Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Home On American Soil

Those four words. So simple. So beautiful. So deep in meaning to the citizens of the United States of America.

Home is where you were raised. Home is the sounds of your house. It is the wind coming across the wheatfield or the symphony of the city streets.

Home is the way sunset looks across a Mongolian plain, or the sound of the water lapping against a Newfoundland riverbank.

Home is the way people dress where you were raised. Home is the music of the instruments they play, the sounds of your language on the radio, the foods of your holidays.

Home is home all over the world, in whatever country you live.

What is it like to be Italian, and come to your country and hear the rhythms of your language, when you have been long away? A friend from Australia told me once that when she got on the plane to home and heard Australian accents, it was like warm water washing over her, with peace.

Home is your country, your country’s cities, your ways of educating your children, your transportation methods. Home is your culture. And at its root, home is the soil of your country, for the soil determines the food that is native to your land, the shapes of its fields and hills, and the look of it: the trees and flowers and animals that live upon it.

Let us be human, and appreciate the importance of home to every single person on our planet.

We, in this country that is America, love our home land as you love yours. We are just human beings, and we love our country as simply and earnestly as the citizens of every country love their home, and we love returning to it.

When we come home, we leave the plane and put our bags down for a moment to rest. We will pick up our bags and continue on our journey, from the airport to a connecting flight or to the highway, from the highways to our county, to our township, to our street, to our front door. We will carry the bags a long way before we are fully home and can unpack them.

But there is one bag Americans never unpack. One bag that we carry with us always when we travel, and always as we live in our homes in this country. That package is our national awareness.

Our national awareness is complex and can be difficult to shoulder. Perhaps more than the citizens of most countries, we carry with us always the good and challenging parts of our heritage and our culture. Do we, upon meeting individual Chinese people, hold them subconsciously accountable for the sins of China upon human rights? No, I don’t believe we do that on an individual basis. On meeting a person from a repressive regime, do we assume they are an automatic extension of their country’s politics, its strengths and weaknesses? I don’t think so.

But it is a given that Americans are held accountable for America.

We are reviled, sometimes justifiably. Personally innocent or not, as Americans, we bear in the eyes of the world the sins of our brothers and sisters who have parochial attitudes and ignorant arrogance.
We are envied for our riches. Wealthy or not, we are seen as wealthy. Even when poor, we are seen as having limitless opportunity.

We are desired for our freedoms, and we are hated for them. Parts of the world wish they shared our government, our economic opportunities, our courts – and part of the world fears them, and tries to destroy them.

Our country bears the stress of feeling responsible for caring for the world. We know that when there is a big problem, all eyes look to us to see what we will do. If we do well, it is expected. But if our government as a whole or our citizens as individuals do less than well, or differently than we would have chosen, we are often damned as a whole in the eyes of the world. We – politically contentious, religiously fractious Americans - are seen as one cohesive group, and we are held jointly responsible.

We know this. It is our challenging gift, our burden to carry, in exchange for the right to be citizens of the United States. I wonder if other citizens of the world understand the weight of that individual little piece of the American Ideal that weighs always on our shoulders and in our hearts.

And when we do leave, wherever we go in the world, we carry that invisible burden. We carry the praise and fault the world finds with the US as its citizens. We shoulder it like one of our traveling bags. It is sometimes heavy, requiring work - but there is never the thought of not wanting the burden. We never unpack it, and we never put it down. Except once: the first moment back after long and weary travels.

As travelers worldwide feel upon reaching their own country again, we are deeply happy to be home.
As American travelers, we can put momentarily put down that other package.

We have carried it as travelers, and we will carry it as citizens living at home - but for one brief moment, as we cross back into our own country, as a kind of salute crossing back in, we can put it down in a moment of grateful welcome home.

We love our country with a passion that is part normal love of home…and part appreciation, bordering on reverence, for being a human piece of what the United States is to the world. Heroes come from every country in the world - but the United States is expected to step up regularly. We love our country for giving us, over and over, the opportunity to be heroic, to be expected-of…and to live larger by doing so.

Our soldiers? We send our children, our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends and nieces and nephews and friends out as our military, carrying the supersized version of The American Ideal. Our soldiers do humanitarian work all over the globe, and they do the work required of them by acts of Congress and their squadron leaders. Our soldiers, more than any other American citizen, carry that invisible burden of world expectations, reverence and revilement.

Beyond the pledge of allegiance, they have literally sworn to lay down life and limb to care for our country and our citizens. They have seen death take people who wanted to come home as badly as they did. They have had to put their trust in leadership with whom they may or may not agree, and just do the work they’re told. They have worked really hard and have done without for months, far from those they love. Their chunk of The American Ideal is bigger and heavier than the ones we each have to carry.

If they are lucky, their whole squadron returns safe and sound. And on one fine day like today, a day of blizzards and record snows, the telephone rings unexpectedly early in the morning and we hear a beloved voice saying the sweetest, sweetest words: “I’m home.”

I don’t know what the future holds for our warring, willful species. I only knew in that moment one wonderful, wonderful thing: my son is home on American soil and he will be not be shot at any more.

All the air went out of me. I’ve cried off and on all day. And now, I can put down an invisible burden too, one I’ve carried for the last several months.

But I never have to pick this one up again.

Thanks for checking in,

Monday, February 8, 2010

Nothing but joy..., joy joy and happiness.

We don't know where he is, but we know he's on the way.
smiling, laughing, happy tears, so happy!

Thanks for checking in,

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kind Of Mad At Myself, Part II

So little time to squeeze in so much stuff to still say….

I’m kind of mad at myself still, but in little ways.
I’m disappointed in myself. With all these months to focus on it, I thought I would be a better person in some way, but I am no different in any way that I can see. Except a little fatter and a little more out of shape…instead of the other way around, as I intended.

Zach is different, and I am sure his squadron mates are. They have done so much, worked so hard, stood so much, and so of course they have grown as human beings and adults, even though they may not know it yet. They may have some emotional stuff to clear out, over time. I hope they will come home to good relationships and that it’s all good moving forward.

Most of them will likely look back on this time as one of the most important in their lives. What they hated about it will diminish fast with time, and, like all experiences that teach us a lot, the good will grow in their minds and their memories.

But me and my family: how have we used the time to grow? As much as we wanted?
The lesson here is that good intentions need focus or the time can slip by!

But also, I believe that having good intentions in and of itself is pretty important. I’ve thought about being fair to the Afghan people, and about being understanding of the pressures faced by our family members in the service. So that’s maybe not a growth, but I hope I stuck by my beliefs.

Part I was about how I was kind of mad at myself for being afraid so much; Part II was going to be about being a little mad at myself for not growing or deliberately improving in some way during the same time.

Now, this post towards the end of this experience is going to either go way south or way deep, and I’m not sure which it will be. But I will be honest. A few days after I wrote the Part I post, I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, having what I think was the last opportunity for fear to ambush me. A kind of last-flight last-hurrah for the fear. How many times have I fought it off, but here it was again, in full attack mode.

And I’ve written, either here or other places, about the process of coming to see fear as a thing to be loved and forgiven, so that it has less power over us. It doesn’t change the fact that it harasses me constantly. But it was a kind of another-epiphany along that line of thought.

This is a little out there. So buckle up and I hope it makes sense!

Fear is stupidness. Fear is dumbness. Fear is not-knowing, not-understanding. Fear is the emptiness of knowledge; it is the opposite of fullness. It is the sucking-out of the marrow, the destruction of the Good. It comes to us in loneliness, unalterable, unable to change itself or be other than it is: wistful, ugly, and hoping we will understand, even while it scorns us if we do.

Fear does not want us to yield to it; even fear hopes that we will be stronger than it is, and secretly hopes that we will triumph over it...but it must do its job. The harder we resist it, the more insidious it becomes. The stronger we grow, the more it must try and topple us. It is required of the universe; it is the gravity we must have to push against so we can prove to ourselves that we can fly. Poor fear cannot be a friend even to itself, for it must attack anything good.

Fear hates itself for being as much as we do. It must try to poison the well even while it hopes that it will be an abject failure, and that we will not drink.

So we must / should be patient with fear, and compassionate to it. We will never change fear. We will never improve upon it's condition; that is impossible. But we will deepen ourselves. In the effort to do good to it, we will increase our capacity. We will fly.

It is in our willingness in offering food and drink and shelter and welcome to the self-loathing wretch at our gate that we define our goodness.

The feral cat can not be tamed; but what does fear do with the knowledge that it could not destroy us?
Nothing; it is incapable of understanding. It can only assault.

We can never destroy it. But we must not ever let it destroy us.
Love, instead.

So when fear comes to call, speak kindly to it. Doing so will not improve fear's condition. It can not and will not take on any of your nature. We may need to be strong. We may need to take action.

But with kindness as your shield and interface, you are protected: you will not take on any if its nature, either.

Kindness towards fear renders us more impervious to its assaults.

I wrote that from 1:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. If it makes sense to you, that’s good. If it doesn’t, blame the hour.
I’ve said I was Over The Fear so many times before that it seems ridiculous to say so again. But something changed.

And shortly after that, Zach laughed at me and said carelessly, “You worry way too much. You should stop that.”

And I did.

Well, damn. We should have had that conversation a lot earlier…!

So, a little work left. And a next phase in life, for good intentions, for onward and upward, and for the dance.

For making time to smile.

Thanks so much for checking in. Be well,

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kind Of Mad At Myself, Part I

I'm mad at myself. I promised myself in this experience that I would not, would not give in to the fear which so often has run me in the past, and what did I do? Totally every day give in to it. Every day, let it come in and boss me around and mess up what in retrospect was a perfectly good day.

It is only as they round the last turn in this period that I am finally able to think for real with pleasure about what Zach’s day might be like today, and be happy, for him, and just happy in life, carefree. That’s so stupid. I’ve wasted all this time being worried, like so many other times, and I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I did. Any comments of reassurance aside that we’re all human, I genuinely wish I had done better.

I don’t have a handle on how my particular variety of fear works. I intend to think about it and study it from my own perspective until I understand more about it operates for me, so I can help other people who get in the grip of it like I do.

I imagine as the folks on deployment go through their day, this is the priority list of how their awareness is focused:

1. Lots of doing their work, whatever it is. Thinking about and paying attention to the job at hand

2. Social interactions, both while working and on the bus and during meetings, while eating, showering, sleeping, relaxing. Lots of laughing and joking, plenty of regular conversation mixed with work conversation, some annoyance and bitching

3. The deprivations of camp life, which they probably got used to in the first couple of months and don’t think about so much unless the weather is seriously crappy

4. Thoughts of home and wanting to be home

5. Fear and worry

For people who have a loved one on deployment, depending on the nature of the work that person is doing, I’d recommend that we have the same basic sequence of awareness. If who you have there is stationed on a base, just relax. Although you miss them being there, they are really very safe. Maybe treat the separation as a time of discipline for us at home too, to get stronger and more effective. Calm discipline can be such a great thing!

For people who have a loved one on deployment who is not regularly on a base and may be exposed to danger, I’d still recommend the same thing. It gets you through faster and helps to keep item number 5 at bay. And statistically, as I said in the very beginning of this blog, they’re really pretty darned safe, so don’t spend the time making yourself sick over something that’s not likely to happen.

Great advice. I wish I’d taken it.

Instead, my awareness sequence is kind of in reverse. I worried so damn much. Too many scary thoughts. I fought off the scary imaginings by deliberately picturing him laughing, talking, joking, working on work. And when I wasn’t fighting fear, when I was enjoying my hot bath or my air conditioning or the refrigerator right there when I was hungry or having the bathroom a quick dry walk from my bed when I woke up in the middle of the night…when I was enjoying those luxuries, I kind of anquished about the deprivations, about what they didn’t have.

That was stupid. They didn’t worry about that stuff even a fraction as much. And nothing will faze them now. They survived basic training, and they’ll be so much tougher from taking this in stride.

We knew our fears and tears and worries can make them focus on that stuff more. They shouldn’t have to shoulder any more burdens than they already are, so we bucked up and didn’t discuss it, but boy, I have discussed it here ad nauseam, I’m sure. I apologize.

I’ve learned this: fear loses some of its grip on us when the end is in sight. Is it that hope gets stronger, and that encourages faith that all will be well? Or is it that the diminishing of days left to worry, we get a little brassier, a little more confident, and we win more rounds just because we fight fear harder?

I don’t know.

In the meantime, happily, all is well. Kudos to them once again for the work they are doing.

Thanks for checking in,

Monday, January 18, 2010

Letter From Riley To Zach

Dear Zachary,

I hate Mom. She says I have to hand in my man card and apparently that is pretty funny to her.

I also hate The Little Cat. It is all The Little Cat’s fault.

Which, did I mention, The Little Cat has claws? Really sharp claws, which I do not?

And that it stalks me?

Ben and Gabe got home from going to the mountains and they unloaded all the food and the cooler and Ben put The Little Cat in the cooler because you know that sick little skulker likes to get in any new box or bag or anything new and it was in the cooler and I did not know this important fact and I smelled into the cooler poking my nose into a little crack of the lid which was open from which really awesomely good smells of food and stuff were coming and while I had my nose stuck deep into it…The Little Cat put her paw out of the cooler and swiped me.

I wasn’t sure it was The Little Cat at first and thought I might have just bumped my nose on something and the cooler did smell so wonderfully of food that I went back to the crack and as I was putting my nose towards it The Little Cat pounced out - she POUNCED ME, I tell you - and startled me.

I walked quickly away from the cooler because on second thought I decided it was kind of stinky and I did not like the smell of it any more. Mom was laughing at me because she said I was afraid of The Little Cat but I was not, truthfully, the cooler on second thought just did not smell that good. It smelled like Little Cat Pounce Tricks and the last time I intersected with a cat’s claws, you will remember, was the time I got blood, well, all over the house.

(Literally, Dad says is the word I should use here. He said it louder: “Blood Literally Everywhere.”)

So I walked away kind of quickly (Mom is still laughing and she says I bolted but I did not) and kind of coughed (Mom says I yelped in squeaky terror but I most definitely did not do that either) to show The Little Cat that I thought its pounce tricks are stupid and now I am behind the couch and The Little Cat is looking for me and Mom is laughing and laughing and says I have to hand in my Man Card.

Whatever that is.

So if you have an extra one will you please send it to me because I have a feeling it is something important I need to show The Little Cat that it is not the boss of me.

On second thought it might be a good idea to send two in case I lose the first one. I mean, in case I drop it somewhere, not in case I have to give it up, which I would never do. Unless The Little Cat keeps looking at me like that in that taunting way. Do you think The Little Cat looks a little like a clown? Tell it to stop looking at me and looking at its claws!

Or send an extra one in case I need to give it to Mom so she can stop laughing and breathe again. Because I’m a Big Tough Dog but I’m just nice that way.

I miss you and can’t wait to see you.
Your dog,

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Spread Healing, What Little Bits You Have To Share

It’s hard to feel like these words matter very much in the face of what’s going on in so many places around our globe, especially in Haiti. But I believe human pain, even on a massive scale such as they are facing there, comes down to little equations of one and one. One person may feel for many people, but it’s done on a one-by-one basis.

So maybe one-by-one words, even in such a little remote corner of the world that this blog is, matter. This blog is about one mother loving her son and his co-workers, and loving utter strangers in the world where they are working, both enemies and friends, in the hopes that it will encourage goodness and safety for all.

One person grieves for, misses, loves, hopes for one other person one at a time, no matter how many there are. One person celebrates and loves others, one at a time, no matter how many there are.

We empathize with the people of Haiti now because we grasp what it is like to worry about a missing brother, or father, or sweetheart. The part we cannot comprehend is feeling that way about so many at once. 9/11 was the closest we’ve come recently to understanding that. All of the Haitians in the world and Haitians in their country ares bearing those heavy burdens; hoping, loving, worrying.

Did you see the news footage of the people there singing? I don’t know what started it, but there they were, hundreds or thousands of people, walking two or three or four wide, singing.

Whatever that stuff is deep in us humans that causes us to love life, to find happiness in the midst of the worst, wow. And when we share it, it grows and grows and grows.

I wish them recovery.

In the middle of my quiet winter month, I noticed again this January that it is right around Twelfth Night that I feel the grip of winter loosen. It’s not even close to spring, but the days are suddenly a heartbeat longer. Something wild and circadian in me picks up on it.

In the middle of this quiet winter day, I have just finished an article on maple syrup. How the sap starts up in the tree long before there is any real evidence of spring.

In the middle of this quiet winter hour, I want to share a little personal happiness. I would be almost afraid to say it, except for I said No More Fear.

Zach is coming home soon! Soon we will see him, strong, safe, smiling. Healthy and happy.

You know how good that is going to feel.

I wish the world well. May happiness spread out from one little pocket and another and another to patch together and help heal the rough and raw places.

Thanks for checking in,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


There is a sobering website I go to frequently:

The nightly news is often full of one of our nation’s wars: members of congress refusing to work as partisans, instead fully engaged in proving that the advancement of their political party is far more important than the good of the country. It seems from watching some congressmen that destruction of the other party - even if it means destruction of our country - is the most important goal.

The news of the other war, the one where people get killed, is sporadic. I give the news agencies credit: they try to feature it. But if you don’t have a loved one over there, people lose interest.

So when we haven’t heard from Zach recently - which means something has happened to a soldier - I go to the, Operation Enduring Freedom (read: Afghanistan), which offers dates, names, hometowns, marine bases, and where they were stationed.

The silence from our son is because of these young men:

The Department of Defense announced today the death of Marines supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lance Cpl. Jacob A. Meinert, 20, of Fort Atkinson, Wis., died Jan. 10 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Lance Cpl. Mark A Juarez, 22, of Bakersfield, Calif, died Jan 9 while supporting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Sgt. 1st Class Jason O. B. Hickman, 35, of Kingsport, Tenn., died Jan. 7 at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered earlier that day at Combat Outpost Bowri Tana, when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire. He was assigned to Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska.

And a young Danish man, Constable Simon Sejer Hoffman. You can see his face and honor him by reading this page, which Google will translate roughly for your (click Translate, upper right corner):

Today, the soldiers of their units will need to grieve - but they will also need to work and they will need to laugh. They will need to eat and take care of their bodies and reassure those at home and be fully alert in their jobs. They will need to work with partners and leaders who may be great friends or irritate them. They may need to put their very lives in the trust of soldiers who have radically different political and religious beliefs than they hold.

They may need to face and work with and talk to Afghan people who may know who placed the bombs that killed their friends, or who may be innocent and hate the violence, and they will not know on which side those people stand.

And they will do their jobs. Having received Marine training, they will do so with more respect, more restraint, more responsibility, and far less interest in self than some of our most outspoken members of congress.

We choose daily in life who we will emulate, what we will be, what we will build. Our words, our thoughts, our many small actions daily are the bricks with which we create our life.

None of us is perfect. But daily, let us do our very best to choose wisely the legacy of our lives to our children and our communities.

Thanks for checking in,

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Problem With Not Writing...

…is that nothing gets written.

Do you ever have that feeling, when you’ve been working on something really hard, and you know, suddenly, when you have reached the point when you know it’s going to happen?

I arm wrestled a young relative recently. I thought for sure he would win, the first few seconds of the challenge. But I held on, and managed to get us back to an even, straight-up position. We locked into it, and I just made up my mind to hold on. I didn’t think I could win, but I was pretty sure at that point I could just stay steady. So we kept going, the laughter set aside for the moment as we gripped each other's hand intensely.

And then, somehow, I suddenly knew I was going to win. And I did – to, I will add, astonishment and laughter and a certain respect from the other guys in the room. It was all in good fun, but what an experience!

This experience of having my son doing stuff in the course of his job which, while not always dangerous, certainly has its moments, has been hard. I have struggled with fear on a daily basis. Often my first thought on waking has been of him, and the last one before sleeping. All this despite me knowing that statistically he is very safe.

So every day, I said my prayers that he would make good* decisions when needed and that other people, including the folks shooting at them, would make good decisions, so that in creating an environment where good was encouraged, it had a better chance of happening.

*Note: my personal definition of a “good” decision while engaging in conflict with another group, be it a tiny conflict or a national one:

1. that you follow the orders and procedures you have promised to follow, except where doing so would more deeply endanger the lives and safety of those you have pledged to protect

2. that you take good care of yourself as well

3. that we keep an open mind, and, when no one is in direct danger, and where no orders are being contradicted, when a decision is made, the path which offers the most good for all involved, including one’s adversaries, is chosen, whether the good be immediate or future.

4. that, wherever possible, compassion and kindness are weighed as heavily as personal gain in making the decision

I just figured that the worry would never leave me. That’s okay. I was prepared to stay locked in with it.

But two things happened: I finally got one of the newsletters sent from Louise Yeager, the Family Readiness Officer whose job is help keep up morale of families back home. Her primary service is to young husbands and wives and children of those on deployment, but moms can benefit too! The pictures of young soldiers fooling around doing Halloween stuff – dressing in costume, decorating the area with Halloween icons, etc -was hugely healing.

I always had the sense that they worked, ate, slept and got up to work again. It was so great to see them…playing.

And in talking about those pictures with Zach, just before Christmas, he gave me a huge present. He said, “Oh yeah. There’s still time for shenanigans.”

The word shenanigans has a great connotation in our family. Understanding what it means exactly is complicated, but it was a blazing lighthouse signal to me that he was really okay. That despite the physical hardship and boredom and fatigue and all that, he’s still finding ways to laugh and have fun.

That little comment broke the months-long logjam of fear in my mind - and that was that. Just like in the arm-wrestling match, a little bit later, I suddenly knew I had won the battle with fear for this deployment. I felt it deep in my body, a sense of release, of not carrying that weight any more.

I’m at peace.

I trust that Zach and his squadron will be fine and come home fine, happy, and safe in body, mind and spirit.

Fear is not nipping at my core or eroding little happy moments, any longer.

What happiness!

In the busy days of holidays and blizzards and work and deciding to paint during blizzards and the house being a mess and trying to sum up these feelings, I have procrastinated writing in this journal.

It’s been bothering me. The problem with not writing is that nothing gets written. And the longer I don’t write, the harder it is to start again.

There is so much backstory still. Stuff I can’t put into the blog that caused a lot of the fear. Close calls, danger faced, that kind of stuff. But with the fear gone, all that stuff becomes stories to hear when Zach gets home. Serious stuff...and shenanigans.

Thanks for checking in,

Ps. there is no doubt in my mind that my dear young relative is going to come back and crush me in arm wrestling next year - ! In the same way, fear of something may attack me again, and I may struggle again. But both of these contests, the small one arm-wrestling and this big one of fear-wrestling have taught me an invaluable, bone-deep experience: Just Hang On, and in so doing, you may achieve something you never thought possible.

Pps. if you too want to understand the lighthearted silliness that the word shenanigans can convey, rent a movie called Supertroopers. It’s absolute pure nonsense…but sometimes truly deep, truly giddy silliness really is a powerful antidote to the evils of boredom, meanness, and fear.