What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Culture Induced Panic and Anxiety

Emma, Abbey and Sophie
on the Mississippi
In Memphis, we've been having severe thunderstorms the past several days. Our dog, Abbey, an Irish Setter, suffers from severe anxiety attacks whenever she hears a rumble. It can be a train, a truck passing by, or a jet overhead. But when she hears thunder and sees lightning, she goes into full-blown panic mode. Her heart races, her breathing speeds, her eyes dart back and forth and she paces the floor looking for somewhere to hide. She cannot even bark. Her emotions are almost frozen with fear. Last night as loud thunderclaps roared, this beautiful red-haired 60 lb. dog jumped up on the bed and landed on my head. Nothing like waking at 3:00am to a mouthful of dog fur. No amount of soothing will calm her down. The bathroom is her "safe place" - she puts her head behind the toilet and stays there until the storm is over or when she can see sunlight.

I cannot imagine what happened to her in her past that causes this reaction. We got Abbey when she was four years old, a rescue dog. She had been kept in a cage for four years. That would be enough to cause panic in me.

With people, sometimes it's the same reaction (well, maybe not to the extent of hiding behind the toilet) to a circumstance or environment. We are compelled to protect ourselves. Fear and anxiety are basic instincts, and without fear we would do even more of the foolish things we humans do. Statistics report that one out of every 75 people will experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their life. There was a point in my own life, a period of about three or four years, when I experienced panic attacks. Now it's the sweaty palms reaction. Happens every time I am scheduled to preach, or speak before a group.

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I've submitted several novel manuscripts to countless agents and small presses, and one of the novels even made the first cut of 1000 in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. Several of my essays have been published, and a story has been a finalist in a contest.  I have no problem reading my work in my writing critique group, but the truth is, I would need serious courage to read before an audience if asked.

I remember the first time one of my stories was read aloud to the entire class. It was in the ninth grade in a very warm Hawkins Junior High classroom that smelled of sweat, chalk dust and old books. The English teacher read my story, out loud, putting in little check marks with her red pencil as she went along. To the snickers of my classmates, I sank down lower and lower in my desk with each tic of that red pencil. I vowed never to write anything again. I continued to write in my journals, but that was for myself only - I let no other eyes read my words.

Ten years later, with three children and an abusive husband, writing in my journals was how I survived. I wrote poetry, short stories and brief descriptions of events. My husband at the time thought I was writing about him, and after I filed for divorce he snatched up all 30 journals and dumped them in the Barnett Reservoir. He never read them. I know this because the writings were not about him. They were about survival. We do what we have to do.

In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, it is the role of the Deacon to sing the Exultet. I was expected to learn this and sing it at the Easter Vigil three years ago. Now, those of you who know what this is, and if you're a musician, you know that this is a difficult piece for anyone, even those who can read music. It is especially so for a novice who cannot read a note of music and has a voice like a frog. With sweaty palms and a quickened heart, I did it. And I've done it three times since.  With gratitude to Geoff Ward, the organist and choirmaster at St. John's, who has extreme patience with this non-musician, my fear was calmed.

What is it about our culture that instills fear in us, and causes so much anxiety? People can be mean-spirited, and one criticism can shut off a voice that could change the world. There is  much criticism of certain writers, celebrities, our president, of congress, of religious leaders, and of folks who are just trying to make a difference in the world. Politicians are the worst about trying to hurt each other with calculated and timed attacks on character. What would happen if we really thought about what we are saying before we say it? Who are we really trying to hurt by saying hurtful things? We are the ones who are hurt most - the 'sayers'. There is a line that we should not cross.  But we do come close.

If we searched down into our soul, we should all be asking some questions of ourselves. Are we trying to right a wrong? Or pull the other person down? Or is our ego merely trying to elevate ourselves? And how important is it that this supposed criticism get out into the world? Will it change public opinion? Will it make the world better? I know, there are folks who will say they are just telling the truth, and are compelled to do it no matter if someone gets hurt.  I do not disagree with that goal. I believe certain behaviors need to be criticized.  But that is my truth, and my truth is not everyone's truth. Added to that, each person sees a person or event from their own perspective, interpreted through their own past experiences. One person's truth can be another person's skewed and unproven innuendo.  Something seen on a website somewhere. Or in a news report, or magazine, or in horror or horrors - an email message. 

A story about Aunt Neill in 1938 
Family Circle magazine.
I've been reading lately about the world of creative non-fiction, when memoir-writers create fictionalized accounts of their life experiences. Two examples are Alice Munro's The View From Castle Rock, and Jeannette Walls's Half-Broke Horses. The authors have the command of language and detail that makes these stories almost mythological. Walls writes that she considers her book less of a novel and more of an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years." 

I have a project that I've been working on for years involving my great aunt, Neill James.  I began to write about her life, but at some point a voice took over and began to write about the effect of her life upon my own - about how her courage gave me courage, and about how her experiences opened a world of travel to me.  When I realized that this project was moving towards a memoir-type work, I let a family member know.  That family member's reaction was, "I didn't think this was going to be about you, I thought it was going to be about Neill. I don't think people want to read about you."  
Aunt Neill in her
Reindeer Herder costume.

With a little anxiety, I will persevere, but I won't be hiding behind the toilet - I'll tell my truths out in the open.  It's a story worth telling - even if it's for my own reading.  It is a story of transformation.  And it will be my truth, sweaty palms and all. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Happens When We Pray for Strangers?

This past Thursday evening was a Holy Thing.  As I sat with Susan Cushman listening to River Jordan read from her new book, Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit, there was an effortless spirit of peace that surrounded the event. This spirit I can only identify as the Great Creator, the controller of the Universe. 

River Jordan, Susan Cushman,
& Emma Connolly
When a fiction writer plots a story, she or he must have some idea of where the story is going.  I admit, I have written many stories that almost wrote themselves and I had no idea where they were headed when I set pen to page.  But most of the time we have an idea, then it may (or may not) bloom into something.  When an idea hits us out of the blue, and we answer the call, and that idea begins to be attractive to publishers . . . well, then it's out of our hands. Such was the case with River Jordan.  I will not repeat what planted the seeds of inspiration for Jordan to write this book, and at dinner with her later that evening I learned more.  You can visit her site and then read this book to gather your own seeds.  Take my word for it . . . this idea can change your life in some way, just as Jordan says her life was changed.

I am basically an extreme introvert, although as I get older I have lost some of my shyness. It is an effort for me to speak to a stranger.  I do speak to grocery clerks when they say something like, "Hello, how are you?", I answer them and ask about their day. Most of the time they seem surprised.  But that is about as far as I usually go. I rarely speak to folks in line at the grocery store or post office, and almost never in a restaurant. When I began to read this book, something sparked inside me that I needed to make a better effort.  How much I enjoy someone speaking to me, and asking about MY life! And everyone needs to know that someone cares, someone loves them. Could I possibly do this? Would it make a difference in my life by being bold? I made no decision on whether or not to try reaching out to pray for a stranger.  I didn't have to.

I went to Target the next evening.  As usual, the clerk asked how I was and I responded and asked her how her day had gone.  On her name tag was "Erika"* in big letters. She yawned, it's been a long day.  When do you get off, I asked. One more hour, she said. This is my second job - I go to my first job at 8am to noon, then come here.  Oh my, I said - what is your first job?  Taking pictures of newborns at the hospital.  Oh, that seems like a wonderful job to have, I said.  Yes, most of the time. But today it was different.

She told me that that morning she was sent to photograph a newborn with a cleft palate, and the parents were apprehensive.  It's always the parents' choice to have a photo made. They told her the baby would soon have surgery to have the facial feature repaired and they could not decide if they wanted a 'before' picture, until Erika explained that she could do a shot from the side so that it was not face-on like most newborn photos, and she could do several and the parents could decide if they wanted to keep them or not.   They decided to do it, so Erika angled the camera so that the infants facial feature could be seen but it was not the center of the photo.  When the parents looked at the digital image, they began to weep and Erika did too. The parents thanked her and said they hadn't realized how truly beautiful their baby was until they saw the photos. She left them weeping and holding their beautiful baby.

I looked at Erika and said I want to pray for you and that infant and parents that their hearts will be uplifted.  Erika's eyes were glistening, as were mine, as I left the store for home.

The next day I had a dental appointment first thing in the morning.  As I held the nitrous oxide to my nose and tried to breathe normally, the dental assistants were talking and waiting for me to get comfortable so the dentist could begin the procedure. One young lady said to the other, "Let me tell you about this dream I had last night . . .", and she told her co-worker about this wonderful archetypal dream.  Being under the influence of laughing gas, I had no inhibitions of being shy.  I grabbed the nosepiece and pulled it away.  "I do dreamwork, come to the Dream Group tomorrow evening!"  She grabbed my arm, "Get outta here!" and was very excited to learn there was a safe and welcoming place to tell her dreams.  As soon as the procedure was finished and the nitrous oxide wore off, she was standing beside me with a pen and paper asking for my name and phone number and the address of the Dream Group meeting place.  She was very concerned about her dreams, and I have prayed daily for her dream life since that day.

On day three, my husband and I took his mother to watch the sunset over the river and have dinner out on Mud Island. We had a lovely table outside. As we ate and chatted, we noticed a young couple sit on the other side of the aisle from us. The young man had a tattoo the full length of his leg, and it appeared the girl was carrying an infant in a snuggly.  They sat down and looked exhausted.  I could hear their conversation and the words sounded French.  The music was playing softly a tune that my husband and I both recognized, but we couldn't remember the artist.  I guessed the Beatles, and he guessed other artists but none were correct. The young man leaned toward our table, held up his iphone and said, "Excuse me, I know it is rude to interrupt another's conversation, but I was wondering the same thing and it's David Bowie."  We all laughed and I asked if they were visiting Memphis.  They were from Montreal, and they both worked for the circus - Cirque du Soleil, which is based in Montreal. The baby was two months old, and was born in Texas where they had been working for four months.  They were on their way back home to Montreal until the late Summer, when they would begin traveling all over again. We had a fascinating conversation about life in the "circus".  As we were leaving I asked the baby's name.  "Eva," the mother answered.  I offered to say prayers for Eva* and her parents, and they thanked me and we left.

I don't know if I would have spoken out to any of these people before reading Praying for Strangers.  I can certainly say that Jordan has inspired me, and my life has been uplifted by the fact that I spoke to these strangers.  The amazing fact is that I have not gone looking for these strangers - they just appeared. I look forward to meeting other strangers who may cross my path.

Read this book. Pray for Strangers. Pass it on.

* These names and places are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of these "strangers".