I may be a day (or two, or three) late in getting to my annual Top Ten of Jen blog post, but I promise you I am not a dollar short. As is true every year, this past year had some very remarkable events. And if someone would be so kind as to offer a drum roll, here they are in my favorite order - which is no particular order at all:
1) Reminded myself that reading is fundamental. My friend Alex had been poking, prodding, and pleading for me to join her book club for awhile. While the book club sounded like a fun group of gals, the prospect of having to read a book sounded unappealing. I feared it would feel like homework, and I would resent it and blah blah blah. But after about a year of coaxing, I decided to join in. What a great decision! The books have been fantastic, the book club nights have been a blast, and most importantly, this has gotten me to read again. Not just the book club books, but all kinds of books now. My new favorite thing? A Sunday with no obligations, a pot of soup simmering on the stove and a full day of reading. Yaaay, me! My brain is no longer turning to mush.
2) Got sun-kissed in Florida. I've been to Florida many, many times. The big draw, in addition to some sun and warmth as a break from the dreary 414 winter months, is that I have free lodging there with my aunt and uncle who treat me like one of their own children and are two of my favorite people. That, and the best banana cream pie on the planet. This year, I waited until April to go and I spent a full week there. Aunt Lois doted on me while Uncle Wayne pretty much read a bunch of books and took us out to dinner every night. I lazed around in the sun every day. I went searching for manatees several times unsuccessfully. I read two books. I had some thoughtful debates and heart to heart talks with Aunt Lois. I got to see Uncle Wayne tell some family stories that made him belly laugh so hard he could hardly catch his breath. The last evening there, I saw a pod of twenty or more dolphins. I wasn't sure how I felt about going to Florida alone, but this was truly a great trip. I'll happily do it again.
3) Reconciled my past. The full story behind this is much too long for this blog post. But here is the Cliff's Notes version: In February, my step-mom passed away. I heard about this through extended family, because to be honest we hadn't had but maybe two or three instances of contact since my dad passed away seventeen years ago. The days that followed were a roller coaster of emotion and decision-making. Ultimately, my sister and I decided to go to the funeral. As difficult as this decision was, it was equal parts right. Something washed over me, as we stood out in the brisk February wind in her family's old country graveyard. I think it's called forgiveness; maybe it is understanding, too. Understanding that everyone on this planet is a mix of good and bad, a cocktail of rights and wrongs. I have often traveled the high road, and this day was no exception. This time, more than any other, I am surely glad that I did.
4) Made a life changing decision. This is a big one, folks. I changed out all of my socks to be only Gold Toe brand socks. I was tired of wearing socks that would fall down incessantly throughout the day or wear thin too soon or annoy me for any reason, any time. Life, I decided, is too short to wear bad socks. Boom. Just like that - I got rid of all the bad socks and replaced them all with Gold Toes. The quality of my life has since improved significantly, and there is no turning back.
5) Co-hosted Cousin-palooza in Milwaukee. For years the Swearingen cousins have descended upon Spooner, Wisconsin (which always prompts a "Spooner? I hardly even know her!" response) for Cousins Weekend. This year, we decided to mix it up and gather in Milwaukee. Many of our cousins, and our lovely Aunt Lois and Uncle Wayne, made their way from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee. My sister and I did our best to roll out the red carpet for them, because we were so honored they would drive all the way to Milwaukee just to see little old us. We made incredible dinners that still have people talking. We took them on a magical mystery tour of our great city. We sat around and looked at pictures, told stories, and laughed our behinds off. We even arranged for the Twins to beat the Brewers at the game we attended on Memorial Day. It was a great weekend, which is no surprise. No surprise at all, since we have the greatest family ever.
6) Celebrated my 44th birthday in style. For years I had thought that my 44th birthday would be kind of a big deal, because my mom never made it to 44. The day arrived and I really just felt happy. I worked that day, and my co-workers did all kinds of things to make it an extra special day. That evening, I went out to dinner with a group of a whole bunch of my favorite people. I picked a newer restaurant in town that is an upscale Wisconsin Supper Club. It was a Tuesday, so we were afforded the luxury of our own private room. We had a server who was sassy and spot-on. We had food - lots of it- that was incredible. But more than that, we had a lot of love in that room. When I went home that night, my stomach was full, but my heart was certainly fuller.
7) Lost a special friend. In the last couple of years, I forged a new friendship with a wonderful man by the name of Henry. Henry was different, and there was something really special about him. He exuded warmth and humility. He was bright and exceptionally articulate. When he wanted to get something done, like self-publish his own incredible children's book, he just did it. We quickly became kindred spirits, and had our own little Mutual Admiration Society. One Friday in August, Henry worked all day and then headed out for dinner with his family. At dinner, he collapsed and in an instant he was gone. Just like that, at 38 years old, it was over. The whole experience rattled me to my core and made me face my own mortality. But the real story is, I miss my friend and I am sad that we didn't have more years to develop what was undoubtedly going to be a long-lasting fantastic friendship. I hope he is at peace. I think about him every day.
8) Wrote a damn letter. For years, a local journalist has written stories about the mental health system in Milwaukee. She has an agenda, and it's clear she won't stop anytime soon. As someone who works in the public mental health system, the articles can be taxing on my spirit. My solution? I try not to read them. Mostly because they are repetitive and have a lot of inaccuracies and also because it is an unnecessary distraction from the important work I have to do. But every once in a while, I put myself through the torture of reading a new series. The new series this year really got to me, and I kind of felt like I had to stand up for what I believe to be the truth - that the people who work in this field, especially the direct caregivers, deserve some respect. I spent an entire evening at home crafting a letter to the editor. I worked hard to not sound defensive, and did my best to set the record straight. The main point I was making was that for anything to change, there must be a balance of discomfort and hope, and that while discomfort is aplenty, hope has all but vanished. Mostly I wrote the letter because it was cathartic for my spirit. But then, a week later, much to my surprise it was published. There was an outpouring of emails saying "thank you" and "finally" and "this is so long over due" and a few people even hugged me tearfully when they saw me. It felt good to stand up for the little guy and everything I hold true about my work.
9) Ordered some salad and some breadsticks. My friend Matt and I have a confession. We love the Olive Garden. Don't judge us! And if you do, we don't care! Matt and I are part of a fantastic group of friends who get together regularly. But about once every six weeks or so, Matt and I sneak off to the Olive Garden with our $4 coupon in tow. We've learned a lot about the Olive Garden, like that the wait staff are only allowed to put one of every vegetable in the salad for each person at the table. Hence, we were only getting two olives in our salad and this was very disappointing. But we further learned that if you ask real nice, the waiter will sneak you a whole bunch of extra vegetables. On a more serious note, Matt and I also learned a lot about each other, and love having this excuse to spend some quality time together. The advertisements aren't all entirely inaccurate. When we are at the Olive Garden, we feel like family.
10) Celebrated Thanksgivukkah. I love Thanksgiving - it is absolutely my favorite holiday. This year, Thanksgiving coincided with Hanukkah, which was truly a once in a lifetime event. I think it won't happen again for something like 70,000 years. My brother-in-law's family is Jewish, so we made the most of this momentous occasion. My sister decorated her table beautifully with a Hanukkah tablescape. The whole family spent the day together cooking, and we added in some special treats like matzo ball soup, sweet potato latkes and challah bread stuffing. I loved, loved, loved this entire day, and it is a Thanksgiving I am sure that none of us will ever forget.
It amazes me every year when I reflect back what a fun and layered life I have. My days are filled with love, friendship, work I am passionate about, a little bit of heartache and a whole lot of joy. This year, as is true every year, the Top Ten of Jen reminds me that it is good to be me. Happy New Year to each and every one of you...I can't wait to see what 2014 has in store!