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Jen's World: The best part of writing is meeting you

626. It's the number — 626 — of weekly Jen's World stories I've written since I started this column in January 2006.

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626.

It's the number of times I've promised to start exercising more. It's how many Legos I could still find hiding in the nooks and crannies of my house if I looked hard enough. And it's the number — 626 — of weekly Jen's World stories I've written since I started this column in January 2006.

Each year, on my column anniversary, I look back on the year's work to assess what I've written and look ahead to the future. This year, as I close up 12 years and embark on 13, I'm counting my blessings.

Jen's World has given me a tremendous excuse to live my life out loud — to try new things and really watch the world around me — in order to write about them. It's landed me invitations to speak at community functions. It's even won awards.

But, this year and every year, the absolute best part of writing this column has been sitting across the kitchen table talking with you.

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When I teach writing classes, I tell my students that we're all telling the same stories. They're the stories of being human — about love and laughter and fear and pain, of joy and heartbreak, of excitement and ache. It's the specifics of those stories, the details of our lives, that make our stories ours.

Each week over the past 12 years, you have let me share the details of my stories, of my children's stories, of our community's stories — and, each week, you respond by sharing yours. You share them in grocery stores and in coffee shops. You share them in post offices and in writing classes. You share them, each week, in the letters and emails you send.

You tell me about your grandmother or your grandson. You tell me about the books you've read and the people who inspire you and how you found the spark inside you to do that thing you never thought you'd do.

Your stories encourage me to share more of mine. This year alone, we've talked, through Jen's World, about '80s parties, wedding dress shopping, and saving a baby bird in a nest made out of a bucket. We've dished about bad college apartments, impromptu Kansas City road trips that fulfill lifelong concert dreams, and facial masques gone terribly, terribly awry.

I admitted to getting lost on a walking tour of Washington, D.C., in skinny jeans, buying a Precious Moments doll with my first-ever paycheck, and pregnancy hemorrhoids.

I told you about that time I was certain I'd stumbled into the zombie apocalypse at the MSP airport ("I went down an entire set of stairs, across a wide hallway, on a long, moving sidewalk, and down a long corridor to the gate … without seeing or hearing another single living being").

I came clean about my candy addiction ("For the entire remainder of the meeting … all I was thinking was: I want to open my chocolate bar but no one else is opening their chocolate bar. I want to open my chocolate bar but…").

I shared what I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self ("Spend every second you can with your grandparents. Look them in the eyes. Hold their hands. Listen to every word they have to say. And then write it down.")

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And that was just this year. Over the last dozen years, we've talked about the extraordinary ordinary people in our midst. About Orlando Berrio and David Fellows and Bonnie Hedrick. About all the people YOU'VE nominated for Chester Awards, the annual award you and I give to the everyday people who make a difference in our lives — neighbors and co-workers and that friendly clerk at the Kwik Trip who never forgets a name.

You sent sympathy cards when my grandmother passed away. You encouraged me every time I tried something new. You told me when I was off base or making assumptions. And you told me, in no uncertain terms, when you didn't like one of my photos.

You were there when I sat in that dressing room at The Gap with my almost-first-grader, begging him to JUST TRY ON THE PANTS ALREADY for the first day of school. And you were there when I took that first-grader on college visits last fall.

You've been my parenting sounding board and advice machine during the entirety of my kids growing-up years. And what ridiculous fortune that has been.

These 12 years have meant so much to me because of YOU.

Thank you for allowing me to share my stories, and the stories of our community and our neighbors.

My gratitude for this work has never once faltered in 12 years.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you."

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