Be Still and Hear

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Christmas is my favorite time of year but it is also when I get more stressed out than normal. I push myself to follow routines and traditions that make me soar with happiness and yet I find it less and less easy to be the old energetic self that manages to get every single thing done without a hitch. Filling my calendar with a “to do” list that keeps me buzzing along hour after hour leaves me anxious and aching in ways that I never experienced when I was younger. It’s difficult for me to admit that I can’t work without rest for twelve hours while attempting to make my home a wonderland worthy of Martha Stewart. It irks me that doing so leaves me exhausted and even crippled and angry at myself. I don’t want to be one of those old ladies who suddenly announces that I’m only going to have a tiny ceramic Christmas tree this year and call it a day. Still, I wonder if I am missing the point of the season when I work myself into a physical and mental frenzy. It is only when I sit quietly beside the lights of the Christmas tree and meditate on the scene of the manger figures that my mother gave me long ago that I feel the essence of the true joy of Christmas.

I’m not becoming a Scrooge or a grouchy old woman. I still love all of the senseless frivolities of Christmas, but as I grow older I feel more and more reverence for the reason of the season. It is breathtaking to realize that two thousand years later so many in this world are still influenced by the life and the teachings of a man whose beginnings were so humble. How is it and why is it that millions and millions have believed in his message of hope and love and faith? Why does letting him into my heart bring me so much peace?

Christianity is built on a mystery that some find impossible to accept while I find it impossible to deny. Jesus has walked beside me through horrific times when I truly felt that I might never find the strength to continue and yet here I am, still inching my way through life one step at a time. I somehow know that it has been Jesus who has provided me with the will to persevere. It is he who has listened to my most private concerns and given me the courage to keep going. It is he who has shown me how to see the beauty of this world and its people. From him I have found great joy in ordinary circumstances. When I still my heart and listen I am able to be a better version of myself than I ever thought possible.

The world can be terrifying these days, but probably no more so than when Jesus walked on the dusty roads of the Holy Land. We humans often make a mess of things, even the messages that he gave us. We have a difficult time accepting differences and seeing beyond the superficial. We judge and compare and do all of those things that have caused hurt and pain. We fret when things don’t go the way we want, growing angry even at God. we sometimes don’t think we even need a higher power to help us. We are after all quite inventive and able to stand on our own feet. We grow proud and unwilling to believe that it is possible that we have gotten things wrong and  we forget that Jesus gave us only one guarantee and that is that if we believe what he had to say by trusting him and loving our fellowman our rewards will be immeasurable.

It’s a simple but difficult concept to trust, to keep the faith, to love unconditionally. Mankind is impatient, doubting. We want proof and somehow we require that proof to being devoid of pain or sorrow When it is not, we despair and forget to watch for the signs of God’s presence in the smallest of things like the babbling of a baby or the rising of the sun. All we need do is be still and listen for his voice and we will feel the power of his teachings, we will know that he is never far from us. What better time of year is there to quiet ourselves so that we might feel his presence?

I know that there are many more religions than the one that Jesus inspired. I truly believe that God has been revealed in many different ways to many different cultures. The Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Mormon are all fellow travelers on a journey that is fraught with both difficulties and joys. From what I know of Jesus he would ask us to love one another in spite of our differences. He would want us to embrace even those who scoff at the very idea of faith in a God. I find that inspiring and the essence of what this season should be.

I try to listen the the quiet each day and ask Jesus to enter my heart. His voice grows ever louder whenever I do. I feel great joy and hear his command to love. He reminds me constantly not to judge or hate or worry about my fate. I feel only trust that all will be well, that Christmas will continue to celebrate the love that was born on that day of long ago. We will be alright in spite of ourselves because he has shown us how to live.

When Heaven and Earth Collide

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Our society places a high value on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects. We no doubt need the knowledge and advances in those fields and I tend to believe that the very future of the world will unfold through the ingenuity of the people who are skillful in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. We live far more comfortably than our ancestors because of the innate curiosity and genius of our left brained brethren. Nonetheless, we all too often underestimate the value of individuals with an artistic bent. We urge our talented painters, dancers and musicians to follow a “more practical and useful” pathway as though there is something less than about the ability to create more abstract inventions of art. I would argue that humankind is often at the apex of intellect whenever we move beyond the concrete of time and space and into the incredible universe of artistic imagination. The truth is that we need both our STEM leaders and the individuals who bring us so much pleasure with the arts.

Humans are quite breathtaking in abilities and it is often through our artistic expressions that we leap toward the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician and scientist but his paintings are the works that remind us of how truly awesome he was. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo timelessly evoke our other worldly longings. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber takes us to places that we might otherwise never have imagined and tugs on our emotions to leave us in tears of joy and pleasure. Watching Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in White Nights is sheer bliss that reminds us of how beautiful our very bodies can be.

I have always been awed by the ways in which we humans transcend our most basic needs to become creators of stunning works of art. I have often wondered what in our natures caused us to scratch out pictures on the walls of a cave. How is it that we realized that our very vocal chords were musical instruments? Why do we take such joy in using and twisting words to convey new meanings? What is it about us that prompts us to experiment with color and sights and sounds?

What truly separates us from the animals is the way that we use our minds and we don’t seem to be satisfied with merely building structures to protect us from the harshness of the elements. We want to decorate our abodes with artifacts that add a sense of individuality. We fill our lives with music, sculptures, paintings, dance, books, plays that strive to explain just who we humans are. We share an essential need to express ourselves. It is in our very DNA, and yet of late we tend to dismiss the artists and artistic contributions to society as being a notch below the work of our talented STEM citizens.

Try to imagine a world without art of any kind. Think of a totally utilitarian existence devoid of music, singing, visual arts, make believe. Only the colors of nature would surround us. Our minds would be focused on being ever practical. How dreary life would be. How frustrated many among us would become. Without artistic expression so much beauty would suddenly disappear. It is almost unbearable to consider.

There was a time when geniuses of all varieties were treasured. The era of the Renaissance enshrined all forms of human inventiveness. It almost seems as though the coming of the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in the way we view human talents. In the present day we tend to place more of a premium on STEM than on the arts. We scoff at a young man who majors in Creative Writing but admire one who follows a pathway to science. We are in awe of the mathematics teacher but believe that dance teachers are expendable in times of tight budgets. We constantly undervalue those with artistic talent and attempt to force our young to pursue the occupations that we deem more useful.

The miracle of humanity is that we are a species of great variety with brains that are capable of incredible thought. Some of us excel in STEM and others delight in the arts. If we are truly honest we will encourage our young to find themselves wherever that might lead. We will applaud not just the stars of the artistic world but anyone who is willing to make our lives more beautiful through art.

I was asked to describe my favorite work of art and I found that task to be impossible. How can I possibly narrow down my choice to a single artifact when there are so many incredible creations that fill my mind with profound appreciation? My home is filled with art in the form of music, books, movies, sculpture, paintings. I dance with joy in the sheer beauty of each day that is made better with the countless creations of the human mind. I am in awe of those who rise to the level of genius whether it be to build a driverless car or create a play that touches our souls. Art is the expression of our souls, the incarnation of heaven on earth.

Sleep At Night

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By nature I am a quiet person, an introvert who prefers to travel through life unnoticed. Rocking the boat is uncomfortable to me and yet I am unable to simply sit back silently ignoring injustices that I see unfolding around me. For whatever reason I often find myself in situations in which I feel compelled to speak out for some individual or cause that appears to need my voice. The people that I most admire are those who are willing to go against the grain when situations require courage. My heroes are invariably the ones who were willing to sacrifice for the issues that they deemed more important than their own safety and comfort.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke of such souls in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, an homage to those who do what they believe to be right and just even as the consequences for themselves are difficult. My grandfather guided me with his own stories of strong individuals that he had encountered during his long lifetime of over a hundred years. As I entered high school he gave me the gift of a book entitled Great Lives, Great Deeds that recounted the bravery of historical figures who bucked the thinking of their times by seeking justice for the downtrodden. I suppose that my own need to do the right thing incubated over time as I witnessed extraordinary acts from ordinary people and realized how even small examples of kindness have the power to change lives.

When I was in high school my classmates elected me as their representative on the Student Council. I was admittedly so shy that I did little more than attend the meetings and rubber stamp the decisions that more confident students suggested. Back then I was more of an observer than an activist. It was not until I was twenty years old and I found myself responsible for the health and safety of my mother and brothers that I develop the backbone and the grit to speak my mind. I was essentially forced to be the spokesperson for my family when my mother had her first terrifying break from reality due to her bipolar disorder. In the space of mere days I had to overcome my many fears.

What I learned from my first foray into adulthood is that I indeed had a forceful voice that I could use to get things done. I drew on the example of the strongest people that I knew and would be forever inspired by the sacrifices and compassion of my mother’s best friend, Edith, who was one of the few people willing to stand by my side and help me to get the medical care that my mother needed even though it meant straining her once strong relationship with my mother. She taught me firsthand how powerful love can be.

Somehow I became more and more aware of all of the troubles that abound in our world and I began to take small steps to right what I perceived as wrongs. Most of the time such attempts caused few problems for me, but now again I had to face tyrants and irrational situations that left me wounded and scarred. I learned that taking the risk of speaking out was not without consequence but ultimately left me satisfied that I had a purpose.

I once worked at a school that was quite lovely mostly because of the gifted leader who guided the faculty. I had some of my happiest moments as an educator while working for her and she was so accomplished at protecting all of us that I hardly noticed that she was many times fighting battles for our welfare and making enemies in the process.

There eventually came a time when the school board questioned her policies and held a closed door meeting to determine her fate as our principal. I joined forces with a handful of hearty colleagues to show support for her. We went to the meeting hoping to be allowed to speak in her behalf but we were denied access so instead we decided to stay just outside of the conference room until her destiny had been decided. The discussion went on for hours and from time to time members of the committee emerged for a break saying nothing as they took note of our vigil. After what seemed like an eternity they finally voted to keep our beloved administrator and one of the spokesperson came out to tell us that our refusal to leave had swayed their thinking. They realized that anyone capable of engendering such faithfulness was worth keeping in the school.

Sadly the controversy took its toll on our principal and a couple of years later she chose to retire. The board found a new woman to run the campus who ruled with an iron hand and a tendency toward harsh criticism of the faculty that was not balanced with efforts to find positivity in anyone. The very air was heavy with dread and working there became a bitter chore so I decided that I had to do something to foment change.

I attempted to diplomatically speak out for my peers and for my students. I couched my comments in language that was intended to sound helpful. I carefully crafted a kind of history of our experiences at the school along with a polite set of concerns. I had thought that the new leader might benefit from my willingness to help her to see the discontent that was running through the school like a virus. Instead she was furious with me.

She called me to her office and grilled me mercilessly for over six hours without a bathroom break or even a drink of water. She demanded to know the names of teachers who had complained to me and accused me of fomenting rebellion. She filled a legal pad with notes as she grilled me as though I were a suspected felon. It was only when the school day ended that she finally chose to allow me to leave with a stern warning that I needed to mind my own business and let her make decisions as to what was best for the school.

I was devastated and alone. Other teachers attempted to comfort me but expressed their fear of crossing the woman who had treated me like a criminal. I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in attempting to help. I eventually brokered a deal with the principal that I would agree to depart at the end of the semester if she would essentially leave me alone. I had said my piece and there would be no further need for me to provide her with insight into the feelings of the faculty. I refused to give her even one name of the many who had come to me with their concerns.

I left the school with a heavy heart and sense of utter failure. Over time things fell apart there just as I feared they would. Ultimately members of the school board called me to ask for my help in providing grounds for firing the principal. She had run the campus into the ground with a massive turnover of teachers and students, not to mention creating chaos with the budget. What had once been a premier campus was now a hot mess.

Speaking out is not without its rewards and personal satisfaction but sometimes it can be heartbreaking and fraught with trouble. I learned how to do things better from that encounter but I also realized the satisfaction of knowing that I had in truth done what needed to be done. The board told me that my situation had not gone unnoticed and it began a movement to set things right in the school once again. It also led me to a new school where I spent some of the best years of my career. Mostly it allowed me to look at myself in the mirror and provided me with the ability to sleep at night.

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

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Willie Nelson did not look very good at the Country Music Awards earlier this month. He appeared to be having difficulty breathing as he sang Rainbow Connection. It was quite sad to see him struggling to do the very thing for which he has been such a star. Since I had tickets for his performance at the Smart Financial Center on November 18, my birthday, I was rather worried that watching him perform might be a sad occasion marking the beginning of his demise. He is eighty-six after all and not in the best of health. To my great joy the Willie Nelson that I saw that night was beyond spectacular.

From the moment that Willie stepped on the stage he was magical. His gray hair was woven into his trademark braids and he wore nothing fancy at all, just a teeshirt, some jeans, boots and a straw cowboy hat over his signature bandana. His face was carved with the deep wrinkles of time and the adventures and misadventures of his lifetime. His hands were bent and worn but they still made sweet music beat up old guitar, Trigger. His voice was strong, with no sign of the breathing trouble that seemed to plague him only days before. He sounded just like himself and he played with joyful enthusiasm sometimes urging the audience to sing along with him which we happily did.

His playlist included favorites like On the Road Again, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, and Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. He paid homage to old friends like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings with pieces that he had once sang with them. He poked fun at himself and those who believe that his time has passed with songs like Roll Me Up and Smoke When When I Die. He seemed to be having great fun proving the naysayers wrong while at the same time facing his own mortality. There was a bittersweet tone to his performance that brought both smiles and tears.

There were a few lucky folks who received priceless treasures as Willie tossed his cowboy hat into the audience and later threw out some bandanas as well. All of us fans were in awe of his talent and his stage presence. Somehow he made his performance seem so personal, so moving. With an amazing energy he literally went from one song to the next without taking a breather like some artists do. It was all so good that we would have liked to have him perform for hours but we all seemed to know that he had given us his all and when he walked away he looked tired but happy with himself. He enjoyed our adulation while at the same time seeming to be so humble.

Willie Nelson is a Texas treasure. As a young man he went to Nashville only to be told that he just didn’t have the right personality or voice to be a successful performer. Instead he wrote music for other singers, like Patsy Cline who made Crazy an iconic country western tune. Eventually he found his way back to Texas and the Austin music scene where he proved that he was commercially popular as a performer in his own right. In fact, his unique style, melodious voice, and uncanny ability to play the guitar made him a worldwide phenomenon.

Willie has never forgotten his Texas roots. He performs in front of a gigantic Texas flag, lives in Texas, and draws much of his material from his Texas experiences. His band is a family affair with few electronic devices beyond microphones. His little sister is on piano and other siblings and children accompany him as well. All he seems to need to create unforgettable music is his own guitar, a bit of percussion, a harmonica now and again, the piano, a big bass and a few other instruments here and there. Of course there is also his unique voice that is so enticing whether he’s singing about going to pot or describing the joys of love.

I have seen some great performers in my time, but I have to say that Willie Nelson remains at the top of my list. I felt that seeing him on my birthday was a very special gift that I will forevermore cherish. He is beautiful in his very essence. His hands strumming his guitar are a work of art. His face tells as much of a story as the lyrics of his songs. Willie Nelson is pure poetry. The stuff of legends, and I actually got to see him one more time.

As I grow older myself I realize that experiences are the true treasures of our lives. The trips to places far away, the occasions when we see or hear greatness are the things that we will remember at the end of the day. I have been blessed to have had so many wonderful moments. Seeing Willie Nelson is a thrill that will bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it. I wish that there were a way for me to express my undying gratitude to him for all of the joy that he has given me through the years. I love you, Willie andI hope that you will be able to do what you so obviously love to do for a long time more.

Lazy Days

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Writing two hundred sixty blogs a year for at least ten years has stretched my imagination, and no doubt kept my aging brain from turning to mush. Much like a baseball player who participates in hundreds of contests during a season sometimes I hit homers and sometimes I devolve into a slump. I suppose on some days my humble offerings sound a bit like broken records and those who are faithful readers may even wonder if I’m reaching the end of relevance. As I’ve often noted I am like a hunter in deer season, constantly searching for that one topic that will resonate. Today I will embark on a new writing challenge given to me as a gift by my grandson’s lovely girlfriend, Araceli, whom I already view as a cherished family member. She presented me with a book of two hundred writing prompts which should serve me well whenever I sit staring blankly into the air attempting to generate a decent idea for my writing.

The first challenge in the book is to describe my favorite way to spend a lazy afternoon. It’s more difficult for me to speak of such a thing than one might imagine because in truth I don’t often allow myself to just be lazy. When I do, however, it is quite glorious and no doubt rather good for my general health. While I’ve enjoyed a purpose driven life, it’s grand to be aimless now and again, to throw determination and routine to the wind and momentarily live the life of a slug.

I have to confess to enjoying junk food and movies of the kind that turn the body to fat and the brain to mush. Staying in my pajamas all day long is my idea of heaven on earth. Sitting in an easy chair watching rom/coms or mysteries while munching on cheese dip and Doritos is a sinful but glorious pleasure in which I don’t often indulge, but when I do it feels so delightful. On those days I don’t bother with healthy meals or taking out the trash. My mantra becomes, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

When I was growing up my mom had to run a tight ship to keep things running smoothly. As a single parent she played multiple roles. I could almost set my watch based on what my family was doing at a certain time. We followed a strict routine with the exception of Saturday afternoons and evenings. My mother was insistent that we have a time devoted solely to having fun. That might mean indulging in a shopping spree at the local five and dime store with a whole quarter to spend on frivolous items like bubbles or coloring books. Other times it would be an evening sitting in the dark watching our favorite late evening television programs like Weird while munching on banana pudding or chocolate pie. It was always fun and relaxing and a way for all of us to recharge our internal batteries before tackling the new week of challenges.

As my mother grew older and perhaps even wiser she expanded her lazy interludes to include a bit of time each day. That’s when she would indulge in watching her favorite soap operas, or spending time at the nearby mall window shopping and talking with other older folk who got their exercise and social contact by walking in a big circle around the circumference of the stores. I used to think of her pursuits as a sign that she was running down, but now I know that a bit of laziness is actually good for the soul.

I find myself more and more often realizing that there is no need to rush. I will manage to get things done even if I just sit for a time daydreaming or gazing at the sky. The dust on my furniture will return with regularity but I don’t have to wipe it away each time it appears. A thicker patina will bother no one. In my quest to focus more and more on what is important such tasks gain less and less priority while slowing down to enjoy moments has become a more worthy cause.

I like listening to the sounds of my neighborhood for no reason other than to hear them. I enjoy wandering through antique stores, not in the hopes of finding a treasure, but simply to imagine who might have once owned the trinkets that line the shelves. I might easily spend the rest of my days on earth reading all sorts of books. I can set my little robot to sweep across my floors and let my microwave oven do my cooking. A swish of some Clorox wipes accomplishes as much cleaning as I actually need, so why not increase the number of lazy days? I suppose that I have surely earned them and I know firsthand how invigorating they can often be.

I become the laziest whenever my husband and I take our trailer to a scenic state park. On those days I like to sleep in and casually dress for the day. I enjoy being serendipitously led by whatever I opportunity I chance to see. Sometimes my road map on those days takes me to wonders that I had never before considered, and sometimes they only mean sitting in a comfortable chair under the awning watching the antics of squirrels, raccoons, deer or wild turkeys.

I suppose that we all need more lazy days, not fewer. Somehow we often feel guilty for indulging in moments of aimless bliss when in truth we are more likely to find our inner bliss when we slow ourselves down. So here’s to lazy days however we may choose to spend them.