On Thin Ice

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Growing up along the Gulf coast has meant that I have very little experience with exceedingly cold weather. Around here ice skating is done in a refrigerated arena and coats last for decades because they are hardly worn from year to year. We’re lucky to get a quick freeze in the thirties now and again and the fireplaces built into all of the newer homes sometimes seem to be a bit of a waste of space. 

Go north a bit and things really change. The cold can be brutal on the open prairie of Oklahoma which is only a day’s drive from my hometown. Lots of people from the Houston area are drawn to universities in Oklahoma for various majors like meteorology and, in my brother’s case, fire management. So one December day we followed him and his sons to a graduation ceremony at Oklahoma State University where he would be receiving an advanced degree. 

He had warned us to bring warm clothing but we underestimated the bite of the freezing temperature combined with the brutal wind. It literally felt as though sharp icicles were slamming against our faces as we hurried from the warmth of the car into the housing that he had reserved for us for the weekend. I’d never in my life experienced anything quite so harsh. 

It was warm and comfortable inside but the sound of the wind was constant. Not even the hurricanes I have experienced made the kind of roaring sound that continued all through the night as I lay huddled under the warmth of multiple blankets. I found myself reliving an episode of Little House on the Prairie when Pa was out of town and Ma was trying to keep the family warm during a deadly blizzard. I truly wondered how the students at the university were able to walk from class to class in such weather without freezing to death. 

The morning brought sunshine and reduced velocity for the wind but the temperature had fallen even more. Just walking around was difficult as we literally gasped for breath as the cold seemed to be pushing against our faces and our ears with a constant frigid pressure. We decided to visit the campus bookstore to purchase school gear as souvenirs but also hoped to find some earmuffs and heavier clothing to layer under our sadly insufficient coats. 

While we were shopping one of my nephews and his girlfriend decided to explore the campus more outside so that they might get some interesting photos to commemorate the occasion. As we were paying for the items we had chosen my nephew burst into the shop shivering and wet from head to toe. His girlfriend announced that he had walked onto the frozen surface of a manmade pond hoping to get a great picture. At first he only began to slide across the surface but then he became acutely aware that the thin ice was not going to hold his weight. There was a groaning crack and soon he was up to his waist in icy cold water which seemed to almost be freezing onto his body has he waded out of his predicament and scurried to the warmth of the building where we were. 

By the time we saw him his lips were turning blue and he looked at though he was going to pass out. We quickly purchased sweatpants, a sweatshirt and a warm jacket for him. Someone else found some hot chocolate for him to drink while his body adjusted to the more gentle temperature. It seemed to take forever for him to finally get warm. 

I had always thought that I wanted to live in a place where the winter weather regularly brought ice and snow. I dreamed of bundling up in hats and gloves and mufflers and coats so warm that I would look like a mama bear. It seemed nice to have a real winter season but I had never come close to imagining what real freezing weather is like. Somehow I found myself yearning for the more comfortable climate of my home.

That evening before the graduation ceremony we bundled up in our new layers of warmth and felt a bit more comfortable as we set out for dinner. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the place where we ate was called Eskimo Joe’s because the little college town really did seem to be located in some exotic arctic outpost. As wind sang its triumphant song once again that night I shivered at the mere thought of the cold and went as far down into the nest of blankets as I could without suffocating from lack of oxygen. I liked the feeling but knew that it was not something I would want to endure for weeks and weeks every single year.

On the way back home we stopped in Oklahoma City to visit the memorial dedicated to the victims of the bombing that had so horribly killed innocents. The design of the area was as stark as the incident. There was a single rigid chair made of stone for each person who had died, large ones for the adults and tiny ones for the children. The cold and the snow enhanced the bitter grief that I felt as I walked among the snow covered area. I longed for the life that comes with warmth and as we drove away I knew that deep down inside I am a creature of my own environment no matter how much I complain about the summer heat. 

I often think of Oklahoma in the winter and the hardships that the weather must have imposed on the people of long ago whose homes so often let in the in the cold through the chinks. I wonder how well a single fireplace warmed the house and what it was like to care for the livestock and make the trip to the schoolhouse in such conditions. I suspect that those who lived back then and even today are hardy folk who adapt to whatever nature sends their way. As for me, I’ll take my ocean breezes.

A Reason To Smile

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I was in the sixth grade when a new girl came to our class. She was even more quiet and shy than I was at the time. Even though we wore uniforms to school she somehow looked different in them. Her shoes looked clunky and were mismatched with the loafers and saddle oxfords that the rest of us wore. Her hair was wild and frazzled looking. She mostly kept to herself, standing in the shadow of the building during recess when we were all giddily chatting with one another. She kept her head down and averted her glance when we passed by her. Somehow none of us ever thought to invite her into one of our many circles of friends. All of our alliances had already been established and she seemed unlikely to fit into any of them. We would see her but not see her.

I walked to and from school in those days. I’d take a route down a sidewalk on one of the main streets of the isolated and quiet neighborhood where I lived passing the homes of many of my classmates along the way. I began to notice the girl walking just ahead of me day after day. Her pace was purposeful as though she was in a hurry to get home but I too walked quickly back then so I was usually just a few steps away from catching up with her. On a whim borne more out of curiosity than kindness I one afternoon decided to quicken my steps and introduce myself. That’s when I learned that her name was Evelyn and that she and her family were renting a home only one street over from mine. Thus began our routine of accompanying each other on the long walk home. 

Evelyn never told me much about her herself or her family circumstances and I decided not to ask since she seemed uncomfortable talking about that subject. Instead we spoke of school and laughed about things that had happened during our time there. We both adored our teacher Mrs. Loisey and had crushes on some of the boys in the class. Once Evelyn became relaxed with me she shared a radiant smile that made her seemingly plain face stunningly beautiful. She was funny too and exceedingly kind. I found myself looking forward to our afternoon chats and liked her more and more with each passing day but once I reached my street that was the end of our time together. She politely turned down my suggestions that we get together in our homes which might have baffled me if I had been older and more observant but did not bother me much back then.

At school Evelyn was still an outsider. I asked her to join me with my friends but she mostly stood on the edges of our recess time gatherings. For the most part she remained an enigma to most of my classmates who never saw her joy or heard her laughter. In time she became the victim of bullying, often by the very boys that the two of us had most admired. It was painful to watch them making jokes about her that were just audible enough to spread through the classroom like a rumor but not noticeable enough to disrupt the orderly flow of learning. It was only when the torture that she was enduring reached a crescendo of cruelty and humiliation that she lost it one day and struck back at one of her offenders loudly enough that the entire class halted in stunned silence.

I have always remembered how deftly Mrs. Loisey handled the situation, saving face for Evelyn while humbling the boys with stern reminders of how unmanly their behavior had been. All the while she somehow managed to accomplish the blow to the boys’ egos with humor that left most of us laughing but understanding how wrong and silly the campaign of terror had been. 

Nobody bothered Evelyn after that and we never spoke of it in our daily sojourns together. She seemed to become more and more relaxed at school and even ventured into other friendships during our recess time. Somehow we all began to accept her quirkiness and as she felt better and better about herself she slowly became one of us and then just as suddenly as she had come into our world she was gone. 

I missed her on my journey home each day. I had come to depend on her company and the corny jokes that she told. I wondered where she had gone and how she was doing because she had not even shared that she was about to depart. Maybe she did not even know that she would be leaving imminently. I hoped that it was not going to once again be difficult for her to adjust to a new home and a new school. I worried that she might be bullied again and that her teacher might not be as wonderful as Mrs. Lousy in handling the situation.

When I became a teacher I found myself noticing the “Evelyns” in my classroom. There often seemed to be some poor soul who did not fit in well with the strict social standards of teenagers. They would struggle to be comfortable and more often than not become the butt of jokes and harassment. I made it my duty to watch over them and help them navigate through the ugliness that young people sometimes dish out because of their own immaturity and insecurities. I did my best to be a Mrs. Loisey for them. 

Bullying seems to only have become worse with the advances of technology and social media. The torture inflicted on victims is sometimes not apparent at school. Instead it is more likely to be happening online after hours for all the world to see. The audience can grow to thousands of strangers who giddily join into the terrorizing of some innocent soul. It is much more difficult to see or combat than in the past and much of it is done with an anonymity that allows the bully to be even more ferocious that he/she might have been in a face to face encounter. The old saw of just ignoring it does not work as well when the pain and insults feel like threats or when so much of society even among adults has joined into the ugliness with the stroke of a few keys on a phone or computer. It’s something that has grown like a disease.

Celebrities and First Ladies have mounted campaigns to confront bullying and schools have even provided instruction to students about its horrific effects and still it is there. It is up to each of us to do our parts within our families, circles of friends, and our communities and to serve as examples and champions of decency. If our children hear us calling someone names or laughing about differences they will surely believe that doing so is acceptable. We can one by one do our best to stop bullying by being kind in our own interactions with people. We can also teach our young how to work together to look for those who are alone or suffering and include them rather than simply leaving them to be alone. Everyone has a part of their souls that makes them beautiful. It’s up to us to help them show how wonderful they really are. We all need to ensure that the “Evelyns” in our world have a reason to smile. 

Until the End of Time

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Too many times I’ve heard the horrible words from a veterinarian that there is nothing more that might be done to save a beloved pet who is suffering and near death. The humane thing to do is to euthanize them and end their pain. No matter the circumstances it is a horrible moment wracked with grief and memories of all of the years of companionship and pleasure that the animal has offered so innocently and lovingly. We put our creatures down when they are suffering out of concern but the act of ending their lives does not feel good no matter how many ways that we rationalize it. 

Discussions of whether or not to end a human’s life are nothing new. We tell ourselves that executing a criminal may serve as a preventative for even more violence in our society. We rationalize such actions as being for the common good but if someone who has no hope of avoiding imminent death asks us to end their pain with an injection that would quicken the unavoidable we cringe and argue that such action would be murder. We use convoluted definitions of what constitutes a living being to either allow or disallow abortions. Some insist that defending themselves in a war is objectionable while others insist that we would surely live in a state of anarchy without defending ourselves. In other words we waffle in our discomfort of taking a human life. We live with a continuum of beliefs and laws regarding whether or not Socrates should have been given that poison cocktail that ended his life. 

While there is a distinct difference between animals and humans there are even those who maintain that we have no right to kill any of the creatures of the earth or even to consume their flesh. Such individuals hold perhaps the clearest views about the rightness or wrongness of taking a life. For them there is no gray area. The rest of us waver between ideas. Therein lies the conflict that we face whenever we discuss taking a life in any way. 

When it comes to human lives I am of the mind that it is not our role as humans to take it into our own hands to destroy a fetus in the womb or take part in the death of any living person. Mine is an extreme view that prefers that violent murderers live out their days in prison rather than enduring executions. I question the death and bloodshed of wars. I deny someone the right to end a life out of mercy. Still, I am able to see that there are some circumstances in which defending oneself can only happen if another ends up dead. The conundrum of how to hold life sacred while also protecting ourselves is the stuff of debate through the ages and I’m not convinced that any of us can actually speak with absolute certainty about such things.

I find myself cringing at the thought of assisting someone in ending his/her life even when doctors have conceded that nothing more can be done to save them. I have no problem with the idea of letting nature take its course without interventions but taking active steps to actually cause death seems to be beyond what we have the right to do. Therein lies a difficulty for me. If I cannot do a mercy killing then how can I justify one done as a punishment? 

I realize that much of my thinking on this subject is grounded in my own religiosity and that those who do not share my faith see the world through a different lens. They have strong views that assisting someone to end life in a seemingly humane way is as much a loving thing to do as easing the suffering of a beloved pet. For them it is not murder or playing God but instead a profound act of compassion that allows a dying individual to leave this earth with dignity. No matter how many times or ways I hear such arguments I can’t seem to accept them anymore than I am able to agree that the vengeance killing of criminals is acceptable. 

Philosophically we humans have discussed life for centuries. We are intrigued by thoughts of when it actually begins and how much power we should exert over it. Not surprisingly there are those who genuinely feel that we should never interfere in the natural course of human existence even for purposes of keeping someone healthy. The extremes that result from our uncertainty about how we should behave are bound to divide us into differing camps. Since it is unlikely that we will ever determine an exact answer to our existential questions I suppose that it is up to each of us to operate within our own consciences and the law. 

Was Judas Iscariot damned for all time because of his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide? It would be audacious of us to presume to know the exact answer. Our moral certitude is easy in some instances like knowing that it is indeed wrong to kill another person simply because we wish to do so. In other instances the blur of grayness creates all kinds of questions. Do we kill a mad human who is a danger to others just as we would a mad dog? Should we help someone to die when their pain and suffering is unbearable and death is unquestionably at hand just as we do with our creatures? Is it permissible to defend ourselves with deadly force when not doing so would result in innocents losing their lives? Such questions haunt and divide us. 

For the most part we seem to agree that it is not up to us to decide when it is time for another human to die. We respect life and understand that it must go on until it naturally ends even in the face of suffering. Our biggest differences involve the validity of abortions, war, capital punishment and personal protection. I know what I believe but the discussions of others will no doubt continue until the end of time. 

Teach Your Children Well

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As a mom I often found myself stewing more over parenting decisions that I felt had been wrong rather than celebrating what I knew I had done right. As a teacher I often ended each school day more concerned about my mistakes than the successful moments that had made a difference in my students’ lives. It is human nature to somehow see the flaws around us and then generalize them as being far bigger than they actually are. We read about a cheating scandal in college admissions and fret that perhaps the whole system is stacked against those who follow the rules. So it is with society in general. We worry that maybe our naivety is working against us in what must surely be a dog eat dog world in which the liars and cheaters are surely gaining the edge but is that really true or does it have to be? 

My parents taught me to be honest and forthright from a young age. They abhorred cheating while admitting that they were not above glancing at an opponent’s cards if they were in view. They taught me the value of being trustworthy in all ways. Such ideas were reinforced by my education in the Catholic faith where lying and cheating were classified as sins ranging from venial to mortal on a continuum of how seriously they harmed others. I took those lessons quite seriously and have done my utmost to be honest even as I witnessed others flaunting the codes that guided me. 

I suppose that I developed a kind of indignant self righteous pride in myself for being a good girl and it remained that way until I had an interesting conversation with my mother who had a kind of wisdom that is not often found in books. I admitted to Mama that I was infuriated with Hillary Clinton for staying with Bill after he had broken his vows to her so often and so publicly. I boasted that I would have thrown him to the curb as I believed that any self respecting woman would have. My mother listened to my screed with an increasingly amused look on her face which told me that she was about to make a pronouncement that would rattle my certainty in my own judgement. Once I had completed my arguments my mother presented her rebuttal in a paucity of words, “It is none of our business.” 

A stunned silence hung over the room as I considered what she had just said. Then she quietly explained that until we fully and wholly become the other person there is no way that we can know why they make the choices that they do. She urged me to stand by my own principles of morality but to be more circumspect in generalized judgements of others. Then she winked and reminded me that being honest and trustworthy and surrounding myself with like minded people as I had done was a wonderful gift in and of itself. She noted that I should be happy for understanding right from wrong and being guided by a set of standards.

I can say with all honesty that I do not cheat nor do I know of any instance in which someone has cheated me or cheated on me. As my mother noted I live in a rare kind of bubble devoid of intrigue. I really do not understand what might drive someone to cheat and when I hear of such instances I do indeed become angry and maybe even a bit jealous that there are so many who seemingly get by with being dishonorable. I happen to think that one of the biggest problems we have today is that we have even elevated individuals who lie and cheat and steal as heroes. I see their success and it is easy to become irked and resentful but then I remember my mother’s words and know that by following a code of honor as much as I possibly can I ultimately have something that such people will never understand. It’s value is immeasurable. I have personal respect. 

I have to be careful not to brag too much because like any human I have moments when I think that it would be okay to fudge just a bit on reporting my tiny income from tutoring to the IRS. I see people taking advantage of situations with impunity and wonder if anyone would really be hurt if I did so as well. I am as tempted to throw my principles to the wind as anyone and I have to remind myself of the beliefs that have been ingrained in me. I have to remember that I can only be a model of what I think to be right but I cannot ultimately change others unless they choose to do so. My hope is that they will view me as someone to respect rather than as a chump or loser of whom to take advantage. I have to watch out for them and their guile while not emulating their lack of virtue.

I worry most about the messages being sent to our young people these days. Honor is all too often considered to be something only foolish people possess. We now give adulation to people who boast about their foul deeds and condemn those who quietly stand up for moral beliefs. Individuals who steal from the public get pardoned and those who voice truths get ridiculed. It must be very confusing for our children to witness such things. All we can do is be models of the behaviors we hope for them to follow and let them know as my mother did that striving to be good is its own reward. Teach your children well. They will need your guidance in navigating the world.

Lessons in Faith

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My mother was a woman of great faith who had one of the most beautiful relationships with God that I have ever observed in another human. She had been raised as a Catholic and remained true to the beliefs of that religion until the moment that she died, but she also insisted that each person’s views of God are uniquely personal and worthy of respect. She thought that God had revealed Himself to people according to the ways of their cultures so that it was self righteous to think that one religion was somehow superior to another. Nonetheless she felt fortunate that God had come to her through the Catholic Church and in wanting to share this blessing with her children she took each of us to receive the sacrament of Baptism when we were infants. From that moment she regularly took us to Sunday mass and sacrificed money that she did not really have to send us to Catholic school where we would learn the foundations of our religion. 

The education in Catholicism took hold for me but had varying results with my brothers. The oldest of my two male siblings was born with an insatiable curiosity about the world. He was the kind of toddler who was always asking “why?” and wondering how things worked. He took objects apart and then attempted to put them back together again. He carried books about space travel under his arms and gazed at the photos in them before he was even able to read. The rationality of his entire being resulted in a questioning not so much of God, because he saw faith in a Supreme Being as a kind of theory, but of organized religious groups. He came to the conclusion that much of what they had to offer were inventions of humans, not God, and so he believes in the divine but not in the imperfect edifices of worship that humankind has attempted to erect. 

My younger brother struggled not at all with faith in God but he struggled to find the answers he sought within the Catholic religion. He ultimately found more comfort and community in other Protestant religions. To this day he spends more time at Bible studies, Sunday services, and community outreach than most people do. His faith is strong and it is bolstered by a group of people who share his deep and abiding love for God. It made my mother happy to see that he had found a way of worshipping God that worked for him.

My mother often contemplated the differences in the way her children celebrated their faith in God. She would have been quite comfortable if all three of us had become cradle to grave Catholics but when that did not happen she searched more for evidence that we had learned the goodness of God and the importance of relying on both his expectations of us and his blessings. As long as we were kind, honest, fair people she felt that her efforts to share her own faith and religion had been a success. She often said that God had many forms that were exhibited by the variety of religions in the world. She only worried about those who had eschewed God in any way shape or form. She wondered how it was possible to believe that our gritty existence on this earth is all that there is. 

My mother often spoke of St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church. She used the entirety of his life to demonstrate that God in his beneficence is more ready to forgive than we humans are. St. Augustine had led a wild and often empty and vile life before he experienced a grand conversion into the light of Christianity. Mama pointed out that it would be wrong of us to judge others and that only God himself should do that at the end of a person’s days. I suspect that she converted more people with her unconditional love of them than any evangelical has ever done with unrelenting proselytizing.  

My mother was a wise and practical woman. When she grew older and more feeble she read her bible each day and found religious programming on the television rather than attending Sunday mass at a Catholic Church. She often said a rosary and had a profound devotion to the mother of Jesus with whom she felt a special kinship. God was part of her life every minute of every day. She saw beauty in all religions, Judaism or Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. She was a Catholic who believed that Protestants had indeed found many of the flaws in her own form of Christianity. She often smiled and asserted that God loves all of his people even those who do not believe that he exists. 

On the day of her death my mother had an angelic glow about her. Everyone saw it, even the doctors and nurses who were caring for her in the ICU. It was humbling to be with her as she prepared for the moment in which she was certain that she would be united with her God. She received the final of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and she was ready for what she had long believed would be her ultimate fate. As the family crowded together in the tiny room I thought of the diversity of faith that had come from this very Catholic woman and how she had so lovingly accepted us all. We had grown to a group of many races and preferences and relationships with God but the one uniting factor was love which is what she had all along taught us to see as the most important aspect of faith. 

So when people ask me how important religion is to me I have a small caveat. My own Catholic faith is a foundation of all that I am as a person but it is in reality my very private and personal faith in God that is at the heart of every breath that I take. Religion is important to me but I do not for even one second believe that clinging to its tenets is all that I must do to be close to God. My mama taught me that God expects so much more from each of us and what he asks can be difficult. It requires us to look beyond our own philosophies and into the very hearts of each person that we encounter without prejudice. It requires love even when we only see hate. It’s a tough but ultimately rewarding way to live.