That Out of Body Feeling

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It was December and we were looking forward to a wonderful holiday. My daughter Catherine who was living in Chicago had delivered twins in October and we were excitedly anticipating her visit with the babies on Christmas Eve. It had been a glorious year during which my nephew had married a wonderful young woman and we had all celebrated at his wedding. Then without warning things began to unravel terribly.

I was at school when my principal called me into his office to deliver the grim news that my mother-in-law was at the hospital. She had apparently had a stroke. I only half listened to his attempts to support me. My mind was racing a million miles away. I vaguely recall laughing off his concerns and telling him that my mother-in-law was a tough women who would most assuredly be fine. I almost laughed when he asked if I needed to have someone drive me to the hospital. I was tough. I had weathered many family tragedies. It seemed silly to think that I would require some sort of assistance.

I called each of my daughters to tell them what had happened and talked with my husband who was on a business trip at the time. We all remained calm in the belief that our beloved “Granny” would survive her latest ordeal. We knew she was a very strong woman even though she stood only five feet tall. She was the rock of the family who wasn’t supposed to live past her teen years. Somehow she had persisted and proven one doctor after another wrong. We believed that she would ultimately be just fine.

I picked up my daughter who lived nearby and together we made the trip to the hospital where the news was more dire than we had expected. My mother-in-law had gone into a coma. The doctor told me to call my husband and urge him to get on the first plane home. He explained that there was nothing more the doctors might do. Suddenly I felt the full gravity of the situation and I began calling family members to tell them what had happened. It was a grim task.

We began a death watch, sitting in my mother-in-law’s hospital room seeing her breathe as though she was in a deep sleep. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that it was impossible to believe that she was nearing death. A ray of hope stayed alive in my soul because I knew that she had proven the medical community wrong so many times before. I could not imagine our family surviving without her. She was our glue, the person who brought us together and provided us with wisdom and strength.

I suppose that I was hoping for some incredible miracle without ever thinking of how her entire life had been a miracle. As the hours and then the days passed we rarely left the confines of the hospital as a parade of friends and family came to express their love. When we did allow ourselves to leave for brief moments it felt as though we were trapped in a never ending out of body experience. The lights and decorations of Christmas seemed somehow out of place. The smiling faces of people celebrating the holiday season seemed our of sync. I recall feeling quite alone in my grief, a sadly all too familiar state of mind that had visited me upon my father’s sudden death and during the many times when my mother’s bipolar disorder took her away from us.

My mother-in-law’s passing was peaceful but that feeling of being at odds with the entire universe followed me throughout the rest of the season. Somehow we stumbled through her funeral and found a way to gather together on Christmas day. I remember thinking that the whole world was rejoicing at the very moments when we were the most bereft. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. At the time it seemed as though we had suddenly lost our way as a family and that nothing would ever feel right again.

It’s been sixteen years since my mother-in-law left this earth and we did indeed survive. I still think of her often and miss her sage advice and calming presence. I sometimes wonder how she might advise me when I am faced with a difficult situation. Somehow I still hear her voice whispering to me and telling me what I need to know. Her presence is not nearly as far away as I had imagined it would be.

I have become more aware of those who are suffering around me. I see them even when my own life is bursting with joy. I realize that at any given moment in time there are others who are wondering how it is possible for everyone to be so happy when they are bearing great burdens. I try not to ignore them simply because I am busy. I realize how difficult it is to be living in the midst of tragedy when everyone else appears to be so happy.

After my mother-in-law died it was in the gestures of people who took the time to show that they cared that I found the strength to soldier forward. I realized that their acts of kindness meant the world to me. They had stopped their Christmas revelries just long enough to let me know that they understood my sorrow. I have never forgotten them.

Regardless of the time of year when tragedy knocks on our door we often feel alone in the hell of our circumstances. The people who rally to show their loving concern are our lifelines. Even the tiniest efforts are never forgotten. We find our way back when we realize that we are not alone. Look around. Someone needs you right now. Take the time to comfort them. Your efforts will mean more than you might ever know.

Wait! What?

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In 1997, Britain turned over Hong Kong to China with an agreement to slowly transition the city to a full fledged member of the Chinese nation. The young people born in that year call themselves the “cursed generation.” When they were kindergartners their end of year activities were cancelled due to an outbreak of SARS. Just before entering high school the Swine flu took hold of their group with a vengeance. What really bothers them most is that they believe in their hearts that the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong once had will fade away and be little more than a memory by the time they reach the age of fifty. Their hope is that somehow they can slow or even halt the march of oppression. Sadly they have already watched many of the rights that they once enjoyed being taken from them. Thus they have attempted to bring attention to their plight with demonstrations that have mesmerized the world.

For those of us who enjoy freedom of speech and life in a democracy it is difficult to imagine that the simple act of protesting without violence might lead to five years in jail or even twenty depending on the level of unrest. We are able to openly speak our peace and make demands, something that we often take for granted. The people of Hong Kong are coming to the realization that they may one day find themselves in “reeducation” camps where attempts will be made to eliminate any views contrary to the philosophy of the Chinese government. It is a frightening future in particular for the young who realize that they will most assuredly find most of their rights gone sooner rather than later.

We have watched their brave attempts to shine a light on the injustices of the  Chinese government, and in many cases people have rallied to encourage them. Once such person was Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets. In what should have been an innocent enough show of support for the people of Hong Kong with a post on Twitter Mr. Morey instead created a dustup with the powers that be of the National Basketball Association. It seems that the game of basketball is quite popular in China and Morey’s comments angered the Chinese government which demanded an apology. In a knee-jerk reaction the NBA initially sided with China and expressed displeasure with Morey. The incident has resulted in attempts to save face for everyone involved and to assuage the diverse feelings of a growing number of people and organizations.

Given that the United States of America began with a revolution of people dissatisfied with British rule there is a great deal of irony that the NBA reacted in the manner that they initially chose. I understand that in the final analysis it was all about money and profits and pleasing customers, but this is supposed to be a country where freedom of speech is not just the law, but also an idea that we all celebrate. Of late, however, even our public officials get bent out of shape when they hear something that they don’t like. Some even go so far as to suggest that ideas with which they disagree should be eradicated.

The very idea of censorship of any kind is abhorrent to me. There are some things that I do not wish to see or hear but I would join a protest to insure that they are allowed. If we ever get to the point of suggesting that some need to be “reeducated” then we will have totally lost our way and the intent of our freedoms.

Our President both annoys and embarrasses me on an almost daily basis with the brutal ugliness of his tweets and comments, but I would not want to censor him or anybody else. My tactic is to walk away, turn off those who confound me. We don’t have to agree or even listen to a person that we don’t like, but we must never suggest that they be shut down.

We take too many of our freedoms for granted rather than protecting them as we should. When I see situations like the present state of Hong Kong I am greatly saddened. I do believe that freedom is something that all people desire but a right that far too many never realize. Our ability to speak our minds without impunity is something for which I am more than willing to fight. It is why I won’t ever end a friendship simply because someone disagrees with me. Instead when I hear the voice of opposition I feel a sense of great joy that I live in a country where such is possible.

I did not even know who Daryl Morey was before the ruckus over his innocent tweet. Now I see him as a hero and someone worthy of my admiration. In fact, I feel that way about anyone willing to go out on a limb in support of any of our freedoms as long as they are not harming someone in the process.

I feel great sorrow for the people of Hong Kong who are slowly watching their once grand city become a place of fear and censorship. I not sure that it would make much of a difference, but I wish that more of us would express support for the cause of the brave protestors who face uncertainty each time they take to the streets. I stand in solidarity with them.  I understand the need to always protect the rights that should be inalienable for all people

Be A Weed

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I am constantly fighting weeds. My roses may droop and look as though they are ready to just give up and die during the heat of summer or the freezes of winter but somehow my weeds are always lush and ready to take on any challenge that I give them. I might pull them out by the roots and then treat my flowerbeds with a blanket of mulch but those pesky weeds find a way to come back again and again. I may cover them with thick black plastic but they live on. No matter what I try they are determined to rule the roost in my garden. I have a perennial battle in my attempts to keep them at bay because I am as willing to fight for what I really want as they are.

Life can be brutal. It is filled with one challenge after another. Just when we think that all is well problems sneak into our world that sometimes feel insurmountable. Our best laid plans fall apart. We find that we have as much control over the things happening to us as I do in preventing those weeds from ever again returning. It is inevitable that each of us will one day face difficulties that will try our patience and our will to fight for what we believe to be right.

I’ve had to walk through fire many times. I am not unique in that. I have watched people that I know seeming to have charmed lives only to eventually encounter grave tribulations that threaten to destroy all of the good that they have built. It takes courage for each of us to face the surprises that come our way. Often we have to be flexible and willing to change our plans just to keep moving forward. Sometimes the problems we face are so horrible and demanding that few would fault us if we simply gave up. It takes great strength to travel through a lifetime. Some people among us are like those weeds, unwilling to surrender, always coming back with vigor regardless of how much damage is done to them.

I have witnessed true survivors in my lifetime, people who were challenged by the most grave problems imaginable that they did not allow to defeat them. My grandparents are chief among those that I admire for their persistence, but of course my mother is the icon from whom I take great example. She seemed to have been stalked by tragedy for her entire life and yet she fought back with a fierceness worthy of Joan of Arc. She was unwilling to let her circumstance rule the trajectory of her life even as she fought her own mental illness which chronically returned again and again.

I know a woman who lost her father at a very young age just as I did. By the time she was fourteen she was running a household while her mother worked to keep the family afloat. She was driving a car and writing checks, purchasing groceries and watching over her brothers. She is kind and tough at one and the same time and even though her trials continue to follow her she keeps an optimistic faith in humankind and keeps moving forward knowing that she will no doubt have to climb over new barriers in her journey.

I know a young man who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Houston. He had few role models to inspire him but he somehow decided that he wanted to one day become an engineer. He ignored the temptations that were rampant in the world around him and worked hard toward achieving his goal. He struggled with the financing of a college education and went to great lengths to make unbelievable sacrifices just to keep taking classes. It took him longer than usual to earn a degree but he was unwilling to try an easier route. He did exactly what he said he would do and now proudly bears the credentials that demonstrate his persistence. He has yet to find a job, but his optimism remains. I feel certain that some discerning employer will see his grit and provide him with an opportunity to show that he does indeed have the right stuff.

Here in Houston we love Jose Altuve, a diminutive baseball player who at first glance seems to be an unlikely hero in the world of sports. Jose was told that he was too small to play in the big leagues. Teams passed on hiring him. He might have simply settled for another kind of work and played baseball as a hobby but he knew the magnitude of his heart and his own potential so he persisted until someone finally agreed to give him a chance. Now he is a superstar who regularly knocks balls out of the park even when they are pitched at him at more than ninety miles per hour. Altuve is like those pesky weeds, fighting back with all of his might at every single turn, unwilling to give up the fight no matter the odds.

None of us get through this life without trouble. Sometimes we have long moments of respite but sooner or later we each have to face the unthinkable. It is in those times that we have to be like the weeds. We have to fight with everything that we have to survive. We cannot allow anything to take us down. It’s tough to be in the dark times when it feels as though we have been covered with a shroud of black plastic. The days and hours seem to move in slow motion and we wonder if we have finally met the one event that will defeat us. That is when we must show a ferocity that cannot be matched by the problems that stalk us. That is when our true strength takes us through. We’ve all got what it takes. We just have to keep our determination alive.

When History Comes Alive

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I’ve become fascinated by a series of classes at the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Education featuring the history of the kings and queens of England. Dr. Newell Boyd uses primary and secondary sources to bring the reigns of the British monarchs to life. His courses are exciting strolls through history that illustrate that human nature tends to be the same from one era to the next. The cast of characters may change but the themes echo over and over through time. His is a very personal look at history through the eyes of those who wrote commentaries about the people and events as they were happening.

The thing that has most struck me throughout the series of lectures is that so many of the problems that we humans face today were concerns hundreds of years ago. Those of us who are not royalty or “mighty barons” today may have a better quality of life than the common folk of yore, but questions of religious freedom, power, and economic equality remain essentially the same as they were when peasants’ lives were brutish and brief. The saga of mankind has been a story of wars and intrigue but it has also been one of slowly evolving equality and freedom and opportunity even for those not born into wealth and power. Much of that trend began in the rise and fall and ultimate decline of aristocracy and the belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

I’ve learned from the study of the Tudor kings that the audacious dealings of Henry VII in his quest for an heir had more to do with keeping peace in the empire than simply attempting to father a male child. Prior to Henry’s reign there had been years of warring between families to claim the throne. Henry desperately hoped to maintain a firm hold of legitimacy and continuity in the royal hierarchy. He believed that only a male heir would insure that there would be no challenges to the authority of his line. Of course we know in hindsight that his beliefs about biology were erroneous and that a woman would ultimately rise to the throne and do so successfully.

This semester Dr. Newell is outlining the story of the Stuart kings who descended from Mary Queen of Scots. Because Elizabeth never married and died without an heir there were many questions about who was the rightful heir to the throne. Untangling the family tree that lead to James I  is a story in itself but the gist of his troubled monarchy lies in the fact that he was raised in Scotland as a Presbyterian and as such was never fully accepted by the people of England. His reign and that of his descendants was continually marked by both political and religious intrigue that lead to unrest, civil war and revolution.

The Protestant Reformation had let the genie out of the bottle. While the Church of England was the official religion of the land there were still Catholics and Puritans determined to defy the dictates of the king who served as the head of the church. In his efforts to demonstrate his power and legitimacy James I was rigidly doctrinaire which lead to treasonous attempts to assassinate him by religious groups, perhaps the most famous of them being the plot to blow up Parliament when James was present by a group of Catholic revolutionaries that included Guy Fawkes.

James’ son Charles did little better than his father to earn the love and respect of the people. It was during Charles’ reign more seeds of revolution were sowed as Parliament became more and more powerful and the king became more dependent on their whims. It was also a time when grand new philosophies regarding the rights of ordinary people began to flourish. The world of royalty in England would never again be quite the same.

I have been particularly intrigued by this period of time in history because I can trace my own ancestry to the times. Charles was being plagued by warring forces in Scotland. People of the Puritan faith refused to bow to his demands that they adopt the beliefs of the Church of England. In an effort to rid him of those problems while also diluting the Catholic influence of the Irish Charles encouraged many Scots to relocate to northern Ireland. It was from that migration that my paternal grandfather’s people came. He always proudly boasted that he was Scots Irish, a strange mix of cultures that I never before clearly understood. Now I know that they were probably trouble makers searching for a place where they might think for themselves.

I am also learning more about Oliver Cromwell, a defiant member of Parliament who would lead England to revolutionary ways of thinking. From a woman in my paternal grandmother’s ancestral line I am a relative of Cromwell, all of which helps me to understand my own somewhat rebellious nature and unwillingness to simply follow the crowd.

I suppose that many of the folks who eventually came to the New World in search of opportunity and a new start were pesky Puritans, Scots Irish, people who had grown weary of being persecuted and limited by kings attempting to assert their authority. The philosophies and tyranny that had once been accepted as the Divine Right of kings began to unravel with the reign of the Stuart kings and it would end with a revolution unlike anything that they might ever have imagined. It’s fun to watch it all unfold while already knowing how it will end and it’s even more exciting to know that my kinfolk were part of it. Dr. Boyd surely knows how to make history come alive!

What If?

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What if the people of the world decided to quit relying on someone else to fix all of the problems and we started taking care of things on our own without being asked or paid or honored for our efforts? What if we started by greeting everyone that we pass, noticing what others need and then quietly taking care of them? What if we opened our hearts and our talents to making the world around us better?

What if it became a habit for each of us to keep the environment clean? What if we were always equipped to clean up garbage along the roadsides and in the oceans? What if we got everything looking good and none of us ever again littered the environment?

What if every person found someone to help on a daily basis? What if we understood that if doesn’t take much to make a difference? What if we began to use the power of our collective good will?

What if we really managed to be free of the negative aspects of our human natures? What if we were able to rethink our priorities and work together without being forced by guilt or laws? What if we changed the world without a single selfish desire?

I’m an admitted dreamer. I think of the possibilities of human interaction if only we were able to fully harness our most positive powers and negate those that create problems. I love to think of a time when our intelligence evolves to a point at which we instinctively know what we must do to help one another and to honor our earth. I see examples of the kind of behaviors that I long to see multiplied millions of times over and I imagine a more perfect world. I still believe that we have the power to be our best selves but that we all too often refuse to make the sacrifices and do the hard work that must be done.

I recently saw a group of people working at the ocean to eliminate garbage from the beaches and the water. They removed mountains of debris that had been thrown away by thoughtless people. I wondered why we can’t all agree to come together regularly to sweep our waters and their banks just as we clean our homes. I thought of how we should not have to pay people to do this work when so many of us are able bodied enough to form daily crews that labor all over the world to make the waterways pristine and then keep them that way. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think it proper to throw paper or cans or bottles or balloons or any object into our precious resource of life. It seems logical and right and just for all of us to be participants in the efforts to once and for all rid our waters from the garbage with which we have so blithely and unthinkingly polluted two thirds of our world. I wonder what if…?

I constantly worry about our young and the way in which we educate them by moving them along a preconceived pathway to knowledge that makes learning feel harsh and unpleasant for so many. I see our society missing the mark by making the act of learning a project filled with stress and sometimes even punishment. We act as though every child is just alike with our scopes and sequences that drive them like cattle from one concept to another whether or not they have mastered the previous ones. We make them feel stupid. We cause them to question their worth. We make them anxious at a time when they should be experiencing the joy of exploring the world around them. I wonder how we might make the act of acquiring knowledge a happy endeavor by tailoring more individualized programs that take differences into account. I long for a kind and gentle kind of school experience that builds children up one by one rather than consigning them to a kind of conveyor belt style education. I wonder what if…?

I see and hear of people who are lonely, bullied, abandoned, feeling hopeless. I think of how they are often treated as though they are somehow less than human. I know that many of them even lose faith in themselves. They become lost souls who turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. In the worst case scenarios they use anger and violence in a perverse way to feel better about themselves. I find myself wondering why we did not notice them earlier when they were still young and open to change. Who was it who beat them down? Why was there no one to counteract the harm being done to them? I think of a world in which we are each like guardian angels watching over even those who are strangers to us. I see wonderful people taking those who are abused under their wings. I consider how incredible it would be if we were to all make efforts to help save a life. I wonder what if…?

Such thoughts may sound naive when faced with the ugly realities of the world and yet there have always been individuals who left the fray and simply dug into the work of making a difference even if its impact was small. That one piece of garbage that we remove from the street becomes a clean sweep when multiplied millions of times over each day. That one child who feels the power of mastering a new skill becomes an army of confident people when multiplied a millions of times over each day. That frightened soul who heals by the touch of kindness becomes a member of a confident, happy and productive society when multiplied millions of times over each day. What if we finally decided to see what might happen if we all agreed to do such things every single day? What if, indeed?