Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cinnamon Toast, JP Newberry's and A Sycamore Tree

When I was a little girl, I traveled to visit my grandparents regularly. I was lucky to have two sets of grandparents who lived relatively close together. My Mom's parents lived in a city with museums and malls and movie theatres and cool cafes and a set of cousins to play with.  (That's a story for another time.) My dad's parents resided in a small town.

I loved both places. But I find myself thinking so often about that small town. It's odd really because the me I am today revels in her proximately to city life. But there was something about Martinsville that fascinated me. Something special about visiting my dad's parents.

I loved the house. It had character. The very first thing I did when I visited was to pull out the magic drawer where my Grandmother kept all the kid books. Titles I only glimpsed during my time in those hallowed walls. And then I'd run to the kitchen to check two things ... One: the candy drawer ... and Two: the Pie sitting on the counter. No matter what she baked, Grandmother always made two small personal pies ... Chocolate Creme for my brother. Coconut Creme (meringue top!) for me. She was an amazing cook.

Then there was the Cinnamon Toast that my grandmother used to make for breakfast. It was always perfect. And she would cut it into bite size pieces or strips and serve it to us on a tray as we watched our Saturday morning cartoons. I think my brother and I ate a loaf between us every morning we were there.

I loved the adventures that took place when I visited that small town. For many years, there was this corner Dime Store called JP Newberry. We would visit there within the first day or two, my brother and I packed into my Granddaddy's car and driven to a downtown that actually featured a "square" with a courthouse in the middle. Newberry's had a dark dusty wood floor with aisles full of priceless treasures waiting to be discovered. My brother and I would take our time examining every possibility before selecting the one special present that our grandparents would purchase. I remember some of my treasures ... a mini baby doll who would cry real tears, silly putty, quiz magazines that would reveal hidden pictures  when colored with special pens, toy figures where you would press the bottom button and they would collapse like broken marionettes.

Even now Newberrys glistens with perfection in my mind.

There was also this place called the Candy Kitchen. My Grandmother would take me there for home-made milk-shakes and candy goods. You know the kind of place ... one that made the Chocolate Chip Milkshake with honest-to-goodness real mini chocolate chips. We sat in a chipped green painted booth that was better than anything the Plaza Hotel could offer waiting for a teenage waitress to "pull" a real Cherry soda from the fountain. Then, before we'd leave, we went next-door for a bag of penny candy. Licorice bites for me. Orange slices for my brother. And cinnamon pieces for my dad.

There was a park in Martinsville. The kind of park where you could explore and also play on metal play structures  -- years before plastic took over. There was a rocket ship with multi-levels and slides and monkey bars and a wooden merry-go-round that would spin and spin and spin. And next to this park was an enormous hill. One you just had to roll down. And we did!

I remember outings in my Granddaddy's car to a state park about an hour south of Martinsville. Grandmother would make a fried chicken picnic lunch. We'd sing songs all the way there. My Granddaddy had a powerful voice. And he loved to sing. Granddaddy would take us hiking while Grandmother took care of the picnic preparations. Then we'd sit together and laugh and talk and just spend time. No matter what we were doing ... we were interacting together. I don't know if I noticed that then. But as I ride along today and my kids play nintendo games or "apps, " watching movies and sit silently enraptured by electronic entertainment, I recognize the power of those moments now ...

And there was this Sycamore Tree. I think it had been there long before the land it sat on became a town. And I loved it more than any other thing in Martinsville. I visited it every time I traveled there. My Granddaddy and I would go for lots of walks and we'd always stop by to visit this tree. It was like a friend in a way. It was So big and had been there for so long.  The stories it could tell ...

Did you know that Sycamore trees, as they age, lose all their bark? Well this tree had absolutely no bark. It was ancient. And it absolutely fascinated me.

It's been a very long time since I've been to Martinsville. My grandparents both passed away in the 1990s. Both goodbyes were difficult, but my Grandmother's was harder. I expect that was because she died after Granddaddy. And that closed a chapter in a book that had reached its final pages.

After her funeral, my brother, cousin, dad, mom, husband, sister-in-law, aunt and I went to the park ... you remember, the one with the Rocket Ship. My brother and I climbed inside that rocket. At 29 it was as wonderful as at age 9. All the memories came alive and made it so I guess. But the very best part of that awful day was when we all rolled down that big hill, laughing and remembering my grandparents and all the times they brought us to these hallowed hills. And then, my daddy and I walked by ourselves to see that Sycamore tree. I gazed at it, still in awe. It had been struck by lightning and was soon to be pulled out. But it was still standing proud and strong and as magnificent as it had always been. I knew I was saying Goodbye to it that day.

One day at a Birthday Party my daughter attended, I was talking to a new friend of mine I'd met at church. I'm not sure how we got on the subject, but we discovered that we were both from Indiana. Then she told me how she was from this small town in southern Indiana that I probably had never heard of. I laughed and said that I had family from down there ... It turned out she was from Martinsville.

She remembered JP Newberrys. And the Park. And the Rocket Ship. And the Square and Candy Kitchen. She remembered my Sycamore Tree.

Well, JP Newberries closed its doors ages ago. The Candy Kitchen was sold and went out of business during one of the economic downturns that affected small towns. The Park replaced all the dangerous metal equipment with plastic play-scapes. And the Sycamore Tree was taken down ... in its post-lightning strike state, I guess people thought it might fall down and hit a home or business or something.

But that tree was so strong. I know it would have survived. It was simple. Pure. Like those childhood days in Martinsville. Just spending time. Playing games. Singing songs. Taking walks. Enjoying popcorn that was never cooked in a microwave ... but prepared with care on the stove. Savoring meals made lovingly from scratch and served around the same table on which we played card games late into the evenings. We didn't spend long hours before the TV. We read books and played outside. The music came from the radio or record player. There was a grandfather clock to tell us the time. And One bathroom we all shared. But it was the simple joy found in being together that resonates strongest with me. It was never the big moments that made my time with my Grandparents so special ... it was the little things we did together that stand out in my mind even decades after they occurred.

I still hear my Granddaddy's voice when I think of the songs we would sing as we drove.

 I wonder what my kids will remember when they think about special moments growing up. Is there still wonder today in the midst of high-tech, TVs with hundreds of channels, iPads and Nintendos? The Game Days of Sunday afternoons have been replaced with Wii tournaments and only the occasional Board Game marathon. But we have Movie afternoons and the kids and I bake and frost cookies together....

We still make special moments today. They are just different. We take the time to enjoy family and remember what is important. I think about what I remember from childhood and I bring that into my actions today. I share my passions with my kids. Oh, I'm not sure everyone is as sentimental as I am ... and I don't know if my grandparents truly realized the long-term joys they would provide with their simple outings and sharing. I like to think they knew though .....

That giant Sycamore may not stand in Martinsville anymore but it survives strongly in my mind.  It's a symbol of strength and perseverance. Of laughter and family outings. Of game nights, and singing on long car trips and drawers with books and cinnamon toast and personal coconut cream pies.  It's a symbol of how powerful the littlest moment truly are ....

                                                                                                                                                               -- Jenni

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eat Dessert ...

I love dessert. Cookies. Cakes. Pies. Ice Cream. Strawberries … Raspberries … When it comes to sweet treats, I am not picky. Truthfully, I’d have to admit that I prefer something chocolate. Add caramel and I’m yours for life.

It’s Valentine's Day so I ask … Do you eat Dessert? Do you indulge yourself in that gooey chocolate cake or ice cream sundae occasionally? Or, do you count calories and walk away from the tempting sweetness?

Not saying I eat dessert every single day … though I do like to keep a small stash of mini-Milky Ways in my desk for the occasional splurge. Just a small rush of chocolate and caramel and I’m back on track.

Recently I received a box of chocolates with a purchase I’d made. It came in a pretty box with a ribbon. The box contained heart shaped truffles … each has its own personality, story and essence. I haven’t finished the box … No, I savor these truffles. I read about each one … I take my time and explore the full sensory experience when it comes to such decadent candy. I enjoy them …

Am I alone here? When it comes to candy and other treats, where do you stand? Think about it for a moment. When you open the menu at a restaurant, do you look at the Dessert Menu first? Do you select something there and then turn to the entry section?

I do. Oh, I don’t always place the order in the end. But I like to consider my options. It’s fun. It’s playful. It makes me feel alive to know there is something coming that I will enjoy even more since I waited for it.

Why all this about dessert? Well, a few days ago I had a shock.  I learned a High School classmate of mine passed away. He was playing hockey, came off the ice and had a massive coronary. Died instantly. He was 46.

I immediately got on Facebook and connected with a few of my closest high school friends to find out what happened ... to pass along the sad news ... to feel connection with people I hadn't seen in a long time. The result was a shared shadow of darkness ...

It is a very personal loss for me. This is a guy that I dated in high school … someone who truly had a significant impact on the person I became during my senior year and thereafter. Arbitrary statement perhaps. But don't we all have a few of those? People who touch us deeply somehow ... change our direction and without even know it, transition us to a new path? We don’t recognize its signficance when it is happening and we're in the midst of it. But when we look back, we are grateful for those life moments.

The story? Oh, he was the Football Quarterback and I was the President of the Drama Club. But you know high school and the distinction between the “classes.” Oil and water don't mix.

We dated all of three weeks. Went to the Homecoming Dance together ... he broke up with me that very night. In the three weeks we dated, we messed with the rhythm of the high school social network. When he walked me to classes -- guys did that in high school, remember? -- the hall of students parted like the Red Sea. It upset all the powers that be.

It was a tough time for me. My theatre friends ditched me since I preferred hanging out with Jeff on Saturday night. Key members of the popular crowd were offended by the presence of a theatre person in their socially elevated mix. When Jeff broke it off, it was my senior year and I became a woman without a country. Dramatic perhaps, but heck, I'm a theatre person so are you surprised?

Strangely, I found friends from the football team who stuck around. Friends who accepted me not as a simply a one-dimensional '"drama girl," but as Jenni with an "i" -- as I became known to them. I met new people who became significant to me. Tiffany for example ... she became my best friend. And we are friends to this day. I figured out what was important to me. I found a balance for theatre and "real life." I directed my first show along with a friend I’d made in Honors English. I discovered people outside the confines of the red curtain. I began to see life as less black and white and more a mixture of grey. I enjoyed things differently. And I began to more completely recognize and embrace these different facets.

20 years later, I attended my High School class reunion. Tiffany and I went together. We dressed up and promised to have each other's back ... no matter what happened. We'd even ditch the event should it struggle. I stayed at her parents house ... a sleepover just like so many times in high school. We giggled and dressed up to the nines ... I mean, it was a reunion after all and we had to look amazing.

I have to admit, I wanted to see Jeff. It had been many years. The drama of high school romance and status was over. He had been an impressive guy ... smarter than most people gave him credit for but I'd discovered that  during our brief "relationship."

I did see him. We hugged and talked about the drama of our past. “Wasn’t there a big deal when we dated?” was the question we explored and laughed about. The red sea parted and the room noticed. Twenty years later, the fact that the Quarterback and the High School Drama Pres were talking was still something that drew attention. My mom called me after the reunion to tell me that one of my school friends called his mom and his mom called my mom to ask about it. Crazy but true. Anyway, like most conversations at a Reunion, it didn't truly end. We just moved on to catch up with others. But in that moment, something inside me clicked. He'd gotten it. Recognized how that whole thing had gone down and affected us both. I'd become someone more confident and secure as a result of it. And somehow, the world found balance for me.

In the midst of all the drama of a high school senior, I didn’t know then to be grateful. But I hope he knows … wherever he is … that what happened those three weeks in high school affected me on a deeper level. It changed me.  It mattered.  That I’m glad I walked out of my comfort zone into the storm. After all, diamonds only shine after they’ve been put under pressure. People touch our lives briefly ... significantly. And I am grateful for what that experience gave me.

So back to dessert. In the context of all this, ask yourself when you are gazing at that mouth-watering menu … Am I making the most of my life? If the clock stopped for me right now, what didn’t I do because I didn’t make time? Am I putting off something fun or denying something I truly want or want to do?  Is there something sweet out there that is calling my name that I keep holding off for a more acceptable moment? And, if I really enjoy it, does it truly matter that the chocolate and caramel will add a pound?  I don't have to eat cake every day after all ... it is a "treat."

Embrace life with two hands. It’s fleeting. Appreciate the tough moments since they have invaluable lessons to teach. Celebrate the special ones.

And, next time you go out, look at the dessert menu in a new light. Order something different … or something that you’ve always wanted to try. Savor the dessert. No excuses necessary.

                                                                                                                                                      -- Jenni

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On Control, Perfection and Falling Down

We make choices in our lives. What to eat. What to wear. Where to go. Who to talk to. What communications to return or ignore. Our lives are full of choices.

Amidst that choice, we have a sense of control …or we FEEL we have a sense of control. After all, we decided to have a cheeseburger and fries for lunch or return that call. We picked out the clothes we put on. We had that drink. We pulled out the credit card to purchase those shoes or that book or that fancy dress for the theatre banquet.

But the nature of life doesn’t allow for control of everything. Oh, we believe it does, in our limited thinking. We think we can manage everything. Determine our responses. Train our thoughts. Control our actions. By our very arrogance, we can ensure that we are perfect.

But people come into our lives and affect our ability to control. Words are said which demand a response. Actions are taken and the resulting reaction might be unplanned or unanticipated. Sometimes, it's not even your fault. Stuff just happens and wham ... there you are! You go somewhere and expect something to happen … then something different happens. Dynamics are never predictable. Responses cannot always be managed. And, when we try to influence them against the ever changing elements around us, we panic. We become anxious. We implode.

I look back at myself … seeing my life as a movie at certain moments. I watch myself kinda like you watch that woman in the horror film and KNOW she shouldn’t go into the dark forest alone or open that door. You KNOW something is out there that she isn’t planning for … not expecting … not prepared for.

But she opens the door. She goes into the dark forest. She falls when the monster chases her. You know it’s going to happen. You want to forewarn her. But, in her arrogance, she thinks she has it all under control. She can handle it. She might be able to predict possibilities, but she can’t manipulate what’s happening around her or what other people might do.

As a Control Freak … Type A and Intense since I was Four … I make lists. I check off tasks. I control what I eat and where I go. I decide what I buy and who I see. I plan an event and check and recheck and reconfirm numerous things. But … despite all my checks and rechecks … stuff falls thru the cracks and doesn’t happen as I expect, plan or say it will. Now I face a choice … implode or just roll with it and do the best I can. Go on the defensive or the offensive …

One thing I’ve come to terms with … and believe you me, this was a tough one … is that I am not perfect. I do the best I can every single day. I don’t get up saying … hey, let’s screw up today and see what happens. No, stuff happens … sometimes based on my actions or the unpredictability of “the Perfect Storm.” What do I do? I put my head down, ground myself and don the Teflon coating for those days when stuff flies at me that I wasn’t expecting. I stumble, but I get up. And you know what, I’m okay with that. I like not being perfect. I like being a work in progress.

If I never fell, I’d never climb. If I never messed up, I’d never learn. I made discoveries in high school and college … I will continue to make discoveries at each stage of my life. I’m far from done yet. So watch out ya’ll. I’m gonna screw up again. I’m not gonna control something in my Type A-ness and I’m gonna suffer the wrath of one of my favorite words: Consequences. But you know what? (Here's something else I've learned!) The sun will rise and life will go on. And sometimes, when you let go and free fall, there are some really great, amazing surprises that take place. A conversation with a friend. A laugh and a reconnection. A new door opening. A surprise meeting on the road that offers you something special and a little wonderful. Sometimes after a really, really bad day ... a friend says something to you or goes to bat for you in an unexpected way ... making all the awful stuff somehow perhaps even bearable. One bit of brightness comes out of all the crap.

Another thing I’ve learned … I can’t control what my kids do and what happens to them. My son lost his iPod Touch a few months back. As he cried on my shoulder, I ached. Oh, I could have given him the “Why did you take it into a Corn Maze when you knew you were going to be running around anyway?” response. But it was better to just let him cry. He was going to beat himself up. I know him well enough to know he’s experiencing all sorts of regrets. Talking thru the What Ifs. No need to add my two cents. He is who he is. I love him that way and I wouldn’t change a hair on his head. He knows I’m not perfect … I don’t hide that from my kids. And he knows I don’t expect him to be either.

That’s something I’m learning … and will continue to learn and relearn probably all my life. To accept stuff and stop trying to control it. I know how easily Guilt and Worry can flow like water. I know places and people who believe life is black and white. I learned to struggle with big and little things at a very young age. But Worrying doesn’t give me control. It just gives me anxiety, guilt and stress. It keeps me from sleeping. It’s up to me to stop the cycle of What Ifs and If Only comments and thoughts and embrace the quirky stuff that happens as it happens. It scares me sometimes. At times I’m better at dealing with my own lack of control then other times. But Life is full of surprises. Unanticipated actions. Crazy occurrences. Unexpected physical stressors. You can no more control them then you can the person sitting opposite you. However did I imagine that I had that kind of power? And, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who wants to live a flow chart where you know exactly what’s coming next and travel from step to step like a robot? Bring on the surprises.

All you can do is learn to ride it out. Roll with it. Find the joy around you and recognize the futility of trying to control every little thing. It only leads to experiencing the Drama that inevitably arrives when you fall short and drop the ball. Instead of Holding Tight today, I challenge you to make a snow angel or take a walk in the fresh cold air. Twirl in the snow or sunshine and appreciate the unpredictability of our world. Understand that life is hills and valleys and you can’t honestly appreciate the sunrise until you’ve been down in the darkness. Accept that some days life sucks and other days are magical. Sip your coffee slower. Enjoy that cheeseburger and fries. Pay the credit card and remember that you will be stunning in that dress. Hug your kids and let them learn to embrace imperfection. Collect the good and forgive the rest.


                                                                                                                                            -- Jenni