Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mental Health Day

Yesterday my wife and I attended a conference on psychiatric nursing. There were excellent presentations on dementia, borderline personality, depression in geriatric patients, and pre-natal and post-partum depression. We heard a grief counselor talk about helping patients process grief in sudden death events and other complicated grief experiences. It was the first time in several years that I had attended such a conference. When I began my nursing career, I had spent 12 years in community mental health before going into psychiatric nursing. After 2½ years in psychiatric nursing, I moved into cardiac nursing where I have been for the past 12 years (I tell people that since I can do cardiac as well as psychiatric nursing, that makes me a heart-and-soul nurse).

It was good to get back into the arena of mental health and to hear about current practices in the field. I was reminded of a segment that I heard on NPR just a few days ago about the increased mental health issues that are occurring in the wake of the BP oil crisis in the Gulf. People whose livelihoods depend upon oil production and fishing in the Gulf Coast States have had their lives disrupted. Incidents of depression and suicide are on the increase. These people’s lives have been altered in a dramatic way, but there are others who are also experiencing added stressors throughout the country due to the depressed economy and job losses. Increased stress leads to more difficulties in coping, which leads to increased signs of depression and other mental illness as well as an increase in violence.

There were two important things that I took away from that conference on mental health:

1) It is important for us to be aware of mental health issues and to know where to turn. Here are three good websites to know about in matters of mental health:
Mental Health America at . This is the largest and oldest organization to help people experiencing mental illness. It was established in 1909 by Clifford Beer, a Wall Street financier and Yale graduate. He had a Bipolar episode following his brother’s death in the early 1900’s. He later wrote a book detailing his experiences in a mental hospital, including being kept in a straight jacket for 21 consecutive days during one episode of his three year hospitalization. He started the National Mental Health Association, now known as Mental Health America, in order for people with mental illness to have a voice in the public square.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) at NAMI is an advocacy group “dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.”

The National Institute of Mental Health at “The mission of NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure.” This is a comprehensive website that has information on the latest research, treatment and laws relating to mental health. There is also educational information on a variety of mental health topics.

2) One of the presenters recommended a book by Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear. This is a book for and about violence against women. According to the review, “The book teaches how to identify the warning signals of a potential attacker and recommends strategies for dealing with the problem before it becomes life threatening... People don't just ‘snap’ and become violent, says de Becker, whose clients include federal government agencies, celebrities, police departments, and shelters for battered women. ‘There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil.’ Learning to predict violence is the cornerstone to preventing it.”

There is too much violence against women in our society. Since I have a daughter who is single and in college, I’m going to get her this book.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Empty Spaces

This is a new poem, which actually means I'm not finished with it yet. As I rule, I don't consider a poem finished until it has rested for at least a month without being changed, so I'll anticipate some changes later, It was inspired by an activity during a writing workshop with the Alabama Writers' Conclave just a week ago.

Empty Spaces
By Charles Kinnaird

The years had taken their toll.
There was no choice.
Nothing to be done
Except to take it out.
The massive cottonwood tree
Had long filled that space.
Gnarled branches had cast a wide canopy of green
Over half the yard.
Twisting scarred roots elevating
Above stony ground
Had spent decades traversing our backyard.
Open moist knot holes
Sometimes held dainty mushrooms
Fed by rainwater and debris.
It had been the site of many toddlers’ games
Improvised beneath the old tree’s branches.
A family picnic had gathered there
As elderly grandparents, young nieces and cousins
All came to bless our infant daughter.

Yet the years had taken their toll.
The aged tree
Splitting under her own weight
Was removed.
She came down with great ceremony and precision
As nimble men with buzzing saws and safety harnesses
Carefully removed limbs in sections.
Top most and outermost branches first
Followed by middle limbs
Until only the center remained.
Finally the aging trunk
Was pared sown by massive saws,
The stump ground down
Until nothing remained.

An empty space
Was opened up.
The ground was left exposed
To searing sun
And drenching rain.
It reminded me of that
Empty space in my heart,
That space once filled
By generations.
The old ones have departed this life,
Nieces and cousins now scattered,
The young toddlers are now grown and moving on.
That empty space - now open
To sun, wind, and rain.
Nothing left but to grieve
And remember;
Grieving the emptiness,
Remembering the times.

In the corner of the yard
Stands a young oak sapling.
Straight and clean
She reaches upward.
Having sprouted voluntarily
We let her grow.
We let her be.
She will one day fill another space.
One day her arms
Will offer comforting shade.
Perhaps a future picnic will be spread
For a new generation of toddlers at play.
An older, wiser, more grateful one
Will savor those moments
Beneath newly gnarled branches,
Standing among newly spreading roots.
Memories of empty spaces remain
As hopes for new spaces
Take root and grow.


Friday, July 23, 2010

How Bubba Got His Accent Back

"Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself."
– Richard Bach

When I was 23 years old I left Alabama to go to graduate school. I didn’t just leave Alabama. I left the Deep South for the first time. I didn’t just leave the Deep South, I went to California. I didn’t just go to California, I went to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have to say that I enjoyed just about everything about the Bay Area. The climate was always pleasant and the view was invigorating. Culturally, there were more opportunities for enrichment than I had ever imagined before. The first thing that people noticed about me was my Southern accent. Most had something to say about it. Some found it fascinating, some found it funny, and some equated it with a bumpkin or hick mentality. Then there would be the inevitable question, “Where are you from?”

Upon learning that I was from Alabama, many people would begin to explain to me the evils of racism and the backward mentality of my home state. During my three and a half years in California I did something that many transplanted Southerners do – I lost my accent. I took a part-time job at a shoe store in Mill Valley and became immersed in the culture. The more I talked and interacted with the people, the less Southern I sounded. It was a conscious choice. I did not want to be subject to people’s pre-judgements. I did not want to hear the jokes about the South. I did not want to be seen as an uneducated bigot. I did not want to stand out. I wanted to be “one of them.”

I suppose I reinvented myself. The day came when, if someone found out I was from Alabama, their typical response was, “You don’t sound like you’re from the South!” I was very proud to hear those words. I enjoyed being Californian without the negative baggage of the South. I was happy blending in. I had made a new start. I had left the old behind.

What I did not realize at the time was that every time I accepted the compliment of not sounding Southern, another part of me was receiving the message, “You are not OK.” I was not able to affirm my whole self; I could only affirm my California creation with no accent. I had become assimilated, and the very act of assimilation that won acceptance from my peers was sending a negative message to a significant part of my being. I was acceptable only in proportion to how much of me I could keep hidden or disguised.

I left California to teach English in Hong Kong. Eventually, I came back home to Alabama having been changed by my sojourns in other lands. After being back in the South for about a year I found a new liberation: I began to get my accent back. I decided not to fight it any longer. With my accent I found a spontaneity that brought more freedom to be my natural self. Somewhere along the way I realized that it is important to be able to affirm who I am. I discovered that affirmation of myself included affirmation of my whole self – my whole history and my culture. With my accent I began to acknowledge my heritage. Instead of saying, “I’m no bigot!” I learned to say, “I am a product of apartheid, I must claim my baggage, but my informed conscience urges me to respond to life in a new way.”

About the same time that I was getting my accent back, I had a sudden awareness about the Civil Rights movement that I had missed before. My impression throughout the struggle for racial equality was that African Americans wanted assimilation. What I had gathered from all the discussions I heard (from those who favored civil rights as well as those who were negative toward it) was that assimilation would be the key to achieving racial equality. I came to realize, however, that assimilation was psychologically every bit as violent an act as apartheid. After all, back in California a part of me had been violated. When I sent myself those messages, “Don’t say ‘ya’ll,’ don’t eat cornbread, pay attention to your vowel sounds, don’t let anyone know you like grits,” I was finding acceptance from my peers but I was sending negative messages to my self esteem. If I had continued to live with no accent, acknowledging only what I thought liberal white Californians considered acceptable, I would have been left with a cardboard cut-out of myself. What possibility would there be for any depth of soul?

The spectrum of humanity spans from the beautiful to the terrifying. Each of us carries every bit of that spectrum within ourselves. So let us continue our efforts for a better society, with freedom, equality, and justice as our goals. At the same time, let us allow ourselves and our neighbors to live with accent, flavor, and cultural diversity.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Southern Nights and Stereotypes

A Look at Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin'

To elicit conventional images of the rural Southerners, one need only mention "hick," "country bumpkin," "hillbilly," or "redneck." Rick Bragg's highly acclaimed memoir, All Over but the Shoutin' (Vintage Books, 1997) gives us a clear view of the rural South without reinforcing negative stereotypes. A stereotype often serves to tell just a little bit of truth in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves by degrading another. All Over but the Shoutin' allows us to see the humanity of people whom we were previously able to ignore because of thoughtless labels.

About the same time Rick Bragg was walking the cotton fields, playing high school football, and racing his car down the flat tops in Calhoun County, I was growing up in rural Tallapoosa County. In my family, we were just barely middle-class, if that. My father was a Baptist minister and my mother a school teacher. We were raised to value education and higher thinking, but economically, we were working-class people living in rental housing, one paycheck away from dire straights.

Our neighbors were very much like the people Bragg describes in his book. My friends' parents were pulp wooders, mill workers, farmers, teachers, bankers, and businessmen. We ourselves made frequent use of stereotypes in those days. We white folks had stereotypes about African Americans so we could feel good about segregation. As Southerners, we had stereotypes about New Yorkers and other city dwellers to make us feel good about our rural Southern lifestyle. We even had stereotypes about some of our own kind.

It was in the late 1960's that we first started using the term "redneck." We didn't mind laughing about people we called rednecks because we certainly did not want to be uneducated hick farmers. One day my brother and I were riding with my mother from our home in Dadeville to Alexander City. We found ourselves behind a slow car on a crooked two lane road. There must have been three people in the front seat and four or five in the back seat of that car in front of us. I am not sure who made the first comment about "those rednecks" and how it was no wonder they couldn't go any faster, but my mother was swift in her response. She pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. She then turned to us and gave us one of those reality check lectures. She informed us that there is nothing wrong with people who have to work for a living, and there is certainly no reason to degrade someone just because they have a little less education or a little less income. I tried not to use that word again, and that little roadside talk jolted me into seeing those whom I had looked down upon as real people just like me. Furthermore, it didn't take much reflection to realize the grim prospects that a little shift in luck could bring to my family.

Generally, I have found a stereotype to be a caricature that makes an easy hook for our fears, prejudices, and indifference. Bragg gives us no easy hooks. His portrayal of genuine people from his life and times effectively forces the reader to pull over to the side of the road and make an honest heartfelt connection with a class of people who may have previously been two-dimensional cartoons in the mind's eye.

When he tells about his younger brother Mark evading the local law enforcement by ducking into a little Pentecostal church where a service was in progress, Bragg does not try to make it into a slapstick comedy. He does not portray those churchgoers as hillbilly fanatics, which would be a common stereotype. He presents them as a well-meaning group whom his mother described as good people having a genuine interest in Mark's well-being. His older brother Sam is presented as a skilled craftsman and a decent intelligent fellow who was neglected by the school system. A steady worker at the cotton mill, he manages to build a life of honest respectability. Even though he has probably received far too little in proportion to his hard work from the age of 13 onward, Sam appears to take life as it comes. If he harbors bitterness it does not show and he makes himself a reliable foundation and support for his wife and family.

Bragg is unwavering in his goal to present his mother as he sees her: a strong, caring, hard-working, selfless woman who managed to provide for her sons against great odds. When she was abandoned by her alcoholic husband she did what she could whether it was picking cotton, taking in laundry, or standing in the welfare lines. If he were resorting to stereotypes the writer might simply say that it was washing and ironing and commodity cheese that kept them afloat. He could highlight the provincial idiosyncrasies of rural life if he simply wanted to amuse the public with stories of his growing up in poverty. Instead, Rick Bragg gives us a full three-dimensional view of the people in his life.

Bragg has a love and respect for the relatives in the rural South who raised him, and he clearly wants to convey that sense of respect to his readers. It is evident throughout the book that he wants us to understand and appreciate the working poor. He is even more to the point, however, when he relates his experience in reporting the deadly tornado that struck a church in Piedmont, Alabama, on Palm Sunday, 1994. He tells us that it was crucial that he completely and accurately portray the people in that community in the face of profound tragedy. These were his people, folks he grew up with, and he wanted the readers of The New York Times to know them. For a fellow who says that religion "never did take" with him, he certainly conveys the genuine depths of faith to be found in simple people who have been too busy working for a living to explore any erudite philosophies of life. One does not do that with stereotypes. Rick Bragg has the innate sensitivity, which he says he got from his mother, to be able to immediately see the true humanity of the poor and working classes in the South. He has a talent for communication, but he also does the hard work to make sure he gets it right for the rest of us to see.

If you want quick and easy answers, or if cheap laughs are preferred, then stereotypes are the way to go. If, on the other hand, you hope to present a full, accurate, multidimensional picture of a person or a people, then reinforcing stereotypes will only cloud the picture. Rick Bragg, in All Over but the Shoutin', presents one of the clearest pictures on record of people in the rural South. He admits to having some insecurity just because of where he came from, being among those who are routinely ignored and devalued by society. It is work like his, however, that will contribute to a wider recognition of people who work hard just to get by in life.
                                                                                                                                  Charles Kinnaird

Downtown Dadeville, Alabama


Photo credit:
Top photo:Three Amigos, "an old house, Fordson tractor and huge pecan tree in rural Nash County, NC" by Mark, Courtesy of Flickr

Pasture fence near Montevallo, Ala. by Charles Kinnaird

Downtown Dadeville by Kathryn Braund, Encyclopedia of Alabama.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't Take My Word for It

"Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned."
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I love debate and dialogue. It is invigorating to be in an environment where the free exchange of ideas is welcomed. For some people, the need for security overrides the ability for dialogue. In an uncertain world with an unclear future, fundamentalism has an appeal for those who desire certainty and stability. We do not have to look far to see examples of Protestant fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism and Catholic fundamentalism. All of those movements represent a loss of nerve and a lack of faith.

When creativity and security cannot be found within, we scramble and redouble our efforts to build a superficial structure from without. There is the hope that seeing things as black-and-white will give us security. The irony is that those external structures cannot offer the security and stability that most of us desire. Ideology becomes defined by boundaries, vilification, and demonization. Danger is at hand when people blindly follow any ideology without thinking things through for themselves. Those who fail to use their God-given reason are like the fearful servant in Jesus' parable who buried his meager talent in the ground.

The Dalai Lama is one of my heroes. I am inspired by what he has to say about human dignity, freedom, and compassion. I am encouraged and heartened by his joyfulness. I imagine that dogma and ideology are very important to him, but he has the inner security that allows him to hold dogma lightly. I once heard a story about an encounter that the scientist Carl Sagan had with the Dalai Lama. Mr. Sagan was privileged to meet with His Holiness while traveling in India. The scientist was impressed with the religious leader's knowledge and interest in science. At one point in their conversation, Mr. Sagan asked him, "What would you do if science were to prove without a doubt that there is no basis for reincarnation – that it does not exist?"

Without any hesitation, the Dalai Lama said, "We would abandon it. We would stop teaching it." He went on to talk about scientific contributions to the world.

Mr. Sagan was quite surprised by the Tibetan leader's answer and that he spoke with such candor. After some discussion, the Dalai Lama then asked Mr. Sagan, "By the way, how would you go about proving that?" Reportedly, Mr. Sagan was uncharacteristically speechless.

Several years ago on ABC's Nightline, Ted Koppel was interviewing the Dalai Lama. He asked a question on the same subject of reincarnation. "Do you remember any of your previous incarnations?" The spiritual leader chuckled in a self-effacing manner and answered, "At my age, I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday!"

As we search for truth, we would do well to look to role models who exhibit joyfulness, compassion, and inner security. They are the ones who can be open to dialogue, who can question the validity of ideas. They are the ones who have the freedom to examine, to reflect, and to abandon anything that contradicts experience and logic.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

An American Tune

An incomparable duo!
This song is introspective, contempletive,
realistic and truly patriotic.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Not Dark Yet (Reprise)

Today this blog has been online for six months. I thought I'd reprise my original post as a way of doing a self check, to see if I'm doing what I said I would do on New Years Eve. In addition, I'm including a video of Dylan's song so you can hear the song that inspired the name of this blog.

Here is the original post:

“Not Dark Yet…” you may remember this as the title to one of Bob Dylan’s songs on his "Time Out of Mind" CD. I have borrowed that phrase for the title of my blog, because I like the imagery it evokes. My interests include poetry, religion, politics, nature, conservation, and striving toward the common good. This blog will cover observations of life and shared events. If the politics and religion aspect get too heated, there is always the mediating influence of poetry. Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, says that every poem is about death and gratitude. The awareness of death heightens the beauty of the world as we see it. As one who attempts to write poetry, I heartily agree with that notion. Poetry conveys that sense of awareness and gratitude.

So in this space you will see political commentary, personal observations, spiritual questions, maybe a poem from time to time or some pertinent literary references. My emphasis, I anticipate, will always be on the “Not dark yet,” but in the background there is always Bob Dylan’s reminder (as any good poet will affirm) “Not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

And here is the video:

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