About Me

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Princess Buttercup

The emails had gone back and forth for some time, and my college pal Angela and I eventually confirmed our long-awaited plans. A road trip to St. Louis was in order, and a chance to see the Brewers play the Cardinals at Busch stadium over the 4th of July weekend would soon be mine. Somewhere along the way in the chain of emails, Ang made note: "Don't forget, the 4th of July is Princess Buttercup's first birthday, and we will need to celebrate." Nevermind that the 4th of July was also my travel partner's birthday, or America's birthday, for that matter--this day was going to be dedicated to a furry little friend that I in no time had dubbed "P.B."

Princess Buttercup is a special little kitty...heavy on the special. To be honest, she has a face that only a mother could love, and a forehead the size of a frying pan. She came home with Ang after one night of many spent volunteering at the animal shelter, with strong cautions that she probably had hydrocephalus and probably wouldn't make it. Turns out, they were probably wrong. Princess Buttercup may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but a year later she is thriving. She chases the tails of her other feline friends (noted by Ang to be "approximately a million years old"), gladly snuggles up on the couch with a willing partner whenever the opportunity presents itself, and looks up at you with her alien-like, watery but ever so sweet eyes. She is a keeper.

She's a keeper because Ang decided she was. And really, that's all it takes. One living being to look at another living being and proclaim, "You are mine. I will take care of you." All too often in life we get bogged down with all the stuff--the errands, the chores, the work, the over-commitments and obligations we eventually come to resent. In reality, if we just slowed down for a minute and took note, we could all find our own Princess Buttercup. Maybe it's our elderly neighbor or a co-worker or a kid who needs a mentor. Whoever it is, just imagine what a little time, attention and love from you could bring. In my estimation, that's how we change the world. We don't need to donate a million dollars or feed an entire starving country to make a difference. All it takes to make the world a better place is to pick one living creature and decide to treat them like they are somebody really important. I'm going to be on the lookout for my Princess Buttercup, starting now. Care to join me?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Billy Joe

In short, he was the coolest cat I ever met, and while most of his family called him "Billy Joe," I was lucky enough to call him Dad. There are so many things I admire about him, that I am not sure I can put them all to paper. He was funny and patient and tolerant of the most trying of circumstances--far beyond anyone's comprehension.

Born on October 1, 1941 to Harold and Kathryn Swearingen, Billy Joe was the baby of his family. (One of his all-time favorite jokes: "They named me Bill because I came on the first of the month.") There is something about being the baby of the family that lends to a special brand of charm, and he had oodles of it. He just had an easy way about him, and was always the life of the party. Need a spot-on impression of one of the locals in our small Iowa town? Bill was your man. Want to feel better about your own circumstances, compliments of some serious self-deprecation? There he was again. ("How tall are you?" someone once asked. "Depends," said Dad, "if I am on my good leg or my bad leg. I am either 5'10 or 6'0.") His life was tragic, and charmed, and as far as I can tell, truly one-of-a-kind.

In 1971 just months before his 30th birthday, my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and was given two weeks to live. But here's where I developed a sense that there indeed is a plan out there greater than ourselves: Bill's brother Alan was completing his medical residency at the University of Iowa hospitals who just happened to be some of the pioneers in the field of nephrology. So in a race against the clock, my family packed up and moved from New Mexico to Iowa so that Dad could get what was then state of the art treatment.

From there, and for many years to follow, my dad and our family experienced a whole lot of medical ups and downs. I look back, and I realize that all of my formative years were shrouded with worry of losing this most remarkable man. But here comes lesson number two, compliments of Dad: All the worrying in the world doesn't change a thing. And, in fact, it just might make things worse. He showed us.

Dad went through a couple transplants that didn't last long, but he spent most of the rest of his life on dialysis. Twenty-five years, to be exact, which put him in something like the top one thousandth of one percentile of life expectancy of people on dialysis. He had a point to prove.

If his onslaught of medical problems wore on his nerves, he surely never showed it. Every night for many years, we played Nerf basketball in the kitchen while Mom cooked dinner--sometimes to her chagrin and more often to her delight. Every night sometime after dinner, Dad would grab the guitar and sing his silly made-up songs. He thought and planned and dreamed about ways he could improve our little hobby farm for the quarter horses he so passionately raised on it. Maybe it was because he had the keen sense that life is short, but Dad really knew how to live.

When Dad's body finally gave out on him fourteen years ago, clearly long before his will dared to do so, my sister and I were there with him. I have always felt it was a privilege to share this most amazing moment with him as he danced on the delicate line from one world to the other. And though he had been in a coma-like state for two days prior, he awoke on his last day and was as lively and as funny as I could ever remember him being. And you know what he said? He said the most astounding thing, considering that he was in the last hours of his life. He looked us in the eye and said, "I am not going to lose levity today." There came lesson number three out of a gazillion that I got from him. I thought it every day he was alive, and I have thought it every day since: I am lucky to have known this man.

Life has all kinds of twists and turns. Nobody is guaranteed anything, and if you think you are then I say you're a fool. Just ask Billy Joe: Our charge, if we can, is to live. Not just to breathe, but to live. Find your passion, surround yourself with quality people, seize every opportunity to try something new, make a new friend or for God's sake, laugh.

Happy Father's Day, my sweet dad. Thanks for shaping me and above all else, for letting me live in your light. Wherever you are, I will meet you again someday, and when I get there I know one thing that I can count on for sure: We won't lose our levity.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pieces of Paper

Pieces of Paper

It is human nature, or perhaps Jen nature, to think that we are fully in charge of our lives. We plan, we coordinate, we study, we work, we network...all because we know exactly where we are headed and precisely how we are going to get there. And yet, if you really stop to look at the path of our own lives, how often does it really go as planned? Not so often, would be my guess.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new friend, a friendship that as it turns out may be the shortest I have ever experienced. I was out of town on business and, because of my own social inadequacies, sat at the bar for dinner as opposed to getting a table for myself. Because really, let's be honest, if you sit at the bar alone you look like much less of a loser than if you sit at a table alone. Really. Everyone knows that. Duh.

Anyway, the gentleman next to me at the bar, clearly embracing this same "cooler at the bar" mentality, struck up a conversation with me. Over the course of the evening we played a 3 hour verbal game of "I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours." We cautiously, then bravely, then joyfully swapped stories of jobs, families, moms, irritations, passions, falling in love, falling out of love, hopes, dreams and the beauty of a clean slate pursuit. Okay, so maybe it sounds like the beginning of a tawdry novel inclusive of a steamy love affair, or perhaps more astutely as my friend Kim would say "a great way to end up in a Hefty bag on the side of the road." But I assure you, it was innocent, and wholesome, and heartwarming, and a great reminder of the connectedness we can have as human beings if we are just willing, even if only for a moment, to step outside of our comfort zone.

And in talking to this guy--a guy I never knew before and may never know again--I learned something. From him, I learned that a little piece of paper can change your life. Now, I suppose we all can come up with pieces of paper that changed our lives. Divorce papers, sitting on my car seat one dismal April morning six years ago, certainly come to mind. But really, our lives are so inundated with information and papers and posters and flyers and post-it notes and memos and reports, who really pays attention to every piece of paper that crosses their path? But this guy did, and it has changed the the trajectory of his life forever.

As a teacher, my new-found friend noticed that someone had posted a flyer on a door in his school that simply read, "Teach in China." And you know what? He did. For three summers he went to China to teach for the summer, and he said that even though he had been to 45 countries previously, the moment he stepped off the plane in China he felt like he fit in--he knew that he was home. So, after some soul-searching and consulting and worrying and planning and hoping and selling his stuff and breaking the news to his grown children, he decided to spend the rest of his life teaching in China. Boom. Just like that. Picking up, moving on, starting over, building anew. A new chapter, a new adventure, a complete revision of his life story....all because of a flyer that most everyone else would have ignored or maybe used to swat a fly.

I spent the evening enchanted by his courage and wondering if I could ever do the same. Probably not, I surmised, and then when he told me that in previous trips he had eaten things like chicken intestines ("probably not cleaned" mind you) and duck heads, I was certain the answer was no. Nevertheless, I was reminded of the importance of having an openness and an awareness of everything in our lives. A piece of paper--a meaningless, mindlessly placed, graphically lacking, stupid flyer, on white paper and probably typed in Comic Sans or some equally offensive font--can change your life forever. If you let it, that is. Will you?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dear Mom

In honor of Mother's Day, I am sharing a letter I wrote to my mom for Mother's Day four years ago. Happy Mother's Day to all of you who have the hardest job on the planet.

Dear Mom,

This weekend marks the 20th year that I have endured a motherless Mother's Day. Twenty years is a long time --more than half my life--and a lot has changed since I last saw you and you assured me that everything was going to be all right. I think there are some things you should hear from me.

First of all, I want to say you picked a really shitty time to leave me. Granted, you didn't have a lot of say in the matter, and I know it's not how you expected things to turn out either. But the time you left this earth was shitty because I was in the midst of what was perhaps my most imperfect state. Sixteen, and had it all figured out. Sixteen, and full hormones and stupidity and false confidence. Sixteen, and angry that you had the audacity to criticize my foolish ways. Sixteen, and unable to see that I was turning out to be you.

But I have turned out to be you, in the strangest and most unexpected way, and I think you would either be immensely proud or completely annoyed. I have your wicked and sometimes bizarre sense of humor. I have your thick, stubborn head (unfortunately topped with Dad's fine, lifeless hair). I have your big brain filled with big ideas. I am sometimes misunderstood just as you often were. Like you, I believe in all things just and right, and like you I am painfully aware that life rarely offers hearty helpings of either.

I know there are a lot of things about my life that would make you proud. I've made a life for myself that is filled with laughter and selectively chosen loyal friends. I have been called and have risen to a life's work that is more meaningful than almost any other I can imagine, and have made an immense difference in my corner of the world. I am responsible in ways you would have never thought possible. Really and truly, I am.

And one of my proudest accomplishments, one that I know would warm that sometimes steely heart of yours, is that your baby--my baby sister--has become one of my most trusted, cherished and sacred friends in life. The same baby sister I loved the first day she was born, and by the second day figured out she shamelessly stole my spotlight. The same baby sister who I resented for choosing the same cereal as me every morning, and the same baby sister who was the inspiration for the limited-time, one-act melodrama, "Stop Playing With My Makeup You Fucking Little Brat!" The same baby sister I couldn't comfortably relate to until I could safely assume she'd had her first beer. The same baby sister I look at now and think, "Damn, how did she get here from there?"

You have every right to look me in the eye and confidently state, "I told you so."

Even if your sudden departure wasn't expected, it turns out the cosmos were right. Right in the wrong sort of way, right in the way that makes you say, "What the fuck?" and then strap on your cajones and confidently trudge forward to unknowing greener pastures. Right in that, I was afforded the lesson early on that I have the capacity to rise above even the most miserable of circumstances triumphantly. I've carried that lesson with me everywhere, and have used it over, and over, and over again.

The truth is, Mom, you may have left the party too early, but before leaving you left many gifts behind. Trust that each gift has been accepted and used in the spirit with which it was intended. And know that even though your stay at the party was too short, it was really great that you were able to show up at all.



Sunday, February 21, 2010

Grandma Swearingen

I believe it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, "The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others." For years this quote was carefully placed on the bulletin board above my desk at work, and the meaning behind it has undoubtedly been a guidepost for my career. But truth be told, I didn't need a spiritual leader from India to teach me this. I had Grandma Swearingen.

Kathryn Pflederer Swearingen was my dad's mom, and was the epicenter of our family. She passed on much too soon in 1981 when she lost her short but brave battle with pancreatic cancer. Even so, to this day, every Swearingen family gathering eventually results in the warm embrace of fond Grandma Swearingen memories. We really can't help ourselves.

Grandma was tireless in her efforts to take care of the people around her. She embodied the notion that a stranger was merely a friend she had not met yet. But to her family, her service was unrelenting. Much to Grandpa Swearingen's delight ("Fox" as she loved to call him), her kitchen was a virtual pie factory. But not just any old run of the mill pie factory--the kind that phoned you ahead of time to inquire about your particular pie requests. (Peach, thank you very much.) There is no question that Grandma took tremendous joy in the little things she could do for the ones she loved. She would wash your hair (even her adult sons lined up for this special treat), make you a fresh lemonade shake-up with real lemons (just like the ones at the Tazewell County fair), and loved to scratch the back of whoever was sitting next to her (hence the constant vying of myself and my cousins for this premiere seating opportunity.) My favorite Grandma Swearingen memory, however, were the hours upon hours we spent playing the board game "Payday." At the end of each game, I exclaimed, "Again!'" and if her enthusiasm ever waned, I surely never knew it.

I look back now and I know that there was no way Grandma and Grandpa had much money. Grandma was an elementary school lunch lady and Grandpa was the janitor at the bank. But everytime they made the trek to our farm, Grandma came armed with a gift of some sort. A stuffed dog, that I promptly named Puffy and carried with me everywhere for years. A butterfly pin she found that reminded her of me, because she knew I loved to collect butterflies. Something fashion forward, like my first pair of clogs. And, even though she had never heard of Harriet Tubman, she had gotten wind that I was obsessed with this particular historical figure and she searched every bookstore in central Illinois until she found a book that fit the bill--no small feat, I am sure.

Grandma loved to laugh--most often at herself, and even in moments of confrontation her ways were as gentle as a warm summer wind. I remember a time when my mom requested I go to the basement to retrieve some canned goods for the approaching dinner hour. Being the self-centered brat that only I could be, this somehow enraged me and I proceeded to huff, puff and loudly stomp down and back up every rickety step to that basement. Grandma paid no attention to my bad behavior, and calmly looked at my mom and said, "Well, she might have a hard time doing it sometimes, but that Jenny sure can be a good helper." Her words stung and startled me to attention. I was keenly aware that I had let her down, and that it was time for me to grow up and learn to serve my family just as she had done for her whole life.

The thing about Grandma Swearingen was, everybody felt like they were her favorite. The fact of the matter is, I think everyone was. Almost 30 years have passed since I last saw her, but her presence is always with me. I can't imagine the woman I would have become without having known her. I just can't thank her enough, and know that my service--to my family, my friends, and people with mental illness--is a meager tribute to the greatest woman I ever knew.