Once Upon A Time: Remembering Helen Kubik

Many of us, when we approached the age of reading for ourselves, selected books that offered larger-than-life stories with fairy-tale endings to somehow make our lives a little more fantastic. For those of us who went to Pine Grove Elementary in the 1970s, we lived that fantastic fairy tale, with open-space classrooms, a large reading area, energetic and life-inspiring teachers, and Helen Kubik, a principal as beautiful and as magical as Glynda, the good witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Mrs. Kubik – known to us in our earlier years at Pine Grove as Ms. Powell before she married Mr. Alex Kubik, an assistant principal at the school – was known for her effervescent personality, matched exquisitely by the L’Origan by Coty perfume she wore each day. Her voice was soothing, supportive, and always accompanied by a glistening smile. She towered over us as young learners, and we all looked up to her in innumerable ways.

I was six when my first-grade teacher, Ms. O’Donnell, appreciated an “essay” I had written about Abraham Lincoln. I was given the chance to share my writing with the rest of my peers at Pine Grove over the PA system during a week-long celebration of our presidents. I remember vividly standing in the office, gripping my essay with both hands, as Mrs. Kubik held the heavy, silver microphone just above me.

I looked up to her as she spoke. “Boys and Girls,” she said into the microphone with that sweet, sing-song voice. “We have some special students who are going to be sharing their own writing about our presidents to celebrate Presidents’ Day.”

She introduced us, and then she lowered the microphone to my level. She gave me a nod, and I inhaled the strong scent of her L’Origan, a fruity bouquet that smelled different than any of the perfumes my mother wore.

It was a scent that represented a presence of compassion, support, and safety. Around Mrs. Kubik, we didn’t feel intimidated; we felt invincible.

I started reading my essay, and when I got to the part of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, I called her Abraham’s “beloved.” Ms. Kubik chuckled, and when I looked up, she was beaming with what I presumed was approval, and so I continued reading. When I finished, she looked at me with those eyes sparkling with hope and belief, and spent some time talking with me about how much she liked that part of my tribute to our 16th president of the United States.

And now, nearly 50 years later, I sit here realizing how much of who I am is because of this woman, the leader of my elementary school where so many other teachers from that era served as role models to me and thousands of impressionable children in the 1970s.

Helen Kubik was everywhere: in our classrooms, at our school events and plays, and in the hallways ready to offer a smile, especially to those who needed it the most. To me, as an emotional, yet happy-go-lucky kid who struggled academically but beamed on stage, she always put each one of her children first as the individuals they were, and not the statistical numbers they might add up to be for any data sheet defining success or failure in the classroom. At least that’s the way it always seemed to me.

Mrs. Kubik was a loving, compassionate individual who, above everything else, saw us as tiny, impressionable human beings that just needed somebody to believe in them. She allowed us to hold on to our fairy-tale dreams and moments of magical wonder while we worked hard at becoming lifelong learners. Instead of preparing us for any alternate “real world” where people were driven solely by numbers and bottom lines, she prepared us to believe in ourselves first, and to be there for others who needed us, for any reason. To accomplish this first would allow everything else to fall into place.

And it did. Here we are, 50 years later, living strong, productive lives where people still come first. As a teacher myself now for 30+ years, I look into the eyes of every one of my students, offering my own hope and belief in each of them as individuals who have dreams, ambitions, and simple desires to be acknowledged. I remember what it was like all those years ago when Mrs. Kubik offered that to us, and the need to be believed in is as important for our children today as it was for all of us, all those years ago.

When we completed our last year at Pine Grove in the mid-1970s and moved up to the scary and intimidating world of junior high school, Mrs. Kubik left us with the following words:

 

From Your Principal With Love,

Close to my heart is a secret place
Where dreams are stored away
And sturdy candles of faith are kept
Against a lonelier day.

My students are treasures I keep apart,
Cradled in hope within my heart —
Snub-nosed profiles, picture clear
Perfect moments, priceless-dear,
Etched in eternal time to be
My children,
The very soul of me.

Each child builds my world anew
A shaft of sunlight breaking through.
Each shape my tomorrow, change my life,
Banish my doubt and fear and strife.
Contentment now settles with this days sun.
My part is through, school years well done.
Pine Grove but a castle we built in the air.
Now it tumbles and leaves but a memory there.

These years that I have shared with you —
The tender, the frightened and fun times, too —
Your laughter and your precious pain,
Autumn leaves through summer rain,
My loving you — your loving me,
A kaleidoscope of memory.

Know wherever, whatever your future may be
You are treasures that none can take from me.
Now go freely to conquer your world,

Fly free,
     My students,
          My children,
               The soul of me!

There are so many of my peers whose lives were formed, strengthened, and empowered by Mrs. Helen Kubik to love ourselves, to love others, and to live our lives driven by compassion for all. She was more than a principal to us; she was magical, and will always be, faithfully and forever: Once Upon A Time.

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.

So, let’s talk

Earlier today, I had a little sit-down with myself to figure a few things out. You see, my inner critic has been working overtime in the past month or two, absolutely convincing me that the following were completely, and without question, true:

  • My words were no longer meaningful, and they no longer mattered with the masses;
  • Blogs were dead, stupid, antiquated, washed up, and no longer read (hey! just like me);
  • Your audience is sick of you;
  • You are pathetic to think otherwise; and
  • Hell, you are pathetic.

These thoughts stopped me from writing anything. I did not even write in my daybook. It was a ridiculous, self-piteous period of wallowing in negativity and doubt.

So, as I said, I had that little sit-down convo with me-truly, and I’m not going to lie, I let the expletives fly, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says.

It felt good. It really did. I needed to hear myself fight back against all that fake news that I have been self-spewing. I made the commitment to blog tonight, but with a purpose:

To not teach, preach, or inspire.

Gasp!

So, not only did I throw myself back into the fire, I threw away the crutches and dove in head first without a safety net.

Which brings me to what I’ll be doing here at The Baltimore Writer for the foreseeable future. Many years ago, I started writing “Rus Uncut” entries, and they were well received because they were so raw. I’ve tried a few times to get back to that, but I kept falling back into the teach-and-preach model.

Pathetic, right?

So here we are tonight, willing (desperately) to give it another shot.

What does that mean? Probably some really boring blogs, some out-there thinking, and maybe some pretty pictures to keep you coming back to see something shiny.

It means all of this, maybe none of it, maybe some Franken-mix of a bunch of different things. And I’ve opened comments for you to join in with the uncut-ness of the whole thing.

But what I can promise you is that it will be raw, uncut, and authentic. All Rus.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I need to do this for me, though, so there. You are welcome to follow along, share your thoughts, or unsubscribe entirely and vote to have The Baltimore Writer completely scrubbed from the interwebs.

We’ll see how this goes. Thanks for whatever choice you make (except for the web scrubbing. That would suck for sure).

Yours, sans teaching and preaching,

Rus

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

An Original Short Story by Rus VanWestervelt

(Note: I wrote this story last fall for a local horror story contest. Although I did not win, I am extraordinarily happy with how this story turned out. The word limit was 3,000, and I had overwritten by 1,500 words, which I had to cut from the story. I think the edits made it tighter, to be honest. Enjoy. It’s a blend of fact and fiction, as are most of my stories. ~Rus VW)

October 30, 1997

Samantha, now a senior at Towson High and desperately ready to wrap up her final year of school, left the public library and went straight to her favorite place to write: the old abutment at York and Towsontown. She jogged up the small, grassy hill and reached the top of the stone structure, where she looked across York Road and scanned the horizon south to north. The stone abutments here on each side of the road were some of the last reminders that the Ma & Pa Railroad ever ran through Towson.

Not another person in sight. She loved how the skyline of buildings in west Towson opened up a path that curved subtly to the left, just like the rails would have run for the train coming into town and through the center of Towson State College.

She sat on the cold stone, opened her backpack, pushing Focault’s Pendulum aside, and found her journal.

Samantha turned to her latest poem, “When Time Runs Out.” She stared at the messy lines below the title, with colorful edits scribbled along the margins. This had been a particularly tough poem to write about the passing of a classmate five years ago.

Samantha re-read the first stanza, made one change to the third line, then scratched it out. How do you capture the best moment with another human being when you think they will live forever?

She felt a shiver, an almost rumble below her as an invisible wind rushed past her.

Suddenly chilled, she turned away from the poem and looked up at the other stone abutment across the street.

There, a man stood on the stones, staring directly at her. He was statuesque, wearing a black peacoat, heavy work pants, and black shoes. He looked as if he was in his late 30’s, and his thick black hair waved in the October wind. His sideburns fell to his jawline, and Samantha was certain he never blinked the entire time she stared back at him.

Samantha turned to pull a marker from her bag, and when she turned her head to look at the stone structure, the man was gone.

The late October afternoon was brisk, and she was glad she had packed an extra sweater. She threw it on and thought about the man she had just seen, and how he looked at her so intently. Growing up in Towson and walking to school most of her life, Samantha knew the locals who spent time along the York Road corridor. Many were harmless; a few she kept her distance from. This stranger was no one she recognized.

The traffic light was just about to change below her, and she savored those few seconds of quiet from the usual bustle of cars desperately trying to get through the town center. She took a deep breath and exhaled, finally feeling the calm settle in after a very stressful day.

She took a sip of what was left of her after-school frap, savored the sweet, rich caramel at the bottom of the cup, and reached around to get a book from her backpack.

Samantha froze. Instead of feeling the smoothed canvas cloth of the pack, her hand fell on cold and callused fingers.

She looked up and saw the man in the black peacoat, standing over her.

“Howdy,” he said.

Samantha screamed and felt her body lunge away from him. Her back hit the ridge of the stone cliff, and she could feel her body falling over the edge and toward the street below. She waited for her head to snap against the underside of the rock, then felt a jolt as if she were on some mad fair ride, jerking her back up toward the sky.

The man had grabbed Samantha’s heavy sweater, pulling her to safety.

Thankful and terrified in the same breath, Samantha looked up. His hair was thick, black; his sideburns dropped like western boots along his jawline.

“I’m not here to harm you. I’m only interested in asking you for a little help.”

“If it’s money you want, I have change from my frap in the bottom left—“

The man chuckled, then looked a little embarrassed.

“Oh, no ma’am. It’s nothing like that. I’ve got plenty of loose change to tide me over while I’m here. The help I need is, well, different.”

Samantha’s fear eased into curiosity.

“Why were you staring at me that way from across the street?”

“I wanted to make sure you were the one who could help me. You see, when I was your age 20 years ago, I was asked to help somebody, too.”

Samantha, intrigued now, moved a little closer on the rock and wrapped her arms around her chest. “Go on.”

He motioned to take a seat on the rock. “May I?”

Samantha nodded.

“In 1977, I used to hang out here on The Rock just like you. I met a woman pretty much the same way you are meeting me now. She called me ‘The Lookout’ and smiled at me in a flattering way. I know I was being a dumb boy just graduating from high school, but I liked the name, and I liked the way she was looking at me. So I listened to what she had to say. Changed my whole life.”

“Why did she call you ‘The Lookout’?”

The man leaned in, and she studied his icy eyes as he spoke.

“Do you know anything about this pile of rocks we’re sitting on?”

Samantha shook her head. “Some railroad, but that’s it.”

“Not just any railroad. These stone abutments carried the steam locomotives from the old Ma and Pa Railroad across this busy intersection. The Rick-Rick-Rickety sound of those steel wheels clicking their way across the tracks was pure music.”

Samantha watched the man close his eyes, as if lost in some kind of dream.

“I didn’t know they were still running here twenty years ago,” she said.

The man’s face froze, and he opened his eyes and stared directly into hers.

“Barely, ma’am. They slowed down in 1954 and stopped altogether in ‘58. But my grandfather laid track through the college, and he told me stories that made me feel as if I had been a passenger all my life.”

“Of course,” Samantha said. “My great-grandfather would tell me stories when I was younger about being on the horse-drawn fire engine when he fought the fire in Baltimore in 1904, and how the sparks would fly from the horses’ shoes hitting the cobblestones at night.”

The man smiled. “I knew you would understand. I knew you were the one.”

Samantha looked at her watch. She would soon have to leave.

“I hate to rush you,” she said, “but I have to get home by four.”

“Of course,” he replied. “When that woman approached me and asked me to do her a favor, she got pretty serious, and I did too.”

“What was the favor?”

“She told me that, in 1957, when she was still in high school, they used to hide out by this abutment when the bridge was still here. It was practically abandoned after the trains slowed down, and one day, when she got there before the rest of her friends, a man approached her from the hill behind us. It was all woods then, and pretty thick, too.”

He looked around the library and beyond, and Samantha was sure she sensed a touch of melancholy.

“Anyway,” he said, turning back to her. “The man had just about the saddest story in the world. Said that 20 years ago, in 1937, his son Charlie was up there on the bridge playing chicken with Engine 23, trying to impress his girl Lorraine. He had grabbed her by the wrist beforehand, trying to convince her that they could beat the train together. But Lorraine refused, and Charlie went out there alone. He stood on the plate girders taunting her while she screamed, ‘Look out, Charlie!’ When that whistle blew from Engine 23 and drowned her out, it was probably the last sound Charlie heard before he was knocked off the flange. He was dead before he hit the road.”

Samantha was struck by the sorrow on the man’s face, and she dared not say a word.

“When the man finished telling the story, he asked a favor. He said that ever since his son was killed, he had these nightmares where his son wanted to come back in 20 years and kill that girl for making him show off. Every single time in the dream, he told her, he would meet his son by the bridge and calm him down. Tell him it wasn’t her fault. Let him know that he was still remembered and loved.”

“That is so sad,” said Samantha.

“I know. I thought the same thing. The old man pleaded her to stay with him that night, and maybe if he saw her, he would think that she was Lorraine, and she could tell him she loved him and she was sorry.”

“Did she stay with him?”

“She did. And you know what? Charlie really did show up that night. She said she heard the sound of Engine 23 coming through, and she saw him up there on the bridge, waving to them both. They started shouting at him to run, and that they would always love him.”

“Did he listen to them?”

“He did after she said she was sorry, and he ran harder than ever to the other side of the bridge and beat that train. When Engine 23 passed, he stood there on the abutment holding on to the edge of the bridge, staring across at them both. Then there was a final whistle blow, and he vanished. That was in 1957.”

“So why wasn’t that the end of it?”

“Turns out, the old man started having more nightmares when his dead son figured out he had been tricked, and he vowed to come back again in 1977 to seek revenge by any means. By that time, the bridge had been removed, and the elderly father was scared beyond measure in what to expect. In fact, just a week before Halloween night, the old man died of a heart attack. That’s when the girl — now 37 — approached me and wanted me to play the role of Charlie’s father. How could I say no? I was scared out of my mind, but she had a charm about her that made it impossible to do anything but help her.”

“That’s why she called you The Lookout?”

“Yes. That night, it was getting pretty cold and late with nothing happening. No whistle, no Charlie. Nothing. We were beginning to think his ghost had gone away with the old man when he died the week before, but just then, right before midnight, we heard the faint chug-chug of Engine 23 coming up behind us. No track. No bridge. But the train was coming nonetheless.”

“And Charlie?”

“That’s when we seen him on the other side on that abutment, staring us down, waving to us like some kind of madman. I followed the woman’s lead, shouting how much we loved him and were sorry and that he had to run away from the train. I’ll never forget Charlie looking me in the eyes, unblinking, just lingering there on the stones before vanishing with the rush of the invisible train as it blew by us. That was in 1977.”

“So that should have been the end of it then, right?”

“I had really hoped. But about a month ago, Charlie started visiting me in my dreams, still raging on about Lorraine. Said he was going to come back. I tried everything I could think of to get him out of my head, but I couldn’t do it. Horrible nightmares telling me that I had to get out here again on the 31st of October and let his ghost know we hadn’t forgotten about him.”

“That’s tomorrow night,” said Samantha.

“And that brings me to you.”

The man stared again into her eyes.

“You want me to be Lorraine?”

“You would be perfect. I gotta do this for Charlie, and for his father. I’ll even buy you one of those caramel frap drinks. What do you say? Will you help me be The Lookout?”

Samantha looked down at her hands in her lap and turned her wrist. It was nearly 4:30.

“Yes. Of course. But I have to run home now, or I’ll be grounded for a week.” Samantha stood and grabbed her pack. “See you here tomorrow night, around 8?”

The rugged man with the long sideburns smiled as he watched the girl run to and down the grassy hill.

“That would be perfect, Lorraine. It’s a date.”

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

The next night, Halloween, Samantha dressed up like the rebellious Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls and told her mother she was going to a dance at the school. Her mother bought it, and Samantha was out the door immediately.

She ran as fast as she could to the library and stopped at the bottom of the hill leading up to the edge of the abutment. She wondered if The Lookout Man was already there. She didn’t see his silhouette against the skyline, and with a deep breath, she walked up the hill and stood atop the large, flat stones.

Samantha looked around; she was completely alone. She turned to her watch every five minutes, and after a half-hour, she started to feel a little foolish, believing some stranger’s story about ghosts and a now-extinct train coming through town on Halloween Night.

“Ten more minutes,” she whispered. That’s all I’ll give him, and then I’m out of here.”

She rubbed her bare shoulders, trying to stay warm, when she felt a faint tremble and a strong, invisible wind envelop her. Samantha heard a whistle behind her, unlike any sound she had ever heard. As it grew louder, she could feel the stones under her feet begin to vibrate. She turned to see if there was actually anything coming toward her — there wasn’t — but the sound grew louder. She looked at her watch and noticed a cup at her feet. She bent down to pick it up.

A caramel frap, just as The Lookout Man had promised.

“Hello? Where are you?” She yelled, shouting above the screaming whistle behind her. Somewhere beyond the grassy hills, she could see a single beacon of light approaching.  She turned to face York Road, and there, in the illumination of the train light, was The Lookout Man on the other abutment, staring at her with an intensity that scared her to death.

“Why are you over there? Engine 23 is coming! Get over here!” she screamed. “Help me tell Charlie he is loved!”

The Lookout Man smiled before vanishing. Samantha blinked hard, and when she reopened her eyes, he was inches from her face.

“How did you— That’s impossible.”

The Lookout Man smiled, his icy eyes burning through her.

“You’ve come back for me, Lorraine. I knew you wouldn’t leave me.”

Samantha tried to turn away, but his stare was too strong.

“Char—Charlie?”

“That’s right Lorraine. We can make it this time.” He grabbed her wrist. “We can run across the tracks together and beat the train. I know we can.”

Charlie tugged her toward the edge of the abutment.

“Charlie, No! There is no train! There isn’t even any bridge! Didn’t you learn all that 20 years ago?”

But Samantha could hardly hear herself shouting over the deafening roar of Engine 23, blowing its whistle against the Rick-Rick-Rickety run against the old tracks.

Charlie yanked Samantha’s arm, looked her in the eyes, and laughed. “Time’s Run Out, Lorraine!”

“Charlie! NO!”

But it was too late. Digging his grip deeply into her arm, he leaped off the edge, taking her with him.

The last thing Samantha heard was the sound of a whistle in the wind as she fell helplessly.

Below, the screams and screeches were quick, followed by that silence that Samantha often loved, as onlookers stood in shock at the lone body of a girl lying in the center of York Road.

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

            October 30, 2017

Kaleb sat on the cold stones next to the library, Face-timing with his friend Matt in California. It was just after noon on the west coast.

“Take a look at how beautiful it is up here, Matt.” Kaleb turned the phone around and did a pan of the skyline, a cacophonic quilt of colors covering West Towson. “The leaves piqued a few days ago, but it’s still beautiful.”

Matt laughed. “Meanwhile in Sunny Cali…” Matt showed off the shores of the Pacific. “It’s 78 degrees here. I think I win.”

Kaleb turned the phone back around to speak to Matt, whose face changed almost immediately.

“Whoa, dude. Looks like you got company.”

Kaleb turned around to see a woman dressed in a cute skirt standing behind him. Her icy blue eyes left him speechless.

“Hi,” she offered, sipping a caramel frap through a pert smile. In her other hand, she clutched a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.

“I’m in need of a little help, a favor, really. Do you have a few minutes?”

Kaleb stood up to face the woman, who was now nearly giggling.

“My name is Kaleb,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Kaleb felt a faint rumble below his feet as a whistle blew in the distance.

The woman took another sip of the frap and held out her hand.

“I’m Lorraine,” she offered, shaking his hand. “You remind me of an old friend, and I think you will be able to help me just fine.”

 

 

Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

If we make happiness our primary goal instead of our secondary goal, then we easily accomplish everything else we desire. ~Deepak Chopra

Across the country and throughout the world, people are asking themselves the same question: What will my resolutions be for 2018?

The “Greatest Hits” of resolutions include weight loss, saying goodbye to cigarettes and liquor, and establishing a fitness regimen.

No doubt, these are all admirable goals to live a better life. But one hardly needs a new year to begin — or resume — being so resolute; in fact, I would argue that many of us are overweight, smoky, and out of shape because we set ourselves up for failure in some other previous new year. Resolutions have a way of making us feel horrible about ourselves before January is even over. Once we fail at keeping our resolutions, we find solace in remembering that another new year will soon be upon us — in 11 months.

I found another set of New Year’s “Greatest Hits” on my friend’s Facebook page. Chris shared the top ten “Words of Wisdom” by the late Wayne Dyer, and it paired nicely with my daily readings of Deepak Chopra.

The resolution we really need to be making is simple, requires no exercise equipment, and prepares us to accomplish any secondary goal we might have to live a more healthy, fulfilling life. It’s so simple, in fact, that we do everything we can to make it harder on ourselves, when we don’t need to.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Embrace happiness and joy in this moment, within you.

And we don’t even have to wait until January 1. It’s accessible, and doable, right now. All you need to do is shift your priorities, see the beauty within you first, and then go after any other goal or resolution you wish to pursue.

You might be asking: What’s the difference, then, if I go for my goals first? Won’t that lead me to the same goal of happiness anyway?

It seems logical that it should work that way, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it almost never does. Here’s why. When we seek things — materialistic or otherwise — to bring us happiness, we allow our well being to become dependent on achieving those things. And, as we are hardly creatures of contentment, we then seek out the next thing that will make us happy.

Thoreau, over 150 years ago, nailed it when he penned those timeless words:

“The mass of men lead their lives in quiet desperation.”

We can’t keep chasing resolutions, thinking they are going to be making us happier. They simply won’t. But, if we begin with happiness, and then pursue our resolutions, that wellness within will keep us motivated throughout the year — and beyond — to make those better choices in our lives.

So here are Dyer’s words of wisdom below, coupled with ten of my own photos from previous years. At the end of this post is a lovely 39-minute sunrise that I have been playing while writing in the early hours. Enjoy.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2018 for each of us. May you discover the beauty and joy that awaits within.

Love, Rus

10. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

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9. How people treat you is their Karma; how you react is yours.

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8. When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.

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7. You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.

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6. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.

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5. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.

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4. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into.

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3. Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.

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2. You’ll see it when you believe it.

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1. Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.

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Pedestrian Safety: An Urgent Matter in Maryland

Exclusive for Baltimore County Breaking News
By Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus@bcobreakingnews.com)

I’ve been working with Baltimore County Breaking News for more than two years now, and we’ve covered a lot of tragic events during that time. It’s been heartbreaking to be the dispatcher sharing the news with our followers, or the writer providing the follow-up story that offers the tragic loss of human life. I’ve seen it from both sides; it was just as heartbreaking when other news agencies shared the details of my own brother’s death in a motorcycle accident in Carroll County.

The injury, or loss, of any life is tough, but when it’s senselessly brought on by the mindless ignorance of drivers or pedestrians, and the breaking of common-sense laws, it infuriates all of us even more.

One of the most abused laws in Maryland involves pedestrian traffic.

The stats are clear that we have an urgent need to address this issue more aggressively. In 2012, Maryland was rated as the seventh most dangerous state in the United States for pedestrians (Florida was the worst, with Delaware, Arizona, South Carolina, Hawaii, and North Carolina named 2-6, respectively).

And, according to recent statistics provided by multiple sources (including the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), Maryland has seen, on average, about 100 pedestrian deaths each year in the last two decades (about 20% of all road-related deaths annually). Shockingly, the number of children ages 5-9 killed as pedestrians comprised 14% of all pedestrian crashes in 1998.

Annually, up to 70% of these deaths are related to pedestrian error; however, many injuries and deaths occur with pedestrians lawfully in crosswalks at intersections or in mid-block (when a crosswalk is placed in the middle of a street).

Drivers Must Follow Maryland Laws

Maryland law is clear when it comes to yielding the right-of-way to pedestrians (as summarized by the Montgomery County Government).

  • A driver of a vehicle must come to a complete stop when a pedestrian is crossing the roadway in a crosswalk.
  • It is unlawful for a driver to pass a vehicle that is stopped for a pedestrian in either a marked or unmarked crosswalk. This includes in shopping centers, especially in front of busy stores where there is high foot traffic.
  • Vehicles facing a green signal, including any vehicle turning right or left, must yield right-of-way to any pedestrian lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk.
  • Vehicles facing a red signal or red arrow signal must stop at the intersection at the clearly marked stop line or before entering the crosswalk.
  • The driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian, shall warn any pedestrian by sounding a horn, and shall exercise proper precaution on observing any confused or incapacitated pedestrians.
  • The driver of a vehicle shall drive at an appropriate reduced speed when any special danger exists as to pedestrians.

Pedestrians Share The Responsibility For Safety

Pedestrians need to be smart about how they walk alongside, or cross, roads.

  • A pedestrian facing a steady red traffic signal may not enter the roadway.
  • A pedestrian may not start to cross the roadway in the direction of a solid “don’t walk” or “upraised hand” signal.
  • If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at any point other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle.
  • In an intersection where a traffic control signal is in operation, a pedestrian may cross only in a marked crosswalk.
  • A pedestrian may not cross an intersection diagonally unless authorized by a traffic control device.
  • Where a sidewalk is provided, a pedestrian may not walk along or on an adjacent roadway.  Where no sidewalk is provided, a pedestrian may walk only on the left shoulder or on the left side of the roadway facing traffic.

Baltimore County Police Encourage Education In Pedestrian Safety

In addition to these laws, The Baltimore County Police Department provides these simple reminders for parents to speak with their children about pedestrian safety.

  • Always cross at traffic lights, marked crosswalks or intersections.
  • Obey traffic signals at all times. Don’t attempt to cross if the signal tells you to stop.
  • Stay alert when crossing. Even when the signal says WALK, you should check that the path is clear.
  • Always check in all directions for approaching vehicles before crossing the street. If there is a vehicle approaching, wait until it passes before trying to cross.
  • Try to make eye contact with drivers before stepping off the curb.
  • Walk on the sidewalk whenever possible. If there is no sidewalk, walk on the side of the road, facing traffic.
  • Wear bright or reflective clothing at night.
  • Avoid distraction when crossing. Turn off headphones and put away your cell phone before crossing.

The Baltimore County Breaking News Team would love nothing more than to report that Maryland has become the safest place in the United States for pedestrians. Let us each do our part — as drivers and as walkers — in ensuring that everyone reaches their destinations safely.

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.