I believe the most precious gifts cannot be bought

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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.

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Rainy Day Reflections

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It’s the second day of cold, soaking rains in southern Kandahar Province.

We all got up at 0630 and dressed in preparation for our mission…many were secretly or overtly praying that it would be a no-go. At 0800, the company commander made the call. Most soldiers returned to their bunks. Some are smoking and looking out at the gray, dripping skies. A few are in the MWR, where I am now.

I decided to use the down time to catch up on a couple blog posts.

I was rereading old journal entries from my last embed. I made note of a few soldiers I wanted to thank…and those notes hadn’t made it from a private entry to a public one.

As I prepared to leave last time (in mid-January), I thought about our reception as members of the press among the soldiers. And there were many soldiers who I will remember…and thank.

Brigade Commander Col. Todd Wood: for the invitation and ultimately the authorization to join the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team downrange.

Maj. David Mattox: for making Fort Wainwright, its soldiers and their mission accessible to us, in Alaska and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Brian Payne (Battalion Commander 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment): for giving us unfettered access in order for the stories about his soldiers to reach their families back home. He put his name on a line and authorized our inclusion on an air assault mission–a personal and professional risk–again on behalf of his soldiers. I was grateful for his trust and deeply impressed–moved actually–by his willingness to take that risk. He said: I’m proud of my soldiers. I’ve got nothing to hide. If the media finds something we’re doing wrong, we can learn from it and correct it.

Command Sgt. Major Ernest Bowen: He’s the quiet guy behind the scenes–unless he finds a soldier exhibiting unprofessional behavior. His door was open–and he made time for us. A first-class guy. He hates latrines and unprofessional conduct…and he’s not the least bit concerned about ticking people off in the course of doing his job. A great role model for me.

Certain soldiers downrange stand out for me.

Sgt. 1st Class David Smith: Charlie Co. He had our backs on the air assault. When things didn’t go according to plan, he stuck with us from the chalk to the Chinook to the compounds they cleared. His South Carolina accent, easy manner and smile were definitely southern comfort on that mission.

Spc. (then Pfc.) Mazzole Singeo: Charlie Co. Another soldier who emerged from the crowd and the scramble on that dark chalk before the air assault. We knew he kept an eye on us–and his clever wit and jokes were a highlight of the two-day mission.

Spc. Malecia James: A member of the Female Engagement Team on the air assault. When we’d find ourselves at the back of the line, James would fall back. She said: Let me fall back so you have a U.S. soldier behind you. She went about the mission with a quiet grace and strength. She won my heart when she refused to give her last pen to the clamoring boys (who’d already acquired several pens) and instead made a point to give the pen to a shy young girl. That’s one small step for girls and one giant leap for the empowerment of women.

Spc. Valerie Cronkhite: A tough, humble medic and member of the Female Engagement Team. We first met her on at NTC–in fact, she’s one of the first people we met. She welcomed us then and she welcomed us again in Afghanistan. She was generous with her time and so proud of her fellow FET members.

Sgt. Tirsa Cole: At Sperwan Ghar (attached to Bravo Co.) A fabulous cook and person. I walked in my first morning in Sperwan Ghar and she asked me if I wanted eggs cooked to order. Her simple offer/gesture stopped me in my tracks and made my day. She serves seasoned, tasty food and her DFAC is always stocked, clean and open.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the soldiers who made an impression.

Soldiers, as a general rule, are not fans of the press. They either have a preconceived idea about the media’s agenda or they’ve been burned or know someone they believe has been burned.

We met soldiers who’ve been friendly, open and welcoming. There are others who mistrust us–and show it with their disdain and derision, by ignoring our questions or our presence.

And there were plenty of soldiers who surprised me by shaking our hands and thanking us for coming and telling their stories to the families back home.

Imagine that: soldiers thanking me for doing my job.

It got to me every time.

I appreciate the thanks.

And I think we all know where the thanks belongs.