Unlike most people, I do not cling to the idea of privacy when I get online. I view social media as a giant community bulletin board. Like the kind you would find at your local rec center or YMCA; littered with business cards and fliers. My rule of thumb is simple. If it’s not something I would be comfortable posting on a bulletin board at a rec center, it does not appear on my social media pages. That’s why I was somewhat amused and surprised when I suddenly received a private message from a friend in southern Connecticut. “Come see your band play in New York City!” she wrote.
I have always been a proponent of the “Maybe you should just ask! The worst they can say is no!” philosophy. Sometimes getting what you want is as simple as asking for it nicely. Suddenly, I realized that months of online lighthearted harassment of a favorite band (Scars on 45) had been followed by more than the band. With both our birthdays (RJ’s and mine) fast approaching, I began to execute a hastily assembled plan. Leaning back and crossing my arms, I was satisfied with my work. I had purchased RJ and I tickets to Scar’s next show and myself a roundtrip airline ticket from my home in Washington DC. Suddenly, the adventure was on! I was going to see RJ and Scars on 45 in New York City!
After a delayed departure from D.C., I found myself wrapped in RJ’s hug as my feet left the jet way at JFK airport. We piled into her SUV and headed directly into the city. On the way there we “caught up” talking about her family, comedy, writing and life. A few GPS induced wrong turns later, we found a place to stash the car and the concert venue. The music, hanging out with Scars back stage, the NYC pie (pizza), the post show cupcakes, and the late night coffee indulgence were all perfection. I could have ended the trip right there and walked away smiling both on the outside and the inside. But I had a whole other day to spend on this vast beehive of an island.
The next morning, I left RJ and her husband to get their kids off to school and found myself alone beneath the star painted dome of Grand Central Station. I was in every sense a tourist in New York City. Other than a late afternoon appointment to visit the recently unveiled 9/11 memorial, I had no plan. I was content to simply wander. I had been to New York City twice before and each time I had fallen a little more in love with the place. But my other visits had involved a history with this city. It was a history that involved this city’s darkest day and out of respect for my travelling companion, we had proceeded very carefully.
As my allotted time to visit the 9/11 memorial approached, I slowly and carefully made my way toward the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Arriving approximately an hour early, I found myself outside the iron gates of St. Paul’s Chapel. I must admit, I have a bit of a church fetish. Wherever in the world I find myself, I usually find a church (see previous post about Notre Dame Cathedral). Within churches I find a quiet peace both within the walls and within my heart. It’s something deep, without a logical explanation and I am blessed to feel it. Something rare in today’s epically frantic pace of life. So, I was not surprised when St. Paul’s also seemed to beckon me. Located on the aptly named Church Street, St. Paul’s sits on the east side of the World Trade Center site. I had stood in this place once before and felt the pull but I did not enter. Despite the call, this entire area had held too many ghosts for my friend and out of respect for his journey it was not somewhere we had lingered.
This time, as I broke the threshold, I thought about all these old walls had seen. I knew George Washington had worshipped here on his inauguration day in 1789. I knew St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church in the city. When the smoke, dust and debris cleared on 9/11, the chapel had miraculously survived the collapse of the twin towers without as much as a broken window. Looking directly across the street at the World Trade Center site, I considered this for a moment. The twin towers site sat less than fifty feet from the sidewalk I was standing on. The chapel sat about two hundred feet behind me. How was that lack of damage even possible when buildings for surrounding blocks of the site had been reduced to rubble? This was hard to consider when in the force of the collapse, the ancient tombstones in the graveyard outside had been blasted to the point where they were now blank. The little chapel that stood seemed to me like the ultimate act of betrayal and rebellion in the face of the evil that had visited that day. Despite ruin, wreckage and despair, the chapel had survived. And really what is survival? Perhaps it was what I was feeling within these walls… hope mixed with endurance.
The chapel was smaller than I had expected. Not much larger than a midsized room and the floor was worn in patches like old linoleum. To use a cliché…it wasn’t much to look at. But there was a feeling within these walls. As if I had walking into the souls of those lost still dwelling in a place of peace. It was almost tangiable….as if I could reach out and run my fingers through it. Around the perimeter sat various exhibits about the Chapel. Most dealt with how the chapel became a refuge to the first responders in the days following the attacks. For months afterwards the pews of this haven had been clogged with exhausted cops, firefighters and volunteer rescue workers. Visitors had left messages on post-it notes in one corner. But as my eyes found one particular exhibit, they suddenly became wet with tears. It was as if someone had placed a great weight upon my chest and it grew heavier upon my heart.
In front of me sat a pew scratched and scarred. The telltale marks that they were once inhabited by souls in duty belts. I had seen these marks before. Twice a month I had left a few of my own on the benches of our local courthouse over my eight years as a law enforcement officer. I knew from experience just how uncomfortable it is to exist with thirty pounds equipment strapped to your midsection. So, the thought of sleeping or resting with a duty belt attached told its own tale. It was one of desperation, duty and untimely one of hope. I know of only one reason why anyone would choose to rest with a duty belt still attached. It would involve searching. Searching for my family members in blue, searching for the members of the fire services family that we work with daily, or just simply searching for life in general. These were marks of commitment, of duty, of love and ordinary citizens were walking by them without a second glance. Suddenly, as quickly as I had entered, I had to leave.
I sat outside amongst the blank tombstones and attempted to collect myself as the city continued to roar around me. I messaged my friend. “I think I have an inkling of what it felt like for you to be down here” I wrote. He wrote back immediately “I’m sorry. I should be there with you.” After about twenty minutes of collecting myself I began to make my way across the street towards the 9/11 memorial. Now I was worried. If St. Paul’s had given me that kind of feeling, how was I going to react staring into the footprints of the twin towers? I quietly resolved to change my vision as I entered the site. I would enter the site actively looking for signs of survival…signs of hope. Those little symbolic trail markers left behind after the attacks. Or put another way, I’d look for the St. Paul’s in the site.
Some of these symbolic trail markers are already famous. Highly publicized miracles like the iron cross that emerged from the site as the rubble was cleared are plastered across social media each 9/11. But I was looking for a less well known beacon of survival. I was looking for a tree. About a year prior, I had read the story of the survivor tree. The story had been relayed to me by a friend who also had personal ties to the site. The small pear tree had stood in the courtyard of the twin towers since it’s planting in the 1970’s. It was found clinging to life, trunk blackened, roots broken and rescued by workers excavating the site in the days following the attack. After being nursed back to health, it was once again replanted at the 9/11 memorial in December of 2010. It now stands over 30 feet tall and a majority of the memorial visitors didn’t give it a second glance. In fact, as I stood in its presence for the first time, a woman walked up behind me. “What a scrawny looking tree” she scoffed before walking away.
I tried not to frown but I guess I was unsuccessful. A young 9/11 memorial volunteer worker standing next to me took notice and shook her head. “I don’t even get why they come down here if they’re going to be like that” she said. “I don’t know either” I replied. Then I asked the question I had been thinking. “What makes you volunteer here if they act like that?” Maggie introduced herself and said she was a life -long resident of Long Island. “I’m only 22 years old” she said. “I was so young when it happened. But I do remember one thing very clearly. My dad came home from work that night.” Then she took a deep breath and paused. “Some of my friend’s parents did not.” Then Maggie asked me if I was here trying to find a specific name. I said that I wasn’t. I just wanted to know more about the site.
Maggie spent the next twenty minutes guiding me around the memorial. I learnt that the names on the panels are not only grouped by the towers they died in or the organizations they worked for but also by the relationships they had to each other. Therefore, rescuers who perished trying to shield others from the collapse are listed next to the people they attempted to save. One final fitting and concrete memorial to their bravery. I learnt that white roses are placed on the names each year on their birthdays. I learnt that the panels are not the same size because so many more people died in one tower verses the other. I learn that the panels had been vandalized the year prior when someone had scratched graffiti into them and some of them had to be replaced. And looking around me, I felt disgusted at the conduct of the people around me. Many of them were flashing peace signs and thumbs up as they snapped pictures of the footprints. I could not imagine visiting this place if I had actually lost someone here. I thanked Maggie for her service at the site and for spending so long with me and then left.
Boarding a subway train to go back “uptown” I considered my visit. I was disappointed and a little angry. I vowed to return to lower Manhattan to pay my respects each time I visited New York. But I would pay my respects within the walls of St. Paul’s. St. Paul’s was the place I had found such a quiet peace and respect. It was the place I felt most connected to the site. I would let the masses have the memorial and that “scrawny tree”. St. Paul’s had taught me something important that day. The lesson had been clear. Don’t close your eyes or refuse to see what is before you just because not everyone sees it. Because as it turned out that day, the hope within the sadness was waiting unnoticed just across the road..
I think I’ve always been a writer. Although, until recently I wouldn’t have actually attached that label to myself. My love affair with words has always felt natural. Sometimes hard to capture, I would describe it as that cosmically wonderful force that allows dark moods to evaporate and smiles to creep across lips. A place where you feel lifted in spirit and purpose. Somewhere along the line, I decided I wanted more of this in my life. More lifting and laughter…less sadness and darkness. This idea led me on a journey. A journey to see where my writing could take me. Could I be as bold as to attempt to capture the twists and turns of my often flawed and messy humanity in words and prose? Or more importantly, would I ever find the courage to share these words with anyone else who might read and relate to them?
Common convention accepts that any journey begins with a single step. My journey to my inner writer began almost a year ago by boarding a Delta flight out of my hometown of Washington D.C. Seven hours and two airplanes later, I would touch down in a pouring northern Montana rain at Walking Lightly Ranch. Walking Lightly Ranch is home to New York Times bestselling author Laura Munson’s Haven writing retreats. I had no idea what to expect from my “first step”. Five days later I would board my return flight with a whole new family of people who felt exactly as I did about the written word. We were all in love with the same thing and my passion was raging.
So, you can imagine my glee last week when I received a sudden email from my fellow Haven “sister in words” Sukey Forbes asking me to participate in this blog hop. I have to admit, I had no idea what a blog hop was but it sounded fun. Four questions later here lay a chance to share a small slice of my writing journey. I hope you enjoy it and if you have a journey of your own to share please comment! Journeys are so much more fun when you meet amazing people “on the road”.
1. What am I working on/writing?
“Tell me about the road you’re on and maybe we could meet.” On And On We Whisper – The Alternate Routes
I’m a girl with a lot of irons in the fire! I’m currently working on a memoir of how my early years feeling invisible in a profoundly dysfunctional and mentally unhealthy family led me to a life or travel, adventure and above all service. And I blog from time to time about the people I meet on this journey on my blog “How not to be bored.”www.stuyvesturman.wordpress.com. I’m a bit like an onion. I have many different layers. After a year of learning the art of improvised comedy, I’m currently learning to write stand up and sketch comedy. I hope to travel to New York City next spring to continue my education in great comedy writing at the People’s Improv Theater. I believe 100% in the power of laughter to heal.
When I was 20 years old, I hoped on a plane by myself and relocated as far from the dysfunction and mental illness as I could. I wanted to “save myself”. I ran to the haven of the southern hemisphere nation of New Zealand. When I returned home four years later after bungee jumping off bridges and building a new life of my own in kiwi culture, I also found that I had also acquired a sense fearlessness. I returned seeking to change the world I lived in for the better.
Nine years on as veteran law enforcement officer, I have devoted my life to confronting and combating the very forces that impacted me growing up. I have looked into people’s eyes and been their last resort. I go to work every night with love and healing at my back and it’s amazing the healing I have personally found in this journey. If I can continue to write and share this experience with anyone who will benefit from it, I will feel truly
blessed. I was able to find light in the darkness. I want to share that.
2. How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?
I hate self-help books. I always have. And that’s not what I’m setting about to write. Although, you could argue that what I’m writing might fit with the description of “self-help”. Instead, I believe that everyone has their own journey through life. We all travel down dark roads at some point. We can all relate to each other on this very basic level….our human journey.
In a world that moves at the speed of light, I believe that people are still searching for some very basic things. Namely happiness and peace. And they are searching for these things in a world full of books and media that preaches the word “don’t”. As in, don’t eat this, you don’t get enough sleep, don’t forget to work out today, don’t you wish you drove this car. If I have a goal for anything I write, it’s to convey the message that whatever you are or whatever you have is good enough. We all bring something to the party.
I have the same problem with travel books. A journey doesn’t have to be to the other sides of the globe to be meaningful. A simple act of self-liberation such as opening a bottle of wine on a summer’s day can also bring peace and happiness. We’ve become so conditioned to look for peace and happiness only in the big massive events of our lives that we miss the peace and happiness that exist around us daily. It’s the daily peace and happiness that sustains me. That’s what I hope people walk away with from my writing rather than the standard “roadmap to happiness”.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I want to keep life (mine and others) colorful and vibrant. By writing, I hope to highlight how beautiful the human experience really is. I now also find myself writing when my life turns dark. That’s a new thing for me…. acknowledging the dark. I used to think dark thoughts and then have internal conversations with myself where I said “ooh, wow! That was really dark and scary. I really need to stop thinking like that!” But then those dark shades would lurk in the corners of my mind. They were like shadows that never quite went away. Like those people who stand in the very corners of family photos. You know they are there, but you can’t never quite see all of them.
I recently had a long conversation with a friend of mine at work. He’s a combat vet and has seen more dark things in life than most. He’s been encouraging me to embrace those dark moments and to use them to enhance my writing. I’m now finding that writing makes the dark less scary and I wonder how many other people are hiding the dark parts of themselves away in corners. If my words strike a chord with them; it’s just another thing that brings us all closer together. Ha, there’s that service thing again!
4. How does my writing process work?
I write when I feel inspired. After all, I want my work to be passionate and I want people to relate to that passion. It’s not something I force. You can’t force inspiration. But when I am inspired, I’m disciplined about it. I’ll find a quiet corner somewhere, turn my phone off and just unleash my fingers and brain. I’ll admit, there’s usually coffee and the occasional glass of wine involved. Consequently, my favorite writing environments recently are the local Starbucks or one of the many gorgeous Virginia wineries near my home. I’ll be the mad scientist type toiling away over a hot laptop near creamer or the grapevines. Careful you don’t get too close. I don’t want anyone to get hurt!
Sometimes inspiration strikes at the most inconvenient times. Half way through an arrest I’ll have a brainwave. Luckily for me cops are always expected to carry pen and paper. My police notebooks have been known to contain random sentences or outlining of particularly pressing inspirations. If you look behind my clipboard on top of my duty bag you’ll find my red “trapper keeper” notebook. It’s been my travelling buddy from the mountains of Montana to the crystalline blue waters of Key West. Here these sentences or diagrams grow into paragraphs and poetry between early morning traffic stops. I’m learning to let my love of writing happen. If I gift it my time and attention it will take care of the rest.
The last thing in my process has been the gift of connection. I am still indelibly connected to the great minds I attended the Haven retreat with. I reach out to them when I feel broken, unworthy or unwilling to go where my words seem to want to take me. And they are there, always, to remind me that I am enough and that this journey is mine. They drive me forward. I’m also connecting more with the non-wordy people around me. Friends who not only support my writing but are happy to read my horrible first draft attempts. Those people who help me shake through the dirt in search of gold. I don’t know many things in life for certain but I do know that when I get this book published it will have an extensive acknowledgments page. Words will never convey the magic of these people or how I feel about them. I am thankful and they are priceless.
So, what is a blog hop? Well, it’s a bit like a chain letter for bloggers. Like Sukey, I will be reaching out to three writers. All three I find inspiration in myself and who’s work I admire. If by chance they don’t blog, I will post their answers on my blog in the upcoming weeks. Stay tuned for more great stuff to come!
Full time cop, part time writer and comedian. She is devoted to the idea that a person’s past does not define their future and she seeks to write works that inspire the human spirit. Currently actively blogging at “How not to be bored” and working hard at her first memoir, she also enjoys music, good food and good wine. But beyond anything else she is committed to her journey and where that road might lead her.
As my feet carried me across the threshold, I wondered what would meet my eyes. Instead it’s what met my soul that took my breath away…..
For most of my life, I have carried a sense of indifference when it came to the topics of religion and god. From what I observed, these topics did more to divide then unite. Like so many other things in life, we defined our faith by subsection. We label it. Categorize it. I am Catholic, I am Protestant, I am Hindu, I am Buddhist and so forth. Then we are asked to do the same. It’s the $64,000 question. What are you? I need to know so I can relate (or not). For a majority of my life, this has been a question I couldn’t answer. Now, do not confuse me here with an atheist. I am not. I believe wholly in a higher power. One who watches over us as we sometimes walk, sometimes crawl on our hands and knees through the journey of life. I just lacked a defined approach to religion. I could not place or define my belief by category and I often found myself envious of those who could. Because in my eyes, that definition coupled with belief allowed them to embrace it. And for many it appeared that embrace allowed them to find a great pillar of strength in their faith.
Like many other things in life, my parents had displayed a type of indifference when it came to the constructs of religion and god. We went to church on Christmas Eve and only then because my mother thought we should. We went out of a sense of duty. We went because we believed it was the right thing to do. The same way placing trash in the trash can is the right thing to do rather than littering. We were not seeking anything beyond the satisfaction of an obligation. I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with this as an adult. I do not see through a child’s eyes any longer. I have a job that highlights the dark side of life. As a police officer, you cannot shield your eyes from all that is evil. It is there on prominent display in the neglected children and the battered spouses. And as a result you find yourself praying whether you have a defined base of not. Your prayers are simple and direct. God, please help these people. God, please make it stop.
Somewhere along the line I made a resolution not so much to define my faith but to have a relationship with it. At the very least, I wanted a conversation. I want to find some strength in the connection. Have my relationship with god not be so much like a television signal that came and went. I wanted to try and tune in beyond the static. So I began to read, reflect and take journeys. I tagged along with friends to their churches. I listened, saw the world with my own eyes and began my own conversation. I’m here, ready to listen. Talk to me. And so a quiet conversation began.
Last week I responded to a call and found myself facing the stark reality of my job. Police officers say that a good day at our office is any day where you return home safe. In an instant, I found myself facing a reality in which the risk of serious injury was high and where death potentially stood waiting in the wings. And in an instant and without conscious thought, I did two things. I took action and I prayed. As I engaged the threat, I prayed that my training would give me the skills and knowledge I needed to protect myself and others. I prayed for the courage to keep going forward and to keep fighting. And throughout the entire encounter I had a feeling. As I prayed, the fear retreated and a sense of peace and confidence arose. The message was clear. Whether you survived this threat or not, you’re going to be alright. Or in much more simplified terms….I got you.
So, as I stepped through the huge wooden doors of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris two days ago, shoulder to shoulder with fellow travelers; I thought I was just entering an old church….. a tourist attraction. Instead I found a sense of peace and confidence as I lit candles and thanked the man upstairs for the conversation. The feeling again arose in me, and the message was clear…..you’re going to be alright….I got you.
I wore shorts to the airport this year. I wanted to be an ass and brag that I was jetting off to a warmer climate. Instead I froze for my arrogance. I froze at 4:30 am when after two measly hours of sleep, I loaded myself and my bags up in an ice cold truck for the ride to the airport. I froze in the terminal trying to get the nice man behind the counter at Five Guys to build me a breakfast sandwich not swimming in cheese and bacon (foreign concept apparently). And I froze sitting under those air vents on the aircraft that seem to blow on you no matter which direction you point them in or how much you try to turn them off. By the time I settled into my second aircraft seat of the day, I was looking for something, anything, to distract me from the fact that my legs were quickly going numb from the cold.
I had just sat down when they approached. Every flight was full and the average age on this aircraft appeared to be about 75 yrs. old. What was I expecting? We were travelling to Florida and winter was upon us in the northeast. A demolition derby of wheel chairs had slowed the boarding process. My backpack wouldn’t fit under my seat this time, so I found a place for it above. The silver fox looked down at me, smiled and asked if his bag would fit on top of mine. I told him it probably would but to be careful because I was travelling with my laptop and I like to write. I watched as he gently set his bag down and I got up to let him and his wife take their seats.
And so the conversation started. Steve was a retired Air force Officer who now developed teaching software and Carol was tagging along for the ride. They were going to enjoy a few days of warmth in Ft. Lauderdale at a conference before returning to the farm they owned outside of Kansas City. Then the inevitable questions were asked. Where are you going? Where are you from? What do you do? I told them I was running away from home to do some diving and enjoy a few days on a tropical island with friends and that I hailed from about thirty minutes west of the capital of this great nation. Then the moment came to decide if I was going to be honest when I answered the next question. It’s always a gamble. Be honest and risk hearing every one of a person’s “bad cop” stories and complaints about law enforcement for the next three hours or just lie, pick the most boring profession I could come up with and hope the conversation dies. I briefly considered replying “sanitation worker” before regarding their kind and expectant faces and relenting with the truth. “I’m a police officer” I quietly exclaimed.
“Oh!” they both replied and as I held my breath. Then Carol continued “Thank you for your service. Not a lot of people truly know what you do for your community.” I quickly thanked her back and went back to fiddling with my seatbelt thinking that was the end of the conversation. But when I looked back up, I noticed a strange look on her face. She seemed to be having an internal debate with herself as she kept opening her mouth to talk and then closing it again. “Uh oh!” I thought. “Here comes the ticket on my way to T-ball story.” Suddenly the hesitation dissipated and after looking at Steve for the briefest of seconds, she spoke. “You belong to a very special family” she said.
I must have given her a puzzled look because then she continued. “My first husband was an officer.” She said. “We hadn’t been married long when he was killed in the line of duty. He rolled his cruiser trying to get to another officer. Unless you’ve done the job or loved someone who has, you won’t truly understand.” I was shocked and quickly told her that I was sorry for the loss of her husband. She paused again but smiled this time. “I remember his squad and his sergeant were so good to me at the funeral” she said. “I really wanted to do something for the sergeant to say thank you for all the support so I bought him a sweatshirt and gave it to him as a gift. The sergeant recently passed away and his widow contacted me and said she had something for me. She gave me back the sweatshirt. It was all worn and patched. The sergeant’s wife said he wore it every day and when another hole would appear he would demand it be patched. He simply would not throw it away and his window thought it needed to return to me so I knew how important that gesture was to him.” I regarded the tears in her eyes as she reached across her husband and she squeezed my hand. Suddenly, I realized that my numb legs had been forgotten and our tires were back on tarmac.
As our plane rolled to a halt in Ft. Lauderdale we quickly got up and collected our things. We had talked about so many things in those two hours. The legacy her husband left when he died, her life with Steve afterwards, the way her son had recently found her husband’s duty belt and lovingly restored it even though he’d never met the man who had once worn it, how she healed after he was gone, my life, my love for the job and how life forces us to be vulnerable with the people around us in the name of love. “We were meant meet and have this talk” Carol said before we deplaned. Then reaching across the aisle one last time she placed her hand on my shoulder and instead of saying goodbye she said what we in the public safety family all say to each other before parting way……”Stay Safe”.
Those of you who know me already know that I lost something extremely precious to me this weekend. On the whole I have been a very lucky woman. I have lost relatively few things in life and for the things that I have lost, each was proceeded by a long period of warning. I’m not sure how I feel about the warning. On the one hand it gives you time to adjust to the idea that whatever you’re going to lose will soon be gone, while on the flip side you sit with the knowledge and anticipation of an imminent departure. I’ll admit it. Death and loss are not my areas. I’d rather focus on life because that is where hope and joy reside and I prefer to deal in hope and joy. I hate negativity. I hate loss. I hate the notions of emptiness and division. Yet, it’s extremely hard to find hope and joy in death. It seems paradoxical to look for it there. And yet, somehow throughout the weekend, I have been able to find it.
I’ve had some help. A guide in the subject matter. A friend of great value who I consider to have a PhD in the area. As you might imagine, this was not an education that anyone seeks out. It was forced upon her by a series of events. I will not tell her tale here as she will be telling it herself shortly (buy her book when it comes out). The courage of this friend astounds me. It inspires me and drives me forward. But maybe beyond anything else it reminds me of what I already believe. If life is a story, death is but a single chapter and perhaps it is not the end chapter. Look for the magic she said. It will bring you peace.
This summer was unusual here in the piedmont of Virginia. In a usual summer it rains through the spring making the pastures lush with green grass. The horses shed their shaggy winter coats for their sleek summer wear. Short and shiny, their summer coats allow them to become the stuff of equine legend. The equine hobos of winter become muscled athletes romping across the fields. It’s a sight to behold as they play, buck and spin after a long winter cooped up in the barns and paddocks. Then when all the spooking, farting and shoe throwing is over with heads will drop and they will spend hours grazing a napping among the grass and wildflowers. Then the “dog days” of summer will set in. The grass will brown as it gets only the occasional drink from a passing thunderstorm and the horses will opt for taking shelter inside the cool shade of the barn rather than the sweltering pastures outside. They will go out at night when it is cooler and lightning bugs float in the breeze. This year the “dog days” came late. Like really late and the horses enjoyed an extra month or two happily living amongst the grass.
About three years ago I rescued a horse off the racetrack. This little mare had a huge heart and had been a very successful racehorse. In seven starts she had won all seven races. But being a good athlete is not enough in the world of racing. A horse has to want to win. A racehorse has to have the heart and determination to reach down deep and find the extra speed to find the line first. Contrary to popular belief, I believe that you cannot teach a horse to do this and it cannot be motivated by outside pressures such as whips or spurs. The will to win either is or it isn’t. It was so much so in this mare that she would run to the point of bursting blood vessels in her lungs. After several race the trainer decided to intervene on the behalf of the mare. He told the owner that if they continued to race her like this she would eventually suffer permanent respiratory damage and die. The wealthy owner told the trainer to get rid of her. He didn’t want a horse he couldn’t run and I received an email with pictures from an exercise rider friend of mine begging me to take her in. So, I did.
This summer it rained and rained and rained. All the horses on the farm got to enjoy the green summer grass for months longer than normal. Yet, when I turned them out I noticed something strange. My ancient quarter horse and my rescue thoroughbred mare stood across the fence line dividing them from each other for hours each day. They appeared to be “chatting” while everyone else grazed and from what I could see the conversation was intense. It was so intense that when I had to separate the two for feeding they continued to call to each other. From what I could see they had grown very close but after about two months of this the relationship mysteriously dissipated and both went back to grazing. I just shrugged my shoulders and wondered about their “summer romance”.
On Friday I had to put that old quarter horse mare down and I worried about not just the impact on me but also on my other horses; particularly my little thoroughbred mare. The old mare had never been particularly affectionate. Beyond loving a good scratch on the chest she was fiercely independent and despite a leg injury and advanced arthritis she would make me chase her around the paddock to catch her for blanketing or basic maintenance. When I was younger I hurled my arms around her neck to give her a big hug and she bit me! But I loved her anyway. She was my horse and I was her kid and we loved each other for what we were. As I pulled her out of the stall for the last time I told her that she had done a good job with me and rubbed her ears. And just before the vet pushed the tranquilizer that begins the process the mare did something that brought tears to my eyes. She stepped towards me, briefly rested her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes and blew out a long breath. It was time. We both knew it.
After my old mare was gone my little thoroughbred mare moved up to the paddock where my old quarter horse used to live. I did this to give the other retired horse up there a companion but I thought about my old mare and our old routines. I would miss them. She would watch my truck come in through the gate daily. If she was in the run in shed she would stick her head out. If she was facing the other way she would crane her neck around to watch. She would try and come in the feed room while I was filling feed buckets. If I didn’t move fast enough she would pin her ears at me and make faces. I thought about all this as I accidently filled her feed bucket which I had somehow neglected to pull from the stack. With a sigh and a deep breath I poured the extra feed back in the bins.
The past two days I have been watching the thoroughbred mare get used to her new surroundings. She poked her head out of the run in shed when my truck came down the driveway yesterday morning. Last night she tried to come in the feed room as I was filling feed buckets. Today she was facing the hay and craned her head around a looked for me as I came through the gate. This morning she pinned her ears at me when I didn’t move fast enough and today as I was checking out a cut under her chin she put her head on my shoulder, closed her eyes and blew out a long breath. I froze and then smiled. I know these could all be coincidences, but I choose to have the faith to believe otherwise. I choose to have the faith to look for the magic. Perhaps I had figured out what that long summer chat between mares was all about and I thought about what my friend had said to me over the past couple of days. There is a magic in life. Grab hold of it and you can find hope and joy….even amongst death.
I have always been a woman who went my own way. I find my line so to speak. Maybe this is why I never got along with the sport of skiing. Traditionally there are runs and you must stay within them. Sure, you can pick your line down the hill but only within the run. As a rule venturing outside the run is a bad thing. Dangers lurk. Large trees, unseen drops, luxury cabins…you name it. The first time you venture off course and end up in a hot tub occupied by two very drunk and horny hipsters you’re bound to regret it. But I’m getting off course here (joke intended). Let me get back to my point, which is the problem with me and the sport of skiing.
Everybody has mountains. Things that appear large and immovable. For some people mountains are giant playgrounds and places of adventure. But for others like me, mountains just block our way forward. They are obstacles to be overcome. In my case, one of my life’s challenges literally has been the mountains. When I was itty bitty my father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and we were stationed in Germany. Apparently, I spent many happy hours skiing down the sides of mountains between mom and dad’s legs. I really don’t remember. The only thing that I do remember from this time was the infamous Gluevine incident.
Gluevine (for those of you not familiar with it) is a spiced mulled wine. One day after a long cold day on the slopes my parents invited all their friends over to finish the day with a few piping hot glasses of Gluevine. When they were done, they escorted their guests to the door and waved them goodbye as they ventured into the frigid German night. What they didn’t know is that this girl was making the rounds inside draining whatever was left in the bottom of the glasses left on the table. Later when my parents attempted to get me showered and ready for bed I could not stand up in the shower and had a relentless case of the giggles. You guessed it, I was D-runk and had my first hangover at the tender age of three. I guess the appeal of being a happy drunk was one that I grasped at an early age.
Fast forward about a decade and you’ll find me living in Montreal, Canada. I have not seen a ski slope since Germany and for some inexplicable reason my parents have decided to pack the family up and make the trip to the famed Quebec ski resort of Mont Tremblant. It was ridiculous cold and windy! Like don’t stick your tongue out at your sister because any moisture will freeze instantly and you’ll be stuck like that cold! Somehow I find myself at the top of the mountain, feet immobilized in ski boots strapped into two over glorified planks of wood known as skis. The tips of my skis are pointed downhill at one of the only runs open at that time. It is not a beginner run. Most of the runs on the mountain are closed because it’s so cold most of the powder has been compacted down into a solid sheet of ice. I have not had a ski lesson and am now too big to ski between mom and dad’s legs. “But hey” I think to myself “They can ski just fine. Maybe I can too? Maybe it’ll be genetic and I’ll just naturally know what to do!” Ah, yeah….um, nope!
As my ski tips met the crest of the run my feet shot out from under me. My vision blurs for the tears welling up in my eyes as I gained speed. I go faster and faster and have no idea what to do to slow down or stop. One of my parents yells at me “put more weight on one ski to turn!” and so I do. Making an abrupt left hand turn I fly across the ski slope only to land with a clang and a thud in the ditch on the side of the run that accommodates the pipes for the snow making operation. My knees impact the pipe first. Mom and dad are long gone as I struggle to get to my feet again. My knees hurt and I slowly and cautiously place my feet back on the slope only to take off like a bat out of hell again down the run.
Again I dug in an edge and again I am met by a ditch and an iron pipe. This is how I complete the run. I ski from ditch to ditch the entire way down. At the bottom I am shaking and swear that I will never ski again. Mom and dad seem oblivious as they chat about a great day on the mountain. They won’t be laughing when they see the therapy bill! Several years later they decide to go skiing again at Snowshoe Mountain resort in West Virginia. I try the beginner runs but still feel out of control. It’s not a feeling I like, so I quit. I’m thirty five years old now and that ski run in Quebec still haunts me. It’s the most out of control I’ve ever felt in my entire life and while it isn’t something a few ski lessons probably couldn’t remedy, the bad feeling I get when I think about skiing endures.
Fast forward a bit more to this June. I went out to northern Montana and made some new friends! Among these were Kylanne and Jay Sandelin. Ky and Jay run Great Northern Powder Guides based out of Whitefish, Montana. They specialize in back country skiing using caterpillar snow machines. This means no ski lift, no lines and standing at the top of a mountain in the Montana Rockies to find your own run down! You find your own line. Finally, the freedom I craved! As I sat there in the tack room of Ky’s barn listening to her talk and drinking wine (yes, I’m still a happy drunk y’all) about the fun they have each winter my adventurous spirit spoke up “That sounds like fun!” it whispered in my ear. Then hesitantly it added “Maybe you should actually learn how to ski and give it another shot. It’s time to leave Quebec in the past. ”
So, I’m employing my usual start to an adventure. Yes, the phrase that has launched me many times. That most eloquent phrase “Fuck it!” So I’m thinking that I will ski again. It’s time to take control and find my own line down the mountain! Over the next few winters I will seek out the instruction to get me back on skis and back on a mountain. I don’t want that mountain in Quebec haunt or limit me any longer. I want to ski again with the end goal being picking my own line down a mountain in the Montana Rockies with the Great Northern Powder Guides gang. On that day I will stand at the top of that mountain, smile and raise a bottle of wine (just because it’s me) in tribute because I will have control and that mountain will be my playground once again.
As for Great Northern Powder Guides, you can ski with them too if you venture out to Montana! Like them on Facebook, find them on the web at http://www.greatnorthernpowderguides.com or contact them by phone at 1-855-SNOWCAT.
P.S. Tell Jay and Ky I say hi!
People are complicated. This much I know for sure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people enter my life, share a period of time and then for some inexplicable reason leave. Sometimes I hear from them again and sometimes I do not. There is no rhyme or reason to this as far as I can tell. Sometimes the people I think are most likely to stay, go and the ones I think are most likely to go, stay. Regardless it always affects me somehow. Sometimes it’s pain for what I have lost and sometimes it’s a sense of gratefulness for what that person has given me. As if they’re presence in my life has either made the dark night darker or the sunrise that more radiant. It really just depends on the person and what they add or subtract to the overall equation.
When they left, it used to really hurt me. I would feel each departure as a failure on my part. I had held their intention and attention for a while. We had shared a portion of our lives and time with each other. We usually laughed together. This was irrevocable. Nobody could change or deny this and yet they chose to leave anyway. Why was I deemed unworthy of further investment? What had I done to diminish my value with that person? Or in the words of a friend’s young son “Why don’t they like me anymore?” I really just sucks or blows or whatever description you want to assign to it. Losing a friend (even a bad one) is never pleasant.
Somewhere along the line I came to this realization. People really are f**king complicated. Or rather, maybe their lives are. When we interact with them often we just scratch the surface. We don’t often get to see the bubbling, churning ocean of events, people and circumstances laying below. This is social decorum. Don’t talk about your problems. Don’t publicize them. Nobody really wants to know that your husband cheated last week and left you feeling worthless as a spouse or that your child is having behavioral problems from being bullied in school. Smile. Act as if your world is full of lightness and joy. But whatever you do, don’t crack open that door to that dark place. The place were demons and shadows roam freely will scare people. Being flawed that way or vulnerable makes you unattractive and weak. You must under all circumstances bear that…alone. Is it really any wonder we have so many people struggling with self-esteem and mental health issues when we look at that message?
So, I had to learn to shift my thinking. Now if a person enters my life (even if it is just for five minutes at the supermarket checkout) I attempt to squeeze as much positivity and joy out of this interaction as I can. And if that’s all I get, I’m grateful for it. I have given up the hurt. People are meant to come and go. The old will remind me of how far I’ve come and the new will teach me something new. So, where did I learn this new insight? A beagle named Bacardi (Bark for short). The dog who is deliriously happy to see everyone and anyone. If she gets to meet you once for five minutes she’s all tail wag and squirming joyfulness. If she gets to see you again, she’s over the moon. There are no conditions here beyond the obvious…the simple joy of meeting and interaction. What if we could all adopt this principle? Let’s just be glad to see each other…period.
The other thing about dogs relates to that bubbling, churning ocean of events, people and circumstances laying below. Tell a dog that your husband cheated or that your child has emotional issues. What does that dog do? Absolutely nothing at all…beyond listening. That dog is not judging you as a failed spouse or an unsuccessful parent. Yet, we as people so often do. In a dog’s eyes you are not diminished. Not one bit. They are just there, existing in that moment with you. They cannot fix your problem and they won’t try to own it. They will simply be and allow you to do the same. Perhaps I truly now appreciate why dogs are so popular.
And so I have resolved to be more like my dog (minus the butt licking). Joyful for the interaction and capable of just being there for those around me without judgment. I will not seek them out. I will allow people to come and go without feeling hurt or betrayed when they leave. They can come and go on any level and I will still love and appreciate them. Maybe that was just their time here with me and it’s over now. But the bottom line that I have gotten to. The thing that the dog has ingrained on me is the question…what gift can I carry away with me from these people? I will take the joy in any amount. Even if it is just a Milkbone.
P.S. This blog entry is NOT sponsored this week by Milkbone brand dog biscuits. Although Bark says any and all fan mail up to and including Milkbone donations will be gratefully accepted!
Years and years ago, I read a book. I think I was about sixteen at the time I read it. It was a self-help book. And maybe it says something about me that I was reading self-help books at the age of sixteen but I got several very important lessons out of this book. Amongst these were, don’t be afraid to fail because it happens to everyone, if anyone tells you they haven’t failed in life then they’re lying, in order to chase your dreams you must first identify what they are and perhaps the most important of them all, identify and seek out people who inspire in you what you wish to inspire in yourself. So for the past nineteen years I’ve been seeking out names and stories of people who inspire me to reach for things within myself that I hope one day to personify. Sometimes I meet these people in person and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they are my friends and family and sometimes they are complete strangers. One of first qualities I decided that I wanted to develop in myself was the construct of courage.
While deep into my search for acts and people who personify courage, I came across one particular story. It was the story of NYPD Ofc. Moira Smith. Moira’s story is not unlike others attached to the events of September 11, 2001. Moira did what her job demanded of her. When the call came in, Moira did what officers do…she responded. Moira escorted many bloody and wounded civilians from the site. She could have escorted them out and kept going. Nobody would have blamed her. In the confusion it would have been easy to take credit for the work you have done and leave the remainder to the relief that was pouring into the site from every direction. But Moira didn’t do that. Moira kept turning around. Moira kept going back in until eventually she and fate collided as the towers collapsed upon her.
As I continued to read about Moira, I realized just how much she had to lose that day. Perhaps it is the degree of loss that makes the heroic actions of that day that much more remarkable. The first responders streamed back in despite all they had on the line. For Moira it was a loving husband and a two year old daughter. Yet she kept turning around, going back. This is what I kept in mind as I stood at that table in classroom A of the police academy on day zero. My legs were rubber and shook like Jello. I had to literally gab the edge of the table to stop from falling down. It dawned on me. After months and months of work I was here. I was about to embark on a journey to realize a dream….my dream of becoming a law enforcement officer. I sure didn’t feel courageous right then. I was excited and downright terrified!
I’ve had to find courage numerous times since day zero and Jello legs at the academy. I’ve had to find the courage to be pepper sprayed and tased as part of my training. I’ve had to find the courage to get out of my cruiser and confront people twice my size who are drunk, high or suffer from mental illness. I’ve had to find the courage to accept that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place and I might not make it home one night. And through it all, I have kept the image of Ofc. Moira Smith turning back toward those towers in mind. In many ways she has been here with me all along. Reminding me that there is no turning around from duty or courage. Once you’re in, you’re all in.
About five years ago I paid my first visit to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s memorial here in Washington, D.C. It was police week and the walls of the memorial were lined in with patches, wreaths and cards. People were milling about quietly reading the thousands and thousands of names that are inscribed there along a long granite wall. I knew Moira’s name was out there somewhere and I was determined to find it. The wall is divided into sections with number and rows. On a pedestal at the end of the memorial stood a thick binder containing all the names on the memorial. Like a location on a map, I would have to look Moira up and find her coordinates. As I approached the binder I began to reach for it. Just then a gust of wind came through and when my eyes settled on the page that had blown open I found Moira’s name at the top. I couldn’t help but smile. I found her name on the wall a few minutes later and through up a silent thank you. A thank you for someone who I never met in person. A person that taught me something about the depth, endurance and value of courage.
I think I learnt something important last week. I say “I think” because my life has a funny way of leading me to believe that I know what I’m talking about and then “whamo!” The simple lesson I thought I’d learned turns out to be so much more complex than I ever considered. It’s like a maze with no end. Just when you think you know where you are, it’ll twist and turn. What makes this lesson even worse is that it was one of those instances where you swear up and down believing that something is one way and then in an instant it gets flipped on its head (along with you) and you find out that the very opposite is true. Now you’re faced with two reactions. Cling to your old and discredited belief, like old bubble gum to a movie cinema seat, or follow the truth you see in front of you and flip your thinking. I think I’ve got to flip. I don’t think I have a choice.
The lesson I learnt last week was through my writing and through this blog. When I started this little venture a couple of months ago, I vowed to give the people what they wanted. I do not call myself a writer. I don’t consider that my identity. I am just a person, living my life, who has been blessed with the gift of an avenue to share my experiences with others. Personally, I am known for my humor and my pioneering spirit. That’s primarily what I want to give people through my writing. I wanted it to be light hearted and fun. The writing had other ideas. The more I put pen to paper or fingers to keys, humor came spilling out along with a range of other emotions. These included to my horror and to my wonder guilt, shame, embarrassment, grief and the biggest ogre of them all, pain.
My lesson last week involved the often crippling, often denied, frequently feared component of the human existence that is human emotional pain. It’s that thing we encounter on our living room couch or in our darkened bedrooms at 1 am when we can’t suppress the tears any longer. We are alone, can’t sleep and they begin to flow like waterfalls down the planes of our cheeks. This kind of pain is deep and shuttering. It screws with our breathing. We cannot breath deep. We have lost the ability. Now we breathe in short ragged breaths. Halting and stuttering. We will reach for whatever comfort we can. A bottle, a pint of ice cream, some pills or a syringe of something to dull the ache. That ache feels like the Grand Canyon. How can we begin to tackle it? How can we transverse it, fill it in, conquer its depths?
It also screws with our vision. We lose the ability to see beyond it. Sometimes we lose our sight temporarily and sometimes we fear that this blindness is permanent. Joy recedes, hope recedes, and humor recedes because we cannot see them. This continues until we are left feeling utterly alone in our pain. Nobody can see us. Nobody can hear us. And the absolute kicker of them all….nobody can understand us! Our pain is too deep. Too personal and all-encompassing to be shared. It will frighten people we rationalize. Or people will judge us! They might minimalize our pain! “Cheer up!” they say. “It can’t be that bad! It’ll turn around soon. You’ll see!” they tell you. All the patronizing and minimizing makes it worse and so we suffer in silence on our own little atolls of misery, never reaching out into the ocean beyond. We are so alone! Does this sound familiar to anyone?
Ready for the lesson? We are ALL out on our personal atolls of pain in the ocean of our lives! Everyone has moments where we find ourselves stranded at sea without rescue, without understanding. That is the nature of pain….IT’s UNIVERSAL! It affects everyone young and old, black and white, Canadian or Mongolian. Up until last week, I thought that my pain was beyond understanding, beyond expression, beyond confrontation and certainly beyond sharing. It separated me out from the masses of humanity, it did not bond me to them like glue. “Look at them all happily living their lives” I would rationalize. What would they know of my pain? How would they ever come to understand it? But now I realize that they do have a base for understanding. They find it in their darkened bedrooms at 1am with wet cheeks and Ben & Jerrys (the ice cream, not the men. Although…oh, never mind) in hand.
And so I propose a challenge! The next time you see someone perched upon their personal atoll of pain in the vast ocean of life, don’t minimize their island or pretend you do not see it. Just tell them you have one too. Remember what yours felt like? They don’t need a tour of yours and you don’t need a tour of theirs. Those coconuts swaying from the treetops on your island are yours. You should share only when you are ready. Just let them know that you’ve stared out from that beach before too. Perhaps in this way we can break the pain down a bit. Maybe we can take away its all-encompassing power when we stop thinking of ourselves as lonely individual human islands of pain and start being a sort of glue of collective and connected humanity. Just a thought.
P.S. This post has been brewing in my mind all week. I don’t watch a lot of TV and I certainly don’t watch a lot of police/crime dramas. However, one of the shows I do catch from time to time is Rizzoli & Isles on TNT. I like the show because the characters all carry a humorous edge to their work. Their writers seem to be the masters of playful one liners. People after my own heart. This week they lost Lee Thompson Young who played Det. Barry Frost to suicide. My heart and prayers go out to all those he left behind. The reason for his passing is still unclear but I suspect he had been stranded on his island seemingly alone for a very long time. I am not advocating that in simply increasing the connection between people we can cure or manage serious mental illness. I am only hoping that by taking away some of the alone component of the experience we might give people a foothold to confront whatever they suffer from. If any good comes from what is written above, I dedicate it in Lee Thompson Young’s memory. I will miss him on the show. May he rest in peace.