Stranger Things

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We had spent the day touring plantation homes in Louisiana. We were tired and incredibly hungry but seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our friend announced that we were near a unique and highly rated restaurant so we eagerly headed toward what we hope would be good food and some much needed rest.

In less than fifteen minutes we were in the parking lot of our intended destination. Even though there was a large crowd inside we got seated at a nice table rather quickly. The menu was quirky but yummy sounding, at least at first. While we all perused the many choices I suddenly lost what had only moments before been a voracious appetite. In fact the mere thought of food made me feel nauseous. As everyone in our party eagerly spoke of the selections they had made I announced that I only wanted some tea. The group looked at me with puzzled expressions and asked if I was feeling well.

I explained that I just didn’t feel well and was afraid of putting anything into my now queasy stomach. I mentioned that I might just be a bit car sick, but in truth I wanted to bolt from the place. Something about it made me quite uneasy. There was no logic whatsoever to my feelings.

The waiter came to our table and took the orders looking obviously puzzled at my request for only a glass of ice tea. As the conversation at our table grew more animated I began to feel as though I was somehow not present. My mind wandered and I had an overwhelming desire to escape to the car, but without a valid explanation for my sudden flight response I instead just sat silently listening to the chatter without really hearing a word.

The food arrived and admittedly looked delicious but I had no desire to try any of it. Once the waiter had placed all of the items on the table he asked if we needed anything else. My friend said that she had a question. She wanted to know what the building had once been because it was obvious that it had been repurposed. To my shock and dismay the helpful server told us that the structure had at one time been part of an expanse of slave quarters. He pointed out that there had no doubt been much misery inside its walls. He admitted that he was glad that it was now a happy place where people enjoyed themselves.

Suddenly I understood why my body and my brain were in such a bizarre state. Somehow I had intuited that I was in an evil place. It was as though I was feeling the spirit of the souls who had been enslaved and tortured there. I had to sip some tea to keep from retching. It felt wrong for us to be so casually eating in what to me had been a house of horrors.

I did not say these things to the people who were with me. I suspected that they would either laugh at my silliness or think me bizarre for having such thoughts. Instead I nursed a growing pain in my gut as I imagined the wretched souls who had been enslaved there. It felt disrespectful to be there under circumstances of being entertained and indulged.

I suppose I must have seemed sulky to my friends. There was no logic to my feelings. It was silly of me to believe that I had somehow sensed the hurt of the people who once lived there and yet how might I explain the physical and mental pain that overtook me? My symptoms were real in spite of their superstitious nature.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think that I had some kind of sixth sense regarding the nature of that place. I suppose that there will be those who dismiss my state of mind as just a coincidence related more to being tired than any supernatural experience. I, on the other hand, believe that somehow the spirits of those poor desperate people had somehow permeated the walls so much that a part of my brain that has yet to be defined led me to the conclusion that something terrible happened there.

I am an observant person. Maybe there were clues that sent messages to my subconscious without my realizing it. It may not have been spirits at all but instead just an uncanny ability to notice small details on my part. Perhaps I simply put pieces of a puzzle together without being able to connect the dots well enough to understand what I was seeing. Or, maybe I really did feel something, have a kind of communication with those who had suffered.

Whatever happened left me in a state of profound disturbance. I had spent a day marveling at the immense wealth of people who had seemingly thought that owning another human was acceptable. The foundations of those magnificent homes had been built on the backs of labor from people judged to be unworthy of enjoying their God given right to freedom. My body reacted with a sickening revulsion.

Mankind has the capacity to be both magnificent and horrific. I’d like to believe that we humans continue to learn and evolve toward goodness. I’m saddened whenever I see evidence to the contrary. We have made much progress but it’s up to us to be watchful for signs that we have lost our way. Those monuments to a disturbing way of life will be instructive only if we agree that we must never allow such things to happen again.

Family Is Everything

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Family has always been everything to me. When I my father died it was family that kept me from feeling frightened and hopeless. I always knew that I could count on my family, both nuclear and extended. The members of my clan have been a source of love and security for all of my life. As I grow older most of the people who once watched over me have gone to their heavenly rewards just as my father did. My role within the family has changed with the flux and flow of deaths and births. Such occasions continually remind me of the importance of family relationships. I suspect that if I had to choose between careers, success and family I would select family hands down.

I was one of three children, the eldest and only girl. I sometimes wondered if my own family might have been larger had my father lived longer. He and my mother were still quite young when he lost his life. I had always dreamed of having a sister and I admittedly fretted that such a thing would never happen. I envied the close relationship that my brothers had that was so different from the one they had with me. They slept in the same bedroom and played ball together. They wrestled with each other and formed a bond that was forged with their common identity of being male. I loved them so but always wondered what it might have been like to have a sister with whom to share secrets and talk of the things that only another woman might understand.

Our extended family was a veritable haven for boys. I had only two female cousins and one them died when she was only sixteen. The other girl and I grew up together and ultimately realized that we were as close to one another as actual sisters might be and so we began to think of ourselves as sister cousins. We can talk for days on end only stopping to sleep and then resuming our conversations as we sip on coffee or tea in the early morning. We text details about our days and make phone calls when we need to talk.

Through my brothers I have two more sisters who married into our family expanding the joy and the love in the most delightful ways. Their sisters and brothers have also become mine. The branches of my family tree are thicker and stronger than ever and new people are added again and again. The circle of life expands so beautifully and satisfies my longing for roots and stability. Being with my family reassures me and soothes the little girl part of my soul that still worries about the prospect of being left all alone.

My husband is an only child. He says that he never really thought about having more siblings. His reality seemed normal and just fine. He had quite loving parents who filled the gaps of his emotional needs. Like me he he has stories of aunts and uncles and cousins from whom he learned the importance of family but he admits that having my brothers as his brothers has enriched his life in ways that he never imagined.

I spent the first days of this new year, new decade with members of my family in admittedly distressing circumstances. Two lights on our family tree were extinguished and we realized how much we would miss them but we also understood the importance of staying close with one another. My brothers and sisters and cousins came together to celebrate not just the lives of our dear ones who were gone but also to renew our commitment to one another. If we made one important resolution it was to keep those bonds of family as tight and important as they have always been.

There was a time in my life when I was so busy that I often went long stretches without any contact with my family. I’d visit my mother once a week and see my brothers at birthday celebrations and on holidays but in between we all had our noses to the grindstone, living but not really taking enough time to check on one another. We relied on our mother to keep us apprised of how everyone was doing. She was the glue that insured that we would not break apart from neglect. She made certain that we would always remember that family was far more important than anything else that we did. While her insistence that we make time for each other was sometimes annoying it was in the end a great gift and one that we now attempt to continue in her absence.

I love every single quirky thing about family. I feel my best when I am with them. I no longer dream of having a sister because I can claim three beautiful women as kindred spirits and sisters in every sense of the word. My brothers are my pride and joy and we share an unbreakable bond that traces its way back to our childhood. My cousins are my anchors just as they have always been. I now have children and grandchildren who fill my life to the very brim. Family is everything and the bigger it is the better it seems to  become.

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

Snakes and Dentists

emblem_bwpho·bi·a

/ˈfōbēə/

noun

  1. an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I’m not superstitious nor to I believe in things like good luck charms. In general I am a very rational person who eschews conspiracy theories and urban myths. Still, I have to admit to having a number of phobias, among them being forced off of a bridge while driving my car and being caught in a burning building. Without a doubt, however, my two most heart pounding fears are of snakes and dentists.

We humans once lived in trees and so the fear of snakes is primordial and I suppose even a bit Biblical. In my own case it tracks back to two events from my childhood. The first occurred when an elderly neighbor was bitten by a water moccasin that wandered into her backyard from a nearby bayou. She stepped on it in the dark and at first thought she had accidentally stumbled over her dachshund. When she felt the sharp sting of the reptile’s venom she looked down and saw what had really happened. She spent many days in the hospital lingering near death and those of us who knew her kept vigil and prayed. I suppose that her advanced age had more to do with the seriousness of her condition than the actual bite but the thought of danger lurking in the dark of my yard haunted me so much that over time I developed a total aversion to any form of snake whether poisonous or not.

Like Indiana Jones I become mush at the mere thought of a snake and my anxieties with regard to them only increased after an incident with my grandmother when I was about six. She and my grandfather were living on a farm in Arkansas back then and they prided themselves in being able to live mostly off of the bounty of the land. They planted crops that kept them generously supplied with fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and a cow for meat and milk. Grandma was a kind of pioneer woman who was handy with a rifle and she proved her mettle by bagging deer and squirrels as well. More than anything she was an expert fisherwoman. I suppose my father learned to love fishing from her.

One afternoon when we were visiting the farm my grandmother and grandfather decided to go angling for fish and asked if I wanted to come along. I so enjoyed being with them that i joyfully agreed to go. When we got to the place where they hoped to get some fresh trout for dinner my grandmother first went to inspect the area. Without any sort of explanation she returned to the car with a concerned look and sternly warned me to stay in the car assuring me that they would not take long. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was a warm summer day and even though the car was parked under the shade of an enormous tree I soon became hot and bored. I defied my grandmother’s command and decided to join her on the rickety wooden pier where she was so intent on fishing that she did not see me coming up behind her.

As I approached my grandparents I suddenly saw what seemed to be an army of snakes lifting their heads out of the water as though waiting for a handout from the humans invading their habitat. When one of them attempted to slither up a pillar of the structure where she was standing Grandma took her fishing pole and beat it away. I was so stunned and horrified that I began screaming in terror. Grandma spun around to see me and without a word hurried me back to the safety of the car, chastising me for ignoring her instructions. As she and Grandpa gathered up their catch and their fishing gear I sat in the automobile more disturbed than ashamed. I could not get the horrific vision of all of those snakes out of my mind. In all honesty it still haunts me if truth be told. From that moment forward I have been totally terrorized by the mere thought of snakes.

My dental anxieties are also a product of my youth. I had the unfortunate bad luck to have a pediatric dentist who never should have been allowed to interact with children. From a very young age I needed a great deal of work on my teeth and he did little to make the process bearable. In fact he berated me for what he was sure were bad eating habits each time I visited his office. In truth my mother never purchased sugary treats or drinks with the exception of very special occasions and she was fastidious about having me brush my teeth both morning and night, so the doctor’s harangues were always confusing to me because I was only about five years old when he seemed to take delight in punishing me by inflicting pain.

I never mentioned any of this to my mother because I just assumed that his methods were the way it always was. As I grew older I simply armed myself with prayer which on one occasion included bringing a set of rosary beads to pray while he tortured me. When he saw me clinging tightly to the beads and moving my fingers along them one by one he became enraged and called my mother back into his office. His tone was accusing when he demanded to know why I was insulting him by insinuating that I needed the help of the Blessed Mother herself to endure my session with him. At that point all of my concerns spilled out at once in a kind of core dump of fear. My mother gathered me up immediately and we never again returned to his office.

Since that time every single dentist that I have visited has been kind and virtually pain free but my phobia continues. It is as though I worry that one day I will once again encounter a thoughtless dentist who will subject me to pain. I can’t seem to get over the trauma of my earliest experiences of keeping my teeth strong and healthy. Such is the nature of a phobia.

I suspect that most phobias are born in our earlier memories of painful situations. We sometimes assume that frightening experiences need little explanation but sometimes they linger in the subconscious growing into monsters that never leave us. When my eldest daughter was only three we took her to a lovely park in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we sat on a bench enjoying the view a huge swarm of pigeons flew in to greet us and perhaps get a snack or two. We laughed with delight but it was apparent that our daughter was quite disturbed. A cousin who was with us happened to also be a psychologist. He insisted that we talk with our little girl about what had happened and allow her to express her fears Over the next few days he gently brought up the incident several times until he was certain that she truly understood that it was okay for her to feel frightened and that the birds had actually meant no harm.

Perhaps if someone like the cousin had been around to counsel me way back in the past I might be comfortable with both snakes and dentists. Sadly that is not to be.

Serenity

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I tend to be a person of moderation. I’ve never smoked. I drink very little and I actually get so sick when I eat too much that I avoid gluttony like the plague. I was once addicted to Diet Coke, a habit that started when someone told me that I might forestall my migraine headaches if I drank the brew regularly. I got to where I was gulping down one for breakfast, another at lunch and two more during the day. I was terrified to quit because the drink was like a magic elixir that actually kept my headaches more at bay than prescribed medications. I was so known for drinking Diet Coke that my Secret Santas often included a carton of them with my gifts.

Two years ago I decided that enough was enough. I did not like the idea of being controlled by a substance and so I went cold turkey. I haven’t touched a soft drink of any kind since then for fear that I might resurrect my habit. It has been especially difficult at movies. There’s nothing quite like a big cup of soda with some popcorn to feel content. The same is true whenever I eat Tex-Mex or a Whataburger. In spite of my urges I’ve kept religiously to my goal of shutting Diet Coke and all other carbonated drinks out of my life,

I suppose that I do not like the idea of doing anything to excess, but in reality I know that my hidden secret is that I worry too much. I’m good at telling others not to waste time fretting over things, but not so good at following my own advice. My grandfather often warned me not to take after my grandmother who was a chronic ball of anxiety. I suppose that my genes are predisposed to being concerned about what might be, even when I have no power to change many of the situations that occupy my thoughts.

I suspect that the world lends itself to being a source of worry. I think about school shootings, trouble in the Middle East, climate change, poverty, the education of our children and a hundred other things. Sometimes it feels as though we are in deep trouble. Other times I’m able to control my mind and do whatever is within my capabilities and leave the rest to those in power and to God.

Mostly I think about my family and my friends though. I want to fix things for them, help them to have perfectly wonderful lives, even though I understand that sometimes each person has to face his/her own problems. I am a fixer who is constantly tidying up messes in the world, That is in fact the one thing that I do excessively even though I know full well that it is impossible for me to be all things to all people.

I suppose that I am not alone in desiring to mend hearts, educate minds, heal wounds. It’s not bad that I do my best to be considerate of other people’s needs. What makes my efforts a bit on the cray cray side is when I obsess and feel as though I am never able to do enough. I become addicted to being a panacea as surely as I was hooked on those Diet Cokes. Just as I understood that it was wrong to need that drink so much, so it is a bit prideful and presumptive for me to think that I can solve the world’s problems if only I try hard enough. In fact, if I’m not kind to myself I don’t think I can be really effective in helping others. In other words, I need to get my own house in order first.

I suppose that it is never too late to learn how to be empathetic and loving without becoming overly anxious. My resolve this year is to begin thinking logically about what is possible for me to do with regard to the difficulties of others and then let things go as the ear worm song says. Even love and worry in excess can be lethal. It’s time for me to change what I can and leave what I can’t to those who are more able. The Serenity Prayer is going to become my mantra. For those who haven’t heard it for a time here it is:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

If I have been able to give up those darn Diet Cokes I think maybe I can achieve a bit more serenity as well.