My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

I am not a mother.

I have not known the joy of bringing a life into this world or the pain of watching my child leave it.

As a photographer, I have witnessed a birth in a home on a farm in Ohio. I stood in that scared, translucent space where love and new life mingle, as a child slipped from his mother’s womb into his father’s waiting hands.

In a hospital in Somalia, I have been in that equally sacred space where life slips away on one last breath. In Iraq, I watched a Kurdish mother caress the dirt over her infant’s grave, running her fingers through the soil the way she might have one day run her fingers through her daughter’s curls.

My mother’s mother did not want her to marry my father. She feared she’d waste the college education purchased so dearly just a few decades after the Great Depression. My mother, usually the good girl, defied her mother and married my father. “I love him,” she said.

Dad graduated a year ahead of my mother with a commission in the U.S. Army. He flew back from overseas for their June wedding. There would be no honeymoon. Dad had to be at his station and the Army wouldn’t pay for Mom’s ticket. They saved their quarters, literally, so the bride could purchase a plane ticket and accompany her husband to their new home.

Mom got settled in a room above the barn in a German farmhouse and Dad promptly left for the field. At 21, my mother was alone; an ocean away from the small island where she’d lived her entire life. No friends. No family. And no German language skills.

Soon mom was pregnant with me.

There would be five children—one who did not survive. 26 moves. Twenty-six times my mother would pack and unpack an entire household, usually alone. Dad was either already at his next post, in the field or away at war.

When my father left for his second tour in Vietnam, my mother was still in her twenties, with four children, my youngest brother not yet 1 year old.

When I look back, I marvel at how my mother held it all together. I think sometimes she didn’t.

My mother did not have a home of her own again until she was nearly 50. But she made do and made a home each and every day for my often-absent soldier father and their four children.

Mom grew up at a time when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. My mom wanted to be a physical education teacher. That course of studies would have cost more money, so my mother became an elementary school teacher.

My mom is athletic and as competitive as they come. She played basketball and volleyball in high school. She came of age before Title IX and the opportunities it offered girls and women, so she set sports aside in college.

She played tennis when she could, until her back had other plans. She took up golf at 50. She’s had a couple hole-in-ones. And even now, when she’s putting well, she can score in the mid-40s for nine holes.

She started piano lessons in her late 60s. She writes poems. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and put pen to paper. Every once in a while, I’ll get an envelope in the mail with a poem my mom wrote for me.

My mother is smart and tough and gifted with languages. She’s athletic and adventurous. She has an artist’s soul. She’s thoughtful and kind—to a degree that can leave her wounded by the thoughtlessness of others.

I have discovered that I am my mother’s daughter.

I rowed crew at a Division I university and earned a Pac-10 championship. I am a writer and photographer. I have traveled the world.

It’s no accident that in my work I have quietly raged against the patriarchal systems that suppress, stifle and dismiss women. The military. Journalism. Now academia.

Early in my career, I focused my camera and energy on women and children who had been displaced, caught in the crossfire of the men who made war and made the decisions.

Like my mother, I have been too nice. Too polite. Unfailingly thoughtful and long-suffering. To the detriment of my spirit and health.

Like my mother, later in my life, I have found my voice. I have given myself permission to speak my mind and my truth. Now, as an educator, I encourage other women to find and use their voices and talents.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I’m always challenged to find an accurate answer. One of my brothers says planet earth.

I have no home in the traditional sense. There’s the place I was born. The place I live now. The place I’ve lived the longest.

There has been one constant in my peripatetic life, my mother. The one fixed point in my moving life. She has held it—and us—together these many years.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile. I suspect all mothers are.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

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

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Grief is a sneaker wave

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016

Grief is a sneaker wave.

As a college student, a sign greeted me at the Oregon coast: Beware of sneaker waves. It had a design of stick person being knocked over by a curling blue wave. I immediately had an image in my mind of a wave running to shore in Converse sneakers.

Turns out, sneaker waves are no joke. I was photographing at the coast—it’s called the coast, not the shore or the beach, for a good reason. It’s still a wild and untamed juncture where the ocean crashes into the land. I had scoffed at the warning and walked out to get closer to the surf. One minute I’m photographing on dry land, the next I’m up to my rib cage in cold Pacific water, dangling my cameras held high above my head. I turned and chugged toward land as quickly as I could. I was lucky another wave didn’t take me down. Or a random log didn’t knock me unconscious. Or the rush of water didn’t sweep me off my feet and under.

Grief has been sneaking up on me recently.

My Humpty-Dumpty heart has been shattered and cobbled together over the years. Wounded and healed again and again. Grief washes over and through me at unsuspected moments.

In my own life, I feel the loss of the children I wanted and never had. I have an abiding sorrow for the loss of the man I believed I’d spend the rest of my life with until he abandoned me. I still feel the loss of the people I’ve witnessed suffer and die in my long career as a journalist.

There’s been so much loss in my life in recent years. My friends felled by bullets and shrapnel in foreign lands. My friend who regularly questions why she should get out of bed in the morning after police assassinated her husband outside their home. I think of my friend whose mother beat back cancer several times and then decided enough was enough and crossed over surrounded by family in her daughter’s home. My friend mentioned how the deep pain of missing her mom show ups in all the “firsts” without her—Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays.

In February, I received a message from Brian Castner. We worked together covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in December 2014 and January 2015.

Prince Collins died.

Prince was a radio journalist. He’d been our fixer during our reporting and travels in Liberia. He’d arranged our press credentials and driver, Carton. He’d made introductions and connections for our sources and stories. He talked us through a checkpoint and dicey moment on New Year’s Eve returning to Monrovia. He always introduced us as his colleagues. He became our friend.

I sent Brian a text. “How are you feeling?”

“Surprisingly bad,” he responded. I felt the same.

Brian contacted the pastor at Prince’s church. He doesn’t know how Prince died. A sudden illness.

I hadn’t known Prince long; yet after a month covering the Ebola outbreak, we had shared meals and car rides, visited Ebola Treatment Units and attended funerals, watched rows of grave diggers carve deep rectangular holes in the red earth with pickaxes. Now I was viewing images of his casket and funeral on Facebook and reading the posted laments and remembrances of his friends, radio listeners and colleagues.

He left a young wife and family, who had welcomed us into their home at Firestone in Harbel. I liked Prince. I fully expected to see him and work with him again in Liberia.

On one of our last days in Liberia, Prince accompanied me as I shopped for gifts that Brian and I could bring home to our family and friends. We walked through tailor shops as I sought traditional handmade shirts. Prince offered advice on styles, patterns and colors. I wanted a saa saa, a hollow gourd with beads wrapped on its exterior with cotton thread, for my percussionist brother. We walked for a couple hours through the narrow, meandering alleys of the local markets. Prince made repeated inquiries until we found a vendor.

We shared our last meal at The Cape Hotel, looking out at the Atlantic. We celebrated the good work we’d done together and raised a glass to better days for Liberia.

And now Prince is gone.

Sneaker wave.

During spring break, I was in Rhode Island. My mom sent me a text. It’s seven years ago today that Sis died, Mom wrote. I miss her.

Ruth was my mom’s twin sister and my godmother. My aunt once told me the story of how she’d been sunbathing on the roof of her dormitory at nursing school when she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She said she knew immediately that my mother was giving birth to me.

My mom and aunt spoke of the powerful bond between twins and the deep knowing and communication that passes between them and transcends spoken words. And now my mom is the lone living twin these past seven years.

Whenever I’m in Rhode Island, I visit the graves of my ancestors. Sometimes I stop to say hello. Sometimes I stop to say thank you. I stop to honor and remember them.

When I visited the graves over spring break, winter had taken its toll. The fabric of the American flags staked in the earth was shredded. Only brittle twigs remained where plants had once blossomed.

The next day I went to the local nursery to purchase spring flowers. A pink hyacinth and violas for one grandmother. A blue hyacinth and pansies for another.

I fixed the wind chimes on Ruth’s grave and placed one half of a charcoal blue scallop shell on her headstone. I planted violas and a pink hyacinth on her grave. Ruth loved to garden. Her back and front porches were lined with chimes that tinkled and clinked when the wind blew through.

That day broke open bright, blue-sky sunny. I could feel the warmth of the sun and breath of the wind on my face.

Joy is a sneaker wave, too.

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

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/column-grief-has-been-a-sneaker-wave-for-me-recently/article_1e70eb3f-7505-501f-b192-e51b356b5526.html

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In troubled times, language can divide or bind us

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Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

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

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Ditching Facebook for pen and paper

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

On August 1, I deactivated my Facebook account.

I choose not to have Internet at home. After years covering breaking news, I want the separation between my work life and personal life; between my office and home; between the digital world and real world.

This summer, I had 24/7 access to the Internet. I would start checking updates from Facebook friends then slide into reading posted articles and viewing ridiculous videos. I discovered I was spending an excessive amount of time on Facebook. And it didn’t make me feel included or connected.

I could see posts of people’s summer vacations, complete with photos of their kids. I was privy to news about upcoming surgeries, illnesses, deaths and losses. I realized I had a window into these people’s lives and a sense of intimacy that I didn’t have with them in real life. I felt sad.

I followed the plight of the Syrian refugees and the violence in American communities on the news and Facebook all summer.  It was too much.

I sent a note to my Facebook friends and let them know I’d be leaving. I encouraged them to send me an email or snail mail address so we could stay in touch. It’s been nearly two months and I don’t miss the daily trawling through posts.

In 2008, I joined Facebook at the suggestion of a high school student who is a board member for my non-profit, Isis Initiative, Inc. She insisted our organization needed a Facebook page to reach a broader audience in our modern world. In order to have the page, I had to start a personal page.

I’m a private person. I balked. The greater good, I told myself.  I signed up and logged in.

Soon classmates from my years in France and Oregon found me. Colleagues and fellow journalists I’d worked with in Africa and the Middle East “friended” me.

I valued my page as a resource, particularly for the journalism classes I now teach. Many of my professional contacts posted timely articles about news stories or ethical dilemmas or news of jobs and internships. I could send a quick message to colleagues and they would agree to Skype with one of our classes or accept an interview from a student.

I could also keep track of my former colleagues covering stories in Cuba, Liberia and Afghanistan. It kept me connected to my past and my journalism career. It didn’t keep me truly connected though.

I had a phone message from a friend last week. I didn’t even listen to it. I picked up the phone and dialed her cell phone number. I was sure I knew the news. My friend’s sister answered and told me their mother had died.

Vivian had been given less than six months to live three and a half years ago. She weathered the radiation and chemo. When the cancer returned, she endured another round of treatment. Not long ago, she gathered her family around the dining table. At 83, she told her family she would not take on the cancer after it reappeared. The doctors gave her two weeks to two months this time. She lived just two more weeks.

She lived to see her grandson marry in August. She died at home with her family.

My friend took the cell phone. As I listened to her, I could hear the catch in her voice when the sorrow slipped into her sentences. She said they had prepared for her mother’s death. She paused. Exhaled.

“You are never ready,” she said. A long silence followed.

Last weekend I was cleaning and I came across a stack of correspondence. Postcards from Alaska, Cozumel, New Zealand. Birthday cards, holiday letters and thank-you notes. As I looked through the stack, each note brought back a memory, sometimes a smile. On Monday, I discovered a postcard from Dubai from a former student waiting in my mailbox. It had the coolest stamp and a picture of the Burj Khalifa on the front.

Forget the zeros and ones of binary code. The high speed Internet connection hurling status updates through space. I cherish the emotions that vibrate through the direct connection of a voice over a phone line. I revel in the idea of a hand-written note that passes through many hands and countries or states to arrive at my doorstep.

Time is precious. I am touched when people take the time to write or call me.

For most of my life, I’ve been on the move. I developed a practice of writing notes and cards to far-flung family and friends. Since I left Facebook, I’ve recommitted myself to the practice.

I take a moment and a piece of paper. I sit under the stars or in the shade of a tree or at my kitchen counter before dawn breaks. I connect with my heart, my breath, my world. Then I put a pen to paper and connect with a treasured friend or loved one.

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

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If it were me

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

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

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My dad was there

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was 16, I was driving home from work on a dark, unfamiliar country road. I hit a turn and couldn’t hold it. My folks got the late-night call that all parents dread.

My parents arrived and learned my friends were OK. I had some cuts and bruises. The car was totaled. On the long ride to the hospital, my dad uttered one terse sentence: you were driving too damn fast.

A few weeks later, I asked my dad if I could buy a car. I had saved my money and I agreed to pay for the vehicle, insurance, gas and maintenance. My father took me to a dealership to help me pick out my first car.

My father trusted that I had learned my lesson. I had been reckless and I could’ve killed my friends and myself.

Over the years, I’ve had a hard time picking out a Father’s Day card for my dad.

We didn’t live those moments so often pictured with the fancy script. We didn’t go fishing together. Or play catch. We didn’t go camping or take long walks with his arm draped over my shoulder. We didn’t have long talks.

My dad was short on words and long on discipline.

I have embarrassing moments of Dad’s reprimands seared in my memory. He marched my sister and me down the aisle and out of church one Sunday when we failed to stop talking and giggling during the sermon. He came to a pizza place where I was hanging with friends and removed me from their company because I wasn’t home on time.

My dad was tough.

I came home once and showed him a test with a ‘C’ marked on it. I told my father it was an “average” grade. He responded that it wasn’t average for me.

My dad was missing a lot. And he missed a lot.

He was a soldier and an officer: his job, his men and his country often took precedence over his family. On weekends when he was home, he played golf and poker. He missed birthday parties and ballet recitals. He missed more than one Christmas.

Last year, my father called to tell me that the doctor had found a shadow on his pancreas. Dad, I said, shadow and pancreas are two words I do not want to hear in the same sentence.

Tests, a second opinion and surgery followed. By the grace of God, my tough dad beat the odds. Next month he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday. When he looks back on his long life, my dad sees that he made mistakes and missed important milestones and moments.

When I look back, I see our tangled, tempestuous father-daughter journey. I also see all the times my father stood by me, when he had my back. When he flew halfway around the world to attend my high school graduation. When he and my mom flew across the country to attend the opening of my photo exhibit.

When I was a young girl, I decided I wanted to dive off the high diving board.

My father agreed, with a condition. If I went up the board, I had to dive. I could not back down. I could not retreat.

I stood in line with the big kids. As I approached the ladder, I started to get nervous. As I climbed the ladder, I started to shake. I clutched the handrails and walked one halting step at a time to the edge of the board. It dipped under my weight. I looked down and realized it was a long way down, much farther than I’d imagined.

My father was treading water, waiting for me.

My legs trembled as I walked back toward the ladder. I looked down. The line of kids had grown longer. My dad was still treading water.

I was afraid to dive and I was afraid to back down the ladder. I’d made a deal. I’d given my word.

I don’t know how long I stood on the edge of that high board and trembled. It was an eternity. Fifteen minutes. 20 maybe. My dad kept treading water.

I finally summoned the courage to place my head between my outstretched hands. I folded over and fell into my first high dive.

My dad was there.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-ve-lived-a-tangled-father-daughter/article_4f333896-151c-11e5-8531-e394669639f9.html

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

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Let love anchor us to our lives

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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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