Today, on Memorial Day weekend, we remember those soldiers who served bravely and gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Last week’s post, Armed Forces Day: A New Way to Celebrate featured a program for veterans that serves them by providing shelter dogs that are then trained through the Vets to Vets program and go home with their new owner. They’re in a mutually beneficial partnership; the dogs help the soldiers by providing a furry companion and assisting with physical tasks; the soldiers save the dogs lives by rescuing them from being put down, giving man’s best friend a second chance.
Along with this weekend being a special remembrance of our Armed Services, it’s the beginning of the summer travel season. I think back on family vacations and solo journeys and look ahead to regional road excursions and the big trip with my cousin in September. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, is to be present to the people in your path as you go along the way on your journey. Some of my best memories have been conversations that just happened on the spur of the moment.
Last Tuesday morning, I was having my coffee walk in my neighborhood. An older woman named Heidi, probably mid-seventies, was walking her tiny, fluff-of-a-dog named Lola. I’ve chatted with her before when I walked past the dog park. This time we lingered on the sidewalk and I told her about the Veterinarians to Veterans program.
“I can’t get a pet right now, so that’s my way of being around dogs,” I explained. “I’m retired from nursing and my specialty area was psychiatry. Volunteering with Vets to Vets (V2V) continues my work with suicide prevention– now in the veteran population.”
She listened intently while Lola kept coming up to me for a rub.
“That sounds like a great program I’d support,” she said. “I was an Army nurse–worked at Walter Reid during the Vietnam Era.”
She described caring for the most seriously wounded soldiers– many whom died. She would have been the last loving touch before their death, those in uniform that have American flags placed at their graves on Memorial Day.
We continued talking about her nursing career that ended with a stint at the VA hospital before she retired. A black man, probably in his late thirty’s in Army dress blues, walked his Golden Doodle near where we were standing. He told us his name was Mason and his dog’s name was Soul. He said he was the ROTC Liaison at UNC- Chapel Hill. Heidi told me that all those colored bars on his uniform meant he’d had impressive career.
“I just work to impact one student ever day,” Mason responded. “Try to make a difference in those young lives.”
“That’s great,” I told him. “I worked with adolescents for a long time and having someone like you in those college years could make a big difference.”
We watched as tiny Lola approached the year-old Doodle who was friendly and tolerant of the little dog’s barking. I told Mason about the Vets to Vets program and another dog-lover-veteran became interested. How easy it was for me, as a new V2V volunteer, to share my spiel with these two “people in my path” who’d been strangers.
Years ago, I happened upon a book that became a guide for my yearly solo journeys: The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. In his work, he says that any journey–if done with intention, whether in your hometown or to a new place, can become a spiritual pilgrimage. You can discover more than what’s on the surface, with fresh eyes and attentive ears and being in the present, versus our common state, of being preoccupied with the next thing we have to do.
On last Tuesday morning’s walk, I could have avoided talking with Heidi in order to continue on my path, to get on to the next thing on my list; and sometimes I do that, especially when I’m goal-focused or in a rush. Thankfully, that day I responded to the internal nudge to engage with the stranger. In so doing, a woman who was just elderly (more so than me) became a nursing colleague and respected for her highly-skilled service in our nation’s top military hospital.
Together, Heidi and I talked with Mason– a young professional who would not have been in our retired nurses’ circle. Now, when I see him walking Soul around the grounds of the apartment, I’ll see a man who is serving his country by making a difference in young lives of future soldiers.
As we look ahead to summer trips and upcoming journeys, or as we’re planning a walk around our neighborhoods or in city parks, stay alert to the people in your path. With open eyes and attentive ears, you may experience a new awareness of the jewels along the way.