Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

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An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

Finding Beauty In the Worst of Times

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My grandchildren read The Glass Castle this summer and recommended it to me. It is the memoir of a gifted writer recounting her sometimes harrowing, sometimes enchanting life with parents who at the very least were plagued by major eccentricities and alcoholism, and at worst suffered from bipolar disorder. The children at first saw their family disfunction as somewhat unique and maybe even rather fun. As they matured they began to realize that their situation was dangerous and unhealthy, and they were eventually able to break away from parents never willing to admit that their problems were real. The fairytale of denial can be enchanting for a time, but ultimately each of us encounter problems that me must face without guile if we are to overcome them.

I doubt that there is an individual anywhere on planet earth who has not felt victimized by circumstances at least once in a lifetime. Our existences are plagued by all sorts of wants and needs. We may live in grinding poverty or be afflicted with some terrible illness. We may lose a parent or child or loved one. We may seem to have no luck other than the bad variety. Our hard work may go up in flames. We may feel bullied or disliked because of our race, or religion, or sexual orientation. Each person sometimes feels as though life is cruel and difficult. To a greater or lesser extent we have all had moments of despair, longing, doubt, anger. We learn soon enough that life doesn’t always seem fair.

As we journey through the number of our days we have ups and downs, happy times and sad. We succeed and we fail. How we choose to approach each moment more often determines what our outlook will ultimately be than anything else. Some people learn early on to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on no matter what happens. They understand that the power that they have lies within. They refuse to devolve into a state of despair. They take charge of their destinies by maintaining optimism even in the face of great darkness.

Think of Holocaust survivors. Those who were not killed in the concentration camps still saw great evil, destruction, horror. Few would have blamed any of them for shutting down, refusing to rejoin society. Nonetheless, most of them went on to lead full lives. They learned how to chase the demonic images from their minds. They never forgot, but they allowed themselves to find happiness and to celebrate life. Perhaps because of their experiences they actually achieved a greater appreciation for simple joys than most of us. They understood the importance of love and its ultimate power over evil.

I often think about Jesus dying on the cross. He accepted the fate of dying a horrible and humiliating death because He wanted us to understand that part of the human experience is to endure suffering. None of us can escape sickness, death, disappointments. Unless we are afflicted with a severe mental illness, we can take charge of how to react to the slings and arrows that come our way. Our road my indeed be difficult, but the best among us learn to deal with whatever comes.

I was recently conversing with a friend who was outlining some health issues that her husband is experiencing. She spoke of taking a break from her cares and woes by getting her hair done. She has gone to the same hair dresser for years and the two of them have become confidantes. In the course of the cutting and styling of her tresses my friend learned that the beautician and her husband are dealing with almost unimaginable difficulties that somehow made her own concerns seem less dire. As she noted, we don’t have to go far to find someone whose problems are bigger than ours. In fact, we are all in this crazy thing called life together, and none of us are going to entirely escape hardships.

There are many folks who assume things about certain groups of people these days. We seem to think that some among us are so privileged that they are unable to understand our own travails. I tend to believe that such thinking is cockeyed because even the wealthiest people on earth know sadness, sometimes to a greater extent than the rest of us. They may appear to have everything that the heart desires, but in truth many times they are brokenhearted. Think of the rich and famous who only recently have left this earth by their own hands because the weight of the world became too much for them to bear.

It is true that we do not receive equal shares of good fortune and tragedy. There are indeed some who appear to have more than their fair share. There are no guarantees that we will see justice at every turn. That does not mean that we should despair or grow jealous, or insist that we must take from others to make ourselves feel better. Instead I suggest that we understand that we will encounter pitfalls and even downright unfairness, so it is important to learn ways that help us to move past such things.

Life is a marathon, filled with pain and scars, but also wonders. Sometimes to get past the ugliness we have to find a tiny patch of beauty and hope. The young girl who grew up to write The Glass Castle learned to view her life from the perspective of reality. She and her siblings endured much want, but they also found the joys of simplicity. Their parents were hardly models of responsibility, but they gave the children the gift of finding beauty in any situation. That’s the challenge that we all face.

Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

Learning From the Past

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I was not born when it happened, but it was close enough to the time when I entered the world that I often heard about it. It was during the reign of terror brought on by Adolf Hitler that book burnings became common place in Germany. Any writing that Hitler and his men thought to be counter to their beliefs was deemed inappropriate, confiscated and burned in the public square. The idea was to eliminate works that might cause citizens to ask questions, to actually think. Books and philosophies have been banned in other eras and societies as well. It has been the topic of dystopian novels and movies depicting dark governments where freedom is obliterated in favor of a set of ruling beliefs. It is something that we particularly find abhorrent here in America, but nonetheless such extreme control sometimes creeps in, often with good intentions. We have learned that there is a very fine line between judging the appropriateness of the written word, and becoming authoritarian in controlling it. If we are to protect our freedoms we must be very careful in our approach to ideas that we find uncomfortable.

It is one thing to avoid certain books or authors on a personal level, and quite another to suggest that particular writings be removed from the public domain. I may find the Shades of Grey books to be offensive, but I would never suggest that others who enjoy them be denied the pleasure of reading them. The rantings of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf are impossible to accept, but I plowed through them just so I might know how the mind of a true fanatic actually works. Often our best option with volumes that disturb us is to become more familiar with them. As the godfather said we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. There is much to be learned from the words of those with whom we disagree. We may never embrace their philosophies, but we know what they are thinking which is always a good defense.

Lately we have a kind of policing of writings that is far from being akin to the Nazi methodologies, but nonetheless should be troubling to all of us. The latests dust up is over the Little House on the Prairie books from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a series of stories written for children Ms. Wilder described her life with a pioneer family moving west. She spoke honestly of the people and events that she encountered and for many decades now the volumes have been a favorite among readers, even spawning a long running and successful television program. For her efforts a literary award was even named in her honor, but recently the society of librarians who distribute the distinction decided to erase her name from the prize because of a perception that her works demonstrate racist and mysoginistic tendencies. The parsing of her words and ideas has even led to suggestions that schools named for Ms. Wilder be changed, and some question the appropriateness of reading them to children.

I find myself feeling a tiny bit squeamish about all of this, especially since the judgement of the books doesn’t appear to take into account the realities of a bygone era. Instead of using the tales to demonstrate how far we have gone or to hold discussions of how offensive some common ways of past thinking were, we want to just wipe the author away as though none of what she described actually happened. Children really can handle the truth, and usually do it better than some adults. It might be shocking to hear Ma Ingalls making disparaging comments about Native Americans, but think of what a teachable moment reading about it might be for youngsters. When Pa takes off his belt to whip one of the kids yet another dialogue about changing ways of discipline might ensue. It is important that our young understand that in judging historical events we are almost certainly going to encounter ways of doing things that seem foreign in today’s world. It’s a fairly certain bet that our own times will have elements that confuse and confound the people of the future. We are slowly but surely changing and evolving and approaching situations differently than our ancestors did. It should not hurt us to learn about their ways, but instead should enlighten us.

Whenever I read books written in a time passed I always consider the influence of the people and events that were taking place then, not now. Our manners and even our language adapt over the decades. I often wonder how shocked my great grandparents would be if they were suddenly plopped down into the twenty first century. They died without ever having electricity or running water. They lived in the wilderness in an atmosphere of quiet. They had little education and never traveled far from home. Their experiences were limited to a tiny geographical area. They did not enjoy the educational opportunities that we today take for granted. With such a limited worldview it is likely that they may have had philosophies that would make me cringe, but I would not be comfortable judging them because they were not exposed to as much diversity of thought as I have been.

Read the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder or not. It is an individual prerogative. Don’t however indict her for an honest telling of a time when minstrel shows were common and thought to be fine entertainment. Don’t call her racist simply because some of her characters were afraid of the Native Americans that they encountered. Don’t parse her every word to find omissions or slips of the tongue that appear to demonstrate a hidden agenda. I suspect that she was simply a talented writer who wanted to tell her story of a time and people that even she understood were not without flaws. In fact she made her characters very human and did not mince words in pointing out their problematic features. She should be applauded for that, not condemned.

So far nobody has suggested banning or burning Ms. Wilder’s books but a bit of a dust up of indignation has indeed occurred. If we let the ruckus go too far we might find ourselves obliterating the magnificent works of Mark Twain or even William Shakespeare. We need to be certain that our goal is only to critique, not to banish. Every voice must be allowed in the spirit of freedom, otherwise we run the risk of overstepping the bounds of liberty.

Life has changed in so many ways. My mother-in-law often told of the time that her father was beaten by a teacher when he misbehaved at school. She proudly noted that her grandmother demonstrated her disapproval of the punishment by summarily whipping the offending educator with a buggy whip. We know that such behavior would have ended badly for both women in today’s world, but the memory is expressive of just how much we have changed. My mother-in-law was one of the most nonviolent people I have ever known. To attribute bad behavior to her because she repeated the story would be absurd. Perhaps we need to think about things that trouble us with less judgement and more joy in realizing that we have moved beyond such beliefs. Use the past as an educational tool, not a whipping post.