“A Place For Us All Here”

They ain’t lying when they say it’s always darkest before dawn because it’s about a quarter of 6AM and the surrounding darkness is almost suffocating. I’m on a winding, two-lane highway which slowly and repetitively climbs up then dips down between heavy pines with dangling, skeletal fingers. Signs tell me that I’m fixing to cross over the Sabine River into Louisiana.

For the first time in probably thirty minutes, another vehicle appears around the corner in front of me and I quickly turn off my car’s brights. They do the same and I have to say how much I love the respect we strangers show each other during overnight driving. Rarely in my dark drives have I ever experienced the motorist who fails to turn off their brights and I think that says a lot about how polite people are just by nature. I’d wave, but they won’t see me—I imagine they think about waving, too. As soon as they pass, I click my brights back on. Long, curvy lines of yellow reflectors. Piney fingers. Slithering fog in ditches.

I’m ashamed to admit it being a native Texan and all, but I’ve never been to Louisiana. My friends give me a hard time for this. “What? You’ve never been to Louisiana? New Orleans? But you’re so close!” I know, I know, I’ve no excuse. But then here, around this corner, I come upon a break in the trees and the highway turns into a bridge and halfway over the bridge, my only travel companion, Google Maps, interrupts my audio book and says, “Welcome to Louisiana.” I smile.

The bridge ends and here I am: Louisiana. Maybe it’s the profound darkness, the solitude, or the fact that the fog sure seems to be collecting more and more of itself, but Louisiana feels different. Not even a mile past the Sabine and it feels like I’ve entered into a distant and strange land. As they say, Google Maps, we’re not in Texas anymore. I have about ten hours left to go on my planned drive to Atlanta, Georgia. I should get there by 5PM their time which will be just in time to head on over to The Tabernacle to see my most favorite band of all time, Old Crow Medicine Show.

My decision to make this trip is barely a day old: completely impulsive and last minute and the thrill attached to that kind of pseudo-recklessness is the real caffeine I need right now, just before dawn. This is exhilarating to me and also a bit chilling because coincidentally, as I’m making my debut travel through Louisiana, my audiobook moves to the next story: ‘Bitter Grounds’ by Neil Gaiman. For y’all who are unfamiliar with this story, (and if you are unfamiliar, I would recommend picking up his book of short stories, ‘Fragile Things,’ because they’re the kind that stick with you) it’s about a man who has decided to start driving without a particular destination and, on his own, ends up in New Orleans where…well…I won’t give spoilers. I begin to imagine that I am like that man, just driving and driving. This is not the first road trip where Neil Gaiman has kept me company. I hope he knows I’m grateful for this.

“Why are you driving to Georgia?” my mom asked me when she called yesterday and I told her of my newly hatched plan. I couldn’t really give her an answer. I didn’t know why I suddenly had this red-hot urge to just go somewhere and I suppose I still don’t really know. She wasn’t a fan of this plan, her being a perpetual worrier like me. I assured her I’d be fine and also, I had a knife in the center console which I know how to wield, so…all good. I could feel her eyes roll through the phone.

On I drive through an eventual pink sunrise, a small rain storm, sheep-clouds, no clouds, acres upon acres of cotton fields, and then fields of…what is that, soybean? I’m not sure. Corn, cotton, and wheat are the only crops I think I can pick out when they’re in fields.

Mississippi,

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Alabama,

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and then finally, Georgia.

I get to the venue early. I want to be in the front row because last time I saw Old Crow, I’d ended up in seats that didn’t give me any room to dance until I hurt which is, as far as I’m concerned, the proper way to behave at one of their shows: reckless, wild, and completely unhinged from everything. When they’re on stage, nothing else in the entire world matters. They are such, sweet freedom. (And darn cute, too.)

So I dance. I dance and I sing and I clap until my hands begin to bruise and sweat is winding down my spine and there, in the glow of the shifting lights and rhythm pulsing through the room, I am free…

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…free…

“Free from what?” I wonder as I bounce and sing and slide my gaze over all the elated faces around me while completely alone in an unknown place. Then I realize it: I’m free from my worries. Oh my dang worries, my parasitic worries. They stand no chance here.

I’m not shy about the fact that I struggle with anxiety. Part of my dealing with it is constantly trying to break the stigma around mental health issues. I have anxiety? You have anxiety? Or something else? Not a big deal. Let’s love each other a little more for it so that we can create platforms to deal with our emotions in healthy and supportive ways. Our brains and hearts are so utterly complex and can feel so deeply that it’s not surprising that they can get a little out of hand from time to time. It’s up to us to not judge ourselves, but to instead be grateful for our layers and learn to explore and manage them effectively. As Mechanical Morty says, “Your feelings are not only forgivable, they are the very meaning of life that only pre-silicon, carbon-based entities can ever grasp.”

Free. Hoo boy. Sublime.

Sadly, the show ends and as the overhead lights turn on, I wander towards the exit, my body buzzing with fatigue, excitement, and something else I can’t quite put my finger on. People are everywhere, chatting and laughing with one another. They’re holding hands and kissing and finishing drinks out of plastic cups. They’re laughing and singing lyrics to songs they’ve just heard and when I make it back outside to the fresh air, I realize how badly my face aches from smiling for so long. Everyone is smiling…everyone…big, toothy smiles; and we’re all smiling at each other. A tall man with an impressive beard gives me a high five for no reason. A woman with a long, purple skirt and braided pigtails tells me she loves my boots. We’re this migrating flock of dazed yet connected people wandering in all directions, drunk off our asses from the consumption of Old Crow’s heavily intoxicating energy. It’s glorious.

I want to stick around to see if somehow, someway, I can meet the band so I can tell them just how much they mean to me (because they really, really do) and also by this point in the night, I’m craving human connection. For a few minutes I linger, but in the nearly midnight air, the hours of my travel and sleeplessness begins to descend heavily upon me. Also, I’ll have to walk to the nearest hotel alone and while there’s still a crowd, I figure I ought to be on my way. Just before I wander off for rest, one of the band members, (who’s a hell of a whistler, come to find out) Mr. Cory Younts, appears from between some buses and I want to thank him for handing me a guitar pick which I’m rotating between my fingers in my pocket to ensure I don’t lose it. As I stumble to find some coherent words to say (of which I don’t really find any), he agrees to take a picture with me. I wish I could thank him again for that.

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In my hotel room, I lay and stare at the ceiling still rotating the pick around and around between my fingers. It’s one of those ceilings that looks like an aerial view of intricate mountain ranges. At some point, I drift to sleep because I dream of being at the show, only this time I had a faceless dancing partner, but then suddenly, I’m wide awake and it’s only 2:00AM.

After another hour of trying to fall asleep without success, I decide to just leave and head home. I’d be able to take my time this way. I could stop in Mobile or maybe even New Orleans since I’ve never been.

So I do. By 4:00AM, I’m driving southwest through Georgia towards Alabama. The roads are empty on this early, Sunday morning but for the occasional driver. We turn off our brights and turn them back on as we pass. A silent wave. Polite by nature. I love it.
As the sun rises in my rearview window, I’m back to wondering why I decided to make this trip. The handful of people I met before and during the show who learned that I’d driven all the way out here alone from Texas were surprised that I’d do such a thing. I guess I’m a little surprised, too, but I like the idea of putting on a brave face and doing something a little crazy. I like the idea of being brave (and I sure as hell like the idea of seeing Old Crow).

On stage last night, Mr. Ketch Secor asked the crowd to turn to the people around them and tell them “you matter.” I did. And I was told, too. In addition to just loving the living daylights out of their music, I love this about Old Crow: their humanism. The lyrics of their songs touch the rawest parts of us: our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, our excitements, our ability to connect but to also let go. I love life in Old Crow songs.

Indeed, no one should feel a world away, even when you’re quite literally, 850 some odd miles away from anything familiar. I didn’t, despite my solitude departure. I didn’t because in Old Crow world, there is no stranger. There is no worry. There is freedom to live and to love and just be without anxieties and judgements. They create this space just by being them. In Old Crow’s world without any kind of goggles, there’s just humanity: beautiful, complex, deep, cosmic, and smiling oneness. There’s a place for us all here.

I realize now as I head home that I needed that place. It’s been a heckuva summer with lot of challenges, changes, and uncertainties about what the future holds and I think I’ve allowed myself to get swept up and a little lost in it all. But last night, free as a mocking bird and alone but not lonely, I realized that whatever is on yonder past that curious and uncertain horizon is just that: yonder. I’ll get there.

The rest of the drive home is mostly uneventful. I do stop and see a few things but by the time the afternoon rolls around, I start itching to get back to check on my sweet donkeys. Upon arriving home, dazed and light-headed, a chorus of brays erupts from the pasture. Before even going inside my house, I leave my duffle bag on the hood of my tired car and head straight for the barn where a few sets of long ears are waiting for me. They nip my arms and swish their tails and I’m quite positive that if I had a tail, I’d be wagging it, too without one little worry in the whole, wide world.

“There’s a place for us all here and ain’t it enough?” – From OCMS Song ‘Ain’t It Enough?’

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Wander

Twisted, tangled trails
With sprawling vines and
Dangling branches like
Curious fingertips flickering
In the shifting winds

We wander—we all wander.
One step atop another,
Our foot, paw, claw, and
Hoof prints melded along
Muddled puddled paths

We wander—we all wander.
Purple weeds and fungus
Steps swirling tree trunks
That tower indimidatingly
And must sway sometimes, too

We wander—we all wander.
This road carved by
All of us, forked and branched
By our steps, the blooming
World thriving because
Every single sprout matters

No matter how small

We wander—we all wander.
It begins and it ends the
Same, each road an exciting
Tale of strength, bravery,
Missteps and triumphs. Legend
Left in tracks where we met
To be found by a new traveler

We wander—we all wander.

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Talk to Them

They say that talking to
Plants helps them grow,
That the exchange of
Voice (regardless of tone)
Encourages broader bloom.

I believe the same works
With each other: That
Brighter, bigger, more beautiful
Growth rides the waves
Of our thoughtful voices.

Talk to them. Talk to them all.
Build base for understanding:
For learning, for seeing, for hearing,
And for loving.

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Gratitude

It’s been just over a week since we said our last goodbye to our brave boy, Tink. We are all still reeling over the sudden loss of him and for days, I’ve been struggling to find some kind of peace between the choppy waves of mourning.

What is there is gratitude: gratitude for our time with him, for the opportunity to love him unconditionally. There is gratitude for the rescue that saved him in the first place and gave him a second shot at life: Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. Because of them, he got fruitful years of life he would have otherwise lost.

PVDR saves donkeys across the U.S. They work tirelessly and endlessly to improve the plight of the American donkey. If you know anything of the challenges donkeys face, you know that they are vast. They are often neglected, abused, abandoned and across the globe, millions of donkeys are farmed, stolen, and captured for their skins to produce ejiao.

If it is in your heart, I ask that you help support PVDR in their mission to save donkeys. Whether that’s donating a few extra dollars (they are a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit) or simply sharing their information, their cause, and spreading awareness to help save donkeys, then more sweet fur babies like Tink will have a shot at life.

Donkeys can’t stand up for themselves in an often cruel and heartless world, but we can can be their voice. We can be their warriors. We can fight for them.

PVDR’s website can be found here: http://donkeyrescue.org

And from the bottom of my broken heart, thank you all for your words, messages, calls, emails, shares, and loving support. It is so, very appreciated. Let’s keep working together to make this world a better place for everyone: two-legged or four or none. We’re all in it together.

Much love,
Jess

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Houston, My Heart

I’ve just opened up my laptop for the first time in a week. I click on the open document I left unfinished from last Thursday: a drafted blog post telling a story about how I’d managed to lose a chunk of my left pinky finger while attempting to fix the mower on the same day that a thunderstorm pushed through that knocked a tree into a fence by the donkey’s shelter, forcing me to scramble in the rain to get them herded to safety. I was describing how some weeks are just “off” and how it’s important not to lose our cool even when we lose parts of our fingers, but I never finished that post because Thursday evening is when the forecasters were beginning to realize the potential damage that would be coming to my hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

My parents and much of my extended family live in Houston as do many of my dearest friends and the majority of my heart, and so as we woke up Friday morning to a much more certain fate, I decided to pack some of my tools (tree trimmer, buckets, rubber boots etc) and drive down in my rickety red pickup truck to Houston to be with my parents in the event damage would occur at their home.

There weren’t many people going southbound on Friday afternoon—even the road signs were advising drivers to avoid the area—so the drive back home to Houston was an eerie one. I shared the road with fleets of tree trimmers and 18-wheelers and when I finally made it to my parent’s house, we all embraced knowing that we were in for something big.

I was raised in the gulf coast region. We know hurricanes. We know what it means to hunker down and how to respect the tropics because they certainly demand it, so as Harvey pushed ashore Friday night, we stayed up watching the live radar and sending our love to Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and so many of the coastal towns that were hit with the hurricane’s most intense force. As Friday night turned Saturday, we in northwest Houston only saw rain and an increasing number of tornado warnings, so we spent our time trimming branches and moving/tying down outside objects that could fly in tornadic winds. We kept the best contact we could with our friends and family all over the gulf coast area and as Saturday turned to Sunday, we started to see Harvey’s rainfall effects pretty dramatically in our area.

The water from the nearby creek began to rush and swell out over its banks, threatening the neighborhood where my parents live and by Sunday evening, the roads were impassable, even by trucks. We moved the valuables from the first floor of my parent’s house to the second floor as we saw the water rise up over the curb and into the yard. As the evening turned to night, we just watched and waited.

To our surprise and gratitude, my parent’s house managed to stay dry on the inside that night and so as the sun came up on a rainy Monday, my dad and I took our respective pickup trucks out into the neighborhood to see if there was anything we could do to help those whose homes were now and quickly becoming underwater. I’ll not go into too much detail, but I ended up spending Monday and Tuesday out, mostly at and around the nearby volunteer fire department, doing anything and everything I could to lend a hand along side dozens of others to an area becoming increasingly more inundated with rising water.

It’s Thursday now and I’ve come back to north Texas…to King Ranch, Little Foot, and my donkeys, and I just keep staring out the front window at the grass that needs to be cut by the mower that’s still broken. My thoughts are swirly and blurry and so sad for my hometown where I grew up and became an adult; where I graduated from college (go coogs!), had relationships, adventures, late nights, long walks, and even longer talks. I think about the freeways where I’d drive too fast to work downtown or to memorial park for a jog on the trails, or to the yoga studio where I taught my very first yoga class and how I now know what all of that looks like under water.

And it’s still unfolding down there, y’all. There are areas where the water is still rising. I just…I just can’t wrap my head around the past week and my family and me didn’t even have it bad like so many thousands of people.

Here’s what I’m desperately trying to hold onto and what I hope emerges from all of this: we are one. The two days that I spent out giving a hand, I encountered hundreds—literally hundreds—of people who left the safety of their own homes to come out in the pouring rain and uncertain circumstances to help…to do anything they could for complete strangers. People came out with hot food, supplies, tools, energy, high water vehicles, boats, canoes, kayaks, air mattresses and anything they could because that’s just who Houston is: a city of givers. I got to meet some of the Cajun Navy and I’ll tell you that none of them were afraid to risk it all to save someone in need.

By the time we were wrapping things up on Tuesday, shelters were turning away volunteers and donations because within only a couple of days there was that much of an outpouring of love for our community.

As person after person climbed down or was lifted down from those military trucks in the cold rain flying in sideways, there were no politics. There was no religion. There was no division. There wasn’t anyone trying to have the most intellectual comment or most profound opinion or any sort of snobbery. There were only hands that held each other tightly, infants passed delicately and met with dry blankets to be wrapped in, kisses on cheeks and wet pets on leashes eager to be held and told it was going to be okay. There were people searching for their loved ones and even more people trying to help them reunite. There were children, wide-eyed and brave: one child, I remember, with her pet hedgehog quivering in a plastic pitcher who still took the time to say “thank you” when someone offered her family a ride. There was no room anything but preserving life. There was safety and love and support and a coming together that proves that as humans, we are one: we are made of love.

We were all human out there and we all…I mean we ALL…had each other.

I can’t imagine what so many families have in their future as a result of this storm but I am so hopeful that this strength in community continues as strongly as it did this week—that people will continue to volunteer their time and effort and resources to help those in need because the need is enormous. I hope, so badly, that we continue to come together to lift each other up in this. To embrace each other, to clothe and feed one another, to not pass judgement and to be kind simply because we’re all human experiencing something that I’m not sure we’re equipped to truly understand and in that, at least we know we’re not alone.

If you have been turned away from a shelter in the last couple of days because they’re at capacity with volunteers and/or supplies, please go back next week and then the next because for so many, this is long term. This won’t be yesterday’s news for thousands of people for a very long time and they need all the help they can get.

Texas, and more specifically Houston, I love you. You’ll always be my home. I love the people that are still living in you—the people who are working around the clock to make you better. I love that you’ve brought out the best in people in the worst of times. I love your diversity, your creativity, your art, your music, your complexity and your heart.

If you have the means to do so, please consider donating to help rebuild our gulf coast—there are many ways to do so. Here’s a place to start: Here’s How You Can Help People Affected By Harvey – via NPR.

And on a personal note, I want to thank the Cypress Creek Volunteer Fire Department for everything that they did for northwest Houston. I got to see first hand how hard and diligently they worked to save over 2,000 people from rising waters and I am in awe of every one of them. And to the team that I had the honor of working with: Andy, Michael, Reed, Michelle, Debbie, Erica, Ken, Robin, Otto, Tim, Jaime, Dean, Jack, Bree, Bill, Kristen, Ryan and gosh, if I forgot anyone, please know I remember your faces and your vehicles and I’m so grateful for all of you. 

There’s nowhere else out in the world like Houston. We are Houston Strong.

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Worlds in Worlds in Worlds

In addition to doing my part to rescue donkeys, I am also a yoga instructor. In fact, several years ago, I quit my cush job in oil and gas to chase a dream of teaching yoga full-time. So far, it’s worked out, although I often wonder if the corporate Grim-Reaper will come knocking one day to call me back to the cubicle.

I love teaching yoga—I love it because there are few greater social joys to me than providing a space in which class attendees can unplug and de-stress. I’ve talked at length about how donkeys have served as a major component to my ever increasing awareness (and quest) to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life but yoga, too, has aided in that journey. People tell me often that they’re “not good at yoga” or they’re “not flexible enough to do yoga” and to that I always ask, “What is being good at yoga?” I rarely get an answer, but a half-laugh with a tiny light bulb that I could swear appears over their head.

The fact is, there is no such thing as being good at yoga, there is only continual practice of trying to be better in the way you treat yourself and others with a bonus of strength and flexibility gaining along the way. It’s a healing process of body, mind, and soul. It’s focusing on your breath because think about it: you can’t breathe two minutes ago and you can’t breathe two minutes from now—you can breathe in this moment. Focusing on your breath and making it slower and deeper pulls you to the present and away from phone notifications, that argument you had last week, and the worry over that meeting you have next week. It allows you to exist right now.

There’s no doubt that we live in a frantic world—one that moves faster and with more fury than I think any of us are fully equipped to handle and I think it’s become really easy to withdraw behind walls in our minds in order to cope and behind those walls, no matter how many friends you have, you’re alone there.

Here’s the thing—you’re NOT alone. Everyone you’ve met and will meet has experienced pain. We’ve all had our hearts broken, we’ve all made mistakes, and we all have something in which we’re self-conscious. Nobody has all the answers and isn’t that grand? That means we still live in a world with mysteries and magic. We can still wonder if there are beings in the shadows that watch us or even guide us when we’re lost. We can still imagine that there are brilliant energies that surround us on a light spectrum that our eyes can’t see that cause us to gravitate towards one another resulting in serendipitous meetings that can’t quite be explained. We can wonder what peers down at us from the billions of stars and galaxies that blanket our night skies—sometimes so brightly that you swear you could just reach out and grab a few to place in your pocket. We can look into the eyes of animals and see whole worlds within their pupils and imagine that they see things about us that we will never know and isn’t that badass?

Our oneness as a society comes from our communal exploration of the worlds around us and within ourselves. Try this: place your hands over your heart and close your eyes. Search for your heart beat. With every inhale, your chest will rise and press into your hands and with every exhale, it will fall. I’m doing it, too, and in that, we are connected—your heartbeat and breath and mine. We all breathe the same way and we all breathe the same air. We all have hearts that are stronger than we know that endure so much so slow down and listen to it for a while.

I teach yoga because I need yoga, too. I need blocks of time where my focus is the moment. I need to remind myself not to compare, to break down walls, and to love from my insides out. I hope you’ll try it, too. At the very least, try to breathe a little more deeply today when you think about it. Look deeply into someone’s eyes—even if they’re your own in a mirror and see the way the light dances off the colors like the sun reflecting off the ocean—a million diamonds. As Neil Gaiman once said, “People carry worlds within them,” and never has that been a more profound realization than now because we live in a world with so much division and we don’t even quite understand our own selves. How can we expect peace if there is no peace within?

…And if you’ve never gone to a yoga class because you don’t think you’ll be good at it, maybe give it a shot. You might be surprised.

Namaste. Or rather, NamasBRAY.

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