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Tuesday, March 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Eleven years. It’s been 11 years since she died. My older sister. Julie.

Two years ago on my birthday, I wrote a column about celebrating even when it’s hard, and I talked about when my sister died, and the birthdays that followed. In the piece, there was this line: “When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible.”

We were at dinner — my older brother, my parents, and me — when I read them my column for that month. When I read that line, they all laughed. I laughed a little when I wrote it. Because it’s true, it was horrible timing when she died. As if death ever comes at a good time, but hers was particularly bad timing.

She died 3 days after her 21st birthday. Two months before graduating college. Three months before her one year wedding anniversary (they’d just purchased a cruise for the occasion). And in the first month following her death we had to celebrate my dad’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, and Easter.

But I was glad that my family laughed at the line. Because that’s what I have begun to see as a sign of healing — being able to call things what they are. Being able to say that the timing was horrible and laugh at how irreverent it sounds and how true it is.

It took us several years as a family to know what to do with our “Julie week” of her birthday and anniversary of death. It was hard to talk about her for a long time. We each processed at different paces, and while some of us wanted to remember, it was too hard for the others. And visa versa other times.

Eventually, though, we ended up creating a sort of tradition when we were all living near one another (I’m the one that lives elsewhere some years, like this year). We get together and go out to dinner at the Olive Garden (her favorite — but give her a break, she was a 21-year-old broke college student/piano teacher. The Olive Garden was a splurge to her) and we tell stories to remember her. Not the stories that were told at the funeral. Those were too nice. Too kosher. For a long time, that’s all we or anyone would do — tell the funeral-appropriate stories. The ones where she seems so much more lovely, and so much less like the girl we grew up with and loved indefinitely not even despite, but with her flaws.

It took several years to find the freedom to remember her more accurately. To laugh at her precociousness, her sometimes judgmental nature, her infuriating stubbornness. To admit that amidst her mounds of talent, she was deeply insecure. To remember her harsh exterior that came out quite a bit, not just the softness that existed underneath, too. To remember the way her long red hairs got EVERYWHERE.  It was literally over a year before I stopped finding her hairs woven into the fabric of my clothes from the laundry.

Again, I think it’s a sign of healing, of acceptance, to be able to laugh. I have this theory that I will teach my children if they are ever bullied — laughing at something takes it’s power away.

And I think for our family, when we were able to finally laugh again at the memories of our sister, it was a sign that we were taking power away from grief. We had to let it run its course. That’s not optional. But finally, we found our way to a place where we could remember what was true.

And with that allowance, it is a double edged sword, because remembering the real Julie, means acknowledging the realness that we loved that we don’t have anymore. It means acknowledging the loss, not of some idealized saint, but of our very real sister who we very real-ly loved.

I think we learned this from my mom. We grew up hearing what I would name the “rascal boys stories” — stories of her and her two brothers while they were growing up. But in the stories, there were two brothers, and in life when we were hearing the stories, there was only one brother. We were missing an uncle. He died before I was born. I only know him from the stories.

But the Uncle Randy I know was deeply troubled and deeply loved. He was a lovable little boy. But he had a lot of problems socially and relationally. He got into trouble. He lived a rough life. But in the stories, I could hear him laughing. I could hear him crying. I could see him be tricked by his brother. And blamed for something his sister did. And I could see him yelling. I could see him getting arrested. I could see him dancing at his wedding. I could see him hitchhiking across the country to his new home in New York. And I could sense how much my mom and her family loved this very real, imperfect man.

I’ve never met him, but because of the stories, I know him a little bit. A non-idealized, real version of him. And because of that, he’s never felt like a story character — he’s felt like family. Real-life, living and breathing, blood and guts family.

That’s my hope as we move onward in this life and we carry the loss with us. That we will continue to choose to tell the stories of real-life Julie. That we will remember her as she was, and laugh at what needs to be laughed at and feel for the things that need to be felt. That we will love her in death the way we loved her in life. Real-ly. Because she was real, and our love for her still is. It is good to remember.

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Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers this week as her birthday is this Wednesday and the anniversary of her death is Saturday. 


 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     www.storiesbyJo.com

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below
Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 | Author:

2552487499_1dfda42709photo credit: Ti scriverò…. via photopin (license)

The idea came in waves.

As a journalism student in college, I was always writing news articles that answered the big 6 questions: Who, what, where, when, why, how, and the bonus 7th question: so what). My senior year ], however, was the first time I started to write more feature-length articles that were more people-oriented rather than event-oriented.

Following an interesting tip, I found myself writing my first feature-length on the stories of two women: one who was a current dancer (stripper) in the adult entertainment industry, and one who had been, but who now led a church ministry that reaches out to adult entertainment workers. Easily the hardest I’d ever worked on a piece and the most interested I’d ever become with my subjects. Their stories were so interesting to tell. The student Newspaper readership had to agree. I started to get stopped by students and teachers I didn’t know: “You’re the one that wrote the story about the strippers, right?” And then they’d have some other question or feedback for me.

What had started out as a beat in “under the rug” stories quickly found it’s focus in a particularly dusty area under the rug: the sex industry. And the most interesting part was always finding a subject — someone whose story would help me tell the larger story.

“Where were you the first time you ever saw porn?” I asked him.

I wanted to write about porn use and abuse, so I found a porn addict who was willing to speak with me honestly and bluntly. I was at a Christian University, so it was a controversial topic. We met in a secluded part of campus for the interview, and his name was changed in the article. But he let me tell his story. (He actually even told me I could use his name if I wanted at the last minute, but we decided it wouldn’t add anything to the story, and it may hurt him on campus.)

I remember while we were in the couple-hour interview, I had this thought: this is such sacred ground. He was telling me his shameful secrets. Allowing me to ask about the gritty details. Letting me in to a dark part of his past. I had never asked such candid questions, nor received such open answers.

The result was that I wrote an article about porn use, but really, I wrote this guy’s story. It just happened to have some porn in it.

The day the article came out in the newspaper, I went to the coffee shop on campus, and he was in there. He bee-lined for me and hugged me.

“I read the article this morning,” he said, “and I thought ‘that’s a crazy story.’ And then I went, ‘That’s MY story.’ And I called my mom and thanked her for the first time ever, for being there for me, for being both my mom and my dad when my dad wasn’t around.”

I didn’t write anything of his story that the guy didn’t tell me himself. But that was the first instance where I started to realize the power of hearing or seeing our own story outside of ourselves.

There is power in that. Even in just letting my story into the open these past 3 weeks, what started as whole-body anxiety and two-week-long nausea has turned into an acceptance that I hadn’t had before, an ability to breathe easier, and to see the power that my story has to change other peoples lives, to speak to them in the places where they thought they were alone, to share where I was and let it meet them where they are.

I’ve had my life changed by a story more than once. And I’ve found extreme power in seeing my story outside of myself. Sometimes it’s the power of healing and freedom, sometimes it’s the power of recognizing what I’ve gone through and thinking, “That’s a crazy story.” And sometimes it’s the revelation that I’m not alone.

This is why I’m starting Stories By Jo: The Story Project (see below).

If porn wasn’t what I was looking for, I may have found a different story entirely within that young man. So instead of approaching someone’s story looking only at a particular angle, I want to come in with fresh eyes and a non-newspapered freedom to say with a blank slate: “What’s your story?” And to see what we find there.  Whatever the story is, I know this — it matters.


 

Also, in order to do this story project I’ve been going out on a limb of faith in what I believe will be an incredible and incredibly meaningful project and I have begun to work as a freelancer. The project participants will pay to have me write their stories, but to keep those costs on a more reasonable note and to still cover my project expenses, I’d like to ask you to think about supporting the project financially.

If you’d be willing to donate to help make this project happen, please click the donate button below. Thank you for your support and for reading!

 

Stories by Jo: The Story Project

Everyone has a story, but not everyone has the

voice, time, or platform to tell it.

 

Just as you would hire a professional photographer to come take a portrait of you or your family, you can now also hire a professional writer to come help you tell your story by writing it for you.

The story project is my idea of wanting to help people see that they have a story, to give them a tangible product that they can then share with their friends and families and can pass down through generations, and to provide a collection of true stories of American lives for the world to see and be changed by.

That’s the power of stories. They help us know we’re not alone.

Look out for the official website Launch Next Week!

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, September 16th, 2014 | Author:

I was at the post office. It was 4:40 and I needed to mail a stack of about 7 envelopes all registered mail (meaning, apparently, that I have to fill out a form for each of the already-addressed envelopes with to-from info as well as estimated value included inside, and then they have to be specially sealed, then stamped all around that seal, then addressed again and sealed with an additional sticker of authenticity, and then weighed and posted). I’m tired just writing that.

So I filled out my portion of the form for each of my 7 envelopes hurriedly while I was in line, letting several people go in front of me. By the time I reached the counter it was about 4:50, 10 minutes until the closing. A tall, thin man in his 50s or 60s waived me up to his empty station at the far end of the counter. His name tag told me his name was Ike.

I came up and told him, apologetically, that I needed these 7 envelopes sent by registered mail and the rest sent regular post. He turned and walked away without saying anything. I wasn’t sure if he was getting something or heard me or just decided that enough was enough and it was close enough to closing.

I hung in the balance for a good 45 seconds, not knowing, until he turned around the corner with a roll of brown sealing paper in his hand. As he re-joined me at the counter, he set to work slowly, but not dawdling, just taking his precise time, still not saying anything. His face was kind, though, so I started: “How’s your day been today?”

“It was pretty good, then you showed up,” he said dryly, looking up at me with a glint of humor in his brown eyes. A beat. Then he smirked, softly.


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photo credit: TheeErin via photopin cc

We began chatting, slowly at first, with long pauses between conversation topics. But the process to complete my request was long and I was with him for literally 30 minutes, and we chatted about his work, his life, where he’s lived, that I just moved to Colorado…

“When did you move?” he asked, still looking down, busy with his work.

“Last week,” I said, a little too peppy.

He paused. Looked up. “Last week!?” he exclaimed drawing out the emphasis like Bill Cosby would when talking to his kids.

“Yessir,” I said, smiling, friendly.

“Man. Well, I think you’ll like it. It grew on me, but it’s home now. I think that you’ll find that people are kind here. And if you meet the few who have bad attitudes, just tell them to go smoke a bowl and chill out,” he sat flatly, then looking up at me with that same sly glimmer, he let his full grin slip and laughed.

“Just offer them some cheetos to compliment their necessary high?” I joked. He laughed and then coughed from laughing.

We parted ways and I told him my name and told him he may see more of me as I seem to mail things often these days. “I’ll run the other way next time,” he said, winking. And then he silently waived the next person in the still very long line up to his desk as I walked away, 20 minutes after closing time.

He’s been at his job with the USPS for 30 years now, and been in this particular post office for 20 years. Never had a mail route: “Heck no. I like to be indoors with the controlled temperatures. If I’d have had a mail route, I’d have made a liar out of their ‘through sleet hail and snow’ motto real fast.” And he was not just patient, but pleasant as I came in with my lengthy request at almost closing time.

“Sorry again that you had to do this,” I said. “I promise next time it’d just be a simple “Hey Ike, can ya ship this for me,” request.”

“Nah, nah, it’s alright Jo. It was mighty fine closing out the day getting to stand around and chat with you. Have a good one.”

I may have moved to a pretty big city, but so far, I feel like the connections I’m making are these small-town type connections. Getting to know my post office employees and the workers at my local Costco. I’ve become well acquainted with my maintenance guy now — he’s been to my apartment to fix and re-fix issues with the gas in my fireplace about 5 times now over the past week.

I went to church last night and was fortunate enough to have a friend let the pastor know I’d be coming, so I got to go to dinner afterward with the pastor, his wife, and several others from the church. And I found myself telling my story, and crying in a restaurant as I am so familiar with doing now in public places when I get real and share my past pain.

And I’ve been to two family dinners — one with a cousin of mine and one with my friend Kate’s Aunt and Uncle who live here.  And I spent part of an afternoon giving a ride to Kate’s little sister who goes to college here now and doesn’t have a car.

Like I said, I may have moved to a big city, but these connections don’t feel like it. In a week I have had more honest and real interactions with people than I had in probably the first several months of my time in my previous town. Which doesn’t say as much about Denver versus Rocklin as it does about me now versus me a year ago.

I am opening up again. I’m coming alive again and being vulnerable again and it’s opening up some beautiful doors of connection. Even at the post office at closing time.


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, 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