My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

2 Comments

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.

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

I am strong

2 Comments

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

Allegheny has a new peak performance coach, Randy Moore. As soon as I heard the news, I wrote him an email.

Coach Moore. Welcome to Allegheny. I feel like your new position and presence at Allegheny is an answer to a prayer—or at least to a fervent hope. I want to return to conditioning to improve my strength and endurance and I’m thrilled to learn you have classes available.

A bit about me by way of introduction: I am a career journalist and I teach journalism classes at Allegheny College. I’m also the adviser to the award-winning student newspaper, The Campus.

I came to Allegheny by way of Afghanistan and a life-threatening illness that had me hospitalized in Kuwait. The doctors advised me to do nothing but walk for a year to allow my lungs to recover. That was 2012-2013.

I am now carrying 40 pounds I don’t need and I’ve lost strength and endurance. I was a college athlete. I rowed crew at Oregon State and I’m a Pac-10 champion rower. I’ve run marathons. I haven’t been running with the extra weight.

I know my body remembers how to be fit and strong. My concern is that I don’t want to push too hard too soon. May I meet with you to discuss my options?

We exchanged emails and decided the intermediate conditioning class would be a good place for me to start. If it proved too much too soon, I could bump down to the beginning class. Coach advised me to start with light weights.

I rowed in a lightweight eight in college. That meant I was wicked lean and strong. Nine percent body fat. I could walk out my front door and run 12 miles for the fun of it. I could bench press well past my body weight. I remember my friend, an offensive lineman, standing behind me in the weight room and willing me to my record 13 pull ups.

That’s the Cheryl of Fitness Past.

Cheryl of Fitness Present can’t even do a push up, let alone a pull up. I learned this the hard way. I took a class at the local Y. The instructor told us to drop and do push ups. Modified, if we needed it. I could barely do one modified push up.

I knew I was out of shape. I had no idea I’d lost my strength.

It takes a whole different kind of strength to walk into the weight room at the Wise Center. I’m surrounded by wall-to-wall mirrors and young, fit athletes. When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. I expect to see the lean me that once frequented weight rooms.

Instead, I see me: out of shape and overweight. And I have a relentless voice in my head, reminding me of how far I’ve let myself go. Who are you kidding? You’re never going to get fit. You’ll never lose the weight. You look ridiculous.

While I do sets of repetitions with the weights, the unkind voice keeps repeating its debilitating messages.

The trainers are excellent. Several young women are on the lacrosse team. Another ran track. They offer me encouragement. High-fives. Compliments on my form. Their positive voices and support make me smile.

My competitiveness is still intact. Once I got over my initial internal laments about my shape, I got into the routine and my competitiveness kicked in. Three weeks into the workouts, I took a week off. My knee and once-shattered wrist were not happy. Too much too soon.

I ran into my trainer, Maria, the one who’d run track, on campus. I told her I would skip a few workouts. She smiled and told me that I was wise to rest. She complimented me on my commitment, offered a high-five with a smile and headed to the Wise Center. When I returned the following week, she watched me carefully and inquired about my knee.

The trainers and coach are teaching me more than just form. They’ve offered me an alternative to the nasty voice in my head. I’ve decided I need to balance my competitiveness with compassion.

My body has served me well for many years, even when I have sorely neglected her. She has weathered brutal diseases—typhoid, amoebic dysentery, diseases that don’t have names. She’s endured extended periods of sleep deprivation, bad food or no food, and relentless bursts of adrenaline. It’s a miracle and an act of sustained grace that I am still alive, let alone spiritually, emotionally and physically intact.

I am an athlete. I am strong.

Meet the Cheryl of Fitness Future.

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

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

Show Allegheny women’s basketball team some love on Valentine’s Day

Leave a comment

Outside the Box

by Cheryl Hatch, Copyright 2015

I was sitting in the stands for the Allegheny women’s basketball game against DePauw last Friday night. I sat in my usual spot, across the court from the Gators’ bench. I looked around. Something was off.

I was swimming in a sea of DePauw colors. Men’s players surrounded me. To my  right, a boisterous section of fans in black-and-gold were chanting before the game began.

The DePauw cheering section eclipsed the scant Gators in attendance.

And DePauw is in Indiana.

The women played against a top-notch team while their opponent’s fans screamed and clapped. The Gators took a beating and headed to the locker room as the stands filled for the men’s game.

Men from the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity stood in a row, each with a single letter painted on a bare chest: G-A-T-O-R-S. Throughout the game, the painted FIJIs and other students in the section stomped their feet, shouted organized chants and rallied the crowd and team.

There was more of everything at the men’s game. More fans. More noise. More energy. More support.

At halftime, a women basketball player escorted me to center court. I joined a number of my colleagues who received recognition from a student athlete on the team during Faculty Appreciation Night. I was giddy and proud to accept the certificate of appreciation and the student’s hand-written note tucked into the back of the frame.

The next day, I attended the women’s game against Wittenberg and the men’s against Wabash. There was better attendance for the women’s game; however, the fans at the men’s game packed the stands and rocked the house.

I’ll admit it. I was ticked when I left the Wise Center. Why doesn’t the women’s team get the same level of support as the men’s?

I asked a woman player about the DePauw game. Sure, she noticed the stands with the out-of-town fans.

It’s embarrassing, she said. To be the home team and have more fans for the opposing team.

I was a college athlete. I understand the power of cheering fans.

I rowed crew at Oregon State. Rowing is not exactly a spectator sport. Fans can line the dock or the riverbanks near the finish line. I remember once my boyfriend came to a home regatta. He joined the people shouting encouragement as they leaned over the bridge on the Willamette River.

Those raised voices—and knowing my boyfriend was among them—meant the world to me. When my will was flagging near the finish, the coxswain’s command and the shout of the crowd inspired me, pushed me. The cheers uplifted all of us and helped us move the boat.

Cheers and fans make a difference. And all Allegheny athletes deserve the support.

College athletes put in long hours, in and out of season. The women’s basketball team dedicates six days a week to the sport. Four practices a week for three to four and a half hours. Home games take at least three hours each. Traveling times for away games take anywhere from four to seven hours round-trip. Add time for lifting and training. Reviewing game films. Spending extra time with a coach or practicing shots. They can spend at least 30 hours—or more—each week on the game.

They also put in the time in the classroom and in study to meet the demands of their rigorous academic programs.

Allegheny athletic director Portia Hoeg played college ball at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. As an athlete and administrator, she understands the power of the crowd.

“I think it means everything to an athlete,” she said, of seeing peers and family in the stands. “It gives a boost of confidence and excitement to play your best.”

Hoeg didn’t have an explanation why the fan base is bigger at the men’s games.

I learned rumor has it that some students party during the women’s game and show up spirited for the men’s game.

This Saturday, the men and women’s teams play at home again. I’m on a mission. I want to see the crowds pack the house from both teams.

Men of FIJI, I invite you to show up and cheer for the women as loudly as you cheered for the men last Friday. To the rowdy crowd that chanted for the men on Saturday, bring your energy and enthusiasm early to the court and roar for the women’s team, too.

Like I said, I’m on mission.

The women tip-off against Ohio Wesleyan at 1 p.m.; the men’s start is 3 p.m.

For the women, it’s Senior Day, when they will recognize the players who are finishing their basketball careers at Allegheny.

It’s also Valentine’s Day on Saturday.

Bring a date to the game. For community members, it’s five dollars for an adult. Three dollars if you’re 55 or older. For a non-Allegheny student, it’s two dollars. Free for children six and under. The concession stand offers popcorn and snacks. It’s a bargain and a lot of fun.

Let’s all show the women’s basketball team some love on Valentine’s Day.

Note: this column ran in The Meadville Tribune on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015.

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

###

How you play a golf course reveals how you live your life

1 Comment

Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

A member of the Allegheny men’s golf team invited me to watch the team play during the recent Guy Kuhn Invitational at the Country Club of Meadville. I accepted and walked a number of holes on Sunday afternoon and a couple more on Monday.

I watched a visiting player hurl his club after a missed putt on what must have been a bad hole for him. I heard another visiting player swear loudly after a shot he didn’t like. That would not fly in the Hatch family, I thought. At any sign of disrespect for others or the game, my father would discipline us.

I grew up in a golfing family and I’ve walked innumerable golf courses. My father has played golf for as long as I can remember. My brother played in high school and college and still carries a single-digit handicap.

I never played the game when I was younger. Never liked it much, actually. I rowed crew in college. Family vacations were often planned around the availability of golf courses and tennis courts. I wanted to scuba dive.

My mom is a natural, competitive athlete. She played volleyball, basketball and tennis most of her life, until her back had other plans. She picked up golf later in life.

Last month, my mom called, thrilled to share the news of her hole-in-one on the Tournament Player Course. Number Three. A water hole.

Giddy, Mom described her shot. She suspected immediately that she’d made a hole-in-one. Dad was playing ahead of her. He said he watched her shot but didn’t see the ball on the green. He said he figured it went in the water.

Of course you did, Dad.

I tried golf a few years ago. My instructor told me I had a natural ability so I decided to take lessons. I found a woman golf pro, whose approach to the game was the right fit for my style. She gave me a few tips on my swing and then told me to see the target and send the ball to the target. And I did. On my first drive, I hit the ball well.

How far is that? About 225 yards, she said.

Giddy, I called my dad that evening. Dad, I hit my driver 225 yards.Cheryl, you cannot hit the ball 225 yards.

Well, how far do you think I can hit it? About 150, maybe 180 yards, my dad said.

Huh. My instructor might have been mistaken, though I liked the idea that I could send the ball 225 yards.

The next time I visited my folks, I went with my father to the driving range at the country club. He sat right behind me as I teed up the ball. Tense, nervous and anxious to impress my father, I hit the first few balls poorly.Then I sent one flying. I looked back at my father. How far was that, Dad?

About 225 yards. I don’t believe it, he said. Then he dashed to clubhouse to find the golf pro.

As I played more golf, I discovered that I could learn a lot about a person’s character in a round of golf, sometimes after a few holes. It turns out, in my view, how you play a golf course reflects how you live your life.

People will offer unsolicited advice: there’s a bunker over that rise; there’s water on the left; the rough is brutal on this hole. They focus on the potential problems.

I don’t want to focus on the hazards or obstacles. I aim for the flag, the green, the goal. I know that where I send my mind, my ball will follow.

My father and brother often coach me on the reasonable shot or appropriate approach. Play it safe. Play it smart.

Once, my father told me I couldn’t reach the green on a water hole. The safe shot was to lay up short of the green. In other words, don’t go for it.

I insisted I could hit the green. My first shot went in the water.

Now you know the shot to play, Dad said. My second shot went in the water. I was headed for a “Tin Cup” moment; and, I still believed I could reach the green.

On my third attempt, I hit the ball so hard it flew over the water and the flag and landed behind the green.

I happily accepted the inflated score on that hole because I proved to myself what I knew to be true—that I could reach that green.

Golf has taught me to trust myself and have confidence in how I play. And how I live.

I play by feel, by intuition, and I don’t play it safe.

Some players focus on problems. I look at the target and go for it. Some players dwell on the negative. They swear and throw things when the going gets tough.

I usually choose to focus on the positive. On some rounds of golf, I simply remind myself how lucky I am to be alive, to have the sun on my face, to be healthy enough to swing a golf club and share the game with friends.

The day after the Gators finished fourth in the Guy Kuhn Invitational, the assistant golf coach emailed me, thanking me for showing up to support the team. The coach thanked me, too. The student who invited me sent a thoughtful, handwritten thank-you note.

You can learn a lot from how people play and their follow through.

Allegheny College’s golf team is a class act.

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

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_c638f20c-44e6-11e4-945b-7b2d00a84efe.html

Fear the Turtle

Leave a comment

Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

Copyright 2014

As the summer sun rose behind me, I stood ankle deep in the brisk water of Narragansett Bay at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island. I watched the swimmers in the first wave of the Save the Bay swim strike out for the opposite shore, two miles away at Potter Cove in Jamestown.

My friend Elizabeth stood next to me. Last year, when we committed to swim the race together, we were both recovering from health setbacks. Months ago, there had been plenty of time to train. Time passed. We didn’t train.

We were certain we wouldn’t have been standing there if we hadn’t made the commitment to each other.

My kayak safety escort was a freshman at University of Maryland and a friend of my friends. He sported a T-shirt for his Maryland Terrapins.

“Fear the Turtle,” he said, citing the university’s slogan.

Fear the turtle. I laughed. Perfect.

I had three goals for the swim: finish the race; don’t be last; don’t get pulled from the water. Narragansett Bay is a shipping channel and the officials close it for only two hours. If you can’t make it in two hours, they’ll pull you.

Elizabeth was in the fourth wave. We high-fived, shivering slightly in now thigh-deep water. As we awaited the cannon-shot start, I felt a familiar flutter in my gut, a cocktail of fear and fierceness. My wave, the fifth, was the last group of 100 swimmers to head across the bay.

It was an ideal morning for my first open-water swim. The water was flat; the sky overcast. My fear-the-turtle kayaker, Sam, found me after a few hundred yards and paddled to my left.

I bumped into a kayak on the right. Oops. A bit later, I swam up to one of the safety boats in some kind of aquatic version of “Are you my mother?” I had debutante navigation skills. I asked Sam to paddle on my right. Problem solved.

I had no sense of distance. I did have the Newport Bridge to my left, so I judged my progress by the spans. Sam remained a calm, reassuring presence, paddling off my starboard.

Elizabeth had told me to remember to enjoy the swim. She said swimming across the bay offers a rare perspective. Several times I raised my head and swam breaststroke, admiring the sky, the bridge, the view. And yes, I would steady my breath before resuming my freestyle.

I passed swimmers along the way. Red caps were the first wave. Highlighter yellow, the fourth. Neon green, my wave. As we veered away from the bridge and toward the finish, we could see a congestion of caps of swimmers from earlier waves.

“What do you want to do,” Sam asked. “Do you want to pass them?”

Bless your heart, Sam. I had a secret, internal smile. Heck, yeah, I want to pass them. Once a competitor, always a competitor, it seems.

With the finish line in sight, I dug in and moved ahead, passing swimmers as Sam veered right and kayaked to shore. Cheering volunteers and red balloons greeted me when I crossed. A woman handed me a Popsicle stick with a number on it.

Elated, I accepted the participation medal and the big souvenir towel that volunteers offered me when my feet touched the shore. I posed with Elizabeth, her kayaker husband, Eliot, and fear-the-turtle Sam for celebration portraits. We lingered on shore, watching other participants finish.

More than an hour after I finished, one swimmer, surrounded by a small flotilla of boats, was making for the shore. I waded back into the water to cheer for the lone, last swimmer.

Congratulations. Is this your first race?

Yes, he said. My legs feel wobbly.

I offered my fist for a victory bump. It’s my first race, too. I’m Cheryl. David, he said.

He told me the Save the Bay swim was on his bucket list.

In January, he didn’t know how to swim.

His friend, who kayaked beside him, is a triathlete. He trained David to swim breaststroke for three hours. He swam breaststroke two miles across the bay in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Next year, David had a new goal. “Freestyle,” he shouted.

Mountaineer W. H. Murray has a quote about commitment in his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.”

“But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:  Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Commitment. It’s the difference between setting a goal and achieving it. When David committed to the event, he couldn’t swim. When I started, I didn’t believe I could swim two miles in open water. I still told everyone I would.

Set a goal. Say it out loud and often. Follow through.

And fear the turtle.

link: http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_97969516-3ecf-11e4-9967-c7d8c1cbe597.html

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

###

The human heart can only take so much

2 Comments

Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last week, after the Texas A&M/Duke bowl game, posts from my photojournalist friends started pouring into my Facebook news feed. Veteran Associated Press photographer Dave Martin had once again captured the classic image of the winning coach being doused in water

The caption would read “Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is dunked in the closing seconds of a 52-48 win over Duke in the the Chick-fil-A Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)”

Moments after making the image, Martin dropped on the field—dead, at 59, of an apparent heart attack.

He went by “Mullet,” after the fish not the hairstyle, according to one memorial piece. Colleagues, friends and family remember him as a generous man and great storyteller, on and off the job. A hard worker who put his heart into everything he loved: his job, his photography, his family.

In refection, I read one story that included a selection of photos from the events Martin had covered in his 30-year career with the American wire service.

As I looked through the online gallery, I marveled at the images and the scope of his accomplished career. He covered hurricanes, tornadoes, the Olympics, Super Bowls and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti.

I had one thought: the human heart can only take so much.

On Thursday, Dec. 12, our classes had finals: one from 2 to 5 p.m. and another from 7 to 10 p.m.  I went home, packed a suitcase and caught the flight from Erie to Houston, where my mom was undergoing unexpected heart surgery. I knew I wouldn’t make it before she went in. I darn sure wanted to be there when she came out.

There was a best-case scenario—and there were others that I wouldn’t consider and my father feared. Twelve days later, when Mom unwrapped her presents that Dad had piled under the Christmas tree, I knew our best gift wasn’t there. Our best gift is—and always has been—my mother’s resilient, tender, strong heart.

As a photojournalist, I once worked with a reporter on a story entitled “The Heart of the Matter” about a woman getting a new lease on life through open-heart surgery. The surgeon warned me there would be blood, and that many people wouldn’t be able to stomach watching—let alone photographing—the chest-cracking, blood-draining, multiple-hour procedure.

In Mogadishu, I photographed a gunshot victim as he reached up and tried to assist the medical students who were operating on him with no general anesthesia. They stood in pools of blood in a looted, dilapidated hospital. In Baidoa, I was barely an arm’s length from a gunman when he assassinated an unarmed volunteer schoolteacher at an orphanage, shooting him in the head at point-blank range. I watched the blood gush from his body.

Sure, I could handle the sight of blood.

More than a decade after Somalia, I would discover that I couldn’t handle the cumulative toll of my years as a reporter and photojournalist. I ground my teeth at night. I had debilitating migraines. I gained weight. My heart kept calling me. I kept shooting the suffering and depravity I witnessed in remote areas of the world and in American neighborhoods.

In 2003, I left my job as a staff photographer at the AP. I wanted to cover the Iraq War and there were no indications the editors would send me, even though I had experience in Iraq and combat. I had lived for years in the Middle East. I had knowledge of its history, cultures, peoples and the Arabic language. I didn’t want to miss the story of our generation, our war story.

In the end, I didn’t go to war and leaving AP did save my life. I chose a different destination. It was tough to resist the pull of the story I had abused my mind and body, especially my heart, for far too long.

I have heard the comments and questions about my life choices—the ones I made to go to war and the ones I made to stay away.

How could you leave such an exciting/glamorous/international/adventurous life for a boring one in a small town? Because my heart told me that the life I loved was killing me.

Many Allegheny students pursue their grades and degrees the way I chased stories. They live and learn on a pushed pace and under self-induced stress. Takes one to know one, as the childhood taunt goes.

Adrenaline-soaked, sleep-deprived and driven, these bright students are throwing themselves on the same pyre that burns day traders and journalists. It can be a slow burn or a fast one. If I hadn’t changed my ways and opted for healing and balance, I would have gone beyond burned out. I would have become ash.

I start each class at Allegheny with moments of silence. I invite the students to clear their desks, close their eyes and breathe. I tell them I care about their learning and their well-being. I care about their academic growth and their personal growth. I care about their minds.

And I care deeply about their young, open hearts.

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

###

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming

2 Comments

This time last year I was preparing for my second embed with the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in southern Kandahar Province. I’d spent a month embedded in December 2011-January 2012 and I’d returned to do a story on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for The Christian Science Monitor.

By late March last year, I was in a hospital bed in Kuwait, struck by some “fever of unknown origin” and a wicked infection that set up camp in my lungs so fast it was like a flood of refugees fleeing a war zone.

I am grateful beyond words that the illness didn’t take me. It gave me new-found respect for the importance and beauty of my lungs and the power of my body to heal herself.

The docs cautioned me to take it easy. I didn’t honestly. Job interviews. A move cross-country. A new teaching job in the fall, teaching two new classes. I asked if I could do yoga, run, swim. My doctor looked at me: swimming? No! Walking.

With the illness, the steroids that probably saved my life and the inactivity that followed, the pounds on my body went up and my confidence went down.

I banned my family from taking photos of me and I asked friends not to post images of me on Facebook. It was too painful. I did not recognize myself.

A student first semester asked if I were pregnant. It was a great teaching moment in my journalism class; however, it was heartbreaking for me, doubly cruel in its implications. And I thought I looked great that day.

I followed the doc’s orders. I did my best to rest and take care of myself. I didn’t want to relapse.

Over the break, the doctor gave me a green light to swim. My lungs were clear, my heart strong.

I decided I’d join the Master Swimmers group at Allegheny College. The pool is walking distance from my home.

People often tell me I’m brave. They might mention my considerable public speaking. Or my years spent in combat zones, most recently walking on patrol with an infantry platoon in the Horn of Panjawai’i.

True, I do take risks. I do things that scare other people…and scare me sometimes.

I’ll tell you though, it took real courage last Sunday to put on my Speedo swimsuit–too many pounds overweight than I’d care to mention–and walk onto the pool deck.

Kirk, the coach, is a young, kind man. I told him I’d swim in the outside lane–the slow lane. I had no idea what I’d be able to do.

300-yard warmup. No problem.

As I swam, I realized I hadn’t swum since I left my beloved swimming group at Oregon State in 2010. I spent a winter in Alaska and another winter in Afghanistan. Three years.

The workout continued. I kept swimming. The woman sharing the lane with me said: “You’re a strong mama.” I smiled.

My body is a miracle and she continually surprises me.

At the end of the workout, the coach said I’d swum 2,600 yards. That’s probably enough for your first time back in the water, he said.

2,600 yards!

Sure, I didn’t have the core or the arm strength for more than 15 yards of butterfly at a stretch. And I didn’t do many flip turns because I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina.

I didn’t get winded. I did feel strong. I called my friend in Rhode Island and she said: “Two hundred more yards and you could do the Save the Bay Swim. Now there’s a goal. July 2013.

I went back this week and I swam 3,000 yards.

It’s a start.

This year I made a commitment to myself. To regain my health and strength. To uncover/liberate the athlete who was once a Pac-10 rowing champion, who ran marathons.

Mostly, I have to admit, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy my lungs are healthy.

And I think Dorie the blue tang in “Finding Nemo” has it right.

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

Older Entries