ECLECTIC MUSINGS FROM A WRITER’S LIFE

words-on-skin

When we made the big transition two years ago to leave Pittsburgh and move to the mountains during the summer and Florida for the winters, lots of decisions had to be made about what we kept and what we tossed. The hardest task for me personally came when I had to address the file cabinets and boxes filled with two decades of published writings.

For more than two decades, I’ve written either columns or blog posts and the major portion of those are not available electronically. I moved most of my archives, but as I hefted box after box of yellowing newsprint, I decided they would not be moved again except to my circular file, which is emptied every week.

I hadn’t done much of anything with those things until this summer after a visit home to Michigan where I presented the journal of my great grandfather to audiences interested in the Civil War and Michigan’s role in it. The only thing I have left of this man is his written word and one photograph. I have even less left by his son–my grandfather–who died in 1956.

ECLECTIC LEANINGS finalSo I’m typing madly to electronically keep a portion of my “library” as I compile many of the pieces into one book, Eclectic Leanings, Musings from a Writer’s Soul, which I hope to publish by summer’s end. Whether anyone buys it or not, I will have preserved a major part of my thoughts, values, and philosophy for my daughter and anyone else who wants to remember me after I’m gone.

Here’s one piece that I unearthed that I find relevant today. We are in danger of taking gigantic steps backward in the movement to end bullying if we don’t stop the cycle being set by those with a Twitter account and a lack of impulse control.

WORDS MATTER

Published in The High Springs Herald, January 2001

The biggest lie from childhood:  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Hit me with a stick or throw a stone at me anytime rather than tell me that my face is ugly or my clothes are old or my mother wears army boots. Tell me those things, and I crumble.

Yet the insults and ridicule begin at a very young age whenever someone does something outside the norm of behavior. Where do we learn to insult one another for our differences? Does it come from somewhere deep inside our psyche, and is it so ingrained in our personalities that it begins with the acquisition of language?

Many times, we throw the slings and arrows of words to protect ourselves. They serve as a red herring for the soul, deflecting those slings and arrows from coming directly back at us. And so, we are taught the old adage about stick and stones in order to make ourselves tough and to let go of those insults. But how often do they really just roll off our backs? Those words pierce their way into our hearts and souls, leaving wounds. Some of us can heal those wounds over time; others never can.

The wounds which never heal become festering blisters of pain. And words serve, not as the sticks and stones of our childhood, but as the timber and boulders which threaten to come crashing down to smother us.

As I write this column, a young man of seventeen is hanging onto his life by a thread. One morning, he woke up and decided he no longer wanted to face the timber and boulders of his daily life at school because he was different. It doesn’t matter how he was different, but he was. And he was ostracized and ridiculed for it. He would hide it, deflect it, and strike back because of it. But finally, the struggle to do all of those things while still living the life of a teenager became too much, and he couldn’t face another day.

So he woke up that morning and decided he had had enough of his life. He swallowed four hundred Tylenol pills in an effort to end the pain and struggle. And for more than two weeks now he has lingered in and out of this world.

The repercussions sent out ripples, and the emotions come in waves of guilt. Other teenagers wondered if they could have done something for him while the adults wondered why they didn’t do something more. Hopefully, soon we will realize that we could have done nothing immediate to stop him from wanting to die. But maybe we can do something now to change the course of the future.

Still the insults continue as I go about my day as a teacher. The slingshots of words continue their banter across the classroom aisles, and I wonder how to stop it all. How do we stop years of learned behaviors where the standard for wit and attention resides on the yardstick of derision and ridicule?

We are a society founded on the tenets of individual freedom yet we have become something else in our struggle to protect the rights of a diverse people. We do not applaud the standard bearers or the trail blazers until they have made lots of cash from their achievement. Then we are ready to join the bandwagon as we erect statues to their heroism. This we do for the ones who can survive their differences. We put on pedestals those who are different only when they have achieved the status which we can appreciate in our little superficial souls.

As I struggle to put a positive light on a tragedy beyond human comprehension, I wonder how I can reach out to change this situation. How can we all finally figure out that words and language and actions have far more power than anything else? They have the power to kill and the power to heal.

Each morning when I rise I pray to be given the ability that day to say the right things. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. The conscious effort on the part of us all to recognize and accept the differences of others, and the willingness to praise individuality instead of mocking it can go a long way in the process of changing our attitudes. The sticks and stones of our childhood can then be turned into something constructive from which we can build a structure with a strong foundation, relishing the differences which make us whole.

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Author Note – I wrote this column seventeen years ago. My student survived and is now happily living his life with a partner and enjoying success in his career. His attempt at ending his life motivated me to leave teaching to pursue my passion. The opinion I expressed seems quite timely now. Campaigns against bullying were being implemented in schools. And then a man was elected as the President of the United States who conducts himself in times of adversity as the Bully-in-Chief. We must be vigilant and fight it because if the highest office in our country condones name calling and personal insults, then our job on the ground must be to conduct ourselves with the utmost care and kindness toward others. I pray we don’t sink to the low level of the high office of power.

Oh Captain, My Captain

Each year before I began teaching poetry to my tenth grade students, I started with the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Sometimes I worried about showing it because one of the main characters commits suicide, but I thought the overall message was an important one. It always created a little more excitement in sixteen-year-old males to begin studying Frost and Whitman.

The scene I pulled from YouTube is one of my favorites. One of my most cherished items from those years of teaching is a large card my students made and signed for me. They gave it to me on my last day of teaching. One of the students wrote, “What more can be said than, ‘Oh Captain, My Captain.'” I still cry when I read it, and I always cried when the students jumped up on their desks at the end of the movie.

Today when I watched the scene, I cried. But the tears were different. This time the tears were tears of sadness as I looked into the face of Robin Williams as he said, “Thank you, boys. Thank you.”

Thank you, Robin Williams. Thank you. You brought us to tears from either your sensitive portrayals of a teacher, a father, or a doctor. And you brought us to our knees in laughter with your incessant antics and monologues that often made little sense.

Suicide. You hung yourself in your home. You poor poor man.

Ironically, this past week we found out our neighbor killed himself last year. We’d been traveling and sick this past year so we didn’t keep up much with our immediate surroundings. We knew his house was for sale, but we figured he’d moved nearer his job. But no, while we were in Florida last year, he left his father and young son and went into his bedroom and killed himself. The man next door who told me said there’d been financial troubles.

Thank you, John, for being a loving father, but your young son who you loved so much will never forget that night. You were such a nice friendly man and when you came over to our house with your son, you showed him kindness and consideration.

Suicide. You shot yourself in the head. You poor poor man.

I’m not unfamiliar with suicide. It’s hit my own family. My brother Don, a successful statistician yet unsuccessful in relationships, wrote a suicide note and sat down in his recliner and left us at the age of fifty-eight. Much too young.

Thank you, Don, for being my big brother. I looked up to you in all things as a child. We shared the same dismal childhood, but you never could break out of the prison of yours. I couldn’t help you. I’ll never forget you and how we ate our dinner in the back end of our new Plymouth station wagon one summer night. You were my hero. Don and Me

Suicide. You took an overdoes of pills. You poor poor man.

My husband who’s never suffered a day of depression in his life asked me how Robin/John/Don could have done what they did. Didn’t Robin have enough fans? Didn’t John think about his son? Didn’t Don know someone loved him in the world?

My answer to him is simple. It doesn’t matter what they had, who they were, how much they’d achieved, where they were. Nothing mattered except their need to leave. It overpowered everything else.

Could I have done something to save my brother? I don’t know. Robin’s wife was in the house the night before he died, and John’s estranged wife allowed their son to spend the weekend with him. Perhaps in those final moments and hours, there was nothing that could have been done. The decision was made and the determination set.

Obviously, in none of the three cases I’ve cited did it happen suddenly. Perhaps if depression was something we acknowledged as a real disease as we’re beginning to do with alcoholism and drug abuse, there would have been real help for these three men who’ve touched my life.

I left teaching in 2000 because one of my students attempted suicide in a big way. He took a mega dose of Tylenol and drank a bottle of vodka. He was nearly dead–and would have been in an hour–when his mother came home from work unexpectedly and found him unconscious. The week before, I knew this young man was in trouble. He was lashing out at everyone–myself included–and when I consulted with his guidance counselor, I was informed he was fine. I remember the counselor coming to my classroom and pulling me away from teaching to tell me the young man just wanted attention. He wasn’t depressed at all, he told me. Thankfully, he recovered and so did his nearly destroyed liver. And the guidance counselor continued guiding students, but not discussing depression.

Let’s make an effort to change that. I’m not immune to depression. I’ve been in the depths without hope. The worst thing said to me was, “I don’t understand–you have so much to live for. How in the world could you be depressed?” Would we ever say that to a cancer patient?

We can’t change the past, but we have an opportunity now to take the very public suicide of Robin Williams and recognize it for what it is and open our hearts and arms to those who suffer from depression.

Thank you, boys. Thank you.