Monday, September 24, 2018

Hail Mary

Heaven Harsh

The blood waters at sunrise
when the Universe cuts Earth’s cord.
The gory birth of each day
reflects back on the same seas
that mothered all land.
We don't see the difference
between Stone and Bone
after 10,000 years.
Time makes the extreme tones
of heartaches and heart-fulls
equally, equatorially weird.
Heaviness is a harshness
of Heaven by necessity.
All births are messy,
but some are a real Hail Mary.

If you give me a minute,
a tiny strand of time,
I will look for you in it.
The dawn of friendship
is only
a haven of moments
when we,
you and I,
mean something in the flood.
The right wave
is a long pass,
but even if you catch it,
every offensive play,
there is no such thing as a touchdown.
What goes up only comes around
in our harsh Heaven’s heaviness.

If I give you a minute,
a bare fray of rope,
I can only hope
you'll find me in it.
Irrespective of tides,
we could rise and pearl,
then curl,
a crashing wave,
feeling the heavy birthing pull
of Heaven’s sweetest harshness,
light, and inevitable,
as a baby's breath.
All births are messy,
but love is the real Hail Mary.
Blood waters when the Universe cuts Earth's cord, reflected on the seas that mothered all land. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Whom Am I in Your Head?

Who Am I in Your Head?  
A voice of reason? A seed of doubt? A season passing on route?  All reflections are a fun-house mirror of sorts. Grains of truth and sands of surprises wrapped up in the warped adobe abode we build of our lives. Our own reflection the most distorted of all. Seeing ourselves for ourselves only through others' memories of our images. Squinting gilded or glided eyes,
thus interpreted and rationalized, often obscured in the heady haze of emotions and the beady blaze of the varied beliefs that protect our individual primordial mists. But nonetheless, our real reflection remains always unknowable. Seen only through others’ eyes, back translations, we see our assorted distortions multiplied and miniaturized, compounded in spider eyes. This one that trait, that characteristic, those behaviors, in the past, this time, tomorrow and again, each difference stacked and piled. Green, ripe, putrid all at once like a boat of bananas. Out of season but returning flash frozen, on sale, in stores nearby, at random. Who Am I in Your Head? Always complex, but only an illusion of complete. Ever evolving, never resolving to one clear sliver of light. Unknown in the spider-eyed myriad mirrors of our reflections upon reflections on reflections rationalized. Ultimately unknowable in any life time, but hopefully, not forgotten. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

11 Lessons Learned from Extreme Environment Work

I have had the honor and the privilege of observing (and sometimes participating) in a lot of training for living and working in extreme environments. I've learned a lot, but I 'd like to share some of the things that are common in training for extreme environments.
What makes an environment extreme? Existing in it is dangerous because of constant physical, emotional, and/ or mental threats to your presence (e.g. Space, the Arctic Tundra, a war zone, a fire scene). An environment might also be extreme because it requires an ultra-high level of performance and even small errors can be deadly (e.g. emergency rooms, fighter jets). Training to perform in any one such environment or job reveals many interesting lessons. However, I think what astronauts, special forces operators, first-responders, law enforcement agents, Antarctic expeditionary members, divers, pilots, off-shore rig crews, and ER and ICU staff all learn in common may make great lessons for life in general...
  1. If we're all breathing, then we've got enough time to handle the other problems. This is a difficult perspective to keep, but absolutely necessary. NASA has an additional way of framing it: The first over-arching, non-negotiable mission objective is to keep everyone alive. For that objective, failure is not an option. The second objective can be the mission goals (i.e. what you, your team, your organization, your country, your planet wants); but everything is subservient to and depends on that first objective of making sure every one is and can continue breathing.
  2. Craft your work and your job to honor your own meaning of life or you will die inside (or burnout). What is the meaning of life? Like Albert Camus wisely witted, "The meaning of life is whatever keeps you from killing yourself." You define it. It can be love and family, rugby and roller derby, ballroom dancing and tacos, hope and learning and anything at all in the universe that makes your life your adventure. What matters is that you define it, reassess how well you are honoring it for yourself, and redefine it as needed to keep your meaning alive and use it to shape your work. All work can be shaped to fit your meaning, but first you must know your meaning.
  3. Hell is exciting, but boredom is heavenly. Pray for boredom. Use it wisely. The fate of the world depends on each one of us doing so. Boredom is when self-reflection and self-care happen.
  4. You must do self-care well before you can do team-care. It's very tempting to go all out and "sleep when I'm dead" and eat like every meal is your last and over-caffeinated and on and on and on. We're good at pushing ourselves and each other, but if you make a habit out of living and working like that then you will die 15 to 50 years earlier than you could have. Take a lesson from flying, you have to put your oxygen mask on first in the airplane or you will pass out before you can help your children put theirs on. 
  5. Meet others where they are at right now unless you want to be miserable. A mother afraid that her baby is about to drown will not listen to any advice on potty-training or managing her own diabetes. It doesn't matter how big of an expert you are, or how well-educated you are, or how good your intentions are. Inevitably, some people are not in a comfortable enough position to listen and hear certain things. Pay attention to others' situation and their current ability to hear and process information before you speak.  By the way, this requires that you find out about their current situation and capacity first (e.g. do a situation assessment in firefighter speak).
  6. Get comfortable with repeating yourself. You really will have to convince everyone of everything all of the time, and the sooner you accept that and learn to communicate persuasively the happier and more successful you will be. The key here is in knowing what must always be communicated repeatedly: your goal, the reasons for your goal, and how achieving your goal impacts the future (i.e. your recommendation, your rationale, and the intended/ anticipated impact).
  7. Make decisions, not judgements. Reserve your judgement as long as possible. Make and share decisions as far in advance as possible so that you have time to explicitly and repeatedly invite others to critique and improve those decisions.
  8. All criticism is scary and constructive if you mine it right. There is always a diamond hidden in even the cheapest coal, and even a diamond given to you on a satin pillow is shocking. Accepting, appreciating, and using criticism well takes a life-long dedication and lots of practice. Even bad, offensive criticism helps us learn what we don't want to do ourselves when others ask us for feedback (like not snapping and yelling at young students). Bad or unnecessarily harsh criticism should also be a bold reminder to remember to ask for feedback on what you are getting right and doing well (even more important than what you could do better). You wouldn't try to coach yourself to run a marathon by asking only what is wrong with your want to pull information from others about what you're doing right too. It is far easier to leverage your strengths to overcome or work around weaknesses than it is to fix a weakness out right.
  9. You can't do it long for the money, fame, or status, but you can do it forever because you care. Extreme environment workers, often care-takers like first-responders, quickly learn that it is a gray, gray, gray world. A big, fuzzy, chaotic bad-with-the-good mess. And we are not really a thin blue, red, green, or black line of dedicated helpers standing between everyone else and danger or harm (as advertised and idealized). We are at best, a candle light in the murk. We learn that we can't stop doing it, even when we're tired and frustrated, because we care so damn much. And we also learn that we feed our own and each others' souls and resilience by appreciating each other for caring so damn much. We learn to express our gratitude daily and eventually, our gratitude make us brighter, bolder, stronger, and keeps the gray at bay.
  10. Plan your planning and plan to review your plans. It sounds silly and obsessive, especially once you realize that 95% of your plans will get trashed in the first 5 minutes on scene or in action. However, it isn't about the plan per se, but rather the act of planning as a team that ensures great results. Agree on objectives, SMART goals, and milestones so that everyone involved can quickly see when things aren't going to plan and decide how to adapt before failure is imminent. Agree on checkpoints, safe-words (i.e. everyone stop all action and pay attention words), and normal communication expectations (i.e. who will tell who what, how, and when under normal conditions and under stress). Finally, take a moment during planning to ask what is the most-likely, worst-case obstacle or challenge you can expect. Make a plan for surviving that and then when your plan inevitably gets screwed up you will stress less because you already have a plan for adapting to your worst nightmare.
  11. Curiosity is what cultivates nirvana. When all you want is to learn, then failure becomes expected and tolerable.  Curiosity also crowds out the other less-meaningful wants and your fears. Real, lasting success of any kind requires many creative and fortuitous failures (also known as iterations)...that is innovation.
There are many more, I'm sure. What others have you seen hold true in extreme environments or under stressful living and working conditions? Sharing is caring!
Cacti grow strong in extreme environments. Why not us too?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Doing the twist inside

I'd like to feature a poem by a friend (who would like to remain anonymous) this month, that I think captures the scariest aspect of battling any truly traumatic stressor or mental illness. I hope reading it makes it easier for us to empathize with each other, knowing that others get stuck on the roller coasters too. We all get twisted up inside, but we also each have a chance to #Bethe1to


That swirlin' 
spinnin' round 
won't slow down
expands and contracts 
insanely fast and laser focuses 
a persistent loop 
    that just keeps wrappin' 
itself around 
and around
 and can't be derailed 
with comedy or tears 
won't be deterred 
with silence or swears 
it insists 
on accompanyin' you 
to your dreams 
and throws random 
and minor chords 
 through your mind 
and it won't abate 
or fade 
and i'm just 
so done 
with this 
unendin' roller-coaster 
i never wanted to ride.
Even the twisted have some beauty.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The 4th Novel is now happening

After an unfortunate series of disconcerting and time-consuming events, I am writing fiction again. Here is a teaser from my 4th novel (currently in creation). Please ask me how my novel is going, as there is no accountability so motivating as your friends and family kindly nagging you about your progress! 

The Synopsis of A Badge Washed Up:
A grieving middle-aged, African-American cook finds the badge of a forensic scientist, who is presumed dead, washed up on the shore at a beach-side retirement community. No one in authority will take Janey’s clue seriously so she searches for Brooke Stone, the missing scientist, on her own. Janey finds a lot more than she expected.

Chapter 1: The Hook

My son, Saul, didn’t always die in my dreams, but that didn’t make any of the nights after his death less of a nightmare. Even in my sleep, on some level, I suppose I still knew that he was really and truly dead. I found every dream of him so close to real though, because I wanted it to be so badly, that I could smell his hair still. My heart was a wound that never healed. Walking long distances on the beach numbed it some. Plodding fatigue brought me to an edge that hinted at living. Moving proved I was breathing. That I should continue breathing.
I often walked the shores after work, at sunset, until my heels were cracked and bleeding. One day last August, I got more than I bargained for though.
My hands were shaking even though the heat beating down on the sand was so hot that my eyes felt scorched.  I felt sorry for all the little elders of the Shore Acres Seaside Retirement Resort where I worked. Their thin old skin loved the heat, but so much sun was hard on their pale eyes.  In truth, I felt sorry for the entire world. All the time, I just felt sorry.
 I felt sorry for my beautiful dead baby. The injustice of his promising life cut short in his prime burned so rough in my chest that my hands still shook, two years later, whenever I thought about it.
I paused my walk, stuttered stepped into the surf, and let the green Gulf of Mexico wash in and out over my toes. The smell of salt filled my nostrils and pricked at the edges of my eyes reminding me of the taste of the tears I was too dry to cry any more. I kept playing back the last time I saw my son, Saul, alive. 

“Come on, Momma, I'm walking one mile up the road.  Julie's house is right on the edge of Orange Grove.  The first house on the left as you turn into the neighborhood.” He bugged his eyes out at me and shook his head.
“I know you can walk the mile, Saul.”
“Julie is a good kid.  We're really going to work on our project for the science fair.  I promise.” Saul spread his large hands open in front of his body and stuck out his lower lip.
“I know Julie is a good kid. And you know I trust you.”
He rubbed the palm of his hand over his tight brown curly hair. “So, what's the hold up?”
I watched him shift from foot to foot, one ratty Converse over the other, as he waited for me to answer him.  He was sixteen years of earnest adolescent energy.
I wasn't sure what my problem was, but for some reason, I didn't want him to go out that evening.  My stomach grumbled. I should have listened to my mother's intuition that early February night. “It's winter, Saul.”
“It's Gainesville, Florida, Momma.  Low of sixty-two degrees today.”
“It gets dark before six 'o-clock, Saul.”
“There is a sidewalk the whole way.  I have to cross one street and there is a stop light there.”  He gave me a sideways smile and draped his arm around my shoulders.
I said nothing. Why didn’t I hold him tight right then?
“I'll take my hoodie in case it gets cold, and I'll be home by seven for dinner.”
I shook my head and smiled back at him. Why didn’t I tell him I knew the hoodie wasn’t necessary?
“I'll also leave Julie's phone number on fridge for you.”
He was a good kid, an Honors student.  He never sassed me. He never complained that we couldn't buy him a car or a phone, or that his clothes came from the third-hand bargain boxes at second-hand shops.  He smiled every day and he did his best to make others smile too.  He tried to take care of me. 
“Okay,” I consented, trying not to frown. Why didn’t I insist he hug me right then?
He promised to be home by seven for dinner that night because we both knew his dad would probably wander in very late, drunk and smelling like some other woman. 
I don't know when I heard the first siren for sure. It was fifteen minutes after seven, I was sitting at the kitchen table with our food plated, when the bottom just dropped out of my stomach as if I was on a plummeting airplane. I got really worried.  Saul was never more than a few minutes late to anything in his life.  He was two days early for his own birth.  He rolled out of bed every morning before his alarm clock went off.  I stared at our plates. Instant mashed potatoes, canned green beans, and thin fried pork cutlets cooled on the microwave-safe malanite. I listened to the sirens outside. The one siren warbling siren exploded into a symphony of sirens.
I thought I should call Julie to see what time Saul left her house, but when I got up from the table my feet took me past the phone and through the front door. 
I ran accross black-top parking lot in my socks, toward the front gate of our apartment complex, and the sound of sirens.  I remembered tasting my heart in my mouth as I called out for Saul. I remembered seeing one of Saul's Converse on its side on the pavement, covered in so much blood that it looked red rather than washed-out gray all over.

 I remembered many things. All of them hard. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be whole, to be real, to be happy. I couldn’t remember being innocent enough to believe that justice would eventually prevail. I couldn’t remember what it was like to assume that the world would play fair if I played fair too. My heart ached the most though, because I couldn’t figure out what good love was in a world that killed my kid with impunity.
Eventually the sound of the ocean, tide rolling over shells, brought me back to the hot beach again. I hadn’t realized how far I’d walked out into the Gulf of Mexico. I tottered on the unsteady slope of sand. The hem of my basketball shorts was wet.
Salty waves tugged against the back of my knees and shell grit slapped at my shins.   That’s when it hit me, literally. A sharp wet slap on the side of one knee pulled past me on a wave and then caught between my legs, limp and leathery, as the wave receded. The water was gritty, so I couldn’t see what it was. I reached down and plucked it from the water. Black leather, well-worn before it was worn more well by the ocean. It looked to be a wallet at first. A broken clip on one side. I thought it was odd to have a money clip on the outside of a wallet at first. I flipped it open to find a wad of kelp wrapped around a gold colored shield.
Even through the kelp, I could tell the shape of a badge. The bare edge of metal glinted in the sun. I pulled the kelp away and peered at the badge’s dull enameling proclaiming, “Florida State Department of Public Safety.” I rubbed away more kelp and the engravings became clear, “Forensic Scientist, 424242.” The plastic ID sleeve was empty, gaping like a dead jelly fish. A shiver shot down my spine. The leather, dead skin, was waterlogged and gross. I wanted to drop it, but the enamel of the badge was warm, and I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I traced the “424242” with the tip of my index finger. The grooves were soothing. I folded the wallet up and clutched it, dripping beside me as I walked home. The numbers and the title sang in my head with each foot step. I didn’t know much about law enforcement then, at least not much positive, but I knew a, “Forensic Scientist” probably wasn’t a typical police officer. A Forensic scientist might not even carry a gun. Worry tugged at my gut. A Forensic Scientist sounded like someone who could easily get hooked into troubling things and end up dead. Or mired in a world of hurt. Like me.
I put a paper towel down on my dresser and left the leather wallet laying in the sunlight to dry. The badge unclipped with a soft thwap and I rinsed it carefully under the bathroom tap. Multi-colored sand grains trickled down the porcelain and rimmed the rusting metal edges of my sink’s drain. I knew I would leave the sand there to sparkle in the water, a testimony to my new complete-lack-of-housekeeping habit.

An old mock-up of an idea for the cover.

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