When Me Too Hits Close To Home

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I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

Midcentury Modern

Glenbrook ValleyJust before my father died our family was searching for a new home. Our weekends were spent inspecting houses in different parts of Houston. My dad was quite particular about building standards and such, so only certain neighborhoods appealed to him. I vividly recall him inspecting properties with the intensity of an appraiser. Walking through a home was far more than just deciding if the floor plan was pleasing and the colors were fitting for his taste. He insisted on knowing how well built the places were.

I liked those weekend house hunting adventures and I listened carefully to all of my father’s commentaries on various neighborhoods. His relatives wanted us to move into Oak Forest with its new post war homes, but Daddy insisted that the places were poorly built and after one visit to the subdivision he sniffed that he was not willing to invest his money in “junk.” He refused to even look at the houses being touted by a builder named Frank Sharp in southwest Houston, noting that they were built as cheaply as possible with little concern for how they would fare in the future.

The homes that my father found the most appealing were in Glenbrook Valley and Braeswood.  Both areas featured midcentury modern houses designed by the leading architects in the Houston area. Daddy was impressed with their features, but mostly with the hardiness of the way they were built. We returned to each area again and again as he and my mother tried to decide which home was the best. Since we had previously lived in southeast Houston I suppose that my father’s ultimate choice had more to do with wanting to try something different than thinking that one house was better than another. He and Mama had their eye on a home on a street named Bluebonnet Lane in Braeswood.

Of course fate changed all of those plans. When my father died we had to choose a far lesser house back in  Overbrook, a place where we had once lived in the splendor of one of that neighborhood’s midcentury modern homes near Sims Bayou. My mother made do with what we could afford, but she and I both understood that my dad would never have selected the house that became the home where I grew into an adult.

Over the years after my father’s death so much changed in Houston that he would hardly recognize the place. Glenbrook Valley endured a long period of blight during the eighties and nineties while Braeswood continued to be a sought after locale. In spite of their differing fortunes the midcentury modern homes in each area withstood both the tests of times, and in the case of Glenbrook Valley the sorrow of neglect. They were indeed as well built and classic as my father had predicted when most of them were brand new.

Glenbrook Valley has been designated an historical district because of the amazing homes located there, but the area has been slow in regaining its once glorious status. Braeswood has suffered in other ways. Some of the houses have flooded on more than one occasion, and hurricane Harvey seemed almost to signal the end of many of the magnificently designed and constructed places. Even a year and a half since the devastating storm many of the homes in Braeswood are still empty as owners grapple with just how to proceed. Many of the lots are now empty after the houses were razed. Newer elevated homes lacking the distinctive features of their predecessors dot the landscape. Some have even attempted to raise the original houses in an attempt to save the stunning architectural designs.

I drive by Bluebonnet Lane quite often. I can no longer remember which house on that street tantalized my parents. I often wonder if it survived hurricane Harvey without incident. I try to imagine how different my life would have been if we had moved there. It’s all a silly exercise because changing anything about where and how I grew up would have been akin the the story in It’s A Wonderful Life. Things worked out quite nicely for me and my brothers back in Overbrook. We were happy in our much smaller and less impressive home that is still standing although in need of many repairs. It has never flooded, not even when hurricane Harvey dumped over fifty inches of rain all around it. I suppose that it was a good choice on my mother’s part in those sad days when she was just learning how to be a single parent.

Glenbrook Valley is still a jewel that is almost hidden in the fabric of Houston. It’s stunning midcentury homes were once featured in national magazines. I remember visiting many of them as a teenager when my high school friends who lived in them invited me for visits. They were truly remarkable and helped me to understand why my father had been so taken with them. Today there are urban pioneers who are reclaiming them and restoring them to their former glory. I would so love to see the whole area enjoy a renaissance as people rediscover a once premier neighborhood. I dream of a time when the homes there will be as treasured as they once were. Perhaps if Glenbrook Valley is revitalized neighborhoods like Garden Villas and my old haunt of Overbrook will be noted as well. Each of those places have much to please a discerning home buyer with their rich histories and close proximity to the downtown area.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Houston in the coming years. I certainly pray that the glory of the great homes and a long ago era will be as well preserved as they have been in places like the Heights. In many ways a beautifully built structure deserves our love and care. Hopefully we can hold on to some pieces of our past. 

In the Blink of An Eye

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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

The Reckoning

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart

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There is a political fire storm raging in our country today over the question of when life begins. In  particular the crux of the argument is whether aborting a baby from the womb is murder or simply a form of birth control, a reasonable choice for women’s health. It has seemingly reached a tipping point in which each side is ferociously secure in its beliefs, certain that the other side is unfair and perhaps almost evil. It has become a bitter fight with so much conflicting rhetoric that it confuses those who heretofore paid little attention to the arguments and the legislation supporting them. At the heart of the furor is the question of the definition of life. It is in that complex consideration that the true meaning of abortion lies, and as of this moment the emotionally charged effect of the differing opinions does little to help us determine the moral path forward for our nation and our world. 

Like many Americans I waffle back and forth between the Pro Life and Pro Choice positions. I feel that I understand the considerations of each side and so I have tended toward the neutral stance of insisting that I would never have had an abortion because I do believe that it is murder, but if someone doesn’t think as I do it would be okay. I have been challenged by both Pro Life and Pro Choice individuals to take a stand, to quit be so wishy washy. Instead I have kept a quiet profile and chosen not to reveal what I truly believe. It has been a bit uncomfortable, but I have done so in the name of keeping the peace. After all, who really wants or needs to know what I think? Why should I rock the point? Whose mind am I going to change?

Suddenly I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable as the issue becomes more and more volatile. I don’t know exactly how to react because it all seems so personal, hinging on questions that can only be resolved in the individual heart. Then I think about certain generalizations that persist in our society, namely that murder is wrong and just because someone is able to justify it does not make it right. I ponder our history of slavery and wonder how many people kept quiet about its practice simply because they felt that it was none of their business and it was, after all, legal. I worry that I’m mostly afraid of being ostracized if I state my true feelings, and my peacemaker personality urges me to remain silent.

Then I recall an incident from my young adult life when a large group of us looked on in horror waiting for the police to arrive while a man was mercilessly beating his wife. His children were screaming for help and yet we were frozen in a kind of fear of doing what we knew to be right. It took a “ good ole gal” from Buffalo, New York to show us what courage really is. She marched past us and forced her way into the apartment to rescue the tiny children and their mother. I still recall the feelings of guilt that I felt for having been such a coward while also being struck with awe over the woman’s courage.

I find myself wondering if the time has come for each of us to step forward to do what we believe to be the right thing. I worry that simply giving voice to our beliefs in the voting booth may not be enough to resolve this issue once and for all. I even consider that perhaps it is far too murky to ever find a clear cut solution. Still, it seems that those of us who are indeed part of the silent majority sitting on the sidelines must at some point come to grips and decide where we stand. Because my own feelings are so complex, I realize that finding the right path is going to be dangerously difficult.

I do believe that life begins at conception. To argue over life in terms of the ability of the fetus to survive without help is a convenient way of denying what I believe to be the truth. So I am one of those who believes that abortion is a form of murder. Nonetheless, I truly understand that as with anything there may be some extraordinary situations that require an abortion to save a mother’s life. Fortunately such incidents are rare, and generally approved by  both doctors and theologians. I learned in my religion classes of long ago that saving a mother is always tantamount to sacrificing her for a child.

I also understand that for whatever reason many very good women have had abortions. I view them with great compassion and understanding. I do not believe that they should be considered pariahs. In fact, I have a dear friend who has quite courageously admitted to having an abortion. She is openly discussing the many conflicting emotions that she felt both at the time and over the ensuing years. She now councils women who have walked in her shoes. She celebrates her own reconciliation and helps others to find theirs. My hesitation to go all in for the Pro Life positions lies in my own feelings for women who for whatever reason have taken this emotion charged step.

The key to the discussion lies not so much in judging decisions of the past but in moving forward into the future and doing the right thing. As with the issue of slavery we need to rid ourselves of a moral wrong, but we must not dwell incessantly on the past. We also need to carefully define those moments when abortion becomes a medical necessity for the safety of the woman. In addition, we have to take into account how to care for any children who are unwanted by being willing to foster or adopt them. We must support and provide forms of birth control that will be available to all women without extraordinary costs or sacrifices.

I do believe that each of us must look into our hearts and decide on this issue one way or another and be willing to stand for our convictions. We need not bring our differences to a warlike state, but instead demonstrate a willingness to understand the genuine feelings involved in the questions. We need to rid ourselves of insulting slogans and posters and silly hats of one sort or another and get down to the business of hearing and considering the merit of each argument. In the end our greatest treasure, our humanity, is at stake. I hope that we find a way to do the right thing. I believe that we may be at a watershed moment of reckoning. We may each find ourselves being called to task. It’s time.

Go Climb A Tree

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I was lying on a table about to get a bone scan when I saw the loveliest sight. It was an overhead image of a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds and the green canopy of a tree. It reminded me of being a kid again and lying in the soft grass on a spring day doing nothing more than gazing at the sky. If I exerted any effort at all in those long ago moments it was to use my imagination to find cloud formations that looked like animals or objects. Mostly I was simply chilling out, enjoying the glorious day and the joy of just being a child. There is something quite magical about that. It’s a time in life that can never quite be duplicated as an adult, a time of innocence when worries and cares are still mostly related to friendships and school.

Back when I was young I liked nothing better than climbing a tree, finding a nice niche between two branches and lying back to do some sky gazing. We once lived in a house that had a specimen that was perfectly made for such things and I spent more than a good share of time high above the earth leaning back in a chair created by nature. It was such a sturdy place that I was even able to read among the branches. One day I carved my name on the trunk to let some future climber know that I had once been there.

I often wonder what became of that tree. I suspect that a big storm or hurricane may have damaged the spot where I left my signature, but I like to believe that it is still standing tall. Perhaps it is inviting a new group of kids to find a foothold and use it as a magnificent stairway to the heavens. I hope nobody cut it down, but then such things happen all the time in the name of progress.

I have lots of memories associated with trees. There was a great tall one near the bayou where I grew up. It looked as though it had possibly been growing when explorers used those waters to navigate inland. Perhaps native Americans had once camped underneath its shade. It was quite magnificent and we used it as a launching pad for a rope swing that carried us over the water and back to the safety of the bank. I don’t think that I’ve ever had as much fun or felt as excited as I did when I climbed higher and higher into that tree and then jumped through the air clinging to the rope that was tethered in the highest branches. Sadly someone wanted to build a home right in the middle of where it once stood, and so it has been gone for some time now. I just wish that those of us who loved it might have saved it. There’s something so sad about losing a truly great tree.

Really old trees are spiritual. When I walk among the redwood forests of California I feel a kind of magic emanating from the gigantic plants that have withstood the centuries. Somehow they seem to be whispering to one another as the wind caresses their leaves, and I wonder what they are saying. Do they want us to go away, or do they understand that some of us truly love them?

My grandparents had a peach tree that filled with luscious fruit each summer. I once helped my grandmother pick the juicy orbs by skittering high up into the branches. It never occurred to me to worry that I might fall or break a bone. I felt the exhilaration of climbing until the branches became too thin to hold my frame. Then I would grab as many peaches as my arms would hold and slowly move back down to my waiting grandmother. I repeated my journey over and over again never getting tired or bored. Youth is like that, a time of unlimited stamina. I suppose that I miss that as much as sitting in a tree, something that I would now be afraid to attempt.

I hope that children still have fun like I did. I hope that they get as much joy out of nothing more than lying down at the foot of a tree and just staring up into the sky. There really is nothing quite as glorious as getting in touch with nature. Nothing that we humans can create or buy is quite as magnificent, save for our children, but that’s another topic for another day.

These days I have to even be careful about something as simple crouching down into the grass. Unless someone is there to assist me I may have a very difficult time getting back up if it’s a day when my knees decide to get surly. Of course I am unable to climb anymore, and even if I had the ability it would be dangerous for me. One small misstep might create a fall bad enough to break my now fragile bones. It’s such a bummer to lose the glorious abilities that I once had. If I could I would find a tree and climb it on a nice spring day. I’d look heavenward and just let my mind relax. Now the closest proximity that I have to such a sight is from the table on which a machine takes pictures of my bones.

Still, I have those memories that are so vivid that they still make me smile. If I close my eyes I am a child again, able to conquer the challenge of climbing as high as I wish. it’s a truly wonderful image. For now it will have to do.