Chelle Summer

A Place for Longing

Michelle Rusk
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Sometimes we find that we long for a person, a place, another time. Or we might long to have a different job, a different experience. The list goes on. Then sometimes longing for whatever it is takes over our minds and we feel a sadness that we're not where we want to be, we're not with who want to be with, or we're not experiencing what we want to. 

What we often don't realize is that maybe that feeling of longing is a nudge to take our life in a different direction or to take it forward in another way. It's not meant to be something that stifles us and yet that's what it usually does.

Maybe we won't ever be with someone certain but instead it's the universe's way of saying, "Hey! Take this opportunity to make yourself the best that you can be. One day maybe that person will come into your life or maybe– just maybe– I have someone out there who is better for you!" 

If we long for something to be different in our lives, then how can we make that change? Breaking big goals into small goals will help us get there but there is always a place to make that first step. 

Longing doesn't have to be negative. We can use longing as a stepping stone to something new, to creating new opportunity in our lives. It's like longing is poking us to make change. We want to live happy, meaningful, productive lives. Every moment of our lives won't feel that way– that's reality– but there is often much we can do send it forth that way.

What would I say?

Michelle Rusk
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For the past few months I have been working on a project that takes place in the 1980s. While I'm not ready to reveal what it is that I'm doing, I somewhere stumbled on this photo of me taken in June 1986, when I finished eighth grade and prepared to start high school.

I originally had planned to simply post the photo partly because some people knew me in those days while other people have little idea of what my teen years were like. But in the time that the photo sat on my desk and I've been working on this project, it made wonder something, if I could go back and talk to the fourteen year old me, what would I say to her?

Many times I have heard people talk about how if they got a chance to go back in time all the advice they would give their younger selves to make life different, perhaps easier, perhaps more fun. 

I spent some days contemplating this and during that time I also began to think about how I might have lived those years and my college years differently. I can't remember exactly what I had been reading at the time but there was a part of me that maybe wondered if I hadn't accomplished enough or taken advantage of enough opportunities. 

This was the part where I had to shake my head and remind myself that– especially in light of my sister's suicide when I was twenty-one and in the midst of my college years– of everything I had done. I had taken just about every opportunity that either I sought out or had landed in my lap and run with it. Sure, I could have gone in different directions but it was just that, different directions. I doubt I would have accomplished more, instead just different things.

That's when I realized that I wouldn't tell the younger me in that photo anything. Yes, I can give you a laundry list of what I could have done differently, what I should have done differently, but I know that had I told her any of that, it would have meant she experienced life differently and that wouldn't put me in the place that I'm at now. It doesn't mean that her life would be any better or worse, just not the one that I'm reflecting on and living now.

At each day passing I find myself filled with an immense awareness of how my life has led me to where I stand now. While there are still never enough hours in the day for everything that I want to do, I can see that everything is as it's supposed to be, that I'm where I'm supposed to be in the journey. I just need to keep running with not just the oportunities that come my way but the thoughts and ideas that stream through me, too.

Forging Forward

Michelle Rusk
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It's hard to believe that it's July. While I am healing well from my surgery a month ago to remove my uterus because of fibroids, there's a part of me that feels like I lost an entire month. And yet I know that's not true but it's because I'm not where I had hoped to be as we traveled from June into July.

I felt as if most of June was spent just trying to keep on top of my life and there was very little room to move forward. There were days– because anesthesia and I aren't friends and clearly never will be– that I found myself overwhelmed at the idea of multitasking. I longed to feel normal again, to feel not just inspired (which isn't usually a problem) but to do something about feeling inspired. 

When I had the surgery, it was like I had hit the pause button on my life but what I realized a few weeks later when I began to feel the effects of anesthesia that I had to press pause again. The 4th of July is always a time when I think about what I haven't accomplished yet now that summer is already half over (after all, in my world, Greg will return to school and soccer as soon as August begins).

I've hit the play button again but I'm doing it with a gusto to put in the forefront of what's important to me to do before Labor Day comes running by and heads off into the sunset. It's not different than any other time of life. Time is fleeting, life is fleeting. We only get one shot. Take it and run with it.

I know I am.

Life Realities

Michelle Rusk
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While the suicide of Kate Spade hit me hard because she had been such a big inspiration in a very challenging point of my life (when I divorced and was redefining my life and where the new journey would take me), what doesn't surprise me is the seemingly befuddleness (if that's not a word, it is now) that I'm reading and hearing from people of the recent high-profile suicides. I could give a list of reasons why this doesn't surprise me (although frustrates me because I'm not seeing true change happen) but there are two major messages I've had on my soap box for several years now and they continue to fall on deaf ears. So here they are again.

It's okay to feel bad.

Life is hard. I'll be the first to admit that I learned a long time ago (even before my sister's death and probably from my dad) that life wouldn't be perfect or easy. I believe this came from his own struggle with finding happiness and peace. I'm sure there moments after drinking when this was said in sarcasm but I believe mostly he was saying, "Suck it up and keep moving forward. You won't be flying high on clouds daily." 

Most people have suicidal thoughts at one time or another. That doesn't mean they have any intention of killing themselves. It means that they used these thoughts as escapism. It means they had a bad day or a bad week or longer. It means a whole bunch of things. And instead of standing there in the darkness with them, allowing them to feel the pain wash over so it can go away (like a storm standing by that needs to drop rain before the sun can come back out), we tell them they have a great life and they have no reason to feel bad.

Let people feel bad. There are days when I say to Greg, "I don't feel so hopeful today." It happens occasionally and I find ways to work through it, but sometimes saying it Greg– or writing it in my journal– is enough to help the feelings dissipate and I can move on. I remember once that my high school journalism teacher had said of my sister Denise and I– she had Denise in English class– "The difference between you two is that when you have a bad day, you bounce back. She doesn't."

While I'm not saying this is a complete answer to more complicated issues around mental health, I wonder if maybe she didn't feel she had a place to express her feelings and I did. I was able to go forward while she stood there stuck in place. It might have been that everyone wanted her to feel good and tried to shower her with messages of love that she couldn't feel while I was in the corner writing all my crazy feelings into a journal and then running through them later that afternoon.

And that's the second point– when I was moving on from the field of suicidology I saw so much work in warning signs and so little on the reasons to live. I still believe we need to spend more time asking people what keeps them here and how can we help them reach inside themselves and find them and use them.

Late yesterday evening I was doing something in the kitchen when I heard the old tv show "The Jeffersons" on the tv in the next room. Quite honestly, I was enjoying seeing the clothes and furnishing of the mid-seventies. And the comfort of the thought of watching the show in another life (in syndication mostly, around dinnertime). I thought of Kate Spade who was not quite ten years older than me and I wondered about those things in her life that had brought her that kind of happiness to think about, the very things that I know she wasn't thinking about that morning two weeks ago when she died.

And then I wondered, where do dreams get lost? 

Kate Spade: The Initial Inspiration for Chelle Summer

Michelle Rusk
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Quite honestly, I'm not sure where to begin. Two of my worlds collided today with the suicide of Kate Spade.

What most people don't know is that I stopped buying Kate Spade products partly because she had sold the brand and each time Greg and I went into one of the stores on a trip, we agreed that things didn't look new and inviting.

However, there was a bigger reason than that: I had started to create my own brand, Chelle Summer. Initially I had wanted to call Chelle summer "Michelle L." and when the lawyers came back and told me that Fossil owned "Michele" with one L, they were clear that I could never win against such a large company. I was so disappointed that I had to come up with a new name but at some point I thought of Kate and how awkward it must have been (even though she had chosen to sell it) to see a brand with her name on it while she might not have always liked what the new brand had to offer. Chelle Summer was born and I quickly realized it was a better name than Michelle L., while also allowing somewhat of a separation from my own name.

When I look back on the time when I purchased my first Kate bag (in this photo), I was facing many challenges of my own trying to move forward after a divorce and two moves across the country. What I didn't see then was that in looking at what the brand offered and her style of which I had been aware of for so long (but couldn't afford to buy), I was slowly realizing what I would want my own brand to be. Kate was the initial inspiration for Chelle Summer (with Trina Turk taking the lead later). Kate made me feel that I didn't have to settle for what I saw in the marketplace, that I could create my own items and I also could choose to wear bold prints and colors.

I obviously don't know what led her to take her own life, but with vast experience in suicide over the past twenty-five years I know that there is never just one answer. It was probably a combination of events and thoughts that made her believe ending her life was her only way to find peace. The irony of this is that early this morning on my walk as I was contemplating my own life journey that's following my surgery this past Friday, I realized that for a period of time I'm not going to find peace as much as I would like to. I'm working to embrace some challenges ahead of me (mostly writing related) to fulfill the prayer to God that I've been asking to help me go forward and be the person I'm supposed to be.

I also understand how as a creative person it can be challenging because you're in your own world where sometimes you can think too much. It's why I work hard to balance my life of running/walking early in the mornings where I have several people that I chat with and why I host so many pool and dinner parties. Those keep me balanced while also allowing me to have that time create and be alone in my thoughts.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around her suicide. That's the honest answer. But I also know that life is hard and overwhelming at times. That's also one of the one reasons I post so many blogs and photos about moving forward. I see it that if I have something in my life that helps me go forward, maybe it can help someone else, too.

Surgery in the Rearview Mirror: Reconciling Who I am Supposed to Be

Michelle Rusk
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Three years ago I was supposed to have ablation (where the uterus lining is burned out) which meant any inkling of having kids was over. However, because there was a golf-ball sized fibroid in my uterus that didn't show up on the ultrasound and because the sodium levels in my body were rising too high after the large fibroid was removed, my doctor didn't have enough time for the ablation. However, he believed that was causing most of my problems so I went on with my life with few problems, happy that I had taken care of it.

This past January I knew something had changed and we gave it a few months to see if it was a freak thing or not. An ultrasound in late April proved it wasn't– two golf-ball sized fibroids this time. My choices were to do nothing or to have my uterus removed. Because then it made sense that I was always running to the bathroom (the fibroids were pushing on my bladder), I opted to have the uterus removed this past Friday. It turned out I made the right decision because my uterus was full of fibroids and my doctor told me that once he saw all the fibroids in my uterus that it explained all my symptoms. 

But this surgery wasn't just about the physical problems I was having. I found out on a Saturday evening what my options were and on Sunday morning I was driving to early mass when I asked God to please help me learn what I'm supposed to from this experience (a blog I had recently written about) so I could move on from it.

To say that it's been a crazy journey is an understatement. 

I never had children– by choice because of certain things in my life, one being that I believe children deserve a lot of time and with the goals and dreams I have, I didn't believe I could give them that. I also was married before and because we divorced and a slew of other things had happened, it wouldn't have been a good situation if we'd had kids. I've had a parade of children come through my life but they never stay for any length of time. I seem to be just part of their journey for a short period and then they can go on. 

I know many women who had their uteruses removed but they all had had children while I was only birthing books, my goal and dream since I was six years old. There has been a lot of sadness over this but deep down I never really saw myself having kids. And yet now part of this journey is completely letting aspect go of that aspect of my life. Yet another loss for me to find hope.

Finally, my parents died when I was 35 and 43 and because they were older when they had my younger sister and I, I'm not willing to take the chance of not being around later as I sometimes feel parentless now (I have lots of "second parents" but we all know it's not the same without our "real" parents). I know they are with me although in a different way.

My life has been filled with loss and I realized that the way children have come through my life is much like life was in Naperville growing up. It was a very corporate transient town and I made friends only to have them move away four years later. It's a lot of work for me to keep grasping hope in the face of loss but that's why I choose to do work that makes me happy– creating through many avenues.

But there was another huge factor to this that most people don't know– I was deathly scared of spending the night in a hospital. I had successfully managed to avoid that since I was three and had a traumatic experience having my right eye muscle tightened. Several months ago I found my baby book where my mom had written it was traumatic for me and that I'd been allergic to the anesthesia (which then also explained why I had a rash after my surgery three years ago). Today there is no one to ask about the surgery because everyone involved (my parents, the doctor, my grandfather who was a charter doctor at that hospital) have died. Once more I had find my way through a maze of questions knowing I'll never really get the answers.

I can't explain how rattled the idea of having surgery and this time spending the night in the hospital left me. I felt as if I were facing one of my greatest fears in life. Somehow I did it but it didn't come without feeling constantly wound up and more tears than I would like to admit to. 

And yet something else came to play in this journey– my writing. I wrote 100 pages in May and I have finished the rough draft of a manuscript. So while there were times when I couldn't stop thinking about things like catheters and the fear of more surprises from my uterus as has happened before, I somehow managed to refocus myself to write 100 pages (and recover fourteen patio cushions). 

This current writing doesn't relate to what I was going through; it was all sorts of creative stuff for my manuscripts (yes, there is more than one) but it felt that because I had left that door open of asking to be open, God could let the writing through. In the face of my fear, it didn't paralyze me, instead it helped me push forward because I also hope that now that I have completely shut the door on having children, a new door will open, one that's been waiting for that to happen.

I believe everything happens to us for a reason– it's one huge way that allows me to go forward in the face of loss and change– and we are put right where we're supposed to be even though much of what happens to us doesn't make sense at the time it happens. I believe this is just one part of the journey that helps me continue traveling on this road of who I'm supposed to be.

Clinging to Hope

Michelle Rusk
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It's easy to feel hopeless but I believe that when we do, it's because we've fallen away from what matters most to us.

There is a fire inside of all of us, although sometimes it only feels like an ember, barely lit. It's up to us to find out how to make it burn brighter.

Some days it's easier than others and part of the reason much of what you see me post on social media is what I create is because that is one of my symbols of hope. Being creative makes me happy. Just as writing does and hosting a party.

While I had planned to write this blog before our party today, after it was over I was thinking how helpful it was to be taken out of my head. It's easy for me to think too much and doing something for others (even opening up my home and making everyone ice cream) and spending time my friends reminds me to be in the moment and just enjoy laughter and good conversation. 

A good ice cream cone doesn't hurt either.

Hitting the Reset Button

Michelle Rusk
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This weekend is Memorial Day, the official kickoff for summer. And also the time we plan everything that we're going to do this summer. However, what usually happens come Labor Day– the end of summer and start of fall? Often we find ourselves looking back on summer and wondering, "Wait, I had all these things I was going to do! What happened?"

The end of May is the perfect time to hit the reset button, both on what we had hoped to do this year but also what we want to do this summer.

Have we made headway on those goals we planted the seeds of back in January? If not, it's the perfect time to rethink them and maybe tweak them so that we're more likely to accomplish them. If the goal was too big and we easily felt lost and gave up, how do we break the goal down into smaller pieces to make it more manageable?

And if we have made strides in accomplishing our goal (or goals!), what do we want to accomplish next? How do we keep ourselves interested to keep moving forward? What new goals can we set?

Many people see summer as a time to slow the pace down– and that might be our goal for the summer– reading more, spending more time with our families, doing more creative activities.

Whatever you do this weekend, take a little time to reflect on where you're at and where you want to go this year. The start of summer is the perfect opportunity– and a three-day weekend!– to step back and make sure you don't reach Labor Day wondering where summer went. And everything you wanted to accomplish with it.

Changing the Question

Michelle Rusk
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Why? Why? Why?

I have spent quite a bit of my life asking that question probably about everything challenging that's happened to me. And quite honestly it's never gotten me very far other than being a way to set loose my frustration over various events and issues that I've had no control over (other than my own reaction).

Finally, I've come to realize that while I understand the importance of asking the "why" question– especially when you've been faced with a traumatic loss such as a suicide, it's part of the grief journey– I do believe there comes a point that we need to stop asking it.

I will always say that when something happens to you, you need to let all the emotions erupt. Let them flow much like a volcano, otherwise they get tangled inside you and they'll manifest in some other way (usually as a physical illness). It's also part of traveling the full journey of life events, we experience the good, the bad, and the otherwise.

However, asking "why" only gets you so far and it does little propel you forward past the event . Finally, I realized that I needed to start asking, "What do I need to learn from this so I can move forward and past what has happened?"

We might not get the answer the first time we ask– especially because we might think we're listening but really we still caught up in frustration of what's happening– yet we should keep asking because eventually the answers will be there.

Remember, they might not be obvious, they especially might not be what you think they will be. But the answers will come if you keep focused on moving forward. After all, life is one big journey made up of small journeys and it's in those small journeys that we form the building blocks that make us stronger and make life more meaningful.

If we ask the right question. And listen.

Letters to God

Michelle Rusk
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The stack in the photo is my life from 1986 until almost today (the past few days are in a brand new notebook that I forgot to include). I started journaling as a requirement in eighth grade English and I continued doing it that summer in the top book– bound by my Grandpa Linn who worked for the University of Chicago Press. After that, I always used leftover notebooks from classes.

I wrote daily for years and at some point it dropped off although recently I picked it back up because I was reminded that once I heard that all my writings are prayers to God. It makes sense to me part of the reason I wrote on my journal was to use it as a sounding board to let go of something. In my life I have found that writing is form of finding my way through something.  I just never realized that by putting it on paper I also was giving God a chance to see it as well.

I don't often reread what I wrote unless I want to see my reflections on a certain life event. And some days I write just a few lines, maybe about something in particular that is challenging me, or something with which I need help. Whatever it is, it's no different for me than actually being in a traditional form of prayer. But as someone who has loved to write since I learned to write, it now seems logical that even though I didn't feel close to God particularly for the first half of my life, I actually was writing to him all along.

And I as I continue to journey forward in my life, I see where and how he continues to respond, sometimes in my writing, too.

 

Choosing What to Share

Michelle Rusk
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I spent a good part of yesterday working on two paintings (when I wasn't folding laundry and that I did because Greg was gratefully painting the trim on the outside of the house so I didn't think it was fair that he did that and fold the laundry). At some point I took a break from painting and I picked up my phone to check social media. But before I hit the button to take it out of sleep mode, I looked at the phone, wondered if I really needed to look at anything, and ended up putting it back on the counter where I had left it previously. Then I returned to my painting.

I am the first to admit that social media has played a huge part of taking my messages forward, particularly in my days working to help the suicide bereaved. I realize that if you lost someone to suicide today, you will have a drastically different experience than me because you can easily connect to people via the internet whereas it took me years to find other bereaved siblings. And now my messages have changed to sharing how I've moved forward through my losses by using my creativity, at least the visually creative aspects of my life (sewing, painting, cooking, etc).

However, I also know there is a line for me of what I choose to share, when I choose to share it, and how much time I spend looking at it.

While it might seem that what I create visually is how I spend the bulk of my time, the reality is that my writing is still what's most important to me. It obviously takes longer for me to share that so in the meantime (as I wrote about balancing goals last week), I share the visually creative items. I also found out in my early Facebook years that if I shared what I was writing, I never finished it.

I stopped talking about my writing because I realized it was something I have to keep to myself until it's completed. Most people in my daily circle of life don't know what I'm working on for the same reason. And yet there are many times I so badly want to share things but I know the time isn't right so I let it go (and probably post a photo of Lilly instead!).

When I went for my last spiritual direction visit with Fr. Gene, at the Norbertine Abbey here, one of things I told him was how I find that I'm not supposed to always share the journey that I'm on, that instead I'm supposed to wait until it's over when I can look back at the road and reflect more on it. It's only then that I can see what it is about my journey that would be most meaningful for others to read about.

And in that same vein, the Wall Street Journal recently published an article about letter writing. One line stood out for me where the woman said that even though we seemingly share more of our lives by constantly posting on social media, we aren't really sharing of ourselves like we did writing letters.

Writing letters was one way that I honed my writing skills early and now I'm finding that as I've pulled back in sharing some aspects of my journey, they are instead finding places in my manuscripts. Once again, it's about balance and deciding what I should share now and what I should save for later, to be shared in another way as part of a bigger project.

Big goals, little goals, keeping them all in check

Michelle Rusk
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I don't talk about it much on social media but I spend part of each of my work days writing. That might be actually writing, revising, reading, researching, or some other aspect that goes into creating a novel. It all ebbs and flows based on what I need to do.

I have given myself this year (2018) to focus on not just Chelle Summer but also the writing part of me. However, writing isn't really something that transforms well into social media photos so most of what you see if related to the visual creative side to me, Chelle Summer.

Last week was a challenging week and I had a really hard time getting much accomplished. Now Greg will tell you that I do more before 7:00 am than most people do in a day but, to me, there is always more I want to do. Part of that stems from the losses in my life and the sense that none of us are promised anything, that life can change in many ways in an instant and we better make the most of the day ahead of us.

While last week I was able to keep up with things, meaning keeping the desk clean, email caught up on, and the house vacuumed, there wasn't much happening on the creative side. By the end of the week I was feeling a little depressed. Until I tried a new recipe for Rice Krispie treats on Thursday.

And when I did that, I was reminded that when you are working on big goals, the kind that might not manifest for a least months if not years, it's important to balance that with smaller goals, giving you a sense of accomplishment in the meantime.

So as I continue to mold manuscripts (yes, there is more than one) like a piece of clay, I sometimes need to remind myself that I also need to do smaller creative endeavors that move quickly and let me stand back and have that sense of accomplishment while I'm working on something bigger.

On Sunday I purposely chose two items that I knew I could finish in a day (a painting I had started and two pillows I was making) so that I could walk into a new week feeling that I was already on my way to a much more productive time.

It worked.

What inspires you?

Michelle Rusk
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When I was in elementary school, I had a Raggedy Ann bulletin board and I used to tack on it that were meaningful to me. In high school, my cross country and track friends and I used to decorate our athletic lockers with inspirational sayings and photos we would cut out  of magazines. At home I took this to another level and used long sheets of used computer programming pages that my sister Karen brought home from college and made floor to ceiling collages, like extended versions of what was in my athletic locker at school.

I continued this theme into college and beyond, always having some sort of bulletin board to hang various items that inspired me. But when I started to create Chelle Summer, my lifestyle brand, I suddenly found I had torn pages from everywhere and nowhere to put them. 

I bought the biggest bulletin board I've ever owned and started to tack what inspires me there. While it might just be a small details in a photo, this why at least I won't forget that small detail.

I believe that surrounding myself with what inspires me is what keeps me going no matter the worries swirling around in my head and a reminder that no matter what happens to me, I need to stay the course and keep focused on moving forward. It distracts me from anything that might keep me from my goals from the day or creating/writing.

The items on the bulletin board are a reminder of what I've spent time collecting to keep myself inspired. I like to think of it as an investment of myself. And what I eventually share with the world.

Forgiveness and Sending Love

Michelle Rusk
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One disappointment we often face in life is the reality that some people we feel close to or cherish aren't supposed to remain in our lives. There are a variety of reasons why it happens but the reality is that it doesn't matter. What does matter is how you move forward without the people with whom you believed you were supposed to travel with through life. If it feels painful to think about them, then send them love.

Yes, that's exactly what I wrote– you saw right. Send them love.

That may feel counterintuitive when you feel so much pain (after all, it is a loss to your life) but you'll be surprised at how much better you feel because you sent them love. 

And if this is someone who hurt you– yet you can't seem to let go of them despite all that hurt they caused– sending love is better than hanging on by continuing to contact them when they don't want to talk to you. Or when they cause you pain each time time you talk to them. 

Finally, sending them love doesn't mean you forgive them for how they treated you or ended a relationship or whatever the story may be. Forgiveness is about freeing our own hearts to move forward. We don't control what others do, just what we do.

So next time thinking of someone brings you pain, no matter what the reasons are for that, send them love. And free yourself to move forward. 

100 Pages for Lent

Michelle Rusk
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I believe that Lent is about finding a way to make yourself better, to do something that challenges you to work on growing closer to God. 

It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to this year. In fact, Lent had already started and I still wasn't sure what I was going to do. But then through a series of thoughts and writing, I realized what I wanted to challenge myself to do was write 100 pages in March.

It meant five pages a day during the week when I typically do three with several days off during the month to accommodate life events and schedule changes. It also meant doubling the 50 pages I usually write in a month.

But I believed that it would draw me closer to God because it would bring me the stories I'm supposed to write.

I won't say it was easy– it wasn't supposed to be– and there were days I had to focus harder than usual, or let go of other things I wanted to do, to make sure I had the time to write. Several days I wrote ten pages to make up for other days when I knew things were coming (or didn't know in the case of getting call to do television extra work– it helped that I'd gotten ahead the day before shooting!). 

There was an incredible amount of accomplishment each day that I forged forward toward my goal and also that the creativity kept coming. I didn't lack for material write which helped. And reaching 100 pages felt like a milestone– probably only the second time I've accomplished this in a month.

Finally, it gave me the sense that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and as I said in my blog two weeks ago, there's thought that keeps coming to me–

"Keep writing and you'll get where you want to go."

I'm now 100 pages closer to that goal thanks to Lent. 

The Rearview Mirror: Twenty-Five Years Later

Michelle Rusk
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I wasn't going to write about the twenty-fifth anniversary of my sister Denise's suicide (which was Sunday) mostly because I don't feel the need to acknowledge it. But a funny thing happened yesterday and it made me realize that passing the anniversary of her death is so much like much of what else I experience in life: I'm not supposed to write or talk about while I'm going through something but rather after it happens. The writing and sharing for me comes at a different point of the journey rather than in the midst of it. 

While there is always much anticipation with the anniversary of a death, I wasn't feeling that at all. All I could think was how I couldn't believe twenty-five years have gone by. I know a lot has happened, it just doesn't feel possible that we have reached such a milestone. And it is a milestone because I realize many people out there who have experienced a suicide, especially recently, are thinking, "Will I ever get there? My pain feels so unbearable right now I can barely think about the next minute."

And that's where this post comes from because yesterday morning I got up and went for a run with my dog Lilly and it wasn't until about halfway through it that I remembered what day it was. As Lilly and I kept running (up a large, imposing hill, I might add), I also realized that Denise's suicide is separated from the life she lived. While there was a time when her suicide was at the forefront of my mind or even my thoughts of her, it's no longer there because when I think of Denise, I think of everything we shared together. And those shared life experiences are where I focus my life today: writing, creating, sewing. 

Then during my run, I heard one of three songs that I believe Denise sends to me– "Harden My Heart" by Quarterflash. Laugh all you want but this one brings back happy memories of roller skating in the basement of our house on cold, snowy Midwestern days when we couldn't do it outside. Instead, we'd skate circles upon circles across the concrete floor while listening to the radio.

Sunday was a good day, I got a lot done, there were some good basketball games from the NCAA Tournament playing in the background. And somewhere along the line a mantra stuck in my mind:

"Keep writing and you'll get where you want to go."

A message from my sister on the anniversary of the day she might have ended her life, but on a day that reminds me how meaningful she was and still remains to my life. And how much hope I have for the future.

 

Questioning Faith

Michelle Rusk
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Recently I had my monthly spiritual direction visit with a priest here, Fr. Gene, and one of the things he happened to say was how he has come to understand questioning faith is part of the faith journey.

It took me a moment to absorb what he had said because it was the first time I could truly admit how much I doubted faith for so long.

Growing up, it was expected that we would go to CCD class, make our first communions, and then we could stop once we were confirmed. But I can now freely admit that all these years– and throughout high school after my confirmation– I doubted the existence of God. However, my mom had such steadfast faith that I never felt I could say I didn't believe. I knew I was expected to and kept it to myself.

It wasn't until my first relationship break up in college that I had to figure out where to lean for support and I started to attend church. Reflecting back, I now see that Mom set in place a coping mechanism for us by making us complete all our sacraments. Maybe I didn't need spirituality (my chosen word for it– I see religion as more meditative and choose to use the tradition aspect of it that way) then but it was there when I needed it.

And when my younger sister died two years later, I had a church community to fall back on because I was attending church fairly regularly at that point.

I believe that things unfold the way they do for a reason and that had I learned the lessons I wish had been taught to me (especially about letting go of my worries and giving them to God/the universe), my life journey wouldn't be where it's supposed to be today. A good example of it is writing this blog at this particular time. The whole idea probably never would have occurred to me had I never doubted my faith.

However, I also see that I was questioning my faith early in life when some people might be faced with the same questions later in their years. But as they were early for me, it's allowed me to explore and do other things I might not have been able to without the previous journey.

Our life journeys aren't interstate highways that often stretch for miles in what looks like a straight line (like through Western Oklahoma or any of the other Great Plains states!). Often we can't see where we are going which can be frustrating but that's the key part to trusting the journey.

I can't say that every day I am filled with complete faith but I understand the importance of trusting the journey, the universe, God. There is only so much I can do and life has taught me that by letting go of what I can't control and keeping my focus in the here and now and what's right in front of me, makes all the difference in the world to my outlook on life.

The Hobbler

Michelle Rusk
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No one ever could have predicted that I would become a runner. While I was all legs growing up, I wasn't fast (and in those days it was more important to be fast than to have any endurance) and I was always picked near the end for any sort of team game.

But by high school, running took over my life and during my freshman year I paid a price for it with a stress fracture in my right foot. It was a challenging time of my life for many reasons but I bring this up because in January I once again hurt my knee and something from thirty years ago kept coming back to me. 

A year and a half ago, Lilly and I had an accident on the landing of the stairwell in the house. She was flying down the stairs, I was heading up the stairs and we collided– her head to my knee. While nothing hurt immediately the next day I couldn't run. And I didn't run for about two months.  But somehow I survived and all was well. 

Until January. 

I have no idea what happened but somehow I hurt my knee again, this time with no collision. My Chinese doctor cupped it and said it appear to be an old injury because there was no energy to pull out of it. 

Back to walking I went.

This was where my fifteen year old memory returned. With the foot injury, I wasn't walking really well (which led to a compensation injury in my hip) and I remember someone saying to me, "You shouldn't be running if you can't walk."

And it was my friend Art who told me of some advice he found in a magazine a long time ago: that if we aren't professional athletes, we'll have a lot more days of exercising ahead of us. Because of that, we should take the time to let ourselves heal.

So I did. I walked and iced and walked and iced. Finally I wasn't hobbling around anymore, back to walking like my normal self. I started to run a bit. And slowly but surely I'm amping it back up.

I often talk about how one of my biggest challenges is realizing that the world won't end tomorrow, that there will be enough time to do everything. And the same goes for running– I worry that one day I won't be able to run anymore so it's like I want to get as much in now as I can.

However, I have to slow down and remind myself. All is well. I'm right where I'm supposed to be. And once I do that, I can relax. Which probably also helps me heal quicker, too.

 

Balancing Social Media

Michelle Rusk
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Some years ago, I remember reading an article by Martha Stewart on how to manage the time one spends looking at email. Her suggestion was that you took certain times of day to look at it and stuck to those so it didn't interfere with other aspects of your life.

Obviously this was before smart phones and social media seemingly took over the time we spend engaged with the technology in our lives (and today most of my email is comprised of "commercials" rather than much that needs responding). 

However, it does still hold true with social media and because of the possible negative effects that social media can have on our mental health, it's even more important that we find a schedule that works best for us and stick to it as much as possible. 

While I seemingly have a big social media presence because of the work that I do– selling books and products I make– I don't spend as much time on social media as one might think. At some point in the last year when my job was turning to part time and I didn't have to be glued to my laptop or phone checking emails, I realized that also meant I needed to back off on the time I spent looking at social media. In my world, 2018 is my "year of creating" and if I'm keeping one eye on social media, it severely cuts into my creative time.

Because I've had much loss in my life and sometimes I get frustrated that professionally I am not totally where I'd like to be, I also found that I couldn't spend so much time looking at what other people were doing. It is much like what I learned from running competitively– it's you against the clock, not you against everyone else. I have to remind myself of that often so I stay focused on what I'm doing and not worry myself over what others have/are doing and I don't. (I know that I have a great life but the reality is that we can't have everything and I've had to make choices along the way as well as some choices that have been made for me and sometimes there is a little sadness that there isn't a place in my life for everything.)

In the mornings I post– and I do the social media for my church so some days there is an added step– and I'm a little more lenient with myself as I settle in catching up on a variety of things because I start writing or head out for errands (yes, estate sales, too). But by late morning I really try to limit my social media check in as little as possible and take as much time as I can through late afternoon to write, sew, and other creative pursuits. 

I also know that there are days where my brain turns off and it needs a water cooler break so in the evenings I might check in more often but I'm trying to do a better job of putting the phone down and instead picking up a magazine or book. And I remind myself that if I look at social media too much one day– as I wrote a few weeks ago regarding anything we set out to do and don't seemingly accomplish– I can always start over fresh the following day.

It's easy to let it take over our lives, however, like anything else there is a balance to it. For each of us that will be different and the key is finding what works for each of us. There are benefits to social media– I get to be in contact with people with whom otherwise I wouldn't be and it has helped me reach many suicide bereaved people as well as share what I create and find. 

The key is that I have to walk away to create more to have more to share. That's what I remind myself when I habitually pick up my phone in a quiet moment and then reach for a magazine or book instead.

The Building Blocks of Coping Skills

Michelle Rusk
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In the last week, I received several messages from friends who were in some way affected by a recent teen suicide and/or attempt. In November I spoke with a reporter The Naperville Sun– the very newspaper for which I wrote a column on good causes several years ago while I was living in my hometown for a short time.

I'm not going into specifics but there have been multiple suicides at my high school over the last year and much as been said about the concern that the students are feeling too much pressure to succeed and feel unable to live up to that.

In the article above (which was then reprinted in the Chicago Tribune a few days before Christmas) I gave my opinions as someone who grew up in Naperville and whose younger sister died in the same town. In my first book about sibling suicide I cited the environment as what I have always believed to be a factor in my sister's death: the pressure wasn't something she coped with well.

Denise and I were two very different beings, beyond the fact that I had blonde hair and she had brown hair (and that by the time I graduated from high school– which was the end of her freshman year– she also was taller than me). I won't say that I did well under pressure because all the pressure came from myself which is another story for another day. But I thrived in the busy environment of having multiple tasks to complete– school, running, writing and editing the school newspaper. I was involved with the activities that interested me and I believed were important to creating the life that I wanted to have.

But this isn't just about Naperville. Our suicide numbers are up. Way up. We have more resources, we have better medications, we have more crisis lines. And yet we are losing more people to suicide.

So once again I'm hopping back on my soap box.

There's a long list I could go down of which I still believe coping skills are missing from the diets of many young people. Couple that with social media and either a self-indulgence of oneself or the feeling of inferiority that one isn't good enough next to what others' lives appear to be. And don't forget to sprinkle in the lack of personal communication– texting has replaced actually sitting down and having a conversation with the people around us. 

My husband who is a high school teacher and coach and I had a conversation last week and he said, "It's not just coping skills but building on coping with challenging situations." 

Something challenging happens in our lives, especially early like maybe we fall off the bike before we finally actually are able to ride it successfully. Learning to do things and learning how to cope with disappointments (we didn't win the essay contest we thought we had surely nailed), help us the next time we are faced with something especially as they get seemingly bigger and more integral to our lives.

I have often said that high school running taught me much about how cope with disappointment. That pressure I put on myself that I mentioned earlier caused a lot of disappointment early in my life. Now that I'm older (and hopefully wiser) I can see how I have used those disappointments as building blocks to each experience I've been faced with since then. 

However, I should also add that my parents allowed me to make mistakes. They didn't run off to the school and fix everything. In fact, they fixed nothing. I would have been embarrassed if they went to the school to complain about a teacher or situation. That was up to me to figure out.

Finally, it's why my social media is filled with what I create, what inspires me, what makes me happy. Many days can be challenges for a variety of reasons (as I type this I have a bag of frozen popcorn resting a hurt knee– I haven't been able to run much in the past three weeks– one of my seemingly life-sustaining activities). 

As I said in the interview, life is hard but it's also great. We have many opportunities and we never know what's around the corner which is every reason why we should hold on for tomorrow. And we all have an obligation not to just to learn that for ourselves but to pass on what we've learned to others particularly people younger than us. That in turn gives us purpose.