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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Many of us grew up with the family truism, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Though it could be used as a way to encourage us to not eat so much junk food, it worked in a multitude of areas. If a sketchy friend came into our lives, if we read too many comic books, if we watched too many cartoons…garbage in, garbage out.

I had not thought about it much until recently on Facebook, I read a poster that caused me to reconsider that truism in light of how I look at my past childhood trauma:

While you are healing from generational trauma,

do not forget to acknowledge generational strengths.

Let’s face it. Both my parents were dealing with unhealed trauma and probably PTSD long before there was a label for it. My dad was a WWII veteran with a flash temper and an addiction to pornography which probably contributed to my abuse.

Garbage in.

My mom was a WWII survivor from a war torn country who probably had never herself been mothered, as the birth of her sister caused the ruination of her mother’s health and gave mom the task of parenting a sibling at five years of age. Thus, mom, when mom ended up raising, sort of, four children in a foreign country whose customs she never fully embraced or even understood, she practiced all she knew: benign neglect.

Garbage in.

But here’s the thing.

Garbage in did not result in garbage out.

More trauma, yes. Bad decisions, yes. A complicated life, perhaps. But somehow, the four children of that upbringing all grew up to be fairly successful human beings. Why? What were the generational strengths that have gone unspoken under the weight of the trauma?

My dad’s first field trip anytime we moved to a new location was to take his children to get library cards. He valued reading, and though he had only acquired a high school education, I hardly remember a time when he did not have a book he was finishing. I heard he wrote poetry, which my mom discarded as unnecessary, so it remains unknown to me.

He also loved all music, especially classical, and his proudest possession was a console hi-fi which held a prominent place in the living room on which he softly played classical music any time he was home.

My dad loved to cook and taught me how to make homemade bread, always leaving the kitchen a disaster. He was constantly starting new hobbies, like jewelry making, that cluttered our small home with gadgets. And he loved the outdoors and was always taking us out to experience a hike or a swim or a drive in the country, which usually ended up with some small disaster.

But what actually endeared him to my mom was the fact that he had a generous heart towards others. While stationed in Japan, he somehow connected with Father Damien’s work and became involved with helping lepers. In the military he worked hard to bring a library to those who were incarcerated, and he booked musical acts and other entertainment for soldiers to bring a little relief to their lives.

And his laugh was so loud that Jimmy Durante used him as “bait” for his jokes at a concert we once went to.

Mom, on the other hand, did not learn to laugh until her later years. We often joked that the shortest book in the world was “Four Hundred Years of German Humor.” But her joy could not be contained when she was adventuring in the woods. She loved camping and hiking and seeing unexplored places for the first time. And she hand typed a manuscript of her life of adventures which I still have today.

Her love of literature and poetry knew no bounds, and she too was an avid reader. Her near photographic memory allowed her to retain the many of works of Goethe, which even in her nineties she could recite at our early morning coffee. And her generosity of spirit led her to open an employment agency in downtown Salinas where she tried with every ounce of energy to employ the “unemployable.” There was no one she ever met that was beneath her attention, and though she often had a cruel comment in private, in public she welcomed the stranger and the outcast with open arms.

As I have been writing this, it has dawned on me that it is past time to shift my focus to those gifts they passed on to me in my young years. Was my life made more difficult by the unhealed trauma from their lives? Absolutely. But I did not leave that trauma unhealed in myself, and some of that process may have been facilitated by the strengths they passed on.

I’ll be honest. It has been hard to turn that coin over. I would so much rather cling to an old story that is no longer mine. But in truth, the ashes have turned to beauty. The past is forgiven. The plot took a fortuitous twist.

So today, after working so hard to never be like my parents, I would declare this:

I am a poet like my dad, and I am a writer like my mom.

I am spontaneous like my dad, and I love to adventure like my mom.

I love music and literature, just like my father. Just like my mother.

And I am moved to acts of compassion by the example of them both.

And for that, I am grateful.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Mom was in her nineties when she decided she needed to see Maligne Canyon in Alberta “one last time”.  She had been making those “one last time” requests for at least a decade, but even so, it seemed like a good plan to go adventuring again.

Somehow, I managed to get her on a plane to Calgary, not an easy feat since boarding meant climbing a steep set of stairs into the plane.  But as we began our descent, she looked at me with her eyes sparking and announced, “I can still fly," and I was flooded with optimism.

Which quickly faded.

Arriving at our cabin in Jasper, we were soaked in the smell of early season bug spray, which both of us are allergic to.  We managed our famous “on the bridge” picture, but decided after a night of misery that leaving early and heading towards Calvary would be best.

At the ranger station entry, my frustration grew as the person ahead of me engaged in a long conversation.  Arriving at the gate, I asked what was going on.  The ranger explained that a rock slide had occurred outside of Banff, but the road was being cleared.  She explained I could turn around or go forward in hopes the road would be cleared. In my frustration, and with a less than healthy mom in the car, I chose to proceed, as our flight in Calgary waited for us the next day.

My anticipation of the beautiful drive through the Canadian Rockies was ruined by a relentless rain that began to fall.  Nearing the half way point, we encountered a newly released rock and mudslide just finishing its journey across the road.  Knowing that more might soon follow and with Calgary in my sights, I did what no one should ever do…. I drove through the fresh slide praying no more was on the way.

I had to get my mom back to Calgary and to safety.

Once arriving in Canmore, finding lodging was hard.  Only one hotel outside of town had a room.  We quickly found out why.  A storm cell was trapped in the valley of these mountains and had been swirling relentlessly for hours, dropping so much water that the swollen waters of the Bow River and its tributaries had not only engulfed the city of Canmore,but also had destroyed the Transcanadian Highway, the only east/west route across Canada.

We were trapped.  And mom’s medication had run out.

A frantic run to a pharmacy solved the first problem.  Later, when we asked about a good place to eat, the hotel clerk told us that if we left the hotel, we would likely not be able to get back.  The waters were continuing to rise.  The road back to Jasper was closed by rock and mudslides.  A worry filled night awaited.

That next morning, the clerk announced that a back route out to Vancouver was momentarily open.  I went back to the hotel room and as calmly as I could, suggested we hit the road.  Canmore could likely be shut in for weeks.  We had few options.  Mom cheerfully packed her bags, and we left in the pouring rain.

Mom’s macular degeneration limited her vision of the disaster.   Mine was clear.

We were the only car on the road.  Driving next to the swollen river, I could see the debris of homes and belongings being carried downstream along with enormous trees.  I knew that the hillsides on either side of the road could tumble at any moment in the continuing deluge.  But I held my panic inside, and I kept the spirit in the car light because mom did not need that worry.

There is not enough space to tell the tale in its entirety.  Suffice it to say we made it to a Canadian border town where our family awaited and mom, given the preferential front row seat, chatted on and on about her now “greatest adventure” escaping the flood.

I did not share her enthusiasm.

Seated in the back of the van, I looked out the window and began to weep.  My soul was exhausted by the constant prayer, the spontaneous problem solving, the concern for her health and safety.  I honestly wondered at times if we would be trapped somewhere or buried in a slide.

I thought about that journey today as I accompanied a woman who has been helping traumatized citizens of a small border town who had escaped cartel violence.  None of these townspeople were prepared for the flood of violence that overtook their town.  None of them were prepared for the roar of the gun battles or the kidnappings in their streets.  None of them had been thinking of ripping up their lives and fleeing their homes.

And yet they did.

As we went from place to place helping her deliver supplies to their temporary housing, I couldn’t not help but think about my “privilege”. When disaster struck my little world, I had the luxury of credit cards and cell phones, and a car. I was in a foreign country whose language mimicked my own. I knew the security of my home awaited.

I had every resource at my fingertips.

As I looked into the eyes of these families, I couldn’t not help but think of what this disaster had done to their lives.  No belongings.  No transportation. No money for emergencies.  And now displaced in a land where, except for the helpers, they were soaked in a foreign landscape.

I know how desperate I was, even with all of my resources, to keep my mom safe.  For these families, without resources, their only path to safety was through the mountains… children, elders, infirm, new mothers…families who woke up one day to a shattered world and had only one goal.


When it was my mom whose life was in danger, I would have moved mountains to keep her safe.  I would have forsaken my own life to protect her.  I would have risked anything and everything for even the tiniest glimmer of hope that escape from disaster was a possibility.

And somehow, I imagine you would do the same.

Just like the person fleeing the bombs in Palestine or Ukraine.

Just like the person fleeing on a flimsy boat across a dangerous expanse of sea.

Just like the person illegally crossing the desert to escape cartel violence.

You would do the same.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Decades ago, before the term became part of our cultural lexicon, I wrote a spiritual memoir

entitled “Killing the Helicopter Woman,” which told the tale of my own pile of ashes turned to beauty through the relentless pursuit of the Author of Love.

In the novel I share about the night I picked up the phone ringing on the wall at 2 a.m. only to be informed my father had been killed by a drunk driver.  For the remainder of that night, my brother and I witnessed my stoic mother’s dissembling, watched the family problem solver as she wept and cried out over and over again, “What am I going to do?  What am I going to do?”

I couldn’t solve that problem for her, just a sixteen year old girl at sea.  And neither could my brother.  At what passed for breakfast that next morning, the grief was too overwhelming for me.  It was Sunday.  The funnies were on the table, and the only thing I could think of was to say or do something to try and bring levity to that situation. And in that moment, a new family role emerged.

I would be the one to lighten the mood.

Over the years, like many who experience trauma, I developed a gallows sense of humor, one that often elicited a quick laugh and just as quickly an uncomfortable silence.  Keeping things light and “in perspective” became a way to not deal with my own grief and pain.

All this, my friends, to say that I really wanted to write about happy trails and sunrises and my fluffy dog and my dear husband and an encounter with a stranger that left me breathless with delight and insight.

But I can’t.

Not today.  Not after the stories.  Not after the pictures.

You see, we planned a fundraiser for the children in a small town in Sonora.  This sleepy border town had been lovingly embraced by a community center, Casa de La Esperanza, funded by an organization in Tucson.  A few weeks back, I sat at a table with the women running the center after a journey with our pastor through the desert and along The Wall.

The building is small and unpretentious, but the adobe walls are festooned with butterflies, a symbol of hope and transformation.  During lunch , I listened to the beautiful, musical sound of the Spanish language, which I do not speak.  But I know hearts.  And the faces of the women doing this tireless work glowed with a brightness that can only be found in people “on mission”.

Later we drove to an adobe building hard to miss due to the brilliant magenta hue and the colorful murals of flowers, children, and books.  A library was to be built there.  I say “was” because the project is on hold for awhile.

War has broken out in the streets of this little town.

Warring cartel gangs are fighting for control of human trafficking, a “business” which has become more profitable than drug smuggling thanks to the failed immigration policies of the United States and Mexico.  Their battle for power took over the streets of the town.  For ten days, gunfire echoed through its streets, homes were burned, and innocent citizens had no means of escape.

That gunfire echoes still.

Here’s the thing.  People are dying in Ukraine as hundreds of years of history are wiped out by bombs.  In the Gaza strip, innocent people, most of them young, are being slaughtered and, if not, they are being driven from their homes.  At times, it has become so overwhelming. I have no capacity left for tears, and I turn off the news and stop reading the paper.

But I cannot escape the tears here, because I am living the headlines.

My email inbox has first person accounts and images of the horrors happening to these townspeople.  I cannot unsee them.  I cannot stop thinking about the young teenage girl I met who did nails after school at a shop across the street from the center.  No one has heard from her.  I fear the worst as stories of kidnapping and violence that strain the human heart emerge.

And I think to myself…I have granddaughters her age.

And I weep.

It seems I cannot stop weeping these days, for the world, for the suffering, for the daily horrors in my own backyard.  I am no fun at social gatherings because this is my only topic of discussion with anyone who asks how I am doing.

I have lost my desire to lighten the mood.

I know as I write this,  violence continues to stalk the streets of this little burg.  But I keep going back to the pictures lovingly painted on the adobe walls of Casa de La Esperanza.  I keep going back to the flowers and books painted on the unfinished library walls that were to be a beacon of hope and promise.

I keep going back to the butterflies, symbols of transformation and renewal.

If my tears, if our tears, could alone stop the inhumanity present in the world around us, it would be over.  But in the midst of those tears, paralysis of grief is not the answer.  Trying to “fix” things by railing against the world is not the answer. Trying to “lighten the load” through distraction is not the answer.

What is then?

I don’t know.

But until I figure it out, I will tell the stories as they happen around me.  I will have you picture the old man, nearly crippled, being loving helped away from the violence and through the mountains on a rocky path to safety.  I will have you picture a mother and child fleeing violence in the night with nothing, especially not her child’s birth certificate, and then picture them separated and traumatized anew in the land that was to save them.

But mostly, I will have you picture a young girl who used to do nails after school, maybe the age of your daughter or granddaughter, who had not been heard from.

Her face haunts me before sleep and is there to wake me when I rise.

I pray for her.  I ask God to surround her with angel armies to protect her and the children like her all around the world.  I pray a cloud of butterflies to surround her dreams and give her hope.  And I pray for guidance to help me move beyond thoughts and prayers and into loving action on behalf of those who do not have a voice.

It seems so little.

But it is all I have.

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