Plan B

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There is plenty to cause people to be afraid these days. We are bombarded twenty four hours a day with stories presented more to earn readers and viewers than to just present the news. The more titillating the piece the more likely it is to increase ratings, the holy grail of journalism in today’s super charged environment. Add to the mix hackers who foment terror with propaganda and it can sometimes be difficult to discern the difference between truth and fact. Rumors abound to add to the inflammatory atmosphere. Uncertainty provokes anxiety that grows faster than a pandemic.

Everyone has real personal concerns that are enough to keep them worrying. They may be financial or health related, social or physical. I can’t think of anyone who is not grappling with some private tragedy that saps energy and brings on insomnia. The added furor over issues that may or may not be as dire as they are presented only adds to the pressures of existence. Our natural instincts to react when signs of danger appear have been stressed again and again by predictions of terrorism, murder, pandemic, natural disasters. We don’t want to be ruled by panic or illogical thinking, but we also don’t want to get caught unprepared. We find ourselves wondering whether to just laugh and continue our routines or take warnings seriously and make changes to our lives. When the information that we gather becomes contradictory we don’t know who to believe and our concerns only grow.

I remember a long ago day in October when I arrived at school to find fewer of my fellow students in attendance. My teacher appeared to be unusually tense and ultimately she spoke to us about the Cuban missile crisis that was unfolding. It was honestly the first time that I had heard of such a thing. If my mother knew of it, she never mentioned it to me and my brothers. I remember being somewhat amused by my teacher’s concerns and advice for what we should do if an attack on our city occurred. Because my mother appeared to be so nonplussed by the event I took her cue and simply ignored the whole thing which ultimately turned out just fine. It would be years later before I realized the extent to which our country had been on the brink of nuclear disaster. When I learned the truth I was unable to decide if my ignorance had been best or if I should have been more serious and prepared for a dangerous eventuality.

I worry enough without additional input from muckrakers. I’m generally not so much fearful of what may happen to me but rather how to protect my loved ones from harm. My guess is that I take after my mother in that regard. When I lie awake at night it is never out of anxiety for myself but always from fear that one of my family members or friends my be in trouble. When I am frightened I try to take control of the situation. I become like a mama bird preparing and guarding her nest. I maintain an appearance of calm and quietly go about my days as routinely as possible while also gathering whatever I may need to overcome the demands of an emergency.

Fear is the most normal of human reactions and one that may actually help us to avoid danger. It also has the power of driving us inside our own minds, crippling our ability to lead normal productive lives. I watched mental illness turn my mother into a sad paranoid shell of herself. She hid behind heavy curtains in the darkness of her mind. Hers was a medical problem that righted itself only when she took medications designed to balance the chemicals of her brain. Most of us will never know the terror that her bipolar disorder created in her thoughts. Still if we let our anxieties overtake us we lose the joy that we need to get the most from each moment of our days.

I suppose that I have learned to keep my fears at bay by taking constructive actions that may or may not be of any consequence but nonetheless allow me to feel more optimistic. I insure my home against disaster knowing that I may not escape devastation but at least will have a means of rebuilding if the worst case scenario unfolds. I take care of myself with healthy habits of both body and mind understanding that there are no guarantees that I will not be struck with a difficult illness. I can only hope that my routines will at least provide me with a reservoir of strength in any eventuality. I avoid dangerous situations as I go about my business and drive with care knowing that none of my cautions are foolproof. I have a store of provisions in case of some unexpected disruption in the normal flow of the world. Like a Girl Scout I plan ahead just as I always have.

I suppose that the events of my lifetime have taught me to never say never. If someone had predicted my future when I was a child I would have scoffed at the very idea of things that ultimately happened. Perhaps I may have also been very afraid. Instead I went about my life being a bit cautious just in case. There have been times when my careful planning served me well but I have admittedly spent sleepless nights wondering and worrying needlessly. Life has taught me that dreams come true through hard work but nightmares sneak up on us when we least expect them. Having a Plan B and staying calm has helped me through such situations time again. 

Explorations of Our Being

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What is this mind that we humans have? How does it work and how much of it goes unused because we have yet to tap into the totality of its power? Why is there a disconnect between how I see myself from the point of view of my thoughts and how I really appear in my physical reality? What causes some of our memories to remain vividly intact for all time and others to fade into oblivion? What happens when a mind becomes muddled, filled with extreme sadness, fears or paranoid thoughts? These are questions that have confounded me for years. They are the kind of queries that have guided the thoughts of brilliant individuals and ordinary souls for centuries. Somehow we have obtained more and more of a grasp on our physical being over time but clear knowledge of the complexities of our brains still remains somewhat elusive.

We humans don’t simply react to the world around us. We contemplate it sometimes to the point of obsession. We have an innate desire to dream, analyze and restructure. There is no reason for us to enhance the world beyond our most basic physical needs and yet we do. We don’t simply endure the unfolding of our lives but instead reflect on all that has happened to us, sometimes with joy in such remembrance and sometimes with great sorrow.

Memories are a remarkable aspect of our humanity. We quite often retain vivid pictures of things that we have experienced even decades after they occurred. Ironically the very incidents that we would most like to forget because of the pain that they brought us are sometimes the ones that remain the clearest in our minds. What is it about trauma that etches it so deeply in our psyches?

On the day of my father’s death I was only eight years old and yet I can recall details about every aspect of that horrific event from the time that I awoke to hear my mother weeping until the end of the evening when she and I cried in each other’s arms. I can see colors and hear sounds as though all of my senses were somehow heightened in a way that I had never before experienced. Even more than sixty years later thoughts of that day bring feelings so visceral that they still cause pain.

So too it has been with more generalized occurrences that impacted the whole of society with profound consequences. I know exactly where I was sitting and what I was doing when I first heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. I do not know if we had a Thanksgiving dinner that year but I can tell you where I was and what went through my mind when I watched the president’s funeral procession and witnessed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I still catch my breath when I think of the planes flying through the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I literally get a flutter of anxiety in my heart when I picture their dramatic collapse. I hear the screams and feel the terror that filled my thoughts in the split second in which I realized the reality of what was happening.

Over the years it has been the most horrific moments that have stayed permanently embossed on my psyche. I am filled with grief when I think of the first time that I truly understood the extent of my mother’s mental illness. It coincided with the first landing on the moon which is only a blur in my mind compared to the recollections that I retain of her pain.

I am haunted by images of the flooding from hurricane Harvey in my beloved city and the aftermath of destruction in the homes of family members and friends. I still get a catch in my throat when I think of how I felt when I saw what had happened after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a place I think of as a sister city.

So it goes with my memories. I barely recall the details of my college graduation or even my carefully planned wedding but I can describe the tiniest of particulars on the last days of my mother’s life. I wonder what it is about my mind that clings so tenaciously to thoughts of events that I would prefer to forget. What kind of chemical or physical reactions occur in our brains that causes such impressions to stay with us? What is it about our very humanity that stirs us to contemplate such things?

I try not to become too obsessive about such ideas. I purposely busy myself when my ruminating ventures into territory that is too dark and yet I am fascinated by the mere possibilities of unlocking the inner workings of our complex being. Understanding the mind was at one time forbidden fruit. Now we have discovered so much about how it all works and yet there is still so much mystery when it comes to comprehending the most spiritual aspect of our being. Exploring the territory of our very being has been the quest of philosophers, physicians, scientists and theologians and still we are in the dark when it comes to the how and why of our deepest thoughts.

  

Do I Dare?

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The seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of the people imprisoned in Auschwitz touched my heart. Somehow I realized for the first time that the horror of that place only ended four years before my own birth. What had always seemed like a far away event was actually something that happened shortly before the beginning of my lifetime. It hit me hard to think of the people who had endured the horrors of that place and I found myself wondering as I have often done how I might have acted if I had been caught up in the maelstrom of evil that overtook so much of Europe in those years.

I had always believed that I would have been safe from any of the repercussions of the Nazi terror, but a DNA test proved me wrong. I indeed have a small percentage of genetic compatibility with those who are descended from Eastern European Jews. Would I have been classified as someone who needed to be erased from society? Would the fact of my grandmother’s and mother’s mental illnesses have further increased my likelihood of being sent to a concentration camp? Who knows? I shudder to even consider such a consequence just for being born, and yet that was the fate of millions who had done nothing more than bear the mark of traits that Adolf Hitler and his crazed followers deemed unworthy of human respect.

More important to me than the possibility of being among the numbers herded onto trains and sent to an unthinkable hell is the question of whether or not I would have had the courage to do something to help those whose human rights were being abused in the most savage ways. I’ve always wanted to think that I might have helped them in some way either by speaking out or taking part in some sort of underground movement intent on providing aide. It’s easy to imagine such a thing in theory but actually being brave enough to risk everything would have been daunting. I’m honestly not certain that I would have mustered the courage to to the right thing.

For that reason I was incredibly inspired when I learned the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, a midwife who resided in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Stanislawa and her family were quite active in helping the Jews who had were living in abysmal conditions in the overcrowded ghetto where they had been separated from the rest of the population. For a time their work went unnoticed but eventually they were discovered and Stanislawa ended up a prisoner of Auschwitz.

While she was there she offered her services as a midwife, doing her best to improve the unsanitary conditions that lead to many childbirth deaths. The routine way of doing things was to kill the babies as soon as they were born and to force the women to watch their newborns being drowned in a bucket. Stanislawa refused to participate in such murder and it is believed that she managed to save at least a thousand babies who might otherwise have been killed. Many women who gave birth in the camp credit Stanislawa with keeping both them and their children alive. 

I cannot even imagine the kind of fearlessness that it took for Stanislawa to threaten the safety of her life and that of her family in an effort to do what was morally right. She might easily have turned away her gaze and pretended that she was unaware of the monstrosity of what was happening to the people in her town. She and her family would never have seen the inside of Auschwitz had they simply protected themselves through inaction. When she was caught and sent to a camp she might have chosen to quietly follow the rules in order to insure her own survival but once again she challenged authorities and ignored commands that she knew were immoral. How she got away with her brazen actions is a kind of miracle.

There are amazing people in the world who refuse to worry about negative consequences in the crusade for justice. They literally risk their own lives in the pursuit of right over wrong. It is never an easy thing to do and while I want to believe that given the same circumstances I would be willing to surrender my own freedom to help those being wrongfully abused, I wonder if I would instead quietly accept the status quo out of fear. Being a Thomas Moore, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Oskar Schindler is risky and often deadly business. It’s so much easier to just look away and pretend that nothing is happening.

The world is riddled with problems even today. Dare I talk of them or do something constructive to correct them? I have friends willing to speak their minds while I often shudder with the fear of being misunderstood or ostracized if I were to openly do or say what I believe to be right. Stansilawa Leszcynska inspires me. Do I dare be like her?

Your Worst Nightmares

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We were gathered together at my daughter’s home on a Saturday evening. It was just my two girls, two grandsons, my only granddaughter, and I deciding to play a board game. One of the boys brought out a box labeled Your Worst Nightmare. He said that he thinks that I once bought it for him. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something that would appeal to me. Anyway, the premise of the game was to rank four things in order of how scary they are from greatest to least, then try to guess how someone else’s list might look. It was fun and created lots of laughs but I did a terrible job of determining what other people’s fears were. Nonetheless the little entertainment got me to thinking of what is most frightening to me and why is it so.

I suppose that the most terrifying nightmare I have ever had or thought about having revolves around the idea that I am driving across a high bridge over a deep river and somehow end up careening from the structure into the darkness of the water with only seconds to free myself from the constraints of my seatbelt, find a way to open a window, and then somehow swim to safety. In those dreams I never get past the fight to get out of the car but then I never actually drown either. I don’t know how long the dream actually lasts but I wake up shaken and exhausted whenever it occurs which luckily is infrequently.

Supposedly such a nighttime vision indicates feelings of loss of control. In my own car I suspect that they stem from my father’s death inside a car that plunged into a ditch. He died immediately upon impact so there was never a question of escape for him, but I suppose that I still have a strong desire to be able to change the course of events that lead to his death. Getting out of my own car and swimming to safety is a metaphor for being able to somehow prevent him from taking the fateful drive that ended with his heart stopping and mine breaking.

Our fears are sometimes irrational, but more often than not they are somehow related to traumas we have actually experienced. I fear being caught in a burning building because I witnessed a man being carried lifeless from his home after it caught fire. Later one of my cousins died in his bed when he fell asleep smoking. It would not be irrational for me to sense the need to be careful and to have a plan in the event of a fiery outbreak. Thus I always rehearse an escape route just to be safe wherever I go.

I can’t explain why I fear snakes as much as I do. I have had no negative experiences with them other than one occasion when I disobeyed my grandmother and came upon a frightful sight of snakes infesting a lake. They did not hurt me, but their image makes my heart race whenever I see a snake, no matter how harmless it may actually be. Perhaps it is just a primal thing or maybe a feeling of guilt for having ignored my grandmother’s instructions.

Likewise all of  the dentists that I have visited have been painless save for the cost of their procedures and yet the mere thought of going to an appointment makes my heart beat faster and a feeling of dread spreads through my entire being. Maybe it was a scene from the movie Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier that planted a seed of terror in my mind or perhaps I just find the tools of the dental trade to be similar to Medieval instruments of torture. Indeed dentists are some of the nicest people that I know who bend over backwards to keep me free from pain. I really don’t know why they scare me so.

Our fears are personal and not always easily understood which is why we all did so poorly in the game that asked us to determine how well we knew the fears of others. Nonetheless it was quite enlightening to learn about what actually terrifies another person. Everything from being dumped by a friend or lover to working in a cubical can make someone break into a cold sweat, while walking through a graveyard at midnight might be little more than a fun adventure.    

We humans are undoubtedly complex and what we don’t like can be as individual as what pleases us. I have a niece who would be totally comfortable having nonpoisonous snakes roaming around her house. My husband thinks that visits to the dentist are a piece of cake. My brother ran into burning structures for a living. On the other hand those same individuals might dread speaking in front of an audience which I actually enjoy. Our nightmares are often simply reflections of traumatic events or feelings from our lives. In my own case loss of control is what drives my greatest fears and no doubt my need to be in charge of my own fate has its foundations in the one moment over which I had no power, the death of my father.

Few of us actually sit around morosely worrying over things that go bump in the night but our dreams are windows into the sub conscious part of ourselves that lie in wait to frighten us while we sleep. It’s all a quite normal process but actually admitting to things that seem irrational is a difficult thing to do. Playing a game with people that we trust helps us bring our worries to the surface and sometimes even helps us to laugh when we feel as though we are about to cry. A bit of honesty in the name of fun can be a therapeutic way of understanding ourselves and the people that we love. It also reminds us that each of us is very human.

It’s Time to Clear the Rubble

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On September 11, 2019 the citizens of the United States once again remembered the events of 9/11. Somehow overcast weather in my city matched the solemn feelings that most of us have on this day each year as we recall where we were and what we saw with vivid clarity. It was an unbelievable, unexplainable moment when it became clear beyond a doubt that so much of who we are and what we believe was vulnerable and under attack.

I usually write and post a blog about this event more appropriately on its actual anniversary, but this year I found myself struggling for words to describe the evolution of my thoughts over the ensuing eighteen years since that day. Instead I simply read the touching feelings of others and felt that visceral punch in the gut that hit me almost two decades ago when we were still a somewhat naive citizenry. On that day we grieved together both for those who had so suddenly and tragically died and for the death of our innocence.

In the aftermath of the tragedy we stood together as a nation in our resolve to show the world that we would not be defeated by evil. We thought that we had the strength to overcome the forces that hoped to divide us, and at the time it seemed as though we would remain united and strong. At first it was our collective grief that kept us together, but over time it was our fear that began to tear us apart. We had different ideas about how to proceed forward and our debates became more and more brutal and personal until our discussions were no longer dialog but instead vicious arguments. Our united front crumbled as surely as the twin towers had done leaving us in a chronic state of war with one another. Instead of building our nation stronger than ever we became our own worst enemies.

In the eighteen years since 9/11 we have taken our political discussions to new lows. It’s been awhile since we showed respect for the offices of our government. There were those who hated George W. Bush and demeaned him in cartoonish ways. There were those who hated Barack Obama and demeaned him in racist ways. Now there are those who hate Donald Trump and demean him to the point of attempting to drive him from office. Our Congress is paralyzed by the infighting and unwillingness to compromise in a bipartisan way that is good for the country. It is now fashionable to destroy those who think differently by ravaging their character and their beliefs. In other words, whether we realize it or not, those men who so viciously attacked our nation on September 11, 2001, have accomplished more than just killing three thousand souls and bringing down two buildings. They have punched a hole into the very heart of democracy, and we have played into the their hands with our unrestrained anger which we now focuses inward rather than at the true source.

We began by restricting freedoms for safety’s sake and then we began pointing fingers here in our own country as though knowing who to blame for the tragedy might somehow make us feel better. Our debates ran the gamut from invoking punishing retribution to demonstrating kindness to our enemies. We were in new territory, not really knowing what to do. So many mistakes were made just as throughout all of history. We were so anxious to resolve our troubles that we let our impatience get the best of us. We were being ruled more by emotions than logic. Our feelings overtook us and led us to lose our focus. Every little thing was steeped in hyperbole that eventually evolved into propaganda.

We felt very lost and confused and when we turned to the media for understanding they only fanned the flames of our divisions. Soundbites became our arguments and dissolved into petty catch phrases that offered no real solutions. The media had a field day with our worries and our feuding, making hay from our fears and driving us further and further apart.

On the morning of the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11 the headlines in most of the major news outlets were not about remembering that horrific event but about clashes with the White House and innuendo about members of Congress and the Supreme Court. Stories of 9/11 were in small print, hidden among headlines about celebrities and sports. This alone told me much about where we find ourselves eighteen years after perhaps the most horrific moment in our country’s history.

It is long past time for all of us to regain our wits and demonstrate the true strength of this country that is found in good people everywhere. We are not the stereotype that some would have us believe we are. Ours is a flawed history just as that of every other country in the world, but it is a story based on an idea of freedom and dignity that we are still attempting to perfect. We must choose to be the people that we want to be rather than a fearful mob focused on degrading the very foundations of our country. We need to insist on a return to logic and calm in our national debates and understand that sometimes we only progress by accepting compromises. We each must be willing to address the needs of a changing world and do so with dignity.

There is great truth in the adage that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is time that we work together and without rancor. Eighteen years have done great damage to our republic. While we were arguing the rubble in New York City was cleared and magnificent structures were erected in its place. We need to begin the process of doing the same for the government of our country otherwise those terrorists will have won. We can’t allow that if for no other reason than to be certain that those who died did not do so in vain. It’s time to clear the rubble.