Monday, November 30, 2009


When we pet a dog, within minutes we get a massive release of beneficial hormones such as dopamine and a decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol. Today pet a dog!


Recently, I have thought a great deal about ‘sanctuary.’ A sanctuary is a place of calm and stillness, a place of grace and perhaps anonymity, secrecy and maybe even mystery. It is a state of mind. Sanctuary can be found anyplace. But most of all it is a place that centers us and grounds us to the present moment. And then sometimes it is a place where we seek shelter to quiet the internal noise and to feed our soul. It doesn’t have to be a physical structure. Sanctuary can be carried with you where ever you are.

Writing is my sanctuary. It centers me, grounds me, quiets the noise and feeds my soul. It keeps my mind alive and sometimes it keeps me alive. I have friends that are a sanctuary to me, friends who love me, respect me, listen to me, don’t judge me, and care for me unconditionally.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux says, “We find rest in those we love, and we provide a resting place for those who love us.” That is sanctuary.

Sunday, November 29, 2009



As I left my driveway early on a Saturday morning I said a little prayer to “Please help me make a difference today.” I was on my way to help a friend who had requested I teach the Saturday morning breakfast volunteers at the Warrior Family Support Center (WFSC) at BAMC to make omelets. Many of the wounded soldiers had requested omelets and no one knew how to make them. After three and a half hours of my steadily making eighty omelets for the soldiers, no one had learned, nor had time to learn, how to make them. I had been knee deep in mushrooms, spinach, cheese, green onions, ham and eggs (19 dozen eggs to be exact.) I began to think I was set up. Ya think? The parting comment as I was leaving was “will you be able to do this every Saturday?”

As three of us volunteers waited at the kitchen entrance of the WFSC for the ‘gal with the key,’ soldiers were already sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs waiting for breakfast. Bacon, scrambled eggs, French toast, pancakes, beans and chorizo for burritos and my omelets, juice and hot coffee! As we hurriedly set up, got the coffee on, bacon frying, and hash browns in the skillet, the doors opened. And in came the soldiers, some burned, some amputees, some exhausted from the nightmares of PTSD, but all just plain hungry – for good ole’ home cookin’!

Now you have to realize, I live alone. It has been along time since I even cooked breakfast for myself, much less anyone else. So the onslaught was energizing and exciting and ultimately exhausting.

But the comments fed my fire! “It smells just like home!” “I haven’t had an omelet for years, no forever, or so it seems.” Eighty seven breakfasts were served. And of course, there were breathtaking moments that made the ache in my back and the pain in my feet vanish.

One soldier said, “This is the best omelet I ever ate.” Another soldier, with his arm shattered and held by two fixators, ate three 3-egg omelets and two huge burritos. After serving him his third omelet, I handed him one of my Pockets of Peace books for the wounded warriors and he sat reading it while he ate. He later came into the kitchen to tell me he really wanted another omelet but just had ‘no where to put it.’ His mama would have been proud, as he asked to help wash the dishes! His comments about the book … well… “It is perfect, it is visually perfect and makes sense. Thank you for writing it and for caring.” It just doesn’t get any better than that. Or so I thought, until a mother of another soldier came up to me and asked for a plain cheese omelet to take back to her son in his room. He had just had another chemo and radiation treatment for cancer, and she thought he might enjoy an omelet. I packed it up, covered it with foil and prayed this small act of kindness would help. His mom later came back to tell me he had devoured it. “It is the only thing he has shown any interest in eating. Thank you.”

On this day after Thanksgiving, nourishing those who protected us was an honor. And yes, I guess I did make a small difference. But in reality, as usual, our soldiers made more of a difference to me. I now had a family to cook for.

This day nourishment was born in a very special sanctuary with a very simple act of kindness.

Friday, November 27, 2009


"Everyday we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes. All is a miracle."
Thich Nhat Hanh




I tell this story to let our soldiers with the invisible wounds know they are not alone and their service and sacrifices do not go unnoticed. And I tell it for you. So that when you go to sleep at night, you will remember Allen Hill and the price of freedom.

Sometimes things happen in our lives that cause us to stumble and temporarily be thrown off balance. We grumble about the heat and the inconveniences of a freeway traffic jam, and we worry about the unimportant and mundane occurrences in our everyday lives that appear to us to be so earthshaking and insurmountable.

And then sometimes things happen that allow us to reach the center of what is most important. We suddenly awaken to what people we have never met, in a place we have never heard of, endured and will endure for the remainder of their lives to keep us free. Everyday, in every way, these American heroes lay their lives on the line to protect us. I find that extraordinarily humbling. And I find it remorseful that they aren’t appreciated more for their service and sacrifices.

It was a late 107 degree July Monday afternoon in San Antonio. I drove to a psych hospital where twenty soldiers are undergoing treatment for the invisible wound called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) I had met many, many soldiers at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center with this injury, but none had effected me quite like Allen. Allen’s story first captured the heart of America when he and his wife were on a national television program focusing on the devastating effects of PTSD and how his service dog, Frankie, from Puppies Behind Bars in New York alerts him to his debilitating and reoccurring flashbacks by jumping on his lap and licking his face until he focuses on the present once again and the unspeakable horrors of war are temporarily released, at least for a few minutes before striking again.

I had had the opportunity of spending some time with Allen’s wife Gina and their two kids the day before. She kindly invited me to visit her husband the next day. Little did I know the impact simply meeting him would have on my life.

As Allen approached the large round dining table in the cafeteria at the hospital, I noticed we were surrounded by families visiting loved ones, small children who had been horrifically sexually abused, and gang members looking somewhat lost. As soon as Allen entered the room, Frankie became alert, tail wagging. You could almost hear her saying, “Finally, there you are.”

Allen sat down with his dinner tray of chopped beef and rice and mixed vegetables. Frankie was in position, under the dining room table with both paws and head resting on Allen’s big red shoes. She waited! She waited for the man she listened to. Listening for that moment when she needed to alert him back to the real world once again.

I introduced myself and spoke with this soldier who had sacrificed his future for me and others like me. With a lump in my throat, I extended my hand which he shook with a handshake that told me a lot about this man. I told him what wonderful sons he had and that he should be very proud. This seemed to please him. I mentioned I hoped he was a little better every day and that therapy was helping. We talked about ‘baby steps’ and how talking to a counselor would help him release the horrors of war and that while they would never go away they would lessen to a degree and he would grow to recognize the triggers to these flashbacks easing their intensity somewhat. He told me that he had not shared everything with his therapist. I asked why and he simply said, “It is more than she could take. There were days I didn’t think I would live.” I told him, “She can take it, she can take it. She is trained to.” His eyes told me that those words feel on deaf ears. He wanted to spare her the pain of what he endured. This is the kind of man Allen is or maybe he couldn’t relive it one more time.

Gina and I talked for a while as Allen silently ate his dinner. But her eyes kept moving from my face to his. Ever vigilant, Gina quietly said, “He is beginning to have a flashback.” I turned and looked at an American hero who was staring blankly into space. A space filled with unspeakable horrors that come back to him without warning, blacking out all reality of the present. Gina stood and went to stand beside him. Allen is never combative in these flashbacks but his eyes and face tell the story. First his eye lids started to quiver and then twitch. His eyes never off of the horizon of a place and time we will never know. Then his face contorted somewhat. Gina, patting his cheeks and calling his name realized she needed help from a dog that knew exactly what to do.

Frankie was given one of eighty commands she learned at Puppies Behind Bars and placed both front paws on Allen’s chest and began licking and nudging his face. Literally in two to three seconds, Allen blinked and returned to us for a brief time, until it happened about ten minutes later.

This is his life. This is Gina’s life. This is the price of freedom, the freedom that allowed Allen to get up and bring back three pieces of strawberry cheesecake, one for each son and one for himself.

Allen may not be perfect, but in his imperfections, he taught me that the bottom line is how we deal with the tough stuff, what and who we passionately and truly love, and that people are not defined by their limitations. In Allen’s beautiful black eyes, I saw my own life reflected and wondered on the way home how I would cope in similar circumstances. I was keenly aware of those times in my life when I have needed to be carried – when I just couldn’t do it anymore – and who was there for me.

Allen’s story is not so unique. Thousands of our wounded heroes are returning from combat with the same injury. Glimpses into their lives are full of struggles and coping and agony and despair. They feel excluded, isolated, and face unspeakable terrors at every corner at every moment of the day.

We all need someone willing to go looking for us when we’re lost. We all want to find our way home again and sometimes it just isn’t that easy. “When I came home, I had to learn to be an American again.” Occasionally the flashbacks cause him to search his house for insurgents. It is then that Frankie takes Allen outside of his flashbacks and panic attacks into the here and now in a matter of seconds. Without Frankie the flashbacks could last hours.

At the end of the day what I write about turns out to deal with my deepest concerns and values. The important part is making the story powerful by expressing my authentic emotions. I write from my heart. Tonight I write about Allen.

Charles M. Schultz said, “A whole stack of memories never equal one little hope.” For Allen and Gina and the kids, I have hope. And Frankie - well Frankie gives me goosebumps! Observant and ever vigilant Frankie teaches us that nuzzling can make a huge difference. So with Frankie the story is just beginning. This dog provides a new meaning to ‘rest in peace.’ With this dog under his arm Allen can find rest, and peace and sleep and perhaps life again. Not the same life, but life.

Frankie can convey encouragement, support, empathy, affection, humor and can elicit it in Allen. The abilities of both are enhanced by the presence of the other. Frankie is not there to talk about how Allen got in this predicament, but to focus on hope and the future.

So I ask you to remember Allen and Frankie. Hear what life is telling you. Let your heart guide you. It whispers - so listen closely. By risk there is more to be gained than lost. Allen risks life minute by minute every day. With Frankie and Allen’s courageous companionship and allegiance to each other they just might be kindred spirits. Observing, I have learned to acknowledge that your soul mate helps you be your best self…so that your soul can do the most for the world. And sometimes your soul mate just might be a yellow lab named Frankie.

Allen has already done his best for the world. I like to think that what happened to Allen happened for us. For us to learn to appreciate our freedom and all the young men and women like him who sacrifice for us as we go about our daily duties completely unaware of their existence.

Allen and Frankie showed me that waiting for the ‘right time’ we spend much of our lives waiting. Allen fought so that we have this freedom to make a choice, to make a stand, to make our lives brilliant with joy and happiness, to make our lives count. For this I will be eternally grateful to this man I met today. I would miss him had we never met.

On the way home I realized that whatever comes from my heart has been given to me as a gift. I must give it honor. Allen will eventually heal to some degree from the past and I believe people who are fortunate enough to meet him will accept the gifts he has to offer their futures. Allen may not know it but our lives are now woven together, for on this hot Texas afternoon our dreams collided. For him the battle will never end. War ends but the battles don’t. For Gina and Allen love doesn’t fit into a nice shiny mold. But it fits.

Black Friday

"Every day is an opportunity to make a new happy ending."
~ Tom Burns ~



Places in between now and not yet. Places where you are suspended in memories, prayer, reflection, regret and wishes. A place perceived not friendly, welcoming or affable, but oh so necessary!

It is in these places where you find out who you are – what stuff you are made of.

Today is two days before Thanksgiving. I am in this place and yet strangely out of place – the family time of year – the fragrance of anticipation is in each inhalation, yet being alone somehow the fires of memories of Thanksgivings past blaze in my mind. Were they happy or obligatory events to be tolerated? Shopping, football, naps on the sofa, dirty dishes, dreading the arrival and awaiting the departure of the ‘favorite’ relative. Then starting the process of advent toward another holiday where you find your days and nights filled with frantic, frenetic and frenzied activities.

This year my Thanksgiving will be with those soldiers, who are too wounded and broken to go to their families and loved ones. The irony is that I too feel broken and wounded.

Before I fall headfirst into emptiness and spend too much time on dreams that have wilted, I will take Kelsie and smile for these young men and women. For this year, this is where I am supposed to be. This is my place between now and not yet. For this is the only moment I have for sure. And for them, nuzzling a dog might just make a difference, as they too sit in a place between now and not yet, a place where they might find that healing is where their story begins and realize they won’t be stuck up a tree forever.

And I will treasure it and breathe in peace and breathe out regret and fear. For finding what is true in my heart has lead me to this passion. And perhaps I can teach this to others. To find success and internal happiness they might find they need to be able to acknowledge where they are right now. The purpose of life is to find joy, love, contentment and fulfillment in what you are doing in this moment. Waiting for the right time, we spend much too much of our lives waiting – not living.

Perhaps you too will find that there is a coziness, not from a turkey in the oven, but from a life lived ecstatically. My life isn’t perfect but whose is? Perhaps in our imperfections we are perfect!

So this year I write. I write stories of soldiers. Because maybe, just maybe I see my life reflected back to me and wonder how I would cope in similar circumstances. Their stories are unique glimpses into how others struggle and cope. And perhaps a visit from a therapy dog on Thanksgiving just might help them along the way. These are America’s bravest, bearing the physical and psychological wounds of war and for some the battle will never end. Kelsie and I will make it our mission to give these guys an emotional break and for a moment the ability to just ‘be’, as we hope to reduce their anxiety and depression and convey support, empathy, affection and humor.

When a soldier meets Kelsie things happen that wouldn’t happen without her presence. For you see, Kelsie doesn’t have an agenda, nor is she faking enthusiasm. The abilities of both are enhanced by the presence of the other.

So many of us live in places where we feel exhausted and excluded! We all need someone willing to go looking for us when we are lost. We all want to find our way home again. Home to that place inside us that says we are okay and safe and comfortable. The bottom line is how do we deal with the tough stuff and find what we care about, what is our center, what and who do we truly, deep down inside, love.

C.S. Lewis said, “We tell our stories to know that we are not alone.” At the end of the day what I write turns out to deal with my deepest concerns and values. The important thing is to make the story powerful, by authentic emotions. My family this year will be strangers, yet best friends, men and women who have sacrificed a great deal so that we may celebrate Thanksgiving anyway we wish. To say thank you to them I will do my best to lift a spirit, bring a smile, change an outlook and give a little hope in the face of incredible life obstacles. The touch of a soft muzzle or a wag of a tail, just might change the focus to a time when the problem no longer exists.

Small steps can lead to large changes for all of us. And sometimes the simplest approach is frequently the best medicine.