The long way around

How Helo makes me a better person, part the infinity.


A little over a week ago, my fuzzy little partner and I passed our certification test to allow us to be deployable as a human remains detection unit with our SAR team. I’m already a SARTech II, or a certified “ground pounder”, so I have been searching and backing up our other K9 units for a few years. But now, as my nephew put it, someone will do that for me.

Those of you who know me, or follow this space, know this has not been the easiest of journeys. I do not have one of those dogs who is strong enough, or who functions in such high drive that he is immune to my weaknesses as a handler. I have a dog who is in tune with me, always, for good or for bad. As I struggled, he struggled. As I failed, he floundered. As I grew, he grew. When I sorted it out, he settled in. It took a while, much longer than I would have liked or could have dreamed, but we got there.

And I am grateful.

It took me eight years to get through college, for a variety of reasons. I didn’t settle into my career until I was 26. And I didn’t get married until I was almost 40. For whatever reason, it takes me longer. I find the longer, circuitous route and that’s the one I choose to travel, or the one the universe picks for me.

This one could have looked a little different, if we’d gone out and picked up another dog, found a creature so independent of me, my anxieties, my lack of knowledge, my need to control would have been overshadowed by its drives and its gifts. But we didn’t do that. The boss in The Job That Doesn’t Pay didn’t give up on the dog, and didn’t give up on the partnership.

Helo and I remained tethered together for the duration.

He did everything I asked him to do. He learned how to show commitment to the target odor. He barked when he found it. He pushed through heavy brush, stuck his head in thorns, hollow tree trunks and ran his little nose along the thresholds of the doors. He worked.

And he waited for me to change. He waited for me to get myself together. So I did more work on myself. I learned how to study dogs. I learned what his different ear positions meant, what his footsteps looked like when he was in scent. I found ways to manage my anxieties, my cursed need for perfection and control. I got my poop in a group.

I’m not sure why I don’t get to take the easier way. And I know that every single person knows that their ways aren’t easy either. Our journeys are always unique. Their distances and their clocks vary. Sometimes that has nothing to do with us, or any lesson we are to learn. Sometimes it is just difficult. It just sucks.

But this one was about learning and about growth. And it is on me to fight to maintain it, to keep the cobwebs out of our partnership, to keep him engaged and comfortable and safe with me as his handler.

And now we get to go to work.

Our things

Every morning, I take a small cream-colored pill. And every night, I take a white one. The cream-colored pill helps me get through my day and the white one, my night.

I have PTSD. And I’ve probably had it most of my life.

I got it from my father, but unlike my hair color and blue eyes and weak chin, it’s not genetic. It’s just something I picked up along the way. How it came to me is a story for another time, maybe not even this place. But it is who I am. It is as much a part of me now, of my personality, as those blue eyes and my loud laugh. It makes me warier than I would probably want to be. It makes me restless and edgy on some days, tired and unfocused on others. But mostly it makes me frustrated.

Frustrated because it is here. Frustrated because I had to explain it to my boyfriend when we “got serious.” Frustrated because there are certain places I don’t go, certain things I don’t eat, certain situations into which I try not to place myself because I just don’t feel safe and certain times of the year when I cannot seem to get it together. The situations and places are probably safe, but my brain no longer registers them as such.

I came to this place, which is actually now a pretty good one, after years of struggle and denial and anger. And like an addict, I had to reach the “rock bottom,” which for me was a particularly embarrassing and volatile encounter with a police officer (yes, I know, the irony) that probably could have resulted in my arrest and subsequent loss of my job. But it didn’t because God’s gracious and my friends were there to help me out and I, praise God, took the hint.

I got some help. I found a therapist. I joined the Orthodox Church and found a priest. I have a psychiatrist and a golden Retriever with the softest ears and most peaceful demeanor God ever bestowed upon a creature.

I don’t know why I am sharing this with you, my five or six (I’m optimistic) loyal readers, tonight. Maybe there’s someone that needs it. Maybe I need to say it. I say it, I tell it, because we all have our things: our PTSD, our loneliness, our alcoholism, our cancer, our cheating spouses, our hideous parents or our difficult kids.

But whatever our things, we have this NOW, this place where our things are with us, and God is with us and our lives are lived. And we have this grace, this tremendous thing God does for us in His love –this provision, this care, these relationships that help carry us across the asphalt (like the turtles).

I want for all of you, and for me, to be well, to be safe and to know that we are all still in His hands. We are all forever in the grip of His grace, regardless of our experiences, our choices and our struggle.

Our souls are safe.

No saint

Happy back-to-eating meat, everybody! Oh, you were still eating meat? My bad. Happy Feast Day of Sts. Peter and Paul to me!! I had fried chicken for supper.

So tomorrow (tonight liturgically) marks the end of the Apostles’ Fast and the celebration of the lives of the best evangelists (especially for my Protestant friends)–Peter and Paul.

St. Peter always gives me hope. Fr. Andrew again reminded me of why — here’s this obnoxious, occasionally whiny, finger-pointing, temper-losing and Christ-denying dude who becomes a saint. Not just a saint, but one of the big first ones, one who planted churches, wrote Scripture and whatnot.

Today, Fr. Stephen wrote about the saints among us, these people who make the world, the workplace, the home, the Church, better because of their presence. These people who speak no ill of others, who love well, laugh often and generally uplift.

Like St. Nicholas of Zicha, (and South Canaan, PA) who wrote “Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.”

That ain’t me.

My best hope for sainthood is probably what Flannery O’Connor said: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Maybe, though, if I keep working out my salvation, keep confessing to Fr. Andrew about how certain people drive me crazy and make me mad and how I let my thoughts become actions and become attitudes, maybe one day after all this. I know I draw my sword too quickly, cutting off ears of those nearby. I know I deny that which I hold dear. I gossip. I malign. I’m just generally a jackass. (or something else, if you like)

Maybe someday, even if not here.

A happy carnivore

I ate meat today. It’s Friday. Happy tummy!

Fort Wayne’s annual Ribfest was today, so I spent way too much money on a fantastic beef brisket and a glass of Fat Tire. And it’s a Friday. For the first time since I’ve been Orthodox, Ribfest fell outside the Apostle’s Fast, a brief, meat-free period in mid-June that gives me pause at cookouts. Because it was the week after Pentacost, there was also no fasting from meat on Wednesday and Friday this week. Gastronomical perfection available to me today. Three cheers for how the calendar worked out this year. Hip-hip-horray!

As I clipped off my I-am-old-enough-and-plan-to-consume-adult-beverages bracelet from the festival, I remembered my old no-drinking, no-movies, no-playing-with-face-card days. And I compared it to my fast-filled word in the Orthodox church. There’s a big hairy-arsed difference.

We fast, I fast, from meat and dairy (when I can) nearly every Wednesday and Friday, about 50 days before Pascha, 40 days before Christmas, about 14 days in August and usually about seven days in June. When you add it up, I’m a vegetarian about half the year. I want to be clear: I like meat. If God didn’t intend us to eat meat, He wouldn’t have put New York strip steaks on cows. Just saying.

I don’t abstain because it earns me points with Jesus or because there is something inherently wrong with meat-eating. I abstain because it is a discipline. It gives me a minute to pause and think about Christ’s betrayal (Wednesdays) or His death (Fridays). It helps me focus on what is important before the big feast days, simplifying my menu and my life.

In my Christian life Before Orthodoxy, way before I even knew of it, we didn’t drink alcohol. We didn’t do a lot of things. We didn’t do these things because they led to other things that were bad (drunkenness, gambling, fun…) But we didn’t replace them with anything. We certainly didn’t get any benefit from such abstinence, that would be “works” coming into our salvation. Can’t have that.

So any indulgence in anything verboten brought nothing but guilt and spiritual navel gazing, at least for me. Is God going to be mad? What if someone sees me? What if it keeps people from being saved?

I do a lot worse things to harm the Kingdom in a thousand different ways throughout the day, other than my consumption of adult beverages. And those are things I should worry about. Refraining from meat, in theory, should cause me to be more aware of those things and put my mind in a more God-centered way.

But on these glorious days, when all is available to me, I feel no guilt. What I feel is a deep gratitude for the gift given me, not just in the wonderful food, but also my salvation. I am still mindful of what happened on a Friday, in part because my normal routine was interrupted.

But I gotta tell you, that brisket was pretty good. So was the sauce.

My bad

Another day, another court hearing with horrific autopsy pics. This time, I actually hugged the court reporter after the hearing. I couldn’t help myself and she’s been in just about all the hearings with me lately. So much for emotional distance.

I make mistakes. And when I make mistakes in my job, thousands of people see them. Some of them take to the email or the phone and leave me messages about what an idiot I obviously am, or question whether I have a soul or something. They do not give a thick skin when you graduate from j-school. It’s developed over time, or you quit.

My mom always taught me when you make a mistake, you own it. If you bump into somebody, you say excuse me. You say you’re sorry. In my line of work, though, the wrong apology can confirm all the lawyers need for a lawsuit. So I have to be careful, judicious even.

One of the things I learned about three years into my career at the paper where I work now is that the stories that I write matter to people sometimes. You forget when you cover a city council meeting and you talk to people who talk to people like you as part of their job. But when you have to talk to John or Jane Q. Public –the victim’s parents or the subject of your profile –what you are doing is almost sacred. They are trusting you with something important, a part of them. Maybe they didn’t even ask to give it to you, you just swooped in and said, “oh, that’s interesting/tragic/odd. Tell me more.”  I learned this lesson when I attended a viewing for a county councilman who had just passed away. A profile I had done of him a few months before was matted in a massive and gorgeous frame, sitting on an easel right next to the foot of the casket. I hoped it had been typo-free, accurate and fair.

Just about 30 days ago, I misspelled the name of a dead guy, an actual honest-to-goodness victim. I got the obligatory emails and phone calls and took them like a kind of penance, I guess. Seriously, who is that careless? I am apparently. Yesterday, the young man’s family was in court for an emotional hearing – the sentencing for the man who shot their beloved son, brother, boyfriend.

I met the mother outside the courtroom, notebook closed and metaphorical hat in hand.  “I am sorry,” I told her. “I pride myself in being careful and I was not careful with something very important to you.”

I waited. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d belted me in the face. That’s what I would have done, I know me. She cried. She said thank you. Then she wanted me to quote her for the next day’s story. I came into the newsroom today to a phone message from her husband, also saying thank you. I cried at my desk. (I know, I know, there’s no crying in baseball.)

Grace is an odd thing. I see it a lot in what I do, in weird places and strange situations, from people who would be the least likely to show it.  It’s always weird, too, when you’re on the receiving end of it. There was no reason for that woman to be nice to me, no reason for her to give me the time of day.

In Orthodoxy, we view grace a bit different than how it is viewed in Western Christianity. For us, it is not merely being treated in a way different from how we deserve, but it is actually the presence of God. It is the Divine Energy of God. It is how we/I know Him.

That woman showed God to me and so did her husband. I didn’t deserve that, but God in His great love doesn’t remove Himself from us ever. Even in the cavernous hallways of the courthouse. Even when I make a mistake.

On Courage

Update: 2015. They took it back. Still covering it up.

UPDATE: ABWE submits to a full investigation by G.R.A.C.E. Glory to God!

Or whom I want with me during the battle.

This is not a happy story. This is not a story about puppies or rainbows. And I wish I could say no one was harmed in its telling. But life is not a happy story, and we are all harmed in its telling.

We ran around like a litter of puppies, six girls, two families. One in my grade, and one below, one after that and one after that. We played in the park, climbed the trees, played on the basketball teams together and sat in AWANA clubs, side by side.  The older one and I, a year apart in age but in the same grade, were friends on Sundays but there was always a good chance we’d be rivals by Wednesday and bitter enemies by Friday. But that’s what you do when you’re 10 or 12.

Those three other girls, their father was born with the specs and manuals for every single mechanism inside his head. He married a good woman, raised four beautiful daughters and loved Jesus with his whole heart.  Because of his extraordinary gift, he decided to move his family to the jungles of south Asia to help keep a hospital up and running, a surgeon for the necessary machines. So he did, they did. They packed all their belongings in big barrels and shipped their lives over to Bangladesh for a year. They came home for awhile to raise money to go back and then they left again. I always missed them, my friends and my rivals.

They came back and there were rumors and over the years we knew something Not. Right. We, I, had no idea how not right it was.

The youngest daughter, 14 in 1989, was nearly devoured by a wolf. Not a four-footed, furry wolf, but it may as well have been. It was a wolf in surgical garb, a doctor, a hero of the faith. The big man on campus, the one who pulled in all the money with his glory stories of children saved and souls won for Jesus. The surgeon.  And in the interest of expedience, the surgeon is to be saved. Forget the mechanic. Forget the girls. Forget the family. Save the ministry.

They packed everything back up inside those barrels and brought it all home, leaving something so important behind in the jungles and bringing back a cancer with them. It will be ok, they were told. We’re taking care of it, they were told.

As they set about rebuilding their lives here in the mundane Midwest, the cancer grew. To use a different analogy, their house was set ablaze, devouring memories and engulfing potential. But don’t worry, they were told by those that were in charge. Stay in the living room, don’t fret. The smoke you smell, that’s for the big happy Baptist camp bonfire. We’re all going to roast marshmallows and eat S’MORES. It’s going to be ok.

Back in March, and I don’t know why, the other survivors of the wolf, as well as those three brave girls, decided enough was enough.  But unlike what I would have done, which would have been criminal, they collected their stories, strung together their facts and wove an inescapable net and threw it over the mission agency, the Association of Baptist for World Evangelism if you’re keeping score. (I am but I know I shouldn’t be). They presented their evidence for all  the world to see on this blog. They confronted and badgered like the widow before the unjust judge. All they want is to identify all his victims and to figure out how it stayed secret so long. The righteous mission agency continues to obfuscate and hedge and whine and whimper before the face of all this truth: the hot fire they themselves set.

They, the mission board, promised yet again they will take care of it, that they will deal with the problem. But how big a problem is it now? The surgeon, the wolf, came back to the states with spiritual cover. No one in the appropriate agencies was told about what he was: a pedophile. So he has continued to practice medicine in the Grand Rapids area. (If you live there or are from there, his name is Donn Ketcham and he should not have access to your daughters)

I am not optimistic that these women will yet find justice. That’s just me and I’m prone to dark thoughts. I know this, though, my life is better for having been involved in small ways in this fight with them. I know that while the mission board can put them off as angry women, to me they are those three little girls with whom I played and with whom I argued like sisters so many years ago. Those girls are who I have in mind when I light a candle in the narthex of my church on Sundays.  Those girls are on my mind and in my heart when I pray during the Liturgy “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

These women, their parents and those other survivors have shown more grace, more courage than anyone I have ever known. I write this as a tribute to them and ask that if you are a person of faith, you pray that their fight ends soon, that they find justice and peace. If you are not a person of faith, do not see this as a reason not to believe, but look to their example of the Christian life and see how honorable it is when you do things the right way, even in the face of such horror.

Lord, have mercy.