Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015 | Author:

One of my family’s favorite stories to tell at Christmas time is about my 3-year-old self’s guide to gift giving:

No Gift? No Worries! 3-year-old Jo’s guide to gift giving

  1. Who do you need to give the gift to? (Specifically, you need to know their name for this to work.)
  2. Go out into your back yard and search around. If you don’t have a back yard, go to a park with trees.
  3. Look for and find a good piece of bark. Now, this step is crucial. Your bark needs to be breakable into a smallish size (about the size of the really big iPhones). And it needs to be thick enough that you can carve into the face of it without it breaking apart.
  4. Hand the bark to your older siblings, tell them to carve your person’s name into the bark with their super cool swiss army pocket knives.
  5. Once they are finished, inspect their work.
  6. Wrap present.
  7. Sign it with you name and your siblings name.
  8. Be cute enough that you get most of the credit for the gift.
  9. Try not to suggest this gift giving method to the recipient of your gift before they’ve opened your gift. It may ruin their surprise.


I’m not sure how successful you’ll be with this method as grown adults, but it was very effective as a toddler. My mom still has her piece of bark that says “MOm” on it sitting on her dresser 23 Christmases later. So, obviously, it works sometimes.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015 | Author:

I remember being in college, and learning that one of my old junior high students from the youth group I helped with had had his mother die. On Christmas day. Their dad was already out of the picture and life was already hard.

For a story I wrote earlier this year (which will be published at a later date), I sat in an interview with a man who told me his mom and his dad sat them down to tell him and his brother that his mother was having an affair with their friend’s dad. It was Christmas day when they told the boys this. “We took the tree down after that,” he said. “Christmas was over.”

Just this past week, a guy I know from my hometown had his dad unexpectedly pass away. And the week before that a gal I went to school with had her little four-month-old baby die in his sleep.

But here comes Christmas and while no one means it in a confrontational way, the messages all around us tell us that everything is, or should be “merry and bright.”

Ideally, our families would all get along and our Christmas days would be Merry and Bright — our tree would shine with the hundreds of starry lights, and our front lawns would be covered in snow, and our bellies would be full from good food and would laugh heartily, merrily, if you will, from all the joy of the day and the good news that Jesus is born and Santa came.

But sometimes Christmas — like many other days that have no name aside from “monday” or “today” — is a hard day to get through. Sometimes the whole Holiday Season is hard to get through. When everyone is bustling around looking joyful in their instagram pictures and you are hurting and aching inside and you feel like you just want to hide under a rock until January when it’s finally acceptable to be “hard and dull” again.

Sometimes, our worlds are quite dark despite — sometimes because of — Christmas time.

But this is what I know. Christmas is a symbol of light in darkness. The bright does not have to be merry, it is simply hopeful. It doesn’t even mean that things are going to be fixed now, better now — it just means that there is hope of brighter days ahead.

Whether you are religious or not, or whether you believe in God or not — that’s what Christmas is meant to be — that’s what Christmas is to me — a hopeful light in the dark sky that says, “You are real, your hard-life crap is real, and while it’s maybe really dark right now, and it feels like you’re alone, that everyone has forgotten you, that you just cannot catch a break, there is hope. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day, or even the day after that, but this pain, this sadness, this aloneness gets better. There will be better days ahead. Please, know that you’re not alone. Please, know that there is hope.”

The story goes that 2,000-some-odd years ago, actually not in December, not with snow, or trees, or any brightness or merryness, a young girl completely shamed by a sex scandal, pregnant, married to a man who thought she was a liar for a time, and on the road for a last minute tax census started to go into labor. They couldn’t find a place to stay. They tried and tried, and could not catch a break. Until finally one generous (read: I think he was probably an asshole trying to do his minimum standard “good deed” for the year. Who doesn’t give up their bed to a pregnant lady in labor??) inn keeper says, “Alright fine. you can stay in the barn. Don’t mess with the animals.”

And she has a baby. Away from home. Young. Afraid (I’m certain, because who, when giving birth for the first time isn’t). Practically alone. Her mom isn’t there. The women of her village who she always had thought would be there when it came time weren’t there. And she probably had the sadness to realize that even if she was home they might not have been there, because, again, she was shamed by what everyone considered a sex scandal.

And yet there, there was this little baby. His formal name was Jesus. But they called him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

That’s what Christmas is about. If you believe the story, know that it’s about God being with us. If you don’t believe in God, know that it’s about the fact that still, you are not alone. That there is hope. Hope, even in the midst of dark, dark, nights where you can’t catch a freaking break.

For those whose Christmas times are feeling Merry and Bright — please try to reach out, spread that brightness to those in the dark nights.

For you for whom Christmas is a hard time, I believe that God is with you. My prayer is that you will feel that to be true, even when it feels hard and dull.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 08th, 2015 | Author:

My parents and brother just came out to Kansas for Thanksgiving and they drove the last of my earthly possessions here with them. Which means, I finally have all of my books with me again.

As I unpacked the 6 or 8 boxes of books and started to sort them into piles to put on the shelves, a definitive sense of comfort came over me.

My whole life I’ve loved books. I’ve always had more books than I have had toys or anything else.


I’m not a fast reader, or a voracious reader by any means. In my adult life, I have to be intentional to spend time reading books because, well, Netflix is easier. But I want to be a reader, I like being a reader, and most of all, what I love about having my books back with me is that I love to SHARE what I’m reading.

I’ve said that for a long time to those who’ve scoffed or smirked at my full arms at used book sales (or my many boxes while moving so many times — which by the way, I sadly now only have about 1/4 if that of the books that I once had do to purging for moves).

I like to own the physical copies of books so that I can tell someone about a book and then offer, “I own it — do you want to borrow it?”

My mom actually even brought a copy of the Kite Runner with her in her suitcase, “I found this and I know that you leant it to me at some point but I think this is your copy.”

“Oh, you can keep it!” I said. “I have another copy right now. I’ve given it away several times to people because it’s so good, so I just bought another copy, so you can keep that one.”

There’s something about sharing the story that makes it even better.

So, as I was looking through my books, I thought I would share some of my favorites with you in case you’re in the mood to read this holiday season and need some suggestions.



Crime and Punishment — I’ll preface it this way: Most Russian novels are long, sad, and have lots of characters so they can be hard to get into. BUT, this is one of my favorite classics. If you’re a sucker for redemption in non-fairy-tale ways, and you want to feel the hardness and sadness of the world along the way to that redemption, read this. Tell yourself at the start that you’re going to read the whole thing. I’ve only read two classics more than once, and this is one of them.

Pride and Prejudice  — If you want something much lighter than C&P, go for P&P. Men, this one is more of a woman’s pleasure (though if you like witty banter and well-told angsty love stories, please do read). “What are men to rocks and mountains?” Elizabeth Bennet asks. I ask that every time I climb a mountain. It’s a fun one, a great one. And it’s the other classic I’ve read more than once.

Brave New World — If you read 1984 and loved it, read this, it’s better. If you read 1984 and hated it, you might not love this, but again, this is better. If you read the Hunger Games or the Giver and loved it, go ahead and read a dystopian novel actually written for adults and see how much better they are. Still compelling. Still haunting. Still really, really good (and important). It’s a fast read.

Lord of the Flies — Another fast read, and largely a similar premise to the TV show LOST. What happens when a plane full of prep school aged boys crashes on a desert island? Find out. It really is thrilling.

The Old Man and the Sea — If you’ve never read any Hemingway but you want to, (and/or maybe you want to be able to say you have), this book is a great, super short intro to Hemingway. Also, if you love the sea (in a sailor kind of way, not a lay-on-the-beach sort of way), this is gonna be a good one, and much more palatable time-wise than the monster of a book, Moby Dick.

Farewell to Arms — If you’re ready for more Hemingway, I love this book. It’s centered on the story of an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during WWII and it’s painfully good.



Our Town by Thornton Wilder — You’ll be faced with the thoughts on what matters most in life and death, and what your town, your community means to you.

The Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller — Miller is definitely best known for 1) being married to Marilyn Monroe and 2) being the author of famed plays Death of a Salesman  and The Crucible. But this little known play I stumbled on in a used book sale, and it has haunted me ever since. It’s a short, simple read, that poses the question through the characters: If you could switch places with someone and spare their life by giving yours (in this case for a Jew in Nazi controlled France), would you?

Newer Books that will be Classics soon:

The Kite Runner — I’ve probably given away more copies of this book than any other. The story feels so real, so true, so compelling that I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was reading it. So many times I went to the author’s bio online to see if this stuff actually happened to him because it was so well written  and such a good, gripping, crazy story. Also, it really helps paint a picture of how Afghanistan changed hands to the Taliban and what that meant for the people on the ground there. Important read and really really good read.

The Things They Carried — This is my favorite book. Period. It’s set in the Vietnam war, told by a character that shares a name with an author, Tim O’Brien, who also served in Vietnam. But throughout the book, the narrator tells you “This is not a true story.” Just when you read something that is so crazy vivid, so specific that you swear this had to have happened for real, the narrator says, “I’m lying to you. This is not a true story.” Read it. It’ll drive you crazy and you’ll love it. It’s that good.

The Life of Pi — A kid and a tiger are on a life boat at sea trying to survive. It’s a story that touches on all the themes of humanity, including sanity. It’s really, really good and easy to get caught up in.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — A kid loses his dad in the 9/11 attacks. He then goes on a secret mission through the burroughs of New York trying to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that his father had. He meets the city through his quest, different people all affected in different ways by the attacks and by life, and also, they meet him. It’ll grip your interest and your heart.


Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris — Most of Sedaris’ work is nonfiction essays and they’re all amazing. So read anything by him, and it will all be funny. But this anthropomorphism book is not strictly nonfiction because he uses animals as the personas for his incredibly funny stories, but it’s amazing. And a fast read, too. I read it in two sittings at a Barnes and Noble, and then still bought it because I knew I’d want to re-read it again and again.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs — Jacobs, an agnostic Jew who lives in New York City and writes for Esquire magazine decided to follow the Bible’s laws for a year. All of them. Like even the ones about not sitting where a woman has sat when she’s had her period, or not wearing mixed fabric clothing. What ensues is really funny, really educational, and really eye-opening to christians and others alike.

Into the Wild — This book is the best book I’ve read in the past decade. And it’s the best non-fiction I’ve ever read. Period. John Krakauer delves into the story of a young man who set off into the alaskan wilderness on a quest to find himself and experience nature but who dies while he’s there. Like a detective working backward through the clues, Krakauer, a journalist for Outside magazine, tries to find out what happened and to make sense of it all — for the world, for the young man’s family, but most of all for himself. I saw more of myself in this book than I was comfortable with, and that is always compelling.

Fun Books/Thrilling Books/All Others

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown — I read this book while studying abroad, about to go to Rome (where it’s set) and you actually learn a LOT of true historical information while just reading this thrilling tale of murders, secret society conspiracy, and papal scandal. I read the last third of the book laying on my friend Sara’s bed while she studied and I was so distracting with my exclamations of “WHAT??!!” and “Noooo!” that she made me leave the room. It’s Dan Brown’s best, even still.

Gone Girl — You’ve heard the hype. It’s true. It’s so well written and I did NOT see some of the plot twists coming. I actually listened to this one on audiobook and the version that’s on audible.com is really, really well done.

The Time Traveler’s Wife — Men, disregard probably. Women, um, read this now if you love a good love story. I loved it. Loved  it.

Private by James Patterson — I also listened to this mystery novel on audible.com and would recommend it. Typical but well done murder mystery. Really enjoyable.

The girl with the dragon tattoo/who played with fire /who kicked the hornet’s nest: This trilogy is incredible. I will give you this disclaimer though, the author was Swedish and, like the Russian novels, it has a lot of characters and so it takes a while to pick up steam (and they’re long). I listened to the first one as an audio book on an 8.5-hour drive down to college after a break and the first few hours were slow. But by the time I got to school, I couldn’t stop. The next few days I was listening every single chance that I got until it was finished. The other two books went very similarly.

Happy reading! And if you have book suggestions for me, please fire away!!


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 01st, 2015 | Author:

“Name ten people you met this week,” he said to us. We were sitting in a dining room in South Africa. We’d just come back from a couple weeks in Malawi, Africa, and we were debriefing in Johannesburg before returning home.

They’d sent us — 5 teenagers from North America — to Malawi to meet people, to see projects that were happening, to see the ways people were living and to see how things like fish ponds and irrigation systems could change their lives. Sometimes save their lives.

Malawi was in a severe state of drought. And statistically those people in the fourth poorest country in the world (2007) would run out of food half way through the dry season. Let alone running out of water.

Dave, our leader, had told us again and again — “You are the eyes and ears of 10,000 youth. Take it all in. Don’t miss it.” We were to return to the states and speak to 10,000 of our peers at a conference, trying to relay the need that existed in the world and the ways we all could help.

He said it to me as I was about to leave alone to follow a woman named Monica down a dirt path to her village. What I saw and heard for the 10,000 was that Monica doesn’t have clean water. She has a mud puddle to provide for her family, which sometimes makes them sick, and which then dries up and leaves them with nothing. I saw the trees under which her children that have died from the water-born illnesses are buried. I saw a young boy being buried there presently as I walked by. The red dirt they dug up for his grave stained my shoes and my memory.

“Name 1o people you met,” he said. So we did. The five of us went around in a circle and named 10 people we’d met and connected with in Malawi. Names like Monica, Mwabi, Immaculate and Gloria.

I went last. And when I’d finished, with tears in his eyes, he spat, “pick one that dies.”

We looked at him with hatred and confusion.

“Pick one that dies. Every one of you. Pick one that dies.”


“Pick one that dies, because if they don’t get this help, the statistic is that one in ten won’t last this dry season. So one of your people will die. Remember that when you speak. This is not about people buying fish ponds and feeling nice. This is about people who will die if nothing changes.”

Those four words have always haunted me. Pick. one. that. dies.

It’s easy, when things are out of our face, out of our minds, out of our lives to ignore the need in the world. But when I look into their faces. When I know their names. That changes everything.

One of the men whose name I listed in that room actually did die. He died two days before I said his name. I didn’t find out for a couple of months. He had AIDS — we’d met him at an AIDS support group and he’d taught us a song about God’s goodness. It was enough to make me want to believe in God’s goodness in the face of sadness, too.

Today is giving Tuesday. If you want to give, if you want to help be the change in the world, here are some ideas how to do it.



  • Charity Water — This one is awesome. Clean water is probably the thing that is nearest and dearest to my heart. AND, I found this guy in san diego that you can follow on instagram (@thepancakedad) who is raising money for charity water. If you donate through his link HERE, 100% goes to Charity water, PLUS he’ll make you whatever customized pancake art you want (you only get a picture though, the actual pancakes go to feed his own children). It’s pretty awesome and fun.
  • World Vision has a sponsor who is matching any donations made today. You can donate a general gift that they will use where it’s most needed. You can Sponsor a child. You can help the refugee funds. Or you can purchase something from their gift catalog — as big as a well or a fish pond, or as small as a chicken. All these gifts help people in communities like the ones I’ve been to in Malawi. Donate HERE
  • World Relief — $40 provides winter wear for refugees entering the United States. “Many refugees come to the U.S. from countries with hot climates. Prepare a refugee for their first cold winter with warm coats, gloves and scarves. In light of #GivingTuesday our goal is to provide 250+ refugees with warm winter gear. Your help in giving warmth to the most vulnerable is appreciated.” DONATE HERE
  • Salvation Army — at this time of year most of your local salvation army locations do a coat drive. Donate new or gently used coats to your local store.
  • Donate/Help/Love on people around who have recently lost loved ones. The first holidays after someone passes away are incredibly tough anyway — especially if they’ve passed during this season. If you don’t know of anyone to help in this category but feel that tug on your heart, a girl that I went to middle school and high school just lost her couple month old baby who passed away in his sleep earlier this week. You can donate to her gofundme account for their funeral expenses here.


  • Hand out socks and blankets to those you see who have to sleep on the streets. This is a cold time of year and socks are some of the least donated, yet most needed items while on the streets. Other items that homeless individuals have told me they often need and don’t get — clean underwear, a towel, something healthy to eat that lasts (like a protein bar), and feminine hygiene supplies like pads and tampons.
  • Invite a struggling family (struggling with life, finances, grief, whatever) to join your family for different events and activities throughout the season. Inviting people in is a huge gift this time of year.
  • Look into your town’s local services for the homeless and what volunteer opportunities they have during this season (and beyond). Maybe you can be a greeter as people come in for a meal. Or maybe you can be the one who chops all the onions for the soup beforehand. There are lots of options with varying degrees of personal interaction so you can still be helpful without being too far out of your comfort zone if you’re wary.
  • Go buy a coffee for someone whose super busy this time of year. Seriously. Get them their cup of coffee of choice and bring it to them midday. The caffeine and your kind generosity are sure to be a help.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Category: Advent  | Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 24th, 2015 | Author:

If you told me 12 years ago that my world would change forever in a few months, I either wouldn’t have believed you, or I wouldn’t have been thankful at Thanksgiving. Not really.

I probably would’ve said that I’d be grateful — good, strong church kid that I was. But I wouldn’t have been. I’d have tallied it up with my chronic illness in the category of “things in which I just can’t get a break.” There would’ve been nothing sincere left in the “Thankful for” column as I was already an angsty teen.

I was 14 and I was thankful. Until my sister died. Then I was mad at the world and wore a fake smile.

Through many years, though, we rebuilt a “new normal.” I found people inside my family and out that felt like home. We created a good life together. A great life together.

In time, I was thankful again. So thankful. Abundantly thankful. My line was, “There’s not anywhere else in the world I’d rather me, nor anything else I’d rather be doing, than being here now, doing what I do.” And I meant it. I meant it down all the way through the drain pipes of my soul.

Three years ago you could not have wrung more thankfulness from my heart on Thanksgiving than I freely gave.

I had pre-thanksgiving thanksgiving (my brother’s term — friendsgiving to the rest of the world) the week before with some of my dearest, life-long friends. On the day of, I woke up, played football with many people that I loved and did life with everyday, while others in that same vein watched us play, then I spent the mealtime with my family. We watched all of the Thanksgiving episodes of friends and went to a movie — new traditions since Julie died. I remember thinking I could die then and still be happy. I was so thankful for my life. it was beautiful in so many ways.

If you had told me then that 40 days later I’d be alone, broken, with an inability for thankfulness again, I’d have believed you — but I probably would’ve hit you, too. Because I knew life was so beautiful, but so fragile, that I wouldn’t have wanted to know ahead.

But you’d have been right. 40 days later, I’d be holed up in my apartment, alone, broken, not just ungrateful, but stunned altogether. Once the dry heaves and violent sobs subsided, I was a zombie of grief and brokenness for a while. Then, after a few months, like the 14 year old me, I learned how to pretend to smile sometimes.

It would be four months before I smiled again for real. It would be a year and a half before I felt hope again. It would be two years until I felt free again. And it would be this past summer that I felt at home again.

But I do. I feel at home. I drive down the road and like a woman in the first stages of love, I see life in a rose-colored hue. The trees on the side of the road shine. The grass in the Kansan fields seems majestic. The cashier at the grocery store’s friendliness is energizing. The river water soothes my mind as I walk along its same course.

I have retained friends that I was sure I’d lose along the way, but they stayed. They came back. And they say things like “hey, just so you know, even if you f*** up big time and it’s completely your fault somewhere in life, I’m still here. I’m with you.” I have people that are my people that live scattered around the country and around the world and I know that they love me.

I am in love with life, and the people in it, and every day I’m in awe because of something.

I’m in a new town where I still don’t know a lot of people. I create marketing plans and serve sushi for a living, and I spend most nights watching Netflix with my dog, but even still, I’m in love with life again. I feel alive and free and at home again.

And once again, this is the most thankful I have ever been. I am thankful for new normals. For old and new friends. And especially thankful for new homes (*cough* Wichita *cough*).

When it comes down to it, this is what I’ve learned about life — Joy is a choice. You have to choose it. And keep choosing it. And thankfulness comes with it. Or visa versa, not really sure, I haven’t achieved yoda-level yet. I’m still learning.

Happy Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for it all. I’m thankful for you all.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015 | Author:

He was the first one to buy my work.

Two years ago, I started to make art pieces. It happen kind of overnight. I got the idea for one piece — an Audrey Hepburn portrait on book pages — made it, and then I just kept creating. Two weeks later I’d already made 10 fine art pieces, and then one saturday morning, when I was thinking about Saturday morning cartoons, I decided to replicate a Calvin and Hobbes sketch I’d seen recently.

It says “True friends are hard to come by,” and after I posted a picture of it on instagram, two of my close friends asked me to make them copies as well. And then this guy that I didn’t know, Kevin, messaged me. He’d seen the instagram post because of the #CalvinAndHobbes hash tag I’d used. He wanted me to make him a copy of the art piece as well.

More accurately — he wanted to buy a copy. This was the first time I ever realized that maybe my art was good enough that people might want to buy it. Maybe I was an artist.

I made the piece for him and it was my first art sale. He posted a picture of it on instagram when it arrived, and tagged me in it. I was officially an artist, and he was so excited to get the piece to decorate his home. “Thanks,” he wrote, “and congrats on being a great artist.” I have been selling my art ever since this encouraging interaction. Kevin helped me see myself as an artist and embrace it.

Two years went by, and one day recently, I got an email from a woman out of the blue.

“You are the one who made the attached drawing for my brother, Kevin (I’m assuming since he tagged you in it). I’m not sure if you knew him as a friend, too. If you did, then you probably already know that he passed away in February 2014.

Your photo was one of his last posts, he was really excited to get it.

He died a couple weeks after he received the artwork. He was 30.

This news hit me like a slap in the face. I had referred to Kevin as “some guy in Boston” semi-frequently when people ask me about my art work. I tell them that he sought me out and that that sale helped me realize that I really could do the artist thing. He was a significant part of my story without fully knowing it, and because of the time of his death, I was a part of his story, too.

It is a reminder to me that you never know how your interactions with someone could be parts of their story, and could even be some of the last interactions that they have.

Thank you, Kevin, for being a part of mine. Rest in Peace.



Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Category: Memoir & Essays  | One Comment
Tuesday, November 10th, 2015 | Author:

When I was born, I was in a hurry. As my mom’s third child, she’d gone through the ordeal before. She’s one of those women that actually loved being pregnant. She felt beautiful and vibrant. She worked out and was healthy. It was a good deal for her.

But only 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital, they told her it was time to push. “What? I just got here!” was her thought. (That’s what she says when she retells the story, at least.)

They had her in the delivery room when her water broke (or maybe they broke it… I technically wasn’t there yet to know for sure). But what they saw was dark, cloudy water — the technical term is “Meconium in the fluid”, the reality is that baby me shat myself before I was born.

And while there are jokes to be made about that now, it’s actually a fairly common, but potentially dangerous predicament. When this happens, if a newborn breathes it in, and gets it into his or her lungs, it can block their airways.

I don’t know how many doctors and nurses were already in the room at this point, but when they discovered this, they started to call out the door to other doctors and nurses around. Apparently, at that point in the wee hours of the morning, there wasn’t much going on on the floor, aside from the woman delivering super fast, and her baby with bathroom problems.

When she delivered me, my mom says she looked up and there were doctors and nurses lining the walls, looking on. She said she felt like that phrase in Hebrews 12:1 about being “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” had been brought to life in the delivery room. That’s how I was brought into this world.

I suppose I’ve been in front of an audience for most of the rest of it, too.

Excelling in school always made me known to the teachers, and parents of other kids who excelled. They let me stand at a podium and address the sizable crowd at the stadium when I graduated high school.

A month later, I stood in a conference center, and shortly addressed 10,000 teenagers to talk about my recent trip to Malawi, Africa.

In college I felt like I blended in a lot more than ever before in life, only making it onto a public stage a couple of brief times to address a crowd.

But that’s just it. I feel like in every instance since being born, I’ve been in front of crowds. Not witnesses.

Witnesses witness something real — the good and the bad. They’re not a captive audience, they’re choosing to be onlookers. They’re seeing the realness of everyday life happen, not contrived speeches or scripted talks. Not awards ceremonies or graduations. They’re not seeing public-presentation you, they’re seeing you.

When it was announced in front of my home church that I’d been involved in “an inappropriate relationship” with a pastor for many years, since my teens, it was the first time since being born where I wasn’t in front of the crowd. I sat among them as an apology statement was read. And I sat among them in the coming months as I wept through every church service I attended in that building.

I was among a few of them as they welcomed me into their life group. It was a group made up mostly of couples in their 50s and 60s, and they told me they wanted me there.

I was among them as a few invited me over to dinner. To lunch. To decorate cookies with their children.

I was with one, my therapist, as I sat in her office each week, struggling, defensive, broken, reeling, seeking, questioning, accepting.

I was with some in cafes. I was with some in their homes abroad as they welcomed me in after years apart.

And because of the internet, as I’ve started to write again, as I’ve started to present myself publicly again, I again have people who are not just in close proximity of everyday life who are looking on. But this time, I am trying (and I think — hopefully — succeeding) to do it different. I’m trying to give the public venues (my blog) my real, raw self. I’m trying to invite people to be onlookers, not an audience. To be friends, not a readership.

And what I’ve found is an incredible result. I feel like, in the ways I push myself to write what’s raw and in-process and unresolved in me and my journey, that I have again found myself with a great cloud of witnesses.

People who are there on the sidelines of my journey watching, rooting me on. I am not on big stages talking to lots of people about grand things I’m doing in the world. I’m alone, at home, pouring myself out in words about the ways I struggle or the things I’m discovering. And I feel more loved and supported in this chapter of life than I ever have before.

Because I have this great cloud of witnesses, I press on, toward the goal of living the best life possible, being the best me I can be in and to the world. And I believe that that’s what I’ve been called to. It’s not easy. It feels like (and certainly is) a never-ending journey.

But you, my people who love and support me, who tell me you want to see me happy and successful, you who are glad for me as I struggle and do find my way — I am so, so thankful for you. You help me know that I am not alone as I journey on, even if the journey is a solo venture sometimes.

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 03rd, 2015 | Author:

There are cute signs at Target, World Market, even Ikea that say things like “What I like best about my home is who I share it with,” or “Home is wherever I’m with you.”

But I live alone. It’s recent this time. I’ve had roommates for the past year and a half or so now, but before that I lived alone for about 3 years.

When I graduated college, I moved back to my hometown and as an exchange for working for the church for free, they provided me with a free apartment. I wanted a roommate at first. I tried to convince a couple different friends to move in with me, but it wasn’t the right timing or situation, so I ended up living alone.

I’d come home every evening and look through all of my closets and rooms, making sure no intruder was waiting until the doors were locked to come out and reenact every horror movie nightmare I’ve ever had.

I didn’t spend a lot of time there alone at first. If my friends were over, I’d happily hang out there, but it took me several months before I actually started to spend days off or free nights willingly alone in my apartment. By then, I started to embrace the world of living alone. After all, I had traveled alone. I had adventured alone. Why couldn’t I also live alone? I stopped the lazy search for a roommate and accepted my aloneness. And I liked it.

I really liked it. I got to decorate how I wanted. I got to have people over as I wanted. I got to say to friends who wanted to come visit for a week, “Yes! No problem!”.  And, the most surprising thing to me — I actually liked being alone there.

I liked it, that is, until the darkness came.

In the wake of my old life breaking, the immense grief of losing so many people, so many comforts of the life I knew, I felt the most alone I ever had. My “living alone” stopped referring only to my housing situation and was truly indicative of my life situation.

Some people saw me in the first months of my broken, ragged “new life” beginnings and they asked me, “What have you been doing with your time?”

“I don’t know,” I’d reply honestly. “I sit alone at home. Or I sit alone at the river. Or I run alone at the lake. Um, yeah. I don’t know. I guess just that.”

Though I grew, and healed, and life gradually picked up a more normal pace, I continued to live alone. I continued to feel alone. But in the feeling alone in the darkness, I was left with myself.

I used to say I thought everyone should live alone for a time. Which, if they have the opportunity, I still stand by. Kind of like Julie Roberts in Runaway Bride when she has to figure out how she likes her eggs, living alone affords you the opportunity to figure out how you really like to do things. Which is great. It’s great to be forced to get to know yourself like that.

But, while it was so hard, and so dark, I’m realizing now what an ugly, beneficial thing it was for me to live alone during the hardest season of my life.

When I lived alone before, I learned that I liked having a clutter free living area, but I didn’t mind if my bedroom was a little messy. I learned that I liked having the sink empty. I learned that I was pretty fearful of being alone at first. I learned that I liked entertaining. I learned that I liked cooking for myself.

But in the dark season of aloneness, I learned that hope is not something I have the ability to decide to have — that sometimes you have to wait for it to appear. I learned that my grief reflex is extreme nausea. I learned that I really, deeply care for people — especially when I’ve hurt them — even if they’ve tried to hurt me. I learned that if I don’t manage my time I stay up too late and wake up too late when my heart and my world are hurting. I learned to look into the ugly pieces of my heart and not look away. I learned how to dig into myself to look at what’s honestly there. And I learned to accept the things that are there that I cannot change.

In the happy, good season of living alone, I learned how to live by myself.

In the dark, broken season of living alone, I learned how to live with myself.

I went on to have roommates again in California, Colorado, and Kansas. Roommates that I enjoyed and loved living with. I came to life again during those seasons of roommates. Because I really do love living with other people.

But now, in my new house, at least for the time being, I live alone again. And it’s ok. Because whether I live alone or with people, I am at home with myself. That’s the gift that living alone gave me, and it carries through.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015 | Author:

People playing the race card is like me playing the grief card.

For a full year after my sister died, I played what I would term the “grief card.”  Like the “get you out of jail free” card in Monopoly, the grief card will also get you out of things for free.

And some of them are undeniably completely legitimate. Like, when my friend’s mom was driving us to the hospital at 80 mph in a 65 zone so that we could get there before she died — we got pulled over. After some (intense) communicating with the Highway Patrol officer the situation we were in, he let us go. My friend’s mom continued to speed us the rest of the way. We got out of it because the emergency-about-to-become-grief card.

She died on a Sunday, and on Monday, my brother and I didn’t go to school. Our family friends took he and I and their kids on a long, all-day hike instead. “They don’t need to be in school today,” our family friends had told our parents. They were right, we didn’t need to be in school. Our sister had just died. We needed to be with people who loved us and loved her, out in the quietness of nature to process and breathe and get a second away from heart-crushing grief.

That’s what the grief card is for. To get you out of the current circumstances and to get you away, even just slightly, even just for a moment, from heart-crushing grief.

Every year on the anniversary of her death, a friend of mine and I would ditch school (with our parents full knowledge and consent) to do whatever we wanted. Go to the movies. Go on a hike. Get our nails done. Whatever we wanted. Some people start to say this is an abuse of the grief card. I don’t.

But soon into the first year after her death, I realized I could abuse the grief card. I learned which teachers I could go up to and say the magic words: “I just can’t do this today. I’m dealing with too much,” and they’d say “ok,” mark me as having been in class that day, and then let me walk out the door, no questions asked.

Similarly, the school security guard, when he’d find my childhood best friend and I in the back of who knows whose pickup truck in the school parking lot, blatantly ditching, he’d see it was me, and I wouldn’t even have to play my card — he’d play it for me. “How are you girls doing today?” he’d ask.

“Well, you know, not great,” we’d say. And then he’d nod, and say, “Be safe.”

And then he’d continue on his rounds.

I saw quickly that I could get away with anything. At the time I felt like I was taking advantage of the grief system. Like I knew I shouldn’t be preying on people’s sympathies to get what I wanted. But my words were always true: “My sister died.”

As I look back it’s clear to me that this rebellion. This “I can get away with anything” endeavor was clearly an acting out on the pain of my grief. I’d never been one to “take advantage” of situations like that before. But in my grief, in my pain, in my floundering, it was a diversion that let me take a brief break from the heart-crushing truth of the grief card: I was in a sea of loss, and I was drowning in my pain.

Later, as I dealt with my grief in healthy ways and started to push into it, and through it — as I began to heal and emerge not from grief, but with it as an accepted part of my life, I hurt less. I played the grief card less.

But the fact remains. My sister died. And sometimes that still brings great pain to the surface. Sometimes, I still play the grief card. Because the reality is, it’s a card I never wanted to be dealt, it’s a card I wish I never had the opportunity to use. But I do. And instead of monopoly, this is my real life.

I had this realization this week when I read an article about racist things people say on facebook without meaning to be racist. One of them was a critique of people who “always play the race card.”

When life hands you a card that is so hard to hold, it seems like at least a silver lining to get something out of it.

But taking advantage of that card doesn’t lessen the fact that you have been dealt it. Using it and abusing it is actually a sign of you acting out because you were dealt it in the first place. I really believe this.

What is different though is that nobody wants to be handed the grief card.

But being of a non-caucasian race should NOT be a bad card to be dealt.

All peoples and colors should be celebrated and valued.

Unfortunately, because of history and because of present culture and prejudices, the race card, like the grief card, is still too hard to bare sometimes.

And that is a damn shame. People should never have to lament the color they were born. Or the gender they were born. Or the sexual orientation they were born with.

But because our world and country are the way they are, those cards are often still very, very, hard to bare when they are dealt. And if those people play those cards, let it be a sign that our world has still made it a hard card to play.

If you feel like their abusing “the race card” or any other card, you probably don’t get it yet. And when we don’t understand, it’s best to seek understanding, and/or keep your mouth shut.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015 | Author:

“You never know, with where I’m from,” I said jokingly about some snarky comment he had made.

“You talk so much crap about your town,” he said, shaking his head.

I stopped, seriously taken aback.

“But you know that I really love that town, right?” I asked, feeling my throat tighten.

“I don’t know, no?” he said.

“Well I do. I love, love, love that town. It’s really broken. There’s a lot of problems. But I think it’s beautiful. And I love it. It’s painful for me to be there because of all the shitty stuff that happened, but if it still felt like home, I’d be there.” I looked him in the eyes. “I love that town.”

But more importantly, I love the people I know there and the way they do life.


“I’m with Jo, can she come over for dinner too?” she asks into her phone to her mom. Her mom says something. “Jo. Joanna. Yeah she’s home for the wedding.”

She ends the call and scoots back on the couch. “Yesss. Taco salad. Let’s finish this episode and then go over there.”

By the time we walk into her parents house an hour later another friend has joined us and hopped on the dinner train, and I go to hug her mom. “I didn’t know you were coming back for the wedding!” she says.

As we’re finishing dinner, her dad gets home from work and rounds the corner.

“Joanna! Hey!” he says as he sees me and I get up to hug him. “So how’s life in Kansas?” he asks, and the girls continue to talk about whatever we were talking about before.

We hang around the table a while after, all talking together casually. It’s natural, comfortable.

Finally as she and our other friend have gone off on a tangent talking about their plans to live together soon and who has what, I say, “Can we continue talking about this on our way to their house?”


We go to another house. Where more people we know and love live.

I’d found out in passing earlier that day that a long time member of the church there and part of our constant lives had passed away earlier this month. His funeral had been that day. And while he was in his 90s, I cried at the news of his death.

“Did you hear yet how he died, though?” He asks.

“No,” I say.

“He was in the half way house,” he says.

I interrupt. “The halfway house eh? Like, because he just got released from jail?”

He laughs while he gives me a look. “No, whatever it’s called. Hospice? A hospice house? Anyway, he was there, and the nurses didn’t know what kind of music he liked, but they looked up the lyrics to The Old Rugged Cross, but they didn’t know the tune. So that’s how he died,” he laughs and gives me a comforting smile as I have a tear welling in my right eye, “to them singing The Old Rugged Cross to some weird tune.”

Someone starts singing it to a hip hop rhythm. I laugh, comforted.

Later as we’re talking, I remember that I wanted to go lay on their new bed to see if I like the mattress because I know I need to buy one soon.

“I’m gonna go lay on your bed to try it out,” I say.

“Ohhh, yeah I wanna try it too,” one of my friends says, and we go into their bedroom as they continue to talk and eat cheesecake off the serving platter in the living room. We come back in a few minutes and finish the rest of the dessert as we talk about what we all might wear to the upcoming wedding.

Finally, when it’s late, we leave.


“I’m glad you’re not leaving for Asia,” I tell her, after talking again about her decision to stay. “I mean, selfishly, because I’m mostly really glad that you’re here for this weekend and that you’ll be here for Christmas eve. Because that’s the only time I’ll be here. But I’m really really glad you’ll be here for Christmas eve.”

“I was telling [my boyfriend] about Christmas eve and how we always have the party,” she says, “and he thinks it’s so weird. In a good way, weird. He thinks we have a perfect family.”

“What, just because all of our families get together and drink cider and eat cookies and sit around in the living room while your grandma plays piano and we all sing christmas carols together through the night?” I ask, mocking a little.

Because it’s true. That’s what we do on Christmas eve. We go to her house, 10 or so families’ worth, and those of us that have gone off to live elsewhere in the country or the world are back there for the holiday, and back in that house for the night. We catch up with each other, talking and laughing. We literally eat, drink, and are merry.

“Yeah,” she says, smirking, “he can’t believe we do that every year.”

“What I like about our community,” I say, “is that we do that. Yeah. But we do that, plus we still are there through when your mom has cancer. Or when D’s son dies. Or when my life explodes. Or when whatever happens happens. And then we can still all get together on Christmas eve, or whatever the celebration is, and be together.”

“Yeah,” she says. “That’s true.”

And then someone talks into the microphone announcing that it’s time for the bride and groom to cut the cake or something like that, and we get up and go on with the wedding evening, laughing, taking pictures, eating, like family and friends do.


That’s what I love most about the town that I grew up in. We walk in without knocking. We talk candidly and too openly about everything. We sit near each other, even when there’s space. We know each other. We love each other. And we honestly do sit around and sing christmas carols together while my friend’s grandma plays the piano each time a new one is requested.

No matter where I go in the world, no matter how much the circumstances of my life and past make it painful to go back there, there are people in that beautiful town that make me feel known, accepted, and above all, loved. And for that I will always love that town.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com