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She’d Had Enough of Loneliness. Taking Action Meant Taking a Risk.

The need for connection is basic to our survival. Overcoming the lack of it sometimes requires courage, a lesson I learned recently from a complete stranger.

My critique partner and I were meeting at our usual place – a Starbucks inside Barnes and Noble. “Jenn” and I get together most Friday afternoons to share our rewrites and new work, and to hash out problems, like, does this paragraph even belong here? Or, how can I have two men named William in the story?

After reading aloud, and deciding to scrap, her new material, Jenn was eager for me to read a few paragraphs from a book I’d found on the library’s “free shelf” and really liked. We eventually got around to my rewrites. And as our meetings sometimes go, the conversation drifted off course; we were now discussing brain fog, that almost indescribable state of being unable to concentrate.

That’s when I noticed an older woman, maybe mid-seventies, sitting alone at the next table. She wasn’t engrossed in her books or with her phone, as are most people these days, but appeared to be observing us. I sent a nod of acknowledgment her way, and maybe a slip of a smile.

As Jenn and I continued our discussion (what the devil does cause brain fog, anyway?), I became aware of a moving figure in my peripheral vision. Then more detail: a head, slightly bent; hands meekly clasped at the waist. And suddenly, the woman from the next table was standing right in front of us, as if drawn by a magnet.

“I see you sitting here, talking to each other, and I have no one,” she said, her voice beseeching, her accent unmistakably German.

Jenn reached for her handbag and pulled out a surgical mask, mumbling something about not wanting to take any chances. I’d had Covid just before Christmas, and decided to wear one as well.

The woman’s straight, chin-length hair – which seemed not yet all gray – framed her oval face. And she wore the shy, pained expression of heartfelt longing. “I want to be like you!” she said.

Jenn and I made eye contact, a silent agreement that we would be kind. But behind our masks, our words sounded muted and distant. After several minutes Jenn mentioned that we were writers in the middle of a work session.

“I write, too!” the woman said, her face brightening with hope.

She had not taken the hint. It must have been my nod that encouraged her, I thought. Now we were either going to have to invite her to take a seat, or…what? “What’s your name?” I asked.

She came a bit closer. “Eva,” she said, her hands still clasped at her waist.

Trying to get a feel for her plight, I asked some of the usual questions one asks of a new acquaintance. As it turns out, Eva lives with a granddaughter – a busy mother of three with a fulltime job. She had dropped Eva off at the bookstore that day. And the day before.

Once again, her eyes imploring, she stated her purpose: she only wanted someone to talk to, to be included.

But what could we do, Jenn and I? Maybe there was something. Sometime in the future. I asked for her phone number and watched as she fumbled with her cell phone. She couldn’t find it – not a good sign. Instead, I took down her granddaughter’s name and number, which she managed to locate, and promised to give her a call.

Seemingly satisfied with our exchange, Eva disappeared into the store. Jenn and I resumed our discussion. But fifteen minutes later, Eva was back, her face steeped in worry, her hands moving, moving. Her granddaughter was on her way to the bookstore at that very moment, she said. And she was angry. Apparently because Eva had shared her phone number with us.

With the two women now standing at our table, we made introductions. As it turned out, the granddaughter, whom I will call “Leah,” was not angry at all. Only relieved that her grandmother – Oma – hadn’t given out her credit card information. I think it was then that I noticed that Eva’s fingers. No longer laced at her waist, I could see that they were gnarled with arthritis.

We invited them to sit. It was the only thing to do. What we proposed, Jenn and I, was sharing community resources. Leah took notes on a sheet paper that I’d torn from my notebook. Searching on her phone, Jenn found the number for our senior resource center. I mentioned local volunteer opportunities. Did we know that Leah’s grandmother had been a teacher?

“Kindergarten through fifth grade,” Eva said. The corners of her mouth curved up in a modest smile.

Over the next few days, I thought about our strange encounter. Or was it strange, really, that someone should want to join in where people are connecting with one another? What Eva is craving, I realized, are relationships. Not simply contacts. Should I invite her to tea? Or was it enough that I took time to listen?

Growing up at a time when children were not generally recognized as real people, some of us learned the very unwise lesson of keeping our needs to ourselves. Or worse yet, were made to feel guilty for expressing them. Quite often, suppressed needs follow children into their teenage years and adulthood, surfacing as social and emotional problems. Even addictions, according to Gabor Maté, MD, a well-known author and speaker on trauma and addiction. The Hungarian-Canadian Holocaust survivor urges us not to ask “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?”

When we finally start peeling away the layers, including the traumas, that created who we are today, we discover all sorts of false beliefs about ourselves, beliefs we absorbed as children. Only when we are no longer in denial about those suppressed needs can we shift the blame, and the shame, away from ourselves. We learn that using our voice is not a sin, but a gift.

I applaud Eva for expressing her need for connection. It took courage to take action, walk over to our table and say that she wanted to be “like us.” Being “like” the people we see – people who are playing, laughing, creating, sharing food and conversation – is a primordial need. It’s why babies crawl upon our laps and touch our mouths and faces with their small fingers. It’s connection, from the time we are infants, that wires our brains for life and keeps us happy. FFG

Tragic School Shooting Devastates Oxford, MI, Families and Community – But What Should We Expect?

 Once again, we ask ourselves, why do we have to live like this?  But really, what should we expect when guns are worshiped in America like demi-gods?  When one in three Republicans believe violence may be necessary “in order to save our country,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute. (The Independent, 11/1/2021)

Some gun owners feel so threatened they open-carry to the grocery store for a loaf of bread.

I blame Tuesday’s school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, on the 15-year-old suspect’s father. Imagine the man’s delight upon showing his brand new 9MM Sig Sauer SP2022 semiautomatic pistol, reportedly purchased on Black Friday, to his son only days before the teenager took it to school. Now the man and his wife could face possible charges, according to a story in Tuesday’s Detroit Free Press. And well they should: three students lost their lives and eight more were wounded in the massacre. One 14-year-old girl is on a ventilator in critical condition.

Pictures of the gun and a target were posted on social media in advance of the shooting, news sources say. I’m wondering, did the dad let his son take pictures, the two of them standing over the gun with their mobile phone cameras, admiring it, like Thanksgiving turkey? The shooter, still unnamed because he’s a minor, relinquished the weapon to police and was taken into custody as students and teachers barricaded themselves in classrooms. Meanwhile, “police found two 15-round clips in the school and are looking for a third.” (Detroit News, 11/30/2021)

But here’s the thing: there were rumors of a threat circulating around the school prior to the shooting. According to the news story, “Earlier this month, Oxford schools published a note to parents that it was aware that ‘numerous rumors’ had ‘circulated throughout our building this week,’ and the school was reviewing the concerns.” Unfortunately, that review didn’t happen fast enough. Even the school resource officers who were in the building were not able to prevent the five-minute shooting spree.

The suspect’s parents are not permitting their son to talk to police and have hired a lawyer. I can see why.

Thoughts and prayers are not going to solve our gun problem. And it is solely an American problem. Today, more families are mourning the loss of their children. And another town, one where people believed a school shooting couldn’t happen, is grieving en masse. How many more parents will have to face the news that a child may not live because some entitled individual decided that buying a gun and leaving it unsecured was a good idea?

The hard truth is, gun violence can happen in any community – as long as we live in a culture that glamorizes weapons, creating a religion of gun worship. And as long as just about anyone can buy a gun.

https://www.freep.com/…/oxford-high-school…/8810588002/

 

Are Conservatives All Suffering from Unhealed Childhood Trauma?

When individuals in power attempt to force their fantasy of a perfect world onto the whole of society – or even a segment of it – it can attract a cult of followers who are willing to believe that, like their leaders, it’s possible to live some charmed version of reality. It’s like existing in a dissociative state.  Or a dissociative fugue.

 

According to the Psychology Today definition (Aug. 2, 2021), “Dissociation is generally thought of as a defense against trauma that helps people disconnect from extreme psychological distress. A dissociative fugue state is a condition in which a person may be mentally and physically escaping an environment that is threatening or otherwise intolerable.”

 

I have seen students do this. They just “punch out,” like they’re floating in space. It happens when kids are abused or neglected by shameless adults who don’t give a damn. By staying inside their heads, children can tune out reality. It gives them a sense of control. They often imagine they can protect themselves. However, the least threat, real or imagined, can trigger an angry response. Their stress level at this point is through the roof. They can’t think rationally. When I would ask students to please clear their desks for a spelling test, I could expect one kid to have a problem with it. Because children aren’t supposed to run or fight, sometimes they simply freeze. The ones who do act out – usually boys – might throw all their books and pencils on the floor. Rip their neighbor’s paper. Or disturb the entire class with crazy talk.  I’ve seen both boys and girls act out by sitting back with arms folded. They feign arrogance. Sometimes they look broken.  The look says, “Lady, I ain’t doin’ nothin’ you say to do.”

 

A woman I know, a writer and educator whose parents were both doctors,  once revealed that she was left alone every day after school. The family had horses and a barn, and it was there that she created an imaginary world into which she could escape.

 

Another woman whose memoir I worked on as a ghost-writer had a hideous childhood. As a girl she had dissociative episodes both at home and school. She fainted when she couldn’t cope with her parents fighting. At school, it  was beyond her understanding why everyone cried when President Kennedy died. Her mother, a nurse, would come home from work, lock herself in her bedroom, get drunk,  and cry wildly while my friend played jacks outside her door. And she insisted she had a happy childhood.

 

I would guess that more than a few over-the-top Right Wingers grew up without empathetic relationships. People like Gov. Greg Abbott, who thinks he’ll score votes by denying women the right to an abortion; Rep. Lauren Boebert, who believes everyone should carry a pistol, and wanted Jan. 6 to come off like the Revolutionary War (1776),   And then there’s Rep. Jim Jordan, who according to the Washington Post, Tweeted out that vaccine mandates are un-American. He means for everyone.  (Jordan apparently hasn’t heard that while fighting the British, Gen. George Washington was also fighting a smallpox epidemic, and felt it necessary to mandate a crude smallpox vaccine for his troops.)

 

However, by denying their personal stories of hurt and trauma, these self-righteous zealots abandon their humanity. They become fundamentalists who need everyone to become part of their fantasy world. To quote psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore, “The tragedy of fundamentalism in any context is its capacity to freeze life into a solid cube of meaning.” (Care of the Soul, 1992, HarperCollins.)

 

Conservatives today seem bent on freezing the country into a solid cube of meaning. No discussion. No compromise.

 

So, what do we have now, but an increasing number of far-Right elected officials pushing a concept of freedom they’ve packaged into a neat and tidy single belief, whether it’s denying a woman’s right to choose, insisting that legitimate election outcomes were fraudulent, or pushing a false narrative on vaccinations? They think if enough voters take them seriously, if they can force their childish will on enough people, they will never have to feel the burden of pain, loss, and failure, all of which make us human and are part of life.  In my opinion, it’s not the future that scares them, but facing their pasts.

 

Time and again, we’ve heard Joe Biden talk about his personal history of loss and pain. Telling his story is exactly why he has empathy for families who’ve lost loved ones to school shootings, floods, war, and disease. Because in the retelling of his traumas, he’s owned his humanity, not sold it for some easy, fundamentalist fix he’d like to impose on other people’s lives. He’s done the hard, emotional work of healing. Some would call it resilience, but I think Biden’s gift of empathy is the result of having grieved, and having given each of his stories a Beginning, Middle, and an End, so that they are no longer traumas. By owning his pain, he has gained “soul.”

 

I believe those political and religious fundamentalists who are trying to force the country into a “solid cube of meaning” are simply prolonging their own pain. And they would like to see everyone else suffer along with them. They just don’t know why. If they could only acknowledge their humanity, and accept the fact that life is a shared journey, they might walk alongside the rest of us instead of trying to lord over us.

 

Fixing the problem won’t happen overnight. It takes raising a generation of empathetic listeners. And to do that, we have to become empathetic listeners ourselves. In other words, we have to believe in everyday soul work. It’s about telling your story, whether to a trusted friend, counselor, or writing it in a journal. It’s about crying and grieving losses of all kinds. And most of all, it’s about listening to our children when they share their  hurts. Just by listening to our children, and to each other, we can help heal the world. FFG

 

Bennie Hargrove, 13, Was Shot to Death on a School Playground; His Killer’s Parents Should Accept Responsibility

My heart breaks for Bennie Hargrove’s family. They lost their boy.

On Friday, August 13th, Bennie Hargrove, age 13, was shot and killed by a bully on the third day of school. Known as a “peacemaker,” Bennie had approached Juan Saucedo Jr., also age 13, on the playground at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, NM, asking him to stop intimidating his friends. What Bennie didn’t know was that Juan had a gun. (https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/albuquerque-police-school-shooting-suspect-bullied-other-students/article_bd4a9dd7-c94b-5a79-a9b0-a493d77cbbbe.html)

It’s an all-too-familiar tragedy: Juan’s father, Juan Saucedo Sr., had not safely secured his loaded gun in the house. (Come on, Mom. You knew about this.) But the fact is, the son was only performing a violent action his father had modeled in the past. Here’s how that event went down:

In April 2018, Albuquerque’s KRQE TV reported, “There was a feud-turned-shooting between Saucedo Senior and another father in the pick-up line of Highland High School, just off school property. Court document and police lapel video revealed that mean looks and a confrontation escalated to Saucedo throwing a punch, while the other man grabbed a baseball bat. It eventually ended with Saucedo shooting and injuring the other man in the hand and thigh. At the time, Albuquerque Police seemed certain that both men would face charges.”  https://www.krqe.com/news/crime/father-of-middle-school-murder-suspect-has-history-of-shooting-near-a-school/

The arrest never happened. “The District Attorney’s Office never filed any charges saying both men were culpable but had valid self-defense claims.”

Bunk. Gun violence and physical violence should always be charged. They were disturbing the peace, traumatizing everyone around them.

Here’s another sample of the kind of parental behavior Juan had to look up to:  In 2015, Saucedo Sr. and his wife Luz Saucedo were subjects of a civil personal injury lawsuit following an altercation at Zuni Elementary School, which left a woman with a broken back.

The case was thrown out. Again, what kind of justice system allows this?

In my opinion, since the Saucedos have a history of violence, modeling aggressive behavior for their son, and since they they did not secure the loaded gun, they are culpable in Bennie Hargrove’s death.

Here’s a bit of science on aggression: When someone grabs a weapon, or punches and kicks with hands and feet, it means their fight-or-flight response system has kicked into high gear. Their “thinking brain” is switched off.  Stress hormones have escalated, and the brain stem has hijacked the frontal lobes, triggering the fight or flight response. It’s intended to keep a person alive in an emergency, not for hanging out with family and friends.

The idea that more guns are needed to keep ordinary people safe is just not true. Maybe in the deep woods while hunting bear and wild boar. But the potential for gun violence in the everyday life cannot be ignored. It’s not just gang members killing one another; it’s a toddler getting hold of a gun and shooting his mother in the face. A stray bullet entering the skull of a child celebrating the Fourth of July.  A child finding a gun in his father’s drawer and accidentally shooting his brother or sister. And this doesn’t even touch the subject of suicide, or racially motivated shootings, or mass shootings by mentally ill white men.

Underscoring aggressive behavior is aggressive speech. If you’re listening to hatred-laced shows on TV or radio, consider its ill effects on your state of mind. If you ridicule family members and neighbors in front of your kids, know that it hurts their young hearts. And your own.

Looking at his actions, Juan Saucedo Jr. seems like one damaged child. Like other kids who are unable to talk about their feelings, he acts out. Perhaps it’s because his parents failed to create a safe environment for talking about such things. Perhaps it’s to gain his parents’ approval, being the tough guy.  I’m no psychologist, but I can imagine the disconnect must be painful: not feeling free to be his true, authentic self – the person he was meant to be. The bully’s response to Hargrove, a protector, was “get out of my way,” as Hargrove prevented him from injuring someone younger and weaker. That empty space in Saucedo Jr., the space that lacks connection, must be a very lonely place indeed.

It’s too soon to know if the Saucedos will face charges. “Right now, New Mexico has not passed specific statutes about criminal penalties for irresponsible adults to secure a firearm. I know it’s been debated in the past, and I hope it gets a renewed hearing in the upcoming (legislative) session,” (Bernalillo County DA) Raul Torrez said. https://www.kob.com/albuquerque-news/da-torrez-parents-of-juan-saucedo-jr-could-face-charges/6209670/.

I can imagine, however, that they will face civil charges brought by Bennie’s family. The school administration could bear at least some responsibility for failing to keep students safe. But charges may not change who they are, intrinsically. Or how they relate to their son.

Parents like the Saucedos rarely take a bullet for their child.

Bear in mind, that’s because some parents have no shame. They lack courage to stand in front of the judge and say, “We’re to blame. We allowed this to happen.”

Now Bennie Hargrove, he stood for something.  FFG.

By Abandoning Fact-Based Teaching, We’ve Opened the Door to Disinformation

Nature abhors a vacuum. When the facts are no longer there, the void must be filled with something. And that something has become disinformation.

A new focus in some schools is helping students sort through the facts, tossing out disinformation, and embracing fact-finding.

An initiative in Florida designed to teach “digital literacy,” is one such program. (https://www.npr.org/2021/03/30/980405254/as-bad-information-spreads-florida-schools-seek-to-teach-digital-literacy)

Michael McConnell, who spent his career in national intelligence and security, is working to get this type of instruction into schools. McConnell told National Public Radio, “We need to understand this so we can appreciate what’s happening to us, and be able to not only understand it, to be able to navigate through it,” McConnell said. “That’s what I call digital literacy.”

OK. Let’s rewind. We still have high school students who cannot read beyond a fifth-grade comprehension level, can’t name the seven continents or point to them on a map, and have no idea how to write a decent paragraph.

How does this relate to the mass consumption of disinformation? It relates in that adults who went to school after the country largely abandoned the fact-based teaching paradigm are now at a huge disadvantage: they just don’t know enough to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

We started abandoning fact-based teaching in the 1980s, just as my children were becoming school-age. It was always my assumption that they would be taught as I was taught. They would learn facts. And then they would have a basis from which to formulate ideas and questions in their minds.  They would learn where the Nile River was and memorize their multiplication tables. They would know which trees were coniferous and which were deciduous.

Teachers “teaching” students was the accepted pedagogy. Instead, the pedagogy flipped to “students as learners.” What my children encountered in school, back in the 1980s and ’90s, were group projects for which one student mostly did all the work and the rest did nothing. They got consensus-building, and “soft-subjects,” like self-esteem and multi-cultural appreciation classes, where they made up acrostics with their own names and constructed piñatas. We were in the age of the experimental “Outcomes-based Education” model. It didn’t matter how long it took for a student to learn something. And Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, with principles such as, “students as their own teachers,” and “teachers as facilitators.”

This, I’m afraid, is where we dropped the ball. I believe they called it Goals 2000. And there was money to be made by going about the country peddling teacher training in dubious models.

When children learned facts, they learned to trust what is true. They could check their answers and know for a certainty that they knew it. They found answers they’d looked up in an encyclopedia or textbook.  And their teachers carefully graded their papers and made them go back and correct their mistakes. Sure, we have come a long way in our understanding of cultural bias. And we need to continue making changes as the facts become clear. Because the teaching of facts is an important preventative to making up and consuming disinformation. If someone told a third grader in 1960 that the Amazon River was in Africa, he could rebut the fact. “It’s in South America, you idiot!”

They told us that children no longer needed to know facts by heart. All the facts are on the internet, at the touch of a button. Well, a lot of disinformation is also on the internet at the touch of a button.

If we don’t fill our children with fact-based truths, as well as moral truths, through our careful teaching and example, they have not a leg to stand on.

Like poplar trees easily blown over in the wind, our children’s shallow understanding of the world will allow them to be bowled over by rancorous entertainment “news” that makes viewers to feel like victims. Group projects and consensus building will have groomed them for accepting disinformation lest they have to do all the work themselves.

A boy came up to the teacher’s desk where I was substitute teaching one day, and made a white supremacy hand sign. He asked me, “Do you know what this means?”
 
“Yes,” I said. “Now go sit down.
 
I admit, he took me off guard. On the other hand, I smiled to myself when he was gone: the white-supremacy configuration reminded me of the “flying A-hole” sign kids used to make in the 1960s and ’70s, when they thought somebody was acting like a total jerk.
 
The tragic thing is, whoever taught him that sign, whether he learned it at home or on the internet, has no idea what it means to investigate the facts. The kid was probably nine or ten, and the home-based influence on his thinking at this stage was far greater than my momentary influence could ever be.
 
So how do we reach young minds, and teach them to question what they see and hear?

I am not certain the new programs teaching students how to recognize disinformation is the answer. While such programs may help some students, in my view, it’s more important to have teachers who require them to memorize poetry now and then, and to read good literature, and get up in front of the class and read a fact-based report they’ve researched themselves.  Kids need adults they trust to hold them accountable when they don’t get their facts straight.

Better to be embarrassed by a caring teacher for copying from a reference book when you’re eight than be arrested for invading the U.S. Capital when you’re 45. FFG