Archive for December, 2015

What a Year!

It has been a long, exhausting journey these past twelve months. There has been extreme joys, beautiful memories, and a parting of friends to all the corners of the world. There have been the pain of growth and the love of family defined by the blood, sweat, and tears shed side by side with one another.

I look back and I smile because the memories are good. And as the year comes to a close, we reflect back at who we were and what we have become.

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The majority of my year was filled with the experiences of AmeriCorps. I finished my second year as a member of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was my fourth and final year of service with AmeriCorps. One cannot put into words the happiness (and struggles) of running around in the woods with individuals that I have come to know as more than friends, but an extended family born out of hard work, laughter, and complete and utter silliness.

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I spent (what seemed like) months working alongside the Missouri Dept of Conservation at the Peck Ranch Wildlife Refuge, constructing fireline through the use of backpack blowers and through the process of felling snags and hazard trees.

It was hard work, but through the company of great people, we made it fun. We spent days running chainsaws, learning from experience, and growing together. Yes, I broke the plastic casing to a GoPro (the final tree in the video above) but it was awesome, none the less.

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I also spent a month (or more) down at Roaring River State Park restoring glades in the back hills of the park. My team had the opportunity to set fire to hundreds of burn piles that were created by others, even though we ended up chasing a couple run-away fires up the hillside. There is nothing better than hiking a mile and a half through the woods in 70 degree weather to burn a couple piles, only to return a week later through the snow and light off over 100 piles, all before lunch.

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I also discovered the different methods of lighting off burn piles. Most of the time, we were advised to keep the fires small and manageable, so the flames were no more than 6 feet tall. Other times the burn piles that we created were up to ten feet tall and lit off from a distance with old diesel fuel, allowing the flames to reach high into the sky. As seen in the photo above, we are standing about 30-40 feet away from the burn pile behind us and were still feeling the heat.

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The opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps is more than a journey of hard work and enjoyable experiences, it is a path of self-discovery. I got to have long conversations with my teammates about life, love, and our purpose in the world. We stayed up late into the evenings watching the setting sun as we learned about one another and ourselves. It is a safe place to express your thoughts without the fear of judgement, a place where you can grow through the thoughts of others and be a sounding board for others.

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As our year of service was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to depart Missouri and make my way up to Montana for several weeks before the rest of the Corps arrived for the end of year celebrations. The six of us piled into a single truck, packed to the brim with supplies and tools, and drove the three days into the mountain wilderness we called home. I worked and camped off the trail in a trailer with three other second years and two amazing ladies who were crazy enough to decide to return the following year to help teach and lead their teammates and assist the program to grow.

We did more than work and play together. We explored. We sang. We made crazy (and funny) videos. Lets just say that Montana was filled with great friendships that continue to grow, despite the distance that separates us now.

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One of our biggest projects in Montana is trail clearing and maintenance. Every year, hundreds of thousands of trees fall in the woods (even more due to the pine bore beetle). A fraction of those land on a trail at some point. We spent weeks hiking hundreds of miles as we cleared trails, including parts of the Continental Divide Trail.

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Many of the trails that we cleared headed right up into the mountains and ended up at beautiful views, glacial lakes, and mountain peaks. On good days, we would be able to spend a little bit of time at the top as we ate lunch (or a snack) and rested our feet before turning around and heading back down the mountain.

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I also received the opportunity to work alongside an amazing group of retired smoke jumpers and two other second year members who are some of my closest friends. We camped out at the cabin and assisted in rebuilding the fence that encircled the area to keep out stray animals and unwanted vehicles. We were basically the pack mules, hauling the logs and fallen trees in from the woods that were used for the jacks and rails.

These guys were awesome. We hung out after work listening to their stories and their adventures as some of the elite wildland  firefighters, and discussed how much has changed since the days they fought fire in the wilderness.

Since departing from AmeriCorps I have wandered far and wide. I spent several months in the process of searching for a job. I put in what seemed like hundreds of applications, from positions with the USFS, DNR, State Parks, and Dispatch positions from Alaska to Flordia, Hawaii to Maine, and everywhere in between. I had several places contact me back for interviews, before I eventually was offered a position with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina as a Telecommunication Operator.

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I started my new position the week after Thanksgiving, where I got to gather with some of my family in Athens with my grandparents.

Looking back, this year has been a blessing of hope and persistence. I continue to write and go through the process of editing Journeys: the adventures of a Nomad. I have started the Drawing Challenge with my cousin, a project to keep us both active in our sketchbooks. I have continued with the 52 Week Photo Challenge Course (this is the last week) and look forward to continuing with the Critique Group in the next year.

I will continue to explore. I will continue to have adventures. And I will continue to learn to live and love to the fullest.

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What They Don’t Know

I recently started a new job down in South Carolina, working along side the Anderson Co. Sheriff’s Department in the 911 Call Center and Dispatch Office. In the first couple days, I was witness to some of the struggles and turmoil that comes from being a part of the family that is the thin blue line that stands together. As a position that is shielded from the physical trauma of every day disasters, dispatchers are on the front line of the emotional and spiritual trauma.

On one of my first days of training, I was told that (most) everyone who works in the dispatch office was medicated. I was told that some receive professional help, while others self medicate. When I stated that I don’t drink, I was told that, eventually, I will.

I’ll pause for a moment to state that I enjoy working at the call center. It is challenging, engaging, and draining, but at the same time, it is a place where I have the opportunity to grow and succeed with individuals who already support me. I love going to work each morning and look forward to each 12 hour shift because the people I work with are amazing. Crazy and insane, but all good, supportive individuals.

But I didn’t tell them the words that were pulling at my heart when they said that I would need some type of help, some type of medication, to handle the stress and vicarious trauma that comes with the job: You don’t know me.

I didn’t tell them that I still have nightmares where I hear a mothers cry. I didn’t tell them that I still see the child dying of malaria in that room. I didn’t tell them that I have been paralyzed by fear in the past, and I carry that fear with me every single day. I didn’t tell them that I have seen the darkness within me and I have risen above it.

I wanted to tell them that they do not know me. They don’t know who I am, what has shaped me. They don’t know the fears and events that give me strength each and every day.

At the same time, I know myself well enough that I understand there are times when I will not be able to make it on my own. I didn’t get through the dark times alone. It was through the support of family and friends that I have had the strength to overcome the dark events of the past. It was my faith that allowed me to see that these events happened for a reason. And it was through the process of expression and understanding that I discovered how to make these tragedies, these fears of mine into some of my greatest strengths.

They don’t know me. But I hope in time, they come to discover who I have become.

Silence Is Violence

I have served with many people from around the world. Through my time with AmeriCorps, I served with friends who came from big cities and small towns across the nation, from Alaska and Hawaii to Florida and Maine (even a dual-citizen from Germany); these individuals became my family for four of the past five years. They are black and white, Hispanic and Native American. They are Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Christians, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccans, and self-proclaimed confused. I have friends and family that follow the tenants of Buddhism, the teachings of Mohammad and Jesus, and the new age beliefs of the free spirits.

My family comes from across the seas, stretching across the world, and from my own back yard. I have served beside them. Sat with them in conversation. Ate meals together. Cried with them. Danced together. Fought with one another. And listened to both their words and their silence. From them, I have learned to love and to live to the fullest.

A little over a week ago, I logged onto social media and noticed that one of my friends made the statement: “Silence is Violence.” His point was that when we remain silent, we are fueling and empowering those who seek to spread fear, lies, and hatred. Good men are those who take a stand for what they believe, especially when staying quiet is the safer option.

We have been too silent for too long. I have been too silent and it is time to stand with my brothers and sisters.

I started writing a post about a week ago that I had titled “American Terrorism” but I never finished it. I started writing it after I saw a video shared online where a man stood before his community and proposed the construction of a Mosque and community center. He was interrupted by a member of the crowd who proceeded to accuse him and all Muslims as terrorists. My heart sunk as the community members in the crowd clapped and cheered this man on, as he spread hatred and fear.

I never finished that post because later that evening, the mass shooting and act of terrorism made front page news as live coverage followed the tragedy in San Bernardino. We watched as a mother and father chose hatred and fear over love.

We have seen many tragic acts of terrorism over these past couple weeks. From Paris to Mali, Europe to the Middle East. Across Africa and onto our own shores here in the United States. By remaining voiceless, we allow the fear and hatred to spread farther than the reaches of their violence.

I put no stock in religion. By the word religion, I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. Holiness is in right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires in in your thoughts and in your heart. And what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.
– the Hospitaler, from The Kingdom of God

Actions define us. When we choose love and forgiveness over hatred and fear, we receive it in turn.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is filled with hate and fear. We have political figures who are instigating hatred because they are afraid of something that they do not agree with. We have members of the media who turn a blind eye to terrorism committed by individuals who claim to be Christians because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the radicalized jihad. We have individuals who feel that the only way they will be heard is if they kill, maim, and shed blood through violence.

It doesn’t matter what their beliefs are or what faith they have chosen to follow. Anyone who uses violence and fear as a tool in the attempts to force their beliefs, opinions, or way of life onto those around them is a terrorist. Anyone who claims that their religion and/or beliefs have called them to take action and kill indiscriminately is a terrorist. Even if they have absolutely no connections to ‘organized’ terrorist organizations.

The simple fact is that there are people willing to kill here in our country. Individuals who threaten violence on others. There are men and women who have taken it upon themselves to stand out in front of mosques with guns and terrorize the families who wish to worship freely. There are individuals I know who have spoken of taking up arms against members of their own communities. This is the reality of ‘Christian’ terrorism.

I can go on: Anti-abortion activists who threaten medical personnel who provide care to those in need. These are the same people who shout and scream at innocent women who seek medical care, without knowing their personal stories and struggles. And this acceptance of verbal abuse shows people that it is okay to hate. And okay to use fear to push their agenda. And this leads to physical violence.

And those of us who do not speak up against these actions, we are part of the problem.

Someone once told me that bad men triumph when the good men do nothing. This is the time for us to take a stand. Not just against the members of ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Taliban, but against the hate speech of American citizens, the fear spread by the media, and the attempts to alienate a religion by Islamophobics around the world.

As a follower of Christ, I detest violence. Those who kill by the sword will die by the sword. Better to love unconditionally and learn to accept forgiveness into our hearts.

But we still must learn to fight the good fight. And the first step is to stop being silent.

Note: There is a difference (that I might get to in a later post) between using force to defend yourself and violence.