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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Unrest

omar-jen-wheelchair-woodsShe is incredibly bright and beautiful, a graduate of Harvard who was about to complete her doctorate at Princeton. She was in love with a brilliant man and the two of them travelled the world together. They made plans to marry, have a family, build their stunning careers together, and then she caught the flu. It was a particularly harsh case with fevers of one hundred four degrees. When she was well once again she felt debilitated, but thought little of the residual effects. She had after all been very ill. She told herself that it would simply take time to regain her energy, but something was very wrong because instead of growing stronger she began to feel more and more weak. There were even times when her mind did not seem to work properly. She was unable to find the proper words to express herself. It was all so frightening.

Eventually her symptoms became so concerning that she sought the expertise of a medical doctor. He insinuated that it was all in her head, diagnosing her with what used to be known as hysteria. He suggested that she was reacting to some deep seated trauma that she most likely was unable to remember. He sent her home with no real explanation for what was happening, and she began to wonder if she was indeed going crazy. That’s when she got an idea.

The next time her symptoms became so severe that she literally collapsed in pain, unable to move or express herself, she asked her husband to film the incident. She took the video to a neurologist who was stunned by what he saw. He eventually told her that she had ME. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a strange disease that is thought to afflict ten to fifteen million people worldwide. There is no definitive test for the illness and no cure. The diagnosis is made based on symptoms alone which include excessive fatigue after mental or physical activity, intolerance to exercise, joint and/or muscle pain, memory problems, difficulty walking, sore throats, headaches, flu-like symptoms, sleep disturbance, bowel problems and mood swings.

The disease is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome and affects those who have it along a spectrum from individuals who endure a mild attack and then recover fully, to those who become completely homebound and bed ridden. There is no known cause but the disease appears to follow otherwise fairly typical and minor illnesses like the flu. Some believe that the roots of the problems lie in hormonal or allergy issues, but none of the research has proven any of the theories. It is a greatly misunderstood disease that sometimes results in psychiatric diagnoses rather than physical ones.

The woman whose life was so impacted by ME is Jennifer Brea, and she has a debilitating case of the disease that has radically altered the trajectory of her life. In a fashion keeping with her personality she decided to film her journey along with that of four other victims so that she might shed light on a mostly misunderstood illness. In conjunction with Sundance Films she created the documentary. Unrest, that chronicles her experiences as well those of the four others whose lives have been so radically changed after contracting ME. The film debuted on the PBS program Independent Lens this January and its power to visually explain what happens to those who have ME is emotionally visceral.

Jennifer Brea holds back nothing in her depiction of what ME has done to her and the relationship that she shares with her husband. She honestly expresses the fears and disappointments that plague her as much as the symptoms. She presents a compelling argument for more research by noting that those who are stricken often become like missing persons as they are forced to be hostages to their illness. She tells a compelling story of families broken apart and individuals losing their identities all while the rest of the world remains mostly ignorant of the horrors of this strange condition.

Her own story is one of the love that she and her husband share in spite of the problems that have so changed the way that they once thought they might live. She wants to be able to give him the kind of relationship that she had thought they would have, but instead is continually thwarted by recurrences of the most trying symptoms. Her husband has nobly stood by her, but even his patience is often tried by the confusing nature of his wife’s illness.

Ms. Brea shows a family in Sweden whose child was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility because doctors there were unwilling to accept a diagnosis of ME for her. Brea also introduces us to a woman who had been a happy wife and mother, one who had no idea that she would eventually be confined to bed with her own husband believing that she was just insane rather than physically ill. Her marriage deteriorated and she struggled to survive. When one of her daughters came down with the same disease her world unraveled even more.

The film is so personal, so real that those of us viewing the stories become involved with the characters, particularly Jennifer Brea herself. We watch her gaining strength and find ourselves hoping as much as she and her husband do that she will somehow miraculously improve. We cry with empathy as we become all too familiar with the struggles associated with ME.

Unrest is a touching and important documentary and quite worthy of the accolades that it has received. Hopefully it will also become the impetus for more research into the mysterious illness that it depicts with so much unflinching insight and compassion. At the present time very little is being done to learn how and why this illness affects certain people. There is only a smattering of interest in finding something that will cure those afflicted with its devastating symptoms. It is a grand mystery that shows no signs of being solved while real people suffer from the misunderstandings and lack of knowledge surrounding it. Hopefully Jennifer Brea has opened a door of awareness that will ultimately lead to the studies that will eradicate it or at least lead to more hopeful treatments. Perhaps just by spreading information about ME Unrest will at the very least bring more compassion to those who deal with its tragic effects.

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.

Satisfaction

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Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.