Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another response to a response

The Response: It is this juxtaposition of realities, as you call it, Dave, that has always been such a difficulty for me. Those of us who have walked through life have seen so much, and it has changed us in one way or another. How do you cope with a church, a family, a business, friends, etc. that have not seen such events; for whom you would not wish them to see such events? How do you help them to believe when they have not seen the scars, or put their hands in the wounds as you have done? How do you allow them to look at the world through your eyes, and at the same time remember to look at it through theirs?

My Response:

Not easily and I am sure I do not have the definitive or even adequate answer. Nevertheless let me try to share what I have come to think I think.

First - I believe in conversation.
I think truth is better discovered in dialogue rather than didactics
That is probably why I always learn more in seminars than speeches
Keep the conversation going
Speechifying makes me tired
Didactics shuts down conversation
Lecturing makes me feel small and stupid
Now I don’t even want to learn
Don’t tell me what to think - lead me to enjoy discovery
Don’t tell me how to think - model the process

Second - I believe that openness begets openness.
Not 100% - maybe only 40% of the time
But lack of openness will result in lack of openness 99% of the time
If there is any hope of learning, growing or discovery openness is the beginning
Who said, “The best teacher is the lead learner?”

Third - I believe that my reality is my reality and I do not have to convince the other to believe anything
This is hard - my agenda to convince usually works against my goal
I might have better luck at convincing if I could enter into the others reality
this too is hard - but not too hard if I am comfortable with my own reality

Fourth - I believe that my job is to be as honest and open as the other can tolerate.
Push and back off - Push and back off
I push my reality until I feel resistance - then I push a little more and then back off

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Follow-Up to Vacation Post Day Nine

So many of my friends have commented on my July 16-Day Nine Vacation post.

One thoughtful observation deserves this public response. I think there are some principles here which can be applied to lots of circumstances.

Here is the observation made by a chaplain friend; "It is interesting to note that they (emotional dumps) happen during times when you are released from the cauldron of the grieving ministry in which you are involved."

This is a principle which we learned after 9/11. Prior to 9/11 the mortuary was functioning like an ad hoc committee. When there was a mass casualty (9 or more) the reserves were called in, the incident was dealt with and everyone went home. We never saw the emotional afterbirth. Chaplains did not walk with their reservist parishioners through any reintegration process since everyone had gone home.

But after Dover's part in the 9/11 incident was complete we did not go home. We were kept on orders waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the days immediately following the end of the "push" chaplains were faced with a constant counseling load. We had been through the thick of "it" with the troops and now they had the time to open up, process and face life realities which had been put on hold during the crisis. Most of the counseling was standing up in a hall way. "Chaplain can I talk to you?" "Do you have a couple of minutes chaplain?" "Chaplain, let's go have a smoke." The invitation to "a smoke" is a code I developed with the troops and all of our chaplains have followed suit. Almost none of us smoke. So the code means, "I need to talk but I don't want to do it out here in the open."

The Wine Bottle is the illustrative symbol. Pressure builds up in the bottle but is kept safely contained by a well placed Cork. Then comes a day when the wine needs decanting. Intentionally, a corkscrew is procured, the cork is gently removed and the built up pressure released with a satisfying POP. On the other hand, if they bottle is subjected to undue stress, i.e. heat, I am told that the horizontally stored bottle can unintentionally blow it's cork or even break the bottle.

In the case of unusually high and constant stress environments corks come in many varieties. For us the corks consist of focus on mission, families, science, or in my case focus on my parishioners. As long as the cork stays in place all is well. But when the tempo wanes or the work comes to a stop the cork is going to come out. Intentionally or unintentionally the built up pressure will be released. Stress that goes in will come out. This accounts for the significant increase in "stand up counseling" and multiple smoke breaks. The chaplains become one of many intentional and safe pressure releasers.

As a side note, the counseling issues raised after 9/11 were not about the horror and sadness of what we had just been through. Mostly the conversations were about issues left behind when the reservist was called to duty: family, finances, extended family, children, jobs, health and many more.

It was not until weeks later when the pressure was really off that the afterbirth of war trauma became visible and even then the issues were not what were expected. Now they talked about the relative meaninglessness of their jobs at home compared to what they had just done. "I have never been so fulfilled. This job is so close to history and our unseen part in the grief process of our country’s families so real. I don't think I will ever do anything more important. It is going to be hard to go back home."

Another commonly raised reintegration issue was verbalized like this: "My wife/husband is so concerned with such small and insignificant things. I can hardly tolerate talking with him/her." I will never forget the night of my own close encounter with this insensitivity to the difference between my new normal and my former normal.

It happened during the third week of the 9/11 intense mortuary involvement. I was living in a motel room but spending precious little time there. On the motel bed and half asleep I was talking to Phyllis on the phone. She needed to tell me about our 15 year old cat who was sick again and she was afraid she was going to die. She did die a year later while I was in Dover yet again. But that night Phyllis went on and on and on about the sick cat. I wanted to say: "I DON'T CARE ABOUT THE CAT! THE CAT IS NOT IMPORTANT! WE ARE DEALING WITH 189 LOST SOULS AND YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT A CAT!" Notice, "I wanted" to yell at her. Fortunately I realized that yelling at Phyllis or even wanting to yell at Phyllis was not normal for me. I had to steel myself to remember that what was not important to me NOW was important to her now and probably would be for me again. I had to (still have to from time to time) remind myself that though my changed perspective was a normal response to an abnormal event I still had to live in a real world and with people for whom my reality and theirs was different.

This juxtaposition of realities is at the heart of a necessary reintegration process for all those who have been exposed to the stresses of war.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Vacation 2008 - Day Fifteen & Sixteen - 22,23 July

The last two days of vacation. The first one was spent in Maine cleaning the cabin, packing the car and shopping at the Kittery Trading Post in Kittery Maine. It is a tourist trap and we were tourists. This shopping trip was conducted during a driving rain storm while 20 miles to our west a tornado was tearing through trailer parks in Durham New Hampshire. The most frustrating thing about Maine gifts is that they all seem to be made in China. The fact that we could not find Maine-made Maine gifts seemed frustrating but in light of nearby disaster it was just a small thing.

We stayed the night in Marlboro Mass, not the home of the Marlboro Man. In the morning, after a night of rain, the Tippy Canoe, traveling on top of the car, was nearly full of water. I wondered if anyone took notice of the guy in the motel parking lot with a manual bilge pump. The kayak was empty after only 20 minutes of pumping. The rest of the day Thursday the 23rd was spent on the road trip home. In spite of continuing rain for the first half of the trip we arrived home safely even though sore of bottoms. The cats greeted us un-warmly, looking out the door to see if the other people (our cat and house sitters) were behind us. By this morning however they were resigned to the fact that we were back. We too are resigned. Resigned from vacation. Resigned from the lake and cabin. Resigned to being back in the saddle.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading and responding to my vacation blog. I will now return to my more normal blogging schedule: Once in a Blue Moon.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vacation 2008 - Day Fourteen - 21 July

This is the cabin in which we are staying. It is owned by very good friends of ours and as I understand it we are the first persons outside of close family to be allowed access. We think it is great and are having a very relaxing time.

The following is the e-mail traffic between the owner and I over the last couple of days about the property. BTW: You might want to know that she is also a clergy person and has the requisite sense of humor.

First Note: You've noticed our over abundance of trees.  Although trees are great, we would prefer more daylight.  Codes only allow for cutting trees if they are damaged, in the way or ill.  Don't you think ours are acting depressed or nauseous?”

My Response:

We love your trees.
They provide shade from the sun;
they keep the cabin cool;
they provide a privacy barrier;
they are pretty;
they smell wonderful;
they provide shelter for the birds;
they sing us to sleep with the wind in their hair;
Your trees are healthy and happy.
After your e-mail I went and talked with a couple of them.
They are in no way depressed. They enjoy standing tall and are proud that God made them just the way they are. A quote from the tree closest to the cabin; "God don't make no firewood." They tell me that they are fulfilled by their holy life style fulfilling the purpose for which God created them.
The Pine closest to the water asked, "Does she notice how straight I am or how I stretch my arms in praise to God every day?"

The Oaks on either side of the gas grill asked me to mention that though they love the smell of cooking meat they hope that you have read all the safety instructions and are aware that "only you can prevent forest fires."
In the final group session they came to this consensus: for you they would move to provide you more sunshine if they could. But they are reminded of the scripture that commands,
"Bloom where you are planted."

They asserted, "That's what we are doing and you can tell your friend to complain to the Creator or bark at his wife Mother Nature."
After that comment they discussion took a nasty turn with vague threats; something about plagues, firstborn and fiery lakes.

E-mail Number Two, A Response to the Response:

OK, OK, OK!  I give up.  Now you've made me cry.  I hate when that happens.  I feel so sorry for my trees, I will kiss the ground they root in as soon as I have a chance.  And I will place myself between them and any army of tree cutters appearing on the property.
I also think there is a deeper message in your reply.  Duh!! 
After I heard the message for me, I saw the sonnet and offer the following analysis.
In the octet I saw my friend, David, between the lines. 
If he doesn't see what I see, I am not going to enlarge upon it here. 
The sextet describes my friend's life to date.
In the first half of the couplet  I heard my friend's voice saying even he needs to be acknowledged for his strength of character and his devotion to God;

in the second half of the couplet I also heard The Great Advocate saying my friend needs to be carefully protected, too, and I have some of the responsibility for doing that.
The Sonnet suddenly evolved, reverted, overturned to become a church board meeting where  the kind hearts shared their desire to do more, preached at themselves and the preacher, defended themselves, passed the buck and then ended with all too familiar threats should their point of view be ignored and a decision made with which they disagreed.
Perhaps you have heard a voice through our trees yourself this week. 
If not, reread the message from them. 

My Last Response:

I see it. I see it. You have un-done me.
Great job.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Vacation 2008 - Day Ten thru Thirteen - 17,18,19,20 July

Reading, Sleeping, Kayaking (EVERY DAY)

We went to the laundry mat for the first time in years. Reminded me of days I want to forget.

We spent one evening with Phyllis brother at the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick Maine. A small theater on the campus of Bowdin College. We saw “All Shook Up” a script loosely held together by the music of the “King.” The picture is Phylli'ss brother in rare form.

This evening (Sunday) we will go the Ogunquit Music Theater in Ogunquit Maine for a performance of the Mel Brooks “The Producers The Musical.” Ogunquit is true summer theater with cast members from Broadway and Off-Broadway.

Vacation 2008 - Day Nine - 16 July

Actually my last day at work was the third of July. I was off for the holiday, then for my regular weekend and then I took a CTO on Monday. I started counting vacation on Tuesday the eighth when we left Magnolia for Maine. If I started counting on the 4th of July I would be counting today as day 13.

Why do I care about the day count? Because it took 13 days for it to happen.

Everyone who has worked at the Dover Mortuary for any length of time agrees. After having left the building for some time you should expect an “emotional dump” of some sort.

I first heard this from an Active Duty chaplain who had been assigned to Dover during the 9/11 time frame. At that time, though the reserves were called to supplement the workforce, the active duly chaplains were working full-time in the mortuary. About 3 months after he left Dover he called me with his story and a warning.

He told about sitting at the kitchen table with his wife some friends. The conversation was easy and the friends good listeners. At some point they asked about what working in the mortuary had been like during 9/11. He gave them some personal observations without any of the gory details, told them that he had processed his feelings about it all very well and then he broke down and sobbed for half an hour. He told me that he was surprised. He did not know that all that emotion was still “in there.” “David,” he warned, “don’t be surprised. Expect it. It’s going to happen to you at some point You will be OK but you may need to find someone to help you ‘process.’”

I really wish he had called two months earlier. My first big “dump” came during an annual preachers and spouses retreat while Phyllis and I were chatting with another pastor and his wife before lunch. We were standing, unfortunately, in the lobby of the hotel with approximately 100 other pastors and spouses, all waiting for lunch.

My pastor friend wanted to tell me how wonderfully the Army had treated an extended family member and her family at the loss of her husband in Iraq. He told about the care and attention to detail they had experienced. He told me about the Post Commander who had come to the door with the chaplain to notify the family of their loss. He said that the day after the notification the commander came back for a visit, looked around the house, found the vacuum cleaner and vacuumed the house without comment. Two days later, a Saturday, he returned to mow their lawn and rake leaves. He kept up these random acts of kidness for weeks. It was a great story of the Army family taking care of its own.

Then my friend named the name. You would not think that I would remember one name out of so many. I didn’t think I would either.

In those days, with so many soldiers being prepared and awaiting transportation, the Army would place a simple piece of masking tape on the foot end of each casket. On the tape the name. It was not a official identification tag. Those were smaller and harder to see from a distance. With so many it was just a expedient way to identify a single casket from a distance.

When my friend named the name I saw the magic markered masking tape. It was just a simple visual memory. But there it was and it opened a flood gate of emotion.

I ended the conversation abruptly. I think I said, “I’m sorry friend but this conversation is over.” I am sure he would have been offended but for what happened next. Phyllis and I turned to move toward the lunch line and I began to sob. Not tears and a sniffle. SOB, SOB, and SOB some more. Phyllis guided me to an overstuffed leather couch. Just in time as my knees buckled and I fell into the cushion with Phyllis beside. While the sobs were still uncontrollable I remember a part of me standing aside and commenting on my “emotional dump.”

“That’s cool. I know what’s happening here. All that built up stress is coming out. It had to happen. It is a good thing. I wonder how long it will last”

The sobbing lasted for 8 to 10 minutes before I got control of myself. Phyllis was holding on to me and was herself crying. I took a couple of deep breaths wiped tears and mucous from my face, turned to Phyllis and said, “I think I’m all right now.” I wasn’t yet and it started all over again. Another 2 or 3 minutes of crying and then it was over and I was fine. It took Phyllis a little longer as I became aware of the gathered crowd. I heard them saying, “Sparks is crying.” No kidding. What powers of observation. Some went to tell the District Superintendent, “Sparks is crying.” None approached me or attempted to offer help. That was probably a good thing.

The second dump was two years later while on vacation in Virginia. It came out in anger at Phyllis over nothing. I am not going to tell that story but we cried that time too.

This time it took 13 days.

It was not nearly as dramatic or emotional and there were no tears. It was just a dream; a dream with mortuary content. Not a nightmare. Just intense mortuary content. A dream I will not commit to print. A dream in which in which I was a supporting actor. A dream with both recognized coworkers and not. A dream with deep intensity as well as bizarre humor. A dream through which built up stress was released. I woke up tired but aware again that any stress that goes in, WILL come back out. Intentionally or unintentionally it will come out. In healthy ways or unhealthy ways it will come out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Vacation 2008 - Day Eight - 15 July

Vacation 2008 - Day Eight - 15 July

Today was a very quiet day. I took a couple of kayak trips and Phyllis went out for a long trip this afternoon. The sun was filtered by the clouds, the humidity was low and the breeze very very nice.

Twice now I have had new appreciation for the disciples who “rowed all night” and were still in the middle of the lake. When the wind comes up on Sebago I cannot make my little kayak move forward. I row and row or stroke and stroke or paddle and paddle: but the best I can do is hold my position and wait for a lull. I have had to do that a few times when I was not on a lake.

The first two or three years at the mortuary were like that. Just kept doing what came to hand to do but no progress. More soldiers died, Hollywood Nazarene waited patiently and I had no idea when the winds would change. In the third year the wind started to change. My resignation from the ministry in Hollywood became final and two years later the Air Force made me a civilian chaplain. Forward movement at last. I wonder what is around the next point. More wind or maybe a safe harbor.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vacation 2008 - Day Seven - 14 July

The picture is from Two Lights State Park located just out of Cape Elizabeth Maine which is very near Portland Maine.

All of that to say - Phyllis was born and raised in Portland Maine. She grew up with what she calls the fresh smell of the clam flats. Clam flats are wide expanses of mud exposed when the tide recedes. They smell like mud and rotting fish to me but I have come to define the smell of rotting fish as “fresh.” It is a survival technique.

During my first week as a college freshman I met Phyllis. How that happened is another story but we took to each other right a way. I was awed by and drawn to this sophisticated sophomore woman who was stunningly beautiful, the smartest woman I had ever met and who acted like she did not mind being around me. She, on the other hand, was drawn to me in the same way you might be drawn to site of a train wreck: Six foot two, 140 pounds of skin and bones, sporting a flat top (a haircut style), wore a necktie every day, afraid of people, played trumpet in the pep band and told Phyllis on our second date that I thought I was in love. What a mess.

But we kept dating or at least hanging out together and she even accompanied me to preaching assignments all over the North East while I tried to learn how to preach and exchange my fears for love.
Anyway, she took me home to meet her mother. I fell in love immediately. I remember thinking: If this is the woman Phyllis is going to become we are going to be fine. Of course I was young and naive.

Then Phyllis took me to Two Lights State Park. The Park is more of a Coastal Preserve than a park. There are benches and picnic tables, walking trails and of course the granite coast. No swimming or boating here. In fact a couple of people die here every year. They just don’t get the danger and power of an open ocean wave breaking on granite.

Over the course of four years of courting we spent many hours at Two Lights and especially at the spot pictured above. When the tide is a little lower than in this picture we would sit on the right shelf and talk for hours. That was back when backs were stronger and butts less sensitive. Or was it that we just did not notice?

In the next 39 years we and our girls visited the park and this spot as often as possible. You can see that Two Lights has become a part of our Family Tradition and Folklore. This cut in the rocks is where our ashes are to be scattered and whenever we visit Maine this spot is a necessary stop.