A Light From Within (Part 2): Stories From Joplin

23 Jun
A/N: Most images seen in this posting are not the property of nor created by ©MusingsOnOther. Photos featuring ©Red Cross Disaster Relief in Clinton, MS and Joplin, MO, however, are owned by this author (KJN). Today’s essay, per usual, is unbeta’d and any typos or grammar bobbles are all mine. Also, for whatever reason, PlayList disallowed the Auto-start feature, despite my and Buff’s attempts at usurping.  If the music doesn’t start automatically, and you would like to hear today’s music Playlist, hit PLAY on the player in the right-hand column (below the Twitter Feed) —–>

This Special Edition Musings is my tribute to the incredible souls I encountered over my 13-day stint as a mental health therapist with the Red Cross Disaster Response Team earlier this month. There is an army of Otherness of Rebel Warriors cultivating and swelling in the south. Here are a few of their stories. I am but a student to their sage lessons in growth, faith, balance, compassion, reframing and perspective.  Make room on the Other Homecoming Float for these Rebellious Royals. NOTE: All names of people in the following stories have been changed out of legal/ethical practices of confidentiality…but moreover in a gesture of utmost respect.

“People are like stained – glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” ~Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

I already knew that in volunteering for deployment that I was going to emerge on the other side, changed. I’ve flown countless places in my life, but never with a mission like this. The three-and-a-half hour red-eye flight from my Cali city to Fort Worth, Texas was slightly uncomfortable as I was wedged in the middle seat between a young man who appeared to be heading on his own mission (I’ve seen dozens of SouthEast Asian men leave their home country to join the working ranks of hard-working Cruise ship staff; I recognized his running-shoes-encased feet and the Royal Caribbean pins attached to his hiking backpack) and an older gentlemen with a Jolly Santa-belly who immediately launched into snores as the plane leveled out at cruising altitude. It was midnight and every single seat on the plane was filled. My laptop was snugly packed away in my backpack in the overhead bin, so I couldn’t access all the fanfic pdf-documents I lovingly downloaded for my reading pleasure. But I did have my iPhone which was loaded with all my music, and I had my copy of Entertainment Weekly with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss from The Hunger Games movie. I also had picked up a couple of actual BOOKS to begin reading in the off-chance I’d get some down time. Thank goodness I had these survival kit items because when I saw that the In-flight movie was Bieber’s Never Say Never I could immediately retreat, retreat, for the love of The Goddess, retreat!!!

I didn’t exchange more than a nod and a brief “hello” with my aisle mates, and I did not feel relaxed enough to sleep on the flight, so I remained awake until we arrived in Fort Worth. Now, you all know I’m a fairly talkative chica, but it wasn’t until my flight into and then a few days later out of Clinton, Mississippi that I was present enough and in the right mindset to actually hold a coherent conversation with anyone else. And oh, my my, those initial conversations were my first indicator that I was participating in something extraordinary.

I didn’t wear the Red Cross vest while on the plane, although my liaisons had insisted I do, so that we volunteers could represent the organization but also identify ourselves to other volunteers in the airports. I was too self-conscious to wear the bright red vest just yet. But I did wear my neck identification. And as soon as I slipped the identifier over my puffy, humidity-treated hair, people began to approach. And talk. And share. And hug. And cry. And change me with their stories.

Unfinished Business

“Hello,” he said to me. I glanced over to see a white-haired gentleman with brilliant blue eyes framed by attractive lines indicating countless moments of crinkling, winking laughter. He gestured to my badge and said, “Thank you”. I tucked my copy of One Day in the seat-back pocket in front of me and turned to my aisle mate at the window seat. Stunned, though I realize later I shouldn’t be, I only nodded my head in acknowledgement of his gracious statement directed at me. The lump in my throat that had been growing prohibited any speech from me just yet. The gentleman, who I came to learn was called Macwore a beige polo shirt with a patch over the left side of his chest. Avoiding any copious staring, I could just decipher the words “Fire Fighters”.

“He always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest. Now he finally is home.” 

Mac had answered the call and was going to Texas to tame the wildfires that had consumed the western part of the state. Retired for nearly six years, Mac donated his time and services with the volunteer fire fighter association. He and his wife were happy Illinois residents, but they were eagerly looking forward to relocating to the Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound, Washington, more specifically. His blue eyes twinkled when he heard I was a West-Coaster. Then those eyes teared up with an ancient ache when he mentioned his only child, a daughter, who lives in Bellingham, Washington with her 18-month old son. Mac’s daughter raised Mac’s grandson alone since his daughter’s young husband Bryan was killed in Afghanistan 11 months prior.  Mac and his wife hoped to move to Washington to provide support for their daughter and their grandson, and to carry on Bryan’s wishes. Bryan, a fairly new army recruit, had grown up in Chicago, Illinois, dreaming of a time he could live in The Pacific Northwest, near the ocean, the Olympic Mountains, amongst the evergreen trees. After his death, Bryan’s wife ensured Bryan’s ashes were scattered among the Snake River. And now Mac and his wife would move to Washington as well to ensure  their daughter–Bryan’s wife–and her son would thrive. It would begin once Mac returned from his mission to fight the fires of Texas. 

Bryan's home

If this was any indicator of the people and stories I was to encounter the rest of my deployment, I was in trouble. Deeeeep trouble. My plane hadn’t even touched down in Joplin yet, and I was wiping tears and my leaky nose on a paper cocktail napkin in the comforting presence and  kind face of this retired firefighter. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” Mac said to me. “I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing. There are such good people out there.” Still unable to properly speak, I croaked, glimpsing his Retired Fire Fighter’s Badge: “Yes. There are such good people…everywhere.”

With My Hands

I alluded to it before in Part 1, and maybe in a few of my tweets. But I will say it again now. Nothing, nothing could truly prepare me for the physical destruction left behind in the wake of the Joplin Tornado. I felt better prepared to address and comfort the emotional wreckage, but when I walked through the neighborhoods my first morning out at what’s called The Footprint (where the Tornado actually touched down and carved 12 miles through the city), I was utterly speechless. Any pictures I’ve shown you, or that you’ve seen on the news are pathetically pale in comparison. And certainly, the tales told from the survivors will never, ever be properly conveyed by me, but I will try to the best of my abilities to grant the respect and compassion that these battered but resilient warriors deserve. Because I met a fair share of Other Warriors. Royal Hell-Raisers and Majestic Misfits are prominent in Joplin, Missouri. I was one fortunate little therapist to meet just a few of them. But I will never, for as long as I am included among this plane of existence, forget them.

My first day doing outreach was a scorcher. Approximately 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) and the heavy humidity left me sweating, sticky and sunburned (which is a feat in itself. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve burned in my lifetime). I walked amongst the neighborhoods seen above, having conversations and impromptu storytelling sessions with anyone wandering around or cleaning up, or assessing the unfathomable destruction.

Eighty-three year old Mr. Leland was visiting a friend  just a couple blocks away when the tornado touched down at 5:41PM that Sunday evening. He attributes this visit as the only reason he is still alive today to tell us his story. His house along with his entire neighborhood was completely flattened. When he heard the warning sirens, he and his buddy, who was in his seventies, attempted to duck into the crawl space in the house. Mr. Leland pats his belly and says to me, “I’ve eaten too many fried suppers. I was too fat to fit in the crawl space.”  He held onto the banister along the stairs leading to his friend’s basement and prayed that his four cats were able to escape the violent funnel cloud ripping through his neighborhood.

Leland's neighborhood

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Never,” he says. Mr. Leland escaped with only the clothes on his back and the rings he accrued from long-ago visits to Mexico on his fingers. He reported that all of his cats survived and any thing salvageable in the rubble is packed in his beaten up camper. He settled on a sagging, cracked plastic chair to eat his breakfast–french toast and eggs provided by Salvation Army in a styrofoam takeout box. With a sigh he turns to me, his withered hands gripping a slender tree branch crafted into a walking cane, and muses, “We will rebuild this neighborhood,” and a moment later: “I’m hungry.”

I. Am. Done.

The Ultimate Fighters

“K, I need you. Can you help me connect with this young man here? He’s lost everything. His house, his car, his place of employment. He won’t talk. He…he’s still in shock.” A case worker, Carolyn, pulled on my sleeve, guiding me to a foldout table and chairs set up in a make-shift counseling center in the middle of a convention center/skateboard park. I didn’t know it at the time, but this first meeting with nineteen-year-old Scott would determine the constructs of my role in Joplin. I was named, “Cute Young Thing” by fellow Red Cross cohorts, some of whom were heading into their seventh and eighth decades of life. I became the go-to gal for the “young folks”. To say I was busy is a gross understatement. It became extremely clear, though, that the survivors and wounded of this disaster are not designated to one age group, ethnicity or family background. The grief and pain felt was a universally shared and understood language in Joplin. People who were once strangers moving anonymously side-by-side amid the community were now comrades and co-soldiers from the trenches.

Laura rested her head in her hands while she awaited the case worker to call her in for her interview. She closed her eyes and  began counting her exhalations out. This is how I found her. Slumped forward, murmuring numbers to herself. “Four…threeee….two…one…”

Laura can’t stop crying. She started as soon as she sat down in the fold out chair in that convention center where we Red Cross workers were administering counseling, case work and linkage to financial assistance, home associations, dry goods and medical help. She looked at me when I sat down next to her offering her bottled water and said, “It’s the first time I’ve been able to sit down. And I can feel it now. And it hurts. And I can’t stop crying. I can’t. stop. crying.”

I sat next to Laura and cried alongside her while she spoke of the nightmares that assault her every night when she tries to close her eyes. She simply cannot sleep. It was on her property, in her pond that the body of 18-year-old William** was found, to the heartbreak of a community and nation. Up until the discovery of his body, there was hope that the newly-graduated teenager was found alive, even after he’d been torn from his SUV while driving home with his father. Laura’s nightmares all centered around the discovery of William’s body, sometimes inserting twisted images of her own children or grandchildren’s bodies. Thankfully, her own family members (composed of four males aged 18 through 27 and their families including three grandchildren aging from 3 through 6) were spared, but their houses were not. Laura recounts the survival story of her three-year-old granddaughter and her parents. Granddaughter laid flat in the bathtub, beneath the body of her father as the twister removed their house from its foundation. All that could be heard in the silence after the roar of the storm was a three-year-old’s prayer:

“Please please please please please…Protect Mommy. Protect Daddy….Please please please please please….” 

While the chair holds her upright, and the grief and exhaustion settle over her, this day, Laura is confident that her fiercely brave granddaughter’s pleas were the powerful protectors for her family. She gripped the card with the local counseling center’s crisis phone number on it, counting through her deep exhalations. “Four….three….two…onnnnnnnne…”

My heroes: Search and Rescue

“I guess I fell in love with Joplin. I will rebuild my city. I will.”

Scott wore a thin white tank top and baggy jeans. His blonde, spiky hair was making a point: keep your distance. A bouncing knee, and shaking fingers were the only indicators of discomfort displayed. He tilted his chin up at me when I settled into the foldout chair across the table from him. “Thirsty?” I offered him a cold bottled water. The heat of the day hadn’t yet reached its peak, but it was climbing, and the skateboard park housing our resource center was packed wall to wall with folks seeking aid and resources for rebuilding. Scott waved me off, but not unkindly. He was a handsome guy, and his soft tone of voice and manners only enhanced his looks. He was not exactly sure why he was face-to-face with a stranger talking about the disaster that befell his work place (the twister had completely wiped it out–a casual dining house) and home (“I’ve nothing to go back to”).  I’m not exactly sure what the  catalyst was, but suddenly Scott felt comfortable enough to tell me his story.

He was driving into the parking lot of his restaurant when he saw the twister rip the roof off of the building where customers and several co-workers were inside. He spoke of the single thought that rumbled through his brain: “GET THEM TO SAFETY. GET THEM TO SAFETY”, and how adrenaline must have gifted him with strength to gather four or five co-workers and form a human chain via latched arms. He wound one of his arms onto the piping below the industrial kitchen sink, and held onto one of the line cooks with his free hand…until his vision went black. He later learned that he was knocked unconscious by a rogue brick.

A restaurant on Main street

When Scott finally smiled, I caught a great view of his chipped front teeth. “Is that from the tornado?” I asked.

Scott leaned back in his chair and shook his head ruefully. “Nah, that’s from a fight.”

He motioned to his ear that appeared to be missing a chunk. “So is this.”

He showed me several bruises on his arms, and a gash on his head, results of the flying tornado debris, and several pictures of his demolished restaurant  on his cell phone. It turns out that our young hero Scotty is originally from Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he was moving up the ranks in the Ultimate Fighting world. When he moved to Joplin two years ago, in an attempt  to walk a path less physically taxing, he never believed he’d grow so protective and prideful of this new city. Now, in the aftermath of the tornado, he is determined to rebuild his shattered neighborhood using his own hands. Since relocating to Joplin, Scott has grown fond of rebuilding cars and greenhouses. He had saved his co-workers on May 23 but he himself was also redeemed when he called his family in Louisiana to ensure them he was alive, and for the most part, unharmed. Because while he had felt aimless two years ago, leaving his family and Ultimate Fighting back in New Orleans, he realized he had finally found in Joplin a place for home, a place worth defending.

"No, Joplin is Home now for me," he assures me.

To Have Found Their Way Out

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist, activist and pioneer in researching grief and loss and dying. She founded the Kubler-Ross Model, otherwise known as the Five Stages of Grief in her seminal book On Death and Dying. The Five Stages explore coping mechanisms and raised sensitivity in the aftermath of great or impending loss, and I found that everyone in the community was experiencing elements of every stage of grief in Joplin, MO.

When I arrived in the city, it was a Monday afternoon, exactly seven days from the original disaster. People were just now shaking themselves out of the shock and numbness. They were feeling the crash after the burnout of adrenaline. While I settled into my sleeping quarters (my army cot was one of seven in a classroom within a large Baptist Church, with no working showers), I was given the orientation about the fiercely determined people that formed a community in Joplin, MO. Every day had been riddled with power outages, new medical emergencies, new discoveries, new losses, and many, many funerals. As you can imagine, there were moments of unfathomable, devastating, horrifying heartbreak…along with glimmers of miraculous, loving, compassionate light. I encountered reframing and perspective-changers with every single hour. I heard shrieking, rebellious yells. I was inundated by OTHERNESS and a wild, unconventional beauty.

While I was profoundly effected by every single person I encountered in my mission, including colleagues and other staff,there are two different stories in particular that I believe were the culprits for literally consuming and then altering my essence, my soul. Both events took place within 24 hours of each other, near my last days of deployment. I couldn’t speak of these stories to anyone for days, weeks afterwards, and not even my husband N understood the profundity of these tales until I shared them with him just three days ago. See, three days ago, I had received a wonderful gift of a massage, and the therapist had started working on my neck and upper back, accessing painful muscle tension that I referred to as “Joplin Knots”. Not at all surprisingly, I cried through the final ten minutes of the bodywork session, and through the time it took for me to redress afterwards.

Our bodies will hold onto grief and emotional unrest long before and after our brains recognize it as grief, for what it is. And while I was in the Grief Stage of Depression in the two weeks after my return from my deployment, I can say that the massage induced my dive into the fifth and final stage of grieving: Acceptance. Which is why I can  now share with you a little of what I saw in the fields.

Angela and Chris  are very young parents. She’s still in her late teens and he has just entered his twenties. They are engaged to be married, after Chris proposed to Angela a couple of months ago. But they will postpone the wedding until later, much later. When I met the young couple, it was under the most horrific circumstances I’ve ever witnessed. She was in a wheelchair covered head to toe in bandages and her right arm was wrapped in a splint and held in a sling. She had two metal pins holding her forearm together before her scheduled surgery in 5 days. He had an angry red gash, held together with staples, in the back of his head, and a swollen ankle the size of a grapefruit. They both came to the convention center for assistance since their home and their car had been completely shattered. They couldn’t come sooner because up until that morning, they were both hospitalized for their injuries. But the loss of their home and even their own physical wounds could not even begin to hint at their utter devastation.

Angela and Chris were at home with their roommate when the massive F5 Twister touched down in Joplin. It was just the typical Sunday evening for the household: Angela tossed around ideas on what to prepare for dinner, Chris watched  TV. Their sixteen-month old son S ** snoozed in Angela’s arms. Afterwards, Angela and Chris could only tell me about the sounds they heard (the roar of the wind) and the agony of impact (from the wooden planks that sliced through Angela’s arm, their roommate’s torso, and Chris’s head). They can tell me that Chris threw his body on top of Angela, the baby and the roommate in the only protective stance he could think of, when they heard the roof caving inward, on top of them. Chris did tell me, with tears streaming, that he saw his two beloved dogs crushed beneath the plaster and debris. But it is wordlessly, that Angela shared the depth of her grief with me. She silently showed me her cell phone, pressed a few buttons, and launched a slide-show featuring a smiling, cherubic, sixteen-month old Baby S.  It is then that I realized  I sat with the heartbroken, shattered parents of the youngest tornado fatality.**

Unbelievably, Angela and Chris’s story grew even darker before the dawn. Stories of ghastly “family” greed (in the form of looting and stealing) and another death of a family member issued an almost lethal blow to their fragility. I sat next to Chris and held his hand when he received the phone call  from the hospital advising him that their roommate had just died from her injuries. That’s about as far as I’ll speak of their experience because I cannot possibly convey how crucial privacy and respect is. However, I can tell you that I spent four hours with this young couple and I am absolutely certain that I’ve never met a more courageous, more beautiful pair of people in my entire existence. And I’ve never cried over clients like I did for Angela and Chris. After my time with the young couple was over, my colleagues Don and Ginny found me curled up in the fetal position, sobbing on the bench in the smoker’s area behind the skateboard park/convention center-turned resource center.

As Angela and Chris recalled the murky horrors of their week to me, there were tears, there were moments of anguish and fury, there was shock, sarcasm and desolation. There were, miraculously, a couple of moments of levity too: I asked Chris to tell me how he proposed to Angela, and it was slightly scandalous. She had another boyfriend at the time. And I can tell you that with the combined efforts of various social, governmental and religious organizations, this young family was able to create and hold a proper memorial service for their beautiful Baby S, they were able to link with housing assistance, and they were able to cover their medical bills including Angela’s impending surgery.

“There was never a night nor a problem that could defeat a sunrise or hope” ~Bern Williams

Quiet Moments of Majesty

Before I share the second story that stripped me down to nothing, I did want to inject a moment to breathe and ground. I know it’s intense. I’m at nearly 4000 words already and this is my edited version! I’m panting and aching along with you, believe me. This is the most difficult Musings I’ve ever written, and it’s taken me nearly three weeks to gather the courage to try sharing it with you. Do you see now why I groveled and thanked you so profusely in the last essay? For providing me with a little bit of lightness while I was away?

To protect the aching rawness I felt, I found myself withdrawing from nearly everybody when I returned from deployment. I was coming down with the flu, of course, and I had just spent about two weeks in the trenches of an emotional battle ground. The grieving process, as well as the time warranted to process the flooding of information can vary in presentation and behaviors, from person to person. We all have our own way of recuperating and recovering from adrenaline rushes and shocks to our systems. It’s crucial that we employ self-care to prevent any destructive propensities. Remember we’ve talked about self-care here? I pulled back from an online presence and began taking long walks in the park each day. I began reading books that I had placed aside. Our Reigning Other Queen Kristen employs self-care by withdrawing from the public eye to cocoon. I imagine she reads voraciously, tries out new recipes discovered on the cooking channels, plays guitar, listens to music. Indulges in her self-proclaimed obsession with her cat Max “Jella”. She hangs with her beloved family. However, when she emerges again, she is exquisitely splendid.

Although her grounding trumps anyone else's grounding.

Just two days after dazzling us in Balmain at the MTV Movie Awards, our lovely Rebel Queen Kristen surfaced in London, England in another strapless mini-dress designed by Balmain, to present GlamourUK’s  ‘Man of The Year Award’ to her On The Road costar and friend Garrett Hedlund. She arrived looking like this:

And then this picture of them:

Makes me almost unbearably excited for….

And while I nurtured wounds, and cocooned away these past couple weeks, the Ambassador of Otherness herself reminds me and everyone else how time away from the race and the chaos can be beautifully rehabilitating. She reminds us that while there are sadnesses and stressors in our world, life will continue to move onward regardless. And …also she reminds us to keep perspective. There are natural disasters of wildfires, tornadoes and floods; great losses as well as great triumphs happening every single day. Do we really have the time and energy to spend on set-stalking and online bullying? Can we instead appreciate that people (famous and otherwise) have a talents and gifts to contribute to the betterment of society without engaging in Twitter fights or online discussion-board-mud-slinging?

I think we can. I know we can. I know we can take a look around us and see the blessings bestowed upon us in forms of family, friendships, faith, work, play and rest. I know we can exist consciously, with an in-the-moment awareness; contributing to society by living joyfully and authentically and honestly.

Take a page from Ms Stewart’s book on Royal Otherness Etiquette: show support and build up your fellow Dreamers and Rebel Royals.

Chris and Kris. Mutual Admiration Society.

Take pride in encouraging Royal Rebels like Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the battered but not-beaten Joplin residents for their pioneering, unconventional ways of being. Let’s stop picking apart how other people choose to live their lives, and instead encourage a little embracing of unconventionality (Otherness= Beauty) within ourselves.

I’m wrapping up now. This is the longest Musings on record, and I’m still planning on sharing one more sliver of Otherworldly Beauty that emerged from Joplin AND I wanted to show you the item for another MOO Giveaway. So hang with me just a leeeetle bit longer, yes?

An Anonymous Grace 

Joanne and her husband Bill were in the grocery store parking lot when the lethal funnel cloud descended upon them. The couple looked forward to sharing dinner at home together, and had stopped at the market to pick up the ingredients needed for their meal that evening. The darkening skies were ominous and there were the warning sirens, but the couple wondered, were they perhaps more about precaution than true urgency? The sudden deafening roar of the winds encompassed the middle-aged couple, and before Joanne knew what was happening, Bill shouted at her, “GET DOWN, ROLL UNDER THE TRUCK! ROLL. UNDER. THE. TRUCK…NOW!” Joanne, stunned and frightened, froze and didn’t  feel the slap of concrete on her shoulders and arms when her husband shoved her to the ground.

“He didn’t know me. He just held onto me.” 

She didn’t have to be reminded to roll under their truck, because the 200 mile-an-hour gusts of wind had already blown her beneath it. She felt the jolt of her own body hitting what she thought was a wall. However, “The Wall” grunted, “OOMPH“, and wrapped an appendage around Joanne’s midsection. He did not let go. Joanne suddenly realized that the “wall” she had hit was really another person. A large man with a huge expanse of a chest had hooked one of his biceps around the front axle of the truck, and wrapped his other arm around Joanne like a vice. And he held on. He held onto Joanne as she screamed and thrashed  in the wind; as she called out to Bill, needing to know his whereabouts…

The Wall held onto Joanne so tightly that her ribs cracked. The Wall held onto Joanne even as they watched Joanne’s husband flip and toss away into the funnel cloud. The Wall hung onto Joanne as she sobbed beneath that truck, after the winds died down and only an inconceivable horror and silence hung in the air. And somehow, that stranger, The Wall of a Man now known as The Man Who Saved Joanne’s Life, learned Joanne’s name, and attended the funeral for Joanne’s husband Bill, five days later. 

So there you have it. This essay was a tribute and love letter to a few of the many Royal Others I met, fell in love with, cried with, and changed with in my little journey to the South. This is me brushing aside pettiness, snark, sarcasm and blame, all components interlaced with fear. This is me bowing down in awe, humility and deep gratitude for the reminders of grace, compassion, resilience, strength and courage in our moment-to-moment living.

We are Other.

Kristen is Other.

Others’ true beauty is a light from within.

Embrace your Other.

*   *   *

An Epically Long A/N including GIVEAWAY Deets: 

**William is the one name I kept as is for this essay. Will Norton was 18 years old, having just graduated from Joplin High School when the tornado winds pulled him out through the sunroof of the Hummer he and his dad were driving. After nearly 5 days missing, his body was discovered in the pond of my client “Laura”.

**Baby S was the youngest Joplin Tornado victim. He was ripped from his mother’s arms during the storm. CNN did a special report on his story.

A NEW MOO GIVEAWAY

A few months ago I found a local mom-and-pop T-shirt making business. As an experiment I made a couple of shirts with a few MOO-inspired phrases on them. I sent one to Ms. Kristen Stewart, Ms Queen Other herself as a birthday gift (A burgundy shirt that said “I AM OTHER“). That leaves just one One-of-A-Kind Musings Tee (made on uber-soft American Apparel fabric, in Women’s Size L) that I’d like to give away to one of you Majestic Misfits.

You can enter to win the drawing for the T-Shirt by leaving a comment answering at least one (or all) of these questions:

1. When did you know you were Other?

2. How do you embrace your Other in your daily life?

3. Have you encountered moments of quiet majesty in unexpected places? 

4. How do you employ self-care? 

I’ll announce a winner in a MOO MEMO posting Thursday, June 30.

*   *   *

Specific shout outs and vice-like hugs to: 

My sister Puss for letting me cry. CC for texting check-in requests. Mari-Pai for asking if I’m ok. Bouffant for talking me through some dark, dark moments.

To PrimaryColors1 and Beammeup_00 for your generous offers of shelter and supplies upon the word ‘Go’.

To MyCleverAlias, Kate_Suena, JRollin5, Mel452, That_Bitch86, DeeDreamer16, ThistleandFi, TakeMeToBliss, Buff_82 and KStewsBtrThanU for checking in on me and cheering me on.

Last but never, never least: Thank you to my CYBER SISTERS & READERS  You provided the most powerful web of support by being your brilliant, compassionate, witty selves.

TODAY’S PLAYLIST (PUSH PLAY)

Look For Me As You Go By ~ The Innocence Mission

Satisfied Mind ~ Jeff Buckley

Price Tag ~ Jessie J feat B.O.B.

I Feel Pretty/ Unpretty ~ Lea Michele & Dianna Agron of GLEE

After The Storm ~ Mumford & Sons

Fix You ~ Coldplay

20 Responses to “A Light From Within (Part 2): Stories From Joplin”

  1. Karen Sprinkel December 11, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    A truly amazing tribute to the strength of the human sprirt, and the soul who has been touched by them. KJ, you continue to amaze me!

  2. DeeDreamer June 30, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    Oh, KJ – This post was beautiful. Thank you for sharing these heart-wrenching stories with us. Even though they hurt to read and to have to face the reality that this was ‘truth’ for these people – and for you – it’s a good reminder to each of us to be thankful for our blessings, to appreciate those that support and encourage us, and to always cling to HOPE. *sigh*

    On a personal note… When did I know I was Other?

    I think I can trace this aspect of my identity back to Junior High – those years are rough on any tween/teen. For me, it was when I left behind being in a “popular group” in my little elementary school and entering the larger school – small fish in a big pond… All of a sudden, the security I didn’t even realize I’d felt was no longer there. Kids who just the year before had been doing “kid” things were now suddenly going to beach parties, smoking, drinking… I had nothing truly against those things, but it wasn’t something *I* was comfortable with. When I made the conscious choice to separate myself from that lifestyle, I definitely began to feel I was on the fringe. There were others like me, sure, but I heard what was being said about them in the cruel world of 12-14 year olds and I could only imagine what was said about me.

    To add insult to injury – literally – it was in Junior High in the 90s that some skinhead kids thought it would be funny to harass the Jewish girl at her locker. They were so dumb; they truly thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t. I was pushed harshly into the bank of lockers, so hard in fact, that the face of my watch broke. Yeah, that was awesome.

    Going into High School wasn’t much different; it was still a constant struggle to feel a part of any group. I did connect with my fellow thespians (Drama Geek forever, yo!). Funny how the place I could most be myself was the place where I was often pretending to be someone else. But looking back, the feelings of “Other” were prevalent – almost as if I was constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting to be shunned. It probably ties to my own self confidence more than anything, but back then, I couldn’t see it that way.

    The same feelings still plague me sometimes. I just quit Facebook. You know what? I just didn’t need the reminders of who I was back then – or more importantly, who “they” thought I was. Because “they” didn’t know me. “They” weren’t my friends then; why should I let their online presence make me feel anything about myself but proud? So, goodbye to that. And man, it sure felt good. 😉

    I know who I am now. I still have my own struggles with self confidence and feeling like I’m genuinely a part of something; that I’m genuinely liked. But I’m proud of the woman I’ve become, of the mother I am. Of the writer hopefully I’ll be….

    Everything else is bullsh*t belonging to the Bullsh*t People.

    Much love, always, my friend!! xo ~DD

  3. J. June 28, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    KJ~

    Ok, I think it’s safe to say that this post “had me at hello.” The tears were streaming as I read the title. Yes, I wondered about what range of emotion this post would bring and I found that I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. (In a good way) There are so many eloquent writers that post here (not to mention YOUR writing genius) and I am in no way as talented, but I will attempt to share my thoughts… 🙂 As MCA put it, *deep breaths*.

    It is beyond amazing when words can move you so deeply that you actually feel transported to another place and/or time and feel almost as though you are experiencing events with an author. This is how I felt with your post, KJ. Your descriptions were so vivid and I could almost feel the heartbreak and empathy you experienced while speaking with the brave people of Joplin. Bless you for being the kind of person who would leave the comfort of their home, their husband, their family, to go and help others in their time of need. Bless you for being a wonderful listener. Bless you for being someone who touches lives with your magic. Bless you for giving the people in Joplin the courage to get on that long road to healing. Bless you for being you. ❤

    I can't even imagine how hard it must have been to deal with this level of heartache and still attempt to remain positive in the face of darkness. You were able to do it though, sweets. That is why you are so inspiring. That is why so many of us here are changed for the better because of you. Sometimes the dark seems so dark and we cannot even imagine a time when the light will come. I feel lucky that in times like those, I can remind myself that people like you are out there in the world, making it a better place. A hero is defined as: someone of distinguished courage or ability, admired for HER brave deeds and noble qualities. That is what YOU are my dear, a true hero.

    Thank you for sharing your stories with us. I have prayed and continue to pray for those affected by the tragedy in Joplin. I give thanks for you and for all the people that help with the red cross, for without all of you, we would all be lost.

    xoxoxo, J.

  4. DeeDreamer June 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    KJ, Thank you for sharing this deep and profound experience with us.

    Your bravery inspires.

    Much, much love. xo ~DD

  5. MattB June 26, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    Big boys don’t cry.. and all that BS. My eyes were filming over before I got to Bryan’s Home. It only got more emotional from there. But at the end, I knew that if any of these Joplin souls ever writes in their blog about what they went through, they will certainly mention the empathetic, loving Red Cross counselor from California. The one who listened to and shared their grief, their heartbreak, their determination to rebuild. And I doubt anyone will represent them as effectively as you have here.

    I am not surprised that it has taken you this time to recover and process all that you experienced. You are perhaps the most empathetic person I have ever “met”. And your own extensive training will let you know that you must go through the assimilation and acceptance, even though the grief was not your personal tragedy.

    This experience will never leave you. But I know you will use it to expand your own self-knowledge and to continue your journey in positive ways. Because that is what you do: experience, internalize, extrapolate, identify, grow. A life lesson for us all.

    Glad you’re back in such a beautiful way and that your health has returned. Can’t wait to see where you take us next.

  6. robkris13 June 25, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    One of the most powerful things anyone has ever said to me was simply “I Am Here”. I was broken and alone and those three little words made all the difference in the world. I thought of this as I read about your journey with these survivors. You may not have said “I Am Here” out loud but your presence and compassion did and it was the catalyst they needed to start the healing process. What a blessing to be able to touch people’s lives in such a positive way! Hugs sweet sister!

    #1: I’ve known since I was quite young…I knew it and others saw it in me too. I think they pointed it out to make me feel bad but it actually gave me confidence in myself!

    #3: I’ve traveled the world and had many of those moments but two that come to mind right now: visting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and sailing down the Nile in Egypt.

    #4: exercise, mediation, music, and photography.

  7. iib June 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    KJ, you are such an inspiration. It’s an honor to be your friend. YOU are the most beautiful “other” I know.

  8. Lydia June 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    I rarely talk about private life online,but someone I know is from Alabama and she knows of people who have lost homes and family members. One minute these families had a home, next minute they were looking at sky. Children were held by their terrified parents who cowered in bathtubs and closets as they prayed they be taken and the lives of their children spared. I usually find myself bitching a lot about things these days like the price of gas, the economy and so on. But then when you hear stories like those of Alabama and Joplin, you cannot but as cliched as it is, count your blessings. These were people just like me, with families, jobs, hopes and dreams. One minute they were living their lives and the next their lives were torn apart just like that. I cried when I gathered clothes and canned goods to donate and TBVH grateful that I was the one giving and not receiving.
    You have a very beautiful heart KJ and your compassion and empathy are very evident in this post. I am not ashamed to say I cried while reading your column.

    1. I did not know I was an ‘other’, but became an ‘other’ because of my husband. He was someone who was so out of my comfort range that he scared me and intrigued me at the same time we met. Most of all he challenged me to get out of my cosy little box and embrace the ‘other’ because I wanted to be his wife so badly :P. All these years later, best decision I ever made.
    2. I embrace the ‘Other’ by doing things I am afraid of or think I am too old to do. The older I get the more comfortable I get with my body and who I am, so I bravely (for me) poked a few holes in my body in places that would have scandalized me just a while ago.
    4. I am bad at self care, but trying to get better. Reading and knitting is my way of self care, so is running alone. Most of all. though through the years, the technology has changed the way from the walkman, discman to now an ipod and iphone, the one thing that has remained constant is the music I always carry with me.

    L (@alotmoreofmagic)

  9. L June 24, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Dear KJ,

    I would ask if you’ve ever cried until you can’t anymore, but from your essay here, it sounds like you do. That’s what you did to me today. I’ve never dealt with tragedy on the scale of the tornadoes victims and can’t possibly imagine the horror and devastation they’re facing. But you’ve managed to show us not just the despair, but the faith, resilience, and the amazing capacity for hope we have. With the recent… transitions… in my life, I’ve felt the grief of losing oneself and having to rebuild your entire self-identity from the ground up. Your stories from Joplin give me hope that if these people who have suffered and lost so much can find hope and rebuild, then I can pull myself together as well.

    Here are answers to some of your questions:

    1. For me, there’s been no single defining moment of realization. It’s a collection of little things over time that, on reflection, have led me to recognize that I am Other… and I fucking LOVE IT.

    2. You know some of my story, so you know some of how I’ve embraced my other. But here are some other, smaller things. When I look in the mirror, instead of cringing like I used to, I smile at my freckles. I dance in the kitchen… and in the car, in the grocery store, walking down the road, at work, etc. I color using what colors make sense to me at that moment. A purple dog? Damn right.

    Best wishes and lots of love for you, KJ. It’s easy to see you have a beautiful, compassionate soul that you put to good use helping those who need it most.

    L (@ellelala)

  10. LCMom June 24, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Literally speechless.. . Amazing, amazing, amazing. You are beautiful.

  11. Thimbles June 24, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    …and they wouldn’t have it any other way. I asked this young man if I could buy his very little bit of groceries in thank you, he gave me one the sweetest smiles and said, “Thank you miss, I’m fine.” And then he was gone. I’m a lapsed Catholic, but I don’t think I ever prayed the rosary as much and in earnest as I did that night for that kid, or for all of them. Special, special people. You are one of them, indeed, KJ.

    ~Thimbles

  12. Thimbles June 24, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    Hello, KJ and everyone. *waves*. I’m not much of a poster, but I have read your blog and others comments with every new and insightful post. I truly had to post this and say for all the times before and for all the times after this post….thank you. Some people look at me funny when I say that I do believe that there is still goodness on this Earth, though it seems to be getting harder to see through all the hate, greed, and other forms of disasters that seem to try us. They look at me even worse when I say that I do believe that there are angels that walk this Earth, human angels. You see them do something for someone else, give them a word of encouragement when they are having a bad day, offer their seat when another is tired, it goes on and on. You just have to be willing to see. And in this post, you showed that the various angels that live in Joplin, from the K-9 team to spouses, to stranger under a truck, serving as a wall…and you yourself, KJ. You might brush it off or never believe it of yourself, but you were someone’s angel with your time, compassion, and ear. Thank you. I live in the Southwest, the Wallow Fire (AZ) a few hours away and the Horse Shoe2 Fire (AZ/NM) about a half hour away…the ash, smoke and intensifying heat is the worst I’ve ever known. But I can only imagine all that’s been lost…wildlife, people’s homes and farms, their

    livelihood. And then there are the Hot Shots, the smoke eaters, that are coming from aound the state and nation. I see some of them come into the store or gassing up only to head in the direction of the mountains, and I can only imagine how they feel. And I’m so proud and in awe of them. I’ve seen men, women, and younger men barely ood enough to have a drink, and they are covered in soot and exhausted, and

  13. MyCleverAlias June 24, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    *breathes deeply*

    Initial reaction (as word-vommed onto twitter): “As long as I live, I will be amazed and grateful at how resilient, kind and selfless people can be in their darkest times <3"

    I don't know how to process this fully. I don't know how to wrap my mind around what happened to the people of Joplin. And I don't know how they can function day to day, wrapping their minds around what happened to them. It's devastation beyond the understanding of anyone but someone who's lived through it.

    I do know that I admire them tremendously. And I'm so, so grateful that people like YOU are there to help them. You'll probably never know how much it meant to tell their stories at the right time to the right listening ear. How amazing was it to be a crucial part of their healing? What a blessing and a burden. Thank you for accepting the challenge of both. You. are. inspiring.

    Meeting these people, talking with them, crying with them, easing their suffering – it will stay with you forever. Their stories will stay with us too. And hearing about this from your perspective as a volunteer reinforces the high opinion I already had of the Red Cross. I donate regularly, but I'm contemplating what more there is to do. (No, but really – this blog inspires thoughts and ACTIONS.)

    Thank you for sharing. These beautiful people will be in my thoughts. I hope that time is granting them more peace, and more opportunity to rebuild and refocus.

    As for our Other Queen … the only upside to not seeing her lovely face is knowing that she's enjoying rest and relaxation out of the spotlight. She's more than earned it.

    Now … I WANT THAT T-SHIRT. It's true. So here we go. 🙂

    1. When did you know you were Other?
    I think I've always known, deep down. #NerdForLife Maybe it was when I was in elementary school, when I read under my desk during boring lessons and even spelling tests (It didn't occur to me until much later that such things could be construed as "cheating." I just didn't understand what was taking everyone so long to write a word down …) And I think the Otherness came into its own in college. I went to a college known for academics – that also has a reputation for being a tight-knit, nerdy, quirky, fun place. Perfect for a young one who didn't even yet appreciate how much Other there is in the world.

    2. How do you embrace your Other in your daily life?
    That is an EXCELLENT question. Maybe just in my acceptance of it? I've long stopped caring what anyone else thinks of my life, my choices, what I do … I'm so proud of what I am. I have things to figure out (*coughcareercough*), but overall I'm in such a good place.

    3. Have you encountered moments of quiet majesty in unexpected places?
    Those are the most majestic moments of all. I've found them in every nook and cranny of the world that I've had the pleasure to be. But maybe those are expected? One that comes to mind is the family in a small, unamed village in China that opened their home to me and my friends for several days. Their generosity and kindness was certainly majestic. As was the sunset I saw behind their house. And the paper lanterns we released to the skies at the end of a beautiful day including a traditional wedding. *happy sigh*

    4. How do you employ self-care?
    Reading. Quiet time alone. Not-remotely-quiet time with family and friends. Travel. Music. Writing? I should do more of that.

    As always, my beautiful friend … gorgeously told, generously shared. Thank you. xoxoxoxoxo forever.

  14. B2F June 24, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    KJ, honey you inspire me. When I feel my own depression closing in, I remind myself of all the blessings I do have. I may not be a huge Miley Cyrus fan, but I do love her song “The Climb”.
    The lyrics are so haunting and true, and remind me of your – of ALL of our – trips through life.
    “The struggles I’m facing,
    The chances i’m taking,
    Sometimes might knock me down, but I’m not breaking:

    Love you so much for sharing your words and your beauty.

    B2F

    B2

  15. ladybug June 24, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    I love that you shared this you us. I am also heartbroken and so profoundly affected by these stories you’ve shared.

    I just can’t even imagine what it feels like to have your whole world shattered and broken to pieces, your livelihood gone and then to see your loved ones go too… It’s just to much. It never ceases to amaze how much strenght human beings come up with at times like these.
    I lack words to say more about that. Just thank you so much for finding the strenght in you to share your experiences.

    Now, onto the questions (you know I love these things):

    1. I’ve always been a little different. In school I was the kid that hanged in the library corner when we had drawing/playing/free time. My Grandma always tells that when I was 5 and spending the holidays with my grandparents they would ask me if I wanted to go to a museum or to the beach. My answer was always museum. I’ve always been the bookish, quiet girl that feels a little older that she is.
    2. More recently, I’ve been really trying no to let my behavior be affected by others, I’m trying to be as true to myself as I can, doing the stuff I want to do, and it’s amazing how much I’m learning with it.
    I thrive on knowledge. I feel like I have to be always learning something new, talking to people or reading a book in order to feel good. I worked in an office environment for 2 years and recently moved to a place where I’m attending public 8 hours a day. I had no idea how much I missed it until now!
    3. Last year I went to the Azores on holiday. We just went around one of the islands sightseeing and one day we took a short cut back to the place where we were staying. There was this curb in the road and suddenly we were flooded with this sight: http://www.twitpic.com/5g5ltx . I had “a moment”, tears flooded my eyes, I just stood there hand in hand with R as our friends complained about it being to cold and went back to the car. I don’t know if it was the extreme beauty of nature, the amazing POV that made you feel you were on top of the world, I just know that I felt unexpectedly driven to do bigger and better things with my life just from this sight alone.
    4. Sleep, I’m worthless without sleep. Then read, listen to music, be quiet, be on my own, go for walks on the beach, aloud my thoughts to reconnect with my body and soul.

    (I’m sorry for the “hugeness” of this comment.)

  16. Misty June 24, 2011 at 5:14 am #

    KJ, what you did during your tour for those people, just by listening to their stories, is bringing tears to my eyes. You are fantastic. I truly hope you know this.
    I have been thru a natural disaster. I was hunkered down in a hospital in Greater NOLA area while Hurricane Katrina decided to make landfall just to the south of us. I stayed for 2 weeks w/o contact from my family other than the occasional phone call. My co-workers became my family during that time. We provided support for one another by just listening to whatever the other needed to get out. It was amazing to see Doctors and nurses let down their pompous guard and become one with us support staff and each other. I will never forget a coworker saying ” Doctor X came back to the hospital today. Instead of walking on water, he walked thru it”. The experience humbled us all. We connected thru loss and community. We will forever have a bond-connection.
    Whether you know it or not, you will forever have a bond with those you met in Joplin. YOur imprint is on them as well as theirs on you. It is comforting to know people care. You provided that for them in such a needed time.
    You mention the petty online bickering and bullying. THIS is exactly why it is so funny and pathetic to me. Life is so short and precious. We need to embrace and spend time on positive efforts. Just ignore the negative.
    Being other is a gift. We need to show it each day. I am by constantly being true to myself and those around me.

  17. bananot June 24, 2011 at 5:11 am #

    crying… thinking… thanking… loving… taking deep breaths… and thanking YOU again! much love, A

  18. Aai June 24, 2011 at 3:05 am #

    Kai baby- I can’t speak. I just want to rest my forehead against your’s and allow our spirits to mingle. I want to share with you some of my strength and drink at the cup of yours.
    We can talk later, kay?
    I self care by communing online with my sisters mostly- so we shall do that, kay? mmkay.

  19. Cheermom June 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    KJ…I don’t know what to say, other than THANK YOU for helping the people of Joplin when they needed you, and for helping the rest of the world see a little slice into what they are going through. I am sitting here in utter shock, shivers running down my spine, tears pooling in my eyes. Sadly, the country has moved on from this news…you rarely hear anything about this tragedy anymore. Your reflections are a beautiful reminder that they are still picking up the pieces and a tribute to the survivors and lost loved ones.

    As for your questions…I always knew I was “other” — just didn’t have a name for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t start embracing my other until a few years ago…age does that to you. You finally hit the point where you say, screw them…this is who I am…like it or leave it. It took an ugly incident with a lifelong friend to make me realize that I didn’t have to succumb to other people’s expectations of me…I could just be me. I have learned to OWN myself and stand up for myself when needed. Wish I could have been more like Kristen and embraced my “other” much younger.

    I embrace my other by doing Zumba. I’m sure people are sick of my and my Zumba ways, but it truly changed my life. I was never a dancer…no formal training (I don’t count jazz, tap and ballet as a 7 year old), but I could do a mean “worm” with a few alcoholic beverages 🙂 I am a meek mouse…a follower who hides in the back of the class hoping no one notices me. Then one day, I said SCREW IT…went up to the front row…and that is where I reside. I have NEVER been a leader in anything…and now I have people lined up behind me cheering my wicked ways on (I can’t see them so it doesn’t bother me). Have started teaching now…was absolutely horrifying to me at first…being in front knowing EVERYONE is looking to me for guidance. But I’m getting over it…embracing who I am…and just letting my freak flag fly!! I’m a more confident person because of it.

  20. BooknerdBecca June 23, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Oh god, Kj… the story of Baby S and his parents has me sitting here in tears. I had a horrible day of asthma attacks brought on by the fires in AZ near us and it was all exacerbated by stress and a stomach bug. I’ve been sitting here whining in my head, feeling sorry for myself and then I get your email.
    My day was shitty… they’re world was destroyed. Nothing they knew will ever be the same. They can’t undo it, they can’t change it, they can just hope to survive and have each other once all the pain begins to subside, if it ever does.
    I feel completely remorseful at my sadness, simpering away about stress and my inhaler, complaining to my husband about my broken ovaries or budget cuts at work… pathetic of me. Simply pathetic for anyone to really complain when you think of what these young ones went through because of Mother Nature.
    It makes me want to proverbially dust myself off (after I finish my meds) and do some helping. I am not allowed to donate blood, but giving of any kind would make life easier on the folks of Joplin. We can’t fix it, but we could help. I’ve been tweeting ways to help and posting on FB and my blog, but I’ll step up the effort. Thank you for reminding me how good and lucky I’ve had it. ❤

    As for your questions-
    1. When did you know you were Other? I think when I was able to walk away from an abusive boyfriend and an oppressive religion, I started to gain a sense of self. Separating from toxic people who fostered self-hate made a large difference in how I acknowledged myself. I think I found it in pieces.

    2. How do you embrace your Other in your daily life? In my writing… I want my stories to show women positively. Whether it's a girl in a horrible situation who rises above it, a demon-riddled monster with a heart, or a stripper with a brain… I want my heroines to be Other.

    3. Have you encountered moments of quiet majesty in unexpected places? I think when you do good and you don't look around for who's going to commend you, that's quiet majesty. Also, when I knit, I feel such a calm. Weird, but true. Making something for someone else, just so I can see them smile… it never occurred to me this would be such a blessing!

    4. How do you employ self-care? I still struggle with this. I have friends and family that have to remind me to not dislike who I am. You'd think after a few decades you'd be completely comfortable in your own skin, but not always is that the case. I try to remind myself that as long as I'm doing my best and thinking of others, I'm doing the right thing. Everyone has their moments of self-doubt, it's just how you deal with them right? I try to deal with it with smiles and sarcasm, hugs and pedicures 🙂
    Thank you, Kj, for always being here to give introspection a rhythmic poetry that makes thinking not so hard 🙂 Love and Hugs!

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