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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Basket Full of Love

I love Easter, and it started right here. Right here with one-year-old Baby Jenny, her proud papa, and a bunny named Thumper.  You know you have parents who want to give you the world when they gift you with a live bunny for Easter.  I love the look on my face in this picture.  It is a look of pure, unadulterated joy and intrigue, mixed with maybe even a little bit of disbelief. Family legend is that Thumper peed on Dad's lap when the flash of the camera went off to capture this photo. Thinking about the chaos that ensued one second after this picture was taken makes it even funnier.

People talk a lot about Christmas spirit, and that's all well and good.  But in my family, Easter spirit was a pretty big deal too.  Easter was always a time of laughter and love, of togetherness and affection.  It represented an appreciation for doing the same old thing, year after year, and knowing that sometimes that is precisely all you need.

The Easter festivities always began in the same way on the evening of Good Friday.  Pot after pot of eggs would be boiled, leaving each and every kitchen window covered in unrelenting steam.  Never ones to scale things back, our family would set out to color a good six or seven dozen eggs.  The air in the old farmhouse will fill with the smells of sulfur and vinegar, smells that repelled and attracted us simultaneously.  I distinctly remember sitting at our old rickety kitchen table, newspapers laid out and every mismatched coffee mug in the house filled with a different color of dye.  And there we would sit, for hours, talking and laughing and doing pretty much the same thing we did every year prior.  There was the compulsory "watermelon egg" and the never-ending pursuit for Dad to perfect his "two-tone egg."  The last two dozen eggs were probably colored in disinterested haste, but even that was part of the tradition.

Easter Sunday always brought about a new set of delights.  We girls would don our Easter outfits, usually something pink and frilly and a little on the scratchy side.  Leaving the house practically in the dark of the night, we would head to church for the sunrise service.  We loved the sunrise service because instead of a traditional communion, we got donuts and pastries.  From there we would head to "the big city" to visit our Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat, where our cousins and grandparents would be waiting for us in eager anticipation.

Now one thing I can say about Aunt Pat, she knew how to do it up right when it came to Easter.  Long before our arrival, the adults in the family would hide dozens and dozens of plastic eggs out in the expansive yard. When we "country cousins" arrived, the annual Easter egg hunt could begin.  We would run through the yard with our Easter baskets, breathlessly exclaiming another round of excitement for each egg found. When the last of the eggs had been retrieved, the family would gather round to see what was inside them.  Many of course held jelly beans and malted milk balls, and a few held shiny coins.  Others held tiny slips of paper commanding us to do one thing or another, and our favorites were those that included these explicit instructions: "Go get $1 from Grandpa Swearingen."  Year after year, Grandpa would make a long, drawn out scene of shock and dismay at having to part with his $1 bill, and year after year, we grandkids would belly laugh at his feigned misfortune and fussing.  It was the family joke that never got tired.

There's a reason we all love tradition.  The customs we create as a family ground us and give us something to hang onto when times get tough.  I look back at my childhood, and I know it wasn't always easy.  There were hardships and worries that sometimes came in tidal waves.  But when I think of my childhood, I really don't think about the hard times much at all.  What I think about is Easter:  doing the same things over and over, and loving it every time.  Sometimes, it seems, knowing exactly what to expect is the most exciting thing of all.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

I believe it was Oprah or some other famous person who tells us what to think who proclaimed, "Love is in the details."  It has become my mantra over the years and has been a driving force behind my work, my gift-giving, and most importantly, my party-throwing.  To make things perfect, I just need a good theme to latch onto.  A theme, I tell you!  A theme will always make things better.

Many years ago, my friend Colleen and I went to The American Club in Kohler for an overnight spa excursion.  While we were there, she shared the news with me that she was going to be having a baby.  I remember how excited we were, and we sat in that hotel room in our post-massage glow and talked and talked and talked and talked.  In fact, if memory serves, we were so invested in our talking that we may have economized our time by taking a bubble bath together in the huge jacuzzi tub.  Which sounds kind of weird when you write it in a blog posted on the world wide web, but it seemed perfectly normal to us at the time.

Having worked at two different jobs together, Colleen and I had a lot of history and knew a lot of the same people.  I knew I wanted to throw her a baby shower, but it would have to be a different kind of party to include both men and women.  I picked a Friday night in September, and invited a whole bunch of people - many of whom Colleen hadn't seen in years and she had no idea I was inviting.  I still remember the little ditty I put in the invitation, too.  It went something like this:

The days are dwindling
The time has drawn near
Soon we'll be looking 
At a new baby Dier.

Your attendance is needed
A baby gift is not
But if it makes you feel better
Bring a book for the tot!

As the day of the party approached, I attended to every possible detail to make the party perfect.  I purchased a lovely little bookshelf so everyone could place their favorite children's book in it for Baby Dier. I purchased my own favorite book of all time, Free to Be You and Me.  I hired Colleen's brother-in-law Tony to do the catering and picked a fantastic array of delectable treats for the evening.  To make it a little extra special, I ordered a specialty cake from Hartter's Bakery - a delicious, double chocolate cake with a layer of raspberry filling.  This was going to be one special night.

The day of the party arrived, and I took the day off of work to attend to every last detail.  The house was immaculately cleaned and the backyard was prepped for a bonfire, because my house was really too small to comfortably fit the 25 people who had said they were coming.  Feeling confident, I looked around and surveyed the situation.  Final assessment? I was perfectly pleased with myself.

About 30 minutes prior to arrival of the first guests, there was a clap of thunder so loud it frightened the dog and then the skies opened up. Although Wisconsin is not known for having a monsoon season, we had one that night.  It didn't just rain, it rained sideways.  It rained so hard you could not see five feet in front of you. I quickly sprang into action to bring tables and chairs inside and put them in places they didn't really belong and didn't really fit.  It was going to be a cozy evening.

Colleen and her husband arrived, and soon after guests braved the unrelenting storm to come, too.  Surprise after surprise was unveiled. Your brother-in-law is catering!  Your co-workers from the homeless shelter you worked at ten years ago are here!  Your baby is getting books, all kinds of them!  Yaaay!

I took a break from the festivities to go to the kitchen and get things rolling.  I wanted people to eat and I had to get that started.  As I turned the corner and entered the kitchen, I could not believe the horror before my eyes.  My 105-pound dog Jethro - a dog I liked to say was of the "big dumb yellow variety" - had seized the opportunity to lick the frosting off two full edges of my beautiful, expensive, decadent perfect Hartter's cake. Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at it and for a moment I froze. Shortly after that, I panicked.  Then I think I might have screamed.  I quickly narrowed my choices in that moment down to only two:  I could laugh, or I could cry. Truthfully, I probably did a little of both.

As tends to be true in life, everything about that night turned out to be perfectly imperfect.  People who had not been together for years laughed and told stories and gave warm hugs to one another. Although we were short on seating space in that tiny house, we were not short on love. While Jethro was in some serious trouble that night, his shenanigans helped make a memory that would last.  And in case anyone is wondering: yes, we still ate the cake.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Story I Never Told

I remember it now as vividly as if it only happened yesterday.  It was a sunny, brisk April morning eleven long and short years ago.  I woke up at my usual time and immediately thought something was off - my then-husband was already up and out of the house.  I didn't recall him saying he had an early morning meeting, but I quickly shook it off and got ready for work in my usual way.  On the way out the door, I shooed the cat out of the way and patted the dog on the head.  I went out to the garage, got in my car and saw a gold manila envelope on the car seat.  When I opened up the envelope and looked at the contents, everything changed in the flash of a single moment - life as I knew it would never be the same.

Without a single utterance or warning of any sort, my husband had left divorce papers on my car seat.

I really don't even have words to describe the moments that followed. Shock, disbelief, panic, and rage were all hurling at me with the force of a Mac truck.   I felt a hurt so deep, so searing, that I thought I might not make it through the day.  Truthfully, I'm still not sure how I did.  I ran inside to try calling him at work. Of course he did not pick up.  I paced and I sobbed and I screamed.  I had no recourse, and in that moment, no way to know what was happening.  I have had some days in my life, days that were truly, deeply terrible. Days of loss and grief, of confusion and pain. But I've never had a day, before or since, that shook me to the core like this fateful day.

In the days that followed, I searched for answers but got very few.  After thirteen years in a relationship that was almost entirely devoid of conflict, it appeared that my cool, calm and usually collected husband had gone off the deep end.  There was an evening about ten days after the divorce-papers-on-the-car-seat incident when he really lost his mind.  One sassy question from me along the lines of, "Why do you have to be like that?" unleashed thirteen years of suppressed rage.  After a massive blow up, the likes I had never seen in this otherwise almost passionless relationship, the evening ended with him laying on the bed in our spare bedroom sobbing a deep, guttural sob - a sob I could not in good conscience ignore. Balancing my own sense of safety with all of my other sensibilities, I went upstairs and laid on the bed with him - consoling him, crying with him, caressing his hair - and promising him that even though we were in the middle of a mess right now, we would both be okay on the other side of it.  It was my last act of affection toward him, and it came from a genuine place.  It was also the last night I ever spent in that house.

If there was a victim in this story, it would make sense to conclude it was me.  He made it so easy - too easy - so I let him take the blame.  Friends and family stood by my side and made speculations about the how and the why of it all, none of which put him in a favorable light.  A few months after our divorce was final, he was engaged to a co-worker of his and all of the unanswered questions seemed to have answers. It was easy and convenient to end the story there, so I did just that.

But time has a way of simultaneously gnawing away at the hard exterior shell and softening the edges to reveal the truth. What I didn't say at the time, and really haven't said to many until this very moment, is that I hold myself 100% responsible for the demise of my marriage.  I'm not letting him off the hook entirely, because I actually believe that both people in a relationship have 100% of the responsibility for it.  But this is the story I never told.

When I was 22 years old, I met a perfectly lovely man and willed myself to love him.  Because he met everyone else's approval, I fell deeply in love with was the idea of being in love with him. The deeper I got into the relationship, the more unstable my state of mental health became.  Over time, I developed a full-blown panic disorder, with my body protesting (sometimes violently so) the choices I was making.  I ignored all of this and did what I "wanted" anyway.  Now this is not to say that he was a bad guy - quite the contrary, actually.  He is a good man, with a good heart.  For a variety of reasons, though, he just wasn't good for me. I knew it, and I married him anyway. Thereafter I invested myself in every part of my life except my marriage. I distracted myself with work and school and social opportunities.  I gave the best and most important parts of me to everyone else.  In the context of our relationship, I was moody and demanding and kind of lazy - all the while being funny and charismatic and hard-working in every other aspect of my life.  He desperately wanted children and I held back, knowing the relationship was not strong enough to handle it.  Over time, I became little more than a roommate - and kind of a pain in the ass roommate at that.  It eventually got to a point where even I really didn't like me.  The long and the short of it is, he got the worst of me.  And he got it for thirteen long years.

So the bottom line and the story I've never told is this:  he did what I never would have had the courage to do.  He examined what really had become of our relationship - not what we portrayed to the outside world - and recognized that not only was it not working, it really wasn't even salvageable.  He may not have chosen the most compassionate way to end the relationship, but he ended it with good reason and the only way he knew how.  In the end, he gave us both a chance at happiness.  And while he left me with many gifts in all our years together, that was the most loving gift of all.  Today, almost exactly eleven years later, my heart is grateful and my life is full.  I hope the same is true for him.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Gift of Wisdom

As of 3:42 p.m. today, I will be 45 years old.  I suppose that I have accumulated some wisdom along the way. If only I could have shared that wisdom with my younger self.  But without all the mistakes and missteps I have made, I would not be exactly as I am today.  And truth be told, I think who I am today is pretty all right. Nevertheless, given the chance, here is what I would tell my younger self:

5-year-old Jen:  In a few months, you are going to start going to school. You will continue to go to school for a very long time.  Most of the time, you are going to love it.  Sometimes, you will not like it as much, but that's okay -  in schooling endurance is everything.  It is important to be a life-long learner.  It is also important to seek knowledge and truth in everything that you do.  What is more important than knowledge and truth, however, is having the skills to find them. School is also where you will learn one of the most important keys to a happy life:  how to make and keep good friends.  Go learn and occasionally fail and have fun. School will represent some of the happiest times of your life. 

10-year-old Jen:  Oh, Jen.  You are only ten years old, but you already have the weight of the world on your shoulders.  You should be giggling and frolicking and living without a care in the world, but for now that is just not you.  My challenge to you is this:  trust that the world will always be right, just sometimes in a complicated way.  Learn to lighten up and find the simple joys in life.  In a few months, you are going to have a baby sister and you will have to show her the way.  What you don't know yet, though you will soon enough, is that sometimes your baby sister will show you the way.  Your world is about to open up in a brilliant and lovely new way.  Embrace it.

15-year-old Jen:  I'll give you this:  Fifteen is hard.  Thirteen and fourteen weren't so great either.  It's hard to straddle the jagged line between being a kid and an adult.  I promise that you are going to come out on the other side of it, and magnificently so.  But first, there will be some significant challenges ahead.  Those challenges are going to hurt like hell but they are going to soften your sharp edges.  They are going to make you compassionate toward other suffering souls.  And they are going to later give you clarity about your life's work, which will be work that defines the very essence of who you are.  Hang in there.  You won't always see it, but you will be better than fine on the other side.  You will also be a much kinder soul. 

20-year-old Jen:  You know this already - college is one of the best times of your life so far.  It will continue to be a cherished memory and a highlight for the rest of your days, so make the very best of it.  You are learning all the things you need to know to make it in this complicated world on your own - a scary proposition.  Most of the things you are learning can't be found in a book.  You are learning how to help other people, how to lead, and how to mend a broken heart.  You are also learning that you are capable of making big mistakes, but equally capable of recovering from them and not repeating them.  Take it easy on the "Shots of Fun" but not too easy - you only get one chance in your life to legitimately act this foolishly. Enjoy it.

25-year-old Jen:  You think you have the world by the tail right now, but here's a little something for you to think about:  you don't.  What might make you a better version of you would be a little more humility. You are capable of great things, but you have a lot to do to prove yourself before that can happen.  You have your work cut out for you.  If you make the right choices, pick the right mentors, and follow your heart you will get there in due time.  Be vigilant in your pursuit of excellence. 

30 year old Jen:  I am proud of you for finishing your graduate degree. This degree is really just a piece of paper, but it's a piece of paper that will open up all kinds of opportunities for you.  Your career is about to really begin now.  As usual, you have your ideas of how things will transpire and you think you are in control. I must caution you, that is not the case.  You will have a tendency to get really upset when things don't go as you've planned.  Let that go - the worry and the angst aren't worth it.  The universe will always take care of you and deliver you exactly where you need to be.  Trust that, and appreciate the lessons along the way. 

35-year-old Jen:  So your life just got turned upside down, and you feel like a hot mess.  The truth is, you are a hot mess.  The other truth is, you created it.  Yet another truth is, you needed it.  You are going to head into a dark place, and you are going to take a good, long, painstaking look at your ugliest self.  When you are done with that, you are going to make a vow of responsibility for your own happiness.  You will find joy in places and in ways you didn't know possible.  You are going to travel, make new friends, and find true success in your life's work.  The passion inside of you is going to open up, and you will find your authentic self.  Hang in there....at the end of this bumpy ride you will arrive at a most spectacular place. 

40-year-old Jen:  I think you are really starting to get it, and that warms my heart.  You are learning to let go and to have faith.  You are not so afraid of change.  You have confidence in yourself as a leader, and you've learned how to lift up those around you.  You laugh more, fret less.  You care about your impact on the world.  You still have worries and doubts, but that only makes you human.  You have a new set of career opportunities before you that are going to challenge you in ways you may not be fully prepared for - hold on tight, and sharpen those diplomacy skills.  Above all else, keep working on achieving balance.  You'll be needing it more than ever before.  

What I will tell myself today:  Your life is imperfectly perfect.  You are doing work every day that inspires you and lights you up.  You are surrounded by people who believe in you, and a couple of haters who keep you humble.  You are armed with the strength to make it through adversity of any sort.  You have a beautiful home and two terrible cats to love.  You are not wealthy by any means, but you have everything you could ever want.  Above all else, you have the best possible family and friends, and this continues to be a source of joy you are not even entirely sure you deserve.  You have it all, my dear Jennifer.  Tend to all of it with loving care, because the gratitude you have found will continue to bless you a million times over.  Now go get a pedicure and eat some cake - you deserve it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Church of Santa's Misfit Toys

Seven years and a day ago, my family said goodbye to a most remarkable man.  He was the Dr. Reverend Thomas Barth, but to me he was simply "Uncle Tom."

It is a rare and beautiful thing when you have the opportunity to connect with someone whose spirit is so loving, so disarming, that you can truly be yourself - all of you- without hesitation.  Keenly and wisely connected to a God greater than himself, there is no question that Uncle Tom was steadfast in his Christian beliefs.  But unlike many others who so deeply believe and identify themselves as Christians, Uncle Tom was comfortable in the midst of anyone.  Atheists and agnostics were not welcomed in with a plan to convince them otherwise; they were welcomed in with a plan to love and accept exactly as they were.  I will say this boldly:  more than anyone else I've ever known, Uncle Tom embodied the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Uncle Tom's story, as he told it to me, was that when his older sister Sally - my mother- was on her deathbed, she cautioned him, "Life is short.  Go be you."  This life-altering exchange put him on a trajectory to take an honest inventory of himself and his life.  Over the course of the next 18 months, Uncle Tom lost and buried many more people in his life, including his own parents. He struggled with his own health challenges and faced his own mortality.  As dark and lonely as this time of his life was, it ultimately led to him ending his marriage and telling his family after 40 years of painful secrecy that he was gay.

Now I would love to tell you that my family applauded his efforts to be true to himself and sprang into action to provide loving support, but that simply is not the case.  It took years and countless hurtful exchanges for some people in the family to arrive at a place of peaceful acceptance.  I have no doubt that there were some very dark days where Uncle Tom felt the searing pain of a broken heart.  Even so, he stayed the course.  He had left the corporate world so he could follow his passion and return to seminary school.  He eventually received his doctorate in theology and was installed as a pastor in the United Church of Christ.  After being part of a few different churches, he found his home as the pastor for a small, fledgling church in Waukegan, Illinois - a church I had affectionately dubbed "The Church of Santa's Misfit Toys."  It was the perfect place for him to be, because no one can heal a broken soul like one that has been previously broken itself.

It was over the course of these years of painful growth that Uncle Tom's life really coalesced.  He met and married a partner who was a partner in every sense of the word, and was eventually assigned the term of endearment "Aunt Bill."  He built an incredible allegiance with his two children, Todd and Carrie, and loved them as fiercely as I've seen any parent love.  When he moved just an hour away from my sister and me, he welcomed us in as part of his "Christmas family" and treated us as affectionately as he did everyone in his life. He told us stories and made us laugh with his silly, outlandish antics, and he helped my sister and me keep the memory of our mom alive.  He even provided mentorship to our friend Matt, and helped him understand that it was possible to fully reconcile being gay and a Christian - a reconciliation Matt desperately needed and carries with him to this day.

Greater than any of this, though, Uncle Tom lived out the values he so frequently preached.  In short, he forgave. It is the single most important thing I learned from him, that the key to a happy life is forgiveness.  He lived it, he breathed it, he taught it by example.  His forgiveness of those who had hurt and betrayed him in his times of desperate need was one of the most profoundly beautiful things I have seen.

He left us in the blink of an eye, but Uncle Tom stays with all of us in subtle and tender ways.  A cardinal landing on a branch to pause and sing their sweet song, a bowl of chocolate ice cream before going to bed, a hearty laugh at the absurdity of life.   Seven years and a day have gone by, and I've never stopped missing him.  I've also never stopped knowing my life was richer for having had him in it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Erin Go Braghahaha

I believe that a life well-lived should be a collection of happy memories, and there is no greater way to accumulate these memories than to travel. I consider it my great fortune to have taken many fantastic trips in my lifetime, but none has been so great as my trip to Ireland in 2001.  There were a lot of factors that contributed to this trip's greatness.  First and foremost, I was with four of my favorite people:  my sister, my then-husband Tim, and my dear friends Kate and Eric.  My life was in a really great place, too:  I had finished my graduate degree a year prior, I had just landed the job of my dreams and my sister was moving to Milwaukee. But aside from all of that, there is something just blissfully, perpetually celebratory about Ireland.  We ran with that sentiment, and made this trip uniquely ours.  The trip was 8 days of unadulterated joy (and 20 minutes of rage).

I love laughing.  Laughing's my favorite. 
Day One: Preparing for Take-off.  This is a picture of me in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Our flight was going to be leaving in a couple of hours, and we had nothing but time on our hands.  I distinctly remember what we were talking about when someone in the group snapped this not-so-flattering photo of me.  It was a high-brow, very intellectual discussion about ... pinworms.  Yes, pinworms. Apparently pinworms are little parasites that can live in your colon and rectum.  And apparently the way you determine if you have pinworms is to put a piece of Scotch tape on your anus.  For some reason, that visual led me into uncontrollable hysterics. Now what I can't tell you is why we were having this discussion, because I am confident no one among us was suspected of having pinworms. Anyway, this is the kind of laughter I experienced for the next eight days. I loved every minute of it. 

Sorry, Tim.  We had to crop you out for obvious reasons.
Day Two:   We Made It!  Look at us.  We have arrived, and we couldn't be happier.  This was us, about an hour after getting off the plane.  I think it was about 9:00 in the morning, and we stopped for our first beer. There would be many, many more beers to follow.  But this one was special because a) we were drinking Guinness in Ireland for crying out loud, and b) the barkeep made a little imprint of a shamrock in the froth of said Guinness. Shortly after this picture we ate some bad Irish food and rode in a horse carriage.  Then, jet lag and fatigue set in so we checked into a hotel and took a nice, long nap. When we woke up we drank many more beers in a variety of Dublin pubs.  This beer-drinking business would be a recurring theme for us. 

Strangely, Finbar has all of his teeth.  He is an Irish anomaly.
Day Three: Exploring Dublin.  Dublin is a fantastic city, and we had an absolute blast turning it upside down.  We did a few traditionally touristy things, including a tour of the Guinness brewery and a visit to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. After a long day of touring the city, mostly by foot, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Tim forgot to pack black socks for the trip, which prompted Eric to note that he was probably the only person to ever step foot in this fancy-schmancy establishment wearing both white socks and a Mickey Mouse watch.  The dinner, in the end, was over-priced and quite underwhelming. We needed to shake it off so we got off the beaten path to find a local pub.  This was our last night in Dublin, and we were ready for some fun.  Also ready for some fun was a group of local soccer fans in the pub we happened upon.  They had just attended a soccer match and were primed for a night of debauchery because the following day was a national holiday, the Queen's birthday. (They didn't like the Queen, but they liked the idea of a day off of work.)  We proceeded to have an evening of absolute, unbridled hilarity.  The picture is of me with my new friend, Finbar.  He, like all of his friends, was crazy funny and made me adore everything about this unforgettable night.  

Day Four: Heading into Northern Ireland.  We made a decision when planning our trip to go to Northern Ireland.  Mind you, most tourists don't. But again, we had heard and read many wonderful things, and we wanted to do things our way.  So after our night of Dublin debauchery, we got up the next morning and had a traditional Irish breakfast (they are big on breakfast, I tell ya) where the innkeeper, quite hungover himself, declared, "This bread is not so wonderful."  It was such a funny and polite way to proclaim his distaste for the bread, that we have continued to use that phrase to this day. We checked out and started to make our way to Belfast.  We weren't in a hurry, and this ended up being one of my favorite days.  One of our first stops was at this incredible cemetery.  Jess is standing here with a more contemporary gravestone, but there were grave markers from centuries prior.  (You know a date is old when it has "A.D." after it.)  We continued to make our way up the coast, and stopped for lunch (and, you guessed it, beers) in a small coastal pub where we had the most incredible fish and chips.  It was absolute perfection.  When we got to Belfast, we were acutely aware of the tension - there was no way to miss it.  I will never forget riding through the streets on the way to our hotel, and seeing the curbs of each side of the street - one side painted orange and green, the other painted red, white and blue.  There were men, pacing the streets, armed with AK-47s. There was a helicopter perpetually flying overhead.  It was all a little unnerving, but I'm still glad we did it. About two weeks after we got home, "The Troubles" reportedly kicked up again.  Scary stuff.  

If you don't turn the sound off, I will cut you.
Day Five:  Getting out of Dodge.  I'll be honest, I wasn't sad to leave Belfast. We left and made our way to the Bushmills Distillery, where we mixed things up for our liver a little bit by giving it some hard liquor instead of beer.  This was a beautiful part of the country, with stunning landscape and rolling hills. We stayed at the inn on the Bushmills property.  That night, we made our way into town and had an incredible meal.  In fact, although the Irish aren't known for their cuisine, we had many incredible meals while there.  That evening was low-key; all this drinking and touring was starting to wear us down.  I vividly remember the depth of my fatigue at this point in the trip. And, much like a toddler, when I haven't had enough rest I might be prone to get a little cranky.  This particular evening, we were relaxing in the quiet hotel lounge.  Tim and I were playing cribbage, and Jess was writing in her journal. Eric was quietly reading a book.  And Katie? Why Katie had hijacked my Travel Yahtzee game and was playing it over and over...with the sound on. Beep beep, beepbeepbeepbeep! Those who know me well, know that I am very sensitive to noise. This is true ten-fold when I am tired.  I asked Katie to play the game without the sound on, and she politely declined.  I asked again and she pretended she didn't hear me. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep for a couple more minutes, and I lost my fool head.  I remember storming up to our hotel room and sobbing because I was so mad. Jess had to do her best to talk me off the proverbial ledge. It's super funny now, because it was really, really stupid.  But that is the kind of fatigue and stupidity that can happen when you travel.  Especially when you travel with people who know your every button (and aren't afraid to push it) crammed into a Volkswagen Jetta all day, every day.  The next day, after a good night's rest, our own version of The Troubles had fully dissipated.  This picture is an airport re-enactment of Katie stubbornly playing Travel Yahtzee...with the sound on. 

This is what love looks like. 
Day Six: Giant's Causeway and Other Cool Stuff.  We left Bushmills and made our way to Giant's Causeway.  It was, in a word, breathtaking. It was the kind of place where you can sit for hours and just look.  Take it all in. Think about your place in this world.  Give thanks.  And that is just what we did.  After a few hours, we made our way out of Northern Ireland and down toward County Sligo. On the way there, I insisted that I needed to see some authentic Irish sheep. As we made our way through the rolling hills of Ireland, we happened upon a sheep farm.  We could see them, maybe a thousand of them, off in the distance.  We pulled to the side of the road and went up to the fence.  Katie had the brilliant idea to try lure the sheep over by pulling some grass and offering it to them. Sheep aren't known for their high IQ, so they when they saw humans at the fence, they came a runnin' - all of them.  They made their way over to us, and looked at Katie trying to offer them grass through the fence.  The look on their little sheep faces was as if to say, "Uh, lady...we already got us some grass. About a thousand acres of it back here. Thanks for nothing." Fearing a full-on angry stampede, we ran back to the car as fast as we could and laughed our fool heads off. It was the funniest moment in Ireland, for sure. 

The Queen and her castle.
Eventually we made our way to County Sligo, and when we got there we stayed in a castle.  This is a picture of Katie standing in front of it. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and there was everything to love about it. It was a small establishment, so after another incredible dinner the staff sat and talked (and drank) with us. They admitted that the castle was haunted and they had all kinds of tales to prove it.  I slept with one eye open that night. 

"Come on, Major!  Let's go!"
Day Seven: Horsing Around.  The next morning, we had arranged to go horseback riding on the adjoining grounds of the castle.  What I loved about this is that I would never have chosen this activity on my own - I really only did it because Katie insisted.  I think that is one of the great thing about traveling with others - they convince you to get out of your comfort zone. This is a picture of Jess on her horse, Major. Major was a laid back fella, and he was mostly interested in snacking.  Throughout the whole ride, Jess and Major were about ten paces behind the rest of us, and you would just hear Jess repeatedly say, "Come on, Major, let's go!  Enough snacking!"  I, on the other hand, did not have an easy-going, snacky horse.  I had a beast named Taz.  Taz was an absolute maniac, and at a few points during the ride I feared for my life. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day when we took off, about 30 minutes into the ride the clouds parted, it started pouring rain and then it started to hail.  We had to gallop at full speed into a forested area until it cleared.  With my heart still racing, we eventually were able to make our way back toward the stable.  The guide warned me of yet another quirk about Taz:  He loves water.  Watch out, he said.  Well, sure enough, when Taz saw the stream along the way he ran full force down into it, stood in the stream and kicked up water at me for a good five minutes.  I was absolutely drenched by the time he was done, and it took everything I had in me to get him to go back up the embankment and out of the stream.  It was funny and kinda scary and another day of memorable bliss. 

I am officially over you people. 
Day Eight: Winding Down.  We packed up and left the castle with the acute sense that the fun was drawing to a close.  We made our way to Gallway and did a little shopping, a little eating, a little more drinking.  But by this point in the trip, we were slowing down.  Jess had already been nicknamed "Half Pint" a few days prior, and I had sworn off of beer.  I love this picture of Katie, because it depicts how we all felt:  spent, but happily so. Armed with a new collection of happy memories, our hearts were full and we were ready to head home.  Thanks for everything, Ireland...we did it our way, and it totally rocked.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Sometimes when you leave the house in a hurry, you forget something really important - like your bowling ball. This is the story of Veronica.

In 1993, I made a bold move that would change the trajectory of my life forever.  Young, inexperienced and in love, I packed up my bags, left the Twin Cities, and moved to Milwaukee.  When people today ask how I ended up in Milwaukee, I always explain: "I moved here for love that has long since passed."  At the time, the plan was to move here for a year - maybe two - and then head back to the Twin Cities.  Twenty-one years later, I am pretty sure Milwaukee is home.  Today, there is a finite list of reasons I would consider moving:  1) Scott Walker is elected President (in which case it is compulsory that I move to Canada); 2)  I am inspired and propelled by love again; or 3)  Milwaukee is destroyed by a zombie apocalypse.

Anyway, if you have ever moved to a new city, you are probably aware as I was that it is really hard to make new friends.  It can take seemingly forever.  I am so lucky now to have an incredible group of friends, but I am very aware that this has required over 20 years of interviewing, nurturing, harvesting and weeding out a few clunkers.  Good friends are worth their weight in gold.  Once you have them, you should never let them go.  I'm not sure if I would have the wisdom to value friends the way I do now, had I not had a period of time where I didn't really have any nearby.

But when you are in a new city and devoid of any meaningful friendships, you have to find things to do that don't require friends.  There are only so many movies you can see or festivals you can attend.  In my case, I decided to engage in something fun that I could add as a skill.  For the first two years I was in Milwaukee, Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and I went bowling on a weekly basis, sometimes twice a week.  I actually got pretty good over time, and could consistently bowl an average of 200 or higher. I really grew to love it.

One day, Mr. Jennifer Wittwer came home and said he had been at the closing-out sale of a local sporting goods store.  While there, he found a bowling ball that was the right weight, had finger holes exactly the right size, and - get this - already had his name engraved on it.  He had invested a grand total of $5.00 on this purchase, and was beaming with pride at this almost unbelievable turn of events.

At the insistence of Mr. Jennifer Wittwer, I too went to the sporting goods store to see if I could find a bowling ball.  The store was in its final close-out, so it was dirty and disheveled.  People were everywhere, frantically trying to get the deal of a lifetime.  I made my way to the bowling ball section and took a quick inventory:  the pickins', as they say, were slim. But then, tucked away in the back of the shelf, I caught a glimpse of her - the bowling ball of my dreams.  Perfectly marbled in an array of purple tones, she was eleven pounds of pure beauty.  I picked her up and felt her smooth surface in my hands.  I held her up to my face and instantly fell in love.  I tried the finger holes and they were a perfect fit.  "I've found her!" I exclaimed.  I then looked at the name on the ball, and had a good, hearty laugh.  Engraved on the ball was the name "Veronica."

From that day forward, my bowling alter-ego became Veronica.  I embodied the cool, casual spunk of a Veronica the minute I would step foot into a bowling alley.  While Jen is fun and sassy in her own right, Veronica had a little spring in her step that let the world know she was in charge.  Veronica was also fiercely competitive and could have a little temper flare if things weren't going so hot.  The bottom line is this: Veronica was the kind of girl everyone wants to befriend, but nobody dares to mess with.  Veronica meant business.

Years later, when Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and I ended our relationship , I left the house in a hurry. After 12 years together, my sister and brother-in-law helped me pack up and move out of the house in about a 3 hour period of time.  The circumstances necessitated my haste.  It was the most emotionally tumultuous and difficult time of my life, a time I don't care to re-live or ever repeat.  Somehow, someway, I made it through. As I settled into my new life, and then into my new home, my stomach dropped when I one day suddenly realized: Oh my God, I forgot Veronica.  In the midst of all of the chaos and the sudden, abrupt changes, Veronica got left behind.

I try not to think about it too much and I push it to the recesses of my mind.  I don't know where Veronica is today.  For all I know, she is in a landfill.  Maybe she got donated somewhere and a young girl in a junior bowling league has taken to her.  I shudder at the thought, but it is possible that the new wife of the former Mr. Jennifer Wittwer is using Veronica on a regular basis.  I simply don't know where Veronica is, what she is doing, and who is loving her.  It breaks my heart.

Is it normal to have regrets in life?  I think so.  I certainly have a few.  It has become a joke, a metaphor of sorts, when I reflect on my broken marriage.  "I want my damn bowling ball back!"  And I say it in jest, but truly, I do.  I've offered $100 to the person who is brave enough to go ring the doorbell of the former Mr. Jennifer Wittwer and demand Veronica back.  So far, no one has taken me up on it.  Until then, I will patiently wait.  Someday, maybe someday, we will be reunited.  Until then, I will just continue being Jen - the best Jen I know how to be.  Even when I go bowling.