The Strong

AlejandroAt one of my grandsons’ recent track meets there was a fun race that featured beefy football players running against one another. Of course there was also a big twist to the competition. Each of the guys, who looked like defensive linemen, had to carry a tire as they circled the track. They had everyone laughing and having a good time, and I was reminded of a story that my grandfather loved to tell.

Grandpa grew up in small town Virginia. In fact he was so far out in the country that he wasn’t even sure if the place where he lived even had a name. The townspeople had to create their own entertainment. There were no theaters or musical venues or such, just whatever talent they were able to throw together from the locals.

On one occasion the citizens decided to have a race between the biggest guys in the county. The idea was that they would have to run through a course carrying heavy barrels of flour. They had to ford rivers, climb over fences and go through fields strewn with rocks while lugging the heavy containers. The path extended for several miles and was so treacherous that only a truly strong man would be able to survive the grueling adventure.

Grandpa said that everybody’s money was on one particular man who was built like  Paul Bunyan. His arms and legs rippled with muscle and he was well over six feet tall. My grandfather was in total awe of this contender, and so he wagered a small amount of his earnings on the outcome.

From the beginning of the race this incredible hulk of a man sprinted far ahead of the competition. Nothing seemed to stop him and in one phenomenal show of prowess he even climbed over a fence without stopping to set down the heavy barrel. Grandpa laughed as he pointed out that there was actually no contest, and his bet was as safe as if he had placed his money in the bank.

We humans have always had a fascination with individuals who hone their bodies into powerful machines. Here in the Houston area we are all enamored with J.J. Watt, an affable defensive player for the Houston Texans who at times seems to most surely be related to Superman. He has performed some spectacular feats on the football field and in the locker room, including jumping from a standing position to the top of a chest that was at least three or four feet off of the ground. When I think of J.J. I understand the admiration that my grandfather had for his hometown strong man.There is something almost mystical about such people. They metaphorically represent the strength of mind and body that we all wish to have.

Of course we are not all made of the necessary stuff to enable us to accomplish such remarkable physical feats. Even in the race with the tires that made us all laugh at my grandsons’ track meet there was one young participant who was significantly smaller than the rest and in spite of tremendous grit he was not able to keep up with the bigger boys. Still, there was something quite appealing about his willingness to try even as he fell farther and farther behind. In the end he received as much cheering and applause as the winner. We all somehow knew that his positive attitude was as laudable as size and speed.

My grandfather’s stories all had a common theme, namely that we humans are continually faced with challenges and the best among us fight with all of their might to succeed. He himself overcame one difficulty after another, and somehow lived to tell about his adventures with a hint of laughter and the wisdom of someone who had traveled along life’s highway for one hundred eight years.

We love our athletes because we understand how much hard work and pain it takes for them to do the things that they do. They push themselves beyond the limits that so many of us simply accept. This is also true of those who take their minds to heights of thinking and learning that literally result in unheard of discoveries. There are people among us who are not satisfied with being ordinary and their dedication to their craft separates them from the ordinary.

A couple of weeks ago one of the former students of KIPP Houston High School performed in his senior recital at Wabash College. To say that Alejandro Reyna is talented would be an understatement as evidenced by what he has achieved since the beginning of his education there. As a freshman he regularly wrote a blog detailing the adjustments that he had to make in a place far away from home with a culture unlike his own. His openness and sincerity made his writing an instant hit, but it was only the beginning of the incredible things that he would ultimately do. By the time that he had reached his senior year he had composed original music for oboe, piano and strings in addition to being a proficient singer. The works that he wrote were stunning and plant him firmly in the ranks of incredibly talented individuals. In his own way he is as splendid as the strong men who have been the stuff of fascinating legends. We will most surely continue to hear from this exceptional man. 

Each of us is endowed with particular talents, but we don’t always push ourselves to be our very best. Athletes work hard and often ignore pain. Those who are brilliant move beyond the ordinary in their quest for knowledge and answers to questions. There is much perspiration involved in achieving greatness and that is why we humans are so in awe of those who push the envelope of life. They become our heroes and live in the stories that we tell of them. Alejandro Reyna has already earned a place among them and he has only begun.   

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A Winter Tale

BM_Comfort476x290I vividly remember having the measles. It seemed to be the final insult in a year that had brought me nothing but grief. My father had died only months earlier leaving me confused and bereft as our family struggled to find its footing. We had moved into a house that was nothing like the ones we had been considering at the time of his death, but it had brought us great comfort in the short time that we had lived there. We had gone full circle, returning to the neighborhood and the school that we had left only a year before. The people who lived near us and those who attended our church had been welcoming and we had been gradually settling in to a new way of life without Daddy.

My mother’s selection of a home for us had been a very wise choice, but we were still navigating through a year of milestones that reminded us over and over again that the man who had been such an integral part of our lives was gone. Somehow we had made it through birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, starting the new year with the realization that we were going to actually make it on our own. Still I was feeling those sudden bursts of grief that seem to come and go in the first year after a loved one’s death. I often felt sorry for myself and my family, silently hoping that our tragedy had only been a dream. As the months went by it had become more and more certain that our new reality would never again include our father, so when I felt the first symptoms of illness that winter I thought that I was just having another bout of sadness. I felt so tired that I uncharacteristically retired to bed early.

By the following morning I was raging with fever and my head felt as though it was going to explode. I felt so dizzy that I hesitated getting out of my bed so I called my mother for help. My throat felt dry and scratchy and it seemed as though every bone in my body ached. I had at times dramatically wished I were dead like my father, but that was just a way to garner attention from my overworked mom. Now I wondered if my bizarre request had somehow been granted because I truly felt as though I had one foot in the grave.

My mother took a quick look at me and asked me to lift the top of my pajamas. Underneath the soft flannel was a scarlet colored rash that caused her to shake her head and declare that I had the measles. She immediately went into action, calling our family doctor who agreed with her assessment and advised her over the phone rather than having me come to his office. He did not want me to expose the rest of his patients to my highly contagious disease, so he and my mother discussed how to best treat my illness.

It was a bitterly cold winter that year in keeping with the somber tone of our household. The heater seemed to whir away continuously and I was so happy that our neighbor, Mr. Sessums, had put it in fine working order for us. I felt quite snug under quilts that my grandmother had made and somewhat relieved that I did not have to go to school on that day. My teacher was a woman who terrified me and any time spent away from her was welcome in my mind. I willingly stayed in my bed and fell into a deep sleep.

When I awoke my room was quite dark and I wondered if I had slumbered all day. Mama informed me that I was not to look out my window, watch television or turn on the lamps in my room lest the lights damage my eyes. She explained that having measles was very serious and that I needed to follow her instructions to the letter so that I might recover quickly and without any long term side effects. Since my fever was still quite high I had little inclination to disobey her. For the most part movements of any kind sent my head into a tailspin and so I languished in my room listening to the sounds of my family going about its routine.

As my seemingly endless bad luck would have it, Houston had one of the biggest snows in its history only a day or so after I was afflicted with the measles. I could hear my friends and family celebrating the uncommon occasion up and down the street. My brothers had snowball fights and built a snowman with my mother. They breathlessly recounted how glorious their fun had been from the safety of the hallway. Their cheeks were tinged with a bright red glow of excitement and I wanted more than anything to experience the adventure that they described to me.

Mama reminded me again and again that I was not to even peek through the blinds to view the white stuff on the ground. She was a good nurse but I truly doubted that her extreme caution was necessary. When she and my brothers returned to the winter wonderland to make snow angels I saw my opportunity to find out for myself what a true snowy day looked life. I gingerly squinted through a tiny gap in the wooden slats of the blinds and saw a glorious sight unlike any I had ever experienced in my hometown. The yards were covered with a lovely white dusting of frozen precipitation. Snowmen smiled in front of every home and children were bundled up in winter wear that they hardly ever had occasion to use. The sound of laughter filled the air as the winter party delighted young and old alike, everyone it seemed but me.

My mother never knew that I had so blatantly disobeyed her. For a time I worried that as punishment for my transgression I would become permanently blind, but when that never happened I felt justified in seizing that daring moment. Soon enough I was back in school and forever immune from catching the measles, something that seemed to make my mother quite happy. I would not understand the full extent of what I had endured until later in life when I was pregnant with my own children. It was then that I was told of the dangers of catching the measles while carrying a baby in the womb. None of those fears would apply to me, and later when they were born my girls would receive an immunization that would insure that they would never have to worry about catching the measles as I had.

The World Health Organization has officially declared that measles have been eradicated in the United States. My childhood experience is a thing of the past, an historic event that no longer happens in our country. Much like my grandfather’s stories of smallpox, my recollection of having the measles is a curiosity that my children and grandchildren will never truly understand. Thank God for that.   

No Words

170410222008-united-flight-passenger-video-after-incident-john-klaassen-intv-ctn-00003430-super-169I actually love to fly but admit that there are certain aspects of the adventure that make me nervous. I’m always afraid of being late and more than once I have been in lines that were so long that I was certain that I would miss my flight. I’m not a fan of the TSA screening process either. I got a rather personal pat down in France several years ago that was so demeaning that I could feel the tears of anger gathering in my eyes. I had to breathe rather purposefully to keep from overreacting. On another occasion a great brouhaha occurred when agents discovered a New York skyline snow globe in my granddaughter’s carry on luggage. She didn’t want it to break in flight so she had carefully wrapped it in a jacket and lovingly lugged through the airport. It seems that it was just a bit too large to be allowed on the plane. After a great deal of discussion a very nice agent found a way to protect it from being broken while stowed in the baggage area of the plane. My granddaughter wondered why there was any worry over it and was told that it might contain explosive materials. She later whispered to me that if it was some kind of bomb the plane would blow up whether it was with the passengers or down below. I had to shush her and tell her to just be happy that they didn’t make her leave it behind.

Once I’m past all of the boarding craziness at the airport I generally feel lighthearted and safe. I like to read and play games while in flight and I have rarely encountered any problems in my many trips, save one. I was returning to Houston from Syracuse with a stop in Cleveland where I was to catch a flight that would take me home. Unfortunately the weather took a nose dive and we had to fly away from the storm rather than landing in Cleveland. The trip was bumpy to say the least. I must admit to saying an Act of Contrition and a number of other prayers as we seemed to be at the mercy of nature’s fury. We eventually returned to Cleveland but our connecting flight was long gone and there were no more flights that night. We ended up spending the night inside an almost empty airport with nary a sign of food. Given that I had not eaten since breakfast I would have paid a small fortune for even a bag of peanuts, but there was nothing to be had that I was able to find. About two or three in the morning I decided to walk the breadth and length of the airport and came upon a Dunkin’ Donuts that was actually open. It had coffee and two lone donuts which I hurriedly purchased lest someone else might find this rare treasure. I wondered why the airline had been so uncaring when they dumped us out of the plane and just left us to fend for ourselves. I had little idea then that I should have counted my blessings that things went as well as they did. Recent events have convinced me that I was actually lucky.

Of course I am referring to the disastrous events on a United flight from Chicago on Palm Sunday. According to reports the flight had been overbooked and the airline needed four seats to send employees to St. Louis. There were multiple requests for volunteers to accept another flight and an eight hundred dollar bonus, but even after much  cajoling the airline needed one more place. Using some unknown methodology they decided to make a sixty nine year old Asian doctor an offer that he couldn’t refuse. When he insisted that he would not leave because he had to get home to patients the following day security guards forcefully removed him from his seat. Video from the phones of other passengers show him hitting his head on the arm rest as he screams while being carried down the aisle. He then somehow managed to return to the plane looking disoriented and had blood dripping down his face. He was muttering that he had to get home while the other passengers watched in horror. I can only imagine how horrific the whole scene must have been for everyone on board.

The man has been identified as Dr. David Dao. He has a bit of a checkered past which should have absolutely nothing to do with what happened to him on that flight. The people involved in his removal handled the situation so badly that the public is angry the world over and the incident has become a PR nightmare for United. More importantly is the fact that this never had to happen but for the fine print on all tickets that indicates that the airline has the authority to force a person to deplane if they need a seat. Few us of really understood this before the incident with Dr. Dao. I certainly would have been horrified if it had happened to me and there would have been no amount of money that might have assuaged me, and yet I now understand that it is perfectly within the purview of the airlines.

By now Dr. Dao may have begun legal proceedings against United Airlines. I certainly think that he is well within his rights to demand compensation for the wrongs done to him. I suspect that there will be other passengers who litigate as well. What should have been a routine Sunday afternoon flight turned into a nightmare for everyone who had to witness the travesty. There are really no words to adequately describe the horror of what happened and I for one am in the hopes that anyone who asks will receive more than a small monetary reward from United. I’d like to think that Dr. Dao will be set for the rest of his life. At the very least those of us who are customers should boycott the airline when at all possible. Such actions are one way of insuring that consumers will be treated fairly in a business where we often feel as though we are being treated like cattle.

Of late service on airlines seems to be almost a thing of the past. We are all subject to the whims of the bottom line. We can’t be late but the airlines so often are. We pay higher and higher prices for our flights while receiving fewer and fewer perks. The seats and the aisles are so small that we barely fit. We are often treated more like criminal suspects than paying customers. Perhaps this incident will serve to convince all airlines that the old saw that the customer is always right has its merits. It’s time to consider the needs of the people who keep the planes flying in the air with their money. We should all demand better. We should not accept such a lack of concern for our needs. We can change the way things are with our wallets and should join forces to do so.

Letting Go

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“Leave your worries for awhile. They’ll still be there when you get back.” –Unknown

We admittedly have many things about which to worry in today’s world. Much to our displeasure, Russia appears to be as big a problem as Mitt Romney predicted that it would be. The entire Middle East is a hot mess. North Korea is being run by a spoiled psychopath who thinks nothing of executing uncles, brothers and generals on a whim. China is a mysterious nation whose leaders probably should not be thoroughly trusted. Venezuela is on the verge of total collapse. Terrorists are afoot and we have little idea when the next attack will occur. It seems that we can’t even enjoy a plane ride without fear of being accosted by security guards wanting to forcefully take back our seats. It’s enough to drive those of us who have a natural propensity for overthinking to throw up our hands and just surrender to to our sometimes outrageous concerns.

I come from a long line of worrywarts. My grandfather often complained that my grandmother never quite knew how to relax. She was almost always concerned that some bad thing or another might happen. She wondered if a drought would ruin the crops that they had grown or if a deluge would drown them. She fretted over whether  they would have enough money to stay afloat in their old age or how someone she loved might get hurt. She had already lost her first husband and two children to disease. When her only son, my dad, was killed in a car accident it convinced her that we all live on a dangerous precipice filled with harmful possibilities. Instead of simply enjoying her days on her farm in Arkansas she stewed virtually all of the time. I suppose that in some ways it was a habit that was part of her DNA as a woman. We ladies tend to be sometimes overly anxious about those that we love.

I remember watching my sick children in the middle of the night and staying up until my teenage girls came home from their dates. They chided me and complained that I didn’t trust them, but it was the big bad world that gave me pause, not them. I knew that there were hundreds of different dangers that they might encounter. I was never able to rest until they were safely at home in my care. Of course every mom must eventually give her babies wings to leave the nest. It is the way things must be, but it is never a comfortable thought, especially when they are far away from home. Over time I learned how to let them go and maintain a faith that all would be well, but even to this very day they are never far from my mind. Over time I’ve added thoughts of my grandchildren to the daily list of my concerns, along with former students, friends and the members of my extended family. Obviously I would be unable to operate in a normal world if I were to become too engrossed in dire predictions about all of these souls. Instead I have learned how to let go of obsessive concerns about people and situations over which I have no real control.

The only person over whom I have total power is myself. I can be the same or I can change. I am free to make choices all day long and mostly I choose to be optimistic and happy. When I am in situations over which I have no influence, the only thing that I might do is decide how I will react. I have learned the art of allowing adequate time for venting anger and for grieving over loss, but not so much that it overwhelms me. Eventually I purposely leave my worries for awhile. Even if they are still around when I return I find that I am better equipped to deal with them.

Sometimes work is the best tonic for anxiety. Other times the situation calls for a vacation from routine. We can’t really run away from our troubles but taking a break from them provides us with an opportunity to clear our heads of the cobwebs of negativity that often coexist with worry. Once we are feeling better it is amazing how much sharper our problem solving skills become. We find ways to deal with whatever has been bothering us and take the needed steps to rehabilitate ourselves.

I have found that a small amount of worry keeps us safe and on track. It is in habitual overthinking that we become lost and confused. It steals our happiness and deprives us of sleep and laughter, both necessary components of a healthy life. We need to learn what works best to chase away the noisy thoughts that crowd into our brains, keeping us from feeling joy.

I have found that exercise is one of the best medicines going. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just a walk in the neighborhood is often enough to clear the head. Sometimes silence is just what the doctor ordered, becoming so relaxed that we are literally as one with our breathing and the beating of our hearts. If we practice we can reach a state of total tranquility.

I rely on my faith in times of trouble and find comfort in reading scripture and devotionals. Silent prayers bring me much needed peace as well, but I understand that many do not have religious beliefs. There are still lovely books with reflections that teach us how to find our own inner strengths. Many of them help guide us out of our preoccupation with a crazy world that seems intent on driving us to distraction.

Having dealt with my mother’s mental illness I understand that sometimes worry becomes so all consuming that nothing seems to chase it away. There are indeed times when seeking the help of professionals is the wisest thing to do. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need medical assistance now and again. There are therapies and drugs that are sometimes the best answer for unrelenting anxieties and obsessions.

If I have learned nothing else in almost seventy decades, it is to be very good to myself and to do whatever I need to keep myself feeling happy. Then and only then will I be of any worth to everyone else. I try to mostly surround myself with positive people and thoughts. I walk away from negative situations and individuals that I cannot change. Of course I still worry just as we all do, but I try not to allow my troublesome thoughts to overtake me. When I realize that they are becoming the central focus of my days and nights I do what I can to fix the situations from whence they came and then I do my best to move on.

Yes, the world is filled with worrisome situations but most of the time we never encounter them, so why needlessly expend our energy stewing over what might be or what is already past? Instead of listening to the voices that cause us to fret, we need to make room for the sounds that make us smile, like the laughter of children, the rain on our windows or the voices of the people that we love.

We All Fall Down

maxresdefaultI was twenty years old when my mother had her first mental breakdown. Mine had been a somewhat sheltered life. Aside from my father’s untimely death when I was only eight, I had not seen much of the dark side of existence. I certainly knew nothing about mental illness and the dramatic symptoms that seemed to so suddenly change my mom from a strong, independent woman into someone paralyzed by depression, paranoia and manic episodes. As I witnessed her decline that summer I was overtaken by a state of anxiety that made me feel as though I might surely die. I would visit her during the daylight hours and then return to my apartment in the evenings where I attempted to understand what was happening and to rally help for her among my aunts and uncles whom I was certain would have much better insights into her condition than I had. Mostly though I suffered from my own form of mental stress experiencing panic attacks that threatened to render me useless in the battle to bring my mother back to a healthy state of mind.

I slept little during that period. In fact, that August marked the first time that I was plagued by insomnia. I generally lay awake each night silently crying and feeling as though an elephant was sitting on my chest daring me to breathe. I felt so very alone, convinced that nobody might possibly understand how worried and sad I was. I was walking through those days in a continual daze, pretending to be in control of my situation while actually wanting to run away screaming in desperation. As my mother’s symptoms grew worse I realized that I had inherited total responsibility for her welfare. Circumstances forced me to grow up by a factor of one hundred. While my friends, save those who were fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, were still enjoying the adventures of college and the freedom of their youth, I understood that if I didn’t take charge my mother and my brothers would be in danger. I took a deep breath and became my mother’s keeper in a strange relationship that would span four decades. It was something that I would have happily given up if given even half a chance but the reality was that there was nobody else who could do this for her.

I was as imperfect at being unselfish as anyone might be. There were times when I was hardly able to function myself and when I resented the cross that I had to bear. I became an Academy Award worthy actress, hiding my fears and pain along with my mother’s tragic story as though it was an ugly and unspeakable secret. My unwillingness to open up to people who might have provided succor to me only made things worse but I was not yet ready to accept that I would be far happier bringing the truth into the light. When my mother became well again I naively believed that all of us were going to be fine and that I would never again have to face such a daunting experience. Sadly, she was sick again in only a matter of a few years and I fell apart at the realization that her illness was going to be a chronic fact of our lives.

I continued to be quite secretive about my mother’s fight with mental illness. My own stress increased to an unfortunate level as I quietly and continuously watched for symptoms that would alert me to get her to a doctor before she devolved into a more serious state of mind. I failed to mention my own bouts with anxiety and mild depression but they were quite real and they made me feel as though I wasn’t nearly as strong as I needed to be and that I was somehow defective.

At some point I was no longer able to maintain my silence. I began to speak of my concerns, my feelings of guilt, and the sense of despair that often overcame me. At first it was only the most trusted friends who heard such things but eventually I found the courage to talk with my doctors and finally anyone with whom I had contact. I learned that nobody was going to think ill of me or my mother. Nor was I abandoned. In fact, my admissions generally lead to sharing of similar stories and unlikely alliances. Over time I realized that we all fall down from time to time for one reason or another. We may lose a loved one, face a terrible disease, endure the breakup of an important relationship, fail in achieving a goal, become a victim of violence or suffer from mental illnesses of our own. The truth is that we are both fragile and resilient beings. As such we experience ups and downs throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes are lows are so devastating that we feel as though we may not make it through to the light of day.

I have found that there are always kind and empathetic individuals who are just waiting for our cries of help. All that we have to do is open up our hearts and we will find them, kindred spirits who have also had moments of brokenness and terror. They lovingly provide us with comfort just when we need it, but they will not be able to do so unless we are willing to confess that we are hurting. In acknowledging our humanity we take the first steps toward healing. It took me far too long to admit that I was as imperfect as I am.

I remember kneeling in prayer in the office of an assistant principal who cried with me as he spoke of the people in his family who also suffered from severe mental illnesses. I found succor from a doctor who was giving me a physical for work. He noted the checkbox that indicated that some of my relatives suffered from depression. He gently guided me to a confession that radically changed my life as he assured me that I had no reason to feel guilty about the times when I resented my role as a caretaker. I have had countless individuals hug me in an embrace of solidarity as they outlined their stories of struggles with either their own or someone else’s mental illness. Never once has anyone reacted negatively to my recounting of the journey that me, my mother and my brothers had taken in the house of horrors that was the reality of mental illness. Instead with each telling I felt reassured that I was not and never would be alone.

We all want to be viewed with dignity and respect. It is difficult to admit that we have feet of clay or that we make mistakes and yet it is in facing the demons that attack us in the middle of the night that we find the clarity and calm that we seek. Not only do we find a clearer focus for ourselves, but often we help others as well.

I know of two young ladies who are dealing with very difficult situations. They are far more advanced than I was at their ages. Rather than hiding the hurt and the pain that stalks them, they have been willing to share their feelings and the efforts that they have made to set themselves aright. They write blogs and speak to other young people. They tell of their journeys and admit that they still falter from time to time. The work that they are doing for themselves and for others is not just laudable, it is important. They are living proof that even the seemingly most perfect individuals often find themselves struggling to cope. They are both exceedingly beautiful, intelligent and talented, hardly the type of women who might falter, and yet they have. Their willingness to unmask their struggles is inspiring. They prove that the world is far kinder and gentler than we may imagine and that even the most remarkable among us may need a safety net now and again. It’s as easy as voicing the word “help” to begin the process of healing. We all fall down but there will always be someone willing to pick us up if only we ask.