The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

Make America Kind Again

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I have always believed that my country is built on kindness for the most part. Certainly there have always been mean, evil and violent people, but in truth they have lived on the fringes of society. To a large extent they have been rightly or wrongly ignored up until recently. There have also been unjust policies in the history of our country, but we have always seemed to eventually rid ourselves of them and attempted to be fair. Lately, however, being fair, calm, kind seems almost out of style. We all too often judge someone who is quiet or willing to hear all sides of an argument and even change as someone who is wimpy or without moral compass. Our admiration tends toward the fighters among us, the more belligerent souls who seemingly take delight in tearing people down and hurling insults at those with whom they disagree. Large numbers of the population of the United States see them as people of great strength and more and more often their ways are being emulated by even our young.

My nature is to be quiet and respectful. I am always willing to listen to all aspects of a particular situation. I am quite flexible and open to changes even of myself. I suppose that I may be viewed as someone who is not particularly strong, but I know when I need to be tough and I have exhibited grit whenever life demanded it from me. For the most part I have tried to never be unkind to even those who have hurt me. Instead I honestly attempt to understand why they felt they needed to be ugly. I generally find that such tortured souls are hurting inside, and their taunts are more often than not a disguise in which they hide their own weaknesses.

The most courageous people that I have ever known whether through personal experience or the study of history have been persons who possess what I see as all of the finest human qualities. They have eschewed boastfulness and attempted to be infinitely fair. They are rarely guilty of deliberately hurting another. Often they are quite humble and unwilling to boast of their own accomplishments. I admire them because I see them as being the very sort of people that we might use more of in today’s divisive and insult ridden environment. I believe that the last thing we need are bullies and loud mouths. It’s time that we search for those who honestly strive to be of service to humanity rather than themselves.

In the final months and weeks of his life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. grieved over evidence that there were still so many people who believed that his adherence to nonviolence was a weak way to solve problems. He admitted to his own frustrations but held on to his insistence that it would only be through passive resistance that we would ultimately find a way of living together in unity. His focus was on looking to a future about which he often dreamed. He understood he might never see perfection but he still saw a vision of a promised land and it was not marred by divisions and hatefulness.

One of the most telling aspects of John McCain’s character came when he was running for president against Barack Obama. I’ll never forget when a woman accused President Obama of vile things and McCain immediately corrected her, insisting that Obama was a good man and explaining that he only disagreed with Obama on how to get things done. Some saw that as being wishy washy. I saw it as being akin to the courage that he demonstrated when he was a prisoner of war. Senator McCain became a great man in my eyes at that moment and for the rest of his life he did not disappoint me in that regard even though there where times when I did not agree with his political ideas.

I feel the same about Senator Mitt Romney. People attacked him for his willingness to change his stance on certain issues in the light of changing times and new information. Frankly I think that anyone who is so hard headed that he/she will not budge even when data clearly demonstrates wrong thinking is somewhat irrational. I am wary of such people because I have found over and over again that very little in this life is etched in stone. There are exceptions to virtually every rule or argument and being open to ideas is in fact a sign of strength, not weakness.

In our last presidential election I honestly felt that neither candidate sincerely cared more about the people than themselves. The result of that contest has lead us to a low point in our nation’s history, but I fear that if things had been different it may not have been any better. Now we have a room full of candidates vying to see who can be the most audacious and many of them attack the very principals and characteristics of each other that I find the most genuine. They appear to be taking a page from the playbook of boastful loud mouths and that worries me intensely.

I believe that bullies, mass shooters, racists, and other vile individuals are an aberration. They do not represent our country and yet they are getting the center of the stage, and foolish people seeking power accuse the rest of us of being complicit in creating them. There is a media push to make us believe that the ugliness that we see is commonplace and typical of certain groups of people. The truth is that what the vast majority want is to make America kind again. If we manage to do that then it will also be great. Kindness does not mean allegiance to one political party or another. It means looking for good men and women who respect and understand us without rancor for those with whom they disagree. It means looking for humble and flexible people who are courageous enough to admit when they are wrong. Surely there are many such souls in our ranks. Now is the time to find them. Let’s insist on making America kind again.

Tiny Gestures

It’s been a very difficult summer for many of my family members and friends. I have watched as they experienced health problems, deaths, emotional and financial struggles, and even the loss of trust. It’s always difficult to know what to say or do in such situations. I find myself searching for wisdom and feeling uncomfortable in my feeble efforts to make them feel better when I truthfully know that they need time to heal in either body or mind. All I can offer is a hug, a shoulder to cry on, perhaps a card or some flowers. All of these gestures help to demonstrate that someone cares, but the journey needed to heal the scars is often far longer than we might hope. Because of that those of us who truly care must be willing to stay with the wounded for the long haul.

I know a man who lost his adult son several years ago. It was a devastating blow to him from which he has yet to recover. Somehow I was foolishly believing that there should be a kind of time limit on his grief after which he should be able to proclaim to all of us that he is fine and ready to move forward. I mentioned this to a childhood friend with whom I was reuniting after more than fifty years. She smiled patiently at me and then explained that she too had lost a son, a tragedy that still left a hole in her heart that has never quite healed. She told me just to accept that the man about whom I was worried is reacting in the most normal of ways.

I don’t know why I expected more of the grief stricken father than I do of myself. In truth I still have moments when I cry for my father who died over sixty years ago. So many things remind me of him and I feel a deep longing in my heart just to see and hear and touch him one more  time. On Friday evenings I think of my mother and how we used to spend the launch of the weekend laughing and enjoying good food and adventure together. Even things that used to mildly annoy me about her now seem so wonderful. I’d love to have her come to my house unannounced honking her horn to tell me that she has come to tempt me to accompany her on some silly adventure. So it is with countless people who were once so important in my life but are now gone.

Our humanity is grounded in our emotions. When we open our hearts to truly love someone it is painful beyond measure to lose them. We push ourselves to carry on as we must, but in the deep recesses of our minds it feels as though a little piece of us has been stolen. We never again feel quite the same.

So too it is when we have to face a devastating illness. I remember one of my neighbors speaking of his loss of confidence when he had to live from day to day with the specter of being incapacitated. He said that his pain and his fears sometimes dominated his every thought. He sometimes felt as though people were avoiding him because they felt uncomfortable seeing him as a shell of his former self. The best of his friends were those able to just accept his new reality and still enjoy his company.

People who are in the depths of depression are quite possibly the most difficult to console. Their darkness of mind is frightening both to them and to anyone who loves them. It is tempting to just shake them and insist that they snap out of their melancholy, but in truth such tactics never work. Instead we can remind them of their worth and of how much we love them while also urging them to get professional help to still the terrors that threaten to destroy their minds, but we can’t ask them to just will themselves to get better.

I have an aunt who is one hundred years old. She called my mom every single day and lovingly modeled the kind of comfort that anyone in a crisis needs. When my father died she was the first to come to our house just to be with my mother. She gave no advice, but simply was there with her loving heart. Over the years as my mom had episode after episode of depression and mania it was my aunt who listened to her paranoid ravings in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours. She was my mother’s crisis hotline, open twenty four hours a day offering love and comfort.

We might all take a cue from my aunt. Just being that one person that someone can take for granted is the greatest form of solace that we might ever offer. Heartbreaks and grief that last a lifetime are a normal part of our humanity. We can’t really fix those things, but we can be a refuge whenever the pain becomes too intense.

Think of someone you know who is struggling in one way or another. Give them a call. Drop them a note. Send them some flowers. Each tiny gesture tells them that someone understands.

Don’t “Love” Things

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We are in one of those cycles where everything we own is breaking down. In just the last few weeks we’ve had a repairman out to replace the heating element in our oven and even as I write this we are replacing our nineteen year old air conditioning system. What’s truly funny is that most of the houses on my block were built in the same year and now I watch the various trucks bringing specialists to repair or replace items similar to those with which we have also had problems. All things wear out. It is inevitable.

I went to Catholic schools and I recall the nuns telling us that we should not love inanimate objects. It was supposedly bad grammar to imply that we felt an emotional attachment to stuff. Instead we were instructed to simply say that we liked things or enjoyed owning them. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that admonition. It causes me to think a bit more intently about becoming attached to possessions. In the final analysis they do not define who we are and we most certainly can’t bring any of them with us when we die unless we choose to build burial chambers like the ancient Egyptians. Even then none of our belongings do anything other than just sit until some archeologist digs them up. Perhaps the nuns were right to correct our thinking by requiring us to use words indicative of giving objects less value than people.

During a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I walked through a number of antique shops with my daughter and grandchildren. We enjoy perusing the aisles of things that once belonged to strangers. I often find myself wondering what their stories were and why they eventually ended up being sold rather than treasured. Perhaps there was just too much left behind when some soul died. Now they sit in dusty warehouses bearing price tags and waiting for someone to find enough interest in them to take them to a new home. There is something a bit dreary about that, and yet I also see folks smiling with delight if they find an item that tickles them. I suppose that recycling yesterday’s treasures can be a good thing.

My own home is filled with objects that once belonged to a departed family member. I have become a kind of curator for the history of the family. I inherited that task from my mother-in-law who was able to tell a story about most of the items that she owned. Now I am the keeper of the tales. My grandchildren have suggested that I take photos and attach comments or create a video that will alert them to the personal value of the various items that fill my rooms. I suppose that means that they too would like to keep some of the more special things, not so much for value but as reminders of the journey of our family over time. With my two daughters and seven grandchildren I would like to think that the most important of the pieces will find a new resting place once I am gone. Perhaps my nieces and nephews might enjoy a trinket or two as well.

The things are not the people, but they nonetheless tell a story of them. Through the various objects I get a glimpse of the times in which they lived and the colors and styles that they liked. I can run my fingers over a table top or hold a dish and feel a connection to the past in knowing that my ancestors once used them. I find a kind of spirituality in the scratches and wear and tear. It is as though a tiny part of the people who used them lingers.

I now have the oak table on which my mother-in-law served me tea on so many Sundays. She imparted her loving wisdom over steaming cups of Earl Grey. She taught me so many valuable life lessons as we sat together. She outlined the history of her life and that of her family, a group that was adventurous and hardy. Her aunt had owned the table before her, and prior to that it had belonged to a lady who sold her house and all of its furniture so that she might go live with her daughter. That table has had a great run and even now I use it for big family gatherings and my own little tea parties. It is so much more than just a hunk of wood.

My mother and father were married at a little church in College Station, Texas near the campus of Texas A&M University. They had no guests or receptions. It was just the two of them pledging their love to one another. They moved into an upstairs bedroom that they rented from one of the professors and began their lives together with little more than a wing and a prayer. My father began to purchase silver place settings for my mother one piece at a time according to what he was able to afford. He chose a pattern called “First Love” for her and little by little presented her with enough to use for a nice gathering. The very last thing that he bought for my mother before he died was a set of ice tea spoons that he was going to present to her on their eleventh wedding anniversary. I remember that my mom and I both cried when she opened the lovely box wrapped in silver paper. To me that silver speaks volumes of my father’s love for my mother and the thoughtfulness that was so much a part of his character. The set is one of my most precious treasures and it gives me great joy to share it at special dinners with family and friends.

I have a small collection of enamel ware that came from my Slovakian grandmother. She used the bowls each Christmas Eve to hold oranges and nuts for our annual party at her house. When she died my mother and her siblings allowed me to choose a few items from her home. I took a couple of books that had belonged to my grandfather and those enamel bowls and coffee cups that will forever remind me of her.

So while I agree that we should not love things, I also know that some of them are incredible keepsakes that have far more meaning than might be apparent. I genuinely hope that the most wonderful among them will never be relegated to a dreary antique store waiting to be enjoyed once again. I’d like to believe that their stories will live on in the homes of my children, grandchildren and maybe even my great grandchildren. They were once rather profoundly used in moments of great love by the people who came before me, and that is what makes them pricelessly meaningful. 

A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Most of my life has been dedicated to educating young people. Even though I am no longer in the classroom I still teach mathematics to a number of teens including my grandchildren. As an educator and mom I always felt duty bound to address both the academic and emotional needs of the young folk who are in my charge. I take my responsibility to care for them quite seriously. Most do just fine, but now and again I encounter an individual who is gravely troubled. Some of those sorts are actually scary. I sense that they are so disturbed that they are capable of outbursts that are harmful. It is difficult to reach them and so I confer with their parents who almost always admit that they are afraid of their own son or daughter. Things rarely end well with such teens and I always have a sense of defeat in such cases even though I have gone to great lengths to help.

I remember one student in particular who has always haunted me. He had been sent from one household to another from a very young age in an effort to improve his behavior. He found a measure of solace with his grandparents where he lived a quiet life on a farm. Things began to turn around for him during that time and he was calmer and happier than he had ever been. Sadly his grandmother had a heart attack and died. His grandfather felt unable to care for him alone. He was sent back to his mother who was struggling with her own emotions. He spiraled down into a state of depression and anger that resulted in violent outbursts both at home and at school. His mother and step father admitted that they were so fearful of him that they took turns sleeping lest he kill them while they slept. His mother sincerely loved her boy and wanted to help him but had no idea what to do.

It literally made me cry to think of how horrific it was to be that young man. I wondered what sickening thoughts raced through his mind. I worried less about what he might do in my classroom and more about what might ultimately become of him. He and I bonded somehow and I spent many hours in conferences with him and his mother hoping to help them both to resolve his many issues. They took my advice to find professional help but the road to the boy’s recovery was long and twisted. Even after he left my care I often thought of him and found a measure of solace in not hearing reports of his downfall or demise. I told myself that in his case no news was probably good news. I like to think  that he found his way and is living a good and loving life.

Our news feeds are littered these days with stories of violence and terrorism. In so many cases the individuals perpetrating such destruction are young men who are filled with abusive anger. They have allied themselves with groups that practice hate and vengeance against societies that they believe have somehow betrayed them. They convince one another that their heinous acts are justified. They are generally miserable loners who feel uncomfortable in normal circumstances. The demons that rage in their heads tell them that the loathing that they feel is reason enough for  killing. They do not see their victims as innocents, but rather as part of a vast horde that has abandoned them and left them to make their way alone.

If we are to deal with the issue of mass shootings it will take far more than simply enacting some legislation to curb the sale of guns or to arm and secure ourselves. We have to strive to get to the root causes of the hatred that foments instances of random killings. We have to use many different means to forestall such violence before it erupts. That will require vigilance and a willingness to provide necessary treatments and interventions for those who sit stewing on the fringes of society.

It is not difficult to identify such persons. In virtually any school or work setting or neighborhood where they reside there are observant people who know of their potential to blow a fuse at any moment. We all need to agree to alert authorities whenever we sense that something about an individual is not quite right. We can no longer afford to ignore the signs because in virtually every case of a mass shooting there have been people who worried about the perpetrators. It’s time that we take their concerns seriously. The red flags that go up in our minds must be investigated and as a society we are bound to take action before really bad things happen.

There were teachers and students and parents who complained to school administrators and law enforcement about the two young men who killed at Columbine. The mother of the shooter at the elementary school in Connecticut had told friends that she needed help dealing with her son. Many who knew the killer in the recent El Paso attack recounted instances in which he had expressed his desire to do violence on others. Somehow nothing was done in any of these cases until it was too late. Perhaps it is because we often worry more about infringing on the rights of a single individual rather than the safety of the many. Perhaps the time has come to crack down hard on any form of threatening behavior.

We also need to be more aware of the kinds of groups that preach hatred and violence and do everything we can to eliminate their influence particularly on our young. They search for individuals who are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. They prey on the anger and feelings of abandonment that such souls often have. We all must be aware of the existence of such organizations and root them out. They must be condemned for the hatred that is theirs.

As a nation we must also begin to tone down our own disagreements with one another. Of late I have found it painful to watch our supposed leaders behaving with such a lack of honor and decorum. Our young are watching and sadly emulating, and lest anyone think that the bad form is coming from only one person or party or direction I would respectfully submit that it has found a place on all sides. There are too many people dusting up anger in efforts to gain power or viewers or business of some kind. The divisiveness is tearing us apart and fomenting violence in unstable people. It’s time that all good men and women do their part to encourage us to come together. The old saw that a house divided will not stand is still very true. Anger and violence whether in word or deed only begets more anger and violence. Our rhetoric and tribalism must end. Generalities are not only useless but may become lethal. It’s time we insist on a return to kindness.