Category Archives: fate

The Pain and Pride of Coming Through Hardship

One fact that we can all agree on is that we are in an economic and financial downturn with Depression-level unemployment rates triggered by the pandemic. In addition to the current hardships for so many, a consequence of this experience will be how it changes the way many will view their relationship with money now and on into the future. For example, it’s not hard to imagine that your future children or grandchildren will rationalize your excessive frugalness as a result of your experience during this time.

My mother told me many stories about how hard it was for her and her parents during the Great Depression. I remember one being especially sad. My mother was five years old in 1929 – a year often associated with the Great Depression – and my grandparents were a struggling young couple.

They had been sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta before the Depression and had done well enough to move from the farm to the city of Clarksdale. Their relatives had done well in finding jobs in the city and my mother’s parents had high hopes that they would also find jobs. They were eager to put farm work behind them.

Their plan was to live with a relative until they could, so to speak, get on their feet. Shortly after their move to Clarksdale, the depths of the Depression were being felt by the entire country and jobs that black people used to be able to get were now occupied by white people. When my grandfather couldn’t even get a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he “pulled cotton” to make just enough money to buy food.

When the weather became too cold to pull cotton, my grandfather became resigned to the fact that he would have to find a farm where he could once again share crop. My mother said it was the “dead of winter” and they set out for the countryside walking and carrying all their belongings.

After knocking on a lot of doors, they found an old lady who was living alone. She welcomed them to move in with her. Shortly after moving in with the old lady, my grandfather became ill. He had always been asthmatic, but this illness was more severe than asthma alone. They were way out of town where there were no doctors and even if there were a doctor near, they had no money with which to pay.

My mother said that my grandmother tried everything she could to try to get my grandfather’s fever down and help him breathe. Indelible in my mother’s mind is what my grandmother did: She made a salve of Sloan’s liniment and Vick’s salve and rubbed it all over his chest, and then she covered his chest with a flannel cloth. She made a tea out of cow chips and the liniment and held him up so he could drink it while it was very hot. Then she gave him some pills called Red Devils.

While my grandfather was sick, the family ran completely out of food. The old lady they moved in with told them that there was a well-to-do farmer down the way who might help. My mother and grandmother went to the farmer for help, telling him about my grandfather’s illness and how, as a consequence, they had no food. The farmer gave them some food and told them that there was a corn field behind where he was living. The people who had planted the corn had moved away and did not gather it before winter. The farmer said they were welcome to gather all the corn they wanted and, if they shucked it and brought it back to him, he would take it to the mill and exchange it for food and other things they needed.

After wrapping their feet in grass sacks for extra protection, my mother, about six years old now, braved the snow and ice with my grandmother to return to the farm where the corn had not been harvested. They pulled enough corn to fill a large cotton sack that was so heavy that they had to drag it back to the house. My mother remembered that when they got back to the house freezing, she helped her mother lay the ears of corn on the floor in front of the fire so they could dry. After the corn dried out, they shucked it, put the ears in the big sack and took it to the farmer before filling the sack again with as many ears of corn as they could drag.

My mother said they felt lucky to have access to the corn and to be favored enough that the farmer would take the corn to the mill because some people were literally starving. The old lady with whom they were living had grown some turnip greens and, when she was ready to cook them, she had no lard. Ever resourceful when desperate times called for desperate measures, she used Blue Seal Vaseline as a substitute. My mother told me that they declined the greens cooked with Vaseline, but her mother did accept the turnip roots.

When my mother would tell me this anecdote about how tough times were, I could see in her face and hear in her voice both pain and pride. Pain in recalling the struggles so many people suffered then and the following many lean decades they endured after the Great Depression was “officially over.” Pride at the fact that she and her family had come through these times, and, in her mind, the better for it because their survival was proof of their faith and resilience.

If there is one common piece of advice survivors of the Great Depression might recommend, it is to always seek the long view when disruptions appear catastrophic in the microscopic lens of the moment lest we overinterpret the future impact of our experience and accept a destiny not worthy of our potential.

Change: From the Ordinary to the Catastrophic

swaying sunflowers

It’s a Monday morning and a great day to begin a new exercise routine. After an hour-and-a-half of stretching and strength-building at home, I’m ready for a nice walk. I feel great and decide to take a new route. Stretched out in front of me on a slight incline is a new sidewalk flanked by small delicate sunflowers swaying in the breeze. As I pass others, some walking their dogs, either I or they walk into the street in order to increase the space between us. After an exhilarating experience, I return home feeling revived by the fresh air and sunshine. All is right in my world.

As I put my foot on the first step to go to my front door, I spontaneously scream in pain and grab the handrail as my knee buckles under me. With my eyes tightly shut, I just hang there, moaning in pain and wondering what happened.

This comparatively ordinary moment comes to mind when I read how some of the people affected by COVID-19 describe change:

“So much has changed so quickly . . .”

“Everything has changed in a manner of minutes—seconds”

“. . . changes so sudden that there is no time to adapt”

When life changes in an instant, we can’t consciously think about dichotomous options of fighting to keep things as they were or adapting to the change. What we do usually just evolves as we’re forced to acquiesce to the conditions in which we find ourselves.

We wait.

We adapt.

We hope.

Up close and personal…

I’m remembering previous times when everyone around me was frightened, but the scary thing was not up close and personal.

  • During the first years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when we would hear the piercing siren sound, our teachers would direct us to quickly scramble under our tiny desks and to cover our head with our hands.
  • When the rain became an electrical storm, our teachers would urge us to move quickly and quietly into the cloak room where our little coats were hanging on low hooks. I remember covering my face with whatever coat I was near.
  • When I was at home and there was loud thunder and crackling lightning, my grandfather would turn out all of the lights, cover the mirrors, and tell us to be very quiet.

These were scary times, but they were not up close and personal.

It was the second month of my first semester in college and my roommate and I lay on our narrow beds facing one another listening to the radio and talking about what might happen because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would we die any moment because of what sounded like an impending nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union? We were frightened, but this was not up close and personal.

In October 2002, the “DC Sniper” randomly killed ten people and wounded four. Whether going to the grocery store, pumping gas, or walking on the sidewalk, there was fear that one could be gunned down any time without provocation or warning. I recall being so frightened that I actually did walk a zig zagging path down the sidewalk in DC in order to make it more difficult for the sniper to get a good shot. It looked crazy but it was a suggestion on how one might stay alive. Despite the generalized fear, this was not up close and personal.

Today, COVID-19 – or the Coronavirus – is up close and personal. The virus is likely the most impactful phenomenon that the people of the world have experienced, and its historic significance cannot be overstated. All of our lives are being touched in one way or another by the circumstances this pandemic has caused.

Because this pandemic is up close and personal, it is my hope that it will stimulate more compassion and selflessness when the first instinct might be something else.

 

 

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.