The Closet

assorted color sequins
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

I remember how the world used to be. I had heard about gay people. I knew they existed, but I didn’t think that I knew anyone like that. The words that were used to describe them back then were ugly and started with letters like “f” and “q.” I was quite naive about such things. I had no feelings one way or another because I assumed that I would never meet a gay person.

The first time that I realized that I did indeed have an acquaintance with someone who was gay occurred in the nineteen eighties at the height of the AIDS epidemic. That’s when I read an obituary for someone who had died from that dread disease. Back then code words like “special friend” were used to name partners, and the person who was named as such was someone that I knew.

For a time my only reaction was shock, but rather quickly I came to realize that I really liked my friend, and realized how much he was hurting because of his loss. There was no way I was going to turn my back on him because of this revelation. I became complicit in his secrecy. Never discussing his situation out loud. I knew all too well that he would not be as accepted by everyone as he was by be.

After that I began to slowly learn of more and more of my friends, acquaintances and family members who were gay as they courageously came “out of the closet.” There was a neighbor and mother of my daughter’s best friend who formed a close and loving relationship with a female partner. I found out that one of my bosses was gay and had been taunted since his youth. On a visit with my nephew after he went to college in Chicago I learned that he was gay as well. As time passed many of my co-workers became more and more open about their sexuality. Most recently I was proud to attend the weddings of one of my dearest gay friends and my gay nephew. Both of the ceremonies were beautiful and emotional, and most of all right and just.

I have seen the genuine love between two gay individuals. I have viscerally felt its power. I recall my neighbor’s partner telling of a trip to Israel that they had taken. With tears in her eyes she spoke of placing their hands together on the Wailing Wall and joining in a tradition of thousands of years that united them spiritually. She described the oneness that the two of them felt in that breathtaking moment. When she looked across the room at her partner their eyes locked and I saw the purest most intense love in their glances. I felt tears well in my own eyes in that powerful moment.

I have seen the same emotion with the two couples whose weddings I was privileged to share. They care as deeply about one another as any straight couples, perhaps even a bit more, because they have had to fight so hard for the realization of being married in the eyes of the world. It is a beautiful and inspiring to watch them together, and I am happy that they have found the happiness that they deserve. Nonetheless, I realize all too well that they are still subjected to hate, bigotry and even the fear that one day their rights to be married may be overturned by zealots who abhor their way of life.

People sometimes ask why it is so important to gay individuals to “come out.” I have a small inkling of what they are doing when they admit to their sexuality in front of the world. I too carried a secret that burdened me for a very long time. I was unwilling to speak of my mother’s mental illness to anyone beyond a highly trusted group of friends. I walked a tightrope hoping that nobody would learn why I sometimes missed many days of work, or why I seemed so down. I can’t really explain why I was so afraid. I worried that people would not understand my family’s situation, or that they would treat my mother differently once they knew. It was a burden that only grew as the years went by until I finally reached a point at which I was unable to hide my truth any longer. I literally blurted out my story to one of my bosses, and thankfully his response was to reveal that he too was responsible for the health and safety of a mentally ill relative. He prayed with me and gave me some excellent advice. After that I began a campaign of sharing my reality. I learned that so many people were frightening and hurting, and my witness gave them hope. It was a good thing for me, my mother, and those that we knew to speak the truth. In a sense I was able to take her illness “out of the attic.”

When I read testimonials from friends, acquaintances, and family members about the emotional journeys that they have made because of their sexuality, I truly understand what they are hoping to accomplish. As a society it is long past time for opening our minds to the fact that love between two people is always a good and wholesome thing. In fact, stability, devotion, and commitment should be honored by us all. These are not things that should be hidden or reviled.

I don’t know when we will finally reach a time when our gay and lesbian brethren will be viewed by all people as perfectly normal and acceptable, but I would like to believe that such a day will one day come. I’ve searched the New Testament high and low, and although I don’t count myself as a scholar I can find no clear evidence that Jesus condemned the union of anyone who is truly in love. There is a vague reference in the Old Testament that might in fact be interpreted any number of ways, but Jesus Himself told us that He had come to show us the new ways. He consistently argued with the Pharisees over outdated rules and spoke in favor of accepting and loving all people. I think if He walked among us again He would embrace the gay and lesbians to show us how we too should live.   

Advertisements

The Tragic Hero

adult ancient arena armor
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The tragic hero is a staple of literature. From the earliest Greek authors we learn of individuals whose feet of clay lead them down paths of destruction. Somehow we are taken by such characters, wanting to love them while hating their actions. Shakespeare mastered the art of creating sympathetic but flawed protagonists, like Hamlet. With a grave foreboding our stomachs clinch as we watch his descent into a hell of his own making. Thus it is with one story after another.

We know the literary formula, but even though we have seen it again and again we find ourselves hoping and praying that such tragic figures will somehow see the light before it’s too late. We pray for their redemption even as we helplessly watch them slide into a kind of evil that need not happen. There are no happy endings for them either in the realm of fiction or real life.

I’m addicted to Better Call Saul, a spinoff from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad series. It is the story of a likable soul named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy got into a scrape when he was a teenager, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Charles, a highly respected and successful lawyer. Over time Jimmy seemed to get his act together. He worked in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm while earning a law degree from a questionable but legitimate school in Samoa. He’s a cheerful and impish sort who seems to be naturally loved by the people he encounters including his girlfriend, Kim, so when he finally becomes a lawyer he fully expects to work in his brother’s law offices. When his bid for a position is denied because Charles does not trust him, we get our first hint of trouble. Our since of foreboding, well trained as it is from previous forays into tragedies, tells us that things may not work out as well for Jimmy as he and we may have initially thought.

Of course those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know that Jimmy McGill will somehow morph into Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer working for clients who represent the underbelly of society. Even as we enjoy seeing Jimmy as an affable fellow our stomachs clinch at the thought of what he will become. As the series progresses we want to warn him to beware, and he disappoints us with his slow decline, all the while blaming everyone but himself for his woes. It’s the kind of thing that all tragic heroes do.

We’ve all seen the same kind of individuals in real life which is what makes the artistic inventions of authors, screenwriters and movie directors seem so accurate. These tortured souls are people with so much potential who somehow believe that their bad behaviors are justified by the unfairness of their lives. Instead of taking the high road, they take shortcuts and bend laws and morality. The ultimate tragedy of their lives is the waste of what might have been a truly good person, and all too often they leave wreckage in the wake of all of their relationships. They don’t seem to realize the pain and suffering that they cause for those who truly love them. Often they don’t seem to realize how broken they actually are. They are the adulterers who won’t stop their philandering, the addicts who are unable or unwilling to fight their demons, the abusers who think everyone else is the problem. Sadly, not only are their lives miserable, but so is everyone else caught in their horrid world until they find the courage to make a clean break.

I have had students who were amazingly lovable, but totally irresponsible and dishonest. They disappointed again and again, even when they appeared to be headed for a change of heart. I’ve had friends who married people who were quite wonderful as long as things went their way, but as challenges entered their lives they wandered from the straight and narrow. It is emotionally crushing to be around people that we want so badly to trust, knowing that to do so would defy common sense. Walking away from our tragic heroes is even harder to experience than watching their downfalls. Our hearts tell us to give them one more chance, while our heads remind us that they have failed us so many times before.

I’m not certain what causes a seemingly wonderful person to lose his or her way. Often there is great tragedy in the background, but sometimes they have had what most of us would consider to be a good life. There are sociopaths among us and we have yet to understand how to help them to change. Few efforts in this regard have been entirely successful. The question becomes who most deserves our compassion, and the best answer is usually that we must help the innocents that they harm. We might still love them, but there comes a moment when we can’t accept their bad behavior. We have to push them out of our lives, lest we become unwilling collaborators in their deviant behaviors.

We find characters like Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman all too realistic. We love and hate them all at once. Art is sometimes brilliant at imitating life. The truth is that they are not heroes at all.

Praying For Her Happiness

close up portrait of human eye
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

She came to school wearing a lady’s wig. At first I thought it was a silly prank that she was pulling because the brunette bouffant swallowed her tiny face. Still she looked beautiful with her blue eyes staring from beneath the fringe of bangs that were so long that they touched her eyelids. When the students in my class began to taunt her tears welled up like raindrops on an azure lake. That’s when I knew that something was terribly wrong.

I took her gently aside and asked why she was sporting the strange headpiece. She whispered that she had to do so because her own hair was gone. We found a private area and she lifted the wig to show me her shorn head. It had been shaved all the way down to the scalp. She explained that her mother had found nits in her hair and became enraged that she had brought such foul creatures into the house. Before the girl knew what was happening her mom ordered her into the backyard and soon met her with an electric razor, ranting her disgust all the while that she removed every last shred of hair from the child’s scalp.

When the girl cried and asked her mom how she would be able to face her classmates she was told that she had brought the embarrassment upon herself. Eventually the mother calmed her irritation just a bit and brought out the wig, insisting that the girl cover her shame with the ridiculous head piece. The little child sobbed as she told me her story. She mentioned over and over again how much she loved her parent and that she didn’t want to cause anymore trouble. She just wanted to go back to the classroom and face the music from her peers. She maintained that she would be just fine and that her hair would soon enough grow again.

I was her teacher and had to report the incident to the principal and the school nurse. We learned that this was not the first time that the mother had targeted the sweet child with abusive behavior. For some reason she was the unloved one among her siblings. In spite of her sweet nature and her attempts to please, she was often harangued with guilt trips that outlined her faults. She was compared unfavorably to her sisters and made to believe that she was somehow unworthy of praise and love.

I cried about this child. I lost sleep worrying about her. There was little more that I was able to do than to emphasize to her just how truly wonderful she actually was. I was careful to show her the kindness that seemed to be lacking in her home. Unfortunately she was one of many children in my class that year who were living in abusive situations. Even the nurse’s report to CPS did little to change her circumstances. The social workers were overworked and bound by rules and regulations that prevented them from making truly setting things right.

I’ve found myself thinking about this little girl for decades. She would have been about ten years old back then which means that she is now a woman in her forties. I hope that things turned out well for her, but I fear what might have happened. She was beautiful and brilliant and as sweet as can be, but for whatever reason her mother found her lacking. She acted as though she took the abuse in stride, but in truth she was always a bit anxious as though she was always waiting for the next insult to land. She was apologetic just for being who she was.

I worry that she went from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps she landed in an abusive situation with a man. Nonetheless I prayed that in some wondrous miracle she finally realized her own worth and managed to heal herself. I’d like to believe that she eventually became strong enough to understand that she had never been the problem. Many people have overcome such backgrounds, and she certainly had all of the natural talents to do so. Still, I know all too well how constant denigration can erode self esteem to the point of creating permanent scars.

In my career I witnessed such sadness far more than I might have wished. I always wondered what makes a parent despise a child. In all probability the mother had been somehow abused herself. Maybe she suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. Perhaps she was simply overwhelmed by circumstances. Maybe she was just mean.

We never know exactly what to do in such cases. Children seem to love their parents even when the parents are unnaturally cruel. They prefer taking the verbal or physical beatings rather than being separated because their reality is so devoid of love. Knowing that such things are all too often commonplace was the the most difficult aspect of my time as a teacher. I grew to love each of my students and felt protective of them. When they were still overwhelmed by poverty, ignorance, or abuse I found myself wishing that I had some wonderful power to change things for them.

I have several unimaginably compassionate friends like Chrystal and Fran who serve as foster parents. I have watched them shower children with kindness and love. They have gone out of their way to welcome little lost souls into their families. They provide a refuge and a place of hope. I admire them so, because I know how difficult their roles may sometimes be. They are true angels who sacrifice physically and emotionally to help someone else’s child, even knowing that just when they become attached the little one may be returned to a questionable situation. Theirs is a goodness that I applaud, for instead of only hoping and praying they are actually doing something to ease the pain of such kids.

There are many children who are confused and battered and unloved. Perhaps if more of us were like my friends we might save them from the horrors that blight their childhood and no doubt influence their lives as adults. Whenever the image of the beautiful little girl with the absurd wig comes into my mind, I wish I had done more and I pray that she is finally happy. Most of all I hope she understood that I believed that she was wonderful.

What’s In A Name?

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 7.15.29 PM

My maiden name was Little, a moniker that I milked for a very long time because I was under five feet tall until my junior year in high school. I’d tell people that they would remember my name just from looking at me. It was a bit of humor that actually worked and made me a somewhat unique. It was not until I was an adult that I learned from my grandfather how our family actually got the handle.

My paternal grandfather was born William Mack. His mother died within days of his birth and his father decided that fatherhood was not a good fit, and so Grandpa went to live with his grandmother. Sadly she was advanced in age and when he was thirteen she died leaving him orphaned for all intents and purposes. She left him a small amount of money that required a guardian, and so he ended up in family court choosing the person whom he believed would do the best job of protecting his interests. Since his father had shown given little or no attention to my grandfather’s welfare up until that point, it was decided that an uncle would assume responsibility for both my grandfather and his inheritance.

Grandpa told me that his uncle was an honorable man who graduated from West Point. His name was John Little and he had a grand if short lived military career. In the early 1900’s there was a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico and Captain Little was sent to head the recovery efforts. He was doing a yeoman’s job until he contracted typhus which unfortunately was fatal. By then my grandfather was a full fledged twenty one year old adult so he no longer required his uncle’s guidance, but he still felt a strong sense of gratitude toward the man who had helped him to reach the age independence. To honor the good man Grandpa had his name officially changed to William Mack Little.

I haven’t been able to find any information about my grandfather on ancestry.com, but I have learned that John Little was born in Tennessee. After attending West Point he married a niece of General Sherman of Civil War fame. The two of them had a daughter but their happy life together was brief. I’ve contacted members of his family to see if anyone ever heard of his guardianship of my grandfather, but nobody knows of any such thing. I suppose the history of his relationship to me has somehow been lost, a reality that pains me. It also saddens even more me to think of how many losses my grandfather had to endure before he was even fully launched into the adult world. He never knew his mother. He was abandoned by his father. His beloved grandmother died when he was just entering adolescence, and the man that he most admired died far too early. 

John Little’s obituary outlines his service to his country. It mentions that his career was promising before his sudden demise. He is buried at Governor’s Island New York on the ground of the West Point Military Academy. I would very much like one day to visit the grave of the man who so impressed my grandfather that we ended up carrying his name.

We’ve struggled a bit to keep our last name going, because only one of the youngest male descendants has married and had children, three of whom are girls. There is a lone boy who will continue forward as a Little and I would like very much to one day be able to tell him how he came to have that name. I think he would bear it even more proudly if he knew of the honor bestowed upon it by my grandfather’s uncle.

There must be other Littles out there who are distantly related to me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. They don’t know us and we don’t know them. Our connections are lost to unfortunate circumstances and time. Still, it would be fun to find out who they are and to speak of the gratitude that my grandfather had for a long ago member of their family.

A name is little more than a string of letters unless it is attached to someone that we can identify. I feel a sense of pride in knowing what I do about John Little. I can imagine him toiling in the tropical heat of Puerto Rico to help the people of the devastated island. There is something particularly noble about that, much more so than fighting on a battlefield. I’m sure that he saved many lives before he became ill. His was an enormous sacrifice that makes me proud to continue to use his name as the middle part of my own. I somehow feel as though I know and understand him.

His photo shows a handsome, serious individual, but I suspect that he also had a sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh now and again. How good of him it was to agree to be the guardian of an orphaned boy. Little wonder that my grandfather admired him so. I’d like to think that somehow, some way he knows that I too appreciate all that he did.

I now understand that Little is a grand name, the name of a hero, a compassionate man. It makes me hold my head a bit higher. It tells me why my own grandfather was such an honest and hard working man. In a brief moment he learned the qualities of an exceptional person from an uncle who was there when he was most needed. Thank you, John Little. We will never forget you. 

John Little

Our Fallen Unity

flag of america
Photo by Sharefaith on Pexels.com

 

When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall.