I Choose Peace

dogI’m not usually afraid of anything.  Really.  There are things I don’t like- the dentist’s drill, high places, the idea that there might be a shark swimming around me when I’m in the ocean- but generally, I don’t get scared.

I’m not sure when this happened, because as a child there were things that made me shake in my boots.  I hated scary movies and was fearful of snarling dogs (but that’s a story that involves a trained police dog and a scar to be told at another time.)  Sister Lucien’s death grip on my arm made me wish I had never been born.  My mother’s steely glare when I talked back froze me in my steps. And I was afraid of Donald Routhier, a bully who was four years older and at least four feet taller than I and would block my path with his bicycle.  My older sister gave him a bloody nose once and that was the last I heard of him. For all I know, he may have turned out to be the kindest man around, but when I was eight years old, he turned my blood to ice.

When I went to college, I became an RA, and with my position came a new-found bravado.  I was a skinny twenty-year-old with no training in self-defense, but I had confidence, and was fearless when it came to breaking up drunken brawls and kicking misbehaving townies out of the dorms.

Once I had children, I realized that fear is not a word for mothers.  A mother cannot be afraid of thunderstorms, or bad dreams, or monsters under the bed.  She has to be confident during the administration of flu shots, casts and sutures.  She cannot show fear when putting her first grader on the bus, or watching her daughter aim for the final free shot before the buzzer, or listen to her seventh grader strain to hit the first note of his solo in the Christmas concert.  And although the tears are hot against her eyes, she cannot let worry show as she waves goodbye to a child on a plane to faraway places.

I’ve had lots of practice being fearless.  I’m not afraid to walk alone at night, or stay by myself, or drive across the country.  I’m the person at work who confronts angry customers.  I even went into a smoke house at the Massachusetts Fire Academy when IPicture 031 was older than most of the instructors. Well, okay, it was very controlled danger, but still, there was fire and smoke and high places, so it counts.

Tomorrow is different.  I’ve had a nervous knot in my stomach for days.  It’s not that I’ve never had surgery before.  Indeed I’ve had several.  But this time it’s a little more invasive, with a lot longer recovery time.  Maybe it’s because the surgeon is young enough to be my son. Or that I’m old enough to be his mother.  I’ve planned this well.  My apartment is spotless. My job is covered.  I have books to read and food in the freezer.  Friends and relatives have wished me well.  I should be all set.

But I’m filled with fear.  I’m afraid of post-operative pain and sharing a hospital room and of something going wrong.  Panic rises in my throat and I want to run away.  I want to be home in the house at 30 Green Street where everything is made all better by the sound of laughter at the dinner table.  I want to feel my mother’s cool hand on my forehead and I want to hear the jingle of the change in my father’s pocket.  I want to have Greta nuzzle her collie shepherd nose under my arm so I can get her a treat.  I want to be snuggled in an easy chair, nursing one of my newborn children.  I want to be young and strong and fearless again.  I want to be calm.  I want to have peace.

I’ve wrestled with this for a few days and then this afternoon it dawned on me.  Fear and peace do not come from people and situations.  The scenarios that scared me as a child still exist.  There are still bullies and snarling dogs and angry people.  The reality of tomorrow is that I will be put to sleep and surgery will be performed.  But the fear that I feel is not from the surgery itself.  It comes from within me.  The surgery is not within my control.  My fear is.

And peace?  It comes from within as well.  Peace did not come from the house at 30 Green Street.  It did not come from my parents or a sleeping baby.  The peace I seek is dove from God himself.  Inside me.  It was granted to me long ago, and it too is in my control.  I can either let it flow, or I can squelch it with the “what ifs.”

So today, I choose to count on the God who has always been there to lead me.  If I’m right, the kid surgeon who looks like he should still be in high school will clean up my spine enough so I can walk the beach next summer.  If not, then God will lead me through the next adventure.  In any case, I choose peace.

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What I Learned from Being a VISTA- A.K.A.”Figure It Out!”

My “goodby and good luck” party. I’m at the far right.

When I was twenty-four years old, I joined VISTA.  I was a child of the 60s and enthusiastically gulped JFK’s Ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you-ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country-Kool-Aid.  Initially, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but after talking to the recruiter, settled on Volunteers In Service To America- VISTA.

In 1978, VISTAs worked for $340 a month plus food stamps.  From this budget, volunteers were expected to pay for their own housing, transportation, medication and personal items.  It was not high living, but I had grown up pinching pennies so I was confident that I would be able to manage.

Once I signed up, I eagerly awaited my first “project”- a description of an assignment at a specific location that I could either accept or decline.  I had requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest and was particularly interested in Alaska, since I had never seen that part of the country.  To my surprise, the first project sent to me was in East Harlem, New York City- not exactly the Pacific Northwest.

I declined that project and the next, but finally was offered a position in Boise, Idaho.  I accepted and several months later, flew across the country for a week of pre-service orientation in Seattle, Washington, followed by a train ride to Boise. 

My fellow VISTAs and me at Pre-service Orientation. Not sure what I was thinking with that hair…

I arrived at midnight and was picked up at the station by a fellow VISTA named Ann, who was supposed to provide housing for me for the next week or two, while I found suitable housing.  She led me to a guest room, where I fell into an uneasy sleep, excited about what the next day would hold.

In the morning, Ann hesitantly told me that her husband had decided he did not want me to stay with them and I needed to leave immediately.  I was crushed.  He hadn’t even met me.  I was three thousand miles from home with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, and I didn’t know a soul. I had less than a hundred dollars in my wallet.  There were no computers, and no cell phones.  I had no car, and no way to get home.  I was stranded. I felt lost.  And abandoned. And very alone.

I did what any calm, confident young woman would do in the same circumstances.  I locked myself in the guest room and cried.  I wished I had never signed up for VISTA.  I wished I was still living at 30 Green Street.  I wanted to be where I jockeyed with my siblings for time in the bathroom. I wanted to hear my father’s smoker’s cough announce his arrival home at the end of a work day.  I wanted to trip over our dog, Greta, who had a habit of lying in front of the porch entry.  I wanted to smell coffee brewing in the kitchen.  I wanted my own pillow.  But mostly, I wanted my mother.  I wanted to search her soft gray eyes for answers.  I wanted to feel her strong arms around my shoulders, and hear her reassuring laugh.

But my mother was not there with me.  The reality of this brought a fresh stream of tears. They rolled down my cheeks and spattered on my jeans.  They turned my eyes red and my face splotchy, and brought sobs so deep that I had to muffle them in a pillow so Ann would not hear.

Finally, the sobs subsided.  I sat on the bed and wondered what my mother would say and in the emptiness of Ann’s guest room, I could almost hear her voice.

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And that’s what I did.  I dried my eyes.  I picked up my suitcase and guitar, left Ann’s house and wandered through Boise’s residential areas until I came across a big white house with a sign in the window that said “Room for rent.”

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and  knocked on the door, and a half hour later was settled in a small room with pink walls and a tiny three-quarter en-suite bath which was to be my home for the next several months.

It is now 2012. In the years since those first days as a VISTA, there have been many storms, and many times I have felt uncertain.  Often I have wished I were back in the old house on 30 Green Street.  I have longed to hear my father’s cough.  I’ve wished to step over Greta lying on the front porch, and I have ached to  look into my mother’s soft gray eyes, or feel her strong arms around my shoulders.  But in those times when my steps are unsure, when I feel abandoned and alone, I remember that I was once that skinny twenty-four-year-old who was three thousand miles from home and heard her mother’s voice say,

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And I do.

Taking Chances

When I was in college, I had an opportunity to go rock climbing.  A few guys from my dorm invited me to go to the mountains and climb rock walls with them. These were not the man made walls with strategically engineered hand and foot holds.  These were the rock walls that were created by Mother Nature- the kind where you use pitons, harnesses and ropes.  I was afraid of heights. I was afraid that I wasn’t strong enough.  I was afraid of looking like a fool.  I declined.

This has been one of my greatest regrets, not because I thought I would end up being a diehard rock climber, but because I passed up an adventure in order to save face.  Since I was a child, I hated the idea of being laughable or ridiculous.  I avoided situations in which I wasn’t comfortable, even walking away from college chorus auditions for fear I would not make the cut.  I got stomach aches during relay races.  I would no-show parties I had agreed to attend.  I feared anything that might risk failure, and I developed a pattern of avoidance as a form of self protection.

Now, at fifty-something, I have come to conclusion that refusing to do things outside one’s comfort zone is a recipe for a lifetime of regrets, and regrets are far worse than failure.  And that is why last week, I went to fire school.

I was introduced to the concept by the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal, whom I had interviewed on a rainy day in April.  He suggested I visit the Academy while a class was in session.  I could interview some fresh-faced recruits and observe some of their training. 

“And,” he added, “We’ll dress you up and throw you in the smokehouse.”

The smokehouse is the towering gray structure found on most firefighting training sites.  Appearing to be nothing but a big cement box on the outside, the inside consists of intricate rooms, hallways and staircases.  Fires are set in multiple areas, and trainees sent in to put out the fires.  It is all very controlled. What could happen?

“Sure,” I agreed, and several weeks later, the arrangements were made.  But the day before my appointment, I wondered what I had done.   By the time most firefighters are my age, they are chiefs, or retired.  I am a middle-aged woman with more sags and bulges than muscles.  My workouts consist of a leisurely walk on the Gazelle, a few crunches and lifting five pound weights. The old fears rose again.  I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  I have arthritis in my back.  I’m not young and strong anymore. And mostly, I would look ridiculous.

But the decision had been made.  To back out now would be more humiliating than going forward.  I would have to admit failure to myself and my friends, and most importantly, to my younger brother Eric, who has been my support and confidant on this writing project journey.  So, quivering courage in hand, on Thursday morning I drove to the academy where I was introduced to Bruce, a grinning bald giant who would be my guide for the day.  He cheerfully got me fitted with gear- bunker pants, coat, boots, gloves, hood, mask, Scott pack and helmet.  Then he introduced me to Mike, who would be my guide inside the smokehouse.

“Make sure the seal of your mask is tight.  Wiggle your butt every 30 seconds or your alarm will go off.  Slide your boots along the floor so you don’t trip.  Ready?”

“Yeah.  Ready.” 

As I stepped inside the door, I had the same sensation that I experienced when I was a four-year-old waiting to start a quarter-midget race.  My older sister had been a great racer.  They called her Lead Foot.  I, on the other hand, was a Pee Wee, and had to be propped with pillows in order to reach the pedals.  I would clutch the steering wheel while my father gave me last minute instructions that I didn’t understand.  The next thing I knew, I would be whirling around a track, the faces of spectators spinning like the colors in a kaleidoscope.  I usually lost focus and spun into the hay bales.  I can’t really say that I liked racing, but to refuse- to sit out- would be the ultimate embarrassment.

Mike closed the door behind us.  Inside was the darkest dark I had ever experienced.  The walls and floors were invisible, and the only things I could identify were the massive brown billows of smoke and the orange flames that leapt from burning piles of straw.  I lifted a hand in front of my mask but all I could see was black.  The crackle of fire and the banging of hoses against metal steps were punctuated by the cadence of my air regulator. 

Mike tried twice to take me down the stairs, but the fire was too strong and we had to back off.  As we waited in a corner, I realized that I wasn’t at all scared. This was actually fun. I began to relax and trust him as he led me around the building.  We waited for the recruits to get closer to the fire, and I could feel the increasing heat creep up my back.  The clicking and hissing of my air regulator quickened, and Mike told me to get down on my knees where the temperature was cooler. 

“God,” I thought, as I crouched down.  “I won’t be able to get up.  How embarrassing!” Immediately I began to feel a shroud of self devaluation that was darker and thicker than the air around me.   I tried to rise, but the bulk of the bunker pants and the weight of my gear made it impossible.   I repositioned, tried again, and failed again.  “Crap!” I realized. “I’m going to have to ask for help.”

I leaned over to Mike and yelled, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  He chuckled a bit, reached out his hand and pulled me up.  That was it.  There was no humiliation.  No embarrassment.  No sense of failure.  Instead, I emerged from the smokehouse with a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration. 

No, I am not young and strong like the recruits who actually put out fires.  I will never pull hoses through the stairwells and open windows that belch smoke so acrid that you taste it for days.  I won’t save people or property.  I won’t climb ladders and pour gallons of water on flames that light the sky and eat everything in their paths.

 But last Thursday I looked a life-long enemy in the face and beat it.  It feels good, and though I’ll never be a hero, I’m okay.  Bring on the next challenge.

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