A Joyful Presence

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Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.

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When Me Too Hits Close To Home

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I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

The Reckoning

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart

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There is a political fire storm raging in our country today over the question of when life begins. In  particular the crux of the argument is whether aborting a baby from the womb is murder or simply a form of birth control, a reasonable choice for women’s health. It has seemingly reached a tipping point in which each side is ferociously secure in its beliefs, certain that the other side is unfair and perhaps almost evil. It has become a bitter fight with so much conflicting rhetoric that it confuses those who heretofore paid little attention to the arguments and the legislation supporting them. At the heart of the furor is the question of the definition of life. It is in that complex consideration that the true meaning of abortion lies, and as of this moment the emotionally charged effect of the differing opinions does little to help us determine the moral path forward for our nation and our world. 

Like many Americans I waffle back and forth between the Pro Life and Pro Choice positions. I feel that I understand the considerations of each side and so I have tended toward the neutral stance of insisting that I would never have had an abortion because I do believe that it is murder, but if someone doesn’t think as I do it would be okay. I have been challenged by both Pro Life and Pro Choice individuals to take a stand, to quit be so wishy washy. Instead I have kept a quiet profile and chosen not to reveal what I truly believe. It has been a bit uncomfortable, but I have done so in the name of keeping the peace. After all, who really wants or needs to know what I think? Why should I rock the point? Whose mind am I going to change?

Suddenly I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable as the issue becomes more and more volatile. I don’t know exactly how to react because it all seems so personal, hinging on questions that can only be resolved in the individual heart. Then I think about certain generalizations that persist in our society, namely that murder is wrong and just because someone is able to justify it does not make it right. I ponder our history of slavery and wonder how many people kept quiet about its practice simply because they felt that it was none of their business and it was, after all, legal. I worry that I’m mostly afraid of being ostracized if I state my true feelings, and my peacemaker personality urges me to remain silent.

Then I recall an incident from my young adult life when a large group of us looked on in horror waiting for the police to arrive while a man was mercilessly beating his wife. His children were screaming for help and yet we were frozen in a kind of fear of doing what we knew to be right. It took a “ good ole gal” from Buffalo, New York to show us what courage really is. She marched past us and forced her way into the apartment to rescue the tiny children and their mother. I still recall the feelings of guilt that I felt for having been such a coward while also being struck with awe over the woman’s courage.

I find myself wondering if the time has come for each of us to step forward to do what we believe to be the right thing. I worry that simply giving voice to our beliefs in the voting booth may not be enough to resolve this issue once and for all. I even consider that perhaps it is far too murky to ever find a clear cut solution. Still, it seems that those of us who are indeed part of the silent majority sitting on the sidelines must at some point come to grips and decide where we stand. Because my own feelings are so complex, I realize that finding the right path is going to be dangerously difficult.

I do believe that life begins at conception. To argue over life in terms of the ability of the fetus to survive without help is a convenient way of denying what I believe to be the truth. So I am one of those who believes that abortion is a form of murder. Nonetheless, I truly understand that as with anything there may be some extraordinary situations that require an abortion to save a mother’s life. Fortunately such incidents are rare, and generally approved by  both doctors and theologians. I learned in my religion classes of long ago that saving a mother is always tantamount to sacrificing her for a child.

I also understand that for whatever reason many very good women have had abortions. I view them with great compassion and understanding. I do not believe that they should be considered pariahs. In fact, I have a dear friend who has quite courageously admitted to having an abortion. She is openly discussing the many conflicting emotions that she felt both at the time and over the ensuing years. She now councils women who have walked in her shoes. She celebrates her own reconciliation and helps others to find theirs. My hesitation to go all in for the Pro Life positions lies in my own feelings for women who for whatever reason have taken this emotion charged step.

The key to the discussion lies not so much in judging decisions of the past but in moving forward into the future and doing the right thing. As with the issue of slavery we need to rid ourselves of a moral wrong, but we must not dwell incessantly on the past. We also need to carefully define those moments when abortion becomes a medical necessity for the safety of the woman. In addition, we have to take into account how to care for any children who are unwanted by being willing to foster or adopt them. We must support and provide forms of birth control that will be available to all women without extraordinary costs or sacrifices.

I do believe that each of us must look into our hearts and decide on this issue one way or another and be willing to stand for our convictions. We need not bring our differences to a warlike state, but instead demonstrate a willingness to understand the genuine feelings involved in the questions. We need to rid ourselves of insulting slogans and posters and silly hats of one sort or another and get down to the business of hearing and considering the merit of each argument. In the end our greatest treasure, our humanity, is at stake. I hope that we find a way to do the right thing. I believe that we may be at a watershed moment of reckoning. We may each find ourselves being called to task. It’s time.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

Becoming

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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.