Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds

I had a chance meeting with a young soldier home from Afghanistan for R&R with his family in Brenham, Texas. He gave me something. Something I very much needed to understand. He gave me a clear picture of what is happening in this war on terror. But he described the mission in very different terms than what I typically hear on CNN, Fox News, or the conventional networks.

He lives on the side of a mountain in northern Afghanistan. As an Infantryman and scout attached to an engineering company, he is in harm’s way every moment of every single day. Yet he describes their mission as “hearts and minds”. He said when he first heard General Petraeus frame the war in these terms, he thought it was ludicrous. But over time, he’s begun to understand the wisdom of this effort. This is an ancient land, with a history, culture, and landscape that we will never fully appreciate. There are over 13 dialects spoken in Afganistan, and they’re difficult to learn and discern. So this soldier travels with interpreters throughout the day, and on missions that last for months at a time. He wears armor under his civilian clothes, has grown a beard to his belly and hair down his neck. For the past 45 days he’s been in a remote location, guarding and protecting his unit from the enemy while they build a bridge for the Afghani people. At every farm and homestead, his job is to find out what support is needed to prevent that family from getting their needs met through the twisted tactics of the Taliban. Coerced to be loyal to the Taliban by threats of poisoned food and wellwater as well as genocide, Afghani families are asked by these interpreters to allow the Afghani National Army to meet their needs instead. They’re told that the “good guys” will create a freshwater well, help them find food, protect their livelihood, in exchange for information about where the Taliban is headed. Behind these promises and pledges of support from the Afghani National Army is the U.S. military, ready and able to instruct the good guys and provide the resources needed for wells, crops, safety, and shelter.

He tells me how skewed the news is; how little we hear about what’s really going on. He tries not to watch the news anymore as it creates cynicism and discouragement when what is happening on the ground is more hopeful; progress is being made.

We talked about the danger he faces as he travels and his eyes narrow, his expression changing in subtle ways. I see him wince, ever so slightly. I know that he has seen too much. He describes the burden of dealing with primitive warfare tactics. This young soldier describes the incidence of IED’s as declining due to the military’s additional armor and detection devices yet the use of homemade explosives (HME’s) is on the rise. With fewer resources at their disposal, the Taliban is using nitrogen and other agricultural chemicals that are readily available outside military supply sources to craft primitive HME’s. He asks me to forgive his language, but says all soldiers view the Taliban as “chicken-shit.”

He said one of the tactics used by the Taliban is the exploitation of children. The enemy will implant an HME on the side of the road, then send a young child out to the road to throw rocks when the military approaches. While soldiers might be led to believe in the child’s innocence, it’s anything but. The child’s rock triggers a trip wire daisy-chained to an HME, and the explosion ignites. How do you destroy a child throwing rocks at you? War requires something of our soldiers that few can even discuss. What name do you give such horror?

Then my new friend frames what I think is the most interesting thing I will learn today about this war: the battle being waged is not so much about the one on the ground, it’s the one in the soul- a battle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. By developing national pride, patriotism, and belief in their ability to self-govern, the American military is empowering the Afghani people to win their own war. The military’s interpreters ask the Afghani people to defect from the coercion of the Taliban, promising a level of protection that is far better for nation-building. He tells me the interpreters are naturalized U.S. citizens who’ve volunteered to return to their homeland to help their compatriots regain their country. He tells me they’ll never be able to divulge their identities, as it would be lethal to their survival, as well as the safety and well-being of their families in the U.S. But as surely as American soldiers are fighting for “hearts and minds”, these Afghani brothers are as well.

The soldier I’m talking with is soft-spoken, polite. He has three combat tours of duty under his belt. He is 25 years old. This fact slays me. Like so many Americans before him, he was a combat soldier and a teenager at the same time. He’s been in Afghanistan for eight months, with four more to go. I pray that as he returns to a land that he’s learned to respect, he will be as safe from harm as possible, given the environment that he’s in. He’s spent a quick R&R with his parents, sharing precious time with his family before he returns to the front lines. One of his plans during leave is skydiving. While the adrenaline rush is real, he has a higher purpose. When he returns from this tour of duty, he’ll begin the process of selection, hoping to be chosen as a candidate for Special Forces training. He tells me “De Opresso Libre”, which all Green Berets recognize as a call to arms to liberate the oppressed. He gives me the titles of a couple of books he wants me to read, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and Chosen Soldier. He tells me, “I’m kind of a nerd; I like to read.” I tell him that I’m a librarian, so those words are music to my ears. In just a couple of short hours, I’ve come to care very deeply about this young man’s “heart and mind” and I have a new appreciation for the role of our military in this war. I ask God for mercy on this young man, and all of our soldiers, who are so willing and able to pay the high price for freedom that we take for granted every day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why is Change Inevitable?

I became a reader on my mother’s lap. An old, old version of Platt and Munk’s Illustrated Fairytales was our standard, and there was nothing politically incorrect about listening to her read Little Black Sambo over and over again. After all, I was 3, she was 26, and it was an exciting tale about tigers that melted into butter. Nothing inflammatory about that. As a young mother, I loved hearing my mom tell the same story to my children, who listened with equal wonder as she wove the story into magic strands for them. Who knew that 50 years later I would be reading the same tale, reprinted as the author intended in The Story of Little Babaji as my grandchildren gathered on my lap, equally enamored with tigers melting into ghi? Helen Bannerman told the story well about her adopted homeland of India and its culture. It had nothing to do with race or color, nothing to do with African children as it turns out. It was a folktale, and it’s the kind of story that deserves retelling and retelling and retelling. But I am a librarian now, and I know how to frame the story and put such tellings in perspective without losing the joy of the journey.

I remember my first day as a librarian. Fresh out of library school at age 44, newly widowed and trying to raise our 5 children on my own, I landed a job that I very much wanted to have. I was hired to revamp a library built in 1926, in preparation for a huge construction project that would bring that little library into the 21st century. The school had been known as a “strawberry school” as its calendar matched the agrarian year up until the latter part of the last century. Back in those days, children were useful on strawberry farms, for picking and such, and their parents had no time for the demands of the school day. So if you were a kid in Plant City, your summer vacation happened in December, January, and February, when the rich ripe berries were ready. But times had changed, along with schools and libraries, and I was excited about my new challenge.

Our enrollment was low, and it was explained to me that after Labor Day it would spike, as our migrant children would return from Michigan and points north where they’d accompanied their folks for cherry picking. So though we were no longer following the agricultural calendar in Plant City, our students’ families were, and we would have to wait to teach them until the picking was done. And they came, by the dozens, enrolling late with lots of enthusiasm and limited English proficiency. How I loved those early in the school year days, when I could open up The Very Hungry Caterpillar and share the magic and joy of reading that required very little English to gain meaning and wonder from the story. As our brand new library opened its doors, I stood in awe of my little readers who were thrilled by the thousands of new books with crisp white pages and bright book jackets, ripe for the harvest. We were good stewards of the many books that survived the weeding process over the years, and created our own “Heritage Collection” with Tales from Silver Lands and first edition copies of Strawberry Girl. I loved showing our readers not only how to find books they could love, but also how to access information they would need to be viable learners. I wanted so badly to see them break away from the lifestyle of their parents, by preparing them to access the knowledge and skills needed for careers that would allow them freedom from manual labor. Their parents were of the same mindset, as they entered our library doors in support of their children.

Several years later, I had the privilege of opening another new school library. This time it was at Fort Hood, Texas, where thousands of soldiers answered the call of duty and sacrifice in the Middle East. The tile was still wet on the floor when we moved thousands of new books into Oveta Culp Hobby Elementary, and our young readers walked from military housing into their post school. Full of vim and vigor, these military children brought wisdom beyond their years through our doors, and the library provided a shelter against the loneliness and fear that long deployments would bring. Though they knew their parents were in harm’s way, they understood they could find comfort in books like Wemberly Worried or Corduroy. Fear rustled just below the surface for all of us, and children who lost a mother or father at war disappeared overnight, never giving us a chance to say goodbye. Relatives would swoop in from out-of-town, pack up the family in cars and moving vans, and they would be gone. A month or two later, I’d get the overdue library books in the mail, coming with a short note from Missouri or Iowa or Puerto Rico. Uncle Sam’s kids were the toughest and most tender-hearted kids I’d ever met.

Six years later, after losing my own parents, I made another move to be closer to my five now grown children in central Texas. I took a new job at the oldest public school in Bryan, Texas. Open continuously since 1870, the library was tiny and there was no plan or money for anything new except a few hundred books. The library was desperate for attention, and so were my students, who wrestled daily with issues of poverty and limited English proficiency. I began the process of weeding hundreds of dirty books, gaining some semblance of order so my students would understand and locate the tools they’d need to gain a foothold against illiteracy. The principal and staff were in alliance, and their charge was to bring this underachieving school up to standards. But mid-year there were rumors of change, talk of no money, discussions of drawdowns, and I received the news that every librarian in town would lose her job. The board decided that each of their 22 libraries could be adequately staffed with a clerk, and librarians would be put back in the classroom where their pay could be justified. We fought and we fought, providing every tool or study we could find to verify the impact of school libraries and librarians on school achievement, but our arguments fell short of the budget shortfall.

So it was time to say goodbye. But how can that be said; how can it be done? How do you say goodbye? I could move to another community that embraces libraries and librarians, but that would force me to leave my grown children and the life we’d begun to share in this community. I could move to a public library, but the cut in salary would force me to completely alter my lifestyle, sell my home, live a different life. So staying put meant saying goodbye to a career I’ve loved, and I found that almost impossible to do.

As luck would have it, I was selected to remain in Bryan ISD, supervising 5 libraries instead of serving as a school librarian. The job entails a lot of things I love, but it also leaves out a lot of what I thought I was good at, as well as a lot of what I think our students need to face the challenges of the 21st century. What used to be the hub of the school has turned into a check-out counter, and our students are underserved. Today children enter each of my 5 libraries, but they don’t look for me and they don’t look for a librarian. They simply look for a book. The pressure’s on so high in the classroom that they’re not allowed to stay for long. They’re told, “Get a book! Get a book!” and rush back to their classes, trying to prove they’re readers instead of being allowed to grow into literacy. It’s a whole different ship I’m sailing now, and I think it’s sink or swim.

My favorite book from childhood was Miracles on Maple Hill. I remember my school librarian introducing this little gem of a book that had just been awarded the Newbery. It resonated with me because my own father had returned from war a changed man, and the story gave me hope for some complex problems in my own life. Books have always been a bulwark for me. I’ve often told my students that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a library in Tokyo or Timbuktu, you will find the books you love, whether it’s Where the Red Fern Grows or Trumpet of the Swans. That’s the great thing about libraries, a river of time runs through them. Books give us stability and security and hope. I am looking for a book like that, a book that will get me through this phase of my life. Leaving my job as a librarian has been in itself a kind of grief, and I must give myself time to adjust to the idea of not serving children in the same way in a library any more. I need a real librarian right now, someone who can steer me to the right book to help me deal with what I’m feeling and experiencing. I miss what I was, what we were in our libraries. I have enough faith to know that this is not life or death, that in the grand scheme of things we’ll survive. But we’ve lost something, something valuable, and I don’t think anyone’s realized that yet. But if there’s a librarian out there who knows what book will give me the reassurance I need right now, please send the title along. I will be forever grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Deer Season

One of the things Charlotte loves about where she lives is the wildlife in her area. She keeps her horses out on a little ranch owned by Dr. Gunn, Aggie Class of ’43. He’s a retired veterinarian, in his 90’s, and on his 100 acres of grassland on the Brazos River, he boards about a dozen horses. Our old man, Bo, grazes freely on the pasture, and Dr. Gunn allows him to live there without charge, because in his words, “He’s served us well.” How I ended up with a horse named Bo is another story. Charlotte’s other two girls, Harley and Beret, have it made in the shade. They have no work to do, and get to play in the fields with their friends all day. They have company. The cows from neighboring pastures come to visit when the fences are down, and there are plenty of deer. Charlotte’s little house sits up on the bluff over the river, and she can see her girls from her kitchen window. To ride or feed, she just walks down the hill, and does what she needs to do.

Driving to and from home, the two miles of River Road are interspersed with other small ranches, along with a couple of exotic wildlife ranches. It’s such a pretty area. It’s typical to see deer grazing all along the road, and you’ve got to watch for them, as you’re the interloper, not them. Charlotte found out the hard way in June. She was driving home one night, going about 30 mph which is the only safe speed on that road, and swerved to keep from hitting a deer. She hit a tree instead. The deer survived, but the tree didn’t and neither did her Jeep. They were totaled. Charlotte had two black eyes, a bruised face, hurt muscles and bones all over, and walked through the dark to her house before a stranger picked her up and gave her a ride the rest of the way. Mothers hate phone calls in the middle of the night for several reasons, and there are a lot of questions:
1. Are you okay?
a. Do you need to go to the hospital? No, sob.
b. Is anything broken? Yes, my car’s broken. My pride’s broken. The deer’s probably broken. The tree’s broken.
2. Is the deer allright? See #2.
3. How’s your car? Not good.
a. It’s not driveable? The hood’s crashed in, it’s smoking, the fenders in the tire, and it’s all smashed up.
b. Did you leave it off the roadway? Yes, it’s in the ditch with the tree.
4. Did you call the police or EMS? Yes, I walked home and called 911 so they sent a constable to the scene. They checked me out and told me to call a tow truck for the car so I called USAA and they sent a tow truck. They took my car to a salvage yard because the tow truck driver said it was totaled. Sob. Sob. (Was that me or Charlotte?)
5. You walked all the way home? No, a stranger picked me up.
6. What were you thinking, haven’t I told you not to ride with strangers? Mom, it was a girl who lives on my road. She said her friend got killed hitting a deer on that road a month ago.
7. Sob. Sob.

Needless to say, it was an ordeal for Charlotte, but she was okay, and that was the bottom line.

Well, it’s deer season. Sunday morning I got another call from my child, telling me she was on her way to work and this time a deer hit her. She was driving down Hwy 60 (four lanes of traffic) and the deer crossed the road (to get to the other side, I assume) and hit her car. She was following all the advice she’d been given from the last accident when he appeared (don’t swerve) but he hit her front bumper, then rolled onto the hood, off the hood, onto the road, and kept going into the woods. It was a huge buck judging by the crater on her hood. She was able to drive home and reached me. I had some more questions for her:
1. Are you okay? Yes, no injuries.
2. I omitted the question about the deer. He’s on his own.
3. How’s your car? Terrible.
4. And so on.

Then Charlotte turned the questions on me. She asked me, “Why does God hate me?” She told me she prays, she talks to him, she tries to be a good person, she loves Him, but now she’s wrecked a second car, so therefore He must not really be paying attention.

It’s where the rubber meets the road for each of us. Where is God when we hurt? I gave her a short answer, but wanted to give her the longer version because it matters so much. I told her that maybe He just longs for a deeper walk (or ride) with each of us. Prayer is not just a tool. It’s a relationship. It’s a symbiotic thing. We pray, but our prayers then require us to listen. We speak, but then we must hear. That requires some stillness, some devotion, some time. John tells us that right now, this is eternal life, that we may know God, the only true God, and the One He has sent, Jesus. Yet we have to go beyond the knowing. We can memorize our Bible backwards and forwards, but if all we have is knowledge we are missing out. We must also understand. He wants time with us. We can serve Him all day long, and still be confused about who He is. He wants more than our knowledge, our time, our service. He wants our heart. I told Charlotte, perhaps you have to change your point of view. We drive cars. They’re dangerous. There are obstacles. A deer who lives in the wild doesn’t understand highways. When he hit your car, God protected you from further harm. He wants you to understand that, and know that He was with you. He wants you to praise Him for His watchcare. And He wants you to know that He’ll be taking care of you. Prayer is not insurance, it’s assurance, that we serve a living, loving God who longs for us. He wants my heart. All of it. He wants yours. All of it. For always.

A couple of weeks ago, Christi took her Brownie troop to the nursing home for a visit before Halloween. The residents there love to see children, and the little faces of the pirates, ballerinas, and fairies just brightened their day. Dorothy and Harry Potter held hands with some of those in wheelchairs, and there was a lot of smiling and twinkling. But I was thinking that as much as they loved the visit, they must get so lonely for relationships. How much stronger they’d be if this visit happened often, and had a deeper meaning. Don’t get me wrong, Christi’s visit was a kindness, and I’m grateful to have a daughter with a heart like that. My granddaughters and grandson were cheerful and gentle with the elderly women they visited, and that was a precious, precious moment to me. I’m so grateful for a family that is willing to serve, and I know that as they look into the eyes of these older folks, they are remembering the love of their own grandparents. There is no shortage of blessings in our lives. But I was thinking that the visit was a parable of sorts. A teachable moment in which God was saying-- See me every day. Be with me always. And that’s what I want Charlotte to understand, in danger or in peace. That God is calling us to see Him, to be with Him in every moment, because there is never, ever, a time when He is not with us.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is this one: As the deer pants for water, so my soul longs for thee. I told Charlotte, maybe the deer was just thirsty. Or maybe God was sharing something with us: Do we long for Him, in every moment, in every opportunity, in every trial?