Friday, July 2, 2010

The mending man. Friday, July 9, 2010.

“A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Today I met a tailor who owns a tiny tailor shop. He began his craft in Italy, working in his father’s shop, when he was 10. He’s now 80. He works with a sewing machine that his father purchased second-hand in Italy. He hasn’t felt the need to replace it with a new model, because it works just fine.

Angelo doesn’t have a lot of customers anymore. Too many people buy cheap clothes at the big stores, he says, and just throw them away when they tear. So his shop has become a gathering place for elderly men in the neighborhood, who come by each day to play cards and chat about sports, politics and the weather.

Angelo’s wife passed away some years ago, and his children are grown and scattered across the country. Angelo’s tailor shop has exactly one employee: Angelo. He unlocks the doors at 6:30 a.m. each day and leaves at 5:30 p.m. If he’s ill, the doors stay locked.

I asked Angelo if he had plans to retire. He seemed truly shocked by the question. “Why would I retire?” he asked me. “I love to mend things. I love seeing something on a shelf and saying to myself, ‘I fixed that.’ My motto is, ‘I mend everything but broken hearts.’ And if someone gave me a few dollars, I’d try to mend one of those, too.”

Mother Nature will decide when Angelo’s store closes, he says. Yes, he literally expects to sew until he dies – and he’s fine with that. He’s never been on a fancy vacation, he says. He’s never had a boat or a nice car. “But I haven’t missed a thing,” he says. “I’m here for my mental health. I earn enough to keep the lights on. That’s good enough for me.”

Not everyone will pass away leaving a legacy of mending things. Angelo’s legacy will be greater than that of many rich people. What can you mend today?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The sensitive plant. Thursday, July 1, 2010.

"Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears." - Edgar Allan Poe

We have a little garden in our backyard. It’s totally my husband’s domain; I can’t so much as keep a cactus alive. We share peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, and a few other vegetables with rabbits and whatever other creatures happen by.

Yesterday my husband was taking me on a tour of our small gardening area, and we spied an unexpected occupant – a sensitive plant. Mimosa pudica is an herb with leaves that fold up and droop when touched. I reached out and tapped a branch, and sure enough, down it went. My mom used to keep sensitive plants in the house.

I’ve always been fascinated by the sensitive plant. It seems sentient, and you almost feel guilty watching it seem to become depressed because you’ve come in contact with it.

It reminded me of Elaine Aron’s book, “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When The World Overwhelms You.” Aron believes that 20 percent of the population are, by nature, “HSPs” who have “sensitive nervous systems,” are “aware of subtleties in their surroundings,” and are “more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” Among other things, HSPs can sense bad moods in others, and often absorb those feelings.

I think I may be an HSP, although to other people, not the environment at large. In fact the chaos of a city, the screams of a subway, the bustle of crowds forms a white noise that tranquilizes me.

But put me into a room with someone who is hostile, no matter how nice they act, and I can sense their true feelings, more so than can my colleagues. And if my boss or husband or mom is feeling angry, I am quick to internalize it - feeling responsible and very distressed, even if the situation has nothing to do with me.

I hope that little sensitive plant survives, and comes back next year. I feel a kinship to it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

This old house. Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

“Grace thou thy House, and let not that grace thee.” – Benjamin Franklin

Today I met a woman who purchased a huge, 120-year-old Victorian house with plans to turn it into a non-profit nursing home. She wants some elderly people to have a elegant place to live during the twilight of their lives.

I toured the house – which is similar to the one I’ve posted here – and I had so many questions. The builder of the house had obviously been wealthy. Had he been a good man and shared his wealth? Or had he hoarded his riches? The woman told me that he and his wife and had had 10 children – not unheard of during that era. Had he been a loving father? Had he treated his wife well? Had they been happy?

I thought about life at the Turn of the Century. We romanticize it, but in reality it was incredibly hard. And it was even worse for the mentally ill. During Victorian times, the mentally ill were no longer kept in cages and whipped as they had been before, but the number of “insane asylums” ballooned. In 1904, more than 150,000 Americans were locked in these asylums, which became a dumping ground for the homeless and elderly. Restraints and ice water baths were used. And the introduction of the first psychiatric medications was years away.

But the use of psychotropic drugs was rampant. Cocaine, heroin, opium, and even hallucinogens were ubiquitous. Because they were ingredients in the “health tonics” that were so popular, many historians believe that drugs were a much bigger problem then than they are now. No doubt depressed and anxious people self-medicated then as they do today.

What if I had lived when that house was being built? As someone with bipolar, what would have happened to me? Could I have worked, supported a family? Would I have been hooked on cocaine and opium to deal with highs and lows? Would I be restrained in an asylum, and unfastened for my weekly ice bath? The thought makes me shiver.

It’s never a good time to have a mental illness. But if I had to choose a time, I’d choose now.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Our fragile lives. Tuesday, June 29, 2010.

“Guard your fragile life carefully. Only God can shape a flower, but any foolish child can pull it to pieces.” - Og Mandino

A friend of mine recently found a two-week-old kitten in her dog’s jaws. She rescued the kitten and has been nursing him back to life. She brings the kitten to work with her, hiding him inside her sweater, to keep him warm. She feeds him with a tiny bottle.

My friend has no plans to keep the kitten – she says she already has enough cats – and she’s resigned to the fact that he may not survive. But every day he gets stronger and more curious. According to the vet, he’s gained two ounces. He’s a little fighter.

Human babies are fighters too. And so are children and so are adults. Because when you reflect on it, it’s kind of a miracle we’re alive. So much can go wrong.

People think the media is full of bad news. What they fail to realize that the reason things become “news” is that they are unusual. Imagine if the newspaper printed a story about every baby that did not choke, every child that did not fall down the stairs, every woman who made it to and from work without dying in a car accident, every man that did not have a heart attack. Every day’s newspaper would be 10,000 pages long.

Our lives are so fragile that a tiny blood clot can kill us. Dangers lurk around every corner. People die in freak accidents every day. Yet everyone who is reading this has survived until now. Some of us have survived despite our best efforts NOT to. That’s where things get weird, because for every completed suicide, there are 20 attempts.

So if our lives are so fragile, why is it so hard to die on purpose? It must be by design. Whether it’s God, or the Universe, or our Higher Power, maybe we simply aren’t meant to die until our time is up.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Truth or consequences. June 28, 2010.

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1984, the owners and employees of the McMartin Preschool in California were charged with 321 counts of child abuse involving 48 children. During a seven-year trial that cost the county $15 million, there were charges of Satanic ritual abuse. The McMartins were said to have been able to fly like witches, taken the children away in hot-air balloons in the middle of the city with no witnesses, abused them in underground tunnels and flushed the children down toilets through pipes that led to secret rooms where they were molested.

The accused were eventually acquitted and released from jail, but not before untold damage was done. The children believed they had been molested; perhaps they were, but their stories were so fantastic no one could believe them. After decades of action on the part of child abuse experts trying to make people understand that children reporting abuse should be believed, it was back to the drawing board.

In 1987, 15-year-old teenager Tawana Brawley of New York was found in a garbage bag, far from home, covered with feces and racial slurs. She said six white men, including some police officers, had abducted and raped her. Her horrible story gained the shock and empathy of the nation – until forensics tests showed that there had been no sexual contact, the feces was from Tawana’s neighbor’s dog and she had written the slurs herself.

One possible motive: she’d stayed out late and was trying to avoid the wrath of her stepfather, who regularly beat her savagely – even in front of witnesses. Tawana was a victim, just a different kind of victim than she pretended to be.

To be sure, incredibly savage things happen to people. Sometimes those things are unbelievable, even though they are 100% true. But there are some people who can’t pinpoint a reason for their depression or anxiety, or they simply feel lonely and want attention focused on them for a while. They concoct amazing and intense stories to shock and amaze people and to get the attention they are craving.

But these actions have consequences. The person who has cried wolf too many times won’t be believed when the real wolf comes. And the people who are fooled become angry and may develop compassion fatigue. They may not believe the next story they hear. They begin to believe most people exaggerate, at best, or are liars, at worst.

And true victims of rape and abuse have to try all the harder to be believed. Lying is not a victimless crime.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

No more angels. Sunday, June 26, 2010.

“The death of a child is the single most traumatic event in medicine. To lose a child is to lose a piece of yourself.” – Dr. Burton Grebin

Less than a week after we said goodbye to young Miasha, who died of complications due to surgery for spina bifida, heaven has another angel – Kyana Marie, not yet 2. Unlike Miasha, who went to sleep and never woke up, little Kyana was battered to death. Her skin was cut and her tiny bones were broken. She languished in a respirator for a few days before her body and soul finally succumbed.

Kyana’s death follows less than a year after the death of her sister, Tai-Leigh Janiah Rose. The girls’ mother A’myah, not yet 20, lost custody of Kyana after a suicide attempt; sadly she was not allowed to be present when her little girl died.

Even if Kyana didn’t exist, her story still does. According to Childhelp, about five children die every day in the US as a result of child abuse. More than three out of four are under the age of 4.

Today is Sunday, and I wish I could open the Bible and find the magic verse that would make everything all better for A’myah. Something about God’s love and care for the weakest of the weak. Something about forgiveness and the wonders of heaven, where little Tai-Leigh and Kyana are sure to abide.

But I must pray first, because I feel more inclined to look for a verse warning of God’s wrath and justice as it relates to the one who beat this defenseless little child.

God said we must forgive, but he didn’t give us a time table. He didn’t say, “You have exactly two days in which to forgive the one who has wronged you.” He must recognize anger, because he became angry himself. He certainly recognizes loss and pain. I have to believe he is with A’myah, as she grieves this unspeakable loss, after so many other losses in her life.

And my first impulse was to tell her that now, Kyana is an angel. But is that the right thing to say? Doesn’t God have enough angels already? I’d like to declare a moratorium on death for the time being. God doesn’t need any more angels today.