Thursday, December 31, 2009

Keepin' it Real in 2010

Happy New Year!

If my fantastically superstitious grandmother were alive, she would insist that we all eat cabbage and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to ensure a prosperous year. I don't happen to have those handy, but luckily, I found some rum and pineapple juice while foraging for them. My New Year's Eve cocktail might not make me prosperous, but it tastes a hell of a lot better than black-eyed peas and cabbage, so I'll take my chances. Cheers, friends!

Here's to a brand spanking new year of keepin' it real. That's my resolution. God help me.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions in general. It's not that I don't support the notion of improving oneself. Certainly, I do. This blog is a resolution to better my life, but it wasn't one I made on December 31st. Forcing my Cheeto-muching, Chocodile-loving self to exercise daily was a resolution I made, too, but it also wasn't a promise I vowed because a holiday told me, too. That's just asking for it.

Case in point: I'll head to our local park to run this weekend, and all the fired-up "resolutors" will be there, crowding the regulars like myself off the trails, in their effort to fulfill their New Year's promises. I'll cheer them on and hope they make it, but the fact is, I probably won't see them in the park after a couple of weeks. That's how it goes. New Year's resolutions set us up for failure.

So I must be a glutton for punishment for making one, but to be fair to myself (since this is self-indulgent blathering, after all), it's one I've been contemplating for a long time.

I'm resolving to keep it real here on the porch, to put myself out on the writing ledge day in and day out, and let the cards fall where they may.

I love this blog, this foray into the writing world, and I relish the support from readers and friends. It's been incredibly fulfilling the past couple of months to romp and roam about this writing playground. But I'm the new kid here; as such, I'm still looking for my writing niche.

See - I don't know what I want to play with just yet.

Some days I feel more jovial than others, and I hope to make my readers laugh with me (or, um, usually at me. No shortage of material there). The next day, I might feel frustrated or mad at the world, and I could post a poem that reflects those emotions. The day after that, I might write a piece that was inspired by something I heard or witnessed in aisle three of WalMart. I simply don't know. But isn't that the beauty of the blank page? Of life? To always have a fresh outlook, to embrace whatever fills our pages that day?

No matter what I do, though, I want it to be honest. The truth matters to me. If I don't keep my voice authentic, then why bother to put it out there at all?

In doing that, I might step on some toes occasionally. I hate that part of the process. I do.

In a college creative writing course long ago, I wrote a poem about one of the most shameful experiences I'd had as a child.

My cousin and I were playing in my grandparents' yard, and the neighbor on the other side of the fence was singing a hymn as she hung her laundry. Young, cocky and stupid, my cousin and I crouched on the other side of the fence and began to mimic her, our voices cracking as we howled out notes crafted in cruelty.

The woman never looked over the fence or said a word to us. She just stopped singing, gathered her laundry and went inside as we snickered. A couple of years later, my grandmother remarked that she missed the neighbor's lovely voice, that she never sang anymore because some "mean kids" had made fun of her.

I felt horrible. Yet I never apologized to the neighbor. I never told my grandmother or anyone that I was the one who had robbed her of her voice, until a poem assignment in college provided the opportunity.

I poured out my story in poetry, my shame trapped forever in print. Much to my dismay, my professor asked me to read it to the class. It wasn't easy to face my peers and read about the horrid thing I had done. I saw the appalled looks of my classmates. Most remained quiet, but one classmate didn't. Seething, he shoved his chair back from the group table and towered over me. He called me a racist, a fool, a bitch. His violent reaction shocked me, and the words he spat in my direction were knives slicing through me.

Shaken, I uttered an apology, dropped the poem and ran from the room and down the hall, where I burst into sobs. My professor, a poet, ran after me, and when she caught me, she took my hands in her own.

"Why are you running away?" she said.

"My poem," I said, "I didn't mean for it to hurt him like that. I didn't mean it."

She looked at me for a long time, and then she said smiled and said quietly, "Congratulations."

I couldn't have heard her correctly.

"What?" I asked, confused.

"Jennifer," she said, "Your poem evoked strong emotions. Those words on that page made him feel so strongly, so deeply, that he couldn't even sit in his chair. And even if it was a bad reaction, it was so much better than no reaction.

"Do you write for nothing?" she continued. "Do you hope no one will feel your pain, or laugh with you, or experience your shame? You wrote about that experience for a reason. You needed that reaction.

"Congratulations," she said again. "You're a writer. THIS is what we do. THIS is why we do it. Now come back to class and dig back into it. Don't ever be afraid to put yourself out there. Don't ever be afraid of the reaction. Seek it."

Hesitantly, I allowed her to lead me back to the table, where the classmate embraced me and apologized for his extreme reaction. I apologized for the horrible thing I had done as a child. And we all felt like we'd been to group therapy.

But the poet's words stayed with me. They haunted me recently, when I heard them echoed in the words of a trusted friend, who told me I was holding back here.

I wanted to deny it, but it's true. And I can't have that, not here on the playground, which was made for roaming and romping. If I don't get real here, on my own blog, where can I?

So I hope, my sweet, supportive friends, that you will stick with me, if and when my work doesn't always make you laugh (though I still hope to do plenty of that, too)!

(Or maybe I need a different blog for all of my different personalities...hmmmm).

The point is, life is too short, too precious, for any of us to hold back our truest selves. Like me, I challenge you to embrace who you really are. Let it pour from you, like words to the page.

May your 2010 be a happy and healthy one for you and those you hold dear.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Pickled Grape Trees: Jenkins Christmas 2009

Another Christmas has come and gone.

Pine needles litter my living room floor, and ripped, empty boxes cram the recycling bins.

The kids seem genuinely thrilled with their gifts, and despite being trapped in the house for more than a week, they miraculously haven't pummeled each other to bloody pulps. I'm not sure whether to chalk their subdued behavior up to the Christmas spirit or a potential gas leak (note to self: check carbon monoxide detectors).

I've relished visits with family and dear friends in town for the holidays. And I've devoured so much sugar that the thought of another cookie, cake or candy nearly repulses me (I said "nearly". I could choke down another piece of fudge if one were to suddenly appear in front of me - hint/hint).

Overall, it was wonderful holiday, bursting with treasured moments. But if I had to pick my Christmas highlight, it would be Mom's grape tree.

Yes, I realize grapes grow on vines, not trees, which is why I found myself staring incomprehensibly at a grape-covered tree in my parents' den on Christmas Eve.

There it stood by the couch: a large, potted, twiggy tree that had lost its summer foliage and had been wrapped in twinkling, multi-colored lights and festooned with a bow -- and fat, green grapes.

I suppose it's not that unusual to decorate a Christmas tree with food. Before tacky plastic ornaments and electric lights, the first Christmas trees were adorned with candles and fruit. So I could understand strings of popcorn, cranberries or orange slices.

But grapes?

My eyes must be deceiving me, or perhaps my sister's pickled grapes had fermented my brain.

Oh. You heard right. Pickled grapes. My sister is a terrific cook, who loves to experiment with food. Her Christmas bounty of treats and snacks this year was no exception. When she and I compared notes about the dishes we were preparing for Mom and Dad's gathering, she mentioned cheese balls and crab dip and added, "I'm also bringing pickled grapes."

"Pickled grapes?" I questioned. "I hope to God that's a reference to wine." It is the holidays, after all. There's reason liquor stores are among the few establishments open on Christmas.

But no. My sister showed up with a bowl of pickled grapes and insisted we all try one. "It's a Southern tradition," she said.

Now I have lived my entire life in the South, and I know about grits, burgoo and even chocolate gravy, but I have never heard of pickled grapes.

They were a little sweet, a little tart … a little different. Okay. Okay. They were freakin' weird.

So that's why, at first glance, I thought Mom's tree was a pickled grape-induced hallucination.

As Jenkins offspring trampled all over his house, my Dad was hiding, err, I mean, sitting in the den, so I asked him about the curious tree.

"Umm, Dad?" I said. "Why are there grapes on this tree?"

Dad laughed, and said, "Well, your mother…"

Now, he could have stopped right there. Truly, that was explanation enough.

You see, like pickled grapes, my family is a little sweet, a little tart … a little different. Okay. Okay. We are freakin' weird.

Therefore, a Jenkins gathering is probably unlike any family gathering you've ever attended.

Take last Christmas, for instance.

In 2008, we began our Christmas celebration by slipping on our matching Christmas T-shirts, which featured a blue ottoman dubbed "Otto" that became a family mascot after an inside joke (doesn't every family adopt a piece of furniture as their mascot? No?). The shirts, designed by my brother, showcased Otto in a Santa hat and were printed with the message, "You Otto have a Merry Christmas." Perfect!

Once we were Otto-ed up, we traipsed across the lawn to take a plate of treats to the neighbor's house, where we sang carols and danced on their porch. You want treats? You have to watch us dance first. (Odd that the neighbors turned off all their lights when they saw our cars pull up this year).

Back at Mom & Dad's house, Mom handed out the Christmas "flutes" to all the grandchildren, who played their version of carols as we paraded around the tree. Yes, there were jokes about passing around the Christmas crack pipe, but we only do that in leap years.

After the flutes, we opened presents, the highlight of which was a sock monkey ornament for my younger brother, who had been petrified of the sock monkey given to him by a great aunt when he was a child.

Apparently, the years of therapy for primatesockophobia worked, because my brother cherished his ornament and promptly began to film sock monkey videos. We filmed the classic holiday hits, "Sock Monkey Eats Christmas Crackers"; "Sock Monkey Terrorizes Jenkins Girls"; and my favorite, "That's Not a Banana in my Pocket: Sock Monkey Gets Freaky with Mom's Rabbit Knickknack." (Hello, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Are you taking note?)

Porch dancing, flutes and perverted sock monkeys were just a few of the highlights from Jenkins Christmas 2008. Needless to say, I had high hopes for 2009.

Other than poking fun of my sister's pickled grapes and making a few jingle ball jokes about an unfortunate testicular incident that had plagued someone close to the family (nothing is sacred), our family Christmas seemed oddly restrained this year -- until I stumbled upon the grape tree.

Dad tried to explain it to me: He was concerned that Mom's twiggy tree might poke the eye out of one of his younger grandchildren as they ran around the house, hyped up on Christmas cookies. (It's hard to believe this is the same man who, back in the day, threw all his kids in the bed of the pickup truck for drives down country roads while we passed him beers through the cab's back window). Anyway, Dad had pointed out the tree's potential hazard to Mom before we all arrived. Instead of moving the tree, as he suggested, she covered all the sharp points with grapes.

Then she added lights and a bow, to make it festive.

Envisioning Mom carefully placing the grapes on every twig, I erupted in laughter, which eventually drew all family members to the den. Everyone pulled out their phones and began to snap pictures of Mom's grape tree. Jokes soon abounded about covering all pointy objects with grapes as a safety precaution. My brother said, "I'm putting grapes on damn near everything in the house. Radio antennas: grapes. Light switches: grapes. Cabinet knobs: grapes. My wife's hoo-hoos: grapes."

Since my parents also were worried about my niece's first international flight a few days later, we all agreed that she should be packed in grapes before her departure --pickled grapes, perhaps, so we wouldn't have to worry about injury OR men hitting on her.

With raucous laughter ringing through the house, it was a true Jenkins Christmas at last!

The merry-making continued when my brother and sister-in-law handed out their gifts for everyone: delightful, handmade Otto the Ottoman Christmas ornaments. Next year, I'm going to hang Otto on my very own grape tree. Move over, Charlie Brown. There's a new tree in town. It just needed a little love -- and a few grapes.

After much laughter and antics, the night drew to a close. Before we departed, Mom pulled her kiddos in for a hug and said, "I'm so glad we're not a normal family."

Me, too. Then again, I don't really know what it's like to be part of a "normal" family.

And there's not a moment that goes by, that I'm not grapeful, I mean, grateful for it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Twelve Pounds of Christmas

Ahhh, Christmas.

So much to celebrate this wonderful time of year: the Christmas spirit; the family traditions; the treats; the uplifting carols; the treats; the festive lights; the treats; the beautifully wrapped gifts; the treats; and in case I forgot to mention them, the treats.

From fudge to cookies, gingerbread to divinity, if it's chock-full of sugar and butter, there's a good chance I've devoured it this season. The best part? Everyone knows that calories consumed between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day don't count. Seriously. It's like eating air.

(That being said, I hope Santa brings me a new dryer this year. For some inexplicable reason, mine has been shrinking my pants the past few weeks. Honest to goodness, I could barely button them this morning. Stupid dryer.)

Inspired by delicious, decadent Christmas goodies, I reworked a popular Christmas carol. I hope you enjoy it. May your holidays be full of peace, joy, butter and sugar...

The Twelve Pounds of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the second day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the third day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the fourth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the fifth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the sixth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the seventh day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the eighth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, eight crèmes brulee-ing, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the ninth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, nine lady fingers, eight crèmes brulee-ing, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the tenth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, ten rolls a-rising, nine lady fingers, eight crèmes brulee-ing, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the eleventh day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, eleven cookies cooking, ten rolls a-rising, nine lady fingers, eight crèmes brulee-ing, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I gobbled up in glee, twelve brownies browning, eleven cookies cooking, ten rolls a-rising, nine lady fingers, eight crèmes brulee-ing, seven pies a-baking, six cheese a-caking, fiiiiive Rinnnng Dinnngs, four candy canes, three French crêpes, two turtle treats and a Chocodile shipped to me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

For my Teen-ager on her Birthday

I'm terrified. The day I have dreaded since I peed on a stick and saw a "+" sign has finally happened: I am the mother of a teen-age girl.

Today is my daughter's 13th birthday. God help us.

Fortunately, Kelsey is an amazing, intelligent, wonderful young lady, and I'm delighted she's turned out so well in spite of having a mother who breaks out in random dance moves in the grocery store. But even the best teen-age girls are a daunting species.

As she and I embark on this journey together, I must remember the basic guidelines for contact with hormonal adolescent girls: Look them in the eyes; show no fear; and if that doesn’t work, drop to the ground, curl into a tight ball, cover the head and face, and pray for the best.

Or, wait. Isn't that the advice for a run-in with a bear? Eh. Pretty much the same rule applies.

Let's face it: adolescent girls are weird. I taught seventh graders for several years, so I have some experience in the care of the pubescent species. Thirteen is such a tender age: new teens are caught in that odd, bewildering space between childhood and adulthood. One day, they want to snuggle with you on the couch like a toddler and be coddled; the next, they are aloof and too "cool" to acknowledge your presence. And good luck arguing with them: they can throw a temper tantrum that rivals any two-year-old but surprise you an hour later with the debate skills of a seasoned attorney.

Like anything fragile, teens are best handled with care. (If that doesn't work, I can always lock her in the basement until she turns 30. Don’t think I haven't considered it.)

The next few years won't be easy, I know. I shudder as I remember my teen years. I would elaborate about all the sneaky, stupid things I did, but my parents read my blog, and I don't want to be grounded.

Although my daughter is off to a fine start, I naturally dread many hurdles we're sure to face in the near future: the mood swings, the arguments, the unsupervised outings with friends, the boyfriends (yikes!) and the many temptations to come her way.

I also fear the distance that is natural at this stage between a mother and a daughter. As she seeks to find her own way, she will have to pull away from me a bit. It doesn't mean she won't need me, but she needs some space, too. And I will have to find a way to give that to her.

Although part of me truly celebrates this exciting new stage of Kelsey's life, I can't help but yearn for what has passed.

I remember her first full day with us, how snow swirled outside my hospital window as I held her against my chest, marveling at her tiny fingernails and soft, downy curls. I recall how baby Kelsey would growl at a silly monster as we flipped through one of her favorite board books or erupt in deep belly laughs if we made her favorite doll dance for her.

I'll never forget how, as a toddler, Kelsey would run down the driveway to give her daddy "neck squeezes" when he came home from work. Or how she couldn't fall asleep for years without the bedtime prayer and lullaby I made up for her when I rocked her as a baby.

An immensely creative child, Kelsey also had a bevy of imaginary friends, the most notorious of which was Bee. Bee arrived when Kelsey was two, and the winged friend never left her side for the next several years, including one very memorable vacation with my parents, when Bee nearly met his demise on a playground.

Granddad was happily entertaining three-year-old Kelsey at a small park. She wanted to play on a slide, so she kindly asked her grandfather if he wanted to "care for Bee."

Granddad thought Kelsey said, "Care for tea?", so when she handed him her tiny imaginary friend, he took it in his hand as if it were a teacup, lifted it to his lips and pretended to drink, making elaborate smacking, gulping and swallowing gestures as he did so.

"Mmmm. That was delicious!" he declared, rubbing his stomach.

He didn't understand why Kelsey's brown eyes filled with terror, or why she suddenly screamed bloody murder.

"Granddad ate Bee! Granddad ate Bee! Granddad ate Bee!" she sobbed hysterically, frightening all the playground parents, who scrambled to get their children away from the mad man who was eating insects and making children cry.

Of course, my dad recognized his mistake and coughed Bee up promptly. Bee was soggy and seriously irked, but he agreed to stick around Kelsey another two years. Kelsey bid farewell to Bee shortly after she enrolled in kindergarten and made real friends, but I like to think he's still buzzing about and watching over her.

Like Bee, I'm not planning to go anywhere. No matter how much she tries to push me away the next few years, I'll keep watch over Kelsey as long as she'll let me. Truthfully, I'm already enjoying some of the grown-up girl things we can do together: snuggling on the couch and watching chick flicks; shopping for clothes and giggling in the dressing room; or sitting in the window at Starbucks sipping coffee and hot chocolate and making faces at the people who walk by (Don't judge. You know you always wanted to do that).

She's a beautiful young woman with so much promise. But no matter how old she gets, I will still see the little girl with the big brown eyes and pigtails, doing somersaults down a grassy green hill and giggling the entire way.

As we celebrate a new phase of her life today, I pray that laughter follows her as she rolls along. I'll be close by, should she ever need a hand to help her over the hills.

Happy Birthday, my beautiful teen daughter. Forever hardly seems long enough to love you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thank you!

Just a quick note today to thank those of you who are reading, following, sharing and offering feedback on my little writing venture. Your support means more than Hostess Chocodiles to me, and that's saying A LOT.

I might be slower to post the next few weeks because the holidays are upon us and the meth won't make itself! I'm kidding, of course. I have people who make that for me.

Seriously, friends - I'm busy, and you're busy, but I promise we will reconnect before too long. I'm collecting new writing material all the time and hoping to get it on paper soon. In the meantime, please know that I count you all among my blessings.

I hope everyone is enjoying a relaxing (ha ha), wonderful holiday season.