Lois Lane Is Dead

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Lois Lane is dead. Well, not really, but Margo Kidder, an actress who played her, died in her sleep last week. Margo was a talented and quite interesting woman who suffered from bipolar disorder. During the nineties she had a manic episode and ended up wandering through backyards in a confused state. That landed her in the headlines and a psychiatric hospital. Somehow people mostly forgot about all of the work in film that she had done and concentrated instead on thinking of her as a “crazy” person. The truth is that once she was treated for her illness she went on to perform on stage, and in films and television, even being nominated for an Emmy for some of her work. Mental illness quite simply is rarely viewed in the same way as other diseases, and those who are afflicted with disorders often find their lives filled with loneliness as acquaintances that they once knew shy away from them.

Mental illness comes and goes in the news, but not much of substance is ever done. We speak of shortages of care and problems with laws that make it difficult for families to get the proper services for family members, but mostly it comes down to talk and more talk, but little constructive action. There are not enough doctors, not enough care facilities and not enough dollars for treatments to sufficiently deal with what is becoming a growing problem across the nation.

A few years back President Barack Obama set aside fifty million dollars to be shared by each of the states. That may have sounded like a step in the right direction, but if you do the math you realize that each area only received one million dollars, a drop in the bucket given the dire needs. In some places a million dollars is the cost of a house, and can hardly be considered a means of dealing with the many forms of mental illness that plague our society. Still, I was grateful that the president actually acknowledged the problem with some financing, even if it barely scratched the surface.

A recent study indicated that many individuals with mental illnesses go to emergency rooms to find care. While this may sound inefficient, it is understandable. I was constantly searching for psychiatrists who were willing to provide therapy for my mother who had bipolar disorder. The hunt was maddening. Some took only cash. Others accepted only certain insurance plans. Still others only wanted to work with children, or teenagers, or those in their twenties or thirties. Even when I managed to find someone willing to take her case, I often had to wait for weeks to get an appointment. If I felt that my mother was in a crisis situation the doctors almost always suggested that I take her to an emergency room.

On one occasion my brothers and I waited at a hospital with her for over six hours without receiving any kind of attention. It has been reported that many mentally ill patients will literally stay in an emergency room waiting area for days hoping to be seen, and even then there is often no room in the psychiatric ward for them. It can be frustrating beyond description because someone who is experiencing a manic episode is not patient, and in the case of my mother is most often psychotic and paranoid as well.

Imagine our anxiety when midnight came and we were still sitting with little hope of having our mother seen by a professional. Our optimism was dashed when the county sheriff showed up with a van load of prisoners all of whom had to be assessed for mental competence. Even though we had been there for six hours, by law the men in chains had to come first, and it would be many more hours before the medical professionals would get to our mother. In the meantime, she saw the handcuffs and the law men and began to imagine that someone was going to jail her as well. She became so frightened that she demanded that we leave. Of course we ended up taking her home with no medication and no help whatsoever.

When my brothers tried again to take Mama to her regular doctor the next day, they were told to return to the emergency room. They spent another sixteen hours before she was finally assessed and sent to a dreary facility in Bellaire that seemed more like a prison that a place designed to be therapeutic. It was enough to make us scream or cry.

The point is that my mother had good health insurance and still we were not able to find competent physicians to help her. I once spent five eight hour days calling all over town to secure an appointment with a psychiatrist. When I finally reached someone who was willing to help I was ecstatic. He was an incredible doctor who helped her to become well and in better shape than she had been in years. To our utter dismay the clinic where he worked decided that he was too expensive for their budget and he had to leave to work at a psychiatric hospital that would not allow him to do outpatient care. We were back to square one and my mother’s mental health deteriorated while we began the search again.

In our country we worry about so many things that are unimportant by comparison to caring for those afflicted with mental illness. We have little empathy for them or for their families. We turn our heads embarrassed by their actions when they are desperately ill. We think that somehow it is their fault that they are so often in Catch 22 situations. Only if we have to attempt to navigate through the maze of barriers do we begin to understand just how desperate the circumstances actually are. If we combine the difficulty of finding care with the stigma attached to mental illnesses the problems are compounded and complex.

I often see the eyes of my audience glaze over as soon as I bring up the topic of mental illness. It is a conversation that nobody wants to have. We are unwilling to admit our neglect and abuse of those who suffer from disorders that make them seem scary. We have yet to take mental illness as seriously as we need to do. I will keep shouting in the wilderness until I am no longer able or until we agree as a people to get something done.

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pexels-photo-247676.jpegOn a typical Sunday last May I had a major panic attack. It was so painful and foreboding that I spoke to no one about it. Instead I went to some of our local stores and walked around hoping to be distracted enough that I would be able to return to a state of calm. Sadly nothing worked, and I ended up retiring to bed later that night still feeling as though something horrific was about to happen either to me or to the world at large. Insomnia kept me from sleeping for hours until my body finally collapsed from exhaustion, leaving in a state of relative comfort. By the next morning I had returned to my more normal cheery self and I set aside the dreadful feelings that had so plagued me the day before. I decided that I was simply having one of my May attacks that have been brought on over the years by remembering the day that my father died when I was eight years old.

The human mind is wonderful, but it also has the power to send us into dark corners  filled with unfounded fears. Still I have often wondered if we are even close to understanding the capacity of our brains and the abilities that this remarkable organ holds. In truth I believe that we have yet to unlock all of the potential that lies inside our minds. I sometimes think that those we call geniuses are actually people who have found ways to probe into depths of abilities that the rest of us do not encounter. There is still so much to be learned about how we think and what we have yet to discover how to use.

I am if anything very rational and practical, but I also have an emotional side that takes hold of me from time to time just as on that Sunday. I have been known to feel as though I am experiencing a moment of ESP. It does not happen often, but when it does I feel almost overwhelmed with forebodings that I do not understand. One particular instance came years ago as I was driving home from a class that I was taking at the University of Houston. For some reason I felt compelled to stop at a store to buy a black dress. I vividly remember walking around as though I were in some sort of trance, and I must have looked a bit lost because a salesperson walked over to see if I needed some help. I told her that I needed formal attire suitable for a funeral. Bear in mind that nobody in my family had died. I just sensed with a kind of urgency that I would need the proper clothing for such an occasion, and so there I was in the store no doubt appearing to be a alarmingly confused.

I rather quickly found exactly what I wanted, paid and left with a sense of relief. It wasn’t until I reached my home that I felt a bit silly, and wondered how I would explain my strange purchase. I was happy to see that none of my family members had arrived from work and school, so I put the garment in the back of my closet where I thought it would stay until reality proved that I had been a silly goose. Much to my surprise I received a phone call from an aunts a few days later letting me know that one of my favorite uncles was in the hospital, and he was not expected to live. He had been mowing grass when an aneurysm burst inside his brain, and he had been unconscious since then. He did in fact die a few days later.

A chill came over me as I thought of my compulsion to purchase the dress that I would undoubtedly wear to his funeral. I did not know how or even why, but somehow I had foreseen death. It would not be the last time that such feelings would lead me to have some cosmic sense of impending doom. Thus when I felt such overpowering anxiety last year I wondered for weeks what it meant.

At first there were a few minor things that happened to friends and family that made me think that my worries were all for naught. I forgot about the overpowering nature of my thoughts on that Sunday and began enjoying the summer with abandon. The days and weeks were so glorious that I envisioned having one of the grandest times of my life. I journeyed to Cancun and had a most enjoyable experience. I made plans to spend the Fourth of July with family and shortly thereafter to go camping with long time friends. I would end my vacation time in Colorado from whence I would travel to Wyoming to view the total eclipse of the sun. Without warning none of that happened. My world was jostled upside down and torn apart on July third, the day on which my husband had a stroke.

So much changed after that. His prognosis had been grim, but the two of us were determined to adapt our lifestyle to the new reality and reclaim his health. There would be no camping trip, and we would forego the travel to see the eclipse. Our focus was on eating well and exercising and enjoying each moment of even the most routine days. I thought of my fears on that Sunday back in May and began to believe that my premonition had been real and it had been about my husband. I was thankful that things had not turned out as horrifically as my feelings had lead me to believe that they would.

Then came the rains over Houston, fifty one inches over a period of only a few days. I was in a panic as I watched my beloved city drowning. I worried constantly that my husband would have another stroke and die because we would be unable to get to a hospital for help. I felt the full weight of my premonitions bearing down on me as I wondered if Houston would die. I have rarely felt so emotional as I did during those four tension filled days. I wondered if I would ever be able to tell anyone about my crazy hours of anxiety that appeared to be coming to full fruition in the horror of what was happening. I only shared with my husband and because he knew that I had been right about such things in the past, he was willing to respect my sense that I had somehow felt the coming of the terrible events.

Unlike those truly gifted in the use of the mind, my intuitions are always vague, much like the fortunes buried inside the cookies from a Chinese restaurant. Because life is a series of both good and bad events my feelings that something terrible is about to happen has a fairly good chance of coming true based solely on the odds. Still I think that there is a bit more to them that my just being in a low state of mind now and again. I only wish that I had more understanding of what might be happening inside my mind.

My husband seems to think that I am actually just a very observant person, and that my subconscious  stores the information that I note causing me to formulate hypotheses that I can’t explain. For example, I may have noted slight changes in my uncle’s appearance that lead me to worry about his health without actually realizing that I was doing so. Perhaps the same was true in what I saw in my husband’s countenance. I had certainly had misgivings about his general state of well being because he was overweight and rarely exercised. My mind was making connections and drawing conclusions that revealed themselves in my so called premonitions.

Who knows where the truth lies? We may in fact have the ability to predict the future by developing aspects of the brain that have mostly been hidden from us. It is such a complex organ and I can’t help but believe that in the coming decades we will learn more and more about it, and in the process find ways to harness more of its power. For the time being I am simply happy that as of now I have had no overpowering feelings of impending doom. I’m ready for an uneventful summer.

Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

Just Skate Away

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It’s prom season and the media is all abuzz about exclusion, promposals  and other things that are triggering a variety of emotions including a great deal of indignation. Somehow I find myself chuckling just a bit in wonderment over all of the concern. Talk about first world problems! Maybe we would be better served if we we worrying a bit more about all of the unfortunate souls from Syria who have been displaced, and in many cases left wondering if life will ever again be normal. I heard last week that somewhere in Africa there is another ebola outbreak. Now that’s a real life problem, and what about the erupting volcanoes in Hawaii?

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the teenage angst that sometimes centers around proms. I know all too well the sting of being left out because I did not get to attend my prom, and according to my classmates I was just about the only one who did not manage to round up a date so that I might go. Instead I stayed home because nobody had asked me, and I worked myself into a state of frenzy of sadness and self pity. I recall watching a sad romantic movie that evening that gave me cover for crying my eyes out. In spite of my temporary breakdown I did recover. I had worried that I was going to be doomed to a life of loneliness, but that didn’t happen after all, and when my husband heard my sad tale he actually took me to a formal dance so that I would know what it was like.

Ironically my mother was correct in suggesting that proms were probably not as much fun as I imagined. She even told me the story of how she showed up in front of her high school on the night of her prom wearing roller skates and bearing two skinned and bloody knees from an untimely fall. She was surprised when she saw all of the couples arriving in their formal attire because she had completely forgotten that there was a dance that night. Taylor Swift style she just shrugged off the embarrassment and skated back home.

I actually believe that prom has become a great deal more democratic than it was in my time when everyone was expected to come with a date. Since I decided that I would only go if someone asked me, I in essence made my own bed. I’m certain that one of my very handsome male cousins would have gone with me if I had asked, but I was way too proud to do that. Today the kids often just come in groups with no particular romantic attachments. Some of the kids even come by themselves sans even a hint of feeling peculiar. I really like that way of doing things. It takes so much pressure away from the occasion and actually makes it a great deal more fun.

There is also an over the top concern over cultural appropriation which to me is somewhat ridiculous. If I had to determine which culture was mine I would be up a creek. The fact is that I am a mixture of so many different countries that I’m what some might call a mutt. It’s likely that there is a little bit of everything in me. Besides, why is it so terrible to appreciate the fashion of another ethnic group than one’s own? One year the high school where I worked had a Bollywood theme and many of the students and teachers showed up in their finest Indian formal wear. It was really so much fun and everyone talks about how great it was to this very day. Nobody was stereotyping or poking fun. They simply wanted to enjoy the evening as authentically as possible. In truth the girls were elegant and beautiful and the young men were like handsome princes.

The promposals may be a bit over the top, but then so much of what we do these days is. My only concern would be if someone wanted to say no but felt compelled to agree because of all of the attention. Perhaps a more private invitation is better, but then I suppose that this will be a passing phase, so why get bent all out of shape.

I’ve heard that from time to time there are some teens who do and say inappropriate things in the promposals and my answer to that is for the adults to have a conversation with those particular individuals. To turn the entire process into an indictment of a generation or group is absurd. We’ve always had those who are an embarrassment and there always will be. We deal with them as needed and don’t attempt to make those innocent of bad behavior suffer. For the most part all of it is as usually innocent as can be. We need to quit rushing to judgement and stereotyping just because of a few knuckleheads. We really do not have an epidemic evil of  on our hands. Young people today are refreshingly open, democratic and fair.

The teenage years can bring a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s best that we help our youngsters deal with them on an individual basis rather than complicating them with our own biases. I certainly understand the sadness of feeling as though I was the first and last person of all time to be left out, but I now understand that nobody meant to be mean. It just happened, and I myself might have done something to change the situation. I grew beyond that moment and learned from it. I became more empathetic from it, but also know that it was not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be back then.

There are so many real concerns for which we should all be searching for answers. Why expend too much energy on incidents that matter so little in the grand scheme of things? Let’s keep prom season in perspective and show our teenagers how to do the same. Help them to have fun and to understand that a lifetime of experiences lie ahead. Show them how to take control of even the most uncomfortable situations and just skate away. It’s what my mom did and she very much had the right idea.

Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.