Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jenny From Alaska

My dad taught me how to ride a bike on a big, blue, banana seat bike with streamers hanging from the wide-set handle bars. I don't remember much about that day- who else was there or even how old I was, but I vividly remember what it felt like the first time he let go. He'd run beside me, grasping the banana seat, and then say, "Ready?" and even if I shook my head saying, "no," he would grin and give me a push and then let go. Joy and fear and adrenaline mingled and rushed through my veins as I furiously pedaled, wanting to make my dad proud and really not wanting to fall or crash into a parked car.

This image came to mind when my parents dropped me off at Westmont my freshman year. Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces" was ironically crooning from the radio when we first drove through the gates and a few salty tears escaped and trickled down my cheeks; trickled because I saw that straggly-haired little girl on her banana seat, biting her lip, focused straight ahead as her dad ran beside her. And now, once again there was my dad saying, "Ready?" Again, the joy and the fear and the adrenaline. I wanted to make my parents proud and I really didn't want to fall or crash into a parked car.

As a young girl learning to ride, I had pedaled unsure and wobbled terribly at first. I probably took some spills onto the sidewalk but I don't really remember those. So too, that first week of college was a wobbly one. That first year, really. Because riding a bike on your own for the first time is both slightly dangerous and wildly thrilling. That potentional wipe-out lurked in the back of my mind and I missed the secure hand of my father on the banana seat. However, when I looked around that first week at Westmont, I saw lots of other potential friends pedaling by themselves for the first as well. Some feigned confidence but we all were wobbling. We were all figuring it out, some with smiles plastered on their faces and others with looks of terror because those first weeks riding solo were beautiful and freeing but slightly terrifying.

That first year of college was so bizarre because not a soul knew who I was. I was completely anonymous. Not that I was wildly popular before, but people knew who I was. The name "Katie Hardeman" used to communicate much. It used to say that I came from a well-respected family and was pretty good with a basketball. It used to communicate what I had accomplished and what I was about because the people who had watched me grow knew me. And being known brought security. They knew who Katie Hardeman was. And though they shouldn't have, their perceptions of who I was had created part of my identity and shaped how I viewed myself. But now, now no one had any perceptions of me. So who was I if no one was there to tell me? The only perceptions these new folk had of me was that I was blonde, wore shirts that were embarrassingly too short for my long torso and that were occassionally bejeweled with rhinestones.

We all were struggling freshmen, desperate to answer the question, "Who am I?" without anyone from our past chiming in to tell us. We were all pedaling on our own, striving to find ourselves- who we we truly were and who we would become. And in the midst of this self-defining year, I clung to my God tighter than ever before but I also clung to my roommate Jenny like a barnacle on a ship.

Jenny, Amy and I were randomly assigned a dorm room together because we went to bed at similar times and considered ourselves to be the same level of messy. They later confessed that they had spoken on the phone before we all met and were not thrilled about sharing a room with a "basketball player." They assumed that I would be a stereotypical jock and in some regards, I am, but then I think they relaxed when I showed up on the first day with rhinestones on my tank top.
I've since stood in both of their weddings and played with their cute and clever sons.
And I am truly baffled by our God because of these girls; baffled by a God who knew just what we'd need that freshman year. Or rather, just WHO we'd need as we were wobbling on our bikes, pedaling solo for the first time. Jenny and Amy were pedaling right beside me and their presence helped me enjoy the new-found freedom and forget about the fear- the fear of falling and of failure. We gained confidence and pedaled harder and faster and then they were right beside me when I'd wipe out, picking me up and pulling out the gravel from my skinned knees. Jenny and Amy both played major roles in my life during those four years. I shared a queen-sized bed with Amy for our entire senior year and got hours of free counseling from one of the wisest women I know. But since I just saw Jenny this past week, this post is mainly about her.

Jenny is one of those friends who, on paper, seems drastically different from me. She has zero interest in sports. I think she ran a mile once a few years ago. She called me from Grenada to tell me about it. She was a cheerleader and homecoming queen and stranger yet, she's from Alaska. Alaska, where her parents have a pet ferret, moose wander through their backyard and they have this sign in their garage, I mean "airplane hanger." Only in Alaska.
But I've mentioned before how I knew Jenny and I would be close when she suggested leaving our phone message in Russian accents. I knew right then that she was the right kind of weird and we were going to get along just fine. Because despite the cuteness oozing from her petite frame and her total lack of interest in sports, Jenny and I have a weird "soul connection." We share a lot of similar personality traits and these are magnified when we're together. We are both uncommonly quirky though not without our insecurities, and we often think on the same wave link, a wave few other people travel on. Her husband, Chris, noticed it this past week when we kept saying the same comments at the same time. We'd laugh and shrug our shoulders- it's been happening for years. She thinks of me every time she gets the runs and calls or texts me from the pot every time, without fail. We have that kind of friendship. We're admittedly a bit "different" or "odd" some might say, but our "unique" ways of thinking and living are oddly similar. We let down our walls quickly with each other because there was instant trust- like when our spirits first saw each other, they winked and grinned.

That first week of college, Jenny and I were like Siamese twins, undeniably attached at the hip. We arrived at every event together. Sometimes matching.
We climbed walls together and we went to events dressed in ridiculous get-ups together.
This was before the cell-phone era and yet, we always knew where the other was. We followed lots of routines. We'd walk to breakfast together every day singing, "ain't no mountain high enough" complete with hand motions. Then we'd eat our cereal in silence because the mornings were too early for conversation. We'd ride the shuttle to the beach every Tuesday, even when it was cold and we had to wear sweats. Then we'd strap on our uber-cool roller blades and blade to the Farmer's Market and buy flowers and then catch the shuttle back up. The first time we did this, I got a monster blister on my foot and Jenny insisted that she take care of it. (Years later she became a nurse. Go figure) So I let her pour hydrogen peroxide on my foot and poke it with a needle. Then, right as she leaned close to inspect the wound, I pressed down on the blister and squirted that nasty clear liquid right into her face and she screamed and then laughed. We were like Anne of Green Gables and Diana- bosom buddies and kindred spirits.

Jenny inspired me to live more intentionally. Freshman year, she wrote a "thesis statement" for her life which outlined how she would live and posted it above her bed. The next year she woke up every single morning and the first thing she said, without fail was, "I feel fantastic!" We lived together for four years- four marvelous, transforming, unforgettable years. She knows that I will pretend to melt if she turns on artificial lighting when it's not needed and I know that she pees with the door open and likes to eat a bite of chocolate right before bed. We never played the game of trying to appear cooler than we were, or smarter or kinder or better in any way. We just were. And in this way we were each other's confidants and teachers. I taught her not to wave at dirty men honking their horns at us and how to buy a 2 piece bathing suit while she taught me how to put others first, how to use an inhaler (though neither of us really needed one) and how to wear lipstick.
Lesley took the above picture in our sophomore dorm room and then she censored it. I have another censored picture of Lesley sporting only her underwear and cape but it seems mean to post it here although she did somehow allow the censored picture of Jenny and me to be be circulated on the boys floor. (We were horrified) Lesley joined us our sophomore year and was just as bizarre as Jenny and I; I mean, the girl wore capes on a regular basis. The three of us were once accused of travelling together like a pack of wolves. We were first offended since it was not meant kindly, but then honored because we did seem to move together like a pack and would kill for each other if it came to that. (Plus, we found it mildly ironic since the first thing my brother said to Jenny was, "You look like Wiley Coyote.") Before Jenny and Lesley married their college sweethearts, our pack tromped around the woods of Alaska as pictured below:
During those years we cried hard but laughed harder. We went on ridiculous adventures few would believe and talked about ridiculous topics few would understand. Jenny saw through all my pretenses and walls and saw who I truly was. There is something wonderful in that; something beautiful and freeing to be known so well. She knows when I'm even slightly annoyed and then laughs at me for trying to hide it. She has this uncanny ability of picking up on when I'm peeved just by reading my body language or even my tone in a text message and though it sometimes drives me bonkers that she sees through me when I'm pretending not to be irritated, I love that about her. I love that I can't pretend with her even if I want to.

Being with Jenny is like looking in a mirror- and not just because I like to buy us matching clothes. I see who I am more clearly when I'm with Jenny because she knows me so well and I can see myself through her eyes. I once caught her wearing my underwear. She was changing and suddenly looked so guilty but I didn't realize why until she confessed that she had run out of clean underwear. I think it was at that moment that I realized we had really crossed a line in typical friendship levels.

Jenny and her husband Chris now live in Santa Barbara with their remarkably funny and sweet boy Asher and their newest addition: their precious daughter Lola. I have unbelievable amounts of fun when I am with this couple. Chris is just as random as Jenny; he oozes adventure and cracks me up with antics. Plus, he'll play along when I teach them ugly face poses like this:
or this:
I spent one very memorable Thanksgiving with Chris and Jenny when they lived in Grenada:
and took a few "sick days" to hang out with them when they lived in Brooklyn.
Though I loved those long weekends of laughter and adventure, I have most loved these recent years having them live less than 2 hours away. When Jenny had her first baby, the wolf pack reconvened and brought Asher to the mission on his second day out of the womb:
Since they live so close, I can drive up for the day on Jenny's birthday to gorge ourselves on the infamous omlets of Summerland Beach Cafe, where we had always gone during college since breakfast is free for the birthday girl.
And of course we ordered a large stack of pancakes for Asher because we can never decide if we want omlets or pancakes so we pretended like the baby was hungry and then ate 1.5 meals.
Whenever I am with Jenny, I am always eating good food and I am always laughing and I am always encouraged and always edified. We've embarked on countless adventures together but we've also spent years doing nothing together so we have a knack for just "existing." My most recent visit to the Swanson household was no different. We ate giant burritos and scrumptious cupcakes and then downed some Famous Star burgers at Carl's. We sat around their table for 2 hours engaging in some of the most random conversation I've ever been a part of. At one point Chris called WalMart in Anchorage, Alaska to ask if they sold Tiger Tails. That's another thing I love about these two- you never know what to expect with them.

The purpose of my visit was to meet the tiny and beautiful Lola who was growing in the NICU but came home today!
Jenny is an amazing mother with amazing perspective- it was no easy task to have to leave her lil Lola in the hospital.
Lola is pretty incredible and though she is small, I fear my giant man-hands make her appear smaller than she actually is. As I held her, I was reminded of what a marvelous miracle each baby is. And Lola is one stinkin cute miracle.
After hanging out with Lola, we took Asher to the zoo where we imitated the smelly flamingos,
saw parrots doing some inappropriate things, and then hung out with the giraffes.
It was a fantastic day but here's the sad part. The Swansons are moving to Alaska in a few months. This came as no surprise to me and I am genuinely thrilled about the opportunities for them. But selfishly, I'm sad. Sad because despite their efforts to convince me to move to Alaska, I most likely will never live near them again. Sad because I won't be able to be "sick" for a day to drive up on Jenny's birthday. Sad because I won't be able to go to any more of Asher's birthday parties or be at any of Lola's. Sad because well, because my bosom buddy is moving to Alaska which feels as far as the moon.

During that first week of college, we were all quick to slap labels on each other. We did it for identification purposes since our names meant nothing. And we did it based on the little information we knew of one another. Jenny and I called one poor boy, "pensive Adam" for four years behind his back because we caught him looking into the distance on several occasions. I think I was "Katie who plays basketball" and Jenny was "Jenny from Alaska." (Actually, Lesley and I secretly called her 'Jenny with bangs' because in 2000, she was one of the only girls still rockin bangs) Eventually these titles slipped away as we built identities for ourselves. Our names began to communicate more than just where we were from or what we did. They communicated who we were. Jenny Hultquist, aka "Jenny from Alaska" or "Jenny with bangs" later became "my roommate, Jenny" then "my bosom buddy, Jenny" and then she tied the knot and became "Jenny Swanson, my college roommate whom I love to visit because she is always living in exotic places." And although now she returns to her "homeland" of Alaska, she will always be so much more to me than "Jenny from Alaska."

Because Jenny is one of those "forever" friends. One of those friends I plan on laughing with as our hair turns grey. One those friends I trust completely. One of those friends who shows me who I am. One of those friends I can share all my secret fears with and my hopes and my heart and my underwear. And though I'm sad about her leaving, I now have a wonderful reason to frequent the great state of Alaska.


  1. Katie. this is rob hughes. this was beautiful. hope you're well.

  2. Hey Rob Hughes! Glad you like it. You, our unofficial 4th roommate, were also a major influence that freshman year. I'll never forget when my mom called our room and you answered and told her I was in the shower. She was freaked out but then grew to love you:)

    Also, I love that you write sentences like you speak. I can hear you saying this.

    PS- I always thought you had invented the "would you rather" game. Turns out pretty much everyone knows about it. However, they don't play the version where there is actually a right or wrong answer depending on Rob Hughes' opinion. They are missing out.