Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

Advertisements

Dealing With Loss

scenic view of forest from car
Photo by Stephan Seeber on Pexels.com

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

snowy road
Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni on Pexels.com

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.

Keeping Up

person holding pumpkin beside woman
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

It’s exhausting to watch today’s young mothers. They are constantly on the go, unable to get the hours of sleep that they need. There appears to be little room for slacker moms in the present environment that lauds women who dedicate huge portions of their lives to driving their children from one class, practice, event to another. It’s no longer acceptable to just shoo the kids outside and tell them to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. I’m drained just observing the sagas of motherhood that are in full view on Facebook. I have to admit that I would probably be a total flop as a mom by current standards.

I have to bow in admiration to the young women who are creating such wonderful lives for their children, starting with the monthly professional photographs that track the first years of the offspring. Most of them are elaborately creative with special little outfits that must indeed take a great deal of thought and time to put together. I myself have random snapshots of my girls taken from a rather lousy camera in all modes of dress, including j a simple cotton t-shirt and a diaper. Dressing them up meant choosing the least stained and best fitting togs in the drawer. For daughter number two that often meant wearing a somewhat used little dress that big sister had already worn. It never occurred to me to go all out for anything other than those once in a blue moon photographs taken at Penny’s or the studios that talked me into purchasing package deals of standard issue but slightly better quality images.

It seems as though every single modern day child is enrolled in dozens of activities. They learn to swim only slightly later than mastering the art of walking which I strongly advocate, but then they join neighborhood swim teams requiring practices and early morning meets during the most coveted hours of the weekend. Generous parents forego their own rest to provide their little ones with opportunities to learn how to compete and challenge themselves. There’s way more than just soccer practices to which mom’s across the land are driving the kids. Baseball, football, cheerleading, dance, karate, lessons in Chinese, robotics, volleyball, track, music. The list goes on and on and on with most youngsters involved in multiple activities that require time, money and total involvement. The old neighborhood games have been supplanted with highly organized opportunities that require mothers and fathers to change the way they spend their free time. In fact, free time is a kind of oxymoronic phrase in parental vernacular. The devotion to helping the kids develop their talents that parents so willingly provide is unrelentingly selfless, and I find myself thinking that I was indeed a slacker when it was my time to be a mom.

I managed to sign my girls up for swim lessons each summer but I honestly had no idea that there was such an animal as a swim team. I dropped them off at Patty Owen’s dance studio to learn a few steps and when the younger one expressed resistance I gladly allowed her to quit. For the most part my involvement in their activities was minimal other than getting them from one place to another. Mostly I encouraged them to use their imaginations to create fun and adventures around the neighborhood. I enjoyed hosting sleepovers and watching them play, but my budget was far too limited to keep pace with the kind of entertainment that children enjoy today.

Birthday parties are increasingly extravagant. I can hardly believe how much thought and effort is put into them with special themes, decorations and gorgeous cakes. I usually whipped up a few homemade items, bought a balloon or two and called it a celebration. We never went to any special places or hired entertainers. Instead I turned on the soundtrack from Grease and let the party goers dance on the back of my sofa to the strains of Greased Lightning. My “swim” party consisted of hotdogs in the backyard with the garden hose and a midsize blow up kiddie pool. Since the other mothers operated much like me the children never complained. Life was rather ordinary even on birthdays.

I honestly don’t know how modern mothers keep up with all that they have to do. I get exhausted just thinking about all of their duties. My own daughters have schedules that would easily match that of an important executive. Their calendars are crowded with demands that they must fulfill with precision. It’s easier to see them by attending the various events than to expect them to drop by for a visit. I’m privy to their datebooks and so I plan things with them accordingly. Sometimes I even help them when they have to be in three places at one time. The logistics of getting everyone in the right locations at the right times can be akin to being an air traffic controller.

I greatly admire all of the moms who are so generously dedicated to their little ones. At the same time I worry that they may indeed be burning themselves out. The stress of all of that time consuming parenting must be overwhelming. I certainly hope that they find moments for themselves along the way because mothering is a marathon that doesn’t end even when the kids leave home. It’s a long haul that is beautiful and exciting, but it requires stamina and energy that will easily dwindle if “me” time isn’t a central part of the routine.

If I have one bit of advice for all moms it’s that as long as the love is ever present the children will be alright. What they most need are hugs and kisses and someone who is willing to listen to them when they are afraid. They will thrive the most when their mamas are rested and happy. If achieving that state means cutting back on perfection they will never notice the change other than seeing a mother who is calm and collected. The important thing for children is feeling safe, and knowing that someone truly cares about their well being. Sometimes all it takes to get there is a great big hug.

Promote Love

pexels-photo-987585.jpeg
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.