Archive | January, 2012

Pre-game Calisthenics

9 Jan


Tornado survivor Dowling (right) with (L-R) Brittany Wilson, Paul Belsito, Rev. Charlie Durham, and Marissa Reis.

As work on the Rosedale Court home of Appie Jones continued, the group received encouragement from a series of intriguing visitors – most importantly, Appie Jones herself.

The 82-year-old tornado survivor walked about her future home – including the window-less “safe room” installed in the center of every Habitat home during this recovery – and talked with the crew (an event I missed).

I was there, however, for another Habitat home owner – Dana Dowling, the recipient of the first post-tornado home here in Tuscaloosa. She shared with a few students her harrowing story – that of surviving the riding out of a storm in one of the worst places to be, a trailer park.

If I was inclined to project an evil consciousness on a climatological entity, the tornado would be a prime candidate – it knocked out the emergency center on its way into towns, taking out the alarm system in the process (as well as all of the trucks needed to rebuild). Combine that with the power going out in the Dowlings’ neighborhood more than an hour before, and they were left with no idea the storm had turned their way. When they did figure it out, the funnel cloud blocked their way to the nearest shelter.

Before hiding in a utility room, they looked outside and saw the funnel cloud. Her daughter asked if she was seeing a car in the cloud, and Dana looked. “There was a minivan 250 feet up in the air,” she said.

Most of their trailer was gone when the cloud passed, as well as most of the trailer park. Strangely, Dana noted, no one was killed in the trailer park – since they knew to evacuate – but five were killed in traditional houses nearby.

The silver lining for the Dowlings was that they became recipients of the Habitat home on which they were volunteering, and moved in months ago, even as friends are still on hold, waiting for insurance, or mortgage companies, or FEMA, or some combination of the three. “It’ll take five years to rebuild,” she said.

She was more optimistic about the major event to come on this particular cloudy afternoon – the Alabama-LSU game. She received a call Monday from a Sporting News reporter, following up on the tornado angle. “They asked who I thought was going to win,” she said. “Is that even a question?”

Pointing out that she erred by wearing a purple shirt, a few purple-clad volunteers nearby quickly came to her rescue. “She’s wearing Kenyon colors,” offered one of the crew, newly arrived for their own service stint.

Dowling was soon joined by Rev. Charlie Durham, pastor of Tuscaloosa’s First Presbyterian Church – which has sponsored the building of this house. The church is also where my father attends. “I should’ve known you were a Land,” he joked, “since you have a camera hanging around your neck.”

Durham was with the inspiring Karolina Lingyte, who volunteers for Habitat despite being bound to a wheelchair. That’s nothing particularly challenging for Lingyte, leading scorer on Alabama’s championship women’s wheelchair basketball team; she’d scored 30 in her last game before Christmas break.

Meanwhile, the sign for this Habitat house mentions one other major sponsor – Nick’s Kids, football coach Nick Saban’s charity, which has set the goal of building one new home for each of Alabama’s 13 championships.

“Let’s hope,” my father told me today, “they make it 14.”

Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy checks paint job while sporting Saints cap autographed by New Orleans head coach Sean Payton

Sport as Service

8 Jan

SEND students careful not to tread on sacred circle in Bama locker room

Friday morning I was standing on the Habitat construction site, chatting with Assumption football captain Nick DiAntonio, when my father, Charlie, sidled up, his camera hanging from his neck.

When I started to mention Nick’s name, my father grinned; he’s already read the article about the Greyhound in the Boston Globe.

“Linebacker, math major, 3.8 GPA,” my father quipped, surprising Nick, and even me – although I shouldn’t have been. Of course Dad would’ve absorbed the key identifying information. Once a sports writer, always a sports writer.

My father knew Paul “Bear” Bryant from his arrival at Alabama through the glorious decade of the 1960s, and sports a national championship ring Bryant gave him after the 1961 season. Even more of a sign of how football pervades every part of life in Tuscaloosa, my father was the second person the students had met with a national championship ring – construction volunteer James Shackelford earned his as a safety on the 1992 team that upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl. “I saw Nick and I could tell he played,” James told me.

Working in a neighborhood where a tornado killed six people, is it frivolous to care so much about a game – or, in the face of such tragedy, is it spiritually healing to embrace whatever unites people in a sense of transcendent joy?

Tuscaloosa tends to suggest the latter – which is saying in a city still bearing the six-mile-long scar from last April’s tornado, which killed 52. As trivial as sports seems against such a backdrop, the normalcy of such diversions helped people keep their bearings: On April 28th, a little more than 24 hours after the tornado knocked out cable and internet at my father’s place, I called from a Worcester sports bar, reading the ESPN crawl summary of which Tide players went where, sure to note that with Mark Ingram going to New Orleans and Julio Jones to Atlanta, he’d get to see plenty of both in regional TV coverage.

As the weeks unfolded, University of Alabama athletes took earnestly their responsibility for helping with cleanup – after former Crimson Tide star Javier Arenas barely survived the tornado, he drove to Kansas City (where he plays for the Chiefs) and promptly returned with a vehicle filled with bottles of water and other supplies. Even Alabama’s opponents got into the action: Kent State football players helped clear debris last summer, earning an improbable ovation when they ran out onto the field to play Alabama that fall.  One unusual result: When Kent State ran out onto Bryant-Denny Stadium field that fall, Alabama fans gave the squad an ovation. (Gratitude couldn’t bridge the difference in talent; Alabama won 48-7.)

For this Tuscaloosan, the above is old news. The surprise, however, has been the ease with which Assumption students, New Englanders all, have adopted the Crimson Tide cause. What Assumption students have shown this week is how, once one learns to give one’s self over emotionally to being a fan, it’s easy enough to shift those sympathies to other teams and other regions – putting themselves into the shoes of others, if not their actual cleats. To this, add the outward-turned nature of students who choose to spend college breaks on service immersion trips – they’re eager to throw themselves into both the work and the culture.

Margaux Finan sports helmet in locker room

I saw this more clearly Saturday, when Jared Patterson, project coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa, gave Assumption students something any Tide fan would covet – a tour of the Alabama locker room and a run across the field of the 100,000-plus Bryant-Denny Stadium. Our students wandered through players lockers, posed by portraits, even made a giggling incursion into the showers.

Being our students, of course, they adhered to the one cardinal rule – not stepping on the large circular Alabama logo in the locker room. They wrote Assumption’s name on a dry-erase board – next to that of a Habitat group from the Midwest – and gawked at what a student called the “mind-boggling” scope.

But if the culture here – or anywhere in America – inevitably leads to sports, the reverse is also true. As Jared spoke to us in the north end zone, he pointed toward the opposite end, where he was standing when he saw the tornado. “When I was watching, it was probably right where you’re working now,” he said. Beyond that, though, it underscored that, as much a cliché as it is, Southern hospitality can really be a force – particularly when extended to a group of college students who have journeyed from Massachusetts to help rebuild a town. While we were busy working, Shackelford was working angles to get us coveted seating for Monday night’s game in Wings Sports Grill, owned by Bob Baumhower, former Bama and Dolphin defensive lineman.

Nick DiAntonio mimics Alabama running back Trent Richardson

Someone asked where Patterson was watching Monday night’s game.

“Well …” he said, grinning.

“Oh,” I said.

Of course. Patterson would be watching the showdown at a little hangout called The Superdome. That’s right: The game against Louisiana State University unfolds in New Orleans, itself site of a greater but similar catastrophe. Despite the hoopla about Monday’s football rematch, these days Alabama and Louisiana share a similar sense of loss – and a sense of what it means to rally against obstacles that aren’t going away any time soon. The very organization that’s hosting us this week has only one other location – New Orleans.

Of course, the agency’s name, United Saints, yokes moral virtue and football. If getting back to the business of Mardi Gras was spiritually important, the night the once-lowly Saints won the Super Bowl was downright miraculous.

By sheer coincidence, my father and his wife were in New Orleans that night, seeing people run up and down the hotel hallways screaming in joy, then wandering into the packed streets in search of the action.

“Everyone,” my father told me later, repeatedly, “was so happy.”

AC students trying spelling Alabama literally, as well as figuratively.

Stories one tells, and stories one can’t

6 Jan

Nick DiAntonio hits porch floor to do touch-up work

Thursday morning I stood in the front lawn of a Habitat for Humanity house in Rosedale Court, talking with a local volunteer.

My new acquaintance, it turned out, put in 10 years in Army artillery, and while he seems to have adjusted well to civilian life, he told me that the biggest adjustment in coming home was the sheer silence of the night.

That sense of quiet was disrupted on April 27th, when the tornado that took 43 lives here destroyed his home. He said he’d be willing to discuss his experience with Assumption’s students, but his girlfriend had other ideas, and for a very good reason: She was in the house when the tornado hit

“I’ll show them pictures I took,” she said, gesturing to the cell phone in her hand, “but I don’t talk about it.”

This is a common tension here, or, I suspect, any community where a large-scale traumatic event has occurred. Some people need to share their stories – and others need not to. Despite the narrative theme of this blog, I deeply respect both responses. The Royal Wedding, of all things, paved over the national story within 24 hours, footage of human suffering replaced by images of pomp and circumstance, but here the victims who need to share their stories have found compassionate audiences. Open meetings were held at local churches where people could do just that.

Even the night of the storm, amid the chaos of blocked streets, blaring sirens, and power outages, one rescue worker described, in the documentary Faces of the Storm, the need to set aside his sense of urgency just to hold a stranger and listen – and, he said, “why wouldn’t you?”

Meanwhile, we stand on the opposite end of the city from where the tornado destroyed his home. This is clear, open land stretching behind the Habitat home to the right, but that’s only due to the razing of wreckage after the tornado flattened 100 out of 188 units of Rosedale Courts, killing six – and when people saw more than dozen blocks of destroyed homes in this neighborhood, everyone was shocked the count wasn’t higher.

As a low-income housing development, Rosedale speaks to another story line here – in many areas of the city, affordable old housing likely will be replaced by stronger, newer structures that will be more expensive. Even if the insurance and/or FEMA money comes through, where do folks relocate after a tornado destroys 12 percent of a city?

But some stories are positive: My new friends – including their dog who also survived the storm – move into their new Habitat home in a matter of weeks; the dedication has been delayed by their schedules at work (and work, in this economy, is also a good thing). Meanwhile, here in Rosedale, the debris here has been removed, the sun has come out, and as students settle into the groove of their construction tasks – from spackling cracks and touching up the paint job to some earnest ladder-top carpentry and learning to use large power saws – there is good cheer.

The energy and optimism of youth  is a blessing, particularly when it’s youth guided by conscience. That night, when Marissa Reis asks her fellow students their hopes and fears during the nightly prayer and reflection, it’s clear they know there’s much more to be done – and understand, if, indeed, any of us ever can.

As one student stated, “I hope we get a real understanding of what happened down here, even though in the north we don’t get many storms like this … and I hope people here know that people in the North remember them.”

Brittany Wilson braves the scaffolding to spackle the carport ceiling.

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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