Holy Cartography!

Whether exploring new parts of the world or traveling up and down familiar roads and interstates here in the United States, carefully constructed maps can prove to be invaluable.

Recently my husband and I traveled to India and the Middle East. Our itinerary included visiting historic places like the magnificent Taj Mahal in Delhi and the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I kept checking several maps to pinpoint where we were located and to see where we were in relation to other cities and countries. This was especially important to me when traveling through troubled parts of the world. At times, I was even able to consult interactive maps on the internet so that I could pinpoint our current positions and relay that information to family and friends so that they would know we were safe and well.

This month we took a road trip from Florida to Delaware & New Jersey and back. I can’t tell you how many times we have made this trip over the past fifty plus years. When we started driving up and down the East Coast to visit my parents in the mid-1960’s, the interstate system was not yet completed. I can remember driving many hours on two and four-lane roads in an unairconditioned car with little toddlers secured in primitive seat belts which they quickly figured out how to escape! I can also remember the hot air blowing through the car and at one point having one of the kids “sippy cups” flying out the window somewhere in the Carolinas. How did we ever survive those family trips!?!

Fast forward to 2017. During this month’s road trip, we were now visiting those little “toddlers” and their families. We were in Delaware for their childrens’ high school and elementary school graduations. Time flies! But I still rely on maps to help us on our travels. This month, my daughter taught me how to use the Google Maps app on my i-Phone. Now I can use these interactive maps to pinpoint my location at any given time. The app will also tell me exactly how many miles and how long it would take to reach our destination plus local restaurants, hotels and attractions. I still marvel at everything my smart phone can do. If I only knew how to use all its features!

Now that we are home, I’ve entered into a time of discernment, trying to figure out where my writing is leading me. Wish I had a map! As a journal prompt, I decided to check on “Seasonal Inspirations” from “The Way of Belle Coeur” by Sibyl Dana Reynolds…for June (p. 350):

“Before the invention of the GPS, a printed map was the primary tool for guidance from one place to another. There is a quality of mysterious beauty within the pages of a world atlas. Exotic names of faraway countries set atop the colorfully portrayed network of roads and highways assumes the appearance of a topographical crazy quilt, while an unfurled road map inspires the desire to set out for an adventure to explore new destinations and terrain. “

It goes on to read: “Belle Coeur spirituality…incorporates a circular form of cartography, a template with four pathways, four chambers, and compass at the center. Your sacred practices, life experiences, and relationships create your personal cartography. You are the cartographer of your life…. The invitation for June is to travel inward to explore the map of your life…. What map will you create to chart your course for the months ahead?”

These quotes are followed by various prompts and exercises to help me map out the way ahead. My goal for this summer is to practice “Holy Cartography!” Won’t you join me on this quest!?!


Double Major 

This cartoon reminded me of my college graduation in May 1984.  I began my studies at Neumann College (now University) in January, 1981 with a double major in Religious Studies and Behavioral Science.  At the beginning of my senior year, I dropped Behavioral Science as a major because I couldn’t complete the requirements that year and I already planned to begin seminary studies in the fall.

I could have “settled” for a B.A. in Religious Studies, but for some forgotten reason I still thought it was important to graduate with a double major.

Since most of my elective courses were in the Humanities, my guidance counselor and I figured out a way to adjust my schedule and add two Humanities courses so that I could earn that second major.
Looking back, I have no idea why I felt the need to do that!  I added a French class and set up an Independent Study in “Art: Theory and Criticism” with the Department Chair  in order to complete qualifications for the “Arts & Letters” major.  That meant I would have to carry a class load of 16 credits and they would all be challenging classes.

If I were to be in a college graduation cartoon, I guess my bubble would read: “She is a Student of Religion and expresses her beliefs through Arts and Letters.”  That would be a pretty good description of how my studies at Neumann prepared me for a lifetime of using creative arts and writing skills in both my personal and professional life.

How have your studies helped you develop your gifts and talents?  What major or majors would you choose to study if you went back to school for continuing education?  Remember: It’s never too late to learn and grow.


My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Kissed by a Dolphin

Kissed by a dolphin?  It started innocently enough.  First we were introduced, then we were holding hands/fins, next we were dancing… and then Tashi poked his head out of the water, looked right at me, and planted a big kiss right on my lips!

All this took place at Island Dolphin Center in Key Largo, FL as part of a Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith Program.”  That is where I met Tashi, a male Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, who is part of a “family” of dolphins that love interacting with military families and with children and adults with special needs.

There is something therapeutic about being “up close and personal” with dolphins.  The experience strips away fears and anxieties and replaces those feelings with pure joy and excitement.  The dolphins know how to bring us out of our comfort zone by allowing us to become part of their world, as we in turn give them our full attention.

On a beautiful, sunny, winter day in Florida, my sister and I sat on a dock and dangled our toes in the water as Tashi and Fiji swam back and forth and gave us a little “foot massage.”  The trainer said it was good for them as it helped exfoliate their skin.  But for me, it was this gentle movement that made me want to reach out and touch them.  Their skin felt smooth, and it shimmered in the Florida sunlight.  Soon we were talking with the dolphins.  The trainers taught us some hand signals/commands, and before we knew it we were waving our arms and clicking our fingers and communicating with our new friends.  Then it was time to say goodbye to Tashi and Fiji, but not before feeding them some fish and then having them wave their tails at us in a fond farewell.

We moved on to the other side of the large pool where we would meet Bella.  She is a teenage beauty!  The trainer asked my sister and I if we would like to get in the water and play with Bella, and we jumped right in.  Bella was shaking her head at us as if she was asking us…”Are you ready?”  Before we knew it, the trainer asked Cathy and I to hold hands, and said that Bella would give us a push.  All of a sudden, Bella was giving me a foot push… and this sent my sister and I into a circling spiral motion as if we were on a water merry-go-round.  Everyone watching erupted in laughter as they had never seen anything like it before!  Even the trainer was surprised!!!

Swimming with Bella was such a thrill in so many ways.  This gentle water creature showed us how to play…how to have fun together…and how to heal.

Fifty years ago, our brother Jerry died while serving his county.  At that moment, our family was changed forever.  Looking back, I now realize that his death impacted each member of our family and influenced how we interacted with each other…how we dealt with pain, worked through differences, and spoke about our feelings or kept them buried.

Our encounters with the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care touched our wounds and helped heal them in the best way possible…by touching our hearts and our lives so gently and lovingly.

Sometimes a “Leap of Faith” might mean entering the water and swimming with dolphins.  Or it might mean doing a tandem jump with one of the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team.  Stay tuned for my next blog on this experience.

Spoiler alert: my sister and I did not do the jump, but we watched how others in our group were changed by the experience, and our lives were changed vicariously by being part of their “cheering section” as their parachutes opened and they floated down to earth.








My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Telling Our Stories

Today I begin a series of blogs about being a Gold Star Family member.  My story began on February 7, 1967.  On that day, I picked up the phone, and received the shocking news of my brother Jerry’s death.  My parents, through their tears, told me that  that the Navy had just notified them that their son died in a freak accident in Iowa.  It all seemed surreal.  We all knew that Jerry was there receiving advanced training in military intelligence in preparation for his next tour of duty in Vietnam where he would be in harm’s way.  But Iowa?  Wasn’t it safe there!?!

Events unfolded swiftly and yet it felt like we were all moving in slow motion.  Family members were notified and we all awaited news from the Navy about final arrangements for my brother’s funeral and burial.  In the meantime, my parents and twelve-year-old sister Cathy made plans to fly from Florida to Delaware so that they could travel with my husband and I to Washington, DC when the time came.  My older brother Jim was still living in our hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and he and his wife were awaiting the birth of their first child at any moment.  Our lives seemed “suspended” yet they moved forward.

In a matter of days, my parents learned of their son Jerry’s death on February 7th and then the news of their first grandson Jimmy’s birth on February 10th.  Just two days later, on February 12th, my brother Jim had to leave his wife and newborn son back in the hospital in Chicago in order to fly to Washington, DC to bury his brother.  How could so much be happening to our family all at once!?!

A great blizzard of snow came down all across the Midwest and moved swiftly to the East Coast, from Chicago, to Delaware and Washington, DC.  It seemed to me like the heavens opened up and what came down was a great white blanket of snow trying to cover our grief.

On President’s Day Weekend, my parents, sister, husband and I made our way to Washington via Amtrak where we were met by Navy personnel and escorted to the funeral home for my brother’s viewing.  It was difficult to leave behind my two little girls, Carin age 2 and Chris age 1, but it was even harder for my brother to leave his wife’s bedside after her difficult cesarean delivery.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law Jan’s parents could care for her while Jim was away, but what should have been a great time of joy was overshadowed by the sadness that held us all captive.

My sister Cathy later wrote a moving tribute about our brother Jerry’s funeral and burial on February 13th: “It was a cold, snowy day in Washington, DC during the record breaking snow spectacle of February, 1967.  The motorcade left St. Thomas’ Church in Arlington, VA just moments after [his funeral mass ended] at 11:30 am.  It proceeded at 15 mph in the direction of Arlington National Cemetery, led by police and military escorts, the hearse, and a government limousine bearing solemn looking relatives….  Before the onlookers at the gravesite, the priest gave the family his sympathy and began the ceremony…a three-gun salute was performed, and the American flag which was draped over the casket was presented to his mother, who graciously accepted it.”

All of this happened 50 years ago, but our memories of that time still seem at times fresh and raw.  And so it is fitting that we remember and honor our brother: Radioman Second Class Gerald Martin Soens, United States Navy (1943-1967).

My sister Cathy and I shared some of our family story last weekend at an event sponsored by Operation Support Our Troops America (www.osotamerica.org).  This was a “Leap of Faith” Seminar/Retreat for Gold Star families, described as a three-day, intensive grief seminar done in partnership with the US Army Golden Knights.  During this time, family members (widows, parents and siblings) were offered grief counseling, a chance to tell their family stories, and the opportunity to tandem sky dive with the Golden Knights parachute team at Homestead Air Force Base, Homestead, FL and also to have an up close and personal therapeutic dolphin experience at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, FL.

On each of the three days, Gold Star Family Members were lovingly cared for by supportive staff and one another.  Our losses may have been fifty years ago or less than one year or somewhere in between.  But we all shared one thing in common: our loved ones gave their lives for our country and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

(During the rest of this series, I will describe our interactive, therapeutic program at Island Dolphin Care, our experience with the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, and ways that we can support Gold Star Families.)


Our First Town Hall Meeting, Won’t be Our Last!

On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, most Floridians, snowbirds and tourists were hitting the golf course, walking the beach, playing tennis, biking on nature trails, or watching their kids play outdoor sports.  My husband and I made a different choice.  We decided to attend our first political town hall meeting in New Port Richey with our US Representative Gus Bilirakis.

When we pulled up to the West Pasco Government Center, there were already crowds forming.  Various local activist groups were handing out information, signing up new members, and passing out signs to those who were interested.  There were also many individuals, like us, who came with hand made signs that we hoped would attract attention to our cause.  Health care was the topic of the town hall, and we wanted to make sure that our Representative knew that we did not want the ACA (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) repealed unless there was an improved replacement plan that would be immediately available.  As seniors, we also wanted Gus Bilirakis to know that we expected him to protect and defend Medicare and Social Security…”no ifs, ands or buts.”

As we entered the room, we looked around and found a standing-room only crowd.  Then my husband noticed that they were wheeling in a few more chairs, and we grabbed the last two available seats.  The auditorium was then at capacity and they began turning away people at the door.

A half hour later, the meeting started with the briefest remarks by Rep. Bilirakis.  He emphasized that he was there to listen, and that his staff would take notes, and they would allow as many people to speak as time permitted.  He asked everyone to be respectful and for the most part we adhered to his plea.

For the next two hours, people spoke up!  The Chairs of both the Pasco County Democratic Party and the Republican Party were in the first group called up to the microphone.  They were met with various degrees of applause but the Republican chair was also greeted with boos when he started talking about “death panels.”  Then he made some nasty remarks that were caught on camera and later shown on national television (CNN, MSNBC, NBC and others who picked up their news feed).  He actually had the nerve to address us as “Children”!  I can assure you that he didn’t win any new followers among the Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the crowd, and he may have lost a few Republican voters in the process.

I would estimate that at least 50 people (about a fourth of the crowd) got to speak directly to Rep. Bilirakis in front of the crowd.  I would say that of those that were called to the mike, about 9 out of 10 spoke positively on behalf of keeping the ACA or improving it, and were against repeal without an improved replacement plan.

Many shared personal stories of how they or loved ones were affected positively by the ACA.  Three medical doctors talked about how it made a great improvement in their patients health care.  They said that before the ACA, many patients would avoid going to their doctor until they were extremely sick.  By the time they saw them, their diseases had progressed and treatment was more costly.  After the ACA, more of their patients had insurance and as a result they didn’t delay getting to see their doctor.  All three pleaded for affordable, early interventional health care for people of all ages.

Town hall speakers came from every walk of life, and the age range was from young adults in their early twenties to seniors in their 70’s and 80’s.  Many of the younger folks said that they had benefited by the ACA because they were able to stay on their parents insurance while in college and in graduate school.  Some shared that now they needed insurance made available to them through the ACA exchanges because their current employers offered no health care insurance.

There were small business owners who spoke on behalf of the ACA.  One woman said that she would be able to afford to hire another employee if she didn’t choose to provide health benefits in her company of less than ten people.  But she helped her employees pay for insurance offered through the exchanges provided by the ACA because it was the right thing for her to do and that also helped her keep highly qualified employees.

Here are my “take aways” from the town hall meeting:

  1. Our US Representative Gus Bilirakis really listened to his constituents and he and his team did a masterful job of crowd control.  He is obviously an experienced politician and not afraid to meet the voters in his district.  While he and I may differ on policies, I now have great respect for him and the way he conducts himself as our US Representative.
  2. Speakers who came prepared with facts, statistics and personal stories were the most effective.  Some were obviously nervous and said they were not used to speaking in public, but Rep. Bilirakis put them at ease and thanked them for coming.  He could not have been more welcoming.  The professional people (like doctors, teachers, managers, and business folk) spoke as much to the Congressman as to the crowd, and I think that was helpful.  His staff took notes and said they wanted to keep in touch.
  3. I believe attendance at town hall meetings is critical to having our voices heard.  Even though I signed up to speak, I was glad that I wasn’t called to the microphone because I did not have prepared remarks (only rambling thoughts).  I talked to one of his staff people and he assured me that he will help me set up a personal meeting with Rep. Bilirakis.  I am looking forward to that and know that I will go well prepared.

Even before we left the auditorium, I started to receive text messages that they were showing clips of our town hall meeting on national television.  My friend in St. Louis spotted us on CNN and MSNBC and sent me photos that she captured from live coverage.  By the time we got home and turned on our tv, we found that they kept repeating the loop from our town hall meeting on those stations throughout the afternoon, and so we were able to see ourselves on national television many times!

At first I was surprised that our meeting was covered by national news networks, but then I remembered that we live in a swing district in a swing part (I-4 Corridor) of our swing State of Florida.  Our voices matter!  And we have a Representative who is not afraid to listen to his constituents.  During the meeting he announced that he will be having more town halls in the future so that everyone can have their voices heard!

You better believe that my husband and I will be reading his online newsletter and following our local politician very closely.  This may have been our first town hall meeting, but it definitely won’t be our last.

I encourage you to attend town hall meetings in your districts and to make your voices heard.  You will see democracy at work!

(PS  I am holding up a pink sign in back of Rep. Bilirakis in the first picture.  In the second picture, my husband Ted is to the left of Rep. Bilirakis and I am to the right of him on the photo captured from CNN)



“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…”

During the summer of 2001, my husband and I visited our daughter in New York City.  One day we took the ferry out to the State of Liberty and then on to Ellis Island.  I took this photo looking back at Lower Manhattan where the skyline was dominated by the Twin Towers.  No one knew that by the end of summer, on September 11, 2001, the towers would be brought down by terrorists.  That was the day that fear entered the American psyche.  Psychologically, our country has never be the same.

Our American optimism went down a slippery slope.  During the G. W. Bush years, we recklessly entered into two foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and gave large banks and financial institutions the ability to bring down our economy to the point of near self-destruction.  This reached a crescendo in the fall of 2008 when the stock market crashed, homes were foreclosed, the job market tanked and many people lost their livelihoods.  That was a dark time in America.

Barack Obama ran for the presidency on the promise of Hope and Change.  His election brought back a degree of optimism.  Thanks to his leadership and a Democratic Congress, we got a floor under our crashing economy, gave life support to the automotive industry, and finally brought affordable health care to a large segment of our population who otherwise would have been unable to purchase health insurance.

In my opinion, the Ship of State seemed to be righting itself.  Progressive values seemed to be taking hold, especially with younger generations.  Everything wasn’t perfect, but the trajectory of our country seemed optimistic…especially for women, minorities, the LGTBQ communities, persons living with disabilities, environmental groups, and Native Americans.

Then came Trump’s shocking win in the 2016 presidential election.  Looking back, I can understand how a large segment of our country voted for him.  It was because they felt “left behind.” He certainly played on their fears.  He promised them jobs which they desperately needed in order to hang on to their version of the American dream.  Some of his followers felt that progressives had made too many gains and they wanted to roll back the clock.

His boldest promise was to stop illegal immigration and the flow of refugees to our country.  Both of these are serious issues and need to be addressed.  But rather than working with Congress (where both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans), he decided to act unilaterally by issuing Execute Orders that would throw our country into chaos.  I have heard from several of his supporters that they are happy to see Trump acting in such a way and are applauding his ability to “get things done” apart from Congress or anyone else that might get in his way.  I just shake my head and wonder why people think this is a good idea.

The protests started immediately!  People are taking to the streets in opposition to his actions and executive orders.  Even National Park officials and Scientists have made their voices heard!

To me, Trump’s behavior these past two weeks seems “reckless” at best and “destructive” at its worst.

We must always remember that America is not yet a dictatorship.  It is a democracy with three branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial.  The founders of our country set up this system of government in order to have checks and balances so that one branch would not hold power over another.

My prayer today is that our Government (all three branches) will work together to move our country forward.

I also pray for all  those yearning to come to our shores after being vetted and obtaining visas and green cards, whether they are on a path to citizenship or here to contribute to our society for a short time.  Even Donald Trump has asked, since his election, for our country to authorize visas to workers that he wants to bring to our country in order to work at his American properties (even thought there are plenty of Americans who would like those jobs, especially in South Florida).  For that reason alone, I call him a hypocrite.

He has tried to put a ban on people from particular countries or religions which is now being temporarily blocked in federal courts.  Many legal experts are looking at his executive actions and calling them not only unconstitutional but not in our best interest if we want to remain “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In watching news reports these past days, I weep for those being turned away from our country who have valid reasons to come and live among us: international students, doctors and researchers, interpreters who have fought along side our military, children coming for life saving medical needs/surgery, and those traveling back and forth for personal reasons who are now trapped in our political chaos.

Time magazine’s latest cover showed a Statue of Liberty with her flame going out.  Let us keep her torch burning brightly for all the world to see.  Let us be optimistic once again!




“Alternative Facts”

This week Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyann Conway introduced us to a new term…”Alternative Facts.”  At first I was amused.  Even joked that “alternative facts” might be useful.

For instance, I posted on Facebook that when I woke up and looked in the mirror, I saw that I lost 50 pounds overnight!  Chuckle, Chuckle.

But as the week wore on, more and more “alternative facts” were put out there by Trump and his cronies that made my head spin and my blood boil.

Estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration were greatly exaggerated by his administration, especially after the Park Service said he drew a smaller crowd than Obama.  In spite, Trump shut down the National Park Service website after they backed up their claims by posting photos of the two events “side by side” clearly showing that Obama drew a much bigger crowd.

The Women’s March the next day also drew greater crowds than Trump’s inauguration and that infuriated him even more.  In fact, the big March in Washington was only one of the many that day.  There were protest marches in every state and many countries around the globe.  That really got under his thin skin.

Trump sent out his dogs, Sean Spicer and Kellyann Conway, to present “alternate facts.”  But everyone with could see that what they were really doing was lying about the numbers.
And then the Wall…he announced that he was going to have American taxpayers pay to build a wall between our country and Mexico after stating throughout his campaign that he was going to have Mexico pay for it.  “Alternative Fact”…America would get the money back by imposing tariffs on Mexican goods, so in fact Mexico would pay for the wall.  But that would mean that Americans would pay higher costs for products so indeed we really would be paying for the damn wall.

So much happened this week but the crowning blow was waking up to the news yesterday that Trump, by executive order, had closed our borders to people from seven countries, mostly in the Middle East…”in order to keep us safe.”  This is the biggest “alternative fact” of all.  This self-imposed Muslim Ban will do just the opposite.  Besides going against our national values and international interests, this executive order will make our country less safe and it even threatens the heart of our  democracy.

“Alternative Facts” are lies!  They will only bring our country down.  We must resist by telling the truth!!!

William Sparrow gave this advice to his students at Virginia Theological Seminary over 150 years ago: “Seek the truth; come whence it may, cost what it will.”  I am glad to follow in that tradition in the days and months and years ahead, so help me God.

Photo was taken at graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary, May 1989.

L to R: The Revs. Anne West, Gayle Marsh, Pat Earle, Anne McRae, and Mary Anne Dorner