Do I Dare?

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The seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of the people imprisoned in Auschwitz touched my heart. Somehow I realized for the first time that the horror of that place only ended four years before my own birth. What had always seemed like a far away event was actually something that happened shortly before the beginning of my lifetime. It hit me hard to think of the people who had endured the horrors of that place and I found myself wondering as I have often done how I might have acted if I had been caught up in the maelstrom of evil that overtook so much of Europe in those years.

I had always believed that I would have been safe from any of the repercussions of the Nazi terror, but a DNA test proved me wrong. I indeed have a small percentage of genetic compatibility with those who are descended from Eastern European Jews. Would I have been classified as someone who needed to be erased from society? Would the fact of my grandmother’s and mother’s mental illnesses have further increased my likelihood of being sent to a concentration camp? Who knows? I shudder to even consider such a consequence just for being born, and yet that was the fate of millions who had done nothing more than bear the mark of traits that Adolf Hitler and his crazed followers deemed unworthy of human respect.

More important to me than the possibility of being among the numbers herded onto trains and sent to an unthinkable hell is the question of whether or not I would have had the courage to do something to help those whose human rights were being abused in the most savage ways. I’ve always wanted to think that I might have helped them in some way either by speaking out or taking part in some sort of underground movement intent on providing aide. It’s easy to imagine such a thing in theory but actually being brave enough to risk everything would have been daunting. I’m honestly not certain that I would have mustered the courage to to the right thing.

For that reason I was incredibly inspired when I learned the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, a midwife who resided in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Stanislawa and her family were quite active in helping the Jews who had were living in abysmal conditions in the overcrowded ghetto where they had been separated from the rest of the population. For a time their work went unnoticed but eventually they were discovered and Stanislawa ended up a prisoner of Auschwitz.

While she was there she offered her services as a midwife, doing her best to improve the unsanitary conditions that lead to many childbirth deaths. The routine way of doing things was to kill the babies as soon as they were born and to force the women to watch their newborns being drowned in a bucket. Stanislawa refused to participate in such murder and it is believed that she managed to save at least a thousand babies who might otherwise have been killed. Many women who gave birth in the camp credit Stanislawa with keeping both them and their children alive. 

I cannot even imagine the kind of fearlessness that it took for Stanislawa to threaten the safety of her life and that of her family in an effort to do what was morally right. She might easily have turned away her gaze and pretended that she was unaware of the monstrosity of what was happening to the people in her town. She and her family would never have seen the inside of Auschwitz had they simply protected themselves through inaction. When she was caught and sent to a camp she might have chosen to quietly follow the rules in order to insure her own survival but once again she challenged authorities and ignored commands that she knew were immoral. How she got away with her brazen actions is a kind of miracle.

There are amazing people in the world who refuse to worry about negative consequences in the crusade for justice. They literally risk their own lives in the pursuit of right over wrong. It is never an easy thing to do and while I want to believe that given the same circumstances I would be willing to surrender my own freedom to help those being wrongfully abused, I wonder if I would instead quietly accept the status quo out of fear. Being a Thomas Moore, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Oskar Schindler is risky and often deadly business. It’s so much easier to just look away and pretend that nothing is happening.

The world is riddled with problems even today. Dare I talk of them or do something constructive to correct them? I have friends willing to speak their minds while I often shudder with the fear of being misunderstood or ostracized if I were to openly do or say what I believe to be right. Stansilawa Leszcynska inspires me. Do I dare be like her?

Loss

Man-on-Suitcase

“Loss” is a four letter word not meant to be a pejorative like the infamous ones that sometimes get us into trouble, but with a meaning so profound that it has the power to leave us unable to function in any normal way. Like the layers of an onion loss takes on deeper and deeper significance as we get closer to its core, and like that same onion it sometimes makes us cry. For me, loss is the ultimate trigger for stress whether it is directly affecting me or someone that I love.

Loss can appear to be superficial as in the inability to find something important, a receipt, a jacket, a favorite book, a prized heirloom. I grow anxious whenever I can’t find something that I treasure.

Somewhere in the move from my house of over thirty years to the one where I now reside I lost a gold charm bracelet that my husband had given me when we were dating. A heart dangled from the forged links and engraved on it were the numbers signifying our first date with the words “Now and Forever” reminding me of our infinite bond of love. My stressors went into high gear when I ultimately accepted the fact that it was gone and I grieved that I would never see it again, but it was in the final analysis only the loss of an object, a symbol of something far deeper than the thing itself. Still, I know that when we lose something special it saddens us and justifiably so.

When the walls and ceilings of my rooms were flooded by the sudden rush of hot liquid from my hot water heater I became a messy gooey ball of stress. My imagination became a fertile ground for turning this inconvenient bit of loss into a major event. I worried that mold would grow in the nooks and crannies of my walls rendering my house unlivable and unsaleable. I could not rest until I had ripped carpet and sheetrock from the the wettest areas. My impatience in finding someone who would quickly repair the damage grew into full blown anger. The situation consumed the thoughts of my days and nights. I had to remind myself that it was only a temporary loss, one that would eventually be set right. I calmed the beast roaring inside my mind with the truth that I had only lost things, replaceable stuff.

The greatest loss is the death of loved ones. Nothing ever really fixes that. Time superficially heals but the pain but grief lives inside the heart. Such tragic loss is the most difficult aspect of our human experience, even when we actually believe in a more glorious afterlife. We soldier on without the people who have gone before us but we never really forget them and in moments that come and go we remember how much it hurts to accept that we will never see them again. Such is loss that produces more than just stress. It tears at our very souls.

Loss is all around us. Even when it happens to someone else we feel the pain and stress that comes with it. We know that it engenders powerful emotions whether it is the loss of something seemingly insignificant or of a living being. We instinctively empathize with the person who is undergoing distress over loss because we too have felt such emotions and we understand.

Loss is such a small word and yet it stalks us like a powerful monster. We lose hope, confidence, reputation, control. We struggle with fears of loss. Like the nightmare that it sometimes is, loss creates anxieties and worries. It is a trigger that has the power to temporarily or permanently undo us, but our nature is to fight against its inclinations. We do our best to deal with it until the next time that it returns.

January presented itself with loss. I was unable to find the mate to a set of earrings. That was annoying but not the worst situation. When both a beloved aunt and a magical cousin died within days of one another I felt the weight of true loss. I grieved for myself but mostly for those closest to these incredible women, their immediate families who are struggling with the enormity of their losses. I felt the horror of those who lost their homes in a freak explosion that occurred early one morning. I saw a long road of repair and possibly even momentous change ahead for them. I awoke to the terrible news that two of my most wonderful friends had lost the use of their own bodies when they had strokes. I cried with the nation over the untimely death of Kobe Bryant and the eight souls who perished with him.

I suppose that loss is perhaps the greatest trigger for stress in our lives. When it piles on us we lose our sense of direction. We find it difficult to find the way out and yet we also know from experience that we need not be defeated. It may take time and great patience but we can find escape the darkness that has descended upon us. The loss may be forever but the way that we react to it can and does become more bearable.

Winter came in January, a time when some among us endured losses both great and small. We take a deep breath. We embrace one another. We find ways to soothe our souls. The cycle continues and we continue down the road of life knowing that we will eventually find the peace and tranquility that will set us in the right direction once again.  Loss challenges but we need not allow it to defeat.

Real Heroes

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I tend to be ever the stoic, quietly taking whatever life throws at me. I adjust to circumstances as needed. I’ve learned how to survive over the years without drawing attention to myself. I let emotions run free in the quiet of night inside the privacy of my own mind and then I appear to bravely carry on. It’s a routine that I adopted as a child whenever fears or sorrows threatened to overcome me. It’s not exactly a perfect way of adapting but so far it has worked for me. Still, there have been moments when I had to cry, “Uncle!” or literally lose every sense of calm that I possessed. I learned that it is not just okay to admit to hitting a wall, but quite necessary for survival to know when enough is enough.

The conclusion of 2019 and beginning of 2020 turned into a kind of nightmare beginning with the death of a dear cousin and an aunt and concluding with news that two longtime friends had suffered very serious strokes. During that time I also grieved for a special and dear woman whose favorite aunt lost a battle with cancer. As I pushed on in my usual fashion I watched those closest to my departed family members struggling with the reality of loss while juggling demands from jobs and irritating challenges like broken appliances and even sickness. I observed the loved ones of my hospitalized friends spending long hours at the hospital attempting to keep a spirit of optimism in full view. I witnessed their suffering with a sense of frustration because I had no magic words to soothe their hearts or heal their wounds. Nonetheless I continued moving forward one step at a time.

I put away my Christmas decorations and attempted to find a bit of normalcy in the raging sea around me. I brushed up on some Pre-Calculus so that I might help my grandsons master concepts of trigonometry. I kept writing and writing, one of my favorite forms of therapy. I invited my niece over for tea and went to visit my ninety year old father-in-law and mother-in-law. I found solace at church and falsely began to feel as though I had weathered the emotional storm without no scars. Fortunately my body had other ideas. It set me straight by falling apart quite suddenly and forcing me to stop long enough to consider all that had happened.

My tongue and my lips broke out in sores. My throat and my chest hurt as my sinuses filled with congestion. My head felt as though it would crack open and my teeth seemed on the verge of falling out of my mouth. My knees ached to the point of forcing me to lie down. That’s when I finally faced the pain that had been slowly building in my heart and admitted to myself that I was not made of steel. I was as ordinary as any other human.

Our heroes are all too often characters with superhuman strength. They save lives, are supremely virtuous and seem capable of acts that defy our own abilities. We walk around with wooden smiles in times of distress and pretend that all is well when in reality we want to let out primal screams. If we are truly lucky we find a more real kind of hero, someone willing to admit to their weaknesses and ask for help.

My sweet cousin who had spent weeks watching her mother die was willing to publicly acknowledge her own breaking point. She was not whining but simply stating the fact of her exhaustion, frustration and sadness. Her truth was a kind of gift to the rest of us because she is generally so perfectly put together. Knowing that even an icon like her has moments of profound distress reminded us that being human is a complex venture.

When my friend who lost her aunt proclaimed the depth of her emotional pain it was difficult to hear, but also a beautiful form of trust that those of us who love her would not turn away. She was able to vocalize the feelings that each of us endure at one time or another in the most loving and beautiful way. It was as though she was helping us to know how to react to her loss.

I suppose that there is nothing innately wrong with putting up a brave front when we are in reality ready to fall apart and sometimes it is the only sensible thing to do, but for our own sake and those around us we also need to know when we have to surrender to the feelings bearing down on us. Being brave often means admitting that we are not as unbreakable as we may have thought. Like fine glass each of us has a point of fragility. Knowing when we are approaching that moment and pausing to mend our bodies and minds is a very good thing.

Just as we must put on our own oxygen masks in an emergency on a plane before attempting to help others, so too should we know when we need a break, a hug, a moment to let out our feelings. Sometimes the very bravest thing we might do is to openly face our weaknesses and our fears. That’s what real heroes do.

The Ultimate Reward

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My doctors always ask for an updated family medical history. Mine demonstrates a rather promising line of longevity. The youngest age at which any of my ancestors died of natural causes is eighty two, my paternal grandmother who had colon cancer. She used to always say that everyone in her family died from gut trouble so I suppose that to some extent her fate was almost inevitable. She ignored her own symptoms when they first arose. She was too busy working on her farm to worry about what she saw as trivialities. By the time things got worse she had waited too long to be saved. The doctors tried a few things but ultimately sent her home to die. There was no Medicare back then so her end wiped out my grandfather financially but his only complaint about that was that he had lost his “buddy.”

My mom lasted until the age of eighty four. She had lung cancer no doubt brought on by smoking which she unwittingly did until she was forty. Everyone enjoyed the habit when she was young. It would be decades before smoking was linked to so many diseases. By then the damage to her lungs was already done. Like my grandmother, Mama mostly ignored her symptoms until they became pronounced. Early detection and treatment might have allowed her to reach her mid nineties like her sisters but she had an aversion to doctors and tended to avoid them as much as possible.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was eighty eight years old. She never left her home aside from an occasion when her appendix burst and she had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. She recovered from that scare with no problem and lived quietly and happily without ever stepping a foot from her property. Without regular medical care it was inevitable that something would overtake her as she aged otherwise I suspect that she may have lived as long as the three of her daughters who made it past ninety.

My paternal grandfather made it well past one hundred before things began to fall apart. We became so accustomed to his constant presence that it was shocking when he actually died. He had seemed to be somehow immortal as each year passed leaving him as spry as he had always been.

Since I’ve had problems with my gastric system for many years I suspect that my paternal grandmother’s prediction that gut trouble will one day take me down is fairly accurate. I’ve regularly visited a gastroenterologist since I was in my forties so I’ve managed to control any problems and keep them rather minor. Barring accidents or the unexpected I may actually follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and my mother’s three sisters. That means that I have a good shot at being around for another twenty five or thirty years.

It boggles my mind to think in those terms. I realize that my grandchildren will be middle aged if I make it that long and my daughters will be numbered among the elderly. I worry a bit about my potential for being a burden on them. They are quite loving and would be appalled to think that I have such concerns but I know full well how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent who can no longer live independently. It becomes a tremendously demanding task financially, physically and emotionally.

I am in awe of individuals who care for an elderly parent. I’ve watched friends and cousins devote untold hours to the task. They rarely complain but I witness how tired and stressful the job is for them. A lingering illness in a loved one takes its toll on everyone. I find that nobody wants to do that to their children but sometimes they outlast even their sons and daughters just as my grandfather did. Extreme old age can be lonely.

Life is uncertain. None of us know when our time here will end. I’d like to think that when I finally reach those final days that I will be as courageous and undemanding as my mother and grandmothers were. All three of them made us feel that they were comfortable with the thought of leaving this earth just as God had planned it for them. They gave us a beautiful gift of calm and certainty that they were ready. Somehow their deaths became celebrations of their lives.

I have been a somewhat competitive person for most of my life. I must admit that I do like to win and be noticed and honored. I’ve received a few awards here and there. I find that the joy in receiving them is somewhat fleeting. Life is a series of challenges and if the focus is always on excelling beyond others, it can become tiresome and meaningless. In the end the great joy of living is found in fulfilling a purpose, no matter how humble that may be. It is about loving and doing for others and using the talents that each of us have to one extent or another.

In spite of what Yoda advises there is greatness in trying. If every person tried to be the best versions of themselves our world would be even more wonderful than it already is. We make a mark on this earth not through fame or fortune or achievement but by the manner in which we treat the people who come our way. Each of us will be remembered by individuals whose hearts we have touched. There is no better reward than that.

What We Need

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There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.