About Elizabeth di Grazia

An artist, I follow the nudge inside of me. This nudge led me to write Peace Corps stories, find the front door to the Loft, and to graduate from Hamline’s MFA program. The story that became my thesis for Hamline is woven into my book manuscript: HOUSE OF FIRE: From the Ashes, A Family, a memoir of healing and redemption. It’s a story about family. And a story about love–for my partner Jody and the son and daughter we adopted from Guatemala. Most days, I can be found working as a Human Resource Manager for a foundry in Minneapolis. When I am not at the foundry I may be volunteering as a Police Reserve Officer for Richfield, MN or kicking butt at Kor Am Tae Kwon Do.

Sometimes

“She’s staring again,” Juan Jose’ remarked to Crystel on Tuesday. The three of us were dining at Pizza Luce. The 19-year-olds sat across from me. I was looking past them, merely looking, not staring at all, at the people coming in the door, the servers rushing into the kitchen, dodging for silverware, the water pitcher, the food that was ordered.

Crystel shook her head back and forth, “She always does that, you know that.”

It could be a girl Crystel’s age that will pull me back to the horror of being raped. A toddler sitting on my lap, dozing, her limbs a rag doll. Trusting. Safe. No worries. What would she have to worry about? She’s 2 years old. At 4, adorned in colorful scarves, beads, and unmatched socks. A Jasmine Princess at 5. Loving Johnny Depp at 8. Being the first to jump in the pool, the first to ride her bike, the first…

“I’m writing stories,” I say in my defense.

I’m studying people. Their familial relationships. Body language. Emotional state. Piercings. Tattoos. Eye contact.

That morning I studied a photo of a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl. She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, smiling eyes, smooth face. She looked happy.

I pictured the 14-year-old who raped and killed her. How much bigger he would have been than her. His height, weight, and strength. My stomach tightened.

I was her.

8 years old

8 years old.

The young girl with a smooth face. Smiling.

I was no match for a 14-year-old.

My four older siblings just kept getting older. And I would always be the younger.

The running track already set. An oval that I would run round and round.

Never getting away.

I asked for help when I was 9. I was afraid. They were bigger. I needed help.

None was forthcoming. I became that 10-year-old. Only I didn’t die.

It lives within me. The assaults. The rapes.

The watching of others.

My Sixties Echo My Twenties

Volunteering, embracing new ventures, and self-learning described my twenties. I ran marathons, took week-long bike trips with Jim Klobuchar (Jaunt with Jim), and was flooded with personal insights. Not long before this, I was a two pack a day smoker, didn’t own a bike, and hadn’t yet begun any inner work.

Springing into my twenties, I embodied two mottos: “Say Yes! to everything if it isn’t illegal or dangerous,” and “Don’t let fear stop me from doing things alone.” Do it anyway. Outer and inner work was simultaneous. I was desperate to understand myself. I wanted to be my own wise person. Seek my own counsel. Only then could I really be free to live my best life.

I rollerbladed marathons with a nephew. Volunteered at a week-long Christmas pageant, dressed as a Shepherd, herding live sheep. Often, I cat, and house sat for others while they were on vacation. After many attempts, I quit smoking.

Going it alone opened my world to many possibilities. If I wanted to do something, I could do it. I didn’t know anyone on my initial ‘Jaunt with Jim’ bike trip. By week’s end, I had lifelong friends.

A sense of déjà vu came over me the last week of March when I volunteered to be a Brand Ambassador for the Title IX Celebration at the Mall of America. There were eight days of family-friendly activities, games, and performances to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

I stood under the basket on the Fastenal Sport Court in the Rotunda shagging balls for the free throw contest.

I still hadn’t learned. Just like I biked over a rumble strip on my inaugural bike trip, spilling out, scraping my arms and legs, I was hit twice in the face with a basketball before I determined that positioning myself under the hoop was best left for others. I came home with black eyes.

My next volunteer assignment was the selfie booth. That might have been a mistake on the organizers’ part. The only person taking selfies was me. I can still entertain myself. That hasn’t changed one bit.

A familiar fear came over me when I started strength training. Crystel helped me over the hump and accompanied me on my first BodyPump group training at the YMCA. Sometimes, it’s good to have a friend. After one group session, I realized that my weights were not evenly placed on my barbell. No wonder I was unbalanced during the class with one end going up and coming down lopsided. I thought something was off.

Teresa, Crystel, and I volunteering concessions at Twins game.

Last week I started volunteering at Achieving Dreams. The program is entirely comprised of volunteers. All proceeds are focused on our mission to help families afford meaningful and positive experiences in organized activities and education. Jody, Crystel and I, along with friends are donating our time to fundraise for Crystel and others’ educational expenses.

How much time do I have left in this life? 10 years, 15? A day?

What’s next? Perhaps, biking across Iowa on my electric bike, grey hair askew, steering away from rumble strips, lifting my legs up when I go through puddles.

I’ll figure it out. I’m my own best counsel. I’m living my best life.

Unexpected Joy

Trips are an adventure.

I plan. I research.

And yet…anything could happen. In the not knowing moments, the unplanned, I feel the most alive.

I often don’t do enough research to understand that I should be afraid. Such as driving to Whitefish, Montana for a family Christmas ski holiday with friends. Whiteout conditions forced us to spend extra days in a hotel. There was dog sledding, snowmobile driving, and skiing Whitefish Mountain. Those activities seemed tame. Checking off the boxes. The drive itself was the adventure. Funniest was the holiday mix-up where I didn’t receive a gift. Names had been drawn. Presents packed for the trip. Obviously, someone forgot they had my name and thought they had someone else. Life is funny like that sometimes. Hands you an unexpected letdown and how will you respond? For me, an opportunity to be gracious and see the humor in the unexpected all while moving through a range of emotions.

Our family has made many trips to Guatemala. I planned the paintball outing in the mountains but not the deep circular bruise in the middle of my forehead. I forgot to research protective gear and the speed of paintballs. On this same trip, to disembark from a boat in a squall, I threw myself on a swaying homemade dock in the pelting rain when the a lancha got near. That’s how you arrive in port in a secluded Mayan village. I’ll never forget that. I’ll also remember my son reaching his hand out time and time again to help me climb the mountain above Santa Cruz La Laguna to reach the next village. He became a man that day, looking after his mother.

I plan. I research. Yet, sometimes, I’m not even aware of the task I’m taking on. I just go forth. Bringing my family with me.

Backing our rented 32 ft. RV into the driveway after arriving home from the Grand Canyon, I thought to myself, “What chutzpah Jody and I have.” To think we could rent an RV and drive it to the Grand Canyon having never driven anything bigger than an SUV. This feeling of triumph trumped the planned Grand Canyon helicopter tour and mule trip down the canyon.

I certainly didn’t research the driving fear factor on our trip to Mount Rainier National Park and Crystal Mountain Resort. The drive required us to drive at a height of 6,681 ft. with no guardrails. While driving, I came to view our RV as a weapon that could kill us all with one wrong move. Later, one of our dogs tumbled down a cliff. This was unplanned. When we figured out he was going after rocks that were being kicked off the hiking path, we walked more carefully.

Our five-week stay in Florida brought me unexpected deep joy. When I was in Tonga in the South Pacific for the Peace Corps, the ocean scared me. I couldn’t figure out how that tiny island stayed afloat. I was familiar with the solid earth of Wisconsin cornfields. I never did get comfortable in Tonga. But in Florida, I stared for hours at the ocean, losing myself in the sound and strength of the water.

Our family has an upcoming trip to Yellowstone and to Maui.

I’ll research. I’ll plan.

It’s the unexpected that will touch me.

Peace Corps Volunteer. Tonga, South Pacific

Somewhere on a Beach

February 2021 brought the 5th coldest ever 10-day period of weather to the Twin Cities going back to 1873.

Our frigid Minnesota temps were being blasted on the radio.

“Let’s leave for a month next year,” I suggested to Jody.

She was working remotely. What would be the difference if she was managing projects from a home office in Florida? 75+ degrees. Sunshine. Heat. Warmth.

What surprised me is how much I’m enjoying all of it. My heart beats faster. I don’t want to be inside.

The Atlantic Ocean is a 1 ½ mile walk from our AirBnB.

I’m driven to be immersed in the sunshine, heat, and warmth.

Sitting sedentary on the beach listening and watching the fits and starts of the waves, takes all thoughts from my head. Nothing else exists for that moment as the waves rush in.

I stay another moment, and another, and another.

I don’t want to miss a thing.

I Made It!

I didn’t die.

My goal for retirement was to get out alive. To not die while still working. Early deaths in my family haunt me. My parents and four siblings died early deaths at ages 72, 67, 60, 59, 57, and 30. That is unnatural.

Monday, I woke up with a smile on my face. My current goal is good health. I want to outlive my other seven siblings. My chances are good. I’ve recently become a mall walker when it is -10 windchill. Yes, I’m now one of those, I tell myself. Jody and I will be spending the month of February in Florida.  She’ll be working remotely while I’m walking the beach.

Our kids are our retirement plan. Crystel has applied for National Student Exchange in Hawaii for the 2022-2023 school year. We’ll follow her. They should be worried that we won’t leave their basement!

My next goal is to find my rhythm in retirement. Cooking, writing, reading, being outdoors. I want to find out what retirement means to me. Right now, it feels like freedom. A blank page to define myself.