Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

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God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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Ladybird Johnson was a Texan through and through. Growing up in east Texas she adopted mannerisms and a style of speaking that is unique to our state. One of her best quotes always reminds me of my own mother, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” My mama rarely gave a definitive RSVP to an invitation. Her assents were invariably prefaced with a “God willing” admonition. She often cautioned us to consider that events beyond our control might suddenly change even the best of plans. The sudden and very unexpected death of my father only served to demonstrate the wisdom of her thinking. I often find my self tentatively setting dates on my calendar that I hope will come to pass, knowing that the good Lord may have other ideas in mind. On this July 3, I am reminded all too well of the whimsy and challenges of life.

A year ago I was enjoying one of many events that would entertain me in the summer of 2017. I had already travelled to Cancun for a beautiful wedding and was luxuriating in the promise of more joy to come. My husband and I were spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of our children and grandchildren in San Antonio. Later in the month we were scheduled to camp with friends in east Texas near where Ladybird grew up. In August we planned to drive to a mountain cabin in Colorado to meet up with one of my brothers and his family to relax and hike, and then go to Wyoming to watch the total eclipse in one of the best vantage points in the country.

God willing it was going to be a fun filled summer, but things began to unravel without warning. On July 3, after enjoying breakfast and lunch with our family we were in the process of deciding what to do for the remainder of the day when we heard banging and a faint voice from the guest bathroom. Our inspection of the source of the noises lead us to the discovery of my husband Mike lying on the floor unable to rise on his own. It was immediately apparent from the crooked line of his mouth and the slurring of his words that he was having a stroke. From there life changed in ways for which I had no plans.

Of course we cancelled the camping with friends, the travel to the mountain cabin and the journey to view the eclipse. Our attention was focused entirely on making Mike healthy again. After his release from the hospital we returned home to Houston to begin a year long regimen of visits to doctors, healthier diets, exercise and enjoying life quietly from day to day. We had been warned that there is a statistical danger of another stroke that is most likely to occur within the first three to six months after the initial one. Needless to say I hovered over Mike like a hawk, noting his every breath, listening for signs of trouble. We were instructed not to go to isolated areas or places without cell phone reception and good hospitals, so we mostly stayed at home.

We watched the eclipse here in Houston along with others who had crowded into the Museum of Natural History in Hermann Park. The was not as dramatic as it might have been because it was not directly over our city, but we felt grateful that Mike was still here to enjoy whatever slice of life he was afforded. Only days after we heard on the news that the proverbial creek might rise here in Houston from the predicted rains of hurricane Harvey. We did not leave to find a safer place because we wanted to be near the Houston Medical Center if anything happened to Mike, and besides we could never have imagined how bad the historic weather event might actually be. We hunkered down as instructed by a county commissioner and waited for the storm to pass, only it took its precious time in doing so. In the process of constant rain for three day our little neighborhood became an island in a sea of flooding that was overtaking Houston and surrounding areas like Noah’s epic torrent. How could I have ever known just how much our creeks were going to rise? Who had ever even heard of 51 inches of rain in a single event?

It’s been a year since our trials began on July 3. Mike has not had another stroke, and God willing he never will. Houston has mostly healed but we still shudder when storms come our way. I suspect that we have an entire population suffering from a form of PTSD. I still worry from time to time and have not yet been able to plan the kind of adventures that I have always loved. I find myself tempering my enthusiasm for coming events with the realization that they may or may not come to pass. Our biggest journey in the last twelve months was a five hour trip to east Texas to visit with a former neighbor who is now in her eighties. Being with her was a healing experience for us because we have learned all too well the importance of embracing those that we love as often and as tightly as we can.

Some great friends were not as lucky as we were last year. I attended far too many funerals and still think about the wonderful people that I will no longer see. My home was spared from the damages of the floods, but people that I know had to deal with the horrors of  water rushing inside their houses. It took months for their lives to return to normal. In an ironic turn of events I experienced a small slice of their trauma when my own domicile was damaged from a rush of water coming from the hot water heater. Eight weeks of frustration later we returned to normal, but not without a taste of just how terrible the suffering of the flood victims had actually been.

We’re wiser and far more grateful for even the tiniest joys than I was a year ago. We’ll spend July 4, in San Antonio hoping for a better outcome than last year.  We’re also looking forward to finally completing the plans to camp with good friends in October, and it looks as though we may get another chance to view a total eclipse of the sun when it comes right over Texas a few years from now. There is much for which to be happy and new adventures ahead, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

A Frontier To Explore

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The newest studies show that suicide is on the rise in every corner of America. This month alone has been punctuated by the self inflicted deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two celebrities who appeared to have it all. Those tasked with helping us to maintain mental health are almost at a loss for words regarding what causes such incidents and how we may prevent them in the future. It is a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries and we still find ourselves scratching our heads in confusion and horror whenever we learn of someone ending their life in such a hopeless fashion. It is in our nature’s to want to help, but so often the incidents come as a surprise even to those closest to the victims.

I suppose that I have always been thankful that my mother’s bipolar disorder never lead to suicide because I know for certain that there were times when her depression was so deep that she was paralyzed inside a deep dark mood. She would close herself off from the world and sit in her house sleeping and crying and feeling frightened and hopeless. There was little that we were able to do to brighten her outlook other than getting her to professional help as quickly as possible. Sometimes that was made more difficult by the fact that her energy level was so low that she was unable to dress or care for herself and didn’t think that it was even possible to make the journey to the doctor’s office. We learned after multiple such episodes that it was critical to push her, because once she received the appropriate treatments and stayed under our watchful eyes she would soon enough return to a better state of mind.

Mama’s psychiatrists always worried about suicide even to the point of suggesting that we take away obvious means of harming herself whenever she was in such a state. They also insisted that we not leave her alone. During those times she would stay at one of our homes and we would take vacations from work to watch over her. We were told by more than one doctor that Mama’s unrelenting faith in God was no doubt a factor in preventing her from ever once making an attempt on her own life. In that regard we were fortunate.

Not every tortured soul who considers suicide is so apparently depressed as my mother was. Sometimes they even appear to be happy, successful and in love with life. There may be very close friends or family members who are more acquainted with their moods, but most of us see them as quirky or a bit erratic emotionally at most. Often they are so stoic and gifted at hiding their true feelings that we have little sense that they are in trouble. Those are the complex cases that most baffle us. We scratch our heads when we hear of their deaths wondering what clues we may have missed.

The brain and its chemistry is so intricate. We have yet to uncover its mysteries or ways to successfully control its problems. If only we knew more we might one day be able to eradicate much of the hurt and pain that mental illnesses inflict not just on the individuals who have them, but on their families as well. Even when every conceivable effort is made to deal rationally and medically with diseases of the mind, there are so many ways that things may go wrong. Attempting to address such issues with routine methods may or may not work. Since most incidents of depression, mania and such are chronic rather than acute it becomes a lifelong battle, and just when one method seems to be working something changes in the physiology that requires new approaches. In many ways our work with such diseases is still in the very experimental stage. There is so much that we still do not know, and while we ponder such questions the suicide rate is rising.

When famous people kill themselves it sheds a light on a problem that is rampant in our society, but all too often hidden from view. We brag about our children’s accomplishments, but we don’t like to mention when they suffer from depression. We hope so much that we can just treat their symptoms and move on to normalcy that we sometimes overlook signs that all is not as well as we may think. I know that in my mother’s case we foolishly hoped and prayed over and over again that we had once and for all conquered her illness. We were shocked and disappointed so many times when her symptoms reappeared, even though all logic should have taught us that our vigilance and her treatments would have to be a lifetime commitment.

I have a daughter who also suffers from depression. She learned much from watching her grandmother. She also knows the pitfalls of treatment for her own disease. The medications and therapies that she receives lift her mood so well that she becomes convinced that she is cured. She wants to abandon the drugs that cause her to gain weight and to endure other uncomfortable side effects. She doesn’t like the idea of being part of a chemistry experiment. So even with her own medical training and the history of our family she does what so many persons with a mental illness do. She stops her treatments in the hopes that she doesn’t really need them anymore. When her symptoms return she realizes the mistake she has made and returns to a lifestyle that she is certain few would understand. Luckily she has a family who supports her and understands the dangers associated with her depression.

As a society we desperately need to come to grips with all forms of mental illness. They are real and not just the product of someone’s imagination. They are frightening to those who have them and those who love someone who has them. As a whole the mentally ill are treated badly. We tend to run away from them rather than support them. We make them feel isolated and misunderstood. When we speak of their difficulties there is a tendency by those unfamiliar with such illnesses to suggest that they are somehow just indulging in selfish behaviors. We often push them to “get a grip.” They hide their pain in the shadows and now and again they simply do not have the energy to continue to deal with the confusion that they feel.

I’m of the mind that mental illness is perhaps the biggest problem in our society today. I would love to see us place as much enthusiasm and dedication to conquering diseases fo the mind as we did for reaching the moon. It would be go grand to gather the greatest minds in a generously funded program whose sole purpose is to conquer mental illness. I believe that if we unlock the means of treating such illnesses many of our woes will evaporate. We must make heroes of those who work to repair the mind. Until we do we will continue to see mass shootings, criminal behaviors, addictions, and suicides. It should be clear that mental illness is the frontier that we most need to explore and understand.

As Adorable As I Was At Twenty One

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I get a real kick out of going to the gym. On most days it’s filled with a bunch of old people and I have to remind myself that I am actually one of them. All of that white hair seems so incongruous with what we are doing. There are some folks who are incredibly strong and able to do things that would cause me to collapse. There’s a white haired woman who hits the elliptical and stays there almost running for more than an hour and a half. Nobody seeing her outside of the gym would ever imagine the fortitude and strength that she has. Of course there are always a number of people who stick with the bicycle at a very leisurely pace, but at least they are out of the house and moving. The speakers blare all of the best music from the late sixties and early seventies. I sometimes find myself wondering what all of the old geezers think of the Rolling Stones belting out Satisfaction and then I realize that they were just teens and twenty somethings when that music was popular. We are all Baby Boomers grown older who aren’t yet ready to throw in the towel.

I have to admit that the mind and the body are not always in sync. My brain tells me that I am as young as ever until I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wonder who the old biddy is who is staring back at me. I suspect that my fellow gym rats feel exactly the same way, and we all have a great time sweating to the oldies.

I laugh when I think about the last Rolling Stones concert that I saw. Keith Richards was rocking but he almost looked mummified with all of his wrinkles. Mick Jagger had is usual swagger but when he danced he no longer resembled a crazed rooster. Instead he mostly moved and swayed and barely lifted his feet from the floor. Still I have to admit that he used a great deal of energy to perform and he didn’t even appear to be missing a beat or needing a dose of oxygen. The group is rather remarkable in that regard and the concert was attended by every imaginable age group, so they are still very much relevant.

It seems to me that age is as relative as Einstein tells us that time is. With a few blessings of good genes and an avoidance of terrible diseases it’s rather amazing what seniors are able to do, especially if they keep their bodies and minds active. In my own case, a daily exercise regimen, regular mathematics tutoring and daily writing and reading keep me sharper than I might otherwise be if I allowed myself to become a slug. It’s tempting to surrender to age, but I’ll leave that for a later time when things really begin to break down.

I used to watch Jack Lalanne’s exercise program with my mother when I was a young girl. Even back then I was impressed with his physical acumen, but he became even more amazing as he aged. He had always urged his viewers to take care of their bodies and minds with a regular fitness routines and a good diet. My Aunt Polly was particularly taken with his advice and I have to admit that following his lead has served her well. I doubt that many would be able to guess her age. In fact I’d like to take her to one of those carnivals where she might win a big prize for fooling everyone. For as long as I remember she has been unwavering in keeping herself fit and only recently with the deaths of her son and her husband has she begun to age a bit more quickly.

My mother used to tell me that she was not as old in body and mind as I seemed to think that she was. She insisted that she might even have more joy of living than I did as a young woman. Of course I silently and respectfully rolled my eyes at such assertions. I knew how old she was and thought she should slow down and knit a blanket instead of dancing across the living room or enjoying the latest pop music as much as I did. Now I feel foolish because I understand exactly what she meant and I am the one embarrassing my children and grandchildren. They simply don’t know how much fun and youthfulness I have inside because my countenance and my age tells the lie that I am now a senior citizen.

In fact, I am only as old as I feel and with that standard I still have a very long way to go before I turn in my track shoes for slippers and a rocking chair. Even then I think I’ll follow my mom’s example and do some of those sit and be fit exercises that she did each day that I wrongly thought were ridiculous. 

As I watch all of my new acquaintances at the YMCA I really do believe that sixty is the new forty. Alongside them I’ve found a renewed vigor that has given me energy to tackle new learning and to travel along new roads. It’s a lifestyle that is invigorating and so necessary. Thankfully my doctor has been a taskmaster who has resurrected my youthfulness even if it is not visually apparent.

Those of us at the gym are an odd lot indeed. We’re filled with wrinkles, graying hair and sometimes no hair at all, but there are twinkles in our eyes and an extra lilt in our steps. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we were to one day break out into the same kind of moves that the younger folk down the hall are making in their Zumba class. For now at least age is little more than a mindset and I know that I am as adorable as I was at twenty one.

Take A Moment Today

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Let’s take a moment today to do something kind for 1. ourselves, 2. someone we know, 3. someone we have met, 4. someone we don’t know, 5. someone we need to build bridges with. Be and do well. —-Ryann Madden

I slept in just a bit this morning. The sounds of school children gathering for the early morning bus are gone for the summer and so that “alarm” did not alert me that it was time to rise. Things become slower at this time of year for more reasons than just the summer vacation for our little ones. It’s so hot outside that our bodies and brains are somehow programed to take it easier lest we overheat and dehydrate. We’ve become so accustomed to the glories of air conditioning that we become almost more insulated inside our homes and cars at this time of year than we do in the winter, at least here in Texas. It’s the season of relaxation and fun, especially for students and educators. Somehow the seasons of a school year have become so programmed into my brain that I still react to the summer the same way I did when I was working. I allow myself to be just a bit more inclined to take it easy.

I won’t be able to sustain my vacation mode for too long though because I am hardwired with all of the Type A Protestant ethics that push me to be productive and to measure my accomplishments each day. I am committed to making the most of my time and descend into guilt whenever my slacking begins to appear to be a regular life change. I am mentally and emotionally compelled to make good use of my life, even as I age. For that reason I was particularly taken by this post from Ryann Madden, a teacher friend. It spoke to me because I am on a mission to transform my use of my waking hours from concentration of unimportant things to truly making an effort to care for myself and others.

Ryann’s “to do” list seems rather easy on the surface, but in reality it is laden with challenges, particularly with regard to being kind to ourselves and building bridges with someone with whom we have broken our trust. All too often we put ourselves last in the division of a day’s labor, and never quite get around to the self care that we need. We also tend to avoid those situations and people with whom a breach has caused us to lose touch. Our neglect of both ourselves and people with whom we have differed can be toxic, and yet we all too often have an “I’ll think about that tomorrow” attitude about these very important parts of our lives.

A very dear friend who is a counselor posted a wonderful blog about self care recently. In it she detailed her own personal journey to health of body and mind. She spoke of living such a hurried and harried life that she was using food as a kind of medication and she justified her neglect of herself by noting how much she was doing for others. Ultimately she found herself in the middle of a health crisis at a very young age. She knew that she needed to do more than just pop another pill into her mouth and otherwise ignore her own needs. She began to slowly but surely make a complete lifestyle change that began with thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day and a consultation with a nutritionist. Before long she was thriving and glowing with the radiance that comes from treating our bodies and minds with the same love that we offer to others. She had not forgotten the people around her, she had only taken the time to remember herself as well.

When my husband had a stroke last summer and the two of us embarked on our own journey to living our best lives I found it easy to care for him but much more difficult to remember myself. It was simple to rationalize lapses in my own habits and it took an aggressive demand from my primary care physician for me to realize that I needed to be kind to myself as well. My doctor insisted that I was mistreating my own body and ultimately would be of little use to anyone if I did not change my ways as well. He literally gave me a prescription for five days of exercise each week with no excuses for not meeting this goal. His insistence shocked me into doing what I should have done long ago, and now self care has become an integral part of each day.

Which leaves me to the building bridges aspect of Ryann’s suggestion. It requires a bit of eating crow, approaching someone who has very apparently felt the sting of neglect and lack of respect from me. That is a much tougher situation to face, but in my heart I know it must be done. The person of whom I am thinking is older than I am. She has been isolated by failing health and loss of loved ones. She has become more sensitive and worried. She has taken some of my comments and parsed them until she is certain that I have insulted her. I have been confused and sometimes angered by her reactions, and so I have generally chosen to ignore her. I suspect that instead it is time to reach out to her and plant the seeds of reconciliation. It will cost me nothing to do so, and it may heal a wound that doesn’t need to fester.

Today is a good day to follow Ryann’s sweet suggestions. In fact everyday is a wonderful time to weave care for self and others into our routines. Think of how great we will begin to feel if we do.