Lois Lane Is Dead

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Lois Lane is dead. Well, not really, but Margo Kidder, an actress who played her, died in her sleep last week. Margo was a talented and quite interesting woman who suffered from bipolar disorder. During the nineties she had a manic episode and ended up wandering through backyards in a confused state. That landed her in the headlines and a psychiatric hospital. Somehow people mostly forgot about all of the work in film that she had done and concentrated instead on thinking of her as a “crazy” person. The truth is that once she was treated for her illness she went on to perform on stage, and in films and television, even being nominated for an Emmy for some of her work. Mental illness quite simply is rarely viewed in the same way as other diseases, and those who are afflicted with disorders often find their lives filled with loneliness as acquaintances that they once knew shy away from them.

Mental illness comes and goes in the news, but not much of substance is ever done. We speak of shortages of care and problems with laws that make it difficult for families to get the proper services for family members, but mostly it comes down to talk and more talk, but little constructive action. There are not enough doctors, not enough care facilities and not enough dollars for treatments to sufficiently deal with what is becoming a growing problem across the nation.

A few years back President Barack Obama set aside fifty million dollars to be shared by each of the states. That may have sounded like a step in the right direction, but if you do the math you realize that each area only received one million dollars, a drop in the bucket given the dire needs. In some places a million dollars is the cost of a house, and can hardly be considered a means of dealing with the many forms of mental illness that plague our society. Still, I was grateful that the president actually acknowledged the problem with some financing, even if it barely scratched the surface.

A recent study indicated that many individuals with mental illnesses go to emergency rooms to find care. While this may sound inefficient, it is understandable. I was constantly searching for psychiatrists who were willing to provide therapy for my mother who had bipolar disorder. The hunt was maddening. Some took only cash. Others accepted only certain insurance plans. Still others only wanted to work with children, or teenagers, or those in their twenties or thirties. Even when I managed to find someone willing to take her case, I often had to wait for weeks to get an appointment. If I felt that my mother was in a crisis situation the doctors almost always suggested that I take her to an emergency room.

On one occasion my brothers and I waited at a hospital with her for over six hours without receiving any kind of attention. It has been reported that many mentally ill patients will literally stay in an emergency room waiting area for days hoping to be seen, and even then there is often no room in the psychiatric ward for them. It can be frustrating beyond description because someone who is experiencing a manic episode is not patient, and in the case of my mother is most often psychotic and paranoid as well.

Imagine our anxiety when midnight came and we were still sitting with little hope of having our mother seen by a professional. Our optimism was dashed when the county sheriff showed up with a van load of prisoners all of whom had to be assessed for mental competence. Even though we had been there for six hours, by law the men in chains had to come first, and it would be many more hours before the medical professionals would get to our mother. In the meantime, she saw the handcuffs and the law men and began to imagine that someone was going to jail her as well. She became so frightened that she demanded that we leave. Of course we ended up taking her home with no medication and no help whatsoever.

When my brothers tried again to take Mama to her regular doctor the next day, they were told to return to the emergency room. They spent another sixteen hours before she was finally assessed and sent to a dreary facility in Bellaire that seemed more like a prison that a place designed to be therapeutic. It was enough to make us scream or cry.

The point is that my mother had good health insurance and still we were not able to find competent physicians to help her. I once spent five eight hour days calling all over town to secure an appointment with a psychiatrist. When I finally reached someone who was willing to help I was ecstatic. He was an incredible doctor who helped her to become well and in better shape than she had been in years. To our utter dismay the clinic where he worked decided that he was too expensive for their budget and he had to leave to work at a psychiatric hospital that would not allow him to do outpatient care. We were back to square one and my mother’s mental health deteriorated while we began the search again.

In our country we worry about so many things that are unimportant by comparison to caring for those afflicted with mental illness. We have little empathy for them or for their families. We turn our heads embarrassed by their actions when they are desperately ill. We think that somehow it is their fault that they are so often in Catch 22 situations. Only if we have to attempt to navigate through the maze of barriers do we begin to understand just how desperate the circumstances actually are. If we combine the difficulty of finding care with the stigma attached to mental illnesses the problems are compounded and complex.

I often see the eyes of my audience glaze over as soon as I bring up the topic of mental illness. It is a conversation that nobody wants to have. We are unwilling to admit our neglect and abuse of those who suffer from disorders that make them seem scary. We have yet to take mental illness as seriously as we need to do. I will keep shouting in the wilderness until I am no longer able or until we agree as a people to get something done.

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Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

A Kinder Gentler Way of Doing Things

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I suppose that we are all feeling a bit of whiplash when it comes to the current political scene. If you are like me just want it all to go away, but know that ignoring it might be more lethal than getting involved. I heard a number of commentaries just last week from sociologists and medical doctors decrying the situation, so I know that I am not alone in wanting things to calm down. Then I watched the finale of Homeland and realized that even the world of fiction is weary of all of the bickering.

A group of doctors have done some research and found that people are actually getting stress induced illnesses which can be traced back to politics. When they are honest with their physicians many folks are reporting stomach distress, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and other symptoms all based on fears related to the current political scene. Such tendencies according to the doctors are not found in any particular set of beliefs or allegiances, but appear to simply be an alarming trend indicating just how much fear is overtaking the populace. While the doctors know that this phenomenon is occurring more and more often they admit that they don’t quite know how to tell their patients to deal with it. They also suspect that the highly charged environment won’t be changing anytime soon, because we now seem to be engaged in a perennial round of campaigning for the next voting cycle. There is no longer a resting interval from one election to another, but rather a constant debate that only seems to be getting uglier and uglier.

The sociologist that I heard indicated that the normal curve of politics is changing. Whereas there have traditionally been outliers to the left and the right with the bulk of the voters in the middle, the new trend shows the middle shrinking while the extremes continue to grow. She pointed out that the moderate independent voters have been the true defenders of our democracy with their willingness to consider all sides of an argument to forge alliances and compromises. She maintains that it was the moderate who built our Constitution and later continued our progress through subsequent necessary changes. She worries that without a dominant middle ground we will erupt into a kind of deadlock that will ultimately endanger all of us.

This season of Homeland was art imitating life with its topics of political upheaval. It was a fictional call for people of character to defend our country with diplomacy and acts of understanding. It suggested that our only way forward is to begin reaching across the aisle even to those with whom we disagree. It will take trust to do so, and at least for the present such willingness to believe in our innate goodness is in short supply. We have become almost paranoid when it comes to dealing with anyone who does not think exactly as we do. Thus we are not only ripping apart the country with our demands, but also sending ourselves into frenzies of illness. I wonder what it will take to make this stop.

The sociologist suggested that some mega event may pull us together, but such happenings often bring a great deal of shared pain before the healing begins. Wars have been known to create strange bedfellows. Natural disasters often bring out our best tendencies. Somehow we need a cause that is not as horrific as either of those things, something like John Kennedy’s idea that we should race to the moon. I simply wonder if we have anyone with enough imagination to create a coalition of people who want the noise and the distrust to stop. It has been far too long since we have had much success in that regard.

I’m one of those folks who has stuck with the middle. I refuse to align myself with any party because I generally find that I don’t entirely agree with anyone or any group. I simply vote for the closest approximation to what I believe. I am more than willing to hear the arguments from both sides and I find both good and bad points all around. I find that very few individuals are perfect nor are many of them so evil that I must dismiss them. I myself hold many contradictory opinions, but some of them are stronger and more important than others. I’m willing to compromise on just about anything as long as doing so does not hurt someone.

I’ve been hearing some wonderful sermons and readings from the Bible in church each Sunday. This week began with the reminder that Jesus was all about love, regardless of our differences. We desperately need some real dialogue with one another, especially those whom we most fear. We need to honestly learn what is driving the varying thoughts and behaviors. We may find that others are not really as different from us as we may think. There are certainly those who crave power, but most of us just want to lead quiet and secure lives. Perhaps it’s time to send a message that we are tired of the anger and the fighting and are looking for people who are willing to bring our country back together again.

Sadly all of the doctors and researchers are simply screeching in the wind if we as individuals do not combine our power to create change. A brief study of politicians demonstrates that the majority of them will change when they see that we the people want something different from them. Instead of following the shrieks of the outliers, it’s time for the great big middle to save us all from ourselves. it’s time that we insist for the good of our country and our own health that we return to a kinder gentler way of doing things.

The Geniuses Among Us

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I’ve never forgotten a moment during a mathematics test when I was walking up and down the aisles of my classroom monitoring the progress of my students who were working away to complete the calculations before the bell rang for the next period. I quietly looked down at their test papers as I strolled from one desk to another trying not to disturb them unless one of them had a question. I was happy to note that all of them appeared to be working away in a frenzy of understanding, ratifying my hopes that I had somehow done my job of teaching them well. As I neared the end of my route on the last row of desks I noticed a boy staring intently at the bulletin board that was located adjacent to his desk. He appeared to be in an almost hypnotic state, so I worried that he was somehow confused by the questions on the test paper that lay on his desk or perhaps concerned about a personal problem. Whatever the reason, it seemed to be all consuming.

As I made an uncharacteristically swift bee line to his location he didn’t even notice my impending arrival. Instead he continued to almost burn a hole in the display on the wall with his unmoving eyes. Even when I was standing right behind him he did not move a muscle, seemingly unaware of my presence in his personal zone. Before I had time to interrupt his thoughts I noted with horror that he had only finished half of the problems on his test and the clock was ticking rapidly toward the final ten minutes of work time. I was about to shake him from his reverie when he suddenly turned in his seat with a smile and triumphantly announced, “I found him!” Only then did he glance my way and notice me for the first time. He looked at me in wonderment and repeated his words once again as though he believed that I understood their meaning, “I found him!”

I was agitated and confused, but he was disturbingly calm as I asked  him what he was doing and why he was making such an enigmatic comment. He looked at me with a kind of amusement that I was so dense, explaining that he had managed to find Waldo. That’s when I realized that he had been peering at a gigantic poster that featured the little guy with a stocking cap who over and over again becomes lost in a sea of humanity. The student had become mesmerized by the hunt to the point of losing his way into the world of a make believe puzzle rather than attending to the work of the test. As I stood incredulously before him I didn’t know weather to laugh, cry or visit an outburst of anger upon him. I chose quiet resignation instead, and gently congratulated him on his victory while reminding him that he had only a few minutes to complete as much of the test as possible. I physically handed him his pencil, focused his gaze on the teat paper and indicated the urgency of the matter with a concerned expression on my face.

Later that day I felt compelled to grade the boy’s test first to determine how much damage he had inflicted on himself with his distraction. Perhaps not so amazingly he had actually finished all of the problems and his mistakes were minor enough to earn him one of the few almost perfect scores. It was only then that I burst into unmitigated laughter, because I had always believed that this quirky child who often challenged me and his other teachers was in truth a kind of little genius in our midst. I understood that his mind was on a slightly different plane than the rest of us, and that his utterances revealed the workings of a mind running free through a world of thoughts that were often provoking and sometimes strange. Indeed he was gifted, of a mind that confounded us as it raced from one idea or question to another.

I’ve taught a number of students like that during my career. They are quite different from their peers and more often then not misunderstood. They rarely fit into a mold that defines them and many times even their teachers wonder if they are really great thinkers or simply frauds who enjoy rocking boats for their own entertainment. Genius does not always reveal itself easily. Sometimes we don’t see the clues and we misinterpret the behaviors.

We’ve all heard about the difficulties that Albert Einstein endured in his early years. His questions and frustrations were viewed by his teachers and those who attempted to manage him as audacity and laziness. Even after earning a degree he was unable to land a position as a teaching professor because his thinking was so orthodox that nobody was willing to provide him with a reference. Instead he was reduced to working as a clerk at a government patent office where he often became the target of his frustrated boss who complained that he worked too slowly and without any discernible enthusiasm. It was not his job that fascinated him but rather the research that he conducted in the evenings that occupied his mind. He prolifically published one theory after another until his thinking finally caught someone’s eye and eventually that of the entire world. Even at the height of his fame, however, his beliefs were often controversial, exposing him to criticism and even investigations and persecution. Somehow like most geniuses he lived in a world of his own creation inviting those with an open mind to partake of his thinking.

We have geniuses in our own time and in almost every case there is something almost other worldly about them. They are creators and free thinkers who see the universe through lenses that are different from the rest of us. Their minds are ablaze with thoughts which when uttered may seem bizarre, impossible or even controversial. We may view them as being a bit crazy because they are willing to suggest ideas that appear to be foolhardy or out of touch. They many times endure the ire of society when they innocently express their beliefs. They often live in ways that fly in the face of convention and refuse to apply filters to their behavior and utterances. They make enemies, but also force us to pause for a moment to consider possibilities that have never before crossed our minds. They provide the engines of progress and debate that we humans require to solve the mysteries of the world.

Of late we’ve been hearing about Kanye West, a celebrity who at first glance appears to be little more than a spoiled entertainer whose wealth has isolated him from reality. Things that he does and says sometimes  appear to border on insanity and other times seem more like heresy. He becomes an annoyance that we want to crush, but then we study the body of his work and his many careers and realize that he is much more complex than he at first appears to be. He is more akin to the boy who has found Waldo than a trouble maker. While we are doing our best just to get from one day to the next, Kanye is constantly thinking about things and rearranging accepted beliefs and values. He is asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. Taken in soundbites his utterances may seem to be the product of someone who lacks empathy or manners, but when considered against the backdrop of all that he has achieved they become the intellectual considerations of a true genius. Rather than condemning him we would do well to allow him the free reign to develop critical questions and thoughts that few of us would have the courage to utter.

Kanye West is a true genius who was writing poetry at the age of five and went on to create some of the most poetic lyrics in hip hop. The world is his canvas and the wanderings of his mind rarely stop. We may not like some of the things that he does and says, because he is a free thinker who does not hide even his most controversial ideas. Like so many geniuses before him he is unwilling to be fettered by convention or political correctness, and the truth is that we should all want to protect his right to be who he is regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us. He is thinking out loud and his stream of consciousness may be confusing unless we take the time to contemplate his thoughts in context and with deliberation. Like all geniuses he ultimately is not worried about what we may be thinking, so it is up to each of us to carefully parse his words and allow him the freedom that each and everyone of us deserves. In the end his are simply opinions that we may take or leave. It would only be wrong if we were to dismiss him only because we disagree. Kanye West is figuratively searching for Waldo and it is important that we encourage him to find what he seeks. 

Doing God’s Work

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I recall feeling as stunned by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King as I had been when President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I had to choose one person that I consider to be my the most extraordinary hero of the twentieth century it would have to be Dr. King. When I heard the news of his death I was stunned and as I was washing dishes I became so upset that I dropped a plate that I had been rinsing and it shattered along with my dreams. I was only nineteen years old at the time, and I felt as though the world had gone mad. It was days later before I was even able to process what had actually happened and it was then that I fell apart.

I remember wanting to desperately to talk with my not yet mother-in-law because I knew that she had been as impressed by Dr. King as I was. Several days had passed before I finally saw her and I found comfort in knowing that she was as shaken and grief stricken as I was. Neither of us said much and our words for each other were not particularly wise, but our common bond of love and respect for this great man was palatable, Just sitting quietly with her sustained me as I quietly thought of how great our nation’s loss had been and of Dr. King’s  a martyrdom for a noble cause.

The fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death occurred just this week, and I found myself once again feeling quite distressed at the thought of how horrific his murder was. He is undoubtedly my number one hero from the twentieth century and over the last five decades I have often longed for his wisdom and leadership. There had been a time when I had believed that he might one day be President of the United States. His influence in bringing about the passage of the Civil Right Act cannot be underestimated and I thought that we would honor him with our gratitude rather than cutting his brilliant life so short. His courage and incredible speaking ability allowed him to become a voice for all people who have endured prejudice and injustice. His “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the finest in the history of mankind, ranking with the Gettysburg Address and other great rhetorical masterpieces.

I remember being quite surprised when I realized that Dr. King had been somewhat small in stature. Somehow he had loomed so large in my mind that I imagined that he must be a giant. The monument of him in Washington D.C. is carved out of an enormous boulder and seems to be a fitting representation of his impact on the history of our country, and yet he was always a humble man who worried that he was never doing enough to hurry the pace of integration and civil rights.

I have literally felt his spirit when I went to Birmingham, Alabama and placed my hands on the jail bars that once imprisoned him. I felt the same rush of something quite spiritual when I walked through his boyhood home in Atlanta, Georgia and again in his parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. When I gazed up at the balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where he was standing when he was shot I felt as though someone had kicked the breath out of me. I almost saw him standing there, feeling so tired and wrestling with a sense of foreboding that his days were numbered. He was a target for the worst instincts of humankind, but he continued to preach a doctrine of civil disobedience rather than violence. He was always first and foremost a minister of God’s word. In that spirit he dreamed of a world in which we all might follow the commandment of love,

Martin Luther King was no more perfect than any of us. He admitted to his own failings which included bouts of depression and times of doubt. He sometimes wanted to leave the limelight and quietly live a more comfortable existence, but each time he considered such ideas something in his mind told him that he was supposed to continue his work. I have often wondered where he found his strength, but then I remember that he gave full credit to his faith in God. He felt that he had been chosen for the difficult task and he followed his vocation even when it became brutally difficult. The attacks on his character came from both his enemies and those who called themselves his friends. Sometimes he felt quite alone, but then he always remembered his God.

Somehow there have been great men and women who rose to the challenges of different situations. Some say that Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War completed the task of creating a society in which all people had unalienable rights. The reality is that a hundred years after the Gettysburg Address and the abolition of slavery there were people in our country who were treated abysmally. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of slaves were still being denied the rights that should have been theirs and it took the dedication of countless individuals to overthrow the horrific practices that were still protected by laws of segregation and inequality. All of those souls played an important part in the outcome of the civil rights movement, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was their voice just as Lincoln had been for the slaves.

I know that there are still problems in our country that must be resolved, and I hope and pray that more and more of us will do our part to insure that no person is treated differently due to race, sex, or religion. We have come far, but it would be premature to believe that the work is done. If Dr. King were still here I suppose that he would be able to express the problems in an elegant manner that everyone might understand. Out of honor for his work it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to honor his memory by living the way he wanted all of us to be. The process of justice begins one person at a time, and it is our duty to do what we can to protect even the most vulnerable among us.

I cry tears of both joy and sadness when I think of Martin Luther King. I am happy that he accomplished as much a he did, but I worry whenever I witness racism and realize that it is alive and well while such a great man is dead. In this Easter season we often think of the life of Jesus Christ whose words should guide us just as they did Dr. King. If we truly wish to do God’s work we must continue the work that Martin Luther King showed us how to do.