Remembering Babushka

It’s November 1, Day of the Dead. A time to remember.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother. Maybe because her birthday is in October and I posted about it on Facebook. Things I write about, even briefly, have a way of sticking with me. But I also wonder if it’s because I invited her to hang out with me.

A few months ago, I started working with a business coach named Christina Morassi. And on our first call together, she led me through a meditation that included a symbolic beginning, a crossing of the threshold between who I’ve been and who I’m becoming, professionally. When companions were invited, my grandmother turned up.

It was a funny sight, actually. My grandmother was a bit of a brick. Four foot, eleven, too many pounds, and essentially the same width from shoulder to feet. She was a formidable force, in form and function. In my meditation, I was standing on a wide stretch of wet sand at a rather unforgiving beach, with shifting dunes, giant rock formations, and a fierce wind (feeling a bit trepidatious, are we?). And here was my grandmother, wearing a stylish black and green checkered dress she’d sewn, with smart black pumps and white hair miraculously unblown, standing on the sand just behind me. Incongruous as the sight was, I don’t think there’s anyone else I’d rather have my back. She was there representing all of my ancestors and I’m sure when the time came to decide who was going, they all just stepped aside.  She was a queen.

I felt her a lot, too, when Aidan was born.

Aidan arrived almost a month early, and though my labor and his delivery were uneventful, I did feel quite vulnerable during my planned C-section. It was all much more medical than I was anticipating: Getting my paralyzed, pregnant, and broken-legged body onto the TINY operating table; the freezing temperature of the room; the cumbersome paper drapes over me; the tangle of tubes coming out of me; the throng of people I’d never seen before and would never see again; the pain blocker that made me dizzy; the bright light… It was all just intense, and I couldn’t really focus on my baby. So I called my Babushka to look after him. To hold his hand and stay by him. Of course, Dean was there, too, but I wanted someone from the other realm, someone who’d stood at the veil between life and death. Twice! It was comforting in the way her chicken and rice was comforting, the way the smell of Jergens lotion in her bathroom was comforting. And when my wiggly boy with a head of curly, golden hair finally came to my breast an hour after he was born, I know she was standing nearby, quietly coaching him, and guarding the gates through which he’d come.

I’m so grateful that in my spiritual practice, there is this time of year dedicated to remembering. Because, even though she and my other Beloved Dead pop into my head a lot, the fullness of living often makes remembering hard. So this opportunity to do it consciously is nothing but a gift.

I’ll be remembering all month, telling stories and scrounging for pictures. How about you? Who are you remembering? I’d love it if you’d share some stories in the comments, so I can “remember” with you.

Blessings to all the Beloved Dead.


Death to an old habit

I’m sitting in the coldest room in the house, sipping hot ginger tea, pretending that it isn’t on its way to 80 degrees outside. I love this time of year, even in LA (though, admittedly, I love it less here since I have to do so much pretending). The mornings and evenings are brisk, the air is clean(ish), and the wheel of the year has begun to turn toward the quieter, more introspective half of the year, the time of shorter days and nights spent sitting by a fire. Not that we have a fireplace… I told you, lots of pretending. But still, I love the fall.

I also love this holiday — Halloween. I love the dressing up, the pumpkin carving. I love toasting pumpkin seeds seasoned with sea salt and dry sage. I love seeing kids in their costumes, and the idea of going door to door in your neighborhood and being given treats. This year, Halloween lives mostly in my head since I’ve just gotten back from a week on the road and we’re just not organized enough to muster costumes, pumpkins, etc. But no matter. I love it all the same.

I also love the religious meaning of this holiday. It’s the Wiccan New Year. In old Celtic culture, the harvest would be complete and the fields would now lay fallow, a time of rest in preparation for new seeds. And all around us in modern culture, nature is slowing down and dying off. Symbolically, the year has come to an end, and its death marks the ever-growing potential of the new year, and me in it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last day or so. In my spiritual practice, this time is a well supported opportunity to release something from the old year, something I don’t really want to take with me into the new. And once I gave it my attention, lying awake in a hotel room in Blountville, TN, it became very clear what I’d like to leave behind.

I have a tendency to forget who I am. I imagine doing something scary or new, and I shrink inside my skin. I feel intimidated and small. I doubt my ability, even my worth. And it happens without my noticing. People who know me can’t believe it but, in that moment, it just feels… true.

But it’s not. Ever.

Last week, I had two speaking engagements, one at SUNY/Delhi in New York, the other at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN. Both were for Disability Awareness Month (which, oddly, is the month in which I became disabled). For SUNY, I did a version of my one-woman show, Caterpillar Soup. I changed a few things, made some adjustments, but generally kept to the script. It was super well received, but I was a little uncomfortable. For NSCC, I did something a little different.

I did a presentation for the public in the evening which was similar to what I’d done in NY. But in the afternoon, I was invited to speak more informally to a large group of students. Because I was expected to do my formal presentation in the evening, and because the school had expressly invited me to use the time with the students as I wished, I felt empowered to follow my instincts and risk taking a new approach. It’s silly, really, since I’m actually always empowered to create my own program, but the circumstances in TN supported me just so, and the result was incredible.

I abandoned my usual script in favor of following my gut in the moment. Inspiration dictated which stories I told (and how I told them), and I invited students to pose questions and share stories much earlier than I usually do. The result was just brilliant. Super relevant, highly entertaining, educational, moving and inspiring. In my house, we call that shiny.

Here’s the thing. I have for so long avoided this kind of approach. I think it intimidated me. I wasn’t sure I could offer a high enough quality experience. I felt compelled to stick with what I knew worked, even if I wasn’t exactly moved to do it that way. I was pushing myself into a box because I believed all those voices in my head. I believed that maybe I couldn’t deliver, maybe I wasn’t worth the attention of my audience. I forgot who I am.

Well, on this the eve of a new year, I am sick and tired of forgetting. I’m tired of turning away from the new and inspired because I’ve forgotten how capable I am, or what gifts I’ve been given. I am tired of shrinking just because I don’t remember how big I am. I’ve spent many years practicing this odd forgetfulness and, now, I don’t want to do it any more.

So tonight, I leave behind this practice. With gratitude for the ways it has served me (and it has definitely served me), I let it die with the old year. And in its place, I invite a new practice. When those old tapes start to play in my head, when that habit kicks in, I invite a small niggling that reminds me who I am, that alerts me to stop, laugh, and look in the mirror. This change won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen perfectly, but it will happen. And I have the image of myself on stage, in shiny dialog with the students at NSCC, to remind me. I am so grateful for that.

So, how about you? What, now, will you leave behind? Because there is power in naming, and also in being witnessed naming, I invite you to leave a comment, sharing what you wish to leave behind. Believe it or not, just stating it is enough to start you on the path. And may the spirit of the new year carry you far into who you are becoming.

Happy Halloween.


Happy Birthday, Aidan

This is my son, Aidan.

Aidan at one year old

He was born on October 13, 2010, so last week was his first birthday. He’s a big boy now.

It took us 15 months to get pregnant and I was incapacitated for about 4/5 of the pregnancy. I also broke my leg, badly, at 7 months, and he arrived almost a month early. So, it wasn’t exactly easy having him. And for that reason, some people call him a miracle baby. I’m not really comfortable with the term, mostly because all babies, any baby, seems like a miracle to me. But I do feel incredibly lucky to be his mama.

For his birthday, Aidan split his lip.

I was up with him in the morning and he was enjoying crawling around the apartment. (If he is anything these days, it’s a boy on the move.) We ripped out our carpets years ago to make wheeling easier, so our floors are polished concrete painted a rich and deep blue. Aidan was just in front of me heading into the hall when his hands slipped out from underneath him and his face smacked the floor. Like a reasonable boy, he sat up and wailed.

I saw it happen but because his back was to me, I wasn’t sure what exactly had hit the ground. I leaned down to check him out, my poor little guy.

It’s really hard for me to pick him up from the floor unless he’s helping me by standing. And he was in no mood to help me. I’m honestly not exactly sure how I lifted him, and I can guarantee you it wasn’t graceful. In fact, at one point he started to really scream, I think just from awkwardness. Nobody wants to be manhandled when they’re hurt and scared and crying. But eventually, he was sitting on my lap.

He stopped crying almost as soon as I had him up there, so I knew he couldn’t be too badly hurt. He had a small, wet smear on his cheek, which looked kind of odd and as I was investigating, his lips parted to reveal a mouthful of blood.

It was like something out of a horror film. My beautiful boy’s face upturned, looking perfectly normal, then the creepy, slow grin washed in blood.

I’m proud to say I didn’t all out panic, even though I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d ever actually seen my boy’s blood. And despite the fact it was now spilling out of his mouth and he was starting to choke on it, I was still heartened that he’d stopped crying right away.  But I couldn’t get him into a position where I could really evaluate what was going on, and I could feel the panic edging closer, so it was time for reinforcements.

I took Aidan into the bedroom, called my husband’s name first calmly to no effect, then more urgently, and once he half sat up looking like I’d pulled him from the dead, tried to explain as calmly as I could that Aidan was OK but he’d hit his face on the floor and was bleeding and I needed help to determine from where.

Poor Dean. Talk about hitting the ground running. He was calm, but what a way to start your day.

I held Aidan while Dean poked around to find the source of the bleeding. You can imagine how much Aidan enjoyed that, so to the madness was added Aidan screaming. But there was good news quickly. Aidan had a tiny cut on his upper lip from his front tooth and it had already stopped bleeding.

Aidan and I both had to change clothes. I shuddered to imagine his grandmother showing up for birthday festivities to find Aidan and I both wearing his blood. And a few minutes later, I noticed his lip was swelling a bit. So, I gave him a frozen teether to munch on and, pretty soon, he was back to his normal, happy self.

Thankfully, I can report the rest of the day was nothing but lovely. When Aidan woke up from his morning nap, he found his grandfather (who’d driven in from Arizona to celebrate), his aunt and uncle (visiting from Italy where they live), and his grandmother (a local and treasured part of his life) waiting for him. He played the day away with lots of loving arms to keep him out of trouble; he opened a bunch of presents, thrilled that his family had given him so much paper to tear and shred (What clothes, books and toys??); sat down to a yummy dinner with his family, which included his very own peach custard with a candle in it; and was sung Happy Birthday by all present, as well as his other aunt, video Skype-ing from Australia. I suppose until he has words, I can’t know for sure, but Aidan seemed for all the world to have enjoyed himself immensely.

As we lay on the bed together, nursing to sleep that night, I just couldn’t get over the feel of his hair against my cheek, and his warm little body in my arm. It’s the tenderness of him, the solidness, just the being-ness that gets me. For all the drama leading up to his arrival, and the moments of drama now, there is this marvelous little child in my life. And he moves me and thrills me like nothing else. I don’t know if that makes him a miracle, but it sure makes him a gift. And I am grateful beyond what words can express.

Happy Birthday, my beautiful boy. Your mama loves you.

Mama and Aidan


Shoe stories

Yesterday, Aidan and I took Reba out for a pee in the morning. It was a beautiful day, not yet too hot but warm enough to be in short-sleeves, and sunny. We wandered up the block to Reba’s favorite spot (really MUST apologize to those neighbors); Reba took her time sniffing around (the canine version of Facebook, I think); we met our postal carrier, chatted about the lovely weather; she flirted with Aidan a bit, who flirted back; we watched her delivering mail to various houses; scooped up Reba’s poop; made our way leisurely to a trashcan; deposited said poop; and were just about to start a short walk when I noticed that I was wearing only one shoe.

Believe it or not, it is not the first time something like this has happened.

The first time it happened was a few months after I was injured. I was trying to get myself to one of many doctor’s appointments. I was running late, of course, still learning how to predict and manage the huge load of new paralysis-induced needs. I’d finally made it out the door, locked up, wheeled to the garage, waited for the electric ramp on my van to deploy, wheeled into the van, and begun my transfer into the driver’s seat when I noticed my feet. My two, small, white-socked feet. Bloody hell, I thought. But I wasn’t about to spend the 15 minutes it would take to unload, go back inside, get my shoes on, and restart the departure process. Screw it. I went to the doctor in my socks.

Since then, it’s happened probably a half dozen more times. Usually, I’m on my way somewhere and as I transfer into my car, I notice my feet are either bare or in socks. And lately, maybe because I don’t go anywhere anymore, I’ve been noticing it after wheeling around a bit in my neighborhood. However, I think this might be the first time I had one shoe but not the other.

The problem at the root of all this (no… it’s not inherent looniness) is that I can’t feel my feet. If I want to know what state they’re in, or that they’re there at all, I have to look at them. And I guess I just don’t look at my feet very often.

When it’s not annoying the hell out of me, this cracks me up.

When Dean and I got married, we jumped a broom as a symbol of crossing the threshold into marriage. It was fun. He picked me up and then jumped over for both of us. Everyone cheered and, as he put me back in my chair to finish out the ceremony, my very soon-to-be father-in-law rather discreetly leaned forward and handed me my shoe.

I don’t think I could have been more shocked if he handed me a rubber chicken. In fact, I’m busting up just thinking about it.

I had started the ceremony with two shoes. Believe me, I checked! And I had no idea when I’d lost this one or how it came to be with my father-in-law.

Our minister went on with the ceremony but neither of us was paying any attention. When did it come off, I wanted to know. Did it hit anyone?

Of course, it had flown off when we jumped the broom and no, it hadn’t hit anyone. My father-in-law found it and, well, tried to inconspicuously give it back.

So much for inconspicuous. I was cracking up. And then I made our minister go back and repeat the part of the ceremony I’d missed. (Our wedding wasn’t exactly traditional… Can you tell?)

There is, yes, a serious down side to not being able to feel my feet. I tore a toenail once and didn’t know until hours later when I found dried blood. I skinned my toe recently when, unbeknownst to me, my bare foot fell off the footplate while I was walking Reba and got caught on the pavement in front of me. And I broke my ankle transferring into the car but only suspected it because of the loud POP I heard. Still, the shoe thing is kind of funny.

It reminds me of a friend of mine who, in a very sleep-deprived state, went to work wearing two different sneakers.

It also reminds me of a guy I met in a writing workshop I taught. He was an ex-offender in a remedial high school program run by the Department of Corrections in Vermont. I was facilitating a workshop on autobiographical storytelling and I’d been cautioned to stay away from potentially charged stories. That’s tricky because you never know what’s charged for other people, but I’d given them a prompt to write a story about shoes. And this guy, who’d been really resistant up to that point, starts scribbling madly. When I asked if anyone wanted to share his story, he nearly fell out of his chair to volunteer. Then, this tough guy gleefully told us about his shoe collection: When he had money – you know, back when he was dealing – he used to buy all these crazy shoes. He had like 100 pair. He could go months and never wear the same ones. All different colors – purple and red… It was crazy!

Which makes me think there must be a lot of great shoe stories out there. If a paraplegic in Southern California and a former drug dealer in Northern Vermont have good shoe stories, so must a lot of other people. So, what’s your shoe story?




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.