Shades of Gray

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Years ago a friend of mine decided to enlist a professional decorator to help her enhance the appearance of her home. The artist walked through the house quietly looking around, picking up items now and again, jotting down observations. When she had completed her tour she sat down with my friend and bluntly asked, “How much of this junk are you willing to remove?”

There was a stunned silence as my friend attempted to understand exactly what the designer had just asked her. “All of it has to stay,” was her halting reply. “These are my family’s things. We use everything that you see. They have special meanings to us. I just need you to add some color, move a few things around, arrange our belongings in a more inviting way. The books, music, mementoes and such are part of who we are. They have to be incorporated into your plan.”

With a look of unadulterated disgust the interior artist suddenly stood up while putting away her notebook and pen. She announced with an arrogant emphasis, “I can’t help you. I can’t do a thing for you if you are unwilling to completely change the way things look around here. This is too much. You need to find someone else or do it yourself.”

My friend likes to tell everyone that she was stunned into a state of silence as the decorator promptly left. Later she did all of the rearranging and painting by herself and the results were quite lovely. She realized in that moment that she had chosen all of the things that seemed like clutter to the designer, and they were more than just junk. They were pieces of her family’s history.

I was reminded of this story when I recently read one of those click bait articles that often appear on Facebook. The topic was how to know when your home decorating is no longer trendy. The author consulted with respected interior designers to determine how to know when things go out of style. The entire essay came across as being snooty and out of touch with the realities of ordinary people. It insisted that kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are already passé. It further suggested that homes done in shades of gray and white are hopelessly behind the times. The author knocked the country look, anything resembling a Chip and Joana home, items purchased at Target, Edison light bulbs and so on. The words reeked of the same kind of arrogance that my friend had endured in her one encounter with a professional. The comments from Facebook users tore the suggestions apart, with readers hurling their fury at the unrealistic haughtiness of the writer.

I had to laugh because according to the article my home should be in the “what not to do” hall of fame. Nonetheless I really like the way things look around here. Every inch of my space tells a story about people I have known and places that I have been. The walls are filled with art that either reminds me of trips that I have taken or friends and relatives who created the work for me. I have books in every room that touched my soul as I read them. The furniture is an eclectic mix of inherited antiques and comfortable modern pieces that I like. There are colors that make me happy, not those that happen to be in style. I have plants scattered about that bring in the outdoors and magazines waiting to be read. There is a lovely memory everywhere that I glance, right down to the heart shaped rock that my grandchildren discovered on a back backing hike that I shared with them in the mountains of Colorado. I am more than content with what I see because my environment is personal and meaningful. I never feel as though I am in a hotel or someone else’s space.

I certainly have no trouble with the idea of incorporating suggestions from someone who has studied color, fabric, furniture, proportion and such. I regularly read Southern Living and watch HGTV now and again. I have items from Target and Home Goods but I also sometimes splurge on something special from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. I consider my purchases carefully most of the time, but it can be fun to bring something whimsical into the picture, and I almost always find a lasting memento to add to my collection when I take a trip. I have a giant pine cone from California and a lovely print of a sailing ship from Cape Cod. A cobalt blue pitcher that was handblown in Estes Park, Colorado adorns my dining room, and prints of Savannah, Georgia hang in the living room. When I see these things I recall the fun that I shared with my family. They allow me to relive such grand moments again and again.

Decorating is a very personal thing, and I suspect that a truly gifted designer understands that. Years ago when my mother in law was redoing a grand old home she enlisted the help of a professional who wisely surveyed the items that would be used as well as the color palette that my mother in law preferred. Mostly the work of creating a pleasing environment involved incorporating my mother in law’s taste into the final product. The result was picture perfect and best of all it reflected the personality of the owners of the home, not the person who would never live there.

Decorating is fun, but it needn’t be expensive or impersonal. The best homes are the ones that instantly capture the essence of the people who reside inside. A great house is warm and inviting. If done right it doesn’t matter if it is gray or filled with a rainbow of colors, clean and sleek or crowded with interesting accessories. The most important goal of decorating should be to make the people who live there feel warm and comfortable and happy. Once that is accomplished nothing else really matters.

By the way…I really do like the style of Chip and Joanna, my appliances are stainless steel, I often shop at Target, and I still have some Edison lightbulbs. So there…!

The Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along. 

Being Kind To The Unkind

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The real test is being kind to unkind people.

I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall and it spoke to me. I believe that it is difficult for any of us to demonstrate courtesy and compassion to someone who is unlikeable in the way in which they treat others. As I considered the idea of being kind to unkind people I thought of a man who lived near my family when I was about six or seven years old. His house was across the street from ours, situated on the corner of the block. The location was such that people constantly passed in front of his home which he meticulously kept in a lovely state. He was particularly proud of his grass which adorned his lawn like a thick green carpet. He was continually fertilizing, trimming, and watering. It appeared to be more than just a hobby. It was an obsession, and his efforts paid off because there was no yard as beautiful as his.

There were many children who lived nearby. Virtually every residence was filled with boisterous and happy kids, but the man had only his wife. For reasons that seemed strange to me they had no offspring, and so the man focused hours and hours of attention on his gardening. Because he was unaccustomed to the habits of youngsters he seemed almost afraid of us as we ran up and down laughing and being a bit louder than we probably should have been. He glared at us whenever we passed his way, and woe be unto us if we took the liberty of trodding on his grass. He would howl dire warnings, yelling and screaming that we should never again desecrate his yard with our dirty feet. We received his message with a combination of fear and loathing, thinking him to be a vile creature. We literally hated him, but were also so scared that we took to walking in the street to get past his place rather than tempting the fates by staying on the sidewalk.

I remember complaining to my mother one day, vowing that my friends and I would find a way to show him what it felt like to be treated so badly. I spoke of our loathing for our neighbor, feeling totally justified in my assessment of the situation. My mom listened patiently and then suggested that perhaps the man had reasons for his behavior that we did not know. She urged me not to be unkind but rather to simply be respectful of his wishes, and to be as friendly and kind as I might have been had he been more pleasant.

It was a difficult assignment and I was unable to convince my friends to join me in overlooking the angry threats that he had hurled at us. I was on my own and it was admittedly a frightening place to be, but I slowly began to be neighborly each time I saw the surly guy. I would wave, smile and shout a hello. I would gingerly walk along the sidewalk making it very clear that I was doing my best to be careful. When he was working on the landscaping I complimented his efforts and told him how nice it felt to live across from such a beautiful expanse. Once I even offered to help, knowing that I would no doubt be turned down.

As time passed the man’s demeanor began to change. He would exchange greetings with me and ask me how I was doing. He began to bring vegetables from his backyard garden to our home when he would talk with my mother and tell her how lovely it was to watch the children in the neighborhood having so much fun. He revealed that he and his wife had been unable to have children, but had always hoped that a miracle would bring a child to them. He had been sad and angry that their prayers had been denied, and he had thrown his energies into creating a kind of garden of eden to make his wife happy.

I learned at that very young age that those who are unkind often have become so because of circumstances that overwhelm them. We never really know what someone is experiencing when they are mean and hateful. While their actions may be aimed at us, they are often symptomatic of some deep seated pain that they don’t know how to heal. They are angry at the world, and maybe even themselves. As their tempers increase, so too does their isolation become ever more intense. They create a vicious cycle that leaves them unloved and lonely. When those around them pay back their surliness with compassion, sometimes they begin to change.

Our society is enduring an era of meanness. We seem to equate anger with toughness. As with a playground brawl we have people trying to outdo one another with insults and even threats. There are those who answer what they see as injustice with rudeness and suggestions of violence. None of those things will do much more than raise the level of heated argument. It is only when we stay calm and offer peaceful resolutions to problems that we stand a chance of making positive changes.

Being kind to unkind people is very hard indeed. Our instinct is to follow the dictates of “an eye for an eye.” We would prefer turning our backs on such people, avoiding them at all cost. It is only when we at least attempt to follow our better natures that we can feel assured that we have done the right thing. If our efforts are spurned, or if the person only becomes worse we most certainly should simply walk away. Never, however, is it right to join in the fray. We only demean ourselves when we go down into the gutter with unpleasant people.

I’m genuinely hoping and praying that the current tendencies toward street fighting among rivals will be a phase that has soon passed. It does little to solve problems and we certainly have our share of those. We can pat ourselves on the back for spending most of our days being kind to people who return the favor, but we should be especially proud whenever we are able to be caring to someone who has been disagreeable to us. We never change minds or personalities with viciousness. That only leads to schisms and sometimes even wars. Our best bet is to smile and reach out a hand of understanding and warmth. Most people will respond and we may learn something new and important in the process.

Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

To Infinity and Beyond

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Dear Mr. President,

I hear that you want to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the Department of Defense. I’m not sure what particulars that you have in mind, so I wanted to make a few comments and ask a few questions. First and foremost I simply wonder why such a step even seems necessary. I mean it’s not as if space is suddenly crowded with military type drills that threaten the world. The International Space Station is perhaps one of the greatest and most peaceful joint ventures ever attempted, a scientific research lab for the world if you will. It appears to be doing fine without need of defense, and I don’t see enemy nations attempting to overtake it any time soon. It takes quite a bit of public effort to get there, so we shouldn’t have to worry that there will be some sort of stealth invasion in the near future.

Does this mean that the Pentagon will have to become the Hexagon? Can we really afford to spend taxpayers funds to rebuild when we have a perfectly good space campus right here in Houston, Texas called NASA? In case nobody told you we actually have a nice layout that is already staffed with engineers and scientists and even some well trained astronauts who are tan, fit and ready to travel into outer space. The unit has been a bit neglected of late with lowered funding curtailing their activities, but they have a fairly impressive resume of accomplishments. They’ve sent men to the moon more than once and they have already managed to get live photo feeds from Mars. Would these guys become the first Space Cadets? As the originator of the Space Force might you become Space Cadet in Chief?

I hear that your generals are against this plan. It seems that they are up to their eyeballs in wartime efforts here on earth and don’t feel that they have either the manpower or the finances to begin such a daunting project. Besides, they are not totally sure about the purpose of such a grand move. They are a bit befuddled by the suddenness of the announcement and the vagueness of the details. They worry about using human and monetary resources when the need might be better met by other governmental agencies. Is there really a demand to defend space, and do you understand that the universe is a really big place. Are you willing to expand our military to infinity and beyond?

I find myself wondering if you know something that the rest of us don’t know. Is there finally proof that aliens have indeed been to visit earth? If so, are there plans to include rules for them in future immigration plans? Will we need to confer and collaborate with other nations since this would be a worldwide problem? If so, then perhaps you may want to make nice with the members of G7 since you dissed them a bit at the last conference. Then again I wonder if you are attempting to keep aliens from coming here or if your plan is to keep most of the world from going into space. Will all of this necessitate a wall? What will it look like and what are your enforcement plans?

My guess is that there may actually be young people who would like to become members of the Space Force since becoming an astronaut is so difficult. Will there be local recruiting stations or will the troops be created from those in the five branches of the military that already exist? Has anyone come up with an idea for a uniform, a song, and maybe even an academy? Will there be annual football games featuring Army vs. Space? It sounds as though there is some potential for a great deal of fun along with the hard work.

I know that our veterans are struggling in so many ways. Do you think that you will be able to improve life for them while still generating enough interest and funding for a whole new branch? Just sayin…

My understanding of the Constitution is that Congress will have to approve such a change. Have you discussed the issues and possibilities with them or was this simply one of your spur of the moment ideas that popped out of your mouth without aforethought? I’m not trying to be rude, I was just taken by surprise and I wonder if the members of the House and Senate may have felt the same way. With so many real issues to tackle does this actually appear to be the right time for something that surely can wait until things are a bit calmer? I mean, we are rather overwhelmed these days paying for seven hundred dollar a night shelters for immigrants among other things.

Finally I just have to ask because it is driving me crazy. Is it even remotely possible that you are in fact a representative from another planet? I’m a very observant person and there are times when you don’t seem to be one of us. You struggle with the English language and your ideas are often way out there. I often find myself scratching my head in wonderment that you are so disconnected to the realities right here on earth. There is a different kind of nature about you that I at first attributed to the fact that you grew up in a kind of bubble inside a wealthy home in New York City, but what if you are indeed the first of many from a world to come. After all you do have a kind of hypnotic effect on many people who are willing to support you almost mindlessly. It reminds me a bit of old sci-fi movies like The Invasion of The Body Snatchers”

Anyway, I would love to have a few more details about the Space Force as I’m sure most Americans and citizens of the rest of world would as well. Please keep us informed insofar as possible. Be aware the big moves done too quickly tend to freak us out. Also remember that you are not supposed to be singlehandedly changing the face of the nation. Your job is to manage what is already here and to work with the duly designated lawmakers in Congress. I sometimes think that you have become a bit confused in that regard.