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    An ode to the books of our youth

    I’m one of those people that can never have enough books. I buy a new one or two or three every couple of months to add to my collection, even though I probably have  20 to 30 still unread. It’s … Continue reading

  • stew and bread

    Cooking Lessons as Life Lessons

    Yesterday I had the chance to attend the DC Metropolitan Cooking Show with my friend Julia. She loves being in the kitchen and cooking beloved family Italian recipes as much as I love my Cajun food. As we sat and … Continue reading

  • camp

    Family matters: a Cajun story

    Anyone that knows me knows how much I value my family. As an only child, I’m very close to my parents, and as the only “only” in my huge family, I was very close to my cousins growing up, and … Continue reading

The Other Millennial: Searching Beyond the Stuff

IMG_7272

Yesterday, I read a piece in The Washington Post about a “seismic shift” happening all across America: Boomers are cleaning out their clutter and updating their décor, but their Millennial kids don’t want their stuff. The article goes on to discuss the various element at play, that we have read about again and again in nearly every story about Millennials for the last few years – we want to downsize and take less stuff with us, we capture important moments digitally, and, according to one quoted Millennial, we prefer to “spend money on experiences.” (I read another article this morning on this last point.)

While these things may be true for many Millennials, I find that the article is one-side, as most of these pieces are. What about those of us (me, obviously) who capture our moments digitally, but also do still carry around boxes of cherished items to feed our nostalgia and experiences? What about those of us who spend money on experiences but also spend money on such old-fashioned things like records, stationery, and (gasp!) books? And not to neglect the Boomers – what about parents like mine who don’t have clutter and whose decorative tastes are actually quite appealing?

I emailed the author of the article to express these thoughts. Her response: “Thanks. Interesting idea.” I don’t expect to see the other side of the story anytime soon. According to the article, eight out of 10 Millennials don’t want their parents’ boxes of memories and furniture. And again, while this may be true, it’s also stating the obvious. Just like all of the pieces about Millennials moving back in with their parents focus on the “majority” – those who are in debt, lost their jobs, in school, etc. What about the other side to that coin? What about the Millennials like me who make personal choices to spend more time with family, to explore a new career path, and to get a change of scenery? What about the Millennials who use this time to browse the old photo albums, read the old letters, and bust out the heirloom blankets for the bed?

With each of our collective numerous moves, my parents and I have donated or trashed a lot of stuff—whether it was knickknacks, collectables, furniture, etc. But there’s always that box or two of papers and ribbons and notes and other chachkies that we just can’t let go. And when my grandparents passed away in the 90s, I relished being able to discover their own cherished possessions, some of which became my own. There’s something to be said about these reminders of our past that use all of our senses—the smells, the touch, the colors—they can do a lot more for our memories than rifling through thousands of digital photos on a hard drive.

In an age when what’s old is new again, the real story should be about those Boomer parents and Millennial kids who are connecting over their precious moments from the past and the present, both through physical mementos and digital files. In an age when we shake our heads at the lack of connection between these two generations that are supposedly miles apart in ideology and tastes and behaviors, why not take a closer look and find the families that are bonding over classic Johnny Cash vinyl, taking selfies with a Polaroid, and supporting each others’ hobbies and passions (even if it means creating more “stuff” for the house).

I may be in the minority, but there’s something beneath all of this “stuff.” I think there’s a lot of soul.

Do you have any stories to share about your own experiences of keeping your or your parents’ old “stuff”?

Celebrating one year in San Diego

san diego 1 year collage

This week marks one year since we moved to San Diego, which means I’m edging on two years since I moved to California (Remember that little stint up in Paso Robles? A distant memory for me, too.). In some ways, it seems like I have always been here, and in others, it feels like I just arrived and everything is still fresh and new.

While there are definitely areas of my life that I’m still looking to fill (a few more friends, a partner, a place of my own), when I think about what I have done so far in this past year in my new city, I have to say, I’m pretty darn fortunate – and when it comes down to it, I’m also pretty happy. Having a pity party about not having it all right now can only last so long, and I once again give credit to my parents for helping me to see the light – and for reminding me that for the most part, the only obstacle in my way is myself. To have the flexibility and the freedom that I do, to really try to be true to myself and focus on my writing…well, not everyone has that option. As people say, things don’t happen for you, you have to make them happen for yourself.

But back to what I have done, thanks to this journey I’ve been on. One of the things I love most about living in San Diego is the priority on a balanced lifestyle. While it looks like all people do out here is surf and hike and bike and play with their dogs, I know that there are a lot of hard-working folks out here. But they really walk the talk when it comes to that “work hard, play hard” mantra. People do their jobs, but they also make time for themselves, and for friends and family. It’s just as important to make sure that you get a trail run or kayaking trip in on the weekend as it is to finish that project at the office.

As I continue to find the operational mode that works best for me (while I’m working from home), I’ve been able to have a lot more time for other things that I shied away from committing to when living on the East Coast. I avoided signing up for volunteering, I didn’t join any running or tennis groups, and I didn’t take up any new hobbies. Sure, I went to sporting events, and happy hours, and visited museums, and hung out with friends. But there were so many things I didn’t do that are now feeding my soul, and that I feel are helping me to continue on a road of self-discovery.

Some highlights:

  • I’ve run several races with my mom, and supported her as she became a runner in her own right. Bonus: some new PRs for me along the way.
  • Volunteering at the library has introduced to me to some lovely people, and expanded my literary horizons even further.
  • Tutoring middle school and high school students in English has taught me patience, creativity, and a lot about my own learning style.
  • Helping my parents with various home and garden projects has made me realize how much I love working with my hands, and the sense of productivity it brings. Which brings me to…
  • Teaching myself to knit after first buying a set of needles and yarn several years ago brings me joy from crafting things that others appreciate, and the act of knitting is a calming and fun experience.
  • Participating in activities like trail running, kayaking, SUPing, and getting back to tennis means I can enjoy San Diego’s beautiful outdoors and maintain fitness.
  • Meeting new friends of all ages and backgrounds through my various activities means common threads and a diverse set of relationships –> quality over quantity.
  • Speaking of quality: continued focused time with my family has made us closer than ever, as we all support each other in this phase of life.

Here’s to another great year ahead here at home.

Things I’ve Learned While Volunteering at the Library

bookshelf

I began volunteering at the local library last August. I’m in the circulation department, and once a week for about an hour and a half, I shelf-read and clean books. I also help shelve some paperbacks and organize carts ready to be shelved, things like that. And contrary to belief, it’s not only elderly people who volunteer at the library. There aren’t many of us younger ones, but there are some, including my supervisor, who is my age, and has been working at libraries since high school. I may be one of the youngest volunteers, but being at a library is like another home to me. So getting my library fix once a week and supporting the system? A winning combination for a book lover. (Bonus: I even met a wonderful woman at the orientation who has now become one of my closest friends here in San Diego. We talk about books, knitting, Downton Abbey, and desserts. It’s perfect.)

Shelf-reading basically means making sure the books and other materials are in order on the shelves. You literally go book by book and read the spine label, re-shelving any books (or DVDs or audiobooks, etc.) that are out of place, and aligning them all on the edge of the shelf so it’s pretty and upright. So for instance, in fiction, you follow the spine label by author, then title. In nonfiction, you follow by the Dewey Decimal number, then author, then title. Some sections are nearly always perfect, making for a boring (if not fast) review, while others seem to always be out of sorts (children’s, new fiction, some non-fiction sections).

For most people, volunteering at the library may seem like a very mundane and rather uninteresting activity, but for book lovers, it’s a nice escape to the world we love, and a continual learning experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned from volunteering at the library:

  • Children’s books are filthy. I don’t mean the content. I wear gloves and use a household cleaner and microfiber cloth to clean books. What appears on the cloth after just one cover of a kids’ book is absolutely disgusting. (Note: there are Purel sanitizer stations all throughout the library. This is an important feature.)
  • The children’s books are also always the last to be organized. The volunteers will go through all of the rest of the library each month, shelf-reading anything but children’s, until we have to do it before starting any other section again. Said one volunteer recently, “I don’t do children.” (I wondered after if she meant that specifically for shelf-reading or in a larger life sense.)
  • Mystery and thriller series have all sorts of interesting title themes. I’ve never read mysteries or thrillers, so for a long time I thought that Sue Grafton’s alphabet series was somewhat unique. Or that whole “The Cat Who…” series. But when I started shelf-reading, I realized there is an insane amount of theming that goes on with these titles across the board, some of them kinda cool, and some that are lame. The alphabet thing is quite common, actually (i.e. Capital Killer, Capital Larceny, Capital Murder), and then there’s overplayed themes like baking or holidays (Carrot Cake Murder, Red Velvet Cake Murders).
  • Patrons still rely on old services. When I’m in the circulation room cleaning books or doing other tasks, at least three to four calls come in with a request for renewals or someone wanting to know when their books are due. This is despite a printed receipt system when you check out your books that show when they’re due, and an online renewal system that is quite easy to use. I think it’s an interesting example of how even though libraries are instituting technology to streamline processes, many patrons still prefer traditional methods.
  • People still use libraries to get work done. Or play games on the computer. Believe it or not, people don’t exclusively go to coffee shops now to hog the Wi-Fi and work on their paper (or check Facebook). Even on Tuesday afternoons, the library is full of people getting work done on their laptops at study tables, doing research, and whatever else they need quiet space for. But a fair number of people come to the library to make use of the computers for job searching, playing solitaire, and watching YouTube videos.
  • Library book sales are hard to beat. If your library has an ongoing bookstore and frequent sales, take advantage of it. On any given day, I can buy a newer paperback, a great biography, a classic cookbook, or a fascinating non-fiction book for anything from $1-3. Many of these books are in near perfect condition. Consider donating books you don’t want to your library, and buying from them, too, if that’s an option. Keep the cycle going.
  • You can never run out of new material to read. If you’re open to expanding your literary horizons, the library is a perfect place to try new genres, new authors, and new subjects – all for free.

Have you volunteered or worked at a library? What you have learned from your experience?

Finding my way back to writing

old writing

In January, I had the privilege of meeting an author of a historical fiction series about the Civil War. I read her first four books when I was about 12 years old, when she used a pen name and the series had a different name. A year or so ago, I discovered she had started the series again, under her original name, but with a new title. I saw that she engaged with her readers directly on Facebook, which is quite uncommon. She responds to people via email or social media more frequently and promptly than some of my friends or family. Anyway, as luck would have it, she was traveling to San Diego for a few days, and on a whim, I asked if she would be “around,” thinking we could meet. She suggested breakfast, and a few days later we spent two hours talking about reading, writing, growing up in the South, faith, and family. I left the breakfast knowing I had a new friend and mentor. She completely believed I had stories to tell, and that I needed to write them down. I was inspired, and I was going to write.

But I didn’t. Twice, she has asked me via email, “Are you writing, Jenna??” And I, embarrassingly, have not responded, because the truth is, I haven’t. Until now.

Since at least the third grade, if not before, I said I wanted to be an author when I grew up. In the early years, I wrote in spiral-bound notebooks, trying to come up with my own version of The Baby-Sitters Club, writing about best friends with luscious brown or blonde hair, one curly and one straight, of course. I wrote silly poems about boys that would never like me back – “he’s just not that into you” isn’t a new concept. I thought I could be like my first female author crush, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about my own family and our adventures (pioneering or not). I aspired to be at the level of Jane Austen, my second female author crush (LIW and Austen still top my list; you never forget your first loves), who wrote about the everyday stories of family, friends, love, and marriage with such eloquence and humor.

Some of you have read this story before. I went to college for journalism, writing feature and news stories, and adjusting my dream to become a star reporter for The Washington Post, only to shift gears and jump into digital communications and advocacy for nonprofits in DC, right at the time that blogging and social media really began to take off in a big way.

And nearly two years ago, I left DC after several successful and happy years, thinking I would try to “be a writer” again. But today, I find myself questioning what it really means to be something. Am I still a writer even though I haven’t blogged in more than two months until now? Am I still a writer even though I haven’t written anything that isn’t for a client in two months? Am I still a writer even though I don’t actively send out pitches to publications?

I’ve read enough books and blog posts, some by famous writers, and others who just would like to think they are famous, that sternly remind those of us “wannabes” that we need to write every day if we want to become better at our craft. That we need to “shut up and write” instead of talking about it. I’ve read Pressfield’s The War of Art, and know the demon of Resistance very well, and know I have to beat him at his own game.

In some sense, they’re right. Just like any other skill or hobby, you become better at it, or perhaps even master it, by practicing frequently, maybe every day. And there are days when you may like it, or days when you hate it, and you are counting down the minutes until you are done. I see this a lot when I read about running. As a kid, I hated running. I never thought I would become a runner. And even after my first couple of races, post-college, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t have all the gear yet. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t run every day. I didn’t know all the runner jargon. But somewhere along the way, as I practiced and learned and even began to enjoy running, I finally called myself a runner. I get Runner’s World, I have the gear and clothes, and I use the jargon. I am faster, I am stronger, and I run more frequently. I’ll never become an elite, and I’ll probably never win a race. I don’t want to run every day. But I’m a runner because I run.

So why do I struggle so much with this concept when it comes to writing? Perhaps part of it is because there is a stigma around writing, all these expectations. You tell people you are a runner, and they don’t usually ask you if you’ve won any races. They may ask how many miles you typically run. But tell people that you’re a writer, and they want to know where you’ve been published, or if you’re writing the “next great American novel.” Not all runners are expected to be fast. But writers are expected to be good. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expect to be good.

A few weeks ago, I was one of two final candidates for an editor position at an alumni magazine. I wanted it so badly – it was the first job I’d seen in essentially all the time since I left DC that I thought I’d be perfect for, and that was in the direction I want to go. It came down to some very specific feedback about my writing – the headlines being part of it. I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. To be that close to something, and then have to start over, because my headlines weren’t up to snuff? Ouch.

Although I ultimately look at it as a lesson learned and a great experience, I also recognize that it was a blow to my ego, and perhaps has been a factor in extending my writing drought. I have quickly pushed aside ideas for stories and blog posts because I don’t think they’re interesting enough. I avoid sitting down in the morning or night to write because I don’t think what will come out will be good enough, even for me, much less for anyone else to read. So I knit. Or watch Netflix. Or do more crosswords. Anything but write. Because the nagging question deep inside me is quite possibly, “Am I a writer? Will I ever really be a writer?”

As I’m sitting here in a coffee shop with my laptop, I’m realizing that part of my challenge may be that I’ve taken to looking at writing as a chore, rather than something that I once so enjoyed. If I think about my evolution as a runner, it meant changing up my route, trying different running clothes and apps and shoes, and working on specific goals, like improving my time or besting a killer hill. I learned to stop looking at it as a thing I had to do, and instead something I wanted to do – it was fun, it was motivating, and I quickly learned all the little things that played a role in my growing passion for it.

So I think the same thing applies to my writing. It’s been a long time since I tried writing a poem, or wrote real fiction, or something that wasn’t within the themes of this blog. And clearly, I needed to get out of the house for the words to start pouring of me, so now I know that for me, I get inspiration and motivation from changing my location. When I began to see changes in my running, and ultimately, changes in my body and in my frame of mine, running became more enjoyable, and more…flowing. It’s time to get back into that spirit with writing again. It’s time to be a writer, not to be a best-selling author or to win any awards or to make other people proud. It’s time to be a writer because I like to write. And that’s who I want to be.

Oh, the places we see

Italy

A typical view in Tuscany

The topic for this month’s blog round robin is: Does travel change you? 

Everyone says they love to travel, or want to travel more. I don’t think I know anyone that’s actually anti-travel; they may just be anti flying or staying in hotels. But who doesn’t love exploring new places and adding new experiences to their life lists?

I first began traveling as a young girl, when I would fly alone from Texas and then Ohio to visit family in Louisiana each year. That was in the days when you could be brought all the way to your gate and picked up when you arrive, instead of having to drop someone at the curb. I collected multiple airline pins and buttons, and once I got to visit the cockpit in a small commuter flight. One summer, I met this wonderful lady, also from Louisiana, who eventually became my pen pal for many years until she died. Traveling was already a big part of my life by the time I hit 12 years old, and that’s when I went to Europe with my parents.

We spent most of our trip in Germany, which probably majorly influenced my decision to visit again when I was 25, as well as to study German in high school and college. We hiked and visited small towns, and then also went to Dachau and Hitler’s mountain hideout, Eagle’s Nest. At the time, I was in the midst of my fascination with WWII and the Holocaust, so it was a great learning experience, at just the right age. (Although it did spur bad dreams for years after that.) After that trip, my parents and I went to Canada a couple of times, took a Caribbean cruise, and and visited the Grand Canyon, American Revolution and Civil War battlefields, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, DC, and more. (DC was the trip that made me decide to move there someday.)

Then in 2011, I went to Costa Rica by myself on a G Adventures tour, and met up with a group of other young folks looking to enjoy the rainforest and beaches on a budget. It became my new favorite vacation ever, what with the surfing and the waterfall rappelling, and the ziplining. I even made new friends out of it that I remain in touch with today. In 2012, I joined my parents on another G Adventures tour, this time in Southern Tuscany. Then that  became my new favorite vacation ever, what with the wine and the food and the old ruins and the countryside (did I mention the wine?).

Looking back on all of the places that I’ve been, and thinking about the places I have yet to visit, I realize it’s not so much the travel that changes you — it’s the creation of new memories with all five senses, connecting with family or loved ones or new friends, and the realization that there is so much more to life than how we usually live it. And while things like ziplining and such are often quite exhilarating and memorable, what’s more awe-inspiring and a source of reflection are the other, quieter, simpler moments: standing over the rim of the Grand Canyon and marveling at nature, sharing a laugh with my parents while making homemade pasta in Italy, looking out over Antietam or Gettysburg and being thankful that our country survived civil war, walking through a concentration camp and mourning millions of lives loss due to hatred and fear. I am also changed by the moments that push my limits and challenge me in far off and unknown places, and then by the feelings of pride and independence after navigating through it all learning something new at the same time.

So many people will never have the opportunity to leave their hometown. I am privileged to have gone to some amazing places, and that I will be able to add to my travel experiences in the future. I am thankful to be changed by travel, and hope that get many more chances for it to happen again.

**********************

To read the rest of the responses to this month’s round robin question, visit the following blogs (and come back in a month for the next topic):

Leslie Farnsworth: http://lesliefarnsworth.com

Joan Johnson: http://onefishtaco.blogspot.com/

William Pora: http://williampora.com

Rebecca Harvey: http://bayoucitypostcards.blogspot.com/

James McPherson: http://jalmcpherson.com/

Jon Lundell: http://therealmil.blogspot.com/

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