The Cookie Elf


I haven’t written much lately. It’s been six months since I last posted on this blog. I resolved to write more, staring right now. And right into the new year.

My winter break begins today. I turned in grades on Sunday. I had a couple meetings to round out my semester–preparing for next semester. And I gave my office and home a thorough cleaning.

I had a 3 a.m. wake-up to head to the airport today. Last night, though, I stayed up late baking chocolate chip cookies. I had this idea that I would deliver homemade cookies to the hard-working people I met along my journey, my version of spreading Christmas cheer.

I put the cookies on red paper plates with a white snowflake pattern. I sealed them with plastic wrap and tucked them in a paper bag. I decided I would let the spirit move me as I selected recipients.

First delivery: the woman who checked in my Hertz rental car at 0-dark-30 this morning. Merry Christmas.

As my bag passed through the security scanner, the TSA agent pulled it off the conveyer belt and opened it. She looked inside and smiled. She closed it then opened it again and sniffed and smiled. I offered the agents cookies. The woman said they weren’t allowed to accept them.

Now I’m at my gate. The crew on my Southwest Airlines flight will get a plate of cookies. And the crew on my connecting and final flight will get cookies, too.

I had already delivered cookies over the last week, to the folks at my local post office, who are always friendly and helpful. I gave cookies to Fran, the woman who delivers my mail. I offered cookies to the people at the realty agency who look after my home. I took cookies to the local diner where I frequently grab a bite and take a break from campus. And at my last meeting of the semester on Monday, I gave cookies to a colleague, a lovely human being, who’s been a great support to me this past semester.

Personal. Homemade. Sweet. The perfect recipe for sharing love and Christmas cheer.

Merry, Merry.

Happy to be embraced in return home from Ebola-stricken Liberia

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

When we arrive at the entrance gate to Barclay Training Center, I reach out my hand to the soldier who greets us.

Oh no. Don’t give me no Ebola, he says.

I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and touching of any kind is not allowed. The usual friendly gestures of hugs and handshakes are strictly forbidden in this West African nation that has been in the grip of an Ebola outbreak for months.

I chose to spend my winter break working rather than resting. I turned in grades then flew to Texas to break the news to my parents that I’d be leaving for Liberia on December 29.

I traveled with writer Brian Castner. We’d met at the Combat Paper: Words Made Flesh conference at Allegheny, where he’d spoken last September. I’d been raised in the Army and Brian had served in the Air Force as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq. Brian proposed that we cover the actions of the 101st Airborne, whose soldiers had fought insurgents in Iraq. The president had now tasked them with fighting a virus.

The virus is transmitted between humans by direct contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “When an infection occurs in humans, the virus can be spread to others through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.”

The Army’s mission was to build Ebola Treatment Units and train healthcare workers. They would have no contact with Ebola patients. In Monrovia, they were confined to a walled compound where they would wander to one gate, called Redemption Gate, and look at the ocean. Redemption references the beach slightly north of the soldiers’ view. In 1980, Samuel Doe claimed power in a coup and had the previous government’s ministers executed on the beach.

As one soldier gazed west to the horizon and a faraway home, he called the ocean view a slice of heaven.

It was a look-but-don’t-touch lifestyle.

Earlier that day, Brian and I had gone to West Point, which Brian described as a shantytown. It sits on a .15-square-mile peninsula with 80,000 residents, the majority children. In August, when Ebola was rampant, the government placed West Point under quarantine and enforced it with police and barbed wire.

As we walked the beach, our host kept reminding us to watch our step. Feces. Feces.

The U.S. soldiers haven’t been to West Point.

As I photographed, children swarmed around me. They pressed in close for a view of me and pressed into my camera’s viewfinder.

I’ve been in such situations many times. In the past, I would have worried about theft or assault or an ambush. This time I worried about sweat: the children who grabbed my sweaty arms with their sweaty hands. I became acutely aware of unconscious habits, such as rubbing my eyes as I wiped sweat from my brow.

Brian noted that Ebola was a new type of threat for him, too. With a bomb, he’d know his fate instantly: the bomb blew or it didn’t. With Ebola, it can take up to 21 days to manifest symptoms of the disease after exposure to the virus. It’s a silent bomb.

I’d notified the Student Health Center of my travel plans before I left and again when I returned. A fellow photojournalist warned me to be prepared for a frosty reception. Even close friends steer clear when you return, he told me.

Upon arrival in the U.S., I began my 21-day self-monitoring protocol. The women at the Pennsylvania Department of Health are on the ball. Someone calls me each morning to get my twice-daily temperature readings. She inquires if I have any symptoms. No fever. No symptoms.

I had decided I would continue the precautions and practices Brian and I had exercised in Liberia. No contact. Smiles and waves only. Or tapping elbows instead of hugs and high-fives.

My friend, a fellow journalist, who’d lived and worked in West Africa, met me at the airport. He is tall with a deep voice made for radio. Welcome home, he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, tucking me in close. I chafed, briefly. It was a shock to be embraced. It was also the best welcome home. I spent the weekend with my friends. We shared meals and they listened to my stories. I realized how blessed I am to have friends who will always embrace me.

When I returned to Allegheny, a student spotted me and came running across the Campus Center lobby. Professor Hatch. I didn’t have time to put up my arms. She ran right into me and wrapped me an exuberant hug.

When I heard you were in Africa, I was afraid you weren’t coming back. If you weren’t coming back, I wasn’t coming back.

She smiled and questions poured out of her. I smiled. Happy for the hug and the stream of questions.

She’s a journalist, all right.

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


Breathe well, as we have just this one life

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Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014


Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher repeats this often during our practice.

I came to Allegheny after working in Afghanistan by way of a hospital bed in Kuwait.

For my first year on campus, I was under doctor’s orders to rest. No running. No swimming. No yoga. Only walking. My body and lungs needed time to rest, repair, restore.

Breathe well.

A respiratory illness tried to take my breath. Now I breathe beauty. Sunshine. Rain. Wind. Tears. Ocean. Light. Laughter.

When I left Afghanistan, I left the world of breaking news. For two decades, I’d been in crisis mode. Wildfires. Plane crashes. Murders. Executions: at a federal penitentiary, in urban neighborhoods, on dirt roads in Africa. Earthquake. Floods. Famine. Civil war. Political campaigns. Sports playoffs. Serial killers.

I had more stretches of 90-hour weeks than I want to admit. Yes, the news never sleeps; and, too often, neither did I. It was a fun and frenetic career—and it took its toll.

When I came to this small liberal arts college in this small town, I envisioned a slower pace of life. I would write letters. I’d read books. And I’d write a book, a memoir, the book people had been asking about for more than a decade.

To my horror and surprise, I discovered it’s possible to live at a crisis-mode pace without a breaking-news job.

I noticed a disturbing, familiar pattern.

How are you? I’d ask. Busy.

How about a walk? I’m busy.

Dinner? Busy. So busy. Too busy.

In Arabic class, the students already know the word for tired. When the professor asks how they are, one by one, they often respond taa’baan. Tired. I’ve heard the word “exhausted” escape from my lips too often

Breathe well.

I remember my childhood and the lives of my parents and grandparents. We gathered around a table for meals every evening. On weekends, we played, visited friends. On Sundays, we went to church and relaxed. Our “free” time was just that: ours. There was time for family, friends, community and service. The professional and the personal lived in separate places.

On Sunday, I drew two columns on a yellow legal pad. One column I labeled “for me;” the other I labeled “for others.” For me, I listed Arabic homework, cleaning, doing an annual report for my nonprofit and writing this column. I also wanted to do some things for my well-being: swim, read, walk.

In years past, I did a great job of crossing things off my list for others and sometimes I’d work on evenings and the weekends to get that work done. It’s not a tradition I want to continue.

Some Sundays, I go to church. This past Sunday, I went for a long walk. I consider both forms of worship and meditation.

As I walk, I listen to the wind, the rustle and rattle of leaves and unseen animals that scatter and plop as I pass. I hear the tickle of the creek as water slips over rocks.

I notice a brown snake, slender as a pencil, stretched across the path, sunning. I walk gently by it, careful to leave it undisturbed.

Wait. Go back, Cheryl. What’s your hurry?

I turn and return to the snake. I get down on my knees and lean on my elbows, chin in my hands. I study the snake, sun on my face, sun on its scales.

I watch it breathe. Sides puff out slightly. Sides collapse. I am alone on the trail for long moments with the snake, its breathing, the sun and the wind.

Slowly it moves, tasting the air with its flicking tongue, finding its way through curled, fallen leaves. It slithers into the grass and vanishes from my sight.

Breathe well.

Our yoga teacher reminds us to expand our breath, expand into our bellies.

When I’m afraid or fatigued, my breath grows shallow, sprints ahead, dares my heart to join it. When I’m stressed, straining, struggling, I hold my breath.

When we hold our breath, we tighten. Constrict.

As our yoga teacher reminds us, when we breathe well, our breath opens our chests. It exposes our hearts. Leaves us vulnerable. Nourished. Alive.

We have this one life.

One sacred life. One sacred moment. One sacred breath.

Breathe well.

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


I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought


Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2013

In our journalism classes, I encourage students to write thank-you notes. I tell them that it’s an invitation not an obligation; and, I offer incentive points to the students who thank others who have given generously of their time and expertise. Each semester, 10 to 20 percent of the students make the time and take the initiative to write personal thank-you notes.

My mom taught me to write thank-you notes as a child. She always made sure that we kept the tags from our Christmas and birthday presents so we could keep track of the people we would write. As a kid, I would sometimes grumble at the task. As an adult, I realize that it takes time to choose the stationery or card. It takes time to write a thoughtful, sincere note. It’s the time as much as the thought that counts.

‘Tis the season.

On TV. On the radio. On websites and highway billboards. In newspapers. Everywhere I look, advertisements are pushing, prodding and cajoling me to shop. Buy. Buy. Buy.

I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought. The most valuable gift we can offer others—and ourselves—is time.

We tend to live as though life and the future are guaranteed. I’ll do it later. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll go home for Christmas next year. I’ll make that trip when I’ve lost more weight. Or saved more money.

Spending time as a journalist in conflict zones taught me to value life, even as I repeatedly risked my own. In Somalia, a sniper’s bullet missed me and ricocheted out of the bed of the truck transporting me. In Liberia and Somalia, child soldiers pointed guns at me more times than I can count; each time they chose not to pull the trigger. In Mozambique, our jeep hit an antipersonnel mine; it damaged the vehicle while we escaped unscathed.

And this time two years ago, I walked on daily patrols in southern Kandahar province in Afghanistan with soldiers in the 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I came home. Not all the soldiers did.

All the loss and near misses clarified for me what I would miss. The weddings. The graduations. The great loves. The heartbreaks. The road trips. The bumpy detours. I understand in my bones, to the core of my being, that my time on this Earth is a gift.

This season of giving, I encourage you to consider that the simple things are indeed priceless. Take your time and be present. Make time for your life and the people and beauty that share it with you.

Listen when someone talks to you. Not the kind of listening when you’re not truly paying attention, when you’ve already moved on to the next thing on your list of things to do. Or worse, you’re texting or typing while your friend or loved one shares a story, woe or concern with you. Listen with your ears, heart and spirit. Stop whatever else you’re doing and listen.

Offer to run an errand for a friend. Drive someone to the airport. Shovel the snow from your neighbor’s sidewalk. Read a book to a stranger in a hospital or assisted living facility. Babysit for friends who love their children and would also love some time alone with each other. Write a thank-you note to someone for an act of kindness or a gesture that altered the course of your life. Write a thank-you note to someone who has loved you, to anyone who has made a difference in your life.

For years as a journalist, I gave everything to my job. I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Ninety-hour weeks were not unheard of. I sacrificed my well being in service of a never-ending news cycle and a profession I adored and in which I excelled.

It took me years to learn to make time for myself. And I learned that lesson the hard way. It’s not selfish. It’s self-aware. It’s self-care.

You cannot give to others if you are depleted. You will have nothing to give.

Rest. Relax. Make time for prayer. Meditation. Coffee. Conversation. Make time to enjoy the beauty around you. Watch your breath in the cold night air under a twinkling-star sky. Make snow angels. Make a fire and watch the flames.

Have fun this holiday season—and every season. Your mind, body, spirit, your breath and your life are sacred.

Each moment is an invitation.

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


Keep calm and carry on

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When I travel, I carry talisman, for lack of a better word. These are personal items to which I attach significance.

On all trips, I carry photographs.

On my trips to Afghanistan, I carried photos of my family, my parents, my ancestors…the fantastic women of my matriarchal line…and my niece and nephew. I carry these for different reasons.

With the strong, brave women of my mother’s family, I look to them for inspiration and courage….and to remind me that I come from a great line of bold, daring and wild women…who didn’t let society dictate their roles or limit their lives. My great grandmother was a landowner, a suffragette and a reporter. My grandmother flew airplanes. My mom is an artist, athlete and a teacher.

I look to the photos to remind me of those I love…to remind me of love. Sometimes in dark places I need that light. The photos of my niece and nephew are beacons of light that pierce my heart whenever I look at them: their smiles, their exuberance. I am reminded of how they embrace each day with joy and wonder. How they let their emotions shine and run right through them. When they’re mad, they show it. When they’re giddy, they show it. They ride the waves of life with such ease and abandon. They are beautiful role models.

On this trip I also wore a silver chain with two pendants. One pendant was a gift from my brother and his wife; they bought it for me on a trip to Iceland. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful, perfect gift…knowing how I love Norse mythology and the power of symbols. It’s an elegant Nordic rune, a symbol for heart and courage. I figured I’d need plenty on my journey. And it would keep my brother close to my heart.

I added a charm that I bought in Rhode Island last summer at Island Books. It’s a wooden Scrabble tile (I come from a family of mean Scrabble players). It has an H on the back (four points) and a pink enamel cover on the front with a crown and the words “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The crown and the words have glitter embedded in them and the tile has a gentle sparkle.

I loved that pink, glittery pendant, so out of character for me….though the phrase resonated deeply. When I bought it, I wasn’t thinking about embedding in Afghanistan. I was thinking I liked the sentiment.

As I prepared to travel to Afghanistan, I combined the rune and the Scrabble tile and made my own amulet…and I wore it throughout both embeds. Sometimes I’d wrap my hand around it before I go on patrol with the soldiers….a quiet request for me and them.

The other day, my friend Sarah came across a YouTube video that explains the history of the slogan. It apparently dates to World War II. It was part of a series of three posters with slogans created to boost morale in Great Britain.

When I did a bit of searching, I discovered the expression has created a cottage industry of products: t-shirts, coffee cups, iPhone covers. Branding. Ugh.

I’m happy my pendant is a unique creation.

I’m wearing it now.

Hungry for Light

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Corinna Cook, a student in Northern Studies, stops as she crosses the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on Wednesday. Dec. 8, 2010, to bask in the light of the mid-afternoon setting sun.

A long, lean band of orange light stretched across campus. A lone student stood still in the middle of it yesterday. Eyes closed, she faced the mid-afternoon setting sun. Her breath frosted as she exhaled. I stopped and watched her. Ah, a kindred spirit.

As I approached to join her, I noticed her eyes were closed. Indeed, a kindred spirit.

“I get hungry for the light,” she said.

A graduate student in Northern Studies, Corrina Cook describes her major as “literary accounts of Alaska.” She was heading to her class in “Narrative Art of Alaska” when she stopped to stand in the stillness, her breath freezing as she exhaled, braving the cold to relish the sunlight.

“How much it reminds me of the ocean. How the water plays the light,” said Cook, who did her undergraduate work in southern California.

“Nobody told me about this place,” she said, of Alaska and its winter light. “The sun scraping along the mountains. This foreign area within sight but not touchable.”

Corinna Cook, a UAF graduate student in Northern Studies, has frozen eyelashes after she stopped for a few minutes to face the sun setting behind the Alaska Range.

Need a Ride?


After listening to Morning Edition on KUAC on my shortwave radio, I dressed for the 3.8-mile trek to campus and headed out the door.

I don’t have a backpack, so I stuff everything in my Eddie Bauer duffel bag and make due. Change of clothes. Books. External drive. Yellow legal pads. My journal. Letters to mail. I tuck a Canon Elf point-and-shoot in one pocket of my goose down vest and my cell phone in the other. I slip my left arm through one bag handle and hoist and sling into onto my back in one quick, clumsy motion. Right arm through the other handle and I’m ready to go.

The orange glow of the low rising sun pierces the spaces between the white-bellied birches as I climb the first hill. The snow sparkles and I take turns treading in the bare black lanes where passing cars and trucks have cleared a path and the slippery packed snow on either side. It’s quiet, only intermittent noises. My snuffles as my nose runs. A raven squawks overhead. And the gentle crunch, crunch, crunch as I heel to toe, heel to toe, making steady progress.

As I turn on Yankovich Road, a tall male runner passes me.

“Do you do anything special to your running shoes?” I call after him.

“I put screws in them,” he says, turning his head and looking over his left shoulder for a brief moment to answer me, never breaking stride. He’s over the hill and gone and I keep walking.

A few minutes later, I hear two voices, their banter as light as their footsteps. A man and a woman with a dog on a leash pass me, on a seven-minute pace, I’d reckon.

“Are those normal running shoes,” I shout.

The woman turns her head slightly to the right and shouts back.

“Yes, Normal running shoes. We’re crazy,” she says. Then she turns her head again: “We put spikes in the winter.”

I envy the light, sure-footed, happy, healthy runners passing me. And it dawns on me: it’s not yet winter. Heck, it’s barely a month into fall. I’m definitely not in Oregon anymore.

I like walking. It gives my mind time to wander. I write. I compose lists of things to do. I study the landscape and marvel at the light.

A nondescript maroon four-door car stops. (I’m as bad at car identification as I am at identifying the assortment of tracks in the snow around my cabin.)

A woman opens the driver’s side door and leans out, calling back to me.

“Need a ride?”

“No, thank you.” And I start running toward the car. This is the first person who has stopped to offer me a ride in the six weeks I’ve been walking. I want to meet her.

I reach the car. She’s Native, I’d guess. But I don’t ask and I regret it later. I’d like to know what tribe she’s from and what her family’s story is. She has a fistful of popcorn in her right hand so I don’t shake her hand.

“I’m Cheryl. I’m new here.” “I’m Ruby. This is my grandson, Silus.” I notice a young, dark-haired boy in the back seat.

“And who’s this?” I ask, spotting a probable German Shepherd pup next to Silus.

“Jack Jack.”

“Thank you for the offer, Ruby.” “It’s Birdy.”

I make a flapping motion with my arms. “Birdy?”

“Birdy. My daughter lives out this way.”

“I live down the down the road, off Dalton.”

“If your feet get tired and you see this little red car…”

Birdy shuts the door and rolls away, leaving me with an open invitation and the open road.

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