Back Seeking Monkey For A Casual Fling

“CHAD!  Did you try smoking one of my cigarettes today?”

My second grader face could not hold back any false pretense.  “Yes, Sir.  It was yucky.  How did you know?” I puzzled out loud.

“You dubbed out an entire cigarette, “ he said with disappointment in his voice.  Earlier in the day, I had taken one of his Winston’s out of the pack, flipped open a Zippo left out, and lit the cigarette.  I choked and gagged.  I left the box of Winston’s out as I returned to my homework and never gave the cigarette a second thought.

Twenty years later, I sat at a party of good friends.  On the table were an assortment of empty beer bottles, an ashtray, a box of Winston’s, and a black Zippo lighter.  I flipped open the lid of the Zippo.  The distinctive sound of the metal case brought back memories.  Zippo fluid has a particular scent.    I opened the box of Winston’s and took in the smell of the tobacco.  Winston always reminded me of the smell of raisins.  The pack was mostly full.  I lit the cigarette and attempted to draw in the smoke.  I had gone twenty-seven years without learning how to bring smoke into my lungs and I had just enough liquid courage to pursue this endeavor.  It turns out to be trickier than it seems.  I had to fool my body’s natural reaction to not allow the foreign cloud of toxins in.  It was quite entertaining to work the cigarettes.  It took eight Winston’s to finally get the correct rhythm to draw, a breath, and not choke.  Impressed with my new ability.  I snuffed out the rest of the cigarette and joined the party in full swing.

Several weeks later, I stopped at a convenience store on the way to a pasture party where my friends would play some blues.  I grabbed a liter of Diet Dr Pepper and headed for the check out area.  I saw the cigarettes behind the counter.  “I’ll take a pack of Winston’s please.” I said for the first time in my life.

“In a box, Hon?” the lady asked.

“Just a pack of Winston’s, thank you.” I stated with a bit of confusion.

“Do you want a soft pack or a box, Honey?” she asked with haste.

I didn’t know the answer because the options didn’t make sense.  I simply wanted a pack of Winston’s.  I thought a “box” was a carton so I said “Soft” with a sheepish tone.

I arrived at a person’s farm.  I opened my Diet Dr Pepper and enjoyed the fizz as it danced on my tongue.  As the group of friends began to spin yarns, they told their stories with the cigarettes like a prop for a play.  The cigarettes added to the story performance.  The orangey red cherry glow would light up with their excitement.  I got lost in watching how they held their cigarette, flicked the ashes in the perfect moment, and flung the mostly finished smokes towards a bucket for the cigarette butts.  Sometimes, they would miss and the cigarette sent sparks of glowing ash.  It mesmerized me.  I had forgotten that my soft pack of Winston’s awaited in my pocket.  I pulled open the packaging and tore away the tin foil.  I dug out my first cigarette and put it to my lips.  I searched my pocket to find I didn’t have a lighter.  One of my friends leaned over and sparked up a plastic lighter.  I awkwardly tried to move the cigarette towards the flame.  I moved the cigarette and some times my head to find the end of the cigarette to the Bic.  It took several attempts before it got lit.

My cigarette kept going out and I had to continue to ask to borrow some fire.  My friend headed off to play.  I asked if I could use his Zippo while he played lead guitar.

I sat on the tailgate of a friend’s truck as they played some good blues.  I got so into the music, I neglected the cigarettes.  There was a little break while the bass player was bout to sing, “The Thrill Is Gone” and I whipped out a Winston.  I struck the Zippo.  The spark released the flames and the aroma of the Zippo fluid filled my senses.  I occasionally took a puff of the cigarette as I marveled at my friend’s tribute to BB King.  After about four or five more songs and many puffs later.  A friend came over and his laughter was genuine.  “Man, I been watching you smoke that cigarette for twenty minutes now.  That sucker ain’t even lit but you smoked it like it was the best smoke.  That was funny!”  I admitted that I didn’t smoke.  “It is obvious!  You gave it hell though!” he said as he slapped my shoulder.

I remember giving my friend back his Zippo and the remainder of the pack.  “Since I smoked a half a pack of your smokes a while ago, take these,” I offered.

A few weeks passed and I left school during my off period.  It had not been a good day to be a teacher who worked with students with emotional disturbances.  I drove around to get a new perspective on life.  I entered a convenience store, grabbed a Diet Dr Pepper, and spotted the cigarettes.  “I’ll take a pack of Winston’s please,” I confidently said.  “Oh, soft, please,” I announced before he had to ask.  I picked up a lighter by the cash register.  I sat in my SUV and exhaled the smoke & my frustrations and I felt like I could finish the day on a more positive note.  On the way home, I saw the pack of Winston’s in the passenger seat.  I wondered what I was thinking by smoking.

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation Studies with a focus on addiction, I understood the Cycle of Dependency.  Knowledge is power.  I made the decision that I would stop smoking before it became a problem.  You see, I was smarter than the nicotine.

I invited a monkey to jump on my back and remain there for years to come.  Through horrible illness, freezing temperatures, allergies that came out of nowhere, and even a throat closing reflex that I went to two doctors to seek treatment, I continued to smoke.  The temporary difficulties that “may” have resulted from smoking were out weighed by the “benefits” of my new recreational activity.

I left the brand of cigarettes my father smoked to “enjoy” a healthier brand “with no additives.”  During times of stress, I had to go for a smoke.  In celebration, I had to fire up a square.  When I was bored, I needed a cigarette.  The monkey had taken full residency on my back and all the book smarts helped me in no fashion.  I was stranded in the middle of Addictionville and each road was a deaden.

I no longer smoke.  It wasn’t through the use of self-hypnosis, the gum, or prescriptions.  All had been tried and failed.  I had to just stop and deal with the withdrawal like my father had years previously.

I understand smokers better now.  I do not judge them as weak people.  For whatever reason, they smoke.  It is not a lack of intelligence or strength of character.

The only one to blame was myself.  Truth is I didn’t need a reason to smoke because the monkey on my back deceptively found reasons to need a cigarette.  I am no different than the folks we see and smell smoking in their cars stinking up the area with the horrid stench.  I was one of them.  I am no better than they are.  I found a way that worked for me.  All of us have a capacity to resist temptation and the moral high horse seems to put the judger at a higher elevation to fall from when the boomerang of Karma comes back.

It is in this understanding that I find the human condition.  For one reason or another, things happen due to choices.  It is always “they” or “them” when judgment is cast out.  I remind myself how I was wiser than cigarettes.  I could handle it.  I most certainly was not one of “those” people.  The recognition that we all struggle and need to be more understanding only makes me stronger.

 

An Amendment to the Stages of Grief

With Perry on my left, I swept grass in a manner to find a steaming pile of dung.  With a baggie on my right hand, I discover the offending mound.  I reached back into a pouch in Perry’s guide dog harness to get a second baggie due to the amount that could not be contained in just one baggie.  I wiped with a third bag; however, the planned biohazard purge had been removed completely.  I laid the bags next to my right foot and I strap Perry’s harness around him. With a spring to my step and two bags ‘o stink in my right hand, we headed off to the dumpster.  My unspoken acknowledgement brought the largest smile to my face as I thought, “I am the luckiest guy!”

 

I am certain that when I lost my sight entirely in 2011, I had no concept of what the Acceptance Stage would bring me.  I imagined it would be like being forced to deal with a punishment undeserved and overly punitive.  There would be zero chance of regaining my sight   no matter how long I cried or protested.  My sight was gone, “So, now what am I going to do?”

 

Oh, I definitely pouted and was righteously frustrated.  I was morning the loss of the life I thought I would have as a sighted person.  I grieved of the simple things like the use of a microwave.  Modern devices have no physical dials.  Current trends have created flat surfaces with no distinguishing characteristics.  How would I drown my sorrows in a fresh bag of microwaved popcorn since I cannot see the buttons to press?

 

It felt like I was tethered by my blindness.  I would take one-step forward and fall two steps back.  Mentally sharp, life seemed to imprison me with physical obstacles.

 

I knew I wanted to do more than piddle around the house.  Sure, I could fold the laundry and wash the dishes.  I barely ventured out the front door.  If Jennifer wanted to go to the store, I sat in the car while she shopped.  We had made attempts to shop together.  She would pull the shopping cart as I hung onto the back.  The sensation was reminiscent of something done with a child.  I followed Jennifer by hanging onto her arm or resting my hand between her shoulders.  It may have looked natural, but I often stepped on her feet and we struggled to find a speed we could travel in synchronicity.  My thoughts would wander.  I tried to envision how people saw and thought of me.  I found myself lost in fear and physically let go of Jennifer.  She would be fifty feet in a different direction.  I stood in the middle of the aisle.  I may have known where I was in the store but, in stark contrast, I was lost in life.

 

I knew I would not find courage stuck inside my castle walls; yet, I needed to find the will to battle the depression that waged a war on my soul.  With no shame or hesitation I state for the record that I went to a counselor to begin the healing process.

 

Actually, I went to two separate counselors.  The first counselor spoke in bumper stickers.  “Chad, you know that when the going gets tough…”  The counselor waited for me to finish the saying.  90% of the time, the counselor did the talking during the fifty-minute session.  I never felt like I was heard.  I knew this individual had no wisdom that could be shared beyond the poster of the cat clinging onto the tree branch, “Hang in There!”

 

The second counselor listened.  Each session fortified the emotional walls that would shelter me from the well-intentioned questions, statements, and prejudice from the general public.  With the strength to climb out of the protective environment, I navigated to the mailbox, around unfamiliar settings, and grew more comfortable with the use of my cane.

 

My first cane was a collapsible, customized black cane like the one used by Al Pacino in the movie Scent Of A Woman.  With no clue what I was doing, other than sliding a cane in front of me, the cane served little purpose.  The general public tended to knock into the cane or me due to the lack of realization I could not see.  The cane was thin enough to hide in the pocket of my pants; moreover, the lack of strength of the cane provided little feedback to me in order to know how to negotiate the environment.  Each subsequent cane adapted to my growing skills.  The roller tip allowed the cane to smoothly slide back and forth.  The ultimate in feedback, the roller tip began to slow me down like a set of training wheels on a child’s first bicycle.  The time had come to control the cane without the use of a roller tip.  By the time I had graduated to the fourth type of cane, I negotiated downtown Fort Worth with the guidance of a trained Orientation & Mobility instructor.   The final exam entailed being dropped off at a corner, given the cross streets, the direction I faced, and where I had to meet the instructor twenty blocks away.

 

I grew in my ability to get around new environments but the next frontier proved to be more of a challenge.  Technology advances at such an accelerated rate that even the experts are overwhelmed.  The first generation of iPads had been out for a bit.  I heard stories about the accessible modifications that could allow me to use an iPad.  I did not know of anyone who could instruct me how to use the VoiceOver commands.  Much like my first cane, huge mistakes were made, lessons learned, and my abilities increased beyond my own expectations.

 

The cane and iPad opened new worlds to explore to reconnect to my past.  All be it awkward, I could function in the physical and cyber environments with success.

 

The whim to advance to a guide dog  paralleled my experiences with the use of a cane and technology.  With a cursory understanding of what was to be expected from the freedom that comes along from a service animal, I would stumble and fumble especially at the initial phases.  The guide dog school cannot prepare a person for every possible scenario.  Imagine my surprise when Perry dove from left to right in a busy room.  Unbeknownst to me, a hundred people who were blind had been given popcorn and stray kernels coated the floor.  The simplest strategy was to back up and remove myself from the situation.  It was a powerful lesson to learn that some obstacles are best dealt with a thoughtful retreat in order to reassess plans to move forward.

 

Perry & I do our best to walk a 5k daily in our neighborhood.  It seems the environment changes every day with blocked sidewalks with varying obstacles, driveways obstructed by vehicles, and loose dogs that charge us.  Each day is a new adventure with challenges to get it right.  Life is unpredictable.  I can choose to remain indoors and thus protected from the obstacles and potential threats that await us on the next corner.  If I have a choice, I would rather face uncertainty and grow from the experience instead of the stagnation that results from inactivity.

 

I am more active than I have ever been in my life.  I have never consistently worked out as I have with the addition of Perry.  As my sight was taken from me, I have been given so many opportunities that would have never come about had I remained sighted.  I explored Italy, Greece, and Egypt with the use of smells, sounds, and tactile cues.  I felt how quickly the sun sets on the Nile River in the Sahara Desert in Egypt.  Jennifer described the colors and shapes.  My skin from my head to my toes sensed the rays of Amun Ra disappear from the sky.  I knew the exact moment the desert devoured the sun’s rays of light.

 

My lack of sight provides an opportunity to sense the world from a differing perspective.  Most people may not know how daunting a crowded room can be without the ability to see; however, I can appreciate the warmth and sincerity of a person’s voice that vision could bias.

 

The first morning I had to learn how to pick up Perry’s solid waste made me question what I had signed up for as a guide dog user.  At times, I was humiliated by someone’s observations of the process of turd location and extraction.  Worries surrounded others perception of standing in grass while Perry tugged and spun in circles.  Mixed in was the concern how long “park” time may take for Perry to find the perfect spot to soil.

 

Now, I am grateful.  Yes, I am grateful that I have the ability and skills to fully take care of a guide dog and embrace life’s adventure with Perry.  I do not hurry him as the time gives me a break from the hustle of the day.  I “get” to leave the desk.  I “get” to leave the building.  I “get” to put my full trust in a four-legged animal.  I “get” to put a baggie on my hand and pick up fresh poop.

 

Only a select few know what life delivers with no sight.  According to a theory in Psychology, humans grieve in stages.  “Shock/Denial” tend to be the first phase.  “Anger” follows up next.  If the anger is not addressed, the emotions are directed inward towards the self and develop into “Depression”.  “Bargaining” is a Stage of Grief that can take the person back to the other stages by exploring the possibilities.  “If I had only…”, “Perhaps this would not have happened had…”, and a multitude of bargaining questions a person has to process to the final stage of “Acceptance”.

 

These stages may be familiar to someone who has lost a loved one.  “Acceptance” can be a bitter pill to swallow.  Acceptance can, also, be fully embraced.  The memory remains as the pain fades with time and effort to heal.

 

I am proud to announce my proposal to amend Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Stages of Grief with the addition of “Gratitude”.  Beyond the pain and loss becomes a reflection that life is better now.  The devastation of losing a loved one can create a wound that goes clear to the bone.  The resulting healing can make the person stronger as they have learned to adapt and compensate for the loss.  The path that lies ahead will be different from that point of loss but the journey forward can bring a wealth of experiences that were not on the original path.  The awareness to fully appreciate life’s gifts may result from the death of a loved one.  A person may, now, be more appreciative for the time they do have with the loved ones still alive.  The “little” things may become more significant; alas, a well of gratitude may be unearthed.

 

I do not know where life will take me.  Every step forward brings adventure.  Yes, I may curse the setbacks that are infused with the life of a person who is blind.  I will celebrate the richness of spirit and the depth of emotion I “get” to feel as a person who is blind.  Beyond “Acceptance” is gratitude.  I am a better person because the loss of my sight.

 

I am grateful to be blind.  I am so thankful to “get” to rediscover the world.  While I do wish the others around me did not have to bare the burden of dealing with my blindness, I hope they can appreciate and benefit from the person I am now.  The journey to surpass acceptance to find gratitude only makes me stronger.

A Response to Silence

Most people are uncomfortable with silence.  A nervous speaker will usually plug any open space with “um”, “ah”, you know” and an assortment of fillers that lose an audience’s attention.

Silence is captivating.  In music, it can draw stark contrast to the harmonious chorus of voices repetitively proclaiming “Hallelujah!  In comparison, the modern philosopher Samuel Hagar declared, “Silence speaks as loud as war.””  Silence from one’s partner can be soul crushing.
I recently presented in front of a group of highly influential leaders.  As a person who is blind, I have two choices.  Learn braille or memorize what I need to cover.  I sat at a large table full of human service professionals as I laid out details.  Not the type of presentation where I could insert a joke to ensure the message was heard, I stumbled mentally on a transition.  The absence of any sound accentuated by an inability to recount where I needed to be in the presentation.  Silence rolled in like a Scottish fog.  The sounds of my heart beat pounded my ear drums.  I scanned my head from side to side, summarized the facts, recalled my transition point, and completed the case.  Without the visual assurance, the stillness seemed to permeate the room.
After the meeting, someone told me they thought the pregnant pause, that made me feel insecure, was perceived to be planned in order to give time for the group to be caught up with their note taking.  My body language of looking in the direction of the group lent credence to their perception.  In actuality, the punctuated maneuver  was a stalling technique.
I am reminded of a workplace that responded to a supervisor’s intimidation by no action whatsoever.  The lack of anyone’s objection gave the supervisor more power to go forward unrestricted.  Silence signaled a collective  acceptance.
All too often, issues are swept “under the rug” or unspoken.  It is the silence that enables the continuation of the perpetual cycle of violence, dependency, or dysfunction.  Silence is rarely a preferred answer.  Wouldn’t we all, at the very least, wish to hear a “no” than a lack of any response at all?
I have walked away from friendships and, even, a church.  My only response was silence.
I knew exactly what I wanted to say but I couldn’t find the time or how to begin the conversation.  It was easier to say nothing and walk away.  I feared being consumed by the passion from my point of view.  I, also, sought to avoid what I perceived as potentially an argument.
Truth is I am not sure if I cared enough or too much.  Were these moments worthy of my opinion?  Was my choice to hold my tongue assertive or passive aggressive?  The combination of silence and time nurtures a cyclical, toxic  coping mechanism.  The conscious mind moves forward while the spirit never forgets the unresolved feelings.
I wish I could confirm that I always have the correct words at exactly the right time.  In the awkward silence I discover that my heart fills with regret and my thoughts swirl like a tornado.  I loosen up my body language and exaggerate my facial expressions to portray relaxation and inner peace.  Nothing could be further from the reality.   The inner turmoil swelling within my skin.  Each bead of sweat shows a crack in the dam holding back the emotions.  At any moment, a flood or rage and confusion could rupture my soul.  “Keep it together,” really means send the pain below.  Each lump in the throat swallowed to keep down the surge of emotion.
I committed to the silence.  It would almost be a faux pas to bring it up  since so much time has lapsed.  Maybe they have gotten over it and I should, too.
Complicating the complexity is the realization that this avoidance tango is not a solo dance.  The other person is a “silent” partner.  They could just as easily tar down the Cold War walls that have been built up.  Each brick baked in frustration, insecurity, and a deep longing to avoid confrontation.   Cemented together, the bricks sealed upon the one mutually agreed  condition: not to acknowledge the problem.
For five years, 20 professionals remained resolute and unflinching at the provocations of a bully.  Everyone’s refusal to speak up reenforced inaction.  These are the same individuals who would take a bullet for any of the people served; yet no one stood up to the abuse within the organization.  Sadly, I was one of them.  Afraid to be the only one to step forward and say the Emperor has no clothes.  Each time, it became easier to sweep our frustration under the rug and pretend nothing happened.  The expectation to continue the silence spread to each new colleague and normalize the dysfunction.
One of my favorite songs has the lyrics, “finding the words is as hard as finding the time.”
I can’t reframe the past and say what I did was correct.  I can say that I am, now, more aware of the indicators.  I am committed to becoming a stronger person and effective professional.
While silence can send a message that can be heard, there is another option.  The use of our words is more thunderous and powerful than the choice to remain quiet.  The process to find and use my voice only makes me stronger.

Women of Hope

Guest blog by Miss Cozette Clark

 

Meet Joy and Norah, two ladies from the Women of Hope Group. On Saturday, I went to both of these ladies homes to meet their families and learn their stories. The sun was burning down as I gathered my notebook and camera, possibly a writer’s most essential items, and put them in my enormous purse. My dad called a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) and I took off down the dusty road with the wind in my hair and Lake Victoria as blue as the sky. I was a little nervous at first, what if I don’t get enough of their story? What if I ask something too personal? I’m always a little scared of doing something wrong in the culture. And trust me, I have many stories where I’ve made a total fool of myself. Thankfully, the Ugandans are always very forgiving and sometimes chuckle with me.

 

We zoomed through Kakira, a village that’s a 20 minute walk from our house. We passed street vendors selling clothes, shoes and cheap watches. The air smelled of fried rollexs (scrambled eggs rolled in a chapatti, which is like a thick tortilla), fruit, burning garbage and sugarcane. The anxiety had subsided, I knew where I was. After a year, Uganda was finally starting to feel like home.

 

Photo 1

 

When I rode up to Joy’s home/pharmacy, her four year old daughter, Vicki was playing outside with her friends. When they saw me, they started shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” meaning “white person.” Joy came out to greet me then we walked to her house together. Her house is tiny with only one room. It’s crammed with a bed in the corner, a tall wooden shelf which works as a pharmacy with a few piles of pill bottles and boxes. She directs me to sit on the coffee table and she sits on the floor. If the situation was different, I would sit on the floor because I’m younger but I’ve learned that they have certain manners that we don’t. Guests are always favored above all else, no matter what. They will give their last and their best in a heartbeat. If you don’t accept what they’re offering, even if you feel bad about taking it, you are insulting them. So we sat down and started talking about her life.

 

We started out with the simple questions. She is 35 years old, she likes the color white and her favorite food is rice. As a child, Joy wanted to be a nurse but couldn’t pay for the school. But she did her best though and opened her pharmacy two years ago. She makes under a dollar a day from her pharmacy and is always on the search for other small jobs to support her daughter. I asked her what was the hardest thing she’s ever done, she laughed and said, “Answering these questions!” Then she became very solemn and told me her story. One year ago, Joy was afraid she’d hit rock bottom of her poverty. Debts piled up, the landlord threatened to throw her out and the bank might’ve arrested her. She frantically thought of options, the easiest would be to leave her home and go back to live with her mother. But instead she prayed. As we were talking, she said with tears in her eyes, “I asked God to let me die, I was so afraid. But then God created a way I didn’t expect.”

 

A little while later, Ms. Stephanie came knocking on her door. Stephanie was the leader of the Women of Hope at the time and my Mom’s predecessor and friend. Stephanie explained why it was so important to trust in God, He will always provide for us. Being in the Women of Hope has helped her tremendously, not just in her finanical state but also emotionally. She’s made good friends and learned so much about the Lord and about loving one another. From her poverty, she has grown high hopes for her future as well as her daughter’s. Joy aspires for a “booming business”, as she says, to own her home and to put Vicki in school to be a doctor. That is already her nickname, Dr. Vicki. Joy also wants to buy proper chairs, anything’s better than just a coffee table.

Photo 2

 

 

We walked together to the boda boda station near the sugar factory. As we were walking in the sun along the dirt road, Joy was telling me how she was going to take Vicki to get immunizations for measles. I was so glad that this sweet little girl had a mother who loved her. Then I was back on a boda, zipping through the African village. I thought about the things Joy had said, the little money that she lived on and how every shilling went to her business or her daughter. It would have been so easy for her to give up, but if she had, would I have even known her story at all? We never know what would have been if we took a different path. I’m inspired by her faith in the Lord and I have hope for her and her family.

 

It took a few tries to find Norah’s house and turning a boda around on a dirt path is not easy. Finally we found it with some help from a man whom I later found out was Norah’s husband. When I walked down through the jungle to her house, she wasn’t expecting me but wasn’t going to turn down a guest. She was with two of her six kids. Her children’s ages range from 22 down to 5. I was able to meet the 17 year old Fiona and the five year old Hope. We sat outside for awhile under the avocado tree. Norah has many fruit trees and lots of land but doesn’t have the strength or the help to sell her fruits and vegetables, and they barely have enough to eat. When we went inside, I was instructed to sit on the “sofa”, a moth-eaten cushion on a wooden church pew. Joy’s house and Norah’s house could not be any more different. Joy lives in a dusty village whereas Norah lives in a four room house in the jungle. There were posters on the wall for the upcoming election and a tattered rug serving as an entry way. Hope kneeled at my feet and greeted me in Luganda, “Oli oyta?” (how are you?). I smiled and replied, “Bulunji, ategwe?”(good, and you?) That always makes the children giggle because they don’t expect me to know their language. This always confuses me because they started it in Luganda, what do they assume I’ll answer? I suppose I’ll never know because they always run away when I ask.

 

Norah thought the simple questions were very funny. It occurred to me that they have never taken a personality test so questions like, “What’s your favorite food?” are reserved for children. With much persuading from Fiona, Norah revealed that she is 41, her favorite color is yellow, and her favorite food is matoke (a cross between a potato and a banana).Norah has been in Women of Hope for nine years and it’s been like family to her. When she was a child, her family life was challenging. Her father died when she was twelve and it left her devastated. She was very close to her father, Norah laughed while explaining a game her siblings used to play with him. They would try and sneak food off of his plate until he would laugh and give up, giving them the rest. When he died, it was like she died too. She didn’t really understand, she kept expecting him to come home. But he never did. Norah was sent to live with her aunt since her mother could no longer support her. However, her aunt didn’t want Norah so she lived the life of a servant. Housework and working for school fees, this left little time for studying so she failed many subjects. Often the only hope she had was her cousin who comforted her. For a long time she resented her aunt for all the things she had done, but then Norah started going to Women of Hope.

 

Photo 4

 

She had always gone to church but she didn’t know much about God’s heart. Because the group counseled her and prayed for her, she grew stronger in the Lord. She trusts that He will prolong her life and the lives of her children. She desperately needs income, but she has enough land to have a hive and is interested in beekeeping. Then it was time for me to go home. Fiona guided me through the jungle to my house and I said goodbye.

 

I asked both of the women, “If a mzungu asked for advice, what would you say?” Their answers were rather similar: trust God and live in Christ. I think it’s so amazing how they trust God with what little things they have. In the end, they’re both just mothers believing in God for a better future. How much more can we have faith in God with electricity in our homes, food on the table and water in the pipes? These women are so special to me, and I hope you’ll come alongside us.

 

Beekeeping is the perfect job for these women because it doesn’t require a lot of strength, isn’t expensive, and gives great rewards. By donating, you’d be helping Joy and Norah and women like them earn money for their families. Right now, Beeing Hopeful needs a honey press, jars, containers, and additives for skin creams and lip balms. $40 can buy a honey strainer, $20 can buy glass mixing bowls, $10 can buy cream containers and $5 can buy tea tree essential oil. Thank you for your prayers and financial support!

www.beeinghopeful.com 

Symphony of sights

Mrs. Glasser made us handwrite all of the spelling words twenty times each.  With the use of cursive letters, I absorbed the ability to spell holistically.  Why does that matter thirty-five years later?
Obviously, I do all of my written communication by typing.  If one ponders how we type, most people can type and see the letters on the screen.  Some do have to hunt & peck keys with the use of their index fingers.  Cognition theorists hypothesize for how we retain the knowledge of which keys are associated with specific fingers to allow someone to type fluently.  Does the repetition the develops muscle memory?  Do we envision a map of the keyboard and rapidly relay signals to our fingers?
I have the added challenge of the computer reading what I type aloud.  I can become so engrossed in where my sentences need to venture that I completely lose where I am in my thoughts.
Recently, I had someone look at my screen as I typed out a word.  The particular entry was not read audibly.  It was a relatively simple word but I spelled it incorrectly.  The person was kind and removed the extra letters I attached.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was not intelligent.  In fact, I obsessed on my grad school experience where I had to ask Jennifer, my wife, to spell elementary words.  I could easily pound out “psychodynamic” on the keyboard; yet, I struggled to spell “thoroughly” without repeated requests to pronounce the letters slower.
How could this be?  Why would I immediately experience self-doubt and agonize on a simple error?
Trudging through a second Master’s degree, I must have enough IQ points to be articulate, right?  Dyslexia?  No.  I focused solely on the capture of the correct keys, I did not have the presence of mind to realize I had my right hand in the air and traced out the word in cursive.  I created a visual picture of what the word should look like in order to then send the signal to my fingers and then to the precise key.
Spelling, the way I learned, was a visual kinesthetic experience.  Why would that cease upon the loss of my sight?  Unfortunately, there is no User Manual on How To Become A Functional Person Who Is Blind nor is there a manual on How To Be A Functional Person.  I survive the way I know how: try, make mistakes, reflect, and do better next time.
Based in the images in my mind, I perceive the world and map out what I understand to be there.  I became aware that I have only imagined caricatures to match the voices of the new people I meet.  As I produce a concept in my mind of the person in front of me, I have not incorporated hair.  Some much of an individual’s personality, hair color, length, and volume play no role as I construct the whole  identity of the individual’s character.
I assign a voice with certain qualities that line up logically to match with a visual construct.  One person, I have just become acquainted with as of late, has the best vocal characteristics of a Pixar figure.  The person makes noises out of frustration, joy, and sincerity that has developed a warm three dimensional personality for me to envision.
Although I still dream visually, any new person in my life has no visual embodiment.  I have had two types of dreams where I am blind and I see how I am perceived in a sighted world.  The other type of dream is from my perspective with very limited vision where I tend to be assisted by a white cane for mobility like a person who is blind.  I might be able to discern the outline of a person.  In these dreams, I am unable to see facial expressions.
Like the dynamic of a person’s hair, the imagery in my dreams lacks the depth.  Vivid colors may overtake a landscape but there are no fine details.  I project into places where I have been in my travels like Ireland or Egypt.  The only intricacies that exist happen to be objects I physically touched.  As I actually stood on a layer of one of the Great Pyramids, my dreams retain the rough granite exterior as the background is blurry since I have no concept of the surroundings.  My imagination must fill in the whole picture.
Music generates colors and shapes like the visualizations one might see on a PC’s music player.  Even with the pulses of light that dominate my visual senses, the melodies & harmonies draw brilliant soundscapes with precision thumps, pulses, and splashes of shapes, colors, and hues.  Obviously songs that evoke an emotional response pull my focus upon the laser light display in my mind.  Typically brought to my ears with headphones, the tones register a warm or harsh density of color.  Bohemian Rhapsody (by Queen) creates playful displays like the Fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  Enter Sandman (by Metallica) erupts with layers of fiery reds and thunder crashes of electric white bolts in my mind’s eye.  What A Wonderful World (by Louis Armstrong) blends shadows of warm colors and soft shapes in a cascade of peacefulness.
I may try to picture what is before me or imagine what a song has in the soundscape, I do not connect my preconceived images when I listen to a person while I do Social Work.  I only take in the information they share to comprehend the influences that encompass the individual.  I snap together pieces of a puzzle of how the person lives and functions as they understand life to be.  I have no concept of what the day in and day out of their life must be for them.  The palate is empty.  I assemble the pieces by presenting what I heard them say in the truths they hold dear.  I meet the person where they are and ask them to color in the picture with their own crayons of perception.
While I cannot see them with my eyes, I assert that sight can give a limited snapshot of a person’s story.  I see someone in my head with the words they convey and the emotions expressed.  I do hear sounds with my ears but I listen with my heart to accurately appreciate and honor the person in front of me.  The voyage I have undertaken has brought a wealth of experiences that may not have made sense or appeared to have a purpose.  Sight might actually be a disadvantage during this leg of the trek.    We use what information we may have to paint a picture but we must grasp that it is solely from the painter’s perspective.  It is in the process to understand and respect another’s point of view that should bridge a gap of empathy.  It is in that connection where the new path may give the individual freedom from isolation.  The process to see with my brain and listen with my heart only makes me stronger

The Pamper Pole

I guided her feet to the ground and she quite literally dropped into my arms.  She sobbed into my shoulder as she wept before a group of team members.  She whispered “Thank You” in my ear as I rubbed her back in consolation.  The team of 14 other members and two master trainers applauded for the effort and willingness to trust one another.  When the members came over to unhook and harness Cynthia, I was overwhelmed with grief and disappointment.  I wandered into the shade of some trees as the next person was readied.  Seventeen relative strangers ramped up the energy as I questioned what had just happened.

Acres and acres of lush forrest land hid a challenge course, live stock, and a few cabins.  Part of a school district, I was introduced earlier in the year with a group of high schoolers from my first year of teaching.  My class had individuals stagnated in poverty, gang life, and years of low expectations, a group of highly motivated students from the same neighborhood made the choice to be student peer advisors.  In order to facilitate trust and cohesion as a group, the teenagers spend a couple of school days solving mind puzzles, logic challenges, and overcoming physical obstacles as a cohort.
Day to day, I dealt with the consequences of parents who did not make their child a priority.  In less than a year, I had become disillusioned with the juvenile justice and school systems.    Some days I left battered, bloodied, and with no hope for the future.  These teens actually liked me as I normally got seared by the flames of contempt from my students.
I saw the trainers bring out greatness from these young people.  Girls, who normally warred against each other, extended hands of support to pull one over the wooden wall until the whole group had safely and successful beaten the Challenge Wall.  The same girls caught one another in the Trust Fall.  In roughly a day and a half, we conquered the low ropes exercises but I wanted to try my hand at the high flying elements.
“If you will commit to volunteer at least two days to cover another school’s Challenge day, you can become a certified trainer.”  It was all I needed to hear and I signed up for the week long obstacle course training.
Teachers from all across the district joined community members to become certified Ropes Trainers.  Bob was the lead Ropes Master trainer and nothing seemed to phase him.  Bob was safety first.
Everything was face value.  Bob would describe the rope’s precise ability to handle 14,487 pounds of force exertion.  Each activity created bonds between the group members. We cycled through the ground elements to figure out the puzzles we would present to our participants but we had to solve the riddles as a team first.  Certain group member’s strengths were brought out.  Each of us were drawn to similar personality types.  With sixteen individuals, we were paired up with someone new for each exercise.
All of us had weaknesses.  We opened up to the group.  Bob’s roles as a facilitator/safety inspector/master trainer materialized throughout the week.  I noticed I had serious balance issues once we started to walk across logs on the ground.  “If I cannot even walk from one side to the other with this pole on the ground, I am not sure I should attempt any of the higher apparatuses.” That doubt would haunt my thoughts the rest of the time.
The “Trust Fall” activity involved a person standing on a platform about three feet off the ground.  A group of peers would be lined up in two rows.  The person the the platform would face away from the team.  The person’s heels on the end of the platform.  Once the  arms of the team members were out, like a loosely woven net, the person was verbally signaled the group was ready to catch the participant.  The activity began with a small, thin lady as the first volunteer.  Each team member’s arm would evenly distribute the weight of the lady.  We followed Bob’s instructions and she was safely caught and returned to her feet in smooth succession.  A full size man fell back during his turn with no indication of difficulty when the team absorbed the man’s body weight.  “Your turn, Hoss,” My newest buddy, Tommy, posed as more of an expectation than a query.  I nodded affirmatively.  Bob delivered strategic directions to mitigate the strain on the team’s arms.
I knew this was going to break the “touch” barrier.  I am not adverse to being touched; yet, the fall would shatter the intimacy boundary with a swift shift of gravity.  I had done the NesTea Plunge numerous times.  I knew the water would be there.  My arms tucked and crossed on my chest, I closed my eyes as I leaned completely back.  I landed in the pillow of outstretched arms and tilted upright with the wise oversight of Bob’s supervision.
I knew my fall had raised the bar of the group’s ability and confidence.  The team seemed closer to me.  I was not the only one who observed the intensity level’s increase.  I was one of the members who caught Cynthia.  In her mid forties, Cynthia had a calming effect on whoever had her attention.  Cynthia gelt the bond after I captured her.  Without any romantic heirs (?), between us, we began confiding in one another.  Both of os had the same intuition and could glance at one another with an unspoken understanding of what nuances we had observed.
The Ropes elements grew steadily in proportion and complexity.  Added to the level of difficulty, the elements required two people to work in tandem.  I volunteered to set up the element rather than perform the challenge.  In order to set up the obstacle, I had to climb higher than the physical element. The trainers would have harnesses, carabiners, and assigned ropes to connect together into a system of pulleys and challenge obstacles.  Not one to climb trees or get involved in roof top acrobatics, the training was my first leap into the realm of dealing with the  fear of heights.
The poles were the same used for electric and telephone service across the country.  Every so many feet, a four inch “staple” had been shot into the wood.  Two inch hooks were the steps, hand hold, and location I would clip my harness onto at every opportunity.  If I lost my footing, two loops were clipped to these hooks which would halt any fall.  I never wanted to test this phenomenon.  Bob double checked my harness and patted my shoulder in encouragement.
After the initial few feet up the pole, I found a rhythm.  Before I knew it, I had reached the last hook and I clipped my harness to the splinter delivery system.  I reached out to the anchor wires and followed the set up procedures.  Far more complicated fifty feet in the air, my breathing pattern signaled a fair amount of anxiety.  “Use both hands!” Bob shouted up to me.
Bob’s words brought a spotlight on the fact I had my left arm clutched around the pole.  When I practiced the element set up on the ground, I used two hands.  From fifty feet in the air, my survival instinct was to hang onto the only object within my grasp.  “Chad?  Use both hands.  Let go and the harness will keep you steady.” Bob assured from the safety of his feet securely on the ground.  I acted like I did not hear him and continued to use my right hand to set out the carabiners and locked them into place.  As Bob repeatedly yelled out instructions, I was glad he could not hear the profane instructions I said quietly for him.
With the element correctly secured, I climbed down.  I could not sense my body’s nerve endings as adrenaline masked every ache.  Over the course of a couple of days, I realized I pulled myself up the poles rather than the reliance on my legs.  My foot could slip off where my hand clasped on each exposed hook was   the surety my soul insisted upon.
On my way home after day three, the wear & tear on my muscles reached a fever pitch.  As each day passed, the sun sent the temperature to a normal Texas summer day in June.  The poles soaked in those rays that scorched the skin on my inner arms.  By the end of day four, I paid a massage therapist to meet me at my house and my aches developed into real pain.  I woke up the morning of the last day and my restless night of sleep pushed me beyond the breaking point.  I snoozed the alarm and questioned the point of finishing the course.  I faced my fears, proved I could do it, so what more is there for me?
“The team…” echoed through my confused head.  I had one reason to go and it was to support the collective.
At “Circle Up”, for the past five mornings, we shared our goals for the day and any thoughts.  “I am sore.  Don’t expect me to participate.  The only purpose for me being here is to support y’all.”  From seated positions, I cheered on the team.  As the day wore on, I carried equipment, brought water to team members, and anchored a few times.
My body had picked a swell day to protest as The Pamper Pole was the last element.  A thirty five foot pole where a participant would climb to the top, gain their balance, and jump six feet to a trapeze.  The name of the element had several legends that surrounded it.  The speculation derived from the lack of pampering the climber had to endure.  The participant had to climb away from the trapeze and halfway up the pole climb to the other side of the pole to face the direction of the awaiting trapeze.  The participant would, also, have to balance on the circumference of the pole without the assistance of a platform.  The other possibility relating to the name of the element was the genuine reality that one will need to wear a pair of pampers if they make it to the top of the element.
I gathered the other team members items.  I generally found ways to blend in as to not draw attention to my lack of participation.  The participant could select the person to belay the rope as to control the drop rate once the participant left the top of the Pamper Pole.  Since the element had a reality of shifting weight, the person on the belay would need two anchors or people that would hang on to the belayer’s harness to keep them from being pulled off their feet.  The participant could designate a few people to coach them as the negotiated the various challenges inherent with the obstacle.
I watched as one team member fell during the portion of moving around the pole to the other side as well as an inability to stand up.  My buddy who called me “Hoss” was a natural athlete.  Tommy scaled the pole in record time and even did the Karate Kid Crane pose on one foot before he flew to the trapeze only six feet away.  Some became disoriented by the swaying of the pole as it vibrated their every motion.
One team member requested that no one speak during his ascent.  The challenge was deeply personal.  A lot of voices shouting instructions could break someone’s concentration.  After his jump, the team quietly recognized his accomplishment.  Cynthia asked to be the next participant.  “I only want Chad to talk to me,” her request came from out of the blue.  My mind snapped to attention as I came over to her and double checked the harness.  I presented some observations that might prepare her for shimmying around the pole halfway.  She had inquired if Tommy would belay her so the three of us hugged in solidarity.
Cynthia found her way up, around, and at the top of the pole quite rapidly.  With her petite feet tucked securely on the diameter of the pole, it was the last challenge to overcome.  There was not a choice, one would end up falling at some point.  The question remained if it would be a mishap or after letting go of the trapeze.  The element was a metaphor as I saw it.  Tears streamed down her flushed cheeks.  I could tell the fear Cynthia experienced was more than the embrace of the challenge of the Pamper Pole.  I let some silence fill the space.  Cynthia had shared some personal details with me that brought us closer.
“Where you are right now in life is safe.  You told me you are ready to make a change.  When you are ready, leap to that new life.”
Without looking down to me, “I’m scared I won’t make it!”
“Then we will be here.  We will catch you.  You’ll know you tried, right?  That place is far better than staying where you are.”
The tears poured from both corners of her eyes.  Suddenly, the tears seemed to dry.  With a deep breath in, Cynthia calmly proclaimed, “Belay on.”  She had signaled to the team she was about to jump and she soared into the trapeze.  She could not hold her weight and her hands lost her grasp.
Cynthia was lowered to the ground where I ensured she would not get hurt.  Upon expressing her gratitude, I let her know I was tremendously honored to be there for her and proud she beat her fears.  Tommy came over and the three amigos held each other tight once more.
I helped Cynthia remove the tethers that kept her safe as the team came over to congratulate Cynthia on her accomplishment.  I bowed over to the side in some shade trees to process the moment.  Cynthia asked me to support her through the challenge.  She wanted me to support her and how had I shown my respect to the group?  I felt an intrinsic drive to pay my respect to the team.  I knew what I had to do.  I quietly put my harness back on and joined the activity by taking some of the needed roles during the obstacle.  I noticed who had belay’d others.  The simple solution was to ask my buddy Tommy to belay me but that was too easy.  Trey was an unassuming man that kept to himself.  He would engage in conversations, volunteered for the dirty jobs, but I had not seen him bond with anyone.  If Trey smiled, it had not been witnessed during the week.  The group had powered through fourteen participants.  One person went twice as he had fallen at the midpoint in his attempt to migrate to the other side of the pole.  Everyone was supportive but the energy has slowly melted off in the rays of Amun Ra’s fierce light.
I approached Trey after the second to last jumper, “Would you belay me please?”
Trey’s normal poker face showed signs of bafflement.  “You’re gonna go?”  His eye brows lifted.
“If you will belay me, I will trust you to do it,” I communicated in a bargaining tone.
“Chad’s gonna go!” Trey announced.  The words shot Bob off his perch and organized the team’s efforts.  I went over to Cynthia and Tommy  “Would both of you talk me through this please?”  The three of us locked and checked the carabiners and ropes as every ounce of strategy left me from every pore.  I could only handle one challenge at a time.  The endorphins rushed into my limbs as I felt myself finally trust my legs to do the work.  Tommy let me know I had reach the section where I needed to maneuver to the backside of the pole.  I knew I could fall like one of the team had earlier.  I trusted my hands enough to proceed around and up.  I raced to the top where I encountered my first authentic challenge.  I had not allowed my legs to support me any time except for this element.  My legs would not move past the second to last staple.  I thoroughly examined the pole.  The staples/hooks/steps were staggered in such a way that Once I took the next step, I could not lean against the pole for support.  The pole began to sway from side to side.  My legs responded by cinching tightly to any surface.
I sent the message to my leg to raise up but it would not budge.  I even tugged my pant leg upward.  I placed my hands on top of the pole and pulled myself to the top step.  There was nothing I could hold for balance.  I did not possess the agility to steady myself on a log splayed across the ground.  I had no business standing on a wayward pole thirty five feet in the air.  Attached to the step, I could not get my left leg to consider any upward movement.  Even further off balance, I stretched forward to shift my weight to my right leg.  My left leg starts to leave the security of the staple, all of the processes and thoughts seemed to cause a psychosomatic crescendo that rang in my head.  My emotions and physical exertion strained as I hear my buddy yell out, “Just stand up!”  Before I could visualize my tumble towards the ground, I stood atop the Pamper Pole and all became still at once.
In full disbelief, I took in the landscape.  It seemed I could see for miles.  I had done it.  Anything that happened from here was gravy.  It was the first week of June on 1998.  The trees wore the blossomed green leaves.  I was lost in the moment.  I hadn’t thought about the comfort of my bed, the aches that strived to keep me on the ground, or the fear of failure.  I had never heard the sound of the leaves rustle from my vantage point.  It was more peaceful.  I felt connected with my surroundings.  In a single step, all of those confusing signals had been replaced with serenity.
I was there due to the support of the team and my choice to pay a tribute to their kindness.  Tommy brought me back by quoting Mr Miyagi, “Wax On.  Wax off.”  I responded with the hand sweeps from the Karate Kid.  “Paint the fence.”   I gestured appropriately as the team laughed.  Bob interrupted the fun to bring back the focus.
“Think of something you want to leap towards, Chad,” Cynthia repeated my symbolism back to me.  I stood taller than I had ever imagined.  I let her know I was in a good place.  I didn’t need to visualize the metaphor of going towards something fresh.  “Chad, think of something you have carried around and need to leave up there.”
As the words pierced my soul, I knew exactly what Cynthia referred to in her metaphor.  I had huge pus ball of of regret and heartbreak.  I had stored that pain so long it had felt like a part of me.  I softly whispered that the years of pain would not be coming with me.  “you will be staying here,” I spoke softly but with the earned confidence.  In my best war cry, “BELAY ON!” I leapt for glory.  The moment captured on film.
TheFenix
I had never experienced the depth or breadth of emotion from an abstract experience.  I most certainly had not opted to do the week of outdoor training to purge myself of heartache.  The last two team members did their climbs and the group packed up the gear.  There was a closing “Circle Up” where we shared the moments we would never forget.
There are a few hugs I have shared with a person that were soul deep.  Cynthia will continue to remain on the list.
I had used prayer, therapy, and many other activities to jettison that tie to my past.  None of it worked.  When I least expected it, I left it successfully at the top of a thirty five foot pole in Azle, Texas.
I learned to be real in each moment I can.  It is easier to say and more difficult to practice.  The times with Tommy laughing and palling around was meaningful.  It brought a richness to the Ropes course.  Cynthia reached out to me in need of support.  Has she not asked, I might have never been driven to venture forth.
Then again, had I not been willing to help the student peer advisors, I would have not known about a Ropes course.  It all goes back to being open to ask for and offering help.   A willingness to go out of the way to support others only makes me stronger.

He is…

When you are not looking at him, he is invisible.
Celebrities ask him for his pawtograph.  
Every time he sniffs a flower, a honey bee gets its wings.
When he barks, it makes thunder nervous.
He once got in a feud with Donald Trump. Trump apologized.
He is the Most Interesting Guide Dog in the World…
“I don’t always “work” but when I do, it is adorable! Stay hungry my friends!!”

IMG_0920

Lessons Learned while in Prison

As I heard the gate clink, the guard transmitted my name over the radio.  Blood drained from my hands as I shuffled to the next gate.  Like the Mighty Oz, some person in front of a screen controlled the mechanism that automatically sealed the doors behind me.  I wondered how did I end up in federal prison.  As the guard escorted me to  the next station. I couldn’t take my eyes off the rows and rows of razor wire that trapped me inside.

I didn’t dream this experience nor was it a nightmare.  I was awake as fear sank its teeth into my soul.  I cannot remember the walk from one building to the next.  The setting Sun accentuated each razor that adorned the rings of wire that lay in front of the chain link fence topped with barbwire.  As the sun set, my poetic heart clung to some loosely fitting analogy.  I was stuck behind all of these barriers and I was about to meet the individuals I would spend 24 weeks with in a federal prison.
“I am already lost,” I declared to the guard as we passed through a maze of hallways, rooms, and corridors.  I was mentally stuck on what happened before I stepped foot past the threshold of the prison gate.  “If I am taken hostage, you will let them out, right?” I sheepishly asked.
“We do not negotiate with prisoners,” the guard gruffly stated.  His voice showed no sign of inflection or concern.  His reply might not have even been “gruff” at all.  I think it sounded callous since it was my life that was at risk in this fictitious scenario.
“What if there’s  a shank at my throat?” I quickly retorted.
“We don’t negotiate with prisoners,” was repeated with no reassurance.
I went full tilt with, “What if my throat is being slashed?”
With all of the warmth of a concrete teddy bear, “We’ll try to take the prisoner out before you lose too much blood.”  Barely a nanosecond of a pause was allowed before the guard called out, “GATE!” over the radio.  His voice was so loud and piercing, I was certain the radio was unnecessary as his command to open the door must have carried to every cell block on the grounds.  Surely everyone had been alerted that fresh meat had entered the prison.
Finally in the room I would spend 6 months in, the guard said, “They won’t open up to you if one of us is in the room so I am going to sit on the other side of the door.  Knock if you need something.”  My heart sank lower.  I nervously went through my stuff to reorganize them since the guard pulled out each item to inspect it for contraband.
Maybe I had watched too many movies or mini-series on life in prison.  I expected to be randomly stabbed, taken hostage, or have my neck snapped before I ever reached the classroom.  To keep me focused on the positive, I never thought or referred to the women as anything other than ladies.  The guards and prison officials may use whatever labels to ensure proper boundaries.  These were ladies convicted of serious crimes but, for my purposes, they were ladies.
The year was 1996 and my early twenties had me cling to black and white scenarios.  I had little life lessons to draw upon and I had nothing in common with my image of an individual convicted of a crime.  I didn’t possess enough intelligence to realize the uphill battle I undertook until I was inside the prison walls.
I heard the echoes of a woman singing.  I wondered if there was some church group in the chapel when the sound of this lone voice came closer.  The sounds were angelic and set my nerves at ease.  The woman walked in the room, turned to face me, said “Hello”, and immediately returned to an enchanting melody.  She sat closest to the door.  More ladies entered the room.  Each lady sized me up.  At the time, I had a full head of quaffed hair, a full beard, and a flannel shirt tucked into my khaki pants.  My cowboy boots peeked out from my pant legs with my riding heels giving  me a slight boost in height.  Outside of the cowboy boots, I could have been “Al” from Tool Time’s stunt double.
One night a week for 24 weeks, I would spent two hours in a Women’s federal prison to educate these ladies about communication, relationships, and self-discovery thrown in for good measure.
I began with what was on my heart and mind, “I was so nervous to come here today.  In fact, my stomach had been in knots ever since I decided to come speak with you ladies.  Now that I am here, I feel a little more settled.  If you ladies will indulge me, I would like to learn your names and find out what you would like to learn from these classes.”  Eight women, from all around the country, shared a desire to make better choices in selecting a partner or to strengthen the relationships with their loved ones on the outside.
The lady who sang her way into the class was named “Belle” and she said that she didn’t have anyone on the outside waiting for her.  She was terminally ill and would die in prison.  “Thank you for sharing.  I am glad you are here.  I will do my best to bring in ideas and maybe there will be something you will find of value.”
One woman was the loud, talkative person who overshared and laughed so hard she would go into coughing fits.  She was the wild stallion of the group and I knew I could rely on her to give me unfiltered feedback.  If the entire group fell silent, I was certain I had my “Go To” person.  Gabby was the type to say something offensive without realizing the impact of her word choice.  Gabby would, also, be a superb barometer of the impact of my lessons.
A tiny lady sank into her seat and whispered her name.  Alice had not adjusted to incarceration.  With a petite frame and bird bones, she was physically and emotionally vulnerable.  Since this was federal prison, I assumed the crimes these ladies were convicted of doing had to be serious felonies.  In a moment of suspicion, I wondered if Alice pretended to be terrified to mask her true identity of a criminal mastermind. The knee knocking, teeth chattering, and hyper vigilance squelched any lingering doubt that Alice authentically was traumatized.  Several of the other ladies comforted her and gave her encouragement.
As I watched the other ladies support an individual in distress, I remembered a strategic goal I had for these classes that I forgot to mention.  “You have just demonstrated a key skill I want us to practice while in these classes, let’s encourage each other.  Let’s make these classes about building each other up.”
At the end of the class, the ladies paraded past and used encouraging phrases towards me for a job well done.  Belle was the first to leave.  She stood up, made eye contact with me, stated “Thank you, Mr. Chad. I liked this,” and began to sing as she walked through the door.  Five of the ladies came up and fired a barrage of questions at me.  I noticed Alice about to leave and I asked her if she could stay a moment.  I thanked all of the ladies for their encouragement to me and each other.  They smiled and chatted on their way out.  Alice had a look of concern and I immediately assured her she was not in trouble.  I wanted to make certain that she was not currently in danger.  She did not fear her cellmates or anyone in the class.  She had not been free since her arrest, had not seen her family after the sentencing hearing, and she was from a different state.  Alice was isolated and drowning in the unfamiliar, intimidating environment.  “I hope you will come back next week.  I am grateful for your honesty and taking the chance to participate.”  Her look of concern had morphed to a general sense of being uneasy.  She gave me a nervous smile and expressed a willingness to come back.
With my bags packed and every item accounted, I met the guard at the door.  “Chad Duncan requesting early release,” I joked.  Unamused, the guard escorted me to the front gates.  My muscles did not unclinch until my car was ten miles away.
As I returned the following week, I heard that same voice serenading the spirit of peace.  Belle was the first to arrive.  She sang her way into the room, stopped long enough to look at me, said “Hello, Mr. Chad,”, and picked back up where the song left off.  I arranged all of my materials as I noticed that her inner peace calmed me.  Part of me wanted to ask more of her story but my instinct told me she needed to sing.  I needed her to make the choice to speak.  I heard ladies come towards the room except now there were more ladies to our group.  “I told my cellies about your class and they wanted to come,” Gabby excitedly told me.  Alice showed up right before we started the class.  With the comfort of knowing the class was valuable, I had a sense of completeness.  I had typed up a calendar of event dates and topics so the class’s agenda would be clear for the ladies.  I re-introduced the component of encouragement and used the example of everyone’s return and the compliment it was to have  new students.
As I concluded the week’s lesson, I added an element.  I had continued to role modeled encouragement and the second lesson was about taking the most of an opportunity.  I explained I wanted to get information that would be taken anonymously yet the results would be shared to the group.  “Even I won’t know who answered what question.  I will share the breakdown with all of you ladies as a community.  We can explore what experiences we might share as a collective”  I had typed up a survey to gather their demographics and life experiences.  I had to use golf pencils as ink pens were strictly forbidden.  Each lady finished the survey and left.  When Belle finished, she placed her’s on top of the others, thanked me with piercing eye contact, she nodded as she said, “Mr. Chad” and sang quietly as she exited.  I gathered up the materials and counted the pencils.  Two ladies remained behind.  I observed Alice’s bewilderment at the paper.  The other lady smiled at me as she slid her survey on the pile and left the room.  Alice’s face had her panicked appearance.  “Alice, you don’t have to answer it.  The survey is optional.”
Alice looked up at me and a tear streamed down her face as she mouthed, “I can’t read.”  My internal composure fell as my heart dropped to the ground.  I made sure my face remained steadfast.  “I will read it to you if you would like me to.  If you would rather not, I understand.” I attempted to settle her anxiety.  “There is no shame if you want to turn it in blank.  I won’t share your secret.”
“Would you read it?” she inquired.  Her voice reminiscent of the very first time she whispered her name.
“It would be my honor, Alice” I conveyed with reverence for her willingness.  She shared her answers.  I would have to point where to mark with the pencil.  “Thanks for trusting me.  I hope to see you next week.”
The next twenty two weeks entailed lively discussions, intense participation, and heartbreaking circumstances.  Each lady’s story was uniquely their own but had foundational experiences.  All came from abusive childhoods with an extreme majority surviving sexual trauma.  Each got with the “wrong” guy they knew was a mistake but couldn’t leave for one reason or another.  A third did not graduate high school.  All but two ladies had children under the age of 18.  Most were coerced to use hard drugs.  None felt there was anyone they could trust when they were growing up.  A pervasive instinct was trust had been too easily given and consequentially scattered.
Belle rarely interacted with the other ladies and they kept their distance from her.  There was something underlying that I missed or didn’t know.  Again, I wondered if Belle was a drug kingpin or head of some mob family.  Obviously I watched too many TV shows with cheesy plot twists.
Gabby let me know if she was bored or didn’t like an activity.  She would begrudgingly participate and always had a turn around of attitude when the true purpose of the activity revealed itself.  Gabby laughed at my punchlines and vocalized when she didn’t understand my humor.  She kept everyone motivated and would ask, “What are we gonna learn today?”  Every class felt like a melodrama when Gabby announced her presence.  Booing and cheering, Gabby was the ally I needed to be energetic for those two hours after a full day of work.
Alice’s self confidence blossomed like a butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis.  She signed up for GED classes, worked with her case manager, and found some elders with good intentions.  During classes, she interacted with the other ladies.  She smiled with her eyes.
A key to my success was my constant insistence to think of the participants as ladies and not anything else.  All too often. a person’s label can limit compassion, understanding, and tolerance from the beholder’s point of view.  The ladies noticed the way I referred to them in a relaxed, open manner.  It was important for me to keep in mind they were individuals before incarceration and it would be shallow to paint them with the same paintbrush since they resided in a federal prison together.  Each had dreams as a child that could not have imagined their current reality.
Reaching out to Alice taught me to look for the Outliers.  I had no responsibility to speak with her privately.  In fact, I was concerned that I drew attention to her and it could negatively impact her with the other ladies.  Also, I had concerns about being alone without anyone else in the room.  The experience showed me to monitor everyone in my class.  While the message may be aimed for the average receiver of information, I can tailor some aspects for those that fall outside the median participant.  Alice helped me to recognize the need to address issues, that may be interfering with a personal sense of well being, in order to help them stay focused.  Her blossoming self esteem could have been attributed to the class or it could have happened over time due to unrelated circumstances.  Over my career, many bridges of communication were built by taking the time to notice when someone has struggles and to encourage those that may not fit the mold.
I have reflected on Belle many times over the years.  She never opened up to the class; yet, she would come early and offer a glimpse into her life.  Her innocence was stolen at an early age, then as a teen, and many times as an adult.  With the belief that God had forgotten her, she lost her identity.  She self medicated to ease the pain only to spiral out of control.  It was not until she was diagnosed after her incarceration that she could begin again.  Singing brought her peace.  At times of loneliness or uncertainty, music connected her to God.
Her voice emitted a light from within that was undeniable.  “No one can take my joy from me, Mr. Chad. No one.” she declared.  The internal harmony resonated the feeling of true joy.  The reassurance that she was safe, how she would die, and own her identity empowered her to experience real freedom from oppression.
Her diagnosis carried a stigma that kept the other ladies away out of fear.  As Belle’s illness closed the door to relations with others, it opened her to herself.  Her life was full of unpredictability and a lack of control until her arrest.  A life sentence, both legally and biologically, Belle finally had stability that  allowed her to find herself, inner peace, and a connection to God.  Her joy rang out for those who cared enough to hear.
The music she created touched me.  It took being stripped of everything she knew and a terminal illness to enable Belle to find her voice.  The isolation gave her the opportunity to see the strength inside her soul, experience the love her God provided, and be a beacon of actualization.  Belle passed away about six months after the last class.  I am reminded of Belle when I hear people sing to themselves.  I am grateful to have met  Belle and absorb her calm nature.
It is my honor to share a small piece of what I learned inside the walls of a prison.  Out of respect for the ladies, their names were changed to protect their identity.  All the other details are exactly as I wrote in a journal I kept from that experience.  While I hope there are some nuggets of knowledge for you, I was given the chance to meet some dynamic ladies that continue to give me peace and inspiration.
The world presents opportunities to learn from others and especially in emotionally challenging environments.  Belle’s peace was revealed in her singing.  My desire is that you may feel the vibrations of joy in others and be an amplifier of the positive.  It is in this awareness to authentically listen to people, rather than filter through preconceived notions, that truths can be heard with our hearts.  It is taking those chances that only makes me stronger.

Blind is not a four letter word…

As my eyes failed me, I found that I could not even admit to myself that I was going blind. I remember in an email to my fiancee/now wife, I referred to it as “my problem”. Typing the word was scary.
In public, I pretended to be able to see. When I would knock into something, I played it off as inattention or I came up with some reaction to save face.  While I may not have been able to see the elephant in the room, my other senses could not mask the stink it made in my life.
With my friends in public, I would say, “I’m visually impaired.” Having watched the levels of denial and dysfunction, a friend said, “Say you are blind! When you tell them that you are visually impaired, that confuses them. They don’t understand. You have to say you are ‘blind’ first.”
I had to accept those words of truth. There were lots of struggles both emotionally and visually.
I believe I resisted using the word blind as as it implied helpless or hopeless. My deepest fear was to be insignificant.
At one point, I was able to create a moving graphic that would demonstrate a basic thumbnail sketch of what blindness was for me.  It was strange to have the ability to see enough to make a digital representation of my vision but lacked the ability to see much at all.
I laugh under my breath when someone refers to me as having a “visual challenge” instead of blind.
In society, blind is never good. “I may be married but I’m not blind”, “Justice is blind”, or “I’m not blind to the facts” are some of the phrases people use to make a point.
Even when used as a positive, there is another intention. “Blind Faith” or “Blind Luck” still are not positive.
Blindness is not binary.  Vision has a deep spectrum of abilities to a lack of sight completely.  When blind is used, the word refers to a total inability.  I was blind yet I could see.  I could not describe what I saw with the vision that remained.
You can call someone blind and it is not offensive. Feel free to use words like “see” or “watch”. I watch TV or go see a movie. Movies are experiences these days. It took me a while until I told my wife I wanted to go see a movie. I went for her sake.
The removal of those words that entail the ability to see made it feel like a death of a loved one. There are words that are scary to hear like cancer, suicide, Alzheimer’s, or Multiple Sclerosis. There is a power from admitting the truth.  There is an ownership over the meaning of the word.  The fear stemmed from, “Maybe if I say the word, it will be permanent.”  My eye sight was bad no matter how it was stated. For me, the veil insulated me until I was ready to admit reality.
I am blind.  The process and journey to acknowledge my strengths, weakness, disabilities, and abilities Only Makes Me Stronger.

Beeing Hopeful…A guest blog by Cozette Clark

I have a problem. It’s not a problem that most sixteen year old’s have. The problem isn’t boyfriend drama because he doesn’t exist, he lives in a book. Teachers aren’t driving me crazy because they cook my dinner and kiss me on the forehead at night. No, my problem is rather unique to my generation. First of all, I live in Africa which could be a problem in itself. My family and I have lived in Uganda for over a year now but we’re originally from Texas. My current issue, is a beehive I inherited. The hive itself has been abandoned for years on end and is contaminated with leaves and dead bugs. It’s falling apart. The bees don’t really understand that I’m on their side so I never walk away without stings.

I first got excited about beekeeping several months ago. My Dad went to an agriculture school and I got to sit in on the two days of beekeeping classes. The teacher made it sound so easy and goodness, all the beautiful systems! I’m sort of OCD so I was fascinated by these tiny but meticulous creatures. After the classes, I was ready to hit the ground running, build a hive and buy equipment, and start making some honey. Then I learned that the organization that we work for already has a hive and the proper equipment but no one knew how to take care of it. I volunteered, wanting to help in some way. The hive belongs to a group my Mom leads called Women of Hope. The group helps women who are HIV positive and/or have AIDS. The hive was going to help them financially since most of them are too sick to make money the traditional way. Missionaries came, built and filled the hive then left, passing it in the hands of caring but easygoing Ugandans. Six months turned into a year, then two years. Now three years later, a sixteen year old girl is trying to find something to salvage. Even though none of this is anyone’s fault, it’s hard not to feel frustrated at people just abandoning the hive. Harder still is resisting the urge to patronize the Ugandans as if they’re children that don’t know any better. It’s simply the culture. If it’s raining, nobody goes to work because it’s raining. If the man with the keys doesn’t come, everybody else sits outside and waits. There’s no hurry. It’s not the end of the world. “African time” means a few hours after the agreed time and its common for everybody to show up late. That is just the way it is. So the hive has been sitting, the bees have been improvising and now I’m scared out of my wits.

When Dad and I walk down to the hive, you can hear the bees before you can see them. Dad comes along because the hive is made up of three wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. They’re way too heavy for me to lift. Through the banana trees you see it, the small white tower of hives with a swarm of bees all around it. We set down all our equipment a few yards away and I begin to question just what I’m getting myself into. How will the bees react this time? We have to start a fire in a bucket to generate smoke. The smoke is supposed to sedate them, to make them sleepy and want to consume lots of honey so they become sluggish. I’ve come to believe we have the only bees that are immune to smoke because it seems to be doing zip. The fire is started and I’m filling up my smoker. We’d rather do it with the smoke than without because we want to believe that the smoke is helping a little.

Dad lifts off the top box and the bees immediately start going crazy. The humming starts at a lower frequency and gets higher and higher as we carefully cut around the wooden bar that the honeycomb is attached to. No one has been taking care of these bees so the combs have all grown together. When we try to pull the bar out, the honey comb breaks. The mayhem that was going on before this incident looks docile now. Honey spills out all over the rest of the combs. The bees are landing and stinging in mobs faster than you can blink. Dad sets down the top box on the ground and we quickly but cautiously flee the scene. Once we’re out in the open and the bees have stopped chasing us, we breathe and discuss our options. Of course, there are no options. We have to go back and put the top box back on. We calm down a bit then head back.

It’s a mad house. Bees are swarming all around the spoiled honey and I feel really bad. This is their life’s work and because of our neglect, it’s splattered all over their home. But there’s no time to fix it, we’re getting stings all over the place and the buzz is up five octaves since we arrived. Dad picks up the top box and I feel bees crawling all over me, even in my boots which I swore I taped up. I knew I should have worn socks. Then I look at Dad and I don’t feel so bad anymore. His face mask is covered with bees, all of them swarming and angry. We put the top box back on, probably crushing a few bees but we have no way to brush them off. Then we run away with many stings but no honey. We’re both pretty shaken and discouraged.

The main problem is I know exactly what I have to do. I have to kill the queen which means I have to find the queen. This means I have to go through comb by comb, bees swarming me, and cautiously but quickly find the aggressive queen whose bad mood is spreading throughout the entire colony. My pulse quickens just thinking about it. I can’t get the image out of my head of Dad’s face mask black with angry bees. It’s not so much the pain that scares me, I can take stings. It’s more of the swarm that’s almost cartoon-like. I’m sure if I wasn’t behind the mask, it would be hysterical. But I am so it’s not. Sweat pours as you feel them buzzing in the palms of your gloves or when they come right at your face stingers blazing. I feel so vulnerable even in my suit. When there’s only one bee, perhaps one caught in our house, I’m not afraid at all. I’ll even carefully grasp it with my bare fingers and set it free outside. But all of them, with the high pitched buzzing and eerie sensation of them crawling on you, it is the stuff of nightmares.

Responsibility. That’s all I feel now. And guilt. That too. This is my project and I’m the only one here with any book knowledge at all. I doubt the women even know about this whole endeavor. Still I can’t help feeling like all the women in the group are counting on me. Beatrice needs school fees for her children, Grace can’t pay for housing, Joy needs money to pay for transport to the hospital to get her antiretroviral medication and it kills me. To our family, these women are more than just names on a page. They’re ladies who come to our door and kneel at our feet and ask for $6 to pay rent for the entire month. The worst thing is I feel so… philanthropic. I’ve grown accustomed to it, this is my life now. I’m the white Oprah Winfrey of Africa. You come to a point while you’re here when you say, “It’s okay that I have nice things. I don’t have to feel guilty. God doesn’t love me more than them or vice versa. This is my life, and that is theirs.” But when their faces looking up at me? Goodness it makes my stomach clench just thinking about it. I don’t know what more I could do. I don’t want to be another white person perceived as being a big-shot hero. Taking pictures of suffering infants, passing out candy and yet doing nothing practical or lasting. I’m probably over-thinking this but I can’t help but worry about what kind of person I am in their eyes. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. It’s a horrible feeling.

We’re constantly handing out money because they need it but our resources are running low. That little voice in the back of my head keeps saying, “If I could just kill the queen, if I could just clean up the hive, if I could just process the honey faster, then I could fix everything.” But could I? Let’s face it, Dad and I, we’re just two people. And even though he literally does all the heavy lifting, I’m the one who’s got the book knowledge and so a lot of this is on me. Frankly, I’m terrified.

Why am I afraid? I’m not afraid of bees and wasps, I’m usually the one to shoo them out. Really, my only fears are spiders, body parts being where they don’t belong and clowns. However, when you’re in that suit and the hum of the bees is so loud and high and the swarm is coming at you with their stingers pointed right at your face, I might as well be the seven year old girl I used to be. The one who screamed her head off when she got her first sting.

So here I am, not even out of high school, trying to save some bees and solve a problem I didn’t even start. Where’s my gold star for effort and participation? Where’s my medal for making it this far? All I know it’s that my treasure is in heaven and as much as I’ve done it for the least of my brothers (and sisters), I’ve done it for God. And that’s in the Bible so I can’t really argue. So I’ll keep going no matter how scary it is. This honey will still be sold and the proceeds will still be given to the Women of Hope. The grand master plan is to help the women who are interested get their own hives and we’ll start a business spanned out over multiple villages and communities. From there, websites will be started and hopefully we’ll get international and local sponsors. The “Bee Hopeful” business will be selling honey and beeswax products to support these families. The money won’t entirely be coming from foreigners across an ocean but it won’t entirely be coming from the honey products either. God’s hand has been in this the whole time. From the moment the idea took off, to now while I’m facing my fears and getting things done and into the future where everyone will see God’s provision through success. All we can do now though is keep pushing, continue to fight the fear that is the enemy’s weapon and “Bee Hopeful“.
I am completely impressed by this young lady’s determination to make an impact on her community.  I hope we can all consider fostering this young lady’s drive and talents by going to www.beeinghopeful.com.    We are hoping to get updates on the progress and ultimate success of her endeavors.
–Chad
PerrBee says, “Give to Cozette’s cause!”
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