Friday, December 25, 2015

Thankful project, instead of a blog post...

I have started, and deleted, so many blog posts in the last two months.  Endless streams of words that I type, read, and delete.  Over an over again, I write a bunch of stuff, and then chuck it into the trash because it’s just too negative to post.

Thanksgiving and Christmas have been exceptionally hard, for the regular reasons, but also for the indescribable reasons.  I can’t say why I am feeling so ungrateful, but I am.  I can’t say why (exactly) I have so little patience, to little empathy, and so little optimism.  But I do.

But, again, this is not who I (think) am.  I am the person who seeks to right the wrongs, to fight the good fight, and to make the world a better place.  But. But.

So, with that being said, I’m going to be doing a side project for the next month, and if it catches, keep doing it for a while.  My project is this:  force myself to be grateful for one thing each day, and publically post that.  I can’t say that they will all be gloriously transcendent, or that even all of them will make sense.  But I’m going to force myself to focus, at least once each day, to be grateful for one thing.

I’m going to take a picture of that one thing, or something that represents that thing, and then cross post it to FB, Instagram (@jasonstrzalkowski) and Twitter (@fossileyes).

If you want to comment, comment.  If you want to like, like.  If you want to ignore, ignore.  But, I’m hoping that my empathy pool, my utter belief in the goodness of humanity, and my connection to the larger community out there will be redrawn, repaired, and renewed.  If not that, as it’s a little high-minded, at least I’ll have a project, and it will be amusing.

With that, my next post will be my first thankful moment.  If you have a snazzy name for these things, let me know.  I’m running short of snaz right now.

Hope all is well with all of you, and that you had a great Christmas surrounded by those who love and care for you.

Monday, October 5, 2015

You Did It!

Greetings All,

Firstly, thanks for still tuning in, for those of you who are still reading, still interested, and still on our journey.  A lot has happened in the last 6 weeks, most of all school started up again, and I entered the extremely fun, totally chaotic, and ever eventful tumble-dry year of teaching middle school.  I’m teaching a new course this year, Computer Education, and the time/attention it takes is truly overwhelming, not to mention the fact that the 7th graders that I (mostly) teach are just….  7th graders.  More on that later.

The next reason it’s been so long is that I wanted to delay the next post until our super-special reveal was ready to go. Today it is, and we can pull the curtain away on it.  More on that later.

I wanted to start by riffing a little bit on some things that have been bouncing around my head.  We started back at Ele’s Place two weeks ago, and I’ve really enjoyed the conversations going on this time.  Not sure if it’s me, if it’s the people in our group, or what…but it’s no longer as taxing to me to go to the sessions.   We’ve had several really good discussions about things over the last few weeks that I feel like I’ve been able to make valuable contributions to, and get little nuggets from. 

A woman in our group made the comment that “It never gets better”, in regards to losing a kid.  I disagreed, vehemently, but I’d never say that to her in that setting.  To me, it’s always changing, the grief, if you let it.  It’s always a different thing, week to week.  I miss Amie more than I can ever explain, but at the same time, I can hold a simultaneous thought that I’m truly glad she doesn’t have to go through the treatments anymore.  She’s free of that.  But she’s also free of being able to spend time with Shelley doing crafts at the table, and playing silly games with Anya, or riding on top of my shoulders, playing with the wispy remains of my hair.

To say that it doesn’t get any better, to me, seems to not let it change.  To not let it flow through you, and recognize all the facets, and all the variables that it can take on.  If you hold on to it so damned tight, squeezing it for all it’s worth…you don’t let it change, you don’t let it free.  I’m not saying I’m anything even close to an expert at this whole grief thing… I just know what is working for me.  Letting things happen, and trying to be totally present to the way I feel…that works for me.  Honoring the feelings I am having, and letting them happen, not fighting them…that’s what works for me.  Crying like a little baby at a movie, at a commercial, at a tv show…that works for me.

The other thing that’s been bouncing around in my skull is the idea that there is a price, and a benefit, of pain like losing Amie.  The price, of course, is the hollowing out that happens.  This is the stuff of nightmares, the anxiety in the middle of the night about what the rest of your life looks like, with this on your shoulder.  This is not good.  But it lessens.  (see above paragraphs)

But there are so many things that are happening for Shelley and I, and to Anya to a lesser extent, as a direct result of the grief, and the hollowing out.  The running is one such thing.  We’ve been actively running now for 9 weeks.  Shelley has gone from running 90 seconds the first week of August and really (REALLY) hating it, to running 40 minutes today, and really starting to enjoy it.  She ran her first 5k this weekend.   I ran my first 10k, and did it in 52:20.  I’ve dropped nearly 30 lbs. now, and have an entire area of my wardrobe available to me again.

I could go on and on about the running, but I don’t want to be annoying.  I realize that running is a lot like my other passions (Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, random RPG video games, etc), whereas it’s a small group of people who are WILDLY passionate about it, and most other people just look at it in slightly amused confusion.  I say all this just to say that it’s something that’s working for us, and never, ever would have happened had we not been given this massive kick to the soul this past year.

As a final thing, I see how much better of a teacher I am becoming because of this.  Not 100%, because I think my patience and tolerance of off-task silliness has really suffered…but my ability to work harder, work more, and push myself and my students further in pursuit of making themselves the best version of themselves….yes.  YES.  This.

I see what I’m asking them to do, and it’s so much more, and deeper, than I was doing previously.  I’m pushing them in content, yes.  But we’re also writing more.  I’m grading them for grammar and capitalization.  For reasoning, and backing up their statements with fact.  I’m pushing them to be more rational, and to be more questioning.  I want them to do more…because Amie couldn’t, and wont, and can’t….and I think that’s a net gain for them, and a net win for me.  This probably sounds self-serving or something… but it’s good to know that I can do that again, and can find the place within me to push push push, where it needs to be done.

Ok. Enough about me. 

Anya is doing fantastically, and is really growing into a “big girl”.  She’s slowly, slowly becoming her own little adultish person, in that she no longer lives for our adulation.  She just wants to read, and do it all the time, and does a fantastic amount of work to get out of doing anything but reading and dancing around the living room.  Good story:  She hid behind a piece of furniture this weekend, in her room, to get out of doing some random chore that she perceived Shelley was about to ask her to do.  It nearly worked too, until Shelley found her, and then Anya told her why she was doing it.  I wanted to laugh, but that would not have been the winning choice in that moment.  I heard her say all this, and I said to myself that her doing that was so fantastically and amazingly normal….and what else could I have asked for her to be doing 8 months after Amie’s death.  So good, in a normal, normal way.

So, the grand reveal.  Amie’s birthday is in 13 days.  October 18th.  The first birthday that she isn’t with us.  We have been pondering what we wanted Amie’s gravestone/tombstone/isthereabetternameforthis for a while.  I wanted Shelley to take the lead on what it would look like, because us having a site was her primary desire.  When we returned from out west, we began to work in earnest on what it would look like, and it wasn’t clicking.  We went in to talk to the representative from Brewer-Bouchey Monuments, and they mentioned being able to replicate pretty much anything that existed, as long as we could provide a picture.  That got Shelley thinking about Amie’s art, and her name that she loved to write so much.  So, we played around with it, and after a few trials and errors, we have this to show all of you.  We think it’s about as perfect a marker as we’d ever have hoped to have.  Without further ado…

So, for those of you who want to visit it, here are the directions on how to find it:

  • In the westernmost area of Babyland are the new sites. Amie’s gravestone is site 294.

The only thing we ask is this. Bring a rock that you think is cool.  For Jewish families, bringing a rock to a grave marker is tradition.  I just did a ton of reading on it, and there’s no definitive reason as to why.  Lots of explanations, but none of them are canon.  I liked the idea of the permanence of stone, and the idea that the memory of a person, like a rock, will persist long past their passing.  That made me exceedingly happy, and tied into our adventures out west this summer.

So.  If you visit Amie’s grave, bring a rock that you find cool, that you find beautiful, that you find….anything. 

It’s the most beautiful place in Howell, and I think that’s fitting for the girl that I find the most beautiful that the city has ever seen.

Night all.  Time to head home and get ready to teach my socks off tomorrow.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Who'd have known how much I like hanging with Germans?

Greetings All,

Hope the summer has been treating you all well.  I write this freshly showered, newly shaved, garbed in clean/dry clothes and supremely happy to have slept a night in our glorious bed.  I love camping.  I really do.  I love getting into places that you can’t see and don’t find unless you get off the beaten path, and explore.

We have a place on the west side of the state (I sound like a bazillionaire saying that, like we own the place) that has no showers, no power, is slightly difficult to get to, has no cell coverage to speak of…and we love it.  We love it because we’re past the point where we want to hear anyone doing anything of any sort after 9pm, and this place is perfect for that.

However, I am a restless soul.  Extremely restless once we start getting closer to school starting, and ripping me away from all the things that are my scaffolding to help contain my restlessness.  I say all of this to bookend the experience of going camping with me.  Craving the connection to nature that listening to the waves rhythmically crash into the Lake Michigan shoreline, while also skittering around the campsite for something to do, stripped of computer/laptop/phone/PS4/games in general.  Ahhh, it must be so wonderful to be around me in late August…

Shelley sent me a few blogs that she was reading about grief the other week, and she said something I found really insightful and helpful to me personally.  Ya see, I feel guilty writing the blog these days.  Really and truly.  I feel guilty that I’m spilling out all these words about grief and us….when we’re doing fine, in all regards.  Yes, we have sad days all the time.  But, like my stamina in running, it’s consistently getting better and better with time, and use. (Yay!)

So, feeling guilty.  Yes, each time I write, it’s with the cloak of “who am I to sit around writing about grief when so many people have it worse, have it deeper, have it fresher, have it….”.  I combat that with the idea that if people don’t want to click through to the blog, they won’t, and it’s not my job to police what people care about.  But here’s what Shel said, based on some blogs she’d been reading:

People don’t read about grief, and click through to the blog just to see how we’re doing.  They do it to read about you making it through it, so that they can reassure themselves that they could get through it too, if they found themselves in a similar situation. 

(Disclaimer:  She could have said something far more profound, or altogether different…but this is how it came out of the tumble dry cycle of my mind, and was spit back out after a week or so).

I really enjoyed that.  Really and truly.  Over and over, across the last 3 years, people have emailed me and told me how specific things I’ve said have helped them, and that matters a lot to me, because it gives purpose to writing, to continuing to pour out the contents of my head to this blog.  That maybe when a person writes to tell me that I’m “strong”, what they’re really saying is that I hope I can hold up under all the stress and pressure of a future event.

The idea that I’m in some small way giving you the building blocks of a future ability to keep yourself together in the face of immense tragedy…that’s the stuff of gold, and gives me the permission to keep writing for as long as I want…which I frequently need.

Camping…  there’s another golden story that I need to tell.  We were immensely fortunate (yet again!) to have amazing neighbors, once again with little girls.  The first day we got there, a SUV pulled in, and out jumped two little girls, who seemed to bookend Anya’s age.  Their names were Meeri and Janna, and they were Germans, 7 and 9.  They quickly disembarked, set up camp, and disappeared for the beach while we were making dinner.  We didn’t get a chance to say hello until the next morning.

But the opportunity arose to say hello, I got a chance to pull out my German language from 1991, and Meeri’s eyes lit up.  They were fast friends from that point on.  We went to the beach together, sat for hours chatting with their parents, and even went on a massive 9km hike together the next day. 

The girls loved talking/playing with each other, but I got just as much enjoyment talking to their parents as well.  We had so many good discussions, but the one most pertinent, and I think most revelatory for Americans was this:  As a German, you have to be careful not to get too many friends.

Now, to elaborate.

I had asked Carsten (Dad) what was the biggest change for him when he took the job transfer from Germany to America.  He started talking about the friendliness of Americans at first, and how Americans are so much friendlier, externally.   His wife used the example of being in DC vs. being in Berlin.  She said that if she had a map open in DC, if she was staring for more than a minute or so, looking lost, an American would most assuredly walk up to her and ask her if she needed help finding something.  She said this wasn’t just conjecture, but it had happened multiple times.  In Berlin, she stated, she would have to be laying on the ground crying before a German would walk up and ask for help.  They said that it wasn’t a matter (for them, in their opinion) of kindness or rudeness, but privacy.

But then they flipped the whole thing on its head, and this is what blew me away…friendship.  They talked about how easy it was for Americans to call a person friend, and how un-German that was.  Each of them talked about how powerful that word was for a German, in that a German takes the responsibilities of friendship extremely seriously.  Carsten talked extensively about how when you find out that your friend has a problem, you do everything in your power to help them solve that problem …often spending hours and hours of your own time talking with them, strategizing with them, discussing pro/cons of the possibilities….and how this was normal. 

Sharing everything, all your problems, with your friends, all the time…and it’s normal.


The depth and trust and kindness and self-sacrifice that he was describing….I wonder how many people that I can say that I trusted that deeply, or have trusted me that way.  I’m not sure what the answer is to that, it just got me to thinking how much richer an experience that might be where I’m not trying to maintain so many levels of friendships, but making only a handful much, much deeper.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

A few pictures of us, of late, to fill this out….

Shelley saw this quote twice within 24 hours.  I think there's some severe wisdom located within.

The little girl is disappearing, and a new one is emerging.  Like a chrysalis before our very eyes, this summer has been the place where the girl has decreased, and the mini-tiny-soontobeyoungadult is emerging.  Wow. 

I liked this for a capstone picture for several reasons:
  1. Anya climbed on top of this for the first time that I've ever seen her.
  2. She didn't even blink climbing and standing on it.  No fear, unlike all previous attempts.
  3. Her attitude and stature are exactly representative of just how many moments she spends mourning all the things she's lost, all the curves that she's been thrown, and all the crap she's had to put up with.  If I could only be like her, in that regard. 

I'm hoping the next post I do I'll be able to show you the gravestone, and give you concrete directions on how to get there...for those of you who've asked.

Have a great week, y'all.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Done now. Posting.

Greetings All,

Firstly, I feel the need to apologize for the time since the last post.  I know I don’t, but well, I shall nonetheless.  Between the trip, getting back, getting things back together, getting Anya off to Special Days Camp, and then having time together with Shelley, alone, for the first time since Amie died…well…it’s been a heck of a summer, thus far.

So, yes!  A blog post.  Let’s do this. It’s always hard to get started, to build the momentum to do a post when you haven’t written in a while.  More about momentum later…

The trip seems to be the thing most pertinent thing to talk about.  It was fantastic, in so many ways.  The most obvious was the time spent together; doing all the normal trip things that could be done.  We truly enjoy spending time with each other, Anya loves to read for long periods of time (while driving between incredibly long distances to National Parks), and I don’t mind driving those incredibly long distances either.

It was also really great to see friends that we haven’t seen in so many years.  Watching them discover Anya, see that a truly great kid she is….so amazing.  Also, in 2 of the 4 places we stayed, they had girls Anya’s age…so watching Anya get to have surrogate sisters was another true pleasure of the trip.  First Amelia and Silvie, and then Dasha and Ksenia, Anya loved spending time with both sets, and talked about them a ton once we’d left.

Also, the National Parks.  Man o man do the mountains call to me.  But you know who else loved them?  My little mountain goat, Anya.  2 weeks before we left on the trip, we walked to the farmers market, and she had a hard, hard time with the 3-mile round trip walk (all flat).  By the end of the trip, she was cruising through 5-mile hikes with a 600 ft elevation change both ways.

Highlights of the National Parks:

  • Zion and Bryce Canyon were the hands down winners for places that made us want to return, and hike hike hike more more more.  Just knowing that Zion NP is just a quick 2.5 hour drive from Vegas makes us want to plan a trip next spring break, and explore it for a week during a less hectic time.
  • Great Basin National Park:  It was disastrous for us at the very start, with rain and accidentally setting up camp in someone’s occupied camp site, but by the end of the next day, as we’d hiked up to a grove of 3000 year old bristlecone pine trees, and then past to a snowy glacier, with a 6 mile hike starting at 10,000 feet….so, so damned cool.  …and to see Anya doing it with a skip in her step and nary a complaint?  It made my heart sing.
  • Caves!  We went to Oregon Caves NM and the Lehmann caves in Great Basin, and both were insanely cool.  I’ll never be a geologist (Jeff, Chris) and want to study them, but I still find it fascinating to see things that grow at 1-inch every 1000 years….and see them 10 feet tall.  A must see if you are anywhere in the area of any of these places.

Lowlights of the National Parks:

  • Yosemite:  We had originally been planning on going to the Grand Tetons as we left Oakland and headed to Denver, but I got the idea in my head to divert to Yosemite instead, as it was directly in the path of us heading out of Oakland.  TERRIBLE IDEA.  Here’s what I didn’t know, and my friend Art tried to tell me but I couldn’t hear…Yosemite in July is roughly akin to Cedar Point in July….insanely packed, and full of people you don’t want to be packed around for any amount of time.  Gorgeous vistas, but traffic jams as bad as US-23 on a Friday night heading north.  Amazing hikes, but the pathways as crowded as the Ann Arbor Street Fair.  MISERABLE.
  • Grand Canyon:  Still gorgeous…  but compared the accessibility of Bryce and Zion….  So underwhelming.  I guess we could have plunged down beneath the rim, and tested ourselves, but we weren’t ready for that in week 1 of our trip, and it was….  Crowded and ugh.

But the trip was 95% amazing, and so many stories I could type and tell, but that’s kinda boring for 99% of you.   But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t take a second to thank everyone who was ├╝ber generous to us during the last few years.  It was your generosity that enabled us to take this trip, to do it right, and to have this time of healing for us.

To talk about Amie for a bit, because heck, that’s why many of you come here, we’re quickly coming up to the 6-month anniversary of her death (next Thursday).  We designed her headstone, and ordered it this week.  It will be delivered in mid-September, and I think all of y’all will really like what we did.  It’s going to make me cry like a baby the first time I see it, I’m sure… but that’s part of the process, right?

I talked a lot after Amie died about the slideshow in my head, and how the negative images were dominating the space for so long.  I think that’s really starting to abate. 

I’ve had this image in my head for a long time.  I have all these jars on this shelf, some are these short old-school glass jars with rubber stoppered lids and metal latches, and others are taller, thinner, and open topped.  I see this as the shelf in my head, holding all the parts of me, past and current, good and bad, light and dark.

I had this mental image, after Amie died, of this one jar, pure black and dense.  So dense that it was this tiny jar, but it was causing the entire shelf to bow, possibly causing it to break in the middle of the night, spilling all of the rest of everything all over the place, and shattering the glass, creating havoc.

But as I think on this now, that shelf isn’t bowing.  The jar is still there…and at the bottom it’s still black as ink….  But the top of that jar has been transformed.  It’s bubbling, it’s leaking out, and it’s no longer black.  It’s a swirling mixture of reds and greens and oranges and yellows and blues and pinks ( but not green, I don’t like green <or sez the Amie>).  I wish I was an artist, as I’d love a drawing of what I just described.  :)

One last thing, before I call this good, and do another post next week, running.  Shelley commented to me about 10 days ago how she was really getting inspired by people in her life posting these Couch to 5k updates, and how she had really hated running all her life, but maybe she could give it a try.  I told her I’d love to do it with her, as a means to do something healthy together, to help her be more fit, to help myself be fit at all, and well…to give myself a challenge.  I ran A LOT in hs, but nearly nothing since.

We’re been running for a bit now, and both of us are really surprising ourselves.  We made concerted efforts to live far more healthily since the beginning of the trip, as things really got put aside (for good reasons) while Amie was really ill, and afterwards. 

For me, I’m really inspired by the people in my life who’ve really transformed themselves in the pursuit of fitness, mainly thinking of Sarah and Jillian.  Hoping we can keep this up, and stay on this path of wellness that we’ve been cultivating for a few weeks now.  Also, Jillian just had a baby today.  YAY JILLIAN! WOO!

Ok.  One last thing:  I got a great FB message today from a sister of a former student, talking about lots of stuff, but mostly (to me) about reaching out.  She complimented me about my reaching out and saying something kind to her Mom, in regards to a rough situation she was struggling with.  I responded with this: 

I think that other people also just don't know what to say, and how to say they just stay quiet for fear of making anything worse. I think, through our experiences these past few years, we know it's better to risk the awkwardness than leave the other person to their isolation.

So, that’s my request for anyone bothering to read this WALL OF TEXT (hi, joe!).  If you know someone who is struggling through something that is rough, that is painful, that is harder than you know what to do with… don’t stay silent, reach out and say hello.  You’re not going to make it worse.  You’re going to remind them that they’re thought of.

Done now.  Posting.

Ok, had to include at least one picture.  
Here's us, picking Anya up from camp.  
What a tall, lovely, confident, and awesome little girl we have.