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Dreams, Visions, and Politics

Somewhere near the end of our cross-country drive to visit some of the most beautiful sites in America, my husband and I picked up a strange passenger. We didn’t have room for him in the blue BMW. A sports car isn’t the most practical vehicle for a month-long cross-country trek, but my husband loves the vroom and the heated steering wheel.

Our children and our sheltie occupied what passes for a back seat in the car. But we couldn’t just leave the passenger behind, so we had him sit on the emergency brake between us.

It worked, though I worried what would happen to him if I crashed. He was small—a child-sized version of a former president. He climbed into the car when it was my turn to drive, and I was thrilled to be sitting next to him.

I was vaguely aware that it might be inappropriate for my right arm to be pressed up against his left, and I tried to make myself a little smaller to give him room.

I had no idea what to call him as we made conversation on the drive back to D.C. “Mr. President” didn’t seem fitting for a little man who had hitched a ride.

I started tentatively, trying and failing to achieve the coolness I hoped for. “Hey, Barack…hey, Barry…hey, Mr. B.”

He grinned widely at my discomfort, just as I awoke.

Yes, the political climate has officially made its way into my dreams. I rarely have a dream of such clarity, and I usually have only a vague notion of what led to the dream.

This one is easy, though. Feeling vaguely uncomfortable with a man who was not my husband? Believing that I had no choice but to take a chance on driving him back to Washington?

Taking my turn behind the wheel? My husband says that alone told him it was a dream, since I hate driving. But I was in control of the President of the United States.

I’m not alone in feeling helpless and having my psyche affected by the current political climate. Shortly after the January inauguration, therapists started to report an uptick in patients seeking help for anxiety. In the months since, experts have written numerous articles offering ways to deal with the stress of the current political climate.

Some positive things have come out of this ugliness, though. While it’s disheartening to know the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault in this country, it’s good to know that so many victims are seeing their attackers finally held to account.

Reputable researchers are also beginning to study ways to increase young people’s civic knowledge and involvement. The efforts are nonpartisan, and they seek to understand the beliefs of young people under the age of 30.

In addition, churches are reporting that progressives are reconnecting with their faith communities. Perhaps this will mean that we will finally stop ceding the conversation about Christ to fundamentalists who behave in distinctly un-Christlike ways.

Experts who offer advice about dealing with stress all emphasize the importance of holding on to hope. Psychology Today ends its advice column with this reminder:

Personal and national growth typically follow struggles with anxiety. Nervousness forces us to reevaluate what is most important and what we most want for ourselves, our loved ones, and our fellow citizens. From careful reevaluation emerges a course of meaningful behavior based on our deepest values.

Right now, I’m grateful for an occasional dream that offers me hope and reminds me of what is important.

Isn’t it interesting that I didn’t for a second in that dream consider kicking out my children, my husband, or even our beloved pet so that President Obama would have a place to sit?

I can’t control the current president, but I most assuredly can keep my family close and take hold of the wheel when an opportunity presents itself.

Tug-of-War and Remembrance

As a teenager, I hated no activity at the summer church camps that followed Memorial Day weekend more than the tug-of-war. I was almost always the smallest person in the group, chosen last and put at the end of the rope where my efforts to pull backwards had the least effect on the outcome. When my team lost, I inevitably scraped my knees as all of us were pulled forward into the dust. Even when my team won, I landed on my butt in the dirt, and someone usually fell on top of me.

In even the best of those summer games, I didn’t like competition. But I abhorred the tug-of-war, where humiliation seemed to be the end result for almost everyone except for the big guys at the front of the line on the winning team, who crowed and jeered at the losers in a most un-Christlike way.

It seems to me that our politics have become just such a game. Continue reading Tug-of-War and Remembrance

Images of Beautiful Babies in Syria and at Home

“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” said Donald Trump in his remarks announcing the U.S. military strike in Syria.

I’ve never agreed with him more, though I question the wisdom of basing foreign policy decisions on an emotional reaction to horrific images of victims of what he now calls “our very troubled world.” Continue reading Images of Beautiful Babies in Syria and at Home

How Can We Change Gerrymandered Districts?

Gerrymandered Districts

For as long as I can remember, I have believed in democracy. I remember really paying close attention for the first time when I was in eighth grade. My West Virginia History class was studying how our representatives were elected, and the girls in our class questioned why there were no women among our elected officials. My teacher, Mr. Cozort, seemed a bit surprised by our questions, but he allowed us to ask them. He even allowed a group of us girls to write up a Declaration of Women’s Rights for his classroom, and he signed it, trying to look serious in spite of the grin that played at one corner of his mouth.

Continue reading How Can We Change Gerrymandered Districts?

Invoking Jesus to Defend Racial Insensitivity? Please!

Creche

Of all the defenses of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.), the new House majority whip, in the wake of revelations that he spoke at a gathering of white supremacists in 2002, I find Congressman Steve King’s (R-Iowa), reported in today’s Washington Post, the most outrageous:

“Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners,” King said. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick. Given that piece of Scripture, and understanding that Scalise probably wasn’t staffed thoroughly, I could understand how something like this happened. But I know his heart, I’ve painted houses with him post-Katrina, and I know he is a good man.”

I’m sorry, Congressman King, but you can’t have it both ways. Continue reading Invoking Jesus to Defend Racial Insensitivity? Please!

An Open Letter to Working Class Conservatives

Dear Fellow Americans,

You love this country. You’re frustrated. I love this country. I am frustrated. We share that, if little else.

Though my political beliefs are distinctly different from yours, we both want the same thing: a country in which the American Dream is still possible for us and for our children. We have been taught—and we are teaching our own children—that we live in a place where dedication and hard work result in success and financial stability. Yet we both see that slipping away, and we take turns being angry with our leaders, particularly those in the opposing party, when Congress makes decisions that affect the people we care about. Continue reading An Open Letter to Working Class Conservatives

Are Truth and Love Stronger than Race?

King Quotation

Inscription on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

Our nation is lining up on either side of a fault line that threatens to shake the foundations of our nation. I can’t help fearing that the Big One is coming—the racial earthquake that could destroy us. I’m frightened for our future. I’m frightened for our children. But I also have hope. Continue reading Are Truth and Love Stronger than Race?

Missing Mom?

Mom's Crocheting

Mom’s Beautiful, Crocheted Gifts to Me

I remember the first time I really missed my mother.  A freshman in college, I had the flu.  My roommate moved down the hall to a room that was unoccupied after another freshman fled for home earlier in the semester.  The dorm’s resident assistant came to the door to ask if I needed anything but spoke to me from across the room, reluctant to breathe in the air of a sick room.

I longed for my mother’s soothing hand stroking my hair, for the damp washcloth she always folded in thirds until it was just the right size for my fevered forehead.  Instead, I lay on the clammy sheets and pulled the blanket up over my own shoulder in a gesture that couldn’t possibly emulate the way my mother had tucked me in when I was sick.

Gleeful at being free from a mother I viewed as a sad martyr, I had packed my things and scurried away from her arms two months before.  She had done such a good job of stressing to me that I should be sure to get an education and have a life different from hers that I saw nothing in her life that I wanted to emulate.

To me, Mom seemed a slave to her children and her husband.  She spent her day cleaning a tiny house inhabited by seven people.  She did laundry nearly every day, and I came home from school to see her standing behind an ironing board with a heavy black and silver iron in hand.  Or I found her crocheting, indulging in her one pleasurable hobby as she watched soap operas, her hands working swiftly with scarcely a look down.

I muttered a greeting and hurried past her to my bedroom, dropping my textbooks and picking up a novel.  I escaped to a world of classics where characters like Pip and Jane Eyre were lucky enough to escape lives like mine and my mother’s.

When I had left for college, I found nothing in my mother’s home to miss.  But in that moment of illness, as I lay on my bed, I knew that my mother was the single person in my world who loved me enough to risk her health to enfold me in her arms.  And over the years of my young adulthood, she became the first person I wanted to call when something made me sad or joyful or triumphant.  I knew I could count on her comfort, her pride, her love.

It would be many more years before I saw my mother as a person in her own right—separate from husband or children or home.  Once her five children were grown, she went back to class and earned a GED, she learned to drive and bought her first car, she got her first job outside the home as a clerk in a department store.  And I remember feeling a little insulted when she chattered enthusiastically about how much she enjoyed the job, gesturing animatedly in a way I’d never heard her talk about her work as a housewife and mother.

In those years, too, she made her first friend who wasn’t a relative or a neighbor.  My dad complained to me about how Mom and Karen “kept the roads hot” while he continued to work in the coal mines during those years before he retired.

I belly-laughed when Mom told me the story of a shopping excursion with the woman who became her best friend.  The nearest mall was an hour away from my hometown, and Mom and Karen had left early in the morning on a day when snow was forecast for the harrowing Bolt Mountain, over which they would have to travel.

My mom told the story this way:  Karen dropped her off at home, and she entered the front door, weighed down by shopping bags full of Christmas gifts, to find Dad fuming in his favorite recliner by the door.  Dad made no move to help Mom with the packages.  She would find out later that he had called Karen’s husband, worried that they might have had an accident in the snow on the mountain.  But he wasn’t about to admit to fearing for her safety.  His only comment, Mom told me with a laugh, was to say, “Thirteen hours!  You all have been gone thirteen hours!  How in the hell could you shop for thirteen hours?”

The mom I knew in my childhood would have cowered in the face of Dad’s anger.  But she laughed as Karen came in behind her with more packages and said, “Oh, Roy, get over it.”

I had completely forgotten that story until Karen reminded me as we mourned the loss of my mother together.  Karen, who became a Presbyterian lay pastor after my mother moved away to be nearer to her children, officiated my mother’s memorial service.  But more than that, Karen told me stories that reminded me that my mother enjoyed her life after children.

Even now, I see my mother through the haze of my own need and loss.  I’m not sure it’s even possible to see her in any other way.  But I do love hearing the stories of those who knew her as Naomi Prichard Williamson—a woman of strength and spunk and humor.  And I’ll miss both Mom and the Naomi I only glimpsed more than I can possibly say.

So tell me your stories* of your own mother—your mom and the woman you see through a glass darkly.

*Add your stories by clicking on the Add Comment button below this blog on the main blog page.

Live in a Stressful State?

Hawaii

Standing on a promontory in Hawaii above an ocean of cobalt blue, I knew that I had seen the best of two worlds.  Born in the heart of the West Virginia hills, I’d grown up surrounded by trees of nearly every shade of green on the color wheel, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was 24.  And I’d never seen an ocean like the one I saw 30 years later from a precipitous cliff in Kauai.

The island weather had been colder than we’d expected, but my husband and I donned our swimsuits that morning and covered them with layers and jackets.  This was nothing I hadn’t done countless times during my childhood in West Virginia, where the chilly mornings slowly gave way to the warmth of the sun.  Undaunted by the absence of tropical breezes, we eagerly followed our friends across the rocky terrain to what they assured us would be a breathtaking view.

When we arrived at the peak, my eyes didn’t know where to look first.  The ocean stretched to the horizon, broken by clusters of lava rock that punctuated the landscape, allowing me to take a breath before my eyes read on.  Though we stood high above the surface, the waves crashed against the rocks, spraying us with water as I backed away, holding my breath.

Again I thought of West Virginia.  I’d taken the beauty of my surroundings for granted for most of my childhood, until I visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state.  I remembered holding my breath and backing up from the overlook in the same way—the first time I really became aware that great beauty and great danger are sometimes separated by the tiniest of invisible lines.  The towering pines were bare on one side, stripped by the force of the constant wind.  In that moment, I’d felt just as I felt on that cliff in Hawaii—that I might be small and insignificant but that the God I believed in was small enough to fit inside me and big enough to create a world of awe-inspiring places.

I thought of those moments again when I read the morning news today and learned that this year’s Gallup survey results show that the least stressed people in the country live in Hawaii.  No surprise there.  But I was surprised to learn that the most stressed people in the country are the residents of West Virginia.  I was so surprised that, as I sometimes do, I checked the original source.  I wasn’t disbelieving, as I usually am when I turn to a primary source, but I wanted to read the original report without the spin of journalists.

Because I’m skeptical of surveys, which are often designed to get the results the sponsor wants, I read about the design of the survey.  I was impressed to learn that Gallup, unlike many other companies, had used both landlines and cell phones, though the balance was a bit in favor of landlines—400 cell calls for every 600 landline contacts.  And they also made an effort to find respondents who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and education.

Satisfied that the survey seemed credible, I read the summary and discovered that Hawaii has ranked as the least stressed state every year for the past five years and that West Virginia has consistently been ranked in the five most stressful states.  As one might expect, there was a strong correlation to the rate of employment—more stress in states with higher unemployment.

But when I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, I found that the unemployment rate in West Virginia for 2012 ranked only 23rd of the 50 states.  So what explains that the people in a state filled with beautiful, peaceful places to calm the soul would feel so much more stress than people elsewhere?

Perhaps it’s easier for the people of Hawaii to disregard the troubles that plague the mainland.  After all, it takes six hours by plane to get to the turmoil on the continental U.S., and one can always turn off the television when the sadness creeps across the airwaves to paradise. And while those of us on the mainland could choose to do the same, we tend to be bombarded by images that accost us even when we turn off our televisions.  As children during the ‘60s and ‘70s, my classmates and I saw the news only for an hour each evening, and the turmoil of those years didn’t seem as close as every conflict seems now.

I wonder, too, how faith figures into the equation.  We know from other surveys that having a strong faith helps people live longer, more abundant lives.  But I also have many friends in my home state who are traumatized by a faith that makes no room for questioning a God they’ve been taught offers more vengeance than comfort.  And when I read the results of the Pew Forum’s research last year which shows that young adults are leaving churches in droves, I have to wonder how many people are struggling because they were taught that if their prayers aren’t being answered it’s because they don’t have enough faith or aren’t “right with God.”

Each time I scan the Charleston and Beckley papers online from my home state, I read articles that reflect how little control most of the people in the state have over their economic well-being.  The coal and gas companies, in an attempt to preserve the riches they’ve reaped from the state, convince the masses that sustainable energy is a threat to their way of life.  The last time I drove into the county where I lived as a young adult, I was greeted by a hate-filled billboard denigrating the president and urging everyone to be a “friend of coal.”

At that moment I thought of those trees on Spruce Knob and wished I had enough money and know-how to fund clean energy businesses—perhaps windmills—to replace the strip mines that surround the cemetery where my father is buried.

Stress and depression, as a good therapist once told me, come from feeling that we have no control.  “All of us have choices,” he told me, “so look at your life and take control over what you can.”  And he’s right.  So my prayer for my home state is that they will somehow find a way to break free of those who chain them to a style of life where others get rich from the burdens they carry.

So how is your state of stress?