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Joshilyn Jackson

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I halved the size of my home and doubled my happiness

Downsizing

It was a hot-air popcorn popper that broke me. I bought it to recreate my own childhood movie nights for my kids, the nights when my mom would pop a huge bowl, then erase every single health benefit by soaking it in lashings of real melted butter.

After its first use, I came up from our basement movie theater to put the popper away. I thought the lower cabinets near the sink had room, so I opened one at random. There I found not one but two near-identical hot-air popcorn poppers, bought for other nostalgic nights and then lost in both my memory and the cavernous reaches of my kitchen storage.

Just like that, I was done. I had, I realized, bought the house TV told me I wanted: three levels, a rec room large enough for a pool table, home office, as much space as we could afford.

It was supposed to make me happy, but holding that third popper, I had to admit that I hated it. A big house requires organizational skills, and I don’t have even one of those. I never knew where anything was. Worse, my children usually migrated to the basement, and my husband was often upstairs. I sat in my office in the middle, searching pet adoption websites for more heartbeats to fill up the space, though we already had two dogs, two cats, and a huge aquarium full of hamsters that got each other pregnant every fifteen minutes.

“I’m not . . . homey,” I told my husband, Scott. “And we are moving.”

I had never heard of KonMari; I didn’t know to ask, “Does this give me joy?” I only asked, “Did I know I owned this?” When the guy from Goodwill saw the donation piles filling my double garage, he called his office. “Send more trucks,” he told them. It took three.

We landed in a 1949 painted brick bungalow in Decatur, just over half the size of the old house. It sits on a slab, and it boasts one small closet per person and a teeny cube of attic space. I can see exactly where most of my things are, thanks to charming period built-ins and glass fronted cabinets. I love everything about it, from the original heartwood pine flooring to the stained-glass window centered in the small dining room to the orange-tiled fireplace in the lone living room.

After the first year, however, strange things began to happen. I Craigslisted my dingy kid-proof sofa, then got a midcentury modern beauty in pale aqua from Crate & Barrel. I began haunting antique shops, on the prowl for period end tables and brushed steel table lamps. When Scott came home to find me lolling on fat orange and aqua throw pillows I had commissioned from an upholsterer, sifting through paint chips from Ace Hardware, he boggled at me, bemused.

“Who are you? Are you nesting?” he asked.

As it turns out, I am excessively homey. I just needed to be in the right home.

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2017 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

Call to Prayer: The Monastery of the Holy Spirit

It sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke: “A lady novelist walks into a monastery . . .” but I am very serious about spending the weekend sleeping, meditating, singing, and praying with forty near-silent, white-robed, celibate men.

Set in Conyers, Georgia, The Monastery of the Holy Spirit was founded in 1944 by twenty-one monks who had departed from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to establish a new community in the wilderness just east of Atlanta. Today, the Trappist brothers offer year-round retreats with topics as diverse as coping with depression, discovering God through yoga or photography, and learning the art of forgiveness. Sessions aside, I want to experience the daily rituals of monastic living, practicing silence and praying the hours.

I am not really the contemplative sort. Type A all the way, I run on stress, and I’m so competitive I had to give up Words with Friends while I still had a few. I once tried to learn to meditate at home, but I kept getting up to call my husband and report how poorly it was going. I am, however, deeply Southern, with our innate horror at bad manners. The presence of monks will keep me quiet, I’ve decided. If I can’t learn to be focused, I will at least learn to be still. 

The monastery air is cool and feels genuinely tinged with peacefulness; it’s hard to be anxious here. The cells (small white cubes with a single bed and shared bath) and the main dining hall are all silent space. I find it oddly comforting to sit in quiet camaraderie with strangers, drinking coffee with no pressure to make small talk.

Joshilyn Jackson
Joshilyn Jackson

Melissa Browning

There is a talking dining room and—my favorite—a talking patio, where I can eat my meal while admiring the gorgeous pocket garden dotted with statuary and some spectacular examples of the bonsai trees the monks here grow and tend.

The monks pray seven times a day, and five of these daily sessions are open to visitors: Vigils, Lauds, Midday Prayer, Vespers, and Compline. Most retreat-goers skip a few. They want time to walk the stations of the cross and feed the ducks at the lake, visit the museum or the large gift shop, hike the beautiful paved trails, or go to the cafe to sample the delicious biscotti and peach brandy–infused fudge the monks make in their bakery on campus.

I tell my friend Abby that my goal is to be at every single service. “Are you going to win prayer?” she asks, laughing. Abby is a therapist.

“Shut up,” I say.

I keep to the schedule, though at one point I find myself galloping harum-scarum across the lawn like Maria in The Sound of Music, skidding into my seat just as the bells ring out for Lauds.

I even stagger out of my cell at 3:45 in the morning and make my foggy way to the unheated chapel. Vigils, I decide, has been aptly named. I bypass the comfy pews to perch in one of the booths the monks use, rows of wooden boxes with hinged bench seats. They face each other across the center aisle. The booth is truly medieval, fully embodying the old idea of “mortification of the flesh.” I want the experience, though. Even more fervently, I don’t want to break into snores at Vigils.

monastery-garden_webThe monks begin their antiphonal singing of Psalms, chanting back and forth. The songs are interspersed with solemn readings from Scripture. Their hushed voices reverberate in the lofted space, and the stained glass glows with cool colors, rendering the air blue and clean.

My Psalter is open to “The Second Saturday in Ordinary Time,” but this service, especially, feels anything but ordinary. It’s like slipping backward to an era before social media, multitasking, and my ever-present iPhone. In the pre-dawn, there is only the moment and the music.

And now, the part I’ve been most afraid to try: thirty minutes of dead-silent meditation with all light extinguished. The booth pushes me upright, spine aligned, centered and present. My frantic squirrel-brain quiets, and I feel an inner ease that belies my outer posture. It is wonderful. For about five minutes.

Then my back begins to hurt, and I realize I’m sleepy and hungry. Just as I admit to myself that I can’t last another twenty-five, the bells chime. The half hour has already passed.

My weekend revolves wholly around these services. I try to imagine praying the hours while living my real life—family, work, friends, traffic, errands—impossible! But maybe I have it backward. In the world of this monastery, one does not fit real life around the prayerful quiet. It is real life.

Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 770-483-8705

The Promises We Keep

On my mother’s sixteenth birthday, my dad gave her a silver promise ring with a single pearl. Two years later, he spent every penny of his paper route savings on a one-carat Tiffany diamond set in platinum. They were working-class kids from a tiny Alabama town; no one had ever seen anything like it.

Fifty years into their marriage, we met for a long weekend in Savannah to celebrate: Mom and Dad, my brother and his wife, me and my husband, Scott. The trip was planned around a perfect storm of childlessness. All four of the grandkids had dispersed to camp and college and church youth retreats.

It was strange to be so reduced, strange but also wonderful, as if the clock had rolled back to when my brother and I were still “the kids” instead of parents ourselves.

We acted like three young married couples on honeymoons, too, not like people celebrating a golden anniversary. We stayed in separate hotels—the perfect way to combine a family celebration with a romantic getaway—and met up every morning at breakfast to explore my home state’s history.

We’d split into couples after lunch for naps or solo adventures. My favorite side trip? A visit to Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home. Scott took a picture of me there, which I emailed to a fellow Southern author. “Look,” I wrote to her. “I found the Mother Ship!”

We all came back together for dinner, telling each other stories we already knew, tales from our shared history. We finished each other’s sentences and said our family punch lines in tandem over bottles of good wine and plates heaped high with the freshest seafood.

On our last day, we chartered a boat to take us out into the glorious wetlands. Near the end of the route, a tiny dolphin swam up, curious. The captain said he was a baby who had likely never seen a boat before. He was so new his belly was still pink.

He kept sidling toward us, but one of the six adults caring for him would intercede, appearing between us and herding him away. Meanwhile, the rest of the pod came in close and poked their heads up to peer at us, clearly worried.

The baby was so insistent, though, and after about twenty minutes the adults decided we did not have bad intentions. They let him come in close to explore under the boat and all around us. The whole pod hovered near, circling and poking their heads up, keeping eyes on us, just in case. We could have reached out and touched the baby more than once, but we didn’t want to stress his vigilant guardians.

I leaned my head on Scott’s shoulder and looked down at my right hand, where my parent’s old pearl promise ring now resides. One day I’ll give it to their youngest grandchild, my own daughter. The ring is how our family started, but it represents a different kind of promise now: to do my best to raise my kids as I was raised, with boundless love, support, protection and encouragement.

At last the baby finished his explorations. The pod wheeled away, sleek bodies slipping effortlessly through the water, the adults surrounding their dearest. Our captain turned the boat around, pointing us all toward home.

New York Times bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Decatur, Georgia. She is the author of eight novels: gods in Alabama; Between, Georgia; The Girl Who Stopped Swimming; Backseat Saints; A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty; Someone Else’s Love Story; The Opposite of Everyone; and The Almost Sisters.

9. Binge on books

The annual book fest makes me so proud to be an Atlantan. A quarter of a million folks come together over Labor Day weekend for the AJC Decatur Book Festival to hear from renowned authors—and enjoy local musicians, craft beers, cooking demos, a children’s parade, poetry slams. They even take workshops to release their own inner scribes. The fest invades downtown Decatur, packing every nook and cranny with odd pleasures. It’s the 
weekend I look forward to most all year.

I’ve gotten to rub elbows with people whose books I have read 
into tatters: Lee Smith, Michael Connelly, Tom Franklin, Rick Bragg, Lee Child, Sara Gruen.

As a writer, it’s such an illicit pleasure to connect with readers who know all my imaginary friends so intimately, and who will lift a glass and gossip with me about them.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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