Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Best Of Times

The best of times are when I’m alone with you.
Some rain some shine, we’ll make this a world for two.
Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime.
We’ll take the best, forget the rest
And someday we’ll find …. These are the best of times.
                             - Styx/Paradise Theatre

Today is my daughter's 10th birthday. And once again, a few days prior to this illustrious day, I hosted her little girl birthday party. I began this tradition with her 4th Birthday and have continued hosting the party in my home and coordinating all the aspects of these special events -- baking, crafting, planning, decorating, creating ideas and favors and so on. 

This year's theme followed the storybook lives of the 2nd generation of fairy tale characters. Ever After High introduces us to Snow White's daughter as well as the Wicked Queen's daughter and their many fairy tale friends. There are dolls, of course, dressed in clothing, tights and shoes only a doll could wear -- though I seriously want the SHOES! Anyway, Ever After High is relatively new so there's no "party stuff."  Of course NOW since I've paved the way, by next year I'm sure there will be tons of supplies. 

My daughter and I are always trendsetters when it comes to birthday themes.

I vow at the conclusion of every party every year that "this is the last one I host." And, I always purchase a post-event bottle of wine to celebrate my achievement after hosting and remaining sane at the conclusion of a successful event. The ability to manage an afternoon (or overnight) with high-pitched, high-energy, very busy little girls is worthy of honor. But, I know it's an empty threat. I enjoy it too much (yeah, I'm sick that way I guess.) The challenge thrills me. It gives me a creative rush to come up with a theme and all the necessary and related elements every January. Heck, I think it gets me through the post-holiday/January blahs. And this year, it was even more fun.

This year, my daughter and I truly created this event together. We selected the invitation together. We assigned character roles to each friend, casting carefully who would be who. We shopped for craft supplies and favors together. We baked together. We made cookie dough from scratch, cut out sugar cookies and frosted them. We prepared the cake batter and frosting. We experimented and created apple-looking cake pops, complete with a sparkly red candy coating. We decorated the table and counter and arranged the favor bags. And it was genuine fun.

The Best of Times -- to quote one of my favorite teenage songs -- are those kind of moments. Sure, I could hire someone or go out somewhere and let someone else do the work. I could order a cake. I could hire a cleaning company. But I gain true pleasure from creating this little party for my daughter and her friends. I honestly enjoy baking and doing all the prep with my daughter. These special moments mean a lot. And I have a feeling she will remember these moments long after she's forgotten what I bought her.

The Best of Times are different for everyone. You may not personally enjoy baking or planning a little girl birthday gig. Perhaps your Best of Times is a game afternoon with family or friends, or assembling legos, or playing tennis, or an afternoon at the beach. Perhaps it's being on stage or performing with a special friend or family member -- perhaps its sitting in the audience and watching that someone special and celebrating together. It doesn't matter what the "thing" you do is. What's important is time spent with people you truly care for ... the individuals that you truly enjoy being with.

Who are those people for you? Do they know? Do you tell them? Do you reach out with a phone call or write a text or a letter or an email? Do you send them a thank you note when they select a special gift or touch you in some unique way? Do you call to make plans for lunch or coffee or a drink to simply spend time together?  

A friend once remarked ... People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care ... (Not sure where that came from, though sources say Theodore Roosevelt.)

So, do they know? How do you tell them? How do you choose to show them? Physical expressions ... written words ... spoken kindness ... special plans... Oh, it really doesn't have to be something major to mean something big.

People come in and out of our lives. But their presence leaves an impression -- footprints on our hearts if you will. The Best of Times are spent with such people. Fleeting moments can leave lasting marks on our souls. Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime ...

In discovering your Best of Times, you define the people most precious to you and the aspects of life you most treasure. They may be birthday events or simple moments reading a story to your kid. They may be family bike rides or vacations to exciting places. They may be quiet conversations sitting at a bar or walks and hot chocolate by the moonlight. They may be dancing classes or trips to the American Girl store. They may be evenings spent companionably on a couch reading or outings to the movies. They may be a casual dinner at a favorite place or cocktails in the backyard.  

There's no limits or rules that define the Best of Times. Just find a way to Honor them for what they offer ... and the people for what they bring to you ... and what you give to them. 

You may never choose to host a little girl birthday event. But watching those girls as I have for the past 7 parties I've planned has been a blessing and joy. Sharing an afternoon with them crafting and giggling and celebrating is one of the Best of Times for me. And getting it ready, laughing and licking batter from spoons with my daughter, well, that's pretty much The Bestest! 

And I tell her so every day...
                                                                                                                    -- Jenni

Monday, January 19, 2015

Books Are Like A Box of Chocolates ...

I love to read. Followers of my blog will know that. You'll have heard about it or noted in a quote, title or reference from earlier blogs. I have a Goodreads Account where I log the books I read. It helps me remember an author I particularly enjoyed. Goodreads friends can learn more and find new books ... and I find books thanks to them. Once in a while, I take the time to provide a review or response to a book I've read. And, I have a Goal to not only read 49 books in 2015 but to complete the 2015 Classics Challenge. My friend and fellow blogger Ron tossed out the gauntlet from Ron's Bookshelf, and I decided to pick it up.

So three weeks into January and "The Challenge," here's what I have discovered. Books are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get until you bite into them ... and some of them are chewy ... some are smooth like caramel ... some are milky sweet while others are dark ... some are filled with nuts ... and some are just plain dry. 

The first step in Ron's Challenge was to read a book by a woman writer. Now, based on Ron's criteria defining classics as books 50 years or older there were lots of options open to me. In his challenge, various categories outline the different types of books you will explore during the year. One key requirement though is it's not a book you've already read.

So, a woman writer and a book that I haven't read eliminated Austen and both Bronte sisters. It eliminated Louisa May Alcott's Little Women since I think I at least read part of that book as a child. I considered du Maurier but since I've read several of her books already and enjoyed each one I thought I should begin the challenge with someone completely new. Same was true of Agatha Christie. I considered Mary Shelley since I have not yet read Frankenstein, but decided to save her for a later category.

So, I examined my bookshelves and pulled from it a copy of something I'd long wanted to read but hadn't gotten around to it ...Isek Dinesen's Out of Africa.  

For those of you who read the name and thought Isek was a man, uh uh. Isek is better know as Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke -- if you saw the film based on the book Meryl Streep might come to mind. And Out of Africa was written in 1937, setting it securely into The Classic Realm. Thus satisfied, I settled into my cozy reading chair with a cup of tea, blanket and book.

This is where the Chocolate analogy come in ... yes, I'm getting to it ... Out of Africa was no romance novel and it wasn't a smooth caramel read either. It wasn't nutty or dry. Just ... chewy. It took time and engaged my mind fully.

For those of you, like me, who adore the film, let me just say that the book and the film have a very loose relationship. With exception of the title, key characters and select places, I'm not sure how the film was crafted from this particular book. There must have been some other source to create the tale I saw on screen. See, very little happened in the book that happened in the film ... save the fact that Karen "had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Once in a great while, a line or a comment resembling one from the film appeared ... like Kamente's "I think that you had better get up, Msabu. I think that God is coming." But that's pretty much where the alignment ends.

Many of the beloved characters were there ... Farah, Kamente, Denys, Barkley and, of course, Karen. But of her husband I read nothing. And of the romance between Denys and Karen ... well, if there was one, it didn't appear very significant in this book. And the club and the toast ... the plea to the Governor ... if it happened, it didn't happen in this book.

So, if I was looking for a romance read, this wouldn't be it. HOWEVER ...

The writing style was poetic and filled with beautifully crafted descriptive elements that made the sites, sounds and smells of Africa come alive. I could truly see the colors in the sky, hear the sounds of the lions, feel the dust during a drought or the itchy feeling of grasshoppers after their horrible visitation. I heard the echo of her footsteps on the porch and the sound of her cuckoo clock. I saw the giraffes and elephants. 

Many lovely, poignant observations were made. I found myself tearing little pieces of paper to mark when a particular comment moved me. Chapters were less linear and more like I was reading Karen's personal journal. With this book, I not only selected an author I'd never read, but experienced short stories, non-fiction and a book based on a movie -- well, loosely. 

There was one observation that I found quite compelling: "People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side ... and altogether out of his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splended views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of ..."

Out of Africa, by Isek Dinesen/Karen Blixen was a chewy read. The passages were thick with descriptive elements. (I admit I had to take a little break in the midst of this read to allow my eyes and mind a quick respite with a delightful coffeehouse mystery (Billionaire Blend by Cleo Coyle) -- something Ron not only approved but endorsed in his blog!) But since I've never personally traveled to Africa, I read this book with intent and received the full gamut of this unique lifestyle without the expense of a ticket to Kenya. Save the final few chapters, there truly wasn't a plot to speak of ... oh, okay, she traveled to Africa and farmed coffee. The book examines the impact of that choice, the people and places she experienced resulting from that choice, and the changes she faced -- including the loss of the farm -- based on that choice. Of Denys, there is very little written. So, I didn't get any sense of romance between them.  Have to admit, I missed that. 

But in the end, I fell more in love with Africa with each page. And I walked with her up the hill where Denys was buried. My romantic nature was satisfied as I read about how the lions did come there, to Denys' final resting place -- one male and one female -- to look over their domain. 

So I guess the romance to be found in Karen's book was the adventure of farming coffee and the challenges of life in Africa during the early days of the 20th Century ... of native encounters, safaris and wildlife. The romance in Out of Africa-the book was found in her eloquent ability to paint with words an enticing and sensory tale of the Kenya of days past ... and make us long for our own farm at the base of the Ngong Hills. 
                                                                                                                 -- Jenni

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What's In A Name?

"What's in a name?
A rose by any other word would smell as sweet ..."
Romeo & Juliet 
William Shakespeare

There's a gentleman at my corner grocery store. He's always friendly and helpful. When I look like I need help, he asks what I'm searching for. If I can't find something I need, I can ask him. He doesn't simply tell me where it  is. No. He goes beyond that. He actually takes me to the item and makes sure I have what I need before he walks away.

He's always pleasant, in that corner grocery store manner of days gone by. In fact, everyone who works at the store is like that. I can honestly say that's one of my reasons for shopping there as often as I do. In a few simple moments, I connect with another human being.

In those few simple moments, I feel a little lighter. I smile a little brighter. 

Doesn't matter whether I'm just stopping in for milk or filling my cart, there is a kindness and a joy to this store and the people who work there. For a while though, he knew my name and always made that personal remark when I was shopping -- easier to do since they run my credit card and see it -- but (shamefully I admit) I didn't know his name. So, I asked Matt -- the owner. And then I gently suggested that he consider Name Tags.

Do you have a "local" grocery store? Or a "local" market or shop? There is truly nothing like the welcoming feeling of a place where everybody knows your name. And it's nice to give that back by using the name of that person helping or serving you. I always try to take that time to look at a name tag and thank people who help me by name. I don't dismiss others based on their jobs .... A person's a person no matter how small (so sayest Horton.) And he's right. 

The gentleman at my corner store is Jim. He waves when I drive by and always takes the time to ask about me and my family. And, now that I know his name, it's even easier to say hello. One day in the busy month of December, I wasn't feeling well and had stopped for juice and soup. Jim carried my groceries to the car. The next time I shopped, he asked me if I was feeling better. 

Why is that important? I guess to me it makes me feel good when people show I matter to them. And by using their name and making eye contact, it shows that I value not only the service they are providing but them as individuals. I feel it is important to take the time to pay attention to the people who I come into contact with no matter their "title."  Showing interest offers validation. It honors and pays respect to the people who surround us, work with us or serve us on a regular basis. A title or paycheck doesn't make one person more significant than other. We're all connected. We rely on each other. And, we need to value each other.
I have a friend who gets that ... uses my name in emails or in a text or face to face. It feels good. To hear my name or see it in writing. It means in that moment, he was thinking about me solely. That I wasn't a casual correspondence. At that time, we were connected. It means something even when we're not face to face.

So many people are in such a hurry. They walk down the street searching through their cell phone. They don't make eye contact with the people they see or meet regularly. They don't have time to say genuine words to the Barista making their coffee or the attendant ringing up their groceries. They appreciate the yoga instructor that guides them thru class but they don't take time to say thank you or ask them about their day. 

A waiter or waitress -- or flight attendant for that matter -- usually introduces him or herself when arriving to serve. But how many of us truly pay attention to their name? How many of us use it or make casual conversation with that server we find so easy to dismiss out of mind? 

My elementary school janitor's name was Mr. Claypool. I remember him well. I remember saying hello to him every day. His job was certainly not an easy one. How many janitors do you know? Have you ever stopped to say hello? 

The grocery store clerks vary depending on where I shop. But most wear name tags that are easy to see, if I pull my head from my cell phone or lists long enough to say hello when they ring up my groceries.  I tend to have enough groceries that we strike up a little casual conversation. I like to think they offer me something and I do that in return as they stand behind that register on their feet all day. 

The Barista asks my name when preparing my drink of choice. Isn't it a nice gesture to thank them using theirs before moving along to wait for the non-fat, grande cinnamon dolce latte with whip? Heck, if they are going to the trouble to make my order to such lengthy specifications, a simple thank you and use of their name is the least I can offer.

It's all about looking up. Looking around. Looking outside of yourself and your own drama. Connecting. 

Used to be a local bar named Rumors. As a young single on a limited income, I would hang out there with my friends. That bar was as close to a "Cheers" as any bar I have ever known. I knew the bartender by name. I knew the wait-staff. I've found a few other bars like that around. Those are the ones I choose to go because I feel welcome. I feel like they are glad I'm there.  

When I see Jim at the corner store, we talk. He's a neat guy. I don't know a ton about him but he's good people. He makes shopping there just a little more enjoyable.  I'm not saying we have to be best friends with "the world," but eye contact, a smile and use of a person's name go a long way these days.

What's in a name? Identity. Individuality. Personality. I like it when people use mine and I bet you like to hear your own. It offers you a momentary flicker of connection. That's more than some people ever achieve. 

What's in a name? Quite a lot. We all have one. Making a genuine effort to use them ... to create a connection with someone you don't truly know but see all the time ... well, that's pretty sweet. 
                                                                                          -- Jenni