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Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 | Author:

storyofjo san diego friends

I convinced her to do the hike with me.

It’s called the Devil’s Punch Bowl.  Some of the reviews and bloggers were surprisingly dramatic about how hard of a hike it is and how much water you need to bring with you. (One blogger suggested something like 5 gallons per person. Which I still stand by the fact that that’s ridiculous.)

Reading a bit further on the matter, though, I found plenty of people who had said the hike itself is easy-moderate, it’s just hot and unshaded. Perfect, I thought. Work on my San Diego tan while we hike. Win win.

I asked Lizz if she was down for it, and she expressed concerns about having heard similarly scary reports of how hard it was. But I told her what I’ve just told you and she agreed to try it.

You hike three miles downhill in desert areas outside of San Diego, get to the Devil’s Punchbowl, hangout in the shade and/or water, then you go three miles back uphill in the sun. In the summer it averages around 115 degrees. But in March, when we were going, it was only 85 or 90. Totally doable.

We laughed and made jokes about the huge signs at the trailhead that say in big, capital block letters: “CAUTION. HEAT STROKE KILLS!”

“Hey Lizz, I don’t know if you’re heard, but you should really be cautious. There’s this thing called heat stroke, and it’ll kill ya dead.” We have a very dry, sarcastic humor with one another. For some reason we find it hilarious to just repeat obvious things in dumb voices. At least we entertain each other.

We hiked down with ease, though Lizz was starting to get really hot. Which probably should’ve been a tip-off. We were trying to conserve our water, though, so she drank little on the way down. When we got to the water, we stayed for a good 30 or 40 minutes, just trying to get her back to feeling OK. We still made jokes about how she was dying from heat stroke. But of course, she didn’t have heat stroke, she was just hot from hiking in the hot sun. She was fine. It did take her a long time to feel like she got her temp back down though.

When she finally did, we began the hike back up. About 2/3 of the way she was really struggling and started to talk about feeling light headed, nauseas and having a throbbing headache. Having worked at summer camps for many years, I know that means dehydrated, so we made steady slow effort up the trail and I kept having her drink more. More. More.

Here, drink my second water bottle. Here drink the rest of my last water bottle. With no cell service I was starting to get concerned, but near the end she said she was feeling a little better, so I went on ahead to get to the trail head and get myself some water, and bring some back for her if she had to stop.

But I didn’t have to go back for her, she was close enough behind me. She got to the trailhead, drank an entire liter of water, and then went and laid in the shade until she cooled off.

Sorry I almost killed you with heat stroke I apologized, still snarky.

She cooled down, we got in the car and headed for our next item for the day. On the drive I got cell service back and received a text message my mom had sent earlier that morning: “Hi Jo. Give me a call when you have a chance.”

As I was driving and Lizz was all heat-strokey, I decided I would call her once we arrived somewhere. I had a feeling in my gut that she was going to tell me my childhood cat had died. He was old, I knew he’d been potentially nearing the end for a while now, but if it was that, I didn’t want to know just yet.

We got into the next town and were almost to our destination when Lizz said, Pull over. Pull over right now I’m gonna throw up.

I pulled into a parking lot and she couldn’t get the door quite all the way open before she puked in the most projectile way of “projectile vomit” I’ve ever seen. Some of it hit part of the door, splashing back on her, and the rest drenched the hot asphalt.

All of the water I’d made her drink shot out like a water cannon. It was really quite impressive if it weren’t so sad.

After she seemed to have finished, she sat up, I handed her a napkin, she wiped her mouth and the door, and said I think I just need to sit here for a bit.

I decided I might as well call my mom and face the sad news if thats what it was while I waited.

Hi Jo, she started. It’s about your cat. 

My tear ducts got ready.

Is he dead? I asked.

He went missing yesterday, and Dad went out to look for him today because we hadn’t seen him, and I’m sorry Jo but he found him in the pool. He drowned.

Tears. Falling. Throat. Catching.

He drowned??? I balked.

I’m so sorry Jo…

I cut her off. I felt the grief assaulting me. Ok, I’m sorry. I have to go. Bye.

I hit the “end call” button with a messy punch of my thumb before my hand just dropped the phone and I cried ugly, loud sobs while strangling the steering wheel. And then I wailed. The sounds guttural. Moans of distraught youth. Cries of old, old life officially gone.

Because he hadn’t died of old age he had drowned.

Because he’s the only pet* that’s ever been mine.

Because we only got him because me and my now dead older sister begged for him on our knees on the sidewalk outside of the froze yogurt place when we saw the lady with the box of free kittens. And while Julie would typically be far too proud to do anything like that, she’d done it with me.

Because he was just like me — he was independent and feisty and wanted to be loved, but only on his terms. He didn’t want you to hold him all night, he just wanted to touch base and come and go as he pleased. Unless you didn’t want him near you, then he’d work his way into your lap and your heart.

Because he had been a constant when everything else in life seemed to change. Not just once, but twice.

Because it was still with a child’s heart that I loved him.

After my loud cries and then silent sobs subsided, Lizz projected more vomit out the door while I blew my nose and wiped my eyes. She wiped her mouth again and we looked at each other.

Well, we’re a sad pair, she said.

And we laughed.

I’m really sorry about your cat, she said.

I’m really sorry I made you hike and throw up, I said.

And we laughed again.

That’s officially the ugliest crying session of mine that anyone has ever witnessed. And again I reiterate that I’ve never seen such quintessential “projectile vomit” ever before in real life.

But we didn’t judge each other. We laughed at ourselves. And we were there. In the ugliest parts of life, that’s the most I could ever ask for in a friend, I think. No judgement, some laughter, and just being there. That’s the majority of what true friendship is. Not grand gestures and bff bracelets, but being someone who can sit in the ugliness of life and call it what it is.
Also, be cautious, heat stroke kills.

storyofjo san diego friends *I had a desert tortoise when I was young that my dad had found as a kid, and his mom had kept after he was grown, and she had given the tortoise to me when I was a kid, but then Pickles ran away one day. So one, Pickles was not just mine. And two, she ran away. And three, she was a tortoise, and it’s hard to connect with a tortoise. Just saying.

 


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 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, April 14th, 2015 | Author:

“Do you know of any churches in Denver?” I texted a pastor I know from California when I had just moved to Denver last fall.

He texted back right away: “Scum of the Earth Church. Pastor is Mike Sares. We went there last summer. If you want to go, I’ll let him know you’re coming.”

“It’s f—ing hard to find a church when I don’t trust the church,” I thought to myself, frustration welling up.

“Thank you. I’ll go tomorrow,” I texted back.

Then I found the tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat at the table alone in my new apartment, overwhelmed at the thought of trying another new church. Getting to know people who would eventually have to know my story if I was to be known. And knowing that with telling my story, I might be judged, outcast, burned again.

I pulled my laptop out right then and wrote the blog post from last fall that I titled “I don’t trust the church (but I wish I did).” Many of you have read and commented on that blog post, and in the responses, I have realized that I am not alone in my distrust of the church, of religion, of pastors.

But I went to Scum of the Earth church the next day after I first typed out that blog post.

While driving by where it was supposed to be, I did see one church kind of looking building between a dirty alleyway and a house, it didn’t have any sign saying “Church” or anything at all, actually. No signs. So I wasn’t sure that was it.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI parked and walked back, asking the people in patched vests smoking on the steps if this was the “scum of the earth church.” It was, so I slipped in and found a seat while the folks inside were singing in the dimmed light. A little girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, danced barefooted and beautiful in the open space in front of the worship band.

Soon, a big, white-haired Greek man got up to the microphone at the front.

“We have something we do a few times a year here at scum, and it is consistently one of the most important things we do. That’s tonight. Tonight we are having our “story night” and we have a few people who will share their stories with us.”

I was interested, immensely, because I love stories. But also somewhat skeptical — I had images of “I was doing bad stuff, and God saved me, and now my life is awesome and I have no problems” testimonies. I was prepared to discretely walk out if that was the case.

But instead, three or four people shared their scarred stories, and none of them were just about some sort of conversion of how they “came to Jesus.” Rather, they were their personal stories. Stories of them as whole people, not as “good christians.” Stories that didn’t have pretty bows to tie around them at the end.

The stories did involve their relationships with God — sometimes how they started to get intrigued about God. Sometimes how they met him. Sometimes how they wanted to follow him, how they wanted to accept His love, but how the dark draw of cocaine, of men, of alcohol, of resentment and pain over the wrongs done to them made it a rocky pursuit at best.

Not that their pursuit of God used to be rocky but now was great. But the fact that one woman still was fighting the urge to not go out and F— some random man a few weeks ago after church to temporarily fill that void, that ache. The stories felt real. And in the midst of conflict. In the midst of wrestling. In the midst of the battle between I-want-to-love-and-follow-God and this-world-has-screwed-me-over-and-it-sometimes-feels-like-I’m-dying.

The church itself is not what I’m used to. It’s a conglomeration of church styles and ideologies, not many of which fit what I’ve grown up in.

But what I found during story night was a church who was willing to be honest about the struggle. Not the I-used-to-struggle-but-now-God-has-saved-me, but the I-am-currently-struggling. A church that is willing to be honest about the messes of life, and be a safe place for people to admit that they are sinners, that they are hurting, that they are doubting, that they are wrestling.

And I have never seen another church like that. I have never seen an entire church that can be honest about flaws. That can be honest about life. That enables the people in it and around it to not pretend to be better than they are.

There are still challenging messages about how we can and often should do things differently. How we can allow God to better us and heal us. But the bleeding wounds of the church people’s souls don’t have to be ignored or hidden there. And that is the most important thing I need in a church right now.  That’s why I stayed.

I sat down with Mike, the pastor, the other day and he asked, “did you ever go check out other churches?”

I told him the same thing: No. I saw that you could handle struggles in honesty. And that’s the most important thing I need right now.

Though I think I told him then, as I told them the very first night 7 months earlier: I like this church. But I hate the name. Scum of the Earth? Really? That’s not how God sees us. But I’ll overlook it because of your church’s honesty about life.

I went to dinner after that first church service with Mike and his wife and several others from the church. And I told them my story. “So, I don’t really trust the church, or pastors right now,” I said.

And without missing a beat, Mike, this new Pastor I had just met said: “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t trust the church or pastors either.”

Again, he and the church seemed willing to have people be honest about where they were on the path. Not just in a general message from the front, but at dinner at Pete’s Greek Town to me, specifically. They were giving me permission: I didn’t have to pretend to be better off, or farther along than I was. I was welcome. And I was welcome to be honest. As was the rest of the church.

When you look around the church, about half of the people look like the outliers of society — the punks, the goths, the homeless. They have different colored and styled hair, lots of large plugs and piercings, tattoos galore.

The other half of the people look like they’d fit in well in clean, professional social circles. You could find people who look like them in bulk in any church on a sunday morning — well dressed, they sit up straight, speak with an educated tone, and their classic-ness gives them the “good church people” air. I’ve always found this mix of the type of people in Scum curious, but valuable.

And as I sat in the back of the church on Easter sunday, I noticed that someone a few seats down from me smelled heavily of BO. And I noticed that a woman across the aisle smelled freshly of sweet perfume. And I realized as I looked around, as I’ve gotten to know peoples’ stories there, why it’s called Scum of the Earth church.

Because it is for those who society thinks, the church thinks, or they themselves think that they look like scum on the outside, or that they are scum on the inside.

And it was the first time I realized and admitted how scum-like I have felt over the past few years.

This church, it has brought me up a bit farther out of the cesspool. It has given me space to be honest from day one about who I am, where I have been, and the fact that I’m still wrestling. That I’m still doubting and questioning. That I’m still distrusting, and they said, “you’re welcome to be all of those things here. We are and have been all of those things, too.”

I get it now.

I’ll be sad to leave Scum as I move on in a few weeks. They have taught me that it is not a sin to be honest about life and struggle in the church. They have restored some hope to me about what a church could be.


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, March 31st, 2015 | Author:

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

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

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

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

And the same was true for the swings.

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

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

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

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

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

“But I hate shoes.”

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

“Fine,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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, March 24th, 2015 | Author:

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We sat in a small, barren classroom with approximately twelve standard table desks, in three rows of four. A green chalk board spans the length of the front wall, and a small wooden podium sits off to the side at the front of the room — it holds handouts and chalk, but it won’t be used as a presentation platform this hour.

There are two dark blue plastic chairs to each table. Students dot the room with their informal, after-lunch presence.

Two girls in the back wear bikinis under their tank tops, either preparing to head to the waves right after class for a surf session, or having just returned from the water.

The table tops hold notebooks, pens, coffee cups and water bottles, snacks and parts of lunches stolen from the caf  — what Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) students and faculty call the cafeteria (always “the caf,” never “the cafeteria”).

The class room is seated on PLNU’s picturesque campus by the sea in San Diego, though the room itself is unimpressive, sitting in the shade by the parking lot, the caf and the music building it’s only view.

This is where Intro to Journalism is held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 1:30-2:20pm in the Fall semester of 2007. The class is led by Dr. Dean Nelson, head of the journalism program at the university, author, journalist with bylines in places such as the New York Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. His students know him by his first name.

Dean would get up, most often wearing khaki slacks, a generic button down t-shirt, and either Vans or Converse shoes, and he would joke with us in brash ways as everyone filtered in. “Alright,” he’d begin, and either launch into a current events quiz (Mondays), an Associated Press Stylebook quiz (Fridays), or just straight into the lesson, either about ways to write an article, ways to get sources, or case studies that teach important journalistic lessons such as ethics, libel, or handling a tough story assignment.

My whole life I’d had this inclination toward English literature and English classes. But I am a painfully slow reader, so I knew I would drown quickly in the workload of a literature student, so I entered college majoring in broadcast journalism. I had experience anchoring, script-writing, videoing, editing, and producing news broadcasts for my middle school, and for our church’s hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana when I was in high school after Hurricane Katrina, so I thought maybe that would be a good fit. That’s how I landed in Dean’s Intro to Journalism class my first semester.

It only took that single class to make me decide to ditch the “broadcast” portion of my major, and to sweep me off my feet into the world of nonfiction writing. I’d been in love with stories told in any medium since as long as I could remember, but aside from the Little House on the Prairie books we read aloud in my young childhood, I didn’t have much experience reading non-fiction. Dean’s class changed all of that. Our assignments were sometimes to read non-storied non-fiction about the techniques of writing, but even those resources were often written with stories entwined. In a swift unveiling, I saw a world of true stories, written as captivatingly as fiction, and I knew I wanted to write like that.

One of the lessons Dean honed in on several times, however, is a writer’s temptation to make a story better than it is by embellishing, creating bias, under-emphasizing, and other tactics that would make the story more compelling or interesting.

I wouldn’t say I’ve struggle with this a lot, but I know that before this class, sometimes as I would tell stories, I might leave out the measuring details, to make something sound more grand. Or I may embellish my already poor skills of estimation. But the more Dean honed in on this lesson, the deeper it embedded its conviction in me.

Dean put it this way, and I’ve always remembered these words: “The truth is interesting enough.”

It is one of my mantras to this day. I’m not always perfect at this. But when I falter, I try to come back (often right away) and correct myself. It’s a matter of integrity as much as it is a matter of accuracy.

It’s the foundation of my assurance in the idea that everyone has a story, and that every story matter.

Because in the midst of photoshopped models, movied plot-lines, and social media platforms that allow us to edit our lives, I want to be someone who continually believes and lives out with conviction the idea that the truth is interesting enough. And if I want my life to be more interesting, it’s up to my living, not my writing, to make it so.

This is real life. We all live it, with its few glamorous and many monotonous moments. And it’s freeing to accept the truth for yourself that the true reality of your life is interesting enough.

 

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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, 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 10th, 2015 | Author:

Story continued from last week’s Part 1 post. (read here) 

Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved. (If you don’t read it all, scroll to bottom for the most impactful photo project I’ve ever been a part of.)

Three: Uncovering more debt

In the middle of the week, we had this morning where we worked with a horse for equine therapy. (For the record, I felt like it was B.S. I still do.) You go into a corral with a horse, and based on how you interact with the horse, your group – it’s group therapy – and a couple of therapists kind of pry and make suggestions about “oh, do you ever respond to your wife/husband/father/etc the way you just did to the horse?” I didn’t want to do it because it felt fake, like a fortune teller.  Before I stepped into the ring, I knew they were going to conclude that the horse was John. I was extremely closed off and defensive before I even began.

At the end of my time in the ring, I was facing the horse, petting him with one hand and had my other hand on him as a “boundary hand” as the trainer had shown those who’d gone before me.  You’re supposed to use it when the horse starts to lean into your space — you push him back to show him that this is your space.

So I was petting him, and quickly he started to step toward me. I pushed back with my boundary hand, but before I knew it, someone had grabbed me and yanked me backward. I looked at the trainer and yelled “what the heck!?”

“You were about to be trampled because you wouldn’t let go!” She said in a harsh, scared way. I could tell she was shaken.

But I was pissed because I hadn’t been trying to pet him, I was trying to use my boundary hand to push him back. And I told her so. She was still flustered, and I was defensive and emotionally absent, so she had me be done. I went to the edge of the ring, and there my therapist and group members were waiting, watching.

“Would you be willing to hear some observations your group has?” My therapist, Jim, asked. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say because I already knew it would be B.S. stuff about John… but I said “sure.” So I listened, and that’s exactly what it was. The only response I could feign was: “Thanks. So am I done now?”

Jim said, “Sure,” and as I was turning to leave the ring, he just said, “You sure looked small there standing next to that horse.”

And without missing a beat I said, defensively, “I don’t feel small!” and I threw up my hands in a kind of “bring it’ way like I was going to fight him.

And I’ll never forget this. He said, “Wow, maybe that’s the problem. Let me rephrase. You sure are small next to that horse.”

And then the tears came as the full weight of that realization settled onto me.

It was later that afternoon that I recalled the first time John had later told me he’d first thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo.” I was 16 and we were on a mission trip. I’d remembered this admission a couple months before. But it was in group room 4 in a small town in Tennessee that I realized that the night he thought “I’d like to kiss Jo” was the day before he changed the dynamic of our relationship forever. We’d been talking about love languages, and he’d said he thought mine was touch.

“Yeah, I could see that, but it’s never come out as my top one on the test,” I said. He was convinced it was touch — “that’s what we’re doing the rest of the week!” He said proudly in front of my friends, “guys, we’re gonna help Jo embrace her touch love language.”

I distinctly remember sitting in the middle seat of a front bench seat in the truck, with John on my left driving, and one of my younger guy friends to my right. John grabbed my hand, laced his fingers through mine and instructed my friend to do the same with my right hand. I squirmed incredibly uncomfortable, but everyone in the truck was laughing like it was a funny joke, so I laughed, too. “I’m not going to let go until you like it,” John said. While my friend let go of my hand as soon as we got out of the car, John continued to hold mine tightly as we went into Starbucks, as we drove to the next stop, as we went into a store. And that was it. The beginning of it all. He didn’t stop until I liked it. One night he thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo,” and the next day he changed the entire dynamic of our relationship.

When I realized this, I was livid. It was the first time I could see how clear the answer was to the question I had asked myself over and over through the years “How did this happen? How did I get here?” The multiple therapists from multiple places were right in what they’d told me all along. I could finally see it. I was groomed.

For some reason, I have never realized that I am small. I was 16 when this started with John. And I look at other 16 year old girls now, and I think, there’s no way I would hold them responsible for this. I look at other 23 year old girls and think the same.

But I’ve always carried myself like I was big and strong. I’m sorry to myself, to his family, to everyone that’s been hurt in this that I didn’t recognize my weakness and vulnerability.

As a result, I played the part I did in allowing for this to continue for as long as it did.  I am endlessly sorry for that.

I never thought to run away or yell for help. I thought I was big enough to use my boundary hand and push back.

I was not.

_____________

To admit that I had been taken advantage of, that I was a victim, it deflated me. It made me so angry, and so full of grief to accept this reality. But it wasn’t until I could do that that I began to make significant steps forward in my healing journey, and also in my forgiveness journey.

I went into Onsite feeling like my life had shattered and that I’d lost all of the broken pieces so I had nothing to rebuild with. I came out of Onsite feeling like I had found enough shards to start rebuilding something new.

But first, I had to get angry. Really angry. And distrusting. As I was healing and moving forward in many ways, I was also uncovering more and more of the ways that John had hurt me, duped me, manipulated me over the years, and the more I demonized him. This commenced months of nightmares with him as the star villain.

Come the fall of that year, people started to ask me if I had forgiven him. “No,” I’d always reply bluntly. I was not willing to be challenged on the matter. I’d forgive the mother-fucker on my time frame. Not theirs. And I refused to play the “Ok, I forgive him, Oh wait I’m so hurt and mad again, ok I forgive him again” dance for ages. I would be firm in my un-forgiveness until I was certain that it had arrived, that I had summited that large mountain I’d decided to climb.

Then came the “You need to forgive him,” comments once in a while, “if not for him, than for yourself,” which I respected, but still disagreed with. “I’m not ready,” remained my answer.

I’d talked with God a lot over the course of the year, especially as I was alone much of the year. God and I, we have really honest conversations. I talk to Him like I talk to anyone. And I’d asked Him to be gentle with me, to help me, but that ultimately, I knew I’d need to forgive John at some point, but that I just wasn’t ready.

But one day in October (10 months after confession sunday), I was out running and I had thought about seeing if one of my friends wanted to hang out when I came into town the next afternoon, which led to me thinking, “Wait, maybe she’s busy because of helping with the youth group.”

Which led to, “Wait, does she even help with the youth group any more?”

Which was a thought that hit me like an arrow to the chest. I used to be the pastor of that middle school youth group and I didn’t even know if one of my old best friends helped there any more. I sat down right on the paved path and hung my head. “This is so hard, God,” I breathed heavily.

And then it hit me out of nowhere: “I bet John doesn’t know what’s going on in the youth group either.” And that thought broke my heart for him. I’d been demonizing him and hating him for months, and out of nowhere I had this pang of sadness for him and his probable disconnectedness from the youth group he’d pastored for a decade. After a moment, I realized that I was sad for him, and I brushed the thought away, and looked up to the sky, and thought, “God. Stop it. Step back. I’m not ready for this.”

But it was too late, with that one surprise moment, I felt my heart start to soften for him as a human again.

And then, two days before Christmas, he wrote me a letter that absolutely ruined me. It opened up new chasms of grief that I didn’t even know were there. For a man who had only ever written me one Christmas card, and one sticky note in the 12 years of knowing him, I received an 8-page typed letter.

And it said everything that I had written in my version of the letter I’d written through tears at Onsite — the letter I had accepted that I’d never receive.

To be completely honest, when I first read through it it both pained me and outraged me. I won’t share all the details of why, or what all it entailed. But I was bitter and ready to spew my pain back at him.

I sat down on Christmas eve for a couple hours with the intention of trying to just get down my scattered thoughts onto a page to organize later into a letter. But what emerged was a long, unrelenting letter. Along with apologizing and asking for forgiveness for all of the things, he had extended an offer to give a window into my life those days. I was not going to spare him the details, because my life was still very dark, very lonely, very muddled by the fuckedupness, even a year after confession sunday.

“I’m hesitant to write to you for many reasons. 1. I don’t forgive you…” I began.

And I went off on him in bitterness at first. But what ended up coming out of me was sharing what I’ve shared here: what happened at Onsite. How I first found myself mad at him, hating him. How I first realized and admitted that I’d been taken advantage of. And what I’d learned about forgiveness, and the way we’re prone to want to do it too quickly, without adding up the debt we’re canceling.

And in the process of writing all of that out, I found my heart softening in mounds toward a man I had once considered family. Once I had gotten to the end, I let it sit for a few more days.

Then Sunday, January 5, 2014 after church one day short of the exact one year mark from confession Sunday, I sat at a Starbucks in Rocklin, California, and I added an addendum to the letter:

And true forgiveness has to involve adding up the debt so that we can know what we’re agreeing to cancel.

This past year I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the debt of pain you’ve cost me.  And as new parts have been uncovered, I’ve added it to the ledger. I have been consistently forgiving you for new parts, but discovering others.

With this letter, though, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of the debt out onto the ledger.  And I’ve found forgiveness for you for the things I’ve listed here.  I don’t trust you. And forgiveness doesn’t erase the pain or the cost in my life. But it means I’m releasing the fact that you owe me anything for them.

I am hesitant to say I forgive you, because I am certain I will continue to discover new parts of your debt.  As I am in relationships with men and sorting through my dysfunctions and insecurities. In my marriage as I struggle with trust. In the church if I ever get to return to ministry.  I’m sure I will continue to stumble upon undiscovered corners of pain for years to come.

And knowing this is the case, this was the reason I planned to write to you telling you that I forgive you for the things so far, and I’ll continue to work on forgiving you as I know more in the future.

But as I sat there writing it, I just had a wave wash over me, a wave of visions of years from now, all the times I’ll stumble on new parts of the debt, and I realized I didn’t want to think of him in those times. I didn’t want him to owe me for those times. I was ready to move on and accept whatever pain I find later without any ties to him. And just like that, while the barista was walking by with the dust pan to go clean the bathroom, I let go. I forgave him for it all. Because that’s how forgiveness happens in my experience — in the un-monumental moments in the midst of real life. The decision may happen at an altar in a church service, or in front of the perpetrator. But the realization that forgiveness has come — that, wow, I’m finally at the top of this large mountain I’ve been climbing — it comes when it comes, it comes when its ready.

I forgive you for any future pain and discomfort or closed doors or lost relationships. I release you.

And for the first time, I think I know exactly the weight of those words, and I know that I mean them.

___

As I was telling a friend about the letter, and about the way I’d found myself unexpectedly forgiving John before I thought I’d be ready, I heard myself say this: “I’d been hating him for a long time, but I felt God start to soften me before I wanted him to. It’s been a year, and I’ve come full circle. Which is weird, because I thought I was just moving forward.”

I think forgiveness, like grief, is a path, a journey with many stages, and we have to walk them all, even if where we end up — at forgiveness — is where we tried to start. We have to walk through it all. We have to not simply decide to climb the mountain, we have to climb the whole damn thing.

*I asked a photographer friend of mine to take photos of me last year while I read parts of my letter to John aloud. Since I couldn’t deliver the letter in person, I wanted something to help me remember what it was like to be in that space – something other than a letter in the mail to capture the moments I found myself at the sad mountain summit where I both forgave and said goodbye.

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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, February 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved.

“I don’t forgive you.” Those were the words I wrote near the beginning of the letter.

He’d written me a letter apologizing for a mountain of pains and wounds, and asking me to forgive them. “I’m hesitant to write this letter to you for many reasons. 1: I don’t forgive you…” I began.

Let me rewind:

(If you didn’t read the nutshell version of “what happened” that was on the blog last week, you can catch up here.)

After confession Sunday, my life went dark for a long time.

It took me several months of therapy to finally get to a point where I didn’t feel like the situation was all my fault. I sat in my therapist’s office, afraid to admit dates and put an accurate timeline on how things unfolded because I saw her doing the math, I heard her mention “illegal” in her wonderings of what happened. She and other therapists had told me since the beginning what they thought: This was abuse. This was not my fault. That this is what they call a “trauma bond” and it’s the same bond that kidnappers and pimps have with their victims and girls. That I had been groomed.

But I fought them on that. “I am not a victim,” was my mantra, and I was defensive, trying to explain our situation away — to make them understand that I was not a victim, I was a very broken, but very real culprit.

I was afraid to reveal things because I still believed my old youth pastor this had happened with, John (not his real name), was just a good guy who just spent too much time with me. That it was an innocent “slipping up” mistake of a situation. “I had all these boundaries in place for everyone. To make sure I led a good life. It’s like you just slipped in the back door,” he said several times in the course of the secret becoming public.

I was still conditioned by the years of not telling. Because I had always seen that it was his secret to tell or not tell. It was always his family, whom I loved deeply, who would be so hurt by it. It was always his ministry and job that would be lost — his ministry that had taught me everything I knew about God and the ways to love and care about the world and to live life well. And the decision was always not to tell, because it would hurt all those people. “It would be selfish to tell,” were the actual words he used one time as he told me about this painful decision he’d come to one of the myriad of times we were trying to figure out what to do, how to stop this from happening again throughout the 7 years of on and off fucked-up-ness. (That’s my term — please, pardon my french, but there is not a kosher term that is also accurate.)

Somewhere in those first months, I think my pastor or someone had asked me to start thinking about forgiving John. I don’t think I responded really, but as I thought about it then, I didn’t have much to hold against him. I thought that we were equal culprits in this, and I wasn’t mad at him, I was just devastated by the amount of pain we’d inflicted on those we loved, and I was devastated by the loss — his family were my closest people. The loss of other close friends that I had who either chose to step out of my life, or who wanted to be in my life still but were so pained by it that it would never be the same. The loss of my calling on my life to do ministry in the church. The loss of feeling at home in the church I literally grew up in. The loss of feeling at home in my hometown. The loss — I was just so broken over the loss. But I wasn’t mad at John.

And people told me I would be, someday. That I would realize his role as being so much bigger than I could see then. That I would someday need to see it for what it was — abuse of power. That I had been taken advantage of. I said, “No. You don’t understand.”

But I couldn’t move forward in my healing. I was devastated and I was stuck. I never hit that “numb” phase people tell you will come. It was just brokenness. Complete, vast, heart-decimating brokenness. Every day. And every night. Which led me to finally pursue something I’d heard about — Onsite’s Intensive Therapy Workshop.

There’s a place in small town Tennessee called Onsite Workshops, and they do these 8 day long Intensive Therapy workshops utilizing experiential therapy (which sounds like “experimental” therapy, but it’s not).

The intensives like this are supposed to be similar to a year or two of therapy in a week’s time, and for me, it was.

Then came Onsite.

“The problem we have with forgiveness is this,” my Onsite therapist, Jim, began addressing my group of 9 broken people in group room 4. “Forgiveness means to cancel a debt. But so often in our culture, we decide to forgive someone, but then later we feel that same anger or pain creep up again and we’re confused. ‘I thought I got rid of this! Why is this back?’ we ask. And the reason that happens when we just decide to forgive someone, is that we haven’t added up the debt we’re forgiving. And then as we discover more of the debt, we’re confronted with the pain or anger again. That’s part of what some of you may have to work on this week. Learning how to work through adding up the debt so you can really forgive.”

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I had never heard of forgiveness in these terms.

But it made so much sense to me. I’d always been reluctant to just decide to forgive someone and declare it done in the same breath. It seemed equivalent with deciding to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and saying I’d done it in the same breath. I’d always seen myself decide to forgive someone and then once I’d worked through the crap of it in my heart, I’d realize at some point that forgiveness was there. I couldn’t coax it out of myself before it was ready. This definition of forgiveness as wiping clean a debt, it gave me permission to take the time to count the debt, to take the pains to climb the mountain.

I want to tell you about three things that happened there that week.

One: Getting mad

Within the first two days, I had a realization that broke me. The very first time John outright proposed something explicitly across the line (“You touch mine, I’ll touch yours?” proposition  when I was 18) I was outraged at the thought, said “No,” left, and came back to confront him later. He smoothed it over, made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal and that it didn’t change everything. He apologized and promised it would never happen again. So I trusted him. I so, so, wish I had thought to tell someone right then. But I didn’t even think of that option. I don’t know why. I just didn’t.

The realization that literally left me breathless, though, was this: At that point, had I gone screaming for help, or had I done what I did — he set me up to lose him and his family and to watch him lose his ministry and regular life right then. When I realized the fact that he set me up to lose right there — that’s the first time I ever truly hated John. And I hated my abuse-shaped self that didn’t even think to tell someone.

I still wasn’t mad at what he’d done to me. I was mad at what he’d set me up to lose — who he’d set me up to lose in the process. I had grieved the death of my sister when I was 14, which was largely what landed me in John’s family as a surrogate member. But the grief I had over the people I’d lost in my life after confession sunday, that was more grief than I’d ever known or experienced to date. It was like a massacre. And in an instant, I was enraged because it was the first time that I realized that he had chosen me. That it could’ve been anyone, but it was me. And he left me with no way to not lose people I loved.

Two: Accepting no apology

The next morning at Onsite, when everyone was together (40 people are in each workshop week), we had a seminar on forgiveness. “I want you to think of a person you need to forgive,” the director of the program started.

“Think of them, and think of the ways they’ve hurt you. Think of all of the ways. Now, imagine you go out to the mailbox one day, and in it you find a letter — a letter from that person — apologizing for everything, for every way they’ve hurt you. You got it? Can you read the letter in your mind?”

He paused for a moment. I was sitting in the front row and already silent tears were falling down onto my lap as I thought about it.

“Now, take this piece of paper, and write that letter to yourself from them.”

I knelt down on the carpet and used my chair as a desk to write this painful epistle. I wept while I wrote, finally starting to acknowledge the pain that he had caused me. I’d been able to see the pain the situation had caused for everyone else, but it was the first admittance on paper of the fact that he had caused me pain. That he had something to be sorry to me for.

“Now I want you to do something — I want you to accept the fact that you may never receive that apology. Let this letter, this one that you’ve written, be the invitation to forgive them. You don’t have to wait for them to be sorry for you to move on.”

I pulled myself up onto my chair, clutching my letter, the tears unwilling to stop. I sat between two men I’d met there, and they both put their arm around my shoulders and held me while I wept, letting the pain out in shutters, sadly accepting that there never may be as much as an acknowledgement from John. “Don’t hold back. Let yourself feel it, let yourself grieve it,” one of them whispered in my ear and then kissed the top of my head with an appropriate, fatherly affection.

It was then that I first saw that forgiveness is like grief — there are stages to both, and the stage of acceptance is the last in both cases. You can’t jump to that last stage on either path without first going through the other stages.

But, like grief, there are many mini-paths within the larger path, and that morning was the end of the small mini-path toward accepting that I may never receive an apology. John hadn’t apologized to me in his public confession. He may never. And I had with me now a letter with the things I needed to hear from him, regardless of the fact that it was written in my own handwriting. It acknowledged what I myself had taken months to acknowledge — that I was hurt by his actions, too. That I was left in the wake of great loss. And that my pain mattered.

And it was as I held that letter, one day after hating John for the first time, that I also decided to forgive him (which, remember, is different than having forgiven him). But the decision was made. I wasn’t ready. I’d need time. But I wanted to forgive him someday.

Read the rest of the story HERE.

If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.


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, January 27th, 2015 | Author:

Note: The juicy stuff you might want to gossip about or think about or message me about or just generally know starts at the break part-way down this page. If you’re short on time, just start there. I know this is a longer post and your time and attention are limited. 

Second Note: Feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested or who it may help. 

I’ve been putting off this blog post for a long time now. While I do take pains to make myself vulnerable here as I sort through the crap of my internal and external life, I’ve been beating around the bush now for over a year, and I was just outright selective and silent about this before then.

But this is the thing: I’m about to start a story project, where I’m asking people not just to trust me with their stories, but to pay me to write their stories for them (see posts in the next few weeks for more info about the story project — I’m really excited to share it with you guys!).

And in anticipation of that I’ve been doing a lot of research and prep work on writing real, true stories of real life people and I keep running up against this problem: How do I convince people that those ugly, dirty, shameful, painful parts of their story are truly an important part? That’s it’s worth the pain of digging up the past to talk about it?

People are quick to want me to write about their accomplishments or their fun adventures — which we need, too — but it’s harder to get people to be honest and open about those painful parts. If I’ve learned anything in writing and reading non-fiction, though, it’s this: The painful parts are the most powerful parts. 

They have power to connect with the broken, painful places inside the readers. They’re the moments when I read them, that I as a reader take sharp breaths in because, there before my eyes, I see that someone else knows pain like I know it. I know that I’m not the only one. That I’m not alone.

And that is the most powerful message I’ve ever read or ever written.

So all that to say, I have a story I haven’t put out there in writing yet. It’s the painful, shameful part of my story. And it’s not going to just be one blog post. But this post can usher in the era of freedom that I’m choosing to be ready for. I’m ready to start letting my story breathe on paper (or screens as it may be), not just in unrecorded moments in hushed tones at cafes and on couches in which I’ve previously chosen to share it.

So this is me, doing what I’m going to ask others to do. This is me letting the pain hit the page. Letting the image you have of me as a person be shaped as it may be by the truth, for better or worse. Because overall, I don’t think it matters what you think of me. I think it matters how my story makes you feel. And if it makes one person feel like they’re not alone, then it’s worth it. Consider this an era for that as well.


I’ve written vague things here before about “I lost everything.” About my distrust of people and of the church. And about deep grief. This is what happened.

1999

The first time I officially saw him, he was on the lower stage at the front of our sanctuary. (I assume this, I don’t actually remember it, but I’ve seen the pictures). It was his wedding day, and I was 9 years old.

The first time I technically saw him up close was the next day when they showed up at Carl’s Jr. for lunch in the next town over from ours. I was next to him at the fountain drinks and went back to my table to ask my mom, “Do we know those people?” pointing to their table.  “They were the ones who got married yesterday,” she said. And we awkwardly said “Hi” on our way out to the car, having committed the grave sin of seeing someone you know while they’re on their honeymoon.

January 6, 2013

The last time I officially saw him, he was standing on that same lower stage at the front of the same church sanctuary.

He got up in front of a crowd and read a confession and apology he’d written ahead of time. The crowd was our 900 person church. He was the pastor in charge of all of the ministries of the church. The confession was about how he’d been “inappropriately involved” with me for “a while now.” The apology was to his wife, his family, my family, and the church.

He sat on a stool and cried while he read it. Something I’d never seen him do before.

I sat in the congregation, tears and snot making a steady flow down my face while he spoke, and while our main Pastor (different man, just to be clear) took over and read an apology I’d written ahead of time. He’d had the foresight to not allow me to deliver it myself — something I’m endlessly grateful for now.

It felt like hell. Actual, living hell. I so wish there was a less cliche way to convey that. But those are the only words I’ve come up with in the two years since then. Hell. It-would-be-better-if-I-could-just-burn-to-death-and-let-this-end Hell.

This was my deepest darkest secret that had held me captive for years and years, and it had just been told to 900 people, including everyone I’d ever been close with. I thought in a surreal moment somewhere in one of those two church services that morning, “I’ll never be as free as I am right now. I have no other secrets.” But of course, those thoughts came in between the hyperventilation and the crushing grief of seeing my entire world collapse around me, seeing the people I was closest to in life filled with so much pain and betrayal.

This pastor of ministries and I, we’d been fully-fledged “inappropriately involved” since a couple months after I turned 18. But our relationship had begun to be inappropriate in nature since I was 16 and he was my youth pastor.

Let me say it as delicately as I can while also being accurate — What was happening when I was 16-18 would’ve gotten him fired in a heart beat, but not arrested. What was happening when I was 18 until I was 23 when someone found out would’ve been cause for arrest had I not been of age. (Not that it’s any of your business, by the way. But there was enough misunderstanding and misinformation that I feel it’s valuable to at least be accurate as I air out my dirty laundry here.)

2 weeks later

The last time I technically saw him up close, it was in the next town over again. It was 2 weeks after our public confessions. I was in a store walking down the main aisle when all of the sudden he popped out of one of the side aisles directly in front of me. There was no turning around unseen. So I took a breath and proceeded. “Jo.” He said. I felt ice and panic stall my heart. “Hi,” I managed, meeker than I ever am.

“See you later,” he said with a harshness in his voice that I was more than familiar with. Then he spun his cart around and fled in the opposite direction the way you do when you’ve committed the grave sin of seeing the girl you’ve been inappropriate with for years once the secret has come out.

His tone was the same one I’d heard in countless drawn-out arguments we’d had over the years from which I always emerged feeling smaller, and slightly trampled on and disregarded. This time was no different.

It is the only time where I’ve spent significant moments in the vitamin aisle. And it is the only time I’ve cried in the presence of gummy calcium chews.  The supplements as my silent witnesses, tears and snot acknowledging the years of pain from that tone and that twisted relationship, I hoped he was wrong – that I would in fact never see him later.

And eventually, one day short of one year after what I’ve taken to calling “confession sunday,” I found myself unexpectedly forgiving him.

That story comes next time.

If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.


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, January 20th, 2015 | Author:

A couple of years ago I was visiting my friend on her night shift at work and she had to leave to go tend to an issue. I sat waiting for her, and while I waited I replied to a friend’s text asking what I was doing with a picture of the barren room: “hanging at my friend’s work. Riveting.”

I was just being sassy, as I tend to be sometimes.

“Bored?” he asked.

It so caught me off guard that I remember it to this day. Because no, I wasn’t bored. I was waiting. Obviously he was just responding to my wording. A sarcastic “riveting” would usually mean “bored” I realized. But it took me by surprise and I had to think for a moment before I responded.

Because this is the thing: I’m not a mother, so I don’t hear the word bored very often. I don’t have children around me who complain of being bored and most of the adult friends I have in my life are productive people with pretty full schedules. I didn’t realize that bored was as much missing from my lifestyle as it was missing from my regular vocabulary.

It reminded me of a time when I was a kid and I heard a friend talk about being bored. Her mom responded saying, “If you guys can’t find something to play, I have lots of chores I can give you to keep you busy.” We found something to play.

I don’t actually recall ever being “bored” in my life except for two instances: one was when I was reading Jane Eyre late at night and was struggling to stay awake because the way she wrote it droned on and on and I declared her style a bit “boring.” And the other was a math class I had in high school where the teacher had incredible monotone-syndrome. But even in that class, we found ways to entertain ourselves (namely, sharing earbuds and listening to Dane Cook while we did our math work).

Aside from that I was always playing something, taking care of responsibilities, coming up with “adventures,” or creating something or another.

And what I’ve learned is that there’s three ways to fight boredom. You can do, create, or consume.

Some people spend entire days watching Netflix. Heck, when I was in college especially, there were many days that we spent in someone’s dorm room watching episode after episode of some show or another. We were not bored, though admittedly we could’ve done more with our time.

But one of the real gifts of my life was when I first lived alone and I didn’t have internet at home.

The internet thing was a decision I made just to save money. But what it ended up doing was making me very comfortable, very content with just being me, just entertaining myself by myself. There was no Netflix or Facebook or any of the other myriad time-fillers I’d been used to in my college days.

Last year around this time I was living alone in a city where I still had literally no friends I hung out with, and I started to make art. More and more art. Art everyday that I wasn’t doing something else. Sometimes I’d consume while I created by watching a movie or the seasons of FRIENDS that I own on DVD, but I continued to create at a rate that I’m actually shocked at when I look back. In the year of 2014 I created over 80 completed art works, when I had done maybe 1-2 in any previous year. Over half of those were done in the first 3 months of the year before I had friends to hang out with.

I also started writing last year regularly. (Oh hey, if you didn’t know, I blog on here every week courtesy of me finding things to do with my time while I lived alone. End of shameless plug.) I’d heard someone say that writing a book is the loneliest thing you’ll ever do, so I thought, “I should start writing, and maybe write a book, because I’m lonely right now anyway.”

But also in living alone I got this gift against boredom: it taught me how to be content and interested when I’m by myself. To be able to sit quietly, and soak in the sun, or hear the birds chirp, or breathe in the steam from a warm cup of coffee. It taught me the joy and the rest in being still without being bored.

Now I’m coming into a busy season of life again and it’s energizing and exciting. But above all the ways my life has taught me how to not be bored, how to make the most of my time, and how to be content with others as we spend time together without grand things to do, I value the lesson I’ve learned about how to enjoy being still and taking a breath perhaps the most. It’s in the busy seasons when it’d be easiest to not do so, but when it’s most refreshing as well.

So, sorry future kids, but you don’t get the option of being bored. I think that will be a main house rule. Life’s too short to squander in boredom.

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