Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Discipline: An Ironic Misunderstanding

For the last couple of years, I have been watching two areas of life in our society deteriorate markedly. Though they may seem unrelated, I have finally seen the thread that runs through them both. At work in day cares, I, the teachers and aides are watching a marked increase in unruly behavior among pre-school children. On TV, if you watch the Cesar Millan show, you will view family after family beset with seriously unruly dogs. What on earth could be the connection between these two situations? In a nutshell, it is the misunderstanding of the concept: discipline, and with alarming speed; it is creating an environment that is disturbing for all involved.

There are two forms of discipline, one that scolds and humiliates, and one that enables us effectively to reach a chosen goal. One has a punitive flavor and the other an opportunistic one. Unfortunately for North American societies, the one we have most experienced is the punitive version of discipline. We do something deemed wrong by family, church, school or state; and rather than being taught how to do it differently, we are more often just punished for it. Thus early on, we associate discipline with punishment.

The relationship between adults and children is meant to be one of teacher to student, not disciplinarian to miscreant. The same is true for training your puppy. The owner needs to establish himself as pack leader and show the new pack member what is acceptable and what isn’t. Of course this relationship—teacher to learner— is one that requires time, attention and commitment to seeing the student succeed. This is the step that is being most neglected in today’s parenting and today’s dog training. But quickly the behaviors that can appear cute in the very young become onerous and disrespectful. So now we’re at the point where discipline seems in order (since we neglected education when it was called for). And there we are stick between the rock and a hard place. The child or dog is misbehaving, and yet we don’t want to involve punishment or even say, “no.” We don’t want to be seen as punitive, and we don’t want others to treat our children that way either.

As a result, we have a growing population of children under six that have never been told “no,” and then shown alternative behavior. Teachers and aides now face a large number of 1-5 year-olds that have no, I mean no, notion that certain behaviors are unacceptable and mean-spirited. Nor have they been taught civilized and reasonable responses to the resulting anger, frustration, fatigue and hurt that a child who feels they can do whatever they want soon runs into. I have heard from a growing number of long-term daycare directors with years of experience in childcare that they are now questioning whether they even want to keep on. That is how frustrating this situation is becoming. Between the children, who are deeply hurt by this misunderstanding about the nature of discipline, (how would you feel if no one wanted to be around you?), and the parents who insist that teachers not react to their child’s disruptive behavior (spitting, biting, bashing, whining, crying, willfulness), we are witness to a generation of children who are learning no social skills.

Likewise, on the Cesar Millan program, his time is currently completely occupied by assisting adults to understand how to raise a dog that brings both dog and owner peace and happiness. He educates them to the fact that appropriate discipline is absolutely necessary. You’ll never see him hit a dog, yell at it or hurt it in any way. He understands how to effect discipline appropriately and his results are his proof. But he makes perfectly clear to all concerned, that rules, boundaries and limitations are essential. These are the same concepts necessary when raising healthy, well balanced children.

Worse yet, not only have children ended up with no social skills, but also they have no knowledge of self-discipline. What happens if a child, later in its life, wants to become an outstanding athlete, scholar, creative artist, lose weight, stop smoking, end an annoying habit, adapt to a mate or a much desired job? Without knowledge of and experience with self-discipline, they are lost. Dogs often suffer a worse fate. They are put down. I have seen the beginning stages of this lack of parenting in the “X” generation, and it is a cruel and sorry state they have been left in. But now, we have children who have NO idea that such a notion as self-discipline exists. Parents mistakenly think they are being unkind to their children or dogs if they insist on, to use Cesar Millan’s word: rules, boundaries and limitations. Tell that to your dog when he runs willy-nilly across the street and gets hit by a car as you scream “COME.” Tell that to your child as he or she cries at the drop of a hat, having learned no way to address whatever is causing the child’s sense of discomfort.

To leave your child with no self-discipline is one of the most unloving, unkind things a parent can do to them. To see it easily and first-hand, watch a Cesar Millan show and view the magic that happens in a family for both dog and human beings when the owners come to understand that to create peace and harmony in their homes, rules, boundaries and limitations must be taught in a patient, effective manner. Cesar lets you see this right before your eyes.


There is no real difference between teaching a wordless child and a dog. That’s why watching Cesar Millan is an invaluable experience for parents. Even when children acquire language, they still need to be shown what works and what doesn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong. For as the great Chinese sage Chuang Tzu said, “The only truth a person can live is the one they’ve discovered for themselves.” Words don’t teach social values, demonstration and modeling does. In fact, we wouldn’t need the word “no” if we were committed to correcting an inappropriate response immediately and lovingly while assertively teaching the correct one. That’s what Cesar does and his track record is phenomenal. He is the greatest teacher on the planet today addressing this immense problem. See for yourself.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Short Story - The Day After

by Christina Carson
       An unexpected kindness eases two broken hearts

  The day started like any other except no alarm startled Jan awake. Her eyes opened slowly, squinting and scanning the room. She felt groggy and blinked several times to clear the sleep out of her eyes. She patted the spot next to her in the bed. It was empty. Her husband was already up. Pulling the covers up higher, she relaxed back on her pillow to organize her day like she did every day before planting her feet on the floor, but some thought, irksome as it hovered just out of mental reach, caught enough of her attention to stop that daily drill. It even hijacked her focus off a mounting headache she’d just noticed. Was she hung over? Her mouth was dry. A pile of used Kleenex sat clustered on her night stand within reach, but no empty wine glass. Thwarted, her habit took over, and she began her list again, but the effort required concentration far beyond what she normally employed to line up the few tasks she slated each day. Too much of her attention was drawn toward a sense of forgetting something “What is it?” she whispered. Her head began to ache with her effort to recall, when suddenly the hair on her scalp and the back of her neck prickled. She shivered, and with a rush, it came upon her; a sense of dread so visceral, so organic her stomach lurched and her breath clogged in her throat. Whatever instinct had been protecting her, holding this horror at bay, it lost its grip. The sound, that horrifying sound, blasted into every corner of her mind. She screamed and sat bolt upright. The impact pushed her past tears and held her inert, while it forced her to visualize the image that sound conjured. It wasn’t the weekend. It wasn’t a holiday. It was the day after… and it would be the day after for the rest of her life.

As if the bed had suddenly become a place of great danger, she jumped out of it and stood steadying herself as she grabbed the bedstead. There was an almost imperceptible sway to her stance as she gulped air in small, frantic gasps. That was the only sound she made. She didn’t hear the squeak of the floorboards behind her. She didn’t see her husband standing in the doorway, his fingers whitened by the force of his grip on the doorjamb.

His eyes moved slowly sideways as he stared at her, watched her inch her way toward the dresser. When she got close to it, she dropped her nightie to the floor and stepped out of it. She opened her lingerie drawer and stared into it as if she were making the most profound decision of her life. Ten seconds passed as she stood naked, looking. Finally, with a shake of her head, she pushed the drawer shut and turned toward the closet. Only then did she notice her husband. The two looked at each other with the semi-conscious focus of old drunks, only they were both more sober than they had been in years. They instinctively sensed even alcohol couldn’t kill the agony that lived in them now. Jan turned back to the closet and pulled at a pair of jeans until they gave way from whatever was holding them. She acquired a denim shirt in the same fashion only it took an extra tug. Without bothering with underwear, she put them on. Her attention felt like it was on a 5 second loop which caused her to walk then pause as if she kept forgetting what she meant to do next.

As she passed through the bedroom doorway, her husband reached for her arm. They were both unsteady, but the small amount of balance they each had acted additively, and they moved down the hall just above a shuffle and then began the descent down the stairs. Talking was out of the question. It took too much energy. So at the bottom of the stairs, she exerted a slight pressure to turn them toward the kitchen. It wasn’t the best of choices. They both saw at the same moment all the left over cakes and casseroles neighbors, friends and relatives had brought throughout the day when the tragic news had worked its way through their personal grapevine. The last thing either of them was was hungry. Jan walked across the kitchen to the percolator. She loaded the water and coffee slowly with great deliberation as if it were an honored ritual. At this moment, the only constant they had in a life where everything else was now different, was the aroma of the strong, black French Roast as it started to perk. She leaned against the counter and stared out the window. Sam sat at the table. They waited.

When the pot finished its enthusiastic churning, Jan brought it and two cups to the table, filled one for each of them and sat down. She wanted to stop thinking. She wanted oblivion. She was terrified that yesterday would begin playing out like an old rerun which she’d be helpless to stop it, and with good cause. No sooner had she seated herself, when yesterday began all over in her mind.
…..

“Morning, Sam.” That’s what she had called from the top of the basement stairs. She had said it cheerily. She was so happy to have Billie home. Then she added, “Billie down there with you?” When no one answered, she recalled thinking; I bet they’re making me a surprise, just like times past. No wonder they call the basement Middle Earth. Billie’s favorite childhood fantasy place, she mused. Then she remembered asking aloud, “How come no one is answering?” She stopped making breakfast and went to the head of the stairs.

Sam had gotten up earlier, made a cup of coffee and waited for Billie to rise. He got tired of waiting and headed toward the basement to finish working on the project they’d started the day before. Up until yesterday, Sam’s combat days had owned his darkness. The scene that met him in the basement installed a far greater horror. He remembered biting hard on his tongue so he wouldn’t cry out. A muted wail anchored in his throat, as his mouth opened soundlessly. His beloved boy. His frantic attempt to get him down. His panic as he heard Jan step onto the top stair. His anguish at having to drop the body and then listen to it twist on the spike as he turned to run full out up the stairs to save the one person he could, Jan. Holding her writhing body with strength he didn’t know he possessed, he maneuvered her to the table and gently sat her down. Her eyes, deep brown and pleading searched his like a child’s, helpless, lost. He knew what she was asking. He just couldn’t answer. He prayed she’d not heard the sound—that slow rhythmic creaking of the rope on the spike that held it. At least the scene would not become part of her memory. He could scarcely cope now that it was part of his. No one wants to see their son dangling from the ceiling at the end of a piece of white cotton clothesline. No one.

He then moved off from her a bit, picked up his cell phone and called for an ambulance. He didn’t want to say the words as she sat there, but they must have insisted on knowing. After several attempts to dodge their only question, with her but a half-room away, he capitulated, but just above a whisper when he said, “There’s been a death in the family.”
…..

When they finished their first cup of coffee, Jan filled their cups again. They didn’t know what to do. Sam stared at the tabletop; Jan at the wall.

“When I woke up this morning,” Jan began, “it was as if it had never happened. I just did what I usually do each morning; make my plan for the day. How?” Her voice quavered. “How… could…I…have…forgotten?” In those five words her voice crescendoed to a high-pitched squeak. She started to tremble. Sam jumped up and ran around to her chair and wrapped his arms around her.
He didn’t know if he could stay strong if she collapsed. He was so scared. He held her tight and whispered, “Oh baby, oh baby, we’ll get through this. We’ll survive.” His soothing brought her back to quiet sobbing against his belly as he stood there, holding her head tight to him.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, but when the phone rang, it startled them both. Still holding her hard against him, he reached one hand into his pocket to get his phone. Jan heard Sam say, “Yes, yes that…that would be good. Now? Yes.” He wanted to say, “Help us. Please help us.” But instead he stayed as calm as possible and silently blessed this stranger for calling.

“That was the paramedic,” he said to her questioning stare. “Said he would like to stop by; he would like to talk with us. We need someone to help, Baby. We …need…help.”

She raised her head again and looked into his eyes. With the tiniest nod, she agreed. “Why him?” she asked confused. “Why a stranger?”

“I think he’s been in this place where we are.”

Galvanized by something familiar, a guest arriving, Jan got up and took the cups and pot to the sink to wash them and make a fresh pot. Then she realized she had no bra on, so she went upstairs to find some underwear and shoes. Sam quickly shaved and found a clean shirt. All of these simple, routine acts of everyday life became life-savers rescuing them in small but significant ways. When the doorbell rang, they felt more grounded then they imagined possible under the circumstances.
Jan ushered Pete into the kitchen. She always preferred talking over coffee in the kitchen. It was just homier. She had set some slices from the various cakes as well as cookies and squares on the table along with the coffeepot and cups. Sam came in just as Pete was sitting down. Pete rose to shake hands, and as their eyes met, it was clear they shared the memory of that moment in the basement like a war story. Together, they’d lowered Billie’s body; a brotherhood of two. Sam sighed and relaxed for the first time in 24 hours.

A tangled mix of emotions filled the first several minutes, too knotted to describe. “Mind if I smoke?” Pete asked breaking through the unease. Jan, staring at him like she wasn’t sure he was real, quickly nodded her head. She popped up and brought him a saucer to use as an ashtray. She hated any smoking in her house. But she wasn’t even sure who she was in this moment. What the rules were now? Besides, she wasn’t about to interfere with whatever might make it possible to believe they could survive this.

“How long you been a paramedic?” Sam asked wanting to reduce his angst.

Pete, a man about their same age, looked at Sam and smiled. 
“Fifteen years now.”

“Bet you’ve seen a lot in that length of time.” All Sam’s years of corporate committees and projects came into play as he schmoozed the meeting into something easy and comfortable.
Pete picked up Sam’s lead and related some of the funny situations he’d found himself in and the wins he’d known. They actually heard themselves laugh. Not robustly or even loudly, but like those still able to catch a funny edge and appreciate its power to relieve.

The reminiscences and stories of all their lives eased the morning into mid-afternoon. The long shadows of a lowering sun shot fingers of soft light through the kitchen windows. They had stopped a while back for some lunch to go with all those desserts. They had gotten up and gone to the bathroom. Pete went out to make a call. Jan made pot after pot of coffee. They had shared this awkward, difficult time like old friends.

Finally, Jan got up nerve enough to ask. In a small, hesitant voice she said, “What about the tragic parts? What do you do with those?”

Pete sat quietly, sucking deeply on this his fifth cigarette. All the while, he looked directly at Jan as if he were mind reading, his gaze was so fixed. He broke his focus by inhaling deeply and letting his breath slide out slowly, calmly. “There was this one day.” His head nodded agreement. He looked down at the table, his eyes lowered, a shy, apologetic smile on his face. He stole a quick glance first in her direction, then Sam’s, then shrugged. Anyone could have grasped the words he was trying to say but couldn’t—“You know.” He returned to staring at the tabletop. “On that day everything changed. The world became unrecognizable. I think I just stumbled on for a while. I don’t remember exactly. Nor can I say how much later it was before I could navigate it. But there came a moment. Maybe I was drunk, maybe just so hurting, I quit trying…to hang on; just quit. It wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t some grand philosophical truth that exploded in my brain. I just forgave them; all of them; the doers and the done to; turned it loose. A strange sensation followed that simple act. I sort of melted into a feeling of kindness.” He looked up shifting his eyes from Jan to Sam. “I really needed some kindness. It felt so good.” His voice dropped to a whisper.

He had to stop. Jan saw him cast about for the coffee pot she had pushed out of the way. She snatched it and filled his cup.
Pete drank a sip and then pulled himself up in his chair, gathering himself to finish what he’d come to share. “The other half of that yin-yang equation was resolve. Was I going to get on with it or not? I found that kindness was stronger than being brave, and more honest. Resolve pushed me to remember that on the endless days after.”

The room was now deep in the dusk of evening. The table was littered with crumbs, coffee stains, cups with splashes of cold coffee left in them, crumpled napkins and dirty plates. For an instant, it felt like a home again. They would in time learn to notice and appreciate each such moment.


Check under Short Stories in the right column
to enjoy other short stories by Christina Carson.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hallelujah, The Short Story Revival

No, it’s not religious, this particular revival, but perhaps merely a sign of the times. With the pace at which we now live, our reading time must often coincide with other activities that legitimatize a break–that cup of morning coffee or that cold beer at the end of the day. And since our love of stories has never waned, what could be more satisfying than a story short enough to reach its conclusion in the time we have to read it.

As you can probably guess, I am a fan of the short, short story;
those under 5,000 words, like the haunting tale, “The Traveller” by Wallace Stegner or the poignant, “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Raymond Carver. To me, great short stories are like great poetry. They represent the perfect combination of economy of well-selected words coupled with intense focus on a particular event or experience - the scenes of our lives. And by capturing them in this form, the short story writers make us more aware them. There is so much we miss in any given moment until a short story writer lays it out so we can see.

Consider short stories as a part of your reading repertoire. Find some writers who appeal and let them have the next ten to fifteen minutes of your life as they take a chance meeting or some common occurrence and reveal the depth and complexity of human interaction.

Here’s one to start with entitled “The Prescription.”


He walked across the lane that ran between the hospital and the clinic where he had his office. In response to the tranquility of the parking lot, he rotated his shoulders and neck to relieve the tension that had built up during his hours on rounds. He welcomed the feel of his body relaxing; the grasping, panicky nature of the ill no longer able to reach him. But in only seconds, the vibration of his cell phone shot the tension right back into where it had seeped away. He sighed, pulled the phone off his belt and answered. He listened, then brightened. It was his receptionist calling to tell him his last two afternoon appointments had cancelled. He snapped the phone back in its case and picked up his pace as this sudden window of freedom appeared before him. When he reached the clinic door he was close to jogging. He continued walking briskly down the hall, pulling his lab coat off  as he went, akin to a kid jettisoning school clothes on the last day of the semester. His good mood stalled a moment when he caught a glance of his mid-thirties paunch. Just one more annoyance this career produced. He winced, but dropped that thought determined to let nothing interfere with this opportunity.

He whipped around the door jamb of his office immersed in making plans for the remaining afternoon. He was so preoccupied; he didn’t see her at first. She was sitting in the adjoining exam room, maintaining a tenuous balance on the edge of one of the two chairs in that small boxy space; her legs thrust out in front of her crossed at the ankles, her shoulders hunched. Her hands lay loosely clasped in her lap. She was peering straight ahead, yet even in profile, the intensity of the blue of her eyes caught his attention. His abrupt stop seemed not to disturb her, so he paused in the doorway to stare.

She was an older woman, but there was nothing withered or weak about her. His gaze eventually registered with her, and she turned her head with deliberateness, stopping when her eyes locked onto his. She didn’t need to speak. Her raised eyebrow and cocked head could have surely spoken for her, but she said anyway. “Can I help you?” Supposedly, that was his question. He felt momentarily disoriented as he crossed the room to the other chair, which was adjacent to a table on which lay his appointment book. He tapped his fingers on table’s marred surface for a few seconds, then sat down.

His day had been humdrum. He was beginning to feel more a factory worker than a doctor. An assembly line of aches and pains filled his hours. It made him susceptible at this moment, open to play along, and he replied, “I don’t know. Can you?”

Her response came nonchalantly, “That depends. What’s the matter with you?”

He thought he’d call her bluff. “Well my friends say I’ve gotten too serious, not much fun anymore.”

Instead, she laughed aloud. “You’ll be happy to hear that’s not terminal. There are lots of pills for that, or so I heard.”

He didn’t want to stop the repartee. It broke a tedious pattern of days, something he’d not anticipated about doctoring back in medical school. “What if I didn’t want to take a pill? What would you suggest?”

“Well, that’s the harder option. You’d actually have to do something.”

He found her candor refreshing. He replied, “Like what?”

“Get to the root of things.”

“He paused, suddenly unsure of himself. You mean something like psychoanalysis?”

She rolled her eyes, a sardonic smile on her face.
 “No, more like a ditch digger. You pick up the shovel and you start to dig…into yourself.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Most everything.”

A tad unnerved by that response, he contemplated reasserting his control over the situation when she said, “I’ve spent decades being honest with myself. How long have you spent?” She dropped her head and looked at him sideways awaiting his answer.

The room was as still as a stifling summer’s afternoon. He felt her stare as he studied his appointment book. For one short moment, he wished those two remaining appointments were still slotted in. It would give him an easy way out. Otherwise he’d have to lie, and he knew she’d know. He didn’t know how she’d know, but there was something about her he found unsettling yet intriguing. “I lie a lot.”

She nodded slowly, agreeing. “Most everyone does only they have a multitude of more respectable names for it. Her face softened with a kind smile. It’s boring, though, because it insures that nothing meaningful happens between the liar and the lie-ee.” She chucked at her newly invented word.

“How can you not lie?”

“You tell the truth.”

His voice gave away his impatience. It turned flat. No longer playful. “Surely you realize there are so many things people don’t want to hear.”

“That’s not the problem. It’s your discomfort at being unable to talk with them truthfully that actually bothers you.”

He puzzled on that, pushing his ill ease a bit further to the side. He waited.

She continued. “You see yourself as the one with the answers. Unfortunately in your line of work there are far fewer answers than there are questions, and that’s where the lying begins.”

“So in order to be honest, I need to tell people I don’t know what their ailment is or I do but don’t know how to cure it, and leave them with that?”

She felt the irritation in his reply, but ignored it. “If you remember, I said, ‘Dig.’ Yours is a more taxing profession than say law, because in law, you can play with the ideas that have already been set down in case studies much like a chess game. It’s logical, open to reason and limited only by the need to adhere to black letter law. You, however, are in a field of endeavor that backs into infinity.”

She tucked her feet close to the chair, stretched up, leaned back against it and clasped her hands behind her head. Her red hair glowed in the soft settling light of the late afternoon as it streamed through a high set of windows to the west. Her unblinking stare rested on his face.

“So I suppose you are waiting for me to ask what you mean by being backed up against infinity.” His response was testy. He was ready to be done with this conversation. He had enjoyed its novelty, but it had gone too far.

“First tell me this, for it’s not like I have all the time in the world to spend with fools,” she said. “You’re annoyed. Do you know why?”

It took a moment for him to push the anger down inside. He wasn’t used to being called a fool. But he also loathed not being able to answer questions. He took a couple of breaths, and as he calmed himself, he recalled his once ardent sense of curiosity. His mind drifted back to those early years in pre-med where the wonders of science introduced him to awe. Where had that gotten lost? When had his love for medicine diminished? And yes, why was he pissed? He sensed it was more than the obvious. He stared at the scratched top of the small table in front of him, shabby but serviceable. He looked around the room and felt for a moment what it must feel like to sit in here sick and praying for relief. His eyes lifted to the beam of light that flowed from the small windows, striking this redheaded woman’s hair, bursting into flaming orange. Then he garnered the courage to look at her as he accepted the reversal of their positions. She was the one with the answers, and he was the one who felt sick, with himself, this job, with life. But what could she possibly offer him other than that her questions had led him to what he’d chosen to ignore—all the answers he didn’t have. Hell, he didn’t even know why one person got sick and the next one didn’t. He had broad sweeping generalizations, theories as they are called, but he didn’t know. Yet he always acted like he did. And there the lying began. He snorted lightly and pursed his lips in recognition of what he’d just realized.

“You just bumped up against infinity.” She said this without rancor, only kindness. “It’s a big world out there, and the way we’ve been taught to see it, interact with it doesn’t reflect that fact. I was in science years ago, but science got too small, just like God and religion.” She paused. “The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone.” She sang that bit to him. He shook his head from side-to-side and chuckled. “It’s a big, interconnected, boggling cosmos out there… and in here.” She pointed to her body. “The rational mind is no match for it. Consider this. I was reading a book the other day about how we interact or should, perhaps, with the nature of the improbable. Do you know what the law of truly large numbers states?” He stopped scowling for the moment and paid attention. “It implies we should expect a specified event to happen no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity. Who would you be as a doctor if you had that perspective?”

The room took on the serenity of a cathedral. The young doctor leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, his hands loose in his lap. The woman continued gazing off into space. It was a comfortable silence.

Something snapped the doctor back from his reverie. He turned his head to look at her. She sat peacefully, eyeing him.
“I never asked you why you were here. Did you come for medical attention?”

“No, I just needed a quiet room and wandered into this one, a less frenetic place than that waiting room out there.” She gestured with her hand. “I brought a friend in for help, only…there isn’t any. They wheeled him across the lane to the hospital. He’s not a believer in large number theory.” Her eyes mirrored a momentary sadness and then remained soft.

She rose from the chair, ran her fingers through her short hair and then smiled knowingly at the young man sitting at the desk staring at her, again. She crossed the room and stood before him, her eyes, in the late afternoon light, now blue as Texas bluebells. He got caught in them once more. Looking at him intently, she said, “Make friends with infinity. You’ll be a lot more fun.” She winked at him and walked out the door.

Over the click of her boots on the black and white squares of the linoleum floor tiles, he heard her humming a tune he didn’t recognize. He sat for a while longer contemplating this strange afternoon. Before he got up to leave for the day, he pulled toward him his appointment book where he records each patient he sees. He studied the names he’d written there since 8:00 AM that morning. Then he wrote his own name in the last slot of the day.



Monday, July 4, 2016

Meeting with an old Friend

It happened as I sat in a friend’s car waiting for her to return, this unexpected meeting with an old friend. A brightly colored little
book in that catch-all place beneath the dash caught my eye. When I picked it up, I recognized it immediately. Holding it in my hands made it feel like I had just slipped my arm through an old friend’s and we pulled each other near for a moment, laughing, joyful at this chance meeting. Anthony De Mello, that disruptive Jesuit priest, East Indian born to Italian parents was in my life again.

He started out as so devout a Catholic that some of his brethren felt he was behind in his studies into other religions, and so it went until the day Tony had an experience that, in his own words, revolutionized his life. He met a rickshaw driver in Calcutta who was dying of a painful disease. The man was so poor that he had had to sell his skeleton before he died, and yet the man was filled with interior joy.

Tony said, “I realized I was in the presence of a mystic who had rediscovered life. He was alive; I was dead. He was a man who had reincarnated himself during this life.”

With the fierceness of someone who had seen an actuality he
otherwise would not have believed, Anthony De Mello wanted to know more and began to peer into life deeply. What was it that stood between him and that old man? What is it that we do not understand about ourselves that holds us in such small, petty and fearful lives?

As he began to interpret the Christian scriptures through the eyes of the East, more and more people  listened, and Tony’s awareness expanded in a way that opened him to greater understanding. J. Francis Stroud, S.J., who wrote the introduction to the book, The Way to Love, the one I took from under the dash that day, was attracted to Tony’s work when he heard that Tony gave a retreat to sixty fellow Jesuits and spoke to them six hours a day for eight days. J. Francis  remembered saying, “No Jesuit listens to another Jesuit six hours a day for eight days.” And his thought followed, especially some of the Jesuits at that meeting. And so J. Francis was drawn to attend a retreat himself, and his life too moved in a new direction.

Needless to say, Tony did not garner encouragement or praise from the Vatican. In fact, every time we’d hear that De Mello was in Rome, my husband would say, “Sounds like the Pope put De Mello in time-out again.”

By his end, which came suddenly and all too early while remaining for many  under a cloud of doubt as to exactly how he died, Anthony De Mello had probed the depths of human mental conditioning, the programs that hold us in the way of life we know so well. He saw what we must do to free ourselves from this conditioning and then he did it for himself and instructed others as to what he knew.

He wrote his last meditations, The Way to Love, as a Zen-like,
take no prisoners view of what is real and what it not. Taking thirty-one bits of scripture from the Bible, he explains them, from his Eastern orientation, and offers an interpretation which demonstrates how the Bible, like all other great works of esoteric knowledge, spoke to this mental conditioning, this programming that holds us from knowing what in truth we are. It is quite possible you have never heard the Bible explained in this way. 

          Anthony De Mello makes a fine friend. I encourage you to meet him. See what you think. He also makes this seeming outrageous statement:
“There is not a single moment in your life when you do not have everything you need to be happy.”

Absurd?  Shocking? Or Intriguing?  
The Way to Love may help you answer that.

Christina Carson, author


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Calling All Garrison Keillor Fans

I was attracted to the front page headline in the Arts & Leisure
section of the Times this week: “The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew.”  As I wondered what this news story might be about, a not altogether endearing habit of mine—attempting to answer the question or solve the riddle rather than just reading the article—I realized this article was about something I didn’t want to hear. Garrison Keillor, the father of modern public radio programming through his production, Prairie Home Companion and the endearing, whimsical record of life in the Midwest, his tales from the fictitious Lake Wobegon, is calling it quits. His last show of Prairie Home Companion will be July 1 in, of all places, The Hollywood Bowl.

So what’s the big deal? For me, the real loss is in not hearing Keillor read from one of the most poignant yet funny catalogs of American life I’ve ever heard; tales from Lake Wobegon — the rich portrayal of this country’s heartland back when America felt like it was becoming aware of itself. Like a child growing up, it was as if this country sensed a life, a scene and a tale it needed to tell. Keillor told those stories. Interestingly, the article claimed that Keillor’s stories were not attempts at self-expression, meaning they weren’t his stories, but strictly from his imagination. Mind you, the writer cannot remove his take on those stories. We are all tied into perceptions, which unless we’ve worked a lifetime to remove ourselves from, are going to color the thoughts we put on a page.

 But either way, the stories managed to portray the mid-west, that bastion of Americanism, in a way most could relate to and love. I didn’t even share that idyll, but still, these stories, written with unflagging honesty and yet no judgment, made it possible for someone as jaded as I was with American life, to just plain love the uncomplicated, forthright nature of the people Keillor introduced me to.

And yes, we people in our 70th decade grew up in the '50s, in retrospect a time not only of cold-war terror but also a people’s awe with a life moving away from the isolation and drudge of rural existence into the seeming magic of town living with the parallel awakening of home-based technological wonders. We may laugh at the naïve and child-like enthusiasm that our parents met this age with, but those snickers from these seeming more sophisticated times, I sense are laced with a tad of longing, a desire to be released from all the cynicism and chaos our lives now exhibit.

One of my favorite stories was entitled “Storm Home” told in retrospect by a man who as a child lived on a farm, but went to school in town. Such children were assigned a storm home, a family that would take them in during times when a snow storm blew in during the day, making it impossible for those children to get home. The storyteller in this case never got to use his storm home as no such emergency ever occurred during his school years. But that didn’t stop him from imagining a family that, of course, had none of the insensitivity of his own or the strict rules and lack of appreciation. His storm home family laughed a lot and loved him dearly and thrilled to his daily return. In his mind, they filled every wanting space in his life, and as winter began to close in each year, his deep longing to end up in his storm home ruled his days. Keillor, this most elusive, introverted and undemonstrative of individuals, picks his way through the lives of others, missing neither the irony of the stories nor the characters’ longings, yet tells their most tender secrets with a level of tolerance and respect that digs deep into the reader’s heart.

Keillor has plans that will keep his writing in front of his fans. A Washington Post column, a screen play and further books are on his To Do list. The idiosyncratic beginnings he brought to public radio made room for other unusual and addictive shows like Car Talk and This American Life. We have him to thank for that. He suffered no fools, and he captured a period of life in this country that we will never see again. A time when so much was new and fresh and buoyant.

We may never really know Garrison, but in this time of naked exposure on so many levels, I say hats off to Keillor’s seeming intent to keep it that way.

If you are still talking to your home-based children in this digital era, read them some tales from Lake Wobegon and see if you can’t instill in them the wonder and delight offered by an era they may not even be able to imagine anymore.

Christina Carson, author


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Not Time but Rhythm

It all started this morning when I looked at an ad in the New York Times Style Magazine that comes with the Sunday New York Times. The ad showed a watch, the face of which was made to look like anything but a watch. It was an interesting piece of jewelry, but what caught my attention was how well we’ve been trained to know the time. It took only the position of the “hands” on that strange surface for one to know it was a watch and what time it showed. My next thought was time isn’t real, for I realized I had been trained to understand the meaning of a clock face no matter how bizarre the time piece may look. Time is a learned phenomenon, not a reality.

As I traveled further in that magazine that oft times makes me feel like a babe in the woods as it takes me through the glitz and eccentricity of the New York style scene, I stopped on page 76. A striking and definitely real landscape, which covered two pages,
claimed to be a re-created garden on rocky, dusty patch of north Moroccan coast– the creation of Umberto Pasti, an Italian writer and horticulturist. He had taken this arid, burnt out clay acreage which harbored only three old fig trees, a clutch of pomegranates and one eucalyptus and over eighteen years and hundreds of helpers return it to the idyll it may have been in ancient times. The vision for it, he claims, occurred when he fell asleep under one of those old trees, his dreams organized by the power of the local jinn, as the region’s legends go. So who’s to argue?

The garden feels like magic, the uncanny sense one gets when something exists between unfettered wilderness and organization. It does not look or feel man-made for the greater part but more feral or marginally tamed. It haunted me. But what it showed me was how it is not time we want but rhythm, for that is what I felt as I looked at Pasti’s creation. The rhythm is what I loved when I lived on the land for many years, guided only by the cycles of light and dark, warmth and cold, life and death and wet and dry. Those were the elements that organized my life. There was a comfort to it like when you fold yourself up against someone you love or feel the release of a deep and comforting sigh.


Rhythms, especially natural ones, encourage us to recall we belong here too and invite us to bring our own beauty and
mystique. That recollection tempers our actions toward life around us, human, plant and animal. But to live in the naturalness of the world, we must be creatures of rhythm not creatures of time. Look to see where you can take bits of time out of your life, then let the pulse and sway of life itself have its way with you. And if you already have, share one of those moments with us.


Friday, June 10, 2016

A Tribute to the True Beauty of Womankind

Sometimes we come across a story which stuns us through its depiction of one person’s unusual choice in the midst of great trauma. Jill Kelly is one of those people, a lady who took on the world’s notion of what defines beauty in a woman and rewrote it. When life dealt her a hand that immediately began to steal her
sense of worth and attractiveness, Jill stood tall. As she took ground, she realized how deeply she wanted to share what she was discovering. And so began this unforgettable story.

I became aware of this chronicle from a photographer friend of mine, Adrienne Wall, who studied the work of the world renowned photographer Sue Bryce. Over the last year or so, Adrienne has kept tabs on Sue and recently sent me a link to Sue’s website where I came across this account. I’m passing it on to all of us – women and men. Jill’s choice made room for us all.

For nearly 26 years, Sue Bryce’s work has centered on capturing the true beauty of women and reflecting it back to them in her photographic endeavors. Her work is masterful and original, and yet when Sue met Jill Kelly and heard her narrative, Sue realized this woman had much to teach her that she had not yet learned about the nature of true beauty which women harbor.

Women have always had a tough go of it when it comes to the standard society has determined as to what constitutes acceptable beauty in women. And most difficult of all are those times and circumstances that place a woman seemingly irreparably beyond any chance of coming close to that standard. Jill Kelly had such an experience and yet regained a sense of beauty in spite of the ravages of cancer. Rather than merely talk about how she triumphed, she allowed Sue Bryce to fashion a photographic exposé of her response to life as a young woman when the standard said she no longer “qualified” in mind and body to consider herself beautiful. I believe if you take a few moments to watch this video, she’ll convince you too that the true beauty of womankind radiates from within, from the light that fills our eyes, to the love that flows through our hearts and the way we so generously turn toward sharing with others. I believe you’ll feel yourself able, if only for a moment, to see beauty not only where it is easy but also in the more challenging photographic moments Sue Bryce captures. Jill’s husband found his way as well, thanks to Jill’s choice. He made a space for her, and she created magic in it. As Kahlil Gibran promised: Beauty is the light in the heart.

Click here and scroll down to The Light that Shines.
The video is to the right.