"Oh, how thrilling!” they’d burst upon discovering that Mickey Mouse signed my paychecks. “That must be so fulfilling, so magical! We go to Disney every year. Magic Kingdom is our favorite. The fireworks are the best! How did you get into that? Your parents must be so proud!”
The truth is, it was fulfilling, and they were proud, but there was something about that question, “Where do you work?” that pretzeled my insides. “Walt Disney World,” I’d casually answer, wishing we could move on to the weather, the Colts roster, or perhaps even debate the downfall of the latest pop princess. But that was never the case.
“What exactly do you do there?” the former teacher/friend of my mother/interested stranger would probe.
It was impossible to dodge this question politely. After all, this person was simply inquiring about my life. I didn’t want to seem short. They were being courteous.
In the early days, I’d reply, “I work in entertainment,” trying not to give away too much. We were trained to preserve the magic, and I always aimed to do so. Even now I won’t reveal my past identity to a child. The trouble is, this vague answer didn’t satisfy anyone, and it felt coldly succinct. What exactly did I do for Disney Entertainment anyway? Drive floats? Make costumes? Sell light up souvenirs before the SpectroMagic parade? I learned to stop making these poor souls beg for answers.
“I’m a character performer. So what are you up today?” My return question always ignored, I prepared for the surge of excitement I’d grown to loath and love. I stood at the intersection of embarrassment and pride. Half of me wished I could crawl into a hole when asked about my role, and the other wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
“Oh my goodness!” my acquaintance would squeak, “What character do you play!?”
This question gave me anxiety, mostly because out of costume, I didn’t feel I epitomized an iconic princess. I always felt defensive after I divulged my secret, as if this person were thinking, Really? You? How in the (small) world? Most people (myself included) regard Cinderella as a classic beauty and historic treasure, and I never quite felt up to par.
“It takes a lot of pixie dust,” I’d mumble sheepishly, cursing myself for not smoothing the frizzy flyaways in my ponytail or concealing that cluster of crimson spots on my chin more thoroughly that morning.
If I was being honest with myself, I knew that I put great effort into my work. I showed up on time, maintained a positive attitude, exercised and ate healthy to ensure I could squeeze into the costumes, and attended workshops to become a better performer. However, I also understood that acquiring this position was in part sheer luck. A few casting directors deemed my face just oval enough and my mannerisms just delicate enough to portray this princess. If I had auditioned on a different day, my fate could have changed entirely. I was replaceable, and I knew it.
I suppose another reason I was so touchy about this praise was because I knew that the curtain would eventually close. All glory is fleeting, I was keenly aware. Most of the animated princesses are about sixteen years old in their movies, leaving us human performers in our mid-to-late-twenties wondering how much sand remained in our own personal princess hourglass. How many more days could I twirl in a billowy dress and call it a job? Would I wave my last loopy, swoopy wave from the top of a wedding cake-shaped float this week? Or would I stain hundreds more little cheeks with my fuchsia lipstick kiss? While this The-End-Is-Coming realization was unsettling, it also allowed me to cherish each day. I knew I had a rare opportunity, and I didn’t take that lightly. I felt honored to be linked with such a warm, loving woman (albeit a cartoon) anyway. I learned so much from Cinderella. I still hear her voice in mine when I speak to children, and her gentle tone guides me when someone treats me poorly or cuts me off on the road.
“Surely there must be something good about him,” she lightly nudges me, right before I’m about to go all “You have got to be kidding me!” up in my car.
I didn’t feel quite as distressed about the inevitable end of my reign as some of my fellow cast members. I had other dreams. I could top this. I would make people oooh and aahh even after my skin began to crease. However, it was my body, not my face, that showed its age first. I was performing in Hong Kong Disneyland when pain first seared down my left leg as I kneeled to embrace my one millionth child. I weathered the pain as long as possible, but when I could no longer curtsey or frolic down Main Street, I knew it was time to say goodbye (to all our company. M-I-C… you get it).
Once I realized that the Disney chapter of my life had truly closed; however, I handled it less gracefully than I’d imagined I would. For months, I couldn’t even look at photos of myself performing. I was ashamed that I couldn’t do it anymore, and I felt I’d even disappointed members of my own family when I turned in my glass slippers. Would they ever feel proud of me again? I missed my loving co-workers, individuals who I felt “got me” more than anyone ever had, or maybe ever would. I’d found my soulmates in these women, and they knew just how to console me as I tearfully unpinned my blonde wig for the last time.
“You will go on to accomplish great things as Jenna,” they promised.
I also clung to Walt Disney’s words about progress for comfort: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we're curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
I returned home to Indiana. I had three hip surgeries in three years. Fastening myself into hip braces and hobbling around on crutches was tough on my ego, but my new dreams energized me. I was purposeful in treasuring my time at home. After all, it was only temporary. I realized that if it weren’t for my botched hips, I wouldn’t have been there for the birth (and baby years) of my two nephews, and I wouldn’t have gone out for sushi with the man who became my first boyfriend and first love. Everything happens for a reason, and I was content for the time being. I was no longer praised for my work, as I was substitute teaching at the high school I’d attended ten years prior, but I’d feel proud of myself again in time. I just had to get to Music City.
“What will you do next?” I was asked. “How does one surpass Disney anyway?” I wasn’t seeking superstar status, but I knew I wanted to write music and do some singing. I’d usually reply with a determined, “I’m going to be a backup singer for Faith Hill!” That always got the nod of approval.
My hips didn’t feel perfect, but I had my opening in the spring of 2013. Though I was in love, and we were making plans, I didn’t have children, a house, or any other responsibilities that would keep someone from chasing a risky, neon dream. It was now or never.
“You know, you don’t have to go,” my mother faintly proposed, as we tucked the last cardboard box into the U-Haul trailer. I appreciated her unending love. She didn’t always understand her dreamiest child, but that was okay. I fantasized about making music in Nashville long before I auditioned for Disney, and I knew I still wanted it, despite my weepy goodbye. You only get one life, and mine was going to be extraordinary.
I settled in. I began networking, sipping breakfast tea with my sister’s colleague’s former boss’ daughter (and other complete strangers) in hopes of finding work, or even just a friend. I paced up and down Broadway looking for employment, stopping to stretch my hip every other block, and wondering if anyone who actually lived here ever frequented this area. It was cluttered with postcard shops, packed honky-tonks, and belt buckles that could double as dinner plates. I started attending songwriter’s circles, though I hadn’t assembled the courage to step into the spotlight myself yet. There’s no rush, I soothed myself, you will be here for years.
“What are you guys up to?” I texted my mom after church while dining solo at The Cheesecake Factory on the third Sunday of my new life. I felt a little guilty for not exploring a hip, local eatery, but that afternoon I needed predictable chain food. I’d been drowning in newness.
“We are swimming in the pool with the boys,” she typed back, referring to my two favorite humans, my nephews. She attached a smiley emoticon to soften the blow. It was the first time since moving that I thought, What am I doing here? My entire family was harvesting splashy, summer memories, and I was sifting through a mountain of rice noodles, trying to find the lettuce part of my bottomless Chinese chicken salad, alone.
The lump in my throat diminished when I heard from my boyfriend, Mark, who was hunched over his laptop at that very moment, digging for graphic design positions that would bring him to me. I couldn’t figure out why I needed him so badly. I’d lived away from home before. Heck, I lived a hemisphere away at one point and fancied every Asian minute. Something had shifted.
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, I coached myself while strumming a standard D-A-G pattern on my guitar, uninspired. The notes dripped down the biscuit-colored walls of my studio apartment, trimmed with paintings and posters I had collected over the years for this very space. My fuzzy, purple chevron comforter neatly covered my queen-sized bed, and shiny, gold picture frames, filled with my favorite faces, were sprinkled throughout. Perhaps one day this room would boast a gold record too.
One Thursday evening after my shift sweeping hair at a local hair salon, I perched on my balcony, soothing my inflamed hip with the pink polka dot ice pack a friend had given me after my second hip surgery. I stared across the moonlit street at a sleek black and white building that held Big Machine Label Group, representing artists like Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. With its sturdy, White House-inspired columns, it stood out amongst the older houses-turned publishing companies on Music Row. Okay, Jenna. You’re here. You moved. You did it. You live in Nashville. The buzz of upbeat party tunes sung by tomorrow’s superstars hung over the city. I waited for satisfaction, but all I felt was empty.
I couldn’t understand. I chose this. If anyone questioned my Nashville dreams, I explained that I couldn’t merely be “Auntie Jenna” forever. I needed to live my own life. I yearned to be a part of the music industry in a real way, to be a small fish in a big pond, and then work hard to make something of myself. What I hadn't considered before was that there were no other fish in this school that actually cared about me. That part was heavy. Life grew hectic, and I missed my people. I longed for one of those two-word texts from my friend Sarah that I hadn't realized I loved so much: Target Run? Nope. I was wandering through the red aisles alone.
I pushed on. I carried five part-time positions, though it still wasn’t enough to make rent, as I was only offered a handful of hours at each job. My generous parents were helping me fill in the gaps until I found my footing. One bustling Saturday at the salon, I was startled by the long, ear-rattling buzz of the dryer. My hand towels were ready to be folded, and being the eager-to-please new girl, I sprung from my office chair to retrieve them, blasting my femur smack into the check-in desk. The boom was so powerful that it made every single client sacrifice their locks to turn their head.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” I promised, as I limped to the back, no longer able to bear weight on my left leg.
Three weeks later, my hip still felt like it was on fire, and I couldn’t walk properly, making work nearly impossible, but I needed this gig. I downplayed my injury to everyone at work, but they could tell. I walked like Long John Silver. One of the stylists, Jonathan, sporting maroon skinny jeans and Wayfarer glasses, quietly prayed with me in the back one afternoon while tears drenched my cheeks. Heal me, God. I’ve come this far. I believe you want me to be here. This is not how it was supposed to be. I believe you want me to be healthy. Please. Please. I beg you to fix my hip. I don’t need to run marathons. I just want to walk so I can work and pursue my dreams. How could you let this happen?
Mark drove up Memorial Day weekend, and I tried to put on a brave face. It’s just a setback, I chanted, trying to believe it. It will be fine in a couple of weeks. The holiday was supposed to be rejuvenating, but after peg-legging through the historic boulevards of East Nashville, attempting to be a sprightly, youthful girlfriend, I had a breakdown in the parking garage of my apartment complex. It was the closest I had ever come to a panic attack. Every inch of me, from my calves, to my cheeks, to my ear lobes, rattled. Mark helped me up to bed as I hiccupped and wailed hysterically. How could this be happening again? I wasn’t out kickboxing with a vulnerable hip. I was just working! I had hustled to recover my hips for four years, and here I was, back at square one. Do I need surgery again? Doesn’t my insurance expire soon?
I rested, iced, stretched, and medicated for nearly a month after the desk incident, and it was only getting worse. It was time to see the orthopedic. Again.
“The MRI doesn’t reveal a glaring problem,” the snowy-haired surgeon calmly asserted between my sobs, “It just looks like a hip that’s been operated on twice. Honestly, I think it’s your back.”
My back? Now what?
“Come home; get healthy,” my parents pleaded. So, after only three months in Tennessee, I handed my apartment keys to the one friend I had made, a soft-spoken Titans cheerleader, who would sublet until I recovered. I proceeded north on I-65, and my energy changed the moment I crossed the Indiana state line. I could breathe. It would be okay. I was home.
I started physical therapy and gave myself eight weeks to get back into walking shape and return to Nashville, but deep down I knew that I needed to decide if I even wanted to. I was on a mission to find peace. I would pick a state once and for all. No more wandering around, but no regrets either. So, I invested in my friends and family. I prayed, read, cried, and breathed. I met with my friend and advisor from Butler, where I attended college (a beautiful benefit to attending a small school), high school friends, and older, wiser, down-to-earth Hoosiers. I picked anyone’s brain that I could. When I mentioned to some that I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to Nashville, they disapproved.
“Jen-nah! Music is your passion! Nashville is your dream! You won’t know until you give it a full year,” they’d say. It pierced my soul. Shoot, they’re right. It is my dream. But at what cost do I want it?
Some went the other way.
“When are you gonna stop goofing around and come home? This is where you belong. You’re happier here.” I wanted to believe them, but I wasn’t sure why. Did I just want permission to give up? Was I looking for an excuse to take the easy way or had my goals really changed?
“Jenna,” Mark offered one evening during this “rediscovery” period, stretched on my parents' couch. He had agreed to read The Purpose Driven Life with me, a book I had breezed through ten years before when life seemed clear and obvious. I perched beside him as his warm, cocoa eyes found mine. He smoothed the crease between my eyebrows that always appears when I'm troubled. “You aren’t going to figure out where you belong in these books. Rick Warren can’t tell you. Your pastor can’t tell you. Your parents can’t tell you, and I can’t tell you. The answer doesn’t lie there. It lies here,” he said firmly, pointing to my heart with his index finger. It reminded me of a quote I’d come across before but hadn’t thought about once in my quest for answers.
“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't.” -Erica Jong
What do I want from life? I quizzed myself. What do I want my life to be?
My honest answer: I want a peaceful life- full of adventure, family, friends, music, art, and a lot of love.
In my soul I knew that Indiana could offer me all of these things, and Nashville could only offer a few. I just wasn’t ready to admit it.
Two weeks later, I drove down to work for a day as an extra on the ABC series, Nashville. It wasn’t necessarily a glamorous gig, but I ate lunch next to Charles Esten and saw Clare Bowen's tumbling, platinum extensions up close. Plus, sharing my experience with people back at home garnered those "good for you’s" and “that’s so neat’s” that I had shamelessly missed. It’s not like I deserved any acclaim. All I had done was sign up on a website that cast atmosphere actors. At best, I’d be a blonde blur behind Connie Britton, but I didn’t care. I was enjoying the experience and my hips and back were starting to feel better.
During one of those hurry-up-and-wait periods of filming, I noticed my phone light up with a text from my sister, Jessica.
Hey! Hope you’re having fun! Picking up Owen from preschool today, he asked, ‘Why you not bring Aunt Jenna for?’ I told him you were working on a TV show!
My heart leapt. I had gone with her a couple of times to pick him up when the school year began, but I didn’t realize it meant anything to him. Everything was suddenly as clear as Hayden Panettiere’s Neutrogena-scrubbed skin: I would have rather been talking to a two-year-old about what color slide he went down during playtime than be surrounded by these celebrities and TV cameras. No matter what I ended up accomplishing in this glimmering city, the cost of missing little moments like these would be too much.
I told my family the next day that I chose Indiana. Initially, it was my hips that brought me home, but it was my heart that kept me there.
I thought life was black and white, but oh, there is gray. Entire spectrums of it. One must make choices and prioritize. I used to think that if I were going to pursue music, it had to be in Nashville. If I stayed in Indiana, I’d be surrounded by beige staplers like Ron Livingston in Office Space, but music exists everywhere. Perhaps when I announced that I was leaving Nashville after only a few months, some were disappointed, but I’m the one living this life. I have to get up in the morning and know that I have either created my happiness or misery.
When my Disney friends assured me that I would accomplish “great things,” I had misunderstood. I thought they meant that I would win a CMA Song of the Year trophy and collect tales about singing on sprawling stages in sparkly dresses. After all, I’ve always reveled in the spotlight. I'd belt George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas” at family reunions, and I embraced the cheek pinches that followed. I’d twirl in the living room and sing to Natalie Cole’s rendition of “L-O-V-E” while my dad praised me. In Orlando, I knew the cheers I got at Cinderella Castle weren't for me, they were for her, but I still ate it up.
Lady Gaga may live for the applause, and I think I have my whole life, but I don’t want to anymore. Maybe taking the spotlight off of my own achievements will be my greatest achievement of all. I’m ready to shift the focus. I want to praise my nephews for taking their first steps, tying their shoes, and hitting a home run with a Wiffle ball, my sister and brother-in-law for raising two brilliant babies who use manners and exude love, my parents for mastering that whole sandwich generation thing with grace, and my boyfriend for battling cancer and now walking through life with chronic kidney disease without ever asking “Why me?”.
I’m thinking that in the end, our value will not be determined by how many we dazzle with our resume, world travels, or bank account. I bet no one has ever cried on her deathbed, “Show me that platinum record again!” or “Let me touch my costume one last time!” Life is surely not about what we’ve done; it’s about the person we’ve become, and I want to be a lover and a giver and a helper. I want to appreciate my past but embrace the future, because when the blue contacts come out, the false eyelashes peel off, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin, and the clock strikes midnight, the fairy tale doesn't have to be over.
Perhaps I’ll never blow kisses to a crowd of 70,000 again. Maybe I won’t live on a tour bus for a summer, hear a tune I wrote on the radio, or sing a duet with Keith Urban. Maybe I won’t impress others with my job title again, but I will be at my nephew’s first basketball game. I’ll sit with my Papaw on his front porch, listening to stories about young love with my Mamaw and raising four children. I’ll fangirl like crazy when my little sister tosses her crimson Indiana University cap into the Assembly Hall air. I’ll donate a kidney, or at least a pint of blood! I’ll stroll the Indy Canal Walk with the man I love, who told me I could live anywhere I wanted, and he would follow. I’ll laugh until my insides ache with my best friend over coffee while her daughter cooks us a breakfast made of plastic in the next room. And maybe that will be just as extraordinary. Maybe it will even be magical.
“Sometimes 'right back where you started from' is right where you belong.” -Unknown
"Create a life that feels good on the inside, not one that just looks good on the outside." -Unknown
"So often, we are missing what is truly important, because we're on the quest for what is extraordinary. An ordinary life does not equal a meaningless life." -Brene Brown