“What it Takes to be a Freelance Writer” Keynote at Penn State’s “Freelance-a-thon” Conference

Who Am I?

 

I’m really an artist masquerading around like a writer. Or at least if you look at my formal education, over 4 years of learning as a fine arts-painter, attending Indiana U of PA and  the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, the oldest art school and one of the most prestigious in the country.

But before I could try to make a living as a painter, I went and had a life changing experience. I backpacked the 2,100-mile National Scenic Appalachian Trail. I kept a journal and sketched along the way and because there were few female long distance hikers  in the early 80’s, let alone ones who could draw, I was able to publish my first book, entitled A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail, written in calligraphy with 125 drawings illustrating it.  It has been in print for 33 consecutive years and has become a classic.

I was fearful that if I took off 6 months off to backpack and not paint, I would lose it. But my art instructors told me, if you don’t go out and live your life, have experiences, especially life-changing ones, you work will grow stale. On the trail, you will paint with your eyes and when the time comes to put brush to canvas, you will have grown, as an artist and as a person. The same goes for writing or any creative endeavor

Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, wrote, “If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will be met with a success unexpected in common hours.”  Reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine, the end of that long trail and getting a book published that I wrote and illustrated, proved that.

I had one writing class in college and got a C. Pretty mediocre, but keeping a journal on the trail, made me fall in love with writing. My success buoyed me to go on to hike the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (the one Cheryl Strayed of the book and film “Wild” attempted.) I wrote and illustrated a book about that long distance trail. In fact I had three books published before I ever wrote my first magazine article, which is not the normal route a writer takes.

 

I am not the normal writer.

I will soon have  7 published books, get about 50 magazine articles published a year and have made a successful living as a writer for over 30 years.

I do have some wisdom to share with you that I have gleaned from all these words.

Your life does not have to look like anyone elses. The route you choose to take to become a successful writer can be completely different than the norm. You do not need a degree in journalism or writing or English. You don’t need any degree. You don’t even need a single class in writing.

 

These are the things that you DO need in order to be a successful writer.

You must love to read and love to write. These have  to be in the top 3 things you love to do in your life. If you love them, if you are impassioned about expressing yourself in words,  telling stories, communicating, you will already be writing. You won’t be able to help yourself.  It’s what you do, it’s who you are. It can be as simple as keeping a journal. JUST KEEPING A JOURNAL can make you into a writer.

My girlfriend’s husband was helping edit my second book, Journey on the Crest.  He earned his Bachelors at Temple U in Communications/Journalism, but he was working full time as a mailman. He came to resent me because I was getting my second book published. I was an artist, for God’s sake.  He was the writer.

So I told him. “The definition of a writer is ONE WHO WRITES. That’s’ it.” He did not write anything. That was what stopped him from being a writer.    

 

So if writing is not something you adore and do because you can’t NOT do it, change your major, because the life of a freelance writer is even harder.

If you want to be a freelance writer, Money cannot matter. You cannot be in love with material things, aim for the high life, seek creature comforts. Sometimes the money comes in, sometimes it does not. It is a very unpredictable risky lifestyle.  If you are someone who needs security, switch your major.

You must get out of debt if you are in debt and it has to be top priority. Then you can relax and strive to live a rich, full and exciting life. Because that is what you need to do to be a successful freelance writer.

There are stories everywhere. Orson Scott Card said, “Everyone walks past a 1000 story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see 5 or 6 of them. Most people don’t see any.”  WE ARE THE STORY TELLERS. It is the most important work we can do.

Why? Because we are the voice of our people. We speak for them. We share what is inside them, what is inside us, creating connection. It is one of the fundamental needs of a human being- to connect and as writers, we are the conduit.

My daughter Sierra first enrolled in Journalism at Temple U and her professor told the students in the very first class, “I don’t know why you are here. Journalism is dead.”

I do not believe that. I can sell a story to almost any editor if I can get them on the phone. That is because I have the most amazing story ideas. With amazing stories, you can find outlets for your work. You will be passionate and enthusiastic about your story and the editor will be more easily convinced to allow you to tell it. You will be able to sell and make a living from your work.

You can’t be a meek shy introverted writer and be a freelancerIf you are, practice being assertive, develop your other side. It is a jungle out there and some editors want to eat you alive. Cultivate a very healthy positive belief in yourself and what you have to share with readers. This affirmation will help grow you and toughen your skin.

But you have to be willing to do things like hike the Appalachian Trail, take home a homeless person, ask the fire department if you can be a Ride Along on fires, captain a houseboat down the Mississippi River, buy a motorcycle and travel on it, learn to fly fish, volunteer to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, become a part time rafting guide, jump out of an airplane, deliver Meals on Wheels, snow tube with a double amputee Wounded Warrior. LIVE YOUR LIFE. DO SOMETHING. Every person you meet has a story to share and every experience you have is yours to write about. You have to leave your house, push past your comfort zone, engage, scare yourself, stretch. These will be your best stories and be your best writing. And when you find something you love to do (besides reading and writing) be the best you can be at it. I became a writer because I loved to backpack and hike and began to write about it. I was good at hiking so I got good at writing about hiking.

I want to tell you a story about my friend Corey Rich, one of the most successful and prestigious photographers in the outdoor world. He recently documented the historic first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, a climb of 19 days. Corey did not take a class in photography. He began as a climber who started to take photos of his fellow climbers on the wall. Everyone else was too busy climbing, Corey managed to do both and got so good at it, he is a world famous climbing photographer. He was just following his bliss and wanted to communicate what he saw.

There is one life philosophy that tells folks to figure out what the world is missing and give that to them, be the one to fill that need, even if it means creating a job. But another philosophy of Howard Thurman says, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

As writers, if you strive to be that kind of person, to live that kind of rich full life, there will always be stories to tell and stories to sell.

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls- reposting

did not mean to delete this- an older post

A Ceremonial Burning of the Sock Dolls

by cindyrosstraveler

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“Whitey the Camper Cat” has a serious injury on his paw, is almost an amputee. He got caught in the spokes of Sierra’s bike trailer when she was 1 ½ years old and we were traveling the length of the entire C&O Canal on our bikes. But thankfully, Whitey was tethered to a length of parachute cord in the event that this small child accidentally tossed her kitty overboard, which is exactly what happened.

We found Whitey the Camper Cat in a storage container along with Heidi, the rubber baby doll that 3-year old Sierra used to practice how to be a mother or a big sister on before her baby brother Bryce came into the world.

There were other toys in there too. Tons of stuffed animals and a handful of very primitive looking sock dolls that look out into the world through plastic button eyes that were hand stitched on. Their bodies were stuffed and decorated with magic markers and had lace and bows hot melted to them… the most basic early toy making. This is how my children learned to sew.

Todd had already started the fire to burn the stuff we no longer wanted. Bags of the children’s favorite baby clothing- handmade sweaters, little leather shoes, their first hiking boots, hand stitched with black thread on the Colorado Trail when the seams burst. Hand sewn fleece clothing that the kids wore as they traveled the rooftop of America on their llamas.There are photographs of them wearing every single piece of clothing saved here, but although they were clean when they went into the bag, the stains surfaced and no adult child of ours would put them on their own babies, or even a reminiscing grandmother. They had to get burned.

Years ago, Todd decided to clean out the kids’ stuffed animal toy box without telling anyone. However, just then Bryce happened to wander out to the garden to the burn area and there he saw his clown, the one whose legs you pulled and then he sang, fire flames licking its eyes. Bryce swore it was singing its song as it died and he is forever scarred from that experience.

The kids are not home as we go through the storage area of our log home, cleaning out, making room. Since Bryce graduated from art school and moved his apartment stuff home and Sierra drove out to grad school in Boulder with only selected material things in her tiny Yaris, Todd and I can hardly move…it was time to toss out.

In the dress up box I find my old faded swim team sweatshirt, my teenage boyfriend’s HS football jersey, “Kurpiewski- 44.” “THAT goes,” Todd said.

I find my senior prom dress that my mother sewed for me, my mother’s net bridesmaid dress with a wooden hoop. My father’s bowling league shirt with “Joe” embroidered on the front pocket, my brother’s baseball caps that had “Little Slugger” embroidered on it, Sierra’s ballet slippers, my white leather majorette boots. My grandmother’s beaded dress that she gave me when she was in her late 90’s because she thought we were about the same size and it had been one of her favorites. My grandmother, who died peacefully at 103, never saw herself as old. I did wear that dress at a-celebration-of-her-life picnic a year after she died, when every member of my family wore a hat or a necklace of hers and we all cooked and baked the foods she was most famous for.

“I hate to get rid of this stuff,” I tell Todd.

“Who’s going to wear this? Are you and I going to play dress up?”

He has a point.

I find my mother’s champagne satin bedspread that she put on her wedding bed and matching satin curtains. I have an old black and white photo of her opening this present at her wedding shower. There is enough fabric there that we could have sewed Sierra a new wedding dress had we discovered this find before she made her dress purchase.

“This stays. I can sew a satin drawstring pouch for Sierra to carry at her own upcoming wedding to collect her wedding gift cards.”

When Sierra finds out what made the cut she asks if she can put the satin bedspread and pillow shams on her own wedding bed. Really? We just visited the cabin at the resort her and her fiance Eben will rent after her May wedding. It will be my supreme pleasure to wash and iron and make her wedding bed for her. I am sure her Grandmother Ross will be smiling down on her.

There are boxes of the children’s artwork- a box for each every year of their childhood. “I can’t go through them now,” I announce. Later. I want to find Bryce’s “Whale with a party hat” drawing- his very first drawing he made as a 4-year-old. The very first thing he drew when he picked up a drawing tool, and now he is rapidly progressing as an up and coming illustrator. Where does the time go? I have a feeling Todd will be making multiple frames when we go through those boxes.

“I want my baby shoes for my child,” Sierra announced. I assure her that we saved them and with a little saddle soap, there was much life left in them. The majority of their clothing got burned, however.

“What good is it to keep this stuff?” I ask.

Time passes so quickly. These things remind you that you had a rich full life, stuffed with memories. Do we keep these things around to make us happy when we touch and feel them, connect us to people who have passed on? But do we need stuff, memorabilia to conjure up those memories? They sure do help. But we have a small home and Todd believes, if we bring more into the house, something has to go out. That hasn’t been the case in these last twenty years. I need to purge and start new in this next stage of my life. Sierra is getting married, Bryce is finding his way and building a business and a life for himself. Although he has returned home in this interim period, his days are numbered too and we will soon lose his happy presence.

Todd said “our kids will have to go through all this stuff when we die.”

“so who is dying?” I ask.

“So keep this stuff around for a few more decades to go through another time or two?”

“Burn it.”

I was thinking of having a ceremonial burning-of-the-dolls campfire before Sierra flew back to Boulder to represent her morphing into a new chapter of her life. Much of the talk and planning around the house this last Christmas holiday revolved around wedding plans. But I decided to pass on that ritual.

I could not bring myself to toss the children’s sock dolls in that fire. Instead, I am thinking of having Todd make me a wooden shadow box to display them in. That can go on the wall along with “The Whale with a Party Hat.” Some things should not get burned. Not singing clowns nor sock dolls.

Mourning the Death of my Backyard Forest

I needed to get out of the house and stretch my legs, free my mind of words, after a day of editing, so I headed for the trails along the top of Red Mountain, the long ridge on which we built our log home 25 years ago.

These are the trails we walk when we don’t wash our hair, when we don’t feel like changing out of our fleecy pants, when we don’t want anyone to see us. It is our place to hike when the winds are too wild down across the road and in the open valley, or it looks like it might rain, (like this afternoon) and we want to stay protected and able to get back home quickly. This forest is my literal back yard.

We come back here to search for pink lady slippers in May, mushrooms in the spring, deer tracks in the snow in January, reading them to see where the herds crossed like grand highways and intersections, where they yarded up in the snow, creating community and helping one another get through the snowy winter. We search for owl pellets along the edge of the Christmas tree farm on the border of the large evergreens where the owls love to roost. Sierra found crystals on these woods trails- hunks of white shiny hexagonal tubes sticking out of the loamy dirt. She always looked for them instinctively and always found them.

Our favorite destination is the open field about 1 ½ miles out. Here we can look over the valley and the rows of long ridges and not see a sign of man. We stand there and gaze, search for deer or turkey in the field, before turning around and heading back. There are many different loops to take but the open field is our favorite.

But on today’s walk, about ½ mile too soon, I suddenly see open sky ahead. It looks oddly strange and I feel disoriented. Have I arrived so suddenly, lost in my thoughts that I was unaware that I had crossed that last stretch of forest? I came to the edge and could not believe my eyes. A massive clear cut, with nothing left but flat wide stumps. I had not seen the likes of a clear cut this large and final since we walked through the clear cuts in the national forests in the Washington Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail. They broke our hearts walking through deep forest one square mile, surfacing into a barren devastated clear cut for another square mile. It is the abruptness, the extreme from one to the other, from deep lush forest to death. And to make matters worse, this was my back yard, my home forest.

I walked to the end and there I found the house that was just built on the ridge top. This new homeowner did not cut the forest. Another land owner who owns a huge parcel did the deed. But he came to this top of Red Mountain to build his home, I am sure, because of this beautiful forest. He moved in so recently that his yard is a mud hole, with the excavator’s machinery still parked there.

He built his house spitting close to another home nestled in the forest on the other side of him, in trees which are still standing. This unhappy neighbor who suddenly has a neighbor up his butt posted large homemade signs stating “NO TRESPASSING” and even built a crude plank fence nailed to the trees on their border, keeping his neighbor from entering his woods. Two unhappy Red Mountain ridgeline inhabitants.

The neighbor down below who cut the forest around these two homes probably slashed the forest for he feels he needs the money. Rumors flew around that he was in a nasty divorce and lost a lot to his ex, so the forest has to go in order to maintain his lifestyle.

I was heart sick crossing back through the clear cut to find my way back to the trail but what I saw on the return trail made me almost cry. Orange flagging ribbon, for close to a mile, marking nearly the whole top of Red Mountain is slated to go, to be leveled, probably by this spring. My daughter will return from Colorado in May and find her forest world forever gone. She won’t even have the opportunity to walk it these last months as the saws chip away at it.

I knocked on the door of my immediate neighbor when I got back to our little settlement of 4 homes on Red Mountain. I wanted to know if he had any information about the future of “our” forest. He did know. He chatted with the clear cutter. My neighbor did not seem phased. He said , “It will grow back. Well, maybe not in our lifetime.”

That wasn’t good enough for me. This neighbor just moved in two years ago. He has no history in this forest. He has nothing to mourn. My neighbor reminded me, “He can do what he wants with his land.”

I guess the problem here is it has always felt like it was my land too. I feel possessive ownership of it. Not because I purchased it with my hard earned money but because I created memories on it. My children grew up on it, creating their own memories.

Twenty five years ago, I walked the short forest loop when I wanted to convince my first child who had taken up seemingly permanent residence in my body and would not come into the world although she was two weeks late. I hoped the hiking would rouse her and prevent me from chugging a bottle of castor oil. The walk was not enough. It was not enough for my second child either, two years later as Todd and I with Sierra walked the same forest loop hoping to rouse her brother out, who was also two weeks late. Another bottle needed to be chugged.

I used to get turned around and nearly lost the first years that we lived here. I would come to an intersection and it looked different coming at it from a different trail. As the trails are on the top of the wide ridge of Red Mountain, there is no mountain side that is visible to gauge your direction. It used to excite and frighten me that I could be so close to home and yet get so turned around. The idea of getting lost in my back yard made me feel as though I lived in wild country, where in reality , I would not have to travel far down the side before I hit a blacktop road.

When the kids became old enough to chart their own mini adventures, they went out with their mountain bikes, crossing the woods trails, finding access, creating a loop back to home via the road, all on their own without their parents’ direction.

We walk our goats on these trails. They are able to do a 3-mile loop, sticking close to our sides, stopping to nibble, never thinking of chasing a deer. They HATED to go for a hike if it were raining and stalled and stalled and needed to be coaxed. This was our forest to exercise the goats so they stayed healthy and fit long into old age and continued to grace our lives.

But all this is coming to a rapid close. Bryce and I and the goats need to walk these trails as often as we can in the coming weeks, covering shorter and shorter distances until there are none left, eaten up by the saw and the chipper.

Jerry & Renny Russell wrote in their classic Sierra Club book, On the Loose

One of the best-paying professions is getting ahold of pieces of country in your mind, learning their smell and their moods, sorting out the pieces of a view, deciding what grows there and why, how many steps that hill will take, where this creek winds and where it meets the other one below, what elevation timberline is now, whether you can walk this reef at low tide or have to climb around, which contour lines on a map mean better cliffs or mountains,. This is the best kind of ownership, the most permanent.

It feels good to say “I know the Sierra” or “I know Point Reyes” (or I know Red Mountain). But of course you don’t- what you know better is yourself and Point Reyes and the Sierra (and Red Mountain) have helped.

I guess my only fault is I have not lived long enough to be good at saying good-bye to things like people and backyard forests, although I suspect in the coming decades I will become greater skilled at it. Has Red Mountain served its purpose, providing a playground for both my children who are moving on in their own adult lives? The trails of Red Mountain will live on in their memories as they move away from home. It is a good thing memories can not be slashed and killed. I am the one who will feel the loss of the forest the greatest when Red Mountain is slashed and raped of its timber. The deer and I will have to find another place to seek refuge when the need comes to leave my desk and walk and think and decompress from a life of writing. It will not be happening in my backyard forest.

Missing Out at Easter (or so it seemed)

Sound travels as if there were no walls or ceilings in our log home. Todd and I were in the bathroom taking a bath Thursday before Easter and I was whining, for I had recently learned that my son would not be home for the Easter weekend. And the daughter is in Boulder. Todd said, “You only have a few more days to prepare for Easter.”
“Bryce won’t be here Easter morning so he isn’t getting a basket. You’re not getting an Easter basket either. There won’t be an egg hunt if Bryce is not here Easter morning. No one has time for an egg coloring party, and what for? I’m not making homemade coconut cream nor peanut butter eggs. No one wants the calories. Easter is not what it used to be,” I said sadly.

A few minutes later Bryce came into the bathroom and told me I was basically being a baby. “How about if I hide eggs for you and dad?” he tried to make amends. I looked at him and twisted up my face. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Switch it up a little,” he said.

I just let it go.

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Friday morning the wood frogs returned to our little pond. At 11 am there were 3 in our tiny pond at the back of our home. An hour later there were 20. One hour after that 40. The wood frogs began croaking and copulating and boiling the dark water and it was music to our ears. This wonderful sign of spring was a message of hope. The wood frogs reminded me to feel grateful.

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Then Bryce announced that it was time for Todd and I to find eggs in the yard. He had hidden 50. He gave us each a basket and told us to “GO!” It was the first time I looked for eggs since I was 16 in my grandmother’s row home back yard in Reading, PA when the parents announced it was over. I had never wanted it to be.

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Afterwards we searched the wood pile, frog pond edge, hanging kayaks along the side of the house etc. and dumped the gathered colored eggs on the grass. Bryce announced that there was a present in every egg. Since I had told him I did not want candy, we broke open the plastic spheres and found a unique drawing of a face in every single one- 50 in all. I had no idea when he even found time to make them. The grand prizes, which were in two large bunny eggs were clues to where we would find creepy clay heads that we could now add to our Easter decorations (which we sadly left in storage this year).
Todd and I were so touched that Bryce did this for us since he couldn’t be here Easter morning.
I was feeling grateful.

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That night, we fired up our Finnish log sauna for some friends for the first time this spring. At River House’s Veteran’s benefit on Valentine’s Day, Todd and I offered a night in our sauna as a silent auction item. The friends who purchased it were coming Good Friday and we had an amazing night illuminated by the full moon and serenaded by the chorus of mating wood frogs by the sauna’s side. I was feeling more grateful.

It was also raining softly, pinging off the tin roof, making more music, but since this was the first warm rain of the season, it also meant a magical natural occurance would be taking place on a nearby blacktop road, as giant black salamanders made their way down Hawk Mountain and crossed to vernal pools where they would mate and reproduce. Only one night a year this happens and we got to share it with our saunaing friends. Armed with umbrellas, raincoats and headlamps, we assisted the salamanders across the road so they would night get flattened by cars and also assisted many very large toads, leopard frogs and spring peepers. They said the event was magical and they were grateful.

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We returned to the house and indulged in homemade ice cream that was purposely churned on the not-so-sweet side so we could pour homemade maple syrup over top, which Todd just cooked down this week. This was a new endeavor which proved to be not only fun but yielding almost a gallon of syrup- and that was just boiling in an open crock pot. I was feeling gratitude as I slurped down vanilla ice cream and syrup. Especially after we learned that a fellow member of our Unitarian Church just discovered he had a brain tumor and had only a few months to live.

Saturday night, Holy Saturday, we had tickets to see the Tartan Terrors, a rousing, rowdy Scottish band. I recently reconnected to the midwife who delivered my children and since she told me that she has seen the band 4 times and loved them, they too purchased tickets.
We also told another couple, Rob & Peg, who frequently attend concerts, that the band was coming and to get tickets. Both couples came to our home for dinner beforehand. They did not know each other and were meeting for the first time, or so they thought. But it wasn’t long into the meal that they both realized they were here together, twenty three years ago, when I pushed Bryce into the world in the comfort of our log home. Peggy & Rob were here to help take care of three year old Sierra who witnessed her brother being born. They had not seen nor talked to Patti the midwife since that night. Peggy remarked, “where did the 23 years go?” and we all agreed that we were grateful for a wonderful life so far and beautiful children. Especially because we learned that yet another cancer-stricken friend has only a few months or even weeks to live.

When we went down to York this Easter Sunday morning, our nephews, Austin and Owen, decided that they would make an Easter egg hunt for the adults, just to switch it up. There were about 10 of us large “children” running around the yard, looking for eggs and finding all kinds of fun surprises in them from candy to toys to onions and potatoes! The kids had so much fun doing it for the adults this year.

And so as I was walking this Easter Sunday evening at sunset, feeling grateful and musing over the way things were switched up and different this holiday but still searching for more for whatever reason, it still did not feel “enough.”

I was raised Catholic. We switched to the Unitarian Universalist Church when the kids were adolescents so they could be exposed to broad teachings and philosophies. I love this church but do have a hard time at Easter. The first time we attended church there on Easter Sunday, the sermon was about spring and new life and in the middle of it, I leaned over to Todd and whispered, “They better talk about Jesus. Easter is supposed to be about Jesus.” He was mentioned in passing at the end and I was left wanting.
Easter was a big deal growing up in my Catholic family, almost as big a deal as Christmas. We had the egg hunts and the decorations and the baskets of candy, but we also got dressed up in our finest and headed to Saint Catharine’s Catholic Church where the church would be decorated with tall white lillies and everyone would belt out Alleluias and even to a kid, it was moving and emotional. My father would buy his girls orchid corsages, we’d visit Grandmom for an Easter visit and eat Polish kielbasa, ham, German potato salad, then go to the Reading Art Museum and walk the grounds with our cousins. It was about new life and spring exploding but it was also about Jesus bringing people hope.

So I decided on my walk tonight, that next year, I would go back to the Catholic church and celebrate Easter with the Catholics, sing the Alleluias and give the sign of peace and remember my childhood and where I came from, remember what helped shape me. Even if that is the only Sunday I attend, Easter should be about Jesus. Then it might not matter as much if I give an egg hunt or do the hunting myself. Todd will get an Easter basket regardless if Sierra & Bryce are around. I will make homemade chocolate eggs and deliver them to friends if we don’t want the calories. And I will work at living each day in the constant state of gratitude- for wood frogs, for spotted salamanders, for maple syrup, for the delight of sweating in our sauna, for friends who delivered my babies, for memories, for change, for the fact that I have life, for Jesus, who helped teach me that way back when.

RISING UP- Playing in the Snow with Wounded Warrior Amputees

 

 

 

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Wounded Warrior Dennis Leonard needed help tying up his shortened pant legs with cording. He didn’t want any cold snow getting up where his legs were blown off in Iraq where he served in the Army. He was planning a wild time on the snow tube at Seven Springs Resort and nothing was going to get in the way of his fun.

Although Dennis has both of his lower legs missing from an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion, he is into living large and going fast which at first thought, sounds unusual for a man in a wheelchair, but then Dennis is an unusual Wounded Warrior.

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He gets help from the Ski Patrol team here at Seven Springs Resort and Ski Round Top in the Cumberland Valley outside Harrisburg. They are here with the Wounded Warrior Patrol, a non-profit organization based in Carlisle, whose mission is to gift Wounded Warriors and their families an all-expense paid ski vacation, to help aid in the healing. This 4 day event is co-sponsored with Seven Springs Resort in the Laurel Highlands of western PA. Eleven families have come to enjoy skiing, snowboarding, tubing, along with bowling, miniature golf, spa treatments for the Warrior’s wives, kids’ crafts as well as babysitting, and fantastic meals- a dream come true for these families. Nine of the eleven are from Pennnsylvania.

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I was planning on being in my own tube, since only single tubes were available, but also wanted to slide right with Dennis. He said he’d hold onto my handle so I could hang onto my camera and take pics.

“I’m depending on you, Dennis. I’m not used to giving up control.”

“I have you covered,” he replied.

 

When we were given instructions on how to slow down at the end, so we didn’t slam into the fence,

Dennis said, “You’re going to have to cover that part,” since he had no feet.

“I got this,” I replied back. We were a team.

He told me when he was sliding here last year on his own tube, a scout yelled to him to drag his feet as he was zooming very fast, “Right!” he yelled!

The Ski Patrol got Dennis comfy in the snow tube and they zipped him up to the top of the hill behind a snowmobile. Once in the tubes, we sped down the hill together, screaming when he became airborne. Dennis loved sliding the most when he was backwards and couldn’t see the bumps coming as we flew into the air. “That split second of weightlessness. I could feel my body rising up.”

Rising up. Isn’t that what an amputee would wish for and dream about the most, rising up? As so he makes it happen.

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Last year, Dennis tells me, the slope wasn’t fast enough for him. The jumps weren’t high enough. “Any time I can go FAST, I’m all over it. He raises hell on his 4-wheeler at home and hoists his body onto a tube on a lake and becomes airborne behind a motorboat. “First thing I want to do is find out how fast it can go.”  He liked living on the edge. “It’s all about speed and having a good time,” he said.

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The next day they loaded Dennis onto a rescue toboggan, bundled him up in a “blankie” tucked around him and zoomed him up to the top of the ski slope. This time, he would careen down the mountain sitting upright on the toboggan. A skier from the Patrol team led him in front with two long rigid poles while another member of the patrol, had the rear on a webbing tether, so Dennis didn’t run his lead skier over.

Everyone on the slope not associated with the program was amazed and stared and could almost not believe their eyes, as Dennis smoked past.

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The scene of Dennis flying down the hills was only one of many inspiring images here at Seven Springs this week. There were other contraptions made to take physically challenged folks racing down the snow slopes and one was a Ski Bike.

 

Wounded Warrior Jeff Hemminger assembled his Adaptive Ski Bike together that first night we met at Seven Springs. He moved around with his intact and amputated leg, while his son, Tyler helped him.  This soldier lost his leg in a Humvee accident from an IED explosion in Iraq. Jeff’s Ski Bike takes him to new speeds that he can’t get in his wheelchair or on his prosthesis.  There are skis where there tires would be on a normal bike. He rides the Ski Bike by standing up on the bike pegs keeping his legs stationary. The fork and the back shock is the same as mountain bike. The Ski Bike weighs about 30 pounds and costs around $3,500.

IMG_7452 2  Ski Biking is a fairly new sport in America, compared to Europe where it is quite popular.  Jeff travels to Telluride and Durango along with other places to participate in Ski Bike fests.

 

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Jeff can hit 50-60 MPH on his Ski Bike. An ap on his phone in his pocket records his speed. He was reprimanded by the Ski Patrol to slow down. They did not issue a speeding ticket but they thought about it. When he wrecked pretty badly one time, flying over the snow bank, his Ski Patrol friends yelled to him to see if he was okay and he replied as he laughed his head off, “Yep, I’m still in two pieces!”

But the most amazing contraption for me was the Sit Ski. The Wounded Warrior sits in the chair and can either assist turning with two short skis that are strapped to their arms, or have outriggers on like trainings wheels which help balance and prevent them from falling over. A skier from the Three Rivers Adaptive Sports program out of Pittsburgh skis behind and holds two webbed straps as a tether. He can control the Sit Ski, make it turn, slow it down, as long as the sitter does not do anything stupid. They asked me if I wanted to try it. How else could I write realistically about it if it was all speculation? I wasn’t sure I could prevent myself from doing anything stupid however.

This was a week of trust. The Wounded Warriors trusting as they stuck their necks out, got out of their comfort zone and safe homes. Just coming to this event, for starters, was a stretch for them with strange people, many people, unfamiliar surroundings, new challenges. They are being asked to engage in scary new sports that could threaten and intimidate anyone who is unfamiliar with the ski world, let alone Wounded Warriors with trust issues and most suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was a lot for them to deal with and they had to put their trust in the Wounded Warrior Patrol. I may as well practice it myself.

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(photo of Jim Mennucci)

They strapped my body in the Sit Ski using multiple straps. I could barely move. Lean a bit, that was it. They pushed me over to the chair lift and multiple men picked me completely up in the Sit Ski. “Ready?” LIFT!” I became airborne, they tilted me back and hoisted me onto the moving chair. They pulled the bar down. I had to trust them.

Up top, I was given instructions. I was pretending to be a Wounded Warrior who could not use their arms or legs but could still move their torso. So I was to lean hard left and right, slight left and right when I was told to do so. I had to find my balance point. I started off wigging and wagging until I FELT it and could manage it. My instructor, Clark Manny has been safely teaching and escorting physically challenged people down ski slopes for over 20 years. I felt safe although vulnerable. I also felt physically challenged!

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The steep slope rushing towards looked like a disaster ready to happen- the sharp turns, the other skiers, the light poles etc. all zoomed into view. I had not skied since I was 18 years old in high school. I was not familiar with a ski run. But we made it and it was fascinating to see how we could work together.

Next time, no training wheels and I had skis strapped to my forearms. I had to assist. I had to hold them out and point them left and right. Keep contact with the snow. Right off, I started wigging and wagging again, feeling like a kid trying to balance a bicycle for the first time. Clark was working hard. Twice he saved me. “That will cost you a beer,” he announced.

“Gladly,” I said.

He “saved” me again. Another beer. And two times he could not save me and I fell completely over on the slope, taking multiple men to pick me up and set me straight. I was beginning to see the huge commitment and sacrifice these adaptive skiers make in order to get immobile folks mobile again while speeding down the slope and having a blast.

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It was very challenging for even someone like me to Sit Ski, let alone a real physically or mentally challenged person. Adaptive Sports takes all ages, all challenges down ski slopes- MS victims, ASL, cerebral palsy, paraplegic. Every person is different and it runs the gamut of who can move which body part or who can understand and who can communicate on all varying levels. Even a person whose body permanently leans to one side, they can compensate and get that person skiing. It is tremendously rewarding to see the work that they do and the joy that they bring to otherwise immobile people. And above all, how these Wounded Warriors are learning to heal and live again.

 

Dennis Leonard told me after the week was drawing to a close, that he was never into whining about his missing legs. “Stuff happens in your life and you deal with it.” Some Veterans don’t deal so well, but what saved Dennis is his attitude.

“I accepted my missing legs from the very beginning. I can look at something and think, ‘This is going to be a problem,’ and then figure out how to solve it.”

“If you listen to the doctors, you’ll have a miserable life and never have any fun.”

When someone questions if an activity is going to be safe for him he looks at them crooked and replies, “What, am I going to do, hurt myself? I’ll slow down when you put me in the grave.” Good advice for us all.

 

 

A VALENTINE’S NIGHT TO REMEMBER

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It felt like a celebration. The hall was lit up with white and red fairy lights. Shiny, heart-shaped balloons were tied to the Mason jars of flowers. Red tinsel and glittery hearts created table centerpieces. Familiar fond tunes wafted through the loud speakers, setting the mood. And when the Veterans walked through the door of this Topton American Legion turned Valentine’s Day fairyland, they were greeted with a warm hug, a “Thank you for coming,” and a red carnation was pinned to their shirt. River House PA wanted everyone who was attending the Veteran’s Benefit to know who our heroes are. And there were thirty of them there that night. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf and the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars, from 70’s to their early 20’s, men and women were represented.

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Besides celebrating our love for one another, our Veterans, and River House PA, the organization staged a Silent Auction of amazing gifts from even more amazing donors and artists, to help fund and fuel the non-profits’ outdoor programs. Forty prizes in all were arranged on tables. Some had the actual artwork, others such as gift certificates had posters illustrating the prize, looking a little like middle school science fair posters but getting the point across none the less!

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The Legion’s Auxiliary crafted a delicious spaghetti dinner with meatballs, sausage, salad, and garlic bread, with monstrous trays of fresh fruit, veggies and dip, assorted cheese and crackers (donated by Harry Boyer of Boyer’s Markets) to appease hunger before the main meal. Cakes, brownies, homemade cookies and coffee, as well as a fine assortment of Valentine’s Day candy from the Port Clinton Peanut Shop graced the dessert table.

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While the enthusiastic bidding went on, Veterans were meeting other Veterans, introducing each other asking when they served, while civilians were doing the same. When Danny Stein from the 175thAirborne Ranger Battalion met Mike Schnur from the Vietnam’s Ranger Battalion, they locked eyes and shook hands and said, “It’s a great honor.” Danny said to me, “That Vet is a fuckin’ hero. I mean it.” It was all good. We even had female Ilene Henderson attend, a combat Veteran from both Iraq and Afghanistan, who is currently hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail with her mother. They were our proud guests at the Benefit and drove all the way from Virginia to be here with her comrades and friends of River House.

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Speaking of driving far, attendees to the event came in from Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey and even Ohio, which is saying a lot as there was snow predicted, white out conditions, high winds and very low temps. It did not stop them. They came and supported this great cause and these wonderful people- our Veterans. Steve & Becky Adamson spent the weekend at Cindy & Todd’s house, the parents of fallen Airborne Ranger and AT 2,000 Miler, Zach “Shady” Adamson, whom a Utube video was made of a Memorial Hike in VA last year. (A Journey of Remembrance – YouTube:13http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOwRs3YNms0). Becky & Steve met Danny Stein, River House’s Poster Boy, who served with their son in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had never met before this. The meeting was very sweet and touching. One hundred and forty people braved the elements to attend and bids were high, bringing in over $3,000 for the Auction Items and making about $1500 from ticket sales. A tremendous, unexpected generous income on such an iffy winter night.

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The only down side was only a handful got to dance (the kids!) for an hour and it was horrendous driving going home, with white out blizzard conditions across the Lehigh Valley. A drunk from the bar rammed Todd’s truck in the Legion parking lot but the hit and run driver is on video and the state trooper can find out who it is. All in all, it was a tremendous night and we were all deeply touched by everyones’ generosity and support.

Next event up is the monthly Wednesday hike for Veterans, followed by a pot luck and Brainstorming session for Veterans & Friends of River House alike- March 18th. Only a few days after that, River House PA is staging a Spring Equinox Celebration Benefit- a House Concert with Native American Band, Spirit Wind…March 21st. Seating is VERY limited but tickets are on sale now. Thank you all and please send some Veterans our way who could use a little time in the lap of nature.

PERCEPTION and MISPERCEPTION in a Muslim Country

 

A Day in Marrakech (Bryce)

The time is 5a.m. The city of Marrakech, Morocco is breathlessly quiet. Suddenly, chanting begins to resound from a nearby mosque. Within moments it is followed by a chorus of guttural voices, emanating from over 100 minarets. Asleep on a rooftop terrace I am jarred awake by the thunderous Call to Prayer. This is our Moroccan alarm clock. 

From our rooftop terrace we have a sprawling view of the city. The markets form a web of convoluted streets; alleyways thatched in bamboo and hopelessly tangled. From the central plaza, the streets radiate outward in a labyrinth capable of making anyone feel directionally challenged. In the distance loom the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. 

Departing from our rooftop we gravitate towards the plaza. By the time the sun had ascended, monkey-handlers and snake charmers are already welcoming the day. People are everywhere, mummified women in shawls, filthy children, wizened old folks with canes, teenagers swerving erratically on mopeds, and beggars shielded under cardboard, aligning cigarette butts with Mecca.

After breakfast in the plaza we take the plunge into the markets. Everything is rich in color-vibrant scarves, jewelry, teapots and tasselled rugs. Tables are heaped with camel-leather saddles, daggers, spices and fresh produce. Our personal favorites are the stands piled in figs and dates. In the center of the stands are holes where Moroccans pop up to collect our order, reminiscent of prairie dogs emerging from their burrows.

One moment please!” they shout, “Just look, no buy! Like free!” 

Animals are also numerous. Donkeys haul carts containing every product from Coca-Cola bottles to propane tanks. Cats wander the streets, scavenging bits of meat and gnawing at fish bones. Roosters peck at the ground.

We wander between cracked, sunset-colored walls until we detect the stench of the tannery. The tannery is an open area with vats of water made milky with pigeon droppings. Workers slosh in the rank broth in nothing but shorts, laboring to tan sheep leather.  It looks like a vast honeycomb, where men hang skins to dry and mangy cats wander the rims. We are handed sprigs of mint leaf to sniff to dull the stench.

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At the dyers  souk, pieces of cloth are hung from lines and lifted with hooked poles. The colors are striking and vary from crimson to turquoise and cobalt blue. We climb up a spiral staircase to view the scenery from the terrace. Somehow, we find ourselves bargaining with a man who offers 8,000 camels in exchange for my sister.

By nightfall the plaza is a hive of humanity. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted towards its lit center. Men wheel in food carts and cooking tents, banishing the snake charmers and their repetitive song. Soon pungent smoke clouds the air. Small greasy chefs busily fry small greasy sausages. Buckets of snails entice the passerby. Determined tattoo artists pursue us with syringes of henna, while we pursue the aroma of frying food.

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The traffic is chaotic, mopeds swerving around bewildered tourists. The whine of motorbikes pierces the air.

Where you from?” inquires a fruit salesman.

The United States.”

A thousand welcomes,” he exclaims, grinning gleefully. We smile back.

From dawn to dusk the markets have ensnared us. We realize a week would not be fully sufficient to see all its wonders. Returning to our rooftop terrace, we hear the fifth and final Call to Prayer, while below us drummers pound out the heartbeat of Marrakech.

 

All this occurred in just twenty-four hours. The first twenty-four hours of a month-long trip. So much is packed into a single day when you travel to a foreign country such as Morocco, where nearly everything is strange, exotic and new. So much happens in a span of 24 hours, that by the end of a single day, what occurred in the morning, seems like many days ago. The passing of time is perceived as going slow for it feels stretched and packed to the brim with abundant experiences, yet it never drags or is boring. This is the treasure of travel. Your days spent on a trip are of the highest quality.

We traveled to Morocco in 2008 to celebrate the kids’ 16 & 18th birthdays. Our friend, Allen Hoppes, owner of “I, Like You Tours,” was broadening his guide service to include private trips for families. He needed a family to practice on and we happily obliged. Allen believes as we do, that travel can be much more than moving from one place to another but is about learning by experience and immersing yourself in the culture.  Knowledge is one thing; personal experience is another. We travel in order to experience what life has to offer in order that we might live life more fully. This has always been my goal for my children.

When my sister learned that we were splurging on this month-long adventure, she replied, “If that were me, I would be using that money for my children’s education.”

To that I replied, “I am.” This, we were soon to discover, was exactly what we were doing.

It had been 8 years since the Twin Towers exploded when we traveled to Morocco and fear had been driven into many American hearts, including an imperceptible fear of Muslims in general. I want to teach my children acceptance, respect and welcome when it comes to all people. The best way to have that happen is to go to an Arab country and live there for a time.

My children knew that many Arab cultures have dress codes for women, some much stricter than others. As free-thinking liberals, who relish our independence and freedom, we had a pre-conceived idea that this practice seems medieval and unnecessary.

 

In the cities of Morocco, we observed that Muslim women rarely go out in public. “The street is a man’s domain,” Allen tells us. When women do go out, they huddle in twos and walk tightly arm in arm as if one being. They do not want to look attractive in any way. We may look at this custom as being repressive when in reality it is viewed as practical and respectful in their culture.
Their homes have open courtyards with rooms radiating around like the spokes of a wheels. Here their children play, away from the streets, protected. The women go up to the rooftops to hang their wash, feel the sun, see the view, even if it is only a scene of more rooftops, but this is where they socialize and share with their women friends, as well as the hamman, the public bath where they scrub one another in long, rough strokes up and down their backs until the dead skin comes off in black spaghetti strings. The women are “safe” on the roof from the rest of the world, the world of men, as they are inside their homes. Over half of Moroccan women have little education and cannot read nor write.

As we walk the streets, dark-haired, handsome young Moroccan men, dressed in all black are everywhere, with clearly nothing to do with their time.

Sierra says, They all make eye contact with me and latch on with a desirous look. They lock their dark eyes shamelessly on mine and coo, “oh, la la.”  I look away bashfully. One stops dead in his tracks and just stares at me. And I was on Mom’s arm wearing a coat and a hat and not having showered in days, I wasn’t feeling attractive. Bryce tries to get me to walk 50 feet ahead of the rest of the group to see the level of harassment that is inflicted on me. I got quite a few marriage offers from shop owners and one offers Bryce 900,000 camels to be his wife.”

The young men behave more like hungry harmless wolves, instead of polite, respectable hosts, perhaps  they are the victims of deprivation. Remaining hidden in your home and hidden behind scarves when you do go out in public is making more sense to my daughter. Sierra is different and so she gets noticed. She has no competition with other young Moroccan women, as they are not on the streets, and we see no American tourists, especially young adults. We’re learning to navigate the streets of Morocco, not just through the maze of the souk, but also amongst their people.

The Moroccan women in the rural areas, we’re discovering, have more freedom than their urban sisters but also more work. They must go out daily to collect greens for cow food and lug huge bundles of sticks on their backs from the forest to fuel their cook fires. The rural men lean against telephone poles or alongside buildings or sit in circles. They look hard at us for not many tourists visit the places Allen is taking us. This uneven division of labor is being noted by my children.

When you travel to countries that are off the normal tourists’ radar, you get noticed, because you stick out. They can tell we are Americans. Our behavior is being noted and used as a reference to understand our people, contrary to what they might hear in the news or on television. Who they perceive us to be and who we really are can be very different.

I was once approached by a foreigner from a developing country and he was puzzled about how we are able to go out of our homes. We might “live in mansions,” he said, “but the street is a very dangerous place.” When I asked him what he was basing his information on, he admitted it was two American TV shows, “The Lives of the Rich and Famous” and “NYPD.” He thought that was how we all lived.

Others are much better informed. We met people from Switzerland while in Morocco and they said, “What a shame that all Americans are viewed in relation to your country’s politics, the behavior of (then) President Bush, and judge you accordingly.” Another asked,  “Why do you Americans think that you’re better than everyone else?”

To that I replied, “I don’t, and I am not my country’s politics nor my country’s government nor my country’s leader.”

It is very beneficial to see how other people in the world view us. Many are confused about our leaders’ motives and actions in the world. Questioning foreigners such as these make my children think and not be too hasty to accept what the American media feeds us as truth. These encounters are opportunities to take the misperceptions in a foreigners’ mind and turn them into more accurate, honest and real opinions about who Americans are. We can choose to behave as good-will ambassadors and set a good example.

 

Our most impacting experiences in Morocco, the ones which taught us the most, were the times spent in the private homes of the rural people, where we could see who they really are.

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A Berber family in the Dades Gorge of the Rif Mountains, ran a small hotel and also offered private group meals. The attractive, exotic-looking young men served us wearing head scarfs, as they poured hot tea high above our cups from silver pots, and we sat on cushions eating goat meat and vegetables out of clay tagines. One young man in particular was watching Sierra from afar and she felt smitten.

The other male family members beat on goat skinned drums, as the fire burned warm and glowing. After dinner, they taught us to dance traditional Berber dances, and entertained us with card games and magic tricks, as Allen interpreted and translated. The night was filled with happy laughter as we learned to communicate and found connection with these new friends.

When we asked to visit a local silversmith, in the hopes of buying some jewelry, the young man who was attracted to Sierra, ushered us to the village artist. After Sierra selected a particular Berber ring, he took it upon himself to pull it from the case and slide it onto her finger himself. Bryce teased his sister about a future Berber wedding until morning came and our mountain boy appeared without his head scarf. That quickly, all the allure and mystery connected to him dissipated with his exposed, close-cropped haircut, making him look like every other Moroccan young man.

 

Towards the end of our month-long stay, Allen arranged a homestay experience for us where we walked from one family’s rural farm to their relatives. This experience becomes our family’s most favorite out of  a month of spectacular memories and it is here where we connect the deepest to our new Muslim friends.

First-borns are often named Mohammad and in this particular blended family of two second marriages, there were two sons named Mohamed as well as their father, making three Mohammeds under the same roof. Back in America, many teens put tremendous energy into finding out “who they are” and creating a separate identity from their parents so my kids found this very different.

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We ate with the family around one massive tray of community food, consuming what was right in front of you, with your one hand (right)- your left is considered “unclean” (some use to clean their butts). No one gets fat here if you just stick to your little triangle of food in front of you. My kids feared they were straying too far to the left or right and stuck to mopping up meat juice with hunks of bread to play it safe.

Afterwards, they asked us questions, with the aid of Allen interpreting.

“I’ve heard that in some countries like America you eat from your own plate, but I have never seen this.”

The adults watched me. They asked if I drive, if I cook, how old I am. When they heard how old I was (51) they could believe I am able to hike the way I do. Fifty is very old in Morocco. When they learned that I am five years older than Todd, they replied that in Morocco, a woman is never allowed to marry a man who is younger than she. A woman must go to live with her husband’s family and her new mother-in-law is her now constant companion, not her husband. They will not even sleep together but the men and boys will sleep in a separate room. They then dressed Sierra and I up in their style of clothing, wrapped blankets tightly around our waists, applied black coal eye liner, wrap a head scarf around our heads, and tuck my hair in “to protect me.”

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The kids bonded very quickly. The young boys hung on my kids affectionately with their arms draped around their shoulders. They tried on Bryce’s aviator sunglasses and wanted their picture together trying to look “gangster.’ They got my kids to teach them American lyrics and sang together, giggling. They wanted to play simple card games as that is a way to overcome the language barrier.

At the end of the evening, when they directed our family to split up for the night, as was their custom, Allen told them that our family would remain together. Although we were sleeping on narrow sofas that lined the walls, not in double beds, our hosts still made a point to direct Sierra and I to the far opposite side of the room from my husband and her brother. They tried to get Allen to sleep with the men but he too said that he would be staying with “the family.” He was our guide and friend.

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When we said good-bye the next morning, there were warm hugs all around and many photos taken to preserve the memory. The Islamic people have a beautiful saying, “Guests are gifts from God,” and this Moroccan family represented this sentiment beautifully…nothing “scary” about this Islamic family! We hoped to see one another again and to that they replied with the equally beautiful Islamic saying, “inshallah” (Insha’Allah),” God willing, or if Allah wills.

My children claimed that out of the fifteen countries they experienced before they went to college, Morocco was at the top of the list. It was partially because these people were Muslim and extraordinarily welcoming hosts, a monumental lesson to learn by my children about accepting and understanding other cultures and religions. They’ve learned to look for similarities, try to understand differences and not be fooled by inaccurate perceptions.

As we wrapped up our trip to Morocco, Allen shared these thoughts with my children.

Many cultural norms (what we eat, when we eat, who we marry, which God we worship, how we dress, what is important to us) are simply arbitrary. They carry the weight of habit, history and peer pressure. When we travel, we begin to see that other people do things differently, think differently, etc. and they also may think their ways are the best, right, natural and true ways of doing things/being. They might even think they are sacred and come directly from God. With enough travel and enough exposure, an intelligent mind recognizes that much human activity/ways of doing things, is arbitrary. Somebody made the rules up and we follow them. Travel can open a traveler’s mind that there are other ways of thinking/doing/being, that life can be a smorgasbord from which we choose what we like best. You don’t have to eat only what is put on the plate in front of you. 

You don’t have to listen to Fox or CNN to find out what Muslims think or what dog tastes like–you can go find out personally. You can educate ourselves and decide. You don’t have to accept the ideas of the media. You can go to Philadelphia and eat an Ethiopian meal, or you can eat with an Ethiopian family somewhere in Ethiopia and see where they live, what they do, hear what they think and create a connection which the Ethiopian meal in Philadelphia will not provide, no matter how good the meal is. 

 

It was seven more years until Bryce and I returned to a Muslim country, this time to Turkey. Bryce created an illustrated travel guide to Istanbul for his Illustration class in art school and I thought Turkey would be a fitting destination for a graduation trip. We could visit the attractions he spent a semester researching and then painting. Here was another opportunity to hammer home this whole notion of preconceived opinions and fear and how they can be very inaccurate and ill-founded.

But eleven months after I purchased the airline tickets, ISIS had begun to wrack havoc in the Middle East and the Syrian/Turkey border was a dangerous hot spot. Our friends and family questioned the wisdom of this destination.

I sought the advice of my diplomat nephew and he told me that as long as we stayed away from the border, and diligently watched the news, he certainly advised going. In fact, we bought a ticket himself and joined us. And we understood that Turkey, like Morocco and Turkey are two of the “safest” Muslim countries in the world.  Having free rein to walk in the marketplaces and out in the rural countryside might not have been so easily achieved in other Arab countries.

It was in a Cappadocian bus shelter that we were once again reminded of how often our misperceptions come into play and how we can reach out, connect and see what is real.

The old woman’s scarf wrapped around her neck and head and covered all visible signs of hair or what color it was or how little was left. I couldn’t be accurate in judging her age. On her robust body, she wore a long gathered skirt, a blouse and a long knitted button down vest…sneakers. She held a cloth bag by its handles. She sat in the bus shelter waiting for a bus to take her to Avenos and watched me, smiling. She was trying to figure us out.

In broken English with a strong Turkish accent she attempted a conversation. “Are you from America?”

“Yes.”

“Is that your husband?”

“No, it’s my son.”

“More children?”

“Aa daughter.”

“Is THAT your daughter?”  (a Korean girl standing next to me whom I exchanged small talk with.

“No!”  We all laughed. She blushed and laughed too.

“I said, “She could be my daughter if I had two different husbands.”

When the bus pulled up, my new friend got in first. Bryce and I carefully picked our way down the narrow aisle trying not to whack anyone. All the seats were filled. When I passed my new friend, whom had scored a seat, she patted her knee and offered her lap for me to sit in. I was floored.

I thought about our friends back home who were fearful of this trip, these people. If they could see my old lady fiend now, they too would feel foolish. We may have to travel to their homes to see for ourselves, sit in their laps, so we can accurately decide  who these people truly are and have them understand who we truly are. Had it not been a short bus ride, I may have taken her up on her offer.

 

 

The Continued Adventures of Danny, the Airborne Ranger

It had been a few weeks since I called up my local Airborne Ranger Veteran friend, Danny Stein. It was time to check in.
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing.”
“What did you do yesterday?”
“Sat and stared at the walls.”
“OK. I’m coming to town. I’m picking you up. How about a walk?”

Danny asked if I could take him to the trail along the Tulpehocken Creek. There is a bridge there that he remembers from his childhood. His mother took him there when he was about eight years old and he would really like to see if he could find it again. I knew just the covered bridge. Ride my bike there all the time in nice weather.
I picked him up and bought him to the parking lot. We could not see the bridge but I knew it was around the corner. Danny sees a red roof off in the distance and said disappointed, “It must be somewhere else.”
But when we went around the corner, there loomed the long-span of the Red Bridge. 
“That’s’ it!” he said excitedly.
We walked through the dark recesses of the bridge, seeing the dancing light of the water coming through the cracks. Once we surfaced, we went down on the bike trail and Danny positioned himself exactly where he stood thirteen years ago, before he went to war, before he jumped out of the plane and his chute got tangled and he hurt himself, before he got in a motorcycle accident and hurt his head putting him in the hospital for 3 (or 300) years. Back when life was simple.  He asked me to take his photo in the same spot he stood as an 8-year-old.

We walked in the snow. The sky a brilliant cobalt blue, the strikingly white limbs of the sycamores in sharp contrast. I made him stop and look at them up in the sky. We said they looked like capillaries and the main artery was the trunk; or a river and stream tributaries seen from above the planet. I don’t think he ever looked at trees like that before. I know he didn’t know what a sycamore was. He couldn’t stop taking photos.

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I used to do this with my children. Point out things in nature. Listen to bird songs. See shadows. Learn to use their senses. These kinds of experiences can’t happen sitting indoors with the blinds pulled tight, staring at the walls or even the large screen monitor. There is life out here.

After our walk, I needed to stop in and see my Aunt Dot, an 82-year old power house whom just celebrated a birthday. She was babysitting my cousin’s very lively triplets- three, 8- year old identical boys. I hoped it would be okay. My aunt recently jumped out of an airplane in a tandem jump. Her and Danny have something in common.

When I asked Danny if he wanted to spend the day with me (and overnight at our home), I listed all the things we would be doing and asked him if he wanted to. He definitely  did, but he only had so many anxiety pills.

Purposely creating potentially anxiety-causing activities? Really? This was a good thing? Danny assured me that it was and he wanted to do it all. He unscrewed  his pill bottle and downed one without water.

The boys engaged Danny as soon as we walked in the door. They are  affectionate. They love to hug and show you things, get you to play games, ask you questions.The triplets loved Danny and vice versa. They weren’t too much for him and my wonderful silly aunt teased the hell out of him and loosened him up considerably.

“Was that okay?” I asked after we left.
“They were great,” he admitted, “No stress at all.”

Next stop was my farmer friend, DJ’s home. We were having dinner with his family (Todd would join us after work), snow mobiling by the full moon was next on the activity agenda, followed by a hot tub soak.
But shortly after we arrived at the huge Robesonia dairy farm , Danny informed me that he had never seen cows milked before.

Into the milking parlor DJ led us. But first we had to get through the cow traffic jam. The 1500-1800 Holsteins were crammed together in a haphazard line, wanting their turn to get milked. We had to wade through  their wide high bodies, shooing them aside and squeeze our way through the slimy slippery concrete-covered manure. I think to myself , “will this cause Danny anxiety?”

Danny sloshed into the parlor and is amazed to learn that a suction contraption pulls the milk out of their teats and sends it along a hose to the cooler. And, that it pops off automatically when the milk has been drained. DJ squirts some foamy bright green soap all over Danny when he asks what the colorful pools are beneath the cow’s feet.  Uh oh, will this create anxiety for Danny? DJ instructs Danny to stick his finger into the udder sucker and it grabs and squeezes his index finger. I watch him like a mother hen.

After dinner, we get dressed up and go into the moonlit snow to climb aboard the snowmobiles. First Danny has to shove an extremely tight motocross helmet over his face- DJ’s daughter’s pink helmet at that. Anxiety?

DJ announces that there are two snow mobiles a new one and an old one that has no brakes.
“No brakes?” I yell. I just recently wrote a story on a bike shop owner who caters to handicapped cyclists- one is paralyzed from his nipples down resulting from a snowmobile accident.

“I’ll go on the snow mobile without the brakes, Cindy” Danny offers. “You know I like to live on the edge.”  I jump on the machine behind Loretta, DJ’s wife, and Danny hops on the old machine behind DJ. The moon is brilliant, filling the hillsides around the farm with white light, as bright as daylight. We fly over the icy covered snow, bounce over bumps. I circle Loretta’s waist and hold on and I look ahead and see Danny with his arms high in the air, above his head,  as though he is going down a hill on a roller coaster. No anxiety there.

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Never seen a milk cow.  Never been on a snowmobile. Had been in a hot tub but that was all pre-war, pre-accident. The hot tub was crowded. Five person’s legs intertwined amongst the others. We were definitely in each other’s space and we were all naked.  I watched Danny. He was having a great time.

After our action-packed day, Danny says good-bye to the Duncan’s and offers his services to help out on the farm, once he gets his wheels again. I said, “Bad move. There’s always tons of work to do on a farm. Be careful Danny. He’ll take you up on that.”

But seeing Danny extend himself like this gives me great hope. It is the alternative to sitting in his room staring at the walls. Here he is engaging in life, meeting new people, placing himself in strange and potentially anxiety-creating situations, and he wants to. He sees the value of it and it makes him happy, it makes him feel alive.

Danny helped me the next day prepare for my non-profit River House PA’s Veteran’s Benefit on Valentine’s Day. He helped untangle strands and strands of white lights that we’ll use to decorate the American Legion hall- measured them and wound them efficiently. He found a cracked mug and asked for Crazy Glue to fix it. He noticed a wobbly stool and asked for a screw driver to tighten it up. Another visit he sharpened our knives down in Todd’s shop. Everyone needs to feel useful and necessary. The lovely thing is I don’t pick up Danny and bring him into my busy active life to necessarily  help him. He is our friend. He is my whole family’s friend. My son loves him, thinks he’s a crack up, and loves his dry humor. My husband finds him entertaining. I find he’s a constant source of amazement and presents countless opportunities to show him the world. I forget that he is young- only 25, because he says he feels like he is an old man, in body and in spirit. And he has spent years in a hospital and years before that in a war. Before those two major events, he was pretty much a boy.

So I find it is a great privilege to dream up “potential  anxiety-producing experiences” in Danny’s life. I have learned from my Veteran friends that although it can be scary and their feelings unpredictable, the alternative is numbness, staring at walls. Maybe someday in the near future, Danny will be able to keep that anxiety pill bottle closed, and embrace all life has to offer with confidence and joy. That’s what we’re working  towards, one cow, one snowmobile, one hot tub, one experience at a time.

First Rule- Always Pull a Sled Behind You

When was the last time you saw a few adults in their 40-50-60’s even, pulling a sled up a hill only to just come down and do it again? A bunch of adults, even a couple, WITHOUT children? Probably never.

Does that whole act seem “unproductive” to most adults? Are only productive things the kinds of things we should be striving to accomplish most of our adult lives? And for what again? Remind me. So that we may be more comfortable? Lay around more? Is this our goal? To be able to stop moving as much as we can?

Where are all the adults if they’re not on the sledding hills? In front of their devices? They are financially comfortable enough now to have “home theatres” and there they must sit, sucking beers and having the time of their lives.

My 23- year- old son Bryce is still living at home for the time being as he grows his freelance illustration business. We work upstairs in our log home where it is warmer, me writing, he drawing, getting each other cups of coffee, taking turns tossing logs in the fire, asking advice on angles, lines, design or word choice. And while we work, I remind him that we MUST take a break every day and get outside and stretch our eyes to see far, not just stay at our desks on our computers, we must stretch our limbs and shake loose the sluggishness and stretch our minds too so we can return to our work and have fresher, new ideas and ways of thinking. I told him he must develop healthy working habits and not just strive to be a good illustrator but also have a happy life.

Bryce’s exercise of choice at this time of year is sledding so sledding it is.

The other day we went down the nearby ½ mile long tractor road they’ve grown up on but it was sluggish, so we glanced around the area and saw a pristine, smooth as silk steep hillside. We climbed up and had a passable ride down. The next would be better with a track, of course. But this land is owned by Christmas tree farmers and hidden under the snow were tree stumps that only surfaced after the second run. We let out a scream when we slammed our tailbones over the bumps.

I got injured. Bending over to pick up my fallen glove made me wince in pain.

My GF Maryalice called me as we were walking home, pulling our sleds.

“I’m sledding!” I yell through the phone.

“I wanna go sledding too!” she yells back.

Then she remembers, “The last time I sledded, the kids were young and I broke my finger. “

“Was it worth it?” I asked her.

“Absolutely.”

When we returned home, and my husband heard what happened, he said… “It isn’t worth it,” “You get hurt and it sets you back too far.”

“Really?” Bryce asked, “It isn’t worth it?

“Really?” I asked as I lowered myself into our sunken clawfoot cast iron tub and was careful to sit on the side of my butt and not straight on but still winced in pain.

“I think so.”

“It can take ½ a year to heal a broken tail bone,” he announces.

But it isn’t broken, just bruised with a lump.

The next day my tailbone hurt when I bent over and just the fabric of my jeans pressed against the bone, making me cry out. So I asked Bryce if we could just walk the next day instead of sledding.
“I’ll pull a sled behind me, just in case,” he announces.

But the PA state gamelands road that we walked on had an excellent hill that was exceptional for sledding.

“You can have my coat if you want to try.” Bryce offers. “You could try kneeling too, or just walk and I’ll wait for you at the bottom.”

I know that it is a HUGE GIFT that my 23-year-old son even wants to sled with his mother.

“Let’s do it.”

I folded up Bryce’s coat into a pillow shape, then balled up my fist and placed it under my one butt cheek to elevate it.

We had a fantastic run, bailed on a sharp turn, and climbed the hill again.

It was so much fun. How I love living life like this.

“From now on,” we decided, “We don’t go on any more walks in the snow without a plastic sled being pulled behind us.”

“Deal.”

I know my days are numbered with my workmate son and he will move on to his own home in his own life. Then the husband is going to HAVE to come along.

We’re going to sled in our 60’s and our 70’s and hopefully our 80’s.

And skate (who ever sees adults skating on farm ponds anymore or kids for that matter?)

I DID get Todd to X-country ski the last few days, after he cleaned out the ice in the gutters and all the other responsible things homeowners need to do.

Make winter fun.

After all, we don’t quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing.”

First rule, always pull a sled behind you.

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