Big Girls Do Cry

woman-cryingI didn’t cry much when my father died, not because I had no emotions but rather because I somehow believed that I needed to stay strong for my mother and my brothers. I don’t think that it was particularly healthy of me to prevent the natural feelings that were causing me so much internal pain from becoming public. For a great deal of my life I have tended to be stoic. I’ve often put forth a strong face when what I really wanted to do was allow myself to sob. Over time I realized that tears and sadness are a natural aspect of our humanity that is to be celebrated rather than hidden. We are made to react to hurt and loss and pain with a release of our real feelings. Big girls really do cry and it is not just an okay thing to do, but a therapeutic release. When our minds and bodies urge us to set our tears free, we should feel comfortable responding to the instinct.

Of late I have been crying a great deal, but still not so much in front of other people. I’m in the process of becoming able to do that. It have been through a difficult three months as have so many. I find myself reliving the moment when my husband had his stroke, and I cry, mostly because I am relieved that he is still alive and thriving. I have cried almost every single day for the last month because invariably I see or hear something related to the horrible flood in my city, and I sense the struggles that so many are still enduring and will face for months to come. I can hardly watch the news reports of the conditions in Puerto Rico, a place that I recall being so friendly and beautiful. The images that flash across the screen are heartbreaking, and I feel helpless, so I cry. I have cried for my friends whose relatives have so recently died and for those who are reliving the anniversaries of such losses. I cried for my father-in-law who had an accident that has left him barely able to move. I shed twelve hours of tears while watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam that ran for the last two weeks on PBS. The memories of that era of my life are still raw with emotion and the poignancy of the presentation brought long past feelings to the surface once again. I have cried for the state of our country today which seems as divided and angry and confused as it did back then. Problems that I believed to have been solved were evidently just festering beneath the surface. All of it has made me feel weary because I know of no magical solutions to make things better, and so I cry.

I am by nature a peacemaker. I have always wanted to help people to get along. I have loved living the role of a supporter, a motivator, an inspirer. I feel uncomfortable when people are angry and fighting. I suppose that this is because I learned so long ago that our lives are quite fragile. We simply do not know from one moment to the next how much more time we have on this earth, and so I believe that we must make the best of however many hours that we have. My heroes have been individuals like my Uncle William who was the epitome of kindness. I would be quite surprised to learn of even a single time when he purposely set out to hurt someone. He was a man who mostly set aside his own thoughts and did his very best to consider the wants and needs and dreams of everyone else around him. He was always willing to listen and to love. In that regard as a child I viewed him as the strongest person that I ever knew and my assessment of him has never changed.

I remember our neighbor Mr. Barry who everyone seemed to regard as a living saint. There was nothing wimpy about him. He had served in the Navy during World War II. He managed a large bank for years. He knew how to get things done, but he always accomplished them with an eye toward being sympathetic and good. He was one of those people who noticed the individual who was unseen by everyone else. He didn’t know it, but he was the male role model that I needed after my own father died.

There is a tendency these days to admire people who possess what I call a false bravado, individuals who bully, blame others for their mistakes and take pride in demeaning those who do not agree with them. I personally find such folks to be offensive and weak. They remind me of a student that I once had who found joy in hurting other kids. When he went after a blind girl in order to increase his own popularity I put him down with a vengeance that I never used on another student before or since. I was unwilling to allow him to parade like a champion when what he had done was so vile and cowardly. For that reason I have cried a  great deal of late, because our society appears to be mesmerized by those who behave the ugliest. It is something that I can’t understand.

Social media was a lifesaver during our Houston floods. I kept my sanity because I was able to stay in touch with friends and family members during the long days and nights when the waters filled our streets and homes. Unfortunately there is a negative aspect of that same wondrous means of communication that is hacking away at our decency. I suppose that it is simply too easy these days to dash off a quick and dirty reply to any person or situation that offends us. When we don’t have to look someone in the eye it is more likely that we will be willing to vent in ways that are hurtful. Too often we forget to think about how our comments may affect someone else. Too many among us don’t take the time to consider the impact of our words. When I see the fighting that ensues among people who were once friends and family members it makes me cry. There is simply no reason for any of us to be hateful, and yet even some of our leaders are not able to control their basest tendencies.

I am weary of hearing epithets about snowflakes, commies, ingrates, sons of bitches, entitled kids, abominable people, fascists, racists, homophobes, rednecks, ignoramuses. I listen as we devour one another with words and accusations that often have little or no basis in fact, and yet we speak as though they are gospel. I grow tired of seeing memes and tweets that trivialize serious situations or poke fun at entire groups of people. We seem intent on boiling a pot of furor, and so I cry.

I remember a time when I went on a civil rights tour with my students. We sat in the church in Birmingham where little girls were murdered because of hate. We crossed a bridge in Selma where fire hoses and snarling dogs had once been let lose on protestors whose only crime was asking for the same rights as their white counterparts. I walked down the street toward the capitol building in Montgomery and remembered the hateful rhetoric of  George Wallace. I cried as I looked at my students and remembered the violence and racism that I had witnessed when I was young. I stood in Dr. King’s kitchen and ran my hand across the very table where he sat and prayed for God’s guidance. I cried as I thought of his courage and wisdom and I knew that he too would always be one of my heroes.

I cry when I think of Jesus and the lessons He taught us, the sacrifices that He made. I wonder why it seems so difficult for us humans to follow His very simple message of love whether we believe He was God or not. What is it in our natures that makes us complicate and misinterpret His words? Why did we not learn how horrific hate can become from His death on the cross? What prevents us from being like my uncle or the man who was my neighbor?

As I grow older I find that I remember the kindnesses that were extended to me and I cry tears of joy and gratitude when I recall the people who touched my heart so beautifully. I also think of the ugly things that I have witnessed. They make me cry as well. I had hoped that we would be evolving toward a better way of living with one another by now. Unfortunately we are instead being taunted to take the low road, to dialogue with our fellow men and women with rancor rather than understanding. We give power to the rabble rousers instead of ignoring them and siding with those who would challenge us to bring out the good that resides in our souls. The fact that this is happening makes me cry.

I would so much rather cry over a beautiful sunrise or sunset. I want to shed tears when I see people helping people. I want to release those positive emotions when I watch a toddler so innocently embracing the world. I would prefer feeling a heave in my heart from listening to music or sharing a wonderful time with friends and family. I know that there will be uncontrollable events like natural disasters and deaths, but I am so tired of seeing the kind made by people. It really is up to all of us to begin to demonstrate the kind of understanding that was the hallmark of Uncle William’s and Mr. Barry’s lives. Those two men were so loved because they never hesitated to love.

Perhaps the most telling story about my uncle came when he was delivering mail along the route that had been his for years. He came upon the mother of a notorious serial killer and the emotion that he felt for her was unadulterated love. He spoke of how sad it must have been for her to lose her only son under such circumstances. He did not judge the woman nor consider that she might have somehow been responsible for how her son had become. Instead he simply cared for her, and worried about how she would be now that her son was condemned to prison for life. My uncle taught me how to love. I’m still trying to be as good as he always was, and while I am learning I sometimes cry.

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Tree

tree1024x1024There is a tree in Rockport, Texas that has been growing in the same spot for centuries. Some wise soul thought to save the old oak forever by declaring it an historical treasure and building a fence around it. People travel from all parts of the world just to stand under the shade of the sprawling limbs and to marvel at the girth of the ancient trunk. They snap photos of the wondrous image and try to imagine what the old tree has seen in its time on this earth. If only it could talk we might hear of native people pausing under its branches to rest after a day of hunting and fishing or learn of explorers from Spain who traveled along the Gulf Coast searching for cities of gold. Did the tree once see vast flocks of whooping cranes wintering in the area in their annual journey from Canada? How did it manage to withstand the forces of tropical storms and punishing hurricanes? What is its secret to long life?

We humans have love/hate relationships with trees. We plan trips to Vermont in the fall to marvel at the glorious colors of leaves but also cut down beautiful specimens to make way for factories. We plant trees in the yards of our new homes that once sat in forests that we eliminated to build our suburban communities. We enshrine trees in metaphorical poetry even as we topple them in real life. We use them for our own whims often forgetting that they are helping to provide the very oxygen that we breathe. They cool us and shelter us and we all too often take them for granted. When we flee from natural disasters we abandon them to bear the brunt of wind and water and fire.

Along the Big Thompson Canyon on the road leading from Loveland, Colorado to Estes Park is the dead stump of a once mighty tree. It is bent and gnarled into a contortion created by the power of the river that took homes from their foundations and turned nature’s bounty into piles of rubble. Somehow that tree has become a work of art. Its determination to hold fast to the rocks in which it once grew is a testament to its strength and flexibility. It stands as a sentinel as rugged as the huge boulders along the face of the canyon. It has somehow withstood the onslaught of both nature and humans.

We personify trees. They teach us lessons. We track our human history in their branches. We have a special kinship with trees, especially when we are hot and weary. We sit under their branches cooling ourselves and dreaming of futures that we may never see but they are more likely to enjoy. Trees remind us of ourselves as they travel along with us through the seasons and the years. They are our silent partners in a lifetime journey.

My paternal grandmother was a child of nature. Her father and her grandmother are buried in a national forest in Arkansas where their homestead once resided. It seems fitting that her ancestral home is now protected and allowed to return to a wild and unfettered state. She so loved to walk in the woods under a canopy of trees that sheltered the birds and critters that she enjoyed. When she died my grandfather handpicked a spot in the cemetery that sits under a grove of oaks whose limbs reach gracefully over her final resting place. She would have loved the serenity of the area. In life she marveled at nature’s wonders and seemed almost to be a mischievous sprite as she wandered in the forest behind her farm naming every tree, plant and bird that crossed her path.

Hanging on the wall at the entrance to my home is an image of an enormous tree spreading its limbs across a landscape of green. I have placed it there to welcome my guests and to remind myself of the glories of the natural world. The painting calms me and makes me smile. Gazing at it takes me to my roots. I think of the people whom I never met who had to live in order that I might now exist. Like the tree they once began with a tiny seed and then reached to the heavens with their dreams, becoming ever stronger with each new branch. I know their names but not their stories. I can only imagine what their lives had been based on what I know about the places where they lived. I wonder what they would think of me and the world in which I exist. I suspect that they would be happy that things have turned out as well for me and my extended clan as they have. After all, each of us wants the best for our children and grandchildren. We want to know that they will be safe.

One of my favorite books is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I have presented it as a gift many times over. I never tire of its story of unconditional love and sacrifice. I have now travelled through almost seven decades from the time when I was born. I have been the child, the teenager, the young adult, the middle aged individual and now the old person described in the tale. I have known both the exuberance and the drudgery of life, sometimes forgetting the people who have brought me to the place where I now linger. Like all humans I sometimes take my blessings for granted and even abuse the kindnesses that have been shown to me. I forget to be thankful and to simply enjoy the shade and the sound of the wind whispering through the leaves of the tree of life.

Trees keep me optimistic. They remind me that there is a continuity in this world that is bigger than our individual human efforts. We may falter and even become a bit full of ourselves but the ebb and flow of life remains essentially the same. We all benefit from being a bit more like trees. It is important that we “Stay grounded. Connect with our roots. Turn over new leaves. Bend before we break. Enjoy our unique natural beauty and keep growing.” (Joanne Chaptis) If we remember these simple rules we will surely find more of the contentment that we seek, especially in a world as seemingly mad as the one that we now face.

That tree in Rockport has seen more than we might ever imagine and still lives on. There is something rather nice about knowing that it is there and will be even when we are gone. Like the giant sequoias of Yosemite, the groves of Aspen in Rocky Mountain National Park and the countless shady lanes that soften the highways and byways across the land trees are the constant that we all wish to be in the world.