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Tuesday, January 19th, 2016 | Author:

I’d just told my uncle that I wanted to move.

I was living in an area that I’d only moved to for two reasons.

The first was that I wanted to move out of my hometown. I’d spent enough time there as an adult, and enough time there after some major life changes to feel ready to leave without feeling like I was running away. I felt released from the place that I had once loved, and I was looking for a new place to begin the long rebuilding process.

The second reason I’d moved to this small suburban city was that I was offered a job there, one which I happily took.

“I know you might know this, but I want to iterate that you haven’t really been here that long,” my uncle began. He has a good way with words, and it’s always been clear to me that he cares for my best interest.

“You know, we moved around a lot when the kids were younger, and what we found was that it takes at least a year to really assimilate into a new town. And you’ve only been here a little longer than that.”

He was right. I knew that I could probably assimilate more there if I stayed longer. But that’s not what I wanted.

“I know,” I said, “It’s just that I don’t know that this is the place that I want to settle into.”

“OK,” he said, relenting, “that’s fair.”

What I’d started to see in the people around me there — at work, at my apartment complex, and at the church I was attending — was that a lot of people end up somewhere forever just because they never had any instigating event that made them move. (And not because they had lack of resources or potential opportunity.) As I started to be aware of it, I realized that for a lot, if not most people, the same was true for many of their relationships, their careers, their family culture, and ultimately their whole life.

And I saw that I was on that path. It would be easy to let that happen in my life as well. My uncle was probably right — the longer I stayed there, the more involved and connected I would’ve become. The more complacent I would’ve been with my life. And truly, I think for many people, that’s how their lives play out and they are really content with it. Which is great.

But I knew, for my own happiness, I needed more than that.  And I had the means and the will to make it happen.

I didn’t want to end up in Rocklin, California 30 years from now simply because I never happened to move. If I was to stay there, I wanted it to be because I wanted to be there. But that was the thing — I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t not want to be there either. Which is why I stayed as long as I did. I was traveling. Wandering. Looking for somewhere else I wanted to be. Lingering while figuring out that this was not where I wanted my forever home to be.

And when I was still not sure of where I wanted to live, I had finally come to know that that suburban city was not it. Which meant, for me, that while it would be comfortable and easy to stay, it was time to do the hard work and the leap of faith of moving forward, elsewhere.

I’m not sure why place has always been such a big deal to me, but I’ve always felt very strongly about where I decide to live. I feel like I could live anywhere for a time. But to make any sort of commitment to living somewhere — I have to choose it.

If it hadn’t of been for this conviction in me about places, I don’t know that I would’ve moved on when I did. I may never have. It’s easy to stay where you’ve got your life set up. It’s easy to stay where it’s comfortable and safe. Where it’s familiar. Even if it’s not really somewhere you’ve ever really chosen to be — just somewhere you’ve ended up.

Since that conversation, and that decision to move, I’ve made it a commitment in my life to make choices. To choose my own happiness and situations over what’s familiar and safe. To choose contentment over complacency.

I’ve spent a lot of my life envying the people who never move, who marry their high school sweethearts, who have 2.5 children and a dog and a cat, and who stay at the same job their whole lives. Not because that’s what I’ve really wanted, but because it seemed easier. And it seemed like they were happy enough.

A lot of them, I’m sure, are truly happy.

But I didn’t have a high school sweetheart. I’ve moved a lot. I don’t have any kids yet. And I’ve already switched careers once since college. And in all of those start-overs that take so much energy, I think I’ve learned that when in my desires to settle down, I’m no longer willing to settle. I learned that I have the capacity to happen to life. I don’t have to just let life happen to me.

I’m willing to give up what probably would’ve been good enough in exchange for what’s specifically great for me.

End Note: I know y’all are sick of reading about Wichita. But I’m really glad that I moved and found a town that’s great for me. I’m proud to call it home.

Disclaimer: I realize that it is a privilege to be able to choose some things like these about one’s life. The observations mentioned in this post were not of those who truly have no options for change of their place, career, or sometimes even relationships, which I know is a reality for many. The piece is about my own personal convictions about how I have been able to and have chosen to live my life here forward.


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, 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.

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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        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014 | Author:

If I’m honest — which I am — homesickness is the cause of my current wandering-life phase. I’ve been saying that I’m searching for a place that feels like home. I didn’t know of any that still existed for me until one night not too long ago.

I was staying with my parents in my hometown one night, but I was coming in from an appointment in the next town over. I had a lot on my mind and I was just driving on autopilot. When I had arrived and parked my car, I went to reach for the handle to get out when I realized where I was — I was at my old apartment.

An apartment I haven’t lived in now for a year and a half. I have lived 4 places in 4 cities since I left that apartment.

It was the apartment I moved into when I had graduated college and moved back to my hometown. It was the apartment where I first paid for my utilities, where I first learned where I got the best reception with my TV antennae, where I first furnished and decorated a home from top to bottom on my own.

It’s the apartment where I first lived alone. Where I first made all my meals for myself – no dining hall, no cafeteria, just me and my printed out recipes.

It’s an apartment down the street from the jail, with sketchy neighbors who are on parole, and some parolees whom I had gotten to know and become friends with. It’s an apartment with security screens on every door, with the cops coming by several times a week for some call or another.

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It’s an apartment with blue walls in one room because I painted them that way. With extra shelves in the closets because I built them myself. With a doorknob that I bought on the front door because I locked myself out and had to have the locksmith come and drill the lock through and replace it. With a small exposed nail on the front of the kitchen sink where the tiling had broken off before I moved in. I used that nail as peg to hang my pot holders from.

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It’s an apartment with a view of Table Mountain and the Oroville O, with a view of the trains that chug by in the distance. It’s both walking distance to the Oroville forebay where I learned to sail as I was moving in, and to the Feather River, where the stone picnic tables served as my desk as I journaled through some of the hardest thoughts of my life.

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It’s 1.3 miles from the Youth Center I helped open, and 4.4 miles from the church I used to work at and belong to. It takes 7 minutes to drive to my parents house from this apartment. Always. It is a 2 minute drive (including the time to walk down the stairs and to the car) to the nearest Red Box at 7/11, allowing me to watch a rented movie until 8:58 before I had to pull it out and leave to return it before I got charged again.

It’s the apartment where I first defined home as being anything aside from my parents house. The town was always my home, but in terms of within Oroville, it was the first place of my own that I meant when I said “I’m going home now.” The dorm rooms of college had just never felt that way to me, and I’d been intentional about my vocabulary — I don’t know if my college roommates ever noticed, but I never referred to those dorm rooms and college apartments as home. “I’m going back to the room,” I’d say, or “Are you at the apartment?” Never, never, “I’ll see you at home.” Because home was somewhere in a podunk town in Northern California. Period.

And this apartment, this afforded me the chance to both be an independent adult with a home of their own, and to still call my hometown home.

But then life changed. Old normal in that Oroville life feels like a long lost memory. I’ve sold most of my possessions that filled that old apartment.  I’ve had different jobs since then. I’ve moved to different cities. I go to other churches. I rent movies from different Red Boxes and I have different people sitting in my apartment during movies and game nights.

 

But in the midst of getting lost in my thoughts as I drove, my internal compass took over and led me here. It led me home. Only it wasn’t my home anymore.

And while I have felt homesick for a couple years as my life changed so drastically, this moment as I sit in the parking lot in my old usual spot looking up at really the only last remnant of my old life, I feel sad. I feel more homesick than before. Because there it is, my home, in the most literal sense of the word. The place where I lived and slept and cooked and bathed and let me body and mind and heart rest and take shelter from the world.

And I hadn’t realized that my heart, that my internal compass still believed that, still missed that. But here I am, and it’s not my home anymore. It’s someone else’s.

I take a few moments to just look up at the front door before I turn the car on, back out, and drive away, tears rolling down my cheeks, grieving another loss — this time of a place I didn’t even know I missed.

Because the reality is that the places where we do life — where we share moments and let our hearts settle in with our bodies to a place we embrace as home — those places mean something. They’re just a place, but they’re the setting where our lives unfold.  And when the rest of life may change or be gone, you can still accidentally “drive home” and end up in those old places. It’s like visiting the grave on a chapter of life once it’s passed. But sometimes it’s good to have those monuments.

Maybe that’s one of the most beautiful parts of the world — that the land itself keeps on existing — despite our times, despite our pains and gains — it continues on, one of the only constants available to us.

Grief for people is of course the most powerful, the most full of agony and meaning. But grief for places — places we lose, places we leave, places we see change — that is still grief in it’s own right. It’s taken me a lot of life to realize how true that is.

As I’ve been back in Oroville this month for the holidays, it has been hard, and feels foreign in a lot of ways, but it’s also been healing to drive the streets that I know well enough that I know every curve, every pot hole and patch where it floods. To be in the place where I know which post office to go to for what things. The place where I know someone everywhere I go. The place where I walk into a hamburger joint I’ve been going to since I was born and they ask “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you in a while!” and the Mexican restaurant where they know that I’m the one in the family that changes up my drink order every time while the rest stay the same.

It’s a place that I love. While the sense of home is gone, the memory of it in this place is not.

 

I’m beginning to understand that in the Christian tradition, the meaning of Christmas isn’t just about the fact that God so loved the people in the world that he sent his son, Jesus.

God so loved the world — the place too. He could love us from afar, but only in a physical place could he walk with us, cry with us, touch us, heal us. The fact that the birth of Jesus happened in a place – in a feeding trough, in a stable, at an inn, in Bethlehem. And that while time and the world have changed, the place remains. That is a holy thing. And it is a human thing. Because places are the stage where the intermingling of our hearts and bodies and lives and time all take place. And that means that places matter. To God and to us.

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And the story says that some day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and if that comes to be, I hope to walk with God down my old street by the jail, and to say, “that, that right there, that’s where my home was,” and I imagine he’d take my arm, and let me rest my head on his shoulder as he sadly, nostalgically says, “I know, Jo. I was there with you. I know.” And then like the other night, we’ll turn away and keep walking toward the hope of a new home someday — except that someday will have arrived.

 

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 09th, 2014 | Author:

medium_142324601photo credit: [phil h] via photopin cc

“Don’t tell them that you’ll keep in touch,” she said to us. “Because you won’t.”

One of the school administration was talking to the group of 5 of us from the US who were brand new to the school and were there for the semester as study abroad students. We were at a small (read: 25 students) university on the border of Switzerland and Germany. The rest of the students were from Europe. This admin gal was giving us a new student orientation, and she herself was American. But I was taken back by this strong command.

“What?” I asked. Maybe I had misunderstood.

“Don’t tell them that you’re going to be friends forever or that you’ll stay in touch or that you’ll come back and visit. It happens every year, and the thing is that while you might think you mean it, you don’t. Not to their standards. Keeping in touch once a year is not keeping in touch. So don’t promise anything like that.”

This started me out on a sour note at the school. But soon, I forgot her words as I was swept away by how much I enjoyed my new friends at the school. The whole place was a dream — we did school together and played together, we cooked together and ate together, we lived together and did chores together. It was this tight-nit incredible community and I loved being there. I even decided to stay for another semester as one didn’t feel like it would be enough. I didn’t want this community, this season of my life with these people, to end yet. So I delayed the inevitable.

But too soon, the second semester at the Switzerland school flew by, and before I knew it, it was December. We had Christmas parties and talent shows and went to Christmas Markets (Wienachts markts) and then we had a week left. Then a few days. Then it was the night before I was to leave, and the swine flu was sweeping through our little community like wildfire. Most everyone caught it in that last week.

And the last night before I had to leave, I remember sitting on my friend Bekky’s bed as she laid there miserably. She’d caught it a couple days prior and was already in the deep throws of it. Luckily I had just caught it just that day so I was in the beginning stages and could still be up and around and go around to everyone’s rooms to say goodbye.

I was sitting on the edge of her bed, and she was telling me about how our friend, Gideon, had taken her for a walk and professed his love for her and she was freaking out about it. She’s married to the man now, but at the time this was brand new information and she didn’t know what she wanted.

I remember those moments of sharing one last piece of important life turns amid the regular-life things like being sick. I got up to leave, and hugged her and my friend Sara who was hanging out with us, and they asked the question: Will you come back to visit? I remembered the Admin’s words, and made a decision that I would mean what I said: “Yes. I’m not sure when. But I promise I’ll come back.” And then I left them in tears, returned to my room to finished packing and sleep. I cried my sick self to sleep that night.

In the following weeks, “normal life” didn’t feel normal anymore. It was the first time I’d ever permanently moved away from a place, and it was a feeling of loss I can only describe as grief.

But what happened was that grief pushed me to stay in touch with my close people there — something I’d never been great at prioritizing before. The upswing of facebook helped severely, but it was the first time when I learned how to truly maintain relationships across such great distances. Coming from such a steady small-town upbringing, I had been used to just leaving for a month or two at a time for college, and then coming back and catching up with everyone, then repeat. But I had begun to realize that that only really worked with those long-standing life-long friendships from home. And it only worked with semi-regular visits in place. I’d need to do something different this time.

I have a friend I grew up with who’s blog url is TheDistanceIsWhatYouMakeIt.com (“The distance is what you make it” for those of you that struggle reading things like hashtags and urls without spaces). I believe she started the blog when she, too, was leaving for a semester abroad.

This notion, the distance is what you make it, is dead on. I didn’t learn that fully until I came back from my year in Switzerland. And I shake my head at the admin’s advice at the beginning of my first semester: “Don’t tell them you’ll keep in touch. You won’t.”

I’m not saying I’m great at keeping in touch with everyone. Statistically you can only truly have a limited number of people you’re regularly connected with in life. But coming out of that amazing year of community life, I was driven to try to figure out how to do it with at least some people.

And it’s taught me how to continue to do that as I move around in life. As I move around to different places now, it’s a comfort that my relationships are not cemented by time and place.

Just this summer I got to fulfill my promise to visit those friends Bekky and Sara (and 8 others) again for the first time in 5 years, and it was amazing to be there with them and to feel how incredibly normal it felt to be friends in person still.

My friend Kate told me once, “I think everyone collects something: You collect stories and people.”

And as I’ve continued on in life, and continue to get to know people and want to continue friendships with them even when there’s distance, I think she’s right. As I’ve moved around, I have less friends in every day life as I’m breaking into these new places, but I continually have many close friends all over. And I’m content with that, because my friend’s blog url is right:

The distance is what you make it.

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