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danielle orner

And So It Is, Awe & Wonder, Beating Fear with a Stick, Guest Posts

Tell Your Story.

September 27, 2013

Tell Your Story.

by Danielle Orner.


            As I walked to the stage, I realized I was still tipsy. My pulse thundered in my ears and I could only see the path to the pool of light surrounding the mic. Since the moment the MC read my name, I’d gone blind to the features of all the people around me – most of whom were younger and all of whom had an effortless, artsy cool I’d never quite mastered. My friend had suggested we meet at the restaurant where she moonlighted which ended up meaning unsolicited samples of exotic martini flavors. For a light weight like me, all those sips of jalapeno and chocolate flavored gin added up.

I made it to the microphone. I cleared my throat. We had waited on the sidewalk for nearly an hour to get in. The tiny black box theater was so packed that people had to sit cross-legged on the stage. Every inch of the room, aside from the spotlight in which I stood, was filled with activist, musicians, students, homeless people, and dreamers who had come to hear poetry. So, I opened my mouth and began my first spoken word performance.

I signed up to read because I was in awe of the young people who devoted their Tuesday nights to raising their voices. Here in Los Angeles, we are saturated with stories. The billboards remind us over and over of what heroes ought to look like and who’s tales are worthy telling. Online, we are drowning in the minutia of near strangers’ lives. In the midst of this constant recycled chatter, there are voices daring to speak raw truths. This courage is of utmost importance because stories form the perimeters of our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, the stories we tell frame our thinking. As Jack Kornfield observes, “sacred traditions have always been carried in great measure by storytelling: we tell and retell to see our own possibilities.”

When I spend time working with children, I notice how deeply our narratives build our world. Children are still learning the stories, still questioning how the outcomes, still believing they can end in a different way. You can clearly see the scaffolding of socialization in kids where it has already be cemented over and accepted by adults. Kids will stare in wonder at my prosthetic leg whereas adults have already learned pity or embarrassment. Kids can still dream about what it might be like to be part robot.

A five year old recently informed me and my girlfriend that she has girlfriends that she doesn’t kiss. We could see her fact checking the world against what she had heard in fairy tales and seen on the Disney Channel. Princesses are supposed to be pretty and wait for princes. Recently, a friend also sent me a touching video where an Italian toddler explains to his mother why he doesn’t want to eat animals. Children show us that most of what we take to be “the way things are” is simply a network of stories. This is the reason so many religions remind us to have the minds of little children – not because children are innocent but because they ask questions. They say why, why, why to everything and are not afraid to add their own embellishment. They haven’t learned yet to be afraid of their own voice.

The Hindi tradition teaches that in the womb infants have one song, “please let me not forget who I am.” Once they are born, the song changes to “Oh, I have already forgotten.” We must find the inquisitiveness of a child to question our stories and the bravery to make new ones. Every major social change began with a person being willing to say: this is how it is for me.  Brene Brown, a researcher who explores the importance of vulnerability, reminds us that the original Latin definition of courage is to “tell the story of who you are with your who heart.”

So, do you need to be a writer or poet to make your voice heard? No, there are so many ways to bring our true story to light. Paint it. Journal it. NPR does a beautiful program where they record “ordinary” people talking about their lives. Record tales for your grandchildren to listen to one day. Take time to write or call or chat with loved ones and skip right over the pleasantries. Better yet, ask someone to tell you a true story.

I’m currently in the ridiculously difficult process of attempting to write a memoir chronicling my journey from being diagnosed with cancer at age 15 to surviving a decade of recurrences only to find yoga, become a vegan, get divorced, and come out. In the sheer terror of realizing one day people might read these very vulnerable confessions, I’ve taken to telling stories to my girlfriend’s dog.

It started as a joke at first. I’d sit on the couch and say, “Once upon a time, there was a dog named Coco.” I thought it brought me comfort because it reminded me of how my mom used to read to me and my four brothers every night. We’d all curl up around her after our baths and listen to tales of strange heroes. To this day, I know my strength comes from the books my mom carefully chose about brave girls and soulful outcasts.

Yet, as I continued telling the sweet stray about where she came from, I began to tear up. My girlfriend arrived at the shelter minutes after Coco sunk her teeth into the man trying to adopt her. After a life of abuse, Coco was scared and mistrustful. My girlfriend said she didn’t mind that Coco was broken. At the time, my girlfriend also felt broken and alone in a city far from her family while struggling with all that life had dealt her. The story ends with the broken girl and the broken dog teaching each other slowly that it is okay to love.

I tell this story over and over to the sweet puppy who can’t understand because it is a good story about how even when we feel wrecked and weak we can find healing. It reminds me that even when we feel unlovable and unfixable we still have something to give in this imperfect world.

Whether you whisper it to your sleeping child or turn it into a song, find your own very true “once upon a time.” And listen carefully to all those stories other people are telling you and to the ones on loop in your head. Do the deserve to be there? Or is it time to take the princess out of her tower and into the woods on her own quest? The best kind of tales are the ones that remind us we are both amazingly individual and undeniably connected. Like millions of unlikely heroes all stumbling around on our own dark paths, our lanterns become the pinpricks of light that create constellations. Each voice is needed to tell the story of the whole – the story we forgot at birth about who we really are.



Connect with Danielle on Facebook here.

Guest Posts

Spiritual Temper Tantrums. Guest Post by Danielle Orner.

August 9, 2012
This is a guest post by the lovely Danielle Orner, who also wrote the piece “Cancer Took My Leg, Not My Spirit.

Picture of Danielle and her dad. And the video camera.

Spiritual Temper Tantrums


When I get really angry, I throw things.

At people.

Luckily, I have ridiculously bad aim. The tennis ball or pillow or marker goes sailing past the offending loved one, missing them by miles. I’ve never intend to hit anyone. And it only happens when my boiling blood clouds my vision and I get overwhelmed by the sense of being powerless to make my point of view heard. Still, this is not the disposition of a yogi or even that of a mature adult.

Early on, my family caught this behavior on video camera. My gap-teethed, seven-year-old self sits at a picnic table smudged with dirt and mustard. My dad’s disembodied voice talks to me from behind the lens as I get increasingly ticked off. You can hear the laugh in his voice. My tantrum is comical to all the adults but the humor only makes steam come out of my little ears. Then, the classic moment comes. The action that will go down in family lore. I pick up my baloney sandwich, which already has a big bite taken out of it, and chuck it at the camera with all my might.  Mid-air, the sandwich separates into its different parts and lands in a series of ineffectual splats.


I’ve worked with kids long enough to know that we all have different ways of reacting to that sense of powerlessness.  Some go limp and refuse to move. Some are runners who sprint away from any source of conflict. Some are criers and melt down. I’ve seen toddlers erupt in curses when a star-shaper block won’t fit in a square hole. As adults, we carry many of these early tactics with us. But instead of flailing and wailing at the grown-ups in our life, we throw temper tantrums directed at our circumstances – at God, or the Universes, or whatever divine being guides our lives.


Throughout the day, I try to meditate, pray, or make conversation. I wish I could say that these  are beautiful, wise, and calm moments but, honestly, like a child, I can get cranky. I complain. I whine. I threaten. I bargain. I accuse. I do the emotional equivalent of flopping myself on the floor. I  beg for things that even I know are bad for me. Some days, if the divine being became manifest in front of me, I’d probably chuck a juice box in his or her general direction.  And, I have to say, it would probably be pretty satisfying in the moment.

Once, when I was a teenager volunteering at summer bible camp, the kids were learning about Jonah and the whale. The creative camp director turned an entire room into a belly of a whale big enough for  the kids to crawl into. As I sat in the cool, dark dome made of paper bags, I couldn’t help but feel that this reenactment was making the wrong impression. I wanted to stay in that belly. The kids were quiet in there, almost lulled to sleep after a sweaty day of hyper activity. Sure, it might get boring after a while but the whale’s belly was safe. I could see why spiritual text are all full of people acting like toddlers and telling the spirit no.

For almost a decade, I said no. I didn’t want to talk about my life in the hospital. I wanted that chapter to be over. I wanted to be recognized for my talents and personality. I wanted to be free to create my own identity and live like a normal person. When the first email came from another person suffering with bone cancer, I said to God “Oh hell no, I am not going back to that place – not mentally, not physically, not even to help someone drowning in despair. I made it out and I am done. I’ll stay here in the whale’s belly, thank you very much.” And so I stayed – stuck and stubborn.

When I was a teen in treatment, I met a young nurse who served in the same ward where he had been treated as a pediatric cancer patient. I thought he was crazy. The oncology ward was the place I wanted to escape. I made a vow, that if I got out alive, I’d never look back. I’ve tried to keep that vow.

Recently, a friend posted the quote “what screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it is supposed to be.”

I pictured health and happiness as a world were the c-word was never uttered again. And any nudge in the direction of helping others threw me into a spiritual fit. Instead, I supported other causes and told other stories. Finally, I took a look at the star-shaped block in my hand and stopped swearing about how it wouldn’t fit in a square hole. I realized that the events in my past where not a detour from the path I was supposed to take. They were the path. Call it dharma or destiny, I had messages I need to share. And when I stopped throwing things, paused in my stream of nos, and took a breath, I was amazed by how easily opportunities slid into place. Already, I can feel the sand, the sun, the waves, and the realization that it was very lonely staying safe and stubborn in a stinky, dark whale’s gut.


****Connect with Danielle Orner on Facebook here.

cancer, Guest Posts, healing, Inspiration

Cancer Took My Leg Not My Spirit.

July 30, 2012


This original piece, never seen before, is by the awe-inspiring Danielle Orner. I love how the Universe works and how we met. I wrote a piece for MindBodyGreen about Putting Your Excuses in a Pile Of Sh*t and the editors chose a picture of a girl in a yoga pose holding up her leg. The leg she was holding was a prosthetic leg. A woman commented on the post saying “Hey that is a picture of my daughter.” The daughter, Danielle, reached out to me and since then we have become friends. I have even put her in touch with Emily Rapp, one of my best friends, who is also a yogi, writer and amputee and they are now friends. Connection is amazing, isn’t it? However it occurs.

Below is Danielle’s inspiring story! Please read and share and spread her message. She may have lost her leg but she saved her life and is sharing her generous spirit with us. 

The gorgeous Danielle Orner practices a twisted dog pose, Sunday, March 4, 2012. Click photo to like her Facebook page please!

By Dani Orner.

With the crown of my head on the mat, I watch my toes. I walk my feet, one plastic and one real, toward my face.

Sweat trickles down my back and my core contracts. Even though I feel my body working, it still seems like magic to see one foot and then the other float off the floor. I can hover in headstand for only a moment but I’ve learned by now that today’s limits will be tomorrow’s victories. After all, I used to believe that yoga wasn’t for me.

I used to believe my body was the enemy – the ticking time bomb, daring me to try to live between cancer treatments.

At fifteen, I was an honors student, a varsity runner, a singer, and an aspiring actress. When a running injury grew into a lump just below my knee, I discovered I was also a cancer patient.

I began my life in the children’s oncology ward with fake tattoos and body glitter on my bald head. Armed with a dedicated family and supportive community, I did everything I could to remain positive. People called me an inspiration, but honestly, I did whatever I could to survive. With four younger brothers and a dad in the Marines, I felt guilty for taking up all my mom’s time. She had to give me daily shots, help me bathe, and slept beside me in the hospital room during weeklong chemotherapy sessions. I knew if I couldn’t smile my family and friends would drift away. My greatest fear was that I’d be left alone, left out, and left behind.

Just before my sixteenth birthday, the doctors decided I needed an amputation to prevent the spread of my bone cancer. Although I felt a strange sense of peace about this decision, I also knew that no one would ever see me as well again. I would always be sick and broken in everyone else’s eyes.

I learned to walk again. When I had legs made, my prosthesis’ goal was always to make me look and move as normally as possible. The best I could do was “pass” for able-bodied. Ashamed of my flesh-toned covers, I stuck to wearing pants and avoided walking past windows where I could see the reflection of my halting gate. I auditioned for school plays but avoided changing in the dressing room. My body was an obstacle to my goals. An actress is supposed to be able to melt into whatever character she is playing. She should be able to be beautiful and sexy when the role calls for it. Try as I might, I couldn’t transcend or pretend my way out of my identity. I was always anchored to reality by a hunk of metal.

I had what I believed was my last chemotherapy treatment on the night another girl died. We had shared hospital rooms and I knew her family members, who often brought homemade tamales. I went to hold her hand one last time before I left. Her family had decided against amputation, fearing their daughter would be damaged beyond repair. Who would marry a girl like that, they worried. I walked out of the hospital that night, broken but alive, wondering why I had been saved. I vowed to make a difference, to be worthy of the work and resources the doctors and my family had put into me.

Before my high school graduation, the cancer returned in my lungs. The doctors cut through muscle and spread my ribs to surgically remove the tumors. Two years later, more grew back. The pattern of re-occurance continued until the heart-stopping doctors’ calls blurred into one memory of hopelessness. Even when I was well, I planned my life in the three-month incriminates between scans. I couldn’t feel the cancer growing, so I stopped trusting my body.

For over a decade, I let doctors, specialists, and the scans take control of my health. I felt completely out of control. I stopped telling people about my amputation and cancer. I didn’t want to be defined by it. In college, I threw myself into a frenzy of acting, journalism, working as a resident advisor, and writing. After graduation, I got my teaching credentials as a way of giving back to the community. A second full round of chemotherapy after four lung surgeries woke me up. I had to learn to care for myself.

The doctors recommended removing my ovaries to protect my fertility from a second year of toxic treatments. I declined. I already knew the side effects of my treatments included Leukemia along with cardiac damage, hearing loss, and many other debilitating possibilities. Fertility concerns seemed vain and frivolous compared to these risks. No one had promised me a future since my initial diagnoses when I ask my mom, for the first and only time, if I was going to die. If I ever managed to attain health, I decided I would adopt. I didn’t know then that preexisting conditions make the already difficult process of adoption nearly impossible. All I knew was that I’d always worked extensively with kids so I could love any child when the time came. Besides, I couldn’t stomach the idea of yet another surgery and additional medical bills my parents would have to pick up.

By this point, I was angry with God. I grew up in a very spiritual family and was taught to look for lessons in all experiences. But I wanted to know what I could possibly learn from having the same horrible experience over and over again. I had done all I could to inspire people with my faith and courage in the face of adversity but I still wasn’t getting well. I was deeply frustrated at not being able to build a life worthy of all the sacrifices made to keep me alive. Depression and survivors’ guilt set in as I began to fear my life would never change. Apparently, I still had everything to learn.

Those years for me are what we writers like to call “the dark night of the soul.”

Struggling in a marriage to my high school sweetheart who grew frustrated with my emotions and needs, I was terrified that letting go might mean no one would ever be able to love me again. Our ten year relationship had protected me from the trauma of trying to figure myself out and date as an amputee and cancer patient. He knew what I had been through. He had witnessed my body shutting down from an anaphlactic reaction to experimental chemo and taken me to get a brain scan at two in the morning because I kept blacking out. If he didn’t want to work on building a life with me and encouraging my dreams, maybe no one would. Maybe I had nothing left to give.

Desperate for new tools, I started doing my research. I discovered Kris Carr, The China Study, and many other anti-cancer diet books. I began experimenting with new recipes. I visited a farm animal sanctuary. I became a vegan and focused on a diet rich in whole foods. I started craving a form of exercise that could reconnect my mind and body. I wanted to find peace, strength, and balance. I had already returned to weight lifting and cardio. Still, I needed to reach a deeper level of acceptance.

I was worried I wouldn’t be welcome in a general yoga class. I was afraid of making a fool of myself or of being pitied. So, I practiced at home with DVDs and books. I couldn’t find any specialized classes for someone like me. Still, I had the nagging desire to overcome my fears and practice with others. I had to dismiss the idea that yoga is only for the few – for the graceful, the flexible, and the whole.

Finally, I attend a class. I hid in the back. I was terrified that I’d end up standing around the whole time unable to follow the flow. Self-conscious and awkward, I did what I could. I kept showing up and the amount of things I could do increased. The number of poses I learned to modify grew. I found myself moving through entire classes. I no longer cared that people could see my prosthetic leg in certain poses.

Yoga defies expectations. Over the years I’ve watched people walk into class with an array of expectations of what yoga will be for them: easy, torturous, simply exercise, youth-restoring, spiritual, woo-woo, relaxing, boring, weird, and life-changing. Once you begin your practice, you learn to give up those labels and just show up. In each of my classes, I never know what is coming next. I never know if it will be something I can do or something I have to work on or something I’ll never be able to master. I’m okay with that now. I’m okay with showing up to uncertainty.

Yoga helps me realize that life is a combination of practice and letting go.

As a writer and actress, I deal daily with the cycle of creation, risk, rejection, and getting back out there. Creation happens in the midst of doubt and obstacles. I never know if a book will sell but I start writing those first words anyway. I don’t know when or where funding will come from when I sit down with a team of directors and producers but I edit my screenplay anyway. Like a strength pose where I am learning to relax muscles even as I they shake with effort, I breath into my projects. Yoga reminds me to live in the now. It reminds me, if I keep showing up for myself, I can do more than I imagined.

Several times, I have gone into auditions only to have directors say some version of “you’re great but what’s wrong with your leg.” One even told me he was ready to cast me in the lead as long as my leg was healed by opening night. He thought I had a brace. He ended up casting me anyway. Some casting directors would be excited about me until they watched me walk, painfully slow, up the stairs. I always wore pants and worked hard at “overcoming” the problem of my limp.

In an industry that is all about appearance, I’ve often thought I was at a disadvantage. Sure I could get theater scholarships and do community productions, but make a career out of it, no way. Then, I started combining my talents and writing my own roles. I’ve discovered that I am in the perfect place to tell stories that haven’t been told. I decided to embrace all parts of my identity and stop judging myself by how well I passed for “normal.” I began connecting with other amputees and think of our shared identity as a culture – one we could celebrate.

Now, I dream of pushing the boundaries – both in my life and work – of what is considered feminine, healthy, and sexy. I had to let go of my survivors’ guilt and stop trying to be someone worthy of being saved. Being “an inspiration” can be extremely lonely; especially when I let that title keep me from being, saying, and doing what my true self desired. Despite disappointed friends and family, I let go of a marriage that no longer served me. Currently, I continue to work on the fear associated with the type of films I’d like to make and messages I’d like to send. Will people see me differently after they know what goes on in my head? Maybe. But I’m opening myself anyway. I’m tired of clutching my life so close.

In the western world, we are so competitive and so focused on keeping hold of things we have no control over. We set ourselves against our own bodies. We talk in terms of fighting back the bulge, the disease, and the clock.  We hold tight to images of what we need to be before we find happiness. We think of diets and exercise in terms of deprivation and torture. We push and we struggle. I had to let go of the fight. Now, I listen for where I need to go and take steps into the darkness. I embrace my body in sickness and in health, in triumph and in failure, in strength and in weakness.

Three years into remission, I am no longer afraid. I used to spend so much time worrying about whether or not cancer was growing inside me. I worried about what the treatments would take away from me – my hair, my energy, my career, comfort, future plans, pieces of my body. Now, I treat my body like a temple with fresh vegan food, relaxation, and forgiveness. I celebrate what is here now. I put more scars on my mat than there are scars on my body. No matter what comes, I will be present for it.

Being committed to my health and the environment gives me a sense of stability in a tumultuous, and at times toxic, world. I love it when people ask me how they can change their lives to be more like me. I think it’s kind of funny when people forget to pity me. Together, we are learning to see vibrance instead of disability. I’ve changed the intention behind the question: why me?

For me, yoga is more than an exercise; it is a spiritual practice. When I am on my mat, I remember to just be. I remember that life is a balance between what we can control and what we can’t. I’m learning to live between effort and surrender.

Please like Danielle’s page by clicking here.

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photo of Danielle for Manduka Mats

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Contact Rachel for health coaching, weight loss, strategies, recipes, detoxes, cleanses or help getting off sugar. Click here.

Contact Rachel for health coaching, weight loss, strategies, recipes, detoxes, cleanses or help getting off sugar. Click here.