A few months ago, my daughter performed the song “I’m Breaking Down” at a state thespian competition.
Her song choice wasn’t lost on me. You see, the character who sings that song in the musical The Falsettos is named Trina.
If you’re wondering why the heck my daughter would do that, don’t worry. You’ll soon know more than you ever wanted about my mental health.
On Wednesday night, I was truly breaking down. For a while now, I’ve felt overwhelmed in so many aspects of my life.
Every. Single. Aspect.
Nothing is going as I hoped, and there’s even a scandal making national headlines that’s impacting my job. Fun times.
I’m not throwing a pity party. There are still wonderful elements of my life, like my husband. (I’ll get to him in a minute.)
Let’s just say that, overall, I’m a walking mess. And when I’m a mess, all I want is for everyone else to understand exactly how I feel – even at 3:00 in the morning when I haven’t slept because I’m so angry, frustrated, stressed and just plain pissed off at the world.
(This is where my husband comes back in.)
After speaking only to myself for hours and realizing that my own words were only making me feel worse, I needed someone who would actually reassure me. So I woke my husband up to do that. He wasn’t happy.
In fact, he said something to the effect of “nobody cares.”
With those words, I felt like the whole world was against me.
Or, in the word’s of Trina in The Falsetto’s I was “breaking down.”
I got in my car and drove out of the neighborhood. The cop sitting in the church parking lot across from my neighborhood must have been thrilled to finally see a potential revenue source, because he (she?) pulled out behind me.
My first concern was to check to see if I’d actually thrown on a bra before leaving the house.
And even though I’m pretty certain that going braless while driving isn’t illegal, there might be some people who think it is. So I chose not to push my luck.
To get the cop off my tail, I turned into the nearby hospital parking lot.
That’s when I had a flashback to a few months earlier when I was in severe pain related to degenerative disk disease. I hadn’t slept for about a week and was miserable. I ended up making not one, but two, early morning visits to the Emergency Room. On one visit, to help ease the situation, the doctors gave me a shot of Valium and sent home a few more capsules to help me sleep until my condition improved.
Here’s what I learned about taking Valium:
- I don’t stay up all night being preoccupied, worried and pissed off;
- I don’t get preoccupied, worried and pissed off at all;
- I don’t care if people understand where I’m coming from;
- I can sleep;
- I like it.
As I pulled into that hospital parking lot, the glowing emergency room sign seemed like a welcoming beacon calling me home to an simple solution. And, for just a moment, I considered going in with the same set of complaints I’d had a few months earlier. The thought of not living with my head in a constant state of turmoil was overwhelmingly compelling.
But I didn’t. Instead, I parked in a dark, out of the way spot; I cried; I freaked out a couple of nurses who were sneaking off for an illegal smoke break; and then I headed home with the same set of problems and issues bouncing around in my head.
I honestly don’t know what stopped me from seeking drugs Wednesday night. Not wearing a bra might have had a little bit to do with my choice, but not a lot.
Maybe I’ve had enough experiences in my life to know this too shall pass.
Maybe I know that the consequences wouldn’t justify the immediate relief.
Maybe I am fortunate to have a support system that, while not available at 3:00 in the morning, is still there for me.
Maybe my childhood continues to impact my life well into my fifties.
Maybe I just don’t have the predisposition for drug seeking behavior.
Whatever the reason, here’s what I do know: the gap between maybe and don’t is precariously slim. Literally anyone call fall through it in certain circumstances.
I should know. I almost did.
I am one of those people.
There’s an old saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The saying may be old, but it’s more relevant than ever. From the world stage to the community stage, too many people use the slightest bit of authority to benefit themselves. Sometimes they do so with no thought to the damage they do to others, sometimes they tell lies to hide their true intentions, and sometimes they just don’t care.
But those left in their wake do care.
I should know.
In the last few months, weeks, and even days, the fallout from multiple instances of abuse of power has seeped into both my personal and professional life.
But, like so much in life, I’ve had to make a choice. I can either ignore the problems or I can can learn from them.
I’ve chosen to learn, and here’s what I’ve figured out: people only abuse their power because other people let them.
Sometimes, people allow the abuse of power because they think they too will benefit. They realize what is happening is wrong, but the potential gains outweigh the immorality of the situation. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are afraid to call out the wrong doing. They fear they’ll be hurt, someone they care about will be hurt, or that an institution or organization in which they are invested will be hurt. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people believe more in institutions than they do people, and they will do all they can to protect those institutions. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are in such awe of power that they truly believe that the abuse of power is justified. Or they believe that those who are abusing the power somehow earned and deserve to be where they are and to do what they do. Or they were taught not to question authority. So they say and do nothing.
These may be excuses, but they should never be excusable.
In the end, people who abuse their power only do harm: to people; to communities; to organizations; to institutions; and even to countries.
And while their behavior is reprehensible, looking the other way when abuse occurs is what allows it to continue.
It’s the sin that sits next to power.
Yesterday, I discovered that the old tree I’d admired during so many bike rides is now a broken remnant of it’s former majesty.
The sight of it literally made me cry.
I’d always considered the tree a living definition of the term survivor. It had, after all, obviously withstood so many of life’s storms, including a lightening strike. Because of all its scars, the tree was much more magnificent than the younger trees nearby.
Yesterday, seeing what remained of it, I no longer thought so. Even more bothersome was that some time had obviously passed since it had fallen, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Granted, I changed my regular bike route a while ago so I haven’t recently ridden by the tree, but I didn’t think it had been THAT long.
Apparently it had been.
Like so much recently, the overgrown stump was a reminder of how quickly time passes. And with the passage of time comes loss: the loss of friends and family, the loss of youth, and even the loss of the roles and responsibilities that we think define us.
But as I looked at the stump through the tears, I realized something else. The remnants of the tree were still making their mark on both the landscape and on me.
And that’s really all we can ask of anything.
Moments and people can’t stay in our lives forever. Instead, we have to make the most of what they give us and then use that to shape the remaining time and relationships we have.
In the past, I’d always thought the tree was there to teach me the lesson that being a survivor is about staying strong during tough times.
Yesterday, its remains taught me a new lesson: survival isn’t just about standing strong. Sometimes it involves letting go of what we think defines us so we can reach out to find new ways to make our mark on the world.
And it taught me I can do all of that while still embracing the memories.
I’ve spent a lot time thinking about education lately.
Maybe that’s because my daughter, a senior in high school, hasn’t yet committed to a college, and her dad and I are getting anxious about her first choice. (It will require some financial gymnastics.)
Or maybe it’s because that same daughter missed school last week when West Virginia teachers went on strike for the second time in just over a year.
Or maybe it’s because the antics that led to the teacher’s strike made me want to dig into the educational background of the state legislators who think they know more about education than teachers do. Thankfully, the omnibus education bill that would have used limited public dollars to pay for private education and charter schools was killed, and the strike ended. But my curiosity about the legislators who supported the bill was piqued.
And when I looked up who voted to continue moving forward with the bill, a familiar name popped up.
I wasn’t surprised. He’s the guy who made national news earlier this month for railing against the LGBTQ community. What did surprise me was the difficulty I had getting information about his educational background.
I started by looking at his bio on the WV State legislature’s website.
There wasn’t anything there.
Faced with that roadblock, I did what any concerned voter would do: I used Google. That took some time as I had to wade through all of the news stories about his controversial comments. I finally found information on a website called “Vote Smart.” According to it, Porterfield received a DDiv from Belle Meadow Bible College in 2009.
Since I’d never heard of the college, I looked it up.
There’s a reason I’d never heard of it.
From what I could tell from the website, it’s actually a correspondence course offered by an Independent Baptist Church in Bristol Virginia.
When I showed this to a friend, she encouraged me to spend the $75.00 for the course.
I passed on her suggestion.
I didn’t, however, pass on continuing to dig for more information.
I didn’t find much.
In a self-completed candidate profile that ran in the May 5, 2018, edition of the Beckley Register Herald, Porterfield reported that he had “a BA in Religion and Arts, a Masters in Pastoral Theology, a Masters of Divinity.” https://www.register-herald.com/news/candidate-profile-eric-porterfield-house-district/article_a133ba54-51d1-11e8-a22c-5fb381dcf5e7.html.
There was no information about where he received these degrees. The only other reference to his educational background is in a September 28, 2012 article in the Princeton Times in which he says he went to a Bible College at age 20: https://www.ptonline.net/news/local_news/porterfields-bring-blind-faith-to-south-sudan/article_fa0ea72a-6f9d-5634-ad5e-fcd5a74464b1.html.
That’s it. That’s all I could find.
Which bothers me. It bothers me a lot.
As citizens, we are giving legislators the ability and responsibility of making decisions about education, and therefore the future of our children. We have the right to know if they are educated enough to do so.
For months, I’ve had an ongoing debate with myself that goes something like this:
Me: I need to tell everyone exactly what I think about President Trump and the antics of the WV State Legislature because their rhetoric and decisions are pandering to hate, greed and hypocrisy.
Also Me: There’s no reason to write about my opinions. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. It’s just a waste of time.
For a while now, “Also Me” has been winning.
Then two things happened. First, I was privy to a debate regarding whether or not an organization should issue a public statement about the egregious comments made by a state legislator. The second was a brief conversation with my neighbor.
The issue concerning remarks made by state legislator Eric Porterfield began a couple of weeks ago during a debate in a legislative committee about a bill to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Not only did Porterfield make scathing comments about the LGBTQ community, but he subsequently defended those comments to the point of likening the LGBTQ community to the KKK. Much to the embarrassment of many West Virginians, the story went national, and individuals and groups from both sides of the political aisle condemned Porterfield’s comments.
The organization with which I am affiliated also decided to publicly condemn his comments. The statements didn’t go without some internal debate. A few individuals believed that Porterfield shouldn’t be given any additional attention for his hate-filled rhetoric. To me, the public condemnation was important. While I didn’t like keeping Porterfield in the spotlight, I was more opposed to keeping silent about any form of hate speech, particularly against a community that has fought so hard for equal treatment.
And only a day after that realization, a neighbor stopped me to casually ask why I wasn’t writing my blog anymore. I hemmed and hawed about being too busy, but I didn’t say “because I started to feel like what I have to say doesn’t matter.”
I’m glad I didn’t, because her response was, “I miss it. It’s good to know that other people think like I do.”
And I realized she was right.
So, even though I’m probably never going to change anyone’s mind about what matters, I can lend support to all like-minded souls about the current state of affairs in our country.
So this is for them:
- I don’t believe that Americans are superior to people from other countries, regardless of their country of origin, the color of their skin, the language they speak, their profession, or the amount of money the do or don’t have.
- I think building a wall is in opposition to everything America is supposed to be about.
- I don’t believe that people who have money work harder than people who don’t have money. In fact, I believe that wealth is usually (not always but usually) more a matter of good luck than an indicator of perseverance, intelligence, or stellar character.
- I believe that most privileged people don’t realize how privileged they are. (I’ll never forget last year having a friend show me a Facebook post by a middle-aged white guy. He was questioning the credibility of Congressman Joe Kennedy because he was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” The guy ridiculing Kennedy actually inherited his own family business. For most Americans, that is exactly what a silver spoon looks like.)
- I believe in public education. Period. I don’t think tax dollars should be used to pay for schools that include a curriculum based on religion or that teach a particular religious philosophy.
- I believe good teachers are our greatest hope for the future, and they should be treated with the same respect and pay as other professions.
- I believe in science. Period.
- I believe that allowing industries to buy off politicians is damaging our country, And I believe that only people, not businesses or industries, should have opinions.
- I believe too many people use religion as an excuse to hate and to feel superior to others.
- I believe that a person’s sexual orientation isn’t anyone’s else’s business. You should be allowed to love who you love.
- And to the Eric Porterfields of this world? I believe you are purposefully ignorant and use religion to hide all of your insecurities. Your missionary work is an excuse to share your hate with others. If you really understood Christianity and what Christ taught, you would be too busy caring for the marginalized to be concerned about whom they sleep with. And in doing so, you’d probably learn that they actually have a lot to teach you. So know this, my internal debate about sharing my opinions may have just ended, but my battle for the greater good is just getting started.
I’ve always had an issue with anger.
When I was a little girl, my parents would apologize to other adults by noting that “Trina has a temper. We are doing our best to teach her to control it.”
And so they did.
Because there are times when, no matter how I try, there’s a fire that bubbles up in my chest, rises into my throat and then unleashes itself in a fierce flame of words with the sole purpose of scorching those who aren’t in my alliance.
Now is one of those times. Only instead of the words coming out of my mouth, they are screaming out through my fingers on a keyboard.
I am so very, very angry about what happened in our Nation’s Capital on Thursday.
Like many women, I’m angry that, once again, privileged white men have more power than most people can even imagine.
Not only that, but they are ignoring and dismissing the perspective and emotions that I and thousands of other women like me are processing as a result of what we’ve endured at the hands of men just like them.
But, after witnessing Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony and outrage, the anger bubbling up in my chest can no longer be contained.
I’m not simply bothered by the accusations of Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school.
I am also outraged that Kavanaugh’s words and demeanor demonstrate that he believes he’s entitled to be on the Supreme Court. A man representing a party that rails against entitlements believes he’s entitled. And he thinks the accusations against him are a personal tragedy.
He has no concept what real tragedy is.
And that’s why he doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justices rarely make decisions that impact people who attended private schools and Yale University or who grew up in big houses in the suburbs. Instead, they make decisions that impact people whose only true entitlement has been a public education in schools with limited resources.
The power of the Supreme Court lies in it its impact on people with no power: poor people, minorities. the poorly educated, immigrants, criminals, and women.
But not this angry woman.
This angry woman is willing to demonstrate what true power looks like.
But I can only do that if other angry women join forces with me.
Tuesday, November 6, is a perfect opportunity to do just that.
There’s a reason people with good sense wear glasses when they ride their bikes. It prevents bugs from flying into their eyes.
Apparently, I don’t have good sense. Or at least I don’t have enough good sense.
Because I wasn’t wearing any protective eyewear when I was out bicycling last week.
I was heading down a steep hill and into a blind curve when a gnat flew into my eye.
There was nothing I could do about it. Stopping on the narrow road with no shoulder would have been more dangerous than allowing the gnat to stay.
So I continued pedaling and focused my mind on other things. By the time I got home, I had almost forgotten about the gnat in my eye. Almost.
But that night, when I was taking my contact lens out of my red and puffy eye, the little bug made his reappearance – both literally and figuratively.
When I finally threw him away in the toilet, I realized how lucky I was. Ignoring the irritation would never have made the problem go away. It would only have caused more harm.
My short-lived relationship with the gnat resembles my too-long relationship with the guy in the Oval Office.
They both arrived in my life unexpectedly and in the most unwanted manner.
My problems with then could easily have been avoided if I, or others, had actually understood the danger they posed and acted appropriately to mitigate the potential disaster.
And even though ignoring them felt like the only way to keep my sanity, that’s never been an option.
Last Sunday, an old friend asked why I hadn’t been writing recently, I was honest when I said I’ve been busy and overwhelmed with work and other responsibilities. But that wasn’t the whole truth.
I’ve also been trying to ignore the ongoing barrage of embarrassing and disturbing news coming out of Washington DC.
But I can’t nor should I.
Instead, I’ll do what I can to cope and face the problem while doing my best to address it.
And hopefully, in the near future, the bug in the White House will be flushed out of Washington DC as efficiently as I flushed the gnat out of my life.
Some places are just not intended for human comfort.
Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.
And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.
The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.
I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.
“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.
Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.
He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.
One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.
“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.
And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.
They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.
I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”
But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation, Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.
Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.
When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back
But I knew he would be.
Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.
You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,
Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.
I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.
Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:
- Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
- Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
- Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
- Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.
The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.
Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.
What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.
I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.
“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,
I immediately regretted my words.
Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.
“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”
For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.
“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”
And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.
I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.
I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T. And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.
And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.
The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.
It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.
Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.
And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences. They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.
Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.
Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.