A Walk To The Church

Yesterday, I touched on my walk in the woods. These walks have always brought me closer to my spirituality.

In years’ past, that time spent in the woods was absolutely communal. Now, though, as I sit outside Church of the Nativity after my Catholic studies group, I see my communion in the woods as being the extension to the purpose of the church itself.

I see God’s beauty all around me, especially in the untouched woods and natural lands. But now I am beginning to understand how the church itself is the center of that source of spirituality; it is the core, the very sun and light of my worship. It completes my walks in the woods.

Our church is currently under construction to open ourselves to an ever-expanding congregation. I see myself under the same construction, expanding my heart in my journey of sanctification toward a greater holiness. May my house that I am building be as welcome and as serving as Church of the Nativity in their own rebuilding.

Ever grateful for such light and truth, as I am grateful for the light of God in all things around me.  

Taking A Walk In The Woods

I’m sharing this on the trail here in Gunpowder Falls State Park, where I’ve decided to take a little walk in the woods to reconnect with the Earth. This is my first mobile post here at The Baltimore Writer, an experiment to bring you my experiences more immediately, perhaps a little raw and incomplete. 

It’s authentic, though, and that’s what I’m going for. An authentic presentation of my life as I am living it.

It’s cold out here, just above 30 degrees. I’m in the middle of an abandoned archery range. It’s like visiting a ghost-town zoo, where the remnants of the animals’ souls remain, a reminder of their once-abundant presence.


I feel like we came here, pushed our way through, cleared out the wildlife, and then left-moved on to the next space to conquer.

And all in a state park.

I know it’s not this way. I’m sure that this archery range has brought delight to a lot of people, young and old. But I know this isn’t the case in other natural parts of the county (and elsewhere).

I’d rather walk in the wild and take my chances than step on these state-park scrubbed paths, these sanitized stones void of the very life forms that it once provided for, these thriving creatures small and large, now nothing more than bullseye props for us to play the role of the man-in-the-wild.

Oh, irony, how you are too close, too often, these days.

Share More, Think Less

TBW writing spaceI spend a lot of time in my head, thinking and thinking and thinking about what to write about. Even though I keep a little Piccadilly notebook with me at all times, capturing little snippets of life that I find interesting, I don’t do enough with them.

In those moments, I am happy that I jotted them down. Good to make that thought concrete, I think to myself. And it is good. I believe there’s a lot of life that passes us by that is fascinating, especially the small things that we see between the bigger events.

Sitting at a table with a group of high school friends, listening to one tell a fascinating story of saving her small business, I glance across the crab cakes and buttered vegetables to see another friend pick up her napkin, dab the corner of her eye, and try to push a smile to support the success of her friend. Try to fit in. Try to not let the world see that she is elsewhere, caught in her own memory. I meant to mention something to her after the dinner, but by then she was — or seemed — totally fine. She moved on, and so did I.

Later, I remember and I jot these observations down in my little notebook, then go about my busy life. Months later I page through the old notes, and there it is:

Kelly’s tear when Tracy was sharing her business story. What memory composed that tear?

My notebook is filled with notes like this one, and many of them are left unexplored. While that little journal is capturing the immediate observations, I just don’t do enough to follow through with the deeper stories, whether they might be real or eventually fictional, as “Gretchie’s Gift” turned out to be.

There’s a reason for that. Simply put, I need to think less and share more.

I’ve always enjoyed coming here to the Baltimore Writer and sharing my ideas and observations with you, but I just haven’t done it enough this year.

In fact, when I take a quick glance at the stats, I’m pretty ashamed of what I see. The last five years have been ridiculously light, posting 40 or fewer pieces each year, with just 11 posted thus far in 2016:

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Now, these stats don’t mean that I haven’t been writing. When it comes to constructed fiction for the purpose of publishing with a larger audience (beyond this blog) in the 11 years since I started blogging regularly, I’ve written nearly 500,000 words. And my larger daybooks are filled with hundreds of thousands of more raw words that have never been shared with others.

But what I am sharing with all of you here at the Baltimore Writer… That needs to improve — not because I don’t think that I am writing enough. It’s because I don’t think I am sharing and publishing enough. What good are the thoughts if they never reach the hearts and the minds of my readers, both today and tomorrow?

That’s why I created the Baltimore Writer. I wanted to reach all of you more with my daily thoughts, even the mundane ones, about what life is like through these eyes. It would be easy for me to make this a goal for 2017, but I don’t want to wait until the new year begins to do that.

So, it is my intent to resume publishing posts here as daily as possible about writing, about living here in Baltimore, about being a dad, about being spiritual, about being a human being just trying to manage a complicated life that needs to be simplified.

I expect the entries will be a little less polished, but you will hear a genuine voice, uncensored, about life as observed through these eyes. What my readers wish to do with it… well, that is up to you. My hope is that it will leave you thinking a little about what you are observing (and maybe eventually writing and sharing). But even that’s pushing it. In truth, I am just throwing these thoughts into the Universe; may they be used as necessary, now and tomorrow.

I appreciate that so many of my friends do this via social media platforms. Those posts, stories, and pictures capture what I believe is becoming a more genuine reflection of their lives. I’m seeing less of the cherry-picked moments of joy and perfection and more of the authentic experiences, both good and challenging.

That’s all I want to do here: give you the good and the challenging, and more often.

I look forward to sharing them with you in the days, months, and — God willing — years to come.

—-
You can read more on my professional site, The LifeStory Lighthouse, where you can also download my latest collection of Christmas stories, essays, and reflections (featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts).

Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections

Sharing with all of my Baltimore Writer followers…

Thank you very much for your interest in Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts,” my latest Christmas story in memory of my dear friend, Gretchen Trageser Smith.

This is a 121-page eBook (PDF format) that can be opened on any smartphone or tablet. It includes three short stories, a collection of essays, and a series of Christmas song reflections.

This is currently a FREE publication. I am asking for donations, however, and ALL proceeds received for this eBook between December 8 and December 18, 2016, will be donated to the PICU at Sinai Hospital to ensure that the children who will be spending their holidays (and beyond) in the Intensive Care Unit will have a little light during this time of year. Faith Smith, Gretchen’s sister, and I will personally deliver the donation to Sinai before Christmas.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in ePUB format, click HERE.

To download your free copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in MOBI format, click HERE.

To download your copy of Faith, Hope, and Legacy in the KINDLE store for just $0.99, click HERE.

If you would like to make a donation before or after you download this publication, please do so below ($5, $10, or $25). If you are interested in donating a different amount, please contact me directly at rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com.

*** Please share this link with your family and friends. We want to do everything we can to brighten their Christmas. To learn more about the Children’s Hospital at Sinai, go HERE.

REMEMBER: ALL donations made between December 8 and December 18 go directly to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

To make a donation, please go HERE and scroll to the bottom of the page.

THANK YOU! I will keep everyone updated on how much we have collected for the PICU at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

as always…………………rvw

 

Understanding and Embracing the Power of Revision

Many years ago, Sharon Miller, National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant and nationally recognized author and educator in the teaching of writing, asked me to offer my thoughts on the power of revision in the genre of creative nonfiction and how, when we write with intent in the revision process and understand who our audience is, we can produce high-quality writing products that are both effective and accessible to our readers.

Recently, Sharon revisited my theories on revision and applied them to fiction writing. I am happy to say that, in her analysis, they still stand. You can read her complete discussion HERE.

I am humbled by Sharon’s discussion of my writing theories (especially regarding revision and the reader-writer connection) in both genres of creative nonfiction and fiction.  Since she published my original assertions nearly 15 years ago, I have refined my theories on revision, with a focus on the writer’s intent once the decision is made to take a piece of writing to publication.

As shown in the updated graphic below, the writer “revises with intent,” keeping the intended audience in mind to ensure the reader’s accessibility to the content. But to best understand the role revision plays in writing, the writer also needs to understand what happens before the stage of revision even begins.

revision-graph-2014In the early stages of drafting, the writer must provide herself with the opportunity to write uninhibitedly, to play with ideas and explore without judgment or even consideration of the potential audience.  It is here that she allows her Voice, through her raw thoughts and ideas, to resonate as only she can do.

In this early drafting stage, the entire focus should be to understand exactly what the writer wants to say, and why.

The “how” all of this is done is the focus in the revision stage. This is the point when the writer understands — and agrees upon — the establishment of a working relationship with the reader. It is here that the journey begins to “let go” of a reasonable amount of the raw writing while still maintaining the essence of her voice in a polished work that keeps the writing, the message, and the connection with the reader authentic.

Writers of academic and creative writing often procrastinate and wait until the final hours of their deadline to create a piece of writing that they deem suitable to submit so they  can say proudly, “I made my deadline,” as if that were the only goal. Editors (and professors) in both genres are increasingly frustrated that writers often misunderstand the more important aspect of the deadline: to present a polished product that is authentic and that deeply connects with the intended reader. This aspect of writing is often sacrificed because of this misunderstanding.

Writers of academic papers, creative nonfiction, and fiction all need to embrace the importance of this stage of revision and understand the oft-ugly and unrewarding ownership that falls on them to manage. Revision is the darkest part of the writer’s journey, but it is the only path that leads to polished writing that is accessible to the reader long after the writer has moved on to other works.

In the Wake of Tragedy: Choose Peace Advocacy

Is there anything sensible left to write when it comes to the tragedies like the one we are facing right now in our lives? In the last week, Orlando has experienced three horrific events that have shocked us as a nation, sending ripples of grief worldwide.

While each of the events is tragic in its own right, the Pulse night club massacre where a gunman opened fire and killed 49 innocent individuals punches us so deeply for its senselessness.

“The shooting resulted in 50 deaths, including the gunman, who was killed by police after a three-hour standoff. Another 53 were injured. The attack was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history, and also the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks.”

Such attacks are not new in our country, and after each one, we refresh the wellness initiatives, employee assistance programs, and countless other proactive plans and strategies we have created to provide help and build strong community and organizational foundations.

And, I am certain that these programs have assisted many individuals in overcoming their anxieties and illnesses. Believing that these programs are ineffective or a waste of money is completely ridiculous. We must do more — not less — to help others, in all ways.

With that said, it is becoming very clear to me that, despite the work of many millions of caring individuals, we cannot close this ugly and once unimaginable door that has been opened. It is horrific, it is unconscionable, and it is a part of our existence that we cannot deny.

The vast majority of people who have committed such atrocious acts as the Orlando massacre are not those individuals who were denied services, who fell through the cracks, or who were just looking for a little attention. Something went wrong internally, and they shifted their focus to the evil residing in that Dark Place.

Perhaps Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened that door on April 20, 1999, when they murdered 12 students, one teacher, and injured an additional two dozen others at Columbine High School. Since then, more than 50 massacres have happened in the United States, with 27 of them occurring since 2007. These are not isolated, retaliative attacks against one or two individuals; these are full-blown assaults against innocent individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or gender; although the Orlando massacre occurred at a gay nightclub, it is still uncertain how sexual orientation might have played into the gunman’s decision of where to carry out the attack. As new information is learned, there is a speculation about the gunman’s own sexual orientation.

An infinite number of security systems, wellness programs, and lines of love are not going to close this door. They help tremendously, and we need to continue to support them unconditionally.

But completely close the door on such horrors? Impossible.

Goucher Easter 011This is why we need to shift our energy, our thinking, our focus.

Friends on social media have been pleading the case for love, not war. Hope, not hate. Life, not death. Their words have a powerful impact on me and, I hope, many others. Yet, with the presidential campaign using this massacre as a means of condemning candidates, we are left with a less unified reaction. We are quick to blame instead of being quick to love.

Instead of blaming others, though, I think we need to be aggressive in our activism for peace.

So, in addition to the thoughts and prayers, in addition to living the lifestyles of gentle peace, I believe we must now live our lives with aggressive intent to be peace activists, and recognize the value in having a genuine awareness of the beauty that not only surrounds us, but absolutely bursts from within us. We need to harness that energy and use it purposefully, mindfully, and with serious intent.

We need to see that, despite these horrors that are now a part of our world, we possess an infinitely greater power to change lives for the better, starting with our very own. It takes action, though, to be engaged in the solution, to be cognizant of those around us who are in need or who are hurting, to reach out in ways that lead to solutions.

The gunman who slaughtered 49 people in Orlando talked about his intentions. He wrote about them. He was investigated twice by the FBI for reasons that placed him on a terror watch list. Even on a personal level, there were opportunities for individuals to say something, to add new information to existing files.

These three simple rules to living a purposeful life with an aggressive advocacy for peace can save lives.

First, you need to find the Prism of Life in every moment. You need to recognize and embrace life’s beauty. Even in the darkest of personal times, beauty still surrounds us. See it and absorb it. Let the prism of life radiate through you, not around you.

Second, you must believe in your power to radiate an infectious, inspiring, and unconditional love. Your energy, limitless in abundance, can and will change lives of the people you meet, interact with, and share a space. We do not need to know when we change lives, or even the specific actions that we have done that have been effective; we just need to know that our actions of peace and love make a profound difference in our communities, both virtual and real.

Third, you need to know, with your entire being, that all we really need is love — to feel, to give, to live. You need to understand that we are not alone in our bouts of confusion, anger, sadness, and frustration. These emotions are just as real and genuine as joy, happiness, and calm. They are allowed to occupy our minds, our hearts, and our souls just as freely. In understanding that these emotions and feelings are real among the millions of Americans and individuals throughout the world, we begin see people in a different light. We begin to approach our relationships with empathy and understanding, with compassion and love, with action and with support.

Yes. There are differences in belief systems that drive some individuals to carry out horrific acts. But these individuals share their thoughts, they throw signals of intent, they talk, write, and publish their plans. If we, with a heightened sense of peace and love through advocacy and activism, can report such signals and provide support for the individuals in need, then we are contributing to more peaceful communities and diminishing the chances of such horrific acts from ever taking place.

Love. Act. Serve. We cannot wait for the next tragedy to advocate for peace. The days are long gone for us to talk about how bad it might get. We are already there.

Memorial Day: Remember The Sacrifice

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All photos taken and copyrighted by Rus VanWestervelt at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2016. Free to share with attribution.

My alarm went off at 2:57 a.m., and three minutes later, I received the text from my friend Trina.

Leaving now to commence with project honor Memorial Day.

Twenty minutes later, at 3:20 a.m., after I had gathered my photo gear and thrown some journals and pens in my backpack, I headed out the door and hopped into her Subaru wagon. We were on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, seizing a rare opportunity to photograph the hallowed grounds at sunrise.

We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery at 4:30, and we weren’t surprised that there was already a line of cars ready to be escorted to one of several areas. When we pulled up to the gate guard, she looked at the list of invitees on her phone.

“Name?”

“Madani and VanWestervelt.”

“We want to begin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” I added.

She looked up from her phone. “You only get one choice.”

“Make it the Tomb, please.”

She checked our names on her list and smiled.

“Park behind the line of cars in the middle and wait for further instructions.”

We pulled up to the dark SUV at the end of the line. There were about seven cars ahead of us. Trina turned off the car, and the solemn sounds of songbirds filled the still-dark morning air. Here, even in this line, we could feel the reverence; the opportunity we had was not lost on us. And in those 30 minutes before the gates opened and we were escorted through the memorial grounds, we talked about life, about sacrifice, about America. Yet, even as we spoke in hushed voices, there was a touch of anxiety of what we were about to experience.

As the cars in front of us began to roll forward, and we crossed through the gates and turned left at the Memorial Hall for Women Soldiers, it hit us both, and words were replaced with short gasps and heavy sighs as we moved slowly through the magnitude of loss and sacrifice.

Arlington_rvw_14We were immersed in hallowed grounds that seemed to whisper, through the early morning scents of fresh detritus:

Remember our sacrifice. Remember our commitment to America. Remember the fares of freedom.

As Trina drove on, I thought about my nephews, Kevin and Kyle, who continue to fight for our freedom. I thought of my ancestor, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army who fought in World War II, who was buried here. I thought of my former students who have enlisted and who serve to protect and defend, at any cost, our freedoms. I thought of the countless number of friends who have children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have fought, or who currently serve, to keep our country safe and free.

I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unending lines of white graves marking each and every one of those sacrifices. Still, as we drove on in silence, I was haunted by another feeling. We were heading to the Tomb of the Unknowns, protected by United States Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, every single minute, of every single day, since midnight, July 2, 1937.

When we reached the tomb memorial, we could already see the sun’s deep hues rising in the east. We grabbed our gear and walked swiftly to the steps that were in front of the tomb, and I felt as if I had lost the ability to breathe. There, just feet in front of me, was the Tomb of the Unknowns and a single Guard standing sentry, silhouetted against the red wash of our Capital’s horizon.

Arlington_rvw_01The few photographers who were ahead of us were already busy setting up tripods and claiming their vantage points for the photo session, but Trina and I took the moment to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.

As the sun prepared to rise on American soil, protected for centuries by brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the ritual of remembering them continued on, without missing a beat, for the last 79 years.

Arlington_rvw_02This was why we were here. First to honor, second to document. And although the rush of the sun peaking over the horizon at 5:43 a.m. was not lost on us, neither was the fact that through sunrises and sunsets, humid Summer days and snowy Winter nights, America is standing guard to remember, to protect, to defend, for the very foundation of freedom for all who call this great nation their home.

We found our place a little to the south of the Tomb and began the process of taking photos, trying to capture the essence of the experience.

The routine for the Tomb Guard watching over the graves is precise.

The Tomb Guard on watch marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb, turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds. The Guard then turns and faces north, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. The Guard marches 21 steps down the mat, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces south, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. This routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.

As I was switching cameras to get a wider perspective of the scene, I noticed another Guard just to my right, walking toward the soldier protecting the tomb. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was beginning, and I lowered my camera and succumbed to the overpowering emotion of the moment.

Arlington_rvw_05The soldier stopped in front of us and said, with an authoritative voice I have only heard in movies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is now taking place, and you are expected to remain silent and standing during the duration of this event.”

I removed my hat, and only with the greatest deference in remembering the second reason that I was here, I raised my camera to document the event.

First honor, second document.

When the ceremony concluded, and the sun had nearly pushed its way through the horizon’s line, Trina and I broke away and wandered among the grounds. We spent the next hour away from the camera clicks and conversations and found a certain solitude among the lines of graves that rolled over hills and never seemed to end. With each new ridge that revealed a new vantage point to capture the magnitude of sacrifice, there before us remained a new pasture rolling with thousands of small white graves, each with an American flag in front that seemed to recognize the individual names chiseled into the granite and marble headstones.

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Leon David Sachter. . . Paul R. Greenhalgh. . . Rolland Nyle Davis . . .

By 7 a.m. we left the Cemetery and said little. We were filled with the respect, the honor, and the magnitude of sacrifice in those brief two hours that we had spent among the graves of the men and women who died believing their sacrifices were worth our freedoms.

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I took these photos to document our nation’s most hallowed grounds at the sun’s symbolic rising of another day of freedom. But their colors, their images cannot touch what I carry inside of me. We sometimes forget that these sacrifices were — and are — made for us to live the way we do.

Perhaps I need to live my life a little more closely to the rituals of the Tomb Guard, where, even in my darkest moments, I never forget — even for a second — the sacrifices that were made for American freedoms. Very few of us ever have to make the choice of life or death for another, especially millions of Americans who will never know us personally. I will carry this perspective with me, fortunate for our freedoms, and respective of the sacrifices.

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God bless the 1.1 million American service members who have died for those freedoms. May we remember you every day, every second, the sun rises over this great and free nation.

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