The Final Entry

you are enough text
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

Advertisements

Hearts Bigger Than Mouths

three red hearts hanging with white flowers
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

There are a number of celebrities who are finding themselves in deep trouble these days. It almost seems as though they believe that they are somehow immune from the rules that the rest of us have to follow. They operate from a different point of view inside the bubble of their wealth and fame. There are others who are constantly giving advice to the rest of us as though they somehow believe that their wisdom is more profound than ours. Then there is actor, Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. I fell in love with the character that Mr. Sinise played in that movie but knew better than to attribute the fictional characteristics to the real man. Over time I’ve realized that Gary Sinise is perhaps one of  the finest men in Hollywood and perhaps even the whole country.

Gary has already set records for his new book Grateful American but most importantly he has proven to be a man who demonstrates his gratitude for his own good fortune by helping the members of the military and their families. He has invested countless dollars and hours in helping wounded warriors, gold star families, and those serving our country in war zones. He is a genuine hero in his own right, someone who is quite modest about the wonderful things that he has done for our armed forces. While others are tweeting and inciting anger, he is actually doing something positive, not to ingratiate himself with his fans, but because it is the right thing to do.

In many ways Gary Sinise reminds me of Jimmy Carter, another truly loving human who has spent his retirement years building homes for those who might otherwise have no place to live. People like Sinise and Carter have the right idea in doing positive things rather than always whining about our society and our country’s faults. They have answered the cry, “Well what are you going to do about that?” 

It’s easy to complain and to cast aspersions, but too few people actually attempt to right the wrongs that they see. They seek attention from social media or hurl insults during interviews on television, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to digging in to do the hard work. They think that just writing a check is all that they have to do to look and feel better, even if that check is to wrongfully pay for someone willing to cheat to get their children into prestige universities or if it is used as hush money to cover egregious acts. They are actors even in the realm of real life, playing a part that they believe we want to see, but rarely taking real action.

I’m also a fan of Glen Close. She is not only an extraordinary actress who probably should have won an Academy Award this year, but she is also an unrelenting advocate for the mentally ill. She is unafraid to weigh in on a topic that still has a strong element of taboo associated with it. We are so far behind in our treatment of those with mental illnesses that it is both a national tragedy and a shame. Ms. Close’s honesty and understanding regarding her family’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder is helping so many who deal with similar issues to come forward and seek help.

Instead of using their money and their influence for Prada shoes or Gucci purses those who have reached the heights of fame and fortune might emulate those who find joy and purpose in helping others. If more people would follow the lead of Gary Sinise or Glen Close or Jimmy Carter many of the ills that we face might at the very least begin to fade. It’s up to each of us for that matter to find a cause and then do our best to contribute our time and our talents.

It only takes a few hours a week to mentor a student who needs either academic or psychological help. Just providing a bit of wisdom and compassion goes a long way in helping a young person to navigate the minefields of want or neglect. There are children who benefit from the attention of a coach or a leader. I recall a very nice man who took the time to help one of my brothers with his pitching and served as an advocate for advancing my brother’s talent. This man brought so much joy to a young man who never knew what it was like to have a dad.

I recently watched an episode of Frontline that reported on those with severe mental illnesses who are attempting to live independently. Sometimes they need to know that someone is watching over them, checking in regularly to make sure that they are doing well. My brothers and I did that for our mom but all too often mentally ill persons are abandoned by frustrated families and doctors who grow weary of their noncompliance with treatments. They need the type of kindness that my mother’s neighbors and coworkers always showed her. She would never have survived as well as she did without a village of people quietly acting as her guardian angels.

I know sweet people who regularly visit elderly relatives or family members, bringing sunshine into other’s somewhat dreary lives. There are others who answer every call for food, every request for support for a team or a cause. They don’t just look the other way. They regularly spend their vacation time on medical missionary tours or working in clinics that serve the underserved. We rarely hear such people boasting or complaining because they are too busy getting things done.

I’ve got a hero list and it is comprised of such individuals. Some of them are famous like Gary Sinise. Others are folks that nobody has heard of save their friends. All of them have hearts that are bigger than their mouths, generosity that is selfless. We could certainly do with more of that.

Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

beach woman sunrise silhouette
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

Hypocrisy

red human face monument on green grass field
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Sunday’s readings at church spoke of those who are hypocrites in their judging of others. It admonished each of us to first consider our own shortcomings before pointing out those of the people around us. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning actor. In other words hypocrisy involves pretense, an attempt to show ourselves to be better than we actually are. In today’s world hypocrisy abounds, particularly in the political world. There’s more self-righteousness and judging in society at large than happens inside a county courthouse. Indignation abounds and most of those who participate in such behavior seem to believe that they have the answers to every problem and that those who disagree with them are evil doers who must be stopped. It’s enough to drive one a bit crazy.

While there are times when we must come to a consensus regarding someone’s guilt or innocence most of the time the conclusions that we draw about others are faulty estimates of petty grievances at best. We form instantaneous opinions about all sorts of situations, and don’t spend much time attempting to find the truth or concentrate on excising our own flaws. We see a photo of a teenager looking ominous in a hoodie and wonder what mischief lurks inside his soul. We catch a glimpse of a boy wearing a MAGA cap and what appears to be a smirk and instantly decide that he must be cold hearted and racist.

I remember meeting a man who had a shaved head, very pale skin and a kind of grimace on his face. Without knowing one iota about him I began imagining that he looked very much like a white supremacist. I felt uncomfortable around him and wanted to leave before getting past the introductions. Once I got to know him  I realized that nothing could have been farther from the truth than my initial observations. He was bald because he lost his hair at a early age, he just happened to have a very light complexion, and on the day that I met him he was in great pain because of an injury. Once I talked and worked with him I realized that he was kind and understanding and a staunch defender of the rights of all people. He was a truly wonderful man, and I felt embarrassed that I had been so quick to use a number of stereotypical signals to size him up.

I’ve sadly seen conclusions being drawn about individuals again and again, but even worse is when I see instances of people turning on former friends or even family members simply because they do not share the same beliefs about how to solve the problems that plague us. Often the two sides actually desire the same outcome, but have conflicting ideas about how to accomplish the goals. Examples of abound of such instances whether speaking of income inequality or immigration. The trouble with our present state is that we judge and judge again.

One the the things that most angers me is a kind of two headed monster. On the one hand there are devout Christians who spout hateful rhetoric, and on the other hand there are people pretending to be compassionate champions of justice who slam and poke fun Christian beliefs. Both parties are so busy being holier than thou that nobody appears to notice the contradictions in their arguments. They simply babble on hurling accusation after accusation all the while posing as defenders of righteousness. 

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian world. It’s the beginning of Lent and for the next forty days people will try to atone for their bad behavior. Many will pray or make sacrifices by giving up Facebook, or television or sugar. Few will consider engaging in self reflection and asking themselves whether or not they have been too quick to judge others. They will neglect to do the things necessary to first change themselves. The real challenge that we all face is to help even those who seem to be lacking in the characteristics that we most admire. The only way to do that is to first be honest about our own behavior.

Instead of casting stones we should be making stone soup, a savory brew made from the lovely variety of the people in our world. If we want to truly show that we are good we will be slow to anger and hypocrisy. We don’t need to beat ourselves up or wear hair shirts, but we can certainly learn to forgo our opinions until we have truly attempted to understand.

In anticipation of Lent I went to a Mardi Gras party hosted by my dear friends Dickie and
Tim in Galveston. We feasted on Dickie’s famous gumbo and imbibed in wine and hurricanes. We talked and laughed and then gathered on the street in front of the house to watch a parade with bands and floats and hundreds of people from every walk of life. There were smiles abounding and everyone loved everyone else in that moment with no thought of appraising appearance or behavior. It was just a nice celebration that made us all feel warm and happy. In many ways it was a reminder of how we should try to be all of the time, just enjoying the delight of life and taking those images to heart for when we need to refresh ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday let’s do our best to look first in the mirror and then make a plan to spend the next forty days embracing the people that we encounter. Let’s try to wipe out our own hypocrisy and see if it helps others to work on theirs.

When Me Too Hits Close To Home

multicolored broken mirror decor
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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.