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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, June 16th, 2015 | Author:

story of jo - Not OKphoto credit: i’m not okay. via photopin (license)

We were sitting in a smaller room in the back of the church and I had made fajitas for my volunteer staff of youth leaders for the middle school youth group I ran at the time.

It was during the students’ Christmas break, so we had put the youth group on hiatus for 2 weeks to give our volunteers a break. I’d made this dinner to thank them and to get together to just get some honest critical and uplifting feedback from one another about how the past semester had gone.

We went around the room and affirmed one another in what they brought to the table. I was caught of guard with a lump in my throat when one of the volunteers said about me, “You make them know that it’s OK to not be OK.”

I’d never thought of those words before, but that has been a life mission of mine since then in all that I do.  I want to be someone who affirms people that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s also OK to be OK, if you really are. But that night was the first night maybe in my life where I realized I was doing something right. I was being who I wanted to be to the world, even though my world at that time was only about 20 middle school students.

A few years ago, I was really good at being honest and open with my story about the grief and grappling after my older sister had died. I think, and hope, that I was able to be someone who could reach out to those in grief and let them know that very truth — it’s OK to not be OK.

But in the more recent couple of years, since my life has changed and truth has been revealed about those darker, secret, shameful parts of my story, it’s become a current part of my story. No longer a “my sister died, and for a long time I wasn’t OK,” past-tense thing.

I still have many moments and days where I am not OK. I am doing really well, comparatively.  I’m telling my story with more ease. I mostly enter social circles without trepidation. I have stopped apologizing to everyone I meet for parts of my story and for who I am. I have the freedom to be known and to know others again. And it’s actually fan-freaking-tastic.

But I still have days where I’ll see something and will text one of my trusted friends things like, “just came across this. Well, F—.”

I still have days where I’ll send out the cry for help.

I still cannot enter my home church building without being paralyzed with hyperventilation and uncontrollable sobbing (which is really not pretty or fun, FYI). Realizing this when I went there last, in November, made for a very not-OK Christmas Eve night as well, as I for the first time in my entire life did not attend the service there, and I sat at home being not OK as my family went (which they should do and I wanted them to do… don’t read weirdly into that).

I still am wary of new people. I still have trust and commitment issues.

In a lot of ways, I’m doing great. But in a lot of ways, I’m still not OK. And I’ve just not been willing to lie about that. I’ve not been willing to pretend to be OK when I wasn’t. Which is new for me.

And what’s happened in the broadening not-OKness of my journey is that it’s enabled me to lead by example, not just to people in grief, but to people in all sorts of not-OK areas of life.

And while maybe that’s a depressing thing to be able to lead by example in, I don’t care. Because sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things just suck. And yes, there can be hope, and growth, and newness, and OKness once again. But what I find in my own life is that I have to admit I’m not OK before any of the rest of that ever comes.

And that is something that most people are not comfortable with.

Positive spins are many people’s security blankets. I just can’t do it this time around. You won’t find me sprinkling glitter on the crap of life. Other people can do that.

But for me, I want to tell you who are hurting, you who are ashamed, you who feel trapped, you who feel depressed, you who feel anxious, you who feel stuck — it’s OK to not be OK. Sometimes, healing starts with letting yourself feel the pain.

__  __  __  __  __

One of the bands that I enjoy, Abandon Kansas, just released a new album that has a lot of that hurt and grappling, specifically with self-examination and questioning of the church and of pain, of addiction and seeing that we’re not as we want to be. When they were making the album, they did a kickstarter campaign and the main songwriter, Jeremy Spring, wrote, “I’m just going to let it hurt for a while.”

That’s what it takes sometimes. I read that sentence from him, and thought about all the times and ways I’ve had to just let it hurt for a while — all the times I’ve said, I’m going to be OK with not being OK right now — over the past two years, and I wrote this poem.

Let me hurt. (April, 2015.)

Just let me hurt for a while.

Don’t choke me out

trying to tie a bow around it.

It’s a wound, 

not a present.

I’m broken,

not wrapped.

I’m bleeding out and you

used a ribbon as a tourniquet.

Don’t do it.

Please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

F*cks, hells, and shits

punctuate my language.

Pain leaks

into my sentences.

Because when I’m honest, sometimes

my brokenness still feels fresh.

I didn’t know grief could be

so violent without death.

Don’t demand a positive spin.

A silver lining won’t fix it.

So please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left. 

I wonder how long it will be 

before I can breathe through the memory.

Because right now, to remember

still feels like drowning.

Because right now, in my hometown

I still feel like an enemy.

Someday there will be more, but

for now this is my story.

So just let me hurt for a while — I’m sorry.

It’s all that I have left.

I’ve barely started 

to trust again.

But I’m afraid of myself 

in the end.

I don’t totally know

how to get around this bend.

I don’t totally know

if I’m good at being a friend.

When I tell the truth,

I’m afraid I will offend.

I want vulnerability.

I want to mend.

But just let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

If you’re not OK, I hope you can find the freedom and the safety to know that that’s OK.


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


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, June 09th, 2015 | Author:

6248742474_997d54ee34photo credit: Lower Floor. via photopin (license)

I met a man in Seattle recently. His name was Sean.

He was in Pike’s Place market, his worn backpack and layers the only things suggesting he was without a place to stay. I may have taken him for a wary tourist if he had not been asking loudly, in the general direction of the crowds passing by, “Can anyone spare enough money for a cold drink?”

I passed right by him, and when I looked up to meet his face, he was looking elsewhere. My eyes didn’t linger, didn’t spend any extra energy trying to meet his gaze. I passed on, and his tone got louder, his voice hoarse and raspy. “Can anyone spare some change? Please! Does anyone have enough money for a cold drink?”

I sauntered by another flower stand. Then by a produce section. Then by a small fish stand, not the famous one. Then by another artisan’s table.

All the while I could hear him. He was shouting now. Not an angry shout, but a sad, desperate shout. By the time I got back to him, his dry voice was shaking and begging the crowds that just kept passing by.

Regardless of my issues with the church, my wounds and my past, my distrust of people, and my serious questions about the Bible, I still would call myself a Christian. A God lover. And there is one thing I don’t have questions about from the Bible and the character of God. He says clearly, “I will say to you, you saw me naked and you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink…as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

And I know I’m undoing any karma or glory or whatever by telling you this, so believe me, I know it — it’s not to brag, and I’m fine with not getting anything from this. That’s not why I did it.

I did it because I had those words pop into my head, and I had this vision of this thirsty man, yelling with his parched voice, and no one, myself included taking the time to even acknowledge his humanity. Even if they didn’t give him anything, he was literally yelling for help and everyone was walking by ignoring him. He was thirsty, a basic human need that hits very, very close to my heart, and I hadn’t paused as I had walked by.

I’m telling you this because I’m ashamed of it. I’m pained that my first response was to ignore that tug in my chest, that churn of my gut, and to keep walking. To keep ignoring the yells for help right in front of me.

How will I ever pay attention to the yells for help that I can’t hear around the world — the “Please, I need something to drink” pleas around the world — if I blatantly and heartlessly walk past the one shouting in my ear at the Pike’s Place market in Seattle?

I don’t know.

As I was in front of the artisan’s table several shops down and I could still hear his soft, but urgent yelling, desperation in his voice, I had a serious moment with myself where I said “What the F— do you think you are doing??”

I’ve had moments like this before. Where I feel the urge to help, the nudge to engage, and I walk by. And I still feel it as I walk farther and farther and I’m too embarrassed to turn back, so I continue to ignore it. I still think about several of those moments years later.

This time, I was more disgusted with myself than ashamed, and I had to fix it.

“Hi,” I said, as he stopped his pleading to the crowd when he saw me approaching.  “I don’t hand out money,” I said apologetically.

“No, no, that’s ok,” he cut me off. “I just need a cold drink.”

“Sure. So, let’s go somewhere, and I’ll get you whatever you want,” I finished my first thought.

I again reiterated he could have anything he wanted. He literally got a $2.50 fountain drink. He filled his glass with cold water first and downed it, and then filled the second with ice and soda.

We did not have any significant interaction as we got his drink. I learned a little bit of his story. He a little bit of mine. We’re both from near Sacramento, and we’re both on journeys that we didn’t want to have to begin. We’ve both missed what we thought we’d find, and are trying to figure out what’s next.

My life right now is asking people to talk to me, to share their stories. It is my life to listen and then write and validate.  But I passed by a man literally crying out to be heard and helped.

It cost me $2.50 to fix someone’s thirst. But more importantly, it cost me nothing to look him in the eye, speak to him, and validate his existence.

When I think about it, I’m still extremely frustrated with my reactions. I still have a long, long way to go on this journey. And if I get thirsty along the way, I hope there will be people quicker to hear than I was.

Sometimes the people or circumstances around us are mirrors, and this moment was a mirror in which I saw that what’s in there is still kind of ugly. That I still have a good deal more work to do to be the person I want to be in the world. They’re not fun moments — those mirrors — but they’re necessary.


 

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


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, May 26th, 2015 | Author:

I wrote this poem almost exactly two years ago about some of the people in my hometown. I have moved away now, but they are still people whose faces light up when they see me in town, who hug me and ask how things are and are willing to hear the honest answers. They have taught me more about grace outside of the church than anything within the church walls ever could. Seeing some of them recently reminded me of this poem from two years back, and about how true it still is.  They are the reason that I still love my hometown — these people feel like home even though the town doesn’t.

 

Pieces – An Ode To My Hometown (May 31, 2013)

We’ve worked for years to make a life together.

We’ve celebrated births and birthdays

promotions and graduations

holidays and everydays.

We’ve grieved the loss of

daughters sisters cousins,

brothers sons lovers,

the old and the young we did not want to let go.

 

We’ve sat in hospitals, backyards, couches,

church chairs and on the carpets at the altars,

in campgrounds and at lunch tables.

 

A blended family

merged by pain and memory,

by the act of rejoicing and grieving together.

A mosaic of broken pottery,

together it felt like home.

 

Then it broke again,

bitterness shot through wounded friends,

our hard-work mosaic burst like clay pigeons.

My shotgun blast of truth

was all it took

to ruin the life we knew.

 

And grace happened.

When one by one,

people picked up the shards,

swept up the dust,

and deliberately decided to put their pieces back in the pot.

They were some people, not a lot.

Their actions and their words

could not be unread:

“Life is broken, but no one’s dead.

Here are my pieces,

I’m willing to build again.

I’ll put in the work to

bring you back to life again.

Let’s make another mosaic

different than the last time.

I don’t know whose pieces you’ll have

but you’ll have mine.”

 

And they came back to the table

where brokenness is made whole.

Where shattered lives are mixed

where selfless love is bold.

A family was re-cooped,

where hard life is what we do,

where my life can be rebuilt

where I can be made new.

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


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 16th, 2014 | Author:

I was sitting in a new church, in a new city, feeling very unknown again for the umpteenth time. It was my first time to the church, and while it felt warm and welcoming, I still felt new, knowing not a single person there.

It was the end of actually a really touching, raw and honest church service, and the worship band started to play, and the song that we all began to sing was not new to me. Somehow in the singing of a common song, I felt a little less alone, a little less like a stranger. It was a song I’d sung in the past with people who knew me as well as you can know a person. It was a song I’d sung before when I was new in a church, feeling uncomfortable. It was a song I’d sung on my own, in my bedroom while journaling through some dark times.

I knew the song well, and it seemed to know me in my broken moment.

These are the lyrics:

 

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant in the trial and the change
One thing remains
One thing remains

 

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me
Never runs out on me
Never runs out on me

 

On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

 

In death, in life, I’m confident and
Covered by the power of your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
Separate my heart from Your great love

And I stood there singing this song that I knew so well when all of a sudden I realized something about it for the first time.

At the end of the second verse, as it goes into the chorus again, these are the words: “I never ever have to be afraid… one thing remains… your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.”

As I sung those words, I realized that to me, what I’ve been meaning when I sing this is a reminder to myself: I don’t have to be afraid, God’s love never runs out on me. But not in the “We ran out of money now we don’t have any” way, but in the “my dad ran out on us” way.

I had never realized before that I’m afraid that love will run out on me. That those who love me will leave. That the God who created me would just decide that I’ve been taking too long, wandering too far, questioning too much, and that he would decide it wasn’t worth it to chase me anymore. I never would’ve voiced that before, but that’s the deep fear, the deep ache of things too scary to think about — that maybe God’s love, and others people’s love will run out on me.

And in terms of other people, that’s a real fear, because it’s a real possibility. I’m learning to trust people with my heart again, but that piece is still there.

But with God I’d never realized that that was a fear of mine as well. That’s not based in truth, or in experience. It’s just fear. And this song, that line, it speaks to those vulnerable, fearful places deep inside me and reminds me of what’s true: I don’t have to be afraid, God’s love will never run out on me. And it will never run out on you.

My favorite image of God is based in an old English poem I found tucked away in a book at my Uncle’s cabin one year, and it has stayed with me ever since. It’s called “The Hound of Heaven.” God is the hound of heaven, like a relentless dog that pursues and pursues and pursues us, across ages and spaces. We don’t have to run to God. I really believe that. We just have to stop running away and let him catch us.

This hound of heaven picture is what I know to be true of God — that he not just won’t run out on me… he’ll run after me. And he’ll never stop. His love is ferocious in it’s pursuit, relentless in it’s goal, and gentle in it’s touch.  That’s what I know of God.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.

And that calms my fears more than anything else ever could.

 

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
Monday, October 20th, 2014 | Author:

Tackling myths & cliches: Everything Happens for a Reason

“She’s not going to die,” she said to me, her eyes wide, her hands on both of my upper arms, desperation and edge in her voice.

“What are you going to say to me when she does?” I wondered silently.

My sister passed away the next day.

That was just the first of the misguided things people said to me in the wake of her death. But my absolute least favorite thing that anyone could ever say in the wake of death or disaster is this: Everything happens for a reason.

The reasons are that pain and sickness and sin and death exist in our world. Not because it was part of God’s plan. Not because God needed another angel. Not because this was something that me or my family had to go through for us to where we ended up. Not that our story needed this plot-twist.

When my older sister died, I was 14 and I was devastated, but I remember daring God on the day she died, thinking he wouldn’t be able to come through: “If you can, show me one good thing that comes from this.”

That was my deal, my plea to God. One good thing. I didn’t believe that even one good thing could come from such tragedy.

I realize now how naive I was, because God is big, and good, and the way the world works, redemption can come forth, and when you press into pain it changes you and reveals you in ways that would’ve taken years otherwise.

I don’t even know who I’d be today if my sister hadn’t died. I can see how much things changed because of her death, and I can see all kinds of growth and beauty that has come forth in my life as a result of walking through that valley of grief and loss.

large_774419510photo credit: Jimmy_Joe via photopin cc

So why do I still want to give people nose bleeds when they say everything happens for a reason? Because it’s too easy. It’s too easy to minimize the devastation of tragedy if we choose to believe that it was somehow some part of a divine or cosmic plan. The puppet master at work again, killing off characters for character development of another player. No.

There is a very real aspect to tragedy that demands the admittance that this was never supposed to be this way. That is what our souls cry out, and that is what we silence when we do not let that truth breathe, but try to console ourselves with cheap consolation of the cliche’s “it’s Ok. It’s in God’s plan. It’s supposed to be this way for some unknown reason.”

No. I know a God who cries out the same thing. IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE THIS

WAY. I know a God who weeps with me over the loss of life, over the breaking of hearts, over the destruction of what was good, over the abuse of the innocent.

And while my naive dare to God was really a “F— you, God” challenge, He was faithful. He has shown me how much good he can bring forth from the things that were never supposed to be this way. He has proven faithful to bring beauty of our ruins. But I don’t for a moment believe that it had to go this way. He could’ve developed me another way. I could’ve had other paths in life that were different, perhaps better than this one. There were other ways.  I don’t believe my sister’s death had to happen for a reason.

I don’t believe that death, divorce, abuse, disaster, devastation happen for a reason other that this world is not always good. But I have come to trust that God is good when the world isn’t. God weeps with me while trying to make beauty rise out of the ruins. That’s what people confuse — they think that everything has to burn so beauty can come from the ashes. Which is as nonsensical as saying that fires happen so that firefighters can be heroes. We see the result and we call it the reason.

I am heavily shaped by my experience with grief. I grew up much sooner, and knew grief much deeper than I would wish on any teenager. And the good is that it has deepened my spirituality, my emotional capacity, and my maturity in mounds, I am positive.

But I would give all of that to have my sister back. To have my family whole again. To know what it’s like to experience 9th and 10th grade without the devastation of pain and depression. To not know that gut-wrenching acid of grief in the back of my throat, to not know the loss that weights you like lead in your bones.

This is not how it was supposed to be. It didn’t happen for a reason. There have been some beautiful results that have come of it. But at the end of the day, I am accepting of the way life has been, not accepting that it’s the way it had to go.

This is not how it should be, but this is how it is, and once I grieve that I can begin to see the ways that life can be beautiful again.


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 14th, 2014 | Author:

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photo credit: Flickmor via photopin cc

This is hard for me to write, even though I’ve been saying it with my actions and body language for more than a year now.

I don’t trust the Church.

And that breaks my heart.

Like the admission, “I don’t trust my husband,” or “I don’t trust my father,” it hurts to admit because one, it’s true, and two, I wish it weren’t.

I have always loved the Church — my home church and the greater Church. I grew up in the church. The rough brick hallways and the green and purple faded carpets have known my touch, my presence since they were erected in the first couple years of my life. I have spent a massive percentage of my life within those walls.

My home church looks kind of like a prison from the outside. All gray cement blocks and massiveness in the middle of a large parking lot between two barren and vast fields of dead grass. It is lonely and unwelcoming in presence and stature. But it was home.

People said that, about it looking like a prison, and I could see what the meant, but I had personally never seen it like that. It was the place that held all of my dearest people in the world. People who had known me since I was born. People who had seen our family through some of the most trying times, including my mom’s severe illness with Lyme disease, and the sudden death of my 21-year-old sister. These were the people who had been there through it all. Not just at the church — in our homes, in our backyards, in camping trips and missions trips, in the schools, at softball games — but in the church, too. That was our common home, and I was there more than most.

Now when I drive up — which I don’t do often — I see what they mean. It looks like a prison. A prison full of beautiful people who know how to extend grace and how to love one another, mostly. But a prison none the less.

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photo credit: .brioso. via photopin cc


When I enter, I feel like I’m entering the prison. I walk through the foyer, down the aisles, and into rows of seats and I get stared at (or intentionally ignored) the whole way, like a prisoner walking down the cell block, being eyed — plotted against, sized up, respected, scared of — but being eyed none-the-less.

I take my seat and rely on the word of the warden-pastor that I am welcome there, of course. And though I know he wants it to be true, it’s not. I am not welcome. I am tolerated by most, judged and unwelcome by some, and greeted by a few (who really mean it).

The stares, glares, looks of, “Oh shit, how do I respond?” are palpable and, I am certain, mostly unconscious and involuntary.

I have a few friends who make conscious and great efforts to welcome me — to show that they won’t just tolerate my presence there, but align themselves with my presence there. They seek me out to hug me and chat, or even greater, they come and sit next to me. That’s how it was nine months ago at least. That’s the last time I could bring myself to attend a full church service there. I went one time since then, just for the worship portion, when the lights were down, and I wept and had to leave before the rest of the service continued. I wept because I so wish I could trust the church. I so wish it was still my home. I still love those people who bristle at my presence — and I love them dearly — but I know that I am not a part of them any longer. I wish I could be, but the welcoming hands and eyes of maybe 20 in a crowd of 500 is not enough. I can’t belong to a home where I am tolerated at best by the masses. It is better to be unknown.

But this is the thing, yes, that’s just one church. But that was my church. And I know those people — they are good people. Real people. People who have been through the mire of life with me. And they stiffen when I walk in, unsure if they should even look at me. Because they are human.

And the thing is, the reason why the stiffen, why they bristle, why they stare, is because they’ve been hurt by something that involved me. The reality is though — I was hurt by something that involved them.

And as I think about joining a new church, trying to find a new body of people to belong to — I have met many groups of people who are full of grace and acceptance. But I am still distrusting because while they welcome me now, I have been welcomed before. I have been known before. I have been carried through the trials of sickness and death and grief before. But then there came something that was too much, and everyone stepped away. And I was left. Unwelcome where I was once loved. Tolerated where I was once celebrated.  A threat where I was once a servant.

Not just by a few. Not just by casual church attenders. But by pastors, board members, and life long friends who I called family.

It’s not that they’re just bad people. They’re not. I know them. They’re hurt people. And hurt people hurt people.

So I’m distrusting of churches. All churches. Because they’re all made of people who have the ability to be hurt, and then to hurt.

I’m distrusting of pastors more than of churches. So the pastors that are big on grace, I’m suspicious of because it makes me think they KNOW they need grace, because they know of their depravity, and it scares me to think of the people they have hurt, or do hurt with that grace-needing depravity.

And the pastors that tote punishment, I’m wary of because, truly, I believe in grace.

And the pastors that talk of prosperity and hope, I don’t feel that they can understand the depths of the brokenness that I have drowned in.

The only ones I trust are the ones who talk honestly and openly about pain and brokenness and the God that is with us in that. But actually, in real life churches, I have yet to find those pastors.

The reason I don’t trust churches is because I don’t trust people. It just breaks my heart that it was church people who taught me to be distrusting. And it breaks my heart that I’ve taught others to be distrusting, too.

So this is me saying I’m fledgling right now. I’ve been drowning for a long time and am trying to find my way to the surface again. If you’ve got your head above the water, if you trust people and belong to the church and feel welcomed, don’t follow me.

But if you’re drowning too, if you’re distrusting and hurting and it breaks your heart, I’m trying to find a way up, and you’re welcome to come along. I can’t promise that I’ll find the most direct route, but I’m searching, and I’m trying to be honest about the journey.

And if you’re distrusting and it doesn’t break your heart, I hope it will some day. I’ve lived on both sides of this line now, and while this side feels wiser and more enlightened, the other side is more fulfilling indeed. It is a beautiful thing to trust people, and to have them be trustworthy in return.

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, July 08th, 2014 | Author:

A few weeks ago I wrote my own eulogy. It’s a writing exercise I’d heard of many times, but one I had never done. But, I’ve thought about my own death since I was a young kid. As someone who always assumed I’d die young (a belief I’m just recently beginning to challenge internally), I’d thought about this type of thing many times before.

The difference is that I wrote this eulogy as a sort of “weekly review” of my life in the most grave sense. And then two days later I was in a doctor’s office having them tell me, “Well, with you being as young as you are, it’d be rare that this is cancer, but we need to be real that that’s a real possibility here. We can’t do anything now. Come back in 3 weeks.”

I’ve been thinking about this eulogy a lot over the past few weeks, and while I understand that I don’t control all of my fate, I went from being scared and overwhelmed, to being determined that this is not where my story ends. That I will not let it end right as I was on the brink of what I talk about  below.

I have since received the good news that I am (almost) in the clear cancer-scare-wise. But it has been a poignant few weeks and I’ve realized that I am not done fighting. I am not done adventuring. I am not done working on things and becoming the best version of me that I can be. I will not lay down and die. If I die right now, I will die fighting if that is an option. But as long as I am breathing, my story is not yet finished.

So, here’s my weird eulogy post. It’s a mix of attempted honest self-reflection and how I hope, maybe, people would remember me should the story stop here.

*****

NOTE: NOT A SUICIDE NOTE. NOT AT ALL.

Joanna O’Hanlon died today. She spent her last day reading blog posts, having fun texting a cute boy, and trying to sort out information from other “productivity” blog posts that she could steal and make her own for a company blog. She was trying to get this done by 3pm, but her mind kept wandering. She went on a run, finished an art project, and went to a cheap movie. It was an ordinary day.

She didn’t know today would be the last day. She would’ve bought and eaten dessert at lunch had she known. She did try V8 finally for the first time before she passed though. She’d continually passed that option in life until today. She actually really liked it, even though it was like drinking cold tomato soup.

The story ending as it is, is a tragedy. She was on the brink of new life. On the brink of hope. On the brink of finding meaning in life again. But she hadn’t quite teetered over the edge. She had weathered the horrible, vomit-inducing, life-wrecking, heart-bulldozing times. She’d wandered in the desert. And when she was almost into the new, beautiful, life-giving season, it just stopped. That’s what makes this so sad. Knowing that joy and hope and adventure were right around the corner.

She had no real romantic involvement ever in her life. She struggled with receiving love. Her independent spirit was her fateful flaw. “You never needed anybody,” her best friend had said to her one time. But in the last year, she’d learned what it was to need people, and to need them without being able to ask for them. And they showed up. Again and again they showed up. She was working on making that translation into her romantic potential. But before she died, she knew she was loved. Not by a man — but by many men and women who gave her their love when she was really broken. When she felt the most unlovable. When she really needed love.

She was reckless in her honesty. She defied the regular rules of propriety about what you could say out loud. She was honest about how she felt, about how life felt, about how death felt. She couldn’t stomach the trite positive-spins that the church and the ignorant put on pain. She would speak out against that with colorful language deep from her gut anytime she heard it. She made many people uncomfortable. And she wasn’t sorry about that. The truth was important to her, because she saw what lack of honesty, what positive-spins and secrets did to people. She’d been hurt by that before. She was finding freedom in the truth, and she wanted to share it with the suffering, even at the cost of making the non-suffering uncomfortable.

She dug into her pain. She let it fill her. She let it burn away the excess in her. And she sought healing. She so badly wanted to be healed. But when God told her he wanted to use her while she was still broken, she cried, and said OK.

Jo loved God. He was her only constant in life. She looked like a wanderer to many. She was, I suppose. Her heart was not at home. It had known pain. It had loved this world. But the only real roots she had were in her God. He had held her, traveled with her. She loved God because he was good in a world that so often felt bad. She loved him because He was there for her when her pain and shame were too much for others. He was there when she wandered. He was there in the wails in the middle of the night. She loved God in the most selfish way possible — she loved Him because she needed him and trusted him. And because she knew He loved her.

Jo loved life. She loved to laugh at funny things. She laughed and squealed with joy when she did child-like things like go to the carnival or swim in the snowy river. Joy might’ve looked like it came naturally to Jo, but really, it was a choice. A choice to not let her sorrow hold her. She would seek joy out. It was a priority in her life. Fun was a priority in her life. She believed she was on an adventure. She chose to believe that.

She really liked high places. She was a climber. Always had been. She could still be seen sometimes on a run, coming across a play ground in the neighborhood, and swinging unabashedly on one of the swings — swinging higher and higher until it felt like her adult-weight would make the whole thing topple.

She loved people. Especially broken people. Especially people who had shown her love. She thought nothing of giving time, money, opportunity, or energy to make these people a priority in their times of need. She needed to work on making them a priority when they weren’t in need, too, though.

And she loved stories. Her curiosity was a bit much for most people, so she was learning how to curb it for the sake of others. But she always, always wanted to know more. She wanted to learn about people and places and things.

About what makes the pressure in a fire hydrant so great that the water literally SHOOTS out of it, while the water in nearby houses simply drizzles out regularly. And which Roman emperor built the coliseum, and which one finished it. And what’s the difference in technique/approach of a barber verses a hair stylist. And how to put in a pool. And how Lewis and Clark crossed the Columbia river. And how did they know they would even find an end to the continent? And what seasonings are in V8? And how did you get to be the person you are today?

Her curiosity for knowledge, and her love of stories defined her. There were six words that always caught her interest: “Let me tell you a story…”

She was working on writing her own story, too. It is incomplete. But so is life, I suppose.

She is survived by some of her immediate family, not all of them: her mother, her father, her brother. She is survived by extended family and her friends — too many good ones to mention them all. But they live all over the country, all over the world. She is survived by her town: Oroville – the land of the hopeless and broken and stuck. She really loved that town. We don’t know why, but she did.

We don’t know what we should do with her body. She used to say to just throw it in the sea because it was the cheapest option. But we’re not sure it’s the cheapest option. And we’re not sure if that’s what she wanted anymore. She had definite desires — but they changed… it was hard to keep track sometimes.

Joanna 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.

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 | Author:

I’ve always been independent, as far as I can remember.

When I was young I would say I was a lot like a cat.  I loved to be loved. But I loved to go out and hunt and do my own thing. I had the domesticated, relational side of me, and the side that didn’t need anyone else to affirm or participate in something that I was interested in — I’d do it regardless.  And I was in a family that facilitated this. I was well connected and loved in our family, so I felt safe to go wander out and explore the world alone. I was independent, like a little lioness on the plains, returning to my pack at the end of each day.

And I can clearly see now that even when I was a young kid I had a strong reaction against manipulation (my definition: trying to get someone to do something without being straightforward; coercion; trying to force a desired outcome through unclear, threatening, or illogical means).

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photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

I recall one of my childhood friends and I having the same situation play out several times. Her move to try to get what she wanted was a simple threat. Manipulation 101. “If you don’t do _____, I’m not going to be your friend anymore.”

And there’s this part of me that remembers these instances so clearly it still makes me react inside.  “Fine.” I’d say, resolutely. “Don’t be my friend anymore.” And I’d go outside and play how I wanted. While I don’t think she ever meant her words, I meant mine. As a child I would rather lose a friend than be manipulated by one.

There’s this defiant voice inside me that says, “you will not get what you want out of me that way. You will not. I will not play that game.”

Have you ever seen a cat who just doesn’t want to be held anymore? And the person holding him keeps holding on, trying to pet him?  What happens?  His ears go flat back. His tail starts to wag. His claws come out, and he tries to get free. That’s how I feel sometimes — like people get past the point where this is enjoyable for both of us — and then it’s one sided — the person petting the cat continues to pet him because the PERSON wants to love (or control) the cat, not because the cat wants love. So the cat, independent creature that it is, claws their way out of the situation.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the term for giving into demands like that for fear of actually losing that friendship is called codependency.

I’ve begun to see, though, that this defiant streak in me — the anti-co-dependent me — is driven by something cat-like, and it’s perhaps equally as unhealthy as codependency.

***

I think it’s semi-normal to not want to spend endless time with the same person without a break. I think breaks are good. They help us keep our individuality and our individual lives. They are healthy to protect ourselves from becoming so enmeshed in a relationship that you don’t even know what you as an individual enjoy or dislike anymore.

But for me, I get relational claustrophobia. I feel confined. Like there’s not enough air. Not enough room. Not enough availability for me to do what I want. Like I’m being tied down (not in the domestic way, but in the Aslan on the altar way).

This last month I’ve started to see that it’s not my independence that drives this. It’s my fear that people won’t let me be independent anymore. It’s not that these things are actually happening, but I have a fear of being caught. Stifled. Tied down. Have my wings clipped. And as I’ve started to think about it, I’ve begun to be honest with myself: This is my greatest fear. And it always has been.

You try to manipulate me, I’m gone.  You get clingy, I’m out of there. You want to spend time with me and do all the things I do, and I feel like I’m going to lose myself. You love me too much, and I worry it’s a trap.

Because we’re all human, I’ve seen people who I know authentically love me, and then I start to see their needs come out and color their “love” — I start to see that their motives are not love, they are selfish. Which should be a sign to me that they need more from me.  But instead, an alarm goes off in my head that says, “This isn’t love. Run.” I’m the cat in the lap being held for too long and I start doing whatever it takes to get down. It’s a fear reaction at its core.

I respond really well to direct communication, because that’s the only way that this alarm in my head doesn’t go off. But in recent years, I’ve known smart people who I felt like I was communicating blatantly with, and now that I’m out of those situations, I see that I was being blatantly manipulated.  I was duped and hurt irreparably, and it happened right in front of my eyes. So now my walls around my heart are taller and thicker, and my anti-manipulation instinct is even stronger.

And here I am, willing to admit it for the first time in my life (and willing to sadly admit that I was not always this way): I’m scared of commitment. To Jobs. To apartment leases. To roommates. To plans. To new relationships. To the Church.

Because despite my strong instincts that have protected me from being “caught” for most of my life… it happened. I was duped. I was hurt. And I just don’t know if I can live through that again.

And because of that, I’m like a skittish cat. The one that used to be a friendly pet. But then was hurt. The one who got abused, or scared, or something,  and that changed everything for now.

I can feel people trying to woo me out. I see them putting the food out for me. I hear them calling for me to come out of the bushes.  And while they may just want to be nice and provide for me and love on me, I’m still the cat in the bushes who waits until no one’s around, then I’ll dart out and eat the food and dart back before anyone can catch me. They probably would just pet me. But I’m terrified of being caught.

I want to trust people. But I want them to be trust-worthy. And I’m in the chasm in the middle of those two right now.

In my efforts toward bravery, I keep leaving the metaphoric bushes. And I stay out of them a little longer each time. But at the end of the day, I’m still distrusting. I still cut conversations off before they’re finished. I still leave early. I still RSVP tentatively. I still don’t like letting people know my schedule or my plans.

And I don’t have a bow to tie around this story.  This is me just being honest and ugly and wrestling with my crap out loud, because my story is one of the few ways that I’m still willing to risk vulnerability over and over again.  Because I believe there is the potential for healing in the act of sharing stories — healing for me, and maybe for others too.

If you’re one of the people who has reached out to me in this season of life, I am so, so grateful.  I apologize for my sometimes skittish nature. And I apologize if I’ve hurt you when I’ve left situations and relationships too soon when you were really just trying to love me. Really.

Joanna 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, February 25th, 2014 | Author:

I had this thought the other day: This is the renaissance of my life.

I am learning about music that I like, music that is out there, music that I want to sing along to. Music I want to dance to and music that dances with me. Music that makes me cry, and some that makes me smile involuntarily.

I am making art. All kinds of art. My finger nails have charcoal dust under them that will not come out with one or two washings.  Charcoal similarly cakes itself into the cracks of my hands that are drying out from how often I’m washing them. My leggings have varnish on them from the bench I stained. My shoes have sawdust in them from sawing the wood for that bench. My table has sticky sections of it from glue that ran away and off the page. My walls are lined with blank canvases and empty picture frames leaning up against them, waiting to be filled with what I create.

I am writing. Sometimes even poetry. My blog and my journal give testament to the words that come from my pen, from my keys, from my pain and my hope.

I am reading again. Everything from Chelsea Handler, to biographies of Napoleon, to Calvin & Hobbes, to Dan Brown mysteries, to Hemingway and Austen.

I am learning again. Not just about art and technique, but languages — I’m learning Italian and I’m loving it. I’m eager for the knowledge and the application.

And I’m curious (as I have always been, but still) about history. I want to know more.
I’ve asked myself, “why?” Why am I doing these things? Why am I making these changes?  Am I just now really discovering who I am? The typical 20s self-discovery thing?

When I’m honest, the answer is “no.”  I’ve known who I am for many years now.  I am not just now figuring out what I like and who I am. The fact is that what I like and who I am is changing.

I had a hunch, and in doing some brief research, I found that I was right…

The Renaissance of the 14-16th centuries started right after the black plague hit the European continent.

The “Rebirth” came out of death. Out of loss. Out of panic. Out of the forceful need to move on from “old normal”.

I am being re-born. That’s what renaissance means: rebirth. But why? Why now? Why change?

Because I lost everything. The town, the church, the friends, the family, the job, the daily activities, the passion.

Because it was time for new. There was no choice in it.

Because I am coming out of my own years of black plague. Of death. Of loss. I have emerged from my dark ages, and I, while the same person, am discovering new things, am developing new interests.

And what started out as writing to just get my thoughts on page, turned into the desire to tell a story, to relate to the common human things that we all experience. A story-teller re-born, with more freedom to tell the stories that ring true.

What started as writing poems because I needed some short form to get my words out turned into becoming a private poet. Writing poems down on napkins and in “notes” in my phone — when I’m at a stoplight, when I’m running and pause for breath, when I’m trying to sleep, when I am just so sad or so happy and I have to let it out of me, there comes words in verse, lines in waves — a poem is breathed. A poet is birthed.

To be embarrassingly honest, I started making art recently as a way to avoid something I needed to write that I knew would be emotionally exhausting and difficult. Every time I had time to write it, I’d create a charcoal artwork instead. Beauty from ashes before my eyes. I knew it would die down once the need for avoiding responsibilities was gone — but I was wrong. The desire to create is even stronger now. An artist has been born in me.

And what started as listening to music while I journaled grew into a hunger for music. I want to hear more. I even want to make music again. I don’t know how or if that will happen, but there is still plenty of time to change and discover.

I am being reborn. I am coming alive again.  And I don’t know what my new passion will be. Where my new path will take me.  But maybe it will take me many places: Jane of all trades, master of none. I have peace about not knowing, and joy at the thought of the journey to find out.

Maybe I am meant to be a renaissance woman, after all.

Jo coming alive in Israel

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

storyofjoblog@gmail.com