Archive for December, 2013

The People in Our Lives (A Review of 2013)

As the year comes to a close, many people (including myself) have been looking back and reflecting on where we have been in the past 12 months.  This year has been full of memories, emotions, and amazing people that have both stood beside me and supported me in this journey.  As I look back, that is what I have come to realize has been my blessing this year: people.

While my journey has taken me across the nation this year with AmeriCorps (both FEMA Corps and the St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT)) I have also received the opportunity to travel abroad with family, visit friends, and continue to develop my art.  The following images are a reflection of where I’ve been, the people who have stood beside me, and the craziness that this adventure has allowed me to take part in.

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I started this year returning to Vicksburg, MS to finish my year with inaugural class of  AmeriCorps*NCCC FEMA Corps (Class XIX).  The Team Leaders (TLs) were more than friends and coworkers, but a family that constantly evolved, growing closer together with every moment.

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And then there was my amazing team, Ocean 7.  We were an eccentric bunch from all over the place.  While it was rough at times, we pulled together to brave the worst of storms.  Without them and their support I would have lost whatever sanity I had left.

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For the first several months of the year, my team (along with the entirety of FEMA Corps at the time) was deployed back up to New York City in response to Superstorm Sandy.  It was a trying time for all of us as we ended up jumping from one location to another before landing to assist at Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) #41 in Staten Island.  There we learned the finite points of case management through hands on experience.  We remained there for just over a month before making our way back to the Vicksburg campus.

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On our way down, we stopped at my parents house just south of Washington, DC and spent a day exploring the monuments and museums.  I spent the day with an amazing friend and began a relationship that warmed my heart and got me through some of the roughest moments of AmeriCorps and the months afterwards.  While our paths have gone in separate directions, our time together taught me so much about living to the fullest, chasing after dreams, finding where you stand, and the definition of love.

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After returning from NYC, my team spent the rest of the year up at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, MD.  There we assisted with revamping and editing trainings, participating in simulations, and enjoying the (almost) stress free environment.  We had fun exploring the local area, finding Independent Service Projects, and volunteering our time throughout the community.

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Almost each time we traveled back and forth between campus and NYC or Emmitsburg (4 of the 5 times) we stopped and stayed in Bristol, TN.  We discovered our favorite restaurant, Alfredo’s Italian and Mediterranean Cuisine, our first time and continued to visit each night after spending what seemed like hours in the van.  Each time the owner inquired where we were going and we had an excellent relationship with them as we spent the remainder of our food budget and they graciously served us and often times would throw in an extra treat for the team.

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The great thing about AmeriCorps is that even though you have your individual teams and programs, when it comes down to push and shove, we all stand together.  I saw that (figuratively) with FEMA Corps and NCCC when tragedy struck our community.  I learned that if we don’t know how to stand together, then the weight of the system and society will crush us one by one.  Without that community, our experience would have crippled each one of us.

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We finished the year together and soon found ourselves heading out in separate directions.  Some were returning to school.  Others joined other AmeriCorps programs throughout the nation.  And others began their pursuit of higher education.

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As a parting gift, I awoke to find my car decorated by some of my Corps Members.  Of course, I smiled and threatened to kill them with kindness.  (On that same note, for all the ERT people out there, I’m going to name my next Crumpet Stick “Kindness”)

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Soon after returning home (N. Virginia) I set up a small studio space in my parents basement and dove into creating art.  The first step was building just about a dozen canvases of various sizes.  I cut and assembled each one, which may seem like a time consuming process (which it is) but it’s more fulfilling this way.

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Over a period of a couple months, I added nine new paintings to my portfolio and still had several canvases left over which traveled with me to St Louis at the end of the summer.

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Somewhere in there, I made my way over to Scotland with the Kerr Clan.  I hadn’t seen some of my cousins in years, so it was good to catch up and spend time with them.  We headed into the highlands and discovered the beauty of our ancestors.

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We even set sail over one of the lochs (read: lake).  It was fun to watch and see the family interact with one another.  Even after all these years, we are still discovering things about one another.

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As proof that I was there, I took a selfie.  The bridge in the background is the bridge used in the Harry Potter films every time the Hogwart’s Express is seen heading across the countryside.

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I got to spend some invaluable time with my father, grandpa, and brother.  While the rest of the immediate family wasn’t able to make it to Scotland, they were waiting for us when we returned.

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When we returned from our overseas adventure, my sister, niece and nephew were waiting for us.  So, what do you do with two year olds?  You take ’em to the zoo of course!  And you play.  A lot.  And run around.  Play some more.  And attempt to get a nap every once in a while.  No matter how much these little guys wear me out physically, I always come away refreshed!

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My sister even managed to pull me out onto a small photoadventure.  She saw a hawk just sitting on the side of the road enjoying his lunch, so of course she had to run get her camera.

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As the summer came to a close, the family headed down to Edisto, SC where we braved the weather, got some amazing photos of the storms, and spent more time together!  We spent the week relaxing, reading, riding the waves in our sit-on-top kayaks, and playing music at night.  One evening, we headed out on a dolphin tour and caught the leading edge of the storm as we were still out on the water (above).

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I headed out directly from Edisto and began a road trip out to St. Louis.  On my way there, I stopped at my Alma Mater (Anderson University) to catch up with professors, spent the night at my cousins place in Clemson, stopped by Athens to visit Grandparents (and my sister, again, as she was heading out to Louisiana).  After another stop in Vicksburg to help with trainings, I made my way south to the beautiful city of New Orleans.  There I caught up with one the FEMA Corps TLs and good friend and we explored the city (and the St Louis Cemeteries).

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I even stopped long enough to get a tattoo at Hell or High Water Tattoo.  In commemoration of my time in Uganda several years ago, I got the trips motto, “We Live, We Love” inked on my wrist.

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After another short stop in Joplin, MO, I made my way to St Louis to join another crazy group of individuals.  We are an interesting bunch with our own quirks and oddities, but immediately we became family, as many of us are living with one another (15 people in 2 apartments?!  Mine only has 4).

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And immediately, we began to pack.  In the chaos, we learned that we had to be ready at a moments notice and began to find what we truly needed, and what could be left behind.  Essentials include: both cameras, extra film, water bottles, and extra toilet paper.

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Between Quest and our travels out to Montana, we instantly became a close knit family.  In Montana, we wet up the Yurt (above) and crammed 19 people in it.  We experienced beautiful mornings, blistery winter winds, and snow like I have never seen before.

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While up in Montana, we had several adventures working on conservation projects around Butte.  We even had the opportunity to take part in the S-212 Wildland Chainsaw course where we each got the opportunity to fell a tree and be critiqued.  While I was hoping for a B Certification, I realized that I was not that comfortable yet with a saw, so I am content with my A Certification.

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Montana is a beautiful place.  We received the opportunity to serve out in the wilderness, staying in remote locations, like the USFS Cabin (above).

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We shared moments of wonder as we looked out over God’s creation and smiled alongside one another.  Above is the crossing over Indian Creek.

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While we worked side by side with one another, we also received opportunities to challenge ourselves.  While working alongside one of my roommates, we came across a hanging tree that was snagged over the line.  As it was a wilderness area (read: no mechanized equipment) we attacked it with a crosscut saw and also fell the tree that it was leaning against.

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While it was hard work, we persevered and overcame the challenge.  I even became a lumberjack for a short time (note the suspenders).

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As you can see, we are a chaotic group that cannot control ourselves when we are having fun (which is always).  We have an amazing group of leaders, second and third years, who are willing to share their wealth of knowledge with us.

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As we returned to Missouri, we dived into conservation projects throughout the state.  From trail maintenance to invasive species removal, fireline construction to spraying weeds, we do it all.  While we work in smaller teams, each of us is a unit within something bigger.  Like a machine, but much more powerful.

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My team also got the chance to participate in two small (5 and 15 acre) burns.  And, no.  That is not a member of AC STL ERT, that is one of the guys with MDC (I believe).

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While here in St. Louis one weekend, my mother came to visit.  So, I became a tourist and went exploring.  We hit the Arch and then the weather hit us, canceling the rest of our plans (steamboat tour and/or trolley tour).  While we did get drenched, we escaped most of the bad weather and were still able to laugh and have some fun.

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That same storm front that hit my mom and me under the Arch spawned numerous tornadoes across the mid-west, including the tornado that hit Washington, IL.  Several members were deployed in response, to help set up and manage the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC).  Over Thanksgiving, instead of hanging out with family and friends, another group of us headed up to Washington, IL to help out.  While there, we got the chance to meet and get to know several of the therapy dogs from Therapy Dogs International who visited the VRC and field teams multiple times.

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So often we find ourselves looking out and all we see is the fog of the unknown.  But if we stop and take a look, we will see that we are surrounded by people in our lives that care for us.  We have reached out and impacted so many people, worked beside them, fought with (or against) them, cried with them, or simply shared a smile.  We will never know how much we have changed the world through changing the lives of those around us.

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So smile and celebrate the blessings that you have received, the challenges you have faced, and all the people in your life.  Share your struggles and your story and count yourself blessed.  For we are never truly alone in this journey.

God Bless and PEACE

When Time Heals Wounds

The end of the year is always a time where we step back and look at where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and realize how brutal this journey of life can be at times.  Earlier today, a friend expressed how fresh the scars are now that someone they deeply cared about was no longer present in their life.  It is painful, and many times we cannot find the words to express the feelings that boil up within us.

Sometimes people walk out of our lives.  Sometimes they are taken from us.  And too often we turn our backs on people who care about us and an empty void stands in their place.

Humans are a social breed.  Even the most introverted of us desire the presence of others.  Companions on the journey.  Fellowship of community.  Friends.  Lovers.  We were created in a way that drives us to seek others.  When you take that away from us, even a single relationship, there will be emptiness where that life once was.

After reading this friends status, an image came to my mind that I never thought of before.  I guess I’ve seen it so often that I just never put it into the context of relationships, loosing those that we love, and healing the wounds caused by neglect.  This is what I shared with her:

After a wildfire, the ground is scorched and blackened.  In time the grasses break through and an abundance of small petals emerge from the ashes. It is the most beautiful sight. It may hurt now, but time heals all wounds.  They will always be there, they are part of who we are now, but there are and will always be people that love you unconditionally.  God gives us the strength we need.

Many of us have driven past the scarred landscapes where fire has ripped a path through the wilderness.  Out west, thousands of acres each year are blackened by flames.  Across the nation, prescribed fire operations (prescribed burns) use these same flames to cut through the debris and underbrush.  We look at the ashes and we ask ourselves if anything can ever return from this devastation.

But return a couple of months later, after the healing rains have cooled the scorched earth and you will find wildflowers, native grasses, and a host of animals thriving over the scars.  You can still see the pain that ripped across the landscape, the blackened stumps, snags, and logs, but the beauty of the new growth shows us that life doesn’t end in the flames.

The same is true for relationships.  It hurts when people are no longer there beside us.  There is an emptiness when you reach out to hold someone’s hand and they are no longer there.  It’s painful to part ways and realize that the bridges have been torn down.  What was so strong is now only a memory and we are left wondering what went wrong.

Many times we look back and see the scars beginning to fade, but they will always be there.  It’s said that time heals all wounds, but in truth, time only diminishes the pain as we learn to live with it.  We are all scarred in some way or another.  Wounds fade and beauty can be found in the scars if we care to look and learn from those experiences.

I’ve learned through serving with AmeriCorps on conservation projects that sometimes the land needs help healing, so we spread native seeds aver the ashes of a burned area.  In the same way, bridges don’t rebuild themselves and we can never return to the way things once were with relationships we seek to rebuild.

We will never be the same, because the scars of yesterday have made us who we are today.  And who we are today and the choices we make to continue to hate or to forgive in this moment define who we will be tomorrow.

Just some thoughts…

God Bless and PEACE

The Joy of Love

Each week here in St. Louis, the members of the Emergency Response Team go out on project, focusing on fire prevention and conservation throughout southern Missouri.  We scatter out as teams of 4 to 6, camping, working and growing together as the week flashes by.  We hike through the snow and ice to construct firelines, dig in and create new trails, or cut out and fall snags and hazard trees.  It is a joy to work in the outdoors, embracing the frozen chill of the morning, the exhaustion after a hard days work, and the friendships of living and working together.

But there is something beautiful that happens when we all return from our travels and gather once again.  At the end of every week, we return to the office to pack in our equipment and gear, and many times there is a joy that fills the air, that you can feel as we greet one another with hugs and embraces of friendship. We share stories and joke around like we’ve known each other for much longer than the three short months that we’ve been standing side by side with one another.

Each week it makes me smile.  And I realized something while having a conversation today with a member of another AmeriCorps program; that feeling of joy that fills the room each week is more than happiness, but a pure, unfiltered love that pours out from the soul.

I am no expert in love when it comes to relationships and its contemporary meaning.  The love I know is that that flows forth from God to consume who we are.  It’s a raw emotion that cannot be put into words and is incapable of being captured in four letters that we toss around on a daily basis.

Several years ago, I felt this Love for the first time through the community aboard the M/V Africa Mercy.  It was like a sticky fog that you could cut through with a knife.  You could feel it all around you.  It consumed me as I learned what it was to serve.  I stood alongside the amazing individuals of the dinning hall staff and their joy was like no other.

Yes, it was hard work and long hours at times, but the laughter that filled the air and the smiles that we shared (and the hugs, the goofiness, and water fights) were a pure expression of love.

I felt the same joy as I held the hand of a beautiful daughter of God.  And when I spent time with my niece and nephew.  And when I breathed in the cold mountain air and watched the sun set over Indian Creek Trail out in Montana.

This joy is love.

In some ways, I love each and every one of the people I work with (no matter how much they annoy the [edit] out of me).  They are like family.

We all know the Biblical verses of love.  But it is so much more.

I pray that every person has the chance to discover the pure joy of love in their journey through this life.  Even in the darkness we can find it.  And while sometimes it slips from our grasp as our paths intersect and diverge from one another, it is better to love and have it lost than to never have experienced love at all.

God Bless and PEACE

Why Am I Not Laughing?

I have a confession:  Yesterday I threatened to hurt somebody.  Their response: Calm down.  “It’s just a joke.”  I walked away without saying anything else, in fear of saying something that couldn’t be taken back.  I’m looking back now and wondering why, if it was a joke, I am not laughing.

It’s a stupid thing, but it seems like too many people are making the same “joke” and it is no longer something fun, but it feels more malicious than it used to be.

I take pride in who I am.  Where I’ve been.  I accept who I was yesterday because it has made me who I am today.  And so many times I feel that past is called into question.  If feels as if others are trying to force me to choose between accepting who I was and still am, and the person they expect me to be now that I am here.

It’s a simple thing when you look at it.  Here in the ERT we have pride in our program.  And in some ways people take the stance that this is the best AmeriCorps program out there.  The way I see it, this is the best program for who I am now, in this moment.  And many times this thought process goes to our heads.  We look down on other programs.  We belittle them.  Put them in their place.

The simple fact is that I am (and will always be) a “N-Trip.”  I was a Corps Member in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).  This isn’t something that I used to be, but it is who I am.  I made the pledge to “Carry this commitment with me this year, and beyond.”  I am also a Team Leader through FEMA Corps.  Nothing can change that.

In that pride, I still sport my NCCC A’s.  The uniform that made me who I am. But recently I’ve been challenged time and time again to change who I am.  I’m told that I need to mark out the NCCC on the A, because it’s “not who you are.”  Or “You’re not an N-Trip anymore.”  Or that it’s an inferior program, below us.  “You are better than that.”  But I stand firm.

After yesterday’s comment of “It’s just a joke,” I’m coming to realize that it’s really not.  It may have started out as one, but it’s gone on way too long.

And I begin to think of how many times in the rest of our lives that we make people uncomfortable with what we feel are jokes.  We don’t see the individual cringe, or flinch.  We don’t recognize their discomfort even though it’s right in front of us.

We need to learn to step back and realize when others aren’t laughing.  And then we may see that we are no longer joking.

God Bless and PEACE

The Indifference of Good Men

If you have never seen the movie Boondock Saints, I suggest that you think a long time before you decide to play it on whatever screen you choose.  It is not a beautiful movie.  At times it is a difficult movie to watch due to the extravagant amount of cursing, violence, and bloodshed.  But at the same time it is a beautiful movie that forces you to think.  And if you watch closely and open your ears, you might catch some of the symbolism that flows off the screen.

In the opening scene, the Monsignor gives a sermon that should challenge each and every single one of us.  It goes as follows:

… and I am reminded on this holy day, of the sad story of Kitty Geneviese.  As you all may remember, a long time ago, almost thirty years ago, this poor soul cried out for help time and time again but no person answered her calls.  Though many saw, no one so much as called the police.  They all just watched as Kitty was stabbed to death in broad daylight.   They watched as her assailant walked away.  Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most.  And that is the indifference of good men.

The indifference of good men.  When we know we should act, but yet something holds us back.

I was told many years ago that the devil doesn’t want us to fight him or his demons.  He wants us to sit back and do nothing.  That is the only way that he will win the war for our hearts and souls.

We don’t want to get involved.  We convince ourselves that it isn’t our fight.  We tell ourselves that it is safer to watch from a distance.

It doesn’t have to be murder.  Maybe it is the blind man who I have seen walking down the sidewalk.  Maybe it is the old gentleman who just wants to tell you his story.  Maybe it is the kid that everyone makes fun of at school.  Or the single mother trying to make ends meet.

It doesn’t really matter what the battle is.  In that moment, our hearts know that we should act.  But we don’t have the time.  We have places we’d rather be.  We are struggling ourselves.

One of the things that I have been learning (or trying to learn) is how to trust your heart.  That gut feeling you have about a situation, when you must decide to do something or nothing at all.  I believe that many times it is God pulling at our hearts, giving us the choice and chance to follow him.

You never know what joy you may discover.  The stories you will hear.  The lives you may save.

The greatest evil that the world will ever see is not the violence that floods our society or the hate that fuels the wars, nor is it the lust that consumes our society.  But it is the indifference that has consumed our hearts, forcing us to do nothing.

Just a thought…

God Bless and PEACE

The Words of the Past

At some point over a year ago (during the spring of 2012) I wrote a letter to myself in my sketchbook.  The words are honest, straight forward and, at times, harsh to read because they are the truth.  I found it again while I was “retiring” my sketchbook and starting a new one.  I want to share it because the words spoken are a lesson to all of us with haunted pasts.

It goes as follows:

A letter to myself…

You may not get this in time, but I wanted to give you some advice on life, faith and love.  We look back and will always ask ourselves if we could have done things differently. I find myself in the same situation.  And I hope you eventually learn after experiencing al this for yourself.

You are strong because you know that your strength comes from God, but at the same time you doubt what God can do.  You need to learn to let go and step out in faith.  You want to be the barbarian, the warrior and the lover, but you are too afraid to open up your heart to love enough to be able to fight for something.  Anything.  You carry around your scars like a burden, but you’ve never learned from them.

Yes, you have hurt people in the past, but that shouldn’t keep you from loving to the fullest those that are in your life now.  By shielding yourself, you are pushing others away, hurting them more than you realize.  The root of the problem comes back to you, nobody else is to blame.  I know this may sound difficult, but you cannot continue living this way.

You don’t trust yourself.  There are things in your past that still haunt you.  Things you never did, even though they seemed so easy at the time.  Things that you never got the chance to say.  People whom you were never able to forgive, so you never forgave yourself for things that never happened.  You stood on the edge of darkness, looking in, but you never leapt.  You realized what was important in life, but you made that darkness, that evil part of who you were, who you are.

You died the day that you became a child of God, reborn into his Kingdom.  So why are you still carting things that don’t matter around with you?  You couldn’t do anything more than what you did.  You loved to the fullest.  That is the past.  God is leading you forwards, if you don’t keep your eyes ahead you will stumble again and misplace your feet.

You fear the things that God opened your eyes to in Africa.  You will always hear her cries.  Embrace them and let that carry you to change the world.  You can’t let it hold you back.  In Joplin, you flinched, but found yourself exactly where you were needed.  The images will never go away, but you must understand that there is nothing more you can do.  You cannot dwell on the past.

Give yourself some time to heal.  Step back and regroup.  And then trust that God knows what he is doing.  This isn’t the end, but just a moment in the journey.

God Bless and PEACE
STKerr

I share this because I feel that we all need to learn to let go and continue moving forwards.  The past may have made you who you are, but it shouldn’t define who you will be as we move forwards in this journey of life.

In this new sketchbook, bright and clean, I have written another letter to myself.  Maybe in time I will look back and remember the words of wisdom that I once wrote…

God Bless and PEACE