Welcome to It’s Not About The Chair. I’m Lyena Strelkoff, a storyteller, performer, speaker, and coach. I believe our stories — the ones we’ve lived, that we can’t believe we made it through, or can’t stop laughing about, or just can’t stop thinking about —  are the greatest source of healing we have, for ourselves and especially, for each other. I started telling my own stories after I was paralyzed in a fall. My hope is that this blog will be a place to laugh, learn, heal and grow together. Because, ultimately, it’s not about the chair, or any other obstacle we might face. It’s about the choices we make, the spirit we bring, and helping each other thrive. I’m so glad you’re here.

Permission to believe — Spinal cord injury breakthrough

I wanted to take a minute to comment on the new spinal cord injury research that was published this week, and specifically on what it means for me, personally.

Over the 12 years I’ve been injured, caring people have periodically sent me links to “promising” research. It hasn’t happened often mostly because the field of SCI research tends to move very slowly and there just hasn’t been a lot of news to share, especially not the kind that makes it into the popular media to which most of my concerned friends listen. But from time to time, I do receive emails and texts — sweet, simple missives of hope, blinking dimly like distant beacons through a fog. And when I do, whether the links are for relatively obscure, for-the-scientific-community-only news or the rare spot on 60 Minutes, they have almost never applied to me. It’s one of the reasons I stopped very long ago tracking this news myself.

Well, this week’s news is different.

In case you haven’t heard, a team of scientists led by researchers in Kentucky connected the spinal cords of four men with spinal cord injuries to a kind of portable electrical stimulation, and all four became able to move voluntarily parts of their bodies that were previously paralyzed.

To the uninitiated, this maybe sounds crazy-good. I imagine they are are imagining someone waking up in the morning, paralyzed in bed, then flipping a switch, getting up, and going about the day as an able-bodied person. Usually, I’m in the unfortunate position of knowing better since I am, at the very least, initiated. But for once, I’m imagining the same thing. It isn’t happening mind you, and the technology isn’t advanced enough yet to manage something as complicated as, say, walking. But here’s why this news is still pretty crazy good, even for me.

Almost all previous experimentation on spinally injured people has focused on “incomplete” injuries. Those are the ones that have some, even small amount of feeling or function intact, and they represent the majority of spinal cord injuries. There has also been heavy focus placed on “acute” injuries, those that are less than two years old.

In comparison, my injury is “complete” and “chronic.” That means there was no sparing of feeling or function when I fell (I was completely paralyzed at the time of impact) and the injury is more than two years old (in my case, almost 12 now).

Spinal cord injuries are remarkably different from one another. Placement in the spine, degree and type of injury, plus a bunch of other factors determine the effects of the injury. What looks like a fairly uniform experience of paralysis is actually very nuanced depending on the factors. It follows that the effects of any intervention would be different too, depending on the injury itself.

To give you an example, Christopher Reeve, who was injured at the very top of his neck, gained some results using a supported, treadmill walking therapy because there exists a motor center lower in the spine that could be activated with that therapy and, in his case, that motor center was undamaged. I happen to be injured at the level of that motor center so treadmill therapy is thought not to be a productive therapy for me, and that’s true even though Mr. Reeve and I both had/have complete, chronic injuries.

The position of the research community has always been that the best chance of recovery lay in the acute, incomplete injury, so attention and funding has always been focused there. Not only has it been presumed that these research interventions wouldn’t be effective on chronic, complete injuries (hence my sense that most of this research didn’t apply to me) but even more profound, many in the research community and virtually all in the medical community have thought recovery for the complete, chronic injury impossible.

Well this week, the understanding in the field changed.

Two of the four men involved in this study had complete, chronic injuries. Neither was expected to respond to the intervention. Both did. Both have injuries significantly higher than mine, so there’s a possibility still that I’m in a different category and would experience different results. But the experience of these two men is HUGE, not only to me personally, but to every person living with a chronic, complete injury and, especially, to the field in general which has good reason now to commit more imagination, attention, and resources toward the resolution of chronic, complete paralysis.

In addition, electric stimulation is a departure from much of current research which focuses on the regrowth of nerve tissue which, even if we eventually manage it, would be a lengthy process. If specified electrical stimulation can be advanced to stimulate some of the more complicated processes (and even if it can’t — just regaining bowel and bladder function would have an almost inexpressibly huge impact on my quality of life), it would be truly revolutionary.

To understand the magnitude of this research in my own life, you would only have had to be a fly on the wall this afternoon as Dean and I read one of the articles and watched video of some of the men in the study. For a moment, neither of us could breathe. We just stared at each other, as if a breath or a word might wake us from a dream. Do we dare to believe? We have been together in this experience since the moment it began and nothing has caused in us such a pause. Nothing, in 12 years.

This, my friends, is different. And for me personally, there is potential here the likes of which we have never seen.

And thinking about it this evening, I’m moved by something even deeper.

The scientific and medical communities, based on repeated observation, had come to conclusions about chronic, complete injuries and the damaged spinal cord that, this week, turned out to be wrong. And I am reminded that we don’t know what we don’t know.

It is extremely tempting (and maybe even useful at times) to rely on what is “known,” either directly by ourselves or as reported by others, when it comes to forming our beliefs. And if we understood clearly what we do and do not yet know, that might be a solid plan. But we don’t know what we don’t know. I suspect everything we consider known or understood could change upon the invention of some new tool or the development of a new perspective, which could happen actually any moment. What we know for certain could, simply, be wrong. Tomorrow.

My inner control freak is hardly comforted by that thought. But the real me, the one beneath my anxious, vigilant habits, is smiling slyly. Because today, there is just a little more permission to believe. And not just in recovery from spinal cord injury…. But in anything.

I’m grateful to my community for continuing to believe in recovery from paralysis, for me and all those affected. Dean and I will surely be watching these developments and, of course, I’ll keep you posted. But I really hope what you take from this is a reminder that even if you haven’t seen it before, even if no one has seen it before, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And even if everything we “know” about something says it isn’t so, it actually might be. Sometimes, we have to source our belief somewhere else, somewhere deeper. Sometimes, we have to be more brave. Courtesy of Claudia A. AngeliV. Reggie EdgertonYury P. Gerasimenko, and Susan J. Harkema, I give you permission to believe.


For more information about epidural electrical stimulation, check out:

Breakthrough therapy allows four paraplegic men to voluntarily move their legs (Includes the video Dean and I were watching. Thanks, Eric Greene, for sending this one to me.)

Altering spinal cord excitability enables voluntary movements after chronic complete paralysis in humans (This is the actual paper published this week by the research team.)

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Remembering who I am for Transform Your Life radio

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted on this blog — my posting energy is going toward the Memoir Inner Circle these days — but I’m in the mood to write and with you is where I want to be.

In about an hour, I’m giving an interview for Transform Your Life radio and it’s got me thinking about what I stand for. You would think after all these years of standing for it, I’d know. But the truth is, sometimes I forget.

It’s complicated to be me. I don’t want to say it’s hard, because that clouds how utterly joyous it is to be me. But so far, it isn’t simple. It’s messy. Confusing. Sticky. I’m working on that, in a lovely, gentle, surrendering way, but it’s still complicated. And sometimes what happens is that I get lost. I sort of forget, for moments to days at a time, who I am really. And I think then that I never knew or if I did know, I’ll never remember and how on Earth would I now go about finding out.

It’s silly, of course. The path back is almost always easy, simple even. It’s a trusted piece of music that reminds me. It’s a few minutes of pure presence. It’s writing, always the truth and starting with exactly where I am. Which brings me to my visit to you today.

So what do I know in this moment about what I believe and for what I stand? What do I have to say to women listening to Transform Your Life radio on the Amazing Women of Power network? Well…

The first thing that comes to mind is that we humans, in general, routinely underestimate ourselves. So many people, I think, look at me and my life and think, “Wow, that’s amazing but I could never do that. I could never sustain such a huge loss and go on to make so much of my life.” But I’m pretty sure it’s not true. And I think it’s untrue because I would have said the same thing.

Never in a million years would I have guessed that I had such resilience in me, such courage, spirit, and strength. Never. And yet, here I am, living an extraordinary life despite being touched everyday, still, by my loss. I mean, who is that woman? Not the woman I thought I was, for sure. Not even on my most confident, self-loving days.

But she’s here. She shows up again and again, says “yes” again and again to living the life of her dreams. And it’s my opinion that I am not unique in this way (or, at least, that I am not unique in my ability… I may be unique in my choice). It’s just that most of us haven’t been pushed to the kind of edge I was. We haven’t been forced to find out who exactly we are and what exactly we can do. Or we were pushed but our life did not hold, in that moment, the support we needed to thrive, and we mistakenly came to believe that we didn’t have it in us.

My point here, is that we are all extraordinary, without exception. Whether or not we have demonstrated it yet. Whether or not we have “failed” in the past. Whether or not we can imagine it. We are all extrarodinary. And if you think you are not, you are underestimating yourself.

Another thing that comes to mind is that there will always be reasons not to live the lives of our dreams. There will always be perceived obstacles (money, time, talent, opportunity…), and if there aren’t, you can be sure a few will show up the minute you decide to change your life. It’s just how it works. But in my opinion, there isn’t an obstacle that is truly insurmountable. It may take  more of you than you’ve ever experienced, more creativity, more willingness to seek and accept help, more courage, more faith, more resilience, but there is always a path through. Always. The problem is, most of the time we give up even before we start because the obstacles seem so real, so permanent. I guess what’s important is to realize that the facts — a $0 balance; too much to do; no idea where to begin; paralysis — aren’t necessarily in question (though often, they are). It’s our relationship to those facts that’s at issue. Just because the facts exist, doesn’t mean they have to stop us.

I don’t actually like writing like this, I have to say. I’m really much more comfortable telling stories that illustrate my perspective than I am summarizing my perspective. But it’s helping to remind me why Transform Your Life radio would want an interview with me in the first place. And it’s helping me come forward toward myself. It’s shifting the part of me in which I’m sitting. That’s worth a lot to me in this moment. I hope it’s worth something to you.


So, it’s several weeks later now. The interview turned out to be a blast. It was fun and easy and having written the above words just prior to being interviewed was a great exercise.

You know, in the coaching world, when someone interviews you, they’re often asking questions you, yourself, have supplied. You come to the table with something you want to say and the interviewer is enabling you to say them by asking questions pre-designed for that purpose. In the theater world, it’s not like that. Whether I was being interviewed for radio or print, I never supplied my own questions. The interviewer came with his/her own agenda and I wasn’t privy to that agenda beforehand.

That’s how the Transform Your Life radio interview was. I had no idea what Rose James, the host, was going to ask and I didn’t supply any suggestions. I had a basic understanding of the audience and the intention of the show, but that was it. And it was, I think, truly transformational.

Rose did incredibly extensive research on me prior to the interview. She pulled up stuff I didn’t even know was out there, or have long since forgotten I ever said or wrote. And her introduction actually made me cry. It was such a powerful reflection of the person I am, that person I’m so often forgetting. It’s quite possible that that, alone, would have snapped me back to myself.

Anyway, I thought Rose’s questions were truly insightful and she asked things I never would have thought to talk about. For instance, she wondered where I’d gotten the self-esteem to allow Dean to adore me so utterly. It’s such a good question. We are, so many of us, pushing away the love that is offered. We’re criticizing the bearer, minimizing the offering, vilifying the intention. And Dean is definitely nodding his head and shaking me for all the years I did exactly that (and sometimes still do!). I loved being able to consider that question (for which I did not have a clear, pat answer, but the investigation was juicy). There were some other really poignant questions, too. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to remember them now. We’ll all just have to find out when the interview airs. I don’t have an air date yet but I’ll be sure to pass it along when I do.

And if, by chance, you’re missing hearing from me, please be encouraged to join the Memoir Inner Circle. I’m posting very regularly there and between that and writing the memoir itself, there just isn’t enough time and creative space to also post here on a regular basis. I’m not shutting down this blog for sure, but I’m likely to continue to be a bit quiet. So please, join us in the Memoir Inner Circle. Posts come directly to your Inbox and there’s lots of good humor and wisdom and insight coming out of my writing process. I think you’ll enjoy it. (You can sign up in the sidebar on the right, or go here.)

Ok, that’s it for now. Thanks for helping me remember who I am. Thanks for letting me remind you who you are. We make a brilliant pair.

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And so it begins…

As promised…

I would be so honored if you’d come with me. Your presence is such a gift. Click here to join the Inner Circle.


Gratitude and the coming dark

The house is quiet. Everyone’s asleep. The rain has mostly stopped, but I can still hear water dripping from the roof and trees. The partly changed leaves look especially golden against the thick, grey sky. And all I want to do is write.

I’m not sure I have anything to say, honestly, but opportunities like this don’t happen everyday. So it seems best to make the space, put butt in chair so to speak, and see what happens.

I find myself feeling grateful for my life. And not just because it’s Thanksgiving. Rather, because my life is magical. I’m surrounded by the most amazing things. And it’s not just having, say, a good husband or a good kid. It’s the way those things came into my life. It’s the daily burst-your-heart-open joy they cause. Maybe it’s the price I paid to get here.

Next week, I’m going to start writing the memoir of my fall. On Tuesday, to be exact. I’ve been clearing space in my life with the intention of starting in December and I’ve decided to use the new moon as my target. Seems appropriate. Even more so since it’s a new moon in Sagittarius, sign of teaching, storytelling, philosophy and adventure… Also my sun sign. Convenient for me that it falls at the beginning of December this year.

I’m scared to start. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for 11 years and it’s the ultimate passion project for me. I can only think of one dream that’s closer to my heart and it’s not a project. It’s an accomplishment (nope, not gonna talk about that right now). So as far as things I want to do, to create, this is IT.

I’ve known since a few months after I was injured that I was living a book. Such extraordinary things were happening to me, SUCH magic was appearing in my life, and at the most difficult time imaginable. I always wanted to capture the story. I did, to some degree, with Caterpillar Soup. But that was only a 90-minute play. So much had to be left out. And so much happened after Caterpillar Soup opened. I’ve always known there would be a book. I just didn’t know when.

And now, here it is, just around the corner.

I love that I’ll be starting in the dark. These next few weeks will be the darkest of the year, leading up to and just after the winter solstice. It’ll be just like the dark of the womb. Makes me want to actually wait until nightfall and write by candlelight. We’ll see what actually happens. Probably won’t be quite as theatrical as that but you never know. I’m going to need all the help I can get creating sacred space for this book.

It’s not just that it’s close to my heart. It’s that the story feels so much bigger than me. It’s always been so much bigger than me. My primary job in writing it will be to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. The spark of conception is not mine to supply, nor the miracle of gestation. Mine is only the nourishing womb to bring, steadfast and faithful. I can do that. Maybe you can help me.

The sky is clearing now outside. Aidan and Dean will be up soon from their nap. Reba is wagging her tail in her sleep, and the warmth of my kitchen is calling. Thanks for sharing this little slice of miracle with me. I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.


Eulogy for a mission

When I was in college, I took a class called Sociology of Death. It wasn’t in my major (either of them); I took it because so many students were raving about it. Turned out to be the best class I ever took during my undergraduate career.

What we did in that class was revolutionary and worthy of its own post. For now, what’s important to share is the simple fact that this class made me aware of how poorly we Americans, as a culture, deal with death.

Reading about death customs in other parts of the world, mostly Asia and Africa, it became extremely obvious how shallow is our relationship to death. We run, we hide, we deny… And when it is present (as it often is, in one form or the other) we either avoid or we rush through as quickly as possible. (Yes, I’m generalizing here about Americans but you get my point.)

I found myself, as a student in that class, longing for a different relationship with death, not just to support my own eventual demise, but really to support my life in the meantime. I still remember the quote from a young African girl to an American man — “You’ve never seen a birth or a death?? How can you live?”

It makes sense that later that decade, I came to embrace a spiritual tradition that expressly honored the death part of the life cycle. In my practice, there are holy days devoted to remembering the dead. There is a whole season given to acknowledging death, honoring its normalcy and even, its service. From the mulch of dead leaves does the new seed take life. Death is not glorified or exalted, but it has a place of respect and it is given my attention. My tradition teaches me to take a pause in this season.

Well, that season is now. As the leaves dry and drop, and the last harvest comes in, the earth itself reminds me that death exists and it has a place. It is time to pause.

And yet……

A few weeks ago, I posted about an emerging new direction in my professional life. There has been some movement in that direction (actually big movement), but also has been initiated the end of my speaker coaching services.

In so many ways, it feels really, really good. I have loved helping mission driven entrepreneurs find their voice. The stories I’ve heard, the stories I’ve helped craft so that they shine with the full force of their inherent beauty, power, and wisdom…. Well, it’s been more than an honor. But my call to evolution feels so right and timely, I can’t feel sad about what’s ending. In fact, mostly I just want to talk about what’s coming. I want to celebrate, do a little happy dance. And that’s great, and appropriate. But it also means I’m avoiding the death part, rushing past it. How American of me.

So maybe today, a few days after the Day of the Dead, I can take that pause. It’s not, after all, required that I be sad about a death. A timely death after a really great life can be a sweet, sweet thing.

So, because all treasured things deserve one, here’s my eulogy for Heartful Speaking.

We met in a cranky, uncomfortable corner at the intersection of restlessness and longing. I’d been sharing transformational stories from the stage and speaker’s podium for years, facilitating truly remarkable collective transformation. But something was missing.

In order to find out what, I traveled a very bumpy road paved with resistance, fear, and confusion. But finally I found myself in a sweet neighborhood. The houses were filled with remarkable women, each with unique and extraordinary talents, and all with a deep desire to make the world a better place. These were my kinds of peeps, and it quickly became obvious that we were meant for each other.

I had a special skill set and the same call to service, so I could help these women come out of hiding and truly shine, representing their passion and expertise in ways that magnetized their right clients to them. We crafted whole talks, refined their ability to connect with an audience, and cultivated confidence, so that when the time came, and they stepped onto that stage or onto the phone, their inherent magnificence was right there with them, gracing the stage and supporting exactly those people who stood to gain the most.

I watched as great things unfolded, not just more clients and more income, but greater recognition among their peers, a catapulting of their presence as leaders. And with such expansion came unintended gains — greater courage in general, more confidence at home, even new loves and some weight loss.

I truly did not imagine the impact our work together could have, and I was always so grateful that I got to play a part. I have been in the presence of more genius than I can say.

But the best part was always watching these extraordinary gals wake up to their own glory and start actively living from that glow. That is a most precious gift bestowed by Heartful Speaking. That, and the stories. I will always be humbled, honored, and transformed by the stories.

So, for a few more weeks, I’m welcoming the last Heartful Speaking clients. I can’t take more than 5, but I wanted to make a special space, at this very special time, to receive the last women of this kind. I know that those who step into the opportunity will be the perfect gals for me. I can’t wait to meet them. And I can’t wait to watch them shine.

[To inquire about becoming a client or the currently available programs, please visit https://heartfulspeaking.wufoo.com/forms/your-magnetic-speaker-breakthrough-session/.]


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