7 Things That Good Mothers Do That I’m Not Going to Do Anymore – by Leigh Anderson

Kindness Blog

child in bath wallpaper1. Bathe the kids every day.

Children, unless they’ve been rolling in the mud,do not need a bath every day. In the summer I rinse off sand, sweat and sunscreen pretty much daily, but in the winter it just makes their skin dry and rashy. Twice-a-week baths are fine and save me the soggy wrestling match that is washing a screaming toddler and preschooler.

2. Do an elaborate bedtime routine.

Literally everyone told us we needed to do a bedtime routine. Bath, infant massage, dim lights while nursing—this was bad enough and clocked in at about an hour. Now, with our 4-year-old, more rituals have crept in, like:

  1. sing a song;
  2. read three books;
  3. listen to Freight Train Boogie;
  4. dance;
  5. play a game he and daddy made up, called “crashies,” in which I always get injured;
  6. a good-night “wrestle” with his brother;
  7. tooth-brushing;
  8. a game called “burrito” in…

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The Bull Snake

Sad little girl.

Young children scare easily–a tough tone, a sharp reprimand, an exasperated glance, a peeved scowl will do it. Little signs of rejection–you don’t have to hit young children to hurt them–cut very deeply. – James L. Hymes, Jr.

Sunday afternoon Miss Louisa, who lives at the end of our road, came to visit my mother along with Miss Georgina, who lives further down the road. In the South, children call older women “Miss” along with their first name, but Miss Georgina really is a miss as she has never been married. She lives down a dusty road near Miss Louisa in a little four room house with her bachelor brother, Mr. Hershel. She talks a lot and my mother’s says it’s because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to but her brother, and he never says anything, so she saves up all her talking until she visits us.

Miss Louisa has brought us a mess of butterbeans from her garden and we all sit on the back porch in the shade and shell the beans into pans I have fetched from the kitchen. I love to listen to the older women talk as they discuss happenings in the community like Miss Johnson’s new hat, which they think isn’t a serious church hat. I like it best when they talk about funny things that happened in the past and when I hear Miss Georgina say, “Remember when…?” I perk my ears up because I know it is going to be something worth listening to.  One story reminds them of another and soon they are laughing so hard tears are streaming down their faces. It makes me feel safe when they are all laughing because the lines of sadness I see on my mother’s face are erased and she looks young and happy. Even the flies that light on my arms seem to want to be sociable rather than annoying so I let them tiptoe around until I can’t stand the ticklish feeling anymore and give my arm a shake to shoo them away for a few seconds.

Sometimes they talk in a code that grown-ups seem to have. Miss Louisa asks my mother, “How are things with James?” James is my father’s name so I listen intently to hear how things are with him. My mother looks down at me, gives her head a little shake and says, “Oh, he’s fine.” The lines around her mouth are visible again and her earlier lightheartedness is gone. Miss Louisa nods her head and Miss Georgina mumbles, “Um, um, um,” under her breath. They seem to know something I don’t and although I pretend I am not listening, hoping they will say more, the air around us seems heavy with unsaid words. I wonder if they can talk in their heads to each other and it’s something little kids can’t do yet.

We finish the beans and my green-stained thumb has a blister on it from popping the fat butterbeans open then sliding my thumb down the pods to dislodge the brown and white speckled beans into my galvanized metal pail. Mother puts the shelled beans into one big pan while Miss Louisa combines the empty pods into one and we carry all the pans back into the kitchen. Mother puts a clean dishrag over the top of the shelled beans and puts them in the refrigerator. Later she will blanch them, divide them into bags and stack them into the freezer for future meals.

The women sit down at the kitchen table and have a glass of iced tea. I hate tea so I have some buttermilk instead with the slices of pound cake my mother has cut up. It is hot and muggy in the house and mother suggests we go up into the woods behind our house to look for blackberries. We each grab one of the pans that we used for shelling the beans and set off up the grassy road that runs from the side of the house through the woods and ends in a big field of tall grass that is studded with blackberry thickets.

We walk along the old two-track road, a remnant from farming days when it was used to transport crops by horse and wagon. Now it is overrun by tufts of grass and stray weeds with ruts here and there where small rocks peep though the soil, washed naked by rain.  Miss Georgina leads the way with mother and Miss Louisa behind her and I am trailing along swinging my little pail over my head. Mother and Miss Louisa both love plants and they are admiring the wildflowers alongside the road. They stop to watch a fat bumble bee buzzing lazily on some black-eyed Susans. He lands on one bright yellow flower with a spiky brown center and the stalk bounces under his weight.

Miss Georgina says her brother and she used to walk up this road to pick cotton when the farm was still being worked.

“Once we saw a bull snake up here. It had horns and it beller’d just like a bull,” she says.

I can see mother and Miss Louisa are trying not to laugh and I dart off into the woods where I lay down under an old pine tree and give in to a fit of giggles. As my laughter dies away I look up through the branches of the pine. A gentle breeze is making the needles bend and the clean scent of the pine sap is pleasant. The bed of needles under the tree is warm under my back and I just want to stay here and take a nap.

I feel like something really bad is going on in my house but I don’t know what it is. There is an undercurrent of tension in it that makes the air feel just like it does before a summer thunderstorm; heavy and charged.  I sense a big storm is going to erupt, threatening and scary in the power it will unleash. Most of the time I wish the storm would break so the sweet air that follows will cleanse our house with its singing energy. Other times, like now, I just want to sleep on the warm pine needles and dream of happy things, hoping that when I awake happiness will be a reality. I close my eyes and make a bargain with myself, “If I see a red bird today, then our house will be happy again.”

“Tad, where are you?” I hear my mother call. I jump up from my nest, grab my pail and yell, “I’m coming.” I hurry through the bracken fern that grows lush in the drainage area of the wood, carefully avoiding the poison oak patches. I jump out of the woods onto the road with a slap of my red canvas tennis shoes and run down the road to catch up with mother, Miss Louisa and Miss Georgina, all the while scanning the treetops for a flash of red.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – Smart, Beautiful and Deadly

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My regrets are the people I couldn’t save–Marines, soldiers, my buddies. I still feel their loss. I still ache for my failure to protect them. -Chris Kyle, Navy Seal

Recently, the suggestion that female military personnel be allowed to join American Special Forces has caused much controversy, with both men and women questioning whether or not women can physically and psychologically meet the challenge. My opinion is an unqualified “Yes!” I’d like to introduce you to Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, 24-year old Lyudmila Pavlichenko was in her fourth year of studying history at Kiev University. She was among the first round of volunteers at the recruiting office and requested to join the infantry because she wanted to carry a rifle and fight.  The recruitment officer eyed her in amazement. She looked like a model, with well-manicured nails, fashionable clothes and hairstyle. He laughed and asked her if she knew anything about rifles. Little did he know that Lyudmila was a member of DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport organization in the Soviet Union and she was an expert sharpshooter. Even when she showed him her marksmanship certificate, he was reluctant to take her seriously and offered her a position as a field nurse. She refused. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” she recalled. To prove she was as skilled with a rifle as she said she was the Red Army unit held an impromptu  audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. When she picked off the two she was accepted and assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division. There she became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army, of whom about 500 survived the war. “I knew my task was to shoot human beings. In theory that was fine but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”

On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy, and paralyzed by fear, she was unable to raise her weapon. A young Soviet soldier set up his position beside her, but before they had a chance to settle in a German bullet took out her comrade. She was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled.” And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”  Private Pavlichenko fought for about three months near Odessa where she recorded 187 kills. She fought for eight months on the Crimea Peninsula and in 1942, having been promoted to a lieutenant she was cited by the Southern Army Council for killing 257 German soldiers. In her career she had 309 confirmed kills.

As her kill count rose she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all – countersniping, where she was engaged in duels with enemy snipers. She never lost a duel, notching 36 sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and all night. “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 to 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.” One duel lasted three days. “That’s three days of waiting perfectly still, in the cold and in the silence, knowing that somewhere out there was a sniper doing the same thing.”

She was wounded on four separate occasions and suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel to the face. Pavlichenko and her spotter, Leonid Kutsenko, were caught by Germany artillery and she knew he was not going to make it but with blood streaming down her face she laboriously lugged her comrade back to camp. For her bravery she was awarded the Order of Lenin Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor her country awards and equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor.

After a time, even the Germans knew of her, blaring messages over their loudspeakers, “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.” When the bribes didn’t work, they resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces, a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!” Killing Nazis aroused no complicated emotions in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey. Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks. Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”

In June of 1942, she was only 25 but had been wounded four times in battle. After she was wounded in the face with shrapnel from mortar fire, she was withdrawn from combat and sent to Canada and the U.S. for a publicity visit, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President when Franklin Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. She found a friend in Eleanor Roosevelt and was asked to go on tour with the First Lady to tell Americans her experiences as a woman in combat.

She was dumbfounded by the questions the U.S. reporters asked her, who criticizing the length of her skirt saying it was too long and made her look fat. The women reporters plagued her with questions about nail polish, how she curled her hair and was she allowed to wear make-up at the front. When faced with these types of question she answered, “There are no rules against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?” No doubt she was thinking that a few months earlier she had been recovering from wounds to her face sustained in the mortar attack. She eventually grew tired of these frivolous questions and said, “I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

She held audiences spellbound with the stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion of her homeland and her career in combat. She made the case across America for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis and in doing so drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight. She stood before large crowds chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”

She spoke out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, s subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.” She also made trips to the UK and accepted donations to pay for three x-ray units for the Red Army. Having attained the rank of major, she never returned to combat but became an instructor and trained Soviet snipers until the end of the war. After the war she completed her degree and began a career as a historian and was active in the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.

In 1957, 15 years after she accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt on tour, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. She persisted until she was granted permission to visit her old friend, Lyudmila. She found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably with a “cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight she threw her arms around her, half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her. In whispers the two old friends recounted their travels together.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and was commemorated on two Soviet postage stamps. She was immortalized in a song by American folksinger, Woody Guthrie called “Miss Pavlichenko”:

                                              Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame;

                                              Russia’s your country, fighting is your game;

                                             The whole world will love her for a long time to come,

                                              For more than three hundred Nazis fell by your gun.

Pavlichenko was credited with 309 confirmed kills and she is still regarded as the most successful female sniper in history. She is an example of the bravery and skill that women can bring to the battlefield. While the ultimate hope is that there will be no need for men and women to wage war, reality and history shows us that there will always be those who don’t want peace. When the need arises to fight those who oppose freedom, abuse human rights or attacks our country, then our military needs to be the best it can be and that includes equipping the forces with men and women who can meet that challenge. To exclude women from any branch or section of our military is to limit the pool to choose from by half.

Women have always fought, wounded and been killed in wars. Individual women have served in combat in leadership roles such as Queen Bodicea, who led the Britons against Rome; and Joan of Arc who led troops to drive the invading English troops from France.  In WWI, Russia used an all-female combat unit. In WWII, hundreds of British and German women served in combat roles as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers and combat fighter pilots. After 1945 all these combat roles were ended in all armies and the women and their contributions largely unrewarded and forgotten. Israel, along with Norway and Eritrea in Africa, have mandatory military service for men and women, and 3% of Israel’s combat units are women. Today all-female Kurdish troops are fighting against the spread of ISIS in Syria. In the U.S. only in 2013 has the ban on women serving in combat been lifted. Army Ranger Battalions and Navy SEAL units plan to integrate women  by 2015 and 2016, respectively. On November 21, 2013, the first three women graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps School of Infantry. Let’s give these women who have the dedication and skill a chance to prove themselves. If the successes of women in past conflicts are anything to go by, then we have nothing to worry about.

A Moment of Acceptance

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We must then build a proper relationship between the richest and the poorest countries based on our desire that they are able to fend for themselves with the investment that is necessary in their agriculture. – Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK

During my training in preparation to deploy to Afghanistan as an agricultural adviser I learned that Afghan women have a very different place in society than western women. I am told there are three sexes in Afghanistan – Afghan and western men, Afghan women and western women. I wonder if I will be accepted by Afghan farmers, either as an American or as a woman. I receive a lot of advice on how to dress and act, but I make the decision early on to rely mainly on just being myself and letting my agricultural expertise speak for itself. I have worked in agriculture, a male dominated arena, for over 30 years. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to prove I know what I am doing.

Soon after arriving at my post I go on a mission to the compound of the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL) in Kapisa Province with a group of American National Guardsmen to deliver agricultural seeds.  As I begin to mark off the variety and amount of seed, I notice the Afghan farmers unloading the truck are either politely ignoring me or casting quick sidelong glances at me. I know I look strange to them and I am not offended by their curiosity. The men show the signs of a lifetime of hard work. Although they look like they are in their 50’s and 60’s, most likely they are in their 30’s or 40’s. Life is hard here and people age quickly, with the average lifespan being 44. Their hands are calloused, many with injured nails that look more like the yellowed talons of some huge predatory bird. Their nut-brown faces are lined from long hours in the unrelenting Afghan sun, made more searing because of the high altitude.  Many are gap-toothed and their teeth are stained from tobacco use. To me their faces are made beautiful by the honesty of the hard work they must do to feed their families. I come from an agricultural background devoid of massive tractors and combines and I instantly feel a bond with these tillers of the soil. They are wearing dingy white salwar kameze, loose pants with a long tunic, many topped off with western-style sports jackets and vests.   They are wearing headscarves or intricately wound turbans. The smell of stale sweat wafts over me in the gentle breeze that is tickling the leaves of the acacia trees under which we are seeking some shade.

Some of the bags in the truck have split in transit and the seeds have spilled out onto the bed of the truck. The men rake up the seeds with their hands, careful to capture each precious seed. Some of the seeds are bright pick, having been treated with fungicide.

“What kind of seed are these?” they ask in amazement.

My interpreter, Najib, is not an agriculture person and he lifts his shoulders in a gesture that says, “Beat’s me.”  I lean over and say they are sorghum seeds. “Sorghum!” they say and nod their heads.  Having broken the ice, they start to bring me other seeds, holding them out for me to see, waiting shyly for my reply. I identify barley, oats and wheat. They are becoming friendlier and start making eye contact with me.  They bring me a handful of turnip seeds. Najib doesn’t know the Dari word for turnip, so I draw the men a picture of a turnip and they smile with pure delight.

As we get ready to leave, one of the turbaned farmers reaches into his pocket with his work-soiled and hardened hand, takes my hand and gently puts something onto my palm. I look down and see he has given me some dried mulberries and walnuts. I look up and smile, and he smiles back. Although the mix looks less than clean, I eat it with joy in my heart because he has offered me his food. He is letting me know with this offering that he accepts me.

It is a great day.

The Enchantment of North Dakota

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For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean.- Kathleen Norris, author

The first time I saw North Dakota was when I flew there for a house hunting trip after accepting a position as a USDA Resource Conservation and Development Coordinator in Devils Lake, ND. As I was deplaning, I was focused on juggling my carry-on items so I was halfway down the stairs before I looked up and what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. The prairie spread out before me in a seemingly never-ending vista. As comedian Red Skelton once quipped, “North Dakota is the only place I have been where I didn’t have to look up to see the sky.” I have never experienced such openness and I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of my future home. As a person who loves forests and mountains I felt bereft in this stark, near treeless environment. It was too late to turn back so I carried on with my house hunting, then returned home to my beloved Maine to begin the painful process of moving my family once again.

Sunflower Farm

Sunflower Farm

My husband Bill and daughter Hannah, along with our two cats and dog, made the four-day journey driving from Maine to North Dakota. It was a journey that started with tears as we left our home, friends and our daughter Julie in Maine, and it was a journey that ended in tears. Awaiting at our hotel in Devils Lake was a message that Bill’s Dad had died in a house fire. I remember lying on the bed, curled in a fetal position, crying my heart out, feeling I had made a huge mistake in relocating to this barren place. That night we went to eat and as we headed back to our room I looked up into the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. The sky was streaked with red, orange and yellow with splashes of blue and pink interspersed in the swaths of bold color. As I looked at this beautiful abstract it seemed it had been painted just for us and a sense of peace came over me and I knew everything was going to be all right.

I would come to love the wide open spaces and cherished the time I spent in my car traveling to and from the six counties that were in my area. You don’t measure distance by miles in North Dakota, you measure it by hours. Grand Forks is one and a half hours away, Fargo two and Bismarck three. The roads are long and straight and if you get lost, just keep taking right turns and you will come out on the road you started on. You can drive for miles with fields of cheery sunflowers waving at you and every so often an old-fashioned windmill will spin its blades in welcome as it sucks water up from the underground aquifers below waving fields of grain.

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota is the least visited state but I discovered it has much to offer. It has 90,000 buffalo living there, including several sacred white buffaloes. Most of the pasta in America is made there from locally grown durum wheat on farmland covering the equivalent of twelve million city blocks.  It is the state with the most churches and not surprisingly, the most church-going people. There are no towns in North Dakota. Each place is a city no matter how small and the smallest has 5 people. North Dakota gave us bandleader Lawrence Welk, baseball legend Roger Maris, news reporter Eric Severeid, author Louis L’Amour and actress Angie Dickinson.

The International Peace Garden straddles the border of the U.S. and Canada. A cairn constructed of aboriginal hammerheads holds a plate that reads, “To God in his Glory… We two nations dedicate this garden and pledge ourselves that as long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.” The geographic area of North America lies in Rugby, ND, and it flies the flags of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in scenic splendor in the badlands. Take a drive along the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of rural highway in the southwest and you will see a collection of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures, each one giving you whimsical vignette to enjoy. And then there’s Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, a unique natural area located near Devils Lake where I lived and it would become a favorite spot to visit for a lazy Sunday drive.  Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a big game preserve, refuge and breeding ground for wild animals and birds in 1904. You can drive for four miles through woodlands interspersed with areas of grass prairie for up close and personal views of elk and bison herds. A favorite for us was to park near the prairie dog town and watch the antics of the dogs as they chirp and scurry about, popping in and out of holesas they watch you withwary eyes. There are more than 250 species of birds there and hiking trails provide the opportunity to enjoy the woods, a rarity in a state that is only 1% wooded.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Black-tailed Prairie Dog at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

I think I was the most content in North Dakota of any state I have lived in. Living in a small town in North Dakota is truly living in a Norman Rockwell picture and I believe it is the most under-appreciated state in the union. It is a very spiritual place and sometimes on my long drives I would catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of the long dead herds of buffalo that once wandered unfettered on the North Dakota prairies. I came to love and treasure the simple beauty of North Dakota and I miss it terribly. It brought a sense of peace in my life when I truly needed it and it gave me the strength to leave it when a career opportunity came along three years later. But I will never forget the majesty of those wide Dakota skies with red and yellow arms that seemed to reach down and embrace me at the close of day, assuring me, “Everything will be allright.”

Scrap Sculptures along the Enchanted Highway

Scrap Sculptures along the Enchanted Highway

Why Can’t We Be Friends

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Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there have been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.

It is distressing to daily see adherents of the three largest religions in the world being slaughtered and condemned in the name of religion itself. Religious intolerance is nothing new. It exists in every religion, every denomination and every sect. We see intolerance with Catholics against Protestants, Sunni against Shia Muslims and Reform against Orthodox Jews. I was raised in the Baptist faith and even within that belief you have conservatives, moderates and liberals who vehemently defend their points of views.

I have been unable to attend church since returning from Afghanistan. First, it is difficult for me to sit in a crowd of people with my back to the door due to my post-traumatic stress, but the second reason is that organized religion no longer appeals to me. I used to take comfort in being with fellow believers. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew 18:20. I never totally agreed with everything in my religion. I do believe women can be deacons and preachers.  After all, it was to women who Jesus first gave the Good News –Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here. Mark 16:6. Not only did he give them the Good News but he commanded them to go tell the disciples. If Jesus entrusted women to give one of the most important tenants of the Christian faith to his disciples, who would be tasked with spreading the Gospel to all corners of the earth, then I believe God can still call women to his service today.

I don’t judge or condemn gays. While I hate abortion I still think it is a women’s right to choose – I just wish women would understand that innocent babies shouldn’t have to pay for what they perceive as a mistake. I believe the Old Testament is a wonderful book of history and it contains wisdom we can still live by today, but I also believe that when Jesus came to earth as a man he negated many of the complicated rules of sacrifice and worship set forth in the Old Testament. Jesus became the sacrifice and if you read through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teachings, then you see Christianity in its most pure form. I turn to it often when I feel weighed down by lengthy sermons that go to great lengths to interpret his words. I don’t believe his teachings need to be interpreted. They just are. He reached out to common people and spoke so that anyone could understand his teachings.

If you look at a comparison chart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam you will be astounded that there are more similarities than differences. They are all “Abrahamic” religions that trace their origins to Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. A really good site to compare the history, tenets and beliefs of these religions is: http://www.religionfacts.com/islam/comparison_charts/islam_judaism_christianity.htm.  It is very interesting reading and may help to clear up some misconceptions.

Now instead of the comfort and peace I once felt in church I can only see the divisiveness and intolerance. I just cannot emotionally take on the negativity at this point in my life. I miss the fellowship of other believers and knowing that I have that support system. I miss the songs of my childhood; the old songs from the Baptist Hymnal are so precious to me. I cannot hear The Old Rugged Cross without tears coming to my eyes and my heart soars when I hear I’ll Fly Away sung with full-bodied gusto. Every week I say this is the week I will go back to church, but every week I know that I am not ready. I am still too fragile because I have seen firsthand the atrocities that are committed because of religious intolerance. I am afraid, not of the church or the congregation, but of myself. I am afraid that I will not be able to turn the other cheek when I hear hypocrisy or judgement of others and that I will rise from my seat and unleash a tirade against the perceived offenders. Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with that judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Matthew 7: 1-2. I know I should not judge, but I do and until I feel like I can attend worship with a loving and forgiving heart I choose to do my worship in private.

As I am facing the demons of PTSD, I can feel myself getting stronger in some areas and weaker in others. It is a long, painful and lonely journey and by the grace of God I will find my way back. What I pray for every day is for the believers of the world to coexist in peace and tolerance. Pope Frances recently said, “Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers.” If the people of the world cannot do this, then we are on a path to self-destruction and I do not believe that is the goal of any religion.

The Jar of Goodness

Sad Little Girl

It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father. – Pope John XXIII

The hot sun beats down on the top of my head as I watch the hill of the red dirt road that dead ends in front of my house. I am waiting for my father to come home from his job as a carpenter. I wait for him every afternoon, anxious to tell him about my day. I dig the dirt with my bare feet and draw designs in the fine dust with my toes. One of my father’s beagles is lying in the shade of an old oak tree, made drowsy from the heat and humidity. When I call his name he slowly opens his eyes and thumps his tail, but his eyelids droop and he drifts back into slumber. The old tree has a blackened scar where lightning ran its blue-white finger down its side one hot, sultry night and red and white chickens are clucking nearby, scratching in the gravel in hopes of finding a bug or two before they fly up to roost in the limbs of the tree above.

My ears perk up as I hear a humming coming from behind the hill. The road is over a mile long and we are the only people who live on it so I am sure it is my father coming home. I jump up and down excitedly and watch with unblinking eyes for the first sight of my father’s old black Ford pick-up nosing over the hill. First I see the wide chrome grill grinning at me, then my father’s solemn face framed behind the windshield. I am not allowed to run to meet the truck so I wait impatiently for it to chug to a stop. The door creaks open and my father slides tiredly off the cracked leather seat and the dog and I both rush to meet him, the dog with frenzied barks and wagging tail and me with little hops of joy.

“Daddy! Daddy! I’m so glad you are home!” I say as I run to him. He has squatted down to pet the dog’s head and I try to throw myself into his arms. “Daddy, I missed you! Did you miss me?” My father pushes me away with an arm he has raised between us to keep me from embracing him. He stands up and walks to the back of the truck to get his toolbox. He starts toward the house and I follow along, my joy evaporated. Most of the time my father acts like he doesn’t see me and sometimes I wonder if I am invisible. When he does focus on me it seems like he is mad at me and I wonder what I have done to disappoint him. I try to be good so I can be worthy of his love but it is hard when you don’t know what you are doing wrong. Tears spring to my eyes as I slowly trail behind him, bereft in the knowledge that once again I have let him down.

My father stops and turns around. He sees me! I can tell by his eyes. He reaches into the pocket of his old, faded overalls and pulls out a small white glass jar. He puts it in his palm and hands it to me. I look questioningly into his eyes but his face is impassive. My hand is trembling as I reach up and take the jar. It has a metal lid and I gently unscrew the top. A delicate fragrance wafts up from the pale pink cream inside the jar. I touch a fingertip to the cream and rub it between my thumb and forefinger. It is silky and feels like velvet and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I look back up at my father and whisper, “Thank you, Daddy.” He doesn’t say anything, just turns and continues walking to the house.

Overcome, I go and sit under the tree, the rough bark poking into my back. I lift the jar to my nose inhaling the fresh scent of the cream, but I don’t touch it anymore. My father gave me this treasured gift to reward me for being good and I am afraid if I use it all I will lose whatever magic the cream contains. I will hide it and only take it out occasionally to smell the delicate fragrance and relive the moment when I was worthy of my father’s love. I gently screw the top back on the white jar and stand up to make my way to the house, cradling it in my hands.

I don’t see the dog running exuberantly up to me so I am unprepared when he jumps up, sending the jar flying from my hand. I scream as I watch the jar fall and shatter on a rock sending small white slivers of glass across the ground. The clean, pink cream drips down the rock onto the red dirt below. With tears running down my face and sobs tearing painfully from my throat I start running, just running as fast as I can, trying to outrun the pain of losing my precious gift. My father gave me the jar because on this day I was good but I never had time to learn the secret of sustaining that goodness and I now know I never will.

opyright ©2015 Kathleen Gunderman

May Sarton – An Enduring Legacy

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We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be. – May Sarton

I have a new friend. Her name is May Sarton and although she died in 1995 at the age of 83, she has become my friend through the beautiful words she uses to express her views on aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, relationships, love of nature, gratitude and appreciation for the simple pleasures of living. She was a prolific novelist and poet, but it is in her poignant, honest journals that chronicle her life that I discovered this woman was my friend, for a friend nourishes you and confides their innermost thoughts to you. It is an intimacy that I will cherish forever and seek when I need to commune with someone who truly understands what it means to live in this tenuous world.

Sarton was born in Belgium but her family fled to England, then the U.S., when Germany invaded Belgium at the start of WWI. She published her first collection of poetry in 1937. In 1945 she met Judy Matlack, who became her partner for the next thirteen years. She lived in New Hampshire for many years before moving to York, Maine where she would live for the rest of her life in solitude by the sea. Sarton wrote about her relationships and many of her earlier works contain vivid erotic female imagery. She did not see herself as a “lesbian” writer, instead wanting to touch on what is universally human about love in all its manifestations. She said of her book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality.”

I first became aware of Sarton when she was featured on a Maine PBS documentary, World of Light that she narrates herself. At the age of 65, she contemplates her long career and the nature of her work, reading poetry, discussing her loves and her influence. It is in her reflections on solitude and her life in Maine that entrances me. She is compelling, gentle, articulate and so honest it tears at my heart. I can see myself sitting down with her to share a cup of tea and later we will stroll in her garden that she has lovingly nurtured. I know that my visit with her would be soothing, it would have laughter and I would leave feeling uplifted.

I am not alone in my perceived friendship with Sarton. In her later years, she lived alone and came to value her solitude and some consider her Journal of a Solitude her best work. Her memoirs make her seem so human and approachable that many people, strangers to her, but friends in their hearts, would show up on her doorstep. She always took time to meet with people but in her love of solitude that filled her later life, these visits were dreaded. This longing is reflected in this excerpt, “There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”

So as a fellow solitude I would never show up on her doorstep if she was still living, but I will visit her often when I read her glorious words. In a world where thought and observations are reduced to 150 characters or less, settling in a comfortable chair to read her flowing, sometimes fragile, reflections, especially as I am growing into my old age, are moments I treasure. May Sarton was much loved and will remain so as future generations discover the beauty of the written word as only she could express it. To read her works is to enter into her world, with honesty, and whether or not you agree on certain points of view, you will leave her works enraptured with her legacy, and you might say, as I do, “This is my friend and for that I am grateful.”

There and Back Again – Part II

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When you are in a combat situation, you mustn’t let your mind be polluted by emotions like fear and anger. Simply accept the situation and react, even if you are facing impossible odds. Keep your head clear and you will be one step ahead of your attackers. – Aaron B. Powell

My unit decides to break from our routine and head back to MF during the day. As we repeat the process of preparing our convoy to go back, the skies are sunny and I am almost giddy from the absorption of a few rays of warmth. Deep ravines and steep mountain roads don’t hold the same menace in the day as they did on that nightmare ride three nights ago. We have just about reached the summit of the mountain when we roll up on a firefight. It quickly becomes clear we should have stuck with our routine.

I can see French soldiers hunkered down behind dirt berms on the side of the road firing 50-caliber guns down into the ravine where insurgents are firing back. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is a constant background noise as I listen to the chatter over the earphones. “Hold up! Hold up!” Our convoy comes to a stop and I can see the gunner’s legs tighten with tension as he rotates the turret rapidly back and forth, trying to see everything at once.  I have a strange sense of resignation although a frisson of fear is making my limbs tremble like a taut wire being strummed by the wind.

“Are you okay, Miss Kathy?” our driver asks.

“I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” I don’t want them to focus on anything but their jobs at this point in time.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Continuous, near at hand from the French and far away as the insurgents return fire from the valley. I know we are relatively safe from gunfire in the thickly armored MRAP. Again I am praying for our gunners. Then I hear over the earphones, “There are two guys on the mountain with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” Okay, I think, if this is armor piercing, it can take us out. My heartbeat speeds up and the tension can be felt in the silence that permeates the radio. Finally, someone says, “It’s a French guy and an ANA (Afghan National Army).” You can feel the collective sigh of relief over the radio.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!  An F-16 roars through the canyon overriding the sound of gunfire. A French helicopter swoops over, dropping canisters that burst into red and green smoke upon impact to mark the location of the insurgents. Another helicopter fires rockets into the area. Clouds of grayish dust mingle with the colored smoke in a bizarre, surrealistic display of dancing plumes. The loud explosions of the rockets shake the ground, and I can feel the concussion under my feet. My civilian companion in the MRAP is excited. “That’s right. Light ‘em up!” he shouts.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! “They’re still coming!” I hear over the radio. I can’t believe anyone could be living after all this fire power has been thrown at them, but still the guns keep firing. After about 20 minutes we get the word to move on past the firefight. There is a huge IED hole in the road that wasn’t there a few nights ago. It is deep and wide, and I hope the sides don’t cave in as we inch around it and plunge us down into the ravine below. Finally, we are on solid road again and we head away from the firefight. We are close to MF and as we near the FOB I look over to my right. A French armored vehicle responding to the firefight has gone off the road and tumbled down a ravine. I see soldiers removing bodies from the wreck. They are covered with blood and their limbs are broken, some are obviously dead, and I wonder if these are men or women I know on the base.

We pull into MF, our nerves raw. I get out of the MRAP, my legs threatening to give way as I step down on the ground. We are parked next to the big 107mm guns. They are being fired in support of the troops engaged in the firefight, and the booms of their mortars as they discharge are deafening. Every time one goes off I flinch and cover my ears as the earth shakes underneath my feet.

We are told that the mess hall has stayed open for us and after I drop my gear off at my tent, I head on over. Up until now I have been relatively calm, considering the circumstances, but when I lift up a forkful of peas and carrots I notice they are falling off because my hand is shaking so badly.

I find that the day of a hostile action I have an afterglow of excitement fueled by adrenaline. It is all anyone can talk about, and each moment is relived again and again. The day after is marked by a massive headache from the release of adrenaline into my body, and I am sleepy and lethargic all day. This seems to be the norm for most of the people around me.

Before I came to Afghanistan, I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I would react in such a situation. I hoped I would behave honorably and not be a coward. Looking back, I feel like I equated myself well. I was scared, no doubt about that, but I didn’t give in to my fear. The sobering and enduring emotion for me is a deep sadness for the loss of young lives, friend and foe, for there is sadness at the core of every death.  Many of the Taliban are not hardline fanatics. They are day laborers hired for five dollars a day. They can feed their families for weeks on that. I can see no gain in the firefight I experienced, and this was just one of many taking place every day in Afghanistan. This is what war is. Taking this valley, that hill, only to lose it and gain it back again – bodies piling up along the way like cordwood. Families irrevocably shattered by loss and grief.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. No sense at all. But I am a civilian, not a soldier. The grim reality is that I am in a war zone and this is the gig I signed up for. I have to accept conflict as a part of my life or I need to go home. I still have hope that I can find a window of peace to help the Afghan agricultural sector and I can make some small contribution that will make a difference in a farmer’s life who is just trying to make a living in the midst of all this madness.

Kurdish Women Warriors

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When they see a woman with a gun they’re so afraid they begin to shake. They portray themselves as tough guys to the world, they see women as just little things-but one of our women is worth a hundred of them. – Kurdish woman fighter

Recently images and stories are emerging from Syria of the Women’s Protection Unit (WPU), a 7,000-strong Kurdish military group. These images of young women taking up arms against ISIS has become an Internet phenomenon and put a face on the war against terror. The Kurds are an Iraqi ethnic group, mostly inhabiting Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, a geo-cultural region often referred to as “Kurdistan”. They are mostly Sunni Muslim but are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds. The Iraqi Kurds have mostly been pro-Western, despite our reluctance in the past few years to address their pleas for support.

In an area where women face extreme subjugation, these women fighters clad in camouflage and body armor are a stark contrast to the burka clad, veiled women we normally associate with the Middle East. While it is tempting to paint these women taking up arms as merely a zealous patriotic desire to defend their land against a monstrous invader, it is more complicated than that. Patriotism and a desire for freedom certainly is a big factor, but serving in the WPU also provides women an avenue to escape abusive marriages and other forms of repression. While Western media and Kurdish leaders don’t hesitate to use the images of the women fighters as a propaganda tool, the WPU and the Peshmerga, the national military force for Kurdistan, provide a network of support for women who might otherwise be locked in the struggles of a repressive society.

Kurds are the most progressive in an area of extreme conservatism but life for women is still not a bed of roses. Human Rights Watch reports that 60% of women in Kurdistan have been victims of female genital mutilation and forced marriages are common. The Kurdish women fighters have been instrumental in the war against ISIS especially in the town of Khobani, where they have been defending the city from radical jihadists since September of 2014. One young woman explained her enlistment in the military, “I didn’t really have any other ambitions. I just wanted to live a free life, as a woman, to be able to see our reality, and have our rights and just live.”

Kurdish women have been training and fighting for decades, especially under the highly oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, it is just now that we are hearing of them in the Western world. While their bravery and heroism in battle is undeniable, I think the bravest revolution they are waging is against the oppression of women. These women are fighting against stereotypes and they belong alongside the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Windtalkers and Russian sniper Lyudmilla Pavichenko of WWII. Their love of country, freedom and the camaraderie they share as they fight their battles inspire me. I salute you, brave warriors. Your victories are our victories.