Seize the Day!

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My grandson, Ian, is all grown up now. He’ll be heading off to college next school year. He’s always been an interesting young fellow. When he was still eating from a high chair he was able to name all of the planets including all of their moons. He was able to quote statistics about them as well. Over the years he has taken and interest in all sorts of things. He has a huge Lego collection and he has a propensity for miniature objects. Once while I was visiting with him in San Antonio when he was an elementary school student he asked me to stop at a roadside display of bonsai plants. 

The seller had a unique group of tiny tree like plants pruned just so to resemble a tiny Japanese garden. I have to admit that I was as fascinated with the creations we saw as Ian was. I could tell that he wanted to take home one of the natural works of art but he was way too polite to ask me to purchase one for him. I glanced at the prices and decided that it was probably unwise for me to invest that much cash in an object that Ian might neglect and allow to die. 

We drove away marveling at the bonsai that we had seen. In fact we talked about them for days. I finally decided that I just had to acquire one of them for Ian because I could not imagine a youngster being more taken with something. We eagerly drove where the salesman had been before only find an empty parking lot. We checked back several times until I had to return home but sadly had no luck no luck. On later trips to San Antonio I found myself looking for the bonsai display all to no avail. I never again encountered the man who had shown us his lovely and unique wares. 

I searched for a reasonable substitute for Ian only to learn that the ones we had seen by the side of the road were actually being sold at an incredible bargain price. I wanted to kick myself for being so overly cautious. It would have been a great experience for Ian to tend the tiny plant and maybe even do some research into the history of bonsai plants. I imagined how such studies might lead to learning ever more about Japanese culture and maybe even a trip to that interesting country one day. Instead I knew that I had missed an incredible opportunity to introduce Ian to a tiny wonder of the world. 

I suppose that I should have known better than to be so hesitant to purchase one of the plants as soon as we saw them. Over the years I have learned that it is often unwise to think too hard about buying unusual items. One of a kind objects are too often gone quickly. Surely experience should have told me that. 

Long ago our family was driving through Canyon de Chelly National Monument when we encountered a Native American woman who had crafted tiny adobe homes that she was selling from the hood of her car. They were painstakingly detailed with roofs that lift up to show a little wonderland inside. There were woven rugs, pottery and a wood burning stove in the house. It was one of the loveliest things I have ever seen. The artist who had made it wanted thirty five dollars for the miniature at a time when that was an enormous amount of money. Somehow though I just knew that I would be angry with myself if I left her craftsmanship behind. We put our money together and came up with the cash we needed to pay her. I have never ever regretted that buy. I still have that little house and it is one of the most remarkable treasures in my home. 

My daughter often used to tell me that when I saw a really good thing I needed to grab it up. I never have spent thousands or even hundreds of dollars on a whim, but there have been unique items that I somehow knew I needed to buy immediately or be regretful later. Whenever I got cold feet and left such things behind I found myself feeling a strong sense of remorse. Some collectables are so wonderful that they instantly evoke the most incredible memories and even stories. They create a kind of bond with time. I have many such things from my travels. None of them are overly expensive, but all of them are priceless to me.

A great find does not have to be extravagant. There was a particular trip when we took our little girls to Taos, New Mexico. We were camping in a tent and forced to travel on a very tight budget. We decided to have a contest to see who would find the best souvenir from the market that cost only five dollars or less. I bought a bracelet made of shells that I thought was fairly good, but my eldest daughter, Maryellen, found a handmade pottery cup with the loveliest colors. She won the contest hands town and her prize was knowing that she had the most discerning eye of all of us. She still has that cup to this day. She holds pens and pencils in it on her desk. It is probably forty years old and it looks as wonderful as it did when it was brand new. Best of all we all smile when we think of that trip that we shared.

There are great finds out in the world, objects that attract us and reminds us of good times we have spent with others. We would do well to go ahead and buy the things that catch our eye when we have the wherewithal to do so. A postcard or a piece of blown glass, a trinket or a painting that comes from our travels or a fun time will be special to us for years to come. We’d do well not to pass up those items that make us smile. Seize the day. Buy the bonsai.

A Cycle of Despair

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Recently I experienced a mega case of the blues coupled with anger about the way things seem to be in the world around me. This is an uncharacteristic state for me and when I core dumped all of my worries and woes on my husband, he commented that if I were experiencing such extreme emotions he could only imagine how so many others must feeling right now. After all, I’m the optimist, the bleeding heart, the quintessential empath, the person who always finds a way to spin gold out of hay.  It made me think that we are all in a kind of pressure cooker and are reacting to the trials and tribulations of the past couple of years that are making us all react more extremely than we might otherwise have done.

There were a multitude of things that brought on the bout of cynicism that I have rarely experienced. I was literally crushed by the tragedy of the Astroworld Festival that resulted in the deaths of ten young people who had so much life before them. Somehow I understood why going to that event had meant so much to them and how they had only sought to have a good time after such an uncertain year. One of my grandsons might have been there had his mother not requested him to stay at his college and study. The irony that something meant to be a celebration of life and fellowship turned into a scene of death and injury was not lost on me. Even those who survived are speaking of having a kind of PTSD as they relive those horrific moments of feeling as though they were going to be crushed to death. I cried for those who had died and for their families. I viscerally know what it means to lose someone so unexpectedly. It was a soul crushing moment for me to think of all the heartbreak that will forever be associated with the old Astroworld, a wonderful family attraction for so many years here in Houston that brought visions of good times and joy. 

To a lesser extent I had already been disturbed by the general reaction to the Houston Astros baseball team. The ugly comments that seemed to follow them throughout their drive toward the World Series told me that far too many people do not believe in the concept of redemption. It became apparent that for many, once someone or some group is tainted they may never completely find acceptance no matter how much they try. If we can’t rebound after our mistakes, then how do we tell those who have erred that there are possibilities for reclaiming a good life? Being doomed to a bad reputation forever destroys hope and joy. That is so unacceptable to me and yet it appears to be an all too common reaction in society.

In the midst of all these things someone I know took his life. I have always struggled to understand the kind of desperation that it must take to reach a point of totally giving up, but I have witnessed such things more times than I have wanted. Somehow this time I found myself understanding that perhaps there can be such a convergence of trouble and sorrow coupled with a brain chemistry gone awry that there does not seem to be an escape from a life spiraling out of control. It hurt in physical and mental ways to think of how deeply broken this man must have been even though he literally tried to reach out for help. I too was feeling a bit crushed by a world seemingly gone mad.

There are so many signs in our society that vast swaths of people are angry and unforgiving. Perhaps they too are carrying heavy loads that they do not wish to reveal or maybe even fear showing their vulnerability to the rest of us. The ugliness that emanates from them may only be cover for aching hearts that do not know how or where to find healing. It does not help when we have television personalities and elected representatives fomenting division among us at a time when we should be embracing one another and doing everything in our power to help those who are suffering. If we can’t bring ourselves to demand more kindness from the most influential people in our world during times like these, then when indeed will we understand that our best hope for making it through our many challenges is to begin with compassion?

As I was resolving I learned that one of my cousins, a brilliant man with an uncommon wisdom and thoughtfulness had died. For decades he has deteriorated under the violent attack on his body of Parkinson’s disease. He fought back with every ounce of energy that he possessed and inspired all of us who knew and loved him with a level of courage that few mere mortals possess. In the last weeks and days of his life he was a prisoner in his own body, sometimes unable to even swallow. Nonetheless we all new that his mind was working as vividly as ever and he pushed himself to be present and loving even in his pain. Somehow thinking of him brought me back to my more normal senses.

Upon hearing of his death I found my own determination to overcome the sorrow that was threatening to drown me by doing what I know he would have done. I snapped out of the doldrums and became more determined than ever to spread a message of kindness and to remind people of what is most important in this life. My cousin understood that concept so well. There is no better way of honoring him than to carry on his brave and loving legacy.

I’m fine again. I am girded with the armor of goodness and hope. I intend to spread as much of it as I am able. I will also call out those who would drive wedges between us with violent actions and words. It’s time we quit giving a pulpit to hatefulness and innuendo and the best place to begin is with ourselves. Let’s break this cycle of despair one person at a time. Smile and spread love. Help people to know that they matter. This is our most important task. This is the way to begin a revolution that will help us all.

Ask Not

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I suppose that by anyone’s standards I am a senior citizen, an older woman, someone who’s been around the sun a few times. I don’t see myself as someone who has all of the answers even after a lifetime of learning. I try to keep up with the news, the trends, the modern ways of doing things. Taking a page from my grandfather’s playbook I tend to look to the future rather than wallowing in dreams of the past. My working days are not quite over since I teach a variety of mathematics courses to around ten students, but I admittedly no longer have the energy to work with a full classroom for eight to twelve hours a day. I’m no longer in the big mix of things like I once and I’ve lost quite a few dear friends and beloved family members as each new year completes its cycle. I suppose that my point of view is affected by the slower pace that I am now allowed to follow in honor of my age, but I still have a roaring type A personality that leans more towards impatience than a willingness to allow things to work at their own pace.

We’ve all been affected by the past couple of years during a time of global pandemic. People in my age cohort have been deemed most likely to get severe or even deadly cases of COVID-19, and so we have been blessed to receive the first doses of vaccines and boosters. The world is lovingly considering our situation and taking care of us, which has been a humbling and most appreciated blessing. Those still working and raising families have had a more difficult time during all of the chaos that the tiny virus has created. They are still making their way through the journeys of their careers while also navigating the care and education of young children. It has been a difficult and sometimes confusing and precarious balancing act for them. Our youngest people are somehow adjusting and dealing with the trauma of this event just as they tend to do. Of course, they will not be left without scars, but somehow there is an energy in children that provides them with the ability to be more flexible and open to the necessities of change. 

Over my many years on the earth I have learned that very few things that happen to us are simple, nor are the solutions for the problems that arise. We humans have to be more like the children, open to change, willing to adapt to unique situations, curious about learning new skill and ideas. As the profound song goes “you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.” 

I’ve repeated that line often during the past almost two years of life-changing and sometimes disturbing times. I’ve done a great deal of soul searching and I’ve tried my best to be flexible at a time in my life when I had grown fond of clinging to routines. I have had to curb my impatient nature and learn how to calm my tendencies to want to hurry things along. It has been a good exercise for me. I’ve stopped long enough to see the big picture and my own small place in the cares and woes of the world. I have in a sense been forced to be less self-centered than I might otherwise have been. 

I have seen that the vast array of people the world over are doing their very best to keep our engines of society running smoothly, but the illnesses, deaths, and slow downs in production have created kinks that were not there before. Our world is like a great big family in turmoil and we can all work together or we can yell and scream at each other. I suggest the former.

Back in early March my husband and I ordered a home generator that is produced in Wisconsin. We were told that the processing and delivery of the unit took about three months, but because production had been slowed by the illnesses of workers it might take an extra month or so before it could be shipped and then installed. We soon learned that there are many moving parts in the creation of an item like this. The manufacturers depended on parts from all across the globe and had to wait for them far longer than usual before putting the generator together. There were also shipping issues that slowed the process as well. We had to be exceedingly patient while we waited for the machine to arrive. It finally came in November five months later than promised. In the end, it really did not matter because we knew that everyone along the chain was doing his or her best to accommodate us. There was no reason for us to be surly or to point fingers at anyone. We are all in the gooey mess together.

The delay was not a simple matter of lazy people unwilling to go back to work, or building things in America rather than relying on other nations. Whether we like it or not, commerce is a global affair and no doubt always will be. In any business if workers are sick, things slow down. If we have to wait for supplies from the far reaches of the world, more complications develop. Then there is the matter of our human traits. There have been so many differing response to the virus making it more and more inevitable that the smooth flow of goods and services would be interrupted. We did not immediately go back to normal just because we wished to do so.

This is hardly the first time in history that we have been challenged by shortages and delays. Just ask anyone who was alive during World War II what kind of things were unavailable during that conflict and they will tell you about ration coupons and recipes that used substitutes for eggs and sugar and other staples that were difficult to find. They will show you high school yearbooks made from pulp paper without hard covers. Inside those annuals there will be a noticeable lack of young men because most of them had gone off to war. They will speak of patching tires because there was no rubber for new ones. They did whatever they had to do because they understood that it would have been absurd to expect their lives to be exactly the way they had always been. For some those war years lasted six years and even after the fighting was over there was a long period of adjustment.

It is going to take time to assume any sense of normalcy. Europe is experiencing another wave of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated. The winter months may slow the flow of commerce even more. Our prices may respond by going higher. It will be up to each of us to find ways of helping the cause. Instead of complaining we can do like our forebears and be thankful on this day if we are still alive and able to celebrate our good fortune with a Thanksgiving meal with family or friends.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” should be our mantra. We’ve spent too much time complaining. Now it’s time to get creative and deal with our realities like reasonable individuals willing to work our way forward. It will take time and adaptability. Let’s demonstrate that we have not forgotten how to make sacrifices and be flexible. Let us not ignore the most unfortunate in this world. The present state of the world is not about any one of us personally. It’s about everyone together. Let’s us be thankful for whatever we have and pledge on this day to be kind and patient and aware of the needs and hopes and dreams everyone around us. Sometimes that means waiting a bit to satisfy our desires. In our hearts we know we can do it. We just have to redirect our anger and our attitudes like good people before us have always done.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Words Words Words

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I was not quite eighteen years old when my senior class visited a university English lecture. During my four years in high school I had become enamored with the artistry of words through the influence of my teacher, Father Shane. He had introduced me and my classmates to the magnificent world of literature and poetry. With his guidance I viewed the human experience in the brilliance of words strung together by gifted writers. I began to realize the nuance of a single phrase, the Picasso-like abstraction of language that only geniuses know how to create. I was enamored with the power of words to tell stories and awaken feelings. Then I listened to the professor lecturing my group of soon to be college students on the brilliance of The Great Gatsby and my love affair with language reached a fever pitch. 

I spent my time at the University of Houston studying the way we humans express ourselves with words. I analyzed our parts of speech in minute detail and learned about the almost mathematical precision of our linguistic structures. I studied literature from folksy oral traditions to Nobel prize winning authors. I began to realize the delicate importance of how language is used. I saw that word choice is akin to the blending of colors on a canvas. The same sentence heard or read by hundreds of people will be interpreted in countless ways from the literal to the highly imaginative and figurative. I found the power of verbal expression to be intoxicating, but I also understood that its misinterpretations might bring devastating wrath down on the speaker or the writer. J. Alfred Prufrock’s proclamation, “That is not what I meant at all.” was a reminder to me that how we use our words can make or break our efforts to communicate our thoughts and beliefs to others.

Hills Like White Elephants by Earnest Hemingway is a short story that uses the most carefully chosen words to concisely and powerfully convey a multitude of thoughts and emotions. The title itself is a masterpiece. Those four words convey the gist of the story before it is even told. Even without careful analysis the encounter of the protagonists is interesting. With a deep dive into each phrase and sentence a word picture emerges that is more visually stunning than a movie. 

Sadly, we are presently ensconced in a time when a kind of puritanical or Cromwellian attitude towards art, and particularly the way we communicate, is sweeping across the land. People are interpreting words at their most literal level and in the process often missing their nuanced meanings, or even worse indicting them with imagined beliefs. I suppose that this trend points to the importance of clarification and the need to consider time and place when choosing a word to describe something specific.

When we talk about the need to overhaul our criminal justice system talking of “defunding police” may have a very benign meaning for the inventor of that phrase, but may sound like totally eliminating our police forces to others. In such instances it is a disservice to the cause to use such an easily misunderstood word choice. Since a discussion of how to better serve the citizenry with regard to policing is critical to our justice system, clarity is demanded. Vague and easily misleading words should not become the catch phrases for the cause. They only lead to confusion and the potential for those opposed to any changes in the way we do things to strike false fears into the hearts of persons who do not take the time to learn how that phrase originated and what its exact meaning is. 

Our words are often heard or read in ways that we never intended. I know that each time I write a blog there will be many different reactions to my words. People tend to skim the surface in their hurry to get to the next thing that they must do each day. They see and hear things in tiny bites. They are always influenced by their own personal experiences and environments. Speakers and authors must take such realities into account. 

Words are powerful they can hurt or heal. They can be twisted to mean something never intended. Once they are free in the universe it is difficult to take them back. Jesus warned us that our words are like setting a bag of feathers loose into the air. Some will see them as a lovely things. Others will be reviled by the mess they have made. Never can we completely reclaim them or try a different way of expressing ourselves as an explanation. 

These days we hear lots of catchy phrases that attempt to encapsulate entire belief systems. They may be powerful in appealing to a lack of imagination, but they do little to clarify the kinds of thinking and solutions that we should be seeking. I would contend that words matter and we need the best examples of them to progress as humans. Each of us needs to learn how to take the time to parse meanings and search for truth either when we are setting forth words or when we are attempting to define their meanings. There are no shortcuts to understanding. It’s time for each of us to slow down and become more serious in our analysis and presentation of words. There is too much at stake to allow silly hats and memes to be our guides.

He Was A Very Good Man

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We each encounter tough times as we advance through the ups and downs of our lives. For the past couple of years we have had the collective burden of uncertainty caused by a tiny virus that has invaded the world like a silent army. Everything feels upside down, out of whack, as we attempt to adjust to a new normal that has restricted our human contacts, threatened our sense of security, and sadly divided us into sometimes raging camps. During this seemingly never ending sojourn we have all lost loved ones either to the virus itself or to other diseases or accidents. Somehow the impact of each death has been magnified in our minds, often because we did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to people who had meant so much to us. Even as we attempt to bridge the gaps made by two years of uncommon ways of living we are wary that somehow nothing will ever again be the same. 

These many months have included a litany of deaths. The recitation of the names is painful more so because we have worked so hard to keep ourselves, our families and our unraveling society together. Some of us have turned to science for a solution. We’ve taken jabs of the vaccine. We’ve religiously donned our masks and proceeded with caution. Some have attempted to simply carry on as though the braver thing to do is to keep living as usual, counting on strong constitutions or God to carry us through the pandemic and back to our lives as we had known them before 2020. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is right and who is wrong or if there is even a definitive way of determining the best way of surviving all of the chaos. 

We prefer to control our lives. We want order and design in our world. We have our routines and when they are interrupted we don’t function as well as we should. Our brains send us messages that something is not quite right and so we react, each in our own ways. Some among us have an illness that is as real as the virus. They suffer from depression, a deep and dark despair that hurts as painfully and surely as a broken bone or a cancer. The source of their disease is often hidden and almost always misunderstood. We nudge such souls to get a grip, to just do this or that to chase the darkness away. We do not understand why they cannot adapt and take command of their feelings. It frightens us to see them in such a state and so we often look away from them at the very moment when they need us most. 

I have been deeply saddened by the deaths of friends and family members and acquaintances. Some have died from COVID 19, but not all. Every single loss has affected me and those who loved them a bit more deeply during this strange and trying time. Recently I learned of the passing of a very good man who had devoted his life to helping young people to achieve their athletic goals. He had touched my heart by showing up to encourage my grandson in all of his races. He was a constant in our family’s life, a bright light in a sometimes difficult world. He took the time to let my grandson know that he was important. He had trained my grandson in the art and skills of running for over eight years. He was as proud as a parent when my grandson was recruited to run for Trinity University. I liked him so very much because he was someone who genuinely cared. 

This wonderful beautiful man took his own life. It was soul crushing to realize that he had been so depressed that he lost all hope. It made me wonder if he realized how much we had admired and loved him. Should we have been more explicit in our feelings for him? Do we as humans miss the cues that someone is struggling? Have we been so wrapped up in maintaining a semblance of normalcy in our own lives that we did not see his suffering or even think to inquire about how he was doing? 

There are people around us who are deeply depressed. All too often they hide their feelings behind fake bravado or humor. We tend to prefer them that way. It is awkward and difficult to hear someone who is in a dark place express the true feelings that they have. It frightens us to know how intense their pain actually is. We want to push them into a state of happiness before their minds are ready to be there. We provide them with platitudes and advice rather than understanding that they need intensive care to overcome their very real illnesses that make them feel weak and unworthy. Without the right kind of help their pain can overwhelm them. They have to make it stop and we lose them just as we have lost this very good man and so many others like him.

There is so much noise and chaos all around us. We are raging about the cost of living instead of asking who needs a hand to survive. We are upset because we can’t get what we want when we want it instead of being patient and accepting that we may have to make some sacrifices for a time. We want to rush back to the way things were instead of easing our way back into our old routines and maybe even making changes that will make our lives better than before. We are rushing around pretending that if we just wish things to feel normal again they will be. In the meantime we might better use our time quietly contacting or connecting with the people who mean much to us. We should be checking on one another regularly, sharing our good fortune with those who have less. This should be a time of listening, understanding, loving. We don’t want to one day wake up to find that a very good man’s life became so dark that he saw no way out but ending it.