Sunday, March 13, 2005

Home, Happy, and Overwhelmed

It's been a week since my last post, and what a week that's been. I began my re-entry into the "real world" with a wonderful visit to Monterey, including a hike, a potluck, and three worship services. Thanks to Kate and Karen and everyone else for the loving welcome home. During the hike, the cameras were rolling as I answered questions about my experiences. You can find out more about seeing the streaming video of this "interview" next weekend (18 - 20 March) here.

I got home to Virginia on Tuesday night, to my two sweet children and wife greeting me at the airport. Thanks to a new rule, the TSA allows families of returning military members to greet them at the gate. Remember when that was the norm? It was so great to get off the plane and have my son and daughter run up to me and jump into my arms.

The five days since returning have been wonderful, but almost too much in many ways. There is so much to see and do - and so much freedom - that I feel overloaded at times and just want to hide. I continue to find refuge in writing my daily pages, meditation, and my guitar. One thing I have NOT kept up with is writing for my blog. I wonder if those of you who haven't seen me in California or Virginia might be feeling neglected - if so, my apologies. Please realize that it takes a lot out of me just to function with so much more going on. I have gone from just taking care of myself (and spending nearly all my time alone) to being surrounded by family, dog, and community that wants and needs my engagement and attention.

I plan to "wrap up" this weblog within the next few weeks, whenever I can make the time to write one final post capturing the essence of my personal growth and evolution during this deployment. I hope to keep writing in a new blog - one that will focus on my life with my family and faith community. I will post a link to that once it's up and running.

Thanks to everyone who's taken the time to read and respond. It is very fulfilling to know that my ministry of words has reached so many people in so many diverse ways.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Teach Your Parents Well

One of the best things about being back from Iraq is being around “normal” people, family, and kids again. On my second day in San Diego, I spent the late afternoon and evening with my cousin and her family, and it was both refreshing and a bit overwhelming. They have delightful twins who are about the same age as my son, and I had a lot of fun playing with them and watching them.

Before I went to their house, I went on a brief hike down a dirt road with a creek next to it. I wanted to go to the Elfin Forest Recreational Preserve, but due to vague directions and recent development, I was unable to find it. Nonetheless, it was very pleasant to be able to take a walk that lasted longer than about 5 minutes, and to see trees and water and grass instead of dirt and concrete. As I often do when walking or hiking, I fantasized about riding my mountain bike down this road, jumping over mud puddles and grinding up the hills.

At one point during my walk I noticed two brown cattails next to the creek, just ready to go to seed. I immediately thought of my son, who loves all things from nature, and picked them with the thought that my cousin’s twins would enjoy them as well. They had never seen such a thing before, and they were very interested. I enjoyed telling them about how cattails grow, and how they can be roasted and eaten somewhat like corn when they are “ripe.”

The fun really started when we went out to the backyard and the twins discovered that these smooth brown cylinders contained fluffy seeds. They started off by plucking at the one that was starting to seed out, and then soon discovered that banging the two of them together produced great floating clouds of fluffy seeds. The only drawback to this technique was that only one of them could do it at a time, which resulted in a bit of competition and arguments about whose turn it was. I pointed out that I had brought one for each, and they quickly realized that banging the cattails on the ground or rocks produced even greater volumes of floating fluff. Even their new puppy got into the fun, chasing and trying to eat the clumps of fluff.

This, of course, was much more fun for all of us than just looking at the cattails – leave it to children to find new and interesting ways to play and enjoy their world. They have a lot to teach us.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Respirateur

Sometimes when I meet someone who asks me “what do you do,” I am somewhat at a loss for words. Does she mean what do I do for a living? Does he mean what do I do for fun? Or is it something else? Of course, the context of the question usually provides a clue to the meaning. But maybe I want to interpret the meaning differently than it was intended…

I recently read a book by Robert Fulghum (who has been, among other things, a Unitarian minister) called “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.” I highly recommend this little collection of essays for its humor, insight, and ability to make the reader squirm in discomfort. One story deals with the question posed above.

Fulghum has many answers to this question, because he’s done and been many things. I like his practice of saying different things at different times, depending on who or what he feels like at the moment. He relates one story of a conversation on a plane trip where he tells his seatmate “I’m a nun,” and the comical results of their continuing the conversation as if he were, overheard by the couple in the row behind them.

My favorite answer to this question, however, is from Marcel Duchamp, who would answer “I am a respirateur.” How perfect – I am a breather. After all, breathing is one thing every one of us does, all the time, from the moment of birth to the finality of death. It sounds so mysterious, too – just think of the delicious misunderstandings that are possible with this word. “Hi, what do you do?” “Well, right now I’m a respirateur.” “Oh, really! Where is your restaurant?” or “How many people have you rescued?” I wonder if anyone, in casual conversation, would really notice what I really said and know or ask what the word meant. Of course the possibilities are endless – “I’m a somnambulist.” We spend more time asleep than any single other pursuit, right? “I’m a dreamer – I just wish I could remember more of them.”

What about other roles in our lives? I am a father, son, brother-in-law, son-in-law, cousin, second cousin, nephew, and husband. Things we do for fun and fulfillment? I am a musician, reader, writer, meditator, cyclist, hiker, camper, weightlifter, and movie watcher. Things we are obligated to do? I am a driver, doer-of-laundry, toilet cleaner, dishwasher, plumber, and handyman – but I don’t do windows.

So why do most of us answer the question “what do you do” with what we get paid to do? Why not answer with what we love to do? For a lucky few of us, the answer is the same. My mother, an English teacher for over 40 years, told me once that she was embarrassed to get paid to teach because she loved it so much. Likewise, there were times in my career as a Harrier jet pilot when I couldn’t believe I got paid to do it – and others where I didn’t think I got paid nearly enough. I won’t be surprised if I have the same feeling about professional ministry.

Of all the possible answers to that question, “what do you do,” there is one that is absolutely universal and accurate, no matter one’s personal job or interests – “I am a human.”

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Life's Blood

I hear the rain falling in a symphony of moisture
drip drop splosh tunk plop

I hear my blood coursing past my ears
whoosh whoosh whoosh

I can feel the blood in my body
Does the Earth feel the rain?

It is the Earth’s life blood
Flowing in arteries of river and stream, returning in veins of evaporation
Pumped by a heart of sun and sea

A closed system like my body
When viewed from outside

But from inside the system my perspective is narrow
And it’s easy to forget the rain is only one part

Of something much greater

Like platelets and cells in my blood
Unaware of muscles, bone, and brain

I can’t see the ocean the rain seeks
Hearing only drip drop splosh tunk plop
whoosh whoosh whoosh

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Homegoing and Homecoming

On October 10, 2004, I disembarked from a United Airlines 747 at Kuwait International Airport, arriving in the oppressively hot, dusty, and hazy evening with a general feeling of dread. This dread only intensified during the next day’s C-130 flight from Kuwait to Al Asad, Iraq. We had to wear our helmets and flak vests on this leg, and I pictured running off the back of the airplane, locked and loaded, ready to establish a perimeter and defend the aircraft. The reality, however, was running off the back of the airplane to see a group of Marines playing basketball near where we had parked.

Now it’s March, and I’m sitting in the terminal of Bangor International Airport on a cold, snowy Maine morning, waiting for the final leg of our flight to Miramar to be called. We left Kuwait at about 3 this morning and flew to Shannon, Ireland, where it was startling to see green, green grass and cows. Upon our arrival on the Emerald Isle, most of the 300 Marines on the flight made a beeline for the bar, downing Guiness and Heineken to assuage their 6-month thirsts. Others of us descended upon the duty-free shop, paying too much for souvenirs of a country we only saw from within the terminal.

The sudden change of scenery from the sand, dust, and desolation of Iraq and Kuwait to the green hills of Eyre and the snows of Maine is disconcerting. It was also disconcerting to be applauded and greeted with a chorus of voices murmuring “welcome home” and “thank you” as we entered the main terminal here in Bangor. I have such mixed feelings about our presence in Iraq - and my part in it - that I found the applause and welcoming words touching yet disquieting. Ironically, I would have felt less uncomfortable if we had been met by a crowd of war protesters.

Beginning with the helicopter flight from Kalsu back to Al Asad, this trip back to the U.S. has so far been long but unremarkable. It began on a beautiful night just past the full moon, and Kalsu never looked better than it did disappearing behind us as we flew away. I only spent a little more than a day in Al Asad, tying up loose ends and repacking for the trip home. The journey continued with another sardine-like flight to Kuwait on a C-130; this time, however, my spirits were buoyed rather than sunken as we neared our destination. The 36 hours in Kuwait went quickly, occupied by sleeping, tossing and turning, and several early-morning hours spent reading, writing, meditating, and playing my guitar in the empty chapel. As I played and sang to the empty chairs, I pictured them filled with my friends from two UU congregations.

This last, and longest, part of these travels began in fine military fashion with many hours of hurrying up to wait, then waiting to hurry up. Customs briefing and inspection, moving from place to place, on the buses, off the buses, and more hurry up and wait finally resulted in boarding the MD-11 and departing.

The trip out to Iraq carried a feeling of inevitability – a feeling of inexorably being carried to my fate by the military machine. This trip home, however, has been marked more by the lazy flow of time as the minutes, hours, and days melt away and my return to home and family nears. This too feels inevitable and unavoidable, but the future holds bright promise and excitement, rather than uncertainty and dread. It’s a good feeling, going home.

(Later) Now I’m sitting in a hotel room in San Diego, and in many ways I feel like I never went anywhere. Arriving at Miramar was very depressing at first as all the Marines with families to greet them were hugging and kissing their loved ones. Before long, however, I realized that it was good to be able to turn in my pistol, get blood drawn, and pick up my bags without having little ones hanging on me.

Next stop, Monterey!