fbpx

Let’s Travel to Another Place…

I’ve been living in the Land of the Sick—and I’m ready to move.  To begin with, I’m sick with some kind of non-Covid throat infection, and this despite the fact that I wear masks, social distance, and disinfect.  How did these bugs sneak by my PPE to my tonsils?  Then, my brother and elderly mother have spent time this month in the hospital.  My daughter-in-law just video-chatted and said their whole family is sick with fever and nausea and waiting on Covid test results.

Looking for a reprieve from ill health, I turned on the TV…

and the screen lit up with people in hospitals on ventilators.  I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea (for my throat) but couldn’t miss my kitchen counter covered with thermometers, throat lozenges, and ibuprofen.  A sticky pad listed the health clinic and doctor’s phone number. The scenery in the Land of the Sick is not so great.

There are other lands to live in and plenty of examples of people who, in dire times, discovered them.  Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, spent much of his youth in bed sick with bronchial infections.  That didn’t stop him from letting his mind jump a ship bound for exotic, ocean beaches full of nefarious pirates. Teddy Roosevelt too, was a bed-ridden, sickly youth, yet he spent hours with his toy soldiers dreaming of great deeds and military conquests.  Being physically trapped in their beds didn’t prevent these young men from roaming far and wide in their minds.

Another woman I knew told me about her own journey out of the Land of the Sick.

“Koontz and his stories, they saved me,” said Pam. “I got through my cancer treatments and came out the other side, amazingly still sane.”

Pam was just a young woman when she found out she had breast cancer and needed both surgery and chemo. It was a nightmare. She was frightened and became obsessed with thoughts of death.  Then someone gave her a Dean Koontz mystery/horror novel.  Pam told me reading Koontz book she was transported from her hospital room to an alleyway in southern California where some telepathic dog was tracking a killer.

“I wrote Dean Koontz a long letter thanking him for all that he did for me,” Pam told me excitedly, “and guess what?  He answered me back!”

Other lands are far more pleasant than the Land of the Sick.  There’s the Land of Music, the Land of Adventure, the Land of Building.  My father was a trucker in norther Indiana hauling trailer homes across the country.  He spent long hours in the cab of his truck with little else to do but watch the ribbon of highway stretching ahead of him. Dad trucked in a time before podcasts and other entertainments were available. His only diversion was the radio—when he could get reception.  But it was on these lengthy, boring trips to Florida or Massachusetts that dad would design and build a large addition he planned for our house.  He told my mother he had the blueprint in his mind.

This past week I took a hiatus from the Land of the Sick to binge-watch Netflix.

There I saw a great mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, about a young woman who became a chess master.

In order for Beth Harmon to visualize her chess moves she had to leave the Land of Anxiety and Fear.  No one can concentrate if they’re locked in some awful headspace, but sometimes leaving is harder than we think. Beth Harmon took drugs–not an option for me, unless of course you count Ibuprofen.

Today, my throat still hurts, but I’m no longer contagious. I think I’ll take a drive down the road, not far, just to the place where there’s a little rise. I’ll park the car and sip my water bottle and and watch the traffic in the valley below. Maybe I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate, maybe Oregon.  Then I’ll think about that wonderful time we flew kites on the Oregon coast—and escape the Land of the Sick for a while.

 

Image Credit: Covid patient  Image Credit:  Dean Koontz   Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

That Thing We Have in Common with Caterpillar Moths

Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.

As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.

I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month.  Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all.  One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.

Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t.  In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them.  It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly.  He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.

My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from.  Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”

Neanderthal?  I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.

I did a little research on Bob’s question though.  I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent.  They used tools and could be creative.  They made art.  Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA.  Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now:  “Neanderthals aren’t so bad.  Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”

Image converted using ifftoany

 

Image credit: caterpillar moth     Image credit: Trivial Pursuit      Image credit: Neanderthal

 

I’m Afraid of the Air…

Outside the sun is rising, a burnt orange ball on the horizon, ominously beautiful. I watch it from the safety of my bunker, formerly known as my home. Like some apocalyptic, dystopian novel, I have become afraid of the air we breathe. It’s an alien invasion of either forest fire particulates or Covid virus. A mask seems like such a flimsy defense against our marauding atmosphere here in the west. Several people, including myself, have wondered, “When will our air be breathable again? When can we give up our suffocating masks and be normal?”

Covid, according to the latest from the scientific community, won’t die down until next year some time. The summer wildfires in our droughty western climate are an entirely different matter altogether. Out of control forest and range fires will continue, says reporting in the New York Times (9/11/2020), until humans change our behaviors.

“What percent of the wildfires this summer do you think are human caused?” I looked at my husband over the rim of my coffee cup this morning.

I’d been doing some research on the subject, and I was curious what he thought. I know my husband to be a well-read man, and as a farmer, an astute observer of the natural world, the weather, and the climate.

“Low, I think human caused, that percent must be low,” he said. “There was that lightning storm earlier this month. I think that’s what ignited the northern California fires.”

I was surprised by his response because he was uncharacteristically, dead wrong. According to my research, 80% of wild fires are started by humans. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says the biggest issue is that towns and cities are allowing land to be developed for homes in wild and forested areas susceptible to fire. It’s called a “wildland-urban interface.”

As I look out my patio window at the smoky blanket overlaying the landscape, I’m reminded of a Cormac McCarthy book I read several years ago called The Road.

The book was about a man and his son seeking to escape the effects of a nuclear holocaust.

The world was devastated and food was scare because the earth was coated with dark clouds of ash and debris. The earth had plunged into a cold, perpetual twilight affecting all living things, including our food source: plants and animals. Again, the root cause of such a horrific scenario was human behavior.

Can we change our behaviors? How much? Sometimes I wonder. Our basic needs are for air, water, food, and security. What if these needs come in conflict? Our need for clean air battles with our need to feel secure. We want to feel safe living in a natural setting like the forests far away from city crime and ironically, city smog.

Fortunately, Forbes Magazine (5/24/2019) reported on the path to behavior change and two of the three steps are already happening.

More and more people are recognizing that western wild fires are the new normal and need to be addressed.

Secondly, solutions are being developed, cities are starting to zone more cautiously, and homes are beginning to be built with the environment in mind. The third step is harder: making behavior change desirable. To that end we’re all looking to the future, which doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, but can be exciting and new. Though climate change, the problem behind western wild fires, is ongoing, we’re slowly innovating our way to a carbon-free future. My husband, maybe in an effort to redeem his reputation, offered this comment: “You know Tesla? Their electric car division is now worth four times the stock value of gas-powered vehicles. Imagine that?”

 

Image Credit: Dale Hooley, wearing his respirator      Image Credit: The Road

South Africa Comes to an Idaho Farm

The Old South Can’t Solve the New Covid

Recently, both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, unlike other colleges who’ve gone online, are dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s not surprising considering the South had the highest number of Covid infections this summer. Sadly, many southerners can’t afford to go to the doctor or hospital either. Nine of the ten poorest states are in the South. And, if these southerners are looking for federal help to cover their medical expenses, they probably won’t find it in their home state. Of the twelve states still holding out on Medicare expansion, eight of them are in the South. What’s going on Down South anyways?

There’s a lot to love about the South. I know because both my parents were born and raised there in Kentucky and West Virginia. It wasn’t until after they married that they moved north looking for work other than coal mining. I have such deep southern roots my great-grandfather’s name was Stonewall Jackson Lankford, named after the confederate general of Civil War fame. My grandmother was such a hillbilly she chewed tobacco, played the banjo, and regularly exclaimed, “Lord have mercy!”

I’m not sure when or why the South lost ground, economically and in other ways. When my mother went to Beaver High School in Bluefield, West Virginia, one of her older classmates was John Nash, the subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash went on to eventually win the Nobel Prize in economics. My dad never graduated from high school, but his school was Big Creek High School. Big Creek was also the alma mater of Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer who trained the first astronauts, and gained fame as the leader of the “Rocket Boys.” These southerners were not just open to new ideas, they were the ones instigating them.

When I taught history I told my students about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War. The North was founded by religious separatists like the Puritans who worked hard to build a life in the New World. The South was largely colonized by British nobles seeking to extract tobacco wealth from the land. Georgia actually began as a penal colony. One part of the country industrialized, and the other part was more agrarian and wedded to a medieval economic system based on slavery. This history set the stage for the humiliating defeat the South suffered at the end of the Civil War. Parts of the South still seem in retreat.

I recently gave my mother a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful classic by Alabama author, Harper Lee. I didn’t know if mom had read it before, she reads so voraciously, but, she seemed delighted with my gift. This week I visited her again, and asked how she liked the book.

“Oh, I loved it! I read it all in one day! I couldn’t put it down. She (Harper Lee) really got the way things were back then, the way I grew up (in the South),” mom told me.

Of course mom enjoyed this book: history and tradition are important to her. Lots of southern music is about tradition and the old ways: fishing in the creek and driving a beat-up pickup with a dog in the back. There’s nothing wrong with this, except sometimes the answers we need now, for example how to deal with this pandemic, can’t be found in the past. Country music star Eric Church gets this. I listened to a song of his the other day on my car radio:

“…Jails are full, factories empty,

Momma’s crying, young boys dying

Under that red, white, and blue still flying…

Stick that in your Country song…”

 

Image Credit:  Stonewall Jackson         Image Credit:   Eric Church

Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

Science Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Who was my grandfather?

It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay.  Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.

“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me.  I sat about two feet in front of him.

“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand.  “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right?  Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”

“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure.  It’s what you say.”

He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me.  I wanted the riddle solved.  I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.

Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998.  It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage.  With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers.   So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname.  Uncle Clay had fudged the truth.  Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.

I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.

After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up.  He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.

“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.

He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool.  Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…”  A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills.  Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.

“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe.  Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”

But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.

I was dismayed and surprised by this comment.  If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car?  Conveniences like these were given to him by science.  My friend had become very religious though.  He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.

This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled:  “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better:  Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather.  Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.

 

Image Credit:  Grandpa Charlie Holland        Image Credit:  Ancestry Dot Com       Image Credit:  Billy Jack

I’ll Cry Tomorrow…

In the midst of a pandemic I find myself late afternoon channel surfing and old movies always catch my eye.  Today I watched the 1955 biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about the Broadway star Lillian Roth and her descent into alcoholism.  Roth eventually found her path to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.  My husband thought the movie and its formulaic ending dated and archaic, but I was fascinated.  I realized how much attitudes about alcoholism have changed since 1955.

Today, alcoholism is classified as a disease, and a certain segment of alcoholics prefer to manage their addiction as opposed to fully abstain.  Sixty years ago though, alcoholism was viewed as a slippery slope to Hell, a shame-filled tragedy.

Watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow brought to my mind an encounter I had with a friend of a friend, a man who’d been to rehab for alcoholism and met regularly with his AA group.  I saw this man not too long ago at a gathering where the alcohol flowed.  I left the party early and was surprised to run into my friend’s friend in the parking lot.  He was just standing there with his hands in his pockets looking out toward the lowering sun.

“Hey,” I greeted him as I passed by on my way to the car, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”

“Yep,” he nodded, noncommittally.

I stopped and looked back at him.  There was something about the tone of his voice.  I added, “But I’m not a drinker—so it was past time for me to leave.”  I nodded toward the horizon, “Nice sunset though.”

As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw my friend’s friend open his car door.

Four years ago when my doctor mentioned the adverse effects of alcohol on aging internal organs, and that it was a known suspect in breast cancer, I decided to quit drinking.  It wasn’t that hard for me, but I did miss having a glass or two of wine when I ate out at restaurants.  I don’t really understand how difficult it is for an alcoholic to give up alcohol.  But I do know a little about being human and having limitations.  Like most people, I’ve had personal situations in my life where acknowledgement and acceptance were the greatest things I could do.

That was probably the most powerful part of I’ll Cry Tomorrow for me.  I choked up when Lillian Roth finally went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get the help she so desperately needed.   She stood courageously before a group of men wearing boxy 1950’s suits and women in pencil skirts, and said, “My name is Lillian Roth and I’m an alcoholic.”

My husband shook his head when he heard this. “She shouldn’t have to shame herself like that,” he said.

In a way, he was right.  I taught educational psychology at a local university and I warned my students how damaging labels and labeling were.  Still, for adults, confession can be good for the soul.  It can be cathartic: a letting go, in order to begin anew.

In 2015 an Atlantic Monthly article criticized AA and their 12-step program, saying the program had no scientific basis.  The article, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” said that other more modern treatments like therapy and drugs worked better. Interestingly, five years later, this past spring of 2020, the Stanford School of Medicine finally remedied the absence of research behind AA.  The Stanford article entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence” stated:

After evaluating 35 studies—involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants…AA was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence.  In addition, most studies showed that AA participation lowered health care costs.”

For the many people that have been helped by AA, this is probably not news.  We are all individuals with our own unique paths.  Sometimes though, the old ways, the solutions used by our grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s, still have merit.

 

Image credit: I’ll Cry Tomorrow           Image credit: Sober

Remembering an Easter Story During the Coronavirus Plague

When I was a little girl my parents didn’t go to church much, but my grandmother did, and she encouraged me every summer to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the neighborhood church.  It was there that I heard Agnes Gibson, or Sister Gibson as she was called, tell wonderful Bible stories using a teaching tool called Flannel Graph.

The Flannel Graph board was mounted on an easel, and as Sister Gibson recounted the Bible story, she’d press paper cut-out Bible figures on the clingy flannel-covered board. 

This Easter, as we all deal with what feels like the coronavirus plague, I’m remembering Sister Gibson telling our VBS class the Passover story of Moses and Pharaoh.

“What do you think happened next?”  Sister Gibson was a Socratic teacher, always asking questions.

“Whatttt?”  The gap-toothed children in her audience (including me) sat with our mouths opened wide.

Well, she told us, Pharaoh still wouldn’t let the Israelites leave Egypt, even after all the plagues God sent to torment the Egyptian people. Sister Gibson covered her flannel-graph board with cut-out Egyptians, arms over their heads and legs lifted as if running for their lives.

“Will God be able to change Pharaoh’s mind?”

We didn’t know, but God was really angry with Pharaoh.  I suspected God would have to do something even worse to make the Egyptians obey him.

He’d already plagued them with “boils” which sounded a lot like the mumps to me.  Then, he sent a lot of bugs called locusts to eat all the trees and shrubs in their yards.  Sister Gibson carefully placed a paper cut-out of Moses wearing a long bath robe and holding a big cane called a staff on the flannel board.

“God told Moses he was going to have to punish Pharaoh again.  But the Israelites could escape this punishment if they stayed in their homes and marked their door.  The Angel of Death would pass over them and not kill their first-born son.”

At the time I’m sure I considered this a good reason to be born a girl.  I remember thinking how lucky I was to be female because I’d never get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam like my cousin Bobby. Sister Gibson finished telling her story as we children raptly listened.  She pressed a cut-out of a sad Pharaoh, head hanging down, on the flannel board.  In the end, Pharaoh was forced to obey God and let Moses and his people go.

As I sit here writing, I’m thinking of how many parallels there are between the Passover story and our current Covid-19 crisis.  Moses told the Israelites God wanted them to shelter-in-place to avoid the ravages of a new (novel) plague he was sending.

Though God didn’t send us the coronavirus, the message of staying home to be safe certainly resonates.

There are other Bible stories that take on new meaning in the time of Covid 19.  Old Testament Jews had several rituals related to being clean and cleanliness.  Both foot-washing and hand-washing were routinely practiced.  They didn’t wash their hands for 20 seconds through the “Happy Birthday” chorus, but still, good hygiene was a part of their culture and faith.

Maybe the most significant Bible story I heard at my grandmother’s church, and the one that has such an inspiring message for us today, is the Easter story.  As we grimly watch the death toll climb from Covid-19, it feels good to consider the story of how Christ conquered death.  Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, the message of life after death is an undeniably hopeful one.  The greater meaning in this story for me though, is that fear and sorrow eventually pass away.  The Israelites were finally freed from their bondage.  They made it safely out of Egypt, leaving despair behind.  I believe we will too.

 

Image credit: Flannel Graph        Image credit:  Moses and Pharaoh        Image credit:  Shelter-in-Place