Safety instructions

sully

 

“Brace, brace, brace.”

That phrase constitutes the critical dialogue in one of the many emotional scenes in the film Sully – the story of US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009. No spoiler alert needed, we know that all 155 passengers and crew on board survived that harrowing day in January and the incident came to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson”.

The flight attendants called out that chilling command to passengers as the plane began its descent into the river. They kept repeating that refrain until impact in unison like holy words in a chant or prayer.

As I watched that dramatic scene unfold on screen, I became aware that the top of my shirt was wet – drenched from the steady stream of tears rolling down my face. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but my body was apparently having a very visceral reaction to what I was seeing – the sheer power and beauty of humanity on display. Strangers helping strangers in the most dire of circumstances.

A quick aside – I have reserved a giant eye roll regarding Clint Eastwood since his asinine “empty chair” routine at the 2012 Republican Convention but damn, that old coot is still making great movies at 86.

Maybe the timing of seeing Sully was simply serendipitous for me because I was in desperate need of a good dose of humanity. I have been feeling the heaviness of the world in ways I can’t ever recall in my 60 years.

It has been a tough year for me personally, that’s true – losing my job in a maze of malevolence, searching for a new spiritual home after transitions at my church and just generally struggling with my place in the world.

The world – where do I begin? Syria, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Charlotte, on and on. And this presidential election that has worn anyone with a semblance of a brain or a soul down to a nub. We live in a constant barrage of noise and vitriol.

Some days I feel like I’m walking around wearing that lead apron the dental hygienist puts on you when you’re having x-rays taken. I’m moving but the sound of my own heartbeat feels muted by the weight of it all.

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No words…

There are days I feel hopeless and then I am almost always miraculously saved by a connection with another passenger on this journey. Some of them I know – others are simply kind strangers.

Last weekend, my salvation came in some gloriously different ways. On Saturday evening, my dear wife and I attended Harvest of Hope, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Our good friend, Lori, a 20 year cancer survivor and her wife Sue, are two of the original organizers of this annual event. This year’s dinner was the 15th and final one. Lori is retiring next year and 15 seemed like a nice stopping point.

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My amazing friend, Lori – cancer survivor and chef extraordinaire.

About 150 people were at the dinner and near the end of the evening, all of the cancer survivors in attendance were asked to stand to be recognized. Now there’s a club none of us would choose to join. But as those 18 folks stood and everyone applauded, I suddenly felt that thin space between life and death. I thought about what those good souls and their families and loved ones had been through – the treatments, the pain and sickness, the fear and finally, the relief and peace.

And once again, I became aware of the tears running down my face. I thought about some of the people in my life that could no longer stand because of cancer – my parents and my friends, Regina and Kristel, who died earlier this year. Those survivors – most of them strangers to me – made me feel connected to the people I loved and lost.

Humanity.

“Cancer is an asshole.”

Those are the brilliant words of my friend, Jennifer, a young mother who is fighting breast cancer. She is a writer by trade and she is kicking cancer’s ass in her brilliant blog, Two Boobs, One Fight. Her words connect me to feelings I have had about life and death and everything in between. She has saved me on some of my heavy days with her courage and humor and yes, humanity.

jens-blog

Read this blog!

On Sunday, my salvation came in the form of family. Not my family of origin but a family that treats me like family and best of all, makes me feel like family. My fairy god-daughter Ella turned five and we went to her birthday party in Raleigh. We were given fair warning by her mother, my friend Sarah, that there would be approximately 20 four and five-year olds and their siblings at the celebration. We were also promised that there would be plenty of prosecco on hand so we decided to take our chances.

Sarah’s family is large – a mom, a dad, an ex-husband, a boyfriend, three children, two sisters – one with twins – and their husbands. I fell in love with her kids years ago and I still pretty much swoon when they call me “Auntie Addy”.

I had not seen them in over a year and for the life of me even I can’t explain why. I’m just going to blame it on what Queen Elizabeth would call this annus horribillis. I was a little anxious that they would be a little distant around me – they’re 9, 7 and 5. My fears were quickly put to rest when Maddie, the oldest, raced down the stairs to squeeze us when we pulled up in front of their house.

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Sarah’s rules rule.

And then we were swarmed upon by Sarah’s Big Fat (a term of endearment, they are all skinny) Family. Her two sisters greeted me like my own sister – okay, they didn’t actually cry like my sister usually does – but they were so incredibly sweet and affectionate. Everyone was so damn happy to see us and I could no longer feel that apron on my chest. I felt happy. I felt connected.

The birthday party looked like a cross between a United Nations meeting – only with very short people – and a Benetton ad. There were white kids, black kids, Asian kids, Indian kids – all kinds of kids – and it was awesome. There was a jumpy house, a balloon guy, a piñata, temporary tattoos with glitter and best of all – very limited crying.

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Ella is crushing 5.

Ella didn’t open her presents until after all the guests had left and it was just family. God, I had forgotten how much I love that feeling – being in that intimate circle – belonging.

The birthday girl was incredibly thoughtful with her pile of loot – carefully opening the cards first (swoon again – I love a girl who appreciates a good card) and looking very pleased with every gift – especially the s’mores maker. Right before we left to go home, we happened to end up in the kitchen alone with her and she smiled and sort of shook her little head and said, “Wow, I got so many great stuffs.”

That’s how I felt about the day, too.

After the horrific terrorist attack in Nice this past July, author Anne Lamott (yes, her again) made a raw and sprawling post on her Facebook page that I have gone back to often. Here is just a portion of it:

Remember the guys in the Bible whose friend was paralyzed, but couldn’t get in close to see Jesus preach and heal, so they carried him on a cot, climbed the roof, and lowered him down for the healing? Can a few of you band together – just for today – and carry someone to the healing? To the zen-do? To a meeting? Help a neighbor who is going under, maybe band together to haul their junk to the dump? Shop for sales for a canned food drive at the local temple or mosque? How about three anonymous good deeds?

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. It will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does – and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.

There’s a scene in Sully where Captain Sullenberger corrects one of the NTSB investigators who describes the event as a crash. Sully says adamantly, “It’s not a crash. It’s a forced water landing.” Even though the situation appeared to be totally out of his control, Sully knew exactly what he was doing – trying to get those passengers and crew to safety.

Maybe that’s what we’re called to do in these heavy times – to help each other avoid the crash and navigate a safe landing – to carry each other to the healing – whatever that looks like for each of us.

This is our common prayer.

Brace, brace, brace.

Amen.

healing

 

 

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Finding solace among the trees

I do my best thinking in the woods. They’ve become my haven, especially lately.

The woods have always felt like home to me, a place to let my mind wander, to feel the wind on my face, the sun warming my shoulders. The moment I step onto the trail, a soft bed of pine needles beneath my feet, the world around me quiets, and I can just be. Even on my worst days, the second I’m surrounded by towering trees, I can always come back to center, find my footing.

Today was one of those days. I needed solace, and I found it among the pine trees. I come here to think. I also come here not to.

There’s a beautiful forest not far from our house that I’ve grown to love. Few people know about it, so much so that most of the time I have the woods all to myself, and other times, I run into the same familiar faces and their blissful Labs and hound dogs with tired tongues hanging from their mouths.

As I’ve weathered through these past few seasons, so have these hundreds of acres of forest. Together we’ve morphed and changed, parts of us died but new growth came. I was thinking about this today as I walked beneath the trees which seemed to have bloomed over night. The bare branches of winter have been replaced with lush, green. I remember in February, deep in my grief, wondering if spring would ever come.

Walk in the woods from Carla Kucinski on Vimeo.

Growing up, my backyard consisted of hundreds of acres of forest in rural Pennsylvania. Those woods provided the perfect hills for sledding in the winter and produced the most delicious blueberries in the summer that still felt warm from the sun when you popped them in your mouth. I remember going for walks sometimes with my father and getting lost with my sister, and watching the sun set behind the tree line, casting hues of pink and orange across the sky. I suppose that’s where my love of nature began and why it always felt like home to me – and still does.

My appreciation for nature grew deeper in my early 20s when I adopted my first dog as an adult. I’ve been fortunate that both dogs I’ve adopted over the years are both lovers of the woods. When my first dog Yoshi passed away four years ago this month, I sprinkled some of his ashes along one of his favorite trails by a lake and among the creaking, swaying pine trees. Even in his old age with his shaky knees and deteriorating hips, he came to life in those woods, hopping over logs. It was his medicine. When he died, it seemed fitting to return him to the earth, to his favorite place. I remember the day I sprinkled his ashes, the wind kicked up suddenly, and I could feel his spirit there with me. Some days, like today, I can still feel him in the breeze in the middle of the woods. He’s never left me.

Yoshi woods web

Yoshi and me hanging out on his favorite trail. He died less than a month after this photo was taken.

I have a new doggie companion now, a black Lab and Border collie mix who also has a deep love for woods and hopping logs. When she’s in the woods, she’s at home, too. It’s a magical place for her. She completely loses herself in the experience, chasing squirrels and running after deer. But often times I catch her pausing for moment on the trail, looking up to the sky, scanning the scenery around her. Most of the time she’s listening for squirrel movements, but sometimes I think she’s intentionally stopping to take it all in. She constantly reminds me to rest, to linger, let go and be in the present. Everything is temporary. Tomorrow will be different.

Molly woods web

Molly among the pine trees circa March 2016. Photo by Carla Kucinski.

 

Connecting to place

It’s a cloudless, sunny day – the kind that doesn’t feel much like January. Coats will be worn, but unzipped. Gloves will be off, but tucked in the coat pockets just in case. When I take my dog to the big open field by the middle school in our neighborhood, I un-clip her leash from her collar and she runs into the wind, smiling. She too feels the shift in the air.

Molly

By Carla Kucinski

It is my day off, and I’m spending it writing, reading, reflecting. Though I will confess, I spent the morning working on a presentation for work, but I did it in my pajamas and slippers, and therefore, it felt less “work-like.” But I surrendered at noon, not allowing it to take over my entire day.

I am in my living room, sitting on the couch, notebook in my lap, sunshine streaming through the French doors, warming the room like an oven. My dog lies on the living room floor in a patch of sun the shape of a rectangle. She is breathing softly through her nose, the way dogs do when they first drift off to sleep.

I live essentially in three rooms in my condo: the bedroom, the kitchen and this room. These spaces occupy the majority of my time. It’s been a few months now since we moved into our condo. I like it here. It’s cozy and compact, but not in a claustrophobic way. I like that I can talk to my husband in the living room while I prepare dinner in the kitchen and we share moments from our day. I like that when I step out onto the balcony, which seems to always be bathed in sunlight I can look out over the tree tops and roof tops, and watch the seasons change. Sunsets from here are spectacular in their various shades of pink.

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By Carla Kucinski

What’s not fun is hauling three bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, and the dogs next door that bark every time we set foot on our doorstep. But it beats raking a yard full of leaves. In any case, you get used to it. Sometimes, you grow to love it, even the force of the train a half-mile down the street, whose blaring horn slices the dark and stillness of the night. There’s comfort in knowing someone else is awake early in the morning.

We drove by our old house the other day. It felt strangely foreign to me, as if we never lived there. Everything about it was the same, except for a pair of white lace curtain hanging from the front window. I never hung curtains in that window; they would have blocked the view.

I’ve realized that I’ve learned to adapt easily to new surroundings. I can quickly turn a house into a home. Start from scratch. I dream of one day owning our own house, a quaint bungalow with a forest for a backyard and a front porch for swinging. I can picture the house, but never the place.

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

Angel Oak Tree by Carla Kucinski

All this moving sometimes makes me feel rootless. Without roots, there’s no commitment. I’ll always be searching for the next thing. Owning a home both terrifies me and excites me. Owning keeps one from moving, which is the part that scares me. Renting gives one flexibility, prevents you from getting stuck. But wouldn’t it be nice to paint the walls the color I want?

“It is difficult to commit to living where we are, how we are. It is difficult and necessary. In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel. We must strive to see the beauty where we are planted, even if we are planted somewhere that feels very foreign to our nature.”

These words struck me today while reading Julia Cameron’s “The Sound of Paper.” She goes on to talk about how while living in New York she had to “work to connect to the parts of the city that feed my imagination and bring me a sense of richness and diversity instead of mere overcrowding and sameness.”

Perhaps that’s what’s at the heart of my “rootless” issue. I am not connecting to the parts of my city that feed my soul. Instead, I’ve felt very reclusive lately, drawing inward but not finding inspiration and thus blaming my lack of imagination on my environment. Cameron says we become victims if we aren’t willing to connect to the place we live to feed our imagination.

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Foggy Morning Walk by Carla Kucinski

Photography has always connected me to places, moments. It helps me see the beauty in everyday life. Maybe I need to see more of my city through my lens or put it down and actually experience it instead of observing it.

“We must, as the elders advise us, bloom where we are planted,” Cameron writes. For if we don’t “our art dries up at the root.”

What an evocative image.

What feeds your imagination? What parts of your city do you connect to that feed your imagination? How do you connect?

By Carla Kucinski

By Carla Kucinski