Wednesday, May 25, 2011

VOICES from the VILLAGE: Jennie Shortridge

Jennie Shortridge
You may have heard the advice new writers are given by the pros: “Write what you know.”

My new friend, Jennie Shortridge, the author of the book Eating Heaven, does exactly that.

I had never met Jennie or even heard about her until my own book club (the one you’ll get to eavesdrop on during the Village Chronicles game) picked Eating Heaven to read, based on recommendations and reviews from other book clubs. Once I read the book (READ it – you’ll LOVE it!), I knew I needed to meet the author.

Jennie is an amazingly accessible person. I sent her an email and arranged to meet her in her home town, Seattle, during a quick trip I was making to the West Coast to visit my brother. What a pleasure! Jennie’s a down-to-earth, warm person who clearly wrote what she knew in this book. Jennie knows caregiving.

“When my stepmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, like Ellie, the only thing I really knew how to do for her was cook all her favorite foods… one last time. It was an amazing experience to share her last months with her, and through her grace I learned a lot about both living and dying,” Jennie told me.

The book isn’t just about caregiving, though. It starts on a theme that seems, to Jennie, to be universal to all women.

“As women, we learn that we’re supposed to look a certain way. We get it from the magazines, and from all the media. But all of us love to eat, love to cook, and love to nourish, and those things can be in opposition to each other. In Eating Heaven, I wanted to write a book on how this tears us up inside sometimes.”

The themes of eating, nourishing through food, and body image do, indeed, form much of the book’s broader story. At the heart of the book, though – and at the heart of Jennie’s personal experience, is the theme of caregiving.

“The book came from a deeper place, even, than the experiences I had with my step mom. I had lost other people in my life. As a middle child, it’s in my nature to care for other people. It was important to understand how to do this in a way that makes sense, without it being judgmental, overbearing or other things that aren’t really very helpful – or becoming paralyzed by fear of death. Fear of our own mortality can be paralyzing – it’s frightening.”

Jennie – and Eleanor – find that caregiving turns from being the hardest work ever to the most rewarding work ever.

“Looking at caregiving from my own experience, you start out feeling obligated – you’re the one person who should or could. You dive in: you’re going to be the best caregiver ever. Then you get burned out and it feels like just plain hard work. Then you start to realize that all the effort you’re putting into the caregiving work is resulting in a relationship that changes – blossoms, perhaps - in a new way. You may feel a gratitude for small things, and you realize that what you’ve done really does make a difference. Pretty soon, little tiny moments of recognition that your effort is worth it start appearing. Even better, you feel your heart has grown, and you’re a more rounded, loving, open person as the result. Your life is fuller for the experience.”

In Eating Heaven, Eleanor, much like many family members, is an “accidental caregiver.” It isn’t until Uncle Benny comes home from the hospital and the hospice worker asks Eleanor where she is going to sleep that she realizes she’s now his primary caregiver.

“Caregiving is the ultimate act of giving up yourself in service to someone. I do think that a big part of our life is to be in service to others, but caregiving takes this to a whole new level. Your entire life has to shift. That’s a huge change. We may resist it at first, as Eleanor does, and we may need to take breaks and do what we need to do for ourselves. We DO need to get help, often.

“The hospice worker in Eating Heaven is very much modeled after the hospice worker my step-mom had. She was funny and no-nonsense, and helped us understand what the ‘new normal’ was in our lives. Getting help is imperative. Sometimes you even need someone else to help you figure out how to cope with your own feelings and experiences.”

Jennie is a fan, as well, of finding communities to help you with caregiving emotions and tasks.

“Anytime you can embrace and engage a community around anything in your life, it makes the experience easier. It gives you a place for communication, idea sharing, resources sharing and emotional bonding. Finding someone to cry and laugh with; someone who understands things no one else can understand – that is very much a part of letting yourself or your loved one become a part of a community, whether a facility community or a support community.

Through it all, Jennie has learned that caregiving is a time of practical adjustment.

“Caregiving is like so many other times in our life: having a baby, getting a divorce. These are adjustment times, when things will never again be the way they were before. There’s a new normal now, and it’s just what we do now.”

What I love most about Jennie, though, is her perspective on being with a loved one who is dying.

“Being with someone who is actually dying and who passes can be joyous in an amazing way. Just like Eleanor realizes in the book, that experience is the termination of a life, but it’s also the completion of a cycle. The person has allowed you – wanted you – to be with them, and you’re somehow part of this incredible experience. Yes, there’s pain and loss, but there’s also a sort of release and bliss that’s hard to explain until you’ve been a part of it.

“There’s a certain peace. You’ve been through the hard parts and the sadness. You’ve worked through much of this, and now that they’re gone, you’ve dealt with much of this loss and can now feel peace.”

Eating Heaven is an incredible book, but the real story, for me, is the person behind the book, Jennie Shortridge. She’s one of the pure, strong voices from Caregiver Village.