Chelle Summer

journey

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.

 

Sitting In Darkness...With Others

Michelle Rusk
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I will be the first to say that I hate darkness. I believe darkness is important because we need to rest, living things needs to rest, and it reminds us how much we appreciate daylight. But I thrive in the daylight, in the sunshine, in seeing the sun come up over the mountains.

However, a long time ago I learned that you can't impose your light on someone else when they need to be in darkness. It's not that they are planning to stay there long– we should know this from our own experience when something happens to us– it's about processing through what has happened.

When someone dies, when we learn disappointing news, when we feel defeated by life, or whatever it is, sometimes we need to stand in the darkness and mull it over before we can move forward with the journey.

When it happens to someone else, we should remember the same. They will move forward but in that moment they don't need to be reminded of all that they know. They know it, they just need a few moments to rest where they are. Let them be there, sit with them, and remember just because you're in their darkness doesn't mean you have to be stuck there. You're there for someone you care about, your light is still with you.

Soon they will pick back up again and head towards the light, tired of darkness and ready to move on. Then you can remind them of all that they have and how much you appreciate the light.

When the Journey Isn't Clear

Michelle Rusk
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I have to laugh. I couldn't think of a topic for this week because my life is very quiet right now. I realize that isn't a bad thing but I'm a person who is used to many irons in the fire and running from place to place. I know this time is a gift to write and create– which is what I'm doing– but it seems like many times I have written over the years about what it's like to not feel as if the journey is completely clear.

I have been at many points in my life where I felt complete clarity of the journey but doing things like working on a degree or writing a book with someone else gives you smaller goals along the way because you're not on that journey alone.

This time is different though. After I finish this blog, I will go and write a few pages on a manuscript I've started and then I have a slew of aprons to finish that I had cut out some time ago. While a few of them are custom orders, most of them don't have "homes" yet (translation– they haven't been sold) and I don't know if any will when I post them later in the week. 

So it's a strange place to be– I am working hard, I am making things happen...but yet I don't know what the end result will be. However, I do believe I am on the right road, even if that road doesn't always feel so defined or that I'm following someone else's directions (like in the photo attached). 

Life usually isn't spelled out for us, especially when we choose undefined roads. And even though we aren't always sure how we'll get there, we know the journey will be worth it when we arrive.

Process and Journey

Michelle Rusk
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Greg will be the first to tell you that I'm about the destination, not the journey. I don't particularly like to go for a Sunday drive nor do I enjoy the scenic route hiking up a mountain. It's all about the end destination for me. 

And when I have a list of things I want to accomplish, it's not about the process there either. I'm more about seeing what I can accomplish in a time period. What most people don't understand is that I've had so much loss in my life that there isn't always a sense of tomorrow. For me, it's do it today because you don't know what tomorrow may bring. I've had too many days in my life where tomorrow ended up turning my life upside down because I was faced with a major challenge (or, like last week, a flat tire and my phone ceasing to work).

However, I can always look back and appreciate the process and the journey of how I've gotten to wherever I'm standing or what I've made/written. I can see that my writing has improved– and continues to do so– even as I'm frustrated trying to find an agent for my latest work. I see how easy it is for me to sit down at the sewing machine and whip out a handbag or a bucket bag after what is now about a year of making them (it's been nearly two years on the bucket bags). 

And then there are the process and journeys I sit in the midst of now– my continuous writing, the paintings in the photo above, and the stack of sewing projects I can't seem to complete with everything going on around me.

Some years ago I realized that  if I wanted to accomplish something far greater than simply doing my job each day, I would need to write/sew/create around my daily responsibilities. When you are trying to make life more than you have, sometimes it's hard to enjoy the journey because you know the destination is where you want to be. And the reality is that I've been working on one major goal since I was six years old– to be a bestselling author. At this point, it's not about the journey. It's about continuing to climb what feels like a steep hill to my destination.

I might not be about looking back until I get where I want to go, but I will when I get there. When I can rest because I have arrived.

A Look Back, A Look Forward

Michelle Rusk

It's hard not to think about college this time of year. Whenever I hit August, I am reminded of my "anniversary" of moving to Albuquerque in 1994. But this year it's also a little different. As I'm writing this, Greg's nephew Dean will be flying to Albuquerque tomorrow night and I'll be helping him to move into his dorm room on Wednesday so he can start school as an undergraduate next week here at the University of New Mexico. 

It's brought up a lot of reminders for me not just about when I moved to Albuquerque, but also my years at Ball State University in Indiana where I have my undergraduate degree from.

I didn't start at Ball State– from high school I entered what was then North Park College (now University) on the northside of Chicago to run cross country and track as well as study. I don't remember anything about moving in the dorms. My best guess is that because we had to arrive a week early to go to camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we must have stored our belongings somewhere and then moved into our dorms when we returned. 

Ball State I remember clearly, particularly my parents getting ready to drive away after my things were unloaded into my dorm room (there wasn't any such thing as orientation then– it was drop your kid off and let them figure it out!). 

As I think of Becky, putting her son on a plane tomorrow for Albuquerque from their Boston home, it's not like he's going just a few hours away. He's going almost the whole way across the country, excited to start a new adventure in a place he wants to get to know better.

And I think of my friend Janet who once told me that you don't raise your children to be like you, you raise them to be their own people, to be independent. And so you send them on their way.

While Becky is letting Dean go, for Greg and I, we get to enjoy time with him (I jokingly say until he makes friends and wants nothing to do with us), helping him to explore Albuquerque and New Mexico and build a new life around his next level of schooling.

When I came to New Mexico, I was twenty-two and I had just finished my bachelor's degree. And my sister Denise had died just eighteen months before. I didn't understand then how hard it must have been for my parents to let me go, to drop me and a UHaul full of items off into a studio apartment, and head home. There were no cell phones for us and it was because I moved away that my parents joined AOL so we could email at least, providing more contact than phone calls (which still weren't so inexpensive then). Obviously I managed to build a life here because, well, I'm still here.

But when I transferred to Ball State my sophomore year, I was lucky that a few weeks into the semester, I was sitting in the Newman Center Church, just off campus, when a woman and her middle-school son sat next to me. It wasn't long in that first conversation that Pat declared herself my adopted mom.

Pat had three daughters of her own– all in college or just beyond at that time– even one also named Michelle. She lived several miles from campus and I only had a bicycle, but she gave me a connection in the community, made me dinner, too me to dinner, gave me a family to spend Easter with when I didn't go home, and an attic to store my belongings when I went home for summer break. 

She's come to Albuquerque, I've been back to stay with her in Indiana multiple times, and when I married Greg two years ago she sent us a slew of Fiestaware off our registry (me forgetting how much she liked it) and I think of her every time I pull out the yellow pitcher for a dinner party.

While I made other connections throughout my three years there, Pat was a stable family presence, one that I relished while my own family was in Chicago, and especially after my sister died the next year. The photo here is of us and her son Tim taken in August 1992. My mom took the photo and somewhere I have one of Mom and I there in Pat's backyard, but I don't know where it was. 

As I look back now, I'm sure my parents appreciated Pat more than I will ever know. 

And as Dean arrives tomorrow night, I hope that I can return the favor of all that was given to me, twenty-some years ago.

 

The Push and Pull of Letting Go

Michelle Rusk

Letting go is one of my biggest challenges (along with being patient!). It's not just that I want things to happen, it's also that I'm willing to work to make them happen. And yet much of the time it's not on my schedule. I'm a doer, I'm not a person to step back and let things unfold in front of me. I try to do as much as I can to make the unfolding happen.

But reality (yep, there's that again) is that there is much that can't happen if I don't let it go. If I keep something at the forefront of my mind, if I continually thing about it, what I'm doing is holding it back because I can't let it go.

I don't want to let it go because that means– gasp!– I'm giving the control away. However, I can't count the number of times that I've forced myself to stop thinking about something, stop asking for it. And the minute I turn around, my mind and work elsewhere, it reappears.

When something we want- especially to accomplish- feels as if it's stagnant, somewhere we need to balance how much we work on it and the letting go of the rest. There is only so much I can do, and accepting that is hard for me because I want certain things (particularly in my professional life) to happen. But life is also about balance, especially balancing working hard and letting go of the rest. 

And the day I master that? I won't be the only one watching it unfold. Until then, back to balancing I go.

 

 

A Short Time on My Soapbox

Michelle Rusk

I spent the latter part of last week at the American Association of Suicidology conference in Phoenix, my first conference since I handed the presidential gavel off to Bill Schmitz four years ago. I try to fill my days with creating, whether it be through writing, sewing, or other like projects. However, in the recent weeks between multiple suicides at my high school and the uproar of the Netflix television series, "13 Reasons Why," I've tried to stay out of any discussions, believing my time is best spent continuing to throw inspiration out there rather than sitting here typing opinions.

However, I found my soapbox and today I'm offering a little bit of my perspective before I put the soapbox away again.

I haven't seen "13 Reasons Why" and nor do I plan to watch it or read the book. Instead, I'm offering my thoughts about what I believe is missing in our culture– a message that hasn't changed in the four years since I became a past president of the American Association of Suicidology.

We've spent a lot of time and energy looking into why people kill themselves. Yes, it's important, absolutely, but in that same time we still know much less about how people cope and how we can help them cope when they think that the only way to end their pain is to end their lives. What I have learned from the twenty-some years since my sister ended her life and I was forced to face intense grief for the first time in my life, is that no one grieves the same. I also believe that to be true when we are faced with challenges in our lives: we're all going to work toward finding hope in different ways because we are, well, different people. 

What I do believe is that we can do is help people find the start of the hopeful journeys. Give them ideas, help them begin to learn coping skills so that when life hands then a challenge, they know at least how to find hope. It might not feel like hope is there, but it is. Often it's just that the light is so dim we can't see it. We should allow them to express their pain, let them know that we know they are hurting. But then we should help lead them toward the light, even slowly.

We are all faced with challenges and difficulties, some of us seemingly more than others, but learning from them and using them as springboards for growth is what makes us stronger and helps us to someday look back at the road behind us, hands on our hips, and know that we have come a long way. And then continue forward on the road.

 

Easter Perspective

Michelle Rusk

I had taken some time on Saturday morning to photograph the dogs– Hattie and Lilly– for Easter. Neither one was happy with me (although after they ran off when I told them we were finished, Lilly hurriedly pushing the bunny ears off her head, they were easily swayed back into happiness with treats) and later I told Greg about how obvious it would be when I posted the photo on social media Sunday morning.

"No one is ever happy on Easter," he said. When gave him a funny look, he added, "Everyone is uptight about something."

Then I remembered the Easter Sundays of my childhood: we were always late for mass. I have no idea why and I never asked my mom when she was alive because she always got upset and accused me of thinking she wasn't a good enough mother. But the church filled up early and it meant we were left standing in the entry way listening to mass. For an hour. 

In that hour I had little understanding of what Easter meant. Yes, I'd taken religion classes growing up, but honestly it didn't mean a lot to me.

Then about six years ago, the same time I had returned to going to mass weekly, I found myself leaving Easter mass wanting to sing, feeling the happiness of coming out of darkness into the light. And each year since then, Easter has come to mean more to me.

I'm sure that I could argue that I'm older now and I "get" it more than I used to but I believe it's just a sense of having traveled multiple journeys of finding myself in darkness and having to seek out light. Each year Lent reminds me that there is hope, that we can get to the light, to the sunshine, that we don't need to be scared.

And a beautiful, cloudless sky– like we had in Albuquerque yesterday– doesn't hurt. 

A Reminder as the Lenten Journey Ends

Michelle Rusk

Sometimes I repeat myself in a blog. A year might go by but usually I find myself writing about something I had shared some aspect of in the past, mostly because I have realized something different about it. And I figure that if I am thinking about it, probably someone out there could use similar inspiration.

I still talk too much in my prayers.

I hadn't thought much about it in quite a while but suddenly at mass on Saturday I realized that I'm like a constant chatterbox when I pray. I'm that friend who gets you on the phone and you only have to say an occasional "Uh huh" (and you can probably put the phone down and make a sandwich without them knowing it) to keep up your end of the conversation.

Which makes me wonder if God is making sandwiches as I pray– or even keeping tabs on several prayers happening at the same time (more likely). 

The reality is that we were taught to say prayers, to ask for what we need/want/desire. There are unlimited numbers of prayer cards and prayers available to us. We were taught to memorize certain prayers growing up.

So how would we know the importance of silence during a prayer?

No one taught me that it's just as important to listen in our prayer as it is to ask. I'm too busy with my list that I forget to listen, too. And while I know that often the answers don't come during prayers, instead we usually find the answers present themselves to us at moments when we least expect them to. It can happen when we are in the middle of something unrelated (perhaps, cooking dinner) or when our minds have time to wander and we aren't thinking about anything in particular.

But if we don't listen– as difficult as that can be because our minds tend to wander when we "rest" during prayer– we'll never hear the answers. It might feel dry to listen during prayer, but remember that it's part of the give and take of the conversation. We don't give God a chance to give to us if all we do is keep asking.

 

When Things Fall Together

Michelle Rusk

I suck at golf.

Really, that's the best way to put it. And quite honestly, as much as I've dreamed about being someone who can magically glide across a dance floor without a lesson or play tennis so well that I could be a top player, the reality is far from that in everything that I do.

The only reason I can write well is because I've been at it since I was six years old and learned to write. I've talked before about the little books I started to create in first grade and the novel I began to write in high school (which still exists although not in any published form). And I read, read, and then I read more– because there is a correlation between reading and writing well. 

Running was much the same for me: I got somewhat good because I worked at it. And from running came a multitude of lessons, like how to set and achieve goals. Those I parlayed into everything else that I have achieved.

When I took up golf exactly five years ago, I knew it would be a challenge for me. I am especially not good at any sport that involves a ball (hence, why I ran). And it has been a challenge. Now, the reality is that golf is always a challenge. It's supposed to be that way because it's like the Great Pumpkin. We, like Linus, spend our entire lives hoping for perfection in hitting the ball while Linus is still waiting for the Great Pumpkin.

As I wrote recently, returning to the driving range was part of my Lenten journey– one of which I did have a priest's blessing to do because he understands the importance of taking care of our physical selves. Out to the driving range I went and purchased not the large bucket of balls, but instead the jumbo.

Crazy? Nope, not in the least. I knew I wouldn't get anywhere without practice.

But that's where a funny thing happened. I admit that sometimes I miss the ball. It's worse than hitting a bad ball, but it's always been a struggle for me to even catch what's thrown to me so this hasn't been a surprise in my mind. I'd rather hit something into the sand than not hit it at all. 

And yet when I went to hit that first day on the range this spring I felt when my stance was wrong and I would miss the balls. I can't fully explain it, yet something was different. It was as if something inside my mind– that bridges my mind with the movements of my body– finally made a connection five years later.

Then yesterday on another return to the range, I took some time on the putting green and felt the same exact feeling. Some little piece had fallen together. Two puzzle pieces finally found where they interlocked.

Greg and I were discussing on our way home from the range yesterday my challenge with the serger (a type of sewing machine that allows one to make factory-looking seams). I had been making a skort yesterday and it was taking forever because there is a learning curve to not just using it, but also threading it. He reminded me that eventually it will pay off, that it will be easier, that making a skort will be a piece of cake.

But for now it's like golf and everything else I've done: I keep at it even in the face of irritation when it's not going right.

And I'm sure it doesn't hurt that I made the driving range part of my Lenten journey: getting a little help from above is never a bad thing.

The Path to the Future Through the Past

Michelle Rusk

I don't believe my deceased family members could have been any closer to me than they were this weekend when I took a trip back to my hometown, Naperville, in the Chicago suburbs.

My friend Karen graciously co-hosted a Chelle Summer Open House with me at her house. We both invited our friends for a Sunday afternoon of prickly pear punch, sangria, carob cookies, and an overwhelming selection of Chelle Summer handbags that I had made. 

I found a penny the day before I left and then on my first morning in Naperville– on my run– I found a dime. My dad. Later that morning, a Cardinal kept flying around the backyard, another sure symbol of at least my dad. Some time after I graduated from college, every night a Cardinal flew into the garage and stayed there, my dad waiting to shut the garage door (after his last smoke of the evening) when the Cardinal he called, "Birdie" had arrived for the night. While I know people say Cardinals are signs of their loved ones, it's always had a slightly different meaning for me because of my dad and Birdie.

The signs continued Saturday with Mom's song "Every Rose Has a Thorn" by Poison appearing in a Facebook comment that morning and that afternoon when we sang, "On Eagle's Wings" at mass. It was like they were with me in every way but physically.

I was back in my old neighborhood staying some blocks from the house I grew up in and around the corner from the house I owned just a few years ago. I stay with people I call family, but I'll admit I feel slightly disconnected without my parents– or my sister– there.

And yet, although I only get "home" about once a year now, I still believe that it's important to remember where you're from to see where you go in the future. You must know who you came from, what has influenced you, and the path you took, to see the journey ahead.

There are some aspects of my life I'm not totally secure in for the future– I know what I want, but that journey isn't quite clear. And yet I know that by taking a step into the past somehow it's taking me several steps forward.