Happy (Re)birthday to Me

Hello, dear readers! Today is a day that always fills me with deep thoughts and gratitude. It’s the day I’ve been calling Miracle Day for years, which my husband has re-branded cutely into “Amanda Day.” Just over a week away from my actual birthday, I realize it could also be called my rebirth day.

Fourteen years ago, I was a passenger in a near-fatal car crash that left me with a traumatic brain injury, an uphill battle of relearning absolutely everything (walking, talking, eating, seeing, balancing…etc.)–and a huge sense of purpose. Three years ago, another horrific car crash (rear-ended!) left me with another head injury and a renewed sense of purpose and love.

I beg you to consider it more the literary nerd in me rather than total egomania–but part of what’s helped me piece together the puzzle of my life is realizing that many literary heroes undergo an epic quest and ultimate rebirth to become a new, leveled-up, wiser version of their still former selves–not a transformation into a different person, but a better version of themselves. These epic heroes have traded something dear to realize their destiny. There is usually an element of loss, but for a greater gain and a greater good. They don’t give up because things have changed; they move forward, realizing they are better equipped, even if it’s difficult, and even if they must get to know themselves anew.

I reflect on this often, blessed as I am to have made a “full recovery.” I put it in quotes, because a brain injury is permanent. However, the brain is FASCINATING in its ability to rebuild new connections, new workarounds for how things used to be. Just because an area of the brain was damaged does not necessarily mean that a function/skill is lost–the brain can often accommodate, especially with great rehab like I had at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine (where I proudly work!). Now, 14 years after my major trauma, I certainly think/work differently before–but I don’t (usually) think of it as a bad thing. Things that are perhaps a bit slower for me now are certainly offset by the enormous perspective, compassion, and sense of purpose I gained. I feel like I see the world completely differently now; that my unquenchable sense of carpe diem has unlocked a thousand lifetimes for me, that my equally heartbreaking and heart-filling sense of empathy is a network of a thousand souls.

I was blessed to recover as I did, in a completeness that many are not lucky enough to reach–and let me tell you, that survivor’s guilt is intense. As much as I LOVE volunteering, donating, mentoring, giving back–I will never feel equal to the love and support God, my family, friends, and strangers showed me during my recovery. Recovery for me was an enormous hug with a soft, warm blanket of love that has only grown since those hard days.

November is an interesting month for me–and again, it’s the literary nerd in me that seeks themes–but I could not think of a better series of holidays to celebrate: Rebirth Day/Miracle Day/Amanda Day; Thanksgiving (SO MUCH to be thankful for); and my actual birthday. Thank you God, family, husband, friends, coworkers, and again, strangers–for making this life so beautiful and blessed.

Today is sometimes melancholic for me, reflecting on how lucky I have been to be saved twice on November 21 and wondering what it all means. More than anything, it is a day filled with gratitude. My husband and family make sure it is also a fun day for me. Tonight, Dave and I played a word game (my favorite!) and I had pizza (also my favorite!) and am soon to partake in some dark chocolate (another favorite–see a theme?). I’m writing on my new laptop I’m already obsessed with that Dave got me as an early present for Amanda Day/birthday/Christmas (who gets presents for the anniversary of their medical events?? This lucky wife! 🙂 ) My wonderful boss made sure I was able to work from home today so I wouldn’t have to be on the roads and could stay comfortable–and she gave me many hugs and such compassion, along with several other coworkers yesterday.

I am absolutely blessed with this life. Even the dark moments led to more beauty, more growth, a deeper existence–a rebirth. 🙂

Happy International Dog Day

Hello, hello, dear readers! I have missed you and this blog! I have so much to update you on, and it will take several posts to do so.

But today’s post is dedicated to the apple of my eye, Leia.

Leia came into my life as the fur-child of my husband (!) (I know, I know, I promise to devote several posts to our love story–I find it quite epic and romantic, but of course, I am biased).

My husband, Dave, and I met online, and one of the first things that caught my eye was the picture of this little Maltipoo cherub. Dave adopted her from a local shelter years ago, and she just celebrated her 10th birthday last month. Can you believe it? Just six pounds, and the perfect little ball of love on your lap, she is our forever puppy.

Leia has changed our lives for the better. She is spunky, clever, and so loving. She always has tons of kisses and snuggles to give; she is the perfect antidote on any *ruff* day (sorry not sorry, I can’t resist a good or bad pun). I can’t tell you how many times she’s kissed away tears or comforted me with her fluffy cloud ways.

She charms anyone she meets, from tough biker dudes (I loved watching one melt into a puddle when he saw her on the sidewalk) to little kids having temper tantrums. She just has a way about her.

Leia has also been our mascot for fundraising for one of our favorite local rescues, Red Door Animal Shelter. We have done a few 5ks with them to raise money for the thousands of animals they rescue–dogs, cats, and bunnies, primarily, but all sorts of other animals, too. We were proud to walk and fundraise under the name Team Leia.

Because Leia made me a proud dog mom, I also got the pawportunity (#sorrynotsorry) to become a writer for DogTime, an online resource with tons of articles for dog parents–much like a magazine, but updated more frequently. I love getting to research, learn, and write about dogs, in a freelance writing position that is very flexible and allows me to focus on my full-time healthcare marketing job. Not to mention, the head editor is my friend from college–it is so cool to watch your friends achieve their dreams, and even cooler to get to work with them after being classmates. I just started this summer, and you can read my first published article here: “Can Dogs Eat Bread? Is Bread Safe for Dogs?”.

Although Leia has introduced me to a lot of neat new experiences, my favorite ones are just being around her. I love gazing into her expressive eyes while we have deep conversations. I love feeling her calm breathing while we cuddle and watch TV or read together. I love her jaunty little steps while we take our walks together in the sunlight or starlight. I even love her occasional mischief. She just makes life better, and I couldn’t be more blessed to be her mom.

Happy International Dog Day to all you dog owners and fans out there! How has a dog made your life better? I’d love to hear your stories!

Love and Mortality: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday 

Good evening, readers! I am writing a quick reflection for tonight. 

What a beautiful, meaningful, sad, joyous day. My heart is heavy for the losses my loved ones and our country (and world) are feeling lately. But my heart is full with the love I am blessed to have in my life. 
I’d like to wish everyone a happy Valentine’s Day. To me, it is a day to celebrate love, not just a romantic love. It’s why we give each other valentines as kids (I  think adults should do this, too!), practicing kindness and appreciation.

I’d like to share this reflection a chaplain shared with me at work. (She put ceremonial ashes on our forehead—such a humbling, beautiful experience that fills me with grace.) She said she was reflecting on the meaning of Ash Wednesday, a day reminding us of our mortality, coinciding with Valentine’s Day, a day reminding of love. She thinks it is a reminder to celebrate our loved ones as much as we can, as often as we can, because tomorrow is never promised. What a beautiful thought and way to live. ❤️

So…go out and tell your loved ones that you love them—even if they don’t know it. Even if they do. Because tomorrow is never promised. Happy Valentine’s Day; I wish you love. 

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):

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. ✨