Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Funny Story

Recently, we were wondering what to do for our Korean teacher at the end of the course. There are only three of us, but usually the class pitches in and gets her a plaque or framed photograph or something. There was also the baseball bat, the cavalry saber and the infamous Mae-Mae Stick (that's another story!) but she already has a bunch of both ornaments and weapons. However, in a stroke of pure genius, one of us, M, came up with the perfect plan. His wife is currently doing pottery as a hobby in a nearby town, and they have a little shop where you can go, buy the pottery, paint it however you want, and they will fire it and glaze it for you. Now, one thing you have to know about M is that he is a silver tongued bandit. I've seen him talk on the phone to operators and such, and the moment he hears a woman's voice on the other end of the line, you can hear the change in his voice. He practically pours charm through the phone line, and they eat it up. He's a pretty good guy, all round, but he has a natural talent for charming ladies, and this was one of his typically charming notions. He thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if the three of us went out there and each painted up a piece of pottery and put our pictures in the bottom of them, and gave them to Sunsengnim (that's the honorific title for a teacher or older person) so she could have something useful and cool." So just to be sure, he went out to the shop with his wife one weekend, to make sure it was going to be fun. He made himself a little cigar tray using very simple, bold colors, whipped it out in twenty minutes and congratulated himself on having found the perfect idea.

So then he had to explain to his team sergeant why he needed to get off from PT on monday afternoon.

"You're going to do what? Dude, you know if you want to skip out of PT once in a while, all you have to do is just ask. You don't have to come up with a story like that."

So that was taken care of. He then convinced B and I (I didn't take much convincing) and accordingly we headed out to this artsy little town together after class one day, in lieu of tromping around in the woods for three hours with a 65 pound ruck.

As soon as we got into town I knew exactly what we were in for, and B started having second thoughts. It is one of those old, artsy southern towns with plenty of tea shops, coffee shops, bakeries, and Obama stickers. It even has a wine tasting shop. There appears to be a building code that requires there to be at least one art shop per block, and all the buildings along the whole strip (one street, going one way on one side of the old railroad tracks, and the other way on the other side) are made of brick. I half expected to see some skinny painter with a beret and a scarf sitting at one of the corners, or perhaps a picturesquely unfashionable poet being melancholy over a bottle of wine at one of the outdoor tables. All in all, it's without a doubt the nicest town within an hour's drive. It's beyond me how it managed to remain so clean and pretty, while Fayetteville, just across post, is a total ghetto.

But I digress.

M parked across the street from the pottery shop, and we got out, B voicing his concern about how the shop looked a little on the not-particularly-masculine side (and why shouldn't it? It is owned and operated by women.) Usually he and I play the rennaisance men to M's typical Infantry Officer mentality, but this time it was B who was mentioning how it would look for three soldiers (in uniform) to go into a pottery shop together and sit down at one of those tables that looked they came right out of pre-school, and start painting pottery. And I admit, it was probably not what you would expect, but then I've always thought that it's probably not healthy to be a cold-blooded killer all the time, so, visualizing a samurai composing a haiku about cherry blossoms, I entered into the thing wholeheartedly. Besides, I haven't messed around with painting stuff since I was a kid.

We picked out a piece each, M grabbed a coffee mug, I grabbed a sushi bowl, and B got the plate since he's the artist of the group and that was going to be the center piece, with the picture of us and Sunsengnim in the middle. This was what M had been looking forward too because, while he just likes to throw things together and see how they turn out, he knew that B draws comics and other kinds of art, while I'm an uber perfectionist, so he was ready to watch and laugh as we both became totally immersed in our projects, while he finished his in record time. So we took off our blouses, and sat down at the brightly colored pre-school table with the fingerpaint trays, three big, tough Special Forces soldier wannabes, and commenced to painting. And we painted, and we painted, and we painted. Even M took longer than he expected because he hit upon the notion of doing zebra stripes, and that turned out to be more complicated than you might think. B incorporated elements from the Korean flag with his own color scheme and a fading black border around where the photo is going to be, while I experimented with a blue, watery looking idea for my sushi bowl, finishing it up with a water lily and lily pad painted on the bottom so you actually have to turn the bowl upside down to see it. The flower alone took the better part of an hour, and M's comment was, "Wow, out of control, man. Out of control."

We painted. Of course we made mistakes, and our lines weren't straight and whatnot, but as B said, it's the thought that counts. Sunsengnim is like our Korean mom. She feeds us, teaches us, scolds us, and is actually about the same age as my mom. Actually, she's the grandmotherly kind of lady, whose own kids are grown, but who isn't actually a grandmother yet, so she adopts stray kids, or in this case, soldiers who need to learn Korean. So it really doesn't matter whether the stuff is really a work of art in the end. She'll like it anyway.

A mother and her two daughters (who probably were actually in pre-school) came in, painted, and left, and still we painted. Finally, after three hours, we were finished. Actually, the other two were finished well before I was, but they waited. And it was pretty marvelous, if I do say so myself. B still wasn't sure that he wouldn't rather have done land nav, but he did say he would probably come back with his wife and kids sometime.

Now all we have to do is wait for them to be finished, and then M's wife will pick them up, and we will give them to Sunsengnim next week, which is test week. I need to get some pictures, and post them on here. I'm pretty excited.

Also kind of tired. I stayed up far later than I planned in order to write this.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Return of the King

See, he returns, in grave triumphant joy,
The warrior returning, from the wars, from the strife
Proud and fierce and tall, who before was bent
Strong now he, whom lately we thought crushed
And bowed, and wounded sore and maimed
And in the end destroyed, yet here he comes.
Beyond all hope, beyond all looked for joy,
The foe lies slain, the hero's sword is sheathed
And he, himself returns to claim his bride.

He crests the hill, and sees her from afar
And calls her name. She hears and knows his voice.
Even from afar, she is all fair.
All pure and white and spotless is his bride
For whom he fought, and bled and all endured.
She scored his heart with pain, yet still he loved,
And now his love is hers, and she is his.
And he to her is more than she could wish
Rugged, strong and brave, a warrior born
Forged to burnished steel in hell's hot flames
Which tried him sore, but could not overcome.
Which only proved his mettle, and his love.

He sees her thus afar, and she sees him.
It is... too much... they can't wait anymore,
But each toward the other cries out and runs.
She stepping lightly, but he, a juggernaut
A perfect storm of peril, strength and speed,
Leaping, bounding, pushing all aside.
He will not be stopped, desire cannot be stayed
Nor even any longer slowed, for now,
His patience sees its end, its one true goal.
He bears down on her with all his burning heart,
A hunter, warrior, lover, husband, king
'Til just before it seems they must collide
(Certain death to her, thrice welcomed end)
He pauses, holds, is still, and draws her close
And gently, gently, seals her with his kiss.

Friday, February 26, 2010


All things work together for good to them that love God.
I was reminded of this verse (Romans 8:28) today in my xanga subs this morning, and then again after daily Mass. It was good to be reminded of this, since I was very busily engaged in reviewing an second guessing all the decisions I've ever made, which is kind of fun, if you've never tried it. It makes you feel important. You can feel like you're accomplishing something, without doing anything productive.
But you have to wonder if our choices really matter as much as we think they do. Of course, with any choice, God is not neutral. He definitely has a way He would prefer to see us go, and we ought to search out that way, but, I don't know about the rest of you, I've never received any kind of certainty about what that path is supposed to be. From that, I am forced to draw the conclusion that I don't need it. If I did, it would be given.

Whenever I need certainty, I have it. I know what the right thing to do is in most day to day situations. Then the problem is choosing it. But when it comes to major life decisions, does it really matter? If all things work together for good, to them that love the Lord, then in one sense it doesn't. Nor does it make sense to judge decisions then based on what I know now. If I make a decision based on the best information I have, striving for the most noble thing, asking for God's guidance, and trusting Him to head me off if I do something crazy, then how can that decision be a wrong one. It may not always be wise, or prudent, but it must be good and just and loving. If this trusting surrender is the impetus behind every decision, then I think it can be made in confidence, and stuck with when the second-guessing happens (it always does).
You see, we live in such a universe, created by such a God, that do as we will, go where we will, choose as we like, we can not escape His love. We stand at crossroads all the time, and stress about which road we take, which is the best one, which one will take us where we will be happiest, and God laughs. It's so hard to explain how I see it. The choice is not a burden, it is a gift. It is a share in the uncontrollable fertility of God's creative love. Not content with laying only one set of blessing in front of us, and only one path to walk, from which, if we stray, we lose all the blessings forever, He instead gave us an infinity of choices. It's as if He is saying, "Try me. There is more good that I have in store for you than you can ever taste in one lifetime. Go where you will in your life, there will be samples along every possible path you can take, because I will be with you no matter where you go." The blessings are not part of the path only, but also moment by moment gifts from God.

The agonizing over choices can sometimes be a lack of trust, a cynical attitude that knows no matter what we choose, we're going to have to give something up. If we take the right hand course, all the left hand sights will be denied us, and if we take the left, we won't see what the right is like. Cynicism always looks at what will be lost by every choice. Trust always sees what will be given, confident that no matter what we choose, God will be there first. The only thing that can truly deny us the gift, is sulking.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Lady

My name was Dullus Marius, stationed in Galillee,
I was a centurion, the toughest in the valley.
Of all strong, hate-filled men I was then the worst,
Now I fight for The Nazarean, but I saw her first.
I saw her only once and stopped to stare.
She was tall and stood straight, forthright and fair,
Fair, divinely fair, with spring blossoms woven
In dark honey hair, in smooth locks cloven.
The loveliest work of His most divine art
With not the slightest evil in her heart.
The mother I never knew, the sister I never had,
The woman all men love. She was both sorrowful and glad.
Her eyes as deep as the starry midnight sky,
She turned full upon me as she passed by.
I bowed in deepest shame, and there and then
Swore myself her son, though I never saw her again.

This is an old poem, but among all of my poems it is still one of my favorites. It is even more Marian, and therefore more relevant, than when I wrote it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Inch by Inch

The date was sometime in september of 2009. The days tend to run together. The dates that we assign in the outside world have very little meaning in SFAS. The days are numbered sequentially starting at 00 and going to the last day of the course. This was the second time I went and this time it was a fourteen day course, and so the only date that had any meaning was the number of the class day. Fourteen days can be an eternity. This was probably day 10 or 11.

It was team week, and actually the first day of team week. Up until now everything had been an individual event, but now we were being tested to see how well we worked on a team. We had rocked our first event, the ammo crate carry, largely because we had a tough, determined captain in the leadership position, and there were a few tough, fast guys on the team who could carry their weight and a little extra. After a short, bitterly cold break to down an MRE (once you stop moving the sweat and dehydration combine with the wind to make you feel like it's about ten degrees out), we were given our next task. This was a bit more complicated than the last one. Given some tires, some pipes, a rope, some webbing and a 55 gallon drum full of water, we had to move ourselves and all equipment along a designated route in a specified time. The time started as soon as we touched the equipment.

From the very first it was rough going. Everyone had an idea how to build the contraption. I had done this event before the first time I went so I already knew some of the worst mistakes. We avoided those, but still, it's not an easy thing to build. With time ticking away, we were forced to lash it together somewhat haphazardly, and move out. At first it looked like it might be pretty good. The wheels were too big for the pipe and so they would splay outwards or inwards, work their way off the pipe, or both turn the same way at the same time and steer the whole thing off the road, but as long as we kept some guys running alongside and kicking the tires back into place, they seemed to roll like they were meant to. That is, until we went down the first hill, and splashed into a creek. It was nearly two feet of water, and the tires slipped in different directions. All the lashings were soaked and began to stretch and loosen. After that it was miserable. We had to haul the thing up out of the water by main strength, and try to fix it as best we could. Time was still ticking, and it soon became apparent that we weren't going to make it. As soon as the time hack was up the Cadre was going to take over, and there were horror stories about what they would do. We had heard of teams who had been made to drag everything back to the beginning, take it all apart, rebuild it and start all over again. Others were forced to take it all apart in the road and run relay sprints with it, piece by piece, all the way back to Camp McCall. There was no way this was going to end well for us.

After we got it up out of the water and on the road again, things got worse. Camp McCall is mostly sand, and this route went through some of the thickest of it. We quickly figured out that what we needed was pulling power, so the three biggest guys, myself and two others, moved up into the rope harness. We were the only three guys on the team who broke 200 pounds. One of them had a rigger's belt on, so he turned it around backwards and snapped it to the rope with a carabiner. The other guy and I stepped inside the loop and thus began some of the slowest miles I have ever trudged.

How to convey the misery of that event... I have no words. I'm pretty strong, and the other two guys were pretty strong. The barrel only weighed 440 pounds. But the wheels, and the sand. It was a nightmare. We would roll a few feet, maybe a hundred, and then the wheels would splay again, or we would hit a particularly sandy patch and everything would stop. Myself and the two others would take a deep breath, and lean into it. We would dig in our heels, scrabbling for purchase until we dug through the sand to solid ground, then plant our feet and give a mighty heave. I can deadlift well over four hundred pounds on a bar, and the other two could probably do the same, but we would pull and strain, absolutely stationary, sweat dripping down our foreheads and rolling down our backs, sometimes for as much as a minute, before something would give and the whole blasted piece of junk would slide forward an inch. An Inch! a full minute of the hardest lift I've ever done in my life and all we gained was an inch! And this was the norm for that trip. Our apparatus was a piece of junk, and we were paying for it. One inch at a time, sometimes for hundred meter stretches. Every time we moved an inch, I could feel the uselessness of it all, the abject futility. There are 5280 feet in a mile. That's 63,360 inches. We had, well, I don't even know how many miles. Probably four. Maybe only three. My perceptions were a bit distorted at the time, but three or four miles would have been an average length movement. Every time we hit a spot like that, and every time we gave it everything we had, we moved about 1/200,000th of the distance. I crouch low, dig in my feet, push against the harness for all I'm worth, and nothing changes. At times I can struggle and grunt for what seems like eternity, with no result. There may be times when everything inside just wants to quit. Throw up the hand, say, "Hey, Sar'nt, I voluntarily withdraw from this course." Just one sentence, and then I can drop ruck on the side of the road, drink some water, snack on an MRE, and wait for the truck to come pick me up, while I watch the rest of the team picking up my share of the weight. There is no punishment for quitting Selection. In fact, there is immediate reward. We saw the voluntary withdrawals everyday, and they could shower, do laundry, and sleep whenever they liked, and not only eat hot chow, but eat as much as they wanted. No hazing, no stress, no stone faced cadre watching and watching and watching. They were just waiting for a bus back to Bragg and a plane back to wherever they came from. There is no punishment for quitting. All the punishment is in perseverence, in fighting for that 1/200,000 of the way back to the huts.

And yet, it wasn't useless. That was 1/200,000th closer than we were before. If all you can do is one inch a minute, that's still faster than zero inches per minute. And since I'm writing this, it did end at some point. We even did pretty well, all things considered. Only one team beat us back. A hurricane hit right after we got back to the huts and other teams were still out in it. One team was out in it all night. How did we do so well with such a rotten set up?

I think there is a lot to be said for sheer stubborness. We were legitimately giving it everything we had, as a team and as individuals. No one quit. No one whined. There was almost no arguing, and no disagreement with authority. We simply pulled, because that was what we said we would do. It's one of those things that you can't go through unchanged.

Sometimes God asks us to do things. He asks us to remain pure in an impure world. He asks us to remain hopeful in a despairing world, faithful in an apostate world, and loving in a hateful and indifferent world. It's pulling through the sand, and the devil is quick to point out how long the road stretches ahead. He's cruel like that, pitiless and spiteful. So you just got through one day without (insert besetting sin here). Did you feel how hard that was? How much you had to struggle, just to acheive that? That almost broke you in half, and what did you gain? One day. One lousy day. Tomorrow morning you will wake up and have to do it all over again. There are 365 days in a year, and you may live another 50 years. You do the math. You've taken one step, so what. And beyond that, even that step you've taken is useless. You struggled for nothing. You're going to fall again, it's only a matter of time. You'll slip, you'll fall back, and you'll lose even this ground you've worked so hard to gain. Why are you torturing yourself? No one will blame you. Just let it go. Let it go, and relax. Rest. Be at peace.

At times like these, there is something very fine, I think, in simply gritting the teeth and taking one more step. I may not be able to see the end. I don't even know what the end is. I just know I can take one more step. I know I can say one more prayer. I have to. I promised. There is something very right about taking that step, and saying that prayer, for no other reason than because in better times I promised I would. Maybe there is nothing left now but the decision, no happiness, no peace, no comfort, no glory, no hope, but there is always grace.

I call it Holy Stubbornness.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Story of a Wolf

Deep in a thicket, a wolf lived alone,
Scorning the pack he hunted on his own.
He fought the puma and the bear and stole their kill,
Roaming free, he lived by his own will.
Free and fierce and utterly untamed,
He killed and ate and did all unashamed.
He nothing knew or cared of pity, he stood apart
Exulting in his strength and hardness of heart
And fleet flying paw and earth gripping claw,
That flowed with power behind bone snapping jaw.
All love to him was alien and strange,
Until one day there came a deadly change.

He came upon a meadow and halted at its edge,
A lamb was running there, bounding through the sedge
In the marsh, and clover on the hill.
The wolf's cold heart shuddered and was still.
He watched the lambkin run and leap and prance
With joyous abandon, her young springtime dance.
For the first time he could not slay,
Though he was hungry, nor could he slink away.
He stayed to watch her joy. She spied him there
And danced to his side. Blithely unaware
He was her natural foe, she laid her head
Against his steel gray fur all stained with red.
Then she leapt away and turned with a glance
Most quizzical, inviting him to join her dance.
But he could not dance, his legs were stiff,
And she laughed at him, and pranced as if
He were just too ridiculous and needlessly grim.
Then she laid at his feet to sleep, fearless of him.

He has never left that field, he is wounded to his death.
He guards her now, and will until his dying breath.
Love for her has taken its dreadful toll
His heart drives him on his unending patrol.
Round the field he runs driving off the bear,
And snake and tiger. She is still unaware.
He is driven mad lest harm should come to her by some mischance.
He never lets her out of sight. And he has still not learned to dance.

So it is, and thus will it always be,
Until the Shepherd comes to set them free.

(Jeremiah 11:6-9)

I have been Changed

This one time, in Afghanistan, I made a stupid and potentially fatal mistake. I failed to check up on my driver to make sure he was doing his job. He failed to do his job, and as a consequence, we rolled out on mission one morning without water. It was the middle of June in the Helmand Province, and the temperature broke a hundred before 0900. It's not as hot in Afghanistan as it is in Iraq, in most places, but that is still a dangerous situation. Myself, my driver, and my gunner, we were stuck rolling around all day without water, in a Humvee with no air conditioning, and full body armor. Thankfully there is hardly any humidity to speak of in Helmand.

It wasn't until late afternoon that we got to the dam, where we were stopping to rest and refit, and we were able to restock our water. I will never forget the feeling of ice cold H2O going down my throat into my stomach. My body temperature was significantly elevated, so I could feel myself cooling down from the inside out. You know how if you step out from the warmth into the cold, you can feel the cold slowly penetrating your skin, and stealing warmth from deeper and deeper in your body? Well, it felt like that, only on the inside. Weirdest sensation ever. Absolutely the most delicious drink I've ever had.
It was the sort of experience that leaves its mark. To this day I always carry water with me. I'm not paranoid about it, but I do have a half gallon gatorade bottle full of water with me most of the time. I never go to bed without making sure it is right there, and full. I never leave for work without it. Not paranoid, since I don't take it if I think I'm not going to need it, but being caught without water is a very uncomfortable thing.
Also in Afghanistan, I went through a period of a few months when there were no priests nearby. It was amazing how often I had gotten the sacraments prior to then, just coincidentally happening to be stationed where there was a priest the majority of my time in country. Considering that there were only four Catholic chaplains in RC east at the time, the odds were against me, and yet God brought it about as only He can. So it was with great disappointment and some little surprise that I spent the last three months unable to see a priest. No confession, no Eucharist, just me, my Bible and my rosary.
Oh, and God. Almost forgot about Him.

I like the taste of water. I never really thought about it before, but now, after experiencing real thirst and almost ending my military career from heat injuries, I do notice it, and I like it. I like the taste of hot water. Have you ever drunk hot water on a really cold day? It's an acquired taste, but that is precisely my point. I enjoy something now that I didn't really enjoy before, and yet that something is no different. Water is exactly the same now as it ever was. It hasn't changed. I have been changed.

Why did God allow me to go all that time without the sacraments? Was He abandoning me? No. He was teaching me. I learned in that time of isolation that God is present really, even when not present sacramentally. You truly cannot get away from Him, and His mercy and grace are not limited. I began to appreciate the Presence of God in a way I never had before, because that was all I had. But God's presence hadn't changed. Only I have been changed.

Once I learned to seek out His presence in the ordinary world, and not just in the Church, well, the tour was over, we redeployed, and I went back to daily mass. I brought with me a renewed hunger for the Eucharist and a deeper appreciation that has not left me since. The sacraments are no different now than they were before. They haven't changed. I have been changed.

The Girl at the Gas Station

We can never tell who is catching a glimpse of our story at any given time. It is too wonderful for us. What's even more wonderful is why. Why is God doing this at this time?

Not quite a year ago, while driving from New York to Virginia, I stopped at a gas station in Pennsylvannia somewhere. Pennsylvania has always seemed, to me, kind of like the Wood between the Worlds in "The Magician's Nephew." Nothing really happens there, it's not even really a place, it's just somewhere you have to go through to get from Virginia to New York. In this case, it was a place to stop and get gas.

At this particular gas station, on this particular trip, I ran in the store to grab some snacks, beef jerky, if I remember right, and paid for them at the counter, like most people do. The young woman behind the counter looked to be about twenty or so, perhaps more, and she didn't have a nametag, but for some reason I felt the urge to say to her, "By the way, you have very pretty eyes." So I did.
In my whole life, an absolutely singular occurrence. I'm not given to complimenting random women on their appearance, but for some reason I just felt she needed to hear it, and I think I was right. Her face lit up like the Fourth of July and she said, "Thank-you." I nodded and left. Perhaps it was just that she looked busy and stressed out. Perhaps it was just the fact that I was in an uplifted mood (I was in a somewhat uplifted mood). Perhaps the Holy Spirit was using me as a piece in her story, one of those minor walk-throughs that writers put in that seem gratuitous at first, as if they have no purpose other than detail and artsy-ness, but which, after more careful thought, turn out to be deeply symbolic. Or perhaps He just wanted to see her smile. I would. It was a smile worth seeing.

Why really makes no difference. I was called in that particular moment to speak the truth. She needed to hear the truth, for some reason and in some way that is between her and God alone. I don't remember a thing about her appearance. God willing we'll meet in Heaven because it isn't likely we'll meet again here, and if we did I wouldn't recognize her (I have a horrible memory for faces.) It is enough that I was used, for a second, to do something for her. I don't know what it was. It's her story, not mine, but the Holy Spirit used me to do something good for her, and He knows what it was. That is good enough.

But the Holy Spirit is never satisfied with good enough. He used me, and in return, I have been richly blessed by the encounter. Whenever God uses us, He always gives us more than He takes. My story is richer for having been used to enhance her story, and that is a most beautiful gift of God. It is a hint, if you will. A hint of things to come.