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Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Author:

pisa building 1

North State Voices: Travelling Through Italy and Crashing Cars
By Joanna O’Hanlon
Posted: 07/11/2013 12:03:05 AM PDT

We were sitting on a bench in a Swiss train station one evening, about to leave for what we would soon call “Kate and Jo’s Italy Adventure.”

Kate was my crazy college roommate. She had dyed, jet-black hair, and a weird sense of humor, and she was one of my first college friends I had made in San Diego.

We had been co-adventurers our whole friendship. We had already climbed many buildings, broken into many hotel hot tubs, swam in public fountains, had hours-long lunches in the cafeteria. We’d done the typical freshman experience of college together and we got along great. Then when I went abroad for a year, she ended up joining me my second semester. florence 1

The train was coming soon and we sat anxious for another grand adventure to begin.

And then she began talking about how grateful she was for our friendship. My heart echoed hers.

“I don’t know your philosophy on best friends, because I know you already have one,” she said as she broached the subject somewhat timidly — an unusual thing for Kate. “But if you think you can be best friends with more than one person, can we be best friends?”

That’s when I knew we already were. We had had a lot of fun up until that point, and a lot of hard and real conversations, but I can remember that evening in the train station, and I knew that was the moment Kate was committing to being my friend through it all. Since then, she truly has.

Last July, nearly three years after our train station talk, Kate and I were heading home from a friend’s wedding in San Diego together, prepared to drive through the night to get back in time for Kate to work the next day. We had only been on the road about two hours before we found ourselves entering an intersection at 50 mph at the same time as a truck entered it. We hit them at full speed.

There was the deafening roar of shattering glass and crumpling metal, and then a silence. As I came to, I remember turning to look at the passenger seat, terrified of what I would find there.

But I found a living, conscious Kate looking back at me with shocked and terrified eyes. That was before I yelled at her to get out of the car because the smoke filling it had me concerned we would blow up like in the movies. Maybe not my brightest moment.

On the ambulance ride, with us both being treated for injuries, as the shock started to wear off and the pain started to set in, I recall crying and simultaneously laughing. We were making fun of ourselves and the situation, and bonding even in the disaster of the moment.
kate and jo crash

And this year, when tragedy struck again in my own life, I called Kate. She sobbed with me over the phone. I called her the next day and said I needed her to come be with me. She arrived mere hours later. She didn’t have the right words. She was just there. And that is what I needed her to be — there.

There when it is fun. There when it is an adventure. There when it is painful yet funny. And there, in the pit of grief. In my most unlovable moments. My most unmemorable moments. My most brilliant moments. Kate has said, and has proven, that she’ll be there.

In life I have known some fair-weather friends. That’s just in our human nature to be there when things are good and to fade out when they’re not.

But then there are those friends like Kate, and others — who when everything blows up, when your life crumbles, when it feels like you’re Chicken Little and the sky is falling — show up and stay with you. And, like all-weather tents, you don’t know if they’ll really hold up until the storm comes.

These all-weather friends are not typical, but they are gifts. I am humbled that some have dared to weather the storm with me — again and again.

kate and jo 2

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears once a month at She can be reached at

Friday, June 14th, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: Tears sometimes can be tears of hope

By Joanna O’Hanlon
Posted:   06/13/2013 01:44:23 AM PDT

debris removal

Her name was Rosemary, but we called her Miss Rose.

We were sitting on what was left of her back porch, wearing Tyvek suits. We were marinating in the day’s spent energy from sweat-filled hours of shoveling thick silt and mud out of her hurricane-damaged home near New Orleans. And as we shoveled, we had been fishing through, searching for possessions and making three piles — “possibly salvageable,” “not salvageable but possibly sentimental” and “trash.”

Even the trash pile was full of possessions that once made up a life.

Miss Rose was one of the 275,000 people whose homes were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. When our church team came to participate in relief work seven months later, we all fell in love with the sweet, frail yet strong-hearted, 88-year-old widow.

Like ignorant tourists going into the Holy of Holies, we were unaware of the sacred space we were about to enter — unaware of how intimate a thing it is to gut out someone’s home with shovels and wheelbarrows.

“They wanted to do something kind for me,” Miss Rose began her story about the mud-caked play-jewelry in her hand, a gift from her children many years before. One of us had just pulled it from a block of mud. It was a broken, multi-colored pop-bead necklace.

“My children and I always went Christmas shopping on my birthday. But, you know, they were children, so they never got anything for my husband or I,” she said.

She continued, telling the story of how her boys had conspired to get her a gift and asked her if they could shop alone. They had come back, their faces proudly beaming, to present her with the very dime-store necklace she now held in her hand.

We also learned that one of those sons had since passed away. The love and the pain of remembering this moment all brimmed at the edges of her misty blue eyes as she clenched the muddy plastic.

We had almost just thrown it in the trash pile. I believe it did end up there, but before it did, it was a temporary portal for Miss Rose to recall the sweetness of her young sons one more time after decades of holding on to this priceless dime-store jewelry.

Through the sorting of her ruined possessions, Miss Rose shared her life with us.

One day in the week, upon arriving at the house, we had to wait for a dump truck that was slowly moving along the street, picking up the piles of debris that people had begun to place in front of the houses. Most of us were excited by this because we had needed our “trash” pile cleared for a few days and we’d been told it could take weeks to be cleared. We were stripping the house bare, and we needed room for the rest of the debris.

But one woman on our trip — a woman who has children and grandchildren of her own, and knows what it takes to build a life — did not participate in our excitement. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to see your whole life scooped into a dump truck,” she said softly. “I can’t imagine how painful …”

That was the dichotomy of our week with Miss Rose — it’s the dichotomy of all who have to grieve a loss and move on. There is such pain and sadness in remembering things past and having to let go. I can’t imagine seeing my life tossed mechanically into a dump truck. But to rebuild requires the removal of debris.

While I saw many tears fall from Miss Rose’s eyes throughout the week, at the end, when her house was completely gutted, with only bare studs and power-washed concrete flooring left, there were tears in her eyes as she smiled and hugged each of us. I believe some were tears of sadness, some of grace, and some, I am certain, were tears of hope.

For those in the areas that have been affected recently by tornadoes, this is my prayer. That their tears of loss will become intermingled with tears of hope for rebuilding.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on

Friday, May 31st, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: Israel sings the song of good news

By Joanna O’Hanlon
Posted: 05/16/2013 01:59:02 AM PDT


The streets seemed safe in Israel, even at night.

While we were there last month, my mother and I walked everywhere — even in the old city of Jerusalem — and while sometimes we got lost, both Palestinians and Jews were warm, friendly and helpful to us.

We drove through areas of Israel where the store fronts were written in alternating languages — one in Arabic, two in Hebrew, two more in Arabic, and so on. The interspersing of the people groups in some areas is undeniable.

From an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be peace in Israel. And by all means, it is safe.

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Sergio

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Sergio

Safety and peace, however, are not the only longings burning within the hearts of the Holy Land residents. It’s a land where compromise is the price of peace. All sides are still aware of the lack of their ideal.

Belonging to the land and in the land is the song of their souls.

The last century of the land’s history has been muddied by politics, peace treaties, declarations and statements — by the drawing and redrawing of boundaries, by the rebel attacks (from both sides), by the proposals of compromise which have been rejected, by the tearing down and building of walls, of communities and of nations.

What’s left is a comparatively new independent state called Israel which consists of a majority of Jews, some Palestinians and a few others. Within that independent state are territories governed by the Palestinian Authority — the land of which is still within Israel, but is settled and governed by a majority of Palestinians.

The Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority territories technically live in Israel, but their passports (and freedoms) belong not to a nation, but to a territory.

“Confused yet?” asked our tour guide, Bruce, a Jewish Boston native who immigrated to Israel 40 years ago. “Good. Then we’re all on the same page. Confused.”

Everyone knows this isn’t the final solution, but it’s the solution for today, and for tomorrow probably, too.

Aside from the people groups, there is the division of the religious groups, also. The old city in Jerusalem is divided into the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, The Armenian Quarter and the Christian Quarter. Even the holy sites of the Christian faith are divided among varying sects. This sort of shared custody of the holy sites is appropriately termed “Status Quo.”

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Sergio

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Sergio

But as I walked up a steep, cobblestone road in the Jewish Quarter, a young boy wearing his yarmulke and his side curls held the hand of his toddler-aged sister as they struggled up the slick hill through the rain. They were laughing, smiling and speaking softly to each other in Hebrew.

As I ate shawarma in the Muslim Quarter, the owner of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant talked excitedly about how he is moving to a bigger location soon because business has been good.

In Bethlehem, a Christian Palestinian merchant spoke about how he had been born a Christian, but had lived a horrible life. His eyes moistened with grace and hope as he spoke the words, “I am a Christian again now. Christ still takes me, even though I have been so bad a person.”

And women from our tour laughed loudly with that care-free American way that we sometimes have as we got on the bus one afternoon.

“It’s good to hear the laughs,” Bruce said from the front microphone on the bus. “After all, that’s what the gospel is all about. You know what the word gospel means? It means good news.”

Bruce mentioned that when he was younger, he wanted to start a newspaper that printed only good news. His friends talked him out of it, saying no one would read it.

But Bruce’s newspaper idea says something important about him and the rest of Israel — that in the midst of the uncertainty of life in the land, and the temporary solutions that lend peace for today, all the people in the land are thirsty for good news — both spiritually for eternity, and practically for today.

The song of good news may not be the loudest song burning in the hearts of all Israelis and Palestinians, but it may just be the one that gets them through today, and probably tomorrow, too.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on

photo 3 (1) crumpled prayers

Friday, May 31st, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: When I gave up, someone gave me help

By Joanna O’Hanlon
Posted: 04/18/2013 12:00:00 AM PDT



Throughout our church team’s 10-day journey in Haiti, this became Rodney’s catchphrase. We were traveling in an open-top cargo truck through rugged “roadways” on the Haitian island of La Gonave. The dirt trails were rough enough to give the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland a run for its money.

The way was lined with trees with thick, low-hanging boughs. We were sitting atop all of our cargo, putting us in the direct line of fire to be hit, or knocked right over, by these limbs. Rodney became a necessity for our team, as he perched himself up and loudly warned when branches were coming.

Many of us started the trip emotionally and physically drained. Because of an unexpected medical trauma of a dear friend, the week prior to our trip had been spent in uncertainty and prayer, not knowing if she would live.

Little sleep and emotional exhaustion had landed me a bad head and chest cold before we even left. Then we started our trip on a red-eye flight.

The entire journey was long and arduous. On the way there we were focused and excited for our upcoming interaction with the community. So when Rodney yelled “Branches!” it felt like an adventure.

Our journey on the way back was a different story for me, though. Because a rainstorm had rolled through the area and made the roads nearly impassable, we left with 20 minutes’ notice. We were told at 11:30 p.m. that the truck had arrived (hours later than expected) and that we needed to go then while the rain had stalled or we may not be able to leave for days.

After a week of stress, sickness, emotional turmoil and having worked from dawn until late every night doing physical labor, tears of exhaustion rolled down my cheek when the men yelled to us that we needed to pack up and go right away. I didn’t think I could make it.
We drove through the dark night in the same truck. The roads were slick with mud, which made for more jolting and sliding, sometimes nearing the steep edges of the hills.

The night was a blur of jostling, breaking down, falling down and then eventually, my energy evaporated, and I just gave up.

At that point, I was sitting atop an overturned five-gallon bucket, and leaning my weight against a stack of buckets next to me. I was in a constant daze-state, falling asleep in the 15 to 30 seconds between every bump.

Rodney, the only one with real energy left, was standing at my side, holding on to the exoskeleton-frame of the truck and looking forward into the dark, still yelling his warnings.

And then a thick, solid arm of a tree seemed to pick me specifically, and in my unaware daze, I felt a “crack!” across my head as I was knocked off the bucket.

I eventually climbed back up, hardly sure of what had happened. For the rest of the ride, though, I slowly realized that with every call of “Branches!” someone was throwing their body over mine, protecting me.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized it was Rodney who had shielded me. When I thanked him, he simply said he saw me get hit by that last branch and felt so bad that he just did what he had to after that.

I was the most exhausted and weak I’ve ever been, and he stepped in to protect me at his own expense.

I’ve had a few experiences like this — where I was too weak, too broken, too confused, too wounded, too tired to help myself — and someone like Rodney stepped in to help me when I was too weak to even know what I needed.

I am deeply touched by these people. Their short-term actions have left long-term gratefulness in my heart. They have inspired me and shown me that sometimes people aren’t able to ask for the help they need, and hope comes when we offer that help anyway.

I know it won’t always be comfortable, but then again, neither is getting hit by branches.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on

Friday, April 05th, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: Heads bleed a lot, and other sibling lessons

Chico Enterprise-Record

Posted: 03/21/2013 12:00:00 AM PDT

O'Hanlon Siblings

When I was a kid, whenever we drove together as a family, my brother and sister and I were all in the back seat, for better or worse.

I was the youngest, so I always had to sit in the middle — sometimes serving as a buffer between the siblings, sometimes serving as an instigator to all.

I came to love being close to my siblings, though. When we finally bought a van, I rode home in it in the far-back seat all by myself, and I didn’t like it because I felt so far from everyone.

As the youngest, I’ve never known life without siblings. Many of my personality traits seem to be directly linked to my place in our family. Because Julie (six years my senior) and Jason (three years my senior) were good older siblings, I came through life feeling loved and included — something I know not every child feels.

Once when we were home alone together, I recall discussing whether pepper really makes people sneeze like cartoons suggested. We decided to conduct an experiment to find out. Julie (a teenager at the time) and I emptied pepper from the shaker into our palms. Jason, though curious, decided that watching would be sufficient.

Julie and I tried to smell the pepper, but it’s more accurate to say we snorted it. It was a mistake. We screeched in pain and shock, pushing Jason out of the way so we could get to the kitchen sink, where we greedily took turns using the spray faucet to wash out our nostrils to try to stop the burning sensation. Jason was dying of laughter as he watched, and we screeched in pain and laughter, too.

I still sometimes do absurd things in the name of curiosity. Jason still watches and takes pictures claiming he “knows better.”

One evening when I was 2 years old, Jason was pulling Julie and me around in our little Red Flyer wagon, running as fast as he could. We were all giggling with little-kid glee, but upon rounding one of the corners of the “racetrack,” our speed was too great, the turn was too sharp, and Julie and I tumbled out of the wagon.

I fell right on my head, and blood started to leak out of my blonde hair, covering it, my clothes and everything in crimson.

It sufficiently terrified my poor dad, who carried me inside — his 2-year-old baby — bloody and crying. Luckily, the fall just cut my scalp, and no major damage was done. I remember it being painful, but I don’t recall the incident ever keeping me from wagons or any other playing adventure in the future.

That’s one thing I learned from (and with) my siblings: To play hard means sometimes getting hurt, and that’s OK. That, and heads bleed a lot.
I recall my brother sending me back inside when I was 2 to put shoes on before he would let me jump off the swings or jump out of the tree. The way my parents and siblings treated me made me feel protected, but never stifled from adventure.

I’m grateful to both my siblings for the ways our childhood adventures together shaped me into the woman I am now. They found roles for me to fill in their individual lives and hobbies, and they let me discover myself and rooted me on in my own life and ventures.

Julie passed away when I was 14, so I was only a kid while I knew her. She taught Jason and I many things, and her life continues to shape who I am, but I’m sorry she isn’t still living the sibling story with us.

Jason and I still carry on the sibling bond: supporting each other, bickering sometimes, having fun together, and just being together.

We know it’s good to be together. As Deborah Joy Corey writes in her novel, “Losing Eddie”: “We are not all of us, but we are what’s left.”

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on

Friday, April 05th, 2013 | Author:


photo from google images and AP photos

North State Voices: Reaching out to homeless softens hearts
Posted: 02/21/2013 12:16:43 AM PST

He observes my extended hand, waiting to be shaken, and he slowly extends his own. He has been on the streets a while. I can tell by his hands.

They’re calloused, dry. They’re painted by dirt that’s been baked into the pores, filling the cracks in his palms like mortar. They’re the rough hands of a farmer, a welder, or of a homeless man on the streets of San Francisco. If you washed them, they wouldn’t come clean.

This man tells me his name is Chador. We exchange a few more friendly comments, and then my friend and I bid him goodnight, and we walk to the car, on to the next part of our evening in the city.

I can’t help but feel that a holy moment has just taken place. It hovers like a mist among our heads, and as we walk down the street away from the man, it thins, and then wisps away. The moment has passed, and it’s another ordinary night.

As I was in San Francisco earlier this month, I was reminded that it was there that I first interacted with people on the street. I was almost 16, and I’d been to the city a couple of times — only spending time in the touristy areas by the bay. That time, though, I was a part of an inner-city cultural immersion team through a Christian organization called Center for Student Ministries.

We spent our time in soup kitchens, food banks and on the streets.

The experience taught me how to do more than offer food or a couple of bucks to those in need — it taught me how to relate to them, and in that, how to value them.

The first man I met in San Francisco that week told me his name was Turquoise. He had come to San Francisco several years prior on a business trip and he never left. He’d been living on the street since then. After being in the business world for over a decade, Turquoise burned out, and while life on the streets was uncertain and hard, he felt freer there.

His hands were the first street-hands that I noticed — worn hands belonging to a worn man. Since then, I always notice their hands.

I have learned some of the most real things I know about being human from people I’ve met on the streets.

They are people who know desperation and loss, who are clothed in regret, who know that life is too hard to take sometimes. People who are used to being ignored. People who rely on the scarce mercy of others to fill their stomachs or quench their alcoholic thirst. People who are prisoners to their addictions that numb the pain, to their avoidance of those they’ve hurt, to their wounds that disable them.

They are people who know what it is to band together, who know the grace to be found in leftovers or a $5 bill, who know that their previous choices weren’t worth whatever they were hoping to gain. People who know how to share, how to give, how to persevere. People who continue to hope in the face of despair.

They are people who know that when they have nothing else, their lives still tell a story for those that will listen.

The simplest and most important thing I’ve learned from these men and women, though, is that people matter.

Whether they’re homeless or homed, rude or polite, sane or insane — people matter. What I’ve come to see is that whether I can offer help or not, I can always stop, look them in the eye, shake their hand, tell my name and ask theirs. If they’re willing, I can hear a bit of their corner of the story of what it means to be human.

San Francisco’s people taught me that and I’ve taken it with me wherever I go. I’ve seen again and again that when my clean, unscathed hand reaches out and grasps the hand of someone “homeless” or “in need,” while our hands have as much contrast as our lives, there is a holy transaction that takes place when I, or anyone, stops to appreciate the value of another human being. I think these holy moments make me more human, too.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on

Friday, April 05th, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: When it comes, everything changes

By Joanna O’

Posted: 01/24/2013 12:03:31 AM PST

Sometimes it comes in a phone call. Sometimes it comes with a knock at the door. Sometimes a doctor delivers it. Sometimes it assaults us. But inevitably, in all of our lives, it comes.

The first time it really came to me in a big way, it came in a phone call.

“Hi Chris,” my mom said as she answered the call from my brother-in-law, excusing herself from the booth at the Carl’s Jr. I watched her through the window with advertisements obstructing my view, but I could see enough to see the color drain from her face and to know, this was it.

That was the first call that changed everything. From that point at about 1 p.m. Saturday until 8:07 the following morning, everything was a timeless blur — an unending car ride, pacing the halls of the hospital, friends and family coming in with hugs and good-intentioned yet false promises. And finally the beep beep beep of the heart monitor went flat, and my older sister was gone. Instead of her fiery, passionate self, a bloated, lifeless body remained.

And nothing’s ever been the same.

Pain, suffering, sickness, death, divorce, disaster. In novels, we call it conflict. In life, though, I don’t know what to call it, because it’s less a literary tactic and more a sinking feeling, a vomiting urge, an overwhelming thought that, “This changes everything.”

Some people are lucky enough to go through much of their adult lives without it ever coming. Others are so familiar with this “conflict” in their lives that they become experts at expecting the unexpected, always guarding themselves.

As I’ve lived in a few different places since graduating high school here in Oroville, and as I’ve met people from all over the world, from my very unscientific assessment, it seems as though Oroville has more than its fair share of conflict in the lives of its residents. I don’t know if it’s because of our socio-economic standing. Or because it’s a small enough town that we just happen to hear about everyone’s bad news. Or maybe it’s just an unexplainable phenomenon that hovers over our town like a dark cloud. But in any case, it seems like “It” is the one thing Orovillians know best.

I’ve been told that in some of the slums of India, babies aren’t given names until they’ve lived to be at least a year old, simply because the likelihood of infant death is so high and it’s emotionally easier to not get attached to an unnamed child.

After my sister’s death, it seemed like people I knew were dropping like flies. I seemed to adopt a similar mentality to those of the mothers in Indian slums — don’t let yourself get too close, and it won’t hurt as much when the bad news comes.

But that’s not true. It still comes, and it still hurts. It can still change everything. I think Oroville has come to learn this, too.

What I love about our town is that when it comes, even though it seems to come so often here, we are still a community. It just takes one look at Table Mountain and noticing that the Oroville “O” is a different letter to know that our town has lost someone new and that we grieve together. Like Italians hang their laundry out of their windows for all to see, we hang our pain on mountain sides, off overpasses, in roadside crosses and colored ribbons on trees.

We may be experts in receiving bad news that breaks us, but at least we’re broken together.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on