It Could Be Worse

ABC news recently broadcast a feature about a church whose pastor decided that the world (including him) tended to complain too much. He began distributing bracelets to the congregation. Every time they had a complaint about something, whining or grumbling or just being negative, they had to transfer the bracelet to their other wrist, repeating this transfer back and forth with every gripe. The goal was to keep the bracelet on the same arm for a certain length of time - days or weeks, I forgot exactly how long. His premise was that people complain so much that they don’t even realize it, and the bracelet is a tool to make them aware of this negative habit. The experiment was so successful that they are now shipping thousands of bracelets all over the world.

Then in my quilt magazine, I read an article by a woman who organizes the largest quilting festival in Vermont. In the article, she says we mistakenly believe baseball is the national pastime, but it’s really complaining.

I do my share of complaining, and it’s definitely something I need to work on. This week, Ed and I finished watching a 6-video series of King Henry VIII’s wives. It is a PBS documentary, very well done. I’m somewhat of a romantic, and on occasion I have been known to daydream about what it would have been like to live in a certain historical time period. After watching this series, though, I think I will cut short my complaining and focus on how well we live today. Yes, even with gas prices, food prices, ineffective government, and unaffordable healthcare costs.

In the first place, I was reminded that women were thought to have no more rights than animals. Their sole purpose seemed to be childbearing, and not just any childbearing, but specifically son-bearing. Having a son born was a cause for celebration, and having a daughter was a disappointment, especially for a reigning monarch. On top of that, childbirth was extraordinarily dangerous, and many women were almost constantly pregnant, having several miscarriages and stillbirths, which weakened their bodies even more.

Then there were the infants who, even if they were healthy enough to be born after a full-term pregnancy, often died within the first year of life. One web site states that “out of all people born, between one third and one half died before the age of about 16.”

Another states:

The Middle Ages are a dangerous time, and you'll need stamina and good luck to survive. One monkish writer, who compiled the Annals of Bermondsey, reckons that famine is so common that starving people resort to eating dogs, cats, the dung of doves and their own children.
The really bad news is the Black Death, the culmination of a series of disasters which begin in the early 1300s, when England is struck by uncommonly bad weather. A little ice age is followed by severe floods, failed harvests and livestock plagues. Famine hits hard in 1315.
The most common causes of death are unclean water and bad hygiene, especially in the crowded, dirty towns. Diet is another factor. Fruit is reckoned to be bad for you, and a low intake of dairy produce makes it difficult to resist epidemics.

Average life expectancy is only 30. Of the children born to medieval kings, less than half survive into their 20s. At Winchester College, a public school for 70 boys from prosperous homes who are well looked after, 12 die during 1401 and 20 during 1431.

King Henry VIII was ready at one point to have his last wife put to death because she dared to “instruct” him while debating a religious question.

Yet here am I in 2008, having had (by safe C-sections) two children, a precious son and a precious daughter, who lived to grow up and start families of their own. I can discuss with my husband politics, religion, or whatever else I’d like, and we can even agree to disagree. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world where less than half of children survived into their 20s, a world where the man was allowed to have as many mistresses as he pleased, yet a woman could be condemned to death for adultery.

So even though the economy stinks and gas is outrageously high, I think I will take a week off from complaining. It’s poignant, but somehow after learning all this, I feel both very sad and very blessed, and at least just for this week, I think I’ll concentrate on what’s right with the world. It has definitely been worse.

I see the moon

“I see the moon, and the moon sees me.
God bless the moon, and God bless me.”

How well I remember that rhyme from my childhood. The moon and I have had a longstanding relationship, and nothing has changed; in fact, the relationship has actually become more playful. The sun, however, has not been so kind. Since I had the extensive burn to my face seven years ago, doctors warned me to stay out of the sun. I work in a small “closet” with no windows, so until I leave work, the only time I see the sun is when I walk to the hospital cafeteria. Then at the end of the day, when I’m trying to get to an early bedtime at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., the sun bathes my bedroom through two windows, teasing me inconsiderately about my unusual schedule. I get quite annoyed.

The moon, though, is the heavenly body that greets me every morning when I leave for work at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Sometimes it is hidden by clouds, sometimes it is a little sliver of a moon, but other times, like yesterday, it is big and bright, if somewhat lopsided, in clear skies. I just had to stop and take a picture of it. How tiny it looks in the picture, and how big it looked in the sky!

My commute to work along the coast of Maine is understandably a winding one. It’s only about 20 minutes of driving, but the road twists and turns so that one minute, the moon is on my right, seemingly high up in the sky, then the moon disappears altogether until it pops up on my left, maybe looking lower near the horizon. I never know where it will turn up next, but I get the sensation it is playing a game with me. At times it feels as if everyone in the world is still asleep, but the moon sees me and I see the moon, and maybe we are the only two creatures awake.

That bond has been intensified when I think about the lessons the moon teaches me. For one thing, it teaches me to keep things in perspective. I know in my brain that when the moon looks bigger or smaller or assumes a different shape that it really hasn’t changed size; it is just my way of looking at it. I also know that because it has no natural “glow,” and its shine is the reflection of the sun, that means the sun is shining somewhere, even while we are encased in darkness. (I have posted before that I have a strange way of looking at tragedy and happiness - that if I am attending a funeral, I still note the probability of someone getting married somewhere at the same time, and on days when I am overjoyed and feeling deliriously happy, I am tempered by the fact that somewhere someone has lost a loved one to an accident or illness.) Next, the moon teaches me about constancy and faithfulness. I know that even if I can’t see the moon, and the moon can’t see me, it’s still there, making its daily rounds. Even while it seems to be an inactive satellite, we know of the power it has on our tides, so it is an important player for the fishermen here along the coast, indeed, for our entire planet.

Finally, the hide-and-seek dance the moon plays with me five mornings every week reminds me that things are not always what they seem to be, and as in its changing size and “glow,” the eye can deceive. I can’t definitely say whether the moon is male or female - Francis of Assisi defined “Brother Son, Sister Moon,” yet the Man in the Moon theory just adds to that endless speculation.

The history and science of the moon is fascinating, but for now I am content to enjoy its presence in the dark of night/early morning as I begin another day.

“I see the moon, and the moon sees me.
God bless the moon, and God bless me.”

Dream A Little Dream With Me

How is it that I still feel obligated to follow “the rules” in my dreams? I dreamed last night that I wanted to go outdoors to a field covered in snow, but I had to file paperwork for permission and ask two authorities for their permission as well. Hey - it’s a dream, isn’t it? Isn’t that why they call it a dream? Don’t you have complete and utter freedom to do what you want without punishment or consequence or even red tape? Even in my dreams, apparently, I’m a stickler for the rules. I never did get to go to the field. I never got permission.

I get bemused by the expression “in your dreams.” Someone might have an outlandish goal, or think something extraordinarily will happen to them, and another person comes along, laughs understandingly or sometimes derisively, saying, “In your dreams!” I wish the good things did happen in my dreams, but they rarely do. My dreams are usually a reflection of my life at the time, mirroring my frustrations at work, the way it takes me so long to finish a project, and other things that tend to weigh on me during the day.

I wish the news I heard yesterday was just another bad dream. Forget the sub-prime mortgage crisis, forget the price of energy and everything else that squeezes our wallets. At least we can eat. Millions of people are going hungry now around the world; rice, a staple of so many, has been hit especially hard, and countries who usually export rice are now keeping it for themselves to ensure that they have enough to feed their own citizens. The news report showed children in India on their hands and knees in the marketplace trying to sweep up grains of rice that had fallen a few at a time from baskets. After seeing several reports like that, Ed and I went to eat at an All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffet. I looked at the little cup of rice on our table. I almost got sick thinking about how big that little cup would look to someone in India or Thailand or Africa. At the restaurant, I could get up and eat my fill of hundreds of foods on the buffet, yet others in the world were literally starving.

The next news report on ABC I heard was how the foods banks in Maine and the rest of the USA are depleting their pantries. They said the donations had stayed the same, but the need was greater. The very next commercial that came on the TV, featuring French bistro music, and a picture of a gourmet chef. It turned out to be an ad for cat food, trying to tell us that our cats, of all creatures, deserve not just to eat, not just to eat well, but to eat gourmet. I'm not against pets getting fed - our Babe certainly has eaten more than her share - but isn't this somehow out of whack? The news report and the ad following it had to be a bad dream - but it wasn’t.

A news story on PBS told about federal funds set up for helping ranchers and farmers in Texas during drought conditions - but due to members of Congress using appropriations to buy votes for the next election, millions of dollars from that fund were going to ranchers and farmers who had no disaster or drought or any kind of damage whatsoever. And to top it off, the payments weren’t going to the little guy, they were going to the giant landowners, the ones who made millions of dollars every year anyway. After all, they are the ones who can help fund the next campaign. Again, this should be a bad dream.

The last news story I watched yesterday was about our individual carbon footprints in America. From disposable diapers to plastic, from styrofoam to appliances, the report showed in pictures exactly how much waste we Americans generate every day. It is staggering. The final line of the report said that if the rest of the world lived the American lifestyle, we’d need 4 planets the size of Earth to accommodate us all.

So yesterday was a day of conscience for me. Maybe it’s good that I have such a conscience in my dreams, that, even uninhibited and free in a virtual world of fantasy, I still make myself follow the rules. Yesterday I learned several things. One, that Ed and I are not trying to simplify and downsize our lives just for ourselves or for an "experiment"; there is great need in the world. Second, that I need to send some money ASAP to charities that feed the hungry, if I have to skip a few meals to do it. Third, that most of us in this country have no idea how blessed we are, and, yes, how spoiled we are.

Ever since Reagan was running for president and asking the question, “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?” (referring to Carter’s administration), a lot of people answered have asked that question again and again - “ I better off? How am I doing?” That question always troubled my conscience. Maybe I'm not better off, and that's the only way I will work for change, since I'm the one who matters. Of maybe I am better off, I may be paying my mortgage, I may have a good job and health insurance - but the question is still too limited. “Are others better off? Are we as a country better off? Are we as a world better off? Are we sharing what we have? Are we so used to being overly fed that we can’t cry at the pictures of the Indian children scavenging for grains of rice - or feel sad yet not try to do anything about it? Do we think our extremely comfortable lifestyle is to be saved no matter what other people have to suffer so we can maintain it? Do we sometimes agonize over a purchase, realizing the money could have bought someone else food, even right here in our own community?”

We’re asking the wrong questions.

Yes, it was a bad day for news, yesterday. It makes me want to avoid the news altogether sometimes, but I have a conscience (even in my dreams) and I know most of us do, too. We are comfortable, taking it for granted that we will have enough (yes, and many times too much) to eat. Shame on us if this crisis does not upset us enough to do something generous, even in a small way. I think sometimes the enormity of the situation paralyzes us, and we feel an inability to do anything that will make a difference. My goodness, even poor Bangladesh is still suffering. I remember reading about Bangladesh having floods and famines when we studied in Sunday School back in the '60s. There’s a lot we can’t fix, but, by God, we should do what we can.

Ed preached once on the expression "There but for the grace of God go I." He says that implies God's grace hasn't extended to those suffering, and that God is somehow favoring us over others. Ed changes the sentence: "There because of the grace of God, I go." Those who suffer are us, and we are those people, if you believe in the connection of humanity as the children of God. I have a dream today...


Remember that old commercial where the elderly lady is on the floor, calling her Lifeline, saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”? It produced parody spinoffs for decades. What a horrible thing, though, to fall and really not have the ability to pick yourself up!

This winter, I’ve fallen two times. The first time, I was in our driveway, trying to descend from the street to the house because I had forgotten to grab my lunch as I went out the door to go to work. It was so deep in snow and so slick that Ed (who was driving me) was afraid that if he tried to drive back down in the driveway, he would get stuck and I’d never get to work. Unfortunately, I fell hard. One would think all that snow would cushion somewhat, but my body fell so hard and fast that I went all the way to the driveway in a nanosecond. Ouch! Fortunately, no bones were broken, but the pain lasted for weeks.

The second time, I recently fell on the black ice outside the hospital where I work. It was 4 a.m. and dark, and I hadn’t realized that I had parked by black ice, or that I would be stepping out on black ice when I exited the car. This time I fell on the right side of my body, directly on my right arm and elbow. I received a colorful bruise and more pain from that one. Again, fortunately, no bones broken. (A broken arm for a transcriptionist is bad news.)

A few years ago, I was home by myself and carrying a big pot of spaghetti noodles from the stove to the sink, when some olive-oil-laden water splashed out of the pot onto the hard tile kitchen floor, and of course, my foot found it immediately and went out from under me. I fell on the left side of my body, and with the type of quick fall and the extra-hard surface, the left side of my body was so traumatized inside that a couple of weeks later I started having chest pains and thought I was having a heart attack. Audrey, my friend who is a massage therapist, says the body has physical “trauma memory” just like psychological trauma memory. What it endures may lie dormant, but it never forgets.

I think that ability to get up when we fall and deal with the aftermath is one of the traits I value in people whom I admire and respect. When my first cousin died last year at 49, my elderly aunt and uncle were understandably shaken and forever changed, but they gathered around the church and family and friends and are learning to keep on living. When my dad died in 1980, my 56-year-old mother was caught by surprise and totally unprepared, but she, too, survived, learned with the help of my sister to handle the things Dad would have handled, and is thriving.

As I mentioned before, I wrote letters to our kids for their first 18 years, and after I wrote their last letters, I had Ed write them each a letter, too. I remember that in Rachel’s book, he wrote about trees. He said she was a strong tree that didn’t like change in plans and liked things to stay the same, but to succeed in life, she needed to be a willow tree, one that bends with the wind. He rightly saw that a capacity to pick herself up when the unexpected happens and figure out what to do from there would benefit her tremendously in life.

It’s tempting to say that whatever it is “shouldn’t” have happened, or “wouldn’t have happened if...” and stay there on the floor. Of course, we learn from our mistakes, and we need to examine the circumstances that made us fall. Was I going too fast? Was I not paying attention? Should I have just gone on to buy my lunch that day and not gone back for it in treacherous conditions? Should I never be allowed in a kitchen again? What can I do in the future to prevent falling yet another time? An evaluation and plan is, of course, the wise response to make.

But in the end, whether you were the instigator or a helpless victim, you have to admit you’ve fallen, pick yourself up, and go from there.

I’ve given as examples some horrible, traumatic events, such as family deaths, to illustrate resiliency. But the ability to be resilient, I think, makes even the small things in life go a bit easier. Temporarily discontinued an exercise program, like I have, because of the black ice arm injury and working so much overtime? Figure out a way to get back up. The wonderful news is that today is indeed another day, another opportunity. I think each time we steam ahead and keep trying, we add more molecules of fortitude and discard more molecules of fear.

In one way, life is kind of like that TV show, “Let’s Make a Deal.” You get a chance to open doors and boxes and make bets, and sometimes you win the cruise and sometimes you get the donkey. In the show, most participating audience members don’t get to continue; they’re stuck with what they’ve gotten. That’s the wonderful thing about life, though - for our allotted days, we can keep plugging away, falling, getting up, falling again, getting up again. And I feel blessed to have role models to show me exactly how this works.