Last Saturday I awoke with a nasty bellyache, a sharp throbbing pain in the middle of my gut. No matter what I tried, it would not abate. I contorted my body into yoga poses. Drank bubbly water mixed with apple cider vinegar. Sucked on fennel seeds. Sipped peppermint tea. Finally, I gave in and gagged down four TUMS. All to no avail. After an hour of grimacing, I took to my bed and found that if I lay on my right side and tucked my left leg up by my chest, the pain diminished significantly. But only if I stayed in that exact position.
Needing a diversion, I extended my left arm backwards and grabbed a random book from the messy pile on my night table. My hand retrieved “Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood,” written by Jamie Sumner.
I groaned. I kinda sorta didn’t want to read it. I wanted something FUN, something LIGHT, something maybe a little IMMORAL or IRREVERENT to distract me from my discomfort; not a book about GOD and INFERTILITY. As I again reached backwards toward the jumble of books, a voice in my head shouted, “Lisa! Think about all the shit you’ve been going through and the fact that this woman in Tennessee, a woman you’ve never even met, has been so supportive. And lest you forget: she wrote an amazing review of your book. She mailed you her book because she wants you to read it, you idiot. Don’t be such a selfish jerk.”
I opened the book.
Last year, in an effort to promote my new book, “Rash, A Memoir,” I asked some fellow writers in a private Facebook group if anyone would be willing to read and review it. Jamie Sumner was the first person to volunteer.
After she received the book she emailed me: “The cover is so COOL. It makes me want to scratch at the surface. Literally. What would Bali and angst smell like if we made it Scratch N’ Sniff?” This, naturally, endeared me to her.
After she published a remarkably flattering review of my book on her blog, I wrote to thank her and, soon enough, we began emailing one another. We shared a few personal stories, but mostly, we discussed the world of publishing. Things like how difficult it is to find the right agent. The niggling self-doubts that often accompany the writing life. Nothing too deep or needy. But when my agent sent me a curt email containing three rejections of my latest novel, I forwarded it to Jamie, along with a some pathetic whining.
I instantly regretted it and sent an apology letter, admitting that I have ADHD and sometimes over-share my woes onto unsuspecting listeners. I didn’t want our new friendship to veer into overwhelming intimacy, and offered to back off.
Jamie refused to let me withdraw: “We are both not just here for advice, but for support in all the things that make us human. I will take anything you can throw at me. You are lovely, in all your ADHD glory. I was reading Anne Lamott’s ‘Operating Instruction’ and came across this: ‘I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful, you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness.’ Let’s keep each other from the otherness. I think that’s why we met.”
It wasn’t until after this exchange that Jamie let on that she had a book of her own coming out.
“That’s fantastic,” I said, thinking I would be first in line to offer to review it. “What is it about?”
“The book is about motherhood and all the expectations met and unmet,” she wrote. “It’s a faith-based memoir of sorts with a hefty dose of sass because I can’t handle the Christian books that read like they should be written in cursive or made into a Hallmark movie.”
A Christian book? She wrote a Christian book?
While I knew from our emails that Jamie had a bit of a religious disposition, I was rattled by the disclosed weight of it. I hadn’t realized what a true blue, God-fearing, Bible-toting, commandment-following, Christian she truly was.
As opposed to me: a Buddhist-curious, commandment-breaking, non-believer.
Before I could throw the proverbial baby out with the holy bath water, I decided to keep an open mind. As a constant seeker of truth and knowledge; someone who meditates and strives to be a more compassionate person, I knew it shouldn’t matter that our spiritual paths resembled a Y in the road with huge gap between. We made each other laugh, and I got the sense that she didn’t care that I slept in on Sundays instead of communing with God. (Though I did tread carefully with my emails, backspacing whenever I accidently took the Lord’s name in any form approaching vain.)
Besides which, Jamie made me feel safe, listened to—enough so that by this point in our virtual friendship, I opened up more of my own personal drawers and admitted that I was struggling with my mother, who had been recently diagnosed with dementia. In fact, I was flying down to Florida in a few days to move her into a memory care facility.
I wrote to Jamie from Florida and detailed some of the not-so-fun challenges I was facing. The sadness and loss that were weighing heavy on my heart.
“I am tired for you,” she replied, “which does not change the situation one bit, but might make you feel better. I love you and I’ll be shooting prayers into the sky like arrows.”
Having someone pray for me was an entirely new experience, but I liked it. I pictured this smart pretty woman with her eyes closed, asking an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing Being she worships to throw a little extra love in my direction. The image of her prayer arrows, like bursts of light flashing across the skies, comforted me more than I ever could have imagined.
Which is why I nicknamed her
“Unbound” is listed under the Christian Books and Bibles category on Amazon. I knew from the description that Jamie would be perching her personal saga alongside Biblical females, and I was ready for those snippets of Scripture to detract from, or even derail, my interest in the central story. Still, I was determined to at least read a few chapters, for the sake of our friendship.
Crunched up as I was like a Roly-Poly bug in my bed, I started reading Jamie’s book at 11:00 AM. I read it while sipping the cup of chamomile tea my kind husband brought me. I read it when I began to feel well enough to sit up and lean against the headboard. I continued reading it after nibbling a light dinner, and even skipped watching the Netflix show I’d been binging on so I could keep turning pages. I couldn’t not read it I was so caught up.
I finished it that night.
I was surprised—and ineffably relieved—by how much I enjoyed the book. There was no didactic Sunday School flogging. Instead, Jamie deftly and humorously weaved Christian narratives through her own adventures and misadventures with the lyrical grace of a folklorist. A whole lot of women in a whole lot of books have spilt their procreative beans, but Jamie’s voice, cadence, and craft made for a drama that kept me on edge, guessing, wishing, laughing, crying, and, yes, sometimes even praying, along with her.
After I finished the book, I stared at the snapshot of Jamie, her husband, Jody, and their three children she’d inserted into the book. I smiled, turned out the light, and kept the image of those five shining faces behind my eyes until I finally fell asleep. The next morning I thumbtacked the photo to my bulletin board.
Now, whenever I need a moment of grace, all I have to do is glance to my left.