essays

The Thoughts of a Polar Bear

(published in Lost Lake Folk Opera, Vol. 6, September 2020)

 

I used to wonder what the polar bear was thinking when my children and I visited him at the zoo. I know that I had thoughts of rescuing him every time I watched him pace back and forth on his small patch of real estate, shaking his head from side to side in search of someone to play with. Or maybe his head was trying to do an Etch A Sketch-style erase of his understanding of the definition of insanity. After he lunged into his pool to do a few revolutions of a furry freestyle crawl, then climbed onto his piece of earth to resume pacing back and forth, I always fantasized about interrupting his routine. When I made eye contact with him, I’m sure he telepathically begged me to look for a hammer near his display window with a sign stating “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass.” I looked, but there wasn’t one. So, all I could do was send my thoughts of freedom to the polar bear and hope that he felt encouraged.

Thoughts of that polar bear have become part of my pandemic routine that includes pacing back and forth in front of my dining room windows. Originally, I claimed that I paced on my small patch of real estate to collect enough Fitbit steps for my exercise goal each day. But after several months of retracing my path during my self-imposed isolation due to a compromised immune system, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that I’m doing it because I have nowhere else to go. I think this reality check was rudely tossed my way, like a dead fish, by my freedom-loving creative spirit that craves new experiences to digest.

My creative spirit is apparently unhappy with the pandemic cage I have placed myself in. For lack of new experiences to look forward to and process in prose, poetry, and paint, my expressions have become a reiteration of my history. Thoughts have been ricocheting off the same protective walls day after day, after day, and always land on a stack of memories from the past and questions for the future. Lately, my artwork has been very square-looking and my words have been boxy and stagnant when I try to portray this caged existence that has no release in sight.

I try to tell myself that simply existing right now is the most important thing and that participating in the arts has always been an act of unnecessary indulgence. The creativity isn’t flowing in my penned up state, but I have a roof over my head, a place to safely rest at night, and I have access to an ample food supply provided by my zookeeper husband who goes out to do all my grocery shopping. Trivial matters like the number of Fitbit steps I accumulate and what shape my thighs are in have landed on the irrelevant pile concerning pandemic existence. So, these days I find myself pacing around my dining room table simply to help convince my creative mind that, as long as I’m moving, I am free.

I believe I now know what the caged polar bear thinks. Please send your thoughts of freedom my way. This is an emergency.

© 2020 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved

No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Julie Ryan.

 

 

 

The Gift of Conversation

(originally posted to my blog: My So-Called Gifts, November 14, 2010)

 

Hearing about Sarah Shourd’s experience in an Iranian prison has me thinking a lot. In addition to thinking about how something has to be done about the ongoing inhumane behavior of the Iranian government, I am thinking a lot about silence. Sarah was imprisoned for over a year for accidentally entering the country while on a hike with her two friends. All three were imprisoned, but Sarah was put in solitary confinement and was only allowed limited contact with her two detained friends. When I saw her first interview about the ordeal, she was visibly shaken by the torture of the limited opportunity for conversation with her family and friends.

 

Most women crave conversation; it’s almost as necessary as food and oxygen for some to survive. I’ve read various reports that, on average, women speak anywhere from 7,000 to 50,000 words a day. Most men speak far less. Women often bond by processing their lives and sharing their emotional insight. Studies have shown that when women engage in conversation their endorphin levels increase, which releases stress and boosts the immune system. In addition to being food for thought, conversation is like a necessary, healthy drug for many women—and some men. To go without conversation for a significant length of time can potentially cause great emotional, psychological, and physical harm. To intentionally withhold conversation from some people is simply a form of torture.

 

Hearing of Sarah’s experience has caused me to think about my grandmothers a lot. They are both gone now, and neither one of them were in prison, but they did find themselves in a situation where conversation wasn’t as accessible as it had once been for both of them. Like Sarah, they did not choose their isolation. They both found themselves in an existence that created a cell around them that was often silent as children and grandchildren grew up and moved away, family members and friends passed away, and dementia and strokes made it difficult to get others to engage in conversation with them.

 

I know that a certain measure of silence for meditating and decompressing is necessary for a healthy existence, but when the walls of a world are composed of the echoes of the chatter that used to be there, it can be nearly deafening to the soul. I am finding that I finally understand why my grandmothers were so grateful when I showed up to visit. I temporarily popped the bubble of silence that surrounded them when I sat down to talk with them. As I chatted with them, I helped raise their endorphin levels, relieved stress, boosted their immunity and their emotional well-being ... what I would give to have the opportunity to visit my grandmothers again, now that I truly understand how much it meant for them to have someone to talk with.

 

I encourage everyone to fully appreciate every audible conversation you have the opportunity to participate in before life happens and you find yourself surrounded by occasional walls of silence. And I encourage you to consider picking up the phone to call or to go visit someone who is confined without regular access to conversation. In doing so, you will be weaving an unspeakably humane gift into the walls of their silent world.

 

Dear Julie:

 

Thank you for sharing your articulate and insightful analysis of how torturous imposed silence and isolation of can be. As you note, a human’s physiological need to commune with others is especially keen in women, which makes the prolonged solitary confinement that Sarah endured especially cruel. Sadly, Sarah is only one third free, as her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and her friend, Josh Fattal, are still wrongfully imprisoned in Iran.

As you might imagine, her suffering at not being able to communicate with either of these innocent young men, whom she loves dearly, is acute. In addition, the mothers of Shane and Josh have only been allowed one two day visit and one 15 minute phone conversation with their sons in the last 471 days. Their grandparents, siblings and friends have had to endure total silence and isolation from them.

On behalf of the friends and families of Shane and Josh, who have suffered unfathomable anguish at being denied the right to communicate regularly with their loved ones, I encourage your readers to visit our website, blog, Facebook page and/or Twitter to help us spread the word that Iran must FREE ALL THREE!

Thank you again for your support. I’m very glad a voice as eloquent and thoughtful as yours is not silent. ;^D

 

Best,
Alita, a member of the Campaign to Free the Hikers.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/Freethehikers
Facebook: http://facebook.com/Freethehikers
Website: http://Freethehikers.org
YouTube: http://youtube.com/user/Freethehikers

 

 

© 2010 – 2020 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Julie Ryan.

 

Bullying Is Not Just a Problem Among Children

(published in Northfield News, December 2014)

My daughter is spending the summer in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia to create a documentary about how people remember the conflict they endured in the 1990s. Instead of finding reasons to worry about my 20-year-old child traveling alone in a strange land with a volatile history, I find comfort in telling myself that the country we live in has had its own troubled past and that there are plenty of people right here in America who could hurt her if she stayed home. So I believe that it’s worth it for her to experience the world while doing something that could potentially enlighten others.

While I am thrilled that she has created this opportunity for herself, my daughter’s summer mission has caused me to give considerable thought to the negative aspects of human nature—specifically, the act of bullying others. When it was occurring over twenty years ago, before I had internet access, the limited news coverage of the former Yugoslavia’s conflict left me confused about the ideological differences between the leaders of the Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the Catholic Croats. I found it difficult to understand what caused them to abuse and annihilate one another with their quest for control. It also left me wondering why my United States government didn’t immediately speak out against the atrocities committed against citizens in the Balkan region. I know that international political relations are complex and fraught with consequences, but I also believe that those who witness maltreatment of others and have the ability to speak out against it should always do so.  If I were among the more than one hundred thousand who had been locked in their burning homes, raped, tortured, and murdered, I think I would have really appreciated it if a bunch of people would have stepped up at the start of the lengthy conflict to tell my abusers to knock it off.

Unfortunately, during conflicts in places that are foreign, it appears to me that silence is often chosen in America over speaking out on behalf of others. Many seem inclined to believe that it’s not their problem or don’t bother to investigate details of a situation if the media doesn’t find it ratings worthy. I believe that the false comfort found in believing that the monsters who carry out horrific crimes against humanity exist in countries “less evolved” than America allows bullying to run rampant in our world in many forms. Despite common misperceptions among Americans that the devastation of human lives is unique to economically challenged countries like those in the Balkan region, I believe it’s actually a problem with the human condition—for which I believe we are all accountable.

I am a peacemaker by nature and would rather not witness conflict if I had the choice, but I have had many experiences that have forced me into realizing that there are people in our country, our state, our towns that would gladly destroy the lives of others to gain power if given the opportunity. Many opportunities exist to do so because bullying is mistakenly viewed as a “child’s” problem. Recently, there has been a strong campaign to eliminate bullying that occurs among children. I am currently teaching art to elementary students, and I find plenty of opportunity to think about social behavior. I feel that those who clamp down on childish bullying on the playground or in the classroom are often hypocrites as they allow bullying to continue among adults without saying anything. Over the years as a citizen, an employee, and a volunteer, I have witnessed many forms of bullying that were obvious abuses of people’s right to live free of threats to their well-being. I have often heard such actions called something other than bullying when it involves adults: “showing who’s in charge”; “enforcing the ‘rules’”; “maintaining control”; “doing what’s necessary” . . . I’ve seen teachers bullying children who challenge them; social workers bullying families over theological differences; power companies bullying homeowners by abusing the concept of eminent domain; legislators bullying farmers by targeting them with disproportionate taxes on their land; managers bullying their employees with verbal harassment and threats for speaking out against disrespectful treatment; and directors bullying everyone in their organization who question their actions. While each situation I have experienced is oddly unique, the common denominator among all of these bullies is that they were people who loved being in control at the expense of other people’s well-being. And they all behaved in that way because others simply allowed them to.

I have observed principals, superintendents, directors, government leaders, and boards as they turned a deaf ear to situations because they were more concerned about their popularity than treating others as they would like to be treated. I find it hard to believe that if any of them walked in the shoes of someone being threatened with financial, emotional, or physical abuse, that they would find themselves thinking that they wanted everyone around them to remain silent and refuse to help change the situation, even though they had the power to do so.

I lack the filter that apparently allows others to refrain from speaking out when they see people in need of assistance. I sometimes find myself being the only one speaking out against the injustices I happen to witness. The outcome of my desire to help others in need sometimes results in significant change and sometimes results in my just looking like a dork for being the only one standing up and trying to improve conditions for others. My voice is sometimes drowned out by those with the power to cause change who don’t want to rock the boat—or want to continue personally benefitting from the status quo. But I’m guessing I will continue risking looking like a dork because I feel that if I choose to remain silent then I am an accomplice to what I have witnessed. The quietness of others in response to adult bullies causes me to wonder if I’m weird for wanting to see every human being afforded the opportunity to live a life free from the terror of being manipulated by someone with more power than them. I thought that was what America was founded on, but I don’t see many Americans today outwardly embracing that concept for people other than themselves or their immediate fold.

I know that, realistically, the negative aspects of human nature will always be inherent in some and that those who find pleasure in using their power to abuse others will always seek a way to do so. But I still like to imagine what would happen if everyone who cared about the maltreatment of others spoke up and actually did something about it. The dreamer in me wants to believe it could change the way people are treated around the world. I know that, no matter how much I speak out against cruel treatment of people on my own, there will likely be plenty of others to overwhelm my voice with their indifference. And I believe that these quiet bystanders will be responsible for providing my daughter with a lifetime of opportunity—around the world and right here at home—to document the aftermath of atrocities caused by their silence.

© 2014 – 2021 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved

No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Julie Ryan.