in•spi•ra•tion•: Renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” In the past, I’ve tried different things to find joy. As I mentioned last week, I was once heavily involved in running. A hip injury, the result of a car accident, put the brakes on that—though I’d love to get back into it. There’s no better sense of freedom than the entire body working together, as it does while running. In high school, I painted and wrote poetry, though probably none of it was very good. It was passionate, poems filled with the dramatic musings common for confused teenagers. I’m a better writer now, in part because of all that I’ve been through. As Aristotle Onassis said, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
I think back to the people that inspired me. My mother, Barbara Pruiett, always supported my endeavors—she’s my fan club of one. I still call her when one of the kids has said or done something funny and, all too often, when things go wrong. As I’ve mentioned, she’s had a hard road, but that hasn’t stopped her from being there for me.
Various teachers challenged and encouraged me. Susan Baer, art teacher in Chariton and talented artist (see sbaerart.com for her amazing watercolors and pen drawings), saw something in my paintings that I did not. She was an early mentor for me, and persuaded me to go to college. In my final years of high school, I wanted to combine my love for art with a newfound interest in psychology. Mrs. Baer introduced me to the possibility of attending a program in art therapy. However, in my first year at Indian Hills, painting and drawing became more of a chore and less of a joy. The endless deadlines turned my passion into the drudgery of homework. Psychology retained my interest, but when I transferred to Simpson, I discovered a love for literature. And I thought I could do more good as a teacher. But I’ve found that my experience in the field of psychology has come into play in every endeavor. Being familiar with the ways people think has proven invaluable. It doesn’t mean I understand why we think the way we do, I’m just more aware of the differences.
Genny Altenhofen, a Chariton teacher who died last April, championed my writing. I took various literature classes with her, and a course designed to prepare high school students for college writing. For our final essay in that class, she gave us free reign in topic choices. To risk revealing my age, the Heaven’s Gate cult had just committed mass suicide. Going along with my interest in the human mind, I tried to understand what had prompted them to end their lives. I was too young to know about Jonestown, but I learned about it during research. The paper—which detailed those cults along with a handful of other, lesser-known ones—was the longest Mrs. Altenhofen had ever received. I took pride in that. She also said it was one of the best she’d read, but for some reason I didn’t care as much about that. And, as you’ve probably noticed, I continue to be long-winded to this day.
I’ve had many supportive teachers, professors, mentors, friends, co-workers, and bosses, but I’ve also faced more than my fair share of critics, bullies and other such riff-raff whose only goal in life seems to be making others miserable. It’s as Jane Goodall, ape enthusiast, said, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” In my first column (education), I closed with a call to my readers: “Do your part to educate our youth. Model positive behavior and display a sense of compassion and charity. And remember: a little love goes a long way,” and I’ve touched on this theme many other times.
In parenting, I’ve been inspired by a few role models. As I said in my second column (discipline), I pointed to The Supernanny as my mentor for discipline. And it seems that I draw most of my support from television personalities. To me, Caroline Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie is the picture of a strong and devoted mother. I realize she’s a fictional character, but she is based on the author’s mother. (I won’t mention that, as a child, I envied her relationship with Michael Landon. When he took his shirt off to work the fields, my young eyes could not break away from his hairless and muscular chest. I never questioned the historical accuracy of it all. I now know that men did not, in fact, shave their body hair in the pioneer days.) I was amazed at how Ma handled the family’s problems, all the while baking the daily bread over an open fire. When I think how much we take for granted—with our microwaves, washing machines and refrigerators—and they used their bodies to do all of the work required to keep their kids fed, clean and alive.
Then, there’s Michelle Duggar. I’m sure she endures constant criticism for the amount of children she’s had. But I find her to be an amazing woman. I can barely balance my four. I can’t imagine having 19, along with three grandkids. She remains poised, patient and compassionate, in spite of the hardship of her recent loss of baby Jubilee and the trials she endured with Josie’s premature birth. She admits to becoming angry and having anxiety, at times. While reading a book to her youngest children, she came to a point “about a soft answer turn[ing] away wrath.” (christianpost.com) We could all take that to heart, and respond with kindness when we want to yell instead.
I’ll leave you with this: retired defensive end Ndukwe Kalu said, “The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.” Inspire someone today. A small compliment can bring immense joy to someone. Plant a seed of encouragement that’ll grow into a strong tree in the mind and heart of a child.
Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of telling my mom that my nine-year old daughter, Natalie Belle Neal will have her poem, “Cat Love,” published in Rattle—a poetry publication listed at #31 on the Pushcart Prize Ranking of Literary Magazines. So, maybe I’ve been an inspiration to her. But she’s well ahead of where I was at nine, and I couldn’t be more proud.