Monday, May 29, 2017

Not My Father's Child

"Mom, wake up! Get out of bed and wake up and listen to me. I need to talk to you right now!"

Those are the words every parent fears hearing when their phone rings in the middle of the night and startles them awake from their deep and theretofore peaceful sleep. My dad used to say that no phone call after midnight when you have teenage or young adult children is ever a good phone call. I would agree with my dad's statement for the most part, I suppose, with the exception being when you're the mother of a particular young filmmaker who has quite the track record for having some of his most brilliant ideas during the hours when other folks (like his dear old mom) are sound asleep. Such was the case a couple or so years ago when the ring of my phone jolted me from slumber and I answered to hear my movie-making son say, "Mom, wake up! Get out of bed and wake up and listen to me. I need to talk to you right now!"

I had no way of knowing that night as I sleepily tried my best to focus as my middle kiddo rattled off his most recent brilliant idea that the conversation we were having would end up changing both of our lives forever. That wee hours chat we had that night was the beginning of an incredible journey for us ... a journey that continues to test us in ways we never imagined possible ... a journey that has introduced us to some of the most courageous, compassionate, caring people we've ever known ... a journey that will be a forever reminder to me of how tremendously blessed I am to have such close relationships with each of my children.

Brad's couldn't wait until morning idea that night was that he and I should work together to tell the story of Nate Phelps, son of the late Fred Phelps, founder and leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Some of you may have read the posts I've written over the past couple of years regarding our film-making pilgrimage, and I would imagine that more than a few of you have been thinking we had failed in our endeavor or had simply given up on our quest since we've been relatively silent about the film for a while. Not true in either case ... in fact, we're currently ramping up big time and, providing we secure the funding we need, we hope to have a rough cut of the film done by the end of the year.

Part of that ramping-up process for me is writing copy for grant submissions and the film's soon to be launched website. I've been doing a lot of research over the last few weeks, wading through mountains of statistics and scientific studies. Before I embarked on my recent research endeavor, I thought I was well-versed on what Nate, his brother Mark and sister Dortha went through when they chose to leave Westboro. I thought I had good insight into the range of emotions they must have experienced in the days, weeks and months following their departures. I was wrong.

Last weekend, I discovered something when I was reading about various forms of psychological trauma that can occur when a person is rejected or shunned by others. I was surprised by what quickly became a common theme in what I was reading ... the devastating consequences of being ostracized. For all the conversations I've had with Nate, Mark and Dortha over the last two years, I failed to recognize or acknowledge one of the deepest wounds inflicted upon them by their father ... his decree that they be ostracized from both the church and their family.

Medical professionals have come to the conclusion in recent years that ostracism is among the most devastating experiences we can endure because it is deeply connected to our most fundamental human need to be accepted and to belong. In fact, it's been scientifically proven that ostracism can adversely affect a person's cognitive ability and in extreme cases even reshape the brain's neural pathways. The need to belong, to matter, to be included is so strong that when someone is ostracized, he or she experiences psychological and physical effects immediately. Neuroscientists have found that social or personal rejection is experienced much like physical pain ... they are both connected to the same neural circuitry in the brain. One of the reasons that ostracism wounds so deeply is because it isn't confined only to the period when it happens ... just remembering a past episode of ostracism can produce the same level of agony as the original experience. The bottom line? Ostracizing someone is one of the most hurtful and cruel things a person can possibly do to another human being.

I'm sure we can all recall times in our lives when we felt excluded or rejected or even intentionally ostracized by others, and I know that some of you are in the midst of such a situation right now. And I'm equally as sure that we can all agree that ostracism creates a deep and lasting pain like no other. It's dehumanizing ... it robs you of your self-esteem ... it screams that you don't matter ... it shouts that you aren't worth being included ... it crushes your feelings of belonging ... it destroys your ability to trust ... it buries your willingness to be vulnerable ... it crushes your spirit and shames your soul ... it tears apart your heart ... it wreaks havoc on your mind ... it shouts that those who ostracize you have a better life without you in it. I say again, ostracizing someone is one of the most hurtful and cruel things a person can possibly do to another human being.

To you Nate, Mark and Dortha ... I'm so very sorry I didn't get it ... I'm so very sorry I unintentionally minimized that part of your pain ... I'm so very sorry for what you each endured and continue to endure even today. I'm so very thankful for each one of you and so very, very, very honored to be on this journey with you guys. Love you beyond words and respect you beyond measure. 

To everyone who happens to read my post tonight ... please think long and hard before you send someone who trusts you into exile. Remember that none of us are perfect ... remember that life is so very short and that not one of us is guaranteed another tomorrow. Take care of one another, friends ... take care of one another.

"If exposure to ostracism continues over an extended period of time, the individual's resources for coping are depleted. He or she will feel alienated even from those whom they feel close to, thus increasing feelings of depression, helplessness and unworthiness. Nothing threatens our core being and social nature more than being ignored or excluded." --- K.D. Williams and S.A. Nida

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Not Enough Glue

Being born 15 years later than the youngest of my three siblings meant that I wasn't part of all the great adventures they had together when they were kids. And yes, I'm quite certain that my brothers and sister did indeed partake in more than a few great and glorious adventures prior to my existence because they told me in great detail about said adventures many times over the years. Sometimes I wonder if them telling and retelling me about all the things they did together in their youth was their way of trying to make me feel better about missing out on all the fun ... or maybe they did it because they knew I always felt like I was the odd duck of the family, the one on the outside looking in.

While I don't know what their reasons were for doing so, I do know that by sharing their stories with me, my siblings allowed me to know them in a way I couldn't have had they decided to keep their childhood adventures to themselves. There's something else I know about the stories my siblings shared with me all those years ago ... I know there are truths and lessons contained within them that need to be seared into my brain and melded into my heart far more now than I did when I was a kid. Take the story of the time my brothers were roughhousing and broke my grandmother's favorite vase, for example ... if I ever needed a story to wash through my soul ... if I ever needed to believe in the goodness of people ... I need it now.  

I'll spare you the lengthy details of the unedited version as told to me by my sister and brothers, and just relate the basic gist of the story. Each summer, my brothers and sister hopped on a train and traveled from Tennessee to Kentucky to spend a few weeks at my grandparents' house. On one of those extended summer visits, my brothers were goofing around in the living room and my brother Jerry stumbled into a table that held Granny's favorite vase and sent it plummeting to the wooden floor. In a panic, Jerry quickly scooped up the pieces of the broken vase, tried to glue it back together as best he could and put it back on the table, hoping that Granny wouldn't notice his crude and childish attempt to fix what he had broken. It turned out that Jerry didn't have to worry long about getting punished for breaking the vase ... his guilty conscience got the better of him and he confessed later that same day what he had done.

My brothers didn't get punished for their careless wrestling and roughhousing that day, nor was Jerry punished for breaking Granny's favorite vase ... no lectures, no grounding, no scrubbing floors or having their favorite cereal taken away for a month. Instead of attempting to teach her grandsons what very well might have been a temporary lesson by punishing them, Granny chose to show them what true unconditional love and forgiveness really look like. If the story I was told down through the years is true and I believe it is, Granny's focus that day was on Jerry's attempt to fix what he had broken and him owning up to what he had done. In Granny's eyes, what mattered most of all was my brother's effort to repair the damage he had caused ... it was the glue that meant so much to her, friends ... it was the glue.  

So why am I breaking my blog silence to write about something my brothers did more than 65 years ago? Why am I telling you how much I need the truths of this story to fill every part of my being? Because I personally know seven people who have lost someone they cared about to suicide in just the last few weeks. I'm writing because the seven people who ended their lives decided there wasn't enough glue to put them back together. They decided they were too broken ... that their souls were too shattered ... that their hearts were too crushed ... that their minds were too fragmented ... that the betrayal was too deep ... that the pain was too intense. I know what that feels like ... I know what it feels like when every fiber of your being is screaming that you don't have enough glue and that you never will.

There are so many who live every single day of their lives praying that someone will see how broken they are ... praying that someone will help them glue the pieces of their lives back together ... praying that someone will tell them they matter ... praying that someone will care whether they live or die. We need to be kinder to each another ... we need to remember that words can wound far worse than any sword ever could. We need to not give up on each other, and we need to own up to it when we break each other's spirits. We need to focus on the glue, friends ... we need to make sure our families and friends and neighbors and co-workers know that we want to be their extra glue when they don't have enough. We need to leave absolutely no doubt in their minds that we see them ... that we hear them ... that we need them. We need to care more ... we need to love harder ... we need to listen longer ... we need to understand that even our next breath is never guaranteed.

By the way, my brother Jerry saved every penny of his allowance and bought Granny an ugly, bright blue, violin-shaped vase to replace the one he had broken. Both the broken vase and the ugly violin vase held a place of honor in Granny's home until the day she died. I remember asking her why she didn't throw the broken vase away, and she said, "Because your brother cared enough about me and how sad I would be over my broken vase that he used every drop of glue in the bottle to try his best to fix it."

May that be our legacy, friends ... that we care enough about one another to use every drop of glue in the bottle to fix things.