I had a nickname when I was young: Thunder Thighs.
I was a fat, unattractive baby, and my two older sisters were beautiful babies, and everyone was confused/upset/amused by what an ugly, roly poly of a baby I was.
These are just facts, people.
My other childhood nickname (besides, Jennie-the-pooh, which was silly and endearing and I have no real qualms with): rhinoceros girl.
I was a fat baby who grunted a lot. I also screamed and cried incessantly.
This is all to say that I was born with a bad attitude. Lucky me.
And actually, yes, lucky me. Because I could have been born with Down Syndrome. There was a chance of it, and at the time, my mother's doctors encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy because of it. Which is a sad thing. She did not, and though I was fat and ugly and had a bad attitude, I was healthy and without handicap. She was terribly grateful for this.
When I was an adult, she admitted to me that when she was pregnant with me she thought that my father would have left her if she had kept me and I was born mentally disabled. Which is probably true. He's not a terribly patient or supportive person, and they never had a very good relationship.
I told her that the person I am today would have understood if she had chosen not to go through with that pregnancy because of everything she was dealing with in her life then, that I will always support women having that option open. But that, of course, I appreciated my life. It was her best and bravest gift to me.
I am grateful for what I have.
And yet, this gratitude is often forgotten, pushed aside. I remember a distinct moment in high school when a boy I had a crush on told me I complained too much. He said it teasingly, jokingly, but it was true, too, and those words hit me like a slap in the face the way words only can when they are both true and describe something you had never seen in yourself before.
It was an uncomfortable moment for me, but I'm grateful for it.
I still complain too much sometimes, often times. It's something I've spent time working on, through practicing gratitude and journaling and avoiding gossip and negative conversations. Through acknowledging and being aware of my privilege. I've been more successful at certain points in my life than others.
And lately I've been struggling. I've always been very critical, very hard on myself. I've always expected a lot. And working in retail is not where I saw myself after getting a master's degree. I've been getting down on myself for not spending enough time applying for other jobs, for not spending enough time writing, for changing my mind about what I want to do next every five minutes. I find myself saying, when people ask what I do, this is where I work "right now," as if to say, this isn't me, this is just a temporary resting place. As if to say, I'm better than this.
Then, a couple of days ago, I listened to this podcast while on my lunch break at work and it was perfectly, exactly what I needed to hear right now. Jon says that you don't have to be ashamed of having a "day job," that working somewhere to make a living, rather than having made it in your craft or opened your own business, is not a bad thing. He says that calling it a "day job" sets yourself up to be unhappy there. Which is exactly what I've been doing.
Listening to Jess and Jon's conversation reminded me that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and grow where I am. It reminded me to get the most possible out of my time there, and that I can develop my career toolkit while being there, which will ultimately help me decide and move on to the next great thing. It reminded me that attitude is everything.
Suddenly, without anything external having changed, I felt so much better about where I am in life. Yes, I want to continue moving on, moving up. But that doesn't mean that I can't and shouldn't do my absolute best, be my absolute best, right now, where I am. That doesn't mean that I can't be grateful for all that I have, rather than disappointed or bitter over the things that I don't.
The truth is, I'm lucky to have a job. I'm lucky that trying on clothes is part of it, that helping empower women through finding the right fit is part of it, that working with other amazing women is part of it, that learning about fabric and style and designing outfits is part of it. Attitude=Gratitude.
Thunder Thighs is not an empowering, body positive nickname for someone. Don't do that to your children/siblings/nieces, please. But, I'm glad I had people to love me, to tease me, to give me nicknames.
I love my body. I honestly wouldn't trade it for anything.
I don't scream and cry too much anymore. Mostly just in the car when people drive badly. The struggle is real.
Upgrading attitude is not easy. It's something I have to remind myself of every single day, in every moment of frustration, in response to every negative thought, in answer to every unwelcome emotion.
But it's good, worthy work, and I'm equal to the challenge.
Yours Truly, Jen
One time I went on a date with a guy I liked a good bit. Then he said he didn't like NPR's weekend programming, and it was all downhill from there.
I'm kidding just a little bit but mostly not.
I mostly listen to NPR programs in podcast form now, in the car or while I'm doing chores or eating a meal, but there is joy in randomly turning on the radio and tuning in to whatever interview or story is playing. There were times in my life when I knew exactly what time it was based on what NPR segment was on. Which is to say, it's played a pretty big role in my life.
This last weekend's episode of This American Life came so close to perfection that I had to share it with you. No tears were shed in the listening to this podcast, but they very well could have been.
The theme of this show is this idea of what people think is going on in a situation they're looking in on versus what's actually going on, and how different those perspectives can be, but language is the common thread between these stories for me, the thing that made them so poignant. This was an episode that made me want to stop what I was doing and just listen. I rewound multiple times, when my brain lost focus for a moment, or when I was interrupted. I wanted to hear absolutely everything.
Act One is one of my favorite pieces of journalism in recent history. A teenage girl reports on what it's like to be inside an abusive relationship with an older man and she does an absolutely phenomenal job. She has a poised radio voice, and yet sounds so young, so herself. She is honest and vulnerable and real. Her goal in reporting this story, we learn, is to help herself understand why she has had such a hard time shaking this relationship, why she is putting herself through this. She is hoping that telling the story, reporting on it, seeking the perspectives of the people in her life, will help her understand it, and maybe once she understands it she'll be able to overcome it. This is what language, what story, is to me. It's a way of processing. It's a way of examining life, of finding significance and understanding there. So I connect with her there, and while my own high school experience was nothing like hers, it feels terribly familiar, and is heartbreaking, and I found myself rooting for her from the beginning.
Act Two is the story of a language boundary between father and son. So many of us feel like we can't communicate with our parents, that they don't understand us, and this is actually the case in this story. I know people who cannot speak to their grandparents because of language differences, and this disconnect between parent and child seemed frustrating and isolating and lonely. Language is connection. Language is understanding. Language is love. Language is empathy. Language is relationships. Without language, father and son were strangers in the same home, and with it, hundreds of miles away from one another, communicating over the telephone with the help of a translator, they find so much love and interest and warmth. There is always time to connect, to re-think a relationship. There is always the ability to find help in finding the words.
Sometimes I feel like my skills as a writer, that my love of language, is unimportant. Sometimes I wonder if I have wasted my time pursuing this passion. And then I listen to stories like these, and I remember. I remember that language and story are so essential to life, to the human experience. I remember that sharing our lives and our struggles with each other can help others with their own. And I remember that this life is hard and we are all entitled to those things that bring joy and fire and enthusiasm into it. That perhaps that is the most important thing of all.
Yours Truly, Jen
P.S. What's inspiring you lately?
Girl goes to the library, full of hope and joy and enthusiasm. Girl walks through the library, smiling at all of the reading people, and sidles up to a computer with the library catalog open. Girl pulls out her Goodreads app, scrolls through, selects a book that she'd like to read, types it into the catalog search. Book is not available. Girl repeats this process approximately 20 times. Book is not available. Book is not available at this location. Book is only available in ebook format. Book is on hold by approximately 1 million other people.
Or actually, really, girl (metaphorically) throws up her hands and *almost* leaves the library.
Girl takes a deep breath.
Girl decides to take a stroll through the library stacks and try to find a book to read the old-fashioned way. Which is to say, by choosing a book by its cover, essentially. By waiting for a title to jump out. By reading book jackets. By taking a chance. By diverging from the already 100 mile long to-read list and picking something at random.
Girl picks up a few books, puts them back. Then, Girl finds this book. The spine is covered in fun colored stripes. The name Steve Almond sounds familiar. The subtitle is "a novel in confessions," which is intriguing, and the cover art indicates that some letters are exchanged. Girl reads book jacket, checks book out.
Girl exits the library satisfied.
I have a love/hate relationship with the library, ya'll. On the one hand, it's free, not buying books reduces the number of things I have to schlep from apartment to apartment, and it reduces the amount of waste there is in the world (we've all donated tons of books to our local thrift stores, haven't we?). These are all good things. On the other hand, it can be challenging to get specific books, especially in a city like Austin where there are a million tiny locations, and the hours of operation are limited. I really need to plan ahead and reserve books and figure out how the ebook/audiobook system for the library works, but I haven't gotten that far yet.
Anyway. All of this is a terribly long preface to the actual reason you're here, which is to hear about this book, Which Brings Me to You, by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott.
This book is fantastic.
I tore through it, which is saying a lot since I have such little reading time. I read it on my balcony, in my bed, on my lunch break at work. I read it as quickly as possible because 1) I enjoyed reading it, and 2) I really needed to know what happened at the end.
Let me back up. The basic premise of the book is this: Girl meets Guy at wedding, Girl and Guy almost hook up in the coat closet but Guy backs out and says he really likes her and proposes they exchange letters, confessions about life and previous relationships, the real nitty gritty life stuff, 100% honesty, and if they still want to see each other again and possibly pursue a relationship after exchanging these letters, they will. So they write each other.
The promise of honesty means that we get to see two very real characters reveal a lot about themselves. Some of these things are just terribly embarrassing moments, or insecurities, or bad behaviors, and some of these things are taboo, strange, private things that one would not normally ever voice or admit to, even though we all have these thoughts sometimes. This is terrifically refreshing. You really get to know both characters. You invest in them. And you want to know, after everything is said, how they will feel about each other when (if!) they see each other again. What strange kind of awkward that will be. What that will look like. Where they will end up.
If the name Steve Almond sounds familiar to you, too, it may be because you too are a big fan of Dear Sugar, a former advice column on The Rumpus and currently an advice podcast. Steve Almond was Sugar before Cheryl Strayed was, and co-hosts the current podcast with her. If you like Cheryl's writing, and especially her writing as Sugar, you will enjoy his too. It's capricious and caring and encouraging and honest and personable, and he never misses a detail. Sadly, I don't know much about Julianna Baggott, but I definitely want to read more from both of them.
This book is like an indie rom-com. It's what I always want rom-coms to be and they never are. It's not the most serious thing you'll read this year (in all likelihood), but it's probably not the silliest thing you'll read either. It deals with some real, heartbreaking life stuff. It has tough moments. And also fun moments and nostalgic moments and laugh out loud moments. It's a reminder that relationships are messy, and life is too. It's a voice in the ear saying it's okay if you haven't figured it out yet, but you will. It's an inspiration to send real letters in the mail. And it's exactly what I needed.
Please pick this book up at your local library or bookstore, lovelies. I promise you won't regret it. And let me know what you're reading, too.
Yours Truly, Jen
Last year I did not make a birthday bucket list. I meant to, I started to, but at that point I wasn't really blogging and honestly, I wasn't feeling terribly inspired. I was working and not making enough money to cover my bills and not sure where I wanted to be in a year and going home every day and binge watching Netflix until I fell asleep. It was a pretty rough time.
This is not to say that times are especially easy now, but things are looking up. I'm blogging (and in my own way), I'm working and just covering my bills, I'm actively thinking about and searching for the place I want to be in the next year (after making a big move to get closer), and I have (mostly) replaced TV with inspiring podcasts and reading time.
I'm pretty stoked about this year's birthday bucket list. And I've decided to be kind to myself with it in two particular ways: 1) I will check in at the halfway mark, and if there are any things I know I will not be able to accomplish, either because I am no longer interested in them or life just isn't making them possible for whatever reason, I can then post a revised list with those subbed out for different tasks. And 2) I am only putting things on it that can be legitimately crossed off. No recurring tasks, no ambiguous mastery of a skill.
My hope is that by adding in these two concessions, it's not unreasonable to really strive for 26/26, which makes it that much more fun and challenging. Who doesn't want perfect attendance? And so, without further ado...
26 Before 26
1. Buy a pair of cute walking shoes- I am living a much more active lifestyle lately, and getting some new walking shoes is necessary. What are your favorite, most comfortable, cutest walking shoes?
2. Take Olive to a dog-friendly restaurant- We've never done this before, mostly because Olive still gets super excited around people and likes to jump on them and super excited about food and likes to try to get it in her belly. But, she has to learn, right?! Maybe we'll go at a slow time and see how she does.
3. Tour the state capitol- I haven't done this since I was a kid (or possibly ever?!) and it seems like a thing a person should do in her life.
4. Incorporate 3 new ways to reduce waste in my life- I was really into environmental issues in college and got lazy about it in grad school, but this podcast lit a fire under me to really start being intentional again about my impact on the planet.
5. Go to 2 museums- I have big love for museums, and this will be a fun way to re-get to know Austin, connect with friends/family, and get out of the house in an affordable way.
6. Try 5 new restaurants- Food=life and I'm trying to break away from my old college haunts.
7. Send 2 stories out to at least 2 different publishers- I just hate the publishing game so much, but I want the stories I've worked so hard on to be read. And, you know, it's good for my career.
8. Attend a conference and/or networking event- I haven't decided what I want this to be yet, but I'm really excited to connect with people who are passionate about the same things I am and start building contacts in my city!
9. Host a dinner party- I didn't manage to get this done this summer, and I still want to. Catering parties was something I did on a regular basis in Blacksburg, and I want to make sure that tradition follows me here.
10. Take a trip to Ikea- I keep going back and forth on exactly what I need to get for my apartment, but regardless, I definitely need to go to there. Plus, a small confession: I've never been inside of an Ikea before. Day trip!
11. Plan a weekend vacation & do it- This was one of my favorite things from my 24 Before 24 list, so I definitely wanted to include it again.
12. Buy a piece of art- This has been on my list forever. I want to support awesome artists, and I also love the idea of having an art collection. Right now I'm itching to invest in an affordable focal piece for my bedroom.
13. Lose 10 pounds- I went back and forth on including this, and on including it in a number of pounds way. I may change this later. But long story short, I've lost about 15 pounds this year, mostly by being more active, so I want to keep that momentum going and get back to my pre-grad school weight. As always though, being healthy is the most important thing.
14. Learn some basic knitting skills & knit something- I have always loved the idea of being able to sew and knit, but never had anyone to teach me growing up. Hopefully this will be the year to make it happen!
15. Take a dance lesson- I am not a good dancer, so this is a pushing myself out of my comfort zone goal. It seems like a fun thing to do and expand my skillset (maybe?) a little bit. Who wants to be my dance partner?
16. Help Mom decorate & organize her house- This is something I've been excited about doing since I got back to Texas, but I haven't had the time to even begin to think about starting on it. I love to decorate and my mom does not at all, so this is a perfect meetup and need and ability.
17. Buy a planner & write all over it- I have been dying to get this planner for years, and just haven't had the dollars for it ever. I also have not bought any other planner because I feel like it can't compare to this one. It's time to save up or settle.
18. Read 25 books- My goal for 2015 was to read 25 books, which I may or may not be successful at. I think I'll stick with that number for the next year!
19. Eat vegan for a week- My sister, Erika, went vegan this year, and has had a really positive reaction to it in every possible way. I don't have any real intention of going vegan, or even vegetarian, but I'm interested in seeing how different my life would look, and my body would feel, on a vegan diet, and I have a sneaking suspicion it would teach me a lot of good eating habits that I could carry over into my everyday, regular eating life.
20. Learn a new go-to hairstyle- I wear my hair basically the same two ways every day and it's really time to mix things up a bit. Re-visiting my hair board on Pinterest.
21. Send out cute Christmas cards- I talked about wanting to do this last year, but hadn't really thought about it until too late. I still have (a little time) to plan ahead.
22. Start a balcony garden- My sweet sister sent me organic seed soil and an awesome mix of seeds to do this, so I need to do some research and make this happen.
23. Find a volunteer activity I enjoy- I haven't done much volunteer work since college, and I would really like to get back into it. A goal for the heart and soul.
24. Apply to a job I’m really, really excited about- I'm still hunting that dream job, whatever it may be. Sometimes the pressure to apply to things that I feel I could reasonably get an interview for is too real, and I need to allow myself to stretch and apply for jobs I truly adore, even if I feel like there's a snowball's chance in hell of getting any traction for it.
25. Start (or re-start) a long-form writing project- My love of writing started with the novel, and I didn't really move to short form writing until college. I'd like to get back into my original love and take on a new long-form writing project, OR dig up an old one and finish it.
26. Post 95 blog posts- My goal at the moment is to post 2x a week, so if there are 52 weeks in the year, and I subtract 4 weeks (to give myself a grace period) and multiply that number by 2, I come up with 95. So rather than telling myself I have to post 2x a week, giving myself a number to shoot for seems like an easier goal to be accountable to and give myself some flexibility.
I think I have a pretty good list here, and I can't wait to get started! What are your goals for the next year?
Yours Truly, Jen
This morning I spent about 45 minutes in bed past my alarm, something I've been doing a lot of lately. I've been weary and probably unexcited for the day beyond my bed. But the moment I stepped outside for my morning walk with Olive and felt the cool breeze of Fall rolling in, I felt new. I smiled our entire walk. I took deep, cleansing breaths. I felt big love for her and this day and this season.
When I was a kid, I always said Fall was my favorite season. I'm not sure why, since there's not much to show for it here in Texas. I guess I liked the back-to-school bustle, and my birthday, and the relief from the heat. I was always bored in the summer as a child, and Fall brough release, busyness.
As an adult, I've found myself feeling much nostalgia for summer. I think this has something to do with having been in Blacksburg for those years and missing out on that Texas heat. A summer there is a Texas Spring, and I yearned for swimming pools and margaritas. I have been glad to have been here this summer, though I haven't made the most of it like I could. It's been a strange couple of months. But sometimes, life does that.
In truth, I really love all of the seasons. I get tired of the same thing every day, and each new season brings change and fresh perspectives and fashion and activities and foods. Each new season makes me feel new again, too.
When we went back inside, the apartment felt stuffy, so I turned off the air conditioning and opened our big sliding door and all of the windows. Do you ever do this? It's something people do in Virginia a lot. Many homes don't even come with air conditioning there, still. The duplex Andy was living in when we met didn't have it. We'd sit Saturday mornings in front of the kitchen window eating eggs and toast. Those are some of my fondest memories from that time. It feels good to feel fresh air moving through a space, airing it out.
Olive loves windows. We sat on my bed by the one in my bedroom after I'd opened it and she lay perfectly still while I petted her softly. Between the breeze from outside and the overhead fan, the room was perfectly cool. She was calm, I was calm. I recognized that this was a perfect moment.
I think we each get a perfect moment per season, though we may not always recognize or remember them. Doesn't that seem right? I'll be on the lookout for them now, and when I feel them, I'll share them with you.
Yours Truly, Jen
P.S. I've been out sick this week, but next week I'm sharing my birthday bucket list and a book review!
I've talked recently about the importance of marking the years, about how important things happen to us all the time, whether we realize it or not. I've tried to mark some of them here, with birthday bucket lists and year end reviews.
And yet, my birthday always sneaks up on me. This is the way it's always been. My birthday tends to fall on Labor Day weekend, which made it hard to have a party growing up because my friends' families had their own plans. And one of my best friends had her birthday the following week, so she'd have her party that following weekend. My parents weren't the type to be on top of those kinds of things anyway. Then, I spent 4 of my birthdays in Blacksburg, which I celebrated with new friends and colleagues, but not with my family, which felt strange.
And, you know, I've seen a lot of the people I wanted to see after coming back to Texas in the last couple of weeks. It feels silly to say, well, now it's my birthday, so let's do that all over again.
25 feels like it's important, a quarter of a century. It feels round and whole and present. To say it aloud feels strange. 25. Like I should be somewhere by now. Where that is, I don't know.
I never was one of those people with a plan. I mean, I've always known what I wanted, and those things haven't significantly changed since childhood. I've wanted to be a writer. I've wanted a beautiful, inspiring home. I've wanted space, and I've wanted people who love me, whom I love dearly, in my life. Some of these things I've done, I have. Some I'm still working on. The dreams have always been there, but the plan never was. I never thought, oh, I'll be married by this point. I never had a wedding planned out. Maybe this is good. I never had a career mapped. I never did the math. Math and numbers aren't my strong suit, you see. I'm really good at dreaming, not as good at pinning dreams down, wrestling them into squares and boxes. That feels sad in a way, trying to corral a free and shapeless thing. And yet, how can one hope to materialize those dreams if they are made of smoke and air?
I think I've gotten off track somewhere in the writing of this thing. But then, that isn't unusual for me.
What it comes down to is that today I turn 25 and it feels significant to me, all of the sudden, though I can't reasonably explain why, since I had never loaded it (consciously) with significance before I came to it. I feel pressure to get somewhere in this year, to tip into the latter half of my twenties with a plan, with concrete dreams. Or perhaps simply to live more hopefully, more presently, to work to live, to get out there and beat this life with a wooden mallet into a shape that is beautiful and recognizable and worthy of at least my own admiration.
I told a friend of mine recently that I felt there was a lot of ground to cross before I reached 30, and I didn't see how much of it would happen, and she said, look at how much has happened in the last five years. And it's true! I moved across the country twice. I graduated from college and got into and graduated from a graduate program. I started and ended a long term relationship. And plenty of smaller stuff in between.
Plans or no plans, I'm taking these two thoughts–that life should be lived more fully, and that birthdays should be better celebrated, to celebrate and mark the passing of time–and I'm rolling with them. I'm conducting #birthdayweek, during which I will do at least one small, lovely thing every day of this, my birthday week.
How do you feel about your birthday, and how do you celebrate, dear reader?