In This Small Way

My grandpa passed away nearly two weeks ago, at the age of 94.

When I heard the words come out of my parents’ mouths my stomach dropped—even though we knew the day was coming soon. And even though I understand it means he’s free from pain and confusion. When I found out this person was no longer on earth with me —who I  thought of as part of the very foundations of the earth in a strange, illogical way (despite my knowledge of science and human lifespans and history)—my body felt the loss. My brain couldn’t conceive it, but my organs knew better. 

When I think of living life well, I think of my Grandpa Helm. He was smart—the kind of smart that starts with curiosity and never leads to arrogance. He was well-read and cared about current events. He read multiple newspapers on a regular basis until dementia made that difficult—from differing perspectives, to get a sense of all sides. He was full of compassion, and kindness and close attention. If you wanted to feel seen and heard, he was your man.

If you wanted some knowledge, or better yet, some wisdom, you asked Grandpa. And then you waited. You might wait a good while, because he let his thoughts simmer, and when he spoke you knew you were getting gold. It wasn’t always fun to wait—as a child I remember wishing Grandpa would hurry up already and just spit it out so I could run and expend all the energy I had stored in my lanky limbs. But all those times I held that energy back, waiting and waiting for his thoughts to finish baking—ding—and then the words to come out slowly, one bite at a time, I got something to chew on for my whole life. That’s how good those bits of wisdom were. And I’m not even being dramatic. 

He loved justice. And mercy. His faith was built on loving God and loving people—it was as simple and complicated as that. He was slow to anger and quick to listen and even quicker to smile. He adored his wife and loved his kids, and his grandkids, and his great-grandkids. He loved people because they were his fellow humans, no matter if he had something to gain, no matter if he disagreed with their politics or religion or line of work. In these days of us and them, of determining who’s in the right camp and the wrong, I think of Grandpa and see a different way. One of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

He was the closest thing to Jesus I’ve seen in my lifetime. My very own Grandpa Helm.  

Isn’t that spectacular?

I’m thankful to have known him, let alone to have been raised under his watch, his loving hand, his kindness and calm direction. I needed a few days for my own thoughts to simmer, the impact of his long life taking a while to digest. And I’m considering it a good sign that I may be like him in this small way. 

He was my grandpa. And now he is gone. That is just so weird, I don’t have the words to say. But goodness sakes if his doesn’t sound like a life well-lived to me. 

A life worth mulling over and then writing some measly, thankful words from one of his biggest fans. I love you, Grandpa. Thank you ever so much. 

William J. Helm Obituary

And Then (Four Years Later)

Here’s a post from four years ago, appropriate for fall. For those mamas who just recently left their last little one in a kindergarten room, and walked away unsure of what to do…

And Then

Winter Ends (I Promise)

Okay, okay, so this post popped up on my Facebook feed as a memory from 5 years ago. No I didn’t scour my site for a good one to re-post this week, it just fell into my lap and I took it as a sign. That I didn’t have to do anything. 🙂 And also that maybe this was a great time for this reminder.

This year’s a little different, at least here in Kansas. Easter brought snow and sleet and, therefore, an indoor egg hunt. The signs of life and warmth that usually serve as hiding places for eggs in our yard – the tulips, the daffodils, the green stems of day lilies not yet in bloom – were coated in ice rather than sunshine. Boo. Not my idea of the hope that Easter and spring usually provide.

But the sermon I heard at church spoke to this very tension. The waiting. The taut pull of a rope just before it snaps. The hebrew words that we translate to “hope” in English which mean so much more than “Gee, I sure hope we eat spaghetti for dinner.”

So I still wait. For warmer temperatures and the grass seed in my yard of mud to sprout. This essay was a good reminder of what I have to look forward to. The beautiful things to come…

Winter Ends

Six Years, People

I started this blog in 2012. That seems crazy, but as many crazy things turn out to be, it’s true. When my littlest was a wee one and my oldest was barely into elementary. Before I realized the world had decided double spacing after periods was ridiculous. Much has changed in six years: no more babies, a few more gray hairs, all my children in school. I’m so glad to have recorded this time in essay form. To look back on and remember how I felt about it all, what I learned, what I still have yet to master.

But over the last near-year I’ve had little to say in this format. Suddenly the well dried up. My brain had become used to feeling an essay coming on almost weekly – I’d walk into Target and see an old woman holding hands with a younger one, doing laps around the store (I wrote a post on this if you’ll recall) and my mind would go into notice-and-contemplate mode, soon after, shaping my thoughts into paragraph form, begging to set them free through my finger tips. It was almost magical the way the essays emerged. But then it became clear that my site needed a revamp (which it still does). And then the ideas stopped coming.

My mind turned toward more flowery language, longer formats of story-telling, harkening back to my former love of writing short fiction. I’d see the sky and want to describe it, set a story beneath it, find meaning in its mood. Those fiction muscles that had lain dormant for a decade ached to be stretched again. To be put to use. And my brain complied. It shut off the personal essay valve and reopened the one that calls for plot and rising tension and ADJECTIVES. Whole short stories poured forth. It was marvelous.

So the essays have been on pause. I’ve had other things to do.

And I must say that, for now, the fiction fountain is still flowing and I’m trying my darnedest to put some out into the world (cross all your fingers). But the personal essay still holds a place in my heart, and in my writing life as a whole. And since I have six years worth of posts on this website (cross your other fingers for an overhaul), I thought I’d sift through them and choose my faves for a Best-Of collection.

Starting today, I’m going to repost some oldies but goodies, until the valve is reopened and I think in essay form again. There’s enough here to keep us busy for a while.

Happy reading, friends. I hope you welcome back these posts like old neighbors coming for a visit. They are sure happy to see you.


Now Is Now (Again)


This is from just over a year ago. In honor of summer – the extra hours of daylight, the time to really pay attention, the abundance of sweet memories made – here’s an oldie but a goodie. Happy summer, everyone!

Plumb » Now Is Now.

Into the Fold

Warm water, peppermint soap, time alone with a zero percent chance of needing to make snacks for anyone. The conditions were perfect for deep thinking. The other day as I shaved my left leg, to be precise, I saw a scar I got last summer after a nasty bout of molluscum contagiosum (thank you, children). I realized what bad memories came up due to the sight of that scar, and it got me thinking. About all types of scars. About what they mean, truly and metaphorically. About the stories they tell.

For example, my newest scar. I was trying to get dinner on the table before we left for my son’s middle school parent-teacher conferences and noticed some blackberry on my shirt, so I applied the magic trick that gets out berry stain. I leaned over the sink with my shirt held out a bit, and poured boiling water on it. The water ran down the shirt and onto my hand, which hurt, so I yelled and let go, which made the water hit my bare stomach. A lot of pain ensued, as well as blistering skin and the need to wear a giant bandage that stuck out under my shirt (which was now free of berry stain). After a few weeks of burn cream and gauze pads I was left with a scar. I tried various methods to reduce it’s appearance, but it soon became clear that swimsuit season had changed forever.

I’ve racked up a long list of scars over the years: an oval-shaped scar on my knee acquired when I was seven from sliding on thin carpeting, little ones on my hands and wrists from errant knives while cooking or the surprisingly rough edge of the dryer, the stupid ones from mosquito bites scratched to the point of bleeding – they don’t last forever, but they stay through the summer season and really piss me off. And the ironic island-of-Taiwan-shaped scar that used to call my shoulder home (after a scooter accident in…yes, Taiwan.)  But Just as I have lost nearly all of the Chinese language I learned so many years ago, the scar has faded away to nothing.

None of those, however, harken back to anything truly horrible. Some scars bring to mind much worse tales. Scars on bodies, or on hearts from emotional pain and suffering. From the time you learned your jeans were not the cool kind or you realized he didn’t love you back; the day you saw your first fight or the time you were nearly in one; those years you thought your parents might divorce or the minute you considered it yourself. Those kind of scars remind you of their presence in different ways than the ones on your skin. They go deeper, into the soul, and show themselves when the same sort of hurt happens again. Or when you see someone else suffer the same pain. Or even when the fear of that pain haunts your life.

Sometimes those emotional scars come out when you thought they had healed and disappeared. They tend to come up for me when I’m writing. I am often surprised how strongly I feel about a long-ago event that hurt deeply, even after years of time to mend. Sometimes it’s because I didn’t take any measures to make the scar disappear: dealing with the emotions and circumstances head-on, accepting them as part of my story and then sending them off like a lantern to float up and away – putting that emotional neosporine on the wound to help it fade. Sometimes it’s because it was such a deep laceration it will always be with me, like the scar on my knee. I’ve had it for 33 years and it looks the same, but without the fuzz of my green sweat pants stuck inside. It is part of me. If you drew a picture of what Jenea looks like, it would include that scar. Just as a drawing of my emotional being would have to include a few choice moments from junior high (that stuff never dies, man.)

By definition scars generally don’t go away. They are forever reminders of our past mistakes and accidents, of often significant pain, and of disappointment. But I’ve been wondering if I can accept them. If I can let them be a part of my story without hating them for that fact. I’d like to stop fighting them. Just as I’ve accepted the unsightly burn scar on my stomach. Because there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Go ahead and add it to my picture.

And just as I’ve accepted myself more over the years – my forgetfulness, my poor math skills, my rather tender heart (I went through a period of adopting the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics “I am a rock, I am an island” as my mantra) – I want to accept my scars, emotional and otherwise, into the fold. Not try to hide them. Just let them be what they are – part of my story, part of myself, part of my picture.

Scars are simply a sign of what’s happened to me in the past. They say that I’ve lived. I haven’t spent my life in a bubble but have risked and failed, and their very presence means I made it through. Those marks of old aches – both on the body and in the heart – are more interesting than an airbrushed version. Save that for Glamour Magazine. I’ll take the real, scarred truth any day.

The Underbelly

Pros: no seat belts, you can get up and pee whenever the need arises, electrical outlets at each seat, wi-fi, giant windows, no one has to drive (i.e. the parents can read or work and even do things with the kids), boarding is quick and easy, you can take lots of luggage without a fee. Cons: it takes a while.

We took the train from Kansas City to St. Louis for spring break this year. It was my kids’ first time on an Amtrak and they loved it. The pros beat the cons by far. But there was one additional positive outcome, which surprised me with it’s goodness. A plane gives you the bird’s eye view; the car gets you on the ground, feeling the distance and experiencing each place you travel through; but the train shows you the underbelly.

Clouds hung low and full over the fields as we sped through the countryside. The comforting rock of the train car, the clickety clack over the rails, the view from the giant windows all brought back memories from when I was a child traveling from Kansas to the east coast. Watching the landscape change as one state melted into another. Playing checkers in the observatory car, ordering apple juice at the snack counter, sleeping in the tiny bunks – these are the recollections that hang on in my mind. But on this trip, as an adult, I noticed something altogether different.

“The other side of the tracks” is a phrase for a reason. Trains live on the outskirts of towns. They run past scrap yards, through tunnels plastered with graffiti, over rivers lined with tangled wilderness rather than tidy vacation rentals. They frequent parts of the country most don’t often visit – the small towns of little value to many sight-seers. Amtraks’ once sleek, silver bodies have dulled to gray, and like an aging old man they carry the weight and wisdom of years spent traveling the byways. Even the lonesome whistle harkens back to the past, fits this forgotten mode of transport. I, for one, enjoyed soaking up the nostalgia.

The scenery was beautiful and ugly in increments: the greening fields of spring, crumbling walls of cement, Cottonwood trees dotted with eagles by the wide Missouri River, a hodgepodge of trailer homes and ramshackle houses around a lake, fields of purple flowering henbit and deadnettle. But it was all the underside of the creature – the hidden or forgotten or uncelebrated bit. The part of the country you don’t see unless you go out of your way to do so, for which there are no billboards to make it an attraction. And though I’m not against attractions, per se, sometimes it’s good to see the rest. To travel though a space as an observer, seeing just what it would look like without the train you’re on. Highways have en entire economic system built around them: Cracker Barrels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, Lion’s Dens (Missouri’s interstate is lined with adult video stores). But the train simply has tracks and a few scattered, mostly forgotten stations. It gets you where you want to go without the fanfare. But with an internet connection.

The people who take the train are the real deal, too. Not a single person was dressed in heels for travel (as I’ve seen plenty of times at LAX). There were families, singles in their twenties, older folks who needed help with their bags. One man had a lively yet vulgar conversation on his phone during one part of our return trip: “I know, they’re all bitches, but this one is the biggest bitch of all…if I divorce her she’ll take my boat!” The young man behind me and I looked at each other and laughed as we listened, then he put on his Beats and I opened my novel. Some of my fellow travelers smelled. I’ll just say it. And by the looks of their clothes they hadn’t washed anything for a while. But like the public pool, or Checkers grocery store where your cashier may or may not have all his teeth, being in the midst of that reality is good for a soul. To see the spectrum of local humanity and remember that not everyone is exactly like me. The world is much more interesting than that. I’m not ready to have the guy on the phone over for coffee, but I can sit on a train with him. I can learn about life from being thrown together with all sorts of folks.

Next month we will drive to Florida for a family beach vacation, and I will partake in the gas stations and McDonald’s rest rooms (but probably not the Cracker Barrels, and definitely not the Lion’s Dens). I love a good road trip. And such a long distance would take a week on a train, which is just silly. But my little jaunt on the Amtrak to St. Louis was a treat. Not a super-sweet sugar rush but a slow melting bit of dark chocolate – actually good for me even days later. I’ll do it again sometime. And I’ll watch for the secret places, both beautiful and not. Because together they equal what’s real. The top, the sides, the front, the back, and the underbelly.



As an update to my last post: it did not go well.

I’d love to say that I rocked being quiet and loving my kids with actions and deep eye-gazing, but not so. It seems I like talking, and rely on it, more than I even understood. In fact, it felt inauthentic to zip it – to me and to my kids. In my attempts to communicate without speaking I succeeded in making my 12 year old squirm away and my five year old cry. Lily, my 9 year old  daughter who loves a snuggle more than anything, didn’t mind. Any attention I give her is accepted with such gladness of heart that she could clearly use more. But sweet little Mae was fully creeped out.

It could have been poor timing: on a Saturday morning as I lay in bed, she burst into my room to lament over her missing book mark. The sadness seemed overly intense; she was clearly not in a good place. And I chose that instant to fit in some face time.

I tried to force a special moment instead of simply listening to my kid. Understandably, it felt weird. Mommy is suddenly staring at me. Why is she touching my face? I just want to know where my book mark went. And the tears flowed.

Luke, my oldest, my pre-teen, my boy, also loves a hug anytime of day. But staring into his sea-blue eyes is a different story. What? What? What the heck? Which makes sense. In the middle of the day, Mom stops and stares and doesn’t say a word. Something is up. She usually (like all her children) can’t stop talking. I must be in trouble.

So, some takeaways…

1. Stare into Lily’s eyes and give her a smooch several times a day. It makes her feel loved and she can’t get enough.

2. Luke and Mae don’t need that as much, but they need it. At bedtime, when it feels more normal to snuggle and be face to face is a great time for quiet and to just be with them. That makes sense, to everyone. Not awkwardly in the middle of the day. That doesn’t.

3. I like to talk and that’s ok. My kids are used to me blabbing, and not talking feels cold and distant. Like I’m mad. So I’ll just be myself and jabber away.

All good things to know.

My hypothesis was wrong. Silent communication isn’t always better; sometimes it’s creepy. That’s what makes the organic moments of quiet and the bedtime tracing of the face mean something. I can love them the way I love them naturally, with a little added on for my snuggly middle child. It’s not as complicated as I thought.

I’m so glad I figured that out.