(That's me, next to the one with the floppy ears).
If you happen to be a woman of my generation, there's a better than decent chance that you are Jenny too.
This is mostly a storytelling blog, a memoir of sorts, a journal of Growing Up Jenny, as part of a generation of Jennys, and a collection of musings on Being Jenny Now, at 40-something.
If you were a girl born in the United States between 1970 and 1984, you were more likely to be named Jenny--meaning "fair & white," "precious one," or somewhat less appealingly, "ass"--in some form, than any other name. In fact, in several of those years, you were more than twice as likely to be called Jenny as the next most popular name. Michelle, Amy, Lisa, Kimberly...tough luck, girlfriend. In the 20th and 21st century, no other girl’s name has so thoroughly eclipsed the popular names of its time. In 1920, Mary beat out Dorothy by a pretty wide margin, but not by as much as Jenny consistently trumped her competitors in her heyday. I'm one of three sisters born in that timeframe, so I took one for the team.
Jenny is a cultural touchstone. It signals an era, a societal cross-section; in positive ways and sometimes annoying ones, it's a kind of shorthand for women of my generation. It reminds everyone of at least one girl they knew, probably many.
What's my number?
You got it.*
I love my name, I love Jenny. As kids, though, our name was so ubiquitous it hardly functioned as a name. It essentially cancelled itself out, and you had to be called by your last initial. There were seven in my grade at school--the Jennys C, G, H, O, S (me), S (the other one), and Z. You were defined, in a sense, not by being Jenny, but by which Jennys you were not. Jenny was the anti-identifier; your name represented not what made you unique, but what made you blend in. In my hometown, we were mostly white, middle class. We watched Little House on the Prairie; we loved unicorns, Smurfs, and scratch-n-sniff stickers.
Reduced to one letter to distinguish us, sometimes it felt like we all blurred together. Once, in middle school, there was this boy I liked, and I was really hoping he would ask me to the spring dance. You know who he took? Another Jenny S! I wanted to believe it was just some sort of cosmic clerical error, but I doubt it, because she was one of my best friends, and it definitely had a whiff of premeditation.
How's a regular Jenny supposed to set herself apart? Or even figure out who she is?
To wit: I thought I was kind of special because my given name was Jenny, not Jennifer; I loved to talk that around as if it gave me significant bragging rights. But even this slim advantage amounted to nothing because all the Jennifers, not to mention the rare Genevieve, went by Jenny--so who knew the difference?
In first grade, the school picture photographer refused to believe that Jenny was my full, given name. He said it was definitely Jennifer. I argued with him to the point of tears, insisting, "It's just plain Jenny!"
Just Plain Jenny. As I grew up, I adopted it as a cheeky moniker. It was cute and kind of clever because I always figured that if I became a Nobel prize winner or at least a big celebrity or something it would seem charmingly self-deprecating, like Julia Roberts' laugh; and if I never made anything of myself, well, it would hardly be my fault, after all, I'm Just Plain Jenny.
So when I decided to start this blog the obvious name for it was Just Plain Jenny. But wouldn't you know? There were already two other blogs registered by that name. Sigh.
Even today, fully half my dearest girlfriends share some version of my name. There's Jenny M, Jenny W, Jen G, Jenn T, Jenn C, Jen W, Jennifer B, Jena N, and that major outlier, Gen C.
The Jennys come from every walk of life and embody as many incarnations of adult womanhood as there are Jennys. Being Jenny serves here, in this blog, as a backdrop for exploring issues of identity, fate, personality, femininity, aspiration, destiny... and other important things like fitness, and what in heaven's name to wear--because I'm happy to admit, I think a lot a about that.
Telling our stories--even (artful) overshare--is a great connector and equalizer. The universal in the particular, as the saying goes. I hope one woman's account of growing up Jenny can reference a landscape of female experience where almost anyone can find some expression of herself...or at least something amusingly mortifying that you're really glad doesn't reflect your life.
I hope it will be a poignant, revealing, and funny chronicle of self-discovery, and sometimes a more metaphysical investigation of the watershed moments in personal, spiritual and artistic development--implicitly asking, “What’s in a name?”--that will resonate with many “Jennys,” and with anyone who has ever faced midlife wondering if they really know who they are, and if they're living up to their fullest potential.
All the Jennys (and honorary Jennys) that I know are right this moment in the most exciting, productive, frustrating, satisfying, overwhelming, rewarding time of their lives (so far). They're coming into their own, blossoming in breathtaking new ways. Ironically however, we're bombarded by various media messages that cause the 40s to loom in the societal consciousness as a sort of expiry, some kind of terrifying turning point. Un certain age. And the cultural messages to women are so fraught--we're faced with a lot of fallacious dichotomies and asked to answer to a lot of confrontational questions that men, by and large, are not.
In my late 30s I started feeling really adrift. I usually kept up just enough artistic work to keep me from jabbing my own eyes out during a decade of being primarily a full time mom. (Sidebar: there are many women who do stay-at-home-mom-hood brilliantly--and I deeply respect and even envy them--but I humbly confess, I damn near lost my mind. I love my kids wildly, I love nurturing them, I love homemaking, but I'm always a better mother when I'm creatively engaged).
When my second child started school, I really hoped that--in my four hours a day of newfound freedom--the next phase of my creative life would materialize in earnest, immediately. But I wondered if I'd ever be able to distill my own unique purpose and passion in life, and pursue it to the fullest, while entwined in the tender chaos of family life.
I love a lot of different things. Really love love. I had so many things I wanted to do, and was paralyzed by the feeling that I couldn't get anything accomplished, truly brought to fruition; something always seemed to be in my way. I couldn't focus. I found myself struggling with nagging thoughts of “Who am I, and why do I still feel like I'm waiting for my life to begin?” Also known as, "Oh shit, did I forget to lean in?"
I spend a lot of time feeling pulled in too many directions, scattered, discombobulated, and kind of panicky and rabbit hole-y about my work and artistic life. Which is to say, feeling like I have none to speak of. Or at least not the kind that is quantifiable in some "objective" sense. Feeling like I work all the time and never have anything substantial to show for it... like "success," whatever that means. Feeling the tension between normal life and creative life.
I worried--does a regular Jenny at 40+ have the power to shape her own narrative, or is my exceptionally common name not only a symbol and reminder of my average unremarkableness, but a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy--that I am, fundamentally, Just Plain Jenny. And anyway, what's wrong with that?
Recently, on a sleepless night, I had the following insight: I have to reframe this. (Not this picture --this situation, this thought process).
What if I embraced the notion that the mayhem is not an obstacle on my creative journey, but is in fact the very fabric of the journey. That this mayhem is my creative life. That it's not just a byproduct of what I've chosen, but is truly, what I've chosen. That I spent a lot of years trying to do things--both career and family--in some prescribed way I thought I was supposed to do them, instead of doing exactly what I wanted to do the way I wanted to do it, and that's why I felt dis-integrated. That these things I love and give myself to aren't different and separate, but all one thing. I started to look for their interconnectedness in a conscious way. Big messy beauty. Holy hullabaloo. Sublime mayhem. Maybe when I wrap my head around that I'll finally be actually doing my own true joyful work.
So this website is about integration. And the blog itself IS an integration. (So meta. I know.)
Go to the BLOG page to find lots of essays under various headings...
I love my family first of all, of course. I love them more than anything--they're my greatest joy and my go-to source for everything heartwarming, harrowing and hilarious. (When elsewhere in these pages I imply that they have ruined my life and dashed all my artistic hopes, see above). For rumination on marriage and motherhood, click on FAMILY.
I love writing, and acting. Storytelling. You can read stuff about those things in ARTS.
I love yoga and fitness and exploring the relationship between physical life and creativity. I talk about those things in WELLNESS.
I love fiddling around with the placement of various objets in my home, and trying to make it feel expressive on a budget. I also spend a borderline unseemly amount of time figuring out what to wear, and why it matters, which is a little weird because I pretty much wear the same thing every day... but then, nuance makes all the difference. And by nuance I mean, shoes. And jewelry. Go here for essays and ideas about STYLE.
In the SPIRIT section, you'll find thoughts on faith, skepticism, everyday transcendence, and Divine Mystery.
Finally, you can read about how all these things started to mesh and make sense one summer when I found myself transported--almost magically--to Topanga Canyon for a month with my family, my running shoes, my notebook and pen. And how that summer turned into several. And how the physical/spiritual/artistic practice I engaged in over those summers became the focus of the blog, and ultimately, the heart of all my work, so it's got its own tab, SUMMER | unscripted.
Largely due to those summers in the canyon, I'm a tireless ambassador of the vital link between physical life and creativity. Click on the YOGA tab in the menu to learn about my many programs of Yoga for the Creative Life. And my programs especially for women, Mamaskara.
Embrace your chaos. Tell your story.
Yours in regular Jennyness -
*If you didn't answer 867-5309 on the pop quiz... Well, I don't know whether to be disappointed in you or deeply grateful.
"Joy is the essence of success." - Yogi Tea bag tag
All text and images, except where credited, © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2020 . All rights reserved.