Archive for November, 2013

What Am I Thankful For?

11 days ago, on the 17th of November, a line of severe storms ripped through Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois.  Straight line winds with hurricane force gusts of wind.  Numerous tornadoes in several states.  And all the members of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT) on high alert for rapid deployment in response to the storm.

It wasn’t till two days later that members of the AC STL ERT put boots on the ground in Washington, IL and began the process of serving a community that was ravished by mother nature.  Seven members have supported the volunteer operations throughout the city and county for the past week, helping to manage the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) as the rest of us continued serving through conservation projects throughout the state of Missouri.

As the Thanksgiving holiday came upon us, several of us in St Louis decided to make our way across Illinois to join our friends and ERT family in Washington.

We joined them at the VRC this morning and sent a small team out into the debris field to begin sorting piles of debris that line the streets.  Only working half a day, we ended operations shortly after lunch and began to close shop at the VRC.  From there, we headed back to housing to change and made our way over to a volunteer’s home who invited us to gather and join them for their holiday meal.

As the 16 of us (14 ERT members and this couple) gathered around to give thanks, we began to share what we were thankful for.  And I started thinking about where I’ve been in the past year and what I was thankful for.

A year ago, I was supporting the FEMA recovery operations in response to SuperStorm Sandy with FEMA Corps.  Helping out at Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) #9 in the Rockaways, my team struggled through the cold and the constant stress of the disaster alongside members of FEMA, Red Cross, and various other supporting agencies.  It was a hard journey, and we all have come so far in the past year.

I am most thankful for the opportunities that I have received over this past year (in both FEMA Corps and now the AC STL ERT) to serve communities across the nation.  I could never do this without my team(s), the 9 other members of Ocean 7 and the 35 others that make up the ERT.  These young men and women that I serve alongside are more than friends and family, but are a constant reminder of why we do what we do.  They were my sounding board, my consciousness, and my sanity, but most importantly, they are individuals whom I have learned to love, cherish and respect.

I am thankful for my family who have always been there for me, even when I do something really stupid.  They have supported me no matter what life seems to throw at me, and I love them for that.

I am thankful for friends whom I have been able to reach out to, and no matter how many bridges lie burned between us, they are willing to mend the road and continue this journey together.

I am thankful for a roof over my head (most of the time), a safe place to lay my head, and the adventures that this life has led me on.

And in some dysfunctional way, I am thankful for the demons that have continued to haunt me.  Without their constant presence, I would not know the strength I have found in God, nor would I have the relationship that I do with my Heavenly Father.  My art work would not have the same emotions.  Nor would I have the drive to continue down this path that has been laid at my feet.

Earlier today, one of my Corps Members from FEMA Corps shared a quote that I hope to live up to.  It goes as follows:

Live your life so that the fear of death can never enter your heart.  When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light.  Give thanks for your life and strength.  Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.  And if perchance you see no reason for giving thanks, rest assured the fault is in yourself.
– Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Tribal Leader

We have a chance to give thanks every single moment that we continue breathing.  It is a choice that we must make.  No matter how good or bad things get, we can still give thanks for the struggles and joys of living.

I pray that this next year brings an awakening of thanksgiving in myself, each and every day.  And within all those that I come in contact with.

God Bless and PEACE

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Finding Our Way Back

There are moment in life that you make a choice, and in that instant you don’t think, you don’t wait for your mind to tell you what to do.  You act.  Nature has given us our response; fight or flight. All animals have been programed to survive, and we too react to survive at times.  It is true for the mice of the field, the deer in the woods, and all creatures created by God.

There are things in this world that we witness; terrible acts of indifference, violence, hate and love.  Sometimes we just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time (or the right place at the right time, depending on how you look at it), and we witness things that break our hearts, rip through our souls, or leave us empty inside.  And in that moment, we either fight it or run as far away as we can, as fast as possible.

Nature tells us that to survive, sometimes we must run.  And at times, we do.  We run a physical route when we can, but many times we find ourselves running deep within ourselves.  We freeze up and cannot find our way back.

In Uganda, I froze as I listened to the piercing cry of a mother.  I stood there, unable to more as her child lay motionless within my reach.

I froze the morning in which I found out that my team, part of NCCC, was being deployed to the tornado in Joplin.  I stood there in the doorway as thousands of thoughts, fears and nightmares rushed in to consume me.  I stood there watching the chaos around me as my teammates packed.

On the sands of Breezy Point, I froze as I took in the enormous weight of SuperStorm Sandy.  I stood there without a word, listening to the sirens, not knowing what I needed to do.  Where I should lead my team to start.

I have retreated into the depths of my thoughts too many times to count.  From fears.  From memories.  I fled deep within in an attempt to survive.

But each time, I found my way back.  It was through the kind words of a friend, the touch of another, and the realization that I could not abandon those I served beside that gave me the strength to find my way back.  In some way, it has always been love that has led me back.

There are times we run so deep within ourselves that we cannot find our way back on our own.

It is not that we are weak or fragile.  It is the simple fact that we can never be prepared for everything.  Some call it courage.  Others call it strength.  Gregory David Roberts, in his book Shantaram, shares some hidden wisdom within the pages when he simply states:

What we call cowardice is often just another name for being taken by surprise, and courage is seldom any better than simply being well prepared.

We can take all the FEMA Disaster Response and Emergency Management Courses in the world.  We can talk our way through scenarios until we turn blue in the face.  We can train for days, weeks, months and even years, but we will never know how we react until that moment strikes.

To say that we will never run or freeze up is to lie to ourselves.

Despite living though a handful of disasters, serving in response to both Joplin and Sandy, taking hours of training, and having hands on experience through the past several years with AmeriCorps, I am still afraid.  I know what I need to do, but at the same time, I don’t know how I will react when the [edit] hits the fan, as they say.

I am confident that I will find my way back quickly, but I know not everyone has the same experiences that I do.  Sometimes we need to step back and understand that we are all in this together, and though we may not see it, to some extent all of us are running.  And the difference could be as simple as a kind word, a smile, hug, or a simple gesture of appreciation, acknowledgement, or understanding.

We prepare ourselves by surrounding ourselves with people who love us for who we are.  All our fears and failures included.  And in that moment, we rely on the strength of those around us to find our way back.

Just some thoughts….

God Bless and PEACE

Photographs of a Different Age

I recently got another several rolls of black and white film developed through the amazing service of OldSchoolPhotoLab.com (check them out, they are an amazing service to all photographers looking into film).  Looking through them, I have rediscovered my love for film!

My beautiful picture

After posting some of the photos up on Facebook, a good family friend sent me a message stating:

 … it’s so interesting to see the differences between film and digital.  From my non artist (very non artist) [perspective] the film pics evoke more feeling of nostalgia, even though they are recent photos.  I like the grittiness of them.  Makes me want to dig out my old family pictures.

My beautiful picture

That is the joy I find in film.  There is something special about it that cannot be defined.  It’s the basic essence of photography, black and white images.

My beautiful picture

Digital cameras are amazing, don’t get me wrong.  I have an extremely nice one.  But the feelings that you can capture with a single image on film cannot be truly replicated with a digital camera.  It’s as if each grain captures the emotions of the moment.

My beautiful picture

The rolls of film came from several places.  Uganda (2009), family vacation to Edisto, SC and my time with AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT).  Of those images, I noticed that I have issues with focusing, as many of the images are out of focus, blurred or somehow a little off.  But that helps to give each image character.

My beautiful picture

I took my film camera out on Quest and captured some amazing photos of our camp at Panther’s Den and around Devil’s Kitchen.  The way the film captures nature reminds me of adventurers of a time long ago, when the camera was used to capture every day moments.

My beautiful picture

And in some way, film is pure.  Or it is to me.  We can capture a moment in time and treasure it.  You can do the same thing with a digital image, but somehow that isn’t the same.  Emotions are truer.  The image seems more honest with itself, with its imperfections.

My beautiful picture

Film is an art.  And while some are saying that it is a dead and dying art form, I believe that it is necessary to learn.  If it weren’t for the photography courses I took in college, I would not know the basics of the digital imaging.  I think that all photographers should experiment with film and rediscover the root of their passion.

My beautiful picture

And maybe the world of film will no longer be dead or dying.  I hope that there will be a resurgence of youth interested in film photography.  Technology is advancing, but some things we shouldn’t leave behind.

My beautiful picture

God Bless and PEACE

Christmas Spirit

:::WARNING:::
If you are a huge fan of the consumer Christmas Season (the lights, the shopping, the gifts, trees, decoration, etc.) I highly encourage you to stop reading immediately.  This is going to be a post filled with the ranting and ravings of a crazed individual who dislikes what Christmas has become due to our obsession with things.
:::END WARNING:::

Every year I am asked what I want for Christmas (and my birthday just over a month before) and my list usually consists of two to three items that I don’t really need.  The simple fact is that I am simply content with what little I have (and sometimes I think I already have too much).  I know it’s frustrating for family, but I don’t always get that warm fuzzy feeling throughout the Holiday Season unless I am spending time with those I love and care about.

Christmas has never been about gifts and lights, Santa and the reindeer, or even snow and the long winter nights that are upon us.  The origins of Christmas are shrouded in Religion, pagan rituals, and the need for the Roman Empire to convert the world.  Early followers of Christ did not celebrate his birth, but the simple fact is that tradition now calls us to reflect on this day when God came down in the form of an innocent child and his only Son was brought into the world, to live and die as a sacrifice for sin.

It is part of the greatest love story mankind has ever encountered.

I can go into the history of Christmas and how many of its origins and traditions were stolen from the pagan world that stood against the vastness of the Roman Empire, but the simple fact is that our society has lost the meaning and spirit of Christmas.  What was once a simple day to remember Gods love for mankind has become an industry of greed and money.  In some ways, we have reverted back to the “pagan” ways of the past, forgetting the reasons why we celebrate.  Each year, we seem to slip farther and farther into the darkness of night.

In some ways, I hate Christmas.  I cringe each time I hear holiday music (especially before Thanksgiving) or see decorations pop up in stores as soon as the pumpkin kits and costumes are put away.  I hate the consumerism that has corrupted the holiday.  And sometimes I just want to tear down all the strings of lights in the neighborhoods and rush past the elves in the mall just to punch Santa in the face just for the symbol that he has become.  But I restrain myself and smile as the children’s faces are lit up by the Seasons Greetings.

In some ways the Christmas season does not lift my spirits, but reminds me of how much we have slipped away from God.  I do not cheer and sing as loudly as I once did, for I know that God would be appalled at what this day has become.  We have made idols out of Christmas lights, glorified St. Nicholas more than God himself, and have forgotten that Jesus was a fugitive at birth.

Our society has made a mockery of the birth of Christ, and each year I am ashamed to be part of it.  It’s no longer Christmas that we celebrate, but Festivus (for the Rest of Us).  Gifts, presents, and shiny things have distracted us from the truth of the season.

“Keep Christ in Christmas” is a sad saying that reminds us that we Christians have been distracted by the consumerism that is now the holidays.  We need to keep Christ within our hearts and keep persistent in our pursuit of God.  If we can do that, Jesus will be in everything we do and we will not forget.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”
….
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:8-12, 16-19

She pondered all these things in her heart.  And so should we.

I don’t hate Christmas.  I just despise everything around it that distracts us from God’s gift to the world, from the birth of a child that saved the world, from the love story.

I guess, like my wish list, I like to keep everything simple so I am not distracted from the work of God in our lives.  Christmas is about God, love, and family.  Treasure these things and remember them always.  Stay focused on the works of God in your life, and follow the path that he has laid at your feet.

Reflect on the Child that was, is, and is still to be our Savior.

God Bless and PEACE

It’s Time to Wake Up

I have a sketchbook full of ideas, drawings, snippets of stories, quotes, and, every now and then, a piece of who I am.  There are faces and images that have haunted my dreams, words that have consumed my thoughts, and characters that express several personalities that make me who I am.  There are notes to myself and to those who dare to venture into the darkest folds of the images that I have spewed forth.  There are parts that are consumed by darkness, rage, and love that never ceases.  And within it all, one can find my deepest desires and darkest nightmares, proudest moments and most passionate love.

In the midst of the lines on the page, I find myself lost in the beauty of my thoughts.  Or the rationale musings of my mind.  Or the fears that seem to consume every page.

For the past several weeks, my dreams have been haunted with fathom characters.  Shapes of what seems to be shadows of darkness and light, but move through the midst with grace and precision, like a hunter stalking their prey.  They are a mystery, but I know exactly who they are.

I know each one of them personally.  They are my fears.  My uncertainty.  The ghosts that haunt my thoughts.  And the demons that pull me down.

I have captured each of them on the page at one point or another.  The pages of my sketchbook are full of them, self portraits of pain, indifference, and worry.  They are the faceless.  The darkened souls.  The shadows on the page.  And the rage that slashes across the paper.

I know who they are.  Each of them have a name.  Doubt.  Confidence.  Indifference.  Insanity.  Darkness.  Rage.  Love.  Emptiness.  Decay.  They are many.  And they are the demons that I fight each and every day.  And I confront each time I close my eyes.

In the TV show “Firefly” there is a scene where River asks her brother if it is time to go back to sleep. Simon responds by stating, “it’s time to wake up.”

I don’t draw the darkness that dwells within my thoughts to remember it.  I draw my demons to bring them out into the light.  I do not wish to glorify them, but to battle them each and every waking hour.

Courage is more than smiling when you feel like you’re about to collapse under the weight of the world.  It is more than fighting with every last ounce of strength you possess.  Courage is about living without fear.  Living in the moment, not letting your demons turn your thoughts to the past.

To many times I find myself living within the dark shroud of my dreams.  Fighting my demons when I should be living life to the fullest.

Yes, we must face our demons.  Fight them at times.  But we also have to learn to wake up to the realization that the strength we receive from God is greater than the darkest nights that threaten to consume us from the inside out.

When we live without fear, we find the freedom that we have been offered by our Father.

And as we stand there facing down the darkness, we can rest assured knowing that we never fight alone.  (For that is the greatest strength of each of our demons, making us believe that we are alone in our struggles)  We have our brothers and sisters beside us, which is the strength we receive from living in communion with one another and with God.

And although my sketchbook is filled with darkness at times, pages are also full of warriors.  With weapons that strike out.  Verses from scripture.  Lyrics from songs.  Questions that make us think.

My sketchbook provides encouragement, allows an outlet of release, and is the battlefield in which I wage my war against my demons.

God Bless and PEACE

PS: I know this was a rant, so if it doesn’t make since, I’m not really that sorry.  I may come back to edit it, but probably not.  Just sayin’.

You’re Not Invisible to Me…

In some way, each of us is invisible.  We walk through life, passing one another on the streets and smiling at empty faces.  We don’t, we can’t remember all the faces we pass throughout the .  We smile and forget.  It’s part of who we are, it’s part of being human. 

We are invisible because we are not remembered. 

We tell people “I Love You,” give them hugs, show them that they are beautiful (when necessary, we use words), and we attempt to live like there is no tomorrow.  It’s all an attempt to be remembered.  In an attempt to no longer be invisible to those around us.

Invisible.  Unseen.  Unnoticed.  Unloved.  Or forgetting that someone does love us.

We seem to do all sorts of stupid things to get noticed.  We jump out of airplanes.  We go on crazy adventures.  We chase storms and the chaos of our lives.  Have relationships with one another.  Have sex.  Do drugs.  Put ourselves in dangerous positions.

:::NOTE:::
I have NOT done everything in the previously stated list.  Just wanted to make that clear so there wasn’t any misunderstanding. 
:::END NOTE:::

We hear of too many stories of young men and women seeking out attention.  They are shouting at us, and yet our blind eyes cannot see until it’s too late. Their scars tell the story of their actions, invisible to those around them. 

I was once invisible. It felt as if nobody could see me or noticed what I did.  And I attempted to find who I was in the silence of the night. 

While reading Joy Harjo’s memoire Crazy Brave I came across a passage that hit close to home for myself and reflects the emotions of many young artists:

I marked myself once with a knife.  I was disappearing into the adolescent sea of rage and destruction.  The mark of pain assured me of my own reality.  The cut could speak.  It had a voice that cried out when I could not make a sound in my defense.  I never made such a mark again.  Instead I chose to slash art into canvas, pencil marks onto paper, and when I could no longer carry the burden of history, I found other openings.  I found stories.

I have a tattoo on my wrist (we live, we love) to remind me to open my eyes to those around me.  I’ve made it a personal mission several years ago to remind those around me that they are loved, to tell them that they are beautiful. 

I found a different path to gain attention.  I found a way to shout into the endless void of silence that surrounds us.  For a time, I found poetry.  I found music.  I found art.  And I too have come full circle and found writing. 

We find ways to force people to see us.  We find ways to no longer be unseen, invisible.  We cut and dye our hair.  We dress in crazy fashions and outfits to stand out.  We do stupid things to gain attention (run away from those who love us, find adventure, and/or put ourselves in harms way).  We find a voice through the arts (creative writing, music, visual arts, and theater). 

Some actions cause harm.  Others heal.  They all speak out to be seen. 

God Bless and PEACE