The War for Me
The day I came upon Linda Ellen’s mother crying in the kitchen was the day the war became real for me. Before that moment, it was just parties and parades, fundraisers and patriotism. The soldiers were young and vibrant and strong. It wasn’t death. It wasn’t pain. It wasn’t real.
It was not real until that afternoon when I found straight-laced Mrs. Eleanor Pineberg, who was quick with a Kleenex if I so much as sniffled in church on Sundays, standing with her hand pressed painfully against the green linoleum countertop, as silent tears poured down her face. The phone hung off the wall, the receiver dangling from its curly cord, bouncing up and down, up and down, in tune with the silent heave and fall of Mrs. Pineberg’s shoulders.
I’d only come up for a glass of water. Linda Ellen was still downstairs, hunched over the checkerboard, scrutinizing the pieces, trying to outmaneuver me this time. I knew my way around the Pineberg house, being Linda’s best friend and all. I’d taken the rickety old basement steps two at a time, thinking I’d burst through the door into the small neat kitchen with the floral curtains and a proudly displayed new dishwasher. The Pinebergs had a pastel blue phone with a black dial track. It wasn’t like ours. Ours was a dismal custard yellow with enameled numbers more rubbed off than on.
I’d always thought of the Pineberg telephone as blue like the ocean, blue like the sky. But when I saw Mrs. Pineberg clutching the counter as her blank eyes blinked desperately, all I could think was that it was blue like sadness, blue like tears.
“Mrs. Pineberg…” I said slowly. My voice was almost a whisper, but I don’t think she would have heard me if I’d screamed. “Mrs. Pineberg, are you okay?” I asked, stepping closer, but her eyes looked right through me. I blinked, trying to figure out if I was hallucinating. My carefully rounded fingernails pressed into my palms, hard enough to leave little half-moon marks behind. My heart was pounding in my ears and I was terrified. I knew it was something serious. I knew there was something very wrong.
Mrs. Pineberg’s face was… desolate. Just empty. Crushed, broken. Her carefully curled hair was slipping out of its rigid, familiar updo. I knew she must have been pulling her fingers through her hair because the carefully sprayed blonde beehive was skewed and frizzy, as if all the bees inside had suddenly gone into a frenzy, swarming out towards the walls.
I stood there staring at her, watching her stare right back at me without seeing.
“Linda Ellen!” I cried at the top of my voice. “Liiiiinda!” I screeched, flinching reflexively away from Mrs. Pineberg, sure she was about to scold me for my banshee-like behavior. Nothing scared me more than her lack of reaction. She didn’t so much as blink.
“Golly Mel, what’s wrong?” Linda asked, bolting up the stairs, the door slamming against the wall as she threw it out of her way.
She froze in her path when she saw her mother standing there, bulbous tears dripping down her face. They left glistening tracks in the powder on her face, over her cheeks, past her nose and lips. Tiny trails of tears, shapes of sorrow we didn’t understand.
“Dad! Daddy!” she hollered, looking just as horrorstruck as I.
Mr. Pineberg burst into the kitchen, probably alerted by my first scream. He didn’t spare a look for us, his eyes were drawn straight to his wife. He stepped into the kitchen towards her cautiously and it seemed to awaken her. Her face went from hollow to hopeless as her knees buckled and she crumpled into a tragic heap on the floor. Mr. Pineberg was at her side in two strides and down on one knee, taking her face in his hands.
“Eleanor?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.
Mrs. Pineberg avoided his eyes, trying to seek whatever emptiness she’d been seeing before. Her hands clenched and her thin fingers floundered on the floor, looking for something to cling to. Mr. Pineberg gently picked up the still swinging telephone and put it to his ear.
“Hello?” he asked, but there was only the fuzzy noise of the gloomy gray gauze, scraping its way through the line. His long arms reached up to the wall, dropping the receiver back on its hook.
“It was the war office…” Mrs. Pineberg said suddenly, so softly I hardly heard. Mr. Pineberg had eyes only for his wife, but mine snapped to Linda Ellen.
“Georgie,” she mouthed to herself, raising a timid hand to her lips as her mother said the same.
“He was… they said he’s been killed,” she said, closing her eyes slowly, like she was too weary to hold them open any longer. She sighed, from the energy spent holding back all her tears. “There was a surprise attack… Vietcong… soldiers disguised as villagers… hidden in the forest. I don’t know more. I don’t care,” she said harshly. “I want my son back!” she screamed, her voice raw and sharp.
Mr. Pineberg’s shoulders drooped and he wrapped his arms around his wife, falling from his crouch on the floor to the ground beside her. The sadness in his eyes wasn’t liquid. It didn’t run smoothly down his face like his wife’s had. His sadness was sharp and blocky behind the thick glass of his squared off spectacles. His eyes weren’t dead. They were alive and tortured, in disbelief as he looked at Linda. He had one child now, not two.
Linda walked to her parents, but I couldn’t see her face. I turned away. I walked out of the kitchen, slowly down the hall. I didn’t look at my reflection in the antique, silver framed mirror that hung there as I passed. I didn’t want to see how I wore my sorrow.
At first I ran home, pushing my little legs faster and harder as I leapt over the lines in the sidewalk, trying to get as far away as I could. But slowly the blades of grass spilling over the sides of the lawn and onto the hot pavement grew into dark bushes, then jungly trees, reaching out at me from the depths of hot humid rainforests. I ran faster and faster trying to escape them, until I wondered whether Georgie had run, whether he’d tried to escape the Vietnamese soldiers. The thought hit me like a punch to the gut, and I skidded to a stop, my hands on my knees. My heart beat quickly, and my mind flew halfway around the world in an instant. I could hear the screams and smell the smoke. The whirr of airplane propellers beat in my ears.
A million miles away, the boy next door had fallen and I was helplessly imagining it. I was trapped in my mind, trying to shut the images out. But it was too late! They were locked in forever.
The soft waves of children’s laughter swept through the back of my mind. It was unreal to look up and down the streets and see children playing, grass growing, sun shining, when I knew that somewhere across the sea, Georgie Pineberg was dead.
I walked back through my front door with a quiet sigh of disbelief. Was this war? Not glorious flags and marching songs, but a broken family, crying together on the floor, just beneath a now silent phone that had brought the war to them. I was eleven, but I felt like I’d lived through one hundred tiring years in that moment.
I stand in front of the vast black wall a whole lifetime later, running my finger over the carefully carved ridges of his name. White and sharp and proud in a black block of anger, loss, and pain.
George Leo Pineberg.
Three simple words aren’t enough to represent him. A big heart, a lopsided smile, a promising future- all lost. All squeezed into three rigid words. Six inches on a midnight black wall reserved to honor and remember Georgie among all the rest. The names run together to the left and the right. So many names, each one someone’s brother, son, sweetheart.
I run my fingers over the name one more time, thinking back to the day when I ran up those stairs to find the war was at home.
I drop my flower in front of the monument and step back. I wonder where Linda Ellen is now. It’s been years since I’ve seen her. But whenever I’m in D.C., I walk the wall and I remember. I never know what’s more real, which really symbolizes the true pain of the war and what it meant to me. Is it this cold sleek scar covered in names, or the sight of Mrs. Pineberg sobbing in her kitchen because she knew her little boy was never coming home?
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Finding Opportunities in Moments of Crisis
The gluten battles my intestines. It punches and kicks, rattles and stabs. It infuriates my insides, which know that this protein does not belong here. I live with a gluten allergy.
A pesky protein (to me, at least), gluten pervades wheat, barley, and rye. While most consume it thoughtlessly, I interrogate the ingredients in my food, knowing the suffering gluten inflicts: a bloated stomach, swollen fingers, achy bones, and intense grumpiness. It leaves me in dizzy spells. It exhausts me. My throat does not close up as in a severe peanut-allergy sufferer, but instead, the suspect particle devastates in a few hours, as it rages against the walls of my stomach.
I learned of my allergy the summer after I graduated from high school. It explained the two seizures I experienced, the dizziness, the constant hunger and fatigue, but eliminating all the wheat from my diet left me salivating during commercials for flaky, buttery Pillsbury crescent rolls and hovering over the bagged loaves of bread at Wal-Mart just for the smell. No longer able to eat at restaurants because of the possible contamination, I dreaded social events billed as “meeting for dinner.” Restricted to food labeled on the box, jar, or bag as gluten-free, I could only brood over what I did not have.
Then five pounds of flab disappeared after omitting drive-thru windows, and my body felt fitter. A set of culinary skills developed, beyond just assembling a bowl of cereal. Using rice, potato, and almond flour, I baked graham crackers and a vanilla cake with a lemon-orange filling. I became the fruit smoothie queen in my house, blending yogurt, frozen fruit, and milk for a sweet and healthy treat. I opted for fresh instead of processed, an orange over a Pop-Tart, eggs over Krispy Kreme. I began drinking more water; it’s one thing that pacifies the stabbing pains in my stomach when I’ve been glutened.
Forced to scour a snack’s ingredient list every time I eat, I realized how many chemicals and preservatives I blindly consumed in my former life. Though they had long, science-y names, I still sent the additives clunking through my digestive system. Now, I must care more about my food, and thus, my body.
I believe in finding opportunities in moments of crisis. I believe that bits of positivity hide in negative situations, waiting for unearthing, no matter how abysmal things may seem. It might require ingenuity, but that is a part of the upside; crises extract creativity.
I do not believe my gluten allergy has ended my life. I believe it has spawned a new one.
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Insight: A Message from Within
Life seems to be full of patterns that repeat ad nauseam. God, the universe, and the innate wisdom within people will present lessons like broken records until they are learned. Once the human mind finally grasps these messages and applies their knowledge, it is time to move forward. I feel as if some people breeze through existence. They see challenges, acknowledge them, and overcome events without the intrapersonal struggles that I experienced. When puberty struck, negative thinking patterns rode its coat tails.
As each teenage year progressed, I buried myself with stagnantly thick and unconstructive beliefs. Depression permeated my soul. In desperation, prescription drugs were showered upon my fragile, fifteen-year-old brain, and there was no relief in sight. While conversing with an older, wiser woman one day, she recommended a self-help book entitled The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I do not know why I listened to her; there was not an individual who was able to chip through this lead like layer with which I surrounded myself. Underneath all the muck and self-doubt, there remained a speck of hope inside my withered heart, a glimmer of hope that one day I could sense the warmth of happiness, again. I followed this inner wisdom to the bookstore. My consciousness engulfed the recommended paperback like a tidal wave consuming a sand castle. Wading through the blackness of despair, I discovered that I have the power to change my thinking patterns. As a tender, but seemingly tough teenager, I began to apply the wisdom of positive thinking.
Growing up, my parents could not have been more opposite. Mom wore rose colored glasses and saw the bright side of every situation. Dad’s glasses were gray, and nothing was ever good enough for him. After becoming an adult, I came to discover that he was never “good enough” in his own psyche. I absorbed his pessimism and anger. He picked it up from his mother, and I am sure that she learned it from someone close to her. Even generational patterns exist. I had the determination to break this cycle, but it has taken years of intense self-study and an ability to gather knowledge from many different traditions in order to feel that grace of sunshine on my soul again.
I have been blessed with a deep spiritual connection to a universal force my entire life. While depression swam in my head, I was swept away and dismissed this union. The Power of Now was the first pebble that began my accruement of wisdom practices. In another book, I read about finding a “happy place,” sitting quietly and imagining a blissful environment. I called upon my spirit guides, angels, and ancestors to surround me with support. As I examined this, I sarcastically thought, “Oh, ya, sure, that will be helpful.”
On one fateful night, I was lying frightfully wide awake, yet silent, in my bed. Despondency wrapped itself around me like a strait-jacket. Ideas of ingesting the entirety of my Xanax and Zoloft sat inside my skull, and then a spark of wisdom shot through me. Perhaps, I could imagine my “happy place.” I pictured a bed with crisp white linen covering it, resting inside of a mountain valley. As the bed sat on a wooden platform, four timber beams connected to four posts. There was no cover; rather pieces of white linen hung from the beams and whispered in a gentle breeze. The colossal mountains enveloping the vibrant green valley gave me a sense of security. Puffy golden clouds played across the sky as the soothing sun peeked through them. In this place, I was normal; I felt supported and loved. It was as if the Earth was giving me a big hug. Then, I asked for the angels, spirit guides, and my ancestors to surround me. They were there immediately, ushering a sense of eternal love and acceptance; silently assuring me that everything was ok. Afterwards, I was able to sleep.
In my studies, I have read that sleep is when we are most able to connect with God. Scientists are not sure why we will die if we do not sleep; it is my opinion that we must return to our source of life each night. We must absorb the nectar of universal love and life force from which we came. Knowledge can be accrued and accrued until one’s cup is full. I learned that we must allow space in that cup in order for wisdom to enter. Perhaps, this is where my wisdom bubbles up from. I have read many spiritual books; I have studied myself as if I were a scientific specimen. I do not claim to know too much about life or myself. Perhaps, my wisdom comes from my ability to remain open. Perhaps, it comes from applying the knowledge of spiritual “masters” that came before me. Maybe, it comes from a force within me or a force outside of me. I believe it is all encompassing. All that it took was for me to listen to that repressed intuition hiding inside of me. It is said that the longest journey begins with a single step. I took that step ten years ago and continue to transform negativity into positivity each day that I walk this Earth.
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Through My Writing
I started an uphill journey 2 ½ years ago, a lifelong yearning to become a nurse. After completing the Certified Nursing Assistant course in January 2011, I began the prerequisites for the nursing program the following spring at Metropolitan Community College. My first two classes were chemistry and algebra. On the second day of classes, I became more overwhelmed than I imagined I ever would and decided to drop the classes, ending my dream to become a nurse. I felt completely devastated. No matter how hard I tried, however, I could not get over the strong urge to fulfill this crazy desire. Something inside was tugging at me, telling me to not give up. I decided to take the college plunge, one more time. It is what I needed to do, for my sanity, for peace. I will never satisfy my inner soul until this true calling is accomplished.
Learning is much more fun for me, now, than it was when I was younger. The fact that I have hiked up the “mountain of life experiences” gives me a huge advantage. I love to learn, and I love to read, two things I never desired in my younger years. Thankfully, I am still climbing the mountain; I will never stop growing and learning. At my age, I have reached the point where I am confident that I can complete my wish. Right now, I am exactly where I need to be. Regardless if I complete this nursing path or not, my college experience has been life changing.
The writing class I am in, now, has taught me that I can speak for those who cannot. Words are powerful; they can build up, and they can destroy. With social media overtaking our world, young people are drawn into a place where words are power. Sadly, so often, they use the power given to them in destructive ways. Through my writing, I want to improve the lives of others, not tear them down. My words can be small drops in a lake which ripples of hope to all who read them.
God has placed me here, in this class, for a purpose. I have discovered what a joy it is to write, and as a nurse, I appreciate how influential writing will be in my position as a health-care provider. It is therapeutic; it is healing, and it can bring hope to a hurting world. That is what creates change; that is my mission.
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Watching summer change to fall is a favorite event of mine. At home, in Omaha, this event occurs, generally, in the last couple of weeks in October. However, in Ely, Minnesota, where we have a summer cabin, it happens now at the end of September.
Fortunately, I am at my cabin, now, watching as the wind is shifting from the South to the West. A strong wind is blowing in and the gray white bank of clouds rushes across the horizon. White caps dot the normally becalmed expanse of lake a few hundred feet in front of my deck. The maple trees are already a deep red, and the birch are topped off with a deep gold hue. The contrast with pine and spruce is dramatic.
Maybe, most notably, the loons have left the lake. Their distinctive call is our church bell and street light. As a child, I remember awaking to the church bell in our neighborhood and returning home with the street lights. The loon, though not synced to Greenwich Mean Time, signals the morning, warns us of inclement weather, and portends the rising of the moon. I am told they are off to South America. Good luck.
I am blessed, as I get to see this whole change of nature happen again, in a few weeks, at home in Nebraska.
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The Importance of Writing
I prefer to write poetry, but I hardly ever shy away from a literary challenge. My interest in writing began when I was three years old. This is one of the main milestones in my life, because I started to read at this age. By the time I reached the fourth grade, I was reading on a college level and had started writing my own short stories and poetry. The summer after fourth grade ended, I turned nine.
That summer, like many other summers, I got into trouble for fighting with one of my brothers. My punishment was to write a two page paper on why what I did was wrong and why I would not do it again. In the midst of my nine-year-old anger, I wrote an entire page about how I was mad at my mother for giving me an assignment as a punishment and how unfair the entire situation was. On the back of that piece of paper, I simply wrote what I was really feeling, and as I wrote, the anger and the sadness fell away and I realized not only had I finished the assignment, but I created something meaningful.
I showed the sheet of paper to my mom, and she said, “Noni, this is good.”
I thought, “Sweet. I’m done. That means I’m not in trouble,” but she insisted that it was more than just a completed assignment.
Near the end of the summer, at the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club, a poetry contest was held. I apprehensively entered my writing into the competition. When it was my turn to present my piece, I stood in front of all of the other kids in the summer program, shaking and scared, and began to read. As I read, I noticed no one was talking like they did during other people’s turns. Every person in the room was watching me, and they were listening.
Once you realize that you have the power to command attention in a room, things change. Confidence is a powerful thing. I ended up winning that poetry contest and other contests in the future. When I was eleven, I won the If I Lived in a White House contest and was published in the book that followed.
To make a long story short, since I began writing in earnest about a decade ago, I have written countless songs, stories, and poems. My senior quote was one of my own poems. I write often, but not at the behest of another. I write when I become overwhelmed with emotion and when I need to share what I am going through but lack the wherewithal to approach a friend to discuss it with me.
Writing is a tool I use to center myself, and I have been told that it aids those who read it. It is something I have always done, and I have never had to question whether or not it was something that I was good at. I write because I need to, and I believe others might need some of it, too.
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