Archive for October, 2013

Flashbacks and Memories That Haunt Us Forever

There are some memories that you hold on to.  You can’t let them go.  They remain with you night and day, haunting your every waking moment and slipping into your dreams in the dark of night.  There are other memories that are buried deep, beneath the surface of remembering.  You never quite remember them, and then something happens, you see a familiar face, hear an echo of the past, catch a smell that draws it forth, and for a moment you are overwhelmed by thoughts you had so long ago.

Today, while sitting at the AC STL ERT office watching videos created at the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) in the wake of Joplin, I was hit with one of those waves of memories.  And the same fears, struggles, and living nightmares that one time paralyzed me came rushing forth once again.

I remember the stories that came out of Joplin because I have written them down.  I remember what I did, what I saw, and the images because I had set out to tell the story of AmeriCorps in Joplin.  I have images that were captured through the lens of a camera and actions written through lines and words on the page, but there was so much lost from those moments I wandered through the wreckage and sat with survivors as they shared their darkest moments from that night.

Sitting there, I began to see faces, to recognize individuals.  Teammates from NCCC.  Volunteers that came in day after day.  People who were willing to extend a helping hand, lend a shoulder to cry on.  I heard voices that unlocked the memories stored in vaults of the mind in a futile attempt to protect myself.

The memories are hard to comprehend, but they come so vividly.  And just as quickly as they came, their fleeting moments passed back into the unknown.

Nobody noticed the distinct smell that forced me from the room as we stood for break.  Nobody could hear the shouting that echoed through my ears that drowned out everyone talking in the room.  Nobody felt the chill that settled in the air around us.

Our minds try to protect us, burying these thoughts and memories deep down in the unknown.  While they  used to frighten me, I am no longer scared of them.  I used to see them as failures, things that I was unable to help, but now I welcome them with a smile because they have become a part of who I am.

I have accepted these fears because I know that they have helped me to grow into the young man I am now.  Without those experiences, I don’t know where I’d be.

So when your memories escape the darkness of your thoughts, remember that you have a choice to choose to run from them, or accept them as an old friend.

God Bless and PEACE

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Sticks (and Stones)

A few short weeks ago, after completing Quest with the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT), we spent a few days in Immersion where we learned the history, culture, and policies of this program.  The last morning there at Little Grassy (the Methodist Camp we were staying at) we were asked to spend some time in reflection, write a letter to ourselves that will be mailed to us at the end of the year, and make our way across the camp to the amphitheater.

On our way there we were asked to pick up a stick that represented who we are, where in the journey we have come to find ourselves, and/or where the road is leading us.

There were sticks of various shapes and sizes from the group as we each took a moment to stand in front of each other and share why we chose this particular stick over all the others in the forest.

As I rose to stand before the group, I held a knotted, bent, broken and decaying stick in my hands.  I didn’t pick out a straight, balanced, or beautiful looking stick, but one that had several branches, knots, and a story to tell.  I didn’t choose a beautiful stick to represent me.  I chose one that was slightly worn, overlooked, and, to be quite honest, ugly.

My journey has had its ups and downs, trials and struggles.  I’ve seen things that I never wished to see, experienced things that are difficult to talk about.  I’ve faced down the darkness of the soul, and yet still carry it within my heart.  I’ve been on many roads (figuratively and literally) and have come to know the good, bad and ugly within myself.

And as I held up that small stick in my hands, I revealed to myself that life is more than finding and embracing the beautiful, but it is also seeking out the worst of our experiences and accepting them, sharing them, and refusing to hide them, to hold them within our hearts.  Life is about embracing the experience we have with those around us.

And that is the beauty of community.

And while that one little stick was quite ugly, there was also beauty in it if you chose to take a closer look.

God Bless and PEACE

An Update on the Adventure

For the past two weeks or so, the members of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT) spent time up in Montana doing training, conservation work, and a lot of getting to know one another on a more personal level.  There are hundreds of stories that came out of these past two weeks, and I can in no way capture all of them in words, photographs and emotions, but I will share some of each to catch everyone up on where I’ve been…

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The morning before we departed for Montana we gathered in the Urban Activity Center and were sworn in as official members of AC STL ERT.  We are an eccentric group, consisting of young men and women from communities across the nation, from different faiths and beliefs, different families and experiences, and different reasons for joining.  But in the end, we have become a family, guiding lights for one another in a dark world.  This is who I have the privilege of serving beside for the next year!

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I guess there is a reason they call Montana the land of the Big Sky.  It seemed endless.  And each morning and night God painted the skies above in magnificent colors, capturing our hearts (and cameras) for a moment.  Each time I was reminded how small I really am, but how I fit in this grand scheme of events.

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The first morning in Montana we all awoke to a double rainbow that stretched itself over camp, Fleecer Work Station.  We set up an army of tents and a Yurt in which, at one point, over 20 of us were sleeping within.  Though it was packed, it was an adventure as we grew closer to one another.

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Within the first couple days it went from sunshine to almost blizzard conditions.  We had several inches of snow and gusts of wind that ripped through camp, lifting up tents and throwing the falling snow sideways.  It did get cold at times, but I am thankful for having several layers of clothing, a good sleeping bag and a fleece liner.

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At the end of the first week of conservation work, we received the opportunity to participate in S-212 Wildland Fire Chain Saws, a training required to operate a chainsaw on Federal land.  While the government shutdown threw a wrench into many of the plans while in Montana, we were able to adapt and be flexible enough to go with the flow and still enjoy ourselves (and learn a little).

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For the S-212 course, you have to fall a tree while being evaluated.  Unfortunately, I was the first member to be evaluated in our group of 10 that went the first day.  While I went in with the hopes of getting a B Certification with restrictions, my nerves got the better of me and I am perfectly content at staying at an A Cert for the time being.  During the stump evaluation, it felt as if I got ripped apart, but in conversations over the next couple hours, and week, I have come to understand that while I know all the math behind felling a tree and can analyze the hazards with a critical eye, the technical application of experience is not fully developed.  I know that I am not ready for the B Cert at the moment, and I felt (and still feel) good about the tree I fell, limbed and bucked.

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The second week there, I got to depart from Fleecer HQ and the Butte area and head a couple of hours away to stay and work out of the Bear Creek USFS Cabin.  Tucked away in the hills of the Sphinx, Helmet, and Black Mountains, it was a peaceful residing place away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the ERT.  The six of us staying there enjoyed the small cabin and the surrounding area and were sad to depart from the tranquility that it provided.

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Our first day up at Bear Creek, we were asked to make a supply delivery of toilet paper up to Potosi Campground and check on a trail that requires maintenance.  When we should have turned, we kept going straight and ended up realizing that we may not be able to continue down the road we were on.  So we attempted to turn around.  After almost 2.5 hours, we finally escaped the mud and snow-covered road and were able to go back the way we came.

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We also got the opportunity to work on the Indian Creek trail, a beautiful hike through a valley with some amazing views.  We were struck by the beauty and often found ourselves stopping in the attempt at taking it all in.

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We also encountered several bear tracks, both Black and Grizzly Bear.  We also saw elk, moose, and deer tracks in the mud, and almost ran into a pair of Mule Deer [EDIT: I stand corrected, we saw Elk] on our way back to the trailhead.

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Being that the majority of the Indian Creek Trail is in a Wilderness Area, we were not able to pack in chainsaws, but had to rely on Crosscut Saws instead.  While a longer, more intensive endeavor, the Crosscut saw requires more patience, communication, and mathematical precision, especially when felling a tree that is precariously leaning over the trail.

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I had the opportunity and privilege to cut with my roommate.  We made a good team as we balanced one another out and were able to communicate effectively throughout the entire process.  The crosscut has become my favorite instrument of trail clearance and maintenance.

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The following day we installed trail signs to the Indian Creek Trail.  Utilizing draw knives we prepped the logs, then inserted them into the holes that were dug out with the help of Rockbars and Posthole Diggers.  We also utilized the gas-powered drill and some ingenuity to get the job complete.

While we returned back to St. Louis a week before originally planned, every single one of us enjoyed the time we were able to have there and were sad to depart.  We all look forwards to serving in the mountains of Montana.

This was an amazing adventure that has served to launch us into another year of service.

God Bless and PEACE

You’ll Never Be The Same

I found a quote several weeks ago after a friend posted it, and it has haunted me ever since:

You’ll never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.  That is the price you pay for the richness of living and knowing people in more than one place.
– Miriam Adeney

I joke that I am a nomad.  For so many years I have traveled throughout the country and across the world.  I’ve been to Honduras, Spain, Uganda, Togo, South Africa, Ireland and Scotland, not to mention almost all the States (by my count, I’ve visited or been through 46 of them).

I am a wanderer.  An adventurer.  I don’t see myself settling down for any long, extended period of time any time soon.  The road is more than a journey or a destination, but a way to find myself, my purpose, and God.

I’m out here in Montana for another week and a half, and every morning I wake up to find the skies painted in the fiery colors of love, hope and strength.  I’ve seen the wind blow down the mountains and I’ve felt the warmth of friendship and love capture my heart once again.

In some ways it is the opposite of Uganda, but it reminds me so much of the home and community that surrounded me there in the wilderness.  The hardships and lack of comforts are still present, and I can feel the roots of community spreading forth, anchoring me to yet another place.

I go “home” to my parents, and it’s never the same.  I no longer belong there, but I find myself asking “Where do I belong?”

On the road, we find new experiences, new friends, new faces, new adventures, while reconnecting with old friends, visiting places we once knew, and reliving the dreams that we once had all those years ago.

I find God on the road.  Whenever I travel, I can feel him moving, stirring within me.  And every time I settle, I feel that pull on my heart to find something different.  Something more.

I know that I may never have the opportunities to travel like I do now, and at some point, I feel that God will call me to a single place to call my own, but for now, I continue to wander and find these places where my heart seems to belong.

I know that “home” is where the heart is.  But rarely is that a single location.  A solid foundation.  Or a city in a land far away.  The heart is a wanderer that has ties to every single encounter, every single individual memory, every single moment of the journey.  And when people see us once again, they may seem to think that they never knew us in the first place, but the reality is that the distance and time away has changed us, shaped us into who we have become.

God Bless and PEACE

When A Tree Falls in the Woods

Almost a week ago, the members of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT) arrived in Montana. Located just out of Butte, we are based out of a single Forest Service Cabin up in the mountains for the next couple weeks.

One of the first days here, we watched in fascination as the winds ripped through the pass above us, down the mountain side, and through our camp, bringing a blast of cold air down on us. The air tore through camp, cutting through the thin layers of fabric that we wore and caught the Yurt and tents that have been set up for our sleeping quarters (nobody is sleeping within the cabin).

In all this chaos of wind, we could hear the sounds of trees snapping and crashing to the ground. The grove of Aspen trees next to camp lost several trees through the night and into the next several days as a winter storm rolled through, dropping 5-6 inches of snow around us.

But in that moment, I smiled as I turned to one of my teammates and simply stated, “I guess a tree falling in the woods does make a sound.”

It isn’t much, but at times we find our selves asking if we are truly making a difference, even if nobody sees us, notices us, or comments on the work we do.

So many times we just don’t notice what others do. We don’t realize the impacts of their work, even if we walk pat it every day. Look at the work the Forest Service does. Or teachers. Street cleaners. Garbage disposal workers. Public Works offices.

The only time we take note is when they stop.

We’ve all been affected by this Government Shutdown in some way or another. We no longer show up to work each day due to the fact that so many of us work for the government. We are unsure if our paychecks will go through. Our projects are no longer funded, so they sit unfinished. We can no longer visit the places that this nation holds dear, because they are run by the government.

The trees continue to fall, and they only make noise if someone is listening. Or so we thought. They have always made noise, we just were never close enough to notice the destructive force of nature.

I’ve heard so many people speak of riots, chaos, and the fall of our nation due to this shutdown, and so many people are pointing fingers of blame. But if we think about it, we are all at fault. We were the ones that voted our President, Senators and Congressmen into office, but never kept track of what they did while there. We continued to support them, even if they didn’t follow through with their campaign promises of change.

Yes, it’s like a schoolyard full of children, but we all stood by and watched it happen.

This in no way is a call of revolution, to take to the streets in protest and riots, but it is a reminder that we need to listen when the trees start crashing down in the wind. We need to pay attention to what those individuals that we elected are doing in our names. And we need to hold each other accountable for our actions, inaction, and our unwillingness to act.
I’m sorry fortune rant, but this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to share since I’ve arrived in Montana and the [poop] hit the fan.