Category Archives: compassion

Friday We Recover

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Yesterday we went to see Les Miserables, the Broadway musical.  Fantine’s tragedy, Marius’s rescue, and Jean Valjean’s ultimate triumph made me cry again… copious amounts of tears… a waterfall of emotional floodwaters.  There is beauty in living through challenges.  Especially life-threatening ones.

We went to the musical in Fair Park as a celebration of the fact that a family member is now out of the hospital and on proper medication to be well again.  We are liberated from fear again for a time.  Of course, I can’t afford to go to a show like that, being newly bankrupted and swamped with medical bills.  But a family member provided the funds, victory over severe depression being a thing that needs celebration.

And Eponine’s song “On My Own” is such a powerful statement of the self-sacrificing nature of love that it makes me weep just thinking of it.  She loves a man who loves another and yet, loves him so well that she secures his happiness… with that other woman.  And she dies in the arms of the man she loves.  Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home”, also makes me weep.  It is the main theme of the entire show, that the thing to do when life buries you beneath a blizzard of misfortune, cruelty, and unfairness is to turn that into self-sacrificing, generous love for others even if they are not your flesh-and-blood kin.  Love gives back more than you have given.  It is the notion that makes me cry with the beauty of it.

The point is, I have had a hard week.  I had to put a family member in the hospital for severe depression.  And other family members couldn’t help me because depression can be as infectious as a cold, taking one person after another through exposure to the harsh realities of the disease.  And though it is hard being the only one available to help someone through the dangerous darkness of the soul, I managed not to lose anybody again this time, the fifth time I have fought such a battle in a terrible, long war.

And now I have “One Day More” to enter into the new world I have made through sacrifice and suffering.  I am devastated, but still whole.  I am exhausted, but still standing.  I needed yesterday to happen.

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Filed under autobiography, battling depression, Celebration, compassion, healing, humor, medical issues, mental health, music, review of music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Do Not Crush the Butterfly…

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Art on the bedroom wall, with Christmas lights being used as a night light.

Talking to a school administrator the other day about the challenges my children and I have been facing in the last year, I had one of those experiences where you get a look at your own life through someone else’s eyes.  “Wow, you have really been on a difficult journey,” he said.  I just nodded in response.  Financial difficulties, health problems, dealing with depression… life has been tough.  But you get through things like that by being centered.  Meditation tricks.  Things you can do to smooth out the wrinkles and keep moving forward.

I always return in the theater of my mind to a moment in childhood where I learned a critical lesson.  My life has been one of learning how to build rather than destroy.  It has been about creating, not criticizing.

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Electric lights have come to Toonerville, helping to light the darkness.

When I was a boy, I was a serious butterfly hunter.  It started when Uncle Don gave me a dead cecropia moth that he had found in the Rowan grain elevator.  It was big and beautiful and perfectly preserved.  Shortly thereafter, I located another cecropia in the garage behind the house, a building that had once been a wagon shed complete with horse stalls and a hay loft.  I tried to catch it with my bare hands. And by the time I had hold of it, the powder on its wings was mostly gone.  The wings were broken in a couple of places, and the poor bug was ruined in terms of starting a butterfly collection.

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A cecropia moth

Undeterred by tragedy, I got books about butterfly collecting at the Rowan Public Library and began teaching myself how to bug hunt.  I learned where to find them, and how to net them, and how to kill and mount them.

I discovered that my grandfather’s horse pasture had thistle patches which were natural feeding grounds for red admiral butterflies (pictured top left)  and painted lady butterflies (top right).  But if you wanted to catch the rarer mourning cloak butterfly (bottom picture), you had to stake out apple trees, particularly at apple blossom time, though I caught one on the ripening apples too.

swallowtailBut my greatest challenge as a butterfly hunter was the tiger swallowtail butterfly.  They are rare.  They are tricky.  And one summer I dueled with one, trying with all my might to catch him.  He was in my own back yard the first time I saw him.  I ran to get the butterfly net, and by the time I got back, he was flitting high in the trees out of reach.  I must’ve watched him for half an hour before I finally lost sight of him.  About five other times I had encounters with him in the yard or in the neighborhood.  I learned the hard way that some butterflies are acrobatic flyers and can actually maneuver to avoid being caught.  He frustrated me.

The tiger swallowtail was the butterfly that completed my collection, and it was finished when one of my cousins caught one and gave it to me because she knew I collected them.

But then, one day, while I was sitting on a blanket under a maple tree in the back yard with my notebooks open, writing something that I no longer even recall what I wrote, the backyard tiger swallowtail visited me again.  In fact, he landed on the back of my hand.  I dropped the pencil I was writing with, and slowly, carefully, I turned my hand over underneath him so that he was sitting on my palm.

I could’ve easily closed my hand upon him and captured him.  But I learned the lesson long before from the cecropia that catching a butterfly by hand would destroy its delicate beauty.  I would knock all the yellow and black powder off his exquisite wings.  I could not catch him.  But I could close my hand and crush him.  I would be victorious after a summer-long losing battle.

But that moment brought an end to my butterfly hunting.  I let him flutter away with the August breeze.  I did not crush the butterfly.  It was then that I realized what beauty there was in the world, and how fragile that beauty could be.  I could not keep it alive forever.  But it lasted a little big longer because I chose to let it.

So, here is the lesson that keeps me whole.  Even though I had the power, I did not crush the butterfly.

 

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Homely People

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I prefer to write about, think about, and draw pictures of homely people. But don’t mistake me.  I am not talking about ugly people.    Our President, the giant blood sausage with a bird’s nest on top that we have put in charge of making us all feel sick to our stomachs every day, demonstrates what ugly means.  Ugly is not just weird and interesting to look at, it is also repellent behavior that makes physical flaws take a back seat… no, a rumble seat in the trailer behind by comparison.

I am talking about the ordinary people back home.  The ones that may be sitting by your own fireplace on a cold day trying to warm their hands after throwing snowballs outside.  And, of course, that snowball that hit Maggie Doozman in the side of the face and knocked her glasses off, made you laugh for an instant, until you realized she was crying, and Kirk Longhatter didn’t even apologize for throwing so hard, so you went over and picked her glasses up for her and handed them to her, and she smiled at you through the tears.  That is the kind of homely I mean.

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There is a lot that is beautiful in homely people. Sure, maybe not a classically beautiful Elizabeth Taylor face or a Gregory Peck lantern jaw.  Maybe not even a shapely behind or a graceful step when walking across the street.  But ordinary beauty.  Kindness.  Humility.  Determination in the face of long odds.  Good-natured jokery.  A touch of childish silliness.  A moon face that actually shines when a smile lights it up.  That is beauty that can be found in homely people.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this post is just an excuse to show off some goofy old off-kilter portraits I did.  But that doesn’t change the fact.  I do love homely people.

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Christmas Magic

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Before now I have never talked about my childhood friend Jimmy Crafton.  It took a long long time to build up enough courage.  Writing this on Christmas Eve makes it easier.

It is not a terrible story.  I can’t think of anybody that fits the idea of a “hero” any more than Jim.  I remember him as a pale-faced little boy with a thousand Watt smile full of tiny white teeth.  He was two years younger than me.  He was in my sister’s class at Rowan Elementary.  He was outgoing and funny.  And he was a hemophiliac.  He had the rare condition of having too little of the essential blood-clotting proteins in the blood that the vast majority of us get to take for granted.  Every day for him was a risk of having an ordinary injury like a bruise or scrape cause him to bleed to death.  He missed great gobs of school days with injuries and crippling pain and the need to go to the emergency room in Mason City for life-saving blood transfusions.  We were told when I was eight that he probably wouldn’t last past his tenth birthday.  The teachers all gave us strict rules for playing with him on the playground… what not to do, what to immediately report, and what not to allow him to do.  I remember one time he decided to wrestle both Bobby and me at the same time.  He had a deep and passionate love for the sport of wrestling, big in the high schools of Iowa.  He aggressively took us both down and pinned us both with minimum effort.  And you should stop laughing at how wimpy that makes me sound.  Remember, I had to play the game by different rules than he did.  Bob and I both had to live with the consequences if bad things were to happen.

The miracle of Jim Crafton was that he did not die in childhood due to his genetic medical difficulty.  In fact, he grew up, went to college, and became a doctor all because of the gratitude he had towards the doctors and medical professionals who helped him conquer hemophilia in childhood.  He got married.  And he even had a son.  Those were things he accomplished in life that no one believed were possible back in the 1960’s.

But now we get to the part that I can’t write without typing through tears.  A hemophiliac relies on regular transfusions of blood to supply the clotting factors that he cannot live without.  And there was no effective screening technique for HIV in blood supplies before 1992.  Further problems arose from the blood bank practice of mixing blood donations together by blood type.  That meant that even clean blood donations were likely to become tainted through mixing.   Far too many of the hemophiliacs in America were given infected blood and became AIDS sufferers at a time when a diagnosis of HIV was basically a death sentence.  And worse, AIDS sufferers were often isolated and treated like lepers for fear of contracting the disease from ordinary contact with them.  You might remember the sad case of Ricky Ray in Florida.  He and his two brothers were all hemophiliacs.  They all were infected.  They were expelled from school.  They even had to live in hiding after loving members of their community burned their house down.  We were horrible to people who were dying of AIDS.

But I can’t leave this essay on such a sad note.  My friend Jimmy was a hero, a doctor, and a dad.  He lived a life worth living and worth knowing about.  His life was a gift to all of us lesser beings.  And this is the time of year for remembering those we have loved and lost.  Jim died of AIDS decades ago.  But he still lives in my heart and my memory.  And if you have read this little story, he lives in you now too.  That is a sort of magic, isn’t it?  I only wish I had more powerful magic to give.

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The Nature of Our Better Angels

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I have friends and relatives that believe in angels.  Religious people who believe in the power of prayer and the love of God.  And I cannot say that I do not also believe.  But I also happen to believe that angels live among us.

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My Great Grandma Nellie Hinckley was, as far as I am concerned, an angel.  Born in the late 1800’s, she was a practical prairie farmer’s wife.  She knew how to make butter in a churn.  She knew how to treat bee stings and spider bites. She knew how to cook good, wholesome food that stuck to your ribs and kept you going until the next meal rolled around.  She knew how to cook on a wood-burning stove, and knew why you needed to keep corn cobs in a pile by the outhouse door.  Or, in the case of rich folks, why you needed to read the Sears catalog in the little room behind the cut-out crescent moon.

She also knew how to head a family.  She had seven kids and raised six of them up to adulthood.  She sent a son off to World War II.  She had nine grandchildren and more great grandchildren, of which I was one of the not-so-great ones, than I can even count on two hands and two feet, the toes of which I can’t always see.  Great great grandchildren were even greater.  Tell me you can’t believe she was a messenger from God, always knowing God’s will, and making the future happen with a steady hand, and eyes that brooked no nonsense from lie-telling boys.

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Mother Mendiola was an angel too.  I met her at my first school, Frank Newman Junior High in Cotulla, Texas.  She was the seventh grade Life Science teacher.  She had been a nun before becoming a teacher, and she was a single lady her whole life.  But she was a natural mother figure to the children in her classes.  She’s the one who taught me how to talk to fatherless boys, engage them in learning about things that excited them, and become a lifelong mentor to them, willing to help them with life’s problems even long after they had graduated from both junior high and high school.  She was not only a mother to students, but she nurtured other teachers as well.  She showed Alice and I how to talk to Hispanic kids even though we were both so white we almost glowed in the dark.  She went to bat for kids who got in trouble with the principal, and even those who sometimes got into trouble with the law.  She had a way of holding her hand out to kids and encouraging them to place their troubles in it.  She even helped pregnant young girls with wise counsel and a loving, accepting heart, even when they were seriously in the wrong.  When they talk about being an “advocate for kids” in educational conferences, they always make me picture her and her methods.  I can still see her in my mind’s eye with clenched fists on her hips and saying, “I am tired of it, and it will get better NOW!”  And it always got better.  Because she was an angel.  She had the power of the love of God behind her every action and motivation.  It still makes me weep to remember she is gone now.  She got her wings and flew on to other things a long time ago now.

Some people may call it a blasphemy for me to say that these people, no matter how good and critically important they were, could really be angels.  But I have to say it.  I have to believe it.  I know this because I saw them do these things, with my own two eyes, and how could they not be messengers from God?  I convinces me that I need to work at becoming an angel too.

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An Unexpected Gift 

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This post is a movie review for Thor : Ragnarok , though I don’t really plan on talking about the movie very much.   It was an excellent comic book movie in the same tongue-in-cheek comedy tradition as Guardians of the Galaxy.   It made me laugh and made me cheer.   It was the best of that kind of movie.  But it wasn’t the most important thing that happened that night.

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You see, I spent the weekend in the hospital thinking I had suffered a heart attack during the Thanksgiving holiday. I thought I was facing surgery at the very least.   I knew I might have had an appointment to play chess with the Grim Reaper.   It is a lot to worry about and drain all the fun out of life.

Well, one of the things that happened that day, Tuesday, my first full day out of the hospital and, hopefully, out of the woods over heart attacks, was that I received my new replacement bank card because my old one had a worn out, malfunctioning chip in it.  So, I took my three kids to the movie at the cheapest place we could find.  I tried to run my bank card for the payment, and it was summarily declined.  I had activated it previously during the day, and there was plenty of money in the account compared to the price, but it just wouldn’t take.  So I had to call Wells Fargo to find out whatever the new reason was for them to hate me.  It turned out that it had already been activated, but a glitch had caused it to decline the charge.  While I was talking to the girl from the Wells Fargo help desk, the lady who had gotten her and her husband’s tickets right before us put four tickets to the movie in my hand.

The middle-aged black couple had lingered by the ticket stand before going in to their movie just long enough to see a sad-looking old man with raggedy author’s beard and long Gandalf hair get turned down by the cheap-cinema ticket-taking teenager because the old coot’s one and only bank card was declined. They were moved to take matters into their own hands and paid for our tickets themselves.

That, you see, was the gift from my title.  Not so much that we got our movie tickets for free, but that the world still works that way.  There are still good people with empathetic and golden hearts willing to step in and do things to make the world a little bit better place.  The gift they gave me was the reassurance that, as bad and black as the world full of fascists that we have come to live in has become, it still has goodness and fellow feeling in it. People are still moved to pay things forward and make good on the promise to “love one another”.  I did not have a chance to thank them properly.  I was on the phone with Wells Fargo girl when it happened.  The only thing that couple got out of their good deed was thank-yous from my children and the knowledge that they had done something wonderful.  I plan to pay it forward as soon as I have the opportunity.  Not out of guilt or obligation, but because I need to be able to feel that feeling too at some point.

I do have one further gift to offer the world.

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After we got home from the movie, I opened an email that contained the cover proof for my novel, Magical Miss Morgan.  Soon I will have that in print also if I can keep Page Publishing from messing it up at the last moments before printing.  It is a novel about what a good teacher is and does.  It is the second best thing I have ever written.

Sometimes the gifts that you most desperately need come in unexpected fashion.

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Giving and Taking Stupid Advice

Let’s begin with some stupid advice. I don’t have time to write a lot today because the Princess is ill and must go see the doctor in Plano.  So the advice is; Set aside time for writing and always allow plenty of time for it.  You will probably notice already that I am giving you advice that I am not taking myself this morning.  So don’t follow that advice.  It is stupid advice.  I have given it to creative writing classes for years and thought I meant it.  But looking back on real life, I realize, it has never been true for me.  My best ideas, my best writing, always seem to come in the middle of the pressure-cooker of daily struggle and strife.  I have battled serious illness for most of my adult life.  I have the luck of a man who tried to avoid letting a black cat cross his path by crashing his bicycle at the top of a hill covered in clover with only three leaves each and then rolling down the hill, under a ladder, and crashing into a doorpost which knocks the horseshoe off the top.  The horseshoe lands on my stupid head with the “U” facing downward so the luck all drains out.  Bad things happen to me all the time.  But it makes for good writing.  Tell me you didn’t at least smile at the picture I just painted in your mind.  You might’ve even been unable to suppress a chuckle.  I am under time pressure and misfortune pressure and the need to rearrange my entire daily schedule.  So it is the perfect time to write.

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This essay, however, is about bad advice.  And I am a perfect person to rely on as a resource for bad advice.  I am full of it.  Of course, I mean I am full of bad advice, not that other thing we think of when someone tells me I am “Full of it!”  So here’s another bit of writing advice that is probably completely wrong and a bad idea to take without a grain of salt, or at least a doctor’s prescription.   You should stop bird-walking in your essay and get to the damn point!

 I know a lot about the subject of depression.  When I was a teenager, I came very close to suicide.  I experienced tidal waves of self-loathing and black-enveloping blankets of depression for reasons that I didn’t understand until I realized later in life that it all came from being a child-victim of sexual assault.  Somehow I muddled through and managed to self-medicate with journal writing and fantasy-fixations, thus avoiding a potentially serious alcohol or drug problem.  This is connected to my main idea, despite the fact that I am obviously not following the no bird-walking advice.  You see, with depression, Bad advice can kill you.  Seriously, people want to tell you to just, “Get over it!  Stop moping about and get on with life.  It isn’t real.  You are just being lazy.”

I have been on the inside of depression and I know for a fact that not taking it seriously can be deadly.  In fact, I have faced suicidal depression not only in myself, but in several former students and even my own children.  I have spent time in emergency rooms, mental hospitals, and therapists offices when I wasn’t myself the depression sufferer.  One of my high school classmates and one of my former students lost their battles and now are no longer among the living.  (Sorry, have to take a moment for tears again.)  But I learned how to help a depression sufferer.  You have to talk to them and make them listen at least to the part where you say, “I have been through this myself.  Don’t give in to it.  You can survive if you fight back.  And whatever you have to do, I will be right here for you.  You can talk to me about anything.  I will listen.  And I won’t try to give you any advice.”  Of course, after you say that to them, you do not leave them alone.  You stay by them and protect them from themselves, or make sure somebody that will do the same for them stays with them.  So far, that last bit of advice has worked for me.  But the fight can be life-long.  And it is a critical battle.

So taking advice from others is always an adventure.  Red pill?  Green pill?  Poison pill?  Which will you take?  I can’t decide for you.  Any advice I give you would probably just be stupid advice.  You have to weigh the evidence and decide for yourself.  What does this stupid essay even mean?  Isn’t it just a pile of stupid advice?  A concluding paragraph should tell you the answer if it can.  But, I fear, there is no answer this time.

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