To My 20-yr-old Self

To My Dear 20-yr-old Jenni,

Darling, right now is a confusing time. You are both grown and yet so young, with so many questions about the world and yourself. In fact, you are literally exploring the great wide world this fall as you travel through Africa for three months – an experience that will forever touch your heart and shape your worldview. But I know there are inward-facing questions about your heart, too, and coming to you exactly 20 years later, at double the life you have currently lived, I am happy to say I have some insight.

1) The one you are with now is not The One. It’s a fine love but it’s not the life or the person for you; even though you can’t imagine starting over with someone else (you’ll say these exact words to someone else during the early days of your semester abroad), that’s exactly what you need to do when the time comes. You’ve learned this lesson before, at the end of high school, but it bears repeating: it’s OK to strike out on your own, to follow your own next right steps, not those dictated to you by your relationship/partner. The right person is out there who will be a true partner and friend, in addition to loving you to no end.

2) Binaries are not the way. You don’t have language for this yet, which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist (it does), you just don’t realize yet that people don’t have to pick a lane when it comes to sexual orientation/attraction. Or rather, you don’t yet know that there are more than two lanes, but guess what – there are and it’s OK to fall into one of those other ones because that’s what lies at the center of your heart. You see people as people and are attracted to people, not just one kind or gender of people. That might sound scary and overwhelming and it is going to take years for all of this to bubble out of you, but just know that at the center of you is love and love is never wrong. Plus, that right person who is out there for you? He gets it, won’t shame or run away from it, and just wants you to feel safe in expressing your whole self, to him and to the world.

3) Sweetheart, you have anxiety. I know it’s not fun to hear that something may be “wrong” with you, but that’s society’s mental health shaming bullshit making you think that, not an inherent badness in you. Anxiety is something that can be managed with therapy (spoiler alert: you will love therapy and be eternally grateful for it) and coping skills. Sometimes it requires medication. And it’s just something that is. You don’t have to call anxiety your BFF and be super pumped to have it be part of your life, but you can find your way forward, and your skills + medication can serve you very well in navigating this life as an Anxious Bunny.

4) Friendship is fluid. Even though it’s going to seem super hard, you’re going to have to try not to take it personally when friendships fall apart or fade away. Your life and your world are going to shift so much over time, so of course it makes sense that your friendships would, too; but this is one of those tough lessons to learn, in part because it never really stops happening and it can sometimes feel crushing when it does. Please don’t internalize this. Don’t let it make you think you are bad or unworthy of such relationships in this world. Your heart and mind crave authentic connection and you will find these qualities in others and your friendships with them. Keep seeking and keep trying; it’s worth the bumps and bruises along the way.

5) You’re going to go through some Hard Shit. If I could change this, I would. In fact, if I could erase this from all of humanity, I would. Strong as I am (and trust me, that strength has always been there; the Hard Shit does not come your way because you are or ever were weak), I’m not that powerful. Talk to people. Get help. Go to therapy. The Hard Shit does not define or dictate your life – you do. You’ve got your words and your writing but you also need people, which, I know – see above – can be a hard thing to trust, but the people who will hold you up, support you, and love you for all of you are out there. Let them in when they come.

Young One, as you continue your travels, both of the great, wide world and your own inner landscape, remain forever open to learning…about others, about the world, about yourself. You have so much beauty and blessing on the road in front of you; stay open to receive it and grow, knowing that you’ve got this because you’ve got yourself and that’s a damn miraculous gift.

Love,
JW, Age 40yrs.

*Post 27/52

RBG + Me

I can’t tell you for sure when the RBG obsession began, but it’s possible that it picked up in earnest after the 2015 publication of the Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg book by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (I still can’t read that title without singing it to the rapper’s name it’s inspired by; listen to the opening of “Notorious B.I.G. featuring Lil’ Kim & Puff Daddy” by The Notorious B.I.G. if you want to know the tune). I listened to the book via one of our library apps and loved it, enough so to ask for a copy of it for my 40th birthday book extravaganza. More so, I adored Ginsberg, her life story, and her career; from there, the fangirl status was solidified. 

Thanks to the power and beauty (it does exist) of social media, others picked up on my feelings for/hero worship of the legendary Supreme Court Justice. People started tagging me in posts related to RBG or sending me links for gear like shirts and jewelry to show off my love for Ginsberg’s spirit and tenacity. I didn’t always jump at the opportunity for RBG retail therapy, but I also didn’t always pass on it, either. This seemed fitting since Ginsberg herself used her own wardrobe to express her positions when SCOTUS decisions were announced, most famously with her jabots/collars that came in so many styles, colors, and meanings. Her Dissent Collar quickly became a symbol, to me and the multitudes, of standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of oppression and confining court rulings. 

Over the years I collected, on my own and from others, the following: a WWRBGD sweatshirt (a riff on the 90’s WWJD bracelets); multiple t-shirts; a face mask; a “leopard” print blouse that is actually little RBG faces; a small, metal Dissent replica necklace; earrings of the same design that I had to give away because my holes closed years ago, but I appreciated the gesture; an actual, full-sized Dissent Collar replica from Banana Republic; an RBG superhero figurine; a “Supreme” coaster; an artist rendition drawing (cartoon style) of her; multiple books both kid- and adult-geared; and, most recently, an RBG pendant of which 100% of the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood which is in desperate need of support given our country’s current backslide on body autonomy rights concerning Roe, something we feared might happen via the Court after losing her in 2020. 

Several of my purchases from this list have gone to organizations/causes like this which, again, seems appropriate. Not only do I get to use my own clothing and accessories to highlight my ideas and opinions as she did on the Supreme Court, they sometimes directly fund and support the same causes she believed in concerning freedom and equity for all. Plus my “armor” naturally showcases my love for my hero who has been gone for two years now.

Learning about RBG’s death is one of those moments that remains seared in my brain and probably always will. I was in our kitchen, cleaning up after supper, when my mom called to tell me RBG had passed. While this wasn’t shocking given Ginsberg’s many health scares in the last years of her life, it still caught me off guard because she had always pulled through in the past. It also felt like such a turbulent time in our country given the impending 2020 election, but that’s my hero worship failing me; of course she was human and deserved to be in a place of peace, not physical suffering from illness, and of course she didn’t owe any of us a darn thing to hold on any longer just because the political climate was difficult with the potential to become more so after her death. 

While my tears didn’t come right away, I later settled in at the computer to read the news and scan social media for posts about her passing and that’s when the gravity and loss of my hero being earth side first hit. She broke the mold in so many ways and did at times seem beyond the limits of other humans, so how could she really be gone? 

In the days that followed, I learned that Jewish tradition, which was RBG’s faith, does not say, “Rest in peace” after passing. Instead, tradition states, “May her memory be for blessing,” which essentially means it is up to us to keep the goodness of a person alive in our own lives, through our words and our actions that embody those we have lost. Fortunately I have a wealth of her words and lessons to continue learning from and will spend the rest of my life following in my hero’s footsteps. Not in law or the court, but in teaching my children to stand up for what is right, and in supporting causes, organizations, and people who are forever working to move the needle toward justice, just like my favorite SCOTUS Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

*Post 26/52 – Halfway!!

What Makes a Saturday?

You would think after all the staying home we had to do during COVID shutdowns and beyond, I would want to be anywhere else, but my favorite place to be on a Saturday is still at home with no plans. Perhaps I crave this because of the season of life we’re in with kids coming and going and doing at all hours of the day, each day of the week; this naturally makes me long for quite Saturdays where no one has to be anywhere at a certain time and instead we can just be. 

Or, maybe I’m just an introvert.

But seriously, I love me a good Saturday that involves the wide open possibility of just about anything that might also turn into a whole lot of nothing. Give me no reason to put on mascara or bra unless I want to, the option for a walk or jog, and my best zero-gravity lawn chair (or couch) where I can park my butt and read a book while I drink various fake-coffee and non-soda or non-alcoholic beverages, and I’ll be just fine for the entire day. (40, I tell ya – it’s a wild time!)

As it is, our Saturdays are mostly scheduled out by whatever current sport season we happen to be experiencing. Spring means baseball and occasionally soccer or flag football (but I detest the weather for spring Y sports, so often we rebel and just skip signing up for those, at least for the youngest kids). Summer also means travel ball in June and then all the going and doing that comes with July and early August, trying to squeeze in family fun and trips before the next school year begins. Fall means soccer and flag football (and now swim team, too!). And then in Winter we actually do slow the heck down and, so far anyway, avoid organized sports so we can have more time to cozy up after we all navigate our long weeks of school and teaching. 

Special events pop up on a Saturday here and there such as birthdays or book club gatherings or volunteer opportunities at our church. Once in a blue moon, we’ll go out for a meal, but all of that has been extra slow to return for us post-COVID, so really, I get my way a lot and we just stay home. That looks like a lot of home-cooked suppers, watching something together as a full family on Disney+, and then, after the kids are in bed, maybe doing some yoga or taking an Epsom salt bath before crawling into bed to read some more before finally shutting off the light for the night.

See? Introvert to the max!

And then sometimes an open weekend leads to the height of productivity when we actually have a moment to catch our breath and tackle something that’s been sitting around the house, waiting for us to deal with it. In 2022 that’s looked like a giant cleaning out of our basement store room (finally!), selling baby and toddler/kid clothes, building me a cloffice, and on Labor Day Weekend, fixing our busted-from-hail-damage fence and doing a massive cleaning of our garage that was probably a solid year overdue. Part of said cleanup resulted in saying goodbye to our first-ever baby stroller that every single one of our babes used (well and lot; the thing was shot!), well beyond their baby years, too. But the kids took it all in stride and were such good helpers getting all the junk, dust, and debris out of there. We also learned that Lincoln is a big fan of power tools (and likes them so much that he was willing to give up the extra screen time that his sibs got while we were working in the yard), and that Raegan doesn’t like it when her mama makes up her own rules for crossing streets during a mid-afternoon walk downtown to run errands and grab a quick dish of sherbet. 

I had no idea we were going to take on such tasks on this particular weekend, but that’s the beauty of an unscheduled Saturday (and a Sunday that feels like a Saturday) when you can just get after it. Although I did not make much (read: any) progress in my book, it was fabulous to get some big projects done while dreaming up plans for what might be next all in the midst of low-key, just roll with it Family Time. 

I think that’s exactly what makes the magic of a good Saturday. 

*Post 24/52.

A PBS Childhood

Growing up when and where I did (rural SoDak in the 80s and 90s) meant we didn’t have many options for television stations. Eventually, in high school, we got a satellite dish which changed things for us, but up until then we literally had 3-5 stations, including the local NBC/CBS/ABC and, my most beloved, PBS.
Although we watched network stations on Saturday mornings for cartoons (because that was really the only time those stations ran such things back in the day), our go-to after school was the children’s programming on PBS, also known to me as South Dakota Public Broadcasting. And it was the best. 

Over the years I remember watching Letter PeopleGhost WriterBill Nye the Science Guy3-2-1 ContactLambchop’s Playhouse, Once Upon a Time, and Sesame Street (obviously not in that order because who knows exactly at what age I viewed each of those).  My absolute, long-standing favorites, though, were Square One TV and Reading Rainbow. I adored both of those shows and couldn’t wait to fly off the school bus each afternoon so I could run into the house in time to catch both 30-minute programs before doing homework and having supper. 

Square One TV was made up of little sketches (think SNL), songs, and a regular mini-series at the end of each episode called “Math Net” that I suppose was a spoof of Drag Net but I have no idea what that even means, beyond it being a crime solving duo which in this case, used the power of math to restore order (pun intended) to the world. Thirty+ years later and I can still remember songs about Archimedes and “The Mathematics of Love” that taught kids to read Roman numerals, and a “Math Net” case that involved the Fibonacci Sequence, so yeah, I’d say it was highly effective programming. 

Reading Rainbow took the cake, though, for making a lasting impression on this reading-obsessed kid. LeVar Burton is the epitome of childhood + TV associations for me because it’s possible I saw every single episode of the show in which he would meet people, share lessons, inspire imaginations, and, of course, introduce us to fantastic children’s books.  I can still sing the entire theme song and I get a swell of nostalgia whenever I see a title I remember from the show like A Chair for My Mother or Angel Child, Dragon Child, and Abiyoyo. A few years ago they did a KickStarter campaign to reboot the show on Netflix and of course I contributed, earning me a shirt that I’ve worn so many times since, my own children will probably associate with their childhoods someday. 

As a mom, I’ve tried to steer my kids on a similar PBS path but their world is quite different than mine and they have what often feels like overwhelming, limitless choices for what they might watch. Of course, most of it isn’t nearly the quality that PBS (still) provides, so I’m always thankful when one of them latches on to any show from NET (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, now called NPM, Nebraska Public Media). Over the years, those loves have included HD and Dinosaur Train (which is how my blog, The Modern Maiasaura, got it’s name) and WA with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (ironic because I also love DTN but was never a huge Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fan when I was kid), and allll of them with Curious George which got me through many a cat-nap on the couch during my various pregnancies when I also had toddlers who needed to be entertained while I snoozed. I even called them PBS Naps! 

So even though my own kids will remember quite different and more varied shows when they look back on this same question of favorite Saturday cartoons someday, I’m confident that there will be an intergenerational love for PBS that holds for them just as it does for me. 

*Post 21/52.

Live on, Live Music

Me picking a favorite band or musician feels like me picking a favorite book or author – impossible! But I have always loved live music and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some really awesome artists live and in person around the Midwest. This includes my very first concert which included seeing my beloved N*SYNC at the SoDak State Fair (how?!) in the late 90’s, but my tastes and shows have gotten a lot less pop-y since then.

In college I got a little more jam-band minded and managed to check Dave Matthews Band off my list during grad school. Some girlfriends and I drove to Kansas City to see them perform, which had been my dream for years at that point, and the show was super fun even if it made for an awfully long week of classes to follow all that there-and-back travel over the weekend. There was also a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in there somewhere, a trip to see Spoon at First Ave. in Minneapolis, MN, and a free Five for Fighting show at a friend’s college in Omaha, too. 

Since then I’ve let my musical tastes wander where they’d like, and while I still have a lot of bucket list artists, just like DMB was, my list of “Already Seen”s is pretty fantastic.  

It’s a toss up between Guster and Nahko on who I’ve seen more times live, but Guster has definitely been my longest love that’s gone the distance of both time and miles traveled to see. I saw them first in my early 20s both in Minne where they opened for John Mayer (meh; I was there for Guster, all the way) and somewhere in NE or IA shortly before we got married in 2006. Then it was seeing them with both the Omaha Symphony and then the Denver Symphony (in each respective city) with Ben, which happened to be his first concert experience and then his first Red Rocks trip, and with both shows being absolutely stellar. Guster never disappoints! 

In more recent years, yoga brought me many a live music interest, including MC Yogi, Xavier Rudd, Trevor Hall (multiple shows), and eventually, for my first post-COVID concert, Rising Appalachia with LVDY as the opener in Denver. I probably would have cried anyway just to be at a live show again, but wow, both groups were incredible and I was so grateful to be in those open air spaces with such gorgeous music all around me. 

Of course I don’t always have to travel very far to see my favorite musicians – sometimes they come right to me in good old Hastings, via The Listening Room at The Lark or the Flatwater Musical Festival at Prairie Loft. And of course I’m talking about The Talbott Brothers who are much loved by much of Hastings and thankfully they love us back by coming quite often to perform at both venues. While I love the outdoor vibe at Flatwater, there’s something really amazing about being at The Lark where you’re just right there next to the stage and everyone’s literally listening and being quiet while the music envelops the whole space and night. Plus Nick and Tyler are fun humans and good sports with their fans, including posing for pictures and also taking birthday requests which Ben did for me in March 2020 right as we were starting out with COVID lockdowns. The Talbott Brothers did an online show and he got them to sing “Happy Birthday” to me, “Jenni from Hastings” in the middle of it and I tell you what, even though a lot of life was hard at that time, that did not suck. 

In writing this, I realize I’ve been to a lot of concerts and it excites me to think about just who I might see next; there are so many incredible choices out there! 

* Post 19/52.

Big Spending

Being teachers with one and a quarter incomes between us, not to mention five young kids, pretty much means everything in life feels expensive while actual expensive purchases “just for us” are totally out of the question. While I sometimes daydream of what it would be like to be not skating by month to month, I’m equally grateful for the life and home we have and the fact that I’ve been able to stay home with our babies all these years. This is Wilson’s last year before starting Kindergarten and while I don’t know what life with five kids in full-time school holds for me and my work, I do wonder if some shifts are on the horizon for me that might ease some of that financial strain. 

All that said, we’ve still dropped some pretty pennies in this lifetime, one chunk on an experience via overseas travel and another chunk on an investment in our home via the form of a good old-fashioned, gray-hair-inducing, renovation project.

2008 was our first big spender moment when we decided to postpone a house project in our first home (redoing the front porch and steps which we eventually did before selling it a few years later) to spend three weeks traveling with fellow Doane alumni in Africa instead. I was lucky enough to get an entire semester doing that in college and the experience profoundly shaped my life. Being able to then share two of those same locations, Kenya and Tanzania, with Ben, and experience a new one, Rwanda, together profoundly shaped our marriage and was an excellent adventure to take prior to starting our family in 2009. 

While we did multiple safari drives and nature walks throughout our 2008 trip, the most costly ($500.00 per person) but also the most amazing was hiking up into Volcanoes National Park to seek (and, lucky us, find!) mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The awe of observing and following them for a brief bit of time stays with me. It takes no effort to recall the gorgeous male silverback we saw snacking away on rainforest foliage or the mama with a baby clinging to her (foreshadowing much?!) as she ambled about the trees and sloped terrain. I remain forever grateful that we took that trip and spent our money on the travel and activities that helped open our eyes to new places and people while also learning more about each other and how to travel/work together as a team early on in our marriage. 

We needed that team mindset 10 years later when we embarked on a home remodel in 2018 after discovering that we couldn’t find any houses locally that were big/nice/affordable enough for our large family; this left us in the “stay-and-make-it-work-for-us” position of hiring contractors, busting down walls, and riding the roller coaster of all that comes with renovating an old house over the next 18+ months (COVID life did not help our wrapping up of the whole process but instead slowed us down even more as we tried to navigate pandemic life + having people in our house to finish projects). 

Turns out, a stay-at-home adventure can be much, much more expensive than one that takes you over an ocean, as we found out when extra “To do”s popped up along the way, like needing to tear out an extra shower/replace subflooring and then, oh yeah, ripping out and replacing our entire Hastings-classic (i.e. extra long) driveway and pouring all new concrete to protect our newly remodeled basement from water seepage. Concrete, it just so happens, is not cheap. Nor is putting in a bunch of new wiring and all new plumbing which we also did, but once you start, you can’t just stop unless you want to keep living out of your living room with no kitchen for the rest of your life instead just 9 awful weeks (with five little Littles) like we did. 

But now our house is gorgeous and functional and our driveway is so smooth, the kids can all ride bikes and scooters on it all the live-long day (which they do; Mama, too!). And even though we’ll be paying for it for many days (years) to come, this investment also feels worth it because our big family can really use darn near every square inch of our house now for living and being a family together which is of course the best adventure of all. 

*Post 18/52.

Editor-in-Chief

Late in my Junior year of high school, I got involved with our yearbook staff. No idea now why I decided to do that or why I was late to the game, but I remember spending a lot of time that spring and then during the summer after eleventh grade in the journalism office – a small computer lab in the English Wing of Yankton High School that housed the technology and gear used by the yearbook staff to produce the annual Arikara volume and the journalism students to produce the school newspaper, the Woksape. A different student had been spearheading the yearbook during that school year but somehow she ghosted and I found myself, along with two friends, as the de facto Editors-in-Chief, suddenly responsible for completing and submitting the yearbook for that year. So, I did just that and ended up as the solo editor our Senior year. 

I loved yearbook in part because it was a big project that was taken on by a small number of students which meant I had quite a bit of control in how it was laid out and looked. Although we could do quite a bit with computer programming in the tail-end of the 1990s, we still had to use red grease pencils to mark crop lines on photos and hope that we labeled them correctly with submission envelopes of each page, otherwise our final print version would be a mess. So much time was spent in that little computer lab as we worked on pages while listening to a sleeve of random CDs someone left behind and eating our favorite snacks, provided by our dear yearbook advisor, Mr. Fischer.

To look at Mr. Fischer one might first think “Santa” (fair) and to be around him, one might first think “curmudgeon” because of his whole aesthetic, but he was really a total softie and treated us well as a staff (see above about keeping us in stock of our beloved Doritos and Twizlers). He had a super sharp sense of humor and a great smile behind that big old beard. And we were always just early enough to beat him to the staff parking lot during the summer that we could practice our backwards parking skills while we waited (I got intensely good at this during that time). For the most part he left us to our own devices with the yearbook but I remember enjoying his advise and advisorship as I rounded out my Senior year and high school career and I was honored to have him at my graduation party in May, 2000. 

Flash forward 20+ years and I found those same yearbook scramble skills suddenly called back into action via my role with own kids’ elementary school which was in need of its own new editor after the previous mom-in-charge’s kids aged out of Longfellow. Taking on the actual job wasn’t a scramble (I volunteered for it years in advance, actually, but COVID Life got in the way of me learning directly from her during her last two years of service); it was the navigating and learning of the ropes on the fly that became a mad dash to the finish in late winter/early spring 2022. 

Did I need her help and ask her dozens upon dozens of questions my first year to figure it out? Sure did! Did I procrastinate and then freak out about a month-and-a-half before the pages deadline? Totally! But did the job get done and turn out great? Yep, because apparently  yearbook editing is like riding a bicycle in that you can pick it up, dust it off, and still compile a lovely little collection of photos and memories for students to look back on for years to come, even as a small little staff of one. Except now it’s gluten-free Oreos and pistachios getting me through the long hours of collecting photos and designing layouts which are, thank heavens, allll online now and much less clunky to navigate than back in the day! 

*Post 14/52.

P.M.A.K.A.

In my hometown, middle school was just 7th and 8th grades but was still called middle school, not junior high. Early into my middle school career (we’re talking a week or two in), after-school meetings were scheduled so kids could sign up for fall sports such as basketball (girls), football (boys), and cross country (both). These meetings were held on the same afternoon and I asked my mom to pick me up late after school instead of me riding the bus home because I wanted to sign up for basketball (or was it volleyball? lol- doesn’t matter because I didn’t do it!). Imagine her surprise when I hopped in the van later that afternoon and told her I, never a serious runner, had signed up for cross country instead!

How’d that happen? Because a cute boy in my CHIGA class (Computers, Home Ec, Industrial Arts, German, and Art – our version of rotating specials that we did in five parts of each school year) said he was going to sign up for cross country and apparently I thought that also sounded like a good idea and did the same.

To be honest, I have no idea if he even went to that meeting, but I sure did and I then spent the next five years as a YMS/YHS Cross Country Gazelle (the female mascot pairing to our boys’ teams, called the Bucks). Did I love it? Well, maybe not the actual running but I loved the co-ed team and friendships and comradery that came from being part of team sport that was also uniquely an individual effort at every single practice and meet. The running itself was a constant challenge that I didn’t really come to appreciate until much later.

When you run XC, you’re in it for the literal long game. You train each day (in high school, 2x a day, sometimes) by putting running shoes to the pavement in warm ups, team stretching, and then a work out of several miles as a little pack of runners off to weave their way around town OR, God forbid, run hills for the day. Then, at week’s end, you load up on a bus and head to some golf course or park, suit up in your little running shorts and singlet and set yourself up at the starting line so you can take off and jockey for position to run your 2.5 miles (girls; 3.1 for boys) both as fast as you can but while also not running out of gas before you cross the finish line.

This may not be surprising given my initial reasoning for signing up, but I was a pretty social runner, i.e. chatty. I always ran with friends during practices and sometimes even during meets, to the consternation of my coaches (Coach Harr in MS and Coaches Fitz and Bormann in HS). I remember after one particular meet being told that if I could carry an entire conversation with my teammate during the race, I could run more than just a wee bit faster if I kept my mouth focused on breathing instead of talking. Whoopsies!

Eventually I started to take that advice and the running more seriously. My sophomore year, after a rough and rather disastrous year of running as a flighty freshmen, I decided to buckle down and train with more focus and dedication. For the first time I ran country roads the summer between those school years and sought to stay closer to the Pack (the best runners on our teams) during practice runs after (and before) school.

A fair bit of my motivation for this switch came from one particular race, or rather, course location that I can still see pretty clearly in my head, almost 25 years later: Norfolk, NE. Being just across the river from Nebraska meant we traveled there for some meets, including an annual trip to run on a rather hilly golf course in Norfolk. Cross Country season spanned the heat of late summer all the way to the cool days of mid-to-late fall, but the Norfolk meet always came early in the season which meant HOT and SUN in addition to those hills.

My freshmen year, this was one of my very first meets and it crushed me. I struggled with the weather, the course, and my breath, and ended up coming in dead last for the meet. It felt horrible on so many levels. This was my third year of running and that experience eventually flipped a switch in me that lead to a year-long transformation of attitude and effort leading up to my return to Norfolk as a sophomore, ready to kick butt on that same dang golf course.

The weather was much the same as the year prior with full sun and heat, but I was ready for it. I also had the best earworm in my brain that day – “Flagpole Sitter” by Harvey Danger (look it up; it’s weird) – that was also weather appropriate with the line: “I’m not sick but I’m not well. And I’m so hot ‘cause I’m in hell” which played on a loop in my brain as I took off from the starting line and popped out in the front, not the trailing stragglers, of the JV race. The song served me well in that total reversal of position as later lines sing, “Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me. Just say you never met me. I’m running under ground with the moles, digging holes.” that also looped with my breath as I realized that I was running with the lead pack and was going to end up doing so much better than my freshman flop.

While I didn’t come in with an exact opposite ending of winning the race, I did place 7th which was one of my highest finishes ever and put me on Cloud 9 because it was tangible proof of how my efforts paid off over those 12 months. I continued to crush it that year and was invited to stay on as an alternate for the State Team which would train for an additional few weeks after the regular season and allowed me to travel with the pack on State Day in case someone got sick or hurt and our coaches needed a fill-in runner. I got to do the same as a junior and I loved those final weeks of training in part because, as an alternate, I got all the benefits of team and training but without the stress of actually running at State, although that would have been fun, too, had it happened.

In time, XC taught me a lot about being in my body and my brain because even though you can run and chat with others, you really are your own best cheerleader, and if you really buckle down and focus on the task at hand, you can achieve remarkable results. For me, it was the joy of the finish that kept me hustling in my last two years of participating (my senior year I decided to focus on other activities and finishing my YHS academic career instead of running). I loved a good sprint to the finish line and would often have enough oomph left in my legs to pass at least a couple girls in the last 1/4 mile of the course. My coaches tried to get me to expend a bit more of that earlier/throughout the races but I liked the thrill of the chase a little too much and kept that trend going for as long as I ran those meets.

For our team, it was a pre-race chant that really got us going and stuck with me both on and off the courses throughout high school. After our warm ups and stretches, drinks and final bathroom breaks, and practice sprints off the starting line, we would huddle up, hands together in the center of our circle, and cheer “P.M.A.K.A.! Go! Great! Gazelles!” We never told people what it meant and I couldn’t tell you who started it or how long it had been going, but I’ll break the rules and share with you now that it stood for Positive Mental Attitude Kicks Ass which is just slightly subversive but exactly the right mentality for a runner (and a pretty good life motto as well). 

As it turned out, my own P.M.A.K.A. and efforts in my sophomore year didn’t go unnoticed. At our end-of-season banquet that fall, I not only lettered in XC, but my coaches also awarded me the Most Improved girl on the team, an honor I appreciated and felt such pride in because I knew how hard I worked to get there. 

Running has come and gone for me several times in my life, but each time it returns, I recognize the gifts of spirit and body it brings (and sometimes, if you’re feeling chatty, some good conversations, too). 

*Post 14/52

Jennifer Rae

Apparently I was never destined to be a Jennifer. My mom had completely different names selected for me but then I was born and my dad was suddenly given the opportunity to bestow me with my forever name and that name was not Rebecca (my mom’s choice and my now sister-in-law’s first name) or Alena (my mom’s other choice that was a mash up of her grandparents’ names, Albert and Lena, that her own dad vetoed), it was Jennifer. Why? 40 years later, my dad has no idea (nor does my mom) as to how it came to be that he did the picking or why he picked it (beyond its popularity at the time). 

Growing up as a Jennifer of the 80s, I had to have my last initial tacked on to my name to distinguish myself from the 27 other Jennifers (another song you must hear – “27 Jennifers” by Mike Doughty) in my class, but I found the way to distinguish myself, eventually, by changing the spelling of my nickname, Jenny, to Jenni. Of course you can’t actually *hear* that difference when you speak my name, so to this day 30+ years later, people still don’t always spell it correctly, but Jenni-with-an-I is me through and through, so much so that Jenny-with-an-Y doesn’t even seem like it could possibly be me when I see it in writing.

While I didn’t love having such a common name growing up, I did like the story behind my middle name, Rae. It is a feminized version of Ray, short for Raymond, which was my maternal grandfather’s middle name (Clifford Raymond). Grandpa Cliff and I shared that middle name with pride and I knew that if/when I had a daughter of my own someday, I too would want to take my dad’s middle name (Thomas Lee) and give it to her with a feminine spelling.

Lucky me, I got to do just that! But even better, I also got to take my “Rae” and incorporate it into our presidentially-named-babies theme and create Raegan (instead of Reagan) Leigh when my first sweet girl was born. I love her name so much because it has pieces of me which includes pieces of my grandpa, but then it also includes pieces of her maternal grandpa, just like I wanted, and the layers and symmetry to that are just my favorite. 

But the poor girl has run into a similar conundrum as her mama because everyone everywhere spells her name wrong and it drives her nuts. While I understand her annoyance, I hope she’ll come to see how special her name is, even if other people can’t remember how she spells it and they assume hers is spelled just like the former president’s which clearly it is not. I trust that, in time, she’ll know the uniqueness that is her own naming story makes the confusion worthwhile. Will she continue the trend of oldest daughter naming the oldest daughter after the maternal grandfather into the next generation? Well, that depends on a whole lot of circumstances, so I guess we’ll see!

*Post 13ish/52. Math is hard.

Red Cloud Retreat

In April of 2022, I signed up for an online yoga teacher training called the Power of Presence, taught by Scott Schwenk; the focus of the 25 hours, beyond presence? Ecstatic Breathwork and meditation. The irony of this adventure is that I no longer teach yoga, so while others were there to learn in order to lead others, I was there just for myself, to learn and grow for my own personal practice. This is the first I’ve ever done a training where I wasn’t preparing to turn around and teach the content and I have to say, that was pretty freeing and magical on top of the already stellar content (Dharma talks and practices + weekly live calls as a group) Scott put together for us. One highlight of the training beyond the actual practices and lectures? Having Scott answer questions we submitted (and making him laugh in a loving way with how I worded mine in Week One):

At the same time I registered for the class, I decided I wanted to reserve a little getaway for myself after completion of the five-week course, to let the lessons and takeaways sink in a bit, and chose The M Guest House in Red Cloud, NE as my destination. I stayed here three years ago with a group of girlfriends, so I already knew the house was adorable and perfect for a little me-time; turns out the little Red Cloud Retreat I put together for myself did not disappointed.

For one, the nice thing about AirBnB’s is that you have access to a kitchen (great for a special diet person like me who needs to cook her own food) and space to do what you want like practice yoga, read in the yard (and on the chaise and in bed), write, talk on the phone, respond to messages, all while not being interrupted by children or chores/duties that come with being in your own house, even if you happen to snag some alone time there. Did I pack a ridiculous amount of stuff for these two sleeps? Absolutely. Do I feel any shame about that? Not a bit because I knew what I wanted and needed to make this time just right for me so I did what was necessary to make that happen. Pack Rat tendencies for the win! (still had to go to Dollar General, though, to buy sunscreen. Whoops!)

The other perk of coming to Red Cloud is that it landed me right smack in Cather Country which ties back to my grad work at UNL for the Cather Project (they hold conferences here every other year as it is the childhood home of Willa Cather and which I missed by all of day of being here) and to the prairie, I did go, several times during my RC stay. The first, the afternoon I got here, actually landed me in Kansas because, again – whoops!, if you miss the little drive for the historical marker/access to the WC prairie, you’re in KS a second later. Easy fix, though, and I explored with a little walk on a wide path along the top ridge of the protected land.

The next morning, after a night of reading and thunderstorms that left me wondering if I might have to take shelter in the house’s crawl space – thank goodness, I did not – I made a mid-morning trek back to the prairie so I could hike around a little more. Even though I died plenty of times from snake bites on the Oregon Trail as a kid, I did not think to pack appropriate pants and shoes (i.e. long jeans and boots!), but fortunately I found the perfect walking stick to accompany me through the narrow paths that explore more of the rolling hills.

Talk about the power of presence and staying focused in the moment! I intended to do a walking meditation with our course mantra anyway but instead it was more hyper-focused than that, even, because I did NOT want to step on a snake (or a cowpie, but really, a snake), which again, thankfully did not happen but it sure kept my eyes wide and aware as I poked my way up the hill.

I’ve always considered myself a prairie-loving girl, but I gained even more, instant respect for the land and the people who have lived on it for generations and centuries because I got super turned around on my return trip from the fence that I walked to (because my stubborn Scandinavian blood told me I had to reach that particular fence line). Somehow the path I followed up was impossible to see as I tried to make my way back down and I ended up going sideways on the slope a bit before I realized I was not headed back in the direction of my van. So, my walking stick and I nervously made our way through the tall-ish grasses, hoping none of them or what they might be hiding turned out to be poisonous. Naturally, of course, I took a selfie of my concern when I stopped for a breather/drink in a semi-clear spot.

Eventually I made it back to the obvious trail and worked my way back down and up to the ridge I walked the day before which I then decided to jog because that’s how flat and open it is (and how much adrenaline I needed to expend after my little adventure and making too-strong of coffee that morning as a little retreat treat here at the AirBnB).

How could I not see this from the top of that ridge?!

Even though May comes with All the Things to be done/go to and a whole lot of Mama-ing, I am so grateful to have done the online training this spring. I’ve been practicing online with Scott for two years now and this was a powerful step forward with my connection to breath and meditation. I’m also grateful to have pulled off this first-time getaway just for me and hope that I can turn this Red Cloud Retreat into an annual (semi-annual? quarterly?!) tradition because I know how good it is for me to step back, take a breath, and be with just myself for a hot second. 

Also, I may have to invest in a good walking stick and hiking boots so I can keep expanding my prairie explorations in a slightly safer manner! 

*Post 10/52.