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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.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bless His Heart

At the age of 60, Harold still had enough physical stamina to be of good use on his youngest son's hobby farm.  He and his wife would pile in the Buick and make the three hour trek for long weekends of painting, building fences and planting gardens.  The days, though hot and long, gave Harold a sense of accomplishment.   What his son lacked in physical capabilities because of his chronic medical condition, he made up for with vision and passion.  It was an honor for Harold and his wife to support their son's dreams and help bring that vision to life.

The summer days on this small Iowa farm had air that was so thick you could practically chew it.  The morning grass had drops of dew big enough that they could visibly be seen - from a distance, no less. Undaunted, Harold put on his coveralls early in the day and headed down the steep hill to the barnyard, where he and his family would spend the day building a new corral for the horses.  A lunch of ham sandwiches and lemonade would be delivered by Harold's granddaughter at high noon, with additional deliveries of ice cold water in the Coleman water jug being made on the hour. This heat was nothing to mess with, and everybody knew it.

At the end of the day, Harold and his son admired their accomplishments and made a list of tasks to be done the next day.  Soon after, Harold made his way back up the steep hill toward the house - this uphill trek being perhaps the most challenging part of any day spent working in the barnyard.  One foot in front of the other, he told himself, but each step proved more challenging than the one before it.  Struggling and straining, Harold stopped at the midway point and rested against a fence post to catch his breath.  His thoughts began to race, and worry set in that something was terribly wrong.  He didn't call for help, though the thought did occur to him.  He worried that his 60 year-old body may be giving out on him.

Harold slowly and painfully made the rest of the long haul up that hill and arrived at the back porch of the farmhouse, breathless, red-faced and spent.  His daughter-in-law greeted him with a look of concern. "Something's wrong," Harold said.  "I don't know what it is.  I think I might be having a heart attack."  Ever the caretaker that she was, his daughter-in-law helped him into the house and plunked him down a rickety old kitchen chair. She gave him a big glass of ice water and a cool washrag for his forehead, keeping a watchful eye on him as sweat ran down his face.

Harold's daughter-in-law insisted that the first order of business was for him to get out of those hot, sweaty coveralls.  The two of them decided that a long, cool shower would do Harold some good.   His daughter-in-law, also overheated after having spent the day in the kitchen canning pickles and beans, agreed to get the window unit air conditioner running in the den so Harold could relax in the recliner after his shower and continue to cool down.

After his shower, Harold came out of the bathroom in his shorts and undershirt.  As was usually the case, he was whistling a tune and laughing to himself.  "You sure seem to be doing better," said his daughter-in-law, now feeling at ease that the threat of a medical crisis had passed.  Harold sheepishly confessed that he was sure he was not having a heart attack. It turned out, Harold had spent the afternoon barely able to move his legs because the elastic in his underwear had broken, and his underwear had fallen to his knees underneath his coveralls. The mystery was solved, and a new story was added the family archives.  It would be delightfully shared at family gatherings for decades to follow.

Harold was my Grandpa "Fox" and my family has a million more stories like these.  He was goofy, silly, full of laughter and the kind of guy who admitted that were it not for bad luck, he might not have had any luck at all.  He spent a lifetime modeling the art of self-deprecation.  He also taught all of us the subtle distinction between being the butt of a joke and being its punchline.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Answer is Yes

My good friend Alex and her sweet little family picked up and moved to Minnesota this past year.  I knew I was going to miss her - and I do - for a whole lot of reasons.  Of course she had saved me over and over again at work - I could never forget that.  She also fed me dinner almost every single Wednesday night (and fed me well, I might add) for the entire course of our friendship.  But I think one of the most wonderful things her friendship had to offer was the opportunity to develop a relationship with her two little girls.  It gave me a chance to have children in my life, and that was just pretty cool.  I quickly became known as "Jen Wittwer" to distinguish me from another Jen who lived in their neighborhood, but it all ran together like it was one word: "Jenwittwer."  Or, if you are the youngest of the two, "Jenwickwert."  It stuck.  I like it.

Alex's oldest, Kaya, is an independent little seven year-old who has a whole lot of things in life figured out for her tender age.  Her move to Minnesota has been met with mixed emotions, and I think already last winter Kaya started mapping out the ten days she wanted to spend in Milwaukee during the summer months.  Alex took down her requests and began to formulate a plan - a plan that was no doubt partially made by Kaya as a way to escape from the company of her adoring little sister. I was first surprised, and then honored, when I made Kaya's list of people she wanted to see while here.  When a seven year-old asks to spend time with you, the only answer is yes.

With a freedom before her that only a seven year-old can appreciate, Kaya's Milwaukee adventure began last weekend.  Day after day was lined up with play dates and visits to her former schoolmates, neighbors and babysitters.  When my day finally arrived, I took a half day off of work and went to pick Kaya up in her old neighborhood.  Her mom had speculated she might be tired by the time she got to me, but to me it seemed she was energized.  Seven year-old Jen would have probably been whiny and home sick by Day 6 of the trip; conversely, seven year-old Kaya had accumulated a pocket full of stories and was ready to make some more.  As we were mapping out our time together, I asked Kaya what time she wanted to go to her friend's house the following day, adding that I wanted her to have enough time with her friends.  "But you are my friend, Jenwittwer, just an older friend."  Point taken, my dear. Point taken.

True to tradition, Kaya and I first set out to find her first day of school outfit, for the fourth consecutive year. This is a girl who has already decided that when she grows up, she is moving to Paris to be a fashion designer.  ("It is The City of Love," she explained.)  When asked if she wouldn't miss her family if she moved so far away, she assured me she definitely would not miss her sister (though later confessed she invited sweet Indra to join her in Paris) and besides, "I can always Skype."  So given all of this, all I really needed to do was stand back and have my credit card ready for the transaction.  Without any intervention from me whatsoever, she made a great choice for the first day of school outfit.

Later in the day, we made our way out for dinner and I treated Kaya to her first hibachi grill experience.  Her eyes lit up with wonder and joy as the hibachi chef put on a good show for her.  She later reconciled that the chefs in those restaurants are probably trained to be all crazy like that, and I told her I thought she was probably right. After dinner, we went on a quest to find some shoes to match her new outfit.  It quickly became apparent that this girl is in fact her mother's daughter.  She loves her some shoes, and must have tried on 20 different pair.  After awhile of himming and hawing, I could see the wheels of negotiation turn in Ms. Fashion's head.  "Jenwittwer," she said, "I do have a nice pair of flip flops that are a little fancy that would match my new school outfit.  Maybe I should get these boots instead to wear with my jeans.  I would get a lot of use out of them."  Her argument was so carefully crafted, I was left defenseless.  Needless to say, she went home with a pair of boots.

At home, we spent lots of time snuggling with/playing with/mildly tormenting the cats and watched a movie. We had a little bowl of ice cream.  Kaya finished hers quickly and then asked, "Jenwittwer, can I have another scoop of ice cream?"  That was a no-brainer - it was an absolute yes.  By 9:00, my girl was all worn out so I tucked her into bed.  The next morning at 5:30, I heard her get up and she made her way to my bedroom door.  "Jenwittwer, can I come snuggle with you and the cats?" Again, there is only one answer to this question, and the answer is yes. After a good spell of interaction with my amazingly tolerant cats, she drifted back to sleep.  Sweet girl.

Later that morning as we were packing up her belongings, I asked Kaya what her favorite thing was of her time with me.  Was it getting your new boots, I asked?  "Yes, Jenwittwer, well that, and spending time with you." My heart melted, right there.  Anything that girl wants from me, I'm pretty sure there is only one possible answer.  The answer will always be yes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Buh-Bye, Jenny

I'm just going to warn you now.  Right out of the gate.  I am not going to hesitate or sugar coat it or mislead you in any way. If you are not blood-related to me, you are not allowed to call me Jenny.  And if you do, I might not acknowledge you.  If forced to acknowledge you, I just might give you the stink eye.  If you are blood-related to me, you may need to provide proof of such before you can call me Jenny. Then, and only then, will I consider giving you a waiver.  Why, you ask?  Because I am not Jenny.

The reason I am no longer Jenny (or Jenni - the high school rendition of my name) is because I outgrew her. Jenny represents a girl that once was, but no longer is.  Jenny wasn't all bad, I suppose, but enough of her was someone I no longer wish to be.  She had a side to her that was fully capable of being a sassy, ruthless, mean girl.  She didn't stop to think about how her actions and her words affected others.  For obvious reasons, Jenny is dead to me.

I was talking with a friend a while back who has recently joined AA.  Of course I've known a lot about AA over the years, and working the field of addiction and mental health I've had plenty of colleagues who have been involved.  But having a friend become deeply invested in AA made me spend some time sitting with the 12 steps a little more thoughtfully. While I can see the value in each step, it was steps 8-10 that stood out to me the most.  They are:

8.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Wow.  That is powerful stuff.  What if all of us did that?  Listen, I get it. Alcoholism and addiction take a toll on the person living it and everyone in their life.  It can be a massive path of destruction.  But haven't we all engaged in our own transgressions?  Haven't we all, at times, hurt others with our actions or our inactions? Our words or our lack of them?  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we could all just own it?

It's been said that the most difficult words to ever say are, "I'm sorry." Know what's harder than that? Meaning it.  It's harder, because it requires you to take a good, long look in the mirror and face the ugly side of you.  It also requires you to make a personal vow to do better. Because to truly be sorry, sorry from the bottom of your heart and all the way down to the tips of your toes, takes a whole lot of grown up, painstaking commitment.  If you are saying you are sorry and meaning it, what you are really saying is,  "I won't do that again."

Look, we are all human beings.  We are sometimes complicated, emotional, irrational, heaping piles of complexity.  We are all capable of doing less than honorable things.  So let's not beat ourselves up for making mistakes, because as human beings it is just something we are probably going to do.  Instead, let's recognize it, face it, and vow not to do that again.  Whatever that may be.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Universal Law of Salad

There are very few things in life that I can say I know for sure, but I do know this:  salad always tastes better when someone else prepares it for me.  I call it the Universal Law of Salad. They say that love comes in many forms, and I say sometimes it comes in the form of a salad.

We all know what goes into making a great salad.  Careful selection of quality produce - locally grown, if possible - with the perfect variety for texture, taste and color.  An extended session of blanching, chopping, slicing and dicing. Preparation of a tangy homemade oil and vinegar dressing, complete with multiple tastings to ensure it is perfectly seasoned.  When all of this is done, it can be ever so gently mixed together and served.  Served on a chilled plate, if you are feeling fancy.

There are days and even seasons when a big, beautiful, delectable salad would be all I would need to be happy.  And those days and even seasons when someone else would go to all this trouble for me?  Well that, my friends, is a thing of beauty.

Look, I know exactly what it takes to make a great salad - it takes time, patience, and great attentiveness to detail. And knowing that someone else is willing to do for me what I am not willing to do for myself in the moment? It only makes that salad taste better, for it is a salad that is seasoned with love.  Pure, patient, abiding, edible love.