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 bursting with buds of color and birdsong from a dozen inhabitant species in my woodsy backyard.

This morning the melody was intense. Mourning doves, robins, chickadees, starlings, titmouse, mockingbirds and crows were calling. It is a lovely orchestra reminding me of the variety of winged creatures I spotted 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 roost 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, silhouettes watching from a distance.  

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 in Haiti and 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 sold her daughter 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 the enslaved 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.

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 for 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 a foot and the doors remained unnervingly shut. A co-worker I see occasionally grabbed my hand almost immediately. She was not calm, and she was talking non-stop about things you don't want to think about when stuck in a metal box. How about re-living the scene in "Die Hard" when the elevator plunged? 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.

So we made jokes after we were able to escape our brief imprisonment. 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 dimming rays of dusk and deeply inhaled the humid 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 air. The open sky and a peaceful Presence calmed me when no one else was around to hold my hand. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Waypoint for a new year

It's that time again, the marker for new beginnings. January 1, 2012. For a culturally diverse world, it's the celebratory one day of the year we all share and anticipate with looks past and future. For those in the U.S., the polls say 70% of us are hopeful, while 51% were glad to send 2011 packing on its economically depressed and divisive way.

It is a waypoint for a new life for some, as they truly set a course for change.

I'll be learning more about waypoints in a few weeks, when I head to the local REI to explore better navigation tips. I don't want to get lost in the woods off trail, or on trail, as sadly, my experience proves possible. I don't want to get lost on highways, repeating a 90-minute circle of hell trying to exit the Indianapolis turnpike for a north-bound path to Notre Dame (the university, not the Paris cathedral - hmm, talk about off course!)  It was that experience three years ago on a New Year's Eve, that drove me to purchase a Global Positioning System for the car.

My GPS is a Garmin I configured to direct me in an Australian male voice I fondly refer to as Keith. Nicole Kidman has the man, but I dreamily enjoy the accent Mr. Urban uses. Even the dreaded "recalculating" which some voices project as irritated, annoyed and so very disappointed, lands amusing on my ears. It's got that laid-back Aussie style that implies, "no worries, mate."

The REI class will focus on hand-held devices. I hope the rugged Nikon AW100 I purchased for backpacking and other outdoor adventures will qualify. It has maps and GPS, although I haven't used them yet. After repeated knocks of my swinging Nikon D5000 lens against the unforgiving canyon walls of Arches' Fiery Furnace, I realized it wasn't the best equipment to bring on a technical hike.

Waypoints, markers, milestones - these are the reminders of where we've been, and I'm eager for the "where I'm going" and the expectation of change and fresh experiences. In 365 days, I'm hopeful that the waypoints I set this year will be so memorable I won't need a GPS to recall them.