“Captain Trout” by Guest Blogger: Matthew Ferri

This is one of my favorite personal narratives from a talented student. One of the literary essays we read in College Composition is “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. Matthew read that and remembered a similar event that has stuck with him. Here is his poignant story:

Just about a year short of being a “real man,” my father and my brother invited me on a week-long canoe trip up in the mountains of Maine, close to the border of Canada. My brother, Cameron, was part of the boy scouts and because I had done some community work designing the troop’s neckerchiefs, the Scoutmaster, Doug, asked my brother if I’d like to come. I was hesitant to give him a straight yes or no when they asked me to go, mainly because I wouldn’t know anyone going besides my brother and father.

Plus I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sacrifice a week of my summer to a canoe in the smoldering heat while listening to the sound of pre- pubescent boys squeaking their words at me. Out of guilt for not spending enough time with my brother and father, I agreed to go. I thought it might be a good experience to have before they forgot that I was an existing member of the family, rather than some sort of specter that haunted the fridge.

We packed our bags and set out on the road for a three-hour drive through the great scenic state of Maine. Mountains, old antique shops, road kill: They had it all. We drove up and down hills so steep our ears popped. When we finally got to the base campground, we got everything unpacked and set up our tents. We were on one side of a dirt road next to some docks and a lake that led out to the river we’d be setting out on in the morning. On the other side of the road were rows of RV’s and mobile homes people towed up there for their definition of “camping.”

The sun had sunk pretty low by the time two young men pulled up in their truck with a canoe rack hitched behind them. They got out and headed over towards us for some introductory conversation. One was not more than two years older than I was with a freckled face and red hair; the other was in his late twenties, much taller, and had a clean-shaven face ready to be filled in. These two were our river guides for the week.

The taller and older of the two extended his hand towards Doug and the rest of the adults chaperoning the trip and introduced himself as Seth, and the other, a little less confidently, introduced himself as Skylar. They all talked about the drive up, the troubles they had understanding some of the directions, and the types of snacks they got for their kids at the gas stations on the way up.

After a quick meeting about our plans for the morning, I retreated into my tent for the remainder of the night to write in my journal about a girl I liked. I felt a little like the odd man out. After all, that’s what I was. I was not a Boy Scout, and they had all been to campouts before where they had already formed their bonds. So, for the first night I sat in my tent writing and drawing bears while I heard the sounds of my brother and his friends laughing about dumb things each had been saying in hushed tones. They didn’t realize, however, that the tents were not soundproof. The adults, along with myself, could hear every typical inappropriate conversation one would hear out of the mouths of a group of fourteen or fifteen year-old boys.

I woke up the next morning to see their red embarrassed faces after the adults had told them how they kept them up with their chatter. Not one of them had anything to say that morning as they bashfully ate their breakfasts. I couldn’t help but smirk to myself at the end of the table as I ate my poorly prepared Boy Scout breakfast.

After breakfast, we packed up camp and hauled our canoes to an opening in the trees by the river where we would be taking off. My brother and I threw our gear in our canoe and started pushing into the water, my brother hopping in first once the bow was half in as I pushed behind jumping just before my feet touched the water. We took up our paddles and started rowing. We were off on our adventure, and for the rest of the week we would mostly be rowing.

The next day we left early and rowed gently down the stream. All of the canoes were always close enough that everyone could talk and laugh as we went along our journey down the river, and the man my dad had paired up with was named Pat. He was the father of the scout named Quinn who only ate raw meat because he thought he was part wolf.

Pat was boasting about his younger days when he owned a fishing shop with his brother in the Philippines as he cast his line behind him, making sure to avoid any scouts. I listened to his stories of fishing as I stirred the water beneath me, glancing over occasionally as he passionately spoke. Eventually everyone had grown tired of his rambling and began their own side conversations. I hadn’t noticed their exodus from the one-sided conversation and continued to politely listen and smile as he uncomfortably directed his stories to me.

Once we made it to our next checkpoint, he showed me a few of the tricks he knew on the shore. I slowly got a hang of the cast form and technique for luring fish with a slight jerking motion of the wrist to make it look like the lure was swimming like a tiny fish. I even managed to catch a few small ones on the beach.

The next day was a beautiful one. We got up, made the routine breakfast, packed, and set back out on the river. I had been talking a bit more to each of the scouts by this day, and they seemed to like me. They all started treating me with less and less awkwardness and more like their big brother. As they got more comfortable with me, they looked to me for leadership. I settled their childish disputes of who had to do the dishes and things like that, and eventually I played card games and told them about my experiences with girls. They sat in awe as I told them stories, far from the adults, in a packed tent with a lantern hanging from a hook in the center. I became an idol to each of them. That’s when I realized that most of them didn’t have older brothers; that’s why they were scouts. I felt like Peter Pan among the lost boys.

We eventually rowed ourselves into a tighter area of the river that had much more vegetation, where fish could easily swim and not be taken away by the river’s current. There weren’t any good spots to pull the boats up on, so we just tied them to trees and climbed up this dirt and rock wall that was used in the past as a sort of natural staircase. After I set up my tent, I began fishing, not expecting much. I borrowed one of Pat’s lures and didn’t use bait. I cast and reeled in a few times, using the motions Pat taught me, the lure reflecting through the green murky water as I towed it through. It was almost strange how calm the water had been there, yet I knew there was so much happening underneath.

I felt a nibble and immediately jerked my rod so the hook would properly puncture the mouth of whatever I had on the line. I quickly realized this fish was not like any of the other bite-sized fish I had been catching that week. This fish was the king of the river. It was a nine-inch brook trout, bigger than any brook trout Pat had ever seen. The rod had bent a good 120 degrees as I wrestled this fish for its life. I saw the dark silhouette of its immaculate body as I pulled it closer to me and farther from its domain. My rod was on the verge of snapping when I finally got it out of the water; it was thrashing and splashing everywhere. I held it over the boat as I hauled it up. The line snapped, sending the fish to the floor of the canoe. It wriggled and sputtered about the boat as I tried to get a hold of it, its body still slippery from the coat of murky water. I grabbed a towel and grasped it firmly, and as I took the hook out, Seth looked over the top of the dirt stairs and shouted to the scouts, “Looks like Matty’s eatin’ good tonight boys!”

Brook TroutImmediately all 15 or so of the scouts ran over along with the parents to glance over the edge down where I was standing in the canoe with the trout wrapped delicately in a towel in my hand. I could feel his body rise and collapse, gasping for air. I wanted to put him back in the water as soon as I caught him and watch him slip back under the protection of the clouded water where he belonged to the river and the river belonged to him. I looked at the scouts as they peered back at me with anticipation. Waiting for me to say or do something with the exhausted fellow. I swallowed deep and said agonizingly what they wanted to hear, “I’m gonna eat him.”

They all went berserk as the adults smiled at their barbaric chanting of my new nickname, “CAPTAIN TROUT! CAPTAIN TROUT!”

They proceeded to take their chanting farther from the cliff where I was no longer in their view and could regretfully kill this fish for their amusement. I had never taken the life of anything bigger than a spider, and here I was about to slaughter a full-grown brook trout with my Bear Grills survival knife my dad got me for the trip.

I gently rested my hand, putting the trout on the seat of the canoe and pulled back the towel, past the gills, where I made an imaginary line that would end his life. I looked into his dark marble eye as I rested the knife across his shimmering body. “What a beautiful fish,” I thought. I pictured him gliding through the water with such mystery and momentum, without a care in the world. I thought of how he might have thought nothing could hurt him, before this, and in that moment I still had a chance to put him back in the water. I still had time. No one was watching, and I could make it seem like he got away from me. His chest was still rising and falling, slower now, showing his quickly draining life. I could just toss him over…but how could I bring back nothing to the lost boys? How could I lie to the scouts that looked up to me? I couldn’t. With one last glance of life the fish gave to me, I took.

The blade, short and feeble, didn’t cut through him easily like I hoped it would. No, it was painful; the knife barely made it through his whole thick body. As I sliced through him like an old tire, his mouth opened wide as if he were trying to scream. Expression of anything but regret left my face. Slowly, I slid his head off to the side, with his contorting jaw as a trail of blood followed my knife. I then turned his stomach toward me and sliced him down the middle exposing his innards. I could see everything that once gave the fish life, so I ripped them out too. When I was done, I looked down at the awful mess I had made. There were guts all over the chair with blood still covering my knife while the trout’s head stared at me, still moving his mouth. I drove the knife down through his eye to make his questioning stop, and with an angry motion of my arm, thrusted the blade outwards to the river where the head plunked into the water like a rock.

When I brought the “cleaned” fish up to the campers, the excitement had already faded. Now I had to cook him. We had no breadcrumbs, so my dad gave me pancake batter to use instead. I put the fish on the grill and cooked him, then dished him. By this time, I was not hungry. My stomach was noxious, and I couldn’t picture him without the rest of his body. I took two bites and passed him off to my dad. I slumped into my tent, while everyone else enjoyed my first and last catch.

 

 

YouTube, Armor, and Winning the War

Me and IanAs some of you know, Ian has a YouTube channel (link). He’s been making and uploading videos since he was 7 years old. I have been monitoring his site. I get an email whenever someone comments on his videos, and then I delete and report anyone who makes a nasty comment. He’s been called names like retard, idiot, and fat. Up until now, I have protected him from the harshness of social media, waiting until I felt he was old enough and strong enough to deal with it on his own. However, I didn’t sit idle, expecting Ian to develop armor without help; so while I’ve been deleting comments, I’ve also been “training” him for these realities. Elementary school is the perfect time to build up the necessary armor. What used to be a middle school battleground has now filtered down to the younger years. Ian has had many opportunities to practice what I preach. It may seem unfortunate that someone so young would have to deal with children and adults attacking his intelligence, integrity, motivation, and character, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a blessing to be present and involved in these battles. Is there a better way to train him and strengthen his armor than while he’s in my presence, surrounded by my love and guidance?

So, when a child tells him, “I hate you!” Ian and I talk about what happened before that comment. Did Ian do something to that child? If so, we talk about making better choices and apologizing for his behavior if necessary. If not, we talk about the fact that we don’t know what’s going on with that other child. Maybe he has some difficult situations he’s dealing with, and the best course of action is not to retaliate and just walk away.

If someone says, “You’re stupid or weird,” I explain to Ian that those types of comments say more about the other person than they do about him. If Ian is just being himself and other children think he’s being weird, Ian doesn’t have to change to please other people. He can tone it down, if he wants, but Ian is allowed to have his own personality and be his own person, as long as he is being kind and not hurting anyone.

I constantly repeat this mantra to him: “You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do need to be kind to everyone. You can’t change how someone else behaves or feels, but you can change how you react and whether or not you let someone else control how you feel about yourself.”

That all sounds cut and dried, but situations aren’t always that simple. Yes, I teach my son to be kind, but I also teach him to stand up for himself and for others who are weaker than he is. We had one situation in which a girl his age got so angry with Ian’s goofy personality because he was “annoying” her, that she dug her nails into his shoulder to get him to stop repeating his “Chuck Norris” phrase. Ian knocked her arm away. Even though Ian had claw marks on his shoulder, she ran home accusing Ian of hitting her, which started a small group of children, along with this girl’s parents, calling Ian a bully—of course they only heard the story from the girl. No one present at the incident believed Ian was a bully, but there is nothing we can do to change how those other people feel.

In another situation, Ian defended a friend against a much bigger person. Ian stood on tiptoes to get in a high school boy’s face about something this boy did to one of his friends. Luckily, this older boy called him “little man” and appreciated Ian’s loyalty to his friend, resolving the situation immediately. Ian and I did talk about choosing his battles wisely though.

Usually, I let Ian take care of these situations on his own and give him advice when he asks or I see he really needs it. However, there have been times I’ve had to step in, like when two mothers ganged up on Ian and accused him of “bullying” their daughters and being a “liar” … about everything, I guess. I know Ian is not perfect; I need to discipline him for some of his choices, but the things they accused Ian of did not happen, and Ian had a number of other students who witnessed the situation and came to his defense. He was eventually vindicated, but there are a few people around him who still believe the lie.

As you can see, we have had many opportunities to practice these lessons over the last few years, which has helped Ian to develop a pretty tough armor. He’s strong and confident, and mostly immune to the nastiness around him.

The other day, someone made a mean comment on one of his parcour videos from a few years back. Ian made that video before he really knew what parcour was. This person decide to say, “You suck” on his video. Now that Ian has his own iPad, he received the notification of the comment as well. We both looked at our devices at the same time. Ian told me, “Apparently, I suck.”

“Don’t worry, bud. I’ll report it.” My heart hurt a little for him; I knew there would be more of that down the road, especially with his older videos, so I suggested, “You know, if you want, we can delete some of the older videos you have on your channel. You’ve grown so much that those videos aren’t really a reflection of who you are now.” I fully expected him to say, “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

Instead, Ian said, “No. Let’s leave them, Mom. We can just report the people who say mean things. That person’s words didn’t hurt me. Besides, how else are people going to see how much I’ve improved as a director, if they can’t see how I started?”

My mouth hung open for a little while. If I taught him that, why was I so shocked by his answer? Maybe the answer is that I just gave him the necessary tools so that he could fashion his own armor, according to the situation.

We all want to protect our children from pain, but pain is a requisite for life. Protecting my son isn’t about keeping him out of the battle; it’s about helping him develop the armor he will need to win the inevitable wars.

Guest Blogger: The Sober Route

As a college writing teacher, I have the pleasure of helping my students  discover their writing voice and their passions in life. Every once and a while I will read an essay that I need to post on my blog because it lines up with my goals, which is to help people find their own healthy path in life through optimistic realism. Tommy’s essay on sobriety fits well with that mission. I have known too many people who have been affected by addiction, their own or a loved one’s; so I’m hoping this post will find the people who need that push to take the first steps.

By Tommy Costa

Do you find yourself drinking more than you wish? Do you drive while intoxicated? Have you ever been arrested while intoxicated? Do you consistently blackout while drinking or using drugs? Do you spend most of your days thinking about the next drink or drug? Do you spend most days drunk or high? Have you ever drank or used drugs even though the night before you swore it off forever? Maybe your family or friends are concerned about the way you drink or drug. If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you are probably an alcoholic/addict.

If you have even an inkling of desire to stop drinking and/or using drugs, then you will definitely need help. The first task to accomplish is simply admitting it. Another is realizing that alcoholism and addiction are one in the same, which means a problem with drugs is also a problem with alcohol. The next big step is getting sober. What makes getting sober so difficult is the fact that addiction is a three-fold illness: body, mind, and spirit. Getting sober is not easy, but it is well worth all the effort.

12 stepsThe first step to beating any addiction is to cure the physical condition. That means you need to put the plug in the jug. Stop drinking. Stop using. Dump the alcohol and chuck the drugs. Physically sobering up can be difficult, even dangerous, so it is completely acceptable to seek medical attention. Many times the best place to detoxify your body is at a detox unit or drug rehabilitation center. Unfortunately, beds are not always readily available. It is absolutely necessary to consistently call any and all facilities in your state daily. A bed can open up at any time, and the waiting lists are long, so making it known you are serious about getting sober is vital. Your next step is to find a self-help group to attend. You have many groups to choose from be it Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, or any other self-help group. The important part is being able to identify with what other people are talking about within the group. One of the biggest hang-ups a newcomer can have is comparing rather than identifying, which means looking at how you are different from other people rather than how you are the same. The most assured way to stay sober is by working with another alcoholic or addict. Thankfully today it is quite easy to find a meeting to attend; all you have to do is look one up online. You are bound to have meetings in your area; just pick a day and time, then go.

The type of meeting you choose is not as important as making it known that you are new. Most meetings have a moment for newcomers to introduce themselves, which is an opportunity for you to ask for help. Raising your hand to introduce yourself in a crowded room can be quite daunting, but willingness is extremely vital to the process of getting and staying sober. Once you have made yourself known as a newcomer, people will introduce themselves to you. This is the perfect chance to get phone numbers and make new friends. More than likely, all of your old friends drink or use, so having new ones is extremely important. Another good move is deleting contacts from your phone of people who will hinder your sobriety. Whether it is people you were drinking with or your dealer, it is best to delete them from your phone. In some cases, you may have to block phone numbers or outright change your own number. A great suggestion for any newcomer is to go to ninety meetings in ninety days.

Unfortunately, simply going to meetings will not keep you sober. There are twenty-four hours in a day and a meeting will only take away one of those hours; the best way to fill the rest of your day is with fellowship. Fellowship is quite simply spending time with a fellow sober alcoholic or addict. Fellowship can easily chew up the other twenty-three mind-boggling hours of the day. Any alcoholic/addict in recovery, new or old, can attest to how insane the alcoholic/addict mind is shortly after removing the only solution known to him or her, which is alcohol and drugs. Spending plenty of time with fellow alcoholics/addicts in recovery can help you keep away from another drink or drug.

Meetings and fellowship will only help you with curing the body. The insatiable desire to drink or use will not fade in the short time it takes to cure the body of the physical portion of alcoholism/addiction. Alcoholism is a disease of the body, mind, and spirit, so all three must be brought into balance before one can truly be seen as recovered. Curing your mind will require working the program. The alcoholic mind has a curious mental obsession that allows for blind spots when relating to alcohol and drugs. Alleviating the obsession comes with a bit of time and plenty of hard work. Any knowledgeable alcoholic/addict can attest to the fact that simply knowing of the disease will not keep you from the next drink or drug. In order to successfully work the program, it is best you follow the suggestions of others and get a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who is willing to guide you through the work and assist you in staying sober. Generally, a sponsor is someone of the same gender who has already done the work. During meetings, there is a point where people willing to sponsor announce themselves; the simplest advice is to ask someone who has what you want. The first person you pick to be your sponsor may not be the right fit for you, but it is always okay to change sponsors until you find the right one. You do have to ask yourself why you want to change sponsors though, because changing sponsors in order to avoid the work is a wrong choice. Whomever you decide to have as a sponsor, it is simply their job to walk you through the work; your sponsor is not in charge of your sobriety. Keep in mind that doing the work, which are the twelve steps laid out in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, is exactly what will relieve you of any mental obsessions you have relating to drinking or using.

The final and most important piece to staying sober is sharing with others what has been freely given to you. Giving back is what will heal your spirit and bring about full recovery. Keep in mind that there is no returning to drinking or drugging. Once someone has crossed into the realm of alcoholism/addiction, there is no return to normal. Giving back is the easiest part of being sober; you only need to give back to those in need. Simply shaking the hand of someone new or giving your number to someone still suffering can make a great difference. Staying sober is all about turning your life from being a selfish existence into a selfless existence.

The Philanthropic Experience: A Student’s Perspective

One of my current college composition student wrote a personal narrative essay that beautifully illustrates one of my ideas to reform education (

https://paulinehawkins.com/2012/11/21/high-school-reformation/

).

This is what I proposed in that post:

The Philanthropic Experience

For those students who don’t want to continue their formal education but aren’t ready to go out into the world on their own, I’d like to offer them a philanthropic experience. Currently, only students actively involved with their churches have opportunities to have this type of experience. Students can participate in a “missions’ trip” that will concentrate on giving back to their community, whatever that community may be (local or global). This experience would need to be partially self-funded (travel and living expenses, but government can fund the supervision needed for those students). Once they’ve had that experience, they may come back and continue their formal education or have discovered what their path is and pursue that.

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Travel/Pix/pictures/2013/12/5/1386262243685/Pelourinho-Salvador-Brazi-008.jpg?w=620&q=85&auto=format&sharp=10&s=2da05ce1061654577044b90f7c90a3c8
Salvador, Brazil

This is what Justin had to say about being one of those students and having that experience:

“A Brazilian Soul” by Justin Moore

From September to December of 2015, I spent three months volunteering in Salvador, Brazil, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. My comfort bubble was absolutely obliterated, and because of it, I am mentally, physically, and socially stronger. A year ago, I had no plans of doing any traveling or any plans in general. I was lost and unsure about what to do, and the future seemed like a terrifying monster called life that was going to chew me up and spit me right back out. I have always been that friend on whose shoulder people cry, and I have always been fascinated with foreign cultures. These two seemingly unrelated attributes led me to volunteering abroad. Thank god for Brazil.

Brazil helped turn me around even before I set foot in the country. With three months to go before leaving through the Cross Cultural Solutions program, my parents started nagging me about what I would do until then to make money. Their pressure and message of how only failures sit around all summer really impacted me. So I did something I had never done before: I got a job. It was a part-time, telephone-surveying job and paid about nine dollars an hour. The first week, I was terrified of making a mistake and felt as though I was wasting my time. It wasn’t until I received my first paycheck that I finally experienced a sense of pride and confidence. I never applied myself in high school, did terribly grade-wise, and never really achieved academically. After my first paycheck, I had this unfamiliar, rewarding feeling. I had worked hard at something and received something back from it. That money made me independent. It motivated me to work hard. And it showed me that I could succeed in life if I put my heart into something.

            After a couple months of working, it was finally time for me to saddle up and head out. It wasn’t until I saw the people of Brazil that I accepted I was abroad. I had landed in a third world country in a city that was 80 percent non-Caucasian, was poor, and spoke Portuguese. It was a strange feeling to be the minority now in seemingly every aspect of life. A taxi picked me up at the airport and drove me to my home base in the heart of the city. Boy was that a drive! Here I was, an 18-year-old, middle-class, white Justin from America, looking out the window at what could have been Pluto for all I knew. All I could think was, “Justin, what have you gotten yourself into?”

I settled into a modest apartment and realized I had a few days before any of the volunteering began. The other volunteers hadn’t yet arrived; I had nobody to see an no place to be. I made one of the best decisions of my life and joined samba (Brazilian dance), capoeira (Brazilian martial art), and Portuguese (Brazilian language) classes. These classes helped me immerse myself in the local culture, make some friends, and boogie down too!  Three months of samba and capoeira were amazing. Socially, I learned how to interact with those from other cultures and be more open. Physically, I lost 25 pounds and got into the best shape of my life!

The other participants of the program started to roll in the day before we began volunteering. I soon realized that not only was I the youngest, but I was also the youngest by 14 years. High school had taught me that the upperclassman were in charge. Strangely, that’s not how I came to think of the other volunteers. Living and working closely with my “elders” for three months, I began to feel more like their peers. We learned to respect each other, regardless of age, religion, and background; because of it, our group turned into one big happy family. I was not their son; they were my brothers.

The first place, and originally the only place1, where I volunteered was Orfanato Vo Flor (Grandma Flowers Orphanage and Daycare). Here, children between the ages of four to seventeen live or are dropped off each day if their guardians cannot provide a “safe environment” for them while they are at work. It is almost completely unstructured, and the children there run amok in a maze of broken glass and filth. One might say this is not a viable “safe” substitute, but these kids had parents who were drug addicts, physically or mentally disabled, and with little or no means. Sometimes they didn’t even come from homes at all and lived on the street.

I was incredibly nervous on my first day. When they dropped me off, I could feel every eye on me. I walked alone into the favela2 and stuck out like a sore thumb. I sought out the director of the orphanage and poorly understood the directions she gave me. We parted ways, and I stumbled back into the main area where all the kids were hanging around. I had no idea what I was supposed to do at the facility. I was terrified of being an awkward waste of space that just sits there and does nothing but consume oxygen. Then, out of the blue, a young girl named Ana Lucia ran over and pulled me into the best experience of my life.

Ana was the first out of all the children there to approach the intriguing but intimidating beast known as the American. Everyone else was too nervous. Once she did, however, every other kid swarmed in and started jabbering away and pulling on my clothing. I felt like I was in a petting zoo where I was the animal and they were overly enthusiastic humans. I spent the first day being dragged from place to place and shown a kind of love I had never experienced. The love was a sweet mixture of foreign fascination, friendship, and trust. It was insanity, and it was beauty.

I quickly went from exceptionally anxious to incredibly overjoyed at my situation. For the next three months, I spent my time cleaning, feeding, and playing with those kids. Every day, I would walk in and suddenly be absorbed into the gleeful screams and hugs of 30 children. The children loved me for who I was, and, in return, I gave them the love that they weren’t receiving at home. To them, I was American father, chio, –which is Portuguese for “uncle”—and brother. It wasn’t until I left that I realized how much I loved them, and how they were like my children.

When the volunteering ended and I flew back to the States, the experience and change in my life didn’t hit me until I lay back in my bed for the first time, crying, realizing what an unexpected miracle Salvador had been for me. The combination of the way I lived, the culture, and the work with the kids mixed together to give me a truly euphoric feeling. I had grown so much as a person, and the way I had gone outside of my comfort zone had allowed me to develop into a man who was ready to take the next step. I was confident, determined, and prepared to move on with my life. It was time to stop dwelling on the mistakes of the past and work towards my goals for the future.

Brazil is what gave me the confidence to start classes at Great Bay Community College as a full time student. Brazil is what gave me the energy and motivation to apply for a job at a software company, rock the interview, and then get the job. Brazil will always be remembered as the place where I blossomed into the man I am today. The friends I made and the experiences I had have helped me understand myself in a way I could never do in high school. I was that kid who had no idea what he was going to do. Now, I feel like an unstoppable force ready to take on the world. I miss my South American friends, Salvador, and the gift they gave me. I can truly say I will always have a bit of a Brazilian soul.

Footnotes:

1 I originally only volunteered at Orfanato Vo Flor, but I also ended up teaching two separate English classes for adults and teenagers (Centro Redentorista Missionary) and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS (CAASAH).
2 A favela is an urban slum in Brazil.

How different our world would be if more “lost and unsure” students could have this type of experience.

 

 

Friday Writing Challenge: My first kiss and first love

Writing Prompt: Your first love and first kiss; if separate, discuss both

KissMy first kiss:

The sun was shining through the branches and leaves. His face was luminous and shadowy at the same time. Our faces were already close. The makeshift fort had just enough room for our young bodies to sit facing each other, our left legs touching. I looked into his eyes and saw him drawing close. My heart tightened. I was too young to understand what I was feeling, but I knew it was important. As his lips drew near, my eyes closed. I felt his lips on mine. They were soft and gently pressed mine for only a few seconds, but their imprint has lasted for decades. When he pulled his face away, he said earnestly, “You know, we have to get married now.”

“We do?” I looked at him confused. “Why?”

“Because we kissed. Kisses are special. You should never kiss someone you don’t plan on marrying.”

I contemplated his words before answering. “Okay. I’ll marry you, but we have to wait until we’re older.”

“Of course.” We lay down next to each other, my head on his arm as we looked through the leaves and felt the sun speckle our five-year-old faces.

My first love:

There he was, walking past me. His shoulder length hair covered part of his face, but seeing his profile, seeing his eyes look in my direction and acknowledge me with a smile and a nod was what I woke up for every day. I couldn’t wait to get to school just to stand in the halls and wait for him to walk by. His acknowledgement of me was proof that I wasn’t invisible. His nearness proved my aliveness. My breath caught in my throat every time he looked at me. Thankfully, he rarely talked to me at school. I could never speak to him in the light of day. I needed the cloak of night; I needed liquid courage to sit or stand next to him.

The entire year, I held onto the memory of his lips on mine, his liquid breath mixed with mine, waiting for the moment when he would accept my love and make me a real girl.

 

Next week’s prompt: Ten interesting facts about yourself

 

Radio Interview: Inside Education with Sid Glassner

If you missed my radio interview on Inside Education with Sid Glassner, here is the link:

Inside Education: Author Introduces the “Uncommon Core”

 

Friday Writing Challenge: Tattoos

Writing Prompt #2: What tattoos do you have, or what tattoos would you get, and why?

My one and onlyJuly 31, 2013: I’m sitting on a table watching Bryan artistically carve my children’s names into my ankle. The pain is so intense that I’m screaming out obscenities–words that explode out of my mouth even as my clenched teeth try to hold them in. A few times Bryan looks at Carol Linn, wondering if he should stop.

I’m sure Bryan is not used to seeing people like me in his studio. At 48, I was getting my first tattoo–reluctantly. I had always wanted to get a tattoo but was too afraid of the pain to actually do it. As the years passed, I not only refused to get one, but I became opposed to people marking up their bodies with ink. I didn’t mind the small, meaningful tattoos, but large, body-covering tattoos seemed to be a sickness–those people proved that tattoos were addicting; they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. Yet, there I was, in pain, getting my first tattoo, clutching the table even though my mind was telling me to run away from the pain.

Why, then, would I agree to this?

Carol Linn is my middle child, the child most like me–the girl in the middle, the one who wanted to stand out yet wanted to belong. Like me, she fought for independence through her pre-teen and teen years in a family who confused control with parenting. Like me, she struggled with identifying with her place in this world.

When I looked at her, I saw my perfect little girl, lost and confused. I thought my job as her mother was to make her see herself the way I saw her–or, more accurately, the way I wanted her to be. I thought my words and actions could influence her decisions.

For her 16th birthday, she got her first tattoo. Her dad went with her to sign the permission sheet, while I stayed home and cried. It was painful thinking about her intentionally scarring her beautiful skin–the skin I created. Her body began in my body: I carried her for nine months; I went through intense pain to give her life–and now, the perfection, the miracle would be forever scarred. I couldn’t look at her tattoo when she got home. She was beaming with joy; my heart ached. With every tattoo, my reaction was the same: I cried and ached and refused to look at her intentional scars.

What I didn’t know was that my attitude was creating different types of scars–scars within Carol Linn and scars between us.

She finally told me one day: “Mom, it hurts me that you don’t support something I love and that has become a part of me.” After that, I tried to support her decisions for her life–even the scarring ones. We seemed to be on the road to healing; however, it wasn’t until I confided in her that I had always wanted a tattoo that our paths merged. Carol Linn’s eyes lit up: “It would mean so much to me if you got a tattoo with my tattoo artist.”

So, I found myself clutching that table. While I screamed out F-bombs, Carol Linn rubbed my shoulder, telling me to breathe through the pain. She held my hand and told me to squeeze it hard. She cried and smiled as she watched the swirls and hearts form on my ankle, birthing a new bond with my intentional scar.

 

 

Writing is my exhale. I’ve realized I’ve been holding my breath for far too long. At least once a week I will exhale, which I hope leads to a healthier breathing pattern. I encourage you to join me by either sharing your writing on my blog in the comments or posting a link to your own platform. Here’s to breathing!

Next Friday’s Writing Challenge: Five of your earliest memories.

 

Blessing 27: Nelson

Ian, David, Rob, Nelson, and Mike in August for Rob's wedding.
Ian, David, Rob, Nelson, and Mike in August for Rob’s wedding.

My father-in-law, Nelson Hawkins, was a blessing in my life for so many reasons.

Even during the last few years, things between us didn’t change. Nelson continued to send me Mother’s Day cards, birthday cards, and Christmas presents–something no one would have expected him to do–yet he never stopped treating me like a daughter-in-law, and that was such a blessing. That was just his way; Nelson was always thoughtful with the people in his life.

As much as Nelson’s unconditional love for me blessed my life, the biggest blessing was in the example he left all of us, especially these last few years. Nelson truly showed us how to live.

After his heart attack a few years ago, most people would have slowed down and settled into a comfortable, sedentary life–but not Nelson.

This year alone, at 76 years old, Nelson went to Pasadena, CA for the Rose Parade and Charlotte, NC to drive the track and go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. About once a month Nelson went to Nashvilles (a country bar in Henrietta) to dance the night away. He was a member of the Broadway Theatre League and went to a play every 2 or 3 months. Every month, he traveled somewhere for a concert; most recently he went to Buffalo, Canandaigua, and Long Island. And of course, Nelson was in Homestead, Florida for a NASCAR race when he died. Meeting Jeff Gordon was on Nelson’s Bucket List and he was one day away from watching his NASCAR hero race again.

But that’s not all. Nelson had a full schedule for 2016: Daytona 500 in February; Kissimmee, FL in April with his sister Joyce; Buffalo in May for a Carrie Underwood concert; and Watkins Glen for a NASCAR weekend in August of 2016. It makes me sad that he won’t get to do all the things he planned, but it makes me happy that he was living his life and doing what made him happy.

Nelson’s life embodied this poem:

This is your life.

Do what you love, and do it often.

If you don’t like something, change it.

If you don’t like your job, quit.

Stop over analyzing; life is simple.

All emotions are beautiful.

When you eat, appreciate every, last bite.

Open your mind, arms, and heart to new things and people;

we are united in our differences.

Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.

Some opportunities only come once; seize them.

Life is short.

Live your dream.

Nelson lived his dream; he taught us that every moment of our lives is worth living. Nelson didn’t sit around, waiting for his life to end; he died living.

Hope Found: Lessons from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I have a confession to make: I’m suffering.

I say this not to elicit sympathy; I just want to be truthful. So please don’t think I need a pep talk, want attention, or that I’m just trying to bring other people down. My truth may not be other people’s reality, but I think there may be a few people who can identify with my suffering. Maybe we can lean on each other through this painful time.

As a writer, I also find tremendous healing through writing. It helps me to unpack my emotional baggage: When it is all out in front of me, I can decide what I can release and what I need to look at more closely, so I can heal. If I try to dismiss all my pain too soon, I will do more damage than good.

I could do this privately, but in this social media world we live in, so many of us walk through our days, seeing glimpses of those around us who seem to be living perfect lives. I don’t want to be put into that category. I know I have some great things happening in my life; I’m not trying to negate those things. But I also don’t want people to think that a few good turns erased all my pain –that it was easy for me to get over the events that crumbled my world.

Lord of the RingsRecently, I was able to re-watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Ian. He had never seen the movies, so I was able to enjoy a favorite journey with the innocence of a child. It spoke to me so deeply from this vantage point that I now have to use the movies’ words: They so succinctly mirror my own.

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

~The Fellowship of the Ring

What is my ring, the thing I wish never happened? There are quite a few, actually.

  1. My marriage of 23 years fell apart. It was not just because two people decided they couldn’t be married to each other anymore. It was so much more than that: I trusted completely and loved unconditionally, and I shouldn’t have. As I continue to unpack my emotions around my divorce, I’ve realized that it’s not the end of my actual marriage that brings me the most pain; it’s the end of the marriage I had hoped it would be some day that makes me suffer. I had convinced myself our marriage was so much more than it was. I placed all my hopes and dreams in my ex-husband’s hands. I wanted to grow old with him, but he was never the man I thought he was. I have to let go of that hope and create a new vision for my future. It’s not easy at my age to see a different future. I am working on it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not painful.
  2. I am now a single mother. I never wanted to navigate through this life alone; I fought it so hard that I hung on to my marriage longer than I should have. Now, every day I struggle with the things I didn’t have to worry about when there were two adults in the family. Can I pay my bills? Will I have to get another job just to survive? How can I raise my son if I am working all the time? Can I raise my son to be the man he needs to be without a man in his life? Will I have enough money to help my daughters with their weddings? I can offer them nothing — I can’t even offer an example of a successful marriage. I can only be an example of what not to do. I have failed at the one thing I truly wanted to succeed at more than anything else.
  3. I have squatters in my house. I left my house in Colorado to move out east to be closer to my family. I left, trusting that my house would sell quickly. In November, I had my first legitimate offer. Everything seemed to be going along well, until I found out I had squatters. These people told my real estate agent that they had been scammed. Someone “rented out my house” to them. I felt bad for that family, so I let them stay until after Christmas. The house was scheduled to sell in January. In the mean time, instead of that family being thankful for my compassion, they destroyed my house–so much so that the buyer rescinded the offer. Now, the squatters are holding my house hostage; they are keeping me entrenched in a past that is filled with pain.
  4. I am at war with myself. The optimism that defined me is wavering; cynicism is making headway in every part of my life. I used to trust, almost instantly, the people I met. I used to believe in the inherent goodness of all people; some just needed more help finding that goodness than others. But now I battle daily with every person I encounter–I see a person’s potential, and then I see his or her potential to hurt me. I’m keeping people at bay; it’s so much easier than allowing anyone to get close enough to hurt me again. However, this cynicism hurts as well. It goes against my core being: I want to believe in the goodness of people, but every time I trust someone, I find out I shouldn’t have. So what do I do? I know I have to develop new ways of interacting with people before the wall I’m building gets too high, if it’s not too late already.

So, yes, I am suffering.

But thankfully, my story does not end there. I have to believe that there is more at work in my life than the will of evil. Like Frodo, I have to decide what to do with the burdens I was meant to carry. I’m not ready to say that these thoughts encourage me, but they are turning me in the right direction. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become the perfect inspiration to help me move forward.

We watched Frodo’s journey and his mythical battle of worldly proportions with awe. Ian and I cheered as the fellowship fought great battles: our hearts swelled when Boromir redeemed himself; when Aragorn defended Frodo with honor; when Pippin and Merry took up arms with courage; when Gandalf stopped the Balrog with “You shall not pass!” These mythical creatures fought against unbeatable odds. Everything was caving in around them, yet they held onto hope. I watched with fascination and then asked myself: Would I fight as bravely if I were there?

Then it hit me: I am there. I may not be fighting Sauron and Orcs, but I am fighting my own battles. I started to see Frodo’s journey, not as a mythical battle, but as the day to day suffering I must battle and overcome. There is a war waging against me–the battle of despair. Will I let despair win or will I fight it with hope?

Like Frodo, I stopped believing in myself. But Sam’s words gave me strength:

Frodo : I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam : I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo : What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam : That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

~The Two Towers

In the midst of my suffering, I have had dark days where every moment was spent either releasing or choking back sobs. However, I have to believe that this darkness is only a passing shadow. My current suffering will pass–I have to believe it will pass. I’m holding on to Sam’s words, that there is good in the world, that the sun will shine out the clearer. I will believe them because these are the things I need to believe in. Believing in them is winning half of the battle, isn’t it?

I’ve discovered it’s all about choices. It may not be the choice between good and evil, but it is about choosing to keep fighting rather than giving up, choosing to love rather than hate, choosing to hope rather than despair.

Near the end of his journey, Frodo could not carry the ring to Mount Doom to destroy it. The burden had taken its toll on him and his strength waned. But thankfully, Sam was there:

Sam: Then let us be rid of it once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!

~The Return of the King

We all need a Samwise Gamgee in our lives. Thankfully, I have had many people who were my “Sam” through this journey; people who carried me and are still carrying me to the pit of doom so I can release my burdens.

The final element to this healing path is that I have to accept that things will never be the same again, and I have to be okay with that.

Frodo: [voiceover] Thirteen months to the day since Gandalf sent us on our long journey, we found ourselves looking upon a familiar sight. We were home. How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold. . . . My dear Sam, you cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. Your part in the story will go on.

~The Return of the King

If I’m strong enough to fight through this suffering, the reward will be a better life than the one I have but not without great cost. Indeed, there is no going back. I can only move forward. I also have to understand that there are some things that time cannot heal; there are some hurts that go too deep–I just have to accept that. It doesn’t mean that I cannot build a new dream with my family; I just can’t have the old one, and that has to be okay. I cannot be torn in two over this suffering. I have to find a way to become whole again for Ian, Carol Linn, Nicole, and myself.

One way I can become whole again is by finding ways to be a “Sam” for others who need help carrying their burdens.

I hope, in some small way, this post has done that.

Relay for Life: A Survivor’s Story

It’s been five years since Ian was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor: Primary Adenocarcinoma of the Brain. It was rare, one in a hundred million; the tumor had sprouted tentacles, and we didn’t know for sure if we had found it before it had spread; there was no protocol for treatment; there was no guarantee that Ian would see his fifth birthday.

Cancer became a swear word in our house; we wouldn’t–couldn’t say the word in Ian’s presence. We knew his survival depended on us staying positive. And there was nothing positive about cancer, so we worked hard at keeping the word and the devastation of the disease away from Ian.

After an aggressive treatment plan of six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy, Ian defied the odds. There was no cancer anywhere in his body. Not only that, but he was not in a wheel chair as predicted. He was physically, mentally, and emotionally strong. And there is no sign of the cancer returning. We say Ian is cancer-free, not in remission, because “remission” denotes that it could come back.

We have been so thankful for the medical advances that cured Ian. We are thankful for the people who supported us emotionally and financially. As the years have passed, Ian has a little better understanding of the dangers of cancer, and what he actually went through, but we still don’t talk about it very often.

That could be why we had never gone to a Relay for Life event in the past. This was our first year. I wanted to go to support my friend Berni’s team at the event; I thought Ian and I were ready to pay it forward.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that arrived when I did. I wasn’t prepared for Ian’s emotions and hesitancy.

As we walked up to the registration table, I was reminded of all the things I wanted to forget. The word I protected my son from for all these years was proudly displayed on banners and t-shirts and wrist bands. We saw people in various stages of their battles: some hairless, some with a range in hair lengths; some fragile, some vibrant; and some still fighting for their lives. I had an intense desire to take Ian’s hand and run in the opposite direction: I didn’t want Ian to see this. Cancer was no longer our reality; we had put Ian’s fight behind us, or so I thought. I didn’t want to remember our battle, yet it grabbed me by the throat and held me hostage.

I tried to hide my pain, while reminding myself that I promised Berni I would be there. I couldn’t turn back now. Ian, however, wasn’t holding back his feelings. He wanted to leave as soon as we got there. I reminded him of the bouncy house and other games he would play. I convinced him to stay, but I started to doubt that decision. Did it do more harm than good for Ian to be there? IMG_0581

When we got to the tent, Berni gave Ian his purple survivor’s shirt. It had “Finish the Fight 2014” on the front, and “I am strength. I am hope. I am a survivor. Walk with us to finish the fight.” on the back.

Ian didn’t want to wear it; it was too big; he was uncomfortable. Was it because, like me, he didn’t like the word “survivor”?

Shortly after we arrived, we went to the “Survivors Lunch.” The organizers gave Ian a cup and a pin; they gave me a survivor’s “Caregiver” sash. We sat in a sea of purple shirts and sashes–but all the survivors were adults. As Ian and I walked by, I heard the comments: “That little guy is a survivor? How terrible that he had to have this disease.” The grip on my throat became tighter. So many people have battled this disease. So many people are fighting for their lives for the second or third time. And they felt sorry for Ian. IMG_0583

Ian was also uncomfortable with the attention he was getting for something he could barely remember–and what he did remember was painful: being bald, vomiting, needles, waking up from anesthesia–and me crying. He hates when I cry, and any talk of his cancer makes my tears flow. Within minutes of our first conversation with a survivor, the tears were choking me. But that wasn’t the worst part. What had me in a vice grip was that Ian heard that “it” sometimes comes back; my fears for my son were spoken realities in these people’s lives. I looked for an escape route.

I felt like we didn’t belong there. We were years away from that traumatic time in our lives. What good did it do to bring it to the surface again?

After lunch, we walked around the track and looked at each of the booths. As I saw the number of people who donated their time and resources to raise money to fight this disease, my perspective began to change. I was able to step away from my personal pain and see that everyone there had similar pain. They, however, released their pain, so they could help put an end to this disease, while I had been harboring mine. I had been protecting Ian for so long, that I didn’t realize that I was protecting myself as well. IMG_0650[1]

One of our favorite booths was where a young girl (she couldn’t be more than twelve) was donating her time and talents as an anime artist to raise money for cancer research. Just the other day Ian said to me: “I want an artist to draw me, Mom. Can we do that someday?” And there she was. She took a picture of Ian and turned him into an anime super hero. It’s by far the best item we got from the booths.

Ian also loved playing games. His favorite was the “dunking game.” He threw a softball at a target at least 15 times and dunked the various participants at least ten times.

Then it was time for the “Survivor’s Walk.” Ian and I joined the survivors and walked around the track. The survivors had purple balloons that they released after one lap; it was meant to be symbolic for the survivors, but it helped me release my hold on Ian’s story.

I watched as Berni’s team walked their lap. My appreciation for her and what she has done for years for this fight grew with every step.

IMG_0637 At nine, they had the Luminaries Ceremony: People decorated white bags in remembrance of loved ones who had lost their battle with cancer; Berni had two bags. They ended the ceremony with a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace.

As we silently let the music pour over us, I remembered the words that helped me stay strong five years ago:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Chorus:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

I cried through the song, knowing that these words were still ringing true for me: I still need grace, and I still need to open my eyes to the things I’ve been blind to.

For the rest of the night, Ian joined an impromptu soccer game on the field. He was having so much fun.

Watching Ian run and play made me realize that we both needed to be there. Ian embraced his past–a past I tried to sugar coat for him because I didn’t want fear to interfere with his healing. I wanted him to envision his future so he could live through the pain and work towards that day when he could run and play again–like he did last night. He played so hard he could barely walk afterwards.

The future we envisioned for him in the midst of his battle is his reality today.

Relay for Life is raising money so other people can have a future like Ian’s present.

Protecting Ian was necessary five years ago, but now I will envision that we are warriors helping others “Finish the Fight.” Ian is a symbol of hope for all the people currently struggling–he had a devastating diagnosis, but Ian beat the odds. We want others to have that same hope.