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.

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A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

Dealing With Loss

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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

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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

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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.