Failure to thrive

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death. As on my mother-in-law’s certificate.

But I wonder: How can living to ninety-one be considered ‘failure to thrive’?

A coal-miner’s daughter who survived the Great Depression, widowed twice with young children each time, who maintained a beautiful home and a bountiful table frequently laden and ready for the arrival of her family. A voracious reader with a passion and ear for music, a grandmother generous with her love, time, and grace, a woman of great faith in God … her decline was slow and in the last days, she called out to deceased siblings and sang the hymns of her childhood.

—It doesn’t seem like failure to thrive to me. If anybody ever thrived, she did.

Oh, I understand it’s medical terminology for geriatric deterioration, encompassing decreased appetite leading to poor nutrition, muscle weakness, dementia; the human body can only take us so far.

But failure to thrive doesn’t happen only to the elderly. Most often it’s applied to babies who don’t gain weight, who don’t grow as they should, due to a host of contributing factors.

Both ends of the spectrum, then, isn’t it, failure to thrive. Its potential can frame the beginning of one’s life, and, even if that life should be long, the end.

Which for me begs the question of all that’s in between.

In how many ways do we fail to thrive? In the course of being alive, what are the “nutrients” each individual needs to live well? Thriving in this sense goes beyond the physical to the psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual… can there be holistic balance if one part is suffering, starving? Because I’m an educator, this line of thinking brings me to “the whole child”: What is impeding growth? What “learning diet” does this individual child need? In the academic realm, nourishment for flourishment can vary widely… but at the core of being human, one non-negotiable need is each other.

Relationships fail to thrive, do they not. Suffering ensues. A point of pain ripples outward, troubling the waters, sometimes over a great expanse… being alive, successfully, involves an array of coping mechanisms, the ability to adapt. The Venus flytrap comes to mind. Stuck in nutrient-poor soil, it compensates by eating meat, the unwary flies which land in its toothy leaf-blades. The businesslike science of staying alive. Gulp.

In terms of the human, the matter of thriving—growing, growing up, growing old—involves willing interdependence. Based on… love? Conscience? Overcoming fear? When my oldest son was in his early teens, he sighed: “I do not want to grow up.” (Of course he did; he’s now a husband, a father, and his daughter is the joy of his days).

But I understood his words and shivered.

Point being that of the baby, the child, the adult, the aged and infirm, which stands most able to impact the thriving of the human ecosystem… for better, for worse… with the power to discern, decide, desire, and do for one and all?

Yeah.

That’s us.

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death…

Photo: Wilted. Fotologic. CC BY

******

With thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to this writing community for unfailing encouragement.

On children and hope: Spiritual Journey Thursday

Photo: Child of Vision. Baby eye in black and white. Iezalel Williams. Public domain.

I’m a hopeful person. A hopeful writer. I created this blog in hopes that whomever encountered it would come away feeling uplifted. There’s already too much in the world pulling us down, every day. Burdens can pile until one hardly feels able to move. Grief is like this. Depression is like this. Oppression is like this.

Always, I am looking for a way, or writing my way, through to the better I believe is there. That, to me, is hope. Coming through. Knowing that possibility exists, sensing it, even when I cannot see exactly what it looks like. Eventually it reveals itself. And so I hope.

Yesterday I read that hope is not enough for one of humanity’s biggest burdens. Not COVID-19, which will eventually pass, although it will destroy many more of us before it is done. But we will be fighting diseases as long as we’re alive. No—hope is not enough, in itself, to remove the unbearable burden of racism.

As hopeful as I am, I know this is true.

Yesterday evening I watched a news segment featuring families talking to their children about racism. Black families, families with brown skin. A beautiful little girl—little girl—coached by her dad on how to respond if she should be singled out by those in law enforcement. Eyes wide, brow slightly knit in concentration, the child dutifully repeated everything her dad taught her on how to move, how to hold her hands … she covered it all. Dad paused in his feedback. He nodded. Then he said, quietly: “I did all that. And they still tased me.” The little girl’s face froze, then crumpled. Weeping, she climbed into her father’s lap, into his arms.

Another parent, a mother, said that as awful as it is to burden her children with this knowledge, it’s ultimately for their protection. They need to know.

A boy and another little girl from different families said they know it’s wrong for people to treat each other this way. “We are all human,” said the boy, a young teen. “It doesn’t matter what color skin anybody has,” said the girl (is she maybe six? seven?). “We should all be good to each other and love each other.”

Love one another.

The greatest spiritual journey we can ever take.

Loving means bearing each other’s burdens; it does not mean hoping the burdens go away. It means putting love into action, working to remove the burden, the systems, the structures that oppress others. The possibility is there; our hearts just have to be burdened enough, collectively, to usher it into reality.

For what’s the alternative? Hopelessness. The deadliest thing of all.

As I tried to sleep last night, so many images flooded my mind. Mostly children. Many I’ve known over the years. Black, brown, white faces, eyes full of light, little arms open wide, always ready to give away their love. How easily laughter, wonder, song, and joy come to them … my daughter-in-law texted that my granddaughter woke up singing yesterday morning, before she got out of bed: “Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful, and everyone has to see how much I love you and how much I’ve grown.” She is four. The thought of anyone robbing the pureness of her heart is … inhuman. It should not happen to any child. Ever. But it does. It is the most terrible of dichotomies, that the big love we have for one another as children does not grow as we do. If it did, the world would be an entirely different place … and if we have any hope of it being better, it begins with acting now. Understanding now. Changing now. Breaking out of age-old racist, prejudiced molds that may have shaped us, now … or they remain intact, shaping those who follow.

I remembered a thing last night, as I finally fell asleep only to dream about children (babies, in fact, standing in a crib, laughing because they’d just learned to pull themselves up). Somewhere there is a photo of me in a crib with my doll, Suzy. So long ago. I saw her in the store while shopping with my grandmother. Beautiful doll. What was it about Suzy that I loved? Her dark eyes, like my own? Black hair and skin, not like mine? I don’t even remember the shopping trip; my Grannie told me years later how I asked for that doll. So she, a white woman from the rural South, bought it for me—in the late 1960s.

Every day, every action, great and small, every word … colors the picture of society that the children see.

That’s us, reflected in their eyes.

In kindergarten I drew a family picture that made my mother angry: “Why did you have to draw me with a cigarette?”

I blinked, and couldn’t respond: Because I always see you smoking.

Children.

On my mind when I go to bed.
On my mind when I wake.
Not just my own
or ones I’ve known.

Children.

So full of love.
So full of song.
So free with their giving
in everyday living.

Children.

We hand them the crayons.
Blank sheets of paper.

And set little hearts so earnestly
to coloring the world they see.

Children.

Is there a crayon called Hope?
To color Tomorrow?

And what will that picture be
if they copy you and me?

My little granddaughter once explained sadness this way: “I was crying with my blue eyes.”

I know, Baby. Same as I cry with my brown ones.

Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful … let us all keep loving. And growing. And working together to help and heal. Daily finding the way.

That, I’d say, is what hope really looks like.

From my granddaughter’s heart: I love you so very much.

Special thanks to Ruth Hersey for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday, and to all my friends and sojourners. You are welcome to continue the journey by reading their thoughts on the theme of Hope here.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

Equinox

Today’s post serves a dual purpose: My daily Slice of Life Story Challenge and Spiritual Journey Thursday, organized by my friend Margaret Simon on the first Thursday of the month. Thank you, Margaret, for the invitation to host.

I chose to write around the theme of “balance.”

Not necessarily what you may think…

*******

It’s almost here.

Spring. The equinox.

A balance of light and dark in the world, or “equal night.”

My thinking radiates in a number of metaphorical directions here but I’ll begin with the moment I was at school grappling with a new data reporting system that I have to teach to colleagues. I logged in and discovered this message: Alternate Data Entry for Dark Period.

Dark Period?

It has the sound of a span in history, like it belongs in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period, the current one in which we live, geologically speaking (“current” meaning over 11, 000 years old, for the record). As if it can be marked in time like the Ice Age or at least the Dark Ages.

Dark Period.

All it means, apparently, is the time when the data reporting system is shut down to be updated. It’s tech housecleaning. During the Dark Period, no additional data entry can occur, until everything is verified and balanced.

The words stuck with me, though.

Many would say we are living in a Dark Period now. It’s an era of strife, vitriol, backlash. An age of ever-increasing concerns over mental health. Over health in general—the coronavirus.

And at the heart of the darkness is fear.

A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past: “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror. Amid the gathering darkness and cold, our prehistoric forebears must have felt profound fear … that one morning the sun might fail to return.” He goes on to say that many psychologists believe that our early ancestors feared not the dark itself but harm befalling them in the dark (for it was an unlit world at night) and over time night became synonymous with danger.

Fear leads to anger and anxiety. In the dark, things don’t look as they should; they’re distorted.

What’s the balance?

Now we’re back to the equinox, metaphorically.

Light. Day. The assurance that there’s still good working in the world, undoing harm. Think of the destruction of Australia and the human involvement in deliberately setting bushfires. Then think of soldiers in the Australian army, lined up in rows, cuddling and nursing koalas when off duty. Then apply it to people suffering around our globe …

We are our own greatest enemy and helpmeet. We all hang in the balance of these: despair and hope, destruction and edification, hurt and healing.

In The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip describes a monstrous creature like “a dark mist” who embodies “the fear men die of.” The novel is about learning how to live and love in a different world.

That would mean overcoming the dark, the fear.

Incidentally, in a strange balance, the current virus causing so much alarm shares its name with the crown of the sun.

And, speaking of the sun, here’s the secret of the equinox, why it’s not really equal: There’s actually more day than night.

More light. Literally.

And figuratively, it has nothing to do with moving around the sun and everything to do with moving the human heart.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY

*******

Dear fellow Spiritual Journey Thursday sojourners: Please click the link to add your post to the “party”:

https://fresh.inlinkz.com/party/f941589ea3ed4e83be8dd519044d3bfd

Broken

broken moments

broken things

broken heart

yet it sings

broken flight

broken wings

broken fall

still it stings

feathers here

feathers there

feathers falling

everywhere

who’s at fault

I can’t say

we’re all broken

in some way

fallen is forever

broken is for now

people aren’t angels

anyhow

glue for mending

desire to start

wells within

the broken heart

in breaking through

not breaking worse

from broken pieces

comes broken curse.

Photo: Forgive Me. eddie dangerous. CC BY

Stream of social consciousness

SONY DSC

Ray of light. KumweniCC BY

Sunlight. Blinding. Hotter than I expect after a week ensconced deep in the techno-bowels of the hospital. The netherworld. A parallel universe of tiny details and proportions. I remember a book where characters forgot the sun, were told it didn’t exist, that it was something they’d imagined, but I can’t think about that now, I have to get my husband—so uncharacteristically frail and fragile—out of this blazing reality and into the doctor’s office.

—Just wait there by your side of the car, I am coming, I’m coming. . . . Hold my arm, take your time across the sidewalk. I know every step hurts. I’ve got the door. Lovely waiting room, isn’t it. Near-empty. Relief. Maybe the wait will not be long and we can go home. He can rest. Except that he can’t rest. Cardiac arrest isn’t as brutal as being resuscitated. There’s a painful price for being brought back to life . . . .

—Sit here. I’ll check in. Two women behind the counter, working on computers. The woman on the left reminds me of someone but the one on the right is asking a question. My husband. He was released from the hospital two days ago. We were told to follow up with his regular doctor within seven days, thanks for getting us in. This woman on the right nods her head. Her hair is very black, long, pulled back. Over her shoulder on the wall is a sketch of the Buddha with the words GOOD VIBES.  

Our chairs face the TV. El Paso. A woman seated across the room by the windows, sunlight streaming in around her, looks at us: When will it stop. 

The woman at the counter, on the left: It’s racism. Clear, emphatic voice. I know who she reminds me of, now. Queen Latifah. Yes. Same face and eyes, shoulder-length hair. Younger. Less celebrity-ish but exuding confidence. She continues: This country . . . .

The girl next to the woman in the waiting room shifts in her seat. Must be her daughter. Pretty girl, hair in a soft bob of loose curls. Poised. Hard to say how old. Sixteen, seventeen? They’re the only other people waiting. 

My husband:  It’s white guys committing these mass shootings . . . .

Woman across the room (nodding): Yeah, they’re not black. We just shoot each other.

Queen Latifah look-alike: People don’t realize I am half black and half white. My birth certificate says Caucasian. My son is a lot darker and we can tell you plenty of stories about the different ways we’re treated . . . people don’t always know they’re doing it.

Me: Implicit bias. It takes a lot to go that deep in yourself, to see it. 

Queen L look-alike: Exactly. It’s part of you, how you’re raised . . . .

The woman on the left with the Buddha over her shoulder on the wall hasn’t looked up nor said a word this whole time and I am thinking, in the end aren’t we all shades of each other, don’t we all bleed red, doesn’t it all flow from the same source if we trace it far enough back? My own largely Northwestern European  DNA carries a fragment of Nigeria from generations ago, a story I long to know. Human genetics shows we’re all descended from one woman in East Africa. Mitochondrial Eve. “The mother of all living.” Genesis 3:20.  My husband, a minister, is olive-skinned, a tiny percent Native American, although he’s awfully pale at present and the underside of both his arms is bruised solid black. We all bruise the same . . . .

The woman who reminds me of Queen L is speaking about needed changes and education, referencing a county nearby with a racist reputation; the woman across the rooms tells the story of her daughter’s car breaking down there, how her phone battery was dead, how she walked to a store at the crossroads and the white workers wouldn’t let her use their phones.

—What did you do? I ask the girl.

—I got back in the car and left it running, I charged my phone enough to call my mom, and I prayed.

—I prayed, too, chimed her mom, the whole way there. Not that county. Not that county.

I listen, heartsick. I do not say it but “that county” happens to be where my Grannie was raised. My Grannie, who took me to a store to buy a doll when I was really little. When I picked a black doll, she bought it for me. In the late 1960s. A white woman from “that county” . . . suddenly the girl’s mother smiles: But there are still good people everywhere. Thank God.

The front door opens. A man enters. He’s huge. Like an NFL player. Gripped in his big brown hand is a clear plastic jug of water; it gleams in a shaft of sunlight and I think Water of Life as another door from the medical side opens and a small man, black hair in a man bun, comes into the waiting area to greet him with a Spanish accent. They’re workers of some kind, dressed in similar gray shirts, khaki pants. They embrace each other and my mind is too weary anymore to wonder why, what the story is. I just marvel. This is how the world should be, like it is in this room, right now. Brotherly love, one human for another, kindred spirits. United in a common purpose. Heaven must be something like this.

As the men vanish (for I don’t notice how or where), the quiet woman on the left at the counter calls the lady and her daughter up. They’re finished with whatever it is for which they came. They’re free to go. The woman comes over to us on her way to the door: It is very nice meeting you. I wish you the best. My daughter, she’s going to college.

My husband reaches his hand, his bruised arm, out to her: It’s a pleasure.

She shakes his hand. There’s only one thing I know to do. I stand and hug the woman. Her embrace is warm, tight. Genuine. Her daughter stands by, smiling, so I hug her, too. She feels small in my arms. —All the best to you, too. One day I will see you on TV and you’ll be helping to fix all these things and I will remember that I saw you here.

Her smile widens. So radiant. —Maybe so.

I watch her go with a pang of hope, bright as the sunlight, when my husband’s name is called to check the progress of his repaired, restarted heart.

So much pain, yes.

Gonna be a long, long process.

But healing.

The gesture

Pure love

Pure love. SurFerGiRL30CC-BY

Sunday morning at church. I took a seat by the aisle where sunlight poured through the stained glass window, where pale patches of pink, green, blue, and gold glimmered down the white wall.

In front of me sat a young man, a young woman, and a little girl, three years old.

The young man stretched his arm along the back of the pew, nearly but not quite embracing the young woman and child, just an easy drape of affection, of togetherness.

I could just see the top of the child’s head, two pinned-up pigtails coming loose, where his hand rested.

Then a chubby little hand crept up to pat his arm, once, twice, with all the grace of a ballerina. Two slow, deliberate, barely-discernible pats, before the dimpled hand disappeared again.

I watched, pierced by this silent message.

Maybe it was I love you. Or Thank you for being with me. Or quiet reassurance—I am fine, you are fine, we are fine together. Maybe even I’m here, you’re here, all is well with the world.

Such pureness of heart in that simple gesture. Such trust and confidence, such peace. How naturally it comes to a child, reaching out to someone else in benevolence, faith, and belonging.

And I mourned the incremental loss of it as we grow older, that it should fade like the colored patches of stained-glass light against the wall, that clarity of purpose should be obscured even as we accrue the words and language to better communicate our thoughts and feelings, that we should have to think twice about reaching out, or being the first to do so.

Two gentle pats, in them contained the original order and design of things, that together is the best place to be, that we are here for one another.

And so the children remind us.

Why I Write 2018

Fossil - Aurora

Pterorhytis conradi fossil murex snail shell, Croatan Formation, Lower Pleistocene. James St. JohnCC BY

It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences (B.J. Neblett).

Our experiences are our story. Who we are. And why.

We are, therefore, our stories.

I write to tell mine.

I write because stories lie buried within me. I write to dig them out, to examine them, to find their value.

I write because ideas continually deposit themselves on top of one another like fine sediment in my mind. I am always sifting, sifting, finding the bits with meaning, determining how these random pieces connect to one another, for they surely and always do.

I write because my words will remain when I do not, imprints of my time on Earth. In the summers of my childhood, I walked little country roads covered with rejects from a local phosphate mine, gravel of shell and coral skeleton from epochs as old as Time itself. As my shoes crunched over this gravel I sometimes discovered primeval treasures—sharks’ teeth, whale ear bones, vertebrae—remnants of life gone before, lying there in my own shadow.

I write because I also walk upon all the books, all the words I’ve read in my lifetime. Within these layers upon layers of ever-deepening strata, too, lie treasures: phrases, emotions, images—again, remnants of life gone before, stowed away in the depths of my mind like the fossil bits in my childhood pockets. I carry with me always the impressions of other writers, the echo of their voices.

I write because I hear the echo of shoes scurrying in hallways, young voices calling my name: When I stop and turn, the children are there, eyes bright, faces glowing, asking a breathless question: “When are you coming to write with us again?”

I write to help them find their own treasures within, because their voices, their experiences, their stories matter; their existence matters, and they need to know it.

I write to preserve. To leave a record of those I’ve loved who’ve gone before, to celebrate those living and loving now. To share little fragments of hope, of peace, of pressing on, of rising above. My stories are my fossils, with or without value to the few who find them. No matter. They have immense value to me while I live them. They are my writing identity. My human identity.

I write because humans think and remember in story, because humanity is defined and connected by story. The sum total of our shared experience.

I am a storyteller.

And so I write.

*******

Another writing celebration: This is my 200th post published on Lit Bits and Pieces.

 

September 11

Healing field

The Healing Field. Randy HeinitzCC BY

Out of the blue

a student asks:

“Mrs. Haley,

if you could have

one magic power,

what would it be?”

Other students 

look up from their writing

to listen. 

I think of suffering

of strife

of festering

scars and stripes

visible

and invisible.

Broken bodies

hearts

psyches.

The children watch

and wait.

What power would it be?

“Healing,” I say.

They absorb this

without a word

their young eyes

looking far away

or maybe far within

to make

their own meaning.

They nod

as they return

to creating

their own stories.