Maine-The Way Life Should Be

6129dfed65ba3b756273848549e3ece8

Did you ever see a place that looks like it was built just to enjoy? Well, this whole state of Maine looks that way to me. – Will Rogers

Maine is a state that always had an allure for me. It conjured thoughts of cool summers, busy harbors and snowy winters. My husband Bill has a neurological disorder and hot weather makes him miserable. In February of 1994, it was over 100 degrees for over a week in South Georgia and he was going down before my eyes. On a visit to his neurologist I asked if we moved to a cooler climate would it help Bill’s condition. He said it might but he couldn’t say for sure. I was willing to do anything to make sure Bill didn’t deteriorate any further and working for the Federal government I had the opportunity to apply for jobs in other states. That night we made a list of 37 states with cooler climates we thought we would like to live in and I started to apply for anything I was remotely qualified for.

lighthouse

About five months later I got a call from a representative of the USDA in Maine offering me a job which I eagerly accepted. He said, “You know, your accent is going to stick out up here.” Without missing a beat I replied, “What accent?” We made the arrangements to move and my husband two daughters and I drove to Maine and I remained there for eight years living in Northern and Downeast Maine. We left Maine for other opportunities but we always felt like we had left a piece of our hearts there. My oldest daughter, her husband and two children still lived there.  In 2009 with retirement nearing, my husband and I decided we wanted to go back to Maine and make that our home. We went back to Presque Isle in Northern Maine where we first lived and when I saw the town again I was so overwhelmed with a sense of returning home that I was moved to tears.

The worst thing about living in Maine for me is the long, long winters. We always have a white Halloween and the snow doesn’t leave until May. And by snow I mean a lot of snow. We don’t measure it in inches, but in feet. But I learned to snowshoe and cross country ski and even in the late spring when I think I will scream from the claustrophobia of interminable winter, the sight of snow falling gently outside my window still captivates me with its beauty.

IMG_4752

Maine is the most easterly point of the U.S., and Eastport, Me is the first place in the country to receive the rays of the sun each morning. The Appalachian Trail ends on beautiful Mt. Katahdin that rises 5,268’ above the forested Maine woods. Almost 90 percent of Maine is forested and it has as much coastline as California. And Maine even has a 40 acre desert that was created when a glacier slid through Maine leaving behind sand and mineral deposits about 11,000 years ago.

Famous Mainers include poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, actor Patrick Dempsey, director John Ford and author Stephen King. And our most famous native son is Leon Leonwood Bean, founder of the retail giant, L.L. Bean. And we were blessed with the nation’s youngest ambassador, Samantha Smith, 10, who wrote to Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov expressing her fears about a nuclear war between his country and the U.S.  Andropov wrote her back and in 1983 she and her parents were guests of Andropov for two weeks. Tragically this brave young girl was killed in a plane crash when she was 13.

Maine’s motto is “The Way Life Should Be.” That about says it all. It has outstanding natural beauty and wildlife but Maine’s people are its greatest asset. While someone who was not born here will always be “from away”, the people are welcoming and easily make a place for you in their communities. They make the best neighbors in the world for slightly socially awkward people like my husband and me.  They are there for you when you need them, but don’t force themselves upon you. They are rugged individualists who respect the right of people to be who they want to be.

45993_492591880761267_1476468836_n

Two summers ago we bought 80 acres and put a cabin there and it is our goal to eventually live there fulltime. It has a beautiful stream running through it and I love spending every moment I can there.  I suffer from PTSD from working in Afghanistan for over two years and it is my haven. It is the only place in this world that I feel completely safe and at peace. We usually go early in the morning and my husband cuts wood and I clear brush. We have established a series of trails for hiking and snowshoeing and while it is exhausting work to clear the land, it frees me like nothing else can. To take a tangled mass of overgrown brush and turn it into a beautiful trail through quiet evergreen woods, revealing beauty as I go, is a metaphor for my life at this point in time. Just as I am clearing out the unwanted vegetation from my land I am clearing out the mass of tangled, thorny memories locked in my brain and making room for beautiful new memories to grow. Maine is doing that for me. It is my chosen home for the rest of my life. And although every year around March I really hate the lingering winter, I know that summer will be here again and I can walk my trails and think this is the way life should be.

The Waiting Room

 

The Waiting Room

  By Kathleen Gunderman

I wake up slowly to the sounds of moans and crying. I am reluctant to open my eyes. I don’t know where I am or what has happened, but I know something bad has happened. Did I get blown up by a roadside bomb? Did I get shot? Am I dying? The anguished crying finally makes me open my eyes into a slit. Through a haze that slowly clears I see a young girl sitting hunched over in a fetal position. Her thin arms encircle her legs and her head is resting on her knees.  I can see her shoulders shaking and her breath is coming in heaves. I crawl over to her and put my hand gently on her back. She recoils from my touch and scuttles crablike away from me with terror in her eyes.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,”I assure her. I sit down across from her and quietly wait for her to calm down. Her breath is shallow and quick and I am afraid she is going to hyperventilate. Her greenish brown eyes are ringed in white as she looks at me with terror. I think back on my military medical training and I give her a smile and start to talk to her in a soft voice.

“Breathe slowly, Honey. Breathe with me–in, out, in, out. That’s it. Just take deep, slow breaths with me.” I exaggerate my breathing so she can see and hopefully mimic me. Gradually I can see her start to relax a little. Her small, clenched hands start to lose the whiteness that stands out on her knuckles. Her shoulders begin to unbunch from her neck. Although her eyes still look at me with fear they no longer have the deer in the headlight look. She watches me intently a few moments before looking down towards the bare floor and taking a deep, ragged breath.  Her body seems to sag and she slowly raises her head and looks fearfully at me, unshed tears glistening on her lashes.

“Please don’t touch me. Please don’t hurt me,” she says in a small wounded voice.

“I won’t hurt you and I won’t touch you again. I promise.”

Everything in my being wants to embrace this wounded child but I know I must not. Obviously, someone has hurt her badly and I don’t want to increase her fear. She is too fragile.

I take a few minutes to look around the room. It is bare and roundish, seemingly devoid of any windows or doors. How can this be? How did we get in here? There must be a secret opening that I can’t see. Looking up I see only a hole in the ceiling that seems to have a flickering light emanating from it. It seems to have an electric short as the flashes of light are erratic. It gives the room a dim light that casts eerie shadows. Reluctant to startle the girl with any sudden movements, I slowly rotate my head to the right and to the left. I jump as I see there is someone else in the room. It is a young woman who is watching me with cynical brown eyes. She is twisting a lock of her blonde hair around her index finger as she sits with her back to the wall.

“Where are we?” I ask in bewilderment.

She stares at me a moment before she speaks. Finally, she says, “I don’t know. But it’s a bitch.”

“How long have you been here? How did you get here?”

She sighs and says “The girl was here when I got here. She doesn’t talk much so I don’t know how long she’s been here, but it’s a long time, I think. I’ve been here a long time, too. There’s no way to tell how long. As for how I got here I just woke up in here like you did.”

I shake my head confusedly. “But surely you have some idea who put us in here? What do they look like? Why have they put us in here?”

“I don’t know what they look like. I’ve never seen anyone and I don’t know why we are here.”

I am starting to get angry. “Well, surely you’ve seen them. They have to bring you food and water. Nobody would just keep us in here for no reason.”

She shrugs her shoulders and sits up straighter and says angrily, “Listen, I have never eaten or drank a thing since I’ve been here. I’ve never seen anyone. I don’t know why we’re here and I don’t really care anymore. All I know is that I want to be left alone.” Tears spring into her eyes and she quickly looks away from me.

“B—but, we have to eat? This makes no sense.” My mind is whirling as I try to process this information. Am I losing my mind? Is this a dream or a hallucination? I take several deep breaths and assess the situation. I know I am in the military. Okay, that’s a place to start. The most logical explanation is that I am having a dream. No, it just doesn’t feel like a dream. It feel’s real. I pinch myself hard and it hurts. Rubbing the red mark on my arm I look around the room again. It seems to be a round ball with a flattened floor. No windows, no doors–an impossible room. My next best scenario is that I am unconscious. Yes, that has to be it. Something has happened to me. I’ve been hurt in some way. I take my thoughts back but I can’t pinpoint any one event that happened. Whatever happened, it must have been sudden because I can’t remember much of anything before I woke up in here. But why are this child and woman in here, too? It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t think any more. It makes my head hurt. Maybe if I sleep I’ll wake up and everything will be clearer. I curl up on the floor with my head cradled on my arm and allow my eyelids to close out the anemic yellow light.

Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

“What the hell?” I am jerked out of a deep sleep by a loud banging noise like a giant pendulum hitting a cast iron bell, bouncing from one side of the room to the other. It is terrifying and I put my hands over my ears, but I can still hear the child screaming. She looks like someone who is being electrocuted. Her muscles are contracted and twitching. Her eyes are bulging from their sockets and her hands are clenched so tightly I can see blood dripping onto to floor. The woman is frozen in horror with her back pressed against the wall.

“What’s happening?” I shout at her over the deafening cacophony.

She is shaking her head back and forth and doesn’t seem to hear me. I grab her by the shoulders and shake her, screaming in her face. “What is it? What’s happening?” She seems to be in shock and I slap her face. Her head stops shaking and she looks at me with naked fear on her face. “What is it?” I ask again. Tears are streaming down her face and she screams, “I don’t know! I don’t know!”

“You’ve never heard this?” She shakes her head again and collapses to the floor, curling into a ball.

I turn my attention back to the child whose screaming is tearing through me like a knife.  I start toward her but stop as I see her terror increase. A feeling of helplessness comes over me. I don’t know what to do. As I watch her my jaw drops as I see her start to rise toward the ceiling. I can’t believe what I am seeing! Her screams are now one continuing howl and her body is contorting as she slowly rises up. I run towards her and grab her around her kicking legs. I can feel a powerful force pulling her through my arms. I hold on tighter but her body seems to stretch like chewing gum and as she reaches the ceiling her head disappears through the hole and her screams become muted, which is even more horrifying. I can’t hold her and the rest of her body is quickly sucked through the hole with a sickening wet sound followed by the quick snap of an electric spark.

I fall to my knees, my eyes riveted to the hole. The banging abruptly stops and the sudden silence is so palpable I scream. “What the hell is going on?” I put my face in my hands and begin to sob. “No, no, no, no….”

I wake to find I am still lying on the floor. My face feels tight and I reach a trembling hand to my cheek to feel dried tears on my face. I don’t know how long I have been asleep. Time seems to have no meaning in this hellhole. I am numb. I can’t feel anything anymore. I just want it all to go away. I can make no sense of what I’ve seen. It has to be a dream. It HAS to!

I look over at the woman. She is sitting with her back to the wall, her hands resting on the floor by her sides. She is looking at me, but her face is blank and I’m not sure see actually sees me. She, too, has rivulets of tears down her face.

“It was a dream, wasn’t it?” I ask her. The little girl…?” I can’t even bring words to mind to describe what I saw.

“No, it wasn’t a dream, she says in a flat dispassionate tone. I’ve been here for a long, long time. I’ve never seen or heard anything like that. I’ll miss her,” she says with a catch in her voice as fresh tears brim over and slide down her cheeks. “She was so scared. She told me one time her uncle had done things to her. She wouldn’t tell me what he did, just that he hurt her. She blamed herself. She said if she had been a good girl this wouldn’t have happened. She didn’t stop it so she knew she was bad. But that wasn’t true, was it?” she asks at me in despair. “I tried to tell her that, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t believe it. Oh, God, I feel so tired.”

“I’m tired, too,” I say. What happened can’t happen, but it did. Dear God, have we been abducted by aliens? Is it possible? I just can’t believe that, but I don’t even know how to explain the little girl going through that hole in the ceiling.

With a shudder I look up and see the hole is pulsating with garish light like an electric eel. I move closer to the woman and put my back to the wall trying to distance myself from that hellish, snapping beam of light.

“That noise – what could that have been? It was deafening. All I could think of, and I know this sounds crazy, is that we had been abducted by aliens and put into here to be tortured. I can’t make sense of any of this.

The woman wiped tears from her cheek with the back of her hand. “I’ve never heard it before but it was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. It terrified me. But I think I know where we are. It isn’t aliens. We’re in hell. This must be hell.”

Hell. Yes, this place is hellish, but–the child. Surely a child wouldn’t be in hell? I shake my head. I can’t think straight. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. All I want to do is sleep. I shake myself and try to focus. I look at my companion. “What did you do before you came here? What’s your name?”

“I don’t know my name. I remember being beaten by someone and then being raped. I don’t remember anything but that and I can’t talk about it, so don’t ask.”

“But, surely you remember your na….?” I stop as I realize I don’t know my name either. All I remember is being in the military. I remember hearing staccato bursts of gunfire and the shrill screaming of incoming rockets. I remember being afraid-–a lot, but I don’t remember anything else. Not even my name, I think, wonderingly. Maybe I am dead, but was I so bad I deserve to be in hell? I don’t think I was. I can’t think anymore. I am too tired. I am just going to sleep and I hope I will stay asleep a long time.

“No! No! No!” The screams of the woman wake me and the banging is back with renewed vigor. The metallic clangs echo deafeningly in the confined space. I have tried to remain in control through this whole ordeal, but now the screams are tearing painfully from my throat. I can’t stand it anymore. I am suddenly filled with a blinding rage. A mist of red descends upon me and I start flailing and hitting blindly into the air, screaming obscenities. I want to hurt someone! I want to kill someone! Kill it! Kill it! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

I keep punching my invisible enemy until I fall exhausted to the floor where I start to sob uncontrollably. Why, why, is all I can say? The incessant banging is driving my already fragile mind mad.

“Oh, no! Help me! Help me?” I look up and see the woman. She is being pulled to her feet and her hands are scrabbling in vain to find something to hold onto. She is being pulled up like a puppet on a string until her toes are just barely touching the floor. She is babbling hysterically and I leap to grab her. I wrap my arms and legs around her and scream, “I’m not letting you go. I WON’T let you go.” I am desperate to keep her with me. I cannot face being in this hellhole alone.

Her head is now at the hole in the ceiling and I can hear the bones in her head crunch as they are being crushed.  She starts to scream–raw, primal screams that tear through my soul. I renew my grip but she seems to become nebulous in my arms, disappearing through my fingers like smoke and I fall to the floor, my hands still grasping for substance. She is gone with only a static flickering to mark her passing. She is gone. I sob and I feel so totally alone and helpless. Why is this happening? I just can’t take anymore. I just can’t.

I awake to the knowledge that I am dead. I know it with every fiber of my being. This room with no ingress and egress is some kind of holding area–a waiting room. I know, too, I am going to be pulled through the hole in the ceiling. I am calm now. I am ready to go. I can’t stand to be in this barren room with only my own tortured thoughts for company. My ears strain for noise and I feel like someone who is waiting for a phone call from a reluctant lover. “Ring. Please ring.” But the silence denies my pleas.

I awake from a fitful sleep filled with monsters and despair to the long-awaited banging, clanging noise. It is tolling for me and I stand and walk to the center of the room. I look up and I can feel a slow, but steady pull. I close my eyes and lift my arms to welcome the force that is lifting me up. I feel my feet being lifted off the floor until only my toes are touching. I can feel my muscles straining, straining until I can feel them begin to tear. My joints snap as they are dislocated from their sockets. I didn’t want to scream but I can’t help it. It hurts so badly.  The pain is unimaginable. I can feel my body elongating and the electric charge above me is increasing with frightening intensity. Oh, it hurts, it hurts! I can’t take it any longer. Hurry death! Hurry! Just stop this pain. I can feel my head hit the ceiling and I panic because I know this is going to be beyond anything I have ever endured.

My skull starts to crumble and it sounds like someone walking on gravel. My body feels light now, but the pain that I thought couldn’t get any worse only intensifies into a never ending thread of agony. I must be going to hell and this unspeakable horror must be my punishment. “Oh, God, what did I do to deserve this?” I can feel my body shifting and morphing as it moves through the hole into a narrow tunnel. Electric charges are shooting through my body and I am quivering with suffering. I am almost all the way into the tunnel and the pain is lessening as my body no longer seems to be a corporeal being. The banging has been replaced with the whir of electricity and as the last of my body passes through the hole the force flings me at light speed through a snapping, popping, curving tube and I can see a bright light ahead of me.  The light becomes all I can see and it welcomes me. Like looking into the sun, I feel warmth on my face and I am gently deposited into another room, similar, but larger than the room I have left, amorphous, ringed in mist.  I look around the space that is bathed in a white, glowing light. I am not afraid anymore. The pain is gone and I feel peaceful. Yes, I am dead, but I am glad to be dead. I welcome it. This isn’t hell, its heaven.

My fear and helplessness are gone, replaced by strength and a sense of calm. I am happy to realize that the child and woman have gone on before me to their well-deserved peace.  Maybe I’ll see them again and we can get to know each other without the traumas that caused us so much pain for so long. Yes! I can see them smiling at me from the mist ahead and laughing, I run into their open arms, leaving the waiting room behind.

Epilogue

 

“So how are you feeling?

I take off my headphones, take a deep breath and tell my therapist “I’m tired. I’m very tired.”

My therapist nods. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a very effective, but exhausting form of therapy because your brain is working very hard to bring trauma from your limbic system where it is stored to your cerebral cortex where it can be rationally processed.“

“When I first started EMDR I never knew I would have so much physical and mental pain. This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life but I can’t believe all those memories don’t hold the pain they once did. I feel free for the first time in my life. And I can’t believe it happened so fast. It’s like therapy at warp speed!”

Smiling, my therapist says, “Yes, the use of bilateral stimulation such as eye movement or, in your case, tones, creates neural paths that allow those traumatic memories to travel from the emotional to the rational parts of your brain. It is particularly effective for people like you who have multiple traumas to deal with.”

“Well, I can’t thank you enough. I don’t feel weighted down by my experiences anymore. I feel reborn and I can’t wait to see what my life will be like without all this emotional baggage.”

“I want you to call me if need me. You’ve worked very hard today and you really need to use your coping skills to help you with any residual emotions that may come up. Now, if you’ll just step out into the waiting room, I’ll schedule you an appointment for next week.

 

For more information on EMDR visit www.emdr.com

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hattie McDaniel-She Paved the Way

Hattie

I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry. – Hattie McDaniel

She loved gardenias, laughing, singing and dancing. She was the daughter of former slaves who became an Academy Award winner. She worked as a maid and she frequently played maids in her long acting career. She is best remembered for her portray of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She was Hattie McDaniel and she was a marvel who paved the way for other black actors in the highly segregated Hollywood studio system.

In addition to acting in over 300 films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S.  McDaniel was befriended by many of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland and Clark Gable. She would star with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to win an Academy Award.  An invitation to her yearly Christmas party was much sought after and Clark Gable was always a fixture.

The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind was almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and she won the part. As the premiere of Gone with the Wind at The Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film. Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway. She did attend the film’s Hollywood debut, and upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.

While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone with the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there. As her popularity grew she began to be criticized by some members of the black community for the roles she chose to accept and for her decision to pursue roles aggressively rather than rock the Hollywood boat. Groups such as the NAACP complained that Hollywood stereotypes not only restricted blacks to servant roles but often portrayed blacks as lazy, dim-witted, perfectly satisfied in lowly positions, or violent. In addition to addressing studios, they called upon actors, and especially leading black actors, to pressure studios to offer more substantive roles and at least not pander to stereotypes. They also argued that these portrayals were unfair as well as inaccurate and that, coupled with segregation and other forms of discrimination, such stereotypes were making it difficult for all blacks, not only actors, to overcome racism and succeed. Some attacked McDaniel for being an “Uncle Tom” — a person willing to advance personally by perpetuating racial stereotypes or being an agreeable agent of offensive racial restrictions. McDaniel characterized these challenges as class-based biases against domestics, a claim that white columnists seemed to accept. And she reportedly said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” Since she was earning a living honestly, she added, she should not be criticized for accepting such work as was offered. Her critics, especially Walter White of the NAACP, claimed that she and other actors that agreed to portray stereotypes were not a neutral force but rather willing agents of black oppression. McDaniel and other black actors feared that their roles would evaporate if the NAACP and other Hollywood critics complained too loudly and she blamed these critics for hindering her career.

McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio and one for acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp. But perhaps her greatest achievement lay in her paving the way for other black actors to be accepted in the motion picture industry. While she certainly played stereotypes she brought a human side to every role she played. Who can forget her anguished tears when Rhett and Scarlet’s daughter dies? It takes courage to face the criticism she did for her portrayals but every role she and early black actors played brought acceptance to black actors. Inch by inch, step by step, they won the respect of Hollywood and paved the way for the Denzel Washingtons and Halle Berrys of today and it is disrespectful to her as an actor to denigrate her work by judging it by today’s standards.

Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:

“Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dressed up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”

Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech:

 “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

There and Back Again-Part I

mrap1

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

Going to Bagram Air Base from Morales Frazier (lovingly nicknamed MF) in MRAPs is an hour and a half of sheer hell. We leave at 11:30 p.m. in the hope that the bad guys will be asleep and won’t shoot us or blow us up. There is always the grim knowledge that one fanatic nightowl is out there waiting to do just that. One particular mission is burned into my memory in nightmarish clarity. As we prepare to leave MF, soldiers are loading our gear on a trailer and scurrying around checking out the vehicles and equipment. You definitely don’t want to break down in Taliban country, and that includes the whole route we will travel on. It is raining and I huddle in my rain gear, miserable and cold. MF is either dusty or muddy. There is no in between. It sits in a valley at 6,000 feet and in winter it is frigid. I can see my breath curling in the air and the exhaust fumes of the idling MRAPs burns my nose. The commander comes down and gives us a briefing and we load up.

MRAPs are armored vehicles designed to minimize the damage humans sustain if we hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), but they are not designed for comfort. The seats are hard, with no padding that could catch fire in an explosion. Six people can fit in the back, not counting the gunner, who is standing between the front and back, half inside and half out, manning a 50-caliber automatic rifle in the turret. I am sitting next to him and it is my responsibility to feed ammunition belts to him if we come under fire. If we have a rollover, we all shout, “Roll over! Roll over! Roll over!” and brace our arms on the roof of the MRAP. It is also my responsibility as the closest person to the gunner to grab him (or her) by the legs and hold on for dear life to prevent ejection as we turn over.

There is not a lot of legroom in the MRAP and our legs are interlaced like a zipper. I strap myself into my harness and put on earphones, which fit underneath the flaps of my helmet. Everyone in the convoy, which is usually five or six vehicles, is connected by the communications system so we can hear all the conversations as we get ready to go. There is always an undercurrent of tension until we get the word to go – then there is nothing to do but go. The die is cast. We bump our way out the gate on the rutted dirt road in the drizzling rain.

The road to Bagram consists of a series of steep mountain switchbacks with hairpin curves. My MRAP is pulling a trailer loaded with luggage, and as I look out the back window I can see a rooster tail of mud flying over the bags as the trailer sways back and forth.  The night is pitch black and the rain is coming down harder, lashing against the windows like an angry demon. The navigator sits next to the driver and watches a monitor. The turret ratchets around with a screech as the gunner rotates it, scanning for anything that doesn’t look right. I am always tense on this trip and I try not to think about the French gunner who was shot in the forehead just underneath his helmet and killed on this same road today. There is a crack marksman out there somewhere, because this is the second French gunner to be killed this way in two weeks.

We work our way tortuously up the mountain–sharp right, grind on up, sharp left. I hear our driver shout, “I can’t see the road! I can’t see the road!” The navigator replies “Move a little over to the left!” I can see there is a ravine with a 200-foot drop to the right. Solid lines of rain are streaming down, reflected in the lights that are dimmed to keep a low profile as we move farther into enemy territory. The visual range for the driver is only a few feet.

“A little to the right. Too much! Go left! Go left!” The words echo through my earphones. My nerves are stretched taut and my muscles are hurting from being contracted in sustained fear. Finally, we reach the summit of the mountain and start down. I can hear the brakes engage as the driver balances braking and accelerating. Sharp left, go down, sharp right-back and forth on the switchbacks that surely must have been designed by a sadist. We hit a particularly big pothole and a box of 50-caliber ammunition bounces off a shelf and lands on my knees. It weighs at least 30 pounds, and I am in agony. For a few minutes all I can do is take shallow breaths and fight back tears of pain.

Over the earphones I hear that we are coming up on the place where the French soldier was killed. You can feel the tension in the silence that permeates the earphones. I am praying for our gunners, who are the most vulnerable. I hold my breath and my senses become hyperalert, expecting any minute to hear the crack of a high-powered rifle and see my gunner slump down in his harness. We round a curve and I can see the lights of Bagram in the distance. So close. So close.

The last MRAP passes by the kill zone and I breathe a sigh of relief. Although we are not out of danger, the lights of Bagram are steadily getting closer and beckoning us with their siren brightness. At last we reach the checkpoint and are cleared to go inside the fences topped with razor wire. The tension eases from my body, and I am physically and mentally shattered. I unstrap myself, hang up my earphones, climb out of the MRAP, turn around and back down, stretching to meet the ground with my boot from that last high step. The rain is coming down hard now, and I don’t know if I have ever been more tired. It has taken us two grueling hours in the rain to reach Bagram, and it is now 1:30 A.M.

I pull my mud-encrusted bag from the trailer and begin to make my way to the billeting office to arrange for a place to sleep. I dodge mud puddles and wade through water that is flowing across the roads. My bruised knees are aching, and each step is an exercise in sheer mind over matter. Rain is dripping off my helmet, running down my back and dripping off my nose. My hair is hanging in dank strands and feels like snakes crawling on my face. By the time I reach the billeting office my feet are soaked inside my boots and I am shivering with the cold.

I pull out my travel orders to show the billeting clerk. Rank definitely has its privileges in the military, and my civilian pay grade allows me to have the same accommodations as a lieutenant colonel. For me that means a bed in the VIP tent. This is a large tent with rows of bunks on each side and plywood walls and floors. Bare light bulbs strung from the ceiling cast dim light on the room. Each bunk has a single wardrobe to hang clothes in and store gear. My favorite bunk is just inside the door. It has a wall and so it is like a single room. Privacy is a luxury I don’t enjoy often, and this little space gives me a feeling of much needed isolation. It houses a big blower tube attached to a compressor that shoots heated air into the tent. It is loud, which is probably why it is in a space by itself, but the noise seems like a small price to pay for a few hours alone. Earplugs are a way of life anyway as the roaring of F-16 jets taking off day and night overrides any other extraneous noise.

The billeting clerks are civilian contractors and as I show her my orders, she writes up my bunk assignment.  I grab a plastic garbage bag filled with bedding from a closet next to the desk. She hands over my orders and says, “You’ll have to take this over to the mayor’s office and get him to stamp this.” She shows me is the location on a map, and it is quite a distance from where we are, with a lot of left turns, right turns–in the dark and in the rain. Then after I get the stamp, I will have to walk all the way back to the VIP tent–in the dark and in the rain.

“I’ll get that first thing in the morning. I am too tired to go over there tonight,” I tell her. I am drooping with exhaustion, weighted down by my 50 pounds of body armor.

“No, you have to get it tonight.” At this point it is the thin end of the wedge. Something in my rain soaked, flagging body snaps. I tap my finger on the counter emphatically and say, “I have just experienced hell on earth for two hours in an MRAP. A box of 50 cal. ammunition bounced off my knees. I am cold, wet and in pain and I’m just before lying down in this floor kicking and screaming. Now I am going to sleep somewhere tonight if it is out there on your front porch. I need a place to sleep, and I need it now!” The clerk looks into my demented, glazed eyes and backs away saying, “Let me check with someone.”

She goes behind some filing cabinets that separate the desk from office space in the back. I can hear her urgent whispers, and I expect MPs to swarm out at any second and put me in flex cuffs. At this point, I don’t care. At least I’ll get a nice cell to sleep in, and I bet I don’t have to get a stamp for that.

The clerk comes back and says, “That’s okay. You can get it in the morning.” I can tell she just wants to see the last of me. I thank her, pick up my pack and sling my bag of bedding over my back like Santa on his way across a rooftop. I plod in the rain to the VIP tent–right foot, left foot. Just keep going.

Finally I stagger up the steps, maneuver myself through the door trying to be as quiet as possible and (Joy!) my little space is vacant. I tiptoe in, put my bag and backpack down, pull out a sheet and a blanket and throw them on the bed. I roll up some of my clothes to make a pillow, pull off my sodden shoes and socks, strip down to my underwear and slip under the cold blanket. I screw in my earplugs and fall into the deep sleep that only the truly weary can appreciate.

I spend the next two days going out on missions with the Agricultural Development Team, National Guardsmen who have expertise in agriculture and engineering. At the end of the day I enjoy nesting in my little space. It is a haven to collapse into at night and for a few restless hours it is the place I call home until we start our long journey back to MF.

Florida-The Sunshine State

Florida

I go to Florida sometimes for vacation. I actually really like Florida. It’s a weird place, it’s surreal. It’s so close, but you feel like you’re in another world or on an island. – Jemima Kirke, actress

I love Florida! I could easily see myself becoming a snowbird, leaving the cold bleakness of the long Maine winters just after Christmas and coming back in June to enjoy the beautiful Maine summer. It would be the best of both worlds. I first went to Florida when I was sixteen and I have been enthralled with it ever since.

I will never forget my first sight of the ocean at Panama City. As I stood with warm sand threading between my bare toes I looked in wonder across the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and I knew I would never again see anything so magnificent. There are times when my heart longs for the sea and I can hear its siren song calling me no matter where I am. When I would return home on R&R from Afghanistan I usually flew into Portland, Maine and my family knew that the first thing I needed to do was to go to the sea. After forced confinement in high walls, razor wire and armed guards in a hostile war zone for months on end, only the expanse of the sea could bring back to me a sense of freedom.

Florida is the southernmost state in America but it is not the South. It is a place that transcends description in an ever changing population punctuated with visitors from all over the world, attracted by the lure of its tropical beauty and climate. I lived in Orlando after high school for almost two years. At that time Orlando was a medium sized town with a small town feel. Disney World was new and still small enough to visit and see everything in one day. One of my favorite memories is walking through orange groves as the hot sun released the fragrant perfume of the orange blossoms.

Florida has given us Pat Boone, Fay Dunaway, Butterfly McQueen and Sidney Poitier.  The Florida Keys bring to mind visions of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” and to visit Key West is to imagine seeing the husky frame of Ernest Hemingway making his restless way home after a late night of drinking at Sloppy Joe’s bar.

Florida counts among its iconic wildlife the American alligator, crocodiles, black bear, manatees and the Florida panther. Bottlenose dolphins can be seen jumping and leaping out of the water as they swim alongside boats and often whales and sharks can be spotted in the clear blue waters. The air is joyous with the sounds of falcons, eagles, pelicans, kites and a myriad of songbirds. For me the memory of lying on Florida’s beaches is synonymous with the raucous calls of sea gulls as they circle overhead bickering over scraps of food.

Undoubtedly, Florida is the premier state for tourism. From Disney World, the 48 square mile kingdom of fantasy that attracts over 26 million visitors a year, to the small-scale alligator farms and rattlesnake ranches that line the rural roads, visitors are never far from a new adventure. Beautiful Silver Springs where the glass-bottom boat was invented, became famous when a series of Tarzan movies were filmed there as well as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the popular television program “Sea Hunt”.

Many people are drawn to the weather in Florida with its mild winters but it can also be a cruel punisher when tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the skies. It is known as the lightning capital of the United States. One of my favorite places to visit is Naples, Florida. I stay at a small place called the Lemon Tree Inn and I always get a room that has a screened-in porch. On most evenings a brief, but furious thunderstorm will light up the sky and shake the ground as the deep rolling booms fade off into the distance. I love to sit on the porch and read, enjoying the raw power of the storm, breathing the fresh ionized air and feeling the mist of the rain as it penetrates the screen wire, dotting my bare feet with coolness in the humid night. As the last clap of thunder fades into the distance and the last of the rain drips from the eaves, small brown lizards emerge and run up the screens of the porch. They stop and look at me curiously, turning their heads to the side, smelling me with flicks of their little pointed tongues before they scurry busily away.

Florida heals me like no other place can. When I cannot find my way, spending time in Florida aligns my compass point in the right direction and I return home refreshed and filled with a sense of peace. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there and in a corner of my consciousness I can hear the breeze swishing through the palm trees and feel the sun warming my skin as I gaze into the endless sea that is whispering, “Come home. Come home.”

Sharia Law and Women

la-fg-afghan-officials-say-slain-woman-did-not-001

Silence never won rights . They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below. – Roger Nash Baldwin

Imagine this scene.  A Christian woman is accused of burning her Bible. An angry mob drags her from her home shouting God is great. Instantly a crowd gathers and begins to berate her as it is whipped into a frenzy by the accusers.  Her eyes are filled with terror as she tries to shield herself from the blows of the ever increasing mob. No one tries to protect or rescue her from this hideous attack even though police officers are present.  Blood runs down her face when someone hits her in the head with a brick. As the violence escalates, she is hit with bats, stomped on and run over by a car before being dragged behind it. Then she is set on fire and her limp body thrown on the bank of a river where onlookers take pictures of her mutilated body.

In a real situation we would ask her if the accusations were true, and if they were some people would be shocked and angrily denounce what she did, but they wouldn’t kill her. A few true Christians would go to her and listen to her reasons for burning the Bible. Perhaps she is grieving or going through a personal crisis and feels God is not listening to her. Most people would just shake their head and walk away. Modern Christianity condemns the sin but not the sinner. Redemption is always within reach.

Last week in Kabul, Afghanistan  28-year old Farkhuna was accused of burning a Koran and the above scenario was her fate. Investigators have found no proof at all that she burned a Koran and have concluded she was totally innocent. It is reported she had disagreed with the local mullah for his selling charms to women at the mosque, resulting in him making the false accusation. He has since been arrested along with 12 others including nine police officers. A prominent  Kabul cleric praised her attackers and said the  crowd had a right to defend their Muslim beliefs at all costs. He stated “I am warning the government not to arrest those who did this, because it will mean an uprising.”

Obviously the billions of dollars the United States has pumped into Afghanistan to promote rule of law and insure human rights has been a shocking failure. While President Ashraf Ghani condemned the killing and a public outcry called for more arrests, I am skeptical that justice will be served.

In 2009, an Afghani woman named Gulnaz was raped by her cousin’s husband and she became pregnant. She was then charged with adultery under Sharia law and sentenced to 12 years in jail. She was offered the chance to be released if she married her attacker. She refused. The decision resulted in world-wide criticism for Afghanistan’s horrendous human rights violations. American attorney, Kimberley Motley, submitted a pardon application to then President Hamid Karzai and eventually she was released. Most of the women in prison in Afghanistan are there for “moral” crimes –rape, adultery and failure to obey a husband.

While I was in Afghanistan I came to understand the word “chattel”. I was on a mission to do a market walk and I was waiting in our armored vehicle while our security force scanned the market to make sure it was safe for us to get out. I amused myself by watching the activity in the market out of my window. A man in a white Toyota pulled up near us and I saw that he had three goats in the back seat of the car. He got each goat out and tied them up near a stall. Then he went to the trunk of the car and opened it. A woman, I assume his wife, got out of the trunk wearing a royal blue burka, a garment that completely covers the body and only has a small grill across the eyes. It was a warm day and I don’t know how long she had been shut up in that trunk but a burka is hot and smothering. I was sick in my soul and I thought, “This is what chattel is. She is not even good enough to ride in the front seat. She is not even as valuable as the goats.”

If we heard of such things happening in the U.S. we would be shocked. A woman beaten and burned, a rape or locking someone in the trunk of a car-these would be considered crimes and hopefully someone other than the victim would be held accountable. And considering there is a 97% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, the people who beat and burned Farkhunda have probably never read a Koran. A Christian loves and reveres their Bible, but the book itself will never mean more than the words it contains, for they are something that cannot be destroyed. A Christian carries the word of God in their hearts and those words include forgiveness, tolerance, love and peace. If Muslims want the world to accept Islam as a peaceful religion then they need to stand up and condemn the atrocities that are being committed in its name. Religious fanatics exist in every religion and they certainly don’t speak for everyone, but to say nothing is a form of passive approval and that is unacceptable.

Land of the Free? The Rise of Anti-Semitism

Judaism-Symbol-450x520

Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, or hatred of anyone with different beliefs has no place in the human mind or heart. – Rev. Billy Graham

When I had my DNA tested it revealed I have Lithuanian Jewish heritage. I am proud of that and even though my bloodline may be thin I believe it is like gold, no matter how thin it is stretched it still shines. I am deeply disturbed about the growing tide of anti-Semitism that is sweeping the world, including the United States. In the past year there have been violent demonstrations that included firebombing synagogues in France, Brussels and Germany. On January 9, 2015 the worst fears of France’s already tense Jewish population became reality when an assailant took hostages in a kosher deli in Paris, killing four people. Ugly threats across Europe have been surpassed by uglier violence. Four people were fatally shot in May, 2014 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish-owned pharmacy in a Paris suburb was destroyed in July, 2014 by youths protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was attacked with firebombs. The list goes on.

Just this February, the grilling of student Rachel Beyda at UCLA, who was seeking an appointment to the student judicial board, over whether she was unqualified to join the  board, merely because she is Jewish, shocked people with its blatant display of anti-Semitism at one of the nation’s most liberal schools. She was asked, “Given that you’re very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” Fabienne Roth, a member of UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Association Council, asked her. After Beyda left the room, another member of the council opined, “I don’t know. For some reason I am not comfortable. I just don’t know why. I can definitely see she’s qualified. I am just worried about her affiliations.” The initial vote was 4 against, 4 for and 1 abstaining. Only after college administrators stepped in and explained that their comments were anti-Semitic did they vote unanimously to appoint Beyda to the board. The following week the board issued a ban on anti-Semitic activity on the campus. In the 21st century why is this even necessary?

What’s even more frightening is that Beyda’s case was nothing new; it is a run-of-the-mill example of the suspicions and hostility directed toward the Jewish community at some of the most socially progressive campuses across the country. Fifty-four percent of Jewish college students reported being subjected to or witnessing anti-Semitism on campus during a six-month period, according to a 2014 survey published by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Trinity College. While many equate anti-Jewish protests as actually being “anti-Israel”, students seem not to be making a distinction. Not only was this survey undertaken before the violent summer conflict in Gaza, which researchers Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar said led to a “worldwide flare-up in anti-Semitism,” but they also noted that the “data suggests there is an under-reporting of anti-Semitism through the normal campus channels.”

Disturbingly, Jewish students reported that they often felt universities did not take their concerns about anti-Semitism seriously. “The response of many university faculty and administrators to Jewish complaints and outrage often shows that their threshold for the definition of the existence of the crime of anti-Semitism is set ridiculously high,” write Kosmin and Keysar.

Liberal colleges where prideful students exclaim their efforts to protect the rights of ethnic and racial minorities, stomp out sexual and gender discrimination, hate speech against the Jewish community has become a dirty little secret. And often it is not even secret. Swastikas have been appearing on sidewalks, walls and anti-Semitic slogans are being written in bathrooms. Swastikas are also accompanied with hate filled phrases such as “Death to Israel” and “Kill all the Jews”.  A number of the traditional Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi’s houses have also been graffitied with swastikas in the past year. Prestigious universities such as Vanderbilt, University of Oregon and Emory University have all had anti-Semitic symbols and phrases such as “Gas the Jews.” In my opinion, students at these seats of liberal learning are being influenced by the very obvious anti-Israel sentiment coming from our President and his political appointees. They are still clinging to the delusion that President Obama is a leader of worth. The fact that major leaders of the world immediately called Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his reelection as Israel’s Prime Minister while it took days for Obama to call shows the ungracious, self-important egotism that has become this President’s hallmark.

In Washington, DC I visited the Holocaust Museum. From the haunting entrance designed to replicate the bleak rail yards used to carry Jews and other minorities to the death camps to the disturbing images of mass burials of skeletal bodies, it was not a pleasant experience. It is not designed to be. It is meant to show how a child who played with his companions and enjoyed status in the community, gradually became ostracized by his former friends, forced to wear the Star of David on his arm, and at the end be loaded onto a rail car that will carry him to his death. At one point during my tour of the museum I opened a door and stepped into a long corridor. One side was completely filled with shoes, thousands of shoes. It hit me like a punch in the stomach. The museum is not designed as entertainment, it is designed to make sure we never forget this horror and it never happens again.

We cannot allow our great country to succumb to this kind of discriminatory and hateful behavior. It goes against everything our country stands for and puts us in an even more negative international light. We are exceptional in the world and we need to regain the respect we once had. We need to get back to the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Seventy years after the liberation of the concentration camps we should not have Jewish people afraid to go to school and to worship. This way madness and evil lies and we are better than this.

A Woman of Substance

hedy

All creative people want to do the unexpected. – Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born actress who was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and a sex symbol in early Hollywood. She appeared in her first film “Ecstasy” at age 18 in Germany. The film was notorious for scenes showing her face in the throes of an orgasm and also brief nude scenes. For 1933 it was shocking. She later recounted the authenticity of her “passion” was attained by the film director’s off-screen manipulation of a safety pin poking her bottom. With WWII looming she came to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen.  She starred in numerous popular films including Algiers, I Take This Woman and Samson and Delilah opposite leading men of the day such as Spenser Tracy, Charles Boyer, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable.

But not many of her adoring fans realized that she was also a pioneer in the field of wireless communications. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, a composer and neighbor of Lamarr’s, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941, but the enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.

Lamarr had a room in her home dedicated to drafting her designs for frequency hopping. She and Antheil realized that radio-controlled torpedoes were important in naval warfare, but they could easily be jammed by broadcasting interference at the frequency of the control signal, causing the torpedo to go off course. She and Antheil developed the idea of using frequency hopping to avoid jamming. This was achieved by using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control tower and a range of 88 frequencies in the radio frequency spectrum (there are 88 black and white keys on a piano keyboard). Using this technology it would be practically impossible for the enemy to scan and jam all 88 frequencies. The frequency hopping sequence was controlled by a player piano device. On August 11, 1942, Lamarr and Antheil were granted a U.S. patent. While the technology was sound it was not implemented in the U.S. until 1962 after the patent had expired.

As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she and George Anthiel were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award. And later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed “The Oscar™ of Inventing.” In 1998, an Ottawa wireless technology developer, Wi-LAN, Inc., acquired a 49% claim to the patent from Lamarr.

Lamarr’s and Antheil’s frequency hopping idea is the basis for modern spread spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks, and wireless and cordless phones. So when you next use your cellphone and Bluetooth, take a moment to thank this woman who should have been famous for her mind as well as her body. Proving she was much more than just another pretty face, Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century’s most important women inventors. She truly was a visionary whose technological acumen was far ahead of its time.

At the Bazaar

61033_155009407852851_7978652_n

The heart and soul of an Afghan village is its bazaar. – WDAGarner

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

Friday is the only day we have off at the Embassy. It is a day I treasure like that first peanut M&M from the three quarter pound bag.  I wake up at 5:00AM with my hooch shaking and rattling,  determine it is a Blackhawk helicopter passing over and not an earthquake (it could be either one), open one eye, look at my watch and with a sigh of pure joy roll over and sleep the peaceful sleep that only people who work in a war zone can appreciate. Granted, it is a false sense of peace because at any second a duck and cover alarm can go off and I am instantly awake, reaching for my body armor, my senses heightened, listening for an explosion or gunfire.  But I have also learned to take every opportunity to feel I am “off” because no one can sustain their sanity in a constant state of high alert.

Friday is also the day I allow myself a dessert, hopefully cake. The Embassy cooks make wonderful sheet cakes and Friday is usually the day we have them, except for when we have VIPs, then we have two sheet cakes. On one memorable occasion we had a CNN film crew doing a story on life at the Embassy. The Ambassador joined us for lunch and we had three sheet cakes that would rival anything you will ever see on The Food Network. We also had steak, prime rib and lobster tails. Love those photo ops!

But the best thing about Fridays is the bazaar held at the NATO compound next to the Embassy. About fifty Afghan vendors, who are heavily vetted and screened, set their up stalls and display a dizzying array of loose gemstones, jewelry, antiques, scarves, clothing, electronics and DVDs. It is a glorious hodgepodge of brightly colored tents, shouting vendors and exotic merchandise.  I usually go at lunchtime and the smell of kebabs being heated over portable stoves are tantalizing. As I pass through the entrance to the bazaar I show my ID to the guards then tuck it into my shirt. We are not allowed to display our IDs in order to prevent anyone from gathering information that could be used in a terrorist attack.

As soon as I get in sight of the first vendors I hear, “Madam! Madam! How about a beautiful necklace (scarf, sunglasses, knife, etc.)? It costs nothing to look. Please Madam?” Right and left, the frantic pleading assails me. Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, I chant like a mantra. If I make eye contact, I am doomed. Masters at selling, the Afghan traders instantly size you up and determine what product to show you that will cause you to stop, because when you stop, they have you. At least they have me. Once I stop, they use every psychological trick to close the sale. If I am wearing a pink shirt, they pull out a stunning scarf to match or hold up pink agate earrings for me to drool over. If I hesitate, they take my hand; look at me with soulful brown eyes and say, “I give you good price, just for you, because you are my friend.”

Scarves are my weakness and at $4-15 apiece, they are a cheap addiction. And you need scarves in Afghanistan, right? The seller will pick up a rough, ugly scarf that looks more like a burlap sack. He says, “This is what you get from other vendors. Feel how rough on your beautiful hand.” He drags it across my hand and it is like sandpaper. “Bah”, he says, dramatically throwing the scarf aside. “This is not for you. But this scarf”, he says, picking up a beautiful silky scarf, “this scarf is for you. Look how soft it is. You will find nothing like this anywhere else in the bazaar. Only I have it. And I give you  good price, just for you…” His voice is low, seductive and he slowly allows the scarf to glide sinuously across my hand like a snake easing into a cool pond. The colors swirl before my eyes. I envision myself draped in this wonderful scarf, people staring at me with awe, stunned at my beauty. Like a mouse held in the hypnotic gaze of a cobra, I feel my hand reach for my money and I am handing it over without a whimper. The seller smiles and says, “Are you happy?” Oh, yes, I am happy. I thank him and take my scarf and walk, dazed, onto the next vendor, Shakib, a jewelry maker.

Shakib was fourteen when I first met him. He has worked in the bazaar since he was ten. If I don’t see him right away, he stands in the middle of the milling bazaar patrons, lifts his arms into the air and shouts, “I am here!” He is so earnest, his young face scarred from some injury, but with a smile that wins my heart every time. We have a ritual. It is sacred and must not be strayed from. He asks me, “How are you? Are you healthy? Your family is healthy?“ I say I am fine, my family is fine and I ask him if he is healthy. Is his family healthy? He takes me by the hand and leads me to his table and begins to show me necklaces and bracelets he has made. Jewelry is my other addiction. A veritable cornucopia of gemstones–jade, lapis, agate, amethyst–is spread before me to admire. Shakib knows I like unpolished stones and he has several on display to whet my appetite. I pick out five necklaces and ask, “How much for these?“

”What would make you happy?”

“I don’t have a lot of money.  How about sixty dollars?”

He rolls his eyes, draws a finger across his throat like a knife and says, “You are keeling me!! Anyone but you I sell this for two hundred fifty dollars. This is real gemstone from Afghanistan.”

I say, “They are beautiful and I love them, but I only have one hundred dollars. How many can I get for a hundred?” He says two and I pick out four. We negotiate back and forth, inching closer to a deal. Finally I get three. As I give him the money and he puts my treasures in a little velveteen bag, he picks up two more and says, “These are for your daughters.” I thank him and he says, “Are you happy? I want you to be happy because you are my friend.” I tell him I am happy and we part, both getting something we want. He gets money to support his family and I get beautiful jewelry.

This weekly transaction transcends a mere monetary exchange. I know and he knows I could just give him a hundred dollar bill, pick out five necklaces and walk away. But this is not our ritual. I am old, he is young. I am a woman and he is a man. I am American and he is Afghan. But for a few minutes every Friday our cultural differences disappear and we are two people who genuinely like each other, and yes, it makes me happy.

Georgia on my Mind

the-peach-state-georgia-map

Georgia – the place where evenings are best spent on front porches. A place where hanging ferns can never be large enough. A place where summers appear endless and tree frogs sing loudly. A place where gentlemen always hold doors for ladies and strangers say hello. A place where the tea is sweet and collars are popped. There is just nothing like it.

I have had the privilege to live in many states and I am going to highlight one each week. People can always find negative things, but I choose to highlight the positive and share some of my wonderful memories from each place I have called home.

The state of Georgia has it all – from mountains, beaches, canyons, waterfalls, parks, forests, professional sports teams, vibrant cities, lazy small towns, wildlife and some of the best Southern cuisine you will ever find.

Some of Georgia’s sons and daughters include civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; sports figures Jackie Robinson, Walt Frazier, and Ty Cobb; singers and musicians Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Gladys Knight, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, and Kanye West; writers Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell and Carson McCullers; artists Jasper Johns and John Abbot; comedians Jeff Foxworthy, Nipsey Russell, Kenan Thompson, Wayne Brady and Chris Tucker; actors Julia Roberts, Joanne Woodward, Kim Basinger and Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood and Hershel from The Walking Dead); TV personalities Ryan Seacrest and Paula Dean, and the infamous Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Doc Holliday. It is the birthplace of President Jimmy Carter, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low.

I was born and raised in Polk County in a rural setting nestled in the foothills of Northwest Georgia. I am a proud GRIT – a Girl Raised in the South who never wears white shoes after Labor Day and not before Easter. I love hearing the cacophony of crickets, tree frogs and cicadas, with the lonesome calls of bobwhite quail and whippoorwills echoing through the sultry night air of long summer evenings. Most of my life was spent in Georgia so therefore, most of my memories are from there. Memories like going to all day singings at church with dinner on the ground at lunchtime. Memories of my mother and me sitting on the front porch steps playing bluegrass music on the guitar and mandolin. Summers spent swimming every day in the creek near our house. Memories of lying on a blanket of pine needles warmed by the sun, listening to the wind whispering through the trees, dreaming young girl dreams.

I have enjoyed every place I have lived but Georgia will always be my home. I will always miss its hospitality and graciousness, its diversity, its simplicity and magnificence. I will always long to be there and enjoy the comfort of being with people who have known me all my life. I will always love it and it will always be on my mind.