Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dinner At Pauline's


Pauline pushed her way through the swinging doors with a steaming tray of kale in her hands. She carefully lined up the buffet as customers – no, call them neighbors – showed up for dinner.

Even at 69, Pauline has a youthful way about her. Wearing a sundress and padding in and out of the kitchen in her bare feet, she greeted her guests in the same way a cousin welcomes a cousin into their home on a Sunday afternoon.

Only this was not Pauline’s home. This was actually the small church that she grew up attending in the tiny community of Samsula, literally an agricultural road in Central Florida 25 minutes south of Daytona Beach, an hour north of Orlando, and a short imaginary gentle horse trot from a manicured golf-course community in New Smyrna Beach.

The church was going to be torn down because termites had unleashed a relentless taste for this place of worship in a tiny community of Slovenian farmers and ranchers. Pauline used to cook for friends and neighbors in her house next to where the church now sits, but three years ago, her house burned to the ground when she walked a family member to the nearby elementary school and forgot that a frying pan of bacon was cooking on her stove.

With the help of friends and neighbors, her house was rebuilt, but it was not large enough for Pauline to cook like she enjoys cooking. So when she learned that her childhood church was going to meet the bulldozers, she bought it, moved it across the street and across the cow pasture from her new home. It’s close enough that if somebody wants hot sauce on their food and she has run out, she can send her boyfriend across the pasture to her house to retrieve a bottle.

Of course, there are countless home-cooking kind of restaurants, but Pauline’s kitchen -- which is not advertised, does not have a website and officially, does not have a name -- is one of those special places that only the family and neighbors know about and selectively bring others.

She serves a buffet on most Thursday nights and breakfast on most Sundays. On a recent Sunday, it was obvious that word had leaked out to the wintering snowbirds as cars with license plates from Ontario, Massachusetts and New York lined the church’s gravel parking lot.

Pauline’s food is plenty good. On “Slovenian Night,” she offered kielbasa and homemade kraut, beef tenderloin, German potato salad, several other entrees and kale from her garden. She also served a cream of broccoli soup with broccoli she picked from her garden, and homegrown lettuce in her salads. Her homemade apple strudel with ice cream was good enough to qualify as sin on a plate.

But as tasty as it is, it’s not the food at Pauline’s that makes this visit to the old church so special. It’s the fact that this spot is where family, friends and neighbors happily and gratefully spend time together. It’s where her little cousins come to celebrate their birthdays and where, during one of those celebrations, Pauline came through the swinging kitchen doors with a homemade sheet cake in her hands decorated with small plastic horses.

It’s where old men come to dinner with grandsons who can afford to buy them dinner. It’s where friends and neighbors talk across the room to each other and ask about the family, the farm, the cattle and the mud hole that filled up in the road with the last rainstorm.

It’s where teenage girls talk about their horses and teenage boys compare details about their ATVs. It’s where plans are made for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and funerals. It’s where memories fill a room and future plans are laid out on tables decorated with Easter bunnies. It’s where old china plates are filled with buffet items and where cut-crystal dishes of homemade preserves appear with steaming homemade biscuits at Sunday brunch.

“See that room over there?” said Pauline, pointing across what used to be the tiny sanctuary. “That was my Sunday school room when I was a kid. When I heard they were going to tear this place down, I knew I had to buy the church. I knew I could cook here.”

As the Thursday evening dinner crowd thinned out, Pauline strolled the sanctuary/dining area with a beer in hand. She asked her guests if they got enough to eat and if they liked their food. She thanked them for coming over. She asked questions and listened for answers.

She also talked about needing to work on the family tree that she hangs on one wall of the old sanctuary, adding “there have been additions to the family ” and that she needed to get it finished by the next family reunion this summer.

Walking out into a cool spring night, her customers/family members gathered on the front porch talking. Nobody snuck glances at cell phones. Nobody texted or snapped “selfies.” These were people who had known each other their entire lives who were still engaged with the every-day concerns of their family and neighbors.

Talk spilled into the still night air and laughter was genuine, comfortable, easy. As the adults talked, teenage girls climbed over the pasture fence and played with some goats.

Somewhere down the road, a cow uttered a low bellow and a peacock shrieked, probably as it climbed into a tree with the setting sun. Loose gravel turned and crunched as cars rolled out of the driveway.

Driving home, I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows and smelled the country air of Samsula. People go to bed early here and rise with the sun. They have horses and cows to feed, sod to mow and cut, feed & seed stores to run, and vegetables to grow.

This is a tiny spot on the map and if you don’t know it’s here, it’s easy to drive right on by. And if you do know where to find Samsula and you ever encounter the forgotten feel of community, it’s amazing to recall that something that was normal 40 to 50 years ago, still exists here as a matter of daily routine. People here still care, still talk to each other and still listen.

No wonder Pauline bought the old church. No wonder she loves nothing more than to share the food her family grows.

No wonder her sanctuary is a familiar place that has welcomed friends, family and even strangers for decades. And no wonder we all consider ourselves lucky to be neighbors, even if we don’t share blood.

- Lisa D. Mickey, April 10, 2014

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Personal Christmas Story


I was a lucky kid. I grew up in a neighborhood where my cousins lived two doors down and my aunt and uncle lived across the street. Everybody knew everybody and, as kids, we were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.

But one afternoon, I came home early, upset at some news my cousin Ann had given me. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young and very troubled by this news.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked after I came storming into our house.

“Ann says there is no Santa Claus!” I replied.

My mother looked at me, took me by the hand and led me into the living room. She sat down at the piano and patted the piano bench for me to sit down beside her. Then she started playing Christmas carols and singing.

Pretty soon, I was singing along with her. We sang for quite a while and I kind of forgot why I was so upset.

After a bit, my mom stopped playing and read something to me about the spirit of Christmas. She told me about the spirit of giving and, in context of the Christmas story, what the first gift symbolized at the season we now know as Christmas.

She explained how Christmas got its name. And she explained that while Santa Claus is a character who helps many people understand giving and receiving presents, the real reason we share at Christmas season is less about a man in a red suit scurrying around the planet leaving gifts for children than about the gift of child by the creator to teach us lessons about living life on earth peacefully and abundantly.

My mother never said there was a Santa Claus. She never said there wasn’t a Santa Claus. All she said was that giving was about the spirit of a season for Christian people around the world.

And, she added that we should never give to receive, but to feel the joy of sharing with others whenever we can. To feel the spirit of Christmas is to understand the real meaning of Christmas, she said.

We sang a few more songs and I eventually slid off the piano bench reassured that Christmas as I’d always known it was not suddenly ending.

Maybe I’ve always been a little miffed at my cousin Ann for popping my bubble of belief in the story of Santa, but I’ll always remember how my mom handled that day. She made it all OK. She reminded me of what I needed to remember.

And to this day, when I find myself overwhelmed by the most mass-commercialized and distorted season of giving imaginable, I tiptoe my brain back to my mother’s piano bench and hear two voices singing in the afternoon. The spirit of Christmas was right there in the living room that day.

- Lisa D. Mickey, Dec. 25, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Mystery of Dude the Cat


The lizards have reclaimed the front porch. In fact, they are now sunbathing on warm bricks and strolling from plant to plant. They are no longer in a hurry to snatch a bug and run for cover.

A spider the size of my palm even had the audacity to find its way into my house and tiptoe above the sliding glass door in horrifying splendor. There was no bug-catcher on duty to chase it away, challenge its existence or alert the head of household.

That’s because, somehow, these creatures knew that Dude the cat was off duty. Gone. And they were now free to reestablish their places at my house with the feline sentinel no longer on patrol.

In past years, he would stalk the fastest lizards and sometimes present them to his mother, alive, albeit tailless. He would leap at the walls whenever a spider came to visit and either swat it down himself or summon his flip-flop-brandishing mother.

Dude arrived in a mystery nearly seven years ago. He was a friendly, adult “tuxedo” cat that just showed up one day when I lived in Lakeland, Fla. He walked down the sidewalk and greeted me. I petted him and told him he was a fine young man. I assumed he belonged to a neighbor.

At that time, I lived in a town home that did not allow pets, and I had a job that required nearly 20 weeks of travel each year. My life was not optimal to have a pet. I have had cats since I was in kindergarten. I still have the letter I gave my father as a child that said, “Dear Daddy, May I have a cat? Circle yes or no.” I missed having my own kitty, so this little visitor made me smile. I picked him up and felt that deep rumble of pleasure that only cats possess.

Soon, I discovered this cat was living beneath the bushes in front of my town home. And I felt a pang of concern one day when a neighbor’s Jack Russell Terrier flushed him out of the bushes and caused him to run and hide. This cat didn’t climb a tree. Instead, he ran and hid under cars in the parking lot. That’s when I figured out he had been declawed.

My roommate, at the time, knew how much I loved cats, so three days before my birthday in October 2006, she left the front door ajar and in walked the tuxedo cat. About that time, I was walking down the stairs from my bedroom, saw him and said, “Well, hey dude, what are you doing in here?” The cat looked at me, circled the room sniffing every inch, then rolled over on his back with four feet in the air and fell asleep for two hours.

That’s when I knew I had a cat. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a pet, but I also wasn’t going to turn this cat loose to the dreaded Jack Russell Terrier. And something else happened. The complex where I lived was full of college students who, apparently, had owned pets, but when school was out, they left and also left behind their pets. The parking lot was full of cats and dogs and one day, while this new mystery kitty was in my house, an animal control officer came and rounded up all the strays and took them away. I told this cat he was one lucky dude. He was inside my house and missed his free ride to the animal shelter.

I did ask neighbors if anyone had lost a cat or knew who this cat’s owner might be, but nobody knew anything about him. So, I took him to a local vet to have him checked out. The vet said the cat had been neutered and declawed and had obviously been someone’s pet. He added that the cat was probably close to two years old, only had a few treatable parasites in his gut from scavenging for food, and then he congratulated me on my fine, new pet.

This cat’s name could only be Dude. He was truly some kind of dude with his own ideas about things and his own unique style of operating. When he wanted me to get out of bed in the morning, he would jump on the bed and pat me on the rump – sometimes even with both paws in a sweep-sweep-sweep motion on my rear end.

I am not a beef eater, but once, when my roommate had a steak at our house, Dude nearly jumped in her plate for a bite. Ditto for the bowl of Bailey’s Irish Cream ice cream she tried to eat while sitting on the floor. This cat obviously had distinguished taste!

Later, during the summers he spent at “camp” with his grandparents in North Carolina while I traveled for work, my mom informed me that he became very calm and relaxed whenever she played classical music. His favorite spot at my parents’ house was a small rug in the hallway – an intersection -- where he would lie on his back and welcome belly rubs from all who passed. Again, this cat had his own ideas about things.

I often wondered where he got his start, who his former owner had been, and even what was his original name? Sometimes, I tried out names on him to see if he would react. Mr. Whiskers? Tux? Spats? Boots? Who are you and where did you come from, I would ask. He would just blink or roll over for a belly rub.

In 2007, Dude moved with me to New Smyrna Beach, Fla. He now had a bigger house, a garage to explore and a front porch. I trained Dude to sit in a wicker chair on the porch through repetition and positive reinforcement. Sometimes he would sit in that chair for 40 minutes and watch the dog walkers go by. I would hear them say, “Hey Dude, aren’t you a good cat sitting in that chair?”

They would say he “acted more like a dog” (to which I would later apologize to him). The only time he would revert to his feline instincts was when the lizards forgot who was the boss of the porch. That’s why I kept large cups near the front and back doors – to catch the lizards he brought to me when they ran for cover out of the snare of his mouth.

Dude hated for me to travel and I went to great lengths to hide suitcases and to pack on the sly. I would hurriedly pack a few things while he sat on the porch. Still, he always seemed to know when I was leaving and hung his head or worse yet, hid under the bed as I tried to tell him goodbye.

I didn’t really get to tell him goodbye one week ago when he slipped out of this world. I had driven him up to North Carolina in mid-May to spend some of the summer at his grandparents’ house while I travel for several June writing assignments. My parents were excited to see him again and once he forgave me for the nine-hour car ride, he was happy to be at his Carolina home. He would fling himself at my father for belly rubs and visit my mom each time she sat in a reading chair, kneading on her lap with his eyes closed and his purr-engine running.

Dude began coughing and choking last fall and I assumed he was having trouble with fur balls – the accumulation of fur that cats often get in their throats from grooming. I bought him special cat food, combed him at least once a day and wondered why he was suddenly having such a problem with this?

At his annual veterinary visit, I asked the doctor to give him a chest x-ray. The x-ray revealed some “pathology,” as the doctors called it, but nobody was sure what it was. Maybe it was asthma or remnants of heartworms that could have occurred prior to being placed on medication. Maybe it was cancer. They just weren’t sure.

In February this year, Dude was placed on three different kinds of medicine twice a day for three weeks in an effort to eradicate whatever was in his lungs. He hated the Prednisone and antibiotics, but we got through the procedure and went back for another chest x-ray. The doctor said there was no improvement and basically, wished us good luck.

I sought a second opinion with a cat specialist in Ormond Beach, Fla. She informed me that the medications he had just taken had given him diabetes and that he needed to go on insulin immediately. I l learned this is often the case when animals are given rounds of aggressive treatment. Often, the diabetes is reversible once their insulin levels are under control.

The cat specialist suggested that we control his insulin level with daily shots and a high protein-low carb diet. Once we solved that problem, we could refocus on his lung issue. She also could not determine the nature of his ailment, but provided a bacon-flavored bronchodilator to help his breathing in the meantime.

All was seemingly going well. Dude didn’t even flinch from his daily insulin injections and was enjoying his $2-a-can gourmet cat food. While he didn’t particularly like receiving his oral medication each morning, I got it down to an art. The bacon-flavored oral med was down his throat before he could put up a fuss, and the next thing he knew, I had placed him right back down to his plate of food with such gourmet names as “Cowboy Cookout” and “Granny’s Chicken Potpie.”

When we arrived at his grandparents’ house, I showed my mother how to administer the daily meds and she mastered it quickly. Dude was now running their house. He was gaining back the weight he had lost before the insulin and was busy choosing between multiple nap spots in their house, both upstairs and in their full basement. My dad diligently swept the cement basement floor so Dude’s white boots wouldn’t turn gray.

Somehow, Dude knew when I was preparing to leave their house to go back to Florida. I tried to hide my travel bag, but he knew before any zippers had been pulled. He hid under my parents’ bed the morning I was to leave. I had to crawl under their bed and tell him goodbye. Lying on my stomach under the bed, I said, “Dude, I have to leave, but you get to stay here in good ol’ North Carolina with your grandparents, who love you dearly. I’ll come back and get you as soon as my traveling stops. I’m really going to miss you, but I know you are happy and safe here. Be good. I love you.”

Four days later, my mom called me in Florida and said, “If I didn’t know Dude had something wrong with him, I would never guess it.” He was no longer coughing or choking. Dude was sitting in windows, posturing for attention, enjoying his meals, exploring the basement and tolerating my young niece, who was small enough to join him with a flashlight in some of his hidden sleeping spots.

The very next day, my mom again called, this time with great urgency in her voice: “Lisa, we are at the emergency veterinary clinic. I think Dude is dying.”

Dude yelled out a week ago on a Sunday afternoon and my parents went running to see where he was. He was behind the bed in my room having difficulty breathing. My mom scooped him up, put him on a towel, and rode in the back seat of the car with him while my father drove to the emergency vet’s office in Winston-Salem.

At first, the doctors thought it was hypoglycemia and immediately treated him. But the problem was his breathing, so they placed him on oxygen. Dude didn’t respond. After several hours, a decision had to be made. None of us wanted him to linger in pain and suffering. We had to be merciful to this friend we all loved.

Dude was buried in the woods behind my parents’ house where so many of our other pets had gone to rest over the years. My parents placed flowers on his grave. My dad covered his grave with a tarp at night. All of us cried buckets of tears over this cat that had just walked into our lives, gave us such joy and then departed far too soon.

Certainly, Dude came to me in a mystery and left in a mystery. I’ll never know where he got his start and I’ll never know what snatched him from this earth after less than 10 years. I guess Dude always was on a mission. He had his own mind about things. And for now, all of those lizards on my front porch still have tails.

- Lisa D. Mickey, June 2, 2013

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Faith Like The Fishes


I’ve had a lot of time to think about things this year. Losing my job certainly freed up chunks of time and allowed for some serious reshuffling in my life, my perspectives and the very foundation on which everything I think and feel is based.

But while 2012 hasn’t been a blockbuster financial year, it has given me much for which to be grateful. So many times, I looked at my own predicament with great fear. It took all that I had to steady myself and focus on the future. It also took all that I had to let go of the anger and disgust that I have felt for my former employer. It felt as if I had trusted a longtime friend who had, inexplicably and without warning, kicked out my front teeth.

Of course, it’s far more difficult to take steps forward if you keep looking back. It takes time and a concerted effort to only look ahead. It takes faith to believe there is something for which to look forward. When my telephone started ringing with offers for new opportunities, it was as if I had been lifted by the collar and shaken by a universal force that was reminding me that my needs would be met if I could only believe things were happening right on time.

As new freelance jobs emerged just in time to pay my bills, so many times, I recalled the biblical story of the boy who helped feed a multitude of people with only five loaves of bread and two fishes. Back in January when I was told that my job was being eliminated, I wondered how I would make it? How would I survive with no income in a time when there are so few jobs – and even fewer in my field as a golf writer, where I had worked for the last 20-some years?

But just as the two fish and five loaves of bread in that story fed the masses, the opportunities continued for me. This year, there has been work with four magazines, three organizations, and 15 (so far) writing assignments in the New York Times. And then a grant opened up in August that has given me the opportunity to work with high school science students in my county to teach them about marine science.

I also enrolled in a program offered through the University of Florida to study to become a Florida Master Naturalist, which I recently completed. With that certification, along with my work as an eco-tour guide at a non-profit organization and the county’s educational grant program in the estuary, my focus has grown more in line with a new perspective about tomorrow. I can see myself transitioning into environmental writing. I can let go of the other things that I used to think were so important. I can dare to see beyond my own – and sometimes self-imposed – limitations.

Someone recently told me that, “faith is the belief that you already have what you have not yet received.” I buy into that notion. And if I have anything for which to be grateful during this Thanksgiving season and as this year comes to a close, it’s that it took a dramatic change of fortune for me to realize that the greatest gift I have is the gift of faith. With it, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.

That might seem like such a “no-brainer” for many, but consider that I am a person who tends to want proof or evidence for any statement of fact. I want to see things to know them as truth. I need facts and validity. It’s just the way I am wired.

Interestingly, a new truth has emerged for me this year. It has been that as I have grown to trust that things will fall into place, they actually have. And in the weeks when I wanted and needed work, I got it. I hustled. I prayed. And it was provided.

I still don’t have a full-time job, but I do believe it will come. I have told friends that I have no reason to be so optimistic, but I feel like something good will happen and that all of this will someday make sense. Maybe that is how faith works. Maybe you have to clear out the trash in your head and heart and create an empty space to be filled by abundance.

And maybe like that child in the biblical story, faith is just as possible in mapping out a new career as it was when two fish fed 5,000 hungry people. I’m grateful I now know that if I believe strongly enough, good things will happen, but more importantly, the real blessing is the gift of faith. Without it, the paralysis of anger and the oh-so-tight grip of fear would never allow hope to reach for what lies ahead.

- Lisa D. Mickey, Nov. 22, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gift Of A Song


Mickey’s Meanderings

Gift Of A Song

I had already taken 12 people kayaking for two hours on a warm and sunny Saturday. Now, I sat in the shade with a bottle of water, waiting for the second group of people to arrive. I reapplied sunscreen and bug spray and adjusted my sweaty visor. I considered changing my shirt, but it had already dried. No worries, I told myself. Nobody will notice.

As much as I love kayaking and being around the water, I really just wanted to go home, unpeel my sweaty clothes and make a nice dinner. This was my sixth straight work day and I was starting to feel it. “Don’t complain if you have work,” I told myself. And “never, ever, ever complain when you get to do something you enjoy.”

This particular afternoon kayak trip was a special charter trip with 12 musicians. The musicians are visiting here in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., in a special program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. They came here from around the world to study for two weeks with top mentor musicians and to perform concerts both here and in Orlando.

So as I sat there waiting for the musicians to arrive, I wondered how this kayak eco-tour would go. How many of them could speak English? How should I adapt the tour for people who speak English as a second language? What would they understand about the Indian River Lagoon? What was important for them to understand? And how much should we focus merely on paddling and the experience of being in the water – away from cellos and percussion – and in an environment that most of them had never experienced.

I advised my kayak assistant that this group likely would not be athletic, so we would take a much slower pace on the paddling route. I also surmised that we would probably need more small-sized life jackets, since these musicians would not be Americans who typically need the larger sizes. (Sorry, but this is true!)

A big white van pulled up and an eclectic group of young men and women jumped out of the van, excited about this new adventure. They walked over to me with giant smiles on their faces and a readiness that gave me the kick in the pants that I needed. They were here from Poland, Egypt, Lebanon, South Korea, Beijing, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, England, Venezuela and India.

I signed them in, fitted each with a life jacket and gave each paddler a whistle to use for emergencies. They were thrilled to receive the whistles and soon sounded like a creative chorus of crickets, finding ways to make sounds with the whistles that had never occurred to me.

As we prepared to head to the kayaks, I watched the young man from India carefully tie his hair into a topknot. I counseled the young woman from London about the safest way to bring along her rather large camera. And then I locked all of their arts center room keys into a waterproof box and the parade to the water began.

As suspected, these folks were not especially physically gifted, but their spirits were willing. I loaded the man from Cairo into a kayak and he leaned frighteningly to the left and to the right. I felt, for sure, I would soon be in the water helping him back into his boat. Even though he paddled in a zigzag fashion, running into mangrove trees that snagged his beard, and T-boning my boat from the side at least three times, his joy was apparent. He paddled fast, as if he were on a mission, and when I suggested that he might have a little more control if he could slow down his boat, he just laughed and said, “I don’t know how to stop.”

One very tall young man from Senegal plied carefully through the water with his dark skin glowing in the sun. The fair-skinned young man from Poland had a perpetual smile on his face from start to finish. Two young women from Beijing and Seoul shared a tandem kayak and squealed with delight as fish leaped from the water around their boat.

I kept the narrative simple. For example, rather than explaining the virtues of mangrove trees, I simply told them they are tropical trees that grow around the world. And then I asked how many of them had mangrove trees in their countries. Several hands shot up. The young man from India added that there are estuaries in his homeland, but said they were not allowed to paddle there. “Why not?” we asked. “Because of tigers,” he answered.

I took this group of paddlers to a sandbar in the middle of the lagoon. It was low tide and we were able to wade on the sandbar. Some got out and rolled around in the warm salt water. The African men began singing a song about walking on water. The British woman gathered the group and photographed them standing together, colorful kayaks providing a backdrop for their radiant faces.

I showed the paddlers some clams and where they lived on the sandbar. One clam was dead, leaving behind its two large shells. The paddler from Egypt asked if he could have the shells and seemed pleased with his prize from the lagoon.

We paddled on. As I spotted birds, I would identify what they were. I could hear the paddlers repeating the words in their respective boats around me. Ibis. Egret. Osprey. Great blue heron.

Soon, it was time to paddle back to shore. The musicians were tired, but they were still excited and determined. The Egyptian led the way, still speeding in a leaning zigzag, followed by a musician from Kenya and a bright yellow tandem with a Venezuelan string player and a young woman from Lebanon. The group pulled into shore and took more photos together.

And then, as if it were as normal as breathing air, the paddlers drifted into a circle on the sand and began making rhythmic music out of their whistles and water bottles. I looked over and the paddler from Egypt was leading the song with a sophisticated, syncopated downbeat by cupping his clam shells. That out-of-control paddler was a percussionist extraordinaire, albeit with mollusks in his hands and sand in his toes.

Their song filled the air with its impromptu delight and the musicians fed off each other. Their feet moved in the sand and their faces reflected the music that lives within each of them. They were black, white, Asian, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant.

And they were 12 people from around the world who came to the water for a simple Saturday afternoon activity. Maybe they did not notice that they absolutely left their kayak leader gobsmacked and amazed with the simple beauty of their heartfelt song. They probably did not see the goose bumps on her arms as their song swelled in the late afternoon sun.

Even as they climbed back into their van and waved goodbye, I could hear the whistles and water bottles exploring new notes. I’m sure it was a concert inside that van all the way back to the arts center because it was a simple symphony today among the mangroves of the Indian River Lagoon.

- Lisa D. Mickey, Sept. 15, 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Discovery: From Birdies To Barnacles


“That’s a polychaete, which is a marine tube-building worm that helps stabilize tidal sediment.”

“And that’s a southern quahog (a large clam). Over here are hatching baby crown conchs. Oh, and here’s a comb jelly!”

A year ago, those words would have never jumped out of my mouth, let alone, pop out with the joy of discovery on a sandbar in the Indian River Lagoon. But here I stood, leader of a kayak eco-tour, prodding the soil with tourists from Orlando who wanted to see more than Mickey Mouse and the attractions of Central Florida.

As the saying goes, “It’s funny where life takes you.” And indeed, it is.

A year ago, I was dutifully documenting the birdies and bogeys of young women golf professionals from around the world. I jumped into that segment of golf journalism full time 20 years ago and made myself a student of the game.

I covered golf tournaments and learned everything I needed to know to write a record of those competitions on deadline. I knew the players, from rookies to veterans, and took seriously the responsibility of telling their stories right. I knew the history and the context of today’s victories against the broader backdrop of yesterday’s champions. I knew exactly what a Hall-of-Fame career looked like and what it needed to be.

And, as an equipment writer, I learned about the components of a golf club, visiting the factories and learning about the epoxy and graphite of shafts, the rubbers and polymers of grips, and even the metallurgy of clubheads. I visited golf equipment foundries and watched them pour molten metal into molds to create clubheads for the consumer market.

I also learned about agronomy and why certain grasses will grow in certain places. I understood why greens roll faster if mown in a certain way on a particular grass that has been fed a prescribed amount of water. In recent years, I also made myself aware of how course superintendents have found new ways to use less water, less herbicides and pesticides, and to mow less often to make golf courses more friendly to this fine old planet.

I thought I had done my homework. I wrote for three national golf magazines, won a few national awards, met my deadlines, maintained good contacts and sources, operated with a sense of fairness, honesty and professionalism in my work, and recorded history, one day at a time. I blogged, Facebooked, took photos and videos, and did the things that modern communications require.

But I soon learned that regardless of my competency, passion, interest and experience, the truth is, I didn’t have control over my future when my objectives didn’t necessarily match those of new leadership. Just like that, a new boss with new ideas and no great love of the written word, waved his hand and I was gone.

It was a shock, to say the least, and a decision that seemed shortsighted for an organization clamoring for respectability within the industry. When I left, I counted the years of experience among the staff of my former department and shook my head. Immodestly, I had forgotten more than the collective bunch of them had ever known. Of course, that wasn’t the point, and experience isn’t necessarily needed when the treadmill of disseminated information is rote, superficial and sometimes, even contrived.

Still, I wondered if some of the remaining staff would have even recognized the faces or names of Hall of Famers had they walked through the front door? And to be honest, I worried about that for many months -- not because I fretted that those individuals would embarrass themselves, but because I felt that those players who had earned their accolades deserved to be treated better by the organization they helped establish.

Time has passed. My mind is no longer occupied with concerns about the recording of golf history or the matters that once kept me awake at night. At some point, you simply must turn your back and walk away. And in the same stride, you also must ask the universe to provide guidance toward the next frontier.

I still love golf and its rich history, and I still care about the players in the game and their pursuit of records and milestones. But in so many ways, I can now find peace in a place where the constancy of purpose has no relevance to the mercurial nature of man. The tide comes and goes, whether we like it or not.

It’s scary to start over. Suddenly, the competencies that once made me valid in the game have changed to foreign terminologies, baffling biologies and ancient genealogies. Sometimes I am wading in water that is up to my knees. Sometimes I am paddling like crazy in waters that are over my head. And always, always, always, Mother Nature dictates what will happen next -- and when.

Discovery in a new place is both scary and tantalizing. It’s as challenging as leading others in small boats in a torrential rain storm with hammering tides, insisting that what’s next is worth seeing. It’s about believing in what’s out there. And it’s also sometimes about convincing others that what’s out there is worth our interest and involvement on a grander scale.

I guess I’ve started trading in those birdies and bogeys for barnacles and bivalves. It’s a whole different world, but I’m learning again. Truly, the joy of any competency is in the pursuit of discovery and the willingness to wade into unknown waters, one toe at a time.

- Lisa D. Mickey, July 12, 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Healing: With Manatees As The Teacher


“You’re not sick, are you?”

I looked up at the young girl who had wandered over to stand by me as I watched a group of manatees munching on low-hanging mangrove limbs. It was Mother’s Day and I was missing my family. Watching the Florida manatees roll around in the water kept my mind from feeling so alone. The comical creatures also made me laugh as they snorted in the water and flapped their tail flukes.

I had not been paying attention to the girl, but when she spoke, I looked up at her. I saw that she was thin, pale and wore a bandana over her thin hair. I could see purple veins in her legs and a scar on her chest that probably had once served as the port entry for some type of vile chemical that had pulsed through her veins.

“I’m sorry, but I have to ask,” she added. “I can’t be around people who are sick.”

The girl introduced herself as “Becca.” She was 15. She had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and was trying to regain her strength. She has HLH (hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis), a rare but potentially fatal blood disorder.

Like me, Becca loves the manatees. And like me, Becca was looking for a distraction on Mother’s Day Sunday. She was back home in Florida, staying with her grandparents while her mother was still in Cincinnati with her sister. Her sister also has HLH and was still at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital receiving treatment. Becca told me that the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati is nice and comfortable. That’s where her mother is staying while her sister is in the hospital.

I assured Becca that I did not have a cold or feel sick. I asked how she was doing? I asked if she was feeling stronger? I told her how people in Japan wear masks over their noses and mouths when they are sick so they won’t spread their germs to others. (We agreed that everybody should follow the Japanese and wear masks when they are ill.)

Becca just needed to talk. It was 7 p.m., and she said this was the time of day when she could go outside. She couldn’t spend time outdoors in the sun.

She talked about having gone on a school field trip once to the Marine Discovery Center (MDC), where I currently serve as an eco-tour guide on a part-time basis. She talked about how much she loves dolphins and manatees and wants to become a veterinarian some day.

I suggested that she come to the summer camp for kids at MDC. She shook her head and said that because of her disease, she can’t be around large groups of people. She can’t risk picking up a virus and getting sick. Her body is not yet strong enough to fight germs.

Becca told me that she had been so sick that she dropped down to 80 pounds in body weight. But she weighs more now. She feels better. And doctors say she’s “doing better than expected.” She’s one of the lucky ones and she hopes her sister will be one of the lucky ones, too.

The thin teen asked if there was anything she could do at the MDC just to be around creatures? She said she would feed the fish. She said she would even take care of files or take out trash. Only thing, she just couldn’t mingle with the number of kids who would come to the center for summer camp. Besides, she said, they probably would think they could catch her disease.

“They can’t catch it from me,” she said.

“And it’s not cancer,” she added quietly.

Becca and I stood there for a while in silence, just watching the creatures in the lagoon. She asked about the scars on the backs of the manatees and I told her that these slow-moving creatures get struck by boat propellers an average of 15 times during their life span. They get injured. They heal. And they move on. The words kind of hung in the air for both of us.

I’ve made a habit of walking across the street each Sunday evening to visit the manatees. They hang out in a little cove near the beach where I attend a 6 o’clock Episcopal church service. I usually remain there alone to watch the sun sink over the lagoon. It’s like the Amen at the end of the sermon. It’s like God’s signature at the conclusion of another day. As many times as I’ve seen it, I’m always awed by the beauty of the lagoon at sunset. It is as peaceful a place as any that I know.

I finally told Becca goodbye and walked back to my car across the street. As I walked, I thought about this chance encounter with the teen. I also recalled the words in a book by Pema Chodron in which she says, “Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our ... ordinary everyday lives. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.”

The manatees may have brought us there, but the moment of pause was, indeed, the teacher for both a girl fighting for her life and a middle-age woman looking for peace in a time of transition. Each of us had gravitated to the lagoon to let the creatures there reach out to us when no other human being could. Nature seems to work that way. 

And like the manatees, sometimes we are stricken, but we heal and we move on.

- Lisa D. Mickey,  May 13, 2012