Musings on the War in Ukraine

I get emotional thinking about the war in Ukraine. I’ve never been there and I only know one Ukrainian woman by association with her husband with whom I once worked. I look at a map and see Slovakia on the border with Ukraine and think of my grandparents who came from that region. My DNA identifies me as being almost fifty percent Eastern European. Without ever having been to any of those places I somehow identify with the people in that part of the world and remember stories that my mother told me about her father’s love of his homeland. I know that I must have relatives there because I have seen letters from cousins reaching out to my grandparents. 

My mother was proud to be an American because her father taught her to be so. He had come to our shores just before the outbreak of World War I and was always grateful for the freedom and opportunities that he found in this country. He rather quickly became a naturalized citizen of the United States and all of his children were born here and spent their lives serving and honoring this country, but they also understood that their heritage was shared with Slovakia. 

Mama told me that she only saw her father cry a few times in his life. One was when Germany overtook Czechoslovakia during World War II. Another was when the Soviet Union laid claim to his homeland at the end of that war. He had hoped that the place of his birth and boyhood would become a free democracy like the USA. He did not live to see his dream come to fruition when many years later Slovakia finally become its own nation after a long history of domination by outside forces. 

I have admittedly paid only cursory attention to Eastern Europe. I know little about the place where my grandparents were born or the nations that surround it other than the fact that many of them endured the iron fist of the Soviet Union for decades during my lifetime. I celebrated their freedom as we neared the end of the twentieth century and the old guard fell. I watched the various countries struggle to build democracies and lift themselves up from the domination that the Soviet Union had held over them. 

When murmurs of potential conflict between Ukraine and Russia arose last year I had to do some research to learn more about the fractious historical relationship between the two countries. I realized that the struggles had been ongoing for a very long time and that Ukraine by nature of its location was an amalgam of many differing people. Using the skills I had learned in a long ago geography class I saw the economic worth of Ukraine to Russia and better understood why the super power was bold enough to invade under the guise of freeing Russians who live there. Its fertile land and seaports were the most likely reasons for Russia’s greed, along with the outsized pride of Putin’s dream of recreating the dominance of the old Soviet Union. 

I had hoped that Russia would see the determination of the Ukraine people and the support of western nations, including my own country, and pull back from the push to conquer the country. One year later I realize that Putin is determined to continue his murderous rampage regardless of the cost to either Russians or Ukrainians. At this point he seems determined to send waves of Russian soldiers into Ukraine no matter how many of them die or how much destruction they leave in their paths. The idea of any kind of peaceful resolution appears to be far away. 

I think of the people of Ukraine often. My mother used to muse that we might have relatives there given the proximity to Slovakia. I wonder if there is some distant cousin enduring the horrors of a year of war and worrying about what the coming months may bring. I feel a strange connection to the people there and I have admittedly shed many tears over their predicament. I also wonder why so many Americans want us to withdraw our support of Ukraine with the argument that it has nothing to do with us and is therefore a waste of our taxes. 

I find myself thinking of the grandfather that I never met. I would love to talk with him to find out how he feels about what is happening close to his old neighborhood. Would he be angry, worried, or maybe just sad that any people in Europe are still enduring the whims of power hungry oligarchs? Would he be concerned that Slovakia too might lose its recent freedoms if Ukraine falls? I’d like to know his thoughts.

As Ukraine enters its second year of war I keep the people constantly in my thoughts. I wish that the whole world were united in support for them, but politics make strange alliances that all too often choke the life out of innocent people. Such has been a fact of history for decades and it bothers me. I can’t seem to be someone who can easily ignore the suffering of others, especially when what is happening to them seems so unfair. I’m a fixer and I don’t know how to fix Ukraine other than to continue to support them in every possible way.

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Boom!

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I remember a time when nobody talked about mental illness or even mental health. I recall the nation’s shocking reaction when a news story revealed that Thomas Eagleton, a candidate for Vice President of the United States, had once undergone electro shock therapy for depression. He only lasted eight days as the running mate with George McGovern. That was in 1972, at the very beginning of my mother’s long journey with bipolar disorder. At the time I chose to be mostly silent about her illness lest she be typecast as “crazy” rather that someone with a legitimate and treatable condition. 

Almost fifty years later we are only slightly better at talking freely and compassionately about mental illness, even as we have begun to understand that it is far more common than we once believed. Few individuals have never been touched by the often frightening and debilitating  specter of a loved one with anxiety, depression or other psychological disorder. Nonetheless it continues to remain an illness only spoken about in whispers. Thus it was stunning to me to hear that Senator John Fetterman had announced that he was undergoing treatment for depression. His honesty and courage filled me with hope that one day such a revelation will be no more shocking than hearing that he had cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy. Even better was the low key and mostly understanding reaction of the public. 

Let’s face it. We all have moments when we endure a deep funk or feel so munch anxiety that our hearts are racing. Life can pound us to the point of knowing that we have to step back a bit or we will surely crack open. Each of us deals with such times in various ways, but for some the cycle won’t stop ratcheting up. Something goes very wrong until something breaks inside the mind. Just as with a heart attack, we can’t heal the level of hurt on our own. Mental illness is just that, a natural phenomenon that happens to almost all people in varying levels of seriousness mostly through no fault of their own. 

I’ve had a rough time for the past year. One of my favorite aunts died. Boom! My mother-in-law died. Boom! My father-n-law came to live in my home, upending all of my routines and plans. Boom! One of my dearest friends died. Boom! My cousin was diagnosed with dementia and died so quickly that I never had time to adjust. Boom! A close family member is struggling with a difficult situation. Boom! The world is on fire with natural disasters, wars, famine, sickness, and a seeming inability to work together. Boom! I have been feeling as though I am under attack. I wonder what horrible thing will happen next. The tragedies come in such rapid succession that I am on high alert. Boom! 

These days I find just waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. I sleep restlessly if at all. I feel the weight of the world on my chest. Still I do not break, but I am so familiar with what happens to someone who falls apart under the weight of constant stress. I have seen it in my mother’s darting eyes that lost all sense of perspective when her coping skills vanished under the assault for her disorder. I walked with her through the terrors of her thoughts and the nights when there was not even a minute of sleep. I know how painful and exhausting it is for those whose minds are afflicted. I realize that the severeness of their illness has little or nothing to do with how strong they are. 

I can give myself a mental health day in bed pampering myself and recover enough to feel confident in returning to the battlefield of life. I know when I am about to hit a wall and smash into a million pieces and I am do what I have to do to become whole and hardy again. Someone with a severe illness may try, but somehow fail to get well with a bandaid here and there. It takes help which all too often is nowhere to be found. 

We rally around someone who is undergoing heart surgery or who is struck with a chronic disease of the body. We accommodate them and listen to them as they describe their situations. Somehow mental illness continues to be something that is hidden, frightening. We don’t want to be around someone who is crying or manic. We are uncomfortable with such souls even when they are in a cycle of doing well. We may even deem them to be lost causes, so broken that we can never rely on them to be responsible. 

My mother was blessed. She worked with people who understood that she would sometimes be too sick to do her job. They kept it for her until she was well again. Her family looked beyond her moments of insanity and saw her for the incredibly talented, brilliant and strong person that she was. Her doctors patiently adjusted their treatments for her as her symptoms changed. Her employer provided her with free medical insurance that paid for the services that she needed. Her neighbors watched over her looking for signs that she was in distress and then joining in the process of helping her to get well again. 

Mental illnesses can and should be as much a part of our medical routines as any other disease or condition that attacks our bodies. As a society we should be as supportive of someone with depression as we might be with an individual with a broken bone. The symptoms of mental illnesses may frighten us, but they should not cause us to shun people like lepers were once driven from society. John Letterman has an illness called depression. It is chronic and he is taking care of it. We should all be applauding him and hope that he will soon be better so that he can go back to work. I am praying that his example will bring change to how we think about diseases of the mind. Surely it is long past time for having discussions of mental illness out in the open and being as generous in funding for research and treatment as we are with cancer. 

We all have forms of mental illness to a lesser or greater extent. It is more common that we want to admit. If we are willing to be open and honest about it we may finally be on our way to finding cures for the most frightening of illnesses. Boom!   

What’s In A Name?

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Have you ever had a nickname? Do more people know you by a pet name than the one your parents gave you when you were born? 

I’m always fascinated by the way we rebrand people with nicknames and often wonder how they came about. I never had one that stuck. My cousins and a couple of my aunts tried calling me “Shay Shay” for a time, but it just never clicked enough to become a lifetime moniker. Because my mother felt that she had given me a lovey name she never wanted to distort its beauty with a silly shortened version. She began calling me “Little D or Little Doll” instead which made me wince whenever I heard it pass through her lips. I suppose everyone else felt the same way because her effort to provide me with what she saw as a suitable nickname never took hold. 

I have an aunt who was named Wilma (with the w being pronounced like a v), but she instead called herself Claudia. Her siblings chose to refer to her as Speedy until the day she died. For years I actually wondered why her mother and father had given her such a strange name because I never recall anyone speaking of her as Claudia. On the other hand one of her brothers sometimes referred to her as Wilma. For everyone else she was always Speedy.

I have a daughter named after her two grandmothers but somehow we began calling her Minnie instead shortly after she was born. It was an surprise that our affectionate way of referring to her took hold. Amazingly my grandmother was named Minnie and my husband’s grandmother had the elegant name, Mary Isabella, that eventually became Minnie to those who knew her best. Somehow I always suspected that the two ladies had somehow gotten into our brains to assign their great granddaughter a name that honors them both. Whatever the case, she is fondly called Minnie or Minnie LaLa by virtually everyone in the family.

Our second daughter became “Pookie” or “the Pook” to us, but her friends and her husband shortened her birth name of Catherine to “Cat” and that has stuck with her. Nonetheless to me and her father she will always be our Pookie. She really is as elegant and regal and as great as a Catherine as there ever was, but so humble that Cat seems to suit her best.

One of my cousins was named Paul but we always called him “Bubba.” As he grew older he seemed to resemble Bill Clinton and so his coworkers called him “Bubba” as well. A niece is actually Charlotte but we have referred to her “Birdie” for so long that she never became accustomed to her real name. One of my students is named Phillip but fondly known by those who are close to him as “Bill.” Another student has been renamed “Peach,” an excellent choice given her red hair and flawless complexion. Then there is “Ollie,”  a fun loving girl for whom the name Olivia seems a bit to formal. 

When I first met my husband everyone was calling him Mickey but he introduced himself to me as Mike. I became confused as we continued dating and I seemed to be the only one who did not refer to him as Mickey. One day I asked him if he preferred that I use the nickname that everyone else seemed to know. He insisted that he had never liked the moniker that had been foisted on him and asked me to continue calling him Mike. To this day when we are with his family he suddenly becomes Mickey and I sound as though I never correctly identified who he is. There is almost always some scratching of heads when I say his name in front of his relatives.

Most nicknames are cute and and often a kind of private reference from family or friends who know the person well. They only stick when they manage to weather the test of time. A friend named Alvin is still “Rusty” to all of us even though his once red hair is gone. The worst nickname I ever heard was “Booger.” I felt for the man who always looked pained whenever his kin called him that in public. What had seemed adorable when he was young felt somehow distasteful and insulting once he was an adult. 

Some people seem to inspire nicknames just from being themselves. Their birth names may be quite nice but not descriptive enough to explain their larger than life personalities. Either relatives or friends see something in them that demands the honor of a great nickname and the new moniker is born. Of late I am often called “Miss B” or “Mama B” by my students both present and past. I kind of like that. It seems to fit me well even though it’s not all that inventive. I’ve even found myself telling new students to just to call me Miss B instead of the more formal Mrs. Burnett. I suspect that some of them have referred to me with the shortened version for so long that they may not even remember my full name. It’s nice to finally have a nickname that makes me smile.

I often wonder if we grow to fit our names or if they somehow define as in a strange kind of way. I suppose there may be a psychological treatise somewhere that explores that every topic. Does the name fit the person or does the person fit the name? Perhaps it is a bit of both. 

The Joy of Work

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I read all kinds of crazy articles. One that I recently chose to parse discussed a study that addressed the general psychology of workaholics. It seems that many who work extreme numbers of hours most of the time are actually sublimating feelings of depression. The theory is that they work to keep from becoming overly sad or anxious. I really identified with that  concept because it is exactly what I have done my entire life. Anytime that I begin to get a bit too blue I keep myself so active that I barely have time to fall exhausted into bed in the evening. 

I may do heavy cleaning of my house or create a new garden. I’ll tackle new skills or work math problems. I write, I cook for a week or read strange pieces from magazines or newspapers of every kind. I plot out my days with precision making sure that I have something to do from the time I arise until I retire for the night. My method generally works like a charm. Having a purpose and accomplishing my goals brings back my smile.

I have to admit that I read that article about workaholics on a very dreary winter day that was threatening to send my mind down a rabbit hole of negative thinking. It helped me to redirect my energy from worry and feeling blue to enjoying the reality that I had time to get things done inside my house. Before long I found myself doing heavy duty dusting of every surface in the house like I once did when my mother made that chore one of my duties. 

Mama had two collections that I was in charge of keeping tidy. One held all the the salt and pepper shakers she had purchased on vacation trips. I loved those miniature reminders of her travels. There were replicas of the Statue of Liberty, cacti from Arizona, bears from Montana, and all kinds of cute figures that made me smile. Mama would usually turn on music to entertain me while I removed the week’s accumulation of dust from each crevice. 

Then I would turn to the lovely porcelain birds that festooned a shelf in our living room. They were delicate and colorful and I thought they were wonderful. There was no way to be anything but happy around those lovely replicas of nature. I marveled at how well made they were and handled them with great care lest I drop one or create a chip. 

My more recent dusting extravaganza required me to climb on stools and get down on my knees to reach everything with my cloth. I had my AirPods blasting music for me just like my mother had once done. I laughed at the idea that such a seemingly boring and onerous task would bring me so much joy. It really is funny how our minds work. I had soon forgotten about the cold and rain outside. It felt sunny as my memories took me back to that earlier time. I could almost see myself happily performing my cleaning job as though it was playtime. 

My mother often commented that ignorance is bliss. It is one idea on which I would have to disagree. I find that keeping my mind active by challenging myself to keep learning new things is where I find true joy. Reading is akin to traveling the world. Even doing those math problems is like unravelling a puzzle or a mystery. I suppose that being a lifetime student has kept me eager and young.

My grandson came to visit on one of the coldest and bleakest day we have experienced all winter. We made dinner together and had such an amazing conversation about artificial intelligence and the future of electric cars. We talked about the transformation of cities and the way we will one day change the way we do things. We talked about the possibilities that older people may be able to stay in their homes with robots assisting them even if they are disabled. It was quite gratifying to hear his optimism. 

I suspect that I can stay busy for years to come just keeping up with all of the changes that are sure to come to pass. It will mean more to read, more to talk about, more to learn. It’s hard to be sad when there are so many possibilities. Who knows there may also be advances in treating those who have chronic depression. We may not be too far away from making life better for all kinds of illnesses. I know that much has changed since I was that little girl cleaning the salt shakers and porcelain birds. What is not different is the joy that I feel in having a purpose. Big or small, having something to keep me from being idle has always been a panacea. 

The sun is back out again. I’ll be heading off soon to help my daughter clean the debris left behind by a recent winter storm. I’ve got my garden gloves and boots and saws to trim the hanging branches that fell from the trees after being encased in ice for three days. It’s my kind of joyful task. I get to stay busy and help someone at the same time. Nothing feels better than that. This workaholic is ready to go.

Let Freedom Ring

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When my husband was in graduate school his professors often invited him and a select few of his classmates to discussions at their homes. He took me along as an observer and the experience was delightful. Sitting in a small circle among people with brilliant minds reminded me of the Parisian salons of great authors, artists, and philosophers who ultimately influenced the world with their creative inventions. 

I usually sat mutely listening to the parlay of ideas about society and history. I was like a child with a big bowl of delicious ice cream lapping up the collective knowledge that hurdled the conversations forward. Many times the more experienced professors served as foils for the graduate students, asking them difficult questions, challenging them to defend their positions with logic and facts. I reveled in being present for such a glorious confluence of ideas. 

I learned about the cultures of ancient societies and the ideologies of modern day political thinkers. The students and their professors debated the very structures of how we humans choose to live in different parts of the world. They discussed the good, the bad and ugly of society, often finding flaws in the most admired civilizations and glimmers of brilliance in those most feared. I began to realize from those intellectual soirées that we humans have been searching for the best way of living since the beginning of time. I saw that even my great American democracy was founded by colonial intellectuals who forged a Constitution based on their studies of other great thinkers about society. 

Like the students of those informal convocations that I attended there have always been groups of people focused on open dialogue about human efforts to forge a way of living that creates better opportunities. Because we are each individuals with differing needs and desires the odds are fairly certain that we will disagree on what an ideal way of living should be. Thus from Socrates to Jame Madison to Karl Marx humanity has debated the possibilities of  how best to live together. In all likelihood the discourse and disputes will continue until the end of time.

We should not fear controversial ideas. Nor should we want to study only a watered down propagandized form of history. The more truths that we know, the better we will be to make our own informed decisions about the issues that have plagued societies since the beginning of time.  Unraveling the red thread of civilization is sometimes smooth and sometimes knotty, but always essential. It may frustrate us to face ideas outside of our bubbles of comfort, but having an open mind actually makes us stronger. We don’t have to feel guilty about the transgressions of our ancestors, but we should all want to learn from them. If the founders of the United States of America had been unwilling to question the status quo we might still be members of the United Kingdom. 

I truly love the Advanced Placement courses that my grandchildren took while in high school. I enjoyed the lively conversations I had with them as they breathlessly told me about things they had learned. They widened their perspectives without being propagandized. They learned how to consider the pros and cons of a challenging situation. They had to see the world from many different perspectives. 

Now that they are in colleges in different parts of the country they are learning about new cultures, different American experiences. Their professors are challenging them the way my husband’s professors confronted his thinking and asked him to consider views beyond the narrow constrictions of his upbringing. They are growing and becoming the kind of citizens that the world needs for the future. They excite me with their evolution as they use their new found knowledge to parse ideas with deep analysis rather than emotion. 

We sometimes fear that if we or our young are exposed to philosophies contrary to our own that we will be filled with guilt and confusion. I have found the opposite to be true. We become better able to discern the difference between lies and truth. We develop confidence and trust in a society that allows us to see reality as it is, not just as we wish it to be. Nothing makes any of us more angry than learning that facts have been purposely hidden from us. While honesty might initially be painful, it ultimately makes us feel more self-assured. 

I wish I could find a group like the one I sat with so long ago. I always felt the essence of what it means to be free in those sessions. I cherished my citizenship most when I saw people saying shocking things and not being imprisoned or silenced. The mark of a great democracy never lies in hiding from our divergent ways of thinking. It is to be found when we are not afraid to speak our minds or even to walk away. I want our young to know that kind of freedom.