Friday, January 12, 2018

Who's Afraid?

“What are you afraid of?”
Sounded like a simple question when I was asked.  I didn’t want to get eaten by a shark but then I didn’t swim in the ocean so that didn’t count.  Ah, fear of being alone?  Well, actually I enjoy my own company.  I know, I know, fear of success.  Nope.  Worked through that one too.  I didn’t have any phobias left.  I’d been working on emotional blocks for the last few years and as far as I could tell, the well was dry.  I had caught, examined, and released fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being abandoned, fear of being eaten by wild animals “lions and tigers and bears, oh my, Dorothy” and fear of getting lost in a new environment – I now have GPS.  Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have had the courage to leave home, attend school in another town, let alone another country, walk around alone after dark – anyplace, especially a college campus, and/or risk sharing my writing with a class of students.  Yet, here I am.
However, I used to be afraid of the dark.  
When I was ten, I lived with my family in South Holland, Illinois.  Our home, an old Dutch farmhouse, it was built with only one bathroom on the main floor.  My almost two-years-younger sister and I slept in a bedroom upstairs.  Occasionally after everyone was asleep for the night, the boys in their room, mom and dad safely tucked in after Johnny Carson, I am so dating myself, either my sister or I would decide a bathroom trip was in order.
“Hey, are you awake?” one of us would whisper.  
Whoever was on the bottom bunk would kick up between the slats or if sleeping on the top bunk, we just climbed down, leaned over the sleeping sister, and whispered two inches from her face,
“Hey, are you awake?”
“I’ve gotta go pee.”
It was the unspoken rule.  If one of us had to go the other one had to go with her for company and . . . for protection.
There was a problem.  Our room was in the front of the house, upstairs, and it was a terrifying journey through the dark to get to the bathroom below.  Armed with our bed pillows, one of us would walk to the bedroom door; take a quick peek over the banister, then we’d race down the length of the house to the stairwell landing.  
We’d wait, huddled in the dark, forcing our breathing to quiet, and when our courage was sufficient, we’d walk to the edge of the top stair and look into the abyss.  We couldn’t switch on the light as it would shine into mom and dad’s room and wake them up, but there was usually some faint moonlight coming through the glass front door.  
In the daylight, the stairs were fun.  They’d take us to the front door and out into the green world of climbing trees and tulips, autumn’s leafy crunch, or the winter brilliance of snowfall.  Mornings the smell of breakfast would come up the stairs and going down, we’d race around them to the right and enter the old farm style kitchen.  On winter mornings, we’d take turns standing over the heating vent, our nightgowns billowing out around us with the rising warmth, until mom would order us to move as we were taking all the heat.  
But at night, the stairs were different, dark, steep, silent; and there were empty spaces between the slats in the banister, spaces just wide enough for a cold, clammy hand to reach through and grab the unwary.
Hugging our pillows to our chest, we plastered our backs against the solid comfort of the wall.  Sometimes we’d hold hands as we sang softly, “Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to Him belong, They are weak but He is strong.”  
Step by step we’d inch our way down into the darkness, our eyes staring into the darkness, trying to see, yet not see, the unseen, softly chanting our talisman of safety.
At the last step, we’d nearly reached our goal.  Turning left one of us would race through dad’s office, past the monster under the desk, past the bigger monster in the closet, through the bathroom door and switch on the blessed light.  It flooded the bathroom and poured into dad’s office, safe, monster banishing, comforting light.  We luxuriated in it, did what we came to do, and prepared for the trip back to our beds.
Once again, we were faced with terror, for whoever had been brave enough to face the monsters in the office to turn on the bathroom light was granted the privilege of returning through said office surrounded in the light’s protective embrace, untouchable by anything lurking within the shadows and hungering for the darkness to descend.  The other sister waited in the bathroom, poised to flip the switch and set new land-speed records. It’s a shame neither of us ever went out for track. The challenge was to get through the office, past the open closet and menacing desk, and time her passage just right to pick up the sister, supposedly waiting at the office door, and then to race up the stairs together, down the hall, and make the safety of our room simultaneously.

I learned a lot about trust on these nocturnal escapades.  Did I wait or did I sprint up the stairs ahead of my sister?  Did she make it to the safety of the bedroom ahead of me and jump under her covers first?  I don’t remember the blackness of our hearts for occasionally cheating; but I do remember the strict tally we kept of whose turn it was to go first the next time nature called in the darkness.  I also remember that the arguments and bickering of the day were always forgotten and forgiven when we had to face the darkness alone together.
Guardian Angel on the Perilous Bridge - Unknown Artist
circa 1900

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Why "Just" Jan?

I was recently questioned about why I use the title Just Jan. The questioner was quite polite, even complimentary stating, "Why do you do this? You are so much more than "just" Jan." I felt humbled by the compliment but also had a quiet little laugh for they had totally misunderstood the reason I use Just Jan.

Let me explain...

I was named after my Uncle Jan, my dad's youngest brother. We are predominantly Dutch and Jan is a Dutch male name for the English name of John. In Europe, it is pronounced Yan as opposed to the hard "J" sound in the States. Growing up, when asked for my name, I would reply "Jan", which was generally followed by a series of questions. 

"Is it short for Janice?"
"Again, no."

I would then be called upon to explain... I was named after my Uncle Jan (see above). It was all very confusing to a ten-year-old and I learned to dislike my name. Why did my parents think it was acceptable to saddle me with a boy's name? 

Then I grew up. 

I rather enjoyed being different and being the only girl named Jan. (This is not true anymore as I've met half-dozen women named Jan.) At any rate, it is so much easier to state my name, why I was named with a single syllable male appellation, and end with the explanation, "No. It truly is 'just' Jan."

I look at my life and see 48 years of marriage (which is hard but rewarding work), 8 children for which I am half responsible (see the 48 years of marriage), 27 grandchildren for which I am only indirectly responsible, and a gazillion years of schooling ending in a recent PhD. In my tenure on earth I've learned to cook, bake, do masonry, plumbing, and electrical work, remodel, redecorate, general construction, reupholstery (thanks to YouTube), hang wallpaper, can fruits and veggies, sew and even tailor suits and wedding dresses, as well as a short stint designing costumes for a costume shop. When listed like this, I do see these accomplishments as somewhat extraordinary, but it is still just my life. I get up each morning, accomplish what is before me, and then sleep at night. I like to work hard, am naturally curious, a writer, a perpetual student, and a voracious reader.

There have been euphoric highs and desperate lows and there have been days in between that were just days. I've wept at loss and laughed with friends until the tears fell in pure joy. I've kissed boo-boos and accepted a handful of crushed dandelions from a grubby little fist with the same excitement as an expensive bouquet of roses. I've sung lullabyes to down-covered nodding heads and at times wished that I'd never taught my children to say "Mama." For non-parent-type people, ‘mama’ can be overused to distraction at times, but my little geniuses figured a way around even that, “Mama, Mama, Mama, Mom, Mother… Jan!”

So you see, "JustJan" is just me and all the various me's that make up the me that is... just me.

'Just a girl' featuring a picture of myself as part of my Pacific University art show.
Calligraphy on acetate, photography, and watercolour