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PEACE

Monday was the annual International Day of Peace as declared by the United Nations. To mark the occasion, we asked four writers to explore the theme in 300 words or fewer. Turns out peace is a rare and precious thing, even in yoga class.

Tim Pearson is late.

He cracks the door to Room 131 at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. The others are on the floor, eyes closed.

He walks past casualties of war - men with scars or nightmares or legs that won't walk - and finds a mat in the corner.

"We're going to do something called yoga nidra," the instructor says. "Sleep with awareness."

Pearson is wearing a helmet, and under the helmet is a scar, and under the scar is a damaged brain, and in that brain are thoughts of someplace else.

"Bring all of your awareness to the crown of your head and see how much you can relax," the instructor says. "Relax completely. Breathe."

He should be with his unit in Afghanistan. He would be but he died on April 23, after a head-first fall into 20-pound dumbbells, six weeks before deployment. They revived him, sawed through the crown of his head, drained, cut, and here he is, eyes closed now, falling deeper.

The room is dark, quiet. The instructor tells the men to relax their jaws, their tongues, their collarbones, their arms, their bellies, their hips, their knees, their ankles, their toes.

Pearson, 46, wants to feel his toes in his boots, his boots in the sand. He has cried once as an adult, when the Army National Guard told him no, he couldn't go.

"You are completely relaxed," the instructor says. "No tension."

He doesn't get it, but he'll do what it takes to get right. Rehab. A metal plate in his head. Yoga.

"You need do nothing," the instructor says softly. "Just let go."

There is a long quiet, and the wars have stopped. Someone has fallen asleep and he is snoring and it sounds like distant gunfire.

Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer

* * *

Peace short, but precious

ST. PETERSBURG - Shanya wants cake for breakfast. Ja-Mya wants different socks. Zykeria keeps coughing. "Gramma!" John J. calls, "I want a snack!"

It's 6:35 a.m. and Angelera Middlebrooks, 49, has been up for an hour doing laundry. Her four grandchildren, ages 4 to 7, just got up.

"You all know what Gramma wants?" she asks. "A little peace."

Three years ago her sons were grown and gone and she was living alone, quietly. Then the state took the elder son's children, ruling he and their mom couldn't care for them. Guess who stepped in?

"Shanya, find your shoes. Ja-Mya, wash your face. John J., brush your teeth. Baby girl, you still coughing?"

Zykeria sniffles. "I sick, Gramma."

"You think you can make it to kindergarten?" she asks. "Sure would help Gramma out."

The only time Middlebrooks has to herself is when the kids are in school. She gets a couple of hours to get groceries, start dinner.

Zykeria coughs. "Oh baby girl."

After instant oatmeal, after walking her two oldest granddaughters to the bus, after driving John J. to preschool, Middlebrooks heads home with Zykeria. She gives the girl juice, picks up a laundry basket and says, "Just going to put in the wash."

"I come too," says Zykeria.

"No, you stay here. Gramma needs a minute."

In the shed, she pulls clothes from the dryer, heaves another pile from the washer. While water fills for the fourth load, she lights a Black & Mild, inhales, then sings softly:

"I'm barely getting through tomorrow. But still I won't let sorrow get me way down ..."

For just a minute, peace feels like warm towels and sounds like a Dolly Parton song.

Then reality calls: "Gramma!"

Lane DeGregory, Times staff writer

* * *

Balance and butterflies

PLANT CITY - Every peaceful garden has its jungle aspects. In the new garden at South Florida Baptist Hospital, nectar from the Mexican petunias has brought butterflies. But birds followed them, and so did spiders and ants, and every last one of them fights the others for a piece of the garden, for life.

Marketing manager Shannon Mitchell pushed the hospital to open the garden two months ago, for the staff. She helped a landscaper select flowering plants that butterflies like - purple Mexican petunias, red-budded jatropha, willowy bottle brush and gardenias. Then they simply let the butterflies find it.

They let the garden find its own life balance as well. What goes on there doesn't seem that different from what goes on in the hospital. Provide the nectar. Provide the medicine. Let nature do its thing. Everything inside and out - the life and the death - is about balance.

The garden stays open day and night. Nurse Jenny Jordan was in it at noon Monday. Her shift had started at 6 a.m. This was her only break. It was 92 degrees under a high, hard sun. One butterfly flitted over roasting petunias.

Jenny had escaped the cardiac rehab and stress test lab, where mortality etches itself on video screens every minute, and where it stays frigid and fluorescent blue, no matter what time of day it is. After six hours, her fingers feel numb.

"I come for warmth and quiet," she said.

She held her hands out in the nectar of light.

"I come to defrost."

John Barry, Times staff writer

A wish for wars to end

Her role in the military plays out far from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a junior controller, she answers phones at base command at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach. Someone has to take the calls about which planes are landing and departing, and whatever else might be happening.

She's 24 and grew up in St. Pete Beach. She enlisted four years ago and recently re-enlisted for another six.

She loves her job and feels fortunate that she hasn't been sent overseas. One of her friends is on his fifth deployment.

Still, she said, "I'd like to go just to see what we're fighting for, so I can say I've been there. The first question everyone asks is where have you been deployed to, and I don't have an answer to that question."

But the wars her friends keep getting deployed to are starting to make less and less sense.

"If we were making progress, I'd be totally for it," she said. "But right now I don't feel like it. It hurts, the fact that I have friends who are over there. I wish we were getting to the end."

She'd prefer it if all the military had to do was keep the peace. She thinks about where we'd be without the threat of force. What then?

"I believe the military is in place for people to have that peace of mind," she says.

She gets a lot of ribbing about her name.

Isn't that an oxymoron? someone will say.

Someone else will see it stitched into her uniform and ask, Is that really your name? Like they don't believe her.

Yes, she'll respond.

My name is Jennifer Peace.

Leonora LaPeter Anton, Times staff writer

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