January 14, 2008

Getting to know Jess

1. I can trace my family’s genealogy back to William Shakespeare. Yes, the William Shakespeare. Big Willy is something like my great, great, great, great, great uncle on my father’s side of the family. In fact, my great grandma’s maiden name was Shakespeare. I saw the tombstone when I was a little girl. The direct connection is through David Shakespeare, who was my five-times-great grandfather, as well as William’s brother. My father’s middle name was William. And my uncle’s name is David. They are family names. :o)

2. For my 16th birthday gift, my mom sent me on a three-week tour of Europe with American Music Abroad. (I played the clarinet for more than a decade of my life…and probably still could if I got it out and worked on my embouchure.) We visited Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France. A lot of time was spent on a bus and playing concerts, but I did get to see some amazing sights – hanging out in Salzburg, where the Sound of Music was filmed (one of my favorite childhood movies); taking the long ride up to the top of the snow-covered Alps; partaking in a Tyrolean folk fest; viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower; walking the cobblestone streets of Dusseldorf; floating in a gondola in Venice; and much, much more. It was three of the best weeks of my life, but I do wish I had been a bit older and mature so that I might have paid more attention to where I was rather than all of the new people I was traveling with (didn’t know a soul on the trip when we left). I have a big photo album filled with pictures taken by a 16-year-old girl if you’re ever interested. They’re not so great, but I’ve got stories!

3. More than two years ago I began volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter in York County. Why? Well, I had moved back to the Harrisburg area after graduating from college and I had few friends in the area. I thought that volunteering might be a good way to fill my time, so I went for it and fell in love. The Helen O. Krause Animal Foundation Inc. has fast become a second home for me. Twice a month, I wake up at the crack of dawn (7 a.m.) on Saturday to drive half an hour to Dillsburg and spend time playing with the puppies and cleaning their kennels. I use the time to clear my mind and to take care of any mental debating that needs to be done. There’s also something special about spending time caring for homeless animals. They are so eager for love and attention – and they’re not afraid to show it or accept it. Sometimes, when I’m having a really hard time, I like to head to the cat shelter and shut myself inside the kitten room. Once they’re awake, you’re likely to have seven or eight kittens fighting to sit on your lap or play with strings hanging from your clothing. It’s one of the most effective therapeutic concepts I’ve experienced. (I also took over as editor of the foundation’s newsletter about a year ago and am a member of its public-relations committee.)

4. I suppose it's not proper to just say these things, but I'm going to anyway. My dad passed away two weeks after my 14th birthday. I wouldn’t recommend asking me how unless you have a couple of hours to hear my story, but make sure you read #5 on this list. I will say that it was unexpected and unpleasant, but I would not be who I am if it had not taken place. I didn’t go to counseling until about three or four years ago (even then it was short-lived). I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol to sort it all out, either, even though that’s what was expected of me. So how did I cope? I have the most wonderful friends that I am so grateful for. And I have penned some of the weirdest poems in the world.

5. I am writing a book/memoir. I’ve been thinking about it and planning it for as long as I can remember. Basically, it’s the story of my life, centered around my dad. I have spent years analyzing the nine months or so before he passed away, to the point where I have it memorized. The bulk of the book will focus on that, but it will include some earlier and more recent tidbits. I started the writing process more seriously when I graduated from college in 2006. It took me two years to write three pages. I'm up to 17 now. It’s a compilation of freestyle poetry, letters and chapters. I know that doesn't sound like much progress, but it’s been a painful, yet liberating process. I can't imagine what it will feel like when I've finished it, but I'm looking forward to it.

6. All I've ever wanted to do is write, but I never really intended or even wanted to write for a newspaper. However, I have somehow ended up working for 2.5 years as a reporter for a business journal in Harrisburg. I didn’t intend to stay there this long, but I do not regret it in any way. I have learned that the best stories are not the ones made from thin air, but the ones that are based on facts. Real life is far more interesting than fantasy, and much easier to write. I also think you can make more of an impact on the world telling a story that is true. So now I have a couple of book ideas and they are all steeped in truth. I would love to reach a point in my life where I could concentrate on that. My time with the paper has also made me a much, much better writer. I have worked with editors who have helped me begin to find my voice as a writer. If you want an example of my work, here is a story I wrote last summer that is nearest and dearest to my heart.

7. Last, but not least, I absolutely have an adoration for the outdoors, in particular the night sky. Living in the somewhat country blesses me with the opportunity to see some amazing star-filled sights after dark. I try to make a point each night to take a good look at the picture God has painted for me. I have a good friend who is always down for camping out in my front yard for some star action, even in the middle of January. She is the same friend who taught me how to smoke my first cigar a year ago. I know that may sound unappealing, but when you’re sitting on the rooftop of a row home in Allison Hill (the ‘hood, as we affectionately call it, of Harrisburg) in the middle of the night with a group of friends, gazing at the stars and the city lights…well, a cigar truly seals the deal. It became a tradition for the group of inspiring friends I made a year and a half ago at Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area. I didn’t have any particular reason to begin volunteering for Habitat, but I felt that I should give it a go and it ended up completely changing my life. I met a group of individuals who became some of my closest, most favorite people in the entire world. We would spend a Saturday working on some houses, cleaning up trash or doing demolition work (my personal favorite), and follow it up with fresh-baked cookies, coffee, cigars and conversation on the back porch. Everyone sort of went their separate ways this past summer, but I will never forget the things that I learned and the connections I was so fortunate to have made last year. People are the essence of life, after all. And I would say that it was that group that directly led me to begin this blog.