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Girl From Goat Pasture Road

Musings of Susan Swicegood Boswell

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compassion

Fortune Teller

angels1  When our old friends Kimberly and Chris decided to throw a big Halloween Party for their two boys a few years ago, I was their go- to person to portray the role of the fortune teller. Always up for a new adventure, I eagerly donned a long flowing skirt, ruffled blouse and layered all the bling I could find around my neck. I tied a colorful silk scarf, peasant style, around my forehead. Dramatic kohl black eyeliner and a long dark wig masked my blue- eyed blond. As I gazed into the mirror, I hardly recognized myself.

Miraculously, I found my old Ouija Board and its plastic controller. A relic from my teenaged years, the Ouija Board had been a big hit at slumber parties where giddy fourteen year olds boldly called forth the spirit of Elvis and other long lost celebrities during impromptu séances. I packed a deck of cards and the iridescent gazing ball from my garden. Voila! My outfit and props were complete.

After the hotdog dinner, I placed my wares inside the tent which had been set up in a dark and remote corner of their big backyard. The wind whispered through the tall pines and broad oaks as shadows danced like ghosts across the precision- cut lawn. We placed a candle in the middle of the table to illuminate my face and that of my young patrons. Miss Susannah was ready for her first customer.

One by one, Kimberly escorted the kids inside. They approached me tentatively, their eyes filled with excitement and apprehension. I played the role to the hilt. When I read the children’s’ palms, everyone had long life lines that showed happy marriages and beautiful children. With dramatic flair, I fanned the cards across the top of the table; a three of spades could foretell the same future as the Queen of Hearts. I sprinkled tea leaves into a cup of water where their black amorphous shapes revealed only to me, the shape of their future. I gazed into the crystal ball, pretending to see what they could not. I worked in tidbits of information that I had been told about the kids, details about sports or summer camps or their latest crush. It all went off without a hitch until Kimberly brought in my last customer.

At first, I did not recognize the boy. Even when Kimberly said his name, I could not recall anything significant about the boy. “This is Kyle’s friend Ryan,” she said. “He and his mom got here late. He’d like to talk to you.”

“Ah, come in Ryan” I said with a heavy accent and motioned for him to have a seat.

I read his palm. I sought his fortune in the tea leaves. Unlike the other boys, I could tell my words had failed to impress him. Ryan chewed on his lip; something else was obviously on his mind. “I wanted to ask you about my dad…” the boy whispered softly.

Suddenly, I remembered what Kimberly had told me about this boy.
Ryan’s father passed away a few weeks prior, suddenly and unexpectedly. Kimberly and Chris had not expected him or his mother to come to the party. My heart skipped a beat; for a moment, I did not know what to do. Across from me was a vulnerable real-life boy and I was a fake fortune teller. The boy’s eyes looked at me for some kind of reassurance; I have never felt so small or so embarrassed at perpetuating such a sham. I started to confess, to explain the truth. I wanted to tell him I was not really a fortune teller and that I didn’t know anything about his dad.

Then, I remembered my own experience. It wasn’t long ago that I, too had lost a father. In a chance and singular encounter with a fortune teller in Key West, I too had asked a stranger about my own father. I hadn’t cared so much about the number of children I would have or the length of my lifeline. All I wanted and needed to know in that instant was that my dad was ok. For a minute, I connected to this boy’s pain and told him what I thought he needed to hear. I told him what a kind person had told me almost ten years before.

“Oh Ryan,” I began, disregarding my props and my accent and speaking straight from my heart. I told him what I hoped someone would tell my own son, should the tables ever be turned. “You know, your father loves you so very much. He is so happy that you have asked about him! I know your heart is heavy and that you miss him so much. Always remember, that even though you don’t see him, his spirit is always with you, looking over you and your mom.”

I’m not sure if my answer was the right one or if it gave this boy any comfort. I’m not sure if I should have continued to act the part or if I should have come clean to the poor innocent and injured boy sitting across from me. I hadn’t meant to play a cruel joke. I guess I felt that it was important that Ryan believe in something at that moment of feeling so very lost and alone.

Ryan is a grown man now. I’ve lost track, forgotten to ask about him over the years. Still, I hope he has remembered my words and that he has known the loving and continued presence of his father in his life along the road to adulthood. I hope for his sake, that my prediction came true.

Post Thanksgiving 2015

atumn leaf

The remains of Thanksgiving dinner are still in the fridge. I cannot will myself to throw away the pumpkins on the front porch and replace them with Christmas garlands and lights. On my walk through the neighborhood yesterday, a balmy golden autumn afternoon that didn’t even require a jacket, car after car passed by me with their Christmas trees tied to the top.

Sure, I know Thanksgiving came late this year and there is already less than four weeks til Christmas but at the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I must  ask myself if that really matters. Do we really need to rush from one holiday to the next?

You couldn’t have paid me to fight the crowds at the Black Friday sales events, which of course begins on Thursday these days. “Consumer spending is down,” I hear on the news. Come on people, our cheeks are still salty from the tears spent mourning the lives lost in recent terrorist attacks in France, the downing of the Russian airliner by ISIS and the refugee crisis in Syria. I am distraught that my fellow Americans might actually elect such a pompous fool as Donald Trump to the White House in the most hostile and politically charged time in the history of the world since World War 2. So, tell me again how is it that we are supposed to give a rat’s ass about US consumer spending statistics?

If living well is the best revenge, the point can be argued whether or not we, as a nation, are indeed living well. According to my financial statements and my employer’s CEO, my little corner of the world in Greensboro North Carolina has yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession. And yet, I treat myself to a $5 Iced Chai Latte at Starbucks and fritter away $200 bucks on a single trip to Costco. By world standards the NY Times reports that the bottom 5% of the US inhabitants are still better off than 68% of the world’s population. Despite the heated discussions in our governmental chambers on our acceptance of Syrian refugees, no one can dispute that life here or practically anywhere would be a great deal better from whence they came. ironically while these people clamor for our shores, more Mexicans are migrating out of our country rather than into it. You wouldn’t know that by listening to discussions on “deporting twenty million illegal immigrants”. Why spend so much energy talking about deporting them when things are so bad here they are now practically deporting themselves?

All these things really tell me is that depending on your vantage point, there are mass discrepancies in people’s perception of reality. The world at large seems to be suffering from a mass lunacy. Things are really great or they are really horrible… I’m just not sure which.

It’s been simultaneously a very difficult and very wonderful year for myself and my family, I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Our family has lost three pets and two close family members even as we are blessed to gain a daughter-in-law this coming September. On the same day recently I received great news from my friend Cindy that she will be a grandma this spring while another friend called to confide that she’s received a bad mammogram and will be undergoing further tests in the next few weeks. My husband woke me up at 4:30 AM this morning to let me know there is a roof leak in our kitchen.

It’s a hard thing for me to do-  to let things just roll off my shoulder like the water  pouring through my kitchen chandelier. It’s human nature, I believe, in difficult times for us to hold on to life even more tightly. It’s hard to put a lot of trust in the world, I think, even in my husband who has begun practicing navigating me backwards in the “fox trot” . We have begun taking ballroom dance lessons at the local Fred Astair Studios. As we move in a counterclockwise motion around the room, he attempts to dodge a deaf sleeping dog and a stray pair of slippers while according to our instructor, I am not supposed to “look down.”  When Perry fumbles, I take control and he says through clenched teeth (because he’s trying not to lose the beat) “Let ME lead”. I wonder if this re balancing marks a new point in our relationship.

We practice at night in our empty living room that is awaiting new furniture because the cat peed on our furniture. Repeadedly. At the end of my rope, I finally booted her outside several weeks ago. It is still painful to think that we lost her this weekend, not only to a viscous dog attack but even more to my own bad judgement. I just want to say again how sorry I am Nala. Other than peeing and scratching my furniture you were a really good kitty and I never meant you any harm. I think about this, talking to this dead cat, as I spin around my living room.

This is a lie; we are not spinning. It is only the leaves outside that spin and dance, along with the world. You can barely even call what we are doing dancing. Still, I hold my husbands hands lightly, look him straight in the eye  and wait for the count to begin.

Who’s Crazy Now?

HomelessSign The stigma of having a mental illness can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. In our society, the mentally ill are often regarded like beggars on the street corner. The well-dressed folks walk by, step over them and refuse to acknowledge their presence. As a society, do we fear mental illness is something we can “catch”? Do we think we can deny it into non-existence?

If that’s true, who is the crazy one?

Like cancer or heart disease, mental illness is a sickness, a sickness of the mind as opposed to the body. It can be as mild as a summer cold or a full blown attack with the most disastrous of consequences. Sometimes it’s effects are fleeting and sometimes they are permanent. Mental illness is scary for many reasons. There is the fear of it taking away what we believe and know as our “self”. It is not a disease that you can see with the naked eyes, but you will surely notice its symptoms. It cannot be removed like a tumor or infected limb. It is something that is difficult to measure and qualify and because of that, there are folks out there who may or may not believe that it exists. Maybe it’s simply evil? Maybe it’s homones? Maybe it’s sadness or maybe it’s anger? Maybe you’re not really an addict? Maybe you didn’t raise your kids right and you never taught them to behave?

It’s the 21st century but there are those out there who wonder if we shouldn’t call in the exorcist?

One thing is for sure. If you have it, both you and those around you must live with it. Shame and lack of available treatment options are just a few reasons mental illness often goes undetected and untreated. Mental illness is like cancer.  As it worsens, the mind can turn on itself. It wants to convince us that it is not sick. It plays tricks with reality, distorts the truth, devours the spirit and takes with it, some of our humanity. our human-ness.

I understand the fear associated with mental illness. If it were possible to pretend it did not exist without incurring horrific side-effects, I’d be right there with my blinders on too but I cannot do that. I’ve seen too much.

How could anyone believe the numerous and recent tragic shootings are anything but the work of a sick and unsound mind?What is there to do when the mentally ill will not seek treatment or take their medications? How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we continue to love and care for the mentally ill person  without endangering ourselves and those we care for?

The reality is that there is very little safety net between us and a lot of potentially dangerous people. The mental health system in North Carolina (as with many states) is practically non-existent. Over the last decade and a half, our state has closed down most of the beds in our mental hospitals and reduced the numbers in our federal prisons by enforcing mandatory sentences that keep misdemeanor offenses constrained to our county jails. I’ve seen this firsthand, seen the judges with their hands tied giving out mandatory jail sentences when they know it is not doing a thing to help solve the problem.

It’s a perfect storm. And yet, as frightening as it can be to watch someone’s life implode under the influence of mental illness, we must also look after ourselves first if we are to help anyone. “How to do this” is a question I’ve been asking myself lately.

I am beginning to accept with resignation that there are certain lines we can and cannot cross regarding mental illness. While we cannot “make” a mentally ill person accept treatment, we can show compassion. We can talk to them in nonthreatening and non-judgmental ways. While we can have bad days, the mentally ill can have really bad days everyday. We can and should open the door to treatment but we cannot make them walk through it. Through communication, if not with them then with each other, we can begin to erode some of the stigma associated with the disease.

Also, we must protect ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. Set realistic boundaries. Asking “where does my responsibility to the situation begin and where does it end” is imperative. Some forms of mental illness are like drowning and a drowning person will push another under if they think it will save themselves.They will suck all the oxygen from the room if you let them.

We must examine our own behavior for co-dependency. Because a predisposition to mental illness is often genetic, many of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where the disease was never acknowledged or diagnosed may have adjusted our behavior around that sickness. Subsequently, we fall back into those same predictable patterns when faced with similar circumstances. It has been a personal lesson in self-awareness to notice how easily I could slip into old modes of co-dependency.

My mother had some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, similar to bi-polar or paranoid schizophrenia. It was made worse by alcohol. My mom did not always seem to “have” the disease and much of the time she was a good mom, but there were times when I was a child and teenager that life was very difficult. I learned to adapt my behavior to her disease. I became adept at walking on eggshells, did my best to diffuse hostile situations and learned to avoid confrontation by becoming a sounding board for her concerns while diminishing my own. Now that I am an adult, when I am faced with stressful situations, I have to ask myself  if my actions and reactions stem from the comfortable pattern of old behaviors or a realistic assessment of current circumstance. I am learning to trust my intuition, which was another huge gift of my dysfunctional upbringing. If I feel my interactions with someone is not working, most likely it is not. I am not a person who likes to give up, but sometimes the best thing I can do is to distance myself from that person, no matter how painful or cruel it seems. Just because I behaved a certain way at one time in my life, it may not be in my best interest to continue. The co-dependent among us cannot always see the blurred line of separation between helping and not helping. I’d like to think I could save the world if it needed saving, but the truth is, there is very little good we can do in this world except to be compassionate.

Although I was a child in a dysfunctional family, as an adult, I make the choice daily to accept that it was part of my journey, to be grateful for the things that experience taught me and to do my best to live a self-aware and examined life. Yes there are things that go bump in the night of my gene pool but they look much less scary where there is light shown upon it.

 

 

 

 

 

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