On My Journey Through Darkness

I recently reread a short essay by Maureen Watson (2015) titled: Treasures in Darkness: Loving the Questions.  In the essay, Watson speaks about what it feels like to live in the darkness. A year ago I was in a dark place, and although I had good reason to be there, it was torture. Parker Palmer’s metaphor of winter also speaks to where I was at the time. It was cold and it felt like the wind was blowing hard as I stood on a flat plain all alone in the dark of night.  1488905_10102331116884928_919608754_n

My choice to phrase the above paragraph in the manner that I did was intentional, and does mean that I’m no longer solely in that place. I don’t want it to be heard that I’ve somehow done a 180, but I have made progress. And I can see the progress. All of this I share because recently I’ve been thinking about how I once had a counselor who asked me if it was okay to revisit experiences that I thought I had worked through.  I was in a very stubborn place and was sharing with her that I refused to consider the past…I just wanted to be fixed even though I knew that she wasn’t going to tell me how I could be fixed. She pointed out that despite working through something in the past, I had since had more experiences that might lead me to see my past experiences differently, and she asked me if I thought that was possible.  Her question stayed with me, and is often something I still consider.

All of these thoughts combined with a passage I was recently reminded of in my Introduction to College Student Personnel course:

“Personnel workers see the person–at whatever age–not as a single moment independent of the past and the future, but as a transition point in a stream of experience that goes back to infancy and will continue on into the future” (Lloyd-Jones, 1954).

And the combination of these thoughts with current events such as the shooting of Keith Scott, the homelessness of the Syrian Refugees, the Native American tribal land protest, and the weekly interactions I have with first generation students place my mind in a spot where I can’t imagine how we could ever feel settled in higher education.  Yet, feeling settled is often what I believe we desire.  I know that I’ve desperately wanted to feel the security of having settled over the past year and a half–the safety that I can count on at least one piece of knowledge and believe it to be true.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel comfort in spite of today’s current events instead of only frustration and darkness?

It is in these moments of desiring comfort and stability, however, that I can see that I’ve managed to get through the dark place I was in and find a bit more light by going one step at a time.  And this time, I deeply value the light rather than taking it for granted.  In other words, now that I am able to see how far I have come, I find that I want to make sure that I am always a bit uncomfortable, and in many ways I hope that we all are a bit uncomfortable. For it is in that spot, that I believe we discover the most about ourselves.

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Another School Year Started

I took a break from personally blogging this summer, and need to get back into the swing of doing it at least once a month. For these reasons, I thought I would post about my summer and the beginning of the school year.

For starters, the first week of the new school year is over.  Woo hoo, 🙂 I did it!  I will say that I notice my energy went up over the summer, which is exciting.  Still, I am quite exhausted in the evenings and have spent a good bit of time sleeping this weekend.

I am still going to physical therapy at the local hospital to work on my continued recovery.  Yes, this means that I’m continuing to also improve physically too.  I do still have foot drop, but I have become much stronger, the spasticity has decreased, and I can walk faster.  One of my goals is to be able to run, and I am happy to say that I got to a speed of 3.5 on the treadmill (which is the lowest speed for running), and I can do that for just over 3 minutes.  Yes, to do this I wear a harness that is attached to the ceiling in case I fall, but I can still do it!

This summer I worked again on the book I’m writing about my January 2015 life explosion (as I now call it). I finished another draft of it in early August, and am having someone edit it for me now. I actually think it isn’t too bad, and might possibly be something folks want to read. I’ve kept it focused on the patient perspective of everything I’ve been through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it is worthwhile.

Third, I did get to go to my favorite place, Lake Vermilion, MN, this summer for two weeks. This year I had a chance to spend time with family, and I swam in the lake. I tried out a pool later in the summer too. FYI, swimming is very hard, but also very enjoyable. A special moment was when my niece taught me to do all of the swimming moves she learned from her swim instructor when I told her that I was afraid to swim. Like a good student, I listened to her instructions.

I also taught a summer course, which was quite enjoyable, and I prepared for my fall semester courses.  Now that I have a better understanding of my disabilities, I was able to be more strategic in my planning.  All of this is to say that I feel as though I’m both improving and adjusting…hopefully the first year back was the hardest for this “new” body I inhabit.

It was great to see the students both in classes this week, as well as those in the Western 1st Generation Society (W1Gs) group.  I am very excited to say that all of the students in the group came back to WIU this fall, and are prepared for the Activities Fair next week.  I anticipate it will be a great year thanks to all of them too!

Finally, no great year would be complete without a new dog.  He is a 5 year old PomChi mix that we adopted from the McDonough County Animal Shelter.  I know that not everyone is a dog person, but it is pretty awesome to have something SO EXCITED to great me each time I come home.  Dogs are the best! 🙂

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Are Our Inclusive Communities for Those with Disabilities?

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve challenged myself to have new experiences, which have led me to increasingly realize how hard it is to function in a world that isn’t designed for people with foot drop.  I have a physical disability that can be seen, and although people can see it, I often think of disabilities that aren’t as visual.

Where are our student affairs conversations about any of those who comprise these groups when we talk about social justice? 

In our efforts to create more inclusive communities?

Unfortunately, I can find it only occurring among those like me (or those who are close to us), and I am new to the group.  So, please don’t take what I’m writing here as me speaking on behalf of everyone with a disability, and don’t dismiss it either, as it is insight into one person’s experiences.

Identifying as a person with a disability is not unlike many other identities, except that it is not always visible.  Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States.  It is an identity that cuts across race, class, and gender, etc.

As someone who has more recently become disabled, I get it:

The world would be easier if people like me, people who looked abnormal when trying to function in a “normal” way (in my case walking) would just go away.  I feel that message from the systems that exist in the world almost every single day. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I know that the feeling does not belong to just those with a disability.

I’ve spent time considering a few points this semester since attending and presenting at a conference, and participating in recruitment days

Western Illinois University representing at ACPA (I am on the far left)

Western IL University representing at ACPA (I’m the far left)

for the program in which I teach–neither of which were especially challenging for me physically prior to everything occurring.  I am not sharing these points because I want everyone to constantly think about what it must be like to have a physical disability.  In fact, I suspect that most people, even after reading this, will do what I used to do, which is go back to a comfortable, able-bodied routine.  However, I still think I have some points worth sharing, so here are three thoughts for the field of student affairs to consider:

  1. Please understand that I will not walk into a crowded room and work the room, as I don’t know who will be paying attention to where they are walking and/or what might suddenly change about the environment.  In fact, I would prefer to sit and, as I meet people, I will explain to them why I am not getting up.
  2. Just ask me if I need help and know that I am okay with saying that I have a disability.  Perhaps I haven’t had my disability long enough to insist on person first language, and I do understand (deeply) the negative stereotypes that come to mind when folks use the world disabled.  However, after all the work I’ve put into my recovery, the last thing I have energy for is serving as the “word police.”  I get it…if you are describing me, I’m okay if you say “the disabled person”.  I’m just happy that you saw me without me having to remind you that I exist.
  3. Finally, I know there is talk about gender inclusive restrooms within the field, which is great. For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use any restroom.  At.  All.  So, please stop going into what is often the only accessible stall simply because it has more room.  I know people do it…I used to. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh 36 pounds more than I do now (I’m still considered “big boned”), add to that a backpack, a winter coat, and I feel more comfortable using a larger stall.  Now, I need it. Please don’t hear that we should decide who gets which stall and when. However, for me, there is no getting off the toilet if there is no bar to use to pull myself up.

Is Illinois’s Higher Education Funding the State’s Massive Resistance?

A few weeks back, I was listening to a radio show about the upcoming presidential election that will occur this November. Please know that I typically limit my intake of political advertising because it is overwhelming and designed purposefully to have you think a certain way.  However, the radio was on, and the show came on, so I listened.

The hosts on the radio show were going to go to various places around the country to explore if where you live impacts what you want from your government.  They call their show “The View from Here”.  Unsurprisingly, although perhaps it is a surprise for those that do not live in Illinois, the most representative place in the United States based on race, income, religion, etc. is Peoria, Illinois.  So, this is where the hosts decided to start their show.  And, it is for this same reason of representation that I believe those who work in higher education throughout the United States should pay attention to what is going on within the state of Illinois.  It is bound to come your way soon too.  After all, our world is interconnected.

What is the “it” that I am talking about?

It is not the high taxes.

It is not the dismantling of unions.

It is not the strategic movement of money from the public to the private sector.

I have two thoughts about what the “it” is:

First, it is the inability to compromise between two polarized points of view.  For example, not wanting to raise taxes, and keeping pension plans the same.  You might ask, what is being learned from this dichotomy?   To me, it is that if one has enough means one does not need to compromise, but rather should dig in their heels until they get what they want.  A point to consider is that in this battle, no matter who wins, the winner will be of a class that most of us do not have access too.

Second, higher education will become what public k-12 education was in Prince Edward County during the Civil Rights era.  If you are unfamiliar with Barbara Johns and the walk out that she led, you should become familiar.  A quick overview: In

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Photo credit: Joan Johns Crobbs

1956 the state of Virginia moved to block itself from having to desegregate their school in accordance with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.  The move was coined the Massive Resistance. For five years, because Prince Edward County did not want to desegregate, they closed the public schools.  This, as one might imagine, led to only those who could afford private education to be able to attend school.  In other words, and at the time, the White students.  The hope was that other counties in Virginia and other states would view Prince Edward as an example and follow suit. A fairly long, but quite engaging series of events occurred, which prevented the Prince Edward County example taking root in other places. To this day, Prince Edward County is healing both economically and in terms of community relations.

So, how is it that I see this connected to the current issues within the state of Illinois?  If Illinois is not careful, it will rid itself of public education, which will leave private education to only those that can afford it. 

Yes, one might say, but they would never rid themselves of the University of Illinois, it is an elite institution.  Yes and at many elite public institutions the questions of going private has surfaced for many reasons.  Here is another article on the difference between public and private institutions.

Now, keeping this in mind, and switch out the idea of race from the Virginia Massive Resistance, and replace it with the idea of class (albeit there is overlap between the two identities), thus is born Illinois’s version of the Massive Resistance.  You might be thinking, what is it that is being resisted?  And that is a fair question. My response is connected to point number one above.

No compromise is being found because the two polarized points of view are actually connected.  Each side is resisting the other so that everything stays exactly the same, which is a Virginia a la 1954 kind of move Illinois-style.  No budget is passed in Illinois, Prince Edward County did not have to desegregate…no matter the method, the price is great for all of us when we abandon education and there will be ramifications for years to come.

Foot Drop or Drop Foot

It does not matter which way you phrase it, as both are used in the medical community.  If you desire to learn more about the medical reasons for this condition, click here, as this post will not be one in which the condition sounds distant and easily solvable because I have foot drop.

I’ve spent time thinking about foot drop lately, although I’m not quite sure I can explain fully why. Perhaps it is due to the spring weather that is causing me to want to be outdoors, or perhaps it is due to the fact that last spring I was thinking about foot drop too.  I am a believer in such energy connections existing in the world. No matter the reason, it has been on my mind, and the following are some descriptions as to what my experience is like:

Spring is here!

Spring is here!

First, my left foot is freezing most of the time, however, this does not mean that it has no pulse.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  The blood is moving around great!  🙂 Unfortunately, while my brain is doing a good job working with the rest of my body to maintain a regular temperature, my left foot has gone rogue…and from time to time is so painful that I think it is trying to secede from the union of my body.  When it is not freezing, it is sometimes a lovely burning feeling, that can be so painful that I have to remove my shoe or brace right away to cool it down. In between these two temperatures are phases of it feeling as though it is one giant bruise, as if I’m getting a blister, or it has no feeling at all. I prefer the last option, if I have to choose.

Second, I can’t feel much of my leg from the left knee down…I only know that it feels heavier than my right leg.  I can also feel pressure, and the tips of my toes have gained a great suction ability of some sort to hold my leg in place if necessary (usually at night when I’m walking on our wood floor with socks on).  One might think this is a neat super power, but I assure you it is not and often leads to feeling the kind of pain that could be relieved if I could spread my toes, but I cannot…so that stinks.

Evidence of my high school coolness

Evidence of my high school coolness

Third, spastic is not just a term I used in the early 1990s when I was a teenager and was trying to describe how someone was acting. (I know, I was cool.  🙂 ) It is a term that describes my leg when it is refusing to do what I want it to do.  In these moments, it pouts by going rigid with my foot wanting to roll inward even with a shoe on my foot.  If I am standing, which is usually the case (because I’m often turning too quickly, I’m tired, or I’m walking down an incline without thinking about it) when this happens, you can imagine how challenging it is, and I have to stop walking.   The only way I’ve found to resolve this issue is to consciously tell my leg to calm down (I use a stern tone, and give it a good side-eyed glare).  If that doesn’t work, I bend over to apply pressure to my ankle area.  The upside is that there is no feeling other than stiffness when this happens…it just doesn’t look “pretty”.

Fourth, when I wake up in the morning, it often feels as though my left leg is hatching from an egg.  As if I’ve been curled up all night with my leg tucked in tightly (which, I assure you, has not occurred) and moving it is a new experience that is both refreshing, and irritating at the same time.  Another way to describe it is that it feels twisted, as though it is the leg of a table, and needs one more turn around before it evens out the table top.

I use a quad cane.

I recommend the quad cane.

Fifth, I consciously think about walking with almost every step that I take, as well as the weight distribution of my entire body.  Yes, I am grateful that I am able to walk, and I know that I’ve improved a lot..however, in my mind, I look as though I’m impersonating a toddler learning how to walk, and get tired from having to think about lifting my leg, shifting my weight around, as well as assessing where each chair, table, and other people are walking, so that I can stay clear and/or have something safe to hold onto if necessary.  (This is where the cane comes into play, as most folks stay clear of it.)

2016 Orange is the New Purple

One year ago today, I drove myself to McDonough District Hospital in Macomb, Illinois, because I was struggling to breathe.  Little did I know I would return home 46 days later after experiencing a pulmonary embolism, two seizures, two strokes, and cardiac arrest for 56 minutes within a two day period. I still find myself stunned that I’m alive. To say I had a challenging year would be an understatement. As the year went on, I admit that my mind was increasingly full of questions regarding why I “woke up” (which is how I phrase it) and I felt that I was deeply learning about faith and trust.

hope-sunSo, when the 2016 began this past week, I couldn’t help but think that this year had to be different.  My approach was to begin doing again the behaviors that helped me to successfully make it through 2015:

journaling, making to do lists, breaking big jobs up into smaller projects

One item I knew that I needed to add to my list was to look for messages of hope being sent my way.  Yes, such messages were probably always there, but I had lost track of seeing them by the end of 2015 (when you have to remember to breathe at the same time that you bend your leg during physical therapy, it can be easy to forget to look for hope).  This year, I not only wanted to see hope, but I wUO TCU Alamo Bowl 1_1451686431133_20735_ver1.0anted to acknowledge the messages of hope even if it meant talking out loud to myself so that I would hear the reminder.  One message of hope, came my way on January 2, 2016, when my undergraduate alma mater, TCU, played in the Alamo Bowl.

During their record setting comeback, I couldn’t help but notice connections to my story over the past year, all pointing in the direction of continuing to persist in the face of a situation in which many would have already given up.

I see you hope.

For example, coach Gary Patterson attributed his change in wardrobe to assisting the horned frogs in their victory over the ducks.  The ironic part is that the shirt he changed into was a purple shirt.  Purple, which is one of the two colors of Western Illinois University where I currently work. Purple, is the color faculty, staff, and students are encourage to wear on Fridays.  One might think that 2013-banner-thinkpurplepurple is my favorite color, but it is not.

For numerous reason, orange is my favorite color (hang in there…I promise there is a connection), and last spring when I was at OSF-Peoria my younger sister asked if she could be my social media PR manager (arguably this is a part of what she does for a living, so it was good professional experience and I could not do it).  Little did I know, she would start a social media frenzy almost all of which related to the color orange.

 #orangenailsforsarah on Facebook

#orangenailsforsarah on Facebook

Videos were created for me. One video was created for me by some former students, and several from various country music artists (for example, Brett Eldridge and Montgomery Gentry).

#orangenailsforsarah on Facebook

#orangenailsforsarah on Facebook

This resulted in me thinking that everyone on Facebook was wearing orange just for me.  (Yes, I am now aware that it was due to my news feed being comprised of my friends and family…please see above life explosion as to why I might have been a bit slow to realize it. 🙂 )  Regardless, having orange all around me worked, and I dug deep to find my motivation to believe that I could walk again.

I could not stand without the help of this machine.

I could not stand without the help of this machine. It is hard to see, but please note that I have on an orange top and purple bottoms.

It even resulted in:

#DQstyle

So, there was Gary Patterson on January 2, 2016, reminding me that all my friends and family were still wearing orange for me.

I see you hope.

And then there was Bram Kohlhausen (TCU’s back up quarterback) and his family. Not sure how many folks saw Dash Kohlhausen’s tweet “Special thanks to the #oregonducks fan who sold me his sideline pass and made moment possible @WinTheDay”.  I am not sure who @WinTheDay is, but I couldn’t help but see the connection between@WinTheDay and #winthisday, which is a hashtag and motto that the family of another patient, Niko, created as a motto for his recovery.  Niko, a 16-year old high school football player, happened to have a brain aneurysm and be in Peoria at the same time as me. (He also happened to at the time like the Oregon ducks…I’m trying to recruit him to WIU.)

I see you hope.

And then there is the story of the triple overtime, which resonates with the theme of persistence rising out of Bram Kohlhausen’s own story of playing college football.  Messages of horned frogs not ever giving up, and believing the impossible were suddenly all over my news feed.  This time the message was quite clear:

AND 

#hornedfrogstylewhich is exactly my plan for 2016!