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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 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.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Elephants Are Gone Fishin'

When visiting with my friend Katie recently, she recounted a story from her childhood that, much to my amazement, I had never heard before.  I really thought I had heard all of the childhood highlights previously. I had heard about the ducks who got their heads frozen in the pond and the goats who ate the top of her father's car one night and the Christmas list on which young Katie requested a $10,000 racehorse.  (Kids: they say the darnedest things!)  Katie is one of those friends whose stories I've heard a thousand times and still we delight in telling them over and over again whenever we are together.  She's one of those friends I know so well I have concluded I just might know it all.

So when Katie pulled out this new story, it really resonated with me. Katie told a story of how, as a child, her parents were planning a trip to Reno.  Now, wisely assuming that Reno doesn't have much to offer children, her parents built things up for Katie and her brother in the days and weeks leading up to the trip. Katie and her brother were told, over and over again, that when they got to Reno they were going to see a magical show, and in that show THERE WILL BE ELEPHANTS.  Yes, children, there will be elephants and we know you've never seen elephants but the elephants are going to amaze you!  As one can imagine, young Katie - a lover of animals to begin with - could not wait to meet these elephants.  She became consumed with the elephants she had not met yet.

The day finally arrived, and Katie and her family checked in at their Reno hotel where the magical elephant show was going to occur.  All the hopes and dreams of a wonder-filled night of prancing elephants came to a screeching halt when Katie and her parents saw a sign hanging in the lobby that read:  "The elephants are gone fishin'."  Sad but true, the elephants were not available for the show - probably on a sabbatical or the subject of a union disagreement - and young Katie's heart sank.  The night she had so eagerly anticipated for weeks on end was now ruined. It turns out, a life without elephants - elephants you had never met and now you never would - was hardly a life worth living.

Of course, the show went on without the elephants, but Katie did not enjoy it.  I mean really, how can you enjoy a show without elephants, when you know elephants are a possibility?  Katie has surmised, in her wiser adult years, that it was probably a perfectly lovely show and she may have even enjoyed it under different circumstances.  But without the elephants, the show was a lost cause for her and an utter, miserable waste of her time.

There's a lesson to be learned there, a lesson that can provide a gentle reminder to all of us no matter how old we are.  Simply put, the lesson is that we can't bank our happiness on the elephants.  Do we all want the occasional appearance of elephants in our show called life?  Of course.  But in order to really, really be happy - the kind of happy that has you waking up smiling and humming to every tune you hear - you must first free yourself of expectations.  This is not to say you should go into life with low expectations, for that is just plain old pessimism.  Rather, when you can, try to approach your life with no expectations.  When you can do that, you just might find that the show with playful organ music, dancing ladies in glittery gold outfits, tightrope walkers and acrobats will fill your heart with joy.  Even if the elephants are gone fishin'.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Vitamin J

I don't wish to be buried, but if I were I do wonder what the epitaph on my tombstone might say.  "She always appreciated good grammar." "Here lies one sassy woman." "Even in death, she was quite punctual."

What is it that we want to be remembered for?  We each have countless quirks and steadfast beliefs for which we stand firm.  Are you a lover of animals?  A humanitarian?  A teacher?  A spiritual guide?  When it comes time to eulogize you, how will someone encapsulate the very essence of you in a 10 minute speech? I wonder.

Over the years, I've decided I would make my mark in one simple way that can be broadly applicable to any situation.  It is this:  I want those who have spent time with me to feel better after than they did before. Bit by bit, minute by minute, interaction by interaction, I want to elevate the energy field of the world around me. That's it. It's realistically my only goal.

And while it sounds simple, it is not always so.  I manage people, and people can be tough - what with their personalities and dysfunctions and deep, unwavering commitment to their misery and such.  Not only do I manage people, I manage them in an environment that is stressful, contentious, often demoralized and sometimes downright impossible. To maintain an environment that leaves people feeling better than when they entered it is no small task.  But it is a task I take seriously.

My basic work philosophy is that it is not only possible - but rather, it is necessary - to work hard and have fun at the same time.  Maybe I carry it too far - maybe there is such a thing as too much levity - but I want people walking through the halls of our workplace to hear echoes of erupting laughter.  I want people to feel joyful about the difficult work that we do, and to celebrate the small triumphs that are the result of our efforts. I want people to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the goodness in their hearts transformed into action has in fact made the world better.

For years I've referred to this intervention of mine as "Vitamin J."  If someone is having a bad day, a bad week or a bad life, it's nothing that a little Vitamin J can't help.  Vitamin J encompasses a myriad of ingredients. It might just be a concerned, listening ear.  It usually involves reflecting the good the person has done and a sincere compliment or two.  It almost always involves a laugh, especially at the absurd.  Vitamin J is offered in regular doses and is always on the lookout for those who are woefully deficient.  Never fear, Vitamin J can also be delivered upon request.

I was once at work standing by the mailboxes and two employees were having a conversation I could overhear, though they had no idea I was standing there.  One employee was lamenting how terrible her day had been.  The other listened and then offered, "Sounds to me like you need some Vitamin J."  My heart swelled with pride in that moment right there. A little time with me had become the antidote for what ails ye. How cool is that?

Do I think I have something special to offer?  Truthfully, I do.  But the secret to all of this is that everyone has
their own version of Vitamin J to offer the world if they try hard enough.  Our society has developed a sorry habit of focusing on the negatives in life, but it needn't be that way. Take the time to watch as others make their way in this complicated life. Recognize that everyone has some colossal piece of luggage they are carrying around with them day in and day out, filled with their problems and their sorrows.  And then take a moment to elevate your energy, say a kind word, pay a compliment, tell a funny story or give a hug.  It's the easiest and best thing you can do to make the world a better place.  And not only that, you just might make your own heart sing.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Truth

The truth may set you free, as they say, but before that it might kick you around a bit and bitch slap you upside the head.

I've thought a lot about the truth in the last year.  As I set out on this adventure to write 52 blogs in a year (yeah, yeah...I'm  a couple behind....no worries) I promised myself to try two things:  1)  write a piece of fiction (done) and 2) reveal some truths about myself (done, and painfully so).   For years I've carried things deep inside myself, things that - truthfully - most people would probably hear and say, "That's all you've got? That's it?"  But to me, they were my things, the things I felt too proud or too scared or too whatever to share. It has actually occurred to me that I could make a list of every stupid little secret I have and unveil them all in one single blog.  I'm not there yet, but I do wonder how freeing that might feel.

In the last few months I've witnessed a couple of women I admire tremendously reveal themselves in ways that stunned me and gave me pause.  The first was my friend - a blogging hero of mine - who wrote about the back alley abortion she had when she was in college.  Her rawness of her emotion practically jumped out of the computer screen as I read her story.  She used her undoubtedly painful story as a means of advocacy, and did it perfectly so.  Her story was so meticulously descript, I wondered if she wept while she wrote it. It's possible that the events were remote enough that the sting of the truth had lost its sharp edge, but it is equally possible that the pain couldn't fully resolve until she told that story.  In the end, as I read her beautiful story in awe, I realized that her sharing of one of her painful truths only made me respect her more. And I didn't even really know that was possible.

A couple of weeks ago, our department held a training event in which we invited David Sheff, author of Clean and Beautiful Boy to talk about his son's addiction to and recovery from heroin.  In the afternoon, we asked a panel of individuals to talk about their own experience with addiction, each afflicted in a different way.  One by one, they revealed their stories. Stories that I won't share here, because I respect their privacy and the intimacy that the room of 300 people experienced that day.  But suffice it to say, everyone in that room walked out the door at the end of the day a different person.  Here were people we knew and deeply respected, who shed a bright, burning, unrelenting floodlight on the darkest corners of their lives.  More than two weeks have passed, and I'm not sure the lump in my throat has fully resolved.

As I checked in the next day with one of the most forthcoming panel members, the feelings of vulnerability was palpable.  I won't say there was regret, but there was a detectable shred of doubt.  I assured this person that sharing their story was an act of courage I'd not see the likes of before, and it had surely profoundly changed everyone in that room. Then, one by one, emails and phone calls and personal visits were paid to this panelist to express gratitude and awe and pure love.  In less than 24 hours, any lingering doubt -and substantial portions of the power fueled by the painful past - were permanently swept away.  The truth, some of it more than 20 years old, when shared in such a public and bold way, had actually set this person free.  I saw it with my own eyes, and it was beautiful.

I've had my own truths to face at times, truths I avoided facing sometimes for years on end.  Truths that, when finally acknowledged, hurt like hell and made me take a good, hard, painstaking, god awful look at myself and re-evaluate everything.  But always, every single time I tell you, the other side of that mess has been a better version of me.  A better version of me with more respect for myself and more authentic relationships with the people I love.

This blog is my therapy.  More truths are on the way.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Dad Really Gave Me

Although I don't have children of my own, I've heard sage advice that when it comes to your children, you should spend half as much money and twice as much time.  My dad never had much in the way of money, but he always made sure I had plenty of his time.

This is the dad who took me fishing and we caught a catfish so big we had to call on other nearby fisherman to help us retrieve it out of the river. The dad who spent a weekend helping me craft a model of the planet Saturn out of plaster, house paint and a coat hanger for science class. The dad who spent countless hours teaching me how to perfect my free throw. The dad who made and decorated a homemade kite with me, named it "The Swearingen Special" and took me out on the perfect windy day to fly it.  The dad who challenged me to save my babysitting money and matched me dollar for dollar until I could afford the ten-speed bicycle of my dreams. The dad who helped me build a bird feeder and paint it orange.  The dad who gave me my first butterfly net and helped me collect butterflies for years to come. The dad who was sincerely impressed with me for spelling the word "yogurt" during an after-dinner Scrabble game.  The dad who took me camping, patiently setting up the tent and making me a foil dinner over a crackling fire in the park just across the street from our house.  The dad who helped me build a hutch for my pet bunny, Eddie Rabbit. The dad who convinced me that whatever I do in life, I should do it passionately and with joy. 

This is the dad who was willing to give me all of the time he had, until his time ran out.  This is the dad I still miss every day.