Why:

Sunday evening, I drove down some country roads in a neighboring county, ones I thought I hadn’t driven in a long time. But the further I went, things looked familiar, recently familiar. I realized I was there not long ago, on those roads riding shotgun in the big grey pickup truck with the SAR boss, a pack of search dogs in the back, walking those fields hauling gear on one of a growing number of searches in my brief SAR career. It felt good to know I was making progress, slowly but surely covering ground.

The question was asked tonight by the boss in our private Facebook group: why do we do it? Do we know why we are out there, weekend after weekend, morning after morning, training after training?

I absolutely know. In the past (nearly) two years, I’ve written about it a couple times, but I know that in these past months, those reasons have shifted and deepened, extended far beyond anything I contemplated in those first few months.

On the outside, it looks like it might have something to do with my dog. But the further we go, the less it’s about that and the more it becomes about the journey itself.

There are challenges, yes. A physical challenge: the work is demanding-climbing rubble, walking miles and miles and miles through heavy brush, under hot sun or in cold weather, early morning meetups at scenes, pages in the dead of night. The mental challenges of learning new skills: emergency medical response, making harnesses out of webbing, reading human footprints, not getting myself lost in the process of finding those missing (harder than you think!).

But this is spiritual to me. Search and Rescue, obviously, is about finding that which is lost. But it is also about the search itself, the act of being open to something to which you don’t understand. It’s about understanding, or at least getting closer. Every time I have gone out, it has felt like a prayer, one extended Kýrie, eléison. 

My life feels like it has always been about the search: figuring out the right questions to ask, looking for the answers. It’s been about looking for the connection – the place between the questions and the answers, the places of uncertainty, the places where the scars are formed, where the stories are written, the places where the image of God that lies within each of us becomes hidden or revealed based on the choices we make. SAR taught me that The Job That Pays is not terribly different from The Job That Doesn’t Pay -both are about the questions, the answers, the connections. It is about reaching out and taking hold.

In the past three months in SAR, I’ve taken sidetracks, wandered around, backed up and started again. My dog, the tool given to me for this work, no longer wants to find the living. Why I do not know. I can guess, but he can’t confirm. And it’s my job as his handler to take care of him, to act without ego or anger in his best interest. So we have switched to the mystery of the missing dead. He is happier. I am more relaxed. But before you ask the question–will that bother you, not rescue, but recovery? The answer is definitive: NO.

I believe I can do this. I’ve already seen the bodies in The Job That Pays. The sobs of the grieving at the scenes, those I have heard so so many times. I have gone from crime scene to charges to verdict to sentencing, faces becoming familiar in various stages of suffering all along the way.

If it is a difficult and necessary task, and you can do it, you absolutely should.

If this doesn’t make a ton of sense, I kind of apologize. It’s the middle of the night and I’m not sure why I’m not in bed. This post has been forming for a few weeks, taking shape in a few more rides in the pickup truck, a few dozen training sessions, hard decisions and now the question officially posed.

Why do I do SAR? To know. To learn. Because I can. Because I should.

I ask, if you read this, for your continued prayers. Not just for me, but for my teammates, for our pack of humans handling our pack of dogs, so many of whom have seen so much, so many of whom asked so many hard, hard questions to have them answered in ways no one wants to contemplate.

Pray for those who need our services, those whose icons are no longer where they belong, whose questions remain unanswered, whose connections to those beloved remain frayed or broken.

Kýrie, eléison. 

Pieces

We’re 22 months into our SAR journey, Helo and I. It feels like a lifetime. We’re getting scuffed and dented, the shiny-newness wearing off, hidden under the disappointments and the constant fight for growth. It’s a steep, steep learning curve. And it should be, because lives depend on it.

And how’s this for fun. There’s still no guarantee we’ll get it done as a team. Even if we successfully clear the certification hurdle, on which we have stumped our toes and stumbled a few times now. I never thought I would want to quit this, but days like today require an actual verbalized promise to my teammates that I’m not going anywhere.

All the other stuff comes so easily to me: the medical, the navigation, the survival skills, working with agencies at scenes.

But training a dog? Oy. Turning a pet dog into a working dog? Ohmygooodgolly.

Training a working dog like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle.

If you’re doing it from scratch, i.e. a handpicked puppy, a 10-week old blank slate, it’s hard enough. But the edge pieces are kind of all set out for you, placed in their own pile. You can see and arrange the limits for the dog from the beginning. “No, we’re not going to spend our free time chasing rabbits. We chase people now.”

However, taking a pet dog, a 2-year-old running buddy who thinks chasing squirrels is awesome and who was heavily obedience trained (largely by coercion) into a free-thinking, good-decision making working dog. Well, that’s been hard.

Really hard. And a constant boot to the face of the ego. Oh, you thought you had it? Well, aren’t you cute.

Add to it my tendency to push to perfection, to win every fight, every ball, and to then mull over, dwell on, and worry about every little misstep, let alone the big problems we still need to fix, and well, that’s just a hot hot mess.

Our thousand piece puzzle is one of the crazy-ass black-and-white photos of a steam engine. And I damn well know I haven’t even found the edge pieces yet. We’re starting from the dead center.

It’s hard to explain to those who do not do THIS what THIS entails. How do you describe the heartbreak of a dog so tired and frustrated, he just can’t bark when it’s time?  How can you get someone to understand the very parts of your personality that make you competent and successful, that have served you fairly well for most of your adult life, are now the parts that stand in your way, that make you question him too much, that make you get in your own way?

He can’t tell me what it will take to make it all clear for him. He has the edge pieces, probably, tucked up in his furry little head.

So I’m going to have to walk behind him, the leash off and draped over my shoulders as he pushes forward. I’m going to have to figure out how to shut my mouth, or mumble the Jesus Prayer, so much that my desires for perfection, for the flawless dog, the easy search, the simple solution, the thing that makes me successful and looking good, disappears from his view.

 

Hopefully, in time, (how much longer I shudder to think) the edge pieces will reveal themselves.

Handsome SAR dog
Handsome SAR dog

A massive rescue operation

It’s Great and Holy Friday. Christ hangs on the cross in the center of the church. I will go later today to sign hymns of Lamentations, to mourn alongside His mother and disciples. Tonight we will bury Him. Tomorrow night we will await His Glorious Resurrection.

In light of all this, I want to make sure you know something. I knew it, but I forget it all the time, because I live here, in the West, where Christianity is all about a God who is so angry at us being us that He had to sacrifice His own Son to appease Himself. (Ridiculous, isn’t it.)

This was never about that.

Fr. Andrew reminded me of this no less than four times this week, in a couple of homilies and in confession. And he didn’t use these words, exactly, but it’s how my brain is wired these days, so I’m using them.

THIS WAS ALWAYS ABOUT RESCUE.

Always. From the absolute moment we decided to do what we did, and every moment of every day that we do what we do, this has been about that.

It has been about Love. And Sacrifice. About Healing. And Wholeness. It is about Death, but it is, oh boy is it, about Life.

It’s about a Divine Hand, two actually, outstretched and reaching. It’s about moving heaven, earth and the gates of hell to free us from the rubble of our own brokenness, our own hurts, our pain, our shame, our loneliness and vulnerability. It’s about pushing the broken pieces of our lives aside to get us out.

I have a lot of friends who do not believe what I believe. And that is OK with me. I love them and I love the way they challenge me and walk alongside of me and talk with me about these things, regardless of our differences.

But if you do not believe what I believe, because you have distinctly chosen to reject the god of “substitutionary atonement” (doesn’t that sound lovely), the god who “hates F#%$” and leaves tracts in restaurants in lieu of tips, the god who worries more about what people do than what people are (icons, made in His image), it’s OK. I rejected him too. I had to. That other “faith” was killing me.

And this God came for me. He showed up on a commuter train in Washington D.C. when I was on the edge, in the words of a new friend. He carefully and methodically moved aside those broken pieces in my own heart, freed me from the traps I made and is gradually putting me back together. We’re not done yet, but this isn’t a simple process. It’s always been about healing. It’s never, ever, ever been about hell.

God is Love. He kept saying that. I choose to believe Him.    The Icon of Christ the Bridegroom (Ο Νυμφίος)

Are we there yet?

“The wise thief didst thou make worthy of paradise in a single moment. By the wood of Thy cross, illumine me as well. And save me.”

I will sing this hymn late next week as we move closer to Pascha. I have never needed to sing this hymn more than I need to sing it now. Lent is always hard. ALWAYS. You try to turn your brain more inward, make it function alongside your soul, make yourself one being: Mind/Spirit/Body. You try to clean up, clear out and make a firmer move toward holiness, toward becoming deified. You mean it.

And I meant it this year. I always do. But things are getting so damn complicated anymore. The Job That Doesn’t Pay takes up a good 12 hours a week, on average. Add that to the Job That (barely) Pays and it’s 40+ and the 6.5 hours of commute time to get to that one…sigh. I’ve been a bit busy. And recent events and ridiculousness are leaving my faith frayed to dangerous extremes.

I do guilt extremely well. It’s an aggravating holdover from my Western Christian days, the days obsessed with legal standing and paying debts and all that other crap. So I feel really really guilty about missing Lenten church services (for TJTDP) to get my stuff together for a search, and for missing last weekend for a 48-hour training. There’s going to be Lazarus Saturday skipped for more training.

The corrective to that guilt, though, was the live rescue of a missing person by a K9 on our team. This work with TJTDP is necessary and I need to do it. My dog’s good at it and it’s a skill we can share. So we’re getting over that right quick.

In the middle of all this, the actual obligations, my home state decided to wade into controversy up to its eyeballs. I tried very hard to hide under a rock and ignore it, but I found it discussed everywhere, by everybody. It was as inescapable as the wind in an open field, even in places I felt were safe. It’s personal to me because I know the people behind the bill, and I know their care and concern for the “least of these” extends only to those who are adult white males, married to women. They advised my old churches on how to hide child abuse. They lobby to keep states from cracking down on abuse in religious schools, colleges and mission organizations. They are getting fitted for their millstones. (And no, I am not sorry I said that.) They miss, of course, that the Golden Rule (and pretty much all the teachings of all the Gospel) is best distilled down to “Don’t Be an Asshole.” I know, it’s hard.

I found out one of my favorite humans in all the universe suffered a terrible loss. My heart broke for her.

So I hid this week, flat out. Skipped a Wednesday liturgy, where I knew the controversy would be hanging out at the potluck. I took my pup and went to a rubble pile. Nothing makes you “present” like trying not to fall into a jagged piece of concrete, rebar sticking out everywhere, looming up where you want to put your foot.

I guess I just found my analogy. This Lent has been an absolute disaster. And I have misstepped, over-stepped and caused landslides of anger in my own heart. I find myself now, as the thief, in the last minute, the midnight hour, trying to get it right. I am reaching out and reaching up. If you read this, and you are so inclined, I ask for your prayers over the next nine days as I approach the Feast of Pascha. Pray I might find a quiet place inside my soul to retreat, even when all around me seems to be going all to hell.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a very obvious sinner.

An icon in the ditch

Our team had a good week. We kept a search a “rescue” instead of “recovery.” Our dogs did what humans couldn’t. Thank God for that. Early Friday morning, two of our dogs and two of our handlers pushed law enforcement to extend the search for just one more run, one more time. And they brought an elderly man, suffering from dementia, to his family, to a warm and comfortable house in suburban Fort Wayne. The place he belongs was just a few thousand yards from where he would have probably died, had a handsome rescued German Shepherd named Tick not pushed through the brush, scampered down a ravine and found the man, in the dead, cold middle of the night, and told all the humans in the vicinity “he’s here!”

That’s what I wanted to write about yesterday and this morning. I thought about all the times I hide for Tick, how much fun I have with him, regardless of how tired I am, or how cold or hot it is, so that he believes that humans in random places in rubble piles or forests or buildings are the absolute bees knees.  I wanted to write about how Tick’s handler is one helping to turn my Helo into a fierce, feisty little search-beast.

That’s what I was going to tell you.

But as we had our de-brief this morning, and the handlers talked about how they walked and walked, through deep mud and brambles, and how they felt when they got to him, I realized this is a different story.

SAR is about humanity. It’s about icons. It’s about the image of God, what makes us of infinite value. It’s about our souls. It’s about helping, bringing home, about restoration, and hope.

It’s about taking great care, covering the wounds, warming cold limbs, bundling up, and touching softly. It’s about removing your own coat, taking your own time, expending your own effort. It’s about asking a name, looking in eyes, holding a hand and making one safe.

It’s about Mercy. Grace. Hope. Love. And it might not even matter why a person does this, but in that moment, it is about that connection. It is about human. It is about the Image. It is about Love.

It is about all of us.

 

(But K9 SAR is also about puppies. Here’s Tick.)

tick

 

Chasing deer and Forgiveness Sunday.

Helo and I failed our second attempt at an area search certification back in December. He chased a deer. It’s an awful powerful distraction to work through, particularly when you (the dog) are yards away from your handler, already in a hunting mode (looking for a human) and a deer pops up out of the underbrush right in front of you.

It’s an awful powerful frustration to work through, if you’re the rookie handler and your dog just disappears, the little ringing of the bell on his collar fading to nothing. You call out and pray his loyalty to you and commitment to a recall is strong enough to overcome the lure of the escaping prey.

It was. But neither of us recovered. He came back to me looking like a crack addict, pupils dilated and crazy, his brain done for the day in a flood of adrenaline. For my part, I felt like I was losing a fight in the end of the last round. Punching wildly, I sent him back out to search. He found his next “victim” but instead of barking, sat down next to him and gave him a kiss. He then trotted back to me, looked up at me with his intense amber eyes. “I was supposed to do something differently there, wasn’t I.”

We were done. Back to the drawing board…which for us is not my search strategy or building his alert, but overcoming very understandable and natural desires to do what we do: to hunt and to fight/defend.

Today is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, where we gather together as parish families and seek the forgiveness of each other while we sing the hymns of Lent and the Resurrection. If I were closer to church, and not over-committed in my day, I’d be there. Sometimes though I feel like I’ve had so few interactions with my parish family that, apart from being offensive in my absence, I pretty much need to seek forgiveness from everyone else.

I chase deer all the time, my eyes glaze over as I relentlessly pursue being right or having a fight. I am easy to anger, very quick to speak, to flash hot with indignation or defense. I use a particular word, the “duct tape” of the human language, frequently as a subject, a noun, or a descriptor, in some sentences all three.

I never really understood the Orthodox idea of the “passions” until that Saturday afternoon in the woods near Camp Atterbury. These things I do are often justified, certainly in my mind, by reasonable needs, desires or wants. I am right, ergo it is OK for me to throw a fit to prove how right I am. Or you are wrong and it is hurting people, therefore it is perfectly fine for me to lose my cool and my mind. It’s not unusual for a dog to chase a deer. It’s not even a bad thing, under most circumstances.

But we’re not in most circumstances. We have a very specific job to do, and that job, finding lost people, requires us to put aside what we would rather be doing, or even could be doing. I have to ride his fuzzy little ass now to keep that hunting instinct in check, or better yet, channeled to the proper quarry for him now: humans.

My life isn’t actually most circumstances either. It’s a world populated with people with their own critical needs, hurts, fears, and losses. It’s a world that doesn’t need me losing control, even if understandable or justifiable. It’s a world that needs me to be what I am called to be: a little Christ, a person who loves well and fully, without regard for my own position. I don’t believe that means I am a pushover, but it probably means I can’t tell my bosses their ideas are %&$^# moronic. Probably, at least, not.

So for all those here in the digital world, or in my flesh-and-blood world I have offended, hurt, irritated or just generally treated badly: Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

Bless this mess

In my head, I know that someday I’m going to have one of those homes. The ones that look like a perfect picture on Pinterest (hey, look, alliteration). But I am here to tell you, this is not that someday. My stuff is still in boxes, going on two years now from the wedding day (yes, I know I should pitch it. I’ll likely never use it again). We have mismatched carpet, mismatched couches, mismatched recliners covered in throws. My husband and I are both “droppers.” We come in the door and dump it on the table. One of us (me) is way, way worse.

Once a year, the priest comes into the homes of the Orthodox with his holy water and his sprinkly-thingamabop. He puts on his stole and we kiss an icon and say some prayers and go around the house, singing “Lord, your baptism in the River Jordan taught us to worship the Trinity…” Monday was that day for me.

I spent Saturday night into Sunday morning running around a shopping mall training dogs. Last week was the week of murder and mayhem, the anniversary of a friend’s death and I just generally was pooped by Sunday evening. I tried to clean, I swear I did. Monday morning dawned with the dog puking at the foot of the bed (lovely wake-up call).

I really wanted to cancel, tell Fr. A something came up, whatever. But I didn’t and he showed up.

Funny thing about leading your priest around your house…you notice all the things you should have noticed like an hour before. Things that do not belong “out” for “company.” Things that would result in a lecture from your mother. These things. Sigh. Were. OUT.

And they got sprinkled with Holy Water. They did, along with the .45-caliber handgun on the book shelf, the pocket pistol by the television, the tac knives, and the search dog. My icon corner did as well, along with the, um, girl things, sitting on a dresser near by.

He blessed the sun porch–filled with diving gear, a flag from the fire department, EMT med bags, 24-hour search packs and the dog food. He blessed the barn, including my heavy bag and a gopher hole, a log splitter and the quads.

I was mostly appalled. I still blush.

Grace is never really convenient for me. I never get to clean up, wash my hands, straighten everything out and stop cussing loudly when it knocks on my door.

My life is EXACTLY like the house. Every single thing strewn about in our living space is exactly what we deal with every single day: the stresses of emergency response, life as a crime writer, two middle-aged adults trying to figure out married life.

And grace always shows up in the middle of it, knocking the snow off its boots and marching right into the intimate places, the vulnerable places and the mess.

Thank God. If it waited for me to straighten up first, well, nothing good would ever happen.

Another week…

Another exercise in what makes humans truly special: our ability to dig deep into ourselves and find new ways to be absolutely and completely hideous.

It’s also the one year anniversary of the death of my second mom.

I’m feeling a tad melancholy and avoiding the bourbon tonight, because well, one should moderate to avoid finding the deeply hideous in ones own self.

This time the missing-and-of-course-dead child bumped into my volunteer world ever so briefly. It was a very odd, but welcome sense that maybe I could be a part of changing an outcome. We were not. The die was cast.

As all missing-and-of-course-dead children do, this one ended up in my professional world. He will stay there for a good six to 12 months, where myself and my coworkers will translate the horrible into somewhat palatable language understood by those at an eighth-grade reading level. Owen will never leave my psychological world. He is now on the list, behind Aliahna and Alejandra, Jonathon and McKenzie. It’s unfortunately lengthening.

We now have, of course, the added joys of the social media outcry against those whose behavior descends into the depths. That’s been also rather un-edifying, these urges we have on Facebook to cry for those who harm others to be horribly harmed themselves. We tap into these dark places in ourselves, and feel so righteous in doing it. Perfectly reasonable and good Christian people post on the social media pages of those who are charged about how much they would like to see them suffer sadistically, to be humiliated and debased. In making such claims, such calls for “justice” we debase only ourselves. I understand the impulse. I do. But I know that for myself, seeing these posts make me feel almost as sick as reading the details in the charging documents, almost as horrified as understanding the “how” and the “what.”

Now, though, speaking of social media, a Facebook friend tonight opined that we, humans, were incredibly fragile and ferociously strong. I love this, so very much.

I know that right now, as I sit here in the dark of my living room, listening the dishwasher and the fireplace, I feel pretty normal, and mundane. But I realize, as I also think about the anniversary of the death of my friend, that control, the ability to stave off the darkness, is an illusion. We are all so incredibly fragile.

In those moments though, when the doctor comes into the room, when the pagers go off, when the world gets all pear-shaped, when our loved ones are particularly vulnerable, we can find that place in all of us where we are so very ferociously strong.

I hope to be that way for others, for myself, in whatever way that I can. And I hope that what I find when I am forced to dig into the depths of who I am, I find who I was created to be. I hope that it is good.

A good workout

Stuff’s been weird lately. You know, how you get yourself a little cross-threaded in your head, and it’s just not going forward or coming out. Church hasn’t been the safe place I’d been needing it to be. Work’s been ridiculous for all the stupid going on, exhausting in its whimsy. The only places things seem to make sense right now are in this strange new thing called marriage, and atop the rubble pile or on the training field.

Today I started the day with an interesting conversation with one of my favorite people, an African-American pastor who is always in the courthouse, ministering and chatting to all who cross his path.  We were talking about how “hard” everything is here–the crimes, the poverty, the injustice, the inequity. Then he reminded me how really simple it all is.

“Love God and love others?” I said.

“Yep. That’s it.”

Then he told me a story about a woman he sees at the gym–who works out constantly, going from one machine to another. But she’s always on the phone, never pushing herself. Never breaking a sweat. And she’s still gaining weight. Working out is work. Not complicated, but work. We’re supposed to be working.

Then this afternoon, I covered a little thing. Not a big story, but probably an important story. And while doing it I encountered a Jewish writer and consultant. He tells me of this old Hebrew blessing–“May you go from strength to strength.” He amends it a bit when he’s working with kids. He adds “…and may you give that strength to others.” We’re happiest, he said, when we are working on being better people.

I’m not sure whether I’m up to the workout right now. Mostly I feel  like I’m just trying to keep my own poop in a group. I’m not real good (read: at all) at loving others, and am pretty sure the only living creature I can tolerate for more than 20 minutes is my dog. But I’m still trying, I guess, to be “better people.”

 

Blame the dog

(Or How Dogs Change Everything)

There’s a sign hanging in the training building I have seen or heard with every trainer I’ve ever worked with: “It’s never the dog’s fault.”

It’s true. It’s not Helo’s fault if I can’t figure out how to get him to understand what I’m asking of him. It’s not his fault he’s a dog and not a person who walks on all fours.

But I blame him, and his predecessor Sunshine, for so much anyway. And it’s ok. I think my trainers will let me.

On April 15, 2006 I met my sister at the Hacienda Restaurant in Warsaw to collect a middle-aged Golden Retriever. Three days before I got the dog, I came back from Rome, having cancelled the wedding plans with the Great Italian A$$hole (it’s a great story, ask me about it sometime when we’re drinking adult beverages). It needed to happen, and one of the reasons it did happen was because I knew I had something waiting for me very soon.

I grew up with dogs, a dog specifically, a beautiful Lab from hunting trial lines who kept me sane and kept me safe from myself for more than a decade growing up in that house. But in my adult life in Fort Wayne, I had not been able to get (or was afraid to allow myself) a dog.  Sunny was the perfect dog to bridge that gap.

As I drove away from the restaurant, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw a scene I would see constantly for the next six years–that big soft red-gold head propped between the back seats, dozing as she watched out the window. That big sweet dog accompanied me to therapy sessions, got me off my couch and introduced me to my neighbors. My desire to give her more room led to the purchase of my house. 381512_10150514677219437_278700776_n

She slept under my desk in the bureau, and went with me to everything from fire scenes to school board meetings. She spent an afternoon with the Bluffton police chief while I covered a court hearing.

I know that her constant presence in my life healed my heart in a way I could not have predicted that day I watched her hop into my car. I know that what she nurtured in my soul prepared the way for A. When she became ill at the end, A came to my house and helped me put her on her bed. As Sunny was unable to stand or walk, my friend J came the next morning with me to take her to the vet. When it was time for her to cross the Bridge, I held her head in my lap and her leg in my hand as I thanked her and told her it was OK to go.

A week later, that little fuzzy ball of black fur with the speckled tan paws showed up, a polar opposite of that old Golden in every way possible.

With Helo, it became clear from moment one he needed a job. Sunshine possessed no motivation for anything beyond rawhide bones and belly rubs. Helo, though, he wanted to be with me all the time, assist me in whatever task I was doing, climb on my lap, chew on my hands and shred anything he could find.

Within a few months of his arrival, we were in obedience classes. We walked every day to the football field at a nearby college campus and I wore his furry little butt out with tennis balls and soccer.

When I moved in with A, Helo’s life became fields and groundhogs, barns to explore and new roads to run. But it wasn’t enough. So we got him another job (hopefully) and with it, more people for me to meet, friendships to build and adventures to have.

I blame Sunshine for so much of this, for starting me on this journey by being safe. I blame Helo for the rest of it, for needing so much more from me than I thought I could give.

In the book of Tobit, there is a dog. The dog came out with Tobit’s son and journeyed with him. That is all we know.

1426301_10151916285291743_240149804_nFor me, the dog has often led and I’m fine with that.