was able to do three performances for children ages 6 – 10. Before reading the story, I’d prepared a short slideshow with cute pictures and videos of donkeys and the real Tink. I wanted to share some of the really cool things about donkeys that most people don’t know before diving into the story. They loved it. After each performance, McDougle’s amazing librarian, Ms. Julie Zachary, came up to ask the students what they thought the message of “Tink the Bravest Donkey” was. They’ve been talking a lot as a school lately about themes in books and it never failed that when she asked the question, a student would raise their hand and say the book was “about being nice to others.” That it was about how “we shouldn’t bully others because they’re different.” Another said it was about “being brave” and another, that it was “about donkeys.”

Yes. Yes. YES. YES!!!

Y’all. I mean. Golly. Where are the words? I don’t have the words. It’s just too big right now.

Thank you so much to McDougle Elementary School for having me out to read to your amazing students. What wonderful kiddos. They were so engaged, so sweet, and so thoughtful. Special thank you to Ms. Julie Zachary, the school librarian, for putting together the whole thing and to Catherine Chance for making the connection.

I’m sure I’ll come back to this once I’ve had the chance to digest it a bit more. There will, no doubt, be many mornings of sipping coffee at dawn while pulling apart the fabric of every detail of this most amazing day and in those fibers will be small, magical discoveries. But for now, I am just so thankful. I am so excited. I am so touched. And I am so happy.

DSC05004-01.jpeg

I really hope to have the opportunity to share my story and the love of donkeys with other schools because empathy for animals and others begins with our children! If you or someone you know would be interested in having me come read at your school, please feel free to send me an email at adonkumentary@gmail.com

Interested in purchasing a copy of “Tink the Bravest Donkey” in which 100% of the proceeds are going to save more donkeys like Tink? Get your copy here!: http://www.donkeyrescue.com/books.html

Gratitude. Hope. Happy New Year.

We end the last year with gratitude…
Gratitude for our time together,
For memories,
For support,
And for kindness.

We begin the New Year with restored hope…
Hope that kindness will continue to prevail,
That love will fill our hearts,
That our voices will be used for good,
And that together, we will make a difference for all creatures.

Happy New Year. Thank you for an amazing 2018. I can’t wait to see what beauty lies ahead.

NamasBRAY. I love y’all. -Jess

A Quick Bit About My Book (On Sale Now!)

My children’s book, Tink the Bravest Donkey, is on sale now here! 100% of the proceeds are going to the non-profit, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, which were the folks responsible for bringing Tink into our lives in the first place.

 


May you always feel as brave as a donkey. NamasBRAY.

Dawn, My Dear

It’s early; the kind of early where the light is still too blue and too dull to form stripes on the walls of the bedroom in which I’m waking and instead just casts an eerie glow that only really exists for this moment of the day. I don’t have to see to know that outside, everything is covered in a film of delicate dew which reflects the sleepy, blue light in the curves of its drops. Dawn, my dear, on days like this, you are most welcome.

I sit up and swing my feet out from under the covers, the room a blurry blue. Where are my glasses? Beside the bed is hand-painted a foot stool that spent decades in the living room of our family’s house growing up. The chipped and worn text reads,

“Our home we’ll share
With friends we meet
So pull up a chair
And rest your feet.”

I smile. I haven’t seen this foot stool since I’d moved out of my parents house in college. That’s the funny thing about visiting your siblings: the small Easter eggs that you’ve divied up from your childhood to furnish and decorate your own places are always fun surprises to find.

I’m in Austin, TX visiting my younger brother who recently moved back down here and I’m so thrilled he’s within reasonable driving distance again. Him and his wife are still sleeping after a long and exciting night of incredible showmanship. The two of them are in a highly successful folk band called The Oh Hellos and I had the privilege of being able to watch them pour their hearts out onstage from the front row. What an incredible treat. I haven’t found the words yet to describe how proud I am of my brother. It’s profound.

Ah, my glasses. I’d left them perched atop my backpack that I’ve been travelling with for a few days. I’ve been on a little jaunt around north and central Texas where I’ve visited with like-minded donkey lovers who are also involved with the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. It’s trips like this which reaffirm my theory that donkey people are the best people. The people who volunteer their time, properties, and hearts to PVDR donkeys are the people who also see the worlds swirling within donkey’s eyes. They sense the calm. They are humbled by the complexity. And I love every single one of them.

I stretch, reach for my glasses, and finally begin to see white stripes forming on the walls from the waking sun which peeks curiously through the blinds.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror: red, puffy eyes. It’s unsurprising to me because I cried several times last night just in utter awe of my kid-brother’s raw talent and the (no exaggeration) 30,000 fans that piled in the field before him and his band. My sweet, empathetic, friend-of-all brother is a bona fide rock star and they just don’t teach you how to handle that kind of pride.

IMG_0158.jpg
My kid brother, Joey (center) and my cousin Clint (left) and me (right) before the concert last night.

 

Also yesterday, I was featured in the latest episode of Donkey Rescue TV where I got to sit down with PVDR’s Executive Director, Mark Meyers, to talk all about donkeys and how it takes all of us working together to make change for these amazing creatures. That’s enough to get my water works going but the kicker is this…

Y’all. I wrote a children’s book about our boy Tink called “Tink the Bravest Donkey” and it’s being published later this year. My children’s book is coming out. It’s happening. And better yet? Proceeds go to saving donkeys like Tink.

I’d love if you checked out this short episode for more information on all of that here: It Takes a Village 

I rub my red eyes and wipe away tears that decided to wait until now to escape. My brother will be up soon (I think) and we’ll go to breakfast where I can stare at him curiously across the table wondering how in the world such a sweet, little boy turned into such a handsome and successful man. We’ll say a sad goodbye and then I’ll then hop in the car bound for the open road home and think about Tink and how much I miss him, how much he meant to us, and how ecstatic I am that his memory gets to live on in the form of a children’s book about love for one another.

But for now, as I wait for my brother and his wife to wake up, I’ll sit in company of the white light that bouncing off of everything. This day is so excited to get started that she can hardly hold still. I feel the same way.

1533827204020.jpg
A screenshot from the latest episode of DRTV where my upcoming children’s book is announced! Watch the whole episode here: http://www.donkeyrescue.tv

P.S. In case you missed the announcement on my Facebook page, one of my essays has been selected for publication with Texas’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction and pre-order sales are available! You can grab your copy here: Pre-Sale!

Meet the Horizon

It’s just after 7AM and I’m driving due east into a pink sunrise. On the passenger seat next to me is a black and red briefcase which I had to dust off last night having not used it since my corporate days. Within my briefcase are two notepads, three pens, freshly printed business cards, my laptop and a granola bar.

I love that briefcase. My grandfather gave it to me as a graduation gift when I earned my degree in English from the University of Houston years ago and just remembering him and how much he believed in me briefly calms my firing-wire nerves this morning. I’m headed towards the waking sun that will lead me to a small town north of Dallas to attend my first ever Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference.

It’s a long, sprawling drive across north Texas and I’m having twelve conversations in my head about how nervous I am to be attending a conference with professionals in the industry all on my own. I’ve not met one person who is attending this conference and as one of my favorite bands, Mandolin Orange, plays through the stereo of my car, I can’t help but feel like that lonesome whistle calling from down the railroad tracks. [that track here. I can listen to this song forty times in a row.]

“Be brave,” I tell myself over and over again. “Be brave. Don’t ramble nervously like you always do. Don’t drink too much coffee. Check your teeth after you eat lunch. But just be brave. Be brave.”

“…I should’ve gotten a haircut.”

“…Why did I decide to wear purple and black. I look like a bruise.”

Sweaty palms, racing heart.

I’ve attended many conferences in my life but never a writer’s conference. I’ve attended oil and gas conferences, yoga conferences, international trade conferences, small business conferences and, wow, just thinking about how many others, I’m losing track. Never, ever have I attended a writer’s conference and I’m terrified. I am not a writer by profession, I am a writer by hobby. I love to write. It’s one of my favorite things up there with donkeys and yoga and King Ranch and Little Foot. It’s so important to me and when time goes by that I can’t or don’t write, I end up like an A/C filter that’s not been changed for too long: mucky, dusty, annoying, and useless.

Several times on this drive, I think about turning around. Maybe I’ll try again next year. I’ll say I got sick or something.

But on I drive, on towards the rising sun because I think I’m finally ready to try and do something more with my writing than leaving my stories closed up in dark folders. I just have no idea what “do something” looks like and maybe I can start to gain a semblance of an understanding by connecting with and learning from others who do and who have “done something” successfully. And I’m nervous about it—the idea of putting my writing out there terrifies me. It feels like carving out a chunk of my heart and putting it out on display to be examined, critiqued, poked and prodded.

It’s now three days later and I’m still digesting the events and feeling the warm, buzzing effects of the NTX SCBWI conference. I’ve pulled out stories that have been sitting in the dark for ages, blown the dust off the top of them, and am actually seeing them as new, tiny works of art. I want to edit absolutely everything I’ve ever written—give each story a good bath and haircut and maybe manicure while I’m at it. I want to do these things because as nervous as I was going into the conference last Saturday, I left feeling freaking pumped.

I’ll not go into detail of what I learned or who I met that day. Instead, I’ll say how grateful I am for the opportunity to have met so many eager, kind, and talented people. I’m grateful for the admins, faculty, and volunteers that made the conference possible and brought us all together—for getting me out of my own head and allowing me to realize that in my nerves, my passion, my fears and my curiosity, I’m not alone. I’m grateful for the inspiration I drove away with that day that’s still burning like red-hot embers in the belly of a fire pit. Turns out that when you’re surrounded by others whose craft means just as much to them as yours means to you, there’s no brutal carving of heart pieces…instead, there’s gentle and kind examination and encouragement to be better.

I’m excited for what’s to come. Indeed, there is change rising on the horizon like that neon-glowing sun that guided me on Saturday morning. There are always surprises and treasures waiting to be discovered beyond our comfort zones. There is strength in community and much to gain by being kind, open, and a little bit brave. And no one cares if you needed a haircut—in fact, you might just bond with someone over big hair…I did.

For more information on SCBWI, check them out here: https://www.scbwi.org/

In many ways, I still feel like that lonesome whistle and I suspect I always will. But I’m travelling. I’m trying. I’m calling.

“So hear that lonesome whistle blowing, hear that engine call from line.
See those black sails meet horizon, that old black bird knows its time.”

20170923_125843-01.jpeg