Hope for Veterans Day: Bringing Back Normality and What We Can Do

Happy Veterans Day Weekend, everyone!
It seems an oxymoron to call it “happy,” but it is indeed a celebration, though of a somber sort, recognizing all those who have fought for us. Some have given the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, and all have given a sacrifice of some sort, visible or otherwise.
That’s why I was drawn to this article in The New Yorker, exploring the way so many soldiers are affected by P.T.S.D., and what we can do about it. When I sought to say something meaningful about this day (Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, etc. in other countries), I looked first to other stories. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but when I seek to find meaning in events, in experiences, I look for the stories–to read, or to tell myself.

This article, published in 2008 but more relevant with each passing day, explores the conundrum of what happens when soldiers come back from war–but really, it’s relatable to anyone who has ever been through anything traumatic (so, everyone). I related to it on several fronts–having experienced trauma, myself, with my traumatic brain injury and thankfully being required to see a psychologist as part of my treatment plan. Not to put my experience on the same plane of heroism as a soldier’s, but I think it is a natural human tendency to dismiss your own feelings when you’re in a situation of huge stress/trauma–your instinct is just to get through it, overcome it, and “level up” into a greater version of yourself, having completed a huge act of fortitude, physically and emotionally.

Except–how can you “level up” emotionally when you had to focus on the physical getting-through of the event, not acknowledging (or even noticing) the huge emotional minefield around you? It doesn’t matter how “tough” anyone thinks s/he is (a common mentality, the article interviewee noted, in the armed forces)–a traumatic event needs to be unpacked. According to the article from nine years ago–meaning the number can only have risen–“According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, nearly twenty per cent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression. Almost half won’t seek treatment.”

The key in treatment, says the article, is dissociating environmental or situational stimuli with the traumatic event of the past. I love that medical science is disarming the blanket stigma against video games and tapping into their potential use outside of just entertainment. While I was lucky to experience some high-tech and even virtual reality devices as part of my therapy treatment at Marianjoy during my TBI recovery, what they have now is even more impressive.
So, speaking of “leveling up,” when I read that virtual reality video games are now starting to be used to treat P.T.S.D. with a high degree of success, I was thrilled. It seems like an “of course” idea, but it took a lot of work for them to get a military training platform, turned video game, turned treatment option, into clinics. Just like any dangerous physical venture, it’s important to have a trained guide (here, therapist/psychologist) lead you through the experience and be able to pull you out if it gets too hazardous.

While the whole story was touching and engaging, the line that made me cry was the last one–a soldier who had found immense relief from this virtual reality treatment:

“Most of the intrusive thoughts have gone away,” he said. “You never really get rid of P.T.S.D., but you learn to live with it. I had pictures of my team leader [who was like a brother, killed in front of me] that I couldn’t look at for three years. They’re up on my wall now.”

Wow.

It gives me hope for our veterans, whom I respect and feel we owe so much. If you have wondered, like me, what we can do to help our disabled and otherwise injured veterans, besides buying the cute little poppies from volunteers selling Tootsie Rolls, this CNN article gives a fantastic list of simple, but impactful, ways to help. I also encourage you to think of your own talents and how you can share them. “Talent” is, perhaps, a generous word to apply to my musical skills, but my singalong string band, the Pennies from Heaven, likes to lead carols at our local VA hospital every Christmas, bringing a sense of home, familiarity, normality, and warm memories to those who can’t be “Home for Christmas” (a heartbreakingly common song request from the veterans we play for). The biggest thing we notice from anywhere we play (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) is that people appreciate the company–bringing the outside world in is a helpful way to help anyone acclimate to daily life. So if your talent is just being a good listener or a good storyteller–I promise you your gift of time and company will be appreciated, even if you can’t see it at first glance–it may mean the world to a veteran or other patient.

I’ll leave you with one more suggestion–to read this moving poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, who was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of a fellow soldier and friend who had fallen in battle in 1915. It’s something I do every Veterans Day, to connect with this day of remembrance, which was established at the end of the very war that inspired this poem (hence the November 11th observation every year):

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Go, Cubs, Go: What Baseball Means to Me–and Chicago

I’m filled with all the hope and emotions of last year, only amplified by a year of deepened fandom, championship pride, and huge amounts of family bonding over this quintessential American pastime–imbued with the hopes and excitement from generations past. I’m not giving up hope yet–go, Cubs, go! Let’s get that pennant–again!

Jelly-Side Up

It was a loud, proud night in Chicagoland Saturday night. Fireworks and cheers erupted over the region, and the closer you were to the epicenter–Wrigley Field, that is–the more you could feel the roar of excitement, relief, and pride. That pride rippled around the world, as I saw posts from some of my friends in different countries, struggling to find an internet connection to add their own voice to the cheering. Every local television channel switched to broadcast the news: the Cubs won the National League champions pennant, marking the first time they’d be in the World Series since 1945!

Image result for cubs world series

Are you wondering what blog you’re reading right now–when did I become a sports fan, right? In a way, you could say this year; in a way, you could say my whole life. I’ve become more invested in the Cubs this year, partially because of the community. One of my friends…

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In Defense of Living

Do you ever sit down to write one thing, but something completely different bursts forth and demands to be told? It happens to me all the time.

This is one of those posts.

As I prepared to write a glowing review of the touring Broadway production of Aladdin, I froze. “How,” I asked myself, “can I possibly write about something like that, with what is happening right now in our country? In the world?

How can I even admit that I went to go see a musical in the midst of tragedy, much less justify it?”

And then, as they so often do, a Harry Potter quote rang in my head. (I will try to introduce the quote with as little spoiler as possible.) 

SCENE: A battle of the ages in the ultimate war of good vs. evil looms. Guests mingle at a wedding, in a mix of joy and discomfort.

Ginny: Seems silly, doesn’t it? A wedding. Given everything that’s going on.

Harry: Maybe that’s the best reason to have it. Because of everything that’s going on.

Yes. This simple exchange has stuck with me ever since. There are so many embedded sub-questions in here: Is this the time for happiness? Is this the time for celebration? Is this the time for love?

Sometimes, you can’t explain why one thing affects you more than other things. Ever since the Charlottesville violence a few weeks ago, dark clouds have filled either the front or the back of my mind. People died in the name of protesting hate–I’ve been stunned into a cycle of mournful quietude and exchanges of dismay and sorrow with the people around me. 

We spoke of these dark times by the candlelight around my sister’s birthday pies (lovingly homemade by my mom). Every gathering of loved ones is a blessing, one we take less for granted than ever.


How can I write about a sparkly joyous moment like a musical, which lifted my heart and filled me with wonder? How can I rationalize the disconnection from the somber everyday when playing “escape from the monster” with toddlers in sprinklers at my boyfriend’s nephew’s birthday party?

Who was escaping what?

And, again, a quote from literature resounds with me:

Fairy tales are more than real, because they prove that dragons can be beaten.” –G.K. Chesterton/Neil Gaiman

Those questions about the time for love and joy–the answer is yes, now–right now. They are essential to our makeup. If we don’t have those, if we aren’t working towards those, why fight for anything? What is the point of anything, if not those two things?

I am not suggesting we soothe away our anxieties and sadnesses about the world with shiny distractions, ignoring problems as if they don’t exist. 

I am saying–we need both. We need the armor of our loves and joys to equip us for our–the world’s–battles. Eat the birthday cake; smell the flowers; hug your family. We need these to center our focus on what we can do to help, not sink into paralyzing despair.

I’m going to focus on the animal shelters around the country sending pet food for the dogs held in loving arms above the floodwaters in Texas, on the crowded lanes of people towing their boats from other states to help those stranded in Texas–where news sources have noted a beautiful unity in the face of tragedy.  I’m going to donate used clothes to a shelter nearby bringing relief supplies to Texas this weekend–check Facebook or the news for one by you.

And as her mother heartbreakingly, inspiringly said, let us focus on Hannah Heyer’s message of love and acceptance in the face of total evil–her message only amplified by her sacrifice, ringing louder than anything so transient as death.

What Harry Potter Taught Us, 20 Years Later

Hello, dear readers! I have missed you! Life since my last post has been thrilling, heartbreaking, amazing, rather epic and ultimately beautiful…but that’s all for another post (or dozen). Today, I’m going to be talking about an anniversary important not just to me, but to millions of readers around the globe. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter publication. I think it’s just as popular and relevant now as when it first debuted.

Despite J. K. Rowling’s battle to get Harry Potter published, the work was so instantly a pop culture smash hit that I initially shied away from it. (I’ve since learned that rabid book fans are the best fans and usually of good taste.) I’d developed my book snobbery at a very early age (likely in utero), and thus anything with mass appeal seemed unappealing to childhood me. Had I known one of the main characters herself was just such a snob, I might have been open to it earlier.

It took until the third book came out–at my sister’s utter insistence–for me to pick up the series.

I was instantly hooked, so much so I couldn’t even pretend not to be–nor did I want to. Even in a blurb, the story appeals to all: underdog finds self, triumphing over daily hardship and ultimately great evil, with a lot of love and help from quirky friends. Add magic into the mix, and it makes for a spellbinding (pun always intended) read.

Rowling is credited for “getting the world to read again,” and it’s no wonder why or how. The universal message appeals to all, but the world is so chock-full of heartwarming and quirky characters, there’s someone for everyone to relate to.

For me, that was Hermione Granger. Not since Belle (Beauty and the Beast) did I come across a character I loved so much because she was me. She was unabashedly brainy, always choosing justice over popularity. Her devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, to speaking her mind, became central to her heroism. She made it cool to be smart and opinionated.

Wingardium Leviosa! Hermione is one of my favorite cosplays!

Another aspect of Harry Potter I cherish is how it showed the world that the power of friendship and love can overcome anything–that there’s nothing more powerful than those. It did that throughout the plot in the whole series. It also did that, beautifully and unpredictably, through the fandom that linked the world together through the series. These books inspired people to be themselves, and at impressionable ages, showed teens they weren’t alone or strange. What could be more pure than a love of books (perhaps I am biased)? A Harry Potter book in someone’s hands is a universal symbol of community, of the message, “I value love, friendship, and courage, too.” It brought my community of friends and fellow bibliophiles closer, too. While my sister and I were already at maximum sister closeness, it was so much fun to celebrate every book and movie release together, having someone right in your own house with whom to discuss every plot twist and inkling! 

Sisters cosplaying for the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” book release 10 years ago!


What a unique experience it was to grow up with this series as it was coming out! It is one of the only book series I know of that “matures” as the characters get older–a neat experience for a girl paralleling the ages of the characters as the books were released (but then–children nowadays can get the same effect if they space out their reading year-to-year–but the addictive quality of these books makes that a difficult feat!). Indeed, the books became more dark and angsty as the characters grew up, which I found a fascinating and intriguing concept.

Something else Harry Potter taught us: to see magic in the everyday–that it’s all around us. Twenty years later, this is a lesson I use every day. ✨

Holy Cow: Cubs Win the World Series and Our Hearts

This is a story of resilience, of hope rewarded, of an underdog rising to greatness. It’s a story of generations, of love passed down through DNA, of unifying triumph, of a storybook “happily ever after” and banished curses.

It’s a moment in history that’s been over a century in the making, and everyone wants a part in it. Five million people filled the streets of Chicago on Friday in the seventh-largest human gathering of all time–and the largest ever in our country–to watch the Chicago Cubs’ victory parade. “Thank you for your patience,” the lauded World Series Champions of 2016 said, giving as much praise to their fans’ perseverance as their own. The Chicago Cubs had had the longest drought of any professional sports team in the history of the USA: 108 years without a championship.

#FlytheW–the Cubs won the World Series! Photo courtesy of my friend Arnaud Buttin, who attended the rally.

That number, 108, keeps popping up in uncanny ways, signs of destiny that 2016 really was our year–according to Inside Edition, the list includes:

  • The building that broadcasts Cubs games: 108 stories high
  • Stitches on a baseball: 108
  • Original address of baseball manufacturer, Spalding: 108 Madison St., Chicago
  • Run time of movies Back to the Future 2 and Taking Care of Business, who predicted future Cubs World Series wins: 108 minutes

Here is the Inside Edition video, published 10/25, predicting the win:

Also, another that came forward, necessarily after that video: Joe Maddon, the manager of the Cubs, presented the championship trophy to the rally in Grant Park at 1:08 p.m. on Friday.

This feeling of destiny is a heavy weight lifted off the shoulders of so many who have inherited this love of the Cubs from others. At first, I thought the story I shared last week about our family Cubs tradition was unique, but over this past week, I’ve read many other touching stories of people rejoicing more on behalf of their loved ones than themselves.

One man drove all day to Greenwood Cemetery, Indiana, to keep a promise to his dad–that they would listen to the World Series together. He set up a radio and a lawn chair, and they did just that.

In my own family, my dad kept an unspoken promise to his mother, who raised him to be the Cubs fan he is today. She wasn’t far away during that epic game 7 of the World Series. Her mass card sports St. Anthony of Padua, who she always loved as the patron saint of lost things–and lost causes, she added. My dad kept her mass card and the lucky marble he’d shared with her on the table we surrounded while we bit our nails, jumped up and down, hyperventilated, and nearly collapsed during that game.

St. Anthony of Padua on my grandmother’s mass card, and the lucky marble my dad shared with her

The next day, he looked everywhere for a newspaper to take to her grave–an acknowledgement, a celebration, of the moment they’d been waiting for for many decades. And while she didn’t get to see it while she was here with us, she had the ultimate view from Heaven.

The newspapers were sold out at four different stores my dad went to, but he randomly found a pristine copy of two in the wrong spot by the coffee at Jewel. Even the cashier shared her shock he’d found one, but he smiled, knowing it was a special delivery.

Special Delivery: Victory Newspapers

We figured out later that our grandma was definitely watching the game from Heaven, when we realized the three final winning games had significant dates for her: her death anniversary, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day.

The game went on forever, in a good but completely nerve-shattering way. After jumping at a leaf the next day, my mom announced her nerves were shot. Several of our friends had to turn off the game at one point because they were about to be physically ill. As for me, my heart was racing for the entire game, but I determined to make it through, no matter what! After all, if these underdogs were about to change history, I didn’t want to miss it. As a bonus, I discovered I actually can hold my breath for 4.5 hours.

The game was as epic as a Lord of the Rings movie–and this, coming from an LOTR superfan–but it was like the climax lasted the entire duration. Movie producers would dismiss a script like that because it would be too unbelievable. When the game went into an extra 10th inning because of a tie, and then when there was a rain delay–even nature was adding to the drama–that was the breaking point for some people. For the Cubs, though, it was the moment of truth–Jason Heyward, outstanding outfielder for the team this year, gave a rallying speech to the Cubs that they could break the tie, break the curses, that not all was lost.

Speaking of Lord of the Rings, it reminded me of another rallying speech:

Image result for aragorn speech gif       Image result for aragorn speech courage of men

Indeed, after that rain delay, the Cubs pulled it together to achieve a final score of 8-7. To say the crowds went WILD is an understatement. It’s no wonder that the celebration is still going strong–“Go Cubs!” has replaced “Hello” around here, and “Go, Cubs, Go,” is the anthem of every place music might be played, from my own band’s performance to our hospital’s black-tie fundraising gala. Fans–of the Cubs, of Chicago, of the underdog story–want to acknowledge this moment of unity, perseverance, and reward of faith invested, breaths held for over a century. Our fandom only increases as we learn how the players are using their fame to give back to fans, including Anthony Rizzo’s foundation for cancer research he started after beating it himself. These aren’t just good players; they’re good people. These are heroes for America’s kids that we can be proud of. That goes for the Cleveland Indians, too–I was really impressed with the civility and kindness between the opposing teams. Now that’s a lesson we could carry with us!

Thank you, Cubs, for bringing us such a happy moment in history–something we could really use right now, especially in Chicago. Here’s to hoping we can carry this optimism and camaraderie with us beyond baseball. And even though 108 might be my new favorite number, here’s to hoping for another thrilling win in 2017.

 

Drawing by my very talented sister

Top Ten: Friends’ Favorite Scary Stories

It’s almost Halloween, and what better way to get in the mood than with ghost stories? I’m sharing this list of the top scary stories suggested by my friends and family. At the moment, I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” and while it may not technically be a horror story, it has its frightening moments–and it certainly has ghosts and otherworldly spirits. My dad is reading a book called “Civil War Ghost Stories & Legends,” and it does sound chilling, indeed. My mom, sister, and I are also watching a show called “Salem,” which is quite spooky and intriguing, blending history with the supernatural. What stories are you immersing yourself in this Halloween? Let me know in the comments!

 

Several brave souls responded with their selections for scary stories–some, with many! The list in this link will show both their choices and who chose them: Top Ten: Friends’ Favorite Scary Stories

They Say (a poem)

It’s so much easier for me to write about the fun parts of fall than it has been to talk about the difficult summer that I’m so glad is behind me. I kept feeling I should write about it–that emotion, our hard times, are the inspiration behind the fruit of our best work. Sometimes, though, life is so hard, you can’t write about it until it’s behind you. You can’t write in the dark…no matter what they say.

Embed from Getty Images

They Say
By: Amanda K. Fowler

They say
you can feel bad things coming
in the wind.
But I say
it’s not true.
In the heat
of summer,
I felt nothing at all
when disaster struck
three times in three weeks.
I felt nothing
when three of my loved ones,
pieces of my heart,
fell away from me.
I felt nothing,
till I got one back,
the one I needed the most–
his near-death only near,
thank God–
and then I felt everything.

They say
water is the soother
for us all–
it is how we were born,
after all;
it cradles us,
easing the gravity
of everything.
It cleanses us.
But the waves I felt this summer
were the wrong water:
tears instead of surf.

They say
you can feel it
when summer shifts to fall,
when leaves retire
to the splendor of their finest moment–
and this time,
I agree–
it’s a slow goodbye kiss,
a healing, scabbing cool.
I feel the wind
blowing away the ash,
carrying away
the burns of summer,
finally behind me.