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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, 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

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 | Author:


He must’ve been about 6 years old. His head full of blondish brown curls. He was tall, lanky, apparently even the “slim fit” pants would fall down because of his narrow width.

I was a toddler, about three years old, with baby-fat chubby cheeks, big blue eyes, and blond hair bleached blonder by hours spent outside in the sun. I wore solid colored shorts with elastic bands (as is common for toddlers), and I’d always pull them down to the lowest point possible on my hips. (I don’t know if you knew this, but I liked hip huggers before they were cool. I was pretty hipster.) And I was a hard-core 3-year-old subscriber to the idea that barefoot is best.

Usually though, when I was doing things like riding a bike (with training wheels, because hey, I was a toddler and this is a true story) or a scooter, or rough and tumble things like that, I was required to wear my shoes.

One of our biggest activities as siblings was to climb this big mulberry tree we had in our back yard. We also loved to jump out of the tree. I was allowed to climb the tree barefooted, which really helped feed my desire to become Pocahontas when I grew up, but I was not allowed to jump out of the tree barefooted at this age.

And the same was true for the swings.

My brother Jason and I had this game where we would swing, and instead of just jumping off the swings like children of average talent, we came up with a more elite, challenging twist: One of us would jump off the swing and just as they jumped, the other would yell something that the jumper had to act out before landing.

Example: Jason jumps. I yell, “The Sun!” Jason puts his hands up to his face jazz hand style to display the sun mid-jump, then he lands. Somehow many of the shapes/things we acted out involved a very similar display of flaying arms and legs out to our sides and/or jazz hands. OK, maybe we weren’t above average ability like we thought, but our denial was strong.

One day Jason and I were out swinging barefooted in the afternoon sun, and I suddenly jumped off the swing. “Joanna!” he yelled. Which was weird, because I didn’t have to change my shape at all because I already was a Joanna before I landed.

“What?” I asked once I landed my jump with olympic precision. “Why’d you just say my name?”

“You know you’re not supposed to jump off the swings or out of the trees without shoes on,” he said.

“But I hate shoes.”

“We can play the game, but you have to go inside and put shoes on first.”

“Fine,” I said.

So I went inside and put on my saltwater sandals, knowing that option wasn’t up to par, but thinking I’d try it anyway.

I went back out and said, “Ok, ready!”

“Little girl, those aren’t shoes,” he responded, giving me that sideways glance that big brothers can give, even when they’re skinny bean poles with floppy blond curls.

“But, these still protect my feet,” I retorted.

“Fine, next time you have to wear shoes, though,” he relented.

“Yes! Ok, you jump first!” I said, full of glee at my triumph. I hopped on the swing, and pumped my legs as hard as I could to get up to speed with him.

“Flower!” I yelled as he jumped, and he kept his legs straight like a stem, put his arms out wide with splayed jazz-hand fingers for leaves, and made his face cheery like a flower while he landed.


I’ve always remembered this instance, because it’s the perfect summation of who my big brother has always been to me.

He’s always been my friend and my playmate. But he’s always been there to protect me without inhibiting me as well.

But while he is there to be a voice of reason, a voice of caution, the most important part is the stableness in the fact that he is there.

In the aftermath of my life falling apart, I had one afternoon where I was sitting in my car, up on a hill overlooking the town and the railroad tracks. And it was the only time I have ever legitimately had both the desire and the will to run away. I saw the train coming in at a slow chug, and I thought, “This is it. Just leave your phone, your keys, your purse, everything. Just jump on that train and make a new life from scratch.” I used all of my willpower to force myself to stay in that car until the train passed, because I knew if I opened the door, it would happen. I would run.

As I told my brother and parents about this day about a year later, Jason came to me and hugged me, and said, “I’m glad you didn’t get on the train. I would’ve had to go and search and find you to make sure you were alright.” He said it with a veil of joking in his voice, but his message was real.

Note that he didn’t say he’d have to go find me and bring me home. He said he’d find me to make sure I was alright.

Jason has never tried to dissuade me from one of my various adventures or antics, but he occasionally does voice the helpful thoughts like, “You can jump off the swing, but you should wear your shoes.”

His protection is always selfless. And that’s a trait I have yet to find in anyone else in the world.

I know it’s not easy to watch people you love go off and traipse around the world, and have adventures that will probably turn into crazy stories, but that also have to potential to go wrong.

I know it’s not easy to be the big brother to the fearless three-year-old who will jump from the highest branch, or the galavanting 25-year-old who blows about with the wind. But he does it. Consistently. And he does it well. He has mastered the art of being a loving, protective big brother, while also letting me fly free and being happy for me as I go.

And while I live in different cities and states (and sometimes countries) from him, I still value the times we do get to do life together. Because he was my first best friend, and he’ll be one of my best friends until the end. And there’s something extremely valuable about someone who both tells you to put shoes on, and then jumps off the swings with you. Someone who would track you down when you ran away, not to drag you home, but to make sure you were OK. Someone who loves you like he does.

Happy birthday week to my dear big brother who I squabble with in love, talk to as a friend, and who takes up much more than his share of the couch when we’re watching a movie together as a family. There’s no one quite like you. I love you, Jas.


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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




Tuesday, April 01st, 2014 | Author:

What do you get when a Forester and a Therapist have kids?

Apparently you get 3 artists. What?

Before she died, my sister was going to school studying math and music. To be honest, she started as a math major, because she was brilliant. Truly. And then somewhere in there, she realized what she really wanted to do was to just teach piano, which she was already doing.

She was an incredible pianist, and she’d been teaching for a few years.  She was a pretty insecure person (as many of us are) and that made her come across as harsh a lot of times.  But when she played piano, and apparently when she taught piano, she was relaxed. She was in her element.

I’ve become friends with some people who I discovered were students of hers.  It’s a fun thing to see her through their eyes — because when she was in the midst of her art form, when she was at a piano, she was still fierce, and fast, and passionate, but she was raw. She didn’t wear her emotions on her sleeves in life, but she did wear them on her fingertips at the piano.

My brother, after starting to go to school as a pre-med student, because, similar to my sister, he is brilliant, has become a professional photographer. He can and does shoot everything from weddings, portraits, high school sports games, public events, clubs and nightlife, to car accidents and wildland fires. In this day of so many iPhone photographers, not everyone makes photography a true art, but he does.

He is an expert at capturing humanity, capturing nature, encapsulating moments that beg to be remembered. And he does it really well. His chemistry and physics professors, and many of us who know him, could see him being an astrophysicist, because his mind just works like that. But he has this desire in his heart to tell stories, to make art, to be a photographer. Maybe he will be an engineer or a physicist or something very brainy someday, too. But for now, he’s discovered an artist within his heart, and he’s letting that artist explore, breathe, learn and grow.

And I have not yet found my niche. My best subject in school was always math. It came really easily to me… and I hated it. I played instruments growing up. But I just made it my thing because I wanted to be like Julie. I took a photography class my senior year of high school. That’s not my thing either.  But in my freshman year of college I took my first journalism class, and I began to think, maybe I’m a writer. As I’ve moved forward, that idea has evolved: I’m a story-teller, and to this day I’m still discovering new ways to tell the stories. I’ve started a hashtag to catalog some of my drawings/paintings etc.  It’s #artstuffbyjo . I went with the vaguest thing I could think of because like I said, I’m still learning what my “thing” might be. For now, I just know it’s “art stuff.”

My words, my charcoal, my paint,(maybe someday my acting?), these are all ways to tell the story. For Jason, he tells stories through photos. For Julie, she expressed something in music that hits the human soul in a way that words cannot. We all ended up artists. Jason is brilliant in the sciences. Julie and I both have the math brains.  And yet, our expressions, the work of our hands that holds meaning for us — those things are not numbers and chemicals and formulas. They are expressions of what it means to be human. What it means to feel.

We’ve always joked that “as a family, we’re good at lots of things, but art isn’t one of them.” We thought we’d missed that gene. We were wrong.

Why are we like this? How did this happen, coming from two artistically challenged parents? We all grew up reading whole book series out loud as a family.  Before we could speak, as young babes, we could listen. Story-telling has been a part of our lives since then.

That’s where we got our artistic and story-telling inclination. But we ended up each deciding to follow it because of this: We had two parents who both did what they loved.

My mom works in the therapy world and she comes to life by helping people get healing in the most wounded areas of their lives. My dad was a forester, and the man will get very interested in a conversation with you if you would like to know about what kind of tree that is over there.  And he can map out areas of the forest for you (literally… he does cartography).

And aside from loving what they do, they’re both really really good at what they do.  My dad has been an expert witness for the department of justice in several cases about forest fires. My mom has people who have come from literally around the world to see her as a therapist.

But you know why any of that matters? Because they told us that old adage that people scoff at: “You can be anything you want to be.” They always told us that and I think they believed it. And we believed it, because they lived it in their own lives. They both did what they loved to do.

We have plenty of our own family drama and dynamics, like any family. But one thing I have always known deep in my soul is this: My parents believe in me. And in Jason. And in Julie.

They’ve always believed in us. They’ve always been impressed with our accomplishments, and their support has encouraged us to dream big, and given us the permission to dream small. They made space for us to discover what we wanted to be.

With the knowledge that they believe in me has also come the knowledge that they will still love me even if I fail. They have accepted us as we’ve each individually turned away from the traditional path of “success” that our skill sets and the world had set out for us, and turned toward something that was riskier, yet meant more to us.

Because we believe in each other, we believe that anything could happen. And we’ll support each other no matter what happens. Somewhere along the way, our family recipe for success, “do your best,” was replaced with the riskier, more audacious, “you might as well try.” And that, perhaps, is the greatest atmosphere we could have to turn our potential energy into kinetic energy. To turn our dreams into reality.

That is how we O’Hanlon artists were born.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. 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


Thursday, October 03rd, 2013 | Author:

North State Voices: A grandmother’s legacy of love and life
by Joanna O’Hanlon

She didn’t want my sister’s grave to be alone.

She was nearing death — she had been nearing it for over a decade — and yet as she was thinking about her final resting place, she was thinking not of herself, but of her late granddaughter.

Because that’s who she was: My grandmother, Evelyn, was a woman who loved people, and loved life. She was feisty and gentle, and somehow, in her, they were not separate like oil and water, but blended like a smooth peach sorbet — both sweet and tart in the same bite.

In the story of her life, her plot-turns read like tragedy, but she breathed vitality. She was born into the Depression, the youngest child in her family. She was young when her brothers went to war. She saw the death of her son, siblings, granddaughter and husband. And ever since I was young, I’d been told “Grandma’s dying.”

She’d had serious health problems: illnesses, surgeries, on and off of oxygen tanks for her emphysema. It’s as if death had been trying to take her, and she kept saying “No.”

With her stubbornness against death, she chose to love life.

I remember shopping with her for hours, until her strength would give out. She loved a good sale and cute clothes.

I remember watching TV with her — her brushing my long hair, working gently through my tangles.

I remember going through the misty gardens on the Oregon Coast with her. We pushed her through in her wheelchair, but she loved to take her time to literally smell the roses and take in the beauty.

I remember when I was a little girl, when everyone in my family would give me a hard time for having to stop for “potty breaks” often on the nine-hour ride to her house, she’d just say to me, “It’s OK, Sweetie. You drink a lot, you go a lot.”

I remember eating dessert at her house — this woman is where I inherited my sweet teeth (because all my teeth are sweet). We’d have raspberry ice cream, peach ice cream, cobblers, cakes and candies. She’d say “just serve me a little bit” by which she meant a portion three times larger than normal people would have. Sometimes when life is sour, food is better sweet.

But in the end, her body was exhausted. She was still fighting to live, but it was clear, with the pain she was in, her body just couldn’t do it anymore. She’d had several close calls over the previous months but when we gave her our blessing, she decided that it was time. She took her last breath not even 24 hours later. Even Death seemed to have to take her on her terms.

It’s been a few years since she passed away now, and we finally scattered her ashes this past month. After being reassured that my sister’s grave would not be alone, she decided that she’d like her ashes to be scattered together with my grandfather’s.

“But I don’t want you to dump mine and then dump his,” she frankly told my mom. Her solution: She instructed my mom to put both her and my Grandpa Buzz’s ashes into a brown grocery bag, shake them up, and then scatter them. She wanted to truly be with him forever. And she was unashamed of the means of getting there.

When our family was together on the boat, after we’d laughed at her somewhat bossy and unconventional instructions, we said our goodbyes, each dropping a flower onto the water of the gray San Francisco Bay. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, and each of us with our wet jackets and wet eyes went for a round of hugs.

My mom, after their hug, looked down at my cousin’s pregnant belly and said through tears and rain that somewhere in storage was a blanket that Grandma had instructed my mom to give to the first great-grandchild.

She died in 2008, and she’s still taking care of the people she loves.

That was my grandma. With a life of heartbreak, a family with life-aches, her legacy is resilience. Life weighed its heavy hand on her, so she held it and walked on.

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Evelyn and Buzz Gentry

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. 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