Lois Lane Is Dead

pexels-photo-373294.jpeg

Lois Lane is dead. Well, not really, but Margo Kidder, an actress who played her, died in her sleep last week. Margo was a talented and quite interesting woman who suffered from bipolar disorder. During the nineties she had a manic episode and ended up wandering through backyards in a confused state. That landed her in the headlines and a psychiatric hospital. Somehow people mostly forgot about all of the work in film that she had done and concentrated instead on thinking of her as a “crazy” person. The truth is that once she was treated for her illness she went on to perform on stage, and in films and television, even being nominated for an Emmy for some of her work. Mental illness quite simply is rarely viewed in the same way as other diseases, and those who are afflicted with disorders often find their lives filled with loneliness as acquaintances that they once knew shy away from them.

Mental illness comes and goes in the news, but not much of substance is ever done. We speak of shortages of care and problems with laws that make it difficult for families to get the proper services for family members, but mostly it comes down to talk and more talk, but little constructive action. There are not enough doctors, not enough care facilities and not enough dollars for treatments to sufficiently deal with what is becoming a growing problem across the nation.

A few years back President Barack Obama set aside fifty million dollars to be shared by each of the states. That may have sounded like a step in the right direction, but if you do the math you realize that each area only received one million dollars, a drop in the bucket given the dire needs. In some places a million dollars is the cost of a house, and can hardly be considered a means of dealing with the many forms of mental illness that plague our society. Still, I was grateful that the president actually acknowledged the problem with some financing, even if it barely scratched the surface.

A recent study indicated that many individuals with mental illnesses go to emergency rooms to find care. While this may sound inefficient, it is understandable. I was constantly searching for psychiatrists who were willing to provide therapy for my mother who had bipolar disorder. The hunt was maddening. Some took only cash. Others accepted only certain insurance plans. Still others only wanted to work with children, or teenagers, or those in their twenties or thirties. Even when I managed to find someone willing to take her case, I often had to wait for weeks to get an appointment. If I felt that my mother was in a crisis situation the doctors almost always suggested that I take her to an emergency room.

On one occasion my brothers and I waited at a hospital with her for over six hours without receiving any kind of attention. It has been reported that many mentally ill patients will literally stay in an emergency room waiting area for days hoping to be seen, and even then there is often no room in the psychiatric ward for them. It can be frustrating beyond description because someone who is experiencing a manic episode is not patient, and in the case of my mother is most often psychotic and paranoid as well.

Imagine our anxiety when midnight came and we were still sitting with little hope of having our mother seen by a professional. Our optimism was dashed when the county sheriff showed up with a van load of prisoners all of whom had to be assessed for mental competence. Even though we had been there for six hours, by law the men in chains had to come first, and it would be many more hours before the medical professionals would get to our mother. In the meantime, she saw the handcuffs and the law men and began to imagine that someone was going to jail her as well. She became so frightened that she demanded that we leave. Of course we ended up taking her home with no medication and no help whatsoever.

When my brothers tried again to take Mama to her regular doctor the next day, they were told to return to the emergency room. They spent another sixteen hours before she was finally assessed and sent to a dreary facility in Bellaire that seemed more like a prison that a place designed to be therapeutic. It was enough to make us scream or cry.

The point is that my mother had good health insurance and still we were not able to find competent physicians to help her. I once spent five eight hour days calling all over town to secure an appointment with a psychiatrist. When I finally reached someone who was willing to help I was ecstatic. He was an incredible doctor who helped her to become well and in better shape than she had been in years. To our utter dismay the clinic where he worked decided that he was too expensive for their budget and he had to leave to work at a psychiatric hospital that would not allow him to do outpatient care. We were back to square one and my mother’s mental health deteriorated while we began the search again.

In our country we worry about so many things that are unimportant by comparison to caring for those afflicted with mental illness. We have little empathy for them or for their families. We turn our heads embarrassed by their actions when they are desperately ill. We think that somehow it is their fault that they are so often in Catch 22 situations. Only if we have to attempt to navigate through the maze of barriers do we begin to understand just how desperate the circumstances actually are. If we combine the difficulty of finding care with the stigma attached to mental illnesses the problems are compounded and complex.

I often see the eyes of my audience glaze over as soon as I bring up the topic of mental illness. It is a conversation that nobody wants to have. We are unwilling to admit our neglect and abuse of those who suffer from disorders that make them seem scary. We have yet to take mental illness as seriously as we need to do. I will keep shouting in the wilderness until I am no longer able or until we agree as a people to get something done.

Advertisements

Glory

purple-grapes-vineyard-napa-valley-napa-vineyard-39351.jpeg

As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

Just Skate Away

red-vintage-shoes-sport.jpg

It’s prom season and the media is all abuzz about exclusion, promposals  and other things that are triggering a variety of emotions including a great deal of indignation. Somehow I find myself chuckling just a bit in wonderment over all of the concern. Talk about first world problems! Maybe we would be better served if we we worrying a bit more about all of the unfortunate souls from Syria who have been displaced, and in many cases left wondering if life will ever again be normal. I heard last week that somewhere in Africa there is another ebola outbreak. Now that’s a real life problem, and what about the erupting volcanoes in Hawaii?

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the teenage angst that sometimes centers around proms. I know all too well the sting of being left out because I did not get to attend my prom, and according to my classmates I was just about the only one who did not manage to round up a date so that I might go. Instead I stayed home because nobody had asked me, and I worked myself into a state of frenzy of sadness and self pity. I recall watching a sad romantic movie that evening that gave me cover for crying my eyes out. In spite of my temporary breakdown I did recover. I had worried that I was going to be doomed to a life of loneliness, but that didn’t happen after all, and when my husband heard my sad tale he actually took me to a formal dance so that I would know what it was like.

Ironically my mother was correct in suggesting that proms were probably not as much fun as I imagined. She even told me the story of how she showed up in front of her high school on the night of her prom wearing roller skates and bearing two skinned and bloody knees from an untimely fall. She was surprised when she saw all of the couples arriving in their formal attire because she had completely forgotten that there was a dance that night. Taylor Swift style she just shrugged off the embarrassment and skated back home.

I actually believe that prom has become a great deal more democratic than it was in my time when everyone was expected to come with a date. Since I decided that I would only go if someone asked me, I in essence made my own bed. I’m certain that one of my very handsome male cousins would have gone with me if I had asked, but I was way too proud to do that. Today the kids often just come in groups with no particular romantic attachments. Some of the kids even come by themselves sans even a hint of feeling peculiar. I really like that way of doing things. It takes so much pressure away from the occasion and actually makes it a great deal more fun.

There is also an over the top concern over cultural appropriation which to me is somewhat ridiculous. If I had to determine which culture was mine I would be up a creek. The fact is that I am a mixture of so many different countries that I’m what some might call a mutt. It’s likely that there is a little bit of everything in me. Besides, why is it so terrible to appreciate the fashion of another ethnic group than one’s own? One year the high school where I worked had a Bollywood theme and many of the students and teachers showed up in their finest Indian formal wear. It was really so much fun and everyone talks about how great it was to this very day. Nobody was stereotyping or poking fun. They simply wanted to enjoy the evening as authentically as possible. In truth the girls were elegant and beautiful and the young men were like handsome princes.

The promposals may be a bit over the top, but then so much of what we do these days is. My only concern would be if someone wanted to say no but felt compelled to agree because of all of the attention. Perhaps a more private invitation is better, but then I suppose that this will be a passing phase, so why get bent all out of shape.

I’ve heard that from time to time there are some teens who do and say inappropriate things in the promposals and my answer to that is for the adults to have a conversation with those particular individuals. To turn the entire process into an indictment of a generation or group is absurd. We’ve always had those who are an embarrassment and there always will be. We deal with them as needed and don’t attempt to make those innocent of bad behavior suffer. For the most part all of it is as usually innocent as can be. We need to quit rushing to judgement and stereotyping just because of a few knuckleheads. We really do not have an epidemic evil of  on our hands. Young people today are refreshingly open, democratic and fair.

The teenage years can bring a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s best that we help our youngsters deal with them on an individual basis rather than complicating them with our own biases. I certainly understand the sadness of feeling as though I was the first and last person of all time to be left out, but I now understand that nobody meant to be mean. It just happened, and I myself might have done something to change the situation. I grew beyond that moment and learned from it. I became more empathetic from it, but also know that it was not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be back then.

There are so many real concerns for which we should all be searching for answers. Why expend too much energy on incidents that matter so little in the grand scheme of things? Let’s keep prom season in perspective and show our teenagers how to do the same. Help them to have fun and to understand that a lifetime of experiences lie ahead. Show them how to take control of even the most uncomfortable situations and just skate away. It’s what my mom did and she very much had the right idea.

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

Share the Love

pexels-photo-1038647.jpeg

A little boy named Austin Perine has captured the hearts of our nation. He’s an adorable tyke who was recently featured on CBS news because he saves his money to purchase food and drink for homeless people. He wears a red cape and a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the words Share Love when he is carrying out his mission of mercy. To say that he is absolutely precious is an understatement. He has brought smiles and hope to countless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama and now Facebook is abuzz with his delightful story.

Austin is a sweet boy who says that he one day wants to be President Austin so that he might help even more people. I suspect that he is well on his way to at the very least becoming a remarkable adult. While he may have been born with a gentle nature, the truth is that his generosity most likely comes from the lessons he has learned from the adults in his life. It is a fact that those of us who are older teach and mold the little ones that we encounter. Barring some kind of mental illness, most children bloom and blossom under the care of good people. Sadly children are also sometimes destroyed by abuse both emotional and physical. Just as Austin will probably one day be a great man because of the loving and positive influences in his life, so too will children living in an environment of hate and hurt often become the next perpetrators of violence and ugly thought.

While nothing is ever certain, a child’s environment at the earliest ages is a powerful force that is very difficult to change once it has become the model. Certainly history and literature are filled with stories of people who found their way out of horrific situations, and most of us know someone who through sheer will has been able to change the direction of his/her life. No human is automatically condemned to following the damaging ways of bad parents, but freeing oneself from such influences is perhaps the most difficult behavior imaginable. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, friends, ministers all have opportunities to help those who are attempting to overcome abuses and corrupted thinking. We never really know when we might be just the spark to foment positive change in someone who wants to be a better person.

I tend to study abusive behaviors and ask myself what may have happened to a person to make them so mean. I recall one of my students who was arrogant, abrasive and seemingly unwilling to conform to societal rules. Conferences with his mother revealed that she and her husband were actually afraid to sleep at night lest he kill them while they slumbered. Still she loved her boy and simply did not know how he became the way that he was.

I subsequently had a long conversation with the young man. As I listened I found a tale of a tortured soul. His mom had been extremely young when he was born and unmarried as well. She had little desire to devote her life to him at the time and so she left him with her own parents and went about growing up. The boy’s days with his grandparents were idyllic. He spoke of living on a farm with them and learning how to care for animals and grow crops alongside his grandfather. His grandmother adored him and taught him to love God and all people. He was incredibly happy and had little desire to live any other way, but fate was not so good to him. First his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and as the boy told it, this was the worst day of his life.

He would listen to his grandmother crying at night and he so wanted to console her but didn’t know how. He was as frightened as she was, but somehow the two of them found a way to carry on until his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She very quickly fell into a state of weakness that kept her in bed on most days. She died within months, leaving the boy to an uncertain future.

His mom came to care for him. She had matured by then and realized that she loved her child and wanted to make a good life for him. It was quite an adjustment because he had to move from the farm to an apartment in a bad part of a city. At first everything was great between his mother and him, but then she met a man that she thought she loved. He moved in with them and was actually fairly nice at first. but before long he was beating both the boy and his mom. Life became hellish as he cowered in his room fearing that one of them might one day be murdered by the tyrant. For whatever reason his mother failed to protect either him or herself, so he learned how to fight back. He became strong, unwilling to back down when the man became enraged.

By the time the boy’s mother finally found a way for them to escape from the monster with whom they had been living the boy was completely changed. He felt alone and even unwanted. He vowed never again to let anyone hurt him either physically or emotionally. That meant building a wall around his heart, even with his mom.

After a time his mother found a very nice man to love. She hoped that things would change for the better, but the boy had lost his willingness to trust anyone. He was still angry that God had taken his grandparents. He was angry that his mother had once given him away. He was angry that his mom had waited so long to defend him from the harm of the man she had brought into their lives. Even though the new “father” was always kind and loving, the boy believed that one day it would all fall apart, and so he would not allow his anger to subside.

Because I listened and because I understood, the boy began to do well in my class, but he literally gave hell to other teachers. Before long his actions had become so egregious that he was expelled. He came to may classroom to say goodbye. He was crying, his wall completely gone. All he really wanted was to be able to believe once again that someone loved him. I told him that I did and that I furthermore believed that his mother did as well. I urged him to make peace with her and his stepdad who was genuinely concerned. I promised him that I would pray for him and never ever forget him. I have kept my word, but I worry about him and wonder what ultimately became of him. I hope that he remembered just enough from his grandparents to feel good about people once again. I wanted so much to be the spark that may have helped him, but I also understood that he had so much baggage that might never be undone.

There are very good souls in our midst like Austin Perine. He is sharing the love that he himself has known. Follow his example and share yours.