When Me Too Hits Close To Home

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I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

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The Reckoning

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart

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There is a political fire storm raging in our country today over the question of when life begins. In  particular the crux of the argument is whether aborting a baby from the womb is murder or simply a form of birth control, a reasonable choice for women’s health. It has seemingly reached a tipping point in which each side is ferociously secure in its beliefs, certain that the other side is unfair and perhaps almost evil. It has become a bitter fight with so much conflicting rhetoric that it confuses those who heretofore paid little attention to the arguments and the legislation supporting them. At the heart of the furor is the question of the definition of life. It is in that complex consideration that the true meaning of abortion lies, and as of this moment the emotionally charged effect of the differing opinions does little to help us determine the moral path forward for our nation and our world. 

Like many Americans I waffle back and forth between the Pro Life and Pro Choice positions. I feel that I understand the considerations of each side and so I have tended toward the neutral stance of insisting that I would never have had an abortion because I do believe that it is murder, but if someone doesn’t think as I do it would be okay. I have been challenged by both Pro Life and Pro Choice individuals to take a stand, to quit be so wishy washy. Instead I have kept a quiet profile and chosen not to reveal what I truly believe. It has been a bit uncomfortable, but I have done so in the name of keeping the peace. After all, who really wants or needs to know what I think? Why should I rock the point? Whose mind am I going to change?

Suddenly I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable as the issue becomes more and more volatile. I don’t know exactly how to react because it all seems so personal, hinging on questions that can only be resolved in the individual heart. Then I think about certain generalizations that persist in our society, namely that murder is wrong and just because someone is able to justify it does not make it right. I ponder our history of slavery and wonder how many people kept quiet about its practice simply because they felt that it was none of their business and it was, after all, legal. I worry that I’m mostly afraid of being ostracized if I state my true feelings, and my peacemaker personality urges me to remain silent.

Then I recall an incident from my young adult life when a large group of us looked on in horror waiting for the police to arrive while a man was mercilessly beating his wife. His children were screaming for help and yet we were frozen in a kind of fear of doing what we knew to be right. It took a “ good ole gal” from Buffalo, New York to show us what courage really is. She marched past us and forced her way into the apartment to rescue the tiny children and their mother. I still recall the feelings of guilt that I felt for having been such a coward while also being struck with awe over the woman’s courage.

I find myself wondering if the time has come for each of us to step forward to do what we believe to be the right thing. I worry that simply giving voice to our beliefs in the voting booth may not be enough to resolve this issue once and for all. I even consider that perhaps it is far too murky to ever find a clear cut solution. Still, it seems that those of us who are indeed part of the silent majority sitting on the sidelines must at some point come to grips and decide where we stand. Because my own feelings are so complex, I realize that finding the right path is going to be dangerously difficult.

I do believe that life begins at conception. To argue over life in terms of the ability of the fetus to survive without help is a convenient way of denying what I believe to be the truth. So I am one of those who believes that abortion is a form of murder. Nonetheless, I truly understand that as with anything there may be some extraordinary situations that require an abortion to save a mother’s life. Fortunately such incidents are rare, and generally approved by  both doctors and theologians. I learned in my religion classes of long ago that saving a mother is always tantamount to sacrificing her for a child.

I also understand that for whatever reason many very good women have had abortions. I view them with great compassion and understanding. I do not believe that they should be considered pariahs. In fact, I have a dear friend who has quite courageously admitted to having an abortion. She is openly discussing the many conflicting emotions that she felt both at the time and over the ensuing years. She now councils women who have walked in her shoes. She celebrates her own reconciliation and helps others to find theirs. My hesitation to go all in for the Pro Life positions lies in my own feelings for women who for whatever reason have taken this emotion charged step.

The key to the discussion lies not so much in judging decisions of the past but in moving forward into the future and doing the right thing. As with the issue of slavery we need to rid ourselves of a moral wrong, but we must not dwell incessantly on the past. We also need to carefully define those moments when abortion becomes a medical necessity for the safety of the woman. In addition, we have to take into account how to care for any children who are unwanted by being willing to foster or adopt them. We must support and provide forms of birth control that will be available to all women without extraordinary costs or sacrifices.

I do believe that each of us must look into our hearts and decide on this issue one way or another and be willing to stand for our convictions. We need not bring our differences to a warlike state, but instead demonstrate a willingness to understand the genuine feelings involved in the questions. We need to rid ourselves of insulting slogans and posters and silly hats of one sort or another and get down to the business of hearing and considering the merit of each argument. In the end our greatest treasure, our humanity, is at stake. I hope that we find a way to do the right thing. I believe that we may be at a watershed moment of reckoning. We may each find ourselves being called to task. It’s time.

The Dance

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“If you stumble make it part of the dance.” Author Unknown

My eldest daughter took dance lessons from the time that she was five or six years old. She had a kind of natural talent from the beginning, catching on to the steps and generally reveling in the art of using her body as a kind of poetry. She was a shy child but somehow being on the stage transformed her. She invariably began each performance with her head down and a serious look on her face as though she was trying to convince herself that everything was going to be okay. With the first beat of the music she would pop her head back, hold her chin up high, and flash a glorious smile. Then she became the very image of a swan moving with grace and beauty.

Her first recital as a toddler foretold of the kind of transformation that she would invariably undergo each time she performed in the future. She and her fellow dance students had learned a fairly simple routine centered around a song called “Tattle Tail Duck.” The girls were tiny fluffs of bright yellow with their rubber “duckie” colored leotards, tutus and feathery headdresses. They were quite adorable as they shuffled and pointed their toes while twirling in circle and singing with abandon. It was a somewhat chaotic scene as each girl seemed to be dancing to her own tune but my daughter was quite the performer having shed her usual inhibitions. She delighted those of us in her family with her entertaining expressions and total command of the steps. She was in her element.

Her performance was going well until the velcro on her tutu failed and the netting fell into a puddle of yellow around her feet. Without missing a single step or changing the happy expression on her face she somehow freed her feet from the obstacle and continued as though nothing had happened. If she was upset or embarrassed her face did not betray such thoughts. Instead her photogenic smile and look of confidence never faded. When the routine was over she gracefully bent down, picked up the tutu and raised it above her head with a flourish as she bowed. The crowd went wild with applause and laughter and she ended up receiving a standing ovation. That was when I knew for certain that she was already a warrior, a mighty woman who would meet life’s challenges with aplomb.

It sometimes feels as though we live in a perfectionist society in which everyone is being watched in  the hopes of catching them in moments in which they stumble. Once that happens the public seems to remember the flaw that occurred unwilling to allow the individual to forget the mistake. Such tendencies are particularly prevalent in politics and show business. We tend to hold lapses against people forever rather than applauding the ways they attempt overcome their deficiencies. Repentance may clean the slate with God, but we humans hold suspicions and grudges far too often.

In my mind there is nothing quite as glorious as watching someone take the wreckage of a situation or a lifetime and turn it around. I have always been of the opinion that as long as there is breath in a person it is not too late to change and adapt. I delight in stories of people who find their way out of bad situations, and I am a firm believer in the idea of forgiveness. It is just as important to reward good behavior as it is to sometimes punish the bad. I truly believe that it is possible for even an horrific individual to embrace penance and genuinely strive to become better.

Most of us make small mistakes here and there. We hopefully learn from them, change move on. We pray that the bumbling versions of ourselves will graciously be forgotten by those who witnessed us at our worst. We dread the thought that our past sins will corner us into living self fulfilling prophecies. We want to be able to make our stumbles a positive part of the choreography of our lives.

Our decisions to own our mistakes and find ways of turning them into victories should be a source of applause. Sadly so much of our society now deems admissions of wrong thinking to be a sign of weakness rather than the evidence of strength that is actually is. We tend to spurn those who express contrition and want to change. We wrongly attribute an unwillingness to own up to our flaws as a sign of greatness and character, when the opposite is actually the case.

We often don’t do enough to applaud the heroism of those who take positive steps to correct the slip ups and blunders in their lives. We act as though each of our actions is a still photograph that is forever unchangeable when the reality is that we are fluid and changing from one moment to the next. Very little in life is immutable and if it were some of the greatest stories in history might never have been allowed to happen. Failure has been a moving force from the beginning of time. It has been the catalyst for remarkable feats that changed the world. The importance of a stumble is not to be found in that instant but in the glory of what comes next when a person decides to  change from a wormy caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly, or when a little girl becomes a swan rather than a duck.

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions. 

A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.