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.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Ten of Jen - 2012

Oh, sweet reflection.  How I love you so.  This year has been another one for the history books.  Okay, no history books.  Busted!  I am totally exaggerating.  But the year has been a good one, nonetheless.  As I look back, it has been a year of learning, of laughter, and of love.  My top ten most remarkable experiences from the past year are (drum roll, please...):

1)  Got busy living.  Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, cautioned us, "It comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying."  I love this movie, and love this quote.  And for the most part, I think I have done a pretty good job of getting busy living.  But, I have to admit, I've always had something holding me back.  That something is worry that I would carry the same fate as my mom, who died at the very young age of 43 years, 2 months and 9 days.  Was this fear of mine irrational?  Perhaps.  Her demise was a fluke, a one in a million chance.  On the other hand, I am practically my mother's carbon copy.  I look like her, I think like her, I am her.  So, this was the year.  It had been looming in the distance for awhile.  A couple of years ago, I marked my calendar.  June 5, 2012.  That was the day.  That was the day that I would turn 43 years, 2 months and 10 days old.  That was my day of emancipation, the day I would have officially outlived my mother.  I woke up that day, and I truly felt free.  Something changed.  For one, that day, and every day thereafter, has been acknowledged as a gift.  I have a renewed sense of purpose, and a heightened sense of gratitude.  I've got this, kids, and it is good.

2)  Una cerveza, por favor.  In March, my sister and I spent countless hours trying to plan a vacation.  I wanted to go to Savannah, but we realized pretty quickly that we could go to Mexico for less money than we could go to pretty much anywhere interesting in the continental United States.  The trip was, in a word, HOT.  I don't fare well in the heat, so Jess had to put up with a lot of whining and complaining on my part.  But, we took in the culture, learned a lot and got some quality beach time.  The highlight was a day spent in the Mayan ruins, which were incredible.  I honestly don't know how those Mayans did it, building those pyramids and all.  And in that heat, no less!  I can honestly say I would have been a terrible Mayan.  In the end, it may not have been my best vacation of all time (it was really hot, after all) but I spent it with one of my favorite people on the planet.  And that is all that really matters.

3)  Cleaned up the dump.  So I've been in my house about eight years now.  I love this little house o' mine.  It's cute and it's perfect and it's totally reflective of me.  But, eight years of life had worn the place down.  It was time to do something about it, and in May I took a week off to give the place a boost.  I coordinated friends to move furniture around, my gay boyfriend to select new paint colors and window dressings, painters to repaint the entire first floor, flooring guys to replace some of the flooring and landscaping guys to add some long overdue professional landscaping to the front of my house.  All the while insisting, "I don't need no man!"  At the end of this most exhausting week, I moved everything back in place and fell in love with my house all over again.  I love to travel.  I love to go out and have fun.  And more than any of that, I love to come home.

4)  Didn't say "I told you so" but could have.  Have you ever had someone in your life who didn't believe in you?  It's a terrible feeling.  Try having that feeling for, oh, I don' t know, a quarter of a century.  Well, this person was going to be in the periphery of my life whether I liked it or not, so for all those years I made a conscious effort to take the high road.  I used to quip, "Know what's great about the high road?  Not a lot of traffic."  Oh yes, there was the occasional rolling of my eyes, muttering under my breath or venting to my friends.  But overall, I stayed true to myself and that high road.  Well, this year, all that traversing on the high road paid off.  It paid off because someone finally noticed.  This person who took notice pulled me and my sister aside, commented on the remarkable nature of a high-road decision we made together a couple of years ago (if he only knew, I thought), and said the most heart-warming thing I've ever had anyone tell me:  "Your parents must be so proud.  They did an incredible job raising you girls."  I got in my car and I wept with my sister.  They did do an incredible job, those parents of ours.  It's okay every once in a while to be proud of yourself.  That day I was.

5)  Had a heavy heart.  My family is pretty amazing.  I am so lucky in that way.  In June, our family suffered a tremendous loss.  We lost our Ted, my cousin's husband.  He really was the very best of what our family has to offer.  He was the kindest, most patient, most gentle and fun-loving soul of all of us.  Ted had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer eight and a half years prior.  This made no sense, because Ted was the embodiment of clean living.  But he was a fighter, that guy, and he beat a whole lotta odds.  In April, Ted's daughter got married.  Ted was losing the fight by that time, and we all knew it.  But he made it to the big day, and he walked his girl down the aisle.  That evening, Ted gave a speech that moved every single one of us.  He talked about how, when diagnosed, he was sure he would never see his own daughter get married and how he wept at the thought.  He talked about marriage and relationships and how we had best let go of the little stuff which is practically everything.  He talked about never having a single day of regret being married to my cousin - a true testament to the strength of their bond.  In the midst of all of this, Ted also made us laugh.  And he made us cry.  And he made us all hold each other a little tighter.  Ted saw his son graduate from college a few days later, and passed away just a few short weeks after that.  His words and his perspective the day of his daughter's wedding meant something to all of us, and I suspect they always will.

6)  Ate a few tacos, and then a few more.  Taco Bar!  This has become code for: Fun! Time Together! Laughter! My friend Matt and I talk about our two families.  There is your biological family, and then there is your logical family.  I borrowed that phrase from a college friend, and I love it because it fits.  Your logical family should be the people who you choose to surround yourself with - the ones who are always there for you and do everything they can to lift you up.  Well, it just so happens that my logical family loves Taco Bar.  But it's not really about the tacos, though they are undeniably tasty, it's about everything that goes with it.  (And no, I don't mean taco sauce, but yes, I do love that too.)  We can literally talk about anything (example:  Is jello a salad or a dessert?) and laugh our fool heads off.  I always leave happier than I came and that is the thing about Taco Bar that I love most.  Even more than the tacos.

7)  Rocked on.  So last year for Christmas, Jess asked for tickets to see Neil Diamond at Summerfest.  I obliged.  We laughed as we walked the Summerfest grounds at how easy it was to identify a Neil fan:  they either traveled in groups of 20-somethings wearing T-shirts that said something like "Bum Bum Bum" (an homage to Sweet Caroline) or they were little old ladies carrying sweaters.  At any rate, I must say that Neil might be 70 but he can still put on a good show.  Now, this is where things take a turn that may result in some judgment.  The Neil concert inspired me to also see Barry Manilow a month or so later.  I am telling you, I have been a Fanilow since the age of 10.  I love that man.  Yes, he is old.  Yes, it's true he hasn't had a new hit in like 30 years.  Yes, he's had so much surgery that he bears a resemblance to Lady Elaine Fairchilde from the Mister Rogers show.  (Don't believe me?  Check it out:  http://cheezburger.com/2315838208.)  Here's the thing:  I DON'T CARE.  I went to the concert with my friend Jill, and we sang our little hearts out.  We danced in the aisles.  We screamed, "I love you Barry!" with all the other girls.  And, most importantly, we had fun.  And I don't even care if you judge me.  At least not very much.

8)  Took my summer back.  I'd been thinking about this one for a while, and I finally just did it.  I hired a lawn service.  Here's the thing.  There is no division of labor in this household.  (Trust me, these cats are useless.)  I work hard.  I make a solid living.  And I want to have some fun.  Given that we have about two solid months of summer weather in Wisconsin, I decided I was tired of spending any portion of it mowing my lawn.  So I broke down and I hired a service and here is what I have to say:  It was a life changing decision.  Oh how I love when I come home and the lawn is mowed.  And it's not just mowed, it is mowed at a perfect angle and beautifully trimmed.  Yes, my friends, I have arrived.  And there is no turning back now. I am officially one of those people.

9)  Learned that "cobblestone is stupid."  In October, I finally got that trip to Savannah that I had been longing for.  My sister and I met up with our friends Kate and Eric for a long weekend.  Our visit was long overdue, as it had been a couple of years since we had all seen each other.  It had been a couple of long and hard years for the two of them, so we in fact really needed the time with each other.  It was great to catch up and it was great to learn all about this fantastic little city.  We took a haunted carriage ride.  We ate all kinds of crazy southern cooking.  We toured a few cemeteries.  We drank way too many cocktails and maybe we even tripped and fell on a cobblestone street.  Oh wait - that last part was just me.  At any rate, it was the kind of trip that had me loving every minute of it.

10)  Embraced traditions.  The Girl Scouts have a song they sing that says, "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other's gold!"  I feel the same way about traditions.  I think it's important to make some new ones every once in a while, and this year I may have found one that will stick.  On Labor Day, I had my "logical family" over for an amazing dinner.  I grilled steaks, skewered shrimp and asparagus.  I marinated some heirloom tomatoes and chilled some craft beers.  As one attendee noted, "Hats off to whoever invented Labor Day!"  It was a great way to end the summer and a tradition I hope to keep.  On the other hand, I upheld a tradition that has been in place for several years:  my annual "Boys Have Cooties" cooking baking party.  Always situated a good ten days before Christmas or so, all the girls of all ages descend on my house to bake, decorate, and kvetch.  This year, things almost spiraled out of control until my friend Danielle stepped up as the Cookie Traffic Controller.  That's the thing about the cookie party.  It's messy. It's chaotic.  And it is a tradition that we all love.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

So there you have it.  Thank you, 2012.  You were a heck of a year. How will I ever top you?  Well, we'll just have to see.  Away we go.....Happy New Year, everyone!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Buying Pants

My sister and I have this saying - a saying we have used for a long time.  It goes a little something like this:

"It's like buying pants.  You can't force it."

I am guessing most of you know what I mean.  Pants are tough.  Truth be told, it really doesn't matter what kind of pants we are talking about.  Dress pants, work pants, yoga pants, jeans...it's pretty much the same experience.  Ninety-nine point nine percent of them don't fit right.  They're too bunchy or too short or too big in the waist while at the same time too small in the thighs or too stupid looking or Jesus something is wrong with every pair of pants I try on today.  Honestly, what is the deal with pants?

And you see, when you set out to buy pants, you really have to go to a zen place.  You have to let the universe take over and guide you to your pants destination.  Because even though you might really really really want/need/can't live another day without a new pair of black pants, sometimes the universe just doesn't agree.  And if you force it - well, we all know what happens.  You buy the pants, and you might even spend too much on them.  And then the first time you wear them, you know.  I shouldn't have bought these fucking pants.  They don't even fit right.  They are giving me a muffin top. I hate them.  And then maybe you let them hang in your closet for a year or two, and then you finally give them to Goodwill.  Let somebody else have these stupid, ill-fitting, unattractive, over-priced goddamn pants.  Enough already. Am I right?  Can I get an amen?

So really, it has become our metaphor for life, and I was reminded of it again just today.  I was in the middle of a whole stupid thing, and I thought, "You know what?  This feels like buying pants. I can't force it."  Which is really to say, I could force it if I wanted to but it wouldn't work out anyway.  This is one of those things that I know for sure.  

Because the truth is, when the time is right the stars will align.  You probably won't even be looking for pants, but it won't matter.  The clouds will part, and the sun will cast a light in just the right way, and the pants you have been looking for will be right there in front of you.  Right there in front of you, and on sale.  And that my friends, is when you know everything is just as it should be.  With pants, and with life.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


I was sitting on the subway in D.C. when the email came through:  Aunt Alice had passed peacefully in her sleep a few hours before.  I wasn't surprised, per se, for the last time I had seen her a few months prior, it was clear that our sweet Aunt Alice was weak and tired and dwindling in spirit.  Sure, she was still the same great auntie I had always known and loved, and yet, I suppose she wasn't.  She was 96, after all, and had led a full and lovely life. She deserved to be tired.

Aunt Alice always had a special place in the hearts of the Swearingen cousins.  Though she was one of the many siblings of our grandma, she wasn't just any old run of the mill sibling.  No, she was the carbon copy of our Grandma Kathryn.  There was really no denying it.  It was her laugh, her touch, her smile, her everything.  Alice loved to tell a story how, one day while out running errands, someone in town looked down at her sandaled feet and said, "Why Alice, you even have Kathryn's feet!"  It's true.  She even had Kathryn's feet.  She had Kathryn's everything.

Having lost our Grandma Kathryn much too soon more than thirty years ago, we quickly attached ourselves to Aunt Alice to keep the memory of our grandma alive.  And you know what?  It worked.  We reveled in her ability to tell a story in the funniest way that maybe took a few gratuitous detours along the way.  We basked in the way she could laugh heartily, most frequently at herself.  We welcomed the way that she gave so freely of her affection.  It was all there. It was all Grandma Kathryn.

About three or four years ago, my sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Morton, Illinois to see Aunt Alice and other assorted family members.  Aunt Alice asked us to go with her for her daily trip to the nursing home to see her sister Babe, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's many years prior.  On the way there, Aunt Alice told us that someone once asked her, "Why do you go see Babe every day?  It's not like she knows you do it."  To which Alice softly replied, "Yes, but I know."

And that stuck with me.  That's the kind of family I come from.  The kind that sticks together no matter what.  The kind that overlooks the challenges and celebrates the togetherness at every opportunity.  A family of siblings who all lived in the same small town for their whole lives and were each other's most important social connection.  "Didn't somebody in this family have a secret?" I once asked Aunt Alice.  "Oh, I suppose so" she said with a quick chuckle, "...but not for very long!"  This family's unique brand of togetherness and transparency led to an accountability that doesn't exist for every family.  It taught us how to conduct ourselves in the world and with each other.   It taught us that family may not be all you have, but family is the most important thing you have.  It taught us that, even if she doesn't know it, you still go visit your sister with Alzheimer's in the nursing home faithfully every day.  Because you know.

That evening after I learned of her passing, I went out to dinner with a colleague and we decided to walk back to the hotel afterwards.  Along the way, we happened upon the National Cathedral.  It is an incredible piece of architecture and we eventually found our way inside.  Immediately upon entering, we heard someone at the front of the church playing the flute.  They weren't just playing the flute, though.  They were playing "Amazing Grace."  A little stunned, but then again not, I plopped myself down on a pew and said a prayer for my sweet Aunt Alice who had taught me so much.  My prayer, really, was mostly to say thanks.  I lit a candle in her honor and made my way back to my colleague.  He had been admiring all of the stained glass, but was perplexed as to why one panel was illuminated so much more brightly than the others.  We went outside to investigate, and as we turned the corner we stopped cold in our tracks.  There before us was biggest, brightest full moon we had ever seen.  And just to the right of that, a cloud formation that looked like an angel.  We grabbed each others arms and I said something to the effect of, "Oh wow, I think we are having a moment here."  A moment, indeed.  A perfectly serendipitous moment to remember a remarkable woman from a remarkable family.