Orphans Among Us

"Honja." Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

"Honja." Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

My neighbors signed my report card.

Having had the same conversation countless times in my life, I have learned that one sentence sums up a cacophony of explanations.

It is tricky, I have found, trying to explain why friends are listed as my emergency contacts, why I wake up Christmas morning in the home of people to whom I am not related, and why my parents — both living — have been anything but.

The separation started so long ago that I struggle to remember exactly when it began. When I was starting middle school my mom’s depression hit hard and fast. My dad, who understands love as a finite commodity, could not muster any for me. Loving her meant giving all of it to try to save her. His attempts and inability to do so created a stress that amplified his MS from inconvenient to disabling.

In a moment, it seemed, they were gone.

We were wealthy and Southern and had everything that went along with both: a close-knit community, punctilious social obligations, and money to stay afloat. In the world in which I grew up, everyone surely knew everything about everyone, but damn if they weren’t polite enough to pretend it was all OK. It was a magnificent masquerade.

But the truth remained: I was an orphan.

Ode on a Summer Road Trip

Photos of the "happy fools": Grant, her husband, David, and brother-in-law, Brian (with the guitar). Via of the author

Car Trouble in Indiana
By Jennifer Grant

We’re happy fools, penniless as the corn
And just as content to watch the trucks barrel by.

The fan belt is jet black and frayed.
It’s chewed licorice.
And we might have to wait here all day.

My little brother's got the two things he needs:
A pack of Black Jack chewing gum
And his guitar.
He points at a billboard ‘cross the highway
And says if we had a dollar twenty-nine
And we were two miles up, we'd be knee-deep in hamburgers....

The Temptations (and Trappings) of Silicon Valley’s Super-Rich

Forget Wall Street. Today's "best and brightest" are heading to California's Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley, and to a few other tech-startup hot spots.

Thousands of aspiring engineers, web developers, designers and marketers live in dormitories, work in open-floor bullpens, attend coding competitions to enhance their skills, and work hours that defy body chemistry. It sounds like fun.

Some work on projects that make a positive contribution to society; some are coding games, entertainment apps, and schemes to monetize friendships.

They take stock for pay and wait for the magic letters "IPO" to appear. Meanwhile, their employers fight for their loyalty with free food and party-on office cultures.

The brass ring they chase looks like Marissa Mayer, the 37-year-old former Google star who was tapped to lead Yahoo out of its extended doldrums. Like any public person, Mayer is painted in stark colors: as both immensely talented and merely lucky, an inspiring leader and a rude monster, likely to succeed and sure to fail.

Depression, Gift, and Legacy

Photo: Alexandra Thompson /

Photo: Alexandra Thompson /

Across five states and 20 years, on the couch at the psychoanalyst’s, wadded Kleenex in my hands, and kneeling on the marble floor of the confessional, incense curling through my hair, I sorted through the jagged prisms of experience that, as a child, I did not understand: What it means to be in the constant presence of someone who does not look you in the eye, who lives beyond the bar of constant preoccupation.

I didn’t understand then the tiresome vigilance I’d develop as a result—the almost unconscious, constant mental sorting to see if, at that moment, I was OK, or if others were about to abandon me forever—a reaction I’ve heard is common among children of alcoholics, and which I’ve seen myself in the needy inner-city children I have taught.

Along the way, I discovered that the seed of my mother’s sadness had been there all along, from my earliest memory, well before my father died. And by the time I was a toddler, the seed had germinated in me, too.

Even in the Midst of Violence and Tragedy, Love Wins

Love, we read over and over in the Bible, casts out fear.

The angels to Mary: Do not be afraid. To the shepherds: Do not be afraid. Do a search on that phrase and you’ll find it numerous times from 2 Kings through Revelation. When he appears to humans, our God of love is always prefacing his messages with, “Do not be afraid.”

As a mother, I want to raise brave kids who hear that message and know it to their toes. Everything is going to be all right. Love wins, as they say.

I want them to be people who know that there is a bigger picture, a spiritual promise of hope and redemptive, even when life circumstances feel frightening.

I don’t want them to lose sight of it or fail to see God’s gifts of love around them because they are afraid of what, ultimately, cannot harm them.

It’s not always easy, however, for me to be brave.

Wild Goose 2012 Reflection

The author and her daughter at Wild Goose 2012. Photo by Jana Riess via Facebook

The author and her daughter at Wild Goose 2012. Photo by Jana Riess via Facebook.

The 2012 Wild Goose Festival East wrapped up just under a week ago and I am still trying to process my experience there. As I tweeted as I drove away from the fest, I left feeling exhausted, hopeful, and blessed – that strange combination that reflected the emotional impact of my time there. And it was a truly blessed time.

I was honored with the opportunity to speak on The Hunger Games and the Gospel as well as do a Q&A on everyday justice issues at the Likewise tent. I also was able to join Brett Webb-Mitchell on a panel discussion about living with disabilities in religious communities.

But beyond those conversations I was able to help initiate, I also found a generous and safe space to connect with friends, wrestle with difficult questions, and dream of a better world. Such spaces are so rare in my life these days, that finding such at Wild Goose was a precious gift.

There are, of course, the expected complaints about the festival. It was brutally hot (and that is coming from a Texan). I never ceased to be sticky, sweaty, and stinky and there were bugs everywhere. Camping in a field where every action (and parenting attempt) is on constant display is stressful and uncomfortable. And, as with many religious gatherings, there could have been greater diversity.

For the first hour I was there as I nearly passed out trying to set up a tent in the sweltering heat, I was in a panic mode wondering why I was stupid enough to subject myself to the discomfort and imperfection of it all again this year. Yet as I entered into the experience of being a part of this crazy wonderful gathering, those issues (although ever-present) faded in significance as I found myself fitting into a place where I felt I belonged.

A Hundred Hidden Kisses (Day Five)

Photo via Christian Piatt

Zoe found some eggs in the hen house this morning. She smiles at the and the eggs just pop right out. Photo via Christian Piatt

We headed west toward Las Vegas this morning; chasing daylight toward the coast, leaving the kids in the care of grandma and grandpa.

I’ll give you one guess to figure out which one of us had a harder time leaving.

Personally, I know they’re safe at the farm, and they’ll have a lot more fun there than they would with us, driving a couple thousand miles over the next two weeks. Of course I’ll miss them, but I’ve also been looking forward to some “grown-up” time for a while. More specifically, this trip is not something most people ever get to do, let alone parents of two young kids.

And before we get to Portland and take our positions in the Big Kid Church, this is our chance to be a little bit irresponsible and childish. We can stay up late if we want. I can eat 12 Slim Jims for lunch if the mood strikes— though to be honest, the white stuff you squeeze out of those things turned me off of Slim Jims decades ago.

But I could if I wanted.

Hearts in the Trash (Day Two)

The Piatt Prius, overloaded. Photo by Christian Piatt.

The Piatt Prius, overloaded. Photo by Christian Piatt.

It turns out that packing all the belongings you need for at least three months into the back of a Prius is a challenge. Of course, being a guy it’s the kind of challenge that makes life worth living. Anyone who has ever been a Tetris junkie can appreciate the exhilaration of fitting forty-seven differently shaped items into a space made for about half the volume. Yes, I had to jump up and down on the back hatch, and several keepsakes are undoubtedly smashed beyond recognition. But by God, I got it all in there.

While I was basking in the glory of being a master packer, my family was busy feeling. Amy kept up her “four cries an hour” regimen, while three-year-old Zoe melted down whenever she realized this toy or that piece of furniture was not going with us after all. It’s a strange feeling, leaving most of our valuables behind, but for me, it’s kind of liberating. I love the idea of grabbing what I can carry and heading west until I reach the edge of the earth.

Apparently my family doesn’t share the same romantic bug. They like stability.

“This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere,” said Amy, wiping tears aside. “This is home.”

“Yeah, but we’re taking home with us,” I said, trying in vain to employ the typically male strategy of emotional deflection.

“Taking it where?”

“Good question.”