I Still Don’t Know What to Say, But I Have to Say Something

In a blog post in January, I listed several reasons why I find it so difficult to know how to speak into the current political realities that I find so upsetting. Those reasons still apply: see the list in “I Don’t Know What to Say Anymore.” I also listed a few issues that were deeply troubling to me, including this one:

Racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia are wrong, wrong, wrong. We are in a moment in the U. S. where all are being sanctioned, whether explicitly or implicitly, at the highest levels of government, with really nasty results in all kinds of places. All human beings – regardless of race, country or nationality, political party, religion or ideology, economic status, or whether they’re “legal” or “illegal” – deserve to be treated kindly and with dignity and fairness.

I still don’t know what to say, and now we’re in another moment. Over the past week, I have felt particularly depressed and disturbed as I have watched and listened to more attacks by the President of the United States against people of color. He came to political prominence in large part because of his embrace and dogged promotion of the racist “birther” movement that questioned whether President Barack Obama, the first black president, was legitimate, whether he was actually born in the United States. Trump then launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. Right from the start, he has appeared to deliberately foment fear that “the other” – people who are not like us – will destroy the America we’ve always known (or thought we knew). The “us” and “we” are white people who still constitute the majority this country but are likely to become the minority within a generation or two. For some reason, this is such a scary prospect that more people than I could ever have imagined are buying into the fear and supporting and praising a president who stokes racial resentment.

The latest evidence of racism came in the president’s tweets and his subsequent doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on what he said in those tweets, when he told four Democratic women of color to “go back to the countries they came from.” Those words have been used in racist and xenophobic ways for centuries. Then came the rally in North Carolina where he condemned the four women in ugly and dishonest terms, and in response to his comments about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in particular, the crowd chanted, “Send her back. Send her back.” He just stood there and let it happen (contrary to his later assertion that he tried to stop it by “speaking very quickly.” No, he didn’t; I saw the video). Switching the emphasis to “love it or leave it” didn’t help either.

While it’s bad enough that the office of the presidency of the United States is being degraded like this, what I find almost more disheartening and sad is that so many people, including many of my fellow Christians, don’t appear to be at all disturbed. I heard one supporter say, “I’d probably say the same thing,” as though that makes it okay, and I found it particularly chilling to watch people standing behind Trump at the rally enthusiastically joining in the chant, “Send her back, send her back.” (To be fair, there were some who looked uncomfortable and didn’t join in.)

In response to accusations of racism, the president often says, “I’m the least racist person you’ll ever meet” or “there isn’t a racist bone in my body.” To which I respond: Then why does he keep saying such awful things? Why does he repeat racist tropes that have been associated for decades with white supremacy? And where is the evidence of “not a racist bone” in his policies? Certainly not, as just one of many horrible examples, in his apparent lack of compassion toward brown people desperately fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, or in the policies that separate families and confine children in conditions that have been condemned even by his own administration. (Aside: Yes, immigration has been an incredibly complex issue for many years, comprehensive solutions are elusive, and I sometimes despair that we will ever figure out how to resolve it fairly and compassionately. But that doesn’t mean that humane and common-sense solutions aren’t possible if the president and Congress would work together in good faith.)

Racism is defined by Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” (See my review of this book.) I think he would say that “any concept” covers a lot of territory, including the implication that black and brown people don’t really belong here, which essentially translates to “you aren’t good enough to be a real American.”

I think it’s important to read and listen to black and brown Americans when they tell their own stories of being told to “go back where you came from.” I’ve also learned over many years of participating in anti-racist workshops and discussions that the bottom line is not intent but impact. Just because I don’t intend to be racist doesn’t mean that my words and actions don’t have a racist impact. That’s really hard, I think, for white people to accept and internalize, and we tend to get defensive, because for the most part, we don’t intend or want to be racist. But I would never say that there isn’t a racist bone in my body because I know that however unintentional, I probably subconsciously still harbor ideas and feelings and act in ways that are not anti-racist.

One of my African American Facebook friends recently shared this unidentified quote: “It is not enough to be quietly non-racist. Now is the time to be vocally anti-racist.” I’m not sure this post completely qualifies, and I know I haven’t said anything profound or that hasn’t been said before much more eloquently by others, but I hope it’s a start.

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The Summer of the Moon Landing

The first moon landing on July 20, 1969 is one of those seminal events in history that many remember where they were when it happened – like the assassination of JFK, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, or 9/11. I remember watching the moon landing in the basement of the Sollenberger girls’ dorm at Messiah College. But that’s not the only thing I remember from the summer of 1969.

Switching from glasses to contact lenses: When I first had to get glasses at age 10, I hated them with a passion and only wore them when I absolutely had to. Eventually, it became clear that my eyesight was too bad to get away with occasional wear, and then when there was the possibility of switching to contact lenses and I could afford it, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t get much encouragement from my parents, who thought they were a waste of money, plus my dad couldn’t understand why I would want to put foreign objects in my eyes.

Now, after wearing contacts all day almost every single day for 50 years, I’m facing the prospect of cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future. Yuk! But just maybe, the surgery will improve my eyesight so much that I won’t even need contacts anymore. Wishful thinking, I know!

Circa 1969. I had this photo taken to send to Dale, obviously taken after I had switched to contact lenses. (That hair took a lot of work!)

Letter-writing with Dale: Our courtship-by-mail was heating up during the summer of 1969, having started with a Christmas card I sent to him in Zambia in December 1968. What I remember most about that summer of letter-writing was waiting for letters from him. I’m pretty sure I wrote to him at least once a week, but his letters back to me weren’t nearly that regular and sometimes it would be three weeks between letters. My family’s mailing address was a mailbox at the Grantham Post Office, and so I’d go to the P. O. hoping to find that familiar blue aerogramme from Zambia only to be disappointed day after day. I spent a good deal of emotional energy worrying that his long silences meant that he didn’t want to continue the relationship. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, and here we are still together 50 years later!

Spending time with college friends: This was the summer between my two years of graduate school in Idaho, during which I could maintain my college friendships only by letter, so it was nice to be able to take advantage of being back in Pennsylvania for the summer and see friends in person. Several college friends were in graduate school at what was then Shippensburg State College, including my friend Jane. Fresh out of college the previous fall, Jane had gone to Newfoundland on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment, but gave it up after a few months because of the difficult conditions in such a remote place and instead started graduate school. Jane’s and my decades-long letter-writing relationship was solidified when she was in Newfoundland and our boyfriends were teaching together in Zambia, so we enjoyed being able to get together and talk. I could never have imagined that she would be the first in my closest circle of friends to pass away. I still miss her!

Being only somewhat aware of the larger world: During the summer of 1969, of course, the Vietnam War also continued to rage on and the Woodstock festival was held in upstate New York. A rock music festival was not something I ever would have thought about attending, and even though by that time I was opposed to the war, I didn’t get involved in the protest movement. At the time, for better or worse, I was too preoccupied with the nitty-gritty details of my daily life to pay too much attention to what else was going on in the world.

But then came the moon landing and the world’s attention (and mine) was riveted.

Which brings me back to how I came to be in the basement of Sollenberger on the night of the first landing on the moon. As I mentioned, I was in between my two years of graduate school, and I needed a summer job. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to waitressing at Howard Johnson’s on the PA Turnpike for the sixth summer in a row, so I looked elsewhere. I don’t remember exactly how I got the job, but I think I made an inquiry to Messiah College, noting that I was halfway done with a master’s program in English. The college offered me a job teaching English Composition during two three-week sessions of summer school. I was all of 21 years old! I had been teaching college-level English Comp in Idaho (I had a graduate assistantship), so the idea of the job wasn’t too much of a stretch, but still it was a grueling assignment trying to cram a whole semester into three weeks and do all the grading of compositions that came with it. What I remember most, however, is a difficult phone conversation I had with the parent of a student who complained about her grade.

The college also asked me to serve as a resident assistant in Sollenberger for the summer sessions, which meant that I lived on dorm for six weeks. And that’s where I was the night of the moon landing – huddled in the basement lounge of Sollenberger watching the only (black-and-white) TV in the building with a bunch of college students. In my memory, the group wasn’t large – maybe less than 20 people – and the room was dark, probably so we could see the TV clearly.

Watching the first landing on the moon was an exhilarating experience, despite the grainy black-and-white TV images. Neil Armstrong’s words still echo through time and space (even if they were gender exclusive!): “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

 

 

Reprised: Mental Health Awareness Month Musings*

The girl I planned to room with in college one year had to withdraw before school began because she had a mental health crisis. Around the same time I had been reading the book, None of These Diseases, by S. I. McMillen. My memory is that one of the book’s major premises was the connection between the spiritual and the physical. What struck me most forcibly at the time was that illnesses, especially of the mind, were often caused by spiritual problems. The suggestion seemed to be that if we prayed hard and long enough, were spiritual enough, or willed ourselves strongly enough, we could cure ourselves. I’m pretty sure I wrote a letter to my friend expressing my sympathy about her mental health problems and recommending that she read the book. I really hope she didn’t read it! I had no clue about the realities of mental illness in those days.

In the 1980s and again in the early 2000s, when I felt like my own world was crashing down around me, I sought the help of trained therapists and was able to identify and acknowledge my own tendencies toward anxiety and depression and understand some of the causes. I also came to the strong belief that even though there are psychosomatic components to illness, including mental illness, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Further, it’s not helpful to make judgments or assumptions about the possible causes of someone’s mental illness, especially if those judgments include blaming the person. And even further, any guilt one might have about feeling depressed and anxious is not helpful or productive.

That’s why it is distressing to me that the notion sometimes still persists that mental illness is often caused by some spiritual deficiency: if people got their spiritual lives in order, they wouldn’t be depressed or anxious. In an article some years ago, a Christian therapist said, “The predominant root of depression has a spiritual first cause, not a physical one.” By the time I read the article, I understood the nature of anxiety and depression well enough, both by personal experience and by what I had learned in my job with the PA Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, not to be thrown too badly by the article. Nonetheless, I remember feeling that familiar twinge of guilt – first the guilt for being depressed at all, and then for not being able to pray it away.

In another article years later, a pastor tried to explain the root causes of gun violence. Among other things, he said, “We try to blame it [violence] on mental illness or anything that shifts the focus off the true problem. Christian psychologists tell us that 80 percent (or more) of those on psychotic drugs and/or in facilities for mental illness would be cured, or nearly cured, if they straightened out their spiritual lives, asked for forgiveness of their sins and developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can trace the roots of many mental illnesses to spiritual problems.”

Again, statements like this are way too simplistic, not to mention potentially damaging to people who struggle with mental illness. The causes of mental illness are a complex combination of factors, including not only emotional/psychological/spiritual factors but also biology/physiology, genetics, environment, and trauma, and sometimes we just don’t know the cause. People with mental health challenges don’t need the further stigma and guilt that come with being labeled spiritually immature, not “Christian” enough, or to blame in some other way for their “weakness.”

For all the improvements that have happened in the mental health system over the last decades, there are still so many deficits, and so many ways people are still stigmatized and/or treated with a lack of compassion and humanity. Salaries for lower level mental health workers are often very low, and direct care staff don’t always receive adequate or appropriate training. Waiting lists for treatment are often long, and trained professionals, especially both adult and child/adolescent psychiatrists, are in short supply.

There is also still not parity in all ways between mental and physical health. Generally, we don’t tell people they need to straighten out their spiritual lives to be cured of physical illnesses; rather, the medical system goes to work. Illnesses and injuries are seen to be natural consequences of living. Even when the disease or injury might have been prevented with better diet or driving less aggressively, for example, our first response isn’t to blame the person. We treat the illness or injury, we care for the person with compassion, and we don’t usually stigmatize him or her for being ill. Why not view mental illness the same way?

If you had a broken leg, would you be left to languish over a weekend in a hospital room until a doctor came on Monday to set your leg, as sometimes happens in psychiatric inpatient units? If you had a broken leg, would you have to call on all your community contacts to get someone in authority to demand that you be treated in a timely manner? If you had a broken leg, would you feel free to share your situation on the church prayer chain or ask the pastor to include you in his pastoral prayer during the Sunday morning service? On the other hand, what if you or a family member had experienced a mental health crisis? Would you feel much more private and worry about what people might think and about the stigma of having a mental health problem? It’s relatively easy to talk about a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis, but it’s much more difficult to talk about being seriously depressed or anxious because we fear judgment or lack of understanding. There is generally no stigma in having a physical illness or injury, but there is still stigma related to serious depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.

When we hear about people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or some other mental illness, rather than judge them as spiritually or morally deficient or just plain weak in some way, we should think about how we can make the mental health system more effective in treating them and how we can support them and their families. Mental illness is way too complex to dismiss with easy answers and solutions; doing so is a tremendous disservice to the millions of people who struggle with it every day. I wish I had understood that better all those years ago when my friend had to drop out of school because of a mental health crisis. I know I wanted to be compassionate when I wrote to her, but it was compassion tinged with ignorance that might have done more harm than good. In the intervening years, I’ve experienced and learned a lot that has made me far more understanding now than I was then, and for that I am grateful.

*Another version of this post was previously published in 2014.

Birthday Gratitude and Hope

This tree, planted for me by my husband for my birthday the first year we lived in our current house, is something of a symbol of the seasons of life. There is the green tree of summer, the orange tree of fall, and the bare or snow-covered tree of winter, each with its particular beauty. But I especially look forward to the fully-blooming tree of spring, pictured here on Easter Sunday 2019, just a few days before my 71st birthday..

Today, on my 71st birthday, I offer a few expressions of gratitude for what I have and hopes going forward into the next year. The list is not exhaustive, it must be said!

Health. I am defining health broadly to encompass both physical health and emotional/psychological health. I’ve been more aware recently of various “aches and pains” (I’ve even gone to physical therapy for the first time in my life!) and the fact that my body is not young anymore. I’m grateful, however, for the good health that I have, for having survived cancer for almost 15 years, for the normal mammogram I had again just last week, and I hope for the grace to handle the health issues that will inevitably come as I age.

I am also grateful for a healthy family, with six beautiful grandchildren who are all going through the normal stages of development – from the high-schooler with her normal teenage angst to the babies who are just learning to explore their world on their hands and knees. Marriage and raising children are hard, and there are so many pressures to withstand. I think they have always been hard, but I’ve thought recently that everything seems so much more complicated now. I hope for courage, perseverance, commitment, and grace (again) for both our children and their spouses, not only as they nurture their own relationships as couples but also as they guide their growing children.

Using my voice. I am grateful for the forums I have had over many years to express myself and advocate for the things I care about – personally (through this blog, for example) and professionally, through the various publications I have edited and written or continue to write and edit. I am also grateful for the legacy of service modeled by my parents and my faith family, whose examples have encouraged me to use my voice as a writer/editor to speak out against injustice and to support those are helping in practical ways to mitigate it. I am grateful that I am still of sound enough mind to continue this kind of work!

These days it is often difficult to know when to speak out and when to remain silent. I suppose this has always been the case, but now when Every. Single. Day brings new outrages and reasons to speak out on behalf of justice and what I believe is right, it feels important to be discerning about when and how to speak. So I hope for more of that discernment. I want to use my voice to speak out against so much that is wrong and against the people who are perpetuating it in ways that still respect the fundamental dignity and worth of every human being – even those I really don’t like. I also hope for my own ability to take the long view about the current politically polarized mess we’re in and to trust that, in the words of Julian of Norwich in the 14th century, “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.”

Friends. I am grateful for all the people who have been friends over my 71 years. Some of them I have long since lost contact with, such as boarding school friends who were really important at that time of my life. Others are not necessarily close friends but we share life experiences, such as being missionary kids together, or attending college and/or church together, or being a work colleague. I am grateful for Mary who has been my very close friend since high school; together we’ve weathered and celebrated so many of the difficult and the wonderful things in both our lives. I’m grateful for my “Pelican” friends with whom Dale and I have celebrated milestones in our marriages, and enjoyed times of deep and meaningful conversation as well as uproarious laughter. And I am deeply grateful for Dale who, among many other roles, has also been my friend for more than 50 years, and who probably knows more about me than anyone else and loves me anyway.

I hope for a future that continues to be filled with these and other friends. I hope for the ability to overcome the feelings of loneliness I sometimes feel when my introversion kicks into high gear; I want to be able to venture out of my introverted comfort zone and engage more fully with people. I need people in my life and I hope I can be the kind of person who others want to have in their lives.

Happy 71st birthday to me! I’m grateful for another year of life and for all those who have been and/or are part of my life.

Check out my birthday reflections from the past three years: 2018, 2017, and 2016.

Three Mile Island: Fortieth Anniversary Reflections

Me with the kids, December 1978. I call this photo “a study in brown.” I submitted this photo along with my story to WITF’s collection of stories for their 40th anniversary observance.

This post was originally written 10 years ago for the 30th anniversary of the near-meltdown on March 28, 2009 at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania. All the retrospectives in this 40th anniversary year have once again stirred up my memories of that time. So on this day exactly 40 years after the accident, here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote 10 years ago. I also added some vintage photos!

When the first news reports started coming out about an “accident” at TMI, we didn’t take them too seriously, partly because at first they didn’t sound too alarming. Our children were 5 1/2 years old and almost seven months. Dana was in pre-kindergarten in Harrisburg, and we continued to send her to school and let her to play outside, not thinking there was any reason to disrupt her routine. A neighbor scolded me for allowing her to play outside, and at first I thought she was over-reacting and then I began to worry that perhaps the accident was a bigger deal than we originally thought. Very soon, of course, news reports became much more ominous, and evacuation recommendations were issued for pregnant women and children within a 5-mile radius of TMI, and additional recommendations to stay indoors for those within a 10-mile radius. We lived just outside the 10-mile radius (probably at about 11.5 miles), but we were close enough to begin to think seriously about whether or not we should leave the area.

At the Ebersoles’ home in Indiana: Becky Ebersole (Kasparek) on the left and our daughter Dana on the right.

Dale and I debated for several days, all the while being only too aware that if a meltdown or partial meltdown actually occurred, the disaster would be horrific and almost unimaginable. About a week after the accident, we finally decided to leave (probably after whatever damage there might have been was already done!). With no close relatives far enough way, we fled to the home of our good friends John and Mary Ebersole in Indiana where we stayed for a week before deciding it was safe to return home. We took family photos and other important papers along with us, in case we wouldn’t be able to return. While our decision to leave was probably made too late, we nonetheless felt better and like we were being responsible parents.

Even after we returned home, Dale and I and our friends repeatedly discussed a number of issues. As we reflect now on our discussions then, we’re not sure how much has changed. Many of the same questions persist in one form or another:

Can we ever really be prepared for massive evacuations? At the time of the accident we talked a lot about how awful it would be if everyone tried to leave the city of Harrisburg at one time: crowded highways, panicked people, disabled vehicles, etc. I don’t think we are any better prepared now than we were 40 years ago.

Can we trust our government and other public officials to tell us the truth? Even though no deaths or serious illnesses have ever been officially attributed to the TMI accident, you will never convince some people that there were no serious lingering effects from the accident. (These doubts were born out by a news story just this week.) Despite repeated assurances that not enough radiation was released to do any harm, many people still have lingering doubts that they were or are being told the whole truth. I remember in the years immediately following the accident that we often made TMI the scapegoat for whatever illnesses might have been going around, and who knows whether or not there might have been a connection. By now, I am inclined to believe the official version, but I still harbor a healthy suspicion about the complete trustworthiness of government officials for whom it is in their best interests to cast reality in the best possible light.

How safe is nuclear power, really? First of all, there’s the issue of nuclear waste, which I’m not sure has ever been resolved satisfactorily. Second, will it ever be possible to guarantee that a nuclear power plant will not have a meltdown? Certainly when Chernobyl happened in 1986, less than 10 years after TMI, we who had lived through TMI were reminded all over again of the potential for disaster.

Whatever happened to the idea that nuclear power would create electricity that is “too cheap to meter”? Probably most people have long ago given up on that idea, but it’s worth remembering the slogan as a major selling point for a technology that had serious safety concerns. Perhaps many of the safety concerns of nuclear power have been addressed in the years since TMI, but we certainly don’t have cheap electricity!!

Derek and Dana on Easter Sunday 1979 – just a few weeks after the TMI accident.

While our family’s experience was not nearly as traumatic as those who lived closer to TMI, every anniversary of the accident reminds me of what tense and uncertain times those were in the spring of 1979. When I fly into Harrisburg International Airport and see those cooling towers, including the disabled one from the accident, I always remember what it was like in March 1979.