Friday, October 10, 2014

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

Have you ever thought about how we choose to identify particular groups of birds? For example, we talk of a clutch of chicks and a brood of chickens, or a muster of peacocks and a brace of pheasants. We have a convocations of eagles, a parliament of owls, a richness of martens, a cast of falcons, and a crèche of penguins.

And don’t forget about the wing of plovers, fling of sandpipers, exaltation of larks, host of sparrows, gaggle of geese, watch of nightingales, bevy of swans, stand of flamingos, charm of hummingbirds, and bellowing of bullfinches.

We even get to the gulp of cormorants, kettle of vultures, murmeration of starlings, descent of woodpeckers, herd of wrens, and wake of buzzards.

Each of these, in turn, gives us a visual sense of the particular birds it describes.

And then, there is the murder of crows.

It sounds so ominous.

Nature has been trying to send me some not-so-subtle messages of late, including my Walk on the Beach, my Seasons of Life lesson, and my session with the Treetop Whispers.

She is not done yet.

Nature has been sending me crows. To be precise, she has been sending me a full murder of crows. Why couldn’t she have sent me a nice charm of hummingbirds instead?

After seeing this murder of crows repeatedly for about 2 months now, I hesitantly decided to do a little research and discover just what message they might be trying to convey to me, hoping that it was not just a premonition of death. And here’s what I discovered.

The crow is a spirit animal, or messenger, associated with life mysteries and magic. Native Americans view the crow as a totem and spirit guide that provides insight and means of supporting intentions.

Ok, so my crows represent life mysteries. I have plenty of those. But why is she sending me so many? Why a full murder, to be exact?

Throughout history, the crow has come to be associated with both positive and negative symbolic meanings, including life magic and the mystery of creation, the idea of destiny and personal transformation, alchemy (transforming elements into other elements), intelligence, higher perspective, being fearless or audacious, flexibility, adaptability, and trickery, manipulation, and mischievousness.

That’s quite a list.

Crows are also often associated with bad omens, death, or dark witchcraft, but also carries the power of prophetic insight and symbolizes the void or core of creation.

Now it’s getting interesting.

You see, I have been struggling with a lot lately, particularly in terms of the transformations that are currently taking place in my life. And the crow, which is black with tints of iridescent blue in the right light, is symbolic of the onset of creation, of the void, or what has not yet taken form yet. The crow carries the energy of life mysteries and the power for deep inner transformation.

Inner transformation. Precisely what I am struggling with at this very moment. So my crows are trying to help me with my chrysalization.

But it gets even better.

Crows often build their nests in very tall trees, providing them with better vision or perspective on their surroundings. As a totem, crows help to provide a position from which to see things from a higher perspective.

They provide the “big picture,” folks. And the crow is a protective spirit, too, able to raise the alarm when intruders or predators approach.

So, my crows are helping me transform, protecting me, and providing me better vision. What more could I ask?

Crows are also a lesson in fearlessness and determination. They encourage us to develop our personal power and speak our truths more loudly.

Wait, speak our truths? I just wrote about that yesterday…And now my crows are telling me to find my voice? Can that be right?

The crow, as custodian of ancient magical laws and wisdom, provides us with an instant flash of our authentic self. The crow sees our soul-self and in her call we hear the echoes within the body as we try to remember the language that she speaks. Crows bring the gifts of clairvoyance and change, while teaching the animal magic of shifting dimensions and mystical messages.

Our authentic self.

In other words, my recent repeated encounters with my murder of crows have been trying to show me to let go of the fear and resistance I have been experiencing, and to truly open myself up to the new transformation that is budding inside.

The crow represents the need to embrace our true identity, the Authentic Self, announcing that the time of change is here and now. She tells us that it is time to let go of the old self and all that is holding us back to enable us to step into our authentic power.

So in that sense, the crow is, perhaps, a harbinger of death, as she helps to usher out the old and midwives the birth of the new in its place. But with each “death” comes rebirth and regeneration. The crow represents the changes of life and death, and the changes in the cycles of life, just as I wrote about the Seasons of Life recently.

The murder of crows that has camped themselves out in my backyard are simply reinforcing the lessons that I have been taught recently: be patient, be aware and alert, and release resistance to showing my true self to the world. With the help of my murder of crows, the results are bound to be amazing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Treetop Whispers

Treetop Whispers

The treetops all whisper
In rustling tones
While water trips over
The glistening stones.
Alone in a pocket
Of natural bliss,
I sit in the sunshine,
And welcome its kiss.

While Fall’s cool embraces
Rush over my skin,
I feel a new tension,
That builds from within.
Unsure where it leads me,
I question the source
And wonder its meaning –
Fear, guilt, or remorse?

I sit in reflection
Poised over the creek,
Hoping so desperately
To find what I seek.
The future is hidden
Behind textured layers,
And I only hope that
It answers my prayers.

And though I so often
Feel lost and alone,
I just close my eyes and
I know I am home.
The struggle I’m facing
Is timeless and true,
And even in struggle
The answers ensue.

I sit in the stillness,
Alert and aware,
And listen to symbols
And signs that are there.
To focus and flourish
I must turn inside,
And unsheath my talents,
No longer to hide.

So much lies before me
I see it, and yet,
The pathway to reach it,
Is still to be set.
In the depths of my winter,
I struggle to find
The rest that will bring me
To places sublime.

I pray to the goddess,
To Nature, for aid,
Assist me in realizing
Real plans most well-laid.
Impatient and anxious,
It’s hard to reveal
The aspects I’ve always
Worked hard to conceal.

But now, as I enter
The Spring of my year,
I know that these talents
Are nothing to fear.
Though Nature has given
A few silent cues,
I’m hearing quite loudly
I’ve nothing to lose.

A Fall Embrace

A Fall Embrace

The sun wraps around me
Like the embrace
Of a life-long friend.
The comfort it’s transmitting
Warms my spirit,
And promises never to end.
The heat of its touch curls
In delicate tendrils
To tickle me with delight.
Reaching recesses hidden,
Kept covered and darkened,
And well of out sight.
It intimately strokes
My cheek and my hair,
In a gentle reminder not to worry.
The peace its embrace provides
Sustains me now,
And prods me not to hurry.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Seasons of Life

The Seasons of Life

I have been struggling of late. It’s silly, really. I’m finally making enough money that I don’t have to be worried about paying my bills, and I don’t have to spend hours on the computer scouring for jobs that I know aren’t there. I should be content.

And yet, I’m not.

I have had this progressively deepening sense of anxiety that all is not right with my world. And it has been wearing me down, stealing my sleep, sapping my energy and enthusiasm.

And I couldn’t figure it out.

Until this morning, when my cats – being the incorrigible troublemakers that they are – woke me before I was ready and forced me physically out of bed. And as I rose, I stepped to the window and saw the sun literally setting the tree line on fire with fall colors.
And then it hit me. Much like my Beach Walk a few weeks ago. Suddenly, I understood what I’ve been going through. It didn’t make me like it any better, but at least now it all was falling into place.

Life is a cycle of seasons. And I mean that far beyond the typical metaphor of birth, development, adulthood, and death.

As we grow in life, we repeatedly progress through necessary cycles, just as the earth does each year, that help us to experience proper regeneration and renewal.

Each cycle begins with a rebirth – Spring, if you will, that happens mostly out of sight of the naked eye. This is the season of regeneration, where the tender young shoots are nourished beneath the surface, sucking critical supplements from the soil that surrounds them. Each tender shoot has the potential to grow into something large and beautiful, if only the proper conditions are provided.

As the climate warms, the days lengthen, and the sun becomes more demanding, the cycle enters summer, the season of growth. Summer is when we see it all come to fruition. It is the season of production. We can visibly see the fruits grown and ripen before our eyes. Those tiny shoots that were all but invisible during Springtime, now present themselves with a flourish and a presence that is all but impossible to ignore. Not every shoot will live to see the Summer, but those that do will make their debut with a flourish.

And Summer, inevitably, transitions to Autumn, the season of harvest. It is in the Fall that we are able to reap the luscious fruits of our Summer growth. Autumn is a time of reward, when we can pack away the abundance of produce from the summer plants, storing it up to dole out in delicious reminders of our distant warmth as the mood hits us. Autumn is the season of fulfilment. Fall has always been my favorite season of all.

But as the days begin to shorten, and temperatures dip lower, the Autumn must inevitably bow to Winter. Oh how we dread Winter. It is the season of death, of decay, of cold and impersonal days. We huddle inside our homes during Winter, just praying that Spring will come swiftly, swooping in like swallows over a field before we succumb.

But Winter cannot be rushed, either.

For Winter is the season of rest. It is the time for us to replenish our depleted resources, to draw warmth from the hearth and huddle together in community. Though Winter seems dead on the outside, it is actually the root of all life. Before regrowth, there must be death to allow for regeneration. Winter, with its icy touch, reminds us of the good things that are to come if only we can be patient enough to let the seasons flow.

And so our lives move on, through the seasons, not just physically, but mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as well. For every winter season, there is a corresponding Spring, Summer, and Autumn. We cannot rush the progression of the pattern, or the entire balance of the process is lost.

This is the lesson I gleaned from the sun-burnished leaves this morning. While I was highly cognizant of my recent “winter,” when I was searching for employment as well as mission and purpose in my life, I had neglected to understand that I must progress through the corresponding Spring and Summer before I can reap the rewards of Autumn. The seasons must not be rushed, or slighted, or their produce will be inferior.

A “hot house” tomato does not develop with the same succulent flavors as one that is kissed by months of summer sunshine in the backyard garden. So, too, must my shoots be given the proper time and sustenance to come to their full maturity before they may be harvested.

So, like my “Walk on the Beach,” nature is showing me the importance of patience lately. Our lives are a continuous cycle, and we must experience the full repetition of each cycle in order to provide ourselves the proper regeneration and move on. And, like the Doctor, each regeneration takes on a whole new face, changing with the cycles to best fit our current circumstances.

And so, I shall embrace the seasonal cycle of my life, paying closer attention to its changing needs as we move from one aspect to the next, instead of focusing on the Autumn harvest that must surely be looming large.

I shall not despair in the “winter of my discontent,” as Shakespeare wrote, but I shall embrace Winter’s transformative and restorative powers that will bring even brighter blooms in its wake.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lake Erie Lessons


Trees bow majestically
As I wend my way in,
Leading me to the spot
That my journey should begin.
Whispers of memories
Carried on their limbs,
Remind me to listen to
Their sacred quiet hymns.
Waves lap against the shore,
As crickets chirp their song,
Plaintively chastising me
That I’ve been gone too long.
I hear cicadas buzz
Amidst the stunning calm,
Moth flits and lingers there,
Upon my open palm.
I begin to walk the beach,
And a dawning slowly breaks,
I now know the answers lie
Along this stately lake.
Slow down, appreciate
The sights along the way.
Don’t rush too quickly through,
Or you’ll never last the day.

A Walk on the Beach

As I spent some much-needed and long overdue time on the peninsula today, I had a serious epiphany: Life is like a walk on the beach.

Now, before you groan and tune out on me, let me explain.

My life has seen some drastic and unexpected changes over the past five years that often had me despairing over where I had gone wrong. It seemed that I had lost direction and purpose and was merely drifting aimlessly along, simply existing from one day to the next. I was

But today, it hit me: I have not been lost at all. My life was like this walk on the beach.

So many of us approach life like a marathon down the sand. Eyes on the prize, we concentrate all on energies on crossing that finish line on the distant horizon. We ignore or curse any distractions along the way that might slow down our progress, intent on the “getting there” and forgetting about the journey.

That’s where I was five years ago, focused on the end game. I measured success by the ultimate outcome – promotion, raises, evaluations- and had forgotten about the journey, which is not about the prizes, but rather is about ourselves.

Today, as I made my way down the beach, I had no end goal. That allowed me to stop and experience all that I found along the way. The metaphor really struck me when I began to find and collect shells. Now, many people do this, don’t get me wrong. But the shells that I was seeking out and harvesting were the tiniest, most perfect little turret shells, the ones that most people don’t even see a they crunch their way over the sand in search of the distant rainbow. And now, as I moved slowly down the sand, watching my steps, those dainty prizes literally ANNOUNCED themselves for me to find.

When we stop focusing on the finish line, and take time to examine the details of the journey, we find ourselves steeped in a world of wonder that makes us ask why were in such a hurry in the first place.
In life, the finish line is often out of sight, somewhere down the sand – perhaps miles away or maybe just around the next bend. When we blind ourselves to the journey and just push through to the end, we miss out on the small, miraculous events that could help sustain us for the long haul.

I could be bitter about losing my job, or about being “stuck” in a community where my job prospects are crippled, but instead, as I realized today, it has given me new sight. No longer chained to the process of impressing students and colleagues with my abilities in order to achieve tenure, I am free to investigate and develop the talents and interests I choose. Working from home, on my own schedule, allows me the flexibility and freedom to make the most of my journey, whether that means having lunch with a dear friend, being entertained by our menagerie of pets, baking a special pie for my husband, or taking the morning to rejuvenate at Presque Isle. These are the minute shells that I discover on my walk on the beach.

Though my finish line lies somewhere out of sight down the sand, it matters not how far, for my details will sustain me. It gives me time to appreciate sharing funny videos with my husband, or to chat about dreams with my best friend, or to take the weekend off to spend visiting with my parents.

On the beach, one encounters many possible paths. Some are solid, while others are comprised of shifting sand. Obstacles lie in the way, some large, some miniscule. We see both life and death at the shore’s edge, with the dividing line between them often murky. It is an ecosystem of existence where the elements must interact to be sustained. And sometimes, you must change direction in order to truly see what has been before you all along. It is the metaphor of life.

And by focusing on my journey, on my true self rather than on the goals, I have discovered that the opportunities for success are now presenting themselves to me freely. No longer desperate to get there NOW, my beach walk is revealing exciting new pathways to extend my journey.

A Homecoming

A Homecoming

I knew that I had stayed away from the water for far too long, but I had no idea how palpable the energy would be when I finally returned. As I entered the park, the car suddenly enveloped in the lush green canopy of trees, I immediately felt a rush of calming energy blanket me. My heart rate slowed, my breathing deepened, and I reached over to snap off the radio so that I could hear the songs of the crickets chirping through my open window.

It was a crisp Fall day, gleaming with golden sunshine radiating from an almost cloudless cerulean blue sky. Though I saw small groups of power walkers and the occasional cyclist as I made my way deeper onto the peninsula, nothing penetrated my growing sense of calm.

I turned off at my favorite spot, one of the Westward beaches near the Ranger station, and shut off the engine. I sat silently contemplating the sensations for a moment before exiting the car and hoisting my backpack of art and writing supplies to my shoulder.

I spied a weathered wooden picnic table perched somewhat precariously on the bank of the beach, providing a perfect panorama of the calm, undulating lake before me. I made my way towards the table and settled onto the warped bench.

The deep palette of blues from the late waters enhanced the creamy, chalky tones of the piles of stone that serve as breakwaters all along this side of the peninsula.

I chucked as an old joke ran through my head. “How do you know God is a Penn State fan?” “Why else would the sky be blue and white?”

As I sat probing the horizon, listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the beach, my calm deepened. I watched a plane as it banked over the water, growing from a tiny speck to loom large over my head as it ascended into the spotless sky on its journey to some unnamed destination. The rumble of the engines was the only man-made sound in my otherwise natural surroundings.

As the plane faded away, the song of the cicadas intensified, almost as if they had seen the plane as an intruder, threatening their territory. Their warning buzzes rose and fell for some moments, telegraphing a territorial message for all to hear.

Occasionally, a vehicle passed slowly on the park road that fronts the beach, but they vanished without disrupting the overall mood of the moment.

New sounds began to emerge from the peninsula: chirping crickets, singing out their song of hope to delay the frost; bird songs – I couldn’t tell from what species – trilled out from trembling tree branches. I heard the rattle and buzz of a beetle as it worked its way down the beach. And a vivid yellow moth approached, attracted by the purple cap on my water bottle. It alit on top of the container, pausing for a moment, almost as if to give me an opportunity to marvel at its beauty and grace.

My art supplies lay strewn about the tabletop, just waiting patiently for me to take them up and transcribe a fraction of the peninsula’s perfection to my pad. I sighed, wanting desperately to dive into drawing, yet so content to bask in the beauty of the moment that I could not open my sketchbook.

A gentle breeze kicked up, just as the rays of the sun were overheating my exposed skin. It was as if Mother Nature noticed that her rays were just a bit too harsh and turned on a fan to cool it down. Between the warmth of the sun and the deliciously cool stirrings of the air, I had no desire to move or act. I simply had to drink it all in.

As I surveyed the beach, my artist’s eye was drawn to several scenes, wondering if I could capture them on paper: the breakwater, rising out of the water in a stately manner, framed by the gentle trunk of a tree on the beach. A small sand dune, dotted with sea grass and twigs. The horizon, with its gentle dividing line that radiated pink and had a streak of puffy white clouds hovering directly overhead. So many options, and yet my sketchbook remained blank.

I closed my eyes and just listened for a moment, hoping to find inspiration. The warmth of the moment settled over me like a cloak, pushing out months of uncertainty and gloom.

Like my recent trip to Lily Dale, this morning’s venture to Presque Isle reaffirmed my need to pay attention to my inner self.

I started as a large spider descended upon me, falling from the tree branch above. This was the third spider – in gradually ascending size! – that had found me in the short time I had been sitting there. I gave a small shout and then laughed as I flicked it away. “Ok, already, Ellen. I know you’re thinking about me! You can stop sending me spiders!” I said to the air.

My friend Ellen and I have a very strong relationship that often manifests itself in unusual ways. Her totem is the spider, and when she is thinking deeply about me and can’t talk to me, I often see real spiders instead. Though I do not particularly care for spiders, I have learned to accept them as messengers from Ellen, and send them on their way.

As it approached lunchtime, more intrusions made their way into my idyll. More frequent, louder traffic traveled the macadam, and I saw more people ambling along the shoreline.

Not yet ready to be dragged back into the everyday world, I opened my sketchbook to see what would emerge.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Life's Intricate Tango

Life’s Intricate Tango

I sigh
As life trips me backwards.
I smile
As life teases me forward.
One tiny step
Forced through the muck of life
Followed by
Three leaps in the opposite direction,
Like a great intricate Tango
Danced to life’s silent tune.

And yet
I keep trying,
Against the herculean forces
That would keep me chained to despair.

One step
Is all it takes in the right direction.
I hope
Until there is no more room for doubt.
I weep
Until there are no more tears left to cry.
And I pick myself up
To repeat the cycle anew.
Weary but determined
That I will not let the demons of destruction
Bar me from achieving my goals.

Friday, June 6, 2014

In Memory of those who gave their lives in WWII. Here is a poem I wrote in high school about the end of World War I. It seems appropriate today. (I also set it to music back then....)

It's Over Today
February 1983

It's over today.
The shells will cease to fall,
the bullets no longer fly,
and the battlefield's deserted.
But the shells of men
must return to life,
to a place no longer home.
For them the war
will never be over,
it rages within them still.
It's over today.
The war is ended now.
But war never really ends,
it lasts for years and years.
The scars it leaves are hidden
deep within mankind.
They're deeper than the physical signs -
those will disappear.
But the scars it left on men
will never go away.
It's over today,
the fighting's finished,
but the scars will never fade.
It's not over.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Requiem for Me

I lead a local weekly writing group, and for this week, I gave them a series of paintings and told them to choose one and "write themselves into the painting." So the story below was my attempt to do the assignment with them this week. I started with the painting above, knew that I would be writing about old love letters, and let the story run from there. Like all good fiction, it contains some elements of reality, but I'm not telling you which ones are true! I wrote this in under an hour.


A Requiem for Me

I sat in the semidarkness, the bed littered with the well-worn evidence of his love surrounding me. I picked up a handful of the pages and lifted them to my face, breathing in the scent of sandalwood that still lingered there, even after all this time. Tears streamed down my face as I marveled that ten years had passed since last I saw his slanted writing grace my mailbox. How could it be that long? Where had life gone? How had it passed me by without shaking me from my grief-riddled slumber?

With a gentle sniff, I choked back the tears, leaning back against the pillows tossed careless at the head of the bed. I sat, gazing sightlessly out of the sliding glass door that led to the sheltered deck outside, but it was images of him that danced before my eyes.

I remembered that day - god, was it 25 years ago? – that he found out that he had gotten approval to write his Requiem Mass for credit, instead of taking the Freshman interim class. He swooped into the room, feet barely touching the scuffed linoleum flooring, gathered me up in his arms, and swung me around in circles until I was dizzy. I had never seen him so ecstatic, before or after that moment. He was transformed.

It was a busy month for us, while he was writing and casting his requiem. He carefully selected his musicians and singers, turning to me and saying “And of course, you will sing, won’t you? I can’t do this if you won’t sing. I’m writing it for you.”

All I could do was nod my acquiescence, as the lump in my throat was as large as a grapefruit. How could I deny him this?

For weeks, we rehearsed, painstakingly repeating each measure, tweaking and changing, until it was exactly as he had envisioned it in his mind. As we stood the center of the cavernous chapel, before the mighty pipe organ, our voices echoed from the stone and glass that surrounded us. We were finally ready.

That month was the beginning of it all: the daily rehearsals, the late night sessions where he confessed his dreams by candlelight, listening to the music that was his inspiration. As his composition matured, so did our relationship.

The night of the performance, I was nervous. Our small band of performers huddled together in the vestry before the announcement of the program, saying a silent prayer to the muses of music that we would be at our best.

As we walked through the chapel door to the haunting prelude of the organ, I swept a glance through the crowded chapel pews, my gaze locked onto his, and I knew in that moment that everything was right.

The performance was flawless, and the audience rose to its feet with applause as the final notes died away behind us. Tom was on his feet, accepting the congratulations of everyone around as I sneaked a quick glance over my shoulder on the way back into the vestry.

This was Tom’s night to shine, and shine he did. The high he had lasted for months. We would sit in the dark, talking about the future, planning and dreaming, and knowing that it all just seemed right. I was madly in love.

Then one day, Tom came in with a rather serious look on his face, and told me he had some news. I didn’t like the sound of that. He sat me down on the bed and took my hands in his, without meeting my gaze.

I knew I was in trouble then.

“What is it, Tom?” I asked, with trepidation.

“I’ve made an important decision,” he replied. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then went on. “I’m going into the Navy in two weeks.”

“The Navy?” I couldn’t believe my ears. How could this talented musician let it all go to waste by enlisting in the military? What about all his grandiose plans?

“Yes, the Navy. It’s the only way. My money is gone, and I have to do something to support myself.”

The reflection of headlights outside the bedroom window brought me back to the present once more, and I fingered the yellowing pages on the bed beside me once more.

Those were hard years, the ones during his enlistment. The stack of yellowed letters, sent from ports around the globe, had been her only sustenance during that time. Oh, he loved her – at least he said he did – and he told her all the right things in the letters, but he was
physically absent for far too long.

She supposed that they both glamorized their relationship while they were apart. It’s an easy thing to do, highlighting the exciting and wonderful traits of a person while forgetting their flaws, while they are distant. She created a fairytale life to which she assumed he would return one day. For six years, they carried on this way, each knowing that reality was far from ideal, but neither willing to shatter the illusion they had carefully crafted between them.

And then, suddenly, he was home. For good. He stood before her, a changed man. Gone was the wild-eyed, carefree youth of their college days, whose eyes glimmered with hope and promise. Instead, she faced a shell of a man, who had seen far more in his tours of duty than any human should ever have to see. Her Tom, her glorious musician, was gone.

They played house for a few years together, trying to make things work. Tom jostled from one job to the next, without ever finding his groove, and always seemed to be just a little off kilter from the world. He had no spark in his eye, no joy in his heart, and I was devastated. Meanwhile, I was settled into my comfortable career as a high school teacher, slugging back and forth to school each day, grading papers, dealing with stubborn students and even more stubborn parents. It was an existence, but it certainly wasn’t a life.
One day, I took a chance and sent a recording of Tom’s Requiem Mass to a recording studio, without his knowledge. Patiently, I waited for some response, some sign that would tell us what we should do.

Finally, the letter came. The studio was thrilled with the composition and wanted to do a recording session in New York. This was Tom’s big break. I sat him down that evening and told him what I had done, saying “Music has always been your first and only true love, Tom. It’s time for you to acknowledge your love. You are going to New York, you are going to work with the studio, and you are going to BE the musician that you were born to be.”

Tom fell silent in contemplation. “But, what about us?” He finally asked.

“I need to stay here. This is your dream, not mine. This is what you need to do.”

We sat; quietly holding hands for what seemed like hours in the darkness that night, and in the morning Tom made the arrangements to begin his new life.

Once he left, we stayed in contact, of course. At first, it was daily phone calls and frequent letters, but as his muse grew, he needed me less and less. I was like a mother bird, watching her fledgling chicks find their wings. It was time for Tom to leave the nest.

Finally, the letters slowed to a monthly missal reporting on his latest musical achievements before stopping altogether ten years previously.

I gazed out the door again, into the ink-black night. I squinted, trying to discern stars in the dark sky, but saw none. I ran my hands softly over the sandalwood-scented scraps on the coverlet once more, before rising to put Tom’s Requiem Mass on the CD player. It marked the beginning and the end of their ill-fated relationship. I sighed, knowing that my loss was truly the world’s gain.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Molten Fire Dance

Across the creek from my brother-in-law's place, there is a deep stand of woods. When I first started dating my husband, we were visiting his brother, who started talking about the Yetis that live in the woods. He then offered to drive me across the creek and through the woods on the 4-wheeler, so we set off for a ride. It was dusk, almost dark. As we drove through the woods on the 4 wheeler, I sensed a number of spirits (none of them Yetis). We reached a rise at the end of the trail, and Tom shut off the engine and we sat there for a moment. I started to see a series of spirits in the woods. I counted seven, in all, dressed in blue and red military uniforms, wandering around, carrying out a variety of tasks. I was quiet for a few moments, just watching, and I finally told Tom what I was seeing. He was amazed, and with a shaky hand pointed over to our left and said "There are a bunch of graves over there...They were French soldiers." I had not known about the graves. That was the moment that Tom accepted my psychic gifts as being true. That was also six years ago. Last night, Tom had a bonfire, and as we sat by the flames, licking up into the dark night sky, I kept feeling intense energy coming from across the creek. It was so powerful, it was disturbing and unsettling. I'm not sure if it was the impending meteor showers, or the timing of the moon, or just my presence there in combination with fire (always a powerful force), but the spirits were actively trying to communicate with me last night. That is the genesis of the poem below.

Molten Fire Dance

Embers glimmer like molten gold,
Flames lick higher and banish cold.
Within the circle, colors dance
Orange, yellow, and green all prance.
Beyond firelight I can sense
Spirits active in woods so dense.

Starlight twinkles above my head,
With each winkling I feel the dead
Wand’ring, lonely afraid to go
They hold onto the place they know.
Sensing in me a psychic chink,
They try forming insid’ous links.

As I focus on rising flames,
Through the darkness a picture frames.
Taken too soon from those they knew,
Soldiers linger, their fellows few.
Down to seven, their numbers fell
Restlessly checking all is well.

Til the day they will fin’lly find
Freedom from the prison they mind.
Here they stay to roam through the woods
Keeping sentry, as soldiers should.
Reaching out to me in their ways,
Hoping I might shorten their stays.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ellen's Lament

Here is a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, about dealing with the jumble of emotions and energies that come from having psychic sensibilities.

Ellen’s Lament

Snippets of time
snared in psychic bands
echoes of feelings
that I never have time to understand.
Lost in a blur
of racing action
Wishing that life could stop
so I could gain traction.
Senses of souls,
emotions unleashed
reminding me of
those bound'ries unbreached
I long for the still
of midnight's dark cover
when maybe, just maybe,
these senses I'll discover.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Other Side of Nowhere

This poem started with the first line... "On the other side of nowhere...." and it just started to build from there. I actually wrote it while I was weeding our small garden this afternoon, words spinning around in my head as I carried out the physical labor of pulling weeds. I didn't do much editing at all once it spilled out. It just seemed right.

This is for my soul sister and best friend, Ellen. Thank you for always being on the other side of nowhere.

The Other Side of Nowhere

On the other side of nowhere
Is an enchanted place
Where I find myself reflected
In the wisdom of your face.
When I’m lost in nowhere’s whisper
And no one else can hear
Will you come gather round me
And banish all my fear?
A labyrinth of mystery
All wound up in a knot,
My soul just keeps me wand’ring
In a place that time forgot.
But you are there to guide me
And be my anchor true,
On the other side of nowhere,
I find myself in you.
And when I lose direction,
Or question what is real,
All I have to do is find you,
And you know what I feel.
Whether close at hand or distant,
Across the many miles,
When I wrap myself in your love,
All I see is brilliant smiles.
Soul Sisters to the marrow,
We were born to be entwined
Your friendship now is golden,
The best friend I could find.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Burnished Brilliance

When I write, words tend to coalesce in my mind, floating around until they come to some magical resolution. Once I have a start to something in my head, then I take up paper and pencil and try to capture it as it spins around the vortices of my brain. It's really quite an interesting creative process. I do not really "create" so much as "translate" whatever appears to me. The poem below is one of these translations, that started with the first line poking me for attention for hours before the rest of the poem evolved.

Burnished Brilliance

I reflected at evensong,
As licks of sun drew ever long,
Casting shadows upon my face
Warming me in its embrace.

Burnished gold and scarlet fingers
Reaching out, the power lingers.
All remains of doubt are banished,
Like an early dew, they vanished.

As the dusk spreads slowly 'round me,
I know not how it has found me.
Drowning in my dark reflections
I was searching for connections.

Deep in thought I had shunned the world,
Wild emotions around me whirled.
Blind to those who tried to enter
Or to help me find my center.

The answer was so crystal clear,
Always there, so simple, near.
When you stop to smell the roses,
Life is more than one supposes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Chrysallization Part 3

North Korean Soldiers

“Okay, folks, gather around again. I just want to point out something else of interest to all of you. See that village over there, on the other side of the Demarcation Line,” he asked, pointed to a group of buildings surrounding a 480 foot tall flagpole on the North Korean side of the armistice line. “The North Koreans constructed that village as a propaganda move. No one actually lives in the village, and the flag is 90 feet long. It waves over there to show the South Koreans over here who is in charge. Not that the South Koreans pay any attention to it!” he joked. “The only inhabitants who actually live in the DMZ are South Korean farmers, and they may only tend their crops under constant military protection. Most of the villages have moved out of the DMZ to avoid this constant nuisance.”

“Imagine that – having to farm under guard,” Rich murmured. “How terribly… oppressive.” Rich’s uncle ran a farm in Michigan, and I think that he was making a very personal connection.

“This is all giving me the creeps,” I whispered. “I’ll be glad when we’re back safely at our hotel in Seoul. I’ve never felt this exposed and vulnerable before.”

“That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?” Rich responded. “What do we Americans know about real danger? In our relatively short history as a nation, we have not had to deal with true threats of war on our own soil. Imagine having to live with the daily possibility of an attack? It’s mind-blowing.”

Mind-blowing, indeed. I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around these events of the day, trying to reconcile what we were experiencing with our comfortable, happy middle-class life back home.

The Major cleared his throat to get our attention again. “Ok, folks. Over to your right is a monument to the fallen of the Korean conflict. You might want to wander over to take a closer look. Just be sure to stay on THIS side of the monument. We don’t want you wandering into Northern territory. We’ll meet back up at the bus in 15 minutes and head back to your tour bus.” He dismissed us with
a wave of his hand.

Rich and I strolled slowly over to the monument, my eyes still scanning the area surrounding us. There were many military personnel around, now that I was paying attention to them. I saw South Korean uniforms, and U.S. uniforms, and some other uniforms that I could not identify. I assumed they were part of the UN force. We reached the monument and I stopped to read the inscription, written in several languages at the bottom. When I finished reading, I turned to say something to Rich, but he was no longer beside me.

Spinning in a circle, I called his name loudly. “Rich! Where are you? God, Rich, don’t leave me alone like this!”

As I finished my rotation, I was startled to a stop by the sight of a platoon of soldiers jogging down the road on the other side of the monument. Dressed in uniform pants, white t-shirts, and of course army boots, it took me a minute to realize that this was a platoon of NORTH Korean soldiers, obviously participating in basic training exercises. The sight of a platoon of enemy soldiers, mere feet from me, took my breath away. I stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak or move, until I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I jerked to life, spinning with a cry, only to find Rich standing there. “Chris? Are you ok? I only walked over there to talk to Rudy for a moment. What’s the matter with you?”

All I could do was point in response. Rich’s gaze also fell on the training North Korean soldiers. His response, however, was a bit less intense than mine had been. “Oh, cool!” he said, whipping out his camera to snap a number of photographs as they passed by. “These will be great for my scrapbook!”

“Rich! How can you be so calm? Don’t you realize that they are the ENEMY?” I said.

“Whose enemy? Not ours. Not here, not now. There’s a truce, remember…”

“Yes, but didn’t you read the waiver we signed? There have been a number of attacks, or acts of aggression here, since 1953….We could still be in danger.” I started to retreat back towards the waiting military bus. “I’m going to get back on the bus now.”

Rich trotted to catch up with me, apologizing. “I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean to upset you. But I don’t think we’re really in any danger, and it’s just so … COOL to be this close to something like this. I’ve never experienced it before!”

I sighed and accepted Rich’s apology with a wan smile. “It’s ok, Rich. But I’m tired. You go explore a bit more, and I’ll meet you on the bus.” With that I quickened my pace and left Rich to catch up with our friends.

Back on the bus, hunched down in my seat, I pulled out my journal and began to record my experiences. It had been a rather powerful day, and I had so much running through my mind that I wanted to get down before I forgot it. When I had left home just three weeks earlier, I had been a naïve teenager from Wisconsin, who had never been challenged by much of anything in life. We lived a comfortable, lower-middle class existence, I had stability in my family, and relative certainty in my future. Although I was a student of history, I hadn’t thought much about current events or global conflicts, except as a course of study. But now, here, being faced with the realities of global conflict, I began to see just how uninformed we really were.

The others began to pour back on the bus, and our driver made the engine roar to life as they all took their seats. The last ones on were Major Willis and Sergeant Carter, who smiled at the group and then took their seats in the front row for the ride back to the base. I looked down at my journal, and saw that I had written a bunch of gibberish. Nothing was making much sense today, it seemed.

Finally, after a long, hot trip, we were back at the visitor’s center, rejoining the other half of our less merry band and trooping onto our tour bus once more. Our driver blissfully had the air conditioning blasting as we threw ourselves aboard and into our regular seats. Rich had pulled out his Walkman and was listening to Air Supply, one of his favorite tapes. He gestured to me to plug my headphones in so we could listen together, which we often did. I shook my head at him, and let him melt into his seat in contentment with his music. I was much too thoughtful to enjoy the music now. I spent the bus ride staring out the window beside me.

Roughly 45 minutes later, our tour bus pulled into the outskirts of Seoul. As we drove through the city towards our hotel, the Major’s words resonated in my head. “Seoul is just 25 miles from the border. It is just a 60 second ride by jet from North Korea….” I sat up straighter and scanned the city sights more carefully than I had on our initial arrival in the city yesterday, and began to notice things I had missed earlier.

There, on the rooftops, were strange constructions that I did not recognize. I saw them on almost every high rise roof. As I looked closer, I noticed that they seemed to be military in nature. Suddenly, it dawned on me: they were anti-aircraft guns. Of course! They would have to have a way to defend the city from an aerial attack from North Korea. These buildings were innocuous, civilian buildings – banks, apartment houses, department stores – and yet they all had weapons on the roof. What must it be like to live with guns on top of your house? I just couldn’t even fathom that reality.

As we tumbled off the bus in front of our hotel, the group seemed slow to disperse. It seemed that everyone had been deeply affected by our excursion that day. The chaperones announced that dinner would be served in the dining room in two hours, and that we should all go get cleaned up and rest before we ate. They then disappeared as a group in the direction of the hotel lounge.

We all stood there, awkwardly, reluctant to leave the relative security of the group. I finally offered, “Hey, does anyone want to come up to our room and hang out and talk? I think I could use some company.”

Finally, the group began to move. About two dozen of our colleagues rode up the elevator with us and made their way down the hall to our room on the 14th floor. I slid the key in the lock (an actual key, no automated key cards here), and threw open the door and gestured for my friends to enter first. We gathered in the room, taking up every inch of available space on the beds, single chair, and floor, and sat in contemplative silence for a few moments. After travelling together for three weeks, our band had become quite close.

“So…..” I ventured. “Any thoughts about what we saw today?” I threw it out there, hoping to get the ball rolling.

“It was so … surreal,” said Mike , a student from my home high school, who was a year younger than I was. “I just can’t imagine living like that.”

“I know,” said Shannon, a bold red-headed Southerner with a booming voice. “It made me start thinking about what we have in the United States. We are so lucky. And we take it all for granted, every day. Every stinking day.” Her voice cracked a bit as she spoke.

Mike reached over and put a hand on Shannon’s shoulder. “Does anyone know anyone who has fought in a war? I mean, like recently? Not an old war, like WWII or anything…”

“I have an uncle who served in Vietnam.” Brad said. “He told me that when he got back, he couldn’t wear his uniform on the bus home, because people were throwing stuff at vets who came back. That’s just wrong.”

“Yeah, my uncle fought in Vietnam, too. He just doesn’t talk about it. At all,” said Mike.

“My dad was in the army during the 1960s, too, but he never served abroad. He drove an ambulance at Fort Augusta, Georgia. He never saw any action, thank goodness,” I added.

“We really haven’t HAD any wars since Vietnam, right? I mean, that WE were in – the U.S., that is. I guess we’ve been lucky to avoid conflict,” said Rich.

“Yes, the United States has not seen any direct conflict on our own shores since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And before that, since the Civil War.” I said. “It’s easy to forget that war can be devastating, when you are in the middle of it.”

“We don’t know what it’s like to be under threat,” Rich agreed. “Not at all. I can’t imagine how you can have a normal life. How do you just go about your business?”

“And what about all these Koreans who have relatives on the other side of the border? What would it be like to live so close to your family and yet never be able to contact them? To see them? To know if they are ok? I think that would be torture.” Shannon said.

“Tell me, guys. What would you be willing to fight for? What’s worth risking your life to defend?” I posed.

“Freedom.” Mike said. “Duh.”

“Yeah, Mike, but what does that really mean? Did you catch how they were tossing the word Freedom around today? ‘Freedom Bridge,’ ‘Freedom Road,’ the ‘Freedom House’ – as if it were all just one big propaganda movie or something. What does Freedom even mean here? What does it mean to us as Americans? And if we were invaded tomorrow, what would you do? Would you be willing to serve in the military? Would you enlist to protect our freedom? How far would you go to do that?” I countered.

“Well, I would certainly enlist,” interjected Rich. “It’s what we are supposed to do.”

“Well, what about us girls?” Shannon asked. “We can’t serve in active military. And I don’t know that I could kill anyone, even if I were allowed to serve.”

“Not even to defend yourself, or your family?” Rich asked.

“I just don’t know,” Shannon replied.

The room was pensive. “Did you guys notice the anti-aircraft guns on the tops of all the building in Seoul?” I finally asked. “I didn’t notice them yesterday. It was only our visit to Panmunjom that made me take a closer look. Can you imagine living like that? With guns on your houses? Afraid that any day there might be an attack on your city from the enemy?” I shuddered.

Heads bobbed slowly around the room, as my colleagues digested that scenario.

“What if you were allowed to enlist? How many of you would do it?” I asked the group. As I surveyed the room, I saw all of the hands go up in the air, though Shannon’s was the last to rise. It was unanimous. We would all agree to help defend our nation against threat. I wondered what the response would have been back in my high school history classroom. Would any of them have raised their hands? Would they care? Would they even know what we were fighting for?

The group fell silent, each contemplating their own responses to the day’s events. Suddenly, one voice rose from the silence. It was Rudy, and he was singing our national anthem. With tears in our eyes, we all rose, latched hands, and joined in with Rudy, raising our trained voices in harmony. It was a powerful moment, in which each of us embraced the true meaning of being Americans. It was more than a song; it was a declaration of our pride and understanding.

We had already used our anthem on this trip as a powerful tool: while we were in China, we were “forbidden” to sing it by the Chinese officials, so we had defiantly taken to singing it whenever we were together, on a bus, in a hotel room, on a sidewalk. It had become our way to show that Americans can’t be told what to do. But this act of defiance had started as a bunch of smart teenagers standing up to authority.

Today, when we joined hands and voices and embraced our nation’s song, we were embracing the very ideals upon which our nation had been founded, and acknowledging that they were worth defending with our lives.

This moment was a transformation, my Chrysalization.

From that moment on, each of us would no longer be the naïve young people who had took flight from America’s shores just three short weeks earlier. We would never see our lives in the same light again. In embracing how fortunate we are to be Americans, despite America’s flaws, we also recognized that we cannot be complacent in our lives. We had journeyed to Panmunjom as a group of silly teenagers, but we had returned as discerning and perceptive adults.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Chrysallization Part 2

The Bridge of No Return

Chrysallization, Part 2

...Once we were all aboard and everyone was settled and quiet, the Major barked out our itinerary, informing us that we would make a short stop on the way up to the DMZ at an overlook which had a memorial and historical marker and also provided an overlook to the “Bridge of No Return,” a famous piece of Korean history.

Located in the Joint Security Area, the so-called "Bridge of No Return,” also known as the Freedom Bridge, crosses the Military Demarcation Line between North Korea and South Korea. It was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name originates from the fact that prisoners were given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or cross over to the other country. If they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return. In 1983, it was also the single road connecting the two halves of Korea, and was closely monitored by military personnel.

Still traumatized by the bullet holes in our bus window, I had a hard time relaxing on the drive. The bus had no air conditioning, but we had all of the bus windows wide open, allowing for hot, dusty waves of air to pummel their way through the aisles. My throat was parched, so I reached into my tote bag for the bottle of water I always carried.

As the countryside rolled by outside my window, I rested my head against the seat back and thought about my family. I wondered what my mother would think if she knew what we were doing right at this moment. She would probably faint with fear. I was glad that she wouldn’t know until after we were safely home again.
After about 30 minutes, we pulled off into an innocuous looking parking lot, seated beside a park-like area. “Ok, everyone out here. We’ll have about 30 minutes here to take a look. Be sure to read the historical marker and look at the model. It’s very interesting stuff.” The Major directed before he hopped off the bus.

Rich and I gathered our things and filed out of the bus with our friends. Once on the ground, I stopped and looked around. It was actually quite a peaceful spot. There were flowering trees, and grass, and benches, and pebble-covered paths. One could almost forget that we were in a military zone.

We walked to the overlook to gaze down on the Bridge of No Return. From this height, it seemed just a country bridge, quite unimposing or spectacular. I thought about the history we had learned, about how the Koreans had to choose which side of the border they wanted to be on when they were finally closed at the end of the war. How could one choose? What if you had family on both sides of the line? What if your family were on one side, but your political convictions drew you to the other? It was all so complicated. I was happy that I had not had to make such a choice.

I snapped a number of photos with my 35mm camera (no digital cameras in 1983!), wandering around and taking in the atmosphere. We had been instructed that we could not take pictures from the bus while we were in motion, but that we could take all we wanted at this spot. I was taking advantage of the opportunity. I was in a very thoughtful mood.

Suddenly, there was a shout from the overlook. The Sergeant who had accompanied us was pointing excitedly down at the bridge and yelling at the Major. The Major took one look down the hill, and turned to start barking orders at us.

“NOW. Back on the bus. Hurry!”

We looked around amazed for a moment. Was this the same man who told us there was nothing to worry about a few hours earlier? I couldn’t tell what the problem was.

“I said NOW, PEOPLE! Let’s move!” He barked again.

Startled out of my thoughts, I started hustling towards the bus. Once aboard and back in my seat, I hunched down, trying to stay below the window line. I didn’t want to make myself a target. I whispered a fervent prayer that we would be able to escape whatever threat was out there, and be returned safely to our families back home. I thought about my mother and father, who had put me on the plane with tears in their eyes, and my brother, who had cheerfully slapped me on the shoulder and said “have fun!” I screwed my eyes shut and hoped that I would see them again.

Our group threw themselves aboard the bus in record time, and the driver had the door closed and was tearing off down the road even before everyone was in their seat. The Major seemed to relax once we were far enough down the road to be out of sight of the Bridge beneath us. He sighed, and turned to face the group, bellowing at us.

“Sorry for the scare there, folks. It was probably nothing at all, but my Sergeant spotted an unidentified vehicle coming down the Freedom Bridge from the Northern side at a high rate of speed. We can’t take any chances with civilians, you understand.”

I just looked at Rich, and grabbed his hand tightly. I wondered if the Major was telling us the truth, or if there had actually been any danger for us. I was starting to wonder if I should have stayed behind.

As the bus moved further from the Bridge of No Return, I forced my breathing to return to normal. Watching the landscape as it slid past the open bus window, I let my mind roam. I thought about the whole concept of war and its consequences for society. I wondered if war was ever worth it in the end.

About thirty minutes later, Rich poked me in the ribs to get my attention. “Hey, Chris. Are you sleeping? I think we’re almost there. Look!” He said, pointing out the front window of the bus. Ahead, I saw military gates, fencing, and the tip of a tall stone monument with a key hole opening in it.

The Major stood up and addressed the group. “If I could have your attention, please, folks. We are approaching the DMZ and Panmunjom. We will have about an hour here, but please stay with the Sergeant and me. We need to be sure that you stay in the authorized areas within the DMZ. No wandering off.”

The group murmured a little in response, I’m sure wondering the same thing I was – what threats might be lurking here, especially after our scare at the Freedom Bridge. As the bus pulled up to the gates, we began to gather our belongings and move towards the front of the bus.

Stepping down onto the concrete, I stopped and looked around. It was obviously a military installation, with gates, fencing, and lots and lots of concrete. And there was an eerie sensation in the air, one that I could not quite identify, that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I took a deep breath and grabbed Rich’s hand for support, wishing my family were here instead.

“This way, folks,” the Sergeant directed, leading us through a set of barricades and a guard house and into the installation itself. As we walked, he explained where we were. He lectured, “Panmunjom is actually an abandoned village on the de facto border between North and South Korea. In 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed in Panmunjom. The building where the armistice was signed still stands, on the north side of the Military Demarcation Line, and the North Koreans have since renamed the building the Peace Museum.”

“Although the village itself was abandoned and disappeared, the name is now used to refer to the Joint Security Area, where discussions between North and South still are held in the blue buildings that straddle the Military Demarcation Line. You can see the line of buildings off to your left, over there,” he said, pointing ahead of us.

“The actual building in which the armistice was signed was constructed by both sides over a 48-hour period. North Korea provided labor and some supplies, while the United Nations Command provided supplies, generators, and lighting to allow the work to continue overnight.” As the Sergeant droned on about the history of the place, the group was struggling to keep up with his brisk pace. Those at the rear, I’m sure, were unable to hear his commentary.

He continued, “In September 1953, after the Armistice Agreement was signed, construction began on a new site located approximately one kilometer east of the village; this is the Joint Security Area we told you about earlier, and all meetings between North Korea and the United Nations Command or South Korea have taken place here since its completion. People now use the name Panmunjom to refer to the JSA.”
“There are 24 buildings in the 800- meter diameter area, where representatives of the United Nations and North Korea meet to confer about a variety of contentious issues,” he continued, pointing around him at the surrounding structures.

“We are currently only about 25 miles from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. That means that it is only a 60 second flight by jet. There’s a map up here that shows you exactly where we are in relation to Seoul, and shows you just how close we are to North Korean territory. Again, I must caution you not to stray from the group as we move about the JSA.”

Rich and I exchanged a nervous glance, and I grasped his hand tighter as we moved forward. This was the closest I had ever been to a military conflict. It was not a comfortable feeling.

The Sergeant then explained that the roads upon we had travelled from Seoul were named the Unification Road and the Freedom Road. Freedom Road ultimately connected with the Freedom Bridge, or Bridge of No Return, that we had seen from the overlook. He explained that the “Freedom Bridge,” would immediately be destroyed in the event of military aggression by North Korea. That bit of information made me think about the truck we saw on the bridge not long before. How likely would Northern aggression be?
“Let’s stop here for a minute,” he said, stopping in front of a large, two-story white building with a pagoda in front of it. “This is “Freedom House,” and you will have a few minutes here to take photos, if you wish. We will move on in 10 minutes. Please do not wander.”

I thought it was ironic how the word “freedom” seemed to be bandied about in this region. I figured it was a ploy by the United Nations forces to demonstrate their victory over the villainous Northern Forces – a gentle slap in the face of the Communists, if you will.
From this observation platform we could see across the line that divides North and South Korea. As I gazed across, I saw a North Korean observation tower, a North Korean visitor center, and “Conference Row,” which are the blue buildings where UN and North Korean officials meet to administer and enforce the armistice agreement of 1953. I also spotted a number of US and South Korean military personnel, lining the walk outside one of the conference buildings.

And as I surveyed the area, picking out landmarks and snapping some photographs, I also spotted a number of North Korean guards, positioned on their side of the JSA. I pointed them out to Rich. “Do you see them? Those are NORTH Koreans over there, Rich,” I whispered nervously, as if they might hear me if I spoke too loudly.

“Yeah, they are. But they’re on THEIR side of the line, so we’re good,” he joked.

Rich’s jokes weren’t making me any less nervous. I looked around at all of the military personnel I could see on both sides of the Demarcation Line, and I realized that they were all fully armed. I swallowed hard again, thinking back to our adventure at the Bridge of No Return, and prayed fervently that we would have no such encounter here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Chrysallization, Part 1

Panmunjom, Demilitarized Zone, Korean Peninsula.

When I was 16, I traveled to the Far East for 5 weeks, visiting China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. The following short story recounts the experience we had when we had the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone. I will break the story up into several successive posts here on the blog.

Chrysallization, Part 1

I remember the day I truly became an adult.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I didn’t lose my virginity, or take my first drink, or move out on my own: those events actually all seem trivial in comparison to the transformation that occurred that day.

It was 1983, and I was only sixteen. It was a bright, hot, July day, with temperatures in the high eighties and even higher humidity, so I was dressed in a brightly colored sundress and a light white sweater. And we were about to enter the Demilitarized Zone on
the Korean Peninsula.

Our group of 57 high school singers and 6 chaperones was lively as we entered the auditorium where we were to have our next orientation session. Already in the third week of touring the Far East, travelling through Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now South Korea, we were pros at being “oriented.” There was laughter and boisterous conversation as we casually took our seats, anxious for the program to be over so we could be on our way to the “real stuff.” We had arrived at the UN Security Forces forward base named Camp Bonifas.

The room darkened, as the slide projector warmed up in the background. Two U.S. military personnel appeared in the beam of light at the front of the room, commanding our attention and ushering us into silence without a single word. The first, a U.S. Army Major, stepped forward and said “Welcome to the DMZ. I’m Major Willis, and this is Sergeant Carter. Before we board the bus and actually take you up to the zone itself, we have some information to share with you, and there are waivers that will need to be signed by each of you.”

“Waivers?” I thought. “hmmm. Wonder what that’s all about?” I shrugged my shoulders and leaned back in my chair, feeling tired and clammy in the air conditioned darkness after the hot humid air outside.

I looked around at our group, and noticed that most of my companions were also exhibiting this same mild curiosity about the Major’s words.

Soon, images began to flash on the screen. The presentation began with a brief history of the Korean Conflict, fought between 1950 and 1953, which ended essentially in a stalemate. The Korean War was the first test of the new United Nations, created at the end of World War II, and it would also be the first armed conflict of the Cold War era. The battle between communism and capitalism, the free and slave worlds, was about to commence, and would rage for over forty years across the globe, fought in political, economic, social, and ideological arenas.

Most of this was not news to me. I had taken a particularly good history course that year, and covered the 20th century well. I loved history. The rest of the group was restless, however, exhibiting signs of disinterest in this history lesson, events that seemed like ancient happenings to the group of teenagers. A low murmur spread through the room as side conversations began.

“Can we focus, please?” our group leader and director, Dr. Morris Hayes demanded, spreading an evil eye over the room. “Settle down and listen up!” Properly chastened, the choir members were silenced once again, and attention returned to the Major and his slide show.

Major Willis then continued his presentation, explaining that the American participation was crucial to the Korean conflict, and ultimately, the U.S., UN, and South Korean forces would remain a steady, peacekeeping force in the neutral boundary that was established along the de facto border between the two warring nations of North and South Korea. Somewhat incongruously named the “Demilitarized Zone,” it is one of the world’s most highly defended borders.

The zone is 160 miles long, and approximately 2.5 miles wide, and runs along the 38th parallel, cutting the Korean peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel at an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying to its north. It was established by the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 in Panmunjom by North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command. This neutral zone was named the “Demilitarized Zone,” and it sat on either side of the dividing line between the two states. According to the Armistice, each side agreed to move their troops back 2,200 yards from the front line. The Military Demarcation Line goes down the center of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed.
I noticed that my companions seemed to be paying more attention to the Major’s presentation now. He had captured their interest.
With the next slide, Major Willis explained that as a result of the genuine hostility between the North and South, despite the theoretical peace that was signed at Panmunjom, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. In 1983, the United States still had 40,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL. Between 1953 and 1999, sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ.

Although the Korean Conflict officially ended in 1953, to this day neither side has granted diplomatic recognition of the other, and tensions have remained high. In the 1980s, as the Cold War was sputtering its last gasps in Europe, tensions were even higher in the Pacific. Our merry little band of singers was about to enter into one of the most contentious arenas in the world, and we had no idea.

As the Major clicked through his slide presentation, filling our heads with statistics, images, and details about the history of the region, I stole a glance around the room. The whispers and snickers had disappeared, and in their wake I saw intense concentration appearing on the faces of my companions.

“What the heck are we doing here?” I wondered. “Is this even SAFE?”

Major Willis wrapped up his history lesson, and clicked on one final slide, which was an image of a waiver form. “You will each find a copy of a waiver on the desk in front of you. Please read it carefully, and then sign and date it at the bottom.” At this point, Sergeant Carter moved forward as well.

“A waiver? A waiver for what?” I mused.

A few hands tentatively rose in the air around the room. The major pointed to Rudy, an outgoing senior, seated in the front row. “Yes? You have a question?” Major Willis asked.

Rudy boomed out, “Excuse me, Major, but could you please explain why we need to sign a waiver?”

The Major cleared his throat, swiped a gaze around the room, sighed, and explained. “Because this is technically a military installation, and there are active military personnel on duty, and since the region has been the site of violence in the past, we need you to sign this waiver, saying that the U.S. government, the Korean government, and the United Nations may not be held accountable for any injuries that might befall you on your trip to the DMZ. It’s merely a formality.”

“A formality?” Rudy interrupted. “Then why must we sign? Is there a real danger to any of us?”

“We haven’t had any active conflict here for years, only a skirmish or two. You will be fine,” Major Willis assured us, nodding his head encouragingly. The Sergeant next to him matched his bob with his own.

The mood in the room had turned somber: no more giggling or carrying on. Now the Major had everyone’s full attention.

“And what if we don’t sign,” Rudy persisted.

“Then you will have to wait here while the rest of the group tours the DMZ.” Major Willis explained. “It’s that simple. Sign or stay here.”

We all looked to our chaperones for guidance, searching their faces for some inkling of what we should do. The six of them exchanged looks, then picked up their pens and signed their own forms with a flourish, signaling that we should all do the same.

I took a deep breath, re-read the form in front of me, and picked up my pen. I read:

During the period from October 1966 to 28 August 1967, 160 hostile acts were committed south of the Military Demarcation Line by the North Koreans. In addition to direct attacks against UNC military positions, these acts of violence included mining of roads, destruction of sleeping quarters, and blowing up of civilian passenger trains. One of the most vicious attacks was the machine gunning of the Military Armistice Commission Advance Camp on 28 August 1967. During this attack, three were killed and twenty-six were wounded including three Korean civilians. Your requested visit to the conference site at Panmunjom, located in the Joint Security Area (JSA) entails travel over the same route where this attack occurred. As recently as 18 August 1976, an overwhelming force of club and ax wielding North Korean guards assaulted UNC Security personnel in the JSA while they monitored a civilian tree trimming work party. In this attack, two UNC officers were beaten to death, the first to have occurred in this ‘neutral’ area. As a result of the incident, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) has been drawn through the JSA diving it into two distinct areas.

I exhaled loudly. “Wow. This doesn’t sound good…” I continued reading.

Under mutual agreement with the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV Communist Side), no military personnel are permitted entry to the side of the JSA controlled by the other side. Therefore, UNC guards cannot provide security to visitors in the JSA that are not on the UNC side of the MDL. In addition, though travel restrictions for United States citizens were lifted in April 1977, the JSA is not an authorized crossing point to enter North Korea.

At no time have any mines been detected or used in the road you must travel from Freedom Bridge to Panmunjom. It must be pointed out, however, that you will be travelling into and through a hostile area; and, although no hostile acts or incidents are anticipated, the possibility of their occurrence must be recognized.

With this in mind, the following certificate must be read and signed….

Now I felt sweat dripping down the small of my back, and my palms felt clammy. “Possibility of hostile attacks? Mines on the road? What the HECK were we doing here?”

Taking a deep breath, I continued reading the waiver itself.

I recognize that my impending visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom entails entry into a hostile area and that I am subjecting myself (and my family) to the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. I understand that the Joins Security Area is a neutral but DIVIDED area guarded by UNC military personnel on the one side (South), and Korean People’s Army personnel on the other (NORTH). I understand, therefore, that I am NOT permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the area of the Joint Security Area under control of the (NORTH) Korean People’s Army. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations’ Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee my (our) personal safety and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.

I gasped audibly, looking around the room. “Wait a minute – possibility of injury or DEATH?” I started trembling; telling myself it was from the air conditioning on my sweaty skin.

Silently, one of our chaperones, Miss Hartzell, slid into the chair beside me. “Are you ok, Chris?” she asked gently.

“Are you sure this is safe? Do you really think we should be doing this?” I whispered.

“This is just a formality, really. If there is any chance of danger, our military guides will not let us go any further. We will be perfectly safe. You can sign.” She responded, nodding her head.

With one last deep breath, I grasped the pen tightly in my right hand and managed to scrawl my signature at the bottom. I thrust the signed page at Miss Hartzell, anxious to put evidence of our potential threat out of my sight.

Major Willis and Sergeant Carter moved through the auditorium, collecting the completed waiver forms. The room was unusually quiet. Everyone seemed a bit shell-shocked by the experience. The lights came on, and I could finally see my companions clearly once again. I met my friend Rich’s eyes from across the room, silently telegraphing a question through the air. “Are we ok?” He nodded slowly, but also shrugged his shoulders slightly, raising his hands questioningly.
“We will now have to break the group in half, so that you will fit on our busses. Please form two equal groups in the lobby. The chaperones, too, should divide themselves, with half of you accompanying each group.” The Major directed.

As we filed into the lobby, I skipped ahead to stand next to Rich. I definitely wanted to be with him for this experience. “Let’s try to get on Miss Hartzell’s bus,” I prompted. Miss Hartzell was my home choir director, so I felt quite close to her.
Twenty minutes later, my half of the choir group was following the Major across the parking lot to an old school bus painted in camouflage green, which was to be our transportation to the DMZ. Apparently, our two busses would be staggering their departure times, so we would not all be at the same place at the same time.

“Watch your step, everyone, as we board the bus. Sorry about the lack of luxury, but it’s the best we have for you!” The Major warned as we approached.

When I was about two feet from the bus, I stopped abruptly. I stared at the door of the bus, which still stood closed, waiting for the driver to open it and welcome us aboard. There were three bullet holes in the glass panes of the door.
“Bullet holes… in the door….” I whispered under my breath, unable to move forward. “I thought this was safe….”
Rich noticed me stop, and turned back to see what was wrong. “Chris? Why did you stop? Come on, so we can get good seats on the bus.” He grabbed my hand and tried to pull me forward, but I was frozen in place with fear.
“Rich, look at the door of the bus.”

“What are you talking about, Chris? Come on…” Rich trailed off as he turned back to the bus and finally noticed the bullet holes. “Oh, wow. Are those what I think they are?”

“Um, Major? Excuse me, Major?” I managed to blurt out, hoping to catch our leader’s attention.
The Major turned around with a quizzical glance. “Yes, what is it? We’re on a tight schedule here. Come on…”

“Major, I’m sorry, but are those BULLET HOLES on the bus?”

The Major gave a short laugh. “Oh, those. Yeah, don’t mind those. We often have used vehicles up here that have seen action. Don’t let it bother you….” He turned, gave a wave to the driver, and waited for the door to pop open. Then he hopped aboard the bus with a flourish, waving his hand for us to follow.

I looked Rich in the eye and grabbed his hand for security. “I’m glad you’re with me, Rich. I hope nothing happens.” I swallowed hard and followed Rich onto the bus, plopping down two seats behind the Major. I swung around to scan the bus behind me. I saw Miss Hartzell seated several rows back, chatting casually with Miss Knudsen, one of our other chaperones. She seemed unconcerned. I sighed and tried to relax.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Incredible Mother, the Lady Jane.

My mother and me.

My mother has always inspired me. She has always been there for us, always been our champions, a quiet but forceful supporter who taught me to fight for my place in the sun. She taught us well, and loved us even better, and showed me that the world is a beautiful place, despite its flaws. A brave survivor of lung cancer, she has endured much, and I just wanted to embrace her and let the world know how special she is to me.

So, Happy Mother's Day, Mom. This one's for you.

To My Mother, the Lady Jane

You told us stories when we were young,
To keep us attending.
We listened to buds pop,
As you sat pretending.
We created chains
Out of dandelion stems,
If I only knew now
What I didn’t know then.
There were always the books
To broaden our minds
And if we forgot,
You were there to remind.
So patient and true,
You nurtured us well
And taught us ourselves
To never undersell.
As the days flew by,
You gave us your knowledge,
And always assumed
That we’d go to college.
As we flew from the nest
Venturing out on our own,
You hoped that the seeds
Of true living were sown.
As we ventured out
To stand all on our own,
You softly shed tears
For your children, now grown.
But the roots that you laid
Those years long ago
Always lead back
To you, doncha know.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lost in Translation

Tattered and torn,
My soul beats ceaseless against
The rocks of the universe.
Bleeding and broken,
It weeps tears tangled with the
Tongues of tribes unknown.

Traveling through time,
Taken and tormented
By those who came before
And those who are yet to be,
It trips tauntingly through
The tangled tendrils there.

Soft souls speak,
Shouting soundlessly from the shadows,
Slithering stealthily
In silver silhouettes across the
Stained, sandalwood surface
Of my study floor.

Lost, lingering,
Lurking longingly in the laughter
Of the lovely lunatics that lather
Blathering in some long-forgotten tongue
Bellowing below the buxom moon
Hanging low in the lavender sky.

Time and space hang meaningless,
Mangled and commingled,
Moving in multiple dimensions
All at the same moment,
Dragging me deeper into the mire
That is my soul’s prison.

Starving for social sustenance,
Subsumed by sudden starts of sensation,
My soul surrenders to the sounds of something
Snatching, shaking, and stealing it away.
In that moment, my soul is transformed,
While my body steadfastly remains.

Experimentation By Design

I have been experimenting with poetry lately, playing with variations on rhyme and meter. I was chatting with a friend today, and something in the chat - just a random phrase - made me say, "There's a poem in that!" So, here's the poem, experimenting with bold misuse of rhyme and meter. I don't know if it's a success or not, but it was interesting to work with it. And the poem is not about me, so don't fret! Although I wrote it in a strict meter, it should not be read in one....

Kaleidoscope Feelings

It took whiskey last night
To banish my fright.
As demons descended,
My visions amended,
And scrambled perceptions
Became my deceptions,
Distorted reflections
In a carnival mirror.

Reality bending,
Down paths ever wending
Condemned to be spending
In time never ending
The moments I cherish
While hoping I perish
Kaleidoscope feelings
Projecting my furor.

Awakening in me
a need no one can see
Incoherently seeking
The control that is leaking
Right out of my fingers
Their senses still linger
And no one can stop it
Or catch as it flitters.

My energy’s waning
But I’m not complaining
I’m seeking to find here
Some concrete reminder
That behind that silk curtain
are things that are certain.
I only want closure
Avoiding an error.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

In Search Of Self

I have been struggling for quite some time now to find myself, or to re-find myself, perhaps. Since I left academia three years ago, I have been floating, in limbo, trying to determine what it is I need to do with myself.

I've been having an identity crisis, I suppose, but it goes far deeper than that.

I've been struggling on a very basic level to understand my soul. Since I was 4 years old, my entire path was clearly laid out for me, with no questions about where I would end up. And yet, if you had asked me where I saw myself in five years, there is no possible scenario I can envision in which I would have said "here."

So, here I am.

No longer a "teacher" by trade. I am, I suppose, a "writer", though even that title seems awkward, and misleading. I have not been living my true self; I have only been going through the motions, ignorant of who I really am. The beauteous joy of finding my soul's passion has been withheld from me, and I have seen only pain and absence in its wake.

It is in these depths of questioning, searching, and wandering that the poem below emerged. I am not anywhere near suicidal, so please don't call the hotline about me, but I am lost.

I am empty.

I am waiting to find the fire that will set my soul alight once more. Perhaps restarting this blog will help me find my way. Until then, I am a lonely wanderer, staggering down the paths of life without a map or a light to guide me.


Powerful forces pummel me,
Sucking my soul into the depths,
Pulling and dragging,
Deeper into the mire,
Like Quicksand.
I feel the energy sapped out of me.
Each step forward I take,
Is negated many-fold,
As I sink deeper into the pit of despair.
Jungle vines taunt me from above,
Swinging desperately just out of reach
Providing no release from my torture.
Isolated, helpless,
I struggle against the mire
Hearing only the rush of the sand and water
Pounding in my eardrums.
Alone in my struggles,
The temptation to give in is palatable.
It would be so easy to surrender now,
To let the soundless rush enfold me,
Taking away the pain and sorrow
And leaving only peaceful nothingness.

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Symbolic Step

Yesterday I sent off five poems and a personal essay to a writing competition.

It is the first professional competition that I have entered, and I see it as a major step for me. I've been writing, in some form or another, all of my life, but I have never really shared it publicly or touted myself as a Writer with a capital W. I've also been leading a weekly Writing Group for over a year, spending boundless energy encouraging others to release their creative juices and produce pieces of powerful prose. And though I told them, over and over, "I have written prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, for years," I never said the words "I am a writer."

It's ironic how life has a way of nudging us along.

Several months ago, while looking for steady employment, I was offered a gig doing some freelance writing for a local online publisher. The writing started as a handful of news articles each week for a Health IT magazine, and now has grown to include Business IT, Retail, Grocery and C-Stores, and Restaurant/Hospitality News, writing dozens of pieces a week. It has been a tremendous learning experience for me, since my field of training is History. I do, however, know how to research and write, so the only real challenge was mastering the content and sources for this new writing, and I was golden.

As I have increased my writing assignments for them, though, it has made me crave my personal writing time. The professional writing, with its strict guidelines and prescripted subject matter, has made me long for the deepest creative expression I can unleash. I have found myself stealing moments away to do my own writing - something that simply did not happen on a regular basis when I had ample time to do so.

And I have, in these last few weeks, finally come home to my new identity as Professional Writer. The occupation on my Google+ page boasts "freelance writer, editor, and educator." As I embrace this new definition of myself, I also am moving to open myself up to more public spaces.

And thus, the entries in the Writing Competition. I don't really expect to win any prizes. It's a competition that is sure to draw thousands of entries. But in the act of hitting the "submit now" button on the entry form, I symbolized the transition in my own head. I am an author. I am actually a published author, of academic works and some scattered poetry. And now, I have authored scores of news articles online. My name has been scattered to the winds of the internet, and as I googled myself out of boredom the other day, I was fascinated to see just how far my name has been shared via the miracle of the world wide web.

So, as I told the students in my weekly Writing Group, the point of submitting entries to the writing competition is not to win, but rather to actualize the identification process and validate our identities as authors. If, come October, I can not announce that I have won the competition, I will be able to say, with confidence, that I have won something far greater: my own self-identification and personal growth as a writer.