Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Theo Padnos stands center stage with stack of loose papers in his hand. Hundreds of journalists and students wait for him to begin his presentation. The seats in auditorium are nearly full. People line the aisles and the back wall.

I’ve probably written more here than I’ll have time to say, Padnos tells the audience, so I’ll start with what’s most important.

Padnos is the opening speaker for The Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. I attended the conference with three student journalists from The Campus newspaper staff.

He speaks in a soft voice. Audience members ask him to use a hand-held microphone. Padnos is a scholar and writer. He’s fluent in French, Arabic, German and Russian. He has a doctorate in comparative literature. He taught poetry to prisoners in Vermont. His interest in Islam led him to study in Yemen then Turkey, near the Syrian border.

Working as an independent journalist, Padnos was kidnapped in Syria in October 2012 and released in August 2014.

In the early days, Padnos said he was afraid of his captors. He was held in a dark room.

“This was a torture hospital,” he said of where he was held. The captors would take a victim to the boiler room. Within 10 minutes, he would hear a scream from “deep in the soul.” The soldiers called it the room of death, Padnos said.

“I dreaded everything. Every noise. Every footfall. Every turn of the key.”

He said he would put a blanket over his head and recall former girlfriends, his mother, the forest, a dog or two, poems. Padnos said he’d been pushed to the edge of life and feared that death might come at any moment.

In those dark days in that dark room, he realized what was important.

“I hadn’t loved enough,” Padnos said. “If only I’d cared, if only this love had anchored me to life.”

“I wish I’d loved other people more. I wish I’d loved myself more.”

On Sunday, I witnessed the marriage of two Allegheny colleagues at Christ Episcopal Church in Meadville.

Light illuminated the stained glass windows and poured onto the altar.

The pastor spoke of the sacrament of marriage, of the joy and deep thoughtfulness the couple brought to their relationship, the altar and their vows.

They had chosen several readings from the Bible for their ceremony, including a passage about raising Lazarus from the dead. In my experience, this story is not a staple at weddings. I was puzzled by the introduction of death and darkness.

The pastor said that each had gone through dark times. They found enough faith to keep going. They met, fell in love and found a new way forward.

Yes, it’s story of death and darkness. It’s also a testament to faith and a return to life and light.

“Cloak yourself in love,” the pastor said.

The days are longer now, offering light and a welcome warmth. The snows have melted and Ernst Trail is accessible again.

As I’ve walked the trail, I’ve noticed the signs of renewal and new life. The twisted green shoots of skunk cabbage as they push their way out of the black, damp muck and into the light and fresh air.

I’ve encountered several snakes that have left their dark winter habitats. They stretch out on the asphalt, absorbing the heat radiating from below and the warmth from the sun above. With a gentle nudge of a stick, I try to encourage them to leave the path. I’m concerned a passing cyclist’s tire might flatten them, rob them of life. They seem loath to leave the light. And I leave them alone.

On campus, daffodils have burst from the ground in what seems like the blink of an eye. When I head to my yoga class one morning, I notice their tight buds. When I leave an hour later, some have burst their bonds. Their bright flowers now face the sun.

I have known dark times, times of self-imposed seclusion and hibernation. I have kept company with despair and fear, lived with and through threats on my life.

Because I’ve traveled through darkness, I know I am blessed to be alive.

I stand at the altar of life and a simple moment of staggering beauty reminds me of what is holy and sacred—and important—in my life and this wide world.

I am with Padnos, the pastor and the newlyweds.

Let love anchor us to our lives. Let’s cloak ourselves in love. Let’s love one another and ourselves.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-let-love-anchor-us-to-our-lives/article_eff46544-e3c5-11e4-a6b7-138af07835d0.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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