Stars and Bars

Confederate Flag flies at National Park site in Charleston, SC

Confederate Flag flies at National Park site in Charleston, SC

The issue of the Confederate flag has caught my eye over the last few days. I’m reminded of one wintery night several years back; we were in Vermont, driving west across the state on a 2 lane road. As we approached a stop sign just beyond Danville, you couldn’t miss it: a big farmhouse with no curtains at the windows, through which any passerby could see a huge Nazi flag covering one wall. It caught me by surprise – and I felt almost fearful that such a thing could exist in this place that always seems so civilized.

So I’ve done some reading about the Confederate flag, which never was the actual flag of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy adopted 3 other flags during its short history, but none of these was the one we’re most familiar with.

I’ve wondered about the role of the flag in the “good old boy” South – that sort of down home brotherhood that seems to flourish around images of the General Lee, or (remember this?) Dueling Banjos. Today, it’s a popular symbol for rebellion, in one form or another:

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Or a fashion statement:

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Or maybe, even now, something a little closer to the original debate over states’ rights:

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Turns out that the cultural symbolism of the flag we know as the Stars and Bars is much more recent that the War Between the States.  Here’s a bit of what I found (excerpted and paraphrased from This Week magazine online, with my own commentary thrown in):

In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights Party adopted the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as a symbol of defiance against the federal government. What prompted Thurmond’s defiance? President Truman attempted to enforce civil rights laws in the South, and the Democratic Party took a somewhat progressive platform on civil rights. Thurmond, if you don’t know, served in the Senate until age 100. He ran for President in ’48 on the State’s Rights Democratic Party ticket. (Read that again – State’s Rights Democratic Party) – 80 years after the Civil War ended. At the time, South Carolina was a one-party state so Thurmond had to create his own party. Later, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There’s more. Lots more. For example, the emergence of his African-American daughter, Essie Mae Washington Williams, after his death.

You can read up on Thurmond. I suggest that you do.

Georgia adopted its version of the flag design in 1956 to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregated schools, in Brown v. Board of Education. This fact really amazed me – the flag became symbolic of “separate but equal” schools.My husband Mike went to jr. high school in Virginia in the 1960’s – where schools were indeed still separate despite the Brown ruling. He got a good look at inequality when he saw that the Black students on the city bus carried books that had been discarded from the school he attended. (And by the way, he was on a city bus because district transportation was not offered to Blacks….or US Navy dependents regardless of race.)

In 1961, George Wallace raised the flag over the legislature in Alabama, specifically to send a message opposing efforts to integrate the South and to remind Alabamans of the secession of the South exactly 100 years prior. George Wallace was one of the most hateful politicians in my lifetime – probably the most hateful, as I think about it. You may recall one of his more famous remarks, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” He also threatened to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent Black students from entering White schools. And yes, he wanted to be president too, in 1968. So he used the Confederate flag to symbolize the voice for secession because of integration – 96 years after the Civil War ended.

The following year, the flag went up over the state capitol in South Carolina.

The flag came down in Alabama this week. It’s a little more complicated in South Carolina because legislation is required to remove it.

So is the Confederate flag part of America’s history? Well, the Confederacy is, and they did have flags. But the one we think of carries cultural significance in that it symbolizes…
Opposition to civil rights legislation,
to integration,
to social equality for black people.

It’s not about the “good old boy” south – and if you didn’t know, both of my parents were born and raised well south of the Mason Dixon line. Not about Vietnam or Obama or the damn Yankees or even Paula Deen. (Do we remember Paula? Oh, there might just be a little connect the dots moment happening right there…)

(Post Script: I make no claim that the Confederate flag as an object is responsible for all the the racism or violence in our country. I have deep concern about mental health, about education, and about what happens when guns fall into hands that should not have them. But the continued presence of this flag in the south has always baffled me, just a bit, and I’m glad it’s opening up conversation now.) 

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No, It’s Not Hemingway

I’m not one who casually hits “share” on Facebook very often, but this one? It caught my attention. The source I picked up claimed this poem was by Ernest Hemingway, but I knew right off the bat that this wasn’t from the same pen than gave us “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or “The Old Man And The Sea.” Instead, it’s more likely by a woman named Erin Hansen, who often signs her poetry e.h. – and is, in fact, often mistaken for Hemingway because of those initials.

Not too surprisingly, the poem resonated with lots of women on my friends list.

It’s not my all time favorite. There are a few of those, and I’ll share sometime.

This one reminds me of a verse on one of those Blue Mountain cards, carefully crafted to tug the heart strings just a bit.

But in spite of all that, I give you Erin Hansen’s poem today, with a little running commentary, just from me.

You are not your age,

  • Maybe not, but Maya Angelou says that I’m every age I’ve ever been….including the one I’m at today. 

Nor the size of the clothes you wear,

  • A rather gloomy measure of self worth anyway, since clothing manufacturers use “vanity sizing” to convince us that we’re smaller than we really are….They say that today’s size 8 equates to a 1950’s size 16. 

You are not a weight,

  • Oh, this one’s tricky. Yes, I weigh myself every day. It’s an obsession. I know I’m not the number on the scale. I know that, really. But I have to see it. 

Or the color of your hair.

  • I swore I’d never go the hair color route. Then one day, my hairdresser Donna tipped me off that when your hair loses pigment, it also loses shine. As a little girl, I learned to count to 100 while brushing my long hair to make it shine. I’m not willing to compromise on shiny hair. I’ve spent way too much over the years maintaining that shiny hair. 

You are not your name,

  • A rose by any other name….but the truth is, if I had to choose a different name, I don’t know of one that would fit me any better. If nothing else, having an unusual name has made me curious about names in general. 

Or the dimples in your cheeks,

  • No comment!

You are all the books you read,

  • Your bookcases (yes, plural) tell others more about you than anything else in your home. When I visit someone with books, I always ask permission to look. It’s personal. It’s revealing. And often, it’s common ground. 

And all the words you speak,

  • All of them. My husband Mike says, “You can’t unring a bell.” And while I love the written word, spoken words carry like the peal of a bell. So the cultural acceptance of women calling women friends their “bitches” or Blacks using the “N” word as a sign of brotherhood and acceptance just doesn’t sit quite right. 

You are your croaky morning voice,

  • Not often. I don’t talk when I wake up, as you may have read in this entry. 

And the smiles you try to hide,

  • Why try to hide a smile? Just smile. If smiling doesn’t come easily, try this: push your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and you’ll always get a perfect smile. Daniel Pink says you can’t “fake” a smile – that your eyes will give you away. I don’t know if he’s tried the trick with his tongue. 

You are the sweetness in your laughter,

  • When I was seven, I got in trouble at school…for laughing too much.  I had to stand in the corner. Imagine that, by today’s standards: Disciplining a child because she’s entirely too happy!  I was in good company, though. My friend Jenni was punished for reading too much, and artist Mary Englebreit got in trouble for drawing. 

And every tear you’ve cried,

  • Yeah, a few. 

You’re the songs you sing so loudly when you know you’re all alone,

  • What are your “sing out loud” songs? And if it’s been a while, let me assure you that it’s time. Dance a little, too; it’s good for the soul. Nobody’s watching – it’s ok. 

You’re the places you’ve been to,

  • The places where you can say, “I’ve breathed the air in that spot.” And the places you’ve yet to go, as you drive a new stretch of road…

And the one that you call home,

  • “Home” is a topic all its own. The home we live in, the home we’re from, the home we create, the place we go home to. It’s the place that’s most familiar, the place we can breathe easy, the place we’d click our ruby slippers to get to. 

You’re the things that you believe in,

  • Sometimes I fear that we’re a little shaky on this part, as a society. We don’t have to all believe in the same things, and we certainly don’t have to agree on everything. But it is possible, this century, to go through life without much thought about what you believe in. Our days can easily fill with work and media and “stuff” – and introspection gets overlooked. Indeed, we’re the things we believe in, and I guess we owe it to ourselves to know what those things are. 

And the people that you love,

  • It all comes down to just a few things in life. And one of those things is the people that you love. It’s easy to say, “Family, of course, and friends,” but loving is complicated business. And maybe that’s what makes it so precious. 

You’re the photos in your bedroom,

  • We once listed our house for sale and set out to “stage” it for an open house.It was an interesting exercise as we turned our home into a “model” devoid of personal photos (and everything else, it seemed!) The house went from being “ours” to a stark – albeit near perfect – display. It could have belonged to anyone. 

And the future you dream of,

  • Do you dream of the future? Children do. But as we turn the corner and become grownups, do we allow our dreams to wither? Do we stop dreaming?  If someone asked you this very instant what your dreams were….what would you say?

You’re made of so much beauty,

  • Oh, what a loaded word: Beauty. Women strive to meet external standards of beauty, are judged by it, and sometimes nothing else matters. 

But it seems you forgot,
When you decided that you were defined…By all the things you’re not.

  • You decide…how you are defined. You decide….what’s real and important about you. You decide….

~e.h

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I Feel Lucky

I wake up early most mornings, even on days I don’t have to.

Those early morning minutes are the quietest time of my day. I don’t talk to anyone for a while. I’ve always said, “My voice wakes up last.”

But the other day, I got up early, pulled on jeans and my leather jacket, and headed straight to the car. I beat rush hour traffic heading north to the airport. That morning, I was going to share the early hours with about 25 Veterans as they prepared to board an Honor Flight to Washington DC.

Volunteers shuttled through security with special TSA passes just for the event. At the gate we spotted them – about 25 men (and they were all men) decked out in red windbreakers and baseball caps that specified their branch of service and the wars in which they served. Our job? Chat the guys up a bit. Make some small talk. Hear their stories.

I zeroed in on the World War II vets. For guys in their 90’s, this crew was in great shape. They talked openly about their service – in Europe, the Pacific, Panama, India, Burma, and Africa – and their lives since.

One vet made a remark that has stayed with me. “I was young,” he said. “I turned 19 in North Africa. I was lucky. I’ve been lucky all along.”

Lucky.

A childhood friend of mine sometimes posts on Facebook about her deep desire for success and good luck. She’s a writer, and believes that a stroke of luck is just what she needs to put wheels under her  screenplay.

Mary Chapin Carpenter sang about luck when she “bought a pack of Camels, a burrito, and a Barqs.”

Ben Franklin weighed in with this: Diligence is the mother of good luck.

And I guess we all use the word, when it suits us. When I get a really good parking spot, like I did at the airport that early Thursday morning, I consider myself lucky. When the dress I was thinking about moved over to the sale rack, in my exact size, I considered it luck. I’ve never played the lottery much, but I guess winning might take a bit of luck too.

Mostly, though, I don’t put much stock in luck.

You can’t count on it, and I’m one to stick with the sure thing most of the time.

You can’t control it, and I really, truly, deeply like to be in control.  Of course I know that I don’t control all the outcomes in my little neck of the woods, but I’m big on that “cause and effect” thing. You put a lot in…you get a lot out. That type of thing.

I believe in work a whole lot more than I believe in luck. I call myself a writer, but the pen has been still and the keys have been silent for a little while. That’s okay, any writer will tell you. It takes some noodling around sometimes to queue up the next piece. But it’s time to put words on paper once again. And while every piece won’t be perfect – every essay won’t hit the pages of the NYTimes, every story won’t be in the America’s Great collection, every poem won’t be read by Garrison Keillor – the fact of doing the work is what makes a writer. Show up. Do the work. Words to paper. Or screen, as it were. And if you do the work, maybe you’ll get lucky.

Last week, my friend and writing teacher Joyce spent many hours in a hospital waiting room while her husband underwent a scary and complex surgery. The outcome was chancy, but they had done all they could do and it was time to let a crack surgical team have their shot. By the end of that very long day, she received news that things had gone as well as could be expected; they’d have to wait and see. In the moment of hearing that news, Joyce may have felt a little lucky. I know she felt exhaustion. Fear. All the rest. But Joyce felt something else, too; She wrote that she felt the blessings that came from prayers of friends all over the world.

And I’ll say this.

On any given day, If someone will say a prayer with our name on it….or think a good thought, light a candle, raise a hand, bow their head, shoot some karma, or whatever they wish to call it….we are lucky indeed.

Post Script: If you are not aware of Honor Flight and would like to learn more, or even volunteer to support Honor Flight in your community, check out their website: honorflight.org. 

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Painting Your Digital Portrait

(The blog has been at rest for a while. I hate it when bloggers begin with big apologies that consume half of their content for the day. But it’s awakening – that need to write once again. And in the words of Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, that’s all I have to say about that.) 

Social Media Logotype Background

I spent a bit of the morning today piecing together the story of Natalie Munroe, the suburban Philadelphia teacher who was suspended from her job for writing profane and negative blog posts about her students. Later, Munroe was fired. After that, she filed suit against her school district. Yesterday, a US District Court Judge threw out the suit.

But this isn’t about Natalie Munroe (or Natalie M, the not-so-anonymous nom de plume she used on the infamous blog about her students,  or about what happened in the Central Bucks School District. You can look that up for yourself.

It’s about the self portrait that we paint every time we go online. Every tweet, every post, every “like” contributes a brushstroke to a picture of ourselves that…well, may not look quite the way we expect.

I’ve been thinking about this a while, and my musings were confirmed a few weeks ago. We had guests for dinner, and a 20-something talked about how he uses social media. “I use it all,” he commented while carving up the watermelon. “But everything I post has a very specific purpose – it’s very deliberate.” He told us that at job interviews, he assumes the HR folks already know a lot about him.

Because he’s painted a portrait that is out there for all to see.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I “like” Facebook more than the average person. And after years of spending (too much) time there, I’ve developed my own set of “do’s and don’ts” and my own set of pet peeves. I wonder, sometimes, if a few of the folks that show up on my news feed ever, ever look back at their own timelines and ask, “What am I saying about myself here? What picture am I painting?”

So indulge me, please, as I offer up my own set of suggestions to hone our digital portraits…the obvious ones first.

We’ll start with pictures. They’re worth a thousand words.

  • No pics of sex toys. Your own or anyone else’s. Or your naked or nearly naked friends. Or self. Ever. (Kids learn this in high school these days. Grown ups, take heed.)
  • Cleavage shots? Well, they may make you look well endowed. Just showing off your best feature, right?  Or they may make you look overweight. You decide. But…if every shot is a cleavage shot, there’s some serious self esteem stuff going on. Who knew?
  • If more than half of your photos involve adult beverages or bongs, you just may have a problem. Seriously, we know you’re a grownup. We know what a margarita looks like. Ditto jello shots, brewskis, fifths, and flasks. You don’t have to show us. (But if you indulge, please spare us your ramblings after you’ve downed a few. We can tell, you know. You’ll use the word “amazing” way too much and your sentences won’t make any more sense than they would if we were sitting at your table.  Except they aren’t funny once they hit the screen.)
  • Similarly, if more than half of your photos involve cats, you just may qualify as a “crazy cat lady.” Cray cray. Over the top. We won’t eat cupcakes from your kitchen, thanks.
  • If a whole lot of your pictures lately are selfies, you just might come off as a little self absorbed. If those selfies include even a few duck faces, a “Miley Cyrus tongue out” pose, or mouth-wide-open-as-if-on-a-roller-coaster, you can be assured that nobody wants to see any more of those. Even if you’re Miley Cyrus. It’s sad and old and if you are older than 12, kind of humiliating.
  • If lots of your photos are of food, it’s also a sign. Not that you’re obsessed with food, but that you may be a very bad cook indeed. We know what meatloaf looks like. Ditto stroganoff, zucchini bread, and a Whopper at the BK. Save the food pics for ceviche at a five-star place in Miami, or a steak on the grill that is truly picture perfect.

Now,  a word about that pesky “relationship status” thing: If you’re in a relationship with someone, check out THEIR online presence. Will your friends (or future employers or babysitter) click twice only to discover their pic on mugshots.com? If so, just keep the relationship to yourself. It’s complicated.

Sometimes, my friends, too much means….too little! Go to your timeline or your Twitter home page. Scroll back. Jumping on with 20 posts a day? I’m sorry if this sounds judgey, but you need to get a real job. Or a real life. If those 20 posts a day are nothing more than shared memes, buzz feed quizzes, or “You’ve got to see this! It’s sooooo funny!” videos, you might as well be posting duck face selfies. (Told you it was judgey. Sorry.)

Other times, too much is simply too much. “I love you and last night will live in my heart forever!” is a personal message. That is, one that should be spoken out loud to a real person. Not posted or tweeted or whatever.  Flip side: Sometimes “just the facts” are TMI. From the trivial (your grocery list) to the personal (the fact that you’re in therapy, or taking a whole lot of medication or have no money or PMS-ing) – sometimes it’s too much information. Tell your family. Tell your therapist. Tell a handful of close friends. But don’t put it on your wall. It’s like…writing it on the wall.

And when the wall meets the workplace…you could be in for trouble. Not long ago, an ER nurse was fired for posting pics of patients on a very crowded shift. Bad judgement, much like Natalie Munroe. Some corporations have strict policies on photography inside their facilities. Violate those, and you’re toast. But it’s not exactly subtle to jump online during work hours and pop out a tweet that says, “No one respects me! I’m outta here!” or “I hate this place!” or “These people are idiots!”

Looking for a new job? Boss on your friends list? Keep it to yourself.

Ditto anything at all if you’ve taken a sick day from work. Co-workers who had to cover for you really don’t want to see the online evidence that you really did your Christmas shopping that day. They don’t want to see your footprints on the beach. But if you’re really sick, what about the pics of used tissues and cold medicine, shots of you entering the door at Urgent Care, or holding the thermometer? If you’re that sick, just take a good nap. You’ll feel better.

And overall, you’ll have a digital portrait that leaves a better taste in your mouth. Because you’ve used your social media with a modicum of good taste.

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Guest Post: Acceptance: Living With Grace

It is my pleasure to share this wise piece by Cleo Conrad McKernan, who I named as of the inspirations for yesterday’s blog “Here Comes Another One.” Cleo reflects on acceptance, peace, and living with grace even in times of adversity. 

 

I have always felt that the greatest gift I’ve been given is the gift of acceptance. To be able to truly accept and work within your reality is both peaceful and empowering.

The ability to accept what is allows us to function with grace despite what others may see as disappointments and problems.

This is good.

And so I wish to talk about this “acceptance” thing – this ability and willingness (even eagerness) to forsake pipe dreams and unrealistic hopes in favor of creating a peaceful and secure knowledge that we did our best. We did it right.

When my daughter was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma I never once wailed at the heavens. It did not occur to me to say, “Why Megan? Why her?” From the first moment, I accepted that it was, and that the why didn’t matter. More importantly, I accepted that there was no “why”, no reason I would ever be given.

This was real, this was happening, this was what was going down. No amount of wishing, dreaming or questioning was going to change things, make the cancer dissipate, or take me back to the previous month, when all was right with the world.

I accepted.

Moreover, from that first moment I was given a great gift of knowledge. Where this knowledge came from, I do not know. I did know, however, that this really wasn’t about me. My pain, and my sorrow, were secondary or tertiary – if even that. This knowledge gave me the ability to take it outside of myself, and to do the things, say the things, live the things that needed to be done, said, and lived.

I never sobbed, although I cried often, and still do. My tears were always the kind that slide softly down and clog the voice. The kind that sneak up and grab you unaware, and I have always allowed them, but never felt the desire to show them off, or wear them like a badge. Sadness and sorrow are okay. They are legitimate and real emotions and feelings to be felt and (once again) accepted. It is not necessary or even good to battle them. I remember hearing my daughter say to her own children “feelings are never wrong”. I believe that.

The point is this: For this new year, allow yourselves to accept what is, give up losing battles and save your energy to do what you are able to create warmth and serenity around you.

Allow yourselves and others to feel sad, if that comes your way. It is alright. You are under no obligation to have perennial joy.

Remember that most of what troubles you is not, in fact, about you. You are only there as an instrument of aid and comfort, and as an observer. You cannot change things that are not about you in the first place, now, can you? So do what you can to empower the primary person affected, and to pass the acceptance along.

Learn to live without regret. Regret is useless, except as a learning tool. Regret weighs us down. We cannot change what was. I do not regret that my daughter died. No, I don’t. It happened. I cannot change that. I am sad, I mourn and feel grief, but I do not regret. She died. But she lived first, and I am happy for that. I feel joy in having known her.

I accept now that I will always have a well of sorrow. I will always miss her, and that’s okay too. It is my lot. Fighting it would not honor either myself or my little girl.

I accept, and this year I will “keep on keeping on”…and do whatever needs to be done, take my pleasures where they come, and work within the reality that is my life.

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Here Comes Another One

I admit it, New Year’s is not my favorite holiday. Football and resolution making just don’t hold my attention I guess. They pale in comparison to 4th of July fireworks, Thanksgiving dinner, and trimming the Christmas tree.

By January 1, I’ve had enough holiday food. A bowl of black bean soup sounds great.

But many friends do, indeed, celebrate the New Year. Facebook proves it. You’re celebrating this year in Miami and New York City, at the K of C Hall up the road, and at the Rose Bowl.

You’re making those resolutions again this year; you’re not smoking, saving some money, getting new jobs, going gluten free.

You’re toasting at midnight, and nibbling on bacon-wrapped dates. You’re wearing party hats and plastic tiaras.

Wherever we are, we’re wishing each other well on this New Year’s Day. We wish one another health. Happiness. Joy. Prosperity. Good luck. Peace. Hope.

But my childhood friend Cleo put it differently. She said, looking back on a particularly rough time in 2013, “Okay old girl, here comes another one to get through. I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on.”

And some of us will just keep on. A. will show up for chemo, still in shock that it is really lymphoma.  L.  will take her little girl to fancy hospitals for endless needle sticks and complicated genetic tests.  E. will hold on to whatever shreds of her marriage she can. S. will cry for the baby that died. C. will try once again to make ends meet. R. will keep looking for a place to live. M. will mourn for the dreams that, she believes, will never come true.

The sun will rise tomorrow, and “the holidays” will officially be over. Winter stretches before us, a long road, with some slush piled up along the sides.  Real life is waiting.

And even though I wish you health and happiness and all the rest, the real meat and potatoes of the New Year gets served up when the wishes don’t come true.

So let me rephrase those wishes just a bit.

When you are sick, I wish you a hand to hold and a hopeful heart.When you are hurting, I wish you a compassionate friend who will come and sit by your side.When you are cold, I wish you a safe place to call home.When disappointments mount, I wish you the gift of gratitude and the ability to county your blessings. When money is tight, I wish you the satisfaction of honorable work. When the noise of the world deafens, I wish you a calm and quiet heart.

Blogger Alyssa Cherry put it this way: I hope your year is filled with soft pjs and best friends in yellow kitchens and banana pancakes and loved ones who feed the chickens while you pretend to sleep in.

Here comes another one. Keeping on is a great resolution. Let’s get through it together, okay?

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Remember the Innocent

Never Forget

Never Forget

Today many of us will remember where we were 12 years ago. I saw a car accident on my way to work that morning and thought, “Someone’s day isn’t going the way they planned.”

90 minutes later, word came to my office about the first plane hitting the Trade Center, and I thought, “Where on earth is air traffic control?” When the second plane hit, I experienced a moment of pure disbelief. “But people are in those buildings,” I stammered to my secretary. “People who just went to work.”

Parents streamed into my school to pick up their children. Businesses closed. I asked teachers to leave the television monitors in their classrooms off – the news was too overwhelming, the images too horrible, the lack of answers too frightening.

Today, there aren’t many words left. That day divided American history into “before” and “after,” as historic events do. We don’t take our safety for granted as we did “before.” We know America isn’t  “off limits” when it comes to terrorism.  We strip our coats, belts and shoes off at the airport, and feel an odd tinge of gratitude for the bomb sniffing dogs at the train stations.

We know  for certain that evil is an active force in the world.

Our son Bryce has become a first responder since 9/11. Our soldier son Matt has been deployed twice since that day. I honor those who go where they need to go, who do what they need to do, who serve others even when it means sacrifice and risk to themselves.

Let us remember the innocent. The victims.

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June 1968: All’s Right With the World

Kennedys

 

Photo: Hank Walker

School was almost out for the year, but the morning had dawned brisk, and a little chilly. By lunchtime, though, the day turned warm. I pushed up the sleeves of my green Garland sweater, wishing I’d chosen something lighter for school that day.

The tall wooden windows in Mr. VanderVen’s room stood wide open as we filed in for English class. The air hung still; the room smelled like sweaty seventh graders and chalk. I took my place in the back row, sliding into the wooden desk and stacking my books on the wire rack underneath the seat. I took out a pencil and fresh piece of notebook paper, but we didn’t have much homework to review.

My mom always said I was lucky to have Mr. VanderVen for English. His wife taught for years at the same school where my mom worked, so they were part of the “teacher network” that existed around town. Mr. VanderVen was one of the classics – sort of a local legend. He made sure that we learned to diagram a sentence, use proper parts of speech, and memorized poetry. In fact, it’s only because of Mr. VanderVen that I ever learned a single word by Robert Browning, but I still remember this one:

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillside’s dew pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in His heaven – 

All’s right with the world!

That day, so close to the end of the year, a lot of teachers let formal lesson planning slide. Mr. VanderVen was no exception, and he opened up the floor to discussion. There was a lot going on in the news; the Detroit Tigers were off to a great start in ‘68. He challenged one of the girls on the other side of the room to name the Tigers first baseman. She grinned for a split second before replying, “Al Kaline.” He laughed.

And the night before, Bobby Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles. We all remembered the King assassination, just weeks before. Most of us had been third graders when President Kennedy was killed, and we watched Lee Harvey Oswald die on our black and white TV screens. Ours was the first generation, I guess, that grew up measuring time by assassinations. Our TV violence was the real life stuff that would become contemporary history.

I sat next to a girl named Mary. For a while, she spelled her name Merri, which allowed her to dot the “i” with a heart. Mary/Merri reached into her purse and offered me a piece of Juicy Fruit – forbidden contraband in those days at Central Junior High. More importantly, though, she tipped her purse just enough so I could see the corner of a transistor radio inside. As Mr. VanderVen talked on about the Tigers, Mary/Merri slipped the plastic earpiece out of her purse and clicked the radio on. She wiggled in her chair to pull in a better signal from WKNR 1340; we were fortunate to sit near those windows or there would be no signal at all.

Suddenly, Mary’s head jerked up. The earpiece fell to the ground, making a telltale rattling sound. She didn’t care. She blurted out, “They said Bobby’s ok.”

Posted in Memoir, Rochester, Schools, Teachers, Transitions | Leave a comment

Guest Post: A Child’s Pain, A Mother’s Pain

Last Sunday, America celebrated Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday filled with sentimentality, cleverly wrapped in flowers, brunch, and Hallmark cards. But in recent years, we’ve become aware that Mother’s Day can be a painful day for many women: Those who have never known their mothers. Those who have never borne a child. Those who have laid a child to rest. Those whose best efforts have not been enough to protect a child from pain.

I believe that every mom wants to protect her child from pain. The best efforts, though, sometimes aren’t enough. California writer Tracey Yorkas shares her own experience on this particular Mother’s Day. 

This Mother’s Day I don’t have a mom and I can’t be a mom.

Three weeks after my mother’s sudden death last summer, my 13 year-old daughter was diagnosed with depression.

Fast forward to today. My daughter sits in a residential treatment center struggling with self-harm.

She will spend her Sunday playing cards, going on a brief outing, and attending therapy groups.

I will speak with her for ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at dinnertime.  I will look at the Post-It notes she wrote in Sharpie for me last year: “HAPPY MOM’S DAY LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING!”

Unless she remembers it is Mother’s Day, I won’t remind her. She feels bad enough already about events of the last several months.

My wish for you this Mother’s Day season is that you never understand the pain of knowing your child copes by slicing her skin open with a razor blade, or of finding blood on her clothes, or of having someone tell you it would be better if she didn’t live with you for a while. That she is safer elsewhere.

Hearing the words “We think your daughter needs to go to residential treatment” can buckle your knees.

But the truth is that self-harm is a real problem.  Our kids are in trouble.  Keep your eyes open. Does your child refuse to wear shorts or t-shirts?  Does he have unexplained scratches, some more healed than others without explanation?  Has your previously out-going child become withdrawn?  These are warning signs that your child might have turned to self-harm or “cutting.”  (S)he might not need residential treatment, but it is a cry for help.

You can’t pretend it will go away.

In school we educate our children about the dangers of illegal drugs and unprotected sex.  Let’s tell them they don’t have to suffer alone or in silence and that a razor blade is not their best friend.

Posted in Body Image, Family, Holidays, Parents and children | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rest Well, Old Girl

Holly

I woke up early today, and pulled on my black yoga pants and a plain t shirt. I barely combed my hair. No need to look in the mirror; It was not a morning for makeup. I’d shower after a while. 

I watched Holly stagger out the back door.  She didn’t go far, but her legs looked a little steadier today. She returned to the house and walked past her food bowl without a glance; she quit eating on Wednesday.

I glanced at the clock. It was time to go. I clipped the blue leash onto her collar, and hesitated. I bent down and wrapped my arms around her broad neck, nuzzling the top of her head. “Good girl, “ I whispered, as if she could hear me. “Let’s go, Doodlebug.”

We stepped out into the cloudy Florida morning. The air was warmer than it looked from inside.

When we got to the car in the driveway, Holly didn’t hesitate. She’s always been a good traveller. I lifted her tenderly, and placed her hind legs up on the seat.

From behind the wheel, I rolled the rear window down all the way. She might as well have her head out the window this morning. But she laid on the seat, head down. I knew then that she had surrendered.

The Golden Gate Animal Clinic sits in a low 1950’s style building, a block off the main road. You wouldn’t know it was there, unless you went looking for it. It’s not in a fancy part of town. But a friend told me that Dr. Lanier was a kind and gentle man. And he had a great way with Holly. He saw her four times last week.

Walking toward the door, I almost detected a little bounce in Holly’s step. Hope flickered for a moment. Maybe she felt  a remnant of her normal curiosity about this trip. Maybe she felt happy to be out on a journey. She sniffed the grass off to the right, like always.

Just before the door into the office, the concrete sidewalk ends. Emerald green indoor/outdoor carpeting covers the entry step. Holly’s back legs gave out before we reached the edge of the carpet. I reached under her belly to catch her before she fell, and held the door open with one foot so I could help her in. I was glad that in Florida, entry doors open outward.

The receptionist had the papers waiting. I checked the boxes and signed my name. She ushered us to the exam room.

Holly leaned her weight against my legs for a moment and held her head low. She laid down then, full out on her side. Her head rested on the beige tile floor. She didn’t move when another dog got rowdy in the hallway outside. She didn’t move when Dr. Lanier entered the room.

He would give her a tranquilizer, he explained. It would relax her. It was time. She had gone downhill. He gave her the injection in her shoulder; she didn’t flinch.

I bent forward and laid my hand on her side. I watched her belly rise slowly, slowly with each breath. I wanted her to feel my touch. I wanted her to know she was not alone. She couldn’t stand to be alone. It was her greatest fear. I heard the snuffly, snoring noise that a boxer makes when it breathes. I realized that her coat was almost completely silver grey.

The doctor came back with his assistant. He held a brown leather muzzle. Because the tumor was in her brain, he said, it can cause behavior that we wouldn’t expect. He would muzzle her while he started the tiny IV line in her front leg.  Just in case. The technician held Holly’s head. I kept my hand on her side. The doctor knelt and swabbed her leg with alcohol. We formed a kind of trinity, kneeling around this innocent dog who always fancied herself the center of attention.

She didn’t move as the medication flowed up the plastic line and into her tired body. Her chest went still. My hand lingered on her short fawn coat, still feeling her warmth. The room was silent until Dr. Lanier whispered, “She’s already gone.”

Photo: Holly at her Pennsylvania home, after an exciting trip to the mailbox. 2011. 

Posted in Animals, Domesticity, Family, Memoir, Transitions | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments