One Year

One year ago, I brought this little girl home. It's hard to believe it's been a whole year, and also hard to believe that I haven't always had her in my life. She is the way I begin and end every single day, and she is the greatest source of joy and frustration currently in my life.

We've both learned and grown a lot in the last year. We've had our love and we've had our fights. We've had to learn not to be selfish. We both struggle with this sometimes. We've learned how to communicate. We know how to pull back when the other is about to reach the breaking point. We've both cried a little. We've cuddled a lot. I've cleaned up messes, groaned over chewed up water hoses and measuring cups and paper anything. She's suffered through long work days home alone and injuries that kept me from exercising enough with her and laziness, too. We've forgiven each other. We've walked it off. We've seen many a beautiful sunrise and sunset together.

Happy Halloween, everyone, and Happy Anniversary, Olive.

Yours Truly, Jen

What I'm Listening To | iTunes Shuffle

I have owned exactly one iPod in my life, and this is it. I bought it in college, refurbished, around the same time I got my first car. I wanted to be able to listen to something other than the radio in my car and in between classes on campus. I rocked a discman all through high school, so this felt like a huge step up, a chance to diversify my listening experience.

I was downloading music like crazy then, trying out new music constantly and building up my collection. Before then, my music library consisted mostly of my parents' CD's and ones that had been gifted to me. The iPod was the home for this changing identity, this exploration. 80 GB of sound experimentation.

With the limited storage on the iPhone, I mostly stream music now, through Pandora, through Spotify, through Apple Music. Even the music I own exists in the cloud somewhere. It's changed the way I listen to music a lot, put me in habits of listening to the same over and over because shuffling through my whole collection, or through a category, isn't available anymore. You have to work to find something new, it feels like, when shuffle would just find something for you that you didn't even know you had. It's almost like going back to the discman, in a way.

The iPod still works. If you plug headphones into it, it will only play music in one ear, which makes it a perfect dock player. I'll put it in a drawer for months at a time and forget about it, but currently I use it as part of my wake up routine, selecting music on it to play in the morning when my dock alarm goes off.

Digging this old iPod out has inspired me to shuffle through my iTunes songs from time to time while I get ready in the morning or putter around after work. I've re-discovered some gems  and some forgotten tracks, and re-visited some favorites. I've put together a playlist of songs that have come up in my shuffle in the last couple weeks that I listened to all the way through. Maybe you'll discover something wonderful in here too.

What songs have you been re-discovering lately?

Yours Truly, Jen

10 Tips for Making This The Best Morning Ever

Mornings have a way of tangling themselves up into a snarled mess of a thing that the cat bats away until it's totally lost. This time can be harrowing and hurried and preoccupied with this idea of preparing for the next space you're going to be in, be it work or school or whatever.

And frankly, it sucks.

Mornings like that, where you don't know where they've gone, where you're rushing through, where you're checking the clock constantly to see how late you now are, are the absolute worst, and they set up the rest of your day to be stressful and terrible. Let's stop having them, hmm?

Let's reclaim the morning. Let's make morning it's own time in our day, rather than a time to prepare for another. Let's find ways to eliminate guilt and frustration and stress and rushing. Let's use adjectives like fun, peaceful, and productive to describe our mornings. Let's make them everything we want them to be.

That's a power we have. Let's use it.

Below you'll find 10 tips I've used to make my mornings better. Maybe some of them will work for you too? Remember, this is a process, and not every morning will be perfect. But we can move them in that direction.

And, please share your own favorite tips!

1. Find an alarm that works for you. And also know that in order for it to keep working, you may have to switch it up. Setting the same song as my alarm every day has ruined songs for me, so I don't do that anymore. Right now I'm actually using two alarms, and it's working pretty well. My sunrise alarm starts gently waking me up about thirty minutes before my alarm, my iPod starts playing music (that I selected the night before) 10 minutes before I actually want to be up, and then the sunrise alarm beeps at the time I actually set my alarm to. Sometimes I only use the sunrise alarm, but I like adding in the music to get my mind going.

2. Pick one good reason to get up in the morning. Maybe it's a good cup of coffee. Maybe it's quality time with your dog or kids or significant other. Maybe it's time to read or practice your craft. Maybe it's the love of quiet. Maybe it's getting to the gym before it gets crowded, or going for a run before it warms up. Maybe it's simply important to you to be on time. Pick one special thing that you can get out of your morning if you get up on time, write a keyword on a sticky note, and put it over the time on you alarm clock. That way when you roll over to hit the snooze button, you'll think about that reason instead of how early it is. Then if you roll over and go back to sleep, you're saying that sleep is more important to you than this thing. Some days it will be, and that's okay.

3. Create a morning ritual. If you haven't written down what your ideal morning would look like, you should! This process will help you identify what you'd like to get out of this time, how early you actually need to get up, and help lock down the order in which you should be doing things. This could be as loose as a brainstormed list or as detailed as allotting time for each activity. If you can stick to doing the same things every morning, your schedule becomes a ritual and thus easy and automatic. Don't be afraid to consult your brainstorm or create a checklist until you get your ritual down!

4. Make the bed as soon as you get up. This helps eliminate the temptation to get back into it later in the morning (am I the only person who wants to lounge after breakfast?) and is a quick way to make your bedroom look more clean and organized. I have definitely found that my mental state directly correlates to the physical state of my home, so this is a big one for me.

5. Get the must-haves done first. Have you ever had one of those awesome mornings where you cleaned your kitchen and made the bed and took your dog on a long walk and read the news and worked out and did all of these great things and then were late to work because you started getting dressed too late? After you've created your morning ritual, look back and figure out what your can't-leave-the-house-without-doing list items are and try to put these first in the queue for the morning. You can probably stop in the middle of loading the dishwasher, but maybe not with eyeliner only on one eye.

6. Listen to something great. I used to like to watch TV in the mornings while I ate breakfast and did my makeup, and I still do sometimes, but it slows me down and takes me out of the present, which isn't what I want from my mornings. It's so much easier to move from room to room, indoor to outdoor, when you're listening to something on your phone instead. My mornings usually include a mix of music and podcasts/audiobook.

7. Do one productive thing. For some reason I generally prefer cleaning in the morning, so I like to give myself time to do the dishes. Your productive thing could be catching up on emails, getting dinner in the slow cooker, straightening up your bathroom counter, or working on an independent project. Having a productive morning sets a good tone for the rest of the day.

8. Do one thing for yourself. Meditate. Do yoga. Make pancakes. Sit on the balcony and drink a cup of coffee in silence. Take some time finding the perfect thing to listen to during your morning commute. Read a book, or make a dent in your blogroll. Watch Good Morning America. Whatever you want it to be, and it may be different things different days, take a few minutes out of the busy and just be happy doing whatever you want to be doing in that moment.

9. Have fun getting dressed. Take this out of the realm of obligation (I have to look a certain way for my job/school, or I have to look a certain way to be happy with myself, or people expect me to look a certain way) and have fun with getting ready. Be creative. You get to choose who you want to be today, and your outward appearance is how you signal this choice to everyone else. Upbeat music and dancing are two great ways to liven up this process.

10. Set an alarm for 15 minutes before you actually need to leave. This will remind you that it's getting close to time to go, and still gives you time to put on your shoes, make your lunch, rinse your breakfast dishes, brush your teeth, find your keys, or whatever little last minute tasks you have to do. You may also want to set a second alarm for when you absolutely need to leave the house if you tend to run late. Nothing ruins a good morning like the stress of rushing to work.

Yours Truly, Jen

Being Present

Right now I am sitting up in bed, my legs tucked under the covers. I should have made the bed this morning when I got up but I didn't. I had a feeling I would want to crawl back into it later, when I'd earned the right to lounge a bit, after playing with the pup and having some productive time at my desk, before showering and getting ready for work. I was right.

My blinds are open, and pale, late morning light filters in through the tree outside my window. Fan blades chase each other overhead, softly whirring, and the dangling light and fan speed chains dance a little in place. My back aches from my often poor posture and my shoulders are tight from stress. My full-length mirror leans against the wall across from me, waiting to be mounted in its new location. A piece of paper tucked in the corner of my dresser mirror bobs; a necklace hanging on a hook on the wall twitches. There is movement in this still moment.

My breathing is shallow except when I think about it, and then I take deep breaths. I roll my head a little from side to side, note how dry my hands are, catalog all of the things that are out of place in this room–an open drawer, a sweater at the foot of the bed, the pillows I tossed on the floor last night. The fan is the predominant sound in the room, but sometimes I can hear a car passing on the road beyond my apartment complex, a bug chirping, Olive shifting in her crate, a dog barking from the balcony of a nearby building. My back crackles as I straighten. The out-of-place mirror reflects the open drawer, saying please come shut me. I acknowledge the drawer, know that I will shut it when I get up, let the thought go. A car passes below my window. My hands make shushing sounds as I rub them together, an absentminded gesture that often accompanies thinking. I stop. My hair crinkles as I run my fingers through it. My toes wriggle, my legs shift. Restless. My body is telling me it's time to get up, to move my limbs. I stretch, re-settle, wanting to finish my thoughts before shifting spaces. The sounds the keys make as I press them is pleasing, marking progress.

I am present in this moment.

Occasionally, I will wonder what time it is, wonder if it is getting away from me, if I need to move on. I will think, should I wash my hair today, or wait until tomorrow? I will wonder how much money I have in my checking account, and my stomach will seize, and I will feel guilty about every dollar I've spent in the last few days and worry over all the bills I need to pay and chastise myself for not spending more time on job applications this week. This will all happen in a minute or less. And I'll breathe it out, return to the sound of the fan, the feeling of wisps of hair tickling my face, the smell of clean air, the simple joy of sunlight.

Being present can mean different things to different people. For me, it means living in your senses. It means taking in this moment, not living in one that will come or has already gone. It means being thoughtful but not preoccupied. It means self-awareness and self-acceptance and self-acknowledgement. It means living here in this world, not in a dreamscape, not in a stress space, not in an emotion.

Is it possible to be present 100% of the time? No, I don't think so. We consume television and film and literature to step out of our bodies for a while, to practice imagination and empathy. Art and music put us in thoughtful headspaces. And it's important to process emotion, to sometimes indulge nostalgia, to consider our histories, to plan ahead, to set goals. But, in the living of our lives, it's important to check in, to ask ourselves, am I here right now, or am I just going through the motions?

If you would like to be more present in your life, find those quiet moments to check in with yourself, and know that sometimes you will have to create those quiet moments for yourself. In moments between tasks, stop, take a deep breath, exhale completely, and ask yourself how you are feeling. What do you need right now, if anything? What can you do to fill that need? When you find yourself becoming consumed by an emotion, stop, breathe, and ask yourself, is this a valid emotion? Is this something I've gotten myself worked up about, or is this really important? Is this something I can address right now? If so, do so and move on with your life. If not, accept that this is something beyond your control and let it go. When your thoughts return to it, when the feeling creeps back up (and it will), acknowledge it and again gently push it away. Check in with each of your senses to ground yourself. When someone asks you how you are, take a moment and really think about it for yourself, even if you don't want to share the true answer with that person. Find the cues and spaces in your own life that will remind you to check in, find balance, become grounded.

And, when you can, take a few minutes to just be here in your body, in your senses. This may be through creating space in your schedule for meditation, or simply incorporating it into steps already in your routine, like showering or dog walking, anything where you can keep your stimuli and need for response low.

Resolving to be more present is the easiest, kindest thing you can do for yourself, and you can start at any time. You don't have to have a yoga practice or a meditation schedule to do it. You can spend one minute every day being more aware of and grateful for this moment and be happier. And it won't cost you a dime.

I hope that something in here rang true for you. This is a practice I've been working on most especially in the last year or so

Do you practice some form of this in your own life? Has it yielded any positive results?

I'm Only Sleeping

I went to German Kindergarten. That's something you may not know about me.

My dad was in the Air Force when I was young. My older sisters did the whole army brat (do you still use the term army brat when it's a different sector of the military? I don't think I've ever heard anyone say Navy brat. Or Air Force brat. Right?) thing, but I was mostly spared. I was born in Virginia (did you know that about me? I returned to my "home state" for grad school) and we moved around some when I was a baby and then we spent some time in Germany. My first memories are set there. My two younger sisters were born there.

When I really young (three? four? Mom, help me out here) I woke up and went wandering down the street in the early hours of the morning because I was awake and it was obviously time to go exploring. When my mom woke up and I wasn't in the house, she freaked out. I don't remember how this story ends. Maybe it doesn't have an ending. Maybe the only thing everyone says over and over when they've told this story is me getting out of bed, creeping out the door, disappearing into the dark, the luck of me not being kidnapped.

From Germany we moved to Texas, my dad retired, and except for my (almost) four year stint in Virginia, I've been here ever since. 

Another story: One time, probably around 5 in the morning, I went banging on my neighbor's door (I would have been in elementary school at this time) because I wanted to hang out with my friend who lived there and I woke up the whole household, which they were not very happy about. My parents had to talk to me about what hours are acceptable for going over to people's houses. From then on if my neighbors invited me to go to church with them (I went to church with my friends lots as a kid, mostly to get out of the house, partly because I liked the sense of community, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm sure I was figuring out my feelings on religion, too.) I would hang around in my back yard until I saw signs of movement in their house, lights flicking on, doors opening, and I would scurry on over.

To the rest of the world, the morning was a silent time, a time to sleep, a time they wanted me to restrain myself and stay in bed, or at least to tiptoe around and not get in any trouble. I wanted to get up, to expend energy, to let loose my imagination, to eat breakfast. I woke up fresh and yearning and new when other people seemed to wake up burdened with the residue of yesterdays.

I put myself to bed no later than 8:30 through the fourth grade. I was very serious about this self-imposed bedtime. If my siblings or parents were being too loud and keeping me from going to sleep, I would go out and tell them it was my bedtime and they needed to quiet down. I know, I was a strange child. 

In middle school, I was hit with really terrible insomnia. I filled my nighttime hours doing sit-ups and reading books and writing stories on my DOS computer that had a word processor and some games and that's it. I started writing novel after novel, stories inspired by the books I read, stories that I wanted to read and couldn't find anywhere. I started to (day)dream of becoming a writer. One time when I pissed my dad off he took my computer and said he was going to wipe it if I didn't do whatever it was that he was wanting me to do. I cried for so long. It was the cruelest thing he ever did to me.

In high school and college, I sometimes had insomnia and sometimes I wanted to sleep all the time. At some point in there, sleep stopped being a thing I had to think about a lot. By graduate school I usually fell asleep pretty easily, and I got up in the morning pretty easily. Because I was sleeping next to someone who set his alarm later than mine (my morning routine took a lot more time), I would shut the alarm off as quickly as possible to keep from waking him up, and then because it was off I had to get up or I wouldn't necessarily wake up on time again.

In the ~18 months since that relationship ended, I've struggled to get up in the morning. Part of it was the removal of that external motivation. Part of it was emotional exhaustion. Part of it was a lot of other things, I'm sure.

When I moved back to Texas, I wanted to sleep all the time. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and too much physical exertion and I wasn't eating well, or enough, really. After I settled in, I tried setting my alarm earlier, making time for meditation and yoga in the mornings, or maybe even just a little writing or journaling. And I kept failing, which would lead to me feeling guilty and down on myself, which would start the day off in a bad way. Then, I decided maybe I could just stay up a little later and be more productive at night and sleep later in the morning. But that made me stressed in the mornings because I was always rushed and always running late. I decided I needed to start setting my alarm again.

Earlier in the year I brainstormed what my perfect morning would like. I re-visited that brainstorm recently and found my feelings remain mostly the same. I want my mornings to be productive but peaceful. I want to go to work knowing I've already had a good day, that if I come home exhausted and do nothing more than walk the dog, I'm good. I want my mornings to be energizing. I want to be present in these mornings. I want to wake up fresh and yearning and new.

I wanted to share some tips for having better mornings, but it seems, in order to write about that, I had to get this out first. I needed to reflect. I needed to remember my complicated history with sleep, that struggling to make these miracle mornings happen every day is natural but overcomeable. I needed to remember, and to share with you, that there is a morning person inside of me, but also a person who's had a terrible time with mornings, too. So I've gotten it off my chest. And I'll have tips for you next week.

Have you struggled with sleep? What is your favorite way to wake up?

Yours Truly, Jen

Breakfast for Dinner Guest Appearance

One time, I dressed like a friend of mine for Halloween. She was hosting a party I had promised to attend, and she insisted that costumes were mandatory. So.

One time, I abandoned everyone I knew and moved to Virginia and earned a ~fancy~ degree.

One time, I started an audio-journal.

One time, I was a guest on the fantastically fun podcast Breakfast for Dinner, which is hosted by two fellow St. Edward's University alums, Nicole and Dago, and I talked more about all of these things and more. I honestly had no idea what a joy it would be to sit at a friend's dining room table and effectively have a recorded chat (with a little planning ahead of time), but it was an absolute blast.

You should definitely check that out. Tweet your feedback at them (and me!) and then go back and listen to all of their other episodes. Perfect way to spend a weekend.

And those are all of the words I have for you this week. Next week I'll be sharing some tips for having better mornings and some thoughts on being present, so stay tuned for those!

Yours Truly, Jen

What I'm Listening To | Ryan Adams' 1989 & Switched on Pop

I am a big Ryan Adams fan. This you may not have known about me.

I haven't been super tapped into culture news (or really, any news) lately, mostly because my work schedule and doggy schedule keeps me from being on my computer basically ever. So I had no idea this album was happening until it dropped.

And then it was everything.

I confess: I have mixed feelings about Taylor Swift. I'm fairly ambivalent, I guess. I don't think she deserves the mega fame she has. And by deserve, I mean that I think there are tons of other more talented individuals who should rule the world and don't and she does. I also don't think she has a super great voice, and she has writing ticks (as all writers do) that drive me crazy, mostly because I hear her hits a million and a half times on the radio. However, I think she has some really great songs, and her not really great songs are at least earnest and catchy, her career has had an interesting trajectory, she seems to be a genuinely good, though perhaps naive, person, and whether you love her or love to hate her, she has gotten in your world and that's a talent. I listen to her music but don't usually go out of my way for it.

I like a lot of the songs on Taylor Swift 1989 album, and Ryan Adams transformed them from pop, sing along tunes to mood music, which is exactly what I wanted. I can listen to this while I'm getting ready for work, while I'm writing, while I'm walking the dog. It fits in with my music catalog. It soothes my soul.

Basically, you should definitely check it out, and then buy the album.

Also in my ears lately, a new favorite podcast: Switched on Pop. Two guys, a songwriter and a musicologist, get together to discuss your favorite pop songs and pop artists. They dig into the inner workings of the music, comparing contemporary to classical, they sneak in some music education, and ultimately, they make you feel good about being hooked on pop music. This is the least hipster music media I've ever followed, and I dig it. Plus they tweeted back at me the other day, so of course they're my faves now. They seem to put a new episode up every other week or so, and most are 15-45 minutes long, so it's easy to keep up with!

If you are interested in hearing people who are smarter than me talk about Taylor Swift, listen to Switched on Pop's episode on Blank Space or their episode on her entire catalog so far.

What are you listening to lately?

Yours Truly, Jen