My Name Is Jennifer, And I’m A Nostalgic

I write to remember.

Every memory, every moment—I need them captured within words. Because once they are gone, I will miss them like a long lost friend. And if I have them tucked away, encapsulated in verbs and nouns and adjectives, then I can revisit them whenever I want. And know that they were real, once.

Some people think it’s crazy that I re-read books. In fact, for almost 10 years I read the same book over again every April and October. Of course I already knew the story, but that was the delicious part of the experience. By opening the love-worn pages of this book, I was able to feel anew the joys, sorrows and excitement of the characters. I never really had to let them go when the story ended, because they would remain perfectly intact inside the pages, even if the front and back cover had long ago been taped together.

Yes, I’m nostalgic. Probably overly so. Is that awful? For as much as I cling to the depth of my memories, I don’t hold grudges or judge based on things that happened long ago. But I can remember the exact tone of conversations, or the way my body flushed at just the slightest touch. I can close my eyes and bring to life the entire scene—fully surrounding myself in the scale of the moment,  whether I was naive and clueless or heady with the elixir of control—I can take myself all the way back and relive.

It probably started with my very first diary. Oh those frightening, scribbled pages filled with the subjective woes of a pre-teen girl. He did or didn’t like me. She was or wasn’t talking behind my back. My parents would or wouldn’t let me go over to so and so’s house after school. Really stimulating stuff. And yet, when I happen upon the bin in the dark recesses of my parents basement that contains these afflicted novels, I end up pouring over the pages of each book for hours. Cringing incessantly at the constant whining – or laughing at my follies with all the “wisdom” that semi-adulthood has provided. And with each, I’ll store more details in the corridors of my mind so that the next time I think about it, the memory will be that much clearer.

Recently, I was talking to my paternal grandmother—an exquisite woman who can empower with one word or soothe with just a touch—and she had taken a similar trip down memory lane after stumbling upon an old packet of letters. At first I said “That must have been fun!” But she paused and replied, “Well no, not really.” Because drumming up those kinds of feelings and emotions can be as painful as it is lovely. But she said that she did see some things anew after reading them this time around. Maybe slight nuances that resonated differently with her now than they did in the past. And it makes you realize how incredible it can be to hear someones voice again through even the plainest sentences and paragraphs.

I wish I could say my need for words is selfless, but unfortunately, I have reduced myself to a beggar’s level in order to get them. Written or spoken, sometimes the desire for them is an overwhelming force that has no justification.

I tried to craft my serious high school boyfriend into a poet and asked him to spill his heart to me on yellow, college-ruled paper. Granted, as an enthusiastic thespian, he wasn’t too phased by the challenge, and even took it one step further by reading his soliloquies aloud. But I soon realized that it’s never the same when forced. It’s the unexpected words that make time stand still. The ones you never saw coming, and will never, ever forget.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, friends and I gathered at a dingy old bar for our regular Sunday night drink deal. Friends of friends were in attendance that we didn’t know and everyone tried to make introductions over the din of twentysomething voices. Suddenly a girlfriend grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “See that guy over there? The one with the plaid shirt and messy hair? He just told me that you are the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.”

I was completely dumbfounded. It had to be a mistake. These were not the kinds of things random people said to, or about me, ever. And though I can’t remember his name, and never saw him again after that night, I have such gratitude for those words in that moment. They serve to remind me that anything is possible when viewed through someone elses eyes.

Fast forward a few years: I’d been living in Chicago, working retail and going back to school for design, when I decided it was time for me to get an internship and start my foray into the real world. I found an enticing ad for an intern needed at a luxury jewelry design company, and was thrilled when they called to interview me only days after my resume submission.

The interview went great and they offered me the job on the spot. When I walked out of that building and started down the busy city street, I felt such an unmeasured joy and excitement about my future. Later I called my sister to share the news, going on and on about how hard I was going to work and how I couldn’t wait to contribute to the company. And she responded, “They don’t know how lucky they just got, finding you.”

It was such an incredibly genuine compliment that filled me to the brim with love for her.  And it’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough, or was falling short…that at one time, someone told me I was an asset, and I learned to believe it and work hard to prove it true.

Forgive me for reminiscing, I just can’t help myself sometimes. Not everyone likes to go back. And not everyone can.

My maternal grandmother has been sliding further into Dementia over the past year.  Forgetting her surroundings, her visitors, her life. Right now it’s mostly her short term memory, but at some point, will the long term memories also begin to fade? What will happen to the strong-willed, fiery and fabulous character she once was? I want to write it down—any vivid memories she has left, and those of my own—depicting the vibrant life she once led so that it will always exist.

I try to pay it forward with my own words. If you know me (or are reading this blog at all) you’ll know enough that I am not a short winded person. I could never be a true journalist where the information must be relayed in short, concise messaging that doesn’t elaborate. I’m the girl who wrote about the sparkling, glittering, brilliant, gorgeous, rainbow-colored, splashing diamond waterfall when she was 8. I’m not sure how much has changed.

I give my words freely in the hopes that, sometimes, they will mean as much to others as theirs do to me. I try to paint pictures so crystal clear that I can envelop those around me and take them there, too. And I write about what matters to me most so that I’ll always have a time machine.

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No, It’s Not A Sex Tape

But, my husband and I DID star in a video. Now let me explain before you start getting the wrong impression and thinking we’re some wild, swinging, key-party couple. It was only 1 video. It’s not like either one of us is Hollywood bound. No hidden, on-camera talent was discovered. In fact, neither of us is really even that photogenic! (Sorry Honey) Wait, I don’t have to be sorry, he doesn’t even read this blog:)

It’s all my sister’s fault. At the time she was wrapping up her undergrad as a broadcast journalism major at the University of Lincoln. (She’s now a successful social worker with a masters—if that’s any indication of how far her broadcast career took her). As a final project for one of her classes she was required to film a music video. Immediately she knew the song, Please Forgive Me from the amazing David Gray album, White Ladder. Beautiful lyrics mixed with a pulsing, toe-tapping, get-stuck-in-your-head backbeat.

Next up was a theme for the video. Her vision was of two people passing through life and always missing each other. A shot of feet walking past each other, or people crossing paths with no recognition. Not until the final frame, when the song goes into this amazing musical fade out, will the couple meet face to face. And it will feel like a reunion, even though they’ve never met, and the camera will pan out and catch them in a dramatic, moving 360 degree turn.

Doesn’t sound too shabby, right?

The only problem here is that my sister is NOT A VIDEOGRAPHER. I’m not crushing any dreams right now, it’s just the truth! And what she discovered was that, in order to cobble together a 5 minute and 36 second video (geez, Laura, could you pick a longer song?!), over 5 hours and 36 minutes of film had to be taken! Oh ya, and she also had to find two willing schmucks to star in her debut film.

Enter Jennifer and Mike.

Dating about 4 months at the time and freshly off our first “I Love You’s” we were prime for emanating those uber romantic vibes. Not to mention the fact that I was leaving for the summer to be a camp counselor in Wisconsin, so this video was like a touching farewell. Something we could cling to over the days and weeks we were apart, missing each other so dearly, sitting in front of a tv screen with our fingers grazing the face of our beloved and whispering “I miss you so much!”

Mkay. Let’s just say that my now husband isn’t usually the overly emotional or dramatic type. He was not consulted about participating in this video, just enthusiastically volunteered.

My sister’s first question when I agreed to a day of filming was, “Does he have any shirts that don’t have stripes?” I think the answer was, “no.”

Our shoot began at a downtown business park. She had us criss-crossing through brick pillars, not looking at one another, and she stood back with her old-school, 20lb, on a tripod video camera and took various shots of our feet and swinging limbs. All the while yelling at me, “Jennifer, stop smiling! Look lovelorn and lost!” Mike didn’t have any problem with the no smiling rule. Half hour in and he was already bored.

Problem with this location was that, since it was company property, the establishment seemed to frown upon random kids videotaping anything on the premises. A uniformed guard eyeballed us warily for a little while and then, kindly, escorted us to our car.

Next up, a huge park with rolling hills and gardens. Director’s instructions to me? “Jennifer, sit on this bench and pluck the petals off this flower, all the while staring off into the distance as if wondering when you’re true love is going to arrive. Look stoic, but hopeful.”

WHAT? You seriously expect me to pluck petals off of a flower while my boyfriend looks on and random passersby point and stare, and not dissolve into fits of laughter? She must have tried to shoot this portion of the video a dozen times. My face constantly in an unattractive scrunch, trying to hold the laughter in before it burst free into tear-filled guffaws.

And, now that I think about it. I don’t even think I was sitting on a bench. I think she had me on my stomach with my legs kicked up in the air, like I was getting high school senior pictures taken. Would YOU have been able to keep a straight face?

Now, as all industrious film students are aware, you don’t always shoot things in order of appearance. So the final 360 shot followed the flower petal plucking. The director stuck us in the middle of a public park and requested that we kiss each other while she moved her clunky camera to no less than 15 different spots around us.

Kiss each other. In public. For, like, a half hour. Did I mention that my husband isn’t much of an exhibitionist? He’s wonderful and loving and all for PDA’s…minus the P portion. Plus it was hot outside and I think there were bugs, and tarantulas and lighting and any other thing you can think of that would make the situation even more awkward than it already was.

By this time we’d been running around town for about 4 hours and my loving counterpart was ready to call it quits and beeline home for a beer (or 20). But Laura was worried that we didn’t have enough film to finish the video, and she was hoping to get some more guy-centric shots.

We headed to a local man-made lake where the plan was to have Mike skipping rocks across the water. This was to add some literal imagery to the video to pair up with the lyrics:

Throw a stone and watch the ripples flow

Moving out across the bay

Like a stone I fall into your eyes

Deep into some mystery

Beautiful, right? Well, the only looks I was getting from my boyfriend were far from mysterious. He was getting closer to throwing that stone deep into my skull.

We wrapped up with a few more shots of us walking towards each other on a bridge and a full-frontal of me lip-syncing the entire song so that Laura could fill in blank spots with visuals of my sweat-stained face pretending to know the words to a song I had just heard for the first time that morning. I’m a natural.

I think, in the end, she got a B+ on the video. Nothing to scoff at. Their one complaint was “Why is only the female lip syncing throughout the video? How come you don’t have the guy as well?” Laura didn’t think it was worth explaining, “Well, at that point, if I had asked the guy to do ANYTHING else, all the film and video equipment might have ended up at the bottom of the lake.”

I said my oh-so-romantic goodbye’s to Mike and headed off to Wisconsin with a heavy heart. But I was excited about the fact that in a few weeks, a VHS tape showing us in all our lovestruck glory would arrive for me to watch, in private, on a random TV in the camp auditorium one night after dinner. I popped it in and sat 3 inches from the screen, eyes welling up at the music and heart swelling up from missing him so much.  It was a masterpiece.

I immediately packed up the video and sent it to Mike’s apartment, then waited with bated breath for it to arrive and him to call me and say how amazing it was. He told me that he loved it, thought it was great, and that he missed me very much.

One of those things was true.

About 10 years later it came to light that Mike had never watched the video at all. Said he couldn’t bear to cringe his way through those 5+ minutes and just faked the reaction for my sake. Oh, well. At least the missing-me part was true. And at least that video didn’t show up at our wedding, as I seriously feared it would. Pretty sure I’d do some cringing if I had to see it now, too.

Either way, I’ll send out a big “Thank You” to my sister for the hilarious memory, if not the catapult into stardom.

The Road Less Traveled (Plus A Few Other Roads)

In the mood for some light meditation? (Just a warning that I’m not trained, so this might put you to sleep, or you might end up dancing naked on your desk). Close your eyes, relax (but somehow keep reading). You’re in a warm, dark place and there is just a whisper of wind brushing across your face. Everything is calm and quiet, and the feeling threading through your veins, just below your skin, is one of curiosity…energy and anticipation.

Now, open your eyes. You’re in the middle of a forest, and the leaf-strewn path beneath your feet has come to a fork in the road, inviting you to travel down two separate paths. On your right the light is dimmer and more mysterious. Fireflies are dancing in the depths and the shadows beckon intriguingly. To the left the light gets brighter, fiercer. You can feel a steady heat emulating towards you. Which way will you go?

Choose Your Own Adventure books were a steady part of my childhood. I loved the game of chance you took every time a new decision was made. Would your character be chased through the forest by angry, evil animals? Or made queen of a castle made of glass and mist?

You could cheat and skip to the end to see what would happen, help yourself to make the “right” choice, but what fun is there in that? Isn’t the joy in the journey? The heady lure of the unknown. The sweet sting of regret. The aching power of success.

I truly believe that there is no right path. That either way you turn will bring you moments drenched with happiness, and those weighed down by sorrow. My life thus far has had it’s share of unexpected twists. Things that I would have sworn as a naive adolescent that I would never do or try, and then found myself thoroughly engaged in years later…and loving.

For example:

I never wanted to live in a big city. I grew up in a mid-sized town, like one big ol’ suburb stretching further west from the Mississippi every year. It was filled with strip malls and business parks and chain restaurants. Everything was family friendly and you were bound to find a new elementary school around every bend. It always felt happily secluded, yet just quirky enough to have it’s own individual personality. You could send your kids out to play until dusk without worrying that they wouldn’t make it home. And then you could go have dinner at a family-owned italian restaurant tucked away in some cool, old neighborhood, and enjoy handmade pastas and jugs of wine. It was unintimidating, and I liked that. I was drawn to places where I wouldn’t get lost and didn’t have to be scared.

Then, when I was 23, I decided to move to Chicago. Suddenly, I had to navigate the El train (going the wrong direction and having to backtrack more than once). I had to flag cabs with authority, standing in the street with my arm up high, making sure the light of the cab was ON not OFF to know it was available (then you earn the right to scoff at people who are waving exuberantly at cabs without their light on and think “amateurs”).  I even bought a bike and rode to and from my office, a 12 mile roundtrip commute, on streets with bike lanes (desperately hoping I wouldn’t end up on YouTube as one of those riders who gets bashed by an unsuspecting car door).

Apparently, all my trials of big city life revolved around transportation. But, in practically no time at all, I conquered those fears and realized that this big city held so much spark and excitement and energy. I found little BYOB thai restaurants and took ballet classes in the city park. We lived so close to the baseball stadium that, on warm days with the window open, we could hear cheers from the crowd. And even though I got lost a thousand times, or hated life again and again while freezing my ass off waiting for the bus in below-zero temps, the original intimidation melted away, leaving behind only a burning ember of adventure.

Other things I thought I did or didn’t like? Did or didn’t want? Would or would not do?

  • I wanted to marry Michael Jackson

  • I wanted to name my first son Tristan Atreyu

  • I didn’t want to travel for my job

  • I didn’t like good beer

  • I thought I’d never dress up for Halloween again

  • I thought my older sister would hate me forever

  • I figured red, pleather pants were flattering

  • I couldn’t stand the taste of mushrooms

  • I thought an overly dramatic, emotional guy was my “type”

  • I thought fashion was an Abercrombie tee & K-Swiss shoes

The idea that there is a “wrong” path to choose is abhorrent to me. Just like the idea that there is only one soulmate for every person feels so wrong and sad. As if you could accidentally miss the one and only person in life that could make you happy?! I just don’t believe that is true. No matter what path you choose, there will be people along the way that can enter into your world and make it shimmer. And, if you’re lucky, there might be more than one.

I’ve brushed up against a few soulmates in my life so far. Each rare and earth shattering in their own way.

They will build you up, and break you down. Blaze with passion or offer you peace. Give you a thousand things, and withhold a thousand more. Support you, challenge you, laugh with you until your body hurts from the shaking, cry with you until you’re sure that your broken spirit will never recover. And then they’ll pull you in and surround you with a warmth so complete that it feels like you’ve never felt the sun until that very moment.

They’ll spark something inside of you that becomes a living, breathing thing—bringing a new sense of wonder to every inhale, and an unknown terror with every breath that escapes from your lips. And they will understand when the things you said you wanted, swore you could never live without…change.

My husband, while not the most prosaic man ever made, said something once that has resonated with me forever after.

“How can you promise someone forever? The best that you can hope for, is that when you change, you’ll change together.”

Because we WILL change, and our lives WILL differ greatly from what we first thought. And things we were once afraid of, in the end, will bring us joy and laughter and wonderment. It would be naive to expect that plans laid so early on would never have hiccups, would never force you to rethink your route. But if you can accept those things and be flexible with change, you’ll open yourself up to so many amazing things you never before knew existed.

I’m no motivational speaker or expert on how to live your life—but I’m truly grateful for the divergent path my own life adventure has taken so far, and I’m pretty excited to see what the next chapter holds…Plus, I’m REALLY glad my kid’s name isn’t Tristan Atreyu (though I’ve still got mad love for you Brad).

To Israel And Halfway Back

***Written years ago for a travel writing class in college, I recently reread this story and realized its potency and relevancy in the world of today. It highlights memories that still blaze true, and are even more reflective now that my sister is living in Israel.***

Seventeen is a tender age to visit one’s homeland.  In a place where the sun rises and sets on some of the holiest places on earth, my memories of Israel are a haphazard collection of adolescent love affairs, fabulous mountaintop sunbathing and nights spent taking vodka shots out of empty film canisters.  At the time I promised myself that I would write in a journal every one of the thirty-four days that I was in that tiny strip of exotically landscaped history; but when reading that journal today I find misspelled Hebrew names of the landmarks we visited, plenty of gossip on who slept in whose sleeping bag last night and whether that strange kid actually attempted suicide with the plug-in wire from the iron.

I remember nameless places and sweat drenched complaining.  I remember techno dancing in bomb shelters and mysterious eggplant meals.  But most of all, I remember those sunsets.  The most alluring and heart stopping moments that stun you back to life, running on the cracked, barren ground toward the ends of the earth, just to make the magic last a few more precious seconds.

Visiting the Bedouins and following them camelback through the desert was the most authentic, yet somehow luxurious experience I had on my israeli adventure.  Knowing that this group of people were vagabond types who slept in tents far away from civilian cities, I reluctantly dragged my hundred pound wheeless suitcase towards what looked like a circus tent made of rain resistant tarp.  I groaned as we stumbled over jagged rocks and looked around at the vast and empty expanse that surrounded our hovel for the night.

Pulling back the plastic shower curtain of a door to get inside, I ran into a few of my fellow group members who stood fairly agape at our Indiana Jones accommodations.  It was so unexpected that you had to take a minute to shake off the surprise of finding Persian rugs sprawled across the floor and miniature round tables set low to the ground, crowned with lit candles and surrounded by soft, white pillows.

It was warm and glowing inside the corners of the three-walled abode, and on the left side you noticed that there was no curtain enclosing us from the world outside.  Ten feet from where we were sleeping was a fence of 4’ boulders all snuggled up against one another, attempting to keep warm amidst the evening desert wind.  Beyond that protective barrier, the earth dropped off into nothing.  Miles below the land looked like a feather stuffed quilt, its colors and designs rolling up and down against the twilight sky.

It’s hard to breathe standing in a place like that, where the wind is tempted to blow you right off of your crest and into the waves below.  Everyone has colorless eyes, reflected against the wash of pinkish grey, cascading down the boundaries of the world.

Israel is like a whirlwind game of Jumanji, where a new set of challenges and adventures are awaiting you around every turn.  In a country that is only 280 miles long and about 85 miles wide, it seems that the eclectic landscape of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are the only thing residing peacefully together in the cramped quarters.

Five years ago when I boarded my midnight Tel Air flight to Israel, over 500 other anxious adolescents were joining me.  In a time of so-called peace, there was only one suicide bombing that happened in Jerusalem during the month I was traipsing around, and I probably only stopped for a second to be thankful I wasn’t near the attack.  Now, most of the youth group trips to Israel have been cancelled. Any young adventurers are left to endure a hundred year sleep plagued with nightmares, patiently waiting for prince charming to sword through the decades of war’s undergrowth, and let back in the dreamers.

We were the dreamers, the schemers and troublemakers taking over the gawky tour buses that summer. Seventeen, free from parents, and legal to buy alcohol and cigarettes, get tattoos and piercings, we skirted around every rule and took full advantage of all our opportunities.  Trekking through the sandy sun drenched Negev, I lit a cigarette while riding high atop my new camel friend, Abu.  There were so many clothes, sleeping bags, and other random supplies stuffed into the side pockets of Abu’s sporty fanny pack that my inner thighs were stretched in gymnast like directions.  I just looked down to my far-from-Moses-and-forty-years-in-the-desert-friendly companions and laughed, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were smoking a Camel on my camel?!”

By noon the heat in the desert is too intense for laymen to be bumming around in, and our Bedouin guide led us to a giant rock structure that seemed to rise out of the barren landscape at exactly the right time.  It was a twenty-foot alcove that tucked us inside its cool, stone walls, and we scattered like mice to find the best shaded hiding places that might lull us into mid-afternoon sleep.

No air conditioned hostel before, or cushioned mattress after, would offer the kind of sleep we found in that sprawling old piece of God’s architecture.  I lay there with my head resting on my water bottle, looking out into the starkly blue and brown landscape, peacefully unappreciative that it would be one of the most serene moments of my life.

When you first think about camel trekking through the desert, Aladdin-like images are conjured up full of rolling orange sand dunes and magic carpets.  But our abandoned dune seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood singularly majestic amongst the miles of flat, cracking, rocky desert floor.  After a breathless climb to the top, I expected to look out over that imaginary sea of blowing stand, but instead was accosted with more of the rocky, ungraceful terrain we had previously traversed.  So I sat atop my lonely beach castle and entertained myself in the evening sun, watching handfuls of sand slalom around the stiff brown hairs on my unshaven legs.

For millions of people around the world, Israel is the religious mecca, and some spend all their lives trying to make one trip to see the birthplace of their beliefs.  When I tell people that I spent over a month in the holy land when I was only seventeen, they always ask me, why?  I tell them that it is sort of a tradition.  I tell them that my parents did it when they were teenagers, and it was their plan to send their children to experience the same sort of adventure.  I tell these people that it was my right of passage, my good fortune, to be sent away to have such an important and life altering experience.  Sometimes I wonder what I have to show for such a lucky break besides remnants of the vulgar songs we used to sing on the bus, and photographs of the vicious sunburns we managed to incur.

People look at me in disbelief when they find out that I spent so much time in this war torn country at such a young age.  I find it impossible to explain that it hasn’t always been this way, that there have been times of peace, that Israel is a stunningly beautiful country perfect for any type of fantastical vacation or getaway.  I see the confusion in their eyes and know that they are wondering how it is possible, after all of these bombings, that anything beautiful could be left behind.

I remember how we used to sit in only our bras during the long trips up the coast, and pluck our eyebrows to pass the time.  I remember how we begged to go see Armageddon one night and I cried the whole movie through.  But most of all, I still remember those sunsets.  We ran on the cracked, barren ground towards the ends of the earth; watching the dragon-fire sun sink deeper into the dusk, with tears in our eyes from the stinging dry air and my camera long since gone.  I stared in disbelief and promised myself I would never forget what that moment felt like.  The most alluring and heart stopping moment, that still stuns me back to life.