Me and my shadow

crowded poolI am a strong swimmer now, but before I learned how to tread water I nearly drowned, and no one knew anything about it while it was happening. I was four, maybe five, and had gone to a crowded community pool with my cousins, both big shots. At one point, I found myself separated from them and bobbling frantically in the deep end. I don’t know how many times I went under or how close to drowning I actually was, but I remember being swamped by a feeling of intense confusion, a feeling I was too young to understand: that I had somehow gotten myself into a kind of trouble I could not have forestalled. Before I knew, I was back in the shallow end, crying, and my older cousin—the younger one still off somewhere splashing and flirting—seemed not to understand (as I, myself, seemed not to understand) how grave things had been just minutes before.

A handful of years later, I was helping to set the table for a holiday meal and had gone to get out the good plates from the oak hutch in our dining room. One minute I was pulling on the sticking door; the next minute I was on the ground and a piece of furniture weighing hundreds of pounds was about to fall on top of me. Luckily, my brother pulled me away before it, and its contents, came crashing down. Afterwards, all I could do was cry, though mostly, I think, because he had called me an idiot.

Throughout my life, there have been innumerable calamities, and almost always these have arrived at moments when I was not quite there to greet them. Only now, for instance, a decade later, can I see the truth of my second marriage—that I had allowed myself to be snookered by a con artist. For the few years I was with him, and for years after, it was as if I were two: one who knew full well what kind of man he was and one who had unknowingly ventured into the deep end of the pool when she hadn’t learned to swim properly.


Flotsam and jetsam

flotsam and jetsamIt used to take a dog’s age to conduct proper research for a school assignment. First, you had to find your way to a library with a reasonable selection. Then, you had to find your way through a card catalog. Then, you had to find your way through the stacks and the Dewey Decimal System. Then, you had to find your way through the checkout process. Then, you had to find your way home with your burden of books. Now, in minutes you can become an expert on any subject, and all you need is access to the Internet.

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of TV news, and I’ve had a lot of questions, as you can imagine. In days gone by, these would have gone largely unanswered since it is unlikely I would have raced down to my local library to look up everything I wanted to know. Now, I can respond to any random squeak of a question my mind generates before it has an opportunity to lose interest in the answer. Here is some of what I learned yesterday when I benumbed Google with my many queries:

Bruno Mars is 27 and is tormented by young, wild girls. NBC’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell is the daughter of Sydney Mitchell, who was CEO and part owner of a furniture manufacturing company in New York City. Margaret Brainard Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, never married again after she and her husband, Paul Boynton Meserve, divorced in 1938. In 2010, Wayne LaPierre earned just under a million dollars as Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 novel that “is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).” Stefon Zolesky, a Saturday Night Live character played by Bill Hader, touches his face and hair excessively possibly because of an “excessive consumption of recreational drugs.” Rudolph’s nose really does glow red because “reindeer have 25-percent more blood vessels in their noses than humans do.”


People of the lie

no assault weapons

When M. Scott Peck published People of the Lie in 1983, I was hungry for it. Five years earlier, I had read his seminal work, The Road Less Traveled, and it had so changed my life that I hoped he could continue to offer a level of spiritual guidance I was not able to find elsewhere. A studied meditation on the nature of evil, People of the Lie is stunning in many respects.

While I have forgotten much about the book, what has remained with me all these years is the story Peck, a psychoanalyst, tells of a depressed patient who comes to him after his brother commits suicide and who, over the course of therapy, reveals that his parents gave him as a Christmas present the very same rifle his brother used to kill himself.

I remember I could barely take in air when I read this section because I realized that the kind of evil Peck described was all around me. It was not the easily discernible evil of a mass murderer but rather the more subtle form of evil that arises out of an utter lack of empathy for others and a complete inability to see or to tell the truth about oneself.

When I heard on this evening’s news that, in recent days, there has been an unprecedented spike in gun sales throughout the country and, in particular, that there has been an increased interest in buying the AR-15 rifle that was used in the Newtown killings, I was reminded of Peck’s book and of his ideas about the different faces of evil.


“We lost a lot of babies today in this town….”

Family handout photo of Emilie ParkerSince Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a photo of Robert and Alissa Parker, parents of six-year-old Emilie Parker, has been circulating in the papers, online, and on TV. In it, Emilie’s father has his arm around his wife, and he appears shocked and dazed by news no parent should ever be made to hear. Her mother, a visible and crumpled tissue in her right hand, seems stricken with what had to have been disbelief and unimaginable grief. It should have been a very private moment between them, but the photograph will no doubt come to serve as an iconic image of one of the most tragic mass slayings in the nation’s history—a killing spree that left twenty children, all of them six and seven years old, dead from multiple gunshot wounds.

Any mother or father looking at the grieving parents of Emilie Parker—a lover of all things new, but food—would have to know that there could be no greater suffering than that. I had a very brief taste of it when, as a result of a lab test error, my own daughter, now grown, was wrongly diagnosed in her first year with what is often a fatal illness. For a few hours, I waited, alone, while her doctor ran the test again, and I remember feeling that, were she to die, I would likely not survive the loss.

I think only faith can make it possible to endure that kind of pain and to have hope for renewal in life. May the grieving parents of Newtown find it, if it is lost; hold tight to it; and be healed by it.


Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain and AbelA pernicious strain of negativity runs through me, and my many efforts to eradicate it have been fruitless. So pronounced is this predisposition that some years ago it prompted a colleague to ask if I had appointed myself a member of the behavior police.

I laughed at his joke, launched when he heard me yell to no one in particular that the driver of the car in front of us was a “****ing ass****,” and I pretended to be unfazed. Really, though, I felt  ashamed that he could see my smallnesses leaching out of me, and now, whenever I catch myself fretting over what I deem to be a stranger’s downright insensitivity or unconsciousness, I think of the joke and feel helpless to do anything about this part of myself.

Today, though, I might just have stumbled upon some help, coming as it did in the guise of a couple crossing the street, with the male of the pair never once looking up from his phone. As I watched him take as much time as he possibly could to cross the road, I tsk-tsked inwardly about the great harm that can come because someone like this has absolutely no regard for what is going on around him. Then, I noticed that his companion was holding his elbow, and it occurred to me that perhaps some real social good could come from the mindless inattention we now suffer as a result of our preoccupation with electronic gadgetry and social media.

Because never before have so many of us put so many others of us at such great, round-the-clock risk, it is now necessary for those of us trying to pay attention in life to look after those of us who are not. Thus, we can become that much more holy and can save our own skin in the bargain.


The lesson in it

Jacintha SaldanhaI was sorry to learn today that one of the nurses who fell victim to a sophmoric prank perpetrated by two Australian DJs was found dead three days later. It is not yet clear whether Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two, committed suicide or died of stress, but it is clear that she was deeply humiliated by a hoax that was aired around the globe, in which the DJs impersonated Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles with the hope of getting information about the hospitalized, pregnant, and severely morning sick Duchess of Cambridge.

The story got me to thinking about how, because of our capacity for deep and unconscious stupidity, we can destroy each other without intending it and how it is incumbent upon us, therefore, to become more conscious and to understand that everything we do and say, everything, matters.

Had DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian known they were about to destroy several lives, including their own, I’m reasonably sure they would have found something else to do with their air time. But, self-awareness and genuine sensitivity to others does not arrive easily, if at all. It is the work of a lifetime, this struggling to awaken, and it comes only when we are made to suffer ourselves over and over.


Movies taught me everything I know, alas

all mine to giveLast night, I watched all of All Mine to Give on TCM, and it was not an easy thing to do. I rolled my eyes for 103 minutes, and, when it was over, I vowed to express my vexation in writing. I was not so much bugged by its melodrama, though it was hard not to giggle at the overacting, backlot sets, and emotionally leading music. Happily, cinema has evolved. I was bothered more by the idea that movies like this helped to shape my sense of the world and the part I was required to play in it.

Set in 1856 America, All Mine to Give (based loosely on a true story and originally titled The Day They Gave Babies Away) tells the tale of Scottish émigrés Robert and Mamie Eunson (played by Cameron Mitchell and Glynis Johns), who settle in Wisconsin at the invitation of a relative, have a litter of six children, and succumb to diphtheria and typhoid fever, respectively.

On her deathbed, Mamie tells her eldest son, Robbie, that he must find good homes for each of her soon-to-be orphaned children. After her death—and on Christmas day, for crying out loud—he sets out in the snow to deposit his brothers and sisters in homes he has chosen for them, and he does so without first conferring with the adults who are to assume this burden. “Sure,” they tell 12-year-old Robbie when he appears out of the blue on their doorsteps, siblings in hand. “We can take another kid. No problem. And, hey, don’t be a stranger. Bye.”

So, when I was young, and impressionable, this is what I learned from All Mine to Give and movies like it:

1. To survive, you need to buck up and never complain, even if you are asked to do something no child should ever be asked to do.

2. You should not feel, much less show, sadness when sad things happen, like when your spouse dies, or when your parents die, or when your brothers and sisters are taken away from you—and from each other—and you are left all alone.

3. Children are really small adults and don’t much need the comfort or counsel of real adults.

4. Though life is impossibly hard, solutions to impossible problems are easy to find. Why, you can give away a kid just like that, and no one will even blink.

5. Everything in life should happen fast: Above all, grief over the loss of a loved one should never extend beyond 103 minutes.