TIME. The gift that does not keep giving

Today is the nine year anniversary of my accident (my “traumaversary,” as it is sometimes called). I almost forgot this date as the day approached! One of the advantages of acclimating to a new normal I guess–the significance of this date looms less and less in importance as other noteworthy life events come into the forefront.

Scott and I have been talking a lot about the tsunami of changes the past couple of years have ushered in, between job changes, aging parents, and our kids morphing into stinky, emo teenagers trying (successfully) to weather an unpredictable worldwide pandemic. Working in hospitals has magnified the importance of the now moments– unearthing the fleetingness of youth. beauty. abilities. health. security. Covid has underscored these learnings as I have watched it bring people to their knees, distilling priorities and forcing a collective “hunkering down” to heal. To pause…. when our monkey-minds want to rumble.

I often ponder how each passing year has brought new wisdom and insight. Greater clarity in prioritizing, and less emphasis on the external, temporary whims that used to define my world. (They’re still there, just less-so)

There is so much living to be done. So many choices, so little time.

Middle age is an interesting place to be, with character lines now etched into my face by living and loving wholeheartedly. Eleven years after a life-changing traumatic adoption journey, nine years after a suffering a severe physical accident, and seven years after an amputation, I have been hounded by the lure of scrambling for the shards of youth vigor and vitality–while the reality of life’s temporariness continues to stare me in the face. Again, this little (big) issue of time haunts me. Man, life is beautiful, but it is short.

My daughter is driving (gasp!) and started her first job at the Tosa Rec Department. Two and a half more years and she’ll be off to college. Kai (the kid who came to us with global physical and developmental delays) is becoming a dang good skateboarder. He climbed his first 5.10+ recently. He’s doing okay in school with a village of support. Scott’s and my marriage has gotten stronger over time despite all we’ve been through (no small feat!). My dad is 79 with a host of medical issues. He’s still with us, but we’ve had many close calls. My mom is 76 and the pandemic has been hard on them…yet we’ve gingerly worked out ways to keep them in our lives in safe ways (masks, distance, etc). I’ve got a book in the works and am soooo close to being finished! (Yay! Send good mojo…) Our lives are full with friends, family, and meaningful work.

Jade’s first job

The biggest life lesson I’ve learned over the past nine years has been this: The endless pursuit of adventure is not “out there” somewhere. It’s right here. In my home. In my family and in my community.

Time is so precious. Cherish it.

Be well,

Chris

How Do We Do This?

EIGHT YEARS AGO I WAS RE-LEARNING HOW TO WALK. December through March were spent in a fuzzy haze mixed with trepidation and fear about the future. With hardware affixed to my hips and confined to a hospital bed in our living room, I asked myself again and again, How do I do this? How does one lie flat on one’s back for three long months (the amount of time required for a pelvic fracture to heal) without going absolutely crazy?

The mind is a funny thing. What if’s and worst case scenarios can loom in one’s consciousness like hungry vultures, feeding off of the fear and insidiousness which often accompany difficult circumstances. We want answers. Hanging onto tangled scraps of hope, we want to know that everything will be okay, or manageable anyway.

I am a doer to the nth degree. I don’t sit still well (much-less lie in one place well). Yet having no choice, I had to learn how to let go. Not easy, yet totally necessary.

Not able to do things my way (God forbid), I began to notice small things that I had never acknowledged before. Activities which previouslyfelt meaningless, trivial or mundane (such as getting my hair washed or slurping a chocolate milkshake) suddenly became high entertainment–something I looked forward to. As life began to slow down in so many ways, I was able to savor my experiences so much more: To feel the warm sudsy water dripping down the sides of my face as my mom gently caressed my head in a scalp massage (which felt heavenly). Evening milkshakes (with a little extra malt protein) were liquid gold. So much yummier because life had become simplified, pure and savor-able. Milkshakes and hair washings–These things were big deals.

(Gingerly) snuggling with my children. Watching the birds. Engaging in sick-humored banter with my husband and parents. Stroking the soft fur of my purring kitties. These things came to define an arduous (yet retrospectively very rich) three months. Somehow, deep rich gratitude had emerged out of a life which one might have described as kinda painful and sucky. Was it easy? Hell No. Did we get through it? Yes. Were we changed? You betcha.

Hunkering down. Taking life moment-by-moment doesn’t suck so much. Trust me.

I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been back at the space of wondering if I’m going to lose my ever-lovin’ mind. Bracing for the onslaught of the worst of this coronavirus pandemic has me scared shitless. Mostly I’m afraid of losing people I love. Knowing without a doubt that there will be deep loss and suffering, there are so. many. unknowns.

Cooped up with a surly soon-to-be 15 year old and teenage son with ADHD sends my brain into high-anxiety mode once again, which is tempered by being increasingly present. Staying in the here-and-now has brought me through before. It’s the juncture between learning to let go and trusting that healing can and will happen. In time. It’s embracing the futility of holding onto the past as we knew it, knowing that whether we’re ready or not, we WILL be changed. As individuals. As a culture. As a global community.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I have companioned ventilated patients in the throes of respiratory distress. I have seen the terror in their eyes while I held their hands and tried to comfort them in their unimaginable angst. I have cried with their families, knowing all to well, the difficult conversations of holding on and letting go. These are heart-wrenching, life-defining times, yet they are the times where the distillation of the best parts of our humanity come to the forefront. Once again, time is crystalized in the form of mere presence.

I have seen (personally and professionally) what modern medicine is able to accomplish, as well as its limitations. I’ve tested the limits of what the human body is able to endure, and, at the dawning of my middle-age years–have finally learned how to listen to it’s wizened messages. Healing and medicine are a partnership–a delicate dance between the active and receptive aspects of our care. And while fate will always await us at the horizon, it still remains our duty to listen to the stirrings within the hearts of our bodies and the heart of our earth.

We are not alone here. We belong to each other. Forces beyond our control may bring us to our knees, but it is always within our power to choose how we handle the challenges before us.

This coronavirus has ushered in a sobering sense of humility–something so necessary in these times. As Mark Manson states in his book Everything is #@%!ED,

“The more terrifying the world is, the more important it is to summon up the courage to face it. The more confusing life becomes, the more valuable it is to adopt humility.”

As we gear up for the months ahead, let us summon up the courage to simply BE STILL. In this time where we learn how to navigate the uncharted waters of a global pandemic, to BE STILL may be the most important personal resource we all can share.

Be well, Chris

Collecting Stories, Surviving, and Re-Defining Hope

(Raw honesty alert.  If you’re looking for a feel good post, kindly exit now.)

Every year at this time, I become a little melancholy. 

Wisconsin winters are harsh—gearing up for them each year takes its toll for sure.  My accident happened eight years ago, today.  Parenting continues to be challenging in many respects.  I’m now firmly entrenched in middle-age, and the dampness in the air heightens the inflammation in my joints.  Arthritis is starting to make its way into my fingers.  Great, I think.  Despite my continuing to climb, my body’s rebounding isn’t what it used to be.   I miss the younger, more resilient version of myself, and so does the mirror.

While these feelings are common, they are heightened by the work I do, visiting patients and hearing their stories.   Don’t get me wrong, I savor these stories.   Connecting on a deep human level has an exquisite richness that can’t be found elsewhere, despite what messages we may see / hear on social media and elsewhere.   There’s an art to what I do—a craft, for lack of a better word, which, although isn’t rocket science, is woven in the fiber of every human being.  We are meant to be there for one another. 

There’s an odd juxtaposition I have noticed taking place—one which has me feeling empty and saddened.  It has it’s roots in something Brene’ Brown has coined:  The need to hustle for our worthiness.  This feeling is a like a festering sore, covered by the band-aid of busyness and addictions of all kinds—social media being only one of them.

I suppose being the parent of two teenagers has caused me to think about this more clearly, and in particular—parenting kids who have congenital facial differences.   In a conversation with my daughter this week, she shared how hard it is nowadays to be real.   She echoed a comment from a good friend of hers, validating its truth:  “If you are ‘real’ in high school, people just dismiss you as weird.”  What the heck?  

Being real has always been a value of mine.   Like, a to-the-core value.  Maybe it was encouraged by my upbringing and underscored by my liberal arts theology studies.  Perhaps I was just fortunate enough to have always surrounded myself with folks who embraced realness as well.

I’m not certain, but if social media is driving people to hurl false personas out into the world, it’s having a devastating effect on our young people.  

The statistics are startling, and we know they’re true.  Depression, anxiety and suicide are at all-time highs in our young people.  They’re getting the message that they’re somehow NOT OKAY being who they are.  (They need an “image” to portray on social media which will define them.)  I refuse to let my kids grow up in a world defined by that message.

Yet, I find that I have inadvertently played into the problem over the years.    

Rather than basking in the pride and achievement of all that we have overcome as a family, I have found myself discouraged by the fact that the challenges continue to morph, and we never truly get to the “other side.”

But here’s the thing.  These things (human challenges, if you will) are NOT unique to me and / or my family.  We all face them.   The problem is that we’ve all become so preoccupied with our needing to hustle for our worthiness—ie, prove ourselves, that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

When we adopted our kids in 2007 and 2009, we were fortunate to have great medical coverage through the Wisconsin education system (my husband’s employer).  Their craniofacial issues were covered one hundred percent, including dental and orthodontics.  In February of 2011, Act 10 dismantled many provisions and benefits which existed for educators—thus, pulling the rug out from under our feet.  Our insurance was replaced with a typical large insurer, intent on exploiting loopholes and denying coverage for many of the issues our children would continue to face.

My accident occurred the following November.  Previously in perfect health, my medical needs (including prosthetic care) would now also render me an insurance consumer.  Still, we were fortunate that my husband’s job could sustain us.   I found projects to pour my heart and soul into while working my way back through the various stages of my recovery and amputation.   Starting an adaptive climbing program and trauma peer support community gave me life.  And hope. 

I knew in my gut, the importance of creating community.   Especially among those struggling.

I found comfort and connection in hearing the stories of everyone I came to know in the adaptive climbing world, and loved seeing my children grow up among so many types of differences.  In the hospital setting, the trauma peer support program limped along (pun intended), until it became obvious that resources could not sustain it.  Eventually the program folded (in reality.  It still exists theoretically on the ATS website.)

All of these realizations led me into a career in healthcare.  Companioning people in their worst-of-the-worst situations.   I now find myself struggling with compassion fatigue, and wondering what happened to supportive community?

Day after day, I meet with patients and families feeling isolated.  And ashamed.  People seem to have a reflexive need to blame themselves for their medical conditions or financial situations.  As I lean in more closely and listen to their stories, I am amazed at all that folks are able to shoulder (including myself.).  Fortune does not befall everyone, despite our reflexive need to blame people if they fall on hard times.

I understand the need to look for blame or solutions.  As a social worker, I was trained to problem solve, find the workarounds and achieve solutions.  Even China wasn’t far enough away for me to work my magic.  Eventually bringing my son home, wielding more magic and finding resources to help him along the way. 

I have seen the crashing waves of systemic trauma and collective shame gradually erode the shoreline of our shared humanity.    Technology has served to isolate us more and more, promising cheap and shiny platitudes (in the forms of memes, images or fleeting connections) as a replacement for true personal relationships.  I see patients, and my children—grasping for meaning and real mutual relationships, not based in competition or the need to prove anything.

On this day, my 8th trauma-versary, I am not celebrating anything. 

I am writing this post as a reminder that life is hard, and we need each other.

In August, I lost my good friend Teri to stage 4 pancreatic cancer.   She and I shared a penchant for saving the world, yet found ourselves corralling this passion for a more grounded career in hospital chaplaincy.  She was a warm-hearted, amazing woman who left us way too soon.   I miss her.

My climbing friend Jon was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Jon had already lost his hand in an accident and climbed his way back to become a formidable force in the adaptive climbing world—and still is.   He is a badass, big time.  Still…brain cancer sucks.

In my job, I have seen way too many suicides.  Most of them, leaving survivors sharing: “I would never have known.”  I often wonder how long they harbored their inner struggles, and what would have happened if times were different.  We’ve become so self-absorbed nowadays—with our faces buried in technology, or just too plain preoccupied making ends meet to notice what’s happening to the folks around us (unless it’s on social media, then people become subject to blame and scrutiny).

I would venture to guess that the majority of folks experiencing hardship are caught off guard, thinking It wasn’t meant to be this way.  Accidents and disease happen.  Difficulties ensue, regardless of the sandbags we put in place to harbor the challenges which eventually come flooding into our lives.

Scott learned this week that he will be forced into retirement at the end of this year.  While we are scrambling to problem-solve once again, the future is uncertain.

The future is always uncertain. 

In the coming of the year ahead, it is my wish—my lamentation, shall we say—is that we learn how to re-create meaningful community among ourselves once again.  Where the masks fall away, and the need to prove our worthiness isn’t needed.   

My summoning to the universe is a deep pleading for folks’ understanding that life sometime does suck—despite our need to brush this reality under the carpet or frantically search for blame or solution. 

We’re all walking the same terrain, my friends.   We’re all doing the best we can, with what we have. 

In the spirit of thanksgiving, I am grateful for being entrusted with the many sacred stories patients have shared with me.  I feel fortunate for the perspective gained by being steeped in matters of utmost importance:. Health, relationships, dedication and meaning.   

I’m thankful for the gaggle of misfit folks I have had the pleasure of getting to know as a person who happens to be missing a body part.  I believe in healthcare this would qualify as “skin in the game.” I’ve got street cred.

As the frigid winter approaches, I am reminded that the seasons teach us what our aging bodies remind us year after year.  Everything is temporary.  Change occurs without our consultation. Right now is all we have.

Contemplating the Hero

This post is taken from a sermon given on June 16th, 2019

When I was a kid, I had a huge crush on Superman.  The one played by Christopher Reeve.   I think I was in fifth grade when the movie came out…there was something about his character:  This good looking, boyish, muscled guy—with a piercingly blue eyes and a certain strength of character, ready to sweep in to save unsuspecting victims from their impending doom. 

Looking back, I wondered what it was that drew me to this character—why was it that I couldn’t get this character out of my head?  I had a true fifth grade crush! 

Was it the power he wielded? Was it the muscles? Was it the wry smile he flashed before flying into the wild blue yonder?

No, I don’t think so.  What I remember being so captivated by, was the scene where Lex Luthor put kryptonite around his neck, bringing Superman to his knees.

That sounds masochistic, doesn’t it? 

Well, as I continue to ponder this question, I think my fascination had more to do with Superman’s willingness to take the risks necessary to do the right thing, which often meant becoming vulnerable.  Kryptonite signified this vulnerability.

As we know, Chris Reeve later suffered a horse riding accident which left him a quadriplegic, and dependent on a ventilator—a situation of real-life magnitude where he showed tremendous strength and grit in tremendous hardship.  You don’t get much more vulnerable than he was…yet he developed the Reeve Center for Spinal Cord Injury Research.  A true hero, after all.  Strength in vulnerability all the way to the end.

This year, it was almost impossible to not get wrapped up in the fervor around the movie “The Avengers”.  Adult boys everywhere flocked to this movie…showtimes were sold out for weeks in advance.  My own hubby bought an “Avengers” T-shirt to don for the occasion of seeing the movie with a friend.  What is it, I’ve always wondered…WHY is it that men everywhere are drawn to this kind of stuff?

In narrative and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  

CHANGE and TRANSFORMATION

In the story of Iron Man, Tony Stark begins as a selfish genius weapon maker, who, in a time of crisis, makes something he realizes can truly help the world.  Stark shows valor as he hides his creation from folks who would exploit it for evil.  Eventually, he identifies, publicly, with his heroic alter ego, stating “I am Iron Man”.  With this, he becomes a sort of cocky son-of-a-gun with a tendency toward over-indulgence and questionable behaviors.  

In time, Tony goes through a transformation into a selfless hero when he sacrifices himself to save the world..    However, as he survives this sacrifice, Stark’s selflessness becomes an obsession, as he becomes a sort of workaholic and his relationships begin to suffer.   At last, when forced to save the day without his “Iron Man” suit, he finally realizes that it is he, not the suit, that is the hero.  

Stark has the most important skill and power of the human beings:  Intelligence and money.   Eventually he must deal with the legacy he will leave behind which started with his father.   Once referred to as the Merchant of Death, Stark struggles to change his legacy into something good.   In Iron Man 3, Tony begins to confront the toll his life has taken on him, and the post-traumatic-stress that has believes he now suffers—understanding the reason for the creation of his “armor” (suit) in the first place.    His comment “You need to look strong” is something men everywhere identify with.   AM I RIGHT??  CAN I GET AN AMEN??

The central scene in the movie SPIDERMAN, which I used to show on “confirmation” retreats to ignite discussion, shows the last conversation had between Peter Parker and his uncle Ben, in the car before Uncle Ben was killed.   When Peter confides in his uncle about the powers he discovers he has, he is given the advice:  “With great power comes great responsibility.”   Truths central to everyday life. 

Seems simple, but it’s not.  WHY NOT?

As I strive to understand human nature, particularly nowadays, the ego takes center stage.   Without becoming too political, I think I can suffice to say that we’ve come into an age where “getting over”, “winning” and even taking pride in an ability to work the system is praised.  We don’t hear much about the GOLDEN RULE anymore, but we certainly are witness to a lot of self-promotion.   

Characters like Tony Stark reveal this tendency.   But “old fashioned” themes such as truth, dignity, valor, commitment, self-sacrifice, and integrity win out EVERY. TIME.   

Growing up in my hometown of Sheboygan, my dad was a gifted athlete.  He is currently in the “hall of fame” for his contribution to softball and is looked up to in the community.  As a kid, I think I took this for granted.  He was the guy who folks Relied upon to hit the ball over the fence.   

I remember well, the pressure he would feel if the team was down a point or two and he was up to bat.  All the outfielders would back up, folks on the bleachers would rumble, folks would cheer.    A lot of those times, he WOULD hit it out of the park.  We would win the game!  But not always.  The pressure he felt to be “the one” to win the game took its toll.   His esteem suffered as a result, especially as he got older and was probably not as strong as he used to be.  Eventually, dad struggled with clinical depression.

By the time I reached middle school he quit playing ball.  Still, he was given the nick name “gentle ben” (a name he never liked) signifying the temperament he had:  A big, strong guy, with a soft heart.    As a kid, I was proud of this.  I was proud of him

Yet, to this day—still an athlete at heart, my dad will get down on himself if he isn’t up to par (pun intended) on the golf course, or if he doesn’t perform as well as he feels he should.   He is like so many of us, deriving a sense of worth by what we DO, rather than WHO we are. 

I remember in high school, one day, my dad made a comment about all of the trophies on the shelves in the basement.  “All of those trophies…” he said, “they really don’t mean that much to me anymore.” (pause)  “You know what WOULD mean a lot to me?  A ‘good person’ award.  That would mean more than anything.” 

That Father’s Day, my sister and I would give him a bronze-colored trophy.  On it was inscribed:  “GOOD PERSON AWARD”  Love, your girls.    I still remember the tears in his eyes as he opened that gift and read the inscription.  It remains on the mantle above the fireplace in their home to this day.

SO…..Today is my birthday.  (Yes, 51…ugh).   I was BORN on Father’s Day (And I’m the oldest, so the reason my dad became a father.).  At our wedding reception, my dad got lots of laughs as he shared how he “crapped his pants” from anxiety while my mother was giving birth to me.   (I on the other hand, wanted to crawl under the table from embarrassment.)

“With great power comes great responsibility”. 

Parenting is a huge responsibility. 

Mentoring is a huge responsibility.

Caregiving in any form, is a huge responsibility. 

Running a business and making ETHICAL decisions is a huge responsibility.

Making a choice to be compassionate to others, rather than self-centered is a choice, and one that the HERO makes again and again, story after story.

Many of us….fathers or not–Male, female, or non-binary, are not even aware of the potential power that we do have embodied within who we are.   Like an auger, the courage to tap into our own vulnerability unearths great power and great wisdom.   YES the things legacies are made of.

The invitation is always there.  EVERY HERO somehow embraces it.

How will we use our power? 

My invitation today, is to consider the byproducts of embracing your own “heroism.” Think about those affected by your ability to transcend the “self” and embrace the woundedness of the world we live within.

True STRENGTH comes from within.  Not from the need to prove our worth.

Author Brene’ Brown states: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” 

What is your armor? Who is the person behind the mask? 

Well, THAT Was Awkward… (thoughts on running into my limb-salvage doc at the gym)

I have developed a love-hate relationship with medicine over the years. Medicine can do great things. It can also be harmful in cases where medical providers don’t see the “whole person.”

I get a lot of questions about my amputation, and the story which led up to it. Usually, I give people the “quick and dirty” version….”I had a climbing fall and broke my ankle really badly. We tried for two years / 11 surgeries to fix it, and eventually I decided to amputate to regain my quality of life–to remain as active as possible.” I always always end the conversation sharing that I have no regrets whatsoever.

After my amputation, I decided to choose an older, orthopedic surgeon who had spent some time in Germany during the war. After seeing my x-rays, he made the comment that I was wise to move ahead with amputation. “Good for you…” he said “I see way too many young doctors nowadays that keep trying to fix the unfixable. It’s wrong in my book, especially with the great prosthetic technology out there.” Dr. Konkol has since retired, and I have appreciated his seasoned advice over the years.

Apparently in medical residency there is a culture which Dr. Konkol terms the “not on my watch” culture, where the doctor du jour makes darn sure life and limb are saved regardless of whatever casualties may exist regarding quality of life. “Success” means keeping body systems intact. Never mind the fallout at home, or emotionally. My two years of undergoing 11 surgeries of limb salvage while trying to maintain my sanity, avoid depression, and retain my active lifestyle renders me one example–for millions of others, who put our lives into the hands of doctors every day.

Fast-forward, five and a half years. I am now middle age, and needing to make general working out a part of my routine. I attend the gym near the hospital where I work, naturally.

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to wear my running blade. Because I feel pretty badass when I’m able to bounce around and run sometimes. This particular day my limb-salvage doctor was in the free-weight area, working with a personal trainer. We locked eyes for a moment, but then I avoided him.

I could have struck up a conversation, couldn’t I have? I told myself that he was busy with the trainer. Thank God.

Then I was approached by the gym manager, asking about my accident and my leg–yes, in front of my (previous) doc. She shared that it is always inspirational to see folks at the gym with disabilities, just “doing their thing.” I shared that I had tried several times to work with the hospital to merge the wellness culture with the rehab community, yet there has not been sufficient funding to secure a “program” to make this come to fruition. For some reason, medicine seems to have enough funds for cures and research to be had, yet in this case–no funding for programs for the “broken” to regain and maintain their qualities of life. These programs continue to be driven by generous and big-hearted volunteers with a passion for what they do. Thank God for them. This is important work. I digress….

I continue to see the good doctor at the gym from time to time. I could, and probably will strike up a conversation at some point….Remember me??? We were going to do an ankle replacement which had zero chance of working??? I realize that my being there, and active speaks for itself. I am in decent condition. I could be (but fortunately am not) like many patients I visit, depressed and deconditioned, with multiple co-morbidities, due to nursing a bad ankle. Still.

Sometimes medicine doesn’t know when to stop, and have the deeper conversations.

I am still not sure what my role is, since I continue to be a hospital employee, yet am also a patient, representing others in the disability community. These are important issues, and conversations of power and influence in medicine need to be had, at many levels.

Maybe the stars will align, and the conversation will happen. At the gym. In the mean time, I will keep doing my thing, and kicking ass. Feeling badass with my prosthetic leg.

I have made a decided effort to write about these things, nonetheless. To strike up conversations about these issues, because medicine, like so many things nowadays, is in deep need of healing. And healing does not happen when people harbor shame or resentment.

No shame here. Resentment, maybe.

I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me. Send good mojo.

A Letter to My Former Self

Village Girl. Sololá, Guatemala July 1995

I’ve always been an adventure junkie.

In the summer of 1995, against my parents’ wishes (and without medical insurance), I would decide to travel to Guatemala and Central America on a kind-of pilgrimage to learn about the religious martyrs I had read about in graduate school. I had a deep desire to see the country, get to know the people and culture, and learn the Spanish language (something deeply regret letting slide over the years.)

I also had this strange idea that I wanted to make a difference in the world. I know, not an uncommon thought for a 20-something year old gal fresh out of grad school. This was many years prior to embarking on my Social Work career–a career which, ten years later, left me jaded and feeling confused and defeated. It’s hard being an idealist.

1995 was obviously before the days of Instagram and social media, but I managed to snap this picture during my travels. I do not remember this girl’s name, and I’m frankly embarrassed about that. If you look closely, you will see something in her hand. It is a quetzal, which at the time was equivalent to about .9 of a US dollar. Those of us traveling who wanted a photo with the people in the villages knew it was customary to give them a little something in appreciation for their taking a picture with you, to capture the experience, if you will. At that time, I was quite impressed with the renegade femme traveler mystique, so this picture held some meaning for me.

I do remember trying to have a conversation with her and her brother about their village of Santiago Atitlan, situated near the base of a volcano and sparkling beautiful lake. She was wearing black shoes which were tattered and scuffled, yet the fact that she had shoes meant that she was better-off than some of the villagers in Santiago Atitlan. Many simply cannot afford shoes at all.

This beautiful Tzutujil Mayan girl with a radiant smile lived in a village where, on July 28th, 1981, Franciscan priest Stan Rother was ambushed and murdered. The gun which killed him was one used by the army and government-backed paramilitaries. “Word of the priest’s murder raged through the village and summoned the Atitecos [residents of the village] to the town’s heart….they had already lost over 30 of their brothers, fathers, uncles, sons and neighbors. Now their priest was gone.” (Father Stan Rother: American Martyr in Guatemala: Franciscanmedia.org).

The people in this little village, along with countless others, suffered years and years of paramilitary attacks in which men, women and children were tortured and killed–Many “with their skin peeled off their face and eyes gouged out.” Generations of families have lived with this trauma deeply embedded within their bones.

I am no stranger to trauma.

I think of her often during these times, and mourn for my previously idealistic self. I wonder about how she and her family are doing. Are they persisting in keeping hope alive, despite our country’s complicity in the pillaging of her people?

I have had some great takeaways from my time in Guatemala–the beauty of the people, the color and texture of the land, and the almost idyllic behavior of the children I met there on the busses and in the marketplace. Because children are worn on the backs of their mothers for most of their entire infancies, they are imbued with a deep sense of love, connection and belonging. I truthfully struggled to find ONE child having a tantrum in the two months I was in Guatemala, but could not find a single behaviorally challenged kiddo.

Fast-forward to the news today, and the children separated from their families at our US borders in Texas and elsewhere, clearly trying to escape a way harsher reality than we could ever imagine. My heart weeps.

Has our US self-interest really come to this? Why have we hardened our hearts to the humanity of others?

I am long-past the delusion that I am going to make a huge difference on the world, but as I dig deeply into my experience, I am often surprised at what I am able to find. Alas, I discovered this meaningful little gem in a dusty old little pocket photo album. Experience is a great teacher. I am grateful.

My Spanish still sucks and is virtually non-existent. Yet I was touched so greatly by the people of Guatemala and their deep enduring struggle to maintain hope and integrity despite their decades of immense suffering. Their struggles are really shared by all of those in Central America and those fleeing persecution.

I want to grab the hand of my old self–the idealist (now in recovery mode.) to affirm her. I want to tell her that there is still merit in valuing human dignity, and remind her that kernels of strength are sewn during these trying times.

…and I want to tell my little friend in this photo (who is now in her 30’s) that it will be okay. But I can’t.


Life Lessons…They’re Ongoing

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with a gym full of middle-schoolers at Lane Middle School in West Allis, Wisconsin, on the topic of ACHIEVEMENT, and OVERCOMING OBSTACLES. While I talked a bit about the overcoming of my own physical challenges after my climbing accident, I was able to reflect a bit about what it is like to be a middle-schooler. It’s tough! Check out the suggestions below….

overcoming obstacles 101

  • View your obstacle as a challenge, or a very deep ADVENTURE!
  • Befriend yourself. Love who you are!
  • Celebrate your quirks, oddities, and what makes you different and special.
  • Be able to LAUGH at yourself! (it’s really important)
  • Stop judging yourself, and others.
  • Do your BEST…then let it go. Focus on the POSITIVE and stay there.
  • Find your “tribe” (Folks who get you, and you get them.)
  • Squash any feelings of shame like a bug….SPLAT!
  • Be Creative! Adapt….do what works for YOU.
  • Remember, YOU are the star of your own life masterpiece.
  • Reach out, connect. Be around people who celebrate you.
  • Always remember, COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY.
  • Rock on!!! Love, Chris

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

What started as an outward adventure has transformed into an inward one….

Over the years, I have asked myself:

What IS courage?

What does it really take to persevere?

I have found the answers to these questions through looking deep inside and grappling with even deeper questions.  I have learned so much through companioning others in their struggles to find hope amidst incredible challenges.   What an amazing inner  journey it has been!

NOW WHAT?  I’m writing a book!  

STAY TUNED for updates here….. I’ve got a year to get it done, and it’s just the beginning.

IN THE MEAN TIME, feel free to “FOLLOW” this blog to get updates.  I’m super psyched to connect with you!

ABIDING with LOVE and LOSS

Chris Prange-Morgan MA, MSW

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

(Disclaimer: After battling back from my climbing accident, all the surgeries, and feeling the need to prove how resilient and strong I was, I felt a strong desire to return deeper into the tender experience of suffering, this time, alongside others. And so, I embarked upon the journey and a newfound career in hospital chaplaincy. )

Understanding well, the potential isolation folks are apt to feel when the world continues on “as usual”…companioning patients and families through illness, tragedy, death and loss has felt like an auger into the marrow of my being. The exquisiteness of this tender, fragile journey has been (and continues to be) a window into the embodiment of the human condition in its truest sense, and I’ve witnessed many kinds of love. (often this happens through retrospective reflection, as “love” doesn’t always LOOK LIKE what I was accustomed to thinking love looked like.) I have come to understand that the dance of life is wrought with detours, inconsistencies, exhilaration and heartache. It is beautiful and wretched all the same…all because of this four letter word we call LOVE.

One particularly difficult Thursday after dealing with two deaths (one, a young man of age 42 coming into the ER with complications of a heroin overdose, and the other, a young woman who had lost twins in-utero at 22 weeks), I returned home feeling grateful for my [mostly] loving husband and kids. That evening I awoke at 3am to glance over at my peacefully sleeping Scott, hands clasped across his abdomen in true funeral style; utterly certain that his chest was not raising and lowering. I leaned in closer and confirmed “no movement.” Gasp! Feeling surely that he had suffered a silent cardiac arrest, I nudged him in the ribcage. “Huh? What? What?” he uttered, shaking his head and looking at me…. “Oh good….” I replied. “I was scared because it looked like you weren’t breathing.” “hah…, so you thought I was dead?” he responded. Aw, that’s cute….

Feeling grateful and relieved in that moment, I laid my head on his chest (which now WAS rising and lowering), and fell back to sleep.

The truth is……Doing this work has made me PAINFULY AWARE of our IMPERMANENCE.

Most of the time we just go on, living our lives, as we should….engaging with one another in meaningful, purposeful, and creative ways which are enriching to the world and the communities we live in. Sometimes, out of fear, we sabotage these interactions or the potential for deep connection. Why not? The pain of rejection and abandonment is scary….and intuitively we know well, that life is full of risk. It’s also wrought with decisions which impact how our lives unfold.

Opening up oneself to accept love IS risky. On the other side of LOVE is LOSS. We shudder to think of losing those we love (for me it’s the #1 fear on my list), but what is the alternative…to loving?

One of the gifts of adopting children with histories of abandonment and trauma, is the ability to learn, in a deeper way, about all those theories I learned about in graduate school. Those regarding a child’s “first two years” and the attachment that happens to caregivers / parental figures during this time.

My daughter had a “best friend”, and we’re told that she and YuFen would hold hands through the bars of their cribs as they fell asleep. We knew these two were close, because when we brought Jade home, she would often look for her in closets and call for her. It broke our hearts at the time…but it was a relief to know that in her early years, she felt love from at least one other little toddler.

On the other hand, we have numerous reasons to strongly believe that our son was kept isolated and alone. When he came to us in the early days, he avoided eye contact or human touch, and exhibited behaviors which were either superficially charming on one hand, or quite repulsive on the other. These were skills he learned as a way to keep himself “safe”, as his only experience with caregivers up until this time was met with the pain of isolation and abandonment. Yes, this is trauma, and yes…the implications are lifelong.

But I have taken away so much from the experience parenting a child who lives with the companioning impulse to push you away… The Takeaways:

1) To LIVE is to RISK. I think that we all have a little bit of my kiddo inside ourselves, where our fears of not being good enough, smart enough or acceptable can become paralyzing. It is tempting to hide behind our title, or our role, or our spouse, or our image, or our (Fill in the blank). Somehow, I think “living into our potential” got skewed into thinking about “success” or career goals, when I really believe that this “potential” is reached when we truly embrace all that we are (without fear), and are able to be with one another in our utter, real genuineness.

2) VERY OFTEN, LOVE doesn’t LOOK like love at all. (It can even appear quite the opposite.) Someone who comes to mind is a mother whose daughter died of complications of alcoholism recently. On the surface, she seemed hard/detached. When talking with her mother in great detail, she simply said “It has been like a slow death, really…Mary just wasn’t herself anymore. The years of alcoholism eroded her soul and our family. It feels like I’ve been grieving all along.” We tend to forget the ripple effect emotional / physical / spiritual trauma can have on systems, and that what may appear as coldness may be a learned, appropriate, healthy boundary…where LOVING means setting LIMITS, and we have no guarantee of any outcome.

3) To truly LOVE is to abide WITH loss. This may mean loss of a certain vision, or dream, or belief. It might be learning that your family member is gay, and that you never thought of him “that way” growing up…..but suddenly you experience an existential “rightness” when embracing him for who he truly is. The loss might mean giving up your career to spend more time with family, or taking more time “away” because you know yourself well enough that it helps you keep your sanity. Aging parents, acquiring disability, abandoning a treasured belief system which once worked well …..The list of “losses” is endless. But, one thing is certain…..there is always a good degree of heart-wrenching involved. Love and loss always seem to go hand-in-hand.

People often ask the question “Isn’t it hard to do hospital chaplaincy…with all the sickness, loss and death?” My answer is always a resounding “No”. In fact, it is just the opposite. Looking loss in the face, regularly…helps me to really appreciate who IS in my life, in a way that I hadn’t before. Knowing that nothing is permanent helps drive home the gratitude to live each day, each moment, more fully.

Living in a world that is unpredictable, with a body that is unpredictable and a future that is unpredictable is part of the human condition. But we have a choice to remain open to all the seasons of our lives. May we be blessed to know the pain of too much tenderness, to be wounded by our own faulty understandings of love, and to be guided by the deep wellspring of trust which comes from embracing the ebb and flow of life more fully.

May we be strong enough to accept love, and bold enough to give it freely…..without hesitation, and without fear.

These Things

Reflections on Choosing Gratitude

Chris Prange-Morgan MA, MSW


This time of year can be charged with emotion. There is excitement in the air with parties to plan, gifts to buy, and lots of decorating to be done. These things are good. Connecting with loved ones and sharing the spirit of the holidays can make us feel alive and revitalized. With renewed passion we position ourselves to embark upon the new year with increased resolve… often considering a major change in lifestyle choices or shift in priorities.

Walking through the halls of the hospital and visiting with patients is something I spend most of my week doing these days. I treasure these moments as rare gifts which often seem to suspend place and time. These moments of exquisite present-ness are fleeting teachable opportunities which anchor my heart to gratitude.

I find that it isn’t the grand, looming experiences that elicit the deepest wellspring of thankfulness, but the small, “seemingly insignificant” ones we often take for granted. Ask anyone who has been intubated what it feels like to breathe again independently. Alas, this oxygen we inhale is not so trivial after all. This air we breathe is no small thing! Similarly, the gift of knowledge and the ability to exercise our cognitive functioning is most apparent when we begin to slowly lose these faculties.

As someone who reached the milestone of age 50 this year, I find that I am easily irked by the daily realizations that Father Time is not always so kind to us as we age. In fact, many of us are quick to realize that a sense of humor goes a long way to invite a bit of self-compassion and acceptance with the whole process. As an 80 year old patient suffering the painful effects of rumaoid arthritis lamented to me the other day, “The golden years don’t feel very golden!”

Today marks the 7 year anniversary of my life-changing accident, which caused a significant derailing of any future plans for a time. Two years of limb salvage, a leg amputation, prosthetic adjustments and acclimating to an alternative kind of normal has had a way of shaping my perception differently. For a while I joked that I had been handed a “chuck the bullshit for free” card, since I only had enough energy to focus on the things of significant value–the stuff that really mattered.


November 30th, 2011


The undeniable fact which keeps driving home is this: We human beings are so very fragile, yet exquisitely unique and magnificent at the same time. The human body is a fantastic work of art.

But we only get to inhabit it for a limited time.

As we embark upon the holiday season, I am reminded once again that moments spent with those we love are golden. None of us has a crystal ball to know what the future holds, but I can say with great certainty that we are unable to turn back time to re-live whatever we missed.

The greatest gift we can give one another is our selves. Our full presence.

The precious present is available to us at no cost, and a grateful heart is the best gift of all.