Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring melody

Birds making merry are the welcome harbinger of spring. While the season sprung a few days ago in a wave of cold throughout most of the U.S., it arrived with temperatures warm enough in Nashville to drop rain instead of snowflakes. The season delivered the greening of my lawn, tree limbs about to burst with buds of color and the birdsong from some dozen inhabitant species in my woodsy backyard. 

This morning the melody was intense. Mourning doves, robins, chickadees, starlings, titmouse, mockingbirds and a few crows were calling. A lovely orchestra which reminded me of the variety of bird life I saw in late January at Reelfoot State Park. The huge lake in west Tennessee is a bird refuge year-round but December through February migrating bald eagles rest a spell. There are lookout points where flocks of white ascend and descend in fluid movement. But the eagles pair up and rest in trees, football-shaped silhouettes watching from a distance. These birds are predators, no doubt, but amazing to watch in return.

The juveniles looked like punk-feathered scrawny chickens, the ugly duckling before the swan. I spied 13 eagles that day, about half youngsters and the others, majestic adults. A few were soaring, one was in a field, plucking at a gull he likely targeted. My first sighting was a large baldie in a tree near the highway. It was early in the morning and no other cars were roaring past. I slowed to a stop, grabbed the long lens of my Nikon and snapped a few photos before it took off. What a sight. The others I saw during a bus tour of like-minded eagle lovers. The park naturalist was a funny guy - his one-liners well used and his knowledge of the regional wildlife quite extensive. If you are ever in the Memphis area, head north to the lake - bring your binoculars and your fishing rod. You won't regret either! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Eight days - six if you discount the long travel time coming and going between two nations just 90 minutes apart. The brief week and a needy nation served up memories that will last an eternity.

Some of us already know we will return to work and wander beside the coastal tides, shaded by palm branches, hounded by children whose repetitive English is "give me a dollar." But for every demanding young soul, there are those who can't speak for themselves, who are dependent on others to help them get a start in life.

Such was the case of little Saintana, a child whose hard labor was noticed by pre-teen girls at the Hands and Feet (HAF) Children's Village in Jacmel. They watched her carry buckets of water across the street from their campus. She did many other chores and didn't go to school or church. Saintana's mother lived in the mountains, and she wanted a better life for her daughter so she did what many poor families do - she placed the girl in a home where she thought she would be cared for, selling her to a woman who promised to provide. Saintana's life as a restavek was difficult, but the owner, when approached for a play date with the HAF children, surprisingly agreed. The Monday play times became a regular part of her life, a welcome relief, a sense of normalcy for a youngster.

When Saintana's mother came calling to check on her child, she saw the difference HAF made in her daughter's life. She regretted her decision and made a new one. Her child was redeemed. Saintana now plays and smiles and learns inside a campus where children can be children. She also enjoys the Haitian church around the corner where there is much singing. I won't forget my last view of her, that wide smile and laugh after bouncing a ball, and a simple sun dress blowing in a breeze where freedom and love make all the difference.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


The words were ringing in my ears:  "Resourceful. You did what needed to be done." As he spoke, the statement slid into recognition of a leader, or at least one attribute of a person who perseveres to get something done.

Haiti needs more resourceful people. Haiti needs more of most things and less of others. As humanitarians, politicians and missions teams flock to the impoverished and disaster-prone western half of a Caribbean island, it becomes apparent that the Haitian people need more leaders of their own, period.

So much is wrong with Haiti so much of the time that when the unexpected happens, a shrug of the shoulders and the phrase, "This is Haiti" is the usual response.

Two vans jammed with 19 people and their luggage follow each other. As one begins to climb the mountain road enroute to Jacmel, it stalls, brakes suddenly loose and dangerously unsafe. This group's vehicle is stranded in the middle of the busy road until a UN truck tows it to safety on the side and a Deuce, an open bed military cargo truck, is called upon to finish the job. Meanwhile, the other van has safely crossed the mountain heights and is perhaps 20 minutes from Jacmel when the manual shifter dies. This van sits to the side in the pitch black dark, passengers waving little flashlights at tree branches serving as primitive traffic cones. A pickup truck arrives with a three-foot chain to tow the van, giving a whole new meaning to jerk, Caribbean style.

Such was our team's arrival, an 18-hour travel day including flight and airport time. And yet, Haiti is just 90 minutes from Miami. The unexpected happens. You have to be flexible. You have to be resourceful.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Surviving the heatwave

This spring when I signed on for an 8-day trip to Haiti in late July, I expected the heat and humidity there to be unbearable. After surviving the hottest week in recorded history in Nashville, the mid nineties in the Caribbean will seem like a walk in the park. The humidity will be higher but we'll be on the coast, and hopeful for ocean breezes to cool our dripping brows as we paint and garden at a youth village run by the Hands & Feet Project.

On the advice of friends who've visited numerous times, I bought a couple of battery-operated fans - the larger one to sleep by in case the electricity fails, and I'm told it does often. Because most of our work will be outside, I also grabbed a Caribbean blue hand-held AA-powered fan that is surprisingly strong. I knew it would be good when I spotted a large family coming to scoop up what was left of them on the shelf. Man and beast are all trying to find ways to cool down in this heat- and drought-stricken land, although we've been fortunate this week to get much-needed rain. The effects of the drought are still around, although my grass will need a mowing before I hop on the plane. And it will be the first time in a month blades have cut it.

The bags are packed, the emergency paperwork for family is printed, airport drop-off arranged, and the anti-malarial meds are in my system. I'm eager for the new adventure in a region I've never visited with people who have survived a horrific earthquake, political unrest, extreme poverty and numerous hurricanes. Haiti, you have been battered and bruised, but you are resilient. "May the Lord bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, lift up your countenance and give you His peace."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

'It's a gift'

Accompanied by my twin sister to an outdoors workshop this weekend, we met several likable folks both participating and teaching at the event.  As is my custom when I'm wound up after an exciting and enjoyable day, I began to blather, this time, about some wilderness experiences. My sister, who I do not pay to say these things, piped up about a coyote photo I had taken that was published in Backpacker Magazine. She spoke about it being "hauntingly beautiful" and how it made her cry, and she was on the verge of showing how much she cared. It was a very tender thing to say, and I tried to downplay it with laughter, and joked about her check being in the mail, and how she often cries at natural beauty (whales, birds, bunnies ... really).

Very unexpectedly, and quite profoundly it turns out, a very buff man at our table piped up. "Crying is a gift," he said simply. Steve, a Wounded Warrior I learned later, was her archery workshop teacher and much impressed with her natural prowess with the bow. She won the contest by hitting multiple bulls-eye targets and nailing four kill shots at deer decoys. A devout animal lover, the feat made her ill to her stomach and she vowed that if she progresses in the sport, arrows will never be used on living targets. 

"Crying is a gift." That phrase came back to me the next night when I ran into Steve and his wife at another workshop event. An Army brat myself, I knew he worked at Ft. Campbell and had history with the military, but wanted to know more. This quiet man who smiles at strangers and listens more than he talks, yet talks with ease, replied that he was a ranger. All I could lamely respond in my amazement, was "that's impressive." Here was a man the Army describes as having "proven leadership under the toughest conditions possible." I was speechless. I wanted to tell him thanks, but I was sorry for what he had to do to protect our country. My father served two tours in Vietnam and he wasn't a ranger. He never spoke about what he saw or had to do.  

And I will never know what Steve did or had to endure in his service with an elite force. The wounds he suffered were no longer visible. The ability to cry took on deeper meaning as I realized his training was acutely targeted to take emotion out of the equation. I suspect that with the help of his quiet wife, a military nurse who had recently served in Korea, he was able to shed some tears. What a tragedy if training and experience had taken that permanently from him. What a gift that he values this most human of emotions.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reluctant hero

A chance meeting at work brought me face to face with a hero. After all was said and done following our conversation, I realized how fragile we can be in the way we perceive ourselves. It was also a reminder that I work alongside people whose histories are hidden, the formative backlog of experiences that have nothing to do with the labor we perform. In J's case, his past caught up with him.

A disabled vet who overcame seven years of surgeries and struggle, this baby-faced young man had told his story over and over until he tired of telling the tale. I won't name him to honor his wishes. He hails from the Northeast and his story is common knowledge there. He suggested I Google him and the interviews were plentiful. He came to work in Nashville for a fresh start, a place where people treat him normally and don't view him as a "broken man," a disabled vet who underwent multiple operations to treat a near fatal head wound and post traumatic stress. It took time but he healed and he was one of the lucky ones who found not just work, but the start of a career he doesn't want to jeopardize. He is reluctant to be known, one of America's heroes in disguise. And now his safe haven, his anonymity, may change for a cause.. 

He took shrapnel in the head after an explosion - the same injury ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff sustained. J's brain surgeries and treatment were similar. And this weekend, J will be flown up to NYC to promote the non-profit who helped his recovery. He isn't keen on retelling his story since most local friends know little of his background except his Army service. He doesn't want to be seen as broken. Far from seeing a wounded man, I saw determination. I saw courage. I saw a polite young man who at 19 postponed college to serve his country and paid a significant price. J, relax. Strength pours out of you. You have a message that begs to be told. Tell your comrades to hope and not despair. Tell America's businesses and corporations that vets sacrificed for a better, safer America and deserve their attention. The least America can do is repay them with opportunities. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tin cans and open skies

One of the things I do in my day job is write about crisis management, about preparing for emergencies and knowing what to do if X, Y or Z happens. In every scenario, the stress is on calm. Don't panic. Don't freak. And for twenty minutes today, I did a fairly good job of calming others when our elevator dropped about a foot and the doors remained shut. A co-worker I see on a somewhat regular basis but don't know well grabbed my hand almost immediately. She was freaked, and she was talking. She had to bring up a "Die Hard" scene with the elevator drop. Others shared real-life incidents that were much worse than our situation. Whether this helped our stress level I'm not sure. I was pretty shaky when the doors opened. 

In our haste to get to our cars and on to our lives outside of work, we five picked the one elevator out of six that was out of order when we arrived this morning. It was supposedly operational again and had gotten the all clear from the elevator tech. Hmm. 

So we made some jokes when we got into the second set of elevator doors descending into the parking garage. No big deal, right? I could tell my heart rate was up. When I got home and walked outside with Dolly dog, I stood in the rays of dusk and sucked down the warmer than usual air, scanning the leafless trees and thankful for the open sky of winter. Thankful I could see past four reflective walls. Thankful someone opened our tin can without a longer period to wait, thankful I wasn't alone in that moment, thankful for the water, thankful for air. The open sky and a peaceful Presence calmed me when no one else was around to hold my hand.