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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Among the Stones

April 29th, 2015

A slight stretch for meeting my commitment to walk outside every day, I am posting here, on this lengthier blog, after wandering among stones of a different nature:

A warm, spring-scented breeze blew my hair across my face as I passed over a manicured lawn. I broke the peaceful silence when I began to call out names to my mom. Almost all were German. We were looking for Lauchnor, the parents of my grandmother.

Although my mom had suggested we go there, she told me that she never visits cemeteries. "There's no one here," she observed. Still, I was glad we came. Up and down the rows I walked, thinking about the connections in the names, so many the same. This had been a community. This was a land of immigrants with a shared culture. This was where Pennsylvania met Germany, where Brobst knew Oswald and Fenstermaker and Hunsicker.

Among barely legible markers, many written in German script, I finally found the one we were there to see. Not having known my great grandparents, they did not reside in my memory. I only had stories in my mind. In a box below my feet lay only minerals and cloth of the past. Yes, there was no one there, but still, these were powerful stones.

With their plot they had purchased perpetual care. Their stone was clearly inscribed and new, even though the dates were more than a century old and all the local descendents--the sort of people who would replace an aging headstone--were gone. There before me was the representation of two people who, because they were, I am. And that marker will be in that place for perpetuity.

Most of their direct descendents were buried in places other than this. As the world grew smaller, and Germans met Irishmen and Italians and Hungarians, they moved away. The cultural thread has been frayed.

Regardless, next to Cora and Isadore on the breezy hill, and next to their son and his wife, were the small, unnamed markers for the infants. Only the born date appeared as if each one lived less than a day, although from stories I know they did not. Tragedy and sorrow, this too will be here for as long as there is a caretaker in the church. And this too reminded me of the delicate connection that is my existence. Had they not died, who like me would be?

The seeds of our ancestry have been scattered by the winds of progress. There is no need today for such tight, little, self-dependent communities in America today. Or is there? Might history someday repeat?

We walked back to the car. I felt the energy from a history of pain in this place, but stronger still I felt the energy of praise. This was where they came, lived, married, and created a future for me.

As we drove out of town, through the field covered hills, we passed the road signs: Oswald and Fenstermaker and Hunsicker...every one suddenly became not a symbol of where we should go, but a symbol of where we have been.

Lost Without Recollection

April 17th, 2015

Here comes another attack on technology. I can't help myself; things have gotten absurd.

It's not that the tool isn't good. For the right application, it can be very useful. However, like buying a field mower to maintain a center-city plot of grass, our chase for the latest and biggest has as run us right past common sense.

GPS. Global positioning systems. The Garmin. The talking dashboard. The I-can't-tell-where-I'm-going-without-her box that, in my opinion, is the new "boob tube," a nickname once reserved for the mind-numbing television set.

Yes, if you are a salesperson who must mow a large territory or if you are a scientist who needs to document your remote location via satellite, you should have a GPS. But if you are a parent driving back and forth between local rivalry soccer fields, you do not need a GPS. You need to have a friendly conversation with a live person who can tell you how to get there. You need to look at $5 map instead of programming a $200 machine.

Still, to each his or her own. Except that stupidity frightens me. Not only do I fear for my future, I worry about people. And today's overuse of dashboard GPS products is about as stupid as firing up a 70" tractor to pass over a 36" piece of ground. I've heard of stories in which drivers, following the digital instructor, have crashed after turning onto roads that didn't exist. A good friend of mine--an otherwise intelligent and perceptive gal--allowed her GPS to get her lost inside in a very harsh neighborhood, one that was so bad a police officer saw her, came to her aid, and escorted her out of town.

Logical intelligence is being traded for gadgetry dependence.

Both those examples were hearsay. But last summer I came face-to-face with a nearly tragic example. Were it not for the kindness of a brave bystander, the outcome would have been worse.

I was camping in a wooded Pennsylvania State Park with friends. So spread out were the hiking routes that you had to drive to the trail heads if you didn't want to spend more time hiking to them than on them. My friend, Jane, and I set off in her hybrid Ford for a short, late-afternoon excursion to see some of the park's most impressive waterfalls, including one that was 94 feet high.

We climbed the steep trail and oohed and awed and snapped photos and breathed in the lovely scent. Then, we climbed back to the parking lot. The sun was falling toward dusk. Exhilarated, Jane said, "Hey, while we're out here, do you mind if I stop by the payphone to check in at home? There's no cell service out here."

(For those who don't know, a pay phone is metal box with a wired handset and buttons numbered zero to nine. You put coin money into a slot so you can place a call.)

"Absolutely not," I said. "Sounds like a good idea."

The phone hung outside the park office, which was closed since it was after 7pm. Knowing the weather bulletin was accessible in the foyer, I walked inside while she dialed. I snapped a photo of the threat of thunderstorms to report to my friends back at camp. On my way out, I met a young man. Our conversation was a little chaotic, because he was a little panicked. Did I work there? Did I know how to reach a ranger? Could I point out where we were on the map? Isn't there some sort of emergency number to call?

The severity of his dilemma came out eventually. He was completely lost and nightfall was coming. The three others with him looked tired. "I'm never going to get my family back to the car before dark," he said hopelessly.

"Where is your car parked?" I asked.

"It's in the lot where you must cross the road and then there are bridges and then a trail...." None of that sounded familiar to me. I desperately searched my mind so I could help him.

By now Jane had finished talking with her family, and she walked up to see what was happening. "They need help and there is no way to reach a ranger," I explained. He repeated his story while his family rested on a wooden bench. The young girl swung her feet, the mom remained calm, sweaty, and collected, and the teenage boy showed no emotion at all.

"Well, I can give you ride," Jane said in the same emphatically helpful way she approaches most situations. While I was still trying to picture bridges to a trail, Jane dove right into a carefree and generous solution. It seemed obvious this was not a ploy to hurt us, but it was notable that risk or inconvenience never caused Jane to hesitate. Old-fashioned humanity came first.

I wasn't sure how we were going to fit anyone else into a vehicle stuffed with camping gear. Jane quickly determined that the best thing to do was to drive him to his car so that he could come back and pick up his family.

"Oh my God; thank you." He looked as if he might cry.

"So, where are you parked?" she repeated my earlier question.

"I don't know...bridges...cross a road."

"Is it the Beech Lot?"

"I have no idea."

"Hmm. Okay; it's probably the Lakeside Lot. Let's try. We piled in, waved to his slightly worried-looking family on the wooden bench, and yelled, "We'll be right back." In the review mirror, I saw them walking toward a water fountain.

But as we drove, Dad just kept repeating his description and nothing looked familiar.

"Jane, can I have that park map?" I asked. I scoured the 8 1/2 by 11-inch photocopy for other parking lots. "I bet he's parked down on Route 118." I turned to the stranger in the back seat. "Did you come in on 487 or 118?"

"I don't know; my wife used GPS and just told me where to turn."

"Did you come in from the north or the south?"

"I have no idea."

"What towns did you pass through?

"No idea...GPS."

"We gotta' give it a shot; he must be all the way down in that lower lot."

Mind you, this was NOT around the corner. He was probably parked on the other side of 13,000 acres. The road would take us six miles down to an elevation that was more than 1,000 feet lower than where we found him.

Along the way, he began to recognize things. "We were here," he almost shouted. "This is where we came out of the woods when we knew it was getting dark. We were told the trail would loop back down, but it never did. I had to get my family out of the woods. Then some guy told us to turn around. We should have kept walking."

I assured him that it was best he turned around, because we were only about a half-mile into our six-mile journey. "This is going to be a little bit of drive. The road veers away from the park for a bit."

The Ford's transmission hummed while the low gear prevented us from flying down the hill. We passed a ranger's truck with no ranger it in it as well as a runaway truck ramp (an uphill clearing onto which a truck that has lost its brakes could make an emergency landing). We passed trees and more trees until we finally got to the bottom, where we turned left in hopes that we were headed to the right parking lot. Still, since he hadn't walked all the way down the mountain, this section once again was unfamiliar.

"Let's hope you just came in from the other way," Jane said in a reassuring tone. I think she was trying to ease her own mind even more than the stranger's. People were likely wondering where the heck we were, and we were both in an unspoken thirst for that post-hike beer.

The backseat stranger said, "This is not like me. I know how to read a map. I thought this loop would be clearly marked. I've got to keep my family safe. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail soon, but I guess I'm going to have to get better at orienteering. There's no way we would have made it back to the car!"

The closer we got, the more he seemed to think this was the correct place.

"It should be coming up on the right," I said.

"Yes. Yes. This looks like it. Oh my God; I think this is it."

"Are you going to kiss your car when you find it?" I joked.

"Absolutely," he said. "There it is; that silver Jeep."

The next few moments were filled with a flood of sincere gratitude and relief. "How can I get in touch with you? I want to pay you."

There was no way Jane would have accepted it; her reward was already received. Heightened by his appreciation, the chance to make a positive difference in a stranger's day was more than enough payback for her.

"Do you know how to get back?"

"I think so."

I began describing the two turns, when Jane simply said, "Just follow us."

This time the hybrid complained, unable to exceed 35 mph. “Take your time,” I kept urging her. "You don't want to wreck your transmission over a good deed." We knew the silver Jeep behind us was anxious to get to its destination, but this was a hill that couldn't be rushed.

Once at the park office, we waved happily to the family as they climbed into the car, their ordeal finally over. I was proud of my friend. I'm not sure I'd have realized the gravity of their situation as quickly as she did or be as willing to get involved. I was still stuck on getting a ranger's help by the time Jane had clicked her seat belt.

But while it was all happiness and gratitude, I couldn't get over how an individual who clearly displayed a love for his family and a respect for his responsibilities as a father could not begin to describe where he had been beyond the scenery he witnessed when he got there. I began to understand why he, when we were looking at the map back at the ranger's office, couldn't figure out where he was. All he knew was that he was far from where he started and that he should probably head downhill.

Because Jane had a paper map and because I was familiar with that paper--my guide for the weekend--the three of us are not still driving around looking for a parking lot across the road from a trail with bridges.

In a society that continues to invent new tools to find its way, I see that we are becoming increasingly disoriented. Thankfully there are still a few map-reading humans such as Jane and me alive in this world, people who are willing to help when the way-finding computers fall out of reach.

Why Spring Cleaning Does More Than Make Things Look Nice.

April 2nd, 2015

Read more via my latest newsletter, SOS Signal March/April 2015.

Messing with the Time

March 6th, 2015

One great example of man's manipulative ways is standardized time. Timekeeping -- the incremental measurement of the position of the sun -- was created to support bureaucratic, religious, and social activities nearly 6,000 years ago. It partitioned day from night, morning from afternoon, and a year's shortest day from its longest.

Since America's pioneer beginnings, we have been messing with the time. Although the sun does not peak at the same moment across the continent, time was standardized in 1883 so that railroad companies could organize their schedules. Later, since the majority of us are awake longer into the evenings than we are earlier in the mornings, Benjamin Franklin determined that moving the time to accommodate our summer schedules would result in healthier, more productive lives. In 1973, when oil was scarce, Congress decided to extend this Daylight Saving Timeframe from six to eight months, reportedly saving 300,000 barrels of oil each year. And in 2007, it was moved again, with the intention of saving even more.

Our waking hour, eating hours, meeting schedules, birth records, and death records have all become dictated by man's clock, distancing our connection to the fact that time is what it is because the earth and the sun ARE. May we never forget that, like all technology, our inventions were created for societal reasons. They can measure, mimic, and adapt to natural law, but they cannot -- and shall not -- try to change it.

Want to know a few more facts about time, Daylight Saving Time in particular? Check out my most recent post at Today's Walk Outside.

Detaching Prejudice from Racism

February 6th, 2015

America is once again being tested. However uncomfortable, the conversation is open, the questions are still demanding answers, and the mirror is still reflecting back upon us.

Are we prejudice?

The answer is yes ... and it shall be yes.

Do prejudices cause pain?

The answer is yes ... and it shall be no.

I believe that, at the most basic level, we rely on prejudice for survival. This is why society's call to end prejudgement of each other in the name of racial equality fails, despite the best intentions.

Imagine you are in immediate danger and need help. You scan the crowd. Who will come to your aid? Your brain calculates a lifetime of experience to guide you toward someone who reminds you of safety and protection, using mental associations, using prejudice.

The bird in forest does the same. With little to go on but a song and a feathery display, she chooses the father of her next child. She listens to an urge that says, "avoid him," "pick him," or "give that one a try."

The way a person looks (dresses, grooms, postures) signals to us who he or she is. The sound of one's voice (inflections, phrases, and pronunciations) affect our temperament, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Examples:

A piano tuner left a message on my answering machine about his service. He ended the message with a simple, "bye bye." Aside from his masculine voice, he sounded exactly like my Nana used to when she closed her telephone conversations. It made me smile and think of her. This was a man I could trust.

A dark black man walked up to me at the library yesterday and asked me a question. His melodic and soft African voice transported me to a land -- learned of through movies, documentaries, books, and stories -- where there is a deep connection to nature and a tremendous regard for spirit and kindness. This was a man I wanted to help.

A radio host interviewed a guest about personal health. The doctor spoke with a strong, inner-city accent and closed his opinion with "Know what em sayin'?" laughing a little. This was the lingo of "too cool for school" guys on the street, people who don't value the kind of learning required to practice medicine. This was a man I questioned.

These are associations, however fair or unfair, that I make. They are learned and then delivered without evaluation. They are my brain's way of protecting me in those moments when I don't yet know the truth.

Yes; this fails me when I cling to my prejudice and close off all further evidence. I must continue to look for clues to prove or disprove my judgment. I kept the radio tuned and found the doctor's advice to be sound and his concern to be authentic. Had I turned off the program without giving him a chance, I wouldn't have learned about his schooling, his experience, and his professional perspective. I'd have left with the deeper prejudice of maintaining an unfounded opinion, one based on past experience with no regard for the current truth. Would he one day be my doctor? No. Should the inner-city youth he cares about seek out his care? I believe so.

A New Angle

Racism cannot be broken by eliminating prejudice, for we need to be free to -- to be encouraged to -- rely on our instincts. Instead, we must focus on the real scourge to be banished: the notion of superiority of one race over another.

The lion who sleeps in the shade is not superior to the zebra on which he preys. The blue jay that steels territory from the cardinal may be more aggressive, but he is not the better bird. Every animal contributes to the existence of all, no matter what its position on the food chain. And each has its own talents, its own tricks, and its own characteristics.

The conversation has matured. People of all colors are seeing each other for who they truly are, beyond the exterior veils. Some refuse. They are racist. Do not compensate for the ignorant by questioning yourself. Don't ignore personal experience in the name of healing this national wound.

Then, bravely thrust yourself into new experiences to learn more. Do not let your judgments remain unreasonable. Strive to give every stranger -- man, woman, or child -- the benefit of a favorable opinion and equal standing. He deserves that, just as you do. Do this and you can stop questioning your part in the image being reflected in that mirror.