Chelle Summer

Heeding a Message from the Universe

Michelle Rusk

At some point in my life, I made a decision about certain goals and dreams that I wanted to accomplish. When I did that, I also realized that there would be many uphill battles. But now that I’m older– and this is really hard– I’ve also learned that there are times when the universe is sending me messages that I really should pay attention to even though they aren’t what I want to hear.

One of my favorite places I love to go to, and I’ve written before about how important it is in my life and who I am, is Los Angeles. It’s my second home because we travel there multiple times a year. And each time as we get closer to leaving, I find myself at the church we attend there lighting a candle and thanking God for the week. It’s during that time that I begin to reflect back on my experiences there and I see how nourished and energized I feel from, well, being there. It’s like LA gives something to my soul that I don’t get in most other places, enough to keep me going until my next visit.

Except that we’re supposed to be there this week. And we’re not.

Without going into all the mundane details, there have been signs all over the place that we weren’t supposed to make this trip. I kept fighting them, believing they were just roadblocks I had to find a way around. But finally last Wednesday I felt exhausted at the thought of packing and having to endure more roadblocks on the trip.

I decided it wasn’t worth it and we began to think we’d stay home.

However, the door was still slightly ajar when on Saturday morning, Ash got really sick and we had to take him to the ER vet. While the results were inconclusive at the time, now I see he has colitis (just one round of antibiotics had his body acting more friendly toward anything he ate) and I knew then we had to shut the door on the trip.

I am bummed out because I know we won’t make it there until late June– even though I realize the ocean and everything important to us isn’t going anywhere. At the same time, I know the signs were telling me that even though it feels like two steps backward, as I go forward in the days and weeks ahead, I’ll see it was actually more than two steps forward.

The hardest part isn’t just listening to the message, but actually following through with what it says. And trusting that it’s the right decision. Much like life itself.

What Remains

Michelle Rusk

As I write this, it’s the 26th anniversary of my sister Denise’s suicide. However, you won’t read this until tomorrow because I’m not posting it on social media until then. I have said in the past that I don’t want to acknowledge her death date anymore and I really don’t which is why I’m waiting another day.

But there’s also another reason– I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.

It’s been 26 years. It’s more than half my life ago since she died and I’ve had plenty of time to examine it, spin it around, turn it upside down, and realize that I can’t change her choice or what happened. What I can control is my life and right now I feel like life has bigger things for me, that I haven’t tapped my potential, and I want to get there. I don’t want to be lost in the aspects of my past that don’t keep me moving forward.

However, no matter how much time and processing go by, the reality is that this date is always marked in my head. St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA Tournament are reminders of events leading up to her death. And now we have the anniversary of Mom’s death a week after Denise’s.

I wouldn’t say I’m sad today; too much time and processing has gone by for that. I can’t wonder about “what could have been,” because there’s been too much life since then. Mostly, I feel like when I went to Norway some years ago and saw a black and white photo on my friend’s wall of a teen in a football uniform. I hadn’t known she had a brother because he had been killed in Vietnam, before I was born.

I realized as I stood there looking at his photo that I, too, would be like her one day with a dated photo of my sister because so much life would have passed. I’m there now.

Denise is still part of my life, she is with me, just as my parents and the many others from my life who have died. But I still have much life to live and my focus is on that, not what could have been.

Everything in its own time

Michelle Rusk

I struggle through January and February each year, mostly because they are cold and wintry months– I’m done with snow and cold once the holidays have passed. When March 1 hits, I feel as if a cloud lifts off me, knowing that spring is around the corner, that while the desert spring winds might be coming, at least the nights won’t be so cold and the chances of getting snow are slimmer with each passing day.

For that reason, I also try to work hard and keep busy in January and February, praying that I keep my nose to the grindstone. Yet the hardest part– as I’ve written before– is that with lofty goals, I don’t often see the progress of whatever I’m working on. Until my writing and creating are finished, whatever I’m working on remains still a piece of clay that hasn’t fully been formed into something.

While I was happy for March to roll around, last week I suddenly felt as if I were on a game board, going round and round with the routine of life. And it wasn’t until the week ended that I had some feeling that there is more than routine right now in my life. Routine isn’t bad, especially because when life is in a state of upheaval, we crave it. Yet there is something to be said for being knocked out of it for a change of pace.

A week ago Saturday, we sang “On Eagle’s Wings” after communion at mass. This is one of the songs that used to make me think of my younger sister– as it was played at her funeral– but now reminds me of Mom because it was Mom who selected it for Denise’s funeral.

It had been a long time since I heard it and each time I do, I have such a sense of Mom being around me.

Thursday morning I ended up missing the start of an estate sale and decided some hours later to go anyway, knowing full well anything really good might be gone. As I drove to the house, “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter came on the radio, yet another reminder of Mom, a song she used to do what my sister Karen calls her “hip shake.”

After I left the estate sale, with a cool few things, but believing I missed more, I reminded myself that if I had gone earlier, I would have missed Mom and her being with me. What was there, was what I was supposed to take home.

Then Saturday, yet again we sang “On Eagle’s Wings” after communion. I typically make a bathroom run after communion because we go out to dinner and, well, let’s just say the church bathrooms are much nicer than a lot of places. But on this day I didn’t think I would go to the bathroom as I didn’t want to miss any of the song. If I went to the bathroom, I’d miss that time with Mom.

Something happened though– the line for communion was slow, probably because more people are at mass as we’ve now entered the Lenten season– and by the time I was ready to walk back to my seat, the song had ended and I was free to head to the bathroom.

It was then that I realized what Mom was telling me– everything in its own time. I can worry, I can fret, I can believe I will miss my boat, and I can feel like the routine might not end and start to feel stale. No, she was saying, it’s all happening as it’s supposed to . The dominos will fall just right. Keep at it, it will come.

Tripping Into Lent

Michelle Rusk

When I went to see Fr. Gene on Friday for my monthly spiritual direction meeting at the Norbertine Monastery, he asked me what I was planning to do for Lent. I stumbled a bit, realizing that I’d been so caught up in what we were going to eat for dinner on Ash Wednesday (Greg is not as much a fish stick fan as I am– something we rarely eat outside of Lent at my house and it beats tuna casserole) and how I am going to make the 7:00 am Ash Wednesday mass.

It took me a little while to realize that I actually had started my Lenten journey last week and now I feel as if I have tripped into Lent, after it feeling like it was still a month away.

I always try to use Lent as a time to draw closer to God and one way I finally realized– after nearly my entire of life of not being aware of it– is that God and I seem to travel together with my writing. I have been asking God to bring me what I’m supposed to write and last week I felt as if I’d gotten knocked on the head with something.

I don’t want to reveal more than that right now as I need to travel this journey before I understand more. But at this point I have a sense that some things are tying themselves together into one piece. At least after a lot of starts and stops on various things, I hope it’s the case.

However, Fr. Gene also reminded me of something, that the more we pray, the more we are aware of everything around us. And what’s below the surface. It’s not an easy road as it takes me places I don’t understand, sometimes makes me feel like many things don’t make sense or I am worried I’m not going where I’m supposed to.

But I’m trusting that as we head toward Fish Stick Wednesday, that God and I are going on a big writing adventure that will take us to Easter and beyond.

Embracing the Bigger Journey

Michelle Rusk

While I’m not sure exactly when it began, I do know that since I was six years old, I wanted to write books. And I also know that I have believed at least since then that there were infinite and bigger doors to open in my life, that what my future might have looked like from the outside wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

Often, during mass homilies, I hear the priests say how people should ask God to be who they are supposed to be, to bigger than they are, and I actually find this baffling because I thought that life was about being more than what appears right in front of us. I honestly thought that’s what everyone wanted.

While I see that many people either fear being more than they are supposed to be, or they just don’t realize that they can ask for it, I also know how hard embracing that journey can be because the reality is in life that we have to make choices, that we can’t do everything we want to or thing we need to.

I was lucky to grow up in a nice, upper middle class suburb outside Chicago. It was very family oriented and I always felt that people were supportive of whatever dreams and goals I had. But the life there wasn’t one I saw for myself. I tried. I bought a house back there and attempted to live back there. During that time I realized though, it wasn’t me. It was my past, but it wasn’t my future.

While part of me mourns it wasn’t the life I was supposed to have, I see that if I had stayed, there are many bigger doors– the very ones I want to keep opening– that wouldn’t have opened (or won’t open in the future). No matter what we choose in life, no matter where we go, we have to let go of something (or someone).

Embracing the bigger journey doesn’t mean it’s the easiest or most obvious road traveled. But it’s certainly the one most worth it.

The Rattle

Michelle Rusk

At 2:00 am on Valentine’s Day morning, my shoulder popped out– a subflexation, meaning a partial dislocation. I woke up Greg to help ease it back where it needed to be, wished him a happy Valentine’s Day, and we both went back to sleep.

It had been a while since I’d had a day where I could say that while I had a lot I wanted to accomplish that day, but when I got up at 4:30 am, I was ready to take on Thursday and my list.

However, just after 7:00 am, my day was thrown out the window when Greg texted me to tell me that they had been evacuated from the high school where he teaches for an– at that point– unknown reason. Turns out there had been gunfire just a floor below and down the hall from him. No one was hurt, half the students hadn’t even arrived at school yet because the busses were still on their way to the school, the shooter (and the gun) was caught, and one would think life would go on as it was.

But it doesn’t.

I know this feeling well– of believing I have this smooth day ahead only to have it interrupted by a life-changing phone call– or the presence of the priest at a classroom door in college. I know how quickly life can change and it’s a conversation I’ve had with Greg many times, knowing full well that this day would come that there would be a shooting at his school. Sadly, it’s reality in this times that we live in and we’ve been lucky here in Albuquerque and the surrounding area to have not had this happen before.

We are lucky no one was hurt, I am grateful for that. But what people don’t realize is that in the back of my mind, it’s hard not to picture the worst. That worst is being the one left behind to pick up the pieces. For the rest of the day and into Friday morning I felt rattled. I didn’t feel like myself, feeling depressed.

An estate sale and a swim at the gym pool in the warm sunshine brought my spirit back. Still, it lingers – as it always will– in the back of my mind. If there is one thing I learned from the events of Thursday, it’s that you don’t truly understand what it’s like to be faced with this until it hits close to home, meaning it affects your world in a close and personal way.

Life didn’t stop because of this– nor will it. We had houseguests arriving that night for the Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon Saturday. We don’t walk around living in fear, we don’t stop doing anything because of what happens. But deep in the back of my mind the rattle sometimes comes out. Part of my daily life is learning to quiet that rattle by doing what makes me happy, what makes me feel alive, and reminding myself not to live in fear, that all is well.

Intrinsic Value

Michelle Rusk

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole concept of sharing on social media. I enjoy sharing what I’ve created and I often hear from people who tell me they like to see what I’ve made. But it’s also easy to get caught up in the number of likes and comments, and of being disappointed when I thought I had something really fun to share. But yet it doesn’t get many likes.

So I took a little trip back in my memory of what life was like before I had social media to share my creations. And that reminded me of Bonnie.

Bonnie was my neighbor several houses ago and I often joked that we bonded at the sewing machine at night making quilts and assorted other things– nautical rope wreaths (we twisted my then-husband Joe to bring us rope back from a trip to Portland, Maine, where a company he sold for was based), potpourri, pillow covers, and quilts.

I always went over to Bonnie and Greg’s house in the evening, after dinner and first up was show and tell. With a cigarette in one hand, she’d have a stack of magazines and catalogs she had read and pages marked with something to show me (and C-Span playing on the television). Then we would venture into the large craft room at the back of the house behind the kitchen where she’d show me something she had made the previous week or had started a project we agreed to work on. I would bring anything I had done– although I was teaching high school at the time and didn’t have as much time as she did to create.

This was how I shared, or through emailing photos to people in my life or having a party at my house where people enjoyed seeing whatever it was that was new since their last visit.

The photo above is a portion of something she made for me, taking “things” from my life and attaching them to a crazy quilt, and, finally, framing it. It’s hung in one of the guest rooms in my house since she made it for me nearly twenty years ago.

But mostly creating was about my making my inner self happy– the intrinsic value. It was about what was inside, about making something, finishing it, standing up and holding it out and saying, “Yes, I like that.” That feeling of accomplishment inside me.

I’m very grateful that I can share whatever I’ve made to a larger audience. However, I always remind myself that it’s about how it makes me feel inside. I don’t ever want to forget the feeling of accomplishment for myself that has long driven me to where I am today.

Finding Love

Michelle Rusk

From the outside when Greg and I met– introduced by a mutual friend, Jim– it looked like it all came together simply one day. However, I know what a long road it was to get to that September day when Jim texted me and told me he wanted to introduce to me to a mutual friend.

As we have entered February, the time when we are surrounded by red and pink hearts and notions that love only seems to happen around this time, I have recently talked with or seen on Facebook the pain some friends have had on the dating scene.

Having been there– and I’ll spare the gory dating stories– I used those years between my divorce and when I met Greg to work on myself. As my hairdresser friend Amanda said to me, having also been through it ,but before me, “It’s a time to reinvent yourself.”

I used it for that and to make myself better. It wasn’t about what had happened in the past, it was about making sure the future took me where I wanted to go. It wasn’t an easy journey– I felt as if I was trudging through mud for most of it– but it was worth it.

While physically I kept running and walking, giving the dogs walks twice a day, I was going to have to do more than that if I wanted that right person to enter my life.

I somehow found a book by a therapist about how to find your right mate. Honestly, I have no idea the title or who I gave it to because once I was done with it, I passed it along. But there was one major aspect I took from the book and it’s what you see in the photo above: a written intention, a mantra of sorts.

While I didn’t realize it until about ten years ago, I have often called the journals I’ve kept since eighth grade letters to God. Writing has always been a release and I had never thought about it as something more until one day I realized that they had been my prayers all along, even during times in my life when I wasn’t consciously praying to God. That book reaffirmed that by writing my intention down, I could make it happen. It’s as if I released it to the universe when I put it on paper.

It wasn’t just that though– I worked through lots of challenges and made sure I was the best Michelle possible– at least for that time because I believe Greg has made me a better Michelle and then surgery last year changed me again. But at the time I was the best Michelle I could be for Greg to enter my life and for us then to take both our lives separately and together forward, making each other even better than we were when we started the journey together.

There was no question when Greg and I met. We moved forward as if we had met on a long walk along the ocean and kept going. Still walking today. We began to weave our lives together and help each other become better people. It made me realize that after trying to make what had become a bad marriage work and then a relationship following the marriage that I thought I could make work, that it didn’t have to be that way. Life is too short to be more difficult than it is. I found someone who made my life easier, who helps me be the best I can be, who clears the path (as I do the same for him) so that I can be better. My life partner.

Choose your intention. Take care of yourself. Go on with your life. The rest will take care of itself. The right love will find its way to you.

Strength on the Other Side

Michelle Rusk

On Friday, it will be eight months since I had my uterus removed. In many ways the surgery feels like years ago, mostly because life has gone on since it was taken out. And once I got through the nasty mess that anesthesia left me in, my recovery was very quick.

However, because I take so few days off from running (ever!), one of my challenges was starting to run again. Without walking.

I was cleared to run several weeks after the surgery and the day I could start running we were actually heading home from Los Angeles (at the end of June). We try to leave the LA area earlier– not just so we get home earlier, but also to get out before the morning commute takes over– and it was dark when I went out for a three-mile walk. I tried to run a few steps here and there, but I was quickly aware this was going to take more time and effort than I had realized.

It wasn’t until after Labor Day that I could finally run my entire route here at home in Albuquerque without stopping. While at the beginning I definitely felt a tightness in the area where my body was still adjusting to life post-uterus, it turned into a head game for me. I just couldn’t quite get my head together to keep running. As weak as I felt, I knew that I could overcome it because I’ve been running long enough to know that much of it is a head game.

However, there was another factor I didn’t take into consideration. Summer had gone on, mostly quietly, and each afternoon I went for a 20-minute swim once we had arrived home from that Los Angeles trip. It wasn’t until late September that I realized that I swam everyday since since we’d arrived home.

Running and swimming aren’t friends (add a bike trip between them and that’s another story– there is a reason triathlons are so challenging!). While running has always been my main workout, the swim was more about meditation and letting my mind wander late in the day.

I kept swimming, even as the nights cooled which also brought the pool water temperature down, not wanting my streak to end. By then I finally was running my entire route again, but it was a struggle. Not a fun one either. When we hit December I started to feel strong again. It was then that I realized that finally those two workouts had come together to not just help me regain my pre-surgery strength, but make me stronger than I was before.

I learned a long time ago that often we push the hardest when we are sick or coping with some other physical (or mental) challenge because we have to compensate for whatever else is happening. I didn’t realize I had been doing just that, making myself stronger in the presence of a challenge. If we trudge along long enough, one day the break comes and see that we really have come a long way.

California Dreams

Michelle Rusk

Somewhere around the time I turned thirteen, my goal was to move to California, Los Angeles, specifically. And somewhere along that line, the dream didn’t shatter so much as other events in life happened and I found myself taking other roads, including one road that led me to Albuquerque. It’s like I put the dream down and left it on my desk, covered by everything else that seemed more pressing in my life.

That dream makes me think of my eighty-something neighbor across the street who told me how she and her then-husband were bound for Los Angeles from Kansas in the 1950s when the baby got sick and they had to stop in Albuquerque where a lack of funds forced them to stay here. I often joke that, too, I was bound for Los Angeles, but somehow I didn’t quite make it that far.

Then around 2008, life began to take me back to Los Angeles and slowly the dream emerged again, as if I was cleaning off my desk and found it. By then something about the dream changed when Sam and Lois Bloom entered my life. They kept inviting me to stay with them in Palos Verdes and on my second visit when Lois turned her head back in the car and said, “Sure you can rent a surfboard. Why not?” – a moment that seemed insignificant at the time– was a turning point in making the dream come true.

No, I don’t live in Los Angeles now, nor do I ever plan to live there full time. However, because of the Blooms– and a husband who has enjoyed getting to know a new city– Los Angeles is my second home in many ways. Slowly, we have built a portion of our life there and we’ll continue to do so.

What I see in the rearview is how my parents took me on a journey of my life– in the Chicago area– but one that I have become disconnected from in many ways because of Los Angeles. It’s not bad, it’s about me moving forward, about being the person I’m supposed to be. I wouldn’t be who I am without the Midwest, Chicago, Naperville, but the dreams of Los Angeles kept me going through miserable snow and dark winters, knowing that there was something else out there for me.

I sometimes think of my sister Denise and the Blooms’ son Sammy– who died by suicide in the early 1980s– getting together in heaven and plotting getting me to Los Angeles. Then my dad died and he joined the conversation, followed by my mom just three weeks before Greg and I made our first trip there together.

It’s as if my parents were there for a portion of my life and now the Blooms are what I call my “California parents” because I know without them, I wouldn’t have been able to explore and made the area feel as much like home as I have.

Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the church we attend when we are there, lighting a candle, the day before we came home. As I prayed– having a conversation with God– I thought, “Each time I come here, I leave inspired in some way. I come here for so many reasons and I leave…with so much.”

I wouldn’t be able to tell you the exact reasons why life drew me there at age thirteen, but I see now that I was following a path that I allowed to unfold in front of me– maybe not as I expected or as quickly as I wanted– but one that was meant to be, a dream that I kept alive in some way.

And made happen.

Inspiration on the Periphery

Michelle Rusk

At a spiritual direction meeting last year, Fr. Gene told me– and I don’t remember what we were discussing- how he had once been told that after he gives a homily, he has no say over what someone chooses to do with it. He’s thrown it in the air and who catches and what they do with it isn’t his business.

Steve Mazzarella threw much in the air– of kindness, knowledge, and inspiration– and it was caught by many more people than I’m sure he ever knew.

After I found out he died early Sunday morning from a malignant brain tumor and I watched the comments begin to flow through Facebook, I thought about how my experience with him had been much different than many people. I wasn’t in Snowball nor was I a diver. But I sat front and center (surely not my choice– I have no idea how I ended up there) for his health class sophomore year of high school. And it was there that he left a lasting impression on me.

That impression, however, wasn’t immediately obvious because it wasn’t until after my sister’s death that much of what Mazz taught me came rolling back in the form of my own life as I completed a masters of education and then became a high school health myself. I still use the 50 goals we wrote out as an activity when I do workshops, making many people groan at the idea. For me, the idea of putting my goals on paper is much like a prayer or planting seeds in the spring the garden. It’s a place for them to start and it was Mazz who taught me that.

Somewhere along the line we got back in touch and before I moved back to Albuquerque in March 2013, he asked me to come speak to his advanced health classes. He had wanted me to talk about suicide to the regular health classes, however, because I was leaving, it wasn’t going to fit the schedule. Instead, he asked me to reflect on my journey to these two groups of students who were near graduation and stepping into the next phase of their lives.

It wouldn’t be our last communication, but it would be my last trip to my high school and the further I get from it, the more I see that it put some ghosts of my past to rest. I have recently been thinking how that year and a half in hometown allowed me to let go and move on from so much that I had left sitting in the darkness of my memory (all relating to finding my way in the world and coping with my younger sister’s suicide). By finally sweeping the out of the darkness and out of my life, I could truly move forward in my life.

Mazz’s influence on my life was on the periphery, but it was important to who I am today. He gave me many ideas and one big opportunity that helped me find my way to who I am now..

In one of his last messages to me– now several years ago– this was his response to the blog I had written about the 50 goals:

“How humbled i am....This simple blog i hope will give inspiration and hope to someone who reads it...and hopefully starts their journey!! its a pretty cool thing to do to put it in writing...but even ‘cooler’ when that goal becomes a reality! Keep your inspiring comments flowing and they will eventually touch the core of everyone who reads them!”

His life wasn’t as long as it should have been (are they ever?), but in that short time he inspired so many. Including me.

Yards and yards of fabric...and a penny

Michelle Rusk

It always seems perfect. And then turns complicated.

It was the perfect fabric. I was looking for a specific weight for a dress I wanted to make. With the amount of chiffon and georgette one can find in the Los Angeles Fashion District, this would have been a cinch.

And I thought it was when I saw it.

“This is it,” I told Greg who was happy he’d been the one to point the way to this store, having already scoped it out after running another roll of ten yards of knit to the car. “I’m in love.”

It was paisley, it was pink. It was orange. It was green. It was yellow. It was the 1970s. It was my Barbies.

We asked the woman working in the store what the price per yard was, $1.80. I was cool with that.

The minimum? I expected her to say five or ten yards, what we’d be quoted at the stores on the block next to this one.

“It’s by the roll,” she said. “And the rolls are a minimum of fifty yards.”

I’m not there yet and knew it, leaving the store with a sample in my hand, but feeling dejected, not wanting to let this pattern slip through my fingers.

We drove to another part of the garment district and I found myself in a little prayer with my dad. “Please bring me a coin if I’m supposed to buy this fabric today,” I prayed. Then I felt silly and added, “No, it’s okay.”

I thought it was stupid to ask him if I should buy the fabric. I didn’t need that much, I didn’t need to focus on it. I would let it go and eventually it would come back when the time was right, maybe in another form. When that happened, I’d look into the rearview mirror and understand why it transpired the way that it did.

I let it go, we parked the car, and walked toward the store where I needed to get piping for pillows and I looked down. A penny.

The fashion district is filled with homeless; we walk by more makeshift tents than I can count with all my hands and toes put together. There’s never a coin to be found. Except this one.

“We’re going back,” I told Greg, “after we finish the items on the list.”

That’s where it got complicated. The woman kept upping the minimum on the rolls from 50 yards to 60 to 70. I definitely didn’t need that much fabric (but curtains were starting to sound good). She also couldn’t get to the rolls because there were too many on top of them (they’d used a forklift earlier that morning in another store to get to the pink lining that I’d requested). She would have to wait about an hour for some of the delivery guys to come back and help her.

We left the store with plans to drive another store that was a few miles away, me knowing it might kill enough enough time. I’d already come this far, I was going to get the fabric now.

Three blocks away, the woman called.

“I don’t know how it happened but I found a roll with 32 yards on it,” she said.

Still more than I needed (at least until I make the first dress), but more manageable. And definitely meant to be mine.

Carson's shangri la

Michelle Rusk

I’ve put off writing this blog and it’s been easy with the holiday hustle and bustle. I’ve felt like I’ve been chasing myself and now as things start to wind down, at least through the new year before they wind up again, I know that I need to write this because life is going to change again soon. I’ve made it a tradition– although I don’t think that’s a good word– to write about each of my dogs after they have died and while Carson was only with us for the end of his life, he deserves a blog, too.

I miss him. I miss his presence. I find myself grabbing three treats from the cactus cookie jar where I keep them rather than two. The house is quieter. Lilly needs someone to at least pretend to chase her around the yard and Hattie wishes Lilly had someone to chase her around so she would leave her alone and quit being the annoying little sister.

But this is what I remind myself– Carson is happy now, he is out of his pain.

The last month of his life was trying for all of us and I’ll admit it was a strain on our relationship. Carson had lost control of his bladder and my days were spent changing his wrap (fancy word for diaper), sometimes him running from me after I had let him outside, but needed to put it back on before he returned inside. At 4:00 am the day before we put him down, he stood at the far end of the yard and we had a staring contest, me refusing to go any further outside in my bare feet and thirty-some degree temperatures. I won the contest only after I shut the door and pretended to walk away– inside the house.

I felt as if Hattie and Lilly missed out on attention because most of my time was going to Carson. I started to find Lilly sleeping upstairs by herself, a place she never went unless someone was with her.

The strain took its toll, but I still struggled with actually putting him down two weeks ago today. He had a zest for life and I didn’t want to put him down too early. But I also didn’t want to keep him around too long because it wasn’t about us. It was about releasing him from his pain.

Two weeks later, I now remind myself in my sadness that he’s happy now, he’s met my family and all the dogs that have gone before him. After what appeared to have been a challenging life, he found happiness with us, so much so that he defied the expectations of his lifespan and may have been seventeen when he died. He’s out of pain and anything that happened to him that left him fearful here in his life melted away as he went to sleep with that sedative and drifted into his new life.

His new life of love.

Meaning in the Christmas Season

Michelle Rusk

I told Greg that I’m going to make prickly pear hard candy until the cows come home, partly because we have so much puree and partly because it feels like something unique and special that I can share with everyone.

Yet it took me by surprise last week when I dropped off a bag to two Native American friends and he told me what a special and meaningful gift it is. He and his wife grew up eating prickly pears near the Gallup area where they were raised. It also surprised me how happy they were to taste the candy, telling me it was a taste from their childhood, and one they hadn’t had in a long time.

I was so excited as I left their business (where I drop off my packages for shipping), knowing I had given them a treat, a piece of their childhood, something that left them in awe.

As I drove home, I thought about how this is what the Christmas season is about. It’s about doing something meaningful for others, about making the season special by making something for others.

The holiday season goes fast, but we can fill it with joy by giving to others. And thus filling ourselves with joy.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Michelle Rusk

As I spend much of my time working on moving forward, what I don’t do often is reflect on where I’ve been. But because I keynoted several conferences over the past six weeks– and I was speaking about how I’ve gone forward in my life despite my many losses which was a new talk for me– I had to take the time to think about how I’ve gotten where I am to create my talks.

Sometimes I share the aspects of my life that inspire me, yet I’ve also realized that I might not be reflecting fully on them and that’s what happened over the month prior to speaking.

Since I was six years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, but an author. I wanted to tell stories. I don’t think I knew what those stories were going to be beyond the picture books I made with Raggedy Ann and Andy starring, but it was my dream to have my name on the side of a book.

That dream stayed alive for most of my childhood and teen years except for several side roads I veered down, testing other waters. But the roads always took me back to writing. What I see now is that many times I took those side roads to learn something I needed to write about. Even today when I find myself deeply interested in a topic and wonder why I didn’t pursue it before, I realize that somewhere it might fit into a story.

When my sister died in 1993, at least in the memories I have now, I don’t remember that the writing dream died. I believe it remained an ember– an ember that all of us have as I written previously about hope– because it wasn’t going to die. I had a road to travel and eventually I would make my way back to it.

I also believe that that dream is what has kept me going all these years. While I make handbags and clothes and do all sorts of other things, it is when I am writing that I truly feel I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. The stories, the people, their lives, are with me constantly and many days keep me motivated around frustrations and the routine of life.

The hard part is that the dream hasn’t manifested itself yet as want it to. Yes, I have written multiple books, but I’m not where I want to be, on the bestseller list– yet. That ember keeps burning and I keep writing, knowing that somewhere along the way the flame will spark and suddenly the fire will take off.

A Multitude of Goals

Michelle Rusk

I had two major goals for October: one to continue my goal of swimming every day between July 1 and November 1. This wasn’t something I set out to do so much as I realized in September that I had been swimming every day, not on purpose, it had just happened. So I thought, why not keeping it going as long as I can? I am happy to say that despite the cooler weather, I have managed to keep swimming past November 1.

But I also wanted to have a 100-page writing month. I managed to finish that one early although about halfway through the month I found myself gravitating toward the kitchen, wanting to use new recipes, make new dishes. And make these jam bars pictured above.

As I was doing it, I figured out why: I’ve been so engrossed in one big goal that I could feel myself needing a sense of accomplishment of finishing something small, something easier. Manuscripts take a long time to complete and this current one is going to take me well into next year. That means I need to find smaller goals I can accomplish in the meantime.

That’s where much of my creating comes into play. I can have something completed after a few hours or less and suddenly the antsy dissipates as I see what it is that I’ve created. It allows me to keep working on the manuscript, yet gives me the instant reward of having done something else.

Our lives are filled with big goals and if we want to keep ourselves motivated, the best way to do that is to balance them with little goals. After all, life is about balance so why shouldn’t it be the same with goal setting?

Starting Small, Building Strength

Michelle Rusk

I knew exactly what I was going to pray for Saturday at mass when I picked a candle to take to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I debated between the orange and purple, choosing the purple because I had chosen the orange on All Saints Day, just a few days before that.

What I didn’t check was the wick. It never occurred to me to check the wick, especially on Saturday when I was most concerned with my prayer. Although I keep busy with many projects, there are days when I wonder if I should be concentrating on one thing over another. And on Saturday that’s exactly what I was going to talk to my friend Guadalupe about– I wanted to make sure I was focused where I should be.

However, when I went to light the candle, I discovered there was almost no wick. That meant I had to stand there and hold the flame over it until enough wax had melted away so that the flame could catch.

In that moment, I knew I was doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. While our prayers aren’t often answered in church– instead they are answered in other times when we are going about our daily life– this was one instance where I got a clear response. Perhaps it was because I had been asking all day, thinking about how I would ask Guadalupe for help. Or perhaps it was because that was the best way to show me what I needed to know.

Sometimes the candle doesn’t light right away and on this time not only did it not light right away, it took some time for it to light. Once it did, it was a small flame, but I felt confident it would endure and burn the wax down to the bottom of the plastic jar (the purple candle on the right side of the three in the photo).

A small flame, a strong flame. The reminder that while it might not seem like things aren’t moving quickly, they are moving, they are building. They are catching fire.

Stay the course, Guadalupe seemed to tell me. Keep at it. You’re doing what you’re supposed to.

Now it’s my job to believe it and keep the flame burning.

Commitment to Hope

Michelle Rusk

I believe that hope lingers in the shadows, often in places where we can’t see it. I also believe that each of us has an ember of hope- it might burn very faintly, but it is there- and it’s up to us to find the hope that makes it burn brighter.

That’s no easy task, I know it well. However, while life isn’t easy, it is worth living. But it’s up to us to find where we belong, what we want to do, what makes us happy. If it were an easy thing to do, I don’t think any of us would be here today.

Somewhere inside of me I know that faint light of hope has always been there. I have spent a lot of time this past year exploring how I got to be who I am today. I see now how often in the face of loss of in challenging times, I might have been upset or grieving, yet I was still hopeful in some way. There’s always been something inside of me to remind me that even if I was feeling down on life, if I let myself process my sadness, eventually my hope would return. And it always has.

What brings each of us hope is as unique as we are. What’s most important is that we are committed to finding hope in our lives and sustaining it. I know I am.

Because They Said I Couldn't

Michelle Rusk

At Saturday’s soccer game, the district rival that Greg’s team will play next, girls all sat down next to me in the stands. The district championship will come down to this upcoming game and the girls made a few dissing comments about Greg’s team which obviously irritated me that they just assumed how good they are.

When I got home from that game, still irritated about what I heard, I began to ask myself why it irritated me so much. Greg’s team lost the game I had just come from and there had been a goal that had been pulled back which changed the outcome of the game. While Greg’s girls played well, something still ate at me and it took me a while to figure out what it was.

There have been many times in my life where people didn’t think I could accomplish something. While many more people in my life have been supportive, it’s hard not to focus on the ones who said I couldn’t– my ACT scores that predicted I would be an average collect student (a doctorate later who predicted that one I ask?), the sports journalism professor who laughed at me in front of the sports writing class when I said that I didn’t want to cover a team so much as I wanted to write stories about their motivations, and the continued rejections from a variety of things that I tried to do. Mix in the cross country coach my freshman year of high school who clearly stated I wouldn’t amount to much of a runner until I made varsity at the end of the season and proved him wrong.

That’s just it– if you tell me I can’t do it, I’ll work harder and I’ll get there. That was what annoyed me about seeing the team lose and then having to listen to the comments of the opposing team (and the called-back goal). In my world, I’d use that as fuel for the fire. While Greg’s girls didn’t know about the comments said about them, there clearly is a perception somewhere that I’d like to think isn’t true.

Inspiration and motivation are all around us. The question is if and how we choose to use it.

The Signs Around Us

Michelle Rusk

One of the greatest aspects about life is that we don’t know what’s around the corner. I say that in the most positive, glass half full way. Most days, life is fairly routine and, well, not very exciting. It’s up to us to find ways to keep it interesting. I’ve been working hard lately, but after several weeks of having a clear sense that I was moving forward, I suddenly felt like multiple aspects of my professional life had ground to a halt. It’s nothing bad, but just a general feeling that I was spinning my wheels

However, on Saturday morning in the midst of my morning prayer while I ran Lilly, asking for help to continue to forge forward, I looked down– and even in the darkness– saw a dime shining up at me. Just two days before I had found a penny at Target completing my “usual” dime-penny combination. After my dad died in 2006, I started to find pennies and other coins, something that had never happened before so I believe was a clear sign from him.

However, seemingly not be outdone, when I went for my run (without Lilly), "Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash began to play on my iPod Nano. This was my younger sister, one of two songs we loved to roller skate to (the other being “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar).

I laughed and thought– while also sort of putting out a dare– that Mom needed to appear as she usually does through “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison. There are several other songs, but both my sister Karen and I have had her come to us lately through this one.

I went on with my day and honestly forgot about the signs. I had plenty to do, but at church, late that afternoon, sometimes I cheat and look ahead to what song we’ll be singing after Julianne the keyboardist posts them on the digital board high in the church.

She had chosen, “On Eagles’s Wings” that day. Mom.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I might have a sense of Mom at church and that’s probably why it happened. The more I look, the less they are there, but then they surprise me. Especially when I need them but I’m not looking.

They are small signs, but they are just as important because they are just enough to keep me going in the dry spells. And they are reminders that everything I want is still to come on the path ahead. I just need to keep journeying forward.