Sunday, February 18, 2018

...that might be a felony, again!

Greetings All,

I had something prepared to write about for this week, but going to punt to next week for that one.

A whole bunch of things kind of collided in my head this week, and I think that’s when you know you’ve got a good thing to write about.

I’ll also give you this mild disclaimer as I exercise my Elder Sage status <insert sarcasm here>, I might be a bit challenging in this post, and I look forward to reading the feedback on it. Please push back if you feel called to do that, as I think that hearing a well-thought out (kind) response to one’s thoughts is critical to really knowing what you think.

The core of what has been bouncing around my head is the idea of trauma, how one deals with it, recovers from it, and the community that forms (hopefully) around those that are suffering from that trauma. Of course, part of this is the shooting that happened in Florida. Horrible, too close to home, and just damned awful.

But too, way more close to home is the ongoing trauma that a good friend of mine at work is going through with her daughter, as well as with a student at one of our elementaries who was diagnosed with a pretty aggressive cancer. Each of these cases is just damned awful, and in ways that you just don’t think about at first blush.

Each of these cases creates trauma….pain, damage, and loss that is incredibly hard to even fathom from someone on the outside of the bubble. Those on the inside of the trauma are doing their absolute best to first get through the day, and do it in a way that causes no harm. Their lives, like ours was in the last months of 2012, are just holding on to the rollercoaster that keeps going round and round, with no apparent rhyme or reason, and without your consent. It is not fun. After they get through the day-to-day, they just hope to have a life left to put back together when it’s all done.

But a community sprung up quickly around us, and in most cases I hope always does to some extent. People’s suffering connects with us on a visceral level, and most people want to help take some of that away.

Being optimistic, I think people want to try to take away some of the suffering that they see in the world, especially when it’s part of a community that they are invested in. On a slightly more cynical note, I think people want to at least put some chips in the pot lest they find themselves in a similar situation at some point in their lives, and want to have a community spring up around them.

My sister married into a Mexican family in 1997, and I got to experience what it meant to see an entire community surround a couple to provide for their needs. The community might not have had fat stacks of cash to dish out, but their small sacrifice, multiplied by the size of the community, enabled the her new family to have pretty much everything they needed. They showed up again for their first born too. That wrapping around and providing just stuck with me, as I’m still thinking and talking about it a full 21 years later. They saw the need, and they filled it, with the expectation that if they were in need, the rest of the community would do so without being asked.

Here’s where I start being “poky”, as Shelley and Anya would say (think porcupine). Social media helps us connect, but I think in some ways it also makes it far easier to do something, but not really anything. When we like a post, or even share/retweet it to our bubbles, it gives us the feeling that we “did something”. Yes, it does amplify the message, but on some level, it’s just wind.

I know it’s considered incredibly harsh to talk about religion in this way (Religion and Politics are both landmines!), but simply put, giving someone your thoughts and prayers is not helpful. What helps people who are in trauma? Actions. People being physically present, and doing things that will help them in the immediate future make their lives a tiny bit easier.

If you have a person who is in trauma in their lives, make a tray of lasagna (divide and store in individual ziplock containers!), go clean their house (with permission people, if not, that’s a felony!), buy them some gift cards to some easy restaurants, steal their cars to get their oil changed or tired rotated (with permission people, if not, that’s a felony...again!), or any other list of similar things. Think of what you keep putting off because you just “don’t have enough time!”, and then realize how much less time they have to deal with the normal little things in life.

When I was working in television, I had to go out and interview people from a community in the Thumb where a farmer was killed in an accident on his farm, in the middle of the sugar beet harvest. The next day, when I arrived with my camera to get comments, the fields were filled with people who had brought their own tractors (is that the right word for the house sized machines that they use?) to bring in that family’s sugar beets, before they had finished their own. Tables of food, coffee, and desserts were overflowing for those that arrived. They did not use words to convey their desire to help. Instead, they showed up and did the things that needed to be done.

What am I saying? In my incredibly preachy, standing on my stack of milk crates style of speaking….If you know someone in trauma: Do something. Do it now. Do it often.

If you hear about someone in need that you feel is pulling your heart, do something small. Do something big. Do something outrageous that people will talk about for years (with permission people, if not, that might be a felony, again), and make a difference in their lives. Now.

Going to sign off now and head home. Does anyone else have a hard time composing one’s thoughts at home? I can’t write a lick when I have all my creature comforts so close to me, let alone my distractions.


I'll end this with a pic of Anya doing what she loves doing the most, reading.  She's read more books than most people, in their entire lifetime.  I love this girl, and she's amazing.  Woo!

<Note the handmade knitted slippers.  Hmmmm...where'd she get those from?>

Have a good week everyone!

Monday, February 12, 2018

State of the Strzalkowski's - 2018

Greetings greater blog-reading community!

Firstly, for anyone still interested in reading this, thank you.

I’ve written 3-4 blog posts over the last 18 months, and each time decided, after a lot of internal conflict not to post them. Ultimately, each time, I keep coming back to the idea that me sitting around pondering the ideas of healing, grief, struggle, success, and a whole lot more isn’t really the “purpose” of the blog, as it was written.

But, over the last 6 months, for reasons I’ll probably write about here in the next little bit on this super sunny, unexpected snow day, I’ve gotten several really decent nudges from life. Ignoring those nudges, or whatever you want to call them, seems just...wrong. So, here we go. As someone said to me recently, if someone doesn’t want to read this, they aren’t going to click through.

For those of you with good memories, or with properly set up calendars, you’ll notice that tomorrow is the three year anniversary of Amie’s death. I choose the word death due to a conversation I had with Shelley a while back, in regards to the use of words to decrease the power of death, and how that sometimes makes things less true, less honest. Seeking always to be honest (and kind), I will use death, because she did not pass, she did not collect $200, and did not go straight to jail. She died. So there.

Back to it, Amie died 3 years ago, and since the annual State of the State was a few weeks ago (or a few years ago in TrumpNewsCycleTime), I thought it might be appropriate to do a State of the Strzalkowski’s to start.

Anya:
Anya is now in 5th grade, and still at her wonderful little school she’s been in since Kindergarten. She’s grown a TON in the last year, and is every bit the reader she’s ever been. She’s also really, really gotten into Scratch, which is a computer programming platform developed by MIT (yes, that MIT) to help urge more kids to follow the design mindset STEM fields that we so desperately need for the next generation. She has done tons of swim lessons in the last 2 years, and is now a really confident swimmer, has taken up piano lessons, and done a few recitals. She’s doing just great.


Shelley: Shelley went back to work at the beginning of 2017, into the same agency, but a new division. She works mainly with clients who are much lower levels of need, and seems to really be enjoying her new position. She’s knitting, crafting, and creating as much as ever.


Jason: I still work for the same school district, but was hired into a new position at the beginning of this school year. I am now an Instructional Technology Coach for the district. (I teach teachers and students how to bring more technology into their practice to elevate their teaching, and increase learning) For anyone who knows me well, this is the stuff I’ve been doing for years on the side, and now I’ve gotten the opportunity to do it full time. I really miss the day-to-day with the kids, and need to work in some ways to consistently do more of that. But I really do enjoy the ability to get into classrooms (‘specially the elementary levels!) and work with teachers there.

I ran my first half-marathon in October, and then pretty much fell off the exercise bandwagon immediately. Shelley (I believe it was her…) once said that goals are really problematic when it comes to many things, because once you meet them, the brain often sees that as a thing that’s done (CHECK!), and you go back to learned behaviors. Habits, however, are learned behaviors that you follow through on because that’s what you always do. I need to do better in developing the physical fitness stuff into habits in 2018 (once the world thaws), and less on the goal side of things.

All-in-all, things are going really well for us, minus the whole “your kid died”, which is both overwhelmingly awful, and shockingly small, depending on the day (I am speaking entirely from my perspective, and the external stuff I see from Shel. I have not yet developed the ability to read people’s minds, and I’m altogether sure that I would never really want to have that ability anyway...specially working mostly in a middle school). On a day to day basis, you’d never know that we’re any different than most other families. We have this scar on our souls, and it heals a bit more each day/week/month. It’s just when something presses hard on it that you really see its effects.

One of the things that “nudged” me was a conversation that I had with someone a few weeks back. They were talking about a friend of theirs who was struggling really hard with something personal. They made the comment that they’d picked up their phone so many times to call or text them, but each time they had not done it because they really didn’t want to say the wrong thing, or interrupt them in a time of pain.

Hearing this REALLY hit a tender place, as it’s something that Shel and I have talked about many times, which is the overwhelming loneliness that accompanies the apocalypse of a diagnosis such as Amie’s. (This is not specific to cancer, but any life-changing event/diagnosis that creates an immediate before/after)

So when this person said she didn’t want to call and interrupt, I took a few beats, and then kindly and firmly said that there was no bad time, as all times were "bad", in the sense that there was never a time that they weren't living with the reality of their new lives, post apocalypse. If they wanted to connect with the person, they should always call, always connect, always reach out (assuming it was in kindness and desire to help, and not dump in). The hesitation, the lack of calling, the ghosting (to use modern internet parlance) is a wound all in itself.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my “Assuming best intent” way I’ve come to terms with our social interactions with others since Amie’s diagnosis. Social relationships are like really extensive spiderwebs. We weave the strands between each other in our relationships when we do things together, almost always in person. We sit in our quiet moments and spend time with each other. Sometimes it’s watching kids play, others in doing a communal activity. We help each other move to a new house, babysit, listen to a break-up story, or go on a wild adventure. We lash ourselves to each other, knowing that we’re in motion due to life and aging, and kids aging, and it’s those lashes that stabilize us in times of need.

Once those webs are created and tied off, they don’t require a ton of reinforcement, but they do need some. A text, an email, or a call will usually suffice under normal circumstances. But when something happens that causes one person to stop motion, it sometimes tears those webs apart, because the other group moves along down life’s path, completely out of their control, while the other person has to stop and deal with their own event/tragedy. When you go through one of those situations, for some, the webs can rip away, and you’re left with the tatters of the relationships that are no longer there, in addition to the tragedy.

Adding on top of this is the normalcy of self-imposed social isolation. (Shelley shared this great article to me last week, and has me reflecting hard on it). Inside my own head, I never know how much to share, and when to share it. I’ve talked about Amie in times I thought appropriate and saw looks of abject horror on the other person’s face due to how blunt I talked about it, and how little they were prepared to have that conversation. At times I’ve even used her death as a weapon, smacking someone upside the head with it, as a means to put in context just how insignificant (to me) their problem they were railing about really was in the big picture of things.

However, there are loads more times I avoid the conversation, and just breeze past things. I choose to eat in my office, instead of with co-workers. I go do the things by myself, instead of inviting others. I put the headphones on and play my video games, instead of connecting with Shelley when she’s reaching out.

I know that this is easier, that it’s better for me to do things with others, to plan events, to act in ways like I’d like others to act...but it’s just so much easier to float down the river of the easy path, and not do the work involved in filling the bucket.

So. Make the phone call, send the text, and do the thing to connect with those people who are struggling. Conversely, if you’re the person struggling...be open to the person who reaches out, sends the text, and wants to help lift that burden a little bit.

I’m at 3 pages now, and have 5 more topics that I had noted that I wanted to write about. I think that’s a good thing, yes? So. I’m going to sign off now, and then post another blog post next week...Really.


Hope everyone is doing well, and think of Amie tomorrow (Feb. 13th). 

Tell a silly joke to someone if you can, and if nothing else, draw a rainbow somewhere and smile.









Saturday, July 9, 2016

As any of you who are still checking this have noticed, I haven’t posted anything in 6 months.

Greetings All,

As any of you who are still checking this have noticed, I haven’t posted anything in 6 months. 

Hello!

I got a message this week from the father of a former student, and it was a sincere request to know how my family is doing.  The honest to goodness answer is….all over the place.  From the outside, we are doing great.  Anya reads so much on a daily basis that it’s an honest to goodness problem for us, in that she’s avoiding doing all the things that she’s supposed to be doing to contribute to the house.  Shelley is slowly moving back into the realm of work, working on a contract basis for the director of her agency.   I am doing just fine at work, and consistently being recognized as a teacher of quality in my district.  We’re all good, honestly.

It’s so strange, however, about the way that cancer has hallowed out a place in our heads, in our hearts, and in our lives.  I think of how a tumor grows, (pardon my lack of actual medical knowledge in the comment that follows.  I am not a doctor, and have no actual medical knowledge beyond that which I have gleaned from random internet sources) in that it sucks the blood and energy and life force out of the organs around it, for its own purposes.  When a tumor is cut out, it leaves this gap, this void.  I imagine that void creates its own problems that need to be dealt with, as Amie’s void has created for us.

That void is pretty insidious though.  For Anya, it manifests in a pretty consistent desire to be perfect…She reacts so harshly to criticism of any kind, such as redirecting her to her daily chores when she sneaks away to read.  For Shelley, I see her just dwelling in this state of loneliness.  Lacking any concrete way to connect that “normal” people have, she spends a lot of time with Anya and I, and never really gets to escape our space.  For me, I am restless.  I’m like a shark most days, doing whatever it is that I need to do to turn off my churning brain.

I’m still running (registered for the Crim and the Free Press ½ Marathon) a lot, and playing video games, and reading Reddit, and reading Slate, and reading books, and playing Magic: The Gathering, and, and, and.  I’ve always been restless, and I’ve always needed more stimulation in my daily activities than most…but it’s been distilled down so much worse than ever since Amie died.  It’s not a good thing, and I know I need to be able to find peace with the silence, with the quiet, with the acceptance of a calm moment, but it’s not somewhere that I’m at right now.  Will I ever be?  Who knows.




I am re-reading (for the 3rd time? 4th Time?) Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right now.  I had no intention of re-reading it, but my niece Allyssa wanted to read it, and well…it was there (kindle version, digital), and I read a few pages and fell back into it.  I was reading this morning and came across this line in the book:

“There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply.”

This passage spoke to me, and forced me to stop reading right there.  It was a perfect way to describe where I’m at right now.  I have felt numb for some time, in regards to the problems that are facing so many others in my circles.  A good friend of mine’s chronic illness has slipped another few notches towards the really “not good”, and another’s wife received a cancer diagnosis that is the pinnacle of “not good”.  That’s not even approaching the horror of the national news that is Orlando, and Dallas, and, and, and.  But I’ve been really unable to open myself to help them, or even talk about it.

I see people’s gaping chasms of pain and awfulness, fully aware of how terrible they are for them, and can’t engage with them right now. I know this makes me a tad bit of a coward, as I have experiences that might be able to help, might be able to at least let them know that they aren’t alone.  But that same void inside of me is just….waiting to leap out and swallow anything it can get its hands on, and I just won’t let it.

I was out for a long run this morning and stopped by Amie’s grave.  I don’t go there that much, compared to Shelley, as I know that she’s not “there”.  But it’s a gorgeous spot, and easily in the path of the nicest run in Howell, and well, it’s where she’s summoned to memory in the easiest way.  People have left her all sorts of things at her grave; stones, toys, flowers, art, and even a small concrete Weeping Buddha.  I was standing there, taking a break and sweating profusely as is my habit, and a wave of unfairness overcame me.  I usually don’t think about how grossly unfair it is that we had three pregnancies, and now have one kid.  (an incredibly awesome kid!)  But it did, and I let it wash over me, and then kept running. 

But I think about the quote above, and how guarded I am with my emotions these days, protecting myself from them, preventing them from tearing me up.  Is that part of being a guy, that process where we don’t want to let ourselves feel, or just the place that I’ve built for myself? 

Long run, it’s not the person I want to be.  It’s not going to help me be a better teacher, or a good friend.  But it’s where I am now.

So, at the end of all this rumination, I’d like to put forth (again) that we’re doing just fine.  Cracked, in some ways, but not broken, and not defeated in the least.

With all of that, a few pictures:


Anya continues to be our own Luna Lovegood (for those of you in the potterverse).  I asked her what this costume was, and she just said it looked good to her, and asked to have her picture taken.


Anya turned 9 in June, and I just love this picture.  So happy.  


Anya reads a lot.  A LOT.  She wanted a "reading" birthday party.  I was scared.  Most people do not read as much as her.

But Shelley and Anya worked out a great plan, and it was a total success.

These are edible books made of fondant (I'm told that's a sort of frosting).  I was beyond impressed with these.  In awe, more like it...


I know this pains some of my friends who went to MSU with me.  We took these for a photo collage for Allyssa's graduation from HS.  It's the only close up family pic I could find.


I made the girls stop the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum on the way to our roadtrip to Arkansas.  It was a great experience, and they even enjoyed it too!  Look how happy Anya is!


(Pardon my hairy legs, please)  This is Canvas.  She's the new addition to our family.

Amie always wanted a kitty.  We posted about it often.  
She couldn't have one, because of the immune system issues.  

It took us a while, and we finally got to the point where we were ready to welcome some new life into our home, and Canvas arrived a few weeks ago.  

She's totally bitey, and in attack mode right now, but every once in a while, she does slow down and become the cuddliest kitten you'd ever want.

I guess, to me, she represents the healing process, and the welcoming of the unknown into your life.  She's new, and she's wild, and she's changing the dynamic of what it means to be us.  

But, I guess that's what living life is, to a small extent, yes?  
Welcoming the glorious unknown into your life to see what it brings?


Hope all is well for each and every one of you.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

31: Thankful for so, so many things...

Greetings All,

For those of you who follow me here, but not on Facebook, it’s been a while.

About 5 weeks ago, on Christmas Day, I started a thankfulness project, to help kickstart my waning thankfulness/optimism/cheerfulness and decrease the negativity/cranky in my  life.  The wonderful and creative Jennifer Garland came up with a list of possible names for the project, and I chose #thankynotcranky.  It’s been a fun 5 weeks, and several others joined in as well.  J

I wasn’t sure how long I was going to ride the #thankynotcranky train, but thinking this is going to be my last formal post, #31.  It gives me a “month” of posts in just over 5 weeks, and I think that’s just about right.  Hell, it worked well enough to get me out of the house, away from my video games (Divinity: Original Sin Extended Edition), and using my wordsmithery to process….  So yeah, a lot more thanky, a lot less cranky.

Before I wrap up my #thankynotcranky project, I wanted to riff on a few things that have been bouncing around my brain like a superball the last few months.

Firstly, I love words.  LOVE.  I love new words, precise words, the correct spelling of words, and all things in between.  If I wasn’t as lazy as I am, I’d know a few languages too, because then I’d know more words.  Anyway, I always strive to use the correct word in any given situation…correct in context, syntax, grammar, and the whole shebang.

With all of that being said, when I refer to my family, do I refer to my family as “kid” or “kids”?

For example: 
Yeah, that sounds like a something my kids would love!
Yeah, that sounds like something my kid would love!

When I speak in the past tense, I can easily use kids.  When I speak about the future, I feel like I’m lying, or faking, or in some state of denial when I say “kids”.  I do not any longer have “kids”, I have a “kid”. 

But then again, I would never want to deny the awesomeness of having Amelie for the time that we had her with us, and if anyone ever thought that I was doing so, it would wound my soul.  She was a great kid, and she was my bud, and nothing will ever change that.

I just sounds so damned weird when I am speaking about something and reply with kids…  but then again not to use kids seems just as wrong.   I know, something most people don’t care about, but well, it feels real, so that means it is.

I’m a full page into writing, so I guess I ought to give a bit about “how are things? How is Shelley? How is Anya?” (as my Dad would ask).  Things are as good as they can be.  That’s about the best I can say.

The best way I can say to describe it is to describe the weekend we just had.  Anya was away at Special Days camp (more later, and in many previous blogs).  She left Friday afternoon and returned today at 2:15p.  We had talked sporadically about doing a bunch of different stuff, but I knew, deep down, that if we were going to do anything, it needed to be me that was the propulsion system for that adventure.

There’s nothing wrong, but there’s also this empty spot.  That spot is the sum total of: all the joy of Amie, all the caring for Amie, all the 2nd kid stuff you have to do, all the hospital visits, all the cancer anxieties, all the car rides to Mott, all of it.  That empty spot (I don’t want to say hole, because that’s inherently negative) is just there.  It’s slowly being chipped away to make it smaller, and getting filled in here and there with new passions and activities….but it’s there….and some days, the vacuum of empty pulls the energy in from other places and just makes it too hard to move past what you do to survive. 

So, we hung out this weekend, watched a bunch of stuff, had some good food out, and made some good meals in.  We enjoyed each other’s company, parallel played for a while, and then went and got Anya.  Was it exciting? No.  Was it alright? Yes.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Special Days camp.  Anya went (again, 4th year!) to winter camp for Special Days, <http://specialdays.camp/> and once again it was the shining star of her winter.  I wish (at times) I could jump into her head to see what exactly she loves about it so much, but she just loves it so much.  When Amie died, we asked that people send donations in lieu of flowers to that organization.  What they do, simply put, is amazing.

With all of the above being said, I wanted to give one last blast of #thankynotcranky.  For my 31st post, I want to be thankful for:

Jennifer Overholt – A student who I’ve sung the praises of way too much on this blog, but who just returned from volunteering at Special Days camp, again.  She goes there because she, as a soon-to-be-nurse, knows that the kids there deserve normalcy as much as any other kid, and the work that needs to be done to ensure that normal is far more than most people would imagine.  Thanks for doing that work, Jen, and to do it for free.

Special Days Camp – You give my daughter a week each summer, and a weekend each winter, where she can run around and be free from all the anxieties, fears, grief, and dashed expectations of her parents.  You do it with minimal financial costs from the parents, and have staff like Stan who so desperately care for my kid (kids?) that I am brought to tears each time I see you.

Kim (head custodian at McBride) – I have never seen a person work as hard as you do to keep our aging building looking as good as it does, each and every day.  I have never seen you sitting.  I have never seen you talking on your cell phone.  I have never seen you hiding from work.  I have only seen you doing the small, detail oriented things that make things sparkle, and are nearly never noticed.

People who send anonymous gifts – (this is NOT a plea for such a thing, just a blanket thanks, as we cannot send proper thank you cards!)  For the people who have sent anonymous gifts to my family over the past 3.5 years…thank you from the bottom of my heart.  From the bag that someone made with the cat embroidery on it and the girl’s pictures, to the blankets for each of us, to the purple tulips that arrived last week…  we appreciate all of them.  The fact that people are still thinking about Amie a year after her death makes us smile, and reminds us that the power of her story reached way beyond family and friends, and snaked its way out into many of your lives.  Thank you.  Deeply.


With that said, I’ll wrap it up and share a few pictures:


This is Anya with Stan, the saintly gentleman who takes care of Anya year after year on the bus to Special Days.  What a wonderful, amazing team.  This was leaving for Anya's first camp ever, when she was 5 (according to my limited researching).



This is Anya returning from that camp.  Such good sister-friends.



Here is us sending Anya off to her 4th camp.  Still willing to take a picture with us, so that's a win!  :)


...and finally, our mantel, as we walk the last 13 days until the 1st anniversary of Amie's death.

The world is a sadder, less-brilliant, and less sorted place without you, m'darling.  But know that the people you touched with your jokes, your hugs, your shoulder rides, and your squeezes have not forgotten you one iota.  You're a good kid, Amie, and we miss you more than you will ever understand.

Rest well, Ams.