A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

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Dealing With Loss

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We all face a time of grief. Nobody is immune from the human destiny of death and loss. We build deep and loving relationships with people even as we know that one day we may have to live without them. Death and the emotions that it engenders are a kind of curse from which we cannot escape. When a beloved dies we are deeply affected and must bear the cycle of sorrow that descends upon us. How well we cope may be quite different from one person to another. It is a very personal and private journey which truly cannot be judged. The hurt is real and tangible.

We often wonder if it is better to lose someone suddenly or after a long illness during which we have had time to prepare. The truth is that both scenarios are traumatic. Loss is loss no matter how it happens, and it is something that we never really get over. Instead we allow ourselves to express our sadness in our individual ways and then we find the means of coping and moving on with our lives. When our depression becomes chronic and paralyzes us we need to seek help, but often don’t even realize that our suffering has overwhelmed our ability to find a way to heal.

I am now an orphan. Both of my parents are dead. One was killed suddenly when I was a young child. It has been sixty two years since his accident, but the memories of that trauma are as vivid today as they were back in 1957. I am not obsessed with the death of my father, but I do indeed miss him. When I was eight years old I felt scarred by the loss, but even then I understood that I had to find a way not to be perennially sad and scared. I found the solace that I sought in my studies at school. I suppose that it was inevitable that I would turn to reading and learning as a means of coping with my hurt because these were things that I fondly associated with my dad. In my childlike way I made it out of the abyss of depression by attempting to become the kind of person that I believed he would have wanted me to be.

I rarely spoke of my struggles until I encountered my mother-in-law who also quite unexpectedly lost her father in a hunting accident. Her dad was only a bit older than my father had been when he died, and she while in her twenties was still quite young when the tragedy occurred. Over tea and cookies she often told me stories of how great her father had been, and how his life had inspired her to be better in her own. Ironically we both had dealt with our sorrows by focusing on improving ourselves in honor of the men that we so loved.

I was an old woman when my mother died, eligible to retire from my life’s work of teaching. My mom had been afflicted with bipolar disorder for decades and in her final years my brothers and I had become her caretakers as her health also began to decline. I saw that she was not as energetic as she had once been and she was coughing constantly. The tissues that she stuffed into the trash were often tinged with blood, and still I refused to accept that she was going to die even with so much evidence. When her time came she insisted that she was ready and made me and my brothers promise that we would not resort to extraordinary means to extend her life. She was prepared for her fate, and so at peace. At the time I suppose that I was very much in denial and I walked through the days after her death in a kind of fog devoid of any visible emotions. Inside I was a basket case and believed that I had to find something to fill the vacancy in my heart left by her departure. That’s when I turned to writing, and I suppose it is what fuels me to this very day.

I still miss both of my parents and often find myself wishing that they were still around, even as I know that all was as it was meant to be. I rely on beautiful memories of them to sustain my desire to be with them once again. I turn my focus to constructive activities that push me outside of myself whenever my reveries lead to dark places. It is what we humans do. We love even knowing that one day that special recipient of our care and concern may be gone. We work to make them proud of the ways in which we carry on their legacies, because they do live in our very souls. As long as we breathe they are never completely gone.

I suppose that I love The Lion King because it so poetically outlines the circles of life that define our days here on earth. We find joys, relationships, purposes in spite of our disappointments, feelings of loneliness and sense of being adrift. The way of the world is both to be joyful and to suffer. Mostly we are continually finding ways to carry on in the face of adversity. For some like me and my mother-in-law that may mean embracing the mantle of responsibilities. For others it may involve learning how to relax and have fun. It doesn’t really matter how we choose to cope as long as we find a way.

I would like to think that I am a strong person, but I know that there have been times when I have felt utterly defeated by the realities of being a human. I have remembered and grieved. I have begged God to have pity on my poor wretched soul. I have arisen from the ashes again and again like a phoenix, and yet I still don’t really know how to comfort someone who is struggling with the death of a loved one other than to express my condolences. I know all too well that each of us has to find our own ways of dealing with the ultimate test of our endurance, being left behind when someone we love dies. It is incredibly hard, but we will heal. A warm hug or an understanding word of encouragement always helps. Be that person who brings kindness and hope.

God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

Our Angel

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My youngest daughter had little idea how difficult it would become for her to have children. The women in our family tended to be hardy souls who were models of the old frontier stock who laid down next to a covered wagon to birth a child and then continued on the journey. I had joked with both of my girls to be careful because we seemed to have DNA that led to pregnancy if we did little more than glance sideways at a man. I came from a family of women who without birth control might have mothered ten or more children. It seemed inevitable that having children would be one of the certainties of my girls’ realities.

When boasting about our seemingly genetic fertility I didn’t take all of the members of our family tree into account. I knew little or nothing about my paternal great grandmother who died from childbirth. I didn’t really consider the large number of only children in my husband’s family. Because having a successful pregnancy had been a walk in the park for me I never thought that either of my children would find the task to be daunting, but I was wrong. 

Just a few months before my youngest had been married for a year, she announced that she was pregnant. There were few visible signs of the child growing inside of her, but as with all women she had felt the subtle changes in her body, and a doctor had confirmed her suspicions to her utter glee. Her celebrating ended unexpectedly and abruptly when she miscarried shortly after she had so happily told us of her joy.

I had never had such an experience and I fumbled to comfort her in a meaningful way. It was my dear friend, Pat, who came to the rescue. She had been in my daughter’s shoes, and she knew exactly what to say to her. She wrote a long letter of support to my girl, accompanied by a care package filled with goodies that were meant to bring succor and understanding. A bond grew between those two women that only mothers of little angels who don’t quite make it into this world ever truly understand. I was so grateful for the love and counseling that Pat so willingly gave to my own child. I knew that my girls was hurting beyond my capacity to speak the words that she needed.

Sadly my daughter’s saga was to be filled with one disappointment after another. She learned soon enough that getting pregnant and keeping that condition was almost impossible for her. One terrible loss after another occurred until she was seeking help in a fertility clinic in Chicago. The doctor was renowned for his ability to help women to bear children, but he was honest about my daughter’s chances and they were not particularly good.

Over time she endured hormone shots, and multiple treatments that threw her body into a continuous cycle of hope and loss. Finally she and her husband and her physician agreed to try in vitro fertilization. It was risky and there were no guarantees, but nothing else had come even close to working so she endured yet another treatment. Not long after, on a cold February day she got the news that she was pregnant with two children. The tulip bulbs that her husband had given her for Valentine’s day had bloomed at that very moment with two perfect flowers. She took that as a sign that the spirit of her first angel baby was reaching out to her, assuring her that this time things would be okay.

It was a difficult pregnancy, made worse by the worry that stalked her. She and her husband had worked so hard to get to this point, and they prayed as each month passed that their babies would make it to become healthy enough to enter the world. It seemed as though their entreaties had been answered until my girl went into early labor, so early that the probability of her children having grievous health problems was almost certain.

My daughter lay in the hospital hearing dire predictions from her doctors. Her children might be born without the ability to breathe properly. They might endure brain damage, become blind. It was a terrifying time but in a miraculous moment that not even the doctors were able to explain her labor suddenly stopped. She spent the remaining many weeks on full bed rest emotionally willing her children to grow healthy and strong. They would ultimately be premature and tiny at their births, but they were mostly healthy in spite of some lingering problems. Today those same babies are in high school. They are brilliant and beautiful and loving. They have a little brother who surprised everyone as a miracle who wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

My daughter still speaks of her four children. She knows that there is a baby in heaven watching over her, a child who may have even been the angel who guarded her through all of those difficult times. Now that little one has been joined by Pat, the woman who gave her the courage to soldier through her difficult journey toward motherhood. My baby girl who is fully a woman and devoted mother herself knows how blessed she has been, and she understands in the deepest way the women who like her lose the little children that they so much want to bring into the world.

I never before knew that there is actually a day in October set aside to remember all of those tiny ones who were so wanted and loved by their mothers, but were not quite able to make it into our lives. Somehow it seems fitting that my sweet daughter’s twins were born in October. I find myself believing that I have had eight grandchildren, not seven, and one of them is truly our angel who has gone ahead of us into heaven.

We’re All In This Together

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The news cycle moves rapidly these days. A big story on Monday is often moved aside by one even more exciting on Thursday. So much information overloads our brains that we sometimes choose to just ignore the march of sensational topics. Once a subject leaves the front pages it is all too often quickly forgotten, and so the floods and damage of a hurricane become old news even as the people who have been affected still struggle with the after effects. Like a small child in a room full of toys our interest flits from one thing to another, but in the real world there are issues that don’t really go away as much as become old news.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the world was mesmerized by the ebola outbreak that took place in African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. As the disease claimed thousands of victims, a kind of fear gripped everyone. We literally wondered either silently or aloud if this would be the kind of pandemic that killed millions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just as back then researchers were hard pressed to explain exactly what caused the sudden spread of the disease, and medical personnel were treating the illness on the fly, learning from mistakes and hoping for the best. In many ways the epidemic ended as mysteriously as it had started. It seemed to have simply burned itself out, but many who study such things found themselves wondering if this was just a lucky break. Research into the causes and control of such diseases continue in laboratories across the world, but public interest has waned since that time. It’s old news that turned out well for most of the world save those African countries most afflicted. As curious as I have always been about such things, even I generally put the whole event out of my mind, at least until I viewed a film made in Sierra Leone during and after the tragedy that took so many in that country.

A group of locals from Sierra Leone had the foresight to record the human toll from ebola by showing relief efforts as they unfolded and interviewing family members and friends of those who had contracted the disease. The rawness and reality of the story was heartbreaking, frightening and inspiring. The film revealed just how courageous so many of the people were during that terrible time. There were local nurses and doctors who had never before dealt with anything so terrifying who nonetheless put their lives on the line day in and day out. There were families that were quarantined and separated from loved ones who became pariahs by association. There was great fear within cities and towns each time a new victim began to show signs of contracting the disease.

I found myself cheering for the people who rose to the occasion by assuming leadership roles in the face of grave danger. Among them were priests, imams, and ministers who shepherded their congregations and urged them not to fall for stories of demons causing the illnesses. Instead they helped health workers to spread the word of how to use proper hygiene and when to isolate those who became ill. Any of these brave souls might have contracted ebola themselves but they found the wherewithal to do the jobs that they knew must be done.

Perhaps the saddest feature of the film focused on a group of homeless boys who lived on the streets scrounging for food and lodging. It showed them regularly visiting a landfill in search of items to trade for money. They walked on mountains of refuse in their bare feet in order to survive from day to day, all while the terrible disease raged  around them. They were survivors, not just from ebola, but from the very act of living.

In the film there were interviews with individuals who had lost entire families. The human spirit was still alive and well in them, but I have little doubt that they bear huge scars that will never quite heal. When we read the statistics of the thousands of people who died they are just numbers to us coming from a far away place. For the people who lived through this nightmare they are a reality as tragic and heartbreaking as any disaster that suddenly washes over our humanity.

We have erected memorials to those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the innocents who were killed on 9/11. We are disturbed by the sinking of the Titanic and cry at the thought of those who lost their lives without warning. We are appalled by the needless deaths of anyone, and yet the impact of the ebola epidemic has come and gone, leaving both its victims and survivors to deal with its effects mostly alone. The film that I watched challenges us to remember the humanity and importance of each of the people who endured this incredibly frightening time.

I realize that we can’t always be worried about “might have beens” or future possibilities, but history has shown time and again that horrific things often happen when we least expect them. During those epic moments there are always everyday people who become heroes and then quietly return to their lives when the danger is over. There are souls who suffer so badly that they never quite get over the raw emotions of the event. Then there are those who lose their lives, all too quickly and sometimes even painfully. We must never forget them, regardless of how far removed from us they may appear to be. We are all in this struggle called life, and it would behoove us to understand that what affects one of us may one day affect all of us.