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.

  

Loss

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“Loss” is a four letter word not meant to be a pejorative like the infamous ones that sometimes get us into trouble, but with a meaning so profound that it has the power to leave us unable to function in any normal way. Like the layers of an onion loss takes on deeper and deeper significance as we get closer to its core, and like that same onion it sometimes makes us cry. For me, loss is the ultimate trigger for stress whether it is directly affecting me or someone that I love.

Loss can appear to be superficial as in the inability to find something important, a receipt, a jacket, a favorite book, a prized heirloom. I grow anxious whenever I can’t find something that I treasure.

Somewhere in the move from my house of over thirty years to the one where I now reside I lost a gold charm bracelet that my husband had given me when we were dating. A heart dangled from the forged links and engraved on it were the numbers signifying our first date with the words “Now and Forever” reminding me of our infinite bond of love. My stressors went into high gear when I ultimately accepted the fact that it was gone and I grieved that I would never see it again, but it was in the final analysis only the loss of an object, a symbol of something far deeper than the thing itself. Still, I know that when we lose something special it saddens us and justifiably so.

When the walls and ceilings of my rooms were flooded by the sudden rush of hot liquid from my hot water heater I became a messy gooey ball of stress. My imagination became a fertile ground for turning this inconvenient bit of loss into a major event. I worried that mold would grow in the nooks and crannies of my walls rendering my house unlivable and unsaleable. I could not rest until I had ripped carpet and sheetrock from the the wettest areas. My impatience in finding someone who would quickly repair the damage grew into full blown anger. The situation consumed the thoughts of my days and nights. I had to remind myself that it was only a temporary loss, one that would eventually be set right. I calmed the beast roaring inside my mind with the truth that I had only lost things, replaceable stuff.

The greatest loss is the death of loved ones. Nothing ever really fixes that. Time superficially heals but the pain but grief lives inside the heart. Such tragic loss is the most difficult aspect of our human experience, even when we actually believe in a more glorious afterlife. We soldier on without the people who have gone before us but we never really forget them and in moments that come and go we remember how much it hurts to accept that we will never see them again. Such is loss that produces more than just stress. It tears at our very souls.

Loss is all around us. Even when it happens to someone else we feel the pain and stress that comes with it. We know that it engenders powerful emotions whether it is the loss of something seemingly insignificant or of a living being. We instinctively empathize with the person who is undergoing distress over loss because we too have felt such emotions and we understand.

Loss is such a small word and yet it stalks us like a powerful monster. We lose hope, confidence, reputation, control. We struggle with fears of loss. Like the nightmare that it sometimes is, loss creates anxieties and worries. It is a trigger that has the power to temporarily or permanently undo us, but our nature is to fight against its inclinations. We do our best to deal with it until the next time that it returns.

January presented itself with loss. I was unable to find the mate to a set of earrings. That was annoying but not the worst situation. When both a beloved aunt and a magical cousin died within days of one another I felt the weight of true loss. I grieved for myself but mostly for those closest to these incredible women, their immediate families who are struggling with the enormity of their losses. I felt the horror of those who lost their homes in a freak explosion that occurred early one morning. I saw a long road of repair and possibly even momentous change ahead for them. I awoke to the terrible news that two of my most wonderful friends had lost the use of their own bodies when they had strokes. I cried with the nation over the untimely death of Kobe Bryant and the eight souls who perished with him.

I suppose that loss is perhaps the greatest trigger for stress in our lives. When it piles on us we lose our sense of direction. We find it difficult to find the way out and yet we also know from experience that we need not be defeated. It may take time and great patience but we can find escape the darkness that has descended upon us. The loss may be forever but the way that we react to it can and does become more bearable.

Winter came in January, a time when some among us endured losses both great and small. We take a deep breath. We embrace one another. We find ways to soothe our souls. The cycle continues and we continue down the road of life knowing that we will eventually find the peace and tranquility that will set us in the right direction once again.  Loss challenges but we need not allow it to defeat.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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Try to imagine the time when you were fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years old. Did you know much about the world? Were you confident? Did you do some stupid things? How would you have reacted if you had been picked up by police who accused you of a heinous crime? What might you have done or said if they wore you down after more than twenty four hours of interrogation without your parents or an attorney being present? What if they told you that all you had to do is go along with a story about people that you did not know and then you would be allowed to go home? Who among us would have held up under such intense pressure? How much worse do you think it might have been if you were poor and Black or Hispanic. Such was the situation of five teenage boys in New York City on an April night in 1989 after they had been partaking in a raucous game in Central Park called “wilding” in which they harassed passersby, sometimes going a bit too far but mostly just letting off steam.

New York City was a crime ridden shell of what it is today back then. The public had grown weary of the muggings and violence that were a daily occurrence. The failing economy of the city at that time created extreme economic divisions. There was a tension between the haves and have nots that was almost certain to blow. The situation exploded on that April night of 1989, when a young woman who had been jogging was found near death in Central Park. There was an immediate urgency to find the perpetrators of the crime and a sense that somehow the young men who had created havoc that same night must surely be the ones who had done this egregious act.

The police created a scenario in their minds and then without any physical evidence convinced themselves that some of the young men that they had rounded up early must indeed have been the thugs who had done the violent deed. With no substantiation other than a hunch they began to grill five young men only two of whom knew each other at the time. They lied to the teens telling them that others had implicated them in the crime. In spite of the boys’ claim that they knew nothing of the matter the lawmen persisted in their insistence that they would get the truth that they wanted one way or another. Promising a route home if the exhausted teens cooperated they fed each one details that were created to frighten them into making taped confessions each of which contained conflicting stories. Only one boy never implicated himself or any of the others because his mother rushed in to rescue him from the invasive interrogation but even he was doomed.

Thinking that the worst was over after providing the forced statements each teen was shocked upon being charged with the rape and the violence associated with the incident. Thus began a prolonged journey through the court and prison system for five young men who maintained their innocence in spite of what they had said on tape. They became known as the Central Park Five and their story is one of incomprehensible injustice.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef, and Korey would be tried in both the media and the courts. They became reviled symbols of all that was wrong with society. They had essentially been found guilty from the moment that the police learned of the raped and battered woman in the park. They were damned every step of the way and without the resources of money, good lawyers and parents who understood how things worked they were left to a kind of mob rule. Needless to say all five were found guilty in spite of a case so weak that it should never have resulted in indictments. The four who were younger were sentenced as juveniles and one, who was sixteen at the time of the crime but seventeen when he was found guilty, went straight to Riker’s Island as an adult.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin and Yusef spent seven years imprisoned. Korey endured thirteen years during which time he was brutalized multiple times. All had been robbed of their youth and any promise of the future until a serial rapist finally admitted to the crime for which they had been convicted. In a dramatic turn of events the actual perpetrator was able to provide police with details that only someone who had committed the crime would have known. Additionally his DNA matched that found on the victim at the scene of the crime. Eventually the five young men who had suffered so needlessly were exonerated and years later the city of New York gave them financial compensation for the mistake that had been made.

I have not been able to get this story out of my thoughts. I watched a documentary of their saga by Ken Burns called The Central Park Five and a limited series titled When They See Us. Both features were stunning in their depiction of an horrific injustice that is no doubt less uncommon than any of us would like to believe. In spite of the eventual outcome every one of the young men were scarred in ways that will never be erased by either apologies or restitution. Mostly I found myself thinking that something like this might easily have happened to so many of my former students who like these innocents might appear to be of a sort that is not even close to who they are. The color of their skin, the places where they live, their lack of income are often indictments by a world unwilling to seek the full truth. Our society has a dangerous tendency to act based on little or no facts. We follow outrages without thought, rushing to disaster like lemmings running toward the edge of a cliff. It happens over and over again.

I’d like to think that we might learn from such miscarriages of justice. I want to believe that we will adhere strictly to the idea that all Americans are innocent until proven guilty. I pray that we have learned the importance of protecting the rights of all people without prejudice. What worries me most is the feeling that we have yet to fully embrace such wisdom. We still have to fight for the rights of young men like Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef and Corey. I pray to God that their numbers will be few. In the meantime I recommend that The Central Park Five and When They See Us should be required viewing for all Americans.

Stranger Things

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We had spent the day touring plantation homes in Louisiana. We were tired and incredibly hungry but seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our friend announced that we were near a unique and highly rated restaurant so we eagerly headed toward what we hope would be good food and some much needed rest.

In less than fifteen minutes we were in the parking lot of our intended destination. Even though there was a large crowd inside we got seated at a nice table rather quickly. The menu was quirky but yummy sounding, at least at first. While we all perused the many choices I suddenly lost what had only moments before been a voracious appetite. In fact the mere thought of food made me feel nauseous. As everyone in our party eagerly spoke of the selections they had made I announced that I only wanted some tea. The group looked at me with puzzled expressions and asked if I was feeling well.

I explained that I just didn’t feel well and was afraid of putting anything into my now queasy stomach. I mentioned that I might just be a bit car sick, but in truth I wanted to bolt from the place. Something about it made me quite uneasy. There was no logic whatsoever to my feelings.

The waiter came to our table and took the orders looking obviously puzzled at my request for only a glass of ice tea. As the conversation at our table grew more animated I began to feel as though I was somehow not present. My mind wandered and I had an overwhelming desire to escape to the car, but without a valid explanation for my sudden flight response I instead just sat silently listening to the chatter without really hearing a word.

The food arrived and admittedly looked delicious but I had no desire to try any of it. Once the waiter had placed all of the items on the table he asked if we needed anything else. My friend said that she had a question. She wanted to know what the building had once been because it was obvious that it had been repurposed. To my shock and dismay the helpful server told us that the structure had at one time been part of an expanse of slave quarters. He pointed out that there had no doubt been much misery inside its walls. He admitted that he was glad that it was now a happy place where people enjoyed themselves.

Suddenly I understood why my body and my brain were in such a bizarre state. Somehow I had intuited that I was in an evil place. It was as though I was feeling the spirit of the souls who had been enslaved and tortured there. I had to sip some tea to keep from retching. It felt wrong for us to be so casually eating in what to me had been a house of horrors.

I did not say these things to the people who were with me. I suspected that they would either laugh at my silliness or think me bizarre for having such thoughts. Instead I nursed a growing pain in my gut as I imagined the wretched souls who had been enslaved there. It felt disrespectful to be there under circumstances of being entertained and indulged.

I suppose I must have seemed sulky to my friends. There was no logic to my feelings. It was silly of me to believe that I had somehow sensed the hurt of the people who once lived there and yet how might I explain the physical and mental pain that overtook me? My symptoms were real in spite of their superstitious nature.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think that I had some kind of sixth sense regarding the nature of that place. I suppose that there will be those who dismiss my state of mind as just a coincidence related more to being tired than any supernatural experience. I, on the other hand, believe that somehow the spirits of those poor desperate people had somehow permeated the walls so much that a part of my brain that has yet to be defined led me to the conclusion that something terrible happened there.

I am an observant person. Maybe there were clues that sent messages to my subconscious without my realizing it. It may not have been spirits at all but instead just an uncanny ability to notice small details on my part. Perhaps I simply put pieces of a puzzle together without being able to connect the dots well enough to understand what I was seeing. Or, maybe I really did feel something, have a kind of communication with those who had suffered.

Whatever happened left me in a state of profound disturbance. I had spent a day marveling at the immense wealth of people who had seemingly thought that owning another human was acceptable. The foundations of those magnificent homes had been built on the backs of labor from people judged to be unworthy of enjoying their God given right to freedom. My body reacted with a sickening revulsion.

Mankind has the capacity to be both magnificent and horrific. I’d like to believe that we humans continue to learn and evolve toward goodness. I’m saddened whenever I see evidence to the contrary. We have made much progress but it’s up to us to be watchful for signs that we have lost our way. Those monuments to a disturbing way of life will be instructive only if we agree that we must never allow such things to happen again.

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?