Clue in the Envelope (Center, Part 2)

Clue in the Envelope (Center, Part 2)

Continued from last week: A series of posts called Center. I’m writing this for you if «•» the news makes you feel like your sleeves are on fire «•» your life circumstances yank you in 72 directions «•» you are dispersed, distracted and distressed. «•» I’m there, too.These meditations have emerged from about a year of seeking a return to center, the potent silent core where I know who I am and can move effectively in the world. That is: Fire in the belly, not on the sleeves. Thanks for reading.  

 

But then the hand came down from the sky and offered them an envelope.
Beshamel took it, and the hand disappeared.

There’s a Hand in the Sky, Oscar de Mejo

Do you ever watch the news and feel like you’re reading hate mail?

When I say “hate mail,” I don’t just mean partisan screeds and tweet storms, or a rally where a powerful person publicly mocks a suffering person. Even policies and decisions can feel like hate mail, specifically crafted to send a message: You are beside the point. You are using our valuable time and resources. Your concerns aren’t our concerns, and you are not wanted here. 

So this seemed like a good moment to mention that

I once had a job where I answered hate mail.

Me at age 21, by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (2002)

My first job out of college was at a peace organization, in Washington, DC, in 2002-03—the year that the United States entered the Iraq War.

With all my heart, I believed in this work—but I was not a great match for this job. My job was organizing students, but I dreaded protest marches. Conference calls, coalition politics: Ugh. I’m an introvert, and—surprise!—organizing involves a lot of people. When I looked at the student organizers in our peer organizations, I felt unqualified not just in experience, but something deeper, something about me, the fabric of me. We all opposed the war, but they were so fierce and savvy.

Oddly, though, it turned out I had a knack for one thing: answering hate mail. A typical message we’d receive:

You are disgusting they should ship you off to Baghdad to get bombed with Saddam Hussein and your goddamn terrorist friends… time to shut the hell up and SUPPORT THE TROOPS

It usually got uglier from there, but you get the picture.

I wasn’t required to answer these emails, but it felt like one small thing I could offer.Even as a kid, I’d always liked writing letters.

Dear Mr. _________, Thank you for your letter. I can feel from your passion how much you love our country. I do, too. My father and grandfather were Navy veterans, and I have deep respect for soldiers. It is because we care so much about the troops that we don’t think their lives should be sacrificed unless every other option has been exhausted first. Wishing you and your family peace and blessings. Respectfully, Jen White

Maybe this was a waste of my time. Most of them didn’t reply. Or maybe it wasn’t a waste. One of them replied, simply (and sort of comically, after all that vitriol):

Sorry. You are a nice person.

The moral of this story is not, not, not Stuff your rage and be a “nice person.” I Movements need people who can organize nonviolent, righteously angry, often-noisy protests. But that wasn’t me.

Responding to noise with quiet—
not silence, but quiet—
felt honest to who I was.

So let’s talk about who you are.

℘℘℘

One of the things I mean by “center” is the naked place behind your public persona, where you are who you genuinely are. That immovable center of the labyrinth. Returning to that place, again and again, can keep us from being blown apart in a time of crisis.

Sometimes that place gets blanketed with litter and snowfall, and we can’t see it anymore. So here’s a question for you—a little shovel to unearth a glimpse. This question might seem trivial at first, so humor me. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

Take a moment and think about it. Could be a picture book. The one you read over and over because it felt good to read. Before you learned that books (and clothing, music, lingo…) can be social code, things you can use to broadcast who you are.

About a year ago, I had a sudden memory of one of mfavorite children’s books. I’d lost the book, and it’s out of print now, so I got my hands on a used copy.

There’s a Hand in the Sky, by Oscar de Mejo.

One day, “Lady Luck turns her back”on two young couples who had lived “a happy and carefree life.”

Cast into ruin, they know they must sell their homes and leave their old life behind. But first, they decide “to give one last party—a spectacular masked ball.”

Two neighborhood children, Mic and Beshamel, imagine what it would be like to attend the grand masquerade. The very next day, a hand appears in the sky, floats down to earth, and offers the children an envelope with a map to a secret passage.

They go on a creepy nighttime journey. They get to explore the ball (which is charmingly bizarre).

In the end, they also discover treasure that saves the couples. (Incidentally, that hand reaches out to the grieving couples before it ever visits the children. The grownups just don’t notice it.)

Drawing illustrations for my novel, Electric Inklings.

I’d forgotten almost all of this, but I realize now this book had a profound influence on me as a child. The whimsy, the weirdness, the wonder of that ghostly hand. The novel I later wrote as an adult is full of whimsy and weirdness and hands and envelopes. And this idea haunts my work and life: that there’s more in the world than I can see, that I am missing subtle wonders all the time.

(Also, turns out I still have a fondness for mail.)

℘℘℘

I’ve been keeping There’s a Hand in the Sky on my windowsill lately. When we talk about practices that center us, often we think of breathing and yoga and all that (and I’ll probably write about those too), but there are other shortcuts to the center. Re-reading this odd little book has become one for me.

If you feel deluged with hate mail sometimes—or just plain mail, literal and metaphorical, so many things to be sorted out and answered—I am wishing you an envelope of a different kind. One with a clue. A map. An invitation.

Getting back to that book you loved.

I wonder: Could you get a copy of it?

I wonder: Might it remind you of something important at your center? Or, if nothing else, give you a moment of returning to yourself before you look for the next right step?

(By the way, what’s your book? Leave me a comment. XOXOXO)

More in this series:

8 Replies to “Clue in the Envelope (Center, Part 2)”

  1. My very first thought was Matilda by Roald Dahl but I wonder if I dig some more in my memories I will think of an earlier picture book.

    1. Kathryn, you know it was the 30th anniversary of Matilda this week, right? I LOVED that book too. I read it till the cover was falling apart.

  2. Touching Jen. Thank you. One of my “projects” in retirement is reaching the Center, and receiving the Blessing there. You are leading me with words of the heart. Lord, in your mercy, fill Jen’s Center.

  3. My book (which I kept the original from my parents) is “Only one woof” by James Herriot. It was one of the reasons I wanted to be a vet as a child. Now I appreciate the strangeness of the dog .

  4. Flip about a horse who dreamed he could jump across a lake and he did. Tried to find it years ago. I’ll try again. And ‘Where the Wild things are’ -he wanted to be home where someone loved him best of all! I still tear up at that line.

    1. That’s awesome! I’ve never even heard of Flip… I hope you find it! Where the Wild Things are… “and his dinner was still hot.” ♥️

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