Who We Now Are

When I started drafting this poem, at 8:50 pm, 28 March, there were 120,025 US cases, and 2,042 deaths. When I finished at 1:07 pm on 29 March, just over 16 hours later, there were 130,156 US cases, and 2,298 deaths.

256 people stopped breathing in those 16 hours and succumbed to COVID-19.

Please think of this while you read.

Who We Now Are

by Rus VanWestervelt

It’s a little after 8, and I leave my house for some carryout food
Handed to me through small windows in drive-thrus,
Gloved minimum-wagers suddenly serving the masses;
On the front lines to make sure we get our burgers and fries

With a smile.

The air is heavy out here, as is the silence.
No planes up in the sky, no cars along the streets.
The hum of the machine silenced by what we cannot see
Creeping and crawling through our worlds
While we play our desperate games of lockdowns, quarantines, and let’s shelter in place.

Brick and mortars all locked up with hand-scribbled signs spewing CDC lines
Littered with various misspellings of “inconvenience” and “apologies.”
Empty lots yawn where lights seep into long expanses of soiled, solid sand.
There were cars here once, pods-in-wait as shoppers passed the time of day,
Meandering here and there as if time were eternal.

Now: Where we can, we stand in lines and look at those around us –
Horizontal deep-sixers like we are all walking in linear, eventual graves;
And we wonder as we stare unblinking into the eyes of others, as heavy as the silence that hangs around us,
If they are The Infected.

Stores play on loops the same dystopian messages in baritone voices:
“Keep your distance. Touch no one. Wash your hands.”
P.S.: “We care.”

As I leave the somber storefronts I step over biohazards scattered on the ground:
discarded masks and gloves turned inside out, ripped from dirty hands and mouths
tossed aside like used condoms in forgotten motels.

PUI Teams* beg and plead for more N95s
While politicians play more games as more people die.
They battle in the streets across state lines, bickering for vents
To vendors vying for sales, throwing in body-bag specials to sweeten the deal.

Back on the road where rush hours ceased long ago:
Six lanes of traffic, no lanes going slow.

Gas falls to a buck-eighty-five and we fill up our tanks with nowhere to go.

Our pockets are filled with loose change and yesterday’s receipts,
Folded ones that no one wants.

Classrooms are sterile, empty wastelands while teachers navigate lessons online.
As students wonder in their own unchartered fright what their own futures hold.

Our fear-driven brains look for these things,
A surviving sweep of things to avoid, leaving us with empty days indoors.
Wondering. Pondering. Drowning in doubt and despair that we push out
Into dimly lit hallways, lined with shadows of the things we shed in desperation.

But, please! If we can offer ourselves just a moment’s pause, a second listen
That sends the sweet songs of spring birds amidst the blooming cherry blossoms,
The sights of in-this-together nods of passersby on the street’s other side.

These twenty years we have been asked to embrace the new normal,
Have hope in dark hours while the world spins out of control.
But these are our hours where we must force ourselves to see things anew,
Embrace colors and sounds redefined in unbridled gestures of what we did not know.

The hope we hold before us lies on untravelled paths;
What we do in this journey forward relies not on where we have been

But on who we now are.

*PUI Teams: Patient-Under-Investigation Teams in first-responder systems

No Big Deal

15 January 2020

Hi.

Once again, it’s been awhile. I know, I know. I come back every now and then, posting some grandiose statement about my intentions or about the meaning of life. I then share it on my social media feeds and wait to see if anybody’s reading my stuff.

As Carly Simon sings: Anticipation…..

I’m embarrassed by my vanity.

Anyway, I was looking through my entries from years ago (I think I wrote this very line in a previous post lamenting about my lack of posting), and I realized (for the first time? Second? Fifteenth?) that I really cut my teeth on writing here in my earlier years of writing and publishing. I took some risks, sharpened my voice, and – maybe most importantly – showed up rather regularly to establish a steady writing routine.

It’s time to return to those roots, with a few changes.

Before I get to those, though, I want to talk a little about the importance of returning to the raw essence of self. I wrote a whole book about this (Fossil Five, if you haven’t read it yet), and still I find myself lured to pleasing the masses so desperately, even if in subtle ways. Don’t get me wrong- my words are authentic and genuine, but I daresay I refresh my feeds a little too much to see how those words are being received.

I think many of us are in this together, but I also think there are more than a few of you out there who do a much better job than most in keeping the ego in a jar by the door as you live your life without wondering what the world thinks of you.

I aspire to Simplify, Simplify, Simplify and follow the words of Thoreau, to live life a little more intentionally and simply, without all of the fanfare of updates, likes, and emojis.

Intended story of my life.

But that’s okay. I keep coming back to it, like the Narrator in Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, who returns periodically to the Hempstock Farm for reasons he cannot remember (and for good reason, but I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who have it next on your list after you finish Fossil Five, <wink><wink>). It’s like anything else, really. You know where the center is, and you know it’s really good to be very close to it, but you stray anyway. Life carries you here and there, until you remember that there’s something important waiting for you back there. So you go. You return. And you discover all over again why the center is good.

I guess the key for me (and for all of us, if we’re to be honest) is to figure out how to stay there once we’ve returned.

*sigh*

Back to those changes I mentioned a few words ago.

In the time of the origins of the core of who I am, way back there when The Grateful Dead were hitting their ’70’s stride, and Zeppelin, Styx, and Foreigner were paving their own paths, I wasn’t writing for social media or likes. I was just grinding out poetry and prose that sounded good to me. I didn’t really care what others thought.

And that, my friends, is how you develop an authentic voice.

I think that, by not writing here like I used to in the “old” days, I’ve lost some of that primal writing. You get rusty when you’re not in practice for the right reasons. You get rusty when you write more for the pleasure of others (and likes, and emojis) than you do when you are writing more authentically for yourself.

It’s the difference in having you over for Christmas dinner (do you like how my crystal shines?) and keeping the door open for you to stop by whenever is good for you (don’t mind my dirty socks there under the couch…).

That’s the way I’ll be here. And no tags, no categories, no big pushes to other platforms. It’s nothing but me as you see me from here on out.

So I’m going to do my best in being “just only me” and leaving the door open for you to pop your head in every now and then. I’m not going to post to the social circles that I’ve pub’d another piece here; if you find me, stay awhile.

Otherwise, I’ll see you when I see you. No big deal.

Peace!

The Fragile Balance between Writing and Publishing

For writers, the balance between writing and publishing is a fickle act where mind games play as big a role as anything else.

For me, I just published my largest work to date, Fossil Five, a 436-page novel that was crafted over a period of 5 years and 10 months. I should be on top of the world with delight, and to a large extent – I am.

But I took a detour this morning to the bottom of my blog, which I started in 2005, nearly a full year before the social media site Facebook went public in late September 2006. In my earliest entries, and leading up to when I started working on my book in 2013, my published posts evolved into rather authentic pieces that engaged a small but consistent group of readers.

After that, my entries fell flat and were sporadic at best. My energies had flowed to a different kind of writing: the novel. It’s not that I really regret any of it; what I have done, however, is recognize a greater need for balance in my writing life. I’m happy that my novel is out, but I’m unhappy that my online writing suffered as a result.

I’ve been publishing elsewhere recently, so it’s not like I have been slacking in that area. And my daybooking has flourished in recent years. So why am I so upset about the lack of blogging I’ve been doing?

Excellent question.

The better we get at this thing called writing, the better we should get at adding – not replacing – the venues where we share our work, and how, and with whom. If we were gymnasts, would it be okay if we swapped out a forward walkover when we mastered the back handspring? Of course not. We improve as athletes, or writers, when we learn how to add skills and opportunities to be better at what we do.

We can not replace one for the other, especially now when the demands are greater than ever to publish as frequently as possible for an ever-craving readership that demands fresh material be in the wings and ready to be consumed as soon as the work du jour is completed.

I don’t think it’s being too harsh on ourselves, either. We need to be able to balance the writing we do behind the scenes with what we publish, and we need to do more – not less – of both.

Yes, there is a certain urgency as we get older to leave a trace, to share what we know and don’t know, to ponder what we have and have not experienced, and to offer a perspective of what we have learned, and what we still need to learn.

I am reminded of the grandfather in Jonathan Safran Foer’s postmodern novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where he is so afraid of not being able to say everything in a letter. The author illustrates this tragically by having the words and letters bunch up at the bottom of the page.

Turn the page, and the chapter ends in an all-black burial of urgent and unintelligible lines shared too late.

Simply put, he ran out of time.

We must strive harder to write and publish more, to strike a stronger balance between the two, so we are not so urgent to say what needs to be said, when we run out of space on the very mortal and terminal place at the end of our chapter.

It Comes Down To…. You

I’ve been reading a lot of Annie Dillard’s writing lately, and I stumbled upon a collection of essays she wrote about the writing life. It’s really unlike anything about writing that I’ve ever read. Dillard’s argument, to put it plainly, is that nobody really gives a darn about what you write. And if they do, it’s certainly nowhere near what you, as the writer, care about the work.

That’s some pretty dark, awakening news for us romantic hopefuls that our work is going to really make a difference. But she’s right; people who sell shoes have a far more important role in the lives of people who need to get from point A to point B, especially if they are walking the route.

In one paragraph, Dillon writes:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.

I could not agree more with Dillon’s sentiment. In writing Fossil Five, I have experienced that exhilaration and freedom.

But! In the very next paragraph, Dillon takes a needle the size of the Seattle landmark and obliterates whatever air we had left in our little ego:

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.

!

I’d like to think she is a little wrong here, but I don’t think she is. When Fossil Five releases, the people who have invested in the story will enjoy the swirl around it, and those close to them will like the peripheral swirl that touches them like the outer bands of a tired hurricane. If I am lucky, the story will resonate on some level, however briefly, and will bring some oxygen to the dying flame of old love. But I’m no fool. As much as I want the world to embrace this book and the message it sends, its blip on the radar will be brief, and I will already be immersed in that next exhilarating project in a world of freedom and wonderment.

Why? Because that is what I do. It’s really all I can do: share with the world a small snapshot of what I believe to be right, to be just, to be necessary in a world that is transforming to the antithetical, transverse image of everything I grew up to believe just a few decades ago.

And make no mistake: I know I am in the minority here, and I know some old fool was probably writing some mindless book back in the 80s, as desperately as I have written mine, to save the world from wild teens like myself.

What it really comes down to, in the end, is you. I write to feel attached to a world I am trying feverishly to hold on to and share with the younger generations. I cannot stop it. Even if, in the end, my handful of readers pat me on the back and buy me a beer, asking me about what’s next instead of what is, I know I did it because I had to.

So do you because you have to. Even if no one really notices, or cares, or celebrates. Do you. Because in the end, it really does…. come down to you.

Discovering Creative Ketosis

I’m on this new diet (I hate the connotations that are associated with that word; every one of us is on some kind of diet, right?). Anyway, it’s the Keto Diet, and I can’t have more than 27 (ideally 20) net carbs a day.

Perspective: I was downing probably 300 net carbs a day. So this is a big change for me.

The purpose of the diet, in simple terms, is to switch your body from burning carbs to burning fat. This is what is known as entering a state of ketosis, where your body becomes this incredible fat-burning machine. It’s magical, and it’s beginning to work for me.

But the transition has been tough. As my body goes through this adjustment into ketosis, it is very possible that it is resisting the change of burning carbs to burning fat. That might very well explain why I have been so fatigued these last few days. My body is searching for carbs to burn, and it hasn’t completely learned just yet that burning fat instead is a completely acceptable concept.

I’m feeling it kick in today, though, and it’s pretty magical, like I said.

A few weeks before I started the Keto Diet, I also decided to deactivate my Facebook and step away from most of the social media scene. I did this for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t like the energy it was taking away from my writing. I had a bad year last year, and I’m trying to reclaim my creative game.

At first, leaving Facebook was instantly liberating, but lately, I’ve been struggling with getting the creative juices flowing. Then  this morning, it struck me: I think the resistance I was feeling in my diet can be true as well about my transition from a social media life to a writer’s life (I’m not really saying that we need to choose one or the other, but in my situation, I’ve made such a choice).

There is resistance. My creative soul is looking for social media to feed its appetite, and it is just now learning that it can be far more healthy and productive by working on meaningful pieces like my novel, Fossil Five; my blog; and other original writings and creative works.

Here’s the point: The writer (or artist, or creative) strives to stay in a complete state of creative ketosis, where the mind, body, and soul are working optimally to produce the greatest works possible. This is the very essence of Samadhi, the state of superconsciousness, for the writer: Aware of all things, in all ways, to make the most of his or her creative journey toward polished products, whatever they may be.

I have said for some time that the energy we spend on social media takes away energy that could be better spent in healthy ways. Indeed, social media is nothing more than a high-carb fast food, filling us with nothing and leaving us feel, paradoxically, empty and bloated all day long.

So, as I continue to lose weight in this dietary state of ketosis, and as I continue to forego the energy-sucking platforms of social media and stay in creative ketosis, I am eliminating the “un-creative” carbs from my life in every way, allowing my body to burn optimal creative fuel for its energy: a heightened sense of awareness and mindfulness of all around me. It’s space that fosters healthy growth for my novel and other creative endeavors. The energy is pure, accessible, clean.

It takes time. Everything does. I’m glad I’m sticking with both.

If I Were A Speechwriter….

If I were a speechwriter, here’s what I would write for every politician, at every level, in our country.

To my Constituents:

The incidents of violence that are sweeping our nation are tragic, heartbreaking, and unnerving. There is no doubt that we have an epidemic in America that requires action beyond thoughts and prayers, no matter how sincere they might be.

This discussion among the members of our community and throughout America is passionate because of one overwhelming desire: To end the violence and bring innocence and opportunity back into the lives of our youngest generations.

But in that passion, in that spirit of finding solutions, we are becoming divisive to the degree that we are actually making the problem worse. We are creating a gridlock where we should be elevating our conversation toward solutions that make our schools, our sports events, our concerts, and our rallies safe places for all.

What is happening across America right now is no better than when politicians stand up and say, “Now is not the time to have this discussion.” If we can’t work together toward the right solutions right now, then we are only encouraging future tragedies to happen while we tangle and fight over rights and reactions.

Each and every one of you has the power and the responsibility to use that same energy in a way that will help our neighborhoods, our states, and our entire country become a land where we are safer, stronger, and healthier.

What I am proposing today is a five-fold process to help us reverse this trend in tragedies and make every single individual feel safer in our communities and throughout our country.

It’s not going to be easy. It requires us to discard the hate toward one another, to delete the memes and the messages that pit us against others, to end the belief that our problems can be solved by the creation of some magic legislation that will be the elixir to our problems. There is no quick fix. This problem did not happen overnight. We are not here today mourning the loss of another 17 innocent individuals because of one singular thing we did yesterday.

No. We need to see and own this epidemic for what it is and resolve to do something together to end the senseless violence.

First, we need to stop being so defensive and believing that the problem rests in one specific area. This is not just a mental illness problem, or a gun problem, or a parent problem, or a community problem. It is all of these things, and so much more. We must begin by dropping our defenses and understand that there is no careful selection here of who might be the next victim. It isn’t black versus white or gun owner versus peace activist. If we were to make a memorial quilt of the faces of the lives that have been silenced in the last year alone due to violence within our country, we would see that we are all vulnerable to the violence. We must begin with an understanding that the problem is bigger than any one of us.

Second, we need to stop being persuaded by large organizations who use a lot of money to protect their industries. Our meetings need to be without funding, without organizational support, and without agendas. We need to come to the table as open-minded individuals with one goal in mind: to raise children in communities that foster wellness. Each and every one of us needs to own this. To be clear: I strongly encourage organizations to get involved and work with us toward solutions; but if your agenda is defensive and derisive, if your agenda is more about profits than it is about saving lives, then your arguments and your money are not welcome here.

Third, we need to agree upon a process that requires involvement and engagement at all levels. I don’t believe there is anybody in our communities that would support the future slaughter of our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, especially in places where they should feel safe — whether that is at a night club, an open concert, or a school. The problems we face are not just because a person was bullied, or just because he or she had access to a gun, or just because social media played a role in developing a way of thinking. We need to be open-minded and see that this is not somebody else’s problem. If you live in the United States of America, then it is your problem as much as it is mine.

Fourth, we need to come to terms with common agreements that can begin today. How we raise our children, how we interact with others, how we use tools of social media, how we support one another, how we say something if we see something, how we embrace the most basic values of life, of liberty, and of the pursuit of happiness.

And we also need to come to terms with anger, and what access we have to weapons of personal and public destruction, and how we support individuals who feel like they have nowhere to turn. The words and actions we use toward one another matter. It isn’t cute or productive to bully someone on social media, call them names or mock them for their beliefs. This applies to our leaders as much as it might to anyone else in our schools, our businesses, our homes.

We run our lives too much on reactive emotion, and we must end the personal attacks and anonymous contributions to hatred and mockery.

Fifth, we need to act upon our common agreements in ways that are supportive, not defensive or derisive, and empower our youngest generations to use their gifts in ways that strengthen their community and their nation.

We don’t do that by going to war against the very people who are also fighting to protect the lives of others. We do that by understanding that our neighbors want the same outcome as we do; we just need to figure out how to get there together.

Some of the greatest messages that we have heard in recent days have come out of the minds and hearts of our youth. And some of them were the survivors in Parkland, Florida, who huddled together as their friends and teachers died around them. Even in the center of such horrific tragedy, they speak of peace, of ending violence, of making their environments safer — in their schools, their communities, their country.

We live in different times, and the solutions in the 70’s and 80’s just won’t work in the 21st Century. Every single individual, of every single generation, needs to end the blame game and forge a new possibility for all.

I need all of my constituents, no matter your age, to come to the table with that anger, with that passion, and use it together to end this horrific epidemic. It is time that we listen to the words of our children and join them in their efforts to make America a safer and more peaceful place for them and future generations.

I propose that our community leaders work directly with their own constituents on a monthly basis, if not more frequently. Provide space for solutions, tips, strategies, and open communication to provide that support, that forum for discussion and collaboration. Instead of us getting together for candlelight memorials and prayer vigils, let’s get together for coffee and conversation.

In these urgent hours, let’s end the fighting, the defensive posturing, and come to the table together. We are compassionate members of a community in crisis. Let us all act in ways that will end the violence and establish a stronger foundation, in each of our neighborhoods that stretch from coast to coast, for today as well as for tomorrow.

Baltimore Havens for Creatives

Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs are not lacking in places for creatives, but last Monday night, when I had an hour to myself to write, I struggled with the idea of where to go. I didn’t want to head to my local Starbucks (I have 11 – soon to be 12 – within 3 miles of my home), and I didn’t want to go any place where I couldn’t get into the vibe of the setting.

No offense, friends. Sometimes, we just need a place to go where we can write, or create, without interruption.

So I posed a simple question on Facebook, and I was inundated with the favorite places fellow writers and artists go to create, find some peace, and maybe a little of both.

Here’s a summary of their recommendations. Save this list, and visit these locations often. I hope to see you there, and if I do, the next cup of coffee’s on me (after we are finished creating, of course).

Cafes and Restaurants

Artifact Coffee, 1500 Union Ave., Baltimore (http://artifactcoffee.com/)

Atwater’s, locations in Towson and Belvedere Square, as well as Catonsville, Canton, and elsewhere (http://www.atwaters.biz/)

Barnes and Noble (http://bn.com)

Bean Hollow, 8059 Main St., Historic Ellicott City (https://www.yelp.com/biz/bean-hollow-ellicott-city)

The Bun Shop, 239 Read St., Baltimore (https://www.yelp.com/biz/the-bun-shop-baltimore)

Caffe Bene, 10039 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City (https://www.yelp.com/biz/caffe-bene-ellicott-city)

Common Ground Cafe, 819 W. 36th St., Baltimore (http://www.commongroundhampden.com/)

The French Twist Cafe in Sykesville (http://www.frenchtwistcafe.com/)

Red Emmas: The Greenmount Coffee Lab, Two locations at 20 W. North Ave. and 1400 Greenmount Ave. (in Open Works), Baltimore (https://redemmas.org/gcl)

Paper Moon Diner, 227 West 29th St., Baltimore (http://www.papermoondiner24.com/)

R House, 301 West 29th St., Baltimore (http://r.housebaltimore.com/)

Red Canoe Cafe, 4337 Harford Road, Lauraville, MD (http://redcanoecafe.virb.com/)

Rise Up Coffee, 618 Dover Rd., Easton, MD (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g41121-d3196546-Reviews-Rise_Up_Coffee-Easton_Talbot_County_Maryland.html)

Tous Les Jours, 9380 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City (http://www.tljus.com/)

Museums and Libraries

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore (https://artbma.org/)

College libraries (St. Mary’s, Goucher, Towson’s CLA building)

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Main location, Baltimore (http://www.prattlibrary.org/)

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (https://www.nga.gov/)

Natural Settings, Creative Spaces

Bon Secours, Marriotsville, MD (https://rccbonsecours.com/)

Commerce Street Creamery Cafe Bistro, 110 N. Commerce St.,  Centreville, MD (http://creamerycafebistro.com/)

Cromwell Valley Park, 2175 Cromwell Bridge Rd., Towson, MD (http://www.cromwellvalleypark.org/)

Cylburn Arboretum Association, 4915 Greenspring Ave., Baltimore, MD (http://cylburn.org/)

Idlewild Park, Easton, MD (http://eastonmd.gov/ParksAndRec/Idlewild.html)

Loch Raven Dam, Can be accessed from Cromwell Bridge Road Loch Raven Drive, and Morgan Mill Road, Hampton or Glen Arm, MD (http://lochraventrails.com/about-loch-raven-reservoir/)

Open Works, 1400 Greenmount Ave., Baltimore (http://www.openworksbmore.com/)

Own office space in PJs! We can never underestimate the power of the dining room table!

Root Studio, 9140 Guilford Rd., Suite D, Columbia, MD (https://www.therootstudio.org/) Another open space for creatives

Third Haven Meeting House, 405 S. Washington St., Easton, MD (http://www.thirdhaven.org/)

The Wood and Stone Retreat, Crisfield, MD (http://www.woodandstoneretreat.com)

 

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

The other morning, I found myself rushing out to my car to head to school like any other weekday. The sun was just breaking the horizon, and I was juggling too many bags of work and thinking about beating the early rush along the 25-mile commute.

I could feel the tension building already: stress upon stress from two years of seemingly endless troubles and challenges that I failed to understand: family deaths, loss of work, other matters that are just a part of life itself. I’ve never lost sight on the fact that we all go through this; we’ve all got our stresses in our lives that challenge us to the very core of who we are.

For me, I could see the toll they were taking on my body and my mind; making poor dietary choices and dwelling on those stresses create a very unhealthy lifestyle. And before you know it, the troubles you are experiencing within begin to permeate other areas of your life: friendships, work, social occasions.

So on that morning, as I was fumbling with my keys to unlock my car, I heard the unmistakable song of the American Robin.

“Cheer up! Cheer Up! Cheer Up! Cheerily, Cheer Up!”

Yes. This is the actual song of the Robin.

The bird’s sing-song notes seemed so crisp against the cool Spring morning, and they pierced through the stress building upon more stress. In that one instant, I was carried back to younger days when I was living on Chesapeake Bay, and my mornings would begin with the sweet songs of morning birds like the robin, the wren, and the finch.

Those days weren’t trouble-free, by any measure. My father had just died, and money wasn’t any better, really, than it is today. But nature served as a real solace to me then, and I remained open to the things that brought me peace and that soothed me.

In the busy rush of the world we live in today, I sometimes lose sight of that. Thanks to the song of a single American Robin, I found that peace last week, and since then, I’ve been returning to a relentless approach to living a better life.

While there are so many strategies and structures out there to remain relentless in living fully, I’ve narrowed it down to a good list of five that keep me in my game. My five might be different from what you need. I guess what’s most important is that each of us figures out what works, and then stick to it.

Find Your Focus and Keep It Close. For me, it’s three things: writing, photography, and music. I’ve learned that when I’m struggling, I write less, my camera lens captures nothing but a layer of dust, and my playlists are dark and brooding. It’s almost as if my body is creating an environment to nurture the stress, to make it last as long as it possibly can. I need to be conscious of keeping my journal out in the open where I can write freely and often; I need to carry my camera with me so I can capture life as I see it; and I need to choose the songs that empower me, give me encouragement and strength, that keep my mind clear and my heart open to give, as much as to receive.

Let Go of the Past. Nothing keeps us from being relentless in our living than dwelling in the past. I’m not talking about remembering a great hike along the Appalachian Trail when you were 23 or hearing a Zeppelin song along back roads at 19 with windows down and volume up. Hold on to those moments and cherish them often. I’m talking about regret, or decisions you made hastily, or even opportunities brushed aside or declined. You have to place yourself in the present, embrace what is, and seize the songs that remind you that there is a life all around you to be lived, experienced, and celebrated.

Stay Healthy. We are so tempted to stray from what keeps us mentally and physically healthy. Just remember: The quality of every aspect of your body, mind, and heart is entirely dependent on what you put into your system. And it’s different and unique for each of us. My diet might be a catastrophe for you, and chances are pretty good that your good choices would nauseate me. We need to be mindful of what our body needs, and then give it the fuel to make us relentless machines of power, love, and balance.

Remove the Triggers That Set You Back. This is an important one, because the first three tools to remain relentless make it sound like we all lead happy, care-free lives. The truth is that the things that can stress us out are still in our lives. Staying healthy doesn’t bring back a loved one; there is still great sadness and stress associated with it. We just need to defend ourselves with these tools. Triggers are going to continue to be in our lives that remind us of what was causing us so much stress. We need to be active in removing them as much as possible from our daily routine, as they can set us back faster than a 12-inch cheese-steak sub with extra fried onions and all the fixin’s. For me, those triggers are hidden in word games, songs, and radio stations. If I’m vulnerable to these triggers, I need to be mindful of this and remove them. That might mean deleting an app on my phone (or burying it on that last screen and hiding it in an obscure folder), making a different playlist, or even turning off the radio and finding a good mystery to read. Don’t set yourself up to be vulnerable. Living relentlessly means always providing yourself a little self-check on how you are reacting to the experiences around you. Stay relentless and stay in control.

Embrace Your Spirituality. Whatever spirituality means for you, find your affinity for something greater than yourself and make it present in your life-always. Our communion with a higher entity — even if that’s in the spirit of nature itself — puts everything in context with your place in this world. It sorts through the challenges and puts them in perspective; it prioritizes the things that really matter, like health, peace, and love; it gives you greater strength to confront the things that bring stress and offers the space and faith to work on resolutions. No matter what you believe, your spiritual foundation reminds you that you aren’t alone, and you have the  strength of a higher power with you every step of the way.

If all else fails, remember this: you are most certainly not alone. Sometimes it takes a simple song of a common bird to remind us of how beautiful life is: in this moment and in the hours and days to follow. It’s all about our perspective and our choices.

Choose to embrace the relentless pursuit of a life lived fully.

Memorial Day: Remember The Sacrifice

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All photos taken and copyrighted by Rus VanWestervelt at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2016. Free to share with attribution.

My alarm went off at 2:57 a.m., and three minutes later, I received the text from my friend Trina.

Leaving now to commence with project honor Memorial Day.

Twenty minutes later, at 3:20 a.m., after I had gathered my photo gear and thrown some journals and pens in my backpack, I headed out the door and hopped into her Subaru wagon. We were on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, seizing a rare opportunity to photograph the hallowed grounds at sunrise.

We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery at 4:30, and we weren’t surprised that there was already a line of cars ready to be escorted to one of several areas. When we pulled up to the gate guard, she looked at the list of invitees on her phone.

“Name?”

“Madani and VanWestervelt.”

“We want to begin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” I added.

She looked up from her phone. “You only get one choice.”

“Make it the Tomb, please.”

She checked our names on her list and smiled.

“Park behind the line of cars in the middle and wait for further instructions.”

We pulled up to the dark SUV at the end of the line. There were about seven cars ahead of us. Trina turned off the car, and the solemn sounds of songbirds filled the still-dark morning air. Here, even in this line, we could feel the reverence; the opportunity we had was not lost on us. And in those 30 minutes before the gates opened and we were escorted through the memorial grounds, we talked about life, about sacrifice, about America. Yet, even as we spoke in hushed voices, there was a touch of anxiety of what we were about to experience.

As the cars in front of us began to roll forward, and we crossed through the gates and turned left at the Memorial Hall for Women Soldiers, it hit us both, and words were replaced with short gasps and heavy sighs as we moved slowly through the magnitude of loss and sacrifice.

Arlington_rvw_14We were immersed in hallowed grounds that seemed to whisper, through the early morning scents of fresh detritus:

Remember our sacrifice. Remember our commitment to America. Remember the fares of freedom.

As Trina drove on, I thought about my nephews, Kevin and Kyle, who continue to fight for our freedom. I thought of my ancestor, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army who fought in World War II, who was buried here. I thought of my former students who have enlisted and who serve to protect and defend, at any cost, our freedoms. I thought of the countless number of friends who have children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have fought, or who currently serve, to keep our country safe and free.

I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unending lines of white graves marking each and every one of those sacrifices. Still, as we drove on in silence, I was haunted by another feeling. We were heading to the Tomb of the Unknowns, protected by United States Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, every single minute, of every single day, since midnight, July 2, 1937.

When we reached the tomb memorial, we could already see the sun’s deep hues rising in the east. We grabbed our gear and walked swiftly to the steps that were in front of the tomb, and I felt as if I had lost the ability to breathe. There, just feet in front of me, was the Tomb of the Unknowns and a single Guard standing sentry, silhouetted against the red wash of our Capital’s horizon.

Arlington_rvw_01The few photographers who were ahead of us were already busy setting up tripods and claiming their vantage points for the photo session, but Trina and I took the moment to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.

As the sun prepared to rise on American soil, protected for centuries by brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the ritual of remembering them continued on, without missing a beat, for the last 79 years.

Arlington_rvw_02This was why we were here. First to honor, second to document. And although the rush of the sun peaking over the horizon at 5:43 a.m. was not lost on us, neither was the fact that through sunrises and sunsets, humid Summer days and snowy Winter nights, America is standing guard to remember, to protect, to defend, for the very foundation of freedom for all who call this great nation their home.

We found our place a little to the south of the Tomb and began the process of taking photos, trying to capture the essence of the experience.

The routine for the Tomb Guard watching over the graves is precise.

The Tomb Guard on watch marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb, turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds. The Guard then turns and faces north, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. The Guard marches 21 steps down the mat, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces south, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. This routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

As I was switching cameras to get a wider perspective of the scene, I noticed another Guard just to my right, walking toward the soldier protecting the tomb. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was beginning, and I lowered my camera and succumbed to the overpowering emotion of the moment.

Arlington_rvw_05The soldier stopped in front of us and said, with an authoritative voice I have only heard in movies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is now taking place, and you are expected to remain silent and standing during the duration of this event.”

I removed my hat, and only with the greatest deference in remembering the second reason that I was here, I raised my camera to document the event.

First honor, second document.

When the ceremony concluded, and the sun had nearly pushed its way through the horizon’s line, Trina and I broke away and wandered among the grounds. We spent the next hour away from the camera clicks and conversations and found a certain solitude among the lines of graves that rolled over hills and never seemed to end. With each new ridge that revealed a new vantage point to capture the magnitude of sacrifice, there before us remained a new pasture rolling with thousands of small white graves, each with an American flag in front that seemed to recognize the individual names chiseled into the granite and marble headstones.

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Leon David Sachter. . . Paul R. Greenhalgh. . . Rolland Nyle Davis . . .

By 7 a.m. we left the Cemetery and said little. We were filled with the respect, the honor, and the magnitude of sacrifice in those brief two hours that we had spent among the graves of the men and women who died believing their sacrifices were worth our freedoms.

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I took these photos to document our nation’s most hallowed grounds at the sun’s symbolic rising of another day of freedom. But their colors, their images cannot touch what I carry inside of me. We sometimes forget that these sacrifices were — and are — made for us to live the way we do.

Perhaps I need to live my life a little more closely to the rituals of the Tomb Guard, where, even in my darkest moments, I never forget — even for a second — the sacrifices that were made for American freedoms. Very few of us ever have to make the choice of life or death for another, especially millions of Americans who will never know us personally. I will carry this perspective with me, fortunate for our freedoms, and respective of the sacrifices.

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God bless the 1.1 million American service members who have died for those freedoms. May we remember you every day, every second, the sun rises over this great and free nation.

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Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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