Archive | January, 2012

Assumption in Tornado Country (Day 1)

5 Jan
Damaged roof of my home church, Covenant Presbyterian, June, 2011.

Eight months after the tornado, we follow its path through a once cozy neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Alabama – Forest Lake. The forest is mostly gone, the few standing trees bare of not only foliage but also any smaller limbs; instead of softening the landscape, these amputees have been rendered into jagged silhouettes, looming against the stark backdrop of a mostly house-less landscape.

As the van nears a corner of the lake, I point out the site where, last June, I fell in with a multi-generational group of volunteers from a Church of Christ up in Tennessee, lugging sawed limbs and planks from houses up to the curb in near 100-degree heat, taking shelter in the shade offered by a shell of a house – only to learn later that the house belonged to someone I knew.

But that feeling of connection pales in comparison to the bond I feel on this surreal day, because this time around, the students who ride behind me in this van are from Assumption College. Thanks to the coordination of campus minister Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques and the escorting of Paul Belsito, the college’s executive assistant for government and community relations, the New England college where I teach has come to aid my Deep South hometown.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The college has a long tradition of mission trips during winter and spring breaks, as well as in May, when I’m escorting a group to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The SEND – which originally stood for Students Exploring New Destinations – service immersion  adventures blend earnest service to communities in need with education about that region’s culture, as well as nightly spiritual reflection. Doing a SEND trip has been on my radar for a long time; when the massive tornado blew a mile-wide, six-mile long path through the center of my hometown – killing at least 43 people in the process – I suggested Tuscaloosa be added to the list, only to find out we were booked for the foreseeable future.

Then, in November, an hour before I was going to make my reservations to fly to Alabama and California for part of Christmas, Vinnie contacted me to say that another trip had fallen through. Could we make this work on such short notice? We quickly found an opportunity to build through Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa; it took another month to iron out the lodging, which finally, after much patience and persistence from Vinnie, came thanks to an organization called United Saints – a recovery project that started in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And now, surreally, here we are.

Despite the early morning departure from Logan, the students were almost chipper when they met me and the United Saints representatives at their lodgings. Soon after piling their sleeping bags into their new bunk beds, they were ready to go to the campus of my alma mater, where they could stretch their legs in the relative warmth of an afternoon in the high 40s. I walked them past Foster Auditorium – where Alabama Gov. George Wallace had made his symbolic “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” against the integration plans advocated by President John F. Kennedy – and the President’s Mansion which had been saved from being burned to the ground by the pleas of the president’s wife, who softened the heart of the Union officer in charge. We compared our foot and hand prints to those left by the great Alabama football captains of the past, from Joe Willie Namath and Ken Stabler to Cornelius Bennett and Javier Arenas – the last of whom barely survived the storm, and then drove supplies back from Kansas City, where he now plays for the Chiefs. To my surprise, they had already decided as a group to throw themselves into the sports culture – it was clear that we had to buy their Crimson Tide t-shirts as soon as possible. They also made it clear that the cultural immersion aspect of the SEND philosophy mandated we see Monday’s national championship game with LSU at a public locale that captured the region. (We’ll see on that one.)

Students pose under statue of Alabama football legend Paul "Bear" Bryant

But the tornado eclipses even Alabama football. Following the storm’s path for a mile on the way home, students ask questions about growing up in a tornado zone, but mostly I just hear sighs and “wows.” Back at their new home, the mood  lightens as they make fun of my accent, listen as I claim that they haven’t heard an accent yet until they hear that of my mother – on her way across town, bearing the students extra pillows.

Sure enough, when I walk Mom into the living room and she says, “Well, hello,” students explode in laughter as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. As I watch the good-hearted exchange, an extraordinary warmth sweeps over me – a deep gratitude to be serving a college where such cultural encounters are possible, involving young adults as special as these.

But I’m not the only one feeling grateful. My mother starts to say the routine thing – to thank them for coming – only then her voice fails her and her eyes start to moisten. “We’ve been through so much,” she says, then trails off.

Then we play the DVD documentary she’s brought, “Faces of the Storm.” We sit in the dark, absorbing the story of those who survived the tornado – and those who did not. We might well meet many of them before we leave.

And tomorrow we’ll take our place alongside them.

The Three Nicks: Finan (L), DiAntonio (R) and Saban

Roots and Resolutions

2 Jan

The first week of 2011, I found myself zigzagging down the lanes of hillside California homes, descending Mission Ridge into Santa Barbara proper, sun rising red-orange over the far end of the south-facing beach. I could learn to cherish this view if I lived in Santa Barbara, but, of course, this was the idealistic fantasy of the tourist: Living here day in and day out, I’d never be up this early.

I was only doing it today because I was catching a ride downtown with a friend, herself up only to lead a 7 a.m. yoga class – which happened to be located next to my favorite coffee shop, where I could write when not staring dreamily out the window at the Santa Barbara hills, glowing in a thick yellow light of morning.

Full of that new year’s optimism about life changes, I tried replacing the California morning mountains with the dawn view from my bedroom writing table back in Worcester: The sun appearing through the tree limbs, rising above the ridge of the city yard waste facility. (Hey, it’s prettier than it sounds.)

Even as I wrote in my journal that morning, I knew better than to formalize this early rising into a resolution. And a year later, as I looked back this weekend, even my actual resolutions – the usual ones about diet and exercise – fell apart the in the late going, amid the orgy of calorie consumption that is the holiday season. But I still find myself thinking back to that morning, in large part because of a gift last holiday season from my yoga-teaching friend.

That gift was Chakra Deck – a neatly packaged box of 50 cards, seven color-coded cards for each of the seven chakras. Written by Olivia H. Miller and illustrated by Nicole Kaufman, Chakra Deck follows in the tradition of other kits from Chronicle Books, with Yoga Deck and Stretch Deck two of the many.

Coming from a background steeped in not only Christianity but also a journalist’s love for specific, concrete evidence, I don’t know how firmly I believe in the seven chakras, with the rotating wheels of energy that, by definition, are undetectable by the scientific means I usually trust.

But it seems as foolish not to believe –especially when the yoga poses for each of the chakras, and the bodily and mental challenges they address, do make a certain amount of sense.

Especially the first chakra in the deck, the root, which, according to the deck, addressed addictions such as food and drink. While working on the obvious physical goals of all my yoga – strength, balance, and flexibility – focusing on the philosophy that went with the poses made me more aware this past year of the degree to which anxiety and insecurity drives my appetites, which then both pads my waistline and lightens my wallet.

On still deeper levels, I began to see a dichotomy in my daily existence – the cliché of the mind-body split. I tend to revel in abstraction – the dreamier aspects of religion and writing and romance, or even the idealized elegance of designing a class or a panel discussion – at the expense of the mundane daily discipline of running my life in the here and now. Chakra Deck has helped me focus on how the daily routine – the time one takes to tend to these body-spirit connections – is actually one more expression of the imagination.

Self-care does not have to be at odds with inspiration; instead, as Thoreau might say, it can build the foundation under those castles in the air.

How does this relate to this blog, with its concern for stories of service? Let’s just say that this box of cards helps dissolve another dichotomy – that between the individual pursuit of well-being and the need serve others. The truth is that when I live with more respect for the root chakra – transcending the anxieties that sharpen appetites and addictions – I cultivate mental clarity, physical energy, and even fiscal resources; in concrete terms, I have more concentration to give to both an individual student and the course I construct for all students, more energy to put into my work and into my interactions, and more money left over to donate to causes. So as we enter the new year, I hope we can accord resolutions, large or small, the measure of respect they deserve. At their best, such goals not only make us better for ourselves, but for others.

Meanwhile, when my friend came back around to the coffee shop a year ago, she said only one person showed up – meaning that her net pay for rising so early to teach was a whopping $3. But she would’ve done it anyway. Teaching yoga, she explained, was for her, a pastor’s daughter, a form of ministry.

As was, it turned out, giving me that box of cards, which a year later, I work from almost every day – the one resolution I’ve kept.

(You may reach Olivia Miller, author of Chakra Deck and a wide range of other card deck guides, at

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