the new normal

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Smiles and Duct Tape went to Wisconsin last weekend. I’ve been speaking a bunch with the ALD and the special needs worlds, but this was the first time I was sharing our story at a book festival with regular folks. This is what I learned — Regular folks are special, just like us.

I tried not to, but I couldn’t help myself from reading through the bios of all the authors attending the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. MFAs, PhDs, awards, long lists of writing accomplishments. As I boarded the flight to Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but be nervous. How could I compete with all these real authors? And, why on earth would anyone want to go to The New Normal panel when they could go hear about The Poet as Historian or From Page to Stage or Teaching, Writing and Thinking about Queer History?

As soon as I landed, I was put at ease by the warm smile on the face of the man picking me up. He also had a sign with my name on it (I love that whole sign thing). As we got into the car, I asked about his connection to the Book Festival. He shared that he was not just a big fan of the event, but a dedicated volunteer and a former English teacher. My nerves ramped up again as I imagined him editing my work. Why was I here? Maybe Candy invited me on a whim, never thinking I would actually get on a plane and travel the 870 miles. I kept telling myself to breathe. Candy’s an old friend (from elementary school), but she was under no obligation to extend the invite and send me that plane ticket. She must have read the book and thought it would be a good fit for the festival, right? Breathe.

We arrived at the hotel and as soon as I checked in, another author quickly put out his hand and introduced himself. He couldn’t have been nicer and I quickly got over his PhD and other credentials. He was warm, sincere and interested in chatting. Then, I met up with an author who was part of The New Normal panel, and within a few minutes she felt like family. I thought – if everyone here is this friendly, I’m going to be okay.

They were, and I was.

The New Normal drew a larger crowd than I expected and I managed to keep up with the two other panelists. We each had very different stories, but all sorts of connections. I’ve never given a talk with other people and didn’t know what to expect, but it felt natural and I don’t think I even did my usual shaking. I also got to enjoy attending talks by an assortment of talented writers and to reconnect with my old friend Candy (and a pile of her creative/talented friends). All weekend was spent sharing and listening – lots of talking. This was a group that likes words written AND spoken.

As I think about the experience and all the people I met, I’m amazed by the fact that nearly every person I talked with understood “special”. Since I was there to share our family’s journey, people felt comfortable sharing details about their own lives. Many had gone through incredible challenges themselves or helped family through the horrors of illness or depression. They all had been witness to a new normal. Perhaps that’s true about everyone. I think we need a new word for “special”. Human?

Being around such a creative assortment of humans for two days was incredible. Everyone had a story and everyone was eager to hear mine. I walked away energized and eager to start my next writing project (I’ll fill you in on that soon).

I’ve been getting out of my comfort zone quite a bit of that lately. It’s been exhausting, but I’m honored to share Jack’s story with a broad audience. I’m learning a lot about the world and myself along the way.

It’s also good to come home.

Love, Jess

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My reading list:

 

Carolyn Walker’s Every Least Sparrow

Mary Jo Balistreri’s Best Brothers, Joy in the Morning, Along the Way, and Gathering the Harvest

Das Jenssen’s Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discoloses

Jeaneete Hurt’s Drink Like a Woman

Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men

AND if this show comes to a city near you —- GO! The Pink Hulk 

 

a little taste of my old life

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I got a little taste of my old life last weekend.

Two former clients reached out to me about taking some photos. I’ve had the pleasure of doing a few projects over the last ten years, but my days of steady photo work are long gone. Another victim of Adrenoleukodystropy. Occasionally, I get calls from old clients and I usually explain that I’m focused on other things, but these customers wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I dusted off my camera and I crossed my fingers.

Two shoots in one day. It felt strange to be behind the lens again, but as I looked through the work this morning, I smiled. I still got it. I’m not planning on going back to weekends full of families and babies, but it sure felt good to dip my toe into my old life.

I try not to spend much time focusing on what ALD stole from us, but there are some days that remind me of things that we’ve lost. Saturday was one of those days. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and I’ve realized that although I miss my camera, even without working as a photographer, I’m still using that side of me.

I have substituted photography with writing. I approach each in the same way. I have an idea and I troubleshoot until I find a way to achieve my goal – whether it’s catching the sparkle of a giggling baby or sharing a story. And, both photography and writing are about connecting with people. I was a decent photographer, but I think my biggest strength was how I approached my clients. I’m good at reading people and I’m a good listener. I usually managed to make my clients comfortable. When taking portraits you need to have the client feel comfortable with you – otherwise you end up with that lame, awkward smile that we all had in our ninth-grade school photos.

I’m also aware of the comfort of people who read my blog/book. I’m a decent writer, but certainly not trained. I think what people respond to is the voice in my writing. It’s approachable. Whether I am taking about watching JackO win his race at the Special Olympics or how it feels to fight with Social Security or what it’s like to shower your eighteen-year-old son after he has soiled himself, your sofa and the floor (have I written that yet? It’s a common occurrence around here) – I think (hope) I am able to bring people into our lives for a brief moment.

As much as I loved picking up my old life, I think I have settled comfortably into my new one. I’ll take my computer over my camera for now. I need to write to help myself process our experiences and I love sharing with people who are going through similar challenges. I’m putting my camera back in it’s case. Not that I will always say no when old clients reach out. I might dip back into my old life every now and then. Maybe two or three shoots a year  . . . maybe four or five.

Love, Jess

PS While I was writing this, I got an email that a piece I wrote about medical marijuana is getting published on The Mighty. I get my share of notes that start with, “Thank you for sharing your piece. Unfortunately . . . . “. It feels great to get a note that starts with, “Thank you for sharing your story “Our Family Secret” with us! We’d like to feature it on The Mighty and make you an official Mighty contributor.”

 

 

A Room Full of Duct Tape

I’m not sure of the best word to describe Thursday’s reading at WORDS – but unreal and overwhelming keep coming to mind. The reading took place in the basement of our local bookstore (that makes it sound depressing – it’s … Continue reading

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The Eagle has landed. Smiles and Duct Tape has been released. It’s out of my hands and out there for all to see – and read – and judge – AHHHHHHHHH!

I have lived my life trying to keep expectations low. If you strive for an A and end up with a B, you’re disappointed. If you strive for a C and end up with a B, you’re thrilled. I‘ve been a solid B most of my life and proud of that accomplishment. I pat myself on the back almost every day. Even days when I’m making dinner still unshowered in my yoga pants, if my family made it through the day and is being fed, it’s been a successful day!

Smiles and Duct Tape is the first time that people have rather high expectations for me. I do think that my writing has improved over the last ten years, and I’m proud of my 500 word essays on this blog, but the book is 49,000 words – in a row, it’s about the worst 1000 days our family has ever been through, AND I’ve never written a book. I hope people are looking for a solid C performance and give me a big high-five when they discover it’s a B, maybe B+.

If you read Smiles and Duct Tape and enjoy it, I encourage you to write a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. If you read it and think I should stick to 500 words at a time, please keep that information to yourself.

The book is currently available at Deeds Publishing, at our beautiful local bookstore WORDS, Amazon (paperback and eBook) and my basement. Please contact me for quantity purchases (i.e. book clubs/super fun holiday gifts for the whole family) and I will give you a deal.

Love, Jess

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another week walking on eggshells

Good news, bad news.

I will start with the bad so that I can end on a high note (that’s my thing, in case you haven’t noticed).

I had a mild freak-out last week and asked my poor publisher to make some changes to the manuscript. It may have been my way of delaying the production of SMILES AND DUCT TAPE – it’s been hard for me to let go of this project. Anyway, it worked. We’re about a week behind with the release of the book.

The good news is that the book is now with the printer and it should be in your hands by the end of next week. It’s not too late to pre-order – CLICK HERE!

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Now I can spend another week walking on eggshells.

I’m guessing all first-time authors are nervous as they brace themselves for the public’s reaction to their writing. Add that I’m a girl who couldn’t really read until fifth grade AND I was not born a writer — just ask my high school English teachers. I feel almost ridiculous adding the title of author to my resume. And, it’s not just my words that I’m worried about releasing for judgment – it’s my family. I’m hoping that people find our story inspiring, but who knows . . .

It’s too late now. The book will be out there soon and, whatever happens, our family will survive. THAT is one thing that I can always count on.

Love, Jess
I promise that I AM NOT looking at the book again – no more delays.

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10 days.

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Ten days until the release of Smiles and Duct Tape and I’m suddenly in a full-blown panic.

Here’s the thing – As excited as I am to get the book out there, I’m nervous about letting it go. I keep wondering if I’ve forgotten anything or anyone. I’m used to writing 500-word blog posts that I can edit if needed – a book feels so permanent. I’m also worried about the content. I’ve shared our family through the blog for almost ten years, and have been honest, but not quite THIS honest. The book is pretty raw. It follows the first 1000 days of our journey with ALD, and I don’t hold back on the reality of what we went through. I hope that readers appreciate the candor.

If you know our family (or read this blog), you know the ending. You know that Jack survived transplant and so did our family. You know that Dan and I are still married and that Anna has turned into a remarkable young woman. You know that the Torreys are pretty much back to being the family we once were – just with a few complicated issues.

So why did I write this book?

1.) I told people I was writing a book and have a history of not finishing projects. There was no way I was going to “pull a Jess” with this.

2.) I wanted to thank everyone who has helped our family and I’ve never been good with thank you notes.

3.) For typical/normal/non-challenged (insert appropriate PC word here) families to see that differently-abled/complicated/special (insert appropriate PC word here) families are just families.

4.) I want Smiles and Duct Tape to finds it’s way to families going through crisis. Not necessarily ALD (or even illness),  just lives that have turned upside-down. I want to share how our family managed to survive.

So, the book is written and in ten days is will be out there. I’m nervous, excited, and kinda feel like I’m going to throw up.

To PRE-ORDER your very own copy of Smiles and Duct Tape – CLICK HERE!

Love, Jess

PS I’m happy to speak at schools or book clubs or to anyone that might want to hear about how our family survived and accepted a new normal. Please email me to something up.

the book, social security and magic

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It’s been high excitement over here for a couple of days. The book is approaching the finish line and there have been head shots, cover art and websites. And, there’s been social media – Facebook has been like a birthday, only better.

In the middle of all of this, I got a phone call. “It’s the Social Security Administration. May I please speak to John Torrey?”

Deep breath, “I’m sorry, John doesn’t speak. This is his mother, Jesse.”

“Mrs. Torrey, John is over 18. I need to speak with him.”

Count to ten, “Sure. I can put him on the phone. You might get a smile out of him, but I can assure you that he will not speak to you.”

I could hear the shuffle of papers in the background, “Okay, sorry. John got approved for benefits. Can you come in tomorrow morning to finish the paperwork?”

My mind raced thinking of all the things I had planned, but I found myself saying, “How early should we arrive to make this as painless as possible?”

That’s our reality. We have priorities that can’t be put on the back burner.

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So, this morning Jack and I left early enough to be there before the Social Security Administration office opened. Determined to get in and out quickly enough so that Jack didn’t miss too much school and I didn’t miss my very important hair appointment. Unfortunately, we were far from the first in line, so we sat. And sat. Jack and I were busy taking selfies and making each other laugh, when I noticed the couple behind us admiring him. Jack has a way of making friends wherever we go. The man offered Jack some gum, which Jack grabbed without a thought and popped into his mouth (yes – Jack takes candy from strangers and I let him). We started talking to the couple and before too long they shared that their son had Down Syndrome and that they felt so blessed that he is not just doing well, but is happy, “Just like your son.”

We talked and talked – enjoying our visit so much, that I was almost disappointed when we got called to meet with our representitive. We exchanged goodbyes and off we went. As Jack and I sat waiting for the paperwork to be done, our new friends stopped by to say goodbye. The man reach into his pocket and handed Jack his pack of gum, “This is for you Jack. Enjoy!”

Jack gave him a high five and I thanked our new friends and wished them well. Then, as he walked away, the man turned around and said, “Oh, and Jack – take your mom out to lunch.”

I looked down at the gum in Jack’s hands and there was a twenty dollar bill stuck in the pack.

Our lives are complicated, but sometimes I feel like magic follows us around.

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We made it home in time for Jack to go to school for a couple of hours and for my hair to get back to being sassy. Now I have the task of reading the book one last time before it gets printed. As I travel back to the early days of Jack’s diagnosis, I am trying to remind myself of all the magic in our lives and just how lucky we are.

Check out my  “author page” – this is really happening!

Love, Jess

PS  We made a donation to CaringBride today. We love to “pay things forward” and without CaringBridge there would be no book.

Thank yous and big news.

Jack would like to thank everyone for all of his birthday wishes. He had an amazing day and, in typical Torrey style, he’s planning on celebrating all month!!

 

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We’ve had other exciting news here on Clinton Avenue and I’m finally ready to share it. Drum roll please . . .

Smiles and Duct Tape THE BOOK is going to be released this fall. I’ve been working on the project for over five years and I can’t believe that the finish-line is approaching. I received my edits from the publisher last week and we’re busy sorting out the details about the cover art. Holy smokes – this is really happening! I’m honored and excited and a whole lot of scared.

What happens when your world falls apart? Do you simply lay down and take the blows, or do you try to figure out a new way of living? When our son, Jack, was first diagnosed with a rare disease, I wasn’t sure that our family would survive. And, once we realized that life would never return to “normal”, I questioned if it was realistic to strive for ever really being happy again. It took us a while, but thanks to the help of our friends, family, doctors, teachers, neighbors, and a lot of smiles, we managed to mend our family. It’s like we’re held together with duct tape – not pretty, but super strong.

We don’t have the release date yet, but I’m hoping that everyone will have a great go-to gift idea for the holidays. Who doesn’t want a memoir about a ALD family for the holidays?

Love, Jess

 

 

Being “liked”

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Yesterday I went on Facebook and asked people to “like” Smiles and Duct Tape. I need to explain. I wasn’t asking people to “like” me (not really). I was trying to get more information about who reads this blog. WordPress give me facts about country/age/gender, but I’ve been curious about specifics. I’ve wondered how many were friends, family, Maplewood folks, ALD families, or random people who like counting their blessing that their lives are easier than ours.

As soon as I hit send on my status update, I thought, my family is really going to get a kick out of this one. I have a reputation for needing a lot of positive reinforcement, and this seemed to prove the point. I’m not sure where my insecurities stem from, but since I was a little girl I’ve always needed more than my share of pats on the back. Although I am holding to my “need for information” excuse, there might be a little part of me that wanted to know if my words are worthy.

The most significant reason I write is because it helps me to process this life. Finding the right words is like working on a puzzle. I sit down with something on my mind and write without much thinking – like throwing all the misshapen pieces on a table. Then I start to organize the mess. As I work, I see the picture start to form as the story comes together. I know when the piece is finished, because the picture is clear and I feel lighter. If I can explain what we are going through, it means I’ve solved that puzzle.

But it’s not just for me, I also write hoping that this blog helps other people. Whether they’re families like ours who are looking for their peers or “typical” families trying to better understand what it’s like to live in our shoes. I think people respond to the blog because it’s real stories about a real family. And, there’s nothing complicated about the way I write. I fell into writing without much training and hopefully that makes my style approachable (although my lack of schooling may explain part of my insecurity). A friend once said that she could hear my voice when she reads my blog. That was the best compliment I’ve ever received.

So I write for survival and to help others, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care about numbers and compliments. I do look at the stats every day and smile when I see a new reader or another country pop up on my stats page. I do like when someone reaches out to tell me that they enjoyed my latest piece – like I’ve been able to create some good out of this nightmare we’ve been through. It doesn’t make it worth it, but it helps and I guess I am still that little girl who needs validation.

Smiles and Duct Tape received 130 “likes” yesterday. Thank you! Now, if you can hit “follow” on the bottom right corner of this page, I can really feel like this whole blogging thing matters AND I promise to stop begging for love for a while.

Love, Jess