Wheat vs. Chaff

I once invited the owner of a company that provides interpreting services to our monthly all staff meeting.  She had come to describe the services her agency could offer and to give us pointers – etiquette tips, if you will – on the use of language interpreters.  One of her suggestions was to avoid the use of idiomatic language.  Knowing there must be some people in the room who were unfamiliar with the concept of an idiom, I asked her to supply an example.  She said, and I quote, “Oh wow, you are really putting me on the spot.  I am totally drawing a blank.” As I pointed out that her answer to me in fact contained not one but two idioms, we all laughed.  I still giggle when I think of it, because she was so sincere in that moment.  It was spontaneous and wrought with the kind of human foible that can only come from a moment of pressure.

Our language and our lives are filled with idioms – those expressions that we use that have figurative meanings that differ from the literal meanings.  I once worked with a guy who I swore only spoke in idioms.  He could chain two, three, four of them together in a sentence and at the end of it we’d have no idea what he was talking about.  “Let’s circle the wagons, put on our thinking caps and see who is doing the lion’s share of the work.”  Huh?  It was funny, too, because the more intense the situation, the worse it got.  I once quipped that his idiomatic language was a lot like herpes – it seemed to really flare up during periods of incredible stress.

So this past week was one where one of my favorite idioms kept coming to the forefront of my consciousness.  The idiom?  “Separating the wheat from the chaff.”  Stemming from a bible verse, the figurative notion behind this idiom is to separate what is valuable from what is worthless.  And there is nothing in life – nothing, I tell you – that can hasten this process like a good old fashioned crisis.

It has happened to me a few times now, and has happened once again.  It has occurred consistently, without hesitation, every single time I’ve gone through a difficult time.  It’s almost as if there is a new clarity, a magnifying glass of sorts, that appears out of nowhere.  You are on my side, you are not.  You care so deeply you will sacrifice as much as is needed, you only care when caring suits you.  You have my back, you’d rather stab it.  One by one, the people in closest proximity sort to one side or the other in record speed.

At the end of the exercise, I’m left with what I know for sure.  It’s a tragic, heart-breaking, lovely and confidence-securing thing.  But – and I say this from the depth of my heart – no matter what the cost, it is always better to know.  And what I can say I know, this time around and every time previous to it, the inventory of the wheat in my life is a robust and beautiful thing.

The Sweetest Sound

new glassesI got new glasses this week, and I can’t stop talking about them.  See them? They are extra, extra cool.  Thus, they are making me extra cool. It’s like I’ve catapulted into a whole new stratosphere.  I almost can’t stand it.

Anyway, I ordered my uber awesome specs last Saturday, and a sales person who wasn’t even helping me was ooing and aaahing and making a big deal about how amazing my glasses were.  In my head, I was like yeah, lady, I know.  It’s your job to tell me that.  But on the other hand, she had a point.  The glasses rocked the house!  Who was I to argue?

So on Tuesday when I got the call that my glasses were ready, I couldn’t wait to stop in the store on my way home from work.  I mean, who wants to delay new levels of coolness in their life?  Not me!  I was there in a jiffy.

When I walked in the store, the same sales lady – the one who wasn’t the one who helped me  – was there and she exclaimed (exclaimed, I tell you), “Jennifer!  I’ll be right with you!”  I’ll admit, I was a little surprised that she remembered my name and when she made her way to me, I told her as much.  And she said, “Of course I remember you.  You ordered those super cool purple glasses!”  (Apparently, they are the talk of the town.)

OK, so enough about the glasses.  I think I’ve made my point about them.  But what I want to say is this:  As I drove home, feeling all self-satisfied and thinking about what I could wear the next day to draw maximum attention to my newest accessory, it occurred to me that the simple act of remembering and then saying someone’s name is still one of the most validating experiences in life.  I live in a sea of Jennifers; they loom everywhere and turn up both in broad daylight and the dark, seedy corners of my life.  And yet, if you want to make me feel noticed, all you really need do is remember and say my name.  I’m going to make a point to remember that, so that I can make sure the people around me feel noticed, too.


I Would Buy Me a Coke

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I Have Confidence in Me.”

I’ve been told that I have presence, a way of carrying myself, that exudes confidence.  I remember someone once commenting to me, “I wish I had just the amount of confidence you must have in your little pinky toe.” It’s funny to me, because I’m not sure where it came from.  I hear that, and I cringe, because the last thing I want to be is pompous or cocky, and I know it’s a fine line.  On the inside, I still feel like the seven year-old girl clinging to the back of my mom’s pant legs, frightened of my own shadow and afraid to try anything new. But  forty-some years later, I’m not that scared little girl, and it seems I’m someone very different. It’s hard to even begin to connect the dots of how I got here from there.

What I do know is that I didn’t get there on my own. If I look back across the years, I see people – the people who in time became my people.  One by one, they stepped forward and decided they were going to believe in me.  My first grade teacher who, upon hearing I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, told me she thought I would make a wonderful teacher. The neighbor who took me under her wing, and let me hang around and admire her for reasons I don’t even know.  The uncle who decided to treat me like an adult and tell me the truth, when no one else would. The college residence life staff who thought I had what it took to lead and then showed me how.  The professional mentors – many of them – who gave me chances I hadn’t even earned, and then supported me in all kinds of ways that helped me succeed.

And so, what I know is this:  I am me – “more confidence than some people have in their pinky toe” me – because of them.  Because the difference between one who flounders and one who succeeds is a very simple difference:  the one who succeeds has someone – anyone – and maybe just one, who fiercely believes in them.

I got home a week ago after doing my very first consulting gig in Guelph, Ontario of all places.  I planned but didn’t over-plan, I took my bag of tricks, and I went in and I did my thing.  After months of questioning myself, wondering if I still had it, I got a gentle but exhilarating reminder:  As a matter of fact, I do still have it.  I’m even willing to bet that I had it all along.  I just forgot.

So there I was at 1:25 a.m., grime from the flights tarnishing my clothes, my hair, and my soul.  I felt two opposing emotions at the same time; strikingly content and still a little shaken from the adrenaline rush of the week that had just passed.  And I sat on my bed in this compromised but perfectly blissful state, eating a chicken shish kabob sandwich from the gas station/Greek diner drive through, and I thought this, for the first time in a long time:  “I like me.  I would buy me a Coke.”

And while I like myself enough to buy me  a Coke, I know who gave me the change to do it.  It was my people.

Candy Hearts

candy heartsI love those little candy hearts that come out around Valentine’s Day.  Or, Valentimes, as we like to mockingly call it among my friends and family.  The hearts, though, they are hard enough to crack a tooth, chalky, almost flavorless. There is very little that is redeeming about them.  But they are nostalgia, they are tradition, they are love.

The candy hearts have changed over the years.  I’ve admired the candy-maker’s tenacity to stay contemporary.  The taste (or lack thereof) has stayed the same, but the messages have not.  Back in my day of exchanging classroom valentines, no one would have known what “Text Me” or “LOL” even meant.  I haven’t seen this year’s candy hearts, but I would not be surprised if there are some that  make reference to SnapChat or Amazon Prime.

So another year passes and I’ve yet to find the everlasting love that I think I want, that I know I deserve.  I’m getting closer, though, I can feel it in the depths of my soul.  I’m getting closer, because I’ve made commitments to myself and I have done some hard work and I have steered the arc of my life to bend toward self-actualization, even though I’m quite sure it will never fully get there.  I’ve cleaned out the cobwebs and tidied up the debris and made room for what is yet to come.  I feel good, and I feel sure.  I like who I am and what I have to offer.  I am ready.

So my custom-made box of candy hearts would reflect exactly what I want.  I imagine the hearts would say things like this:  I’m Finally Ready. You’re Amazing. So Am I. Better Together. Order Takeout. Cuddlebug. Stay Up Late. Sleep In. Awaken My Soul. Let’s See The World. I’ll Lift You Up. Laugh Every Day. Make Me Think.  Grow Together.  And last, but not least:  Let’s Do This.

Tripping on Power

I love my job.

I’m going to say it again, because it’s been a hard week for me to consistently believe it.  I love my job.  I LOVE MY JOB.  Ilovemyjob!  Wink! Smiley face emoticon!  Love it.

Sincerely and putting all kidding aside, I love many things about my job (and in spite of the challenges, this week was no different).  I love that I have had the opportunity to hand-select some of the most talented, dedicated, passionate people in this town to be part of my illustrious dream team.  I love that the people we serve have stories that shatter my heart into a million pieces and in the next turn meld it back together with unthinkable stories of warmth.  I love that no two days are the same.  I love that every day – every single day – I will be faced with a question or a problem that I don’t yet know how to solve, and yet nearly every time I somehow find a way to know in the end.  I love that I get to lead, to research, to write, to speak publicly, to work and play alongside an incredible community of providers.  It’s a job that lets me do all the things I love to do, while at the same time requiring me to do very few of the things I don’t.

Because part of my job (one of the parts I like least) includes helping to disperse a proverbial bag of money, there is a fair amount of power that comes with it. I’ve never cared for that part, that kind of power makes me uncomfortable in my own skin.  I don’t care for power.  Power is fueled by ego and there are few who can handle it with the required levels of grace and aplomb.  I suppose like any human being I have my own moments of unbridled narcissism, but I really do try to keep those moments in check.  I don’t need power, and you know why?

I don’t need power because I’ve got something much better.  I’ve got Influence. In the Changing the World family, Power is the drunken asshole brother who dropped out of community college, drives a big over-sized truck, wears Ed Hardy T-shirts and pokes fun at everyone in a way that isn’t fun at all. Influence, on the other hand, is the quiet, soulful, thoughtful brother  who got straight A’s, quietly led the debate team to conference championship and was kind to the kids everyone else was picking on.  Influence may not command as much attention as Power, but is infinitely more effective.  That is because Influence thinks with his heart.  And when you think with your heart, you simply aren’t reckless with the hearts of others.

So following a week that was harder than most, I remind myself of this: Influence is my friend.  Every feeling of positive regard I have for the people around me.  Every belief I have that the people we serve deserve equal footing in this world.  Every bit of positive energy I have to infuse into this world of mine. It’s all propelled by influence, and that is a beautiful, wondrous thing.

My Tribe

A colleague was standing outside my door this afternoon talking to another co-worker of ours.  As he was doing so, he was thoroughly examining the Cutie orange he had just peeled.  He looked at it quizzically, cocked his head, grimaced and choked half of it down.  He swallowed hard, then shook his head.  His most unusual response to eating this delightful little nugget of almost pure sugar generated an inquiry on our part.  I mean, who doesn’t like fruit?  Unless, of course, we are talking about overly ripe bananas (a topic that was thoroughly covered in Bananas Are All the Rage) or papaya (because I think we can all agree, that shit is just gross.)  Otherwise, fruit is pretty awesome.

So when we asked why he was so troubled by eating fruit, and moreover, why he was forcing himself to do it he said, “Oh, I just eat fruit because I have children.” I remarked that it was noble of him to serve as a role model to his children, even when they aren’t around to witness his behavior.  To which he replied, “It’s not that.  It’s that my old man died at the age of 49, and I’d prefer to live to see my children as adults.”

My ears immediately perked up and my posture straightened.  I motioned him into my office and asked more questions.  How old were you when he died? What did he die of? How was your relationship with him?  Do you think his untimely death has made you more aware of your own mortality?  Do you think it has given you fuel for your passions and your drive in life?  He sat down on the couch in my office and answered my questions, one by one.  He was unfazed because he knew  in that moment what I knew, too…we are in the same tribe.

Isn’t it strange how our pain can join us?  And yet, I would offer that there are few things in life that can bond us together more.  I suppose that is true for everyone; I know it is true for me.  I am blessed with more friends than I am even sure I deserve, but the ones who understand the darkest, saddest and most sacred corners of my soul are the ones who lost a parent too soon.  They are the friends who understand that no matter how joyful my spirit is – no matter how silly, how funny, how passionate, how wise I am – I carry with me a well of grief that never, ever goes away.  Ever-present, it’s just there.  I hardly notice it most of the time and for practical purposes, I’ve learned to live around it. But I’ll be the first to admit, there are some circumstances that can tweak me in just the right way and my grief will come pouring out of me with the force of an uncapped fire hydrant on a hot summer day.  My grief is a comfortable, old friend or an angry, jilted lover depending on the day.

As my colleague and I talked through our feelings in an impromptu therapy session of sorts, we concluded by reminding ourselves how reassuring it is to find someone who has had a similar experience as you.  I am not the only one who has vacillated between feeling grateful I’ve not had the same fate as my mother and then wondering if I am on borrowed time.  I am not the only one who sees the beauty of my determination to live passionately, strong, smart, and hard in a way that could only come from an awareness of the impermanence of life.  I am not the only one who wants to make sure I make my best and most important mark on the world as soon as I can.

That is the beauty of finding a member of your own tribe.  You remember that you are not the only one.


In 2004, my best friend Mindy and I decided to take a trip to drown our sorrows and/or celebrate our good fortune (yes, you can do both simultaneously) following a divorce for each of us.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, we landed on Memphis as our destination of choice.

Although Memphis may not be the dream holiday vacation for most, the trip has turned out to be one of our most cherished and memorable for a variety of reasons.  We ate barbecue, listened to the blues on Beale Street, got freaky-deaky palm readings done, went to Graceland and maybe kissed a boy or two. We still have memories that can spark instantaneous laughter about our foolish ways.  It was truly a charmed trip.

The highlight, however, was unquestionably our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is situated at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I’ve now been to the museum twice, and I have told everyone I know that if they are ever in Memphis, they must go.  In fact, I would say if you are an activist, a social worker, a teacher, or anyone who is committed to the human race, you must make plans to go.  It’s that good.

As is often the case when Mindy and I go to a museum, we were not moving at the same pace and this particular day was no exception.  This is because I like to take it all in and really absorb it – for about a good solid hour – and then my short attention span starts to kick in and mess with my head.  Mindy, on the other hand, prefers to move at the speed of a glacier (pre-global warming, mind you) and read Every. Single. Word.  (Don’t even get me started on the six hours we once spent at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved it.  But wow.  Six hours.  Whew.)

About two hours in at the National Civil Rights Museum, I had run out of things to occupy my time and maintain my sanity, and I was ever-so-patiently waiting for Mindy to catch up to me.  (This ever-so-patient waiting probably included a fair amount of sighing, eye rolling, and internal dialogue that sounded a lot like muttering.)  I could see in the corner of my eye that Mindy was engaged in conversation with someone.  Dear Lord, I thought.  Who on earth is she talking to?  

As it turned out, Mindy had been talking to a gentleman by the name of the Reverend Billy Kyles.  She introduced me to him and explained that he knew a thing or two about this museum and had asked us to stick around for a talk he was going to give in a few minutes.  Let me be the first to admit, at that point it seemed that Mindy’s slower museum pace was going to glean some benefits.

What happened next turned out to be one of the more profound experiences of my adult life.  At the outset of Reverend Kyles’ talk, he explained that he is the last living witness to Dr. King’s assassination.  (A note to any fact-checking readers:  Jesse Jackson had been at the Lorraine Motel that day as well, but had left just minutes prior.)  Now a pastor in Memphis, Reverend Kyles considered Dr. King a personal friend and feels a deep commitment to use any opportunity he can to carry his message forward.

Reverend Kyles walked our group over to a replica of the hotel room that Dr. King had stayed in, which was depicted exactly as it was the day that he was assassinated.  He pointed out to each of us there that the room included empty beer cans and a dirty ash tray.  He made it clear that Dr. King was not only a legend, he was a man with weaknesses of his own to overcome.  (He stopped short of mentioning Dr. King’s well-documented philandering, and I imagined at the time he was probably strictly adhering to a “bro code” even 36 years after his death.  There is no statute of limitations on bro code, right?)

Reverend Kyles’ message to all of us there that day was clear and compelling.  It would be easy for all of us to look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to hold him to a higher standard than one we hold for ourselves.  He had a doctorate and a pulpit. He had political connections.  He was one of the greatest orators not only of his own time, but possibly of all time.  But Reverend Kyles cautioned us, to compare ourselves to Dr. King in this way does ourselves or our society no good whatsoever. Rather, he told us, we must all take responsibility for our part in the solution. We all have weaknesses as Dr. King did, and we all have great power within us as well.  Not only must we not engage in overt racism of any sort, we also must not quietly stand by and tolerate racism on the part of others. Reverend Kyles left us with a clear message that above all else, we must be a conduit of compassion to human kind.

Mindy and I left the museum that day with lumps in our throats and a feeling of utter disbelief in our hearts.  How was it that we intersected at that museum at that exact moment to have that precise experience?  It was truly remarkable and at the risk of sounding dramatic, I would say it was life-changing.  It seemed implausible that I – little Jenny Swearingen who grew up on a farm in the middle of Iowa – would have but one degree of separation from a man I’d spent all of my adult life admiring, a man who had died a tragic death before I was even born.

We went back to our hotel room that afternoon and I knew in my heart that the universe works in mysterious and beautiful ways.  All the proof I ever needed had just happened right before my eyes.