Thursday, March 31, 2016

TWLOHA: Ten Years of "Writing Love"

On the bookshelf near my bed, this TWLOHA poster
reminds me that it's worth it to get up tomorrow morning.
This past month, TWLOHA has celebrated its tenth anniversary. What is TWLOHA?

The simple answer can be found in their mission statement, which says that TWLOHA "is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery."

There's much more to be said, and they give a better account than anyone on their own website. Nevertheless I'd like to try to describe it by own clunky prose, insofar as I've come to know it.

TWLOHA is especially a movement aimed at young people. It seeks them out on the front lines of youth culture: at concerts and festivals and, of course, on the Internet. In ten years it has become a large and significant resource for making connections between treatment and many people who are least likely to seek it.

The most important thing about TWLOHA, however, is the human experience that, from the very beginning, brought about something that no one had ever planned, and that continues to be the source of its vitality today.

"It started with a story."

There were these two guys sharing an apartment in Orlando, Florida. David McKenna worked as a band manager in the contemporary music industry and Jamie Tworkowski was a sports equipment salesman who loved surfing and had a knack for writing. McKenna was a recovering cocaine addict who would give presentations about getting help for addiction at local venues, small churches and such.

One day, a 19 year old girl named Renee showed up for a presentation. Afterwards they had a conversation. Renee was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She also had severe depression, pondered suicide, and engaged in a kind of behavior that is politely known as "self-injury" or "self-harm." I have written about this category of behavior before, and the subtle forms it can sometimes take. Just as there are many ways we can physically, emotionally, and verbally abuse other people, so also there are many ways we can abuse ourselves, and some of these ways can be very subtle.

Renee's self-abuse, however, was not subtle at all. Her arms were covered with scabs and the scars of cuts from razor blades.

David and the others encouraged her to go to rehab and she said something like, "I'll go tomorrow." I think they arranged to get in touch in order to help her follow up on this fragile resolution.

Not surprisingly, however, she went out that night and binged on everything. She got smashed on cocaine, pills, and booze.

This is a story of depression, addiction, self-loathing, confusion, loneliness, lots of bad relationships, not knowing who to trust -- this is a very real story and I get this story; I've lived many elements of this story myself and it doesn't surprise me a bit. The part of this story that really does "surprise" me is still to come....

After a night of partying, the girl took a razor blade and cut a word onto her arm, a word that she thought expressed her identity. She branded herself with a word that was meant to say, "I am worthless. I can't do anything right." The word was an obscenity that meant, basically, "Screw-up" as in "I am a screw-up" but using the f-word instead of "screw," making it more biting, hateful, and violent.

The next day she agreed to go to the rehab center where David had connections, but when they brought her there she was turned down. She was a "cutter" with a fresh wound, the center explained, and she was also still high and they had no detoxification facilities. She would have to get the drugs out of her system before she could enter.

"Bring her back in five days," the rehab center said.

I don't know what kind of resources were on hand for Renee's new friends. Could they have taken her to a "detox center"? Financial resources were an issue here. She didn't seem to have much income, or to be connected to her family at the time. Did they think of just taking her to the emergency room? She was basically a stranger, and it would have been easy to just say, "Hey, we did our best but there's nothing left now but to turn her over to the Big Anonymous System that takes care of poor people so that we don't have to."

I don't know where this is. Could be a great place. Just using it for a symbol of "big" and "anonymous" and "system," etc.

Instead, David and Jamie decided to take her back to their apartment. They contacted more of their own friends and asked for help. This small group of friends decided, for the next five days, to stay with Renee, keep her drug free, help her, and most importantly, love her.

They gathered to be a community for her, to love her. Somewhere in those days Jamie the aspiring writer with a poetic imagination came up with a metaphor. They were going "to write love on her arms." They would erase the lying self-condemning word that she has "written" on her arm with cuts from a razor blade and replace it with a living word: love. And they would begin very concretely, by loving her through the time ahead and getting her to rehab.

They did it by staying together with her, eating together, watching videos, going to basketball games and concerts together, staying up with her at night, empathizing with her through the hardest parts. Together, they got her through the five days and brought her to rehab. Renee began to deal with her problems, and she discovered that she was loved and that she was not alone.

This story is not a fairy tale. It's not a "happily ever after" story. It's a "bumpy bumpy happy bumpy crash start-again hopeful" story. Renee had further relapses along the road to recovery. Today she is drug free and harm free, but it took time and it wasn't easy. David McKenna had relapses and more recovery before he died tragically in a car accident in 2012. Jamie Tworkowski has been very open about his own battles with depression.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

For me (and perhaps also for those who went through it) the most important part of the story is what they discovered in this experience. Human beings need love. People who are suffering need solidarity, friendship; they need to be embraced and valued for who they really are, to be loved as persons.

We need to be persons who can love and be loved through the experience of community. All of our social and political problems (in my view) boil down to this fundamental problem: We need community. And we don't have it. We are so isolated as human beings in our society today that when a group of people come together for five days in community and friendship and solidarity, to share a person's suffering with love and respect for her dignity, it seems like a miracle.

Maybe community is a miracle.

But back to the rest of the story. Perhaps I should repeat what I said at the beginning: "It started with a story." Because you're still wondering what all of this has to do with a national non-profit with the funny name?/acronym? of TWLOHA.

Before they took her to the rehab, Jamie asked Renee if he could share her story with others. He wanted to write the story of these days they had all spent together. She said yes.

And so Jamie wrote a two page story. He called it: "To Write Love On Her Arms." He thought it was a good story and that, perhaps, others might find it helpful, identify with Renee's struggles, and even be inspired.

So he shared the story.

Here's where things take a distinctively 21st century twist.

It's hard to believe that it's only been ten years since the word "share" took on so many explosive new meanings thanks to the world of social networking. In 2006 Facebook was still evolving from a student exchange site, YouTube was just a year old, and Twitter didn't even start until that summer. Of course, lots of people were online. New things were happening all the time. More and more people were telling their stories by blogging. But Jamie didn't have a blog.

He had a MySpace page. MySpace was the original "social media platform" (as some of us still remember) and it had plenty of limitations, but it was easy to post a story on it. That's how he shared it. (He still shares it HERE on their website.)

Ten years ago people didn't commonly talk about a social media post "going viral." Jamie's story was written in his own lyrical style, simply, honestly, full of his own reflections. He probably didn't expect that more than a handful of people would ever read it.

But the story "went viral." It got shared and reshared all around the world.

And people from all over the world responded, not only in their hearts but also on Jamie's MySpace page. Thousands and thousands of messages came pouring in from people, many of them young people, who were amazed to learn that they were not the only ones who suffered, that their lives had value, that there was hope.

People felt that Renee's story "gave them permission" to express their own suffering, to share secrets they had never shared before. Jamie's page became a kind of "place" where people felt they could bring their suffering and express it honestly.

Meanwhile, "old tech" did its part. The story became rapidly known, but Jamie and his friends had another concern. They were committed to helping Renee pay for rehab. The sporting goods salesman came up with an idea.

Tee shirts:

Sell tee shirts to raise the money for Renee's rehab. They took the tee shirts wherever they could. People made the connection to the story and bought the shirts.

Then Jamie brought the shirts to a rock concert on March 30, 2006, and Jon Foreman -- lead singer of the blockbuster internationally acclaimed band Switchfoot (and overall amazingly good human being) -- wore one on stage.

I think Jamie realized that night that a movement had begun, that people needed to keep hearing about the power of love and community, and that people needed help in order to even begin to get (medical, therapeutic, professional) help. He was probably overwhelmed by the idea of a "movement" and any role that he was called to play in it. But he knew he wasn't alone. He had friends.

So together they started this group called To Write Love on Her Arms, but since that's a lot of words in our graphics dominated world, they went for the initials: T.W.L.O.H.A. TWLOHA. It doesn't even spell anything pronounceable, though I understand that it's commonly pronounced "twa-LOW-hah" (like "aloha" with a "tw" at the beginning).

They still sell tee shirts and accessories, and they use the money to sponsor hundreds of people who need treatment. They continue to raise awareness and fight the stigma of mental illness. They've helped other groups to start things like the first 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the first 24/7 Crisis Text Line.

Just look at the website and see what TWLOHA has become today.

AND READ JAMIE TWORKOWSKI'S ORIGINAL STORY HERE, which is far more eloquent than my many words about it.

Happy Birthday TWLOHA!

You are doing a good thing, and you have your finger on the key element, the central point that keeps all of this from collapsing into platitudes and failed human efforts. You know that our stories matter because they are part of a much greater story, and that life has value because it is a gift.

"It's our belief that your story is sacred,
that it's priceless,
that it's entirely unique,
that no one else can play your part.
It's our hope that you will
NEVER, ever, ever GIVE UP."

~Jamie Tworkowski (with my emphasis on those three words)

I'm an old man but maybe I can help too. I have a long story, and I have discovered that there is much value in sharing it, especially its most vulnerable parts. Some of it is told HERE, but there is so much more to tell, and while life goes on the story goes on and gets deeper.

Older people need help too. We are more complicated and more proud. We are adept at playing a role and living in agony behind our own masks. So many of us don't get help because we come from a generation that's still extremely reluctant to face the reality of mental illness.

We too need love to be written on our arms.

Yup, I've got my shirt.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Week is "Springing Up"

"As the earth brings forth its shoots,
and a garden makes its seeds spring up,
So will the Lord God make justice spring up,
and praise before all the nations" (Isaiah 61:11).

Blooming in the bluster of a March going out like a lion

Our homestead with seed pods coloring the maple trees red.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Risen Christ Gives Us Strength

"Life has conquered death.
Mercy and love have triumphed over sin.
One needs faith and hope to open to this wondrous new horizon.
And we know that faith and hope are God’s gift,
and we have to ask for it:
'Lord, give me faith. Lord give me hope. We need it so much!' ...
If Christ is risen, we can look with renewed eyes and hearts
on each event in our lives, even the most negative.
The moments of darkness, failure and even sin
can be transformed and herald a new path forward.
When we have reached the bottom of our misery and weakness,
the risen Christ gives us the strength to rise again.
If we entrust ourselves to Him, His grace saves us.
The crucified and risen Lord is the full revelation of mercy,
present and at work in history."

~Pope Francis, Easter Monday Regina Coeli Message

[Above: mosaic of Jesus rescuing Adam and Eve from death, by Marko Rupnik]

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter

Christ is Risen, Alleluia!
Happy Easter 2016 from the Janaro Family.

It's actually colder today than in was on Christmas Day three months ago! But we've got flowers and I think they're finally here to stay.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Crown of Thorns: The Ongoing "Good Friday" of Depression

It's Good Friday. And I am still in Depression.

Why? What's going on?

You don't seem depressed.
You talk. You make jokes.

You "look fine." 

You help so many people. 
You're so full of hope.

How can you be "Depressed"?

I don't know. If you're reading this looking for Deep Thoughts, I have none. They have failed me. I'm not sure what I'm going to write here.

I am bi-polar, though it's a bit unconventional. I move between a kind of nervous, obsessive energy (sometimes compulsively "productive," other times paralyzed by anxiety) and a darkness and exhaustion that I don't have words for.

Or rather--and this is very important--I don't trust the words that echo in my head during this darkness. They are words of discouragement. They are prompted by a world that discards "useless people," a flesh that has the urge to disappear, and that sinister, opportunistic monster--the "father of lies"--whom we must not listen to, about whom we can only turn to God and pray, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the Evil One!"

And so I direct my thoughts outward to others, to creation, to the miracle of sunlight playing with the fringe of a curtain, to poetry, to music, and above all to the memory that my hope is not grounded in myself. My hope rests in the infinite power and the infinite love of Another who makes me and sustains me and loves me.

I am full of hope.

I am also still Depressed.

The condition I suffer from is a brain disease. It is a brain disease.

I have suffered from this kind of mental illness as long as I can remember, and surely since I was ten years old. I have also endured many outwardly physical illnesses in the past 16 years, the most persistent of which has been Lyme Disease (and though this appears to be under control, it went long untreated and has left its mark).

My "mental illness" is as physical as any other physical illness I have suffered. There are other factors that contribute to it and that must not be neglected. But there is an inescapably physical basis. I know that I have spiritual intelligence and freedom and I can get mixed up about what's going on inside me because the brain and the mind are mysteriously interrelated. But I have to remember that in Depression the root of the problem is in the brain.

This is a disease. It is not who I am.

Yet it is a circumstance within which I must live my life!

There are ways to relieve it somewhat, reduce it somewhat, "manage it" (somewhat). But for me there is no cure and I am strangely at peace with this fact.

I do not want to discourage others who are seeking cures, or who have found something that "works" for them. Good. Live that health right now, and don't worry. People are different, and life is a fragile thing. If you find that you are strong, spend that strength in love, in caring for your brothers and sisters.

I am not completely without health. My heart beats. My chest rises with the breath of air. And more: look, today I am writing!

I am at peace. God knows my suffering.

What is "disease" anyway? Why is our longing for boundless happiness so thwarted? There is so much suffering. My brothers and sisters are hungry, in prison, in refugee camps, dodging explosions and living in fear in their own houses. They are sick, disabled, unemployed, alone, forgotten. Trafficked like slaves, abused, beaten, wounded, tortured, put to death.

Desperate and overwhelmed, we humans are all woven together in this brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering and pain, agony and disappointment, of hope and love and aspiration and tenacity. We all die, and we all know that we are made for more than death.

We are made for more....

The crown of thorns. Mother Teresa said that Jesus draws especially close to people who are mentally ill in His experience of the crown of thorns.

He suffers the mysterious agony of this crown in me, and He knows and carries the depths of this pain with a profundity immeasurably beyond what He has asked me to bear.

So there we are again: all my hope is in Him.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Remembering Oscar Romero on Holy Thursday

It is fitting that what would have been the first official "feast day" of the now Blessed Oscar Romero is superseded this year by Holy Thursday.

Blessed Romero was in every way a priest and bishop whose life was centered on the Eucharist. His service to the poor and his courageous opposition to the injustice and violence of those in power were seamlessly woven into his priestly life, to his giving Christ and himself tirelessly in the Eucharist.

Today is the 36th anniversary of his martyrdom. He was shot during the offertory of the Mass in the chapel of the Divina Providencia hospital, the chapel where he prayed daily to Jesus in the Eucharist and the hospital wherein a simple roomhe resided as Archbishop, so he could be close to and minister daily to the sick and the dying.

Religious sisters and others at Mass rush to aid the felled
Archbishop. Some say that before he died he whispered
"God have mercy on the assassins."
He was prepared for death and had already offered his life for the poor and suffering people of his community. He knew the risks he was taking for the truth of God, for the Church, and for the dignity of the human person.

He knew he was placing himself in great danger when, in his nationally broadcast homily the previous Sunday, he admonisheddirectly and personallythe men of the Guardia Nacional, the police, and the army with this final appeal:
Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
Blessed Romero knew that "the Church" must always be "the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person" and that these rights and realities are inseparable because God became man in order to save every human being and to transfigure human existence according to the measure of God's love. The Church must be for the dignity of every human person in this life and in eternity. Jesus has transformed the meaning of "justice" in this world because He has identified every human person with Himself, especially the least, the poor, the forgotten, the oppressed, and all those who suffer.

And so, on this Holy Thursday, as our priests and bishops (especially those suffering along with their people from repression and persecution all over the world) renew their commitment to their vocations, let us ask Blessed Romero's intercession for them, that they might have the courage to live the Eucharist they offer, to give their own body and blood in union with the Body and Blood of Jesus entrusted to their ministry.

Let them make their own, in whatever circumstances they face, the final words of Blessed Oscar Romero's homily on March 24, 1980words that were spoken even as Romero probably saw his assassin enter the back of the small chapel, and then saw him raise his weapon as the bishop approached the altar.

He was ready to give Christ and himself, totally, in that moment. Lord, give our priests this readiness. Make us all ready, each moment, to give ourselves in love and in hope of the resurrection.

Blessed Oscar Romero, pray for us!

"May this Body immolated
and this Blood sacrificed for mankind
nourish us also,
that we may give
our body and our blood over to suffering and pain,
like Christ--not for self,
but to give harvests of peace and justice
to our people."

(The final words of the homily of the Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martyr, moments before he was shot dead during the offertory of the Mass, March 24, 1980.)


A bishop and a shepherd.
With God and with his people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the victims of injustice and violence.
Romero's bedroom at the Divina Providencia Hospital where he lived as Archbishop.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Joseph Goes To Egypt

Here's a bit of a "poem" of sorts, for Saint Joseph's Day 2016. We must imagine here that the Holy Family had at least one loyal old servant, one old fool who fancied that he knew how things worked in Bethlehem and Jerusalem in those days, who thought that he knew the ways of kings....

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Waxing Moon

Waxing moon as we head toward the first day of Spring (this weekend), and then Holy Week and Easter.

Monday, March 14, 2016

First Stirrings of Spring

The last couple of days have been cloudy, but before that--on a bright sunny afternoon--I got some photographs of the first signs of the real Spring that will begin to bloom all around us in the next few weeks.

This is what we are seeing in mid-March:

The Forsythia bushes have just begun to show their first tentative yellow shoots.

Elsewhere, green buds bathe in the sunshine.

Reepicheep also gets her fair share of afternoon sun. She is glad to see the warmer weather here to stay.

The big maple trees are still bare except for their early red tips. Hard to believe this will be a green canopy soon!

We see and hear lots of birds in the early evening. The starlings are all about in the bare branches.

And the robins are all around, scouting for places to build nests when the trees are green.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mourning into Dancing

This text of Psalm 30 caught my attention recently:

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
    “I shall never be moved.”

By your favor, O Lord,

    you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
    I was dismayed.
 To you, O Lord, I cried,
    and to the Lord I made supplication:

“What profit is there in my death,

    if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
    Will it tell of your faithfulness?
 Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
    Lord, be my helper!”

You have turned my mourning into dancing;

    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy,
 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30:6-12

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tweets of Mercy

The only way to get Pope Francis and a laptop together is by photoshopping (badly here)

Okay you know that picture is a joke. I don't think the Pope even uses a computer. So I did a sloppy cut-and-paste with PaintNet, and...well... that's my fun for the day!

Seriously, even though the Pope has someone else do the actual posting, he's been giving us plenty to ponder recently on his Twitter account. I wonder what would happen if we took up and prayed about the theme of the daily tweet that Pope Francis sends out in seven languages (including Arabic). What if we allowed it to guide even a few moments of prayerful consideration and comparison with our own lives and priorities?

This brief meditation could bear much fruit.

Here are some of his recent offerings that I have collected in no special order:

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Look here: I posted on the BLOG!

I'm bursting with things to say and reflections to articulate and share, and I can't get them out. But here is one small thing for the day--one achievement--and for this I am grateful.

It's important, if possible, to set at least one goal and accomplish it every day. It's part of living with chronic illness. Even if it's a really, really, really small accomplishment. Find one thing you can do, one challenge (tiny, tiny challenge, don't freak out, don't overdo it, a "baby step"). Do that. Or if you try but fail, find something smaller. Make a half step.

When you achieve something during the day, rejoice and be grateful. You have grown as a human being. It's humiliating, I know, but the "measure" for growing as a human person is a mystery to us. The measure is in the hands of Someone Else.

As I said in my book, there were days when my goal was to get from my bed to the chair in the living room so as to be closer to Eileen and the kids.

Of course, I never felt satisfied with that (just as I don't feel satisfied with this blog post right now). But what I'm talking about here is not satisfaction. It's living, growing, moving forward, becoming more human according to the rhythm of the mysterious journey that each of us has been given in this life.

If and when we find ourselves in circumstances where we are immobilized, where all we can do is lay there and breathe, then let's breathe! Breathing, if we think about it, is a living image of so many things. But never mind that now. Breathe. Say "yes" to the gift of existence, go forward from breath to breath with trust in that gift, and let each breath speak its own gratitude.

This is the stuff of which real heroism is made.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Dawn Will Come

Sometimes I find it helpful to "switch gears" in the brain. So when I'm worn out with writing, I'll shift over to making graphic memes using PaintNet. I'm just a hack at this, learning as I go along, but I enjoy it (until it, too, exhausts me, which is like... now).

So here's what I came up with, from the Psalm in today's Liturgy. It gives me hope as I pass through this long night. Hope, because the dawn will come.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Happy Birthday to My Great Lady

Eileen's birthday was on Saturday. It was a lovely day, especially because John Paul is home on Spring Break.

Here's to my great lady! I can't imagine life without her.

Eileen in her classroom watching her students work.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hypocrisy and Humility

Here is a short reflection on the Gospel that I wrote for today's MAGNIFICAT Lenten Companion. Please do click on the link to learn more about our monthly magazine and other publications of this excellent resource.

Meanwhile, I'll take advantage of my previous writing by using it for today's blog post:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Let's Not Tear One Another Apart

I haven't been moving around very well lately, and I don't exactly feel inspired to write. But that doesn't mean I have stopped thinking. I wanted to say something about these difficult days in the U.S.A. and our world, to take the approach of addressing the larger context of problems many of us are wrestling with right now.

So I made a video.

The quality is not very good. Except for a few edits, it's just a straight spoken reflection. Anyway, I decided to just post it.

Perhaps there is some value in it.