A Time For Honest Reflection

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Santa Fe High School is practically in my back yard. I see it each time I travel to the beach in Galveston. It is situated along a stretch of road that is dotted with interesting sights, most of which are antique/junk stores, gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, bars, and many dilapidated houses and trailers with trash strewn yards. In the midst of an almost chaotic looking scene is the school, neat and orderly and usually quiet. I have at times found myself wondering who is inside and what is happening there as I quickly drive by eager to seen the sun and surf that is only a few miles away. I almost always quickly forget about my musings, distracted by the fun that I always seem to find along the Texas coast. I don’t think about Santa Fe again until I am once more driving along the highway that passes by a slice of the town. Still I consider the people of Santa Fe to be my neighbors, so it is with an especially heavy heart that I find myself grieving over the violence that took place there last week.

I believe that most of Americans are decent people, and as such we all want to find answers that will finally help to stop the murders that have become far too numerous in our nation’s schools. We want solutions and we need them sooner rather than later. Sadly it appears that we are so divided in our ideas that we may have to endure more deaths until we finally become so weary of the repeated massacres that we get serious enough to make things happen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the problem is that there are no easy one size fits all fixes. Instead the issues that we must face are complex and laden with many questions. We may make mistakes as we seek to move forward, but surely the time has come to at least begin to try. That requires that we quit yelling and screaming and insulting one another so that we might successfully tackle this issue, or we are doomed to repeat the deadly scenarios again and again. Our efforts will require patience and understanding and a great deal of love.

One of the things that I have noticed is that we are quick to desire almost instant passage of legislation, some of which may or may not actually work. Instead we need to bring together stakeholders at every level including teachers, administrators, students, parents, grandparents, law officers, lawmakers, and, yes, even gun owners as well as those who would eliminate guns. We have to agree to work with trust and flexibility and honesty so that the end results will be effective. If it costs a great deal of sacrifice to make the needed changes, then so be it. All of us should be willing to pay the price of restoring safety and peace of mind to our schools and places of public gathering.

Guns always seem to be at the top of the list for creating a safer world, and they are certainly a topic that must be discussed. There are definite changes to the law that might help, and we need to be willing to consider such ideas and act on them. Nonetheless, the gun is simply the means of violence, and not the only thing causing so many problems. More important is attempting to understand what the driving force for such horrific incidents may be, so that we may get to the root of the evils that are lurking among us. We have a number of disturbing cultural problems that we can no longer ignore, for they are contributing to societal woes that are creating chaos.

We must ask ourselves why young men in particular act out in such murderous ways. Is it something happening or not happening in the home? Are our educators missing the signs of a disturbed mind or just ignoring behaviors that should be addressed? Does our media inadvertently or purposely glorify mass shootings? Are the games that we allow our children to play for hours on end doing something to affect their brains in a very negative way? Are we to blame for fomenting so much divisiveness and anger between ourselves rather than demonstrating ways of getting along? Is there too much or too little religion in our society? Have we lost our way and confused our young in the process? Have our schools become too stressful or do our students need to engage in more hard work? Are we doing enough for mental illness or do we look away when we see someone who is suffering? Are our movies and televisions programs providing destructive examples for our us and our young? What is missing? What do we need?

There is also the subject of building our schools in such a way that they provide safe spaces in the event of any emergency. We may have to invest in upgrades like stronger doors and locks not just at entrances and exits but also for each classroom. Schools need to have guidelines such as keeping doors locked at all times with only faculty and staff members having keys which they must always carry on their persons. Some campuses have already instituted policies that require anyone entering to pass through metal detectors. Students must carry clear backpacks. Staff members need to inspect lockers regularly. All adults must be in the hallways during passing periods. Visitors must enter through a series of locked doors. Student clothing cannot be baggy or capable of hiding weapons. Such measures may sound over the top, but they are doable. and I have been in schools where they have been successful.

What we do not need are armed teachers. Such an idea will only compound the problems. I shutter to even think about such a situation. I can think of hundreds of ways that doing this sort of thing will actually backfire.  

At least for a time we cannot be lax, nor can we just continue to do what we have always done. We must be willing to admit that no one thing will be effective. We also need to begin to model caring attitudes for our children because they ultimately learn from what they see. Unfortunately, they are witnessing far too much rancor, and few of us are innocent in that regard.

As a mother and an educator I learned rather quickly that continually insulting or degrading someone does not result in improved behavior. To the contrary, it generally breeds discontent and urges to get even. Right now we are in the midst of considering anyone with whom we disagree or who appears different from ourselves to be deplorable. In truth we humans are simply unique individuals each of whom wants to be heard and accepted just as we are. The message we are sending our children is that half of the population that does not concur with our beliefs is horrific. With our votes we are encouraging to our elected officials to be inflexible and aggressive in their dealings with one another. We seem to want to indict entire groups for behaviors of a few whom we disapprove. We are so busy fighting with one another that we are hardly noticing the effect it is having on our children. All too often our response is to shun anyone whose ideas do not mesh with our own, rather than getting to know them better so that we might realize that they are actually good people.

We have much work to do. From what I am seeing we don’t yet seem ready to suspend all of our preconceived notions in order to ultimately do the right thing. Until we reach that point I fear that we will continue to see needless deaths. We are in dire need os thoughts and prayers, but they must begin to focus on asking God to guide us to the solutions that we so desperately need. This is a time for honest reflection.

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Running

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There is nothing as stunningly lovely as watching a human or an animal in the act of running, particularly when the form and the speed are nearing perfection. The mechanics of moving fast display bodies at their utmost acheivement of beauty and adaptation to the environment around them. Runners unleash energy and power that seems to overcome the very forces of gravity. We may never be able to fly without a machine, but like gazelles and cheetahs we humans have the ability to push ourselves to move like the wind. When that skill is honed to its highest level it is no less inspiring than a symphony.

Even with our best efforts those who stand erect and run on two legs have never quite found a way to outrun some of the creatures that live around us, but we have bonded with one that has carried us from place to place and in and out of life’s events. That animal is of course the horse, and it is the one creature that I find to be the most strikingly handsome in all of the animal kingdom. Of course that is just an opinion, but one to which I have returned again and again, based solely on the feeling of elation that I always experience whenever I see a horse running wild and free. It is a sight that never fails to take my breath away.

If I seek a friend, I will get a dog, but if I want aesthetic satisfaction I must watch a horse or a group of them doing the things that are so natural to them. They are indeed among God’s most incredible creations, and even though I have never had opportunities to own one or ride one more than passingly, I have had a secret adoration of them. I have been especially envious of  those whose lives have intersected with horses, because I suspect that there is a kind of spiritual union between humans and horses that must be experienced to be understood.

Growing up in Texas I have had ample time to view horses, and I have known many people who owned such animals and enjoyed a kind of oneness with them. Horses became a kind of passion for them that has enriched their lives with a bond between themselves and their animals that releases them from the stresses of daily living. Their horses do not disappoint or become disloyal. Human and horse share a kind of friendship that belies the differences between them. I have seen the faces of those lucky enough to be with horses when they speak of their steeds and the delighted light in their eyes tells me how wondrous it must be to know what they know.

I have two grandsons who are talented runners. When they are moving down the track they leave me breathless both from the realization of how fast they are moving and the loveliness of the mechanics of their bodies. So it is for me with horses, which makes me particularly happy for my granddaughter who is now learning how to ride. She hopes to one day be a veterinarian and hers is not just a childish dream. She is already studying and planning and creating goals to realize her ambition. Learning to ride a horse is part of that objective. She understands that she must become familiar and relaxed with animals if she is to one day care for them. She must know them with all of their tendencies and traits. I admire her so for following through on her passion just as my grandsons do with their running, but I am also secretly thrilled that she will ride horses regularly as I have always wished to do.

It’s too late for me to join my granddaughter on the back of a stallion. My bones are brittle and easily broken. I have been warned by my doctors to stay away from sport that may result in a fall, so have put away my skates and sold my bicycle. I have to keep my feet as firmly planted on the ground as possible, but nothing can keep me from watching and observing. I can still enjoy the sight of my grandsons running with so much grace. Nothing is stopping me from enjoying the image of a horse running with or without a rider. It is such a glorious sight that I am able to picture it in my mind, and it always makes me smile.

We humans dominate nature and its creatures. We should always remind ourselves to be stewards of the abundant blessings that have been bestowed upon us. It is incumbent that we care for what we have and never forget to appreciate what we have been given. Life is precious whether it be a a flowering garden, an animal living beside us, or a baby in a womb. We have been tasked to make the most of all of earth’s treasures, and just as we care for our own health we must be conscious of the health of our planet and all that exists on it. I would hate to think that we might one day awake to find that the trees and flowers have turned brown or the waters are clouded with debris. Even worse would be losing our animals. Like many native Americans I believe that the horses and dogs and bears and bees are our brothers and sisters. They were meant to be as much a part of our earth as are we, and so we must remind ourselves to honor them as best we can.

I can imagine the sight of powerful horses running with precision, but I don’t want to imagine a world without them. I don’t believe that any of us are on the brink of extinction, but I do believe that without curbing our own hungers we might destroy far too much of our world. Our rule should be to find moderation in all things. Waste not want not is a very good motto. Turn out a light. Walk more. Eat less. Repair rather than throw away. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep the horses running. Keep humankind at its best.

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.

Premonition

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.