God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

My Electronic Secretaries

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The holiday season is upon us. You may have noticed in the stores last week that the retailers were hardly able to wait to toss all of the fall and Halloween merchandise aside so that they might bring in the Christmas items. Some even eschewed old time tradition in favor of bringing out the holly back in June or July. The old idea of enjoying each celebration in order is long gone, and if you want to secure the prime products you have to buy them and set them aside for the future. Of course, if you’re like me that means that you run the risk of forgetting that you bought a particular item or where you stored it until needed. When you finally decide to do some spring cleaning around March or April it will suddenly appear and then you have to store it again and hope that it doesn’t grow old in the back of a closet or drawer without ever being actually used.

My husband has most recently taught me to be a bit more organized with regard to things that I need to remember. He insists that I record future events on Google calendar and that I list upcoming projects on an app called Asana. It’s actually working out rather well with the exception of those times when I am feeling hurried and I tell myself that I will think about doing my record keeping duty tomorrow. Sadly that’s a bit more often than it should be and so I can’t quite recall if the appointment that I made to have my hair cut is this week or next. I’ll have to rely on a reminder email or phone message from the salon to verify. I know that I might call to confirm the date and time, but I have to do it so often that I have grown a bit embarrassed.

In the summer I purchased some bluebonnet seeds that needed to be sowed in October. When the time came to perform the task I was reminded by my electronic “secretaries” but unfortunately I was not able to immediately recall where I had placed the tiny packets for safekeeping. After a frantic search and some Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing I finally found them hidden under socks in one of my dresser drawers.

Now I’ve created a new wrinkle to my memory keeping rituals. I add a little note explaining where I have placed things so that my reminder in the future will lead me directly to whatever I have stored away. When I took down a lovely hand blown glass hummingbird feeder from its perch in my garden I not only set a date on my calendar to return it in mid May, but also made note of where it is safely stored until spring. I felt particularly proud of my effort because I will be able to walk right to it when there is no longer a possibility of a freeze that would no doubt break or at least crack the globe. An added bonus that I received for my foresight was saving the orb from an horrific storm that raged on Halloween night that undoubtedly might have wreaked havoc on such a fragile object. It has made me think that I should also record a date for bringing the feeder inside each fall while I my brain is in gear.

We all have so many appointments and things to do that our brains go into overload at times. I’ve been guilty of missing all kinds of events, especially since retiring. Without the constrictions on my time that a job provides I find myself losing all sense of what day it is. While this is actually a very pleasant dilemma after years of being bound to a clock and an unremitting routine, it can also create problems. Using different aids to assist my memory has been a kind of saving grace. Now I get reminders on my laptop, my phone, and even on my watch.

At first I thought of such electronic policing of my time as a kind of ball and chain. I wanted to be free to be me without any form of nagging. I soon learned that my tranquil lifestyle was festooned with chaos of my own making. The reality is that we humans really do feel better when we march to a semblance of routine. We don’t have to be overworked or over stressed, but it helps to keep track of when to take out the trash and be generally aware of the time of day. Devil may care attitudes are fine now and again but on the whole things really start to fall apart without some system for managing the business aspects of living. I have slowly learned how to free myself from future worries by spending a bit more time in the moment keeping track of obligations and tasks.

Last spring my hot water heater malfunctioned and many thousands of dollars later we had repaired our home to such an extent that it was almost totally remodeled. The plumber who installed a new hot water heater mentioned that we might never have had the trouble if we had simply set aside a time each year to have the appliance inspected. It’s a small idea with great merit, and so it is now part of our yearly ritual, something we have decided to do with our truck and our air conditioner as well. All such routines are hitting the calendar far in advance in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes like the one that upended our lives for many weeks last April and May.

As a teacher I lived by a calendar and religiously followed routines to stay updated and prepared for anything that might happen from day to day in my classroom. I suppose that when that phase of my life ended I would never again be required to be so fastidious in keeping up with time. I’ve learned the hard way that a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Even the squirrels understand this as they collect their stores for the coming winter. I watched many of them working hard while I was recently camping in the bosom of nature. It’s the way of survival, and we all owe it to ourselves to keep track of the future before it surprises us.

Keeping Up

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It’s exhausting to watch today’s young mothers. They are constantly on the go, unable to get the hours of sleep that they need. There appears to be little room for slacker moms in the present environment that lauds women who dedicate huge portions of their lives to driving their children from one class, practice, event to another. It’s no longer acceptable to just shoo the kids outside and tell them to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. I’m drained just observing the sagas of motherhood that are in full view on Facebook. I have to admit that I would probably be a total flop as a mom by current standards.

I have to bow in admiration to the young women who are creating such wonderful lives for their children, starting with the monthly professional photographs that track the first years of the offspring. Most of them are elaborately creative with special little outfits that must indeed take a great deal of thought and time to put together. I myself have random snapshots of my girls taken from a rather lousy camera in all modes of dress, including j a simple cotton t-shirt and a diaper. Dressing them up meant choosing the least stained and best fitting togs in the drawer. For daughter number two that often meant wearing a somewhat used little dress that big sister had already worn. It never occurred to me to go all out for anything other than those once in a blue moon photographs taken at Penny’s or the studios that talked me into purchasing package deals of standard issue but slightly better quality images.

It seems as though every single modern day child is enrolled in dozens of activities. They learn to swim only slightly later than mastering the art of walking which I strongly advocate, but then they join neighborhood swim teams requiring practices and early morning meets during the most coveted hours of the weekend. Generous parents forego their own rest to provide their little ones with opportunities to learn how to compete and challenge themselves. There’s way more than just soccer practices to which mom’s across the land are driving the kids. Baseball, football, cheerleading, dance, karate, lessons in Chinese, robotics, volleyball, track, music. The list goes on and on and on with most youngsters involved in multiple activities that require time, money and total involvement. The old neighborhood games have been supplanted with highly organized opportunities that require mothers and fathers to change the way they spend their free time. In fact, free time is a kind of oxymoronic phrase in parental vernacular. The devotion to helping the kids develop their talents that parents so willingly provide is unrelentingly selfless, and I find myself thinking that I was indeed a slacker when it was my time to be a mom.

I managed to sign my girls up for swim lessons each summer but I honestly had no idea that there was such an animal as a swim team. I dropped them off at Patty Owen’s dance studio to learn a few steps and when the younger one expressed resistance I gladly allowed her to quit. For the most part my involvement in their activities was minimal other than getting them from one place to another. Mostly I encouraged them to use their imaginations to create fun and adventures around the neighborhood. I enjoyed hosting sleepovers and watching them play, but my budget was far too limited to keep pace with the kind of entertainment that children enjoy today.

Birthday parties are increasingly extravagant. I can hardly believe how much thought and effort is put into them with special themes, decorations and gorgeous cakes. I usually whipped up a few homemade items, bought a balloon or two and called it a celebration. We never went to any special places or hired entertainers. Instead I turned on the soundtrack from Grease and let the party goers dance on the back of my sofa to the strains of Greased Lightning. My “swim” party consisted of hotdogs in the backyard with the garden hose and a midsize blow up kiddie pool. Since the other mothers operated much like me the children never complained. Life was rather ordinary even on birthdays.

I honestly don’t know how modern mothers keep up with all that they have to do. I get exhausted just thinking about all of their duties. My own daughters have schedules that would easily match that of an important executive. Their calendars are crowded with demands that they must fulfill with precision. It’s easier to see them by attending the various events than to expect them to drop by for a visit. I’m privy to their datebooks and so I plan things with them accordingly. Sometimes I even help them when they have to be in three places at one time. The logistics of getting everyone in the right locations at the right times can be akin to being an air traffic controller.

I greatly admire all of the moms who are so generously dedicated to their little ones. At the same time I worry that they may indeed be burning themselves out. The stress of all of that time consuming parenting must be overwhelming. I certainly hope that they find moments for themselves along the way because mothering is a marathon that doesn’t end even when the kids leave home. It’s a long haul that is beautiful and exciting, but it requires stamina and energy that will easily dwindle if “me” time isn’t a central part of the routine.

If I have one bit of advice for all moms it’s that as long as the love is ever present the children will be alright. What they most need are hugs and kisses and someone who is willing to listen to them when they are afraid. They will thrive the most when their mamas are rested and happy. If achieving that state means cutting back on perfection they will never notice the change other than seeing a mother who is calm and collected. The important thing for children is feeling safe, and knowing that someone truly cares about their well being. Sometimes all it takes to get there is a great big hug.

“Adulting”

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The conversation was with a young man in his early twenties. He remarked that he was struggling with the act of “adulting.” I told him that if that was the case then he is rather normal. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for even a senior citizen to sometimes long to run away from adult responsibilities.

I just celebrated my fiftieth wedding anniversary. I was not quite twenty when I walked down the aisle on my brother’s arm. I made a number of pledges on that day that I soon enough found were easier to voice than to actually follow. Before my first anniversary my mother had a nervous breakdown. I attempted to lay all responsibility for her care at the feet of my aunts and uncles, but they were as befuddled by her illness as I was. They passed the torch back to me. I found that not even the pastor of my church was willing to assist me, so I took a deep breath and accepted the challenge of finding care for her. In the process I was transformed from a shy naive childlike young girl into someone able to argue for my mother’s cause and ultimately for my own. I found strength that I did not know was there, and I was all the better for my baptism by fire.

In the meantime my husband was struggling with being a full blown adult in his own right. He was not yet fully ready to become the hard working person that would ultimately emerge. He was in graduate school and often stayed out late with his buddies. He was unhappy with his classes and the arc of his future. He found himself feeling confused and wanting to just chuck it all. It was when he saw me struggling to accept and meet the challenge of my mother’s care that he rose up to support me, a habit that would become his forever crusade.

Often it is in meeting the trials and tribulations that befall us that we find our inner selves. All humans suffer in one way or another. We are beset with problems that force us to make choices about how we will live. That is when “adulting” often feels the most painful, but it is also the moment when we have the most potential to find out who we really are.

Throughout my life of almost seventy years I have encountered difficulties from which I wanted to flee. Most of the time running away was not an option. I sometimes initially reacted by screaming or crying in frustration. I literally begged God to take away the pain I was feeling.  I vented the anxiety that I was experiencing, but over and over again faced whatever demon was attempting to bring me to my knees. On most occasions I made I through with a sense that I had made all of the right choices. In others I knew that I had made terrible mistakes. Even then I learned that there are few decisions, no matter how poorly conceived, that cannot be corrected.

None of us are perfect or capable of always demonstrating maturity. We become tired or frightened and “lose it” as the saying goes. I’ve had moments as a mom, a wife., or a teacher when I’ve done or said things that later embarrassed me. Most of the time this resulted because I had simply had enough of stresses that seemed to pile up higher than I was able to stand. Our coping mechanisms are wired to only take so much before we blow a gasket. As long as our explosive moments don’t become habit, we are actually entitled to a loss of control now and again. Nonetheless, if our comments or actions have hurt someone, we are obligated to reach for our adult sides and fix the damage.

When I was in high school one of my teachers cautioned us to have as much fun as possible while we were still young. He advised us to sow our wild oats in our youth rather than waiting until we were middle aged. He pointed out that there was nothing quite as pathetic as a forty year old suddenly going through a second childhood. He spoke of individuals who eschewed their parental or marital responsibilities simply because they felt entitled to more “fun” than the day to day grind was allowing them. He painted a picture of how pathetic such people might be. We had visions of a balding guy riding around in a red convertible with a blonde woman young enough to be his daughter while his long suffering wife and kids were left behind. I have to admit that it was indeed a disgusting image.

I would not want anyone to have to deal with the difficulties that I faced at a very young age. There are other ways of slowly but surely becoming a responsible adult than having to face tragedies. My advice is to enjoy the freedom of youth as much as possible while also building a foundation that will ultimately support a strong sense of responsibility. The early twenties are a time for exploring and even making mistakes and learning from them. It’s when we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us, and when we develop the skills that will lead us through even the toughest trials. At the same time it can be one of the most enjoyable and liberating eras of our lives. In the end, if we have kept a balance between having a good time and building meaningful skills and relationships “adulting” will almost naturally come to pass.

Promote Love

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I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.