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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I had to be here, Coach

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

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

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

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Vocational: I’ll wear that badge with honor.

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

On more than one occasion since I arrived at Allegheny, a person has labeled my work, what I do, what I offer to the students and the community, vocational. Each time I hear that comment, I wince and bristle inside. It feels dismissive, disrespectful.

I am a journalist. After the most recent comment, I decided to do what journalists do. I decided to investigate. I interviewed professors at Allegheny and other academic institutions. I spoke with colleagues in journalism. If someone described your work as vocational, what would that mean to you? How would it make you feel?

It’s definitely a charged word, one professor said. It implies a vo-tech education. In high school, if you took vocational-technical classes, it meant you weren’t going to college. If someone calls your work vocational, it implies you’re not an intellectual.

Another professor voiced a similar opinion with one distinction. Particularly in a liberal arts college/tradition, if a professor refers to your work as vocational, it means that you and your work are not valued or respected. It implies that you are not a scholar, that you don’t do scholarly work. It doesn’t necessarily address your intellect.

These opinions reflected what I was feeling. Devalued, dismissed and disrespected. It implies I work with my hands not my head. I’m not a peer. I’m more like a plumber. I don’t belong.

I remember vocational classes in high school: auto repair, woodworking/shop class, typing, home economics. I would have loved to take a woodworking or auto repair class; at that time, girls weren’t allowed in those classes. I took typing and that skill has served me every day since I graduated high school.

On fall break, I was walking along the ocean with a dear friend, a graduate of Wellesley College. I told her about my experience at Allegheny and the vocational label some at the college attach to journalism.

Remember the origin of the word vocation, she said. It means a calling.

I beamed.

Exactly, I said. I often tell the students that I consider journalism a noble calling.

I went home and looked up the word. Vocation derives from Latin vocātiō, meaning a call, a summons. It first meant a call by God, particularly to a religious life in the Christian tradition. In the 20th century, it came to be associated with training, talents and a job. I’m not sure when the negative connotation attached to it.

I asked a journalist friend about the label of vocational and its blue-collar implications for our profession.

Of course it’s vocational, he said. We don’t think about journalism. We do journalism. When you teach journalism, you teach students to work for a story. If they fail, they learn to dust themselves off and get back to it. If that’s blue collar, I’ll wear that badge with honor. And yes, it is a noble calling. We sure don’t do it for the money. We serve our communities, our democracy and our world.

I come from a long line of blue-collar workers, of people who serve. Among our men, we have farmers, fishermen, an electrician, a tinsmith, a janitor, a state representative, soldiers and sailors. Among our women, we have farmers, a home economist, a nurse, teachers and a suffragist. And yes, there’s a woman reporter who preceded me by three generations, long before the vocation called me.

Journalists do important work. Teaching the next generation of journalists is important work.

Journalists are members of the Fourth Estate. They are watchdogs tasked with the duty of holding our governments and businesses accountable. Journalists risk their lives covering conflict abroad and corruption at home. They document history and tell the stories of a community, from the county fair and school board meetings to far-flung wars and areas of conflict and suffering. Journalists provide information that serves the public interest. A free press is a pillar of our democracy.

It takes smarts and guts to be a journalist—and to serve.

I followed in my great grandmother’s footsteps in becoming a journalist. I followed in my mother’s footsteps in becoming a teacher. I followed all my ancestors in a life of hard work and service.

Both my jobs are vocational. I’ll wear that badge with honor.

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

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http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-vocational-a-term-i-wear-like-a/article_602b069a-7ced-11e5-a8a6-9b43114d875a.html

 

You gotta rock the nap

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

At the start of each semester, I give an empty schedule to the students in our classes. I ask them to fill in their commitments during the week. Classes. Work. Athletic practices and games. Clubs. Service organizations. Allegheny students embrace the college’s mantra of unusual combinations and that can lead to packed schedules. As a professor, I like to have an idea of what the students are balancing as they take on a deadline-driven journalism class.

When I arrived at Allegheny, I plunged into my new job. It wasn’t long before I decided to track my time to determine where it was going. I took the same empty schedule that I give the students and I filled in one each day. I devised a color-coded system to discover how I spent my time.

I chose red for work and colored all the blocks of time I dedicated to work activities, including lectures, meetings, grading, class preparation and advising the student journalists at The Campus.

Green marked activities such as cleaning, shopping, swimming and yoga: things that I consider necessary to healthy living. I chose blue for moments of true relaxation: reading a book, going for a walk, getting a pedicure. I tracked my time for a semester.

Warning, warning. Danger Will Robinson. My daily colored charts felt like a fire alarm, screaming red. My cousin would call me. “Are you having a blue day?” Translation: Are you taking time for yourself? No. Blue was missing in action.

As an Associated Press photographer, I covered major league sports, murders, Microsoft, forest fires and trials. I would sometimes have competing deadlines in different time zones around the globe.

When I covered a New York Yankees v. Mariners home game, for example, I’d sit in a well on the third base line, by the visiting team’s dugout. I’d need a photo of the Yankees’ pitcher from the top of the first for clients in New York. I’d shoot it, pull the card, download the photos and edit, all while keeping an eye on the game, talking to editors in New York and watching for foul balls. I’d caption the photo and transmit. Then I’d photograph Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s leadoff batter and rookie sensation from Japan. The media in Japan were hungry for images of Ichiro. I enjoyed the challenge and I rocked the coverage.

As a journalist, I learned to maximize time. If I had a spare minute, I found a way to use it. I carried this skill with me from Afghanistan to Allegheny, hence the hemorrhaging schedule.

The students keep busy schedules, too; however, I discovered they also mark time in their schedules to eat, work out and sleep. No matter how much work they have, the students make time for themselves. They take care of themselves.

When I’m on a story or a deadline, I can forgo food and sleep to finish. On a major story, I can work round-the-clock for days. In the past, I considered my ability to power through, tough it out it, a point of pride. Over time, this deprivation becomes a habit, a destructive one.

Athletes understand the power of rest. After a tough workout, the body needs time to repair and recover. If an athlete doesn’t allow for down time, the mind and body eventually pay for it. Concentration suffers. Injuries occur. An illness invades. The same applies to journalists.

In The Campus newsroom, the students take breaks. They extoll the virtues of a nap.

A nap? Sleeping in the middle of the day? Ridiculous.

Students have told me if they have a spare 15 to 20 minutes or an hour, they’ll take a nap. If I have any spare time, I’ll find something to fill it. I’ll grade papers, write a letter, answer emails.

This semester I’m following the students’ lead. I make sure I make time for lunch. When I have a bit of down time, I take a short nap. It’s not ridiculous. It’s remarkable. The short break and rest are restorative.

Last Thursday night, I met with The Campus student editors. They didn’t have a paper to publish before fall break, so we had scheduled time for an extensive critique of the latest issue. A number of students on staff are athletes who are usually coming from or going to a practice or workout on publication night. Meaghan Wilby, science/international editor, plays basketball. Chloe Kedziora, junior features editor, plays lacrosse. Joe Tingley, news editor, is a distance swimmer on the swimming and diving team.

After the meeting, I chatted with Joe, who also plays violin in the orchestra and writes regular blog posts for Allegheny Gator Blogs. I told him I had enjoyed reading his recent posts, which are thoughtful and personal. I mentioned that I’d started taking the occasional nap, something I’d learned from the students.

Even with his packed schedule, Joe finds time for nap each day—20 minutes is ideal.

“You gotta rock the nap,” he said.

Indeed. You gotta rock the nap.

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

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I am strong

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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.

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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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