Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.

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Churches

19510606_1819990221352292_3124586995295021826_nI write my blogs in the early morning hours when the world is a fairly quiet place. I look out on the little world of my backyard as I gather my thoughts and seek inspiration for a topic. Sometimes the ideas seem to pop out of nowhere like a distant call inside my head. It is as though I am being gently compelled to speak of a certain idea, event or individual. This day lead me to a rather strange place.

It began as I pondered my recent trip to Mexico and a visit to San Sebastian Church in an old colonial town dating back to the fifteen hundreds. Our tour bus stopped just long enough for a quick peek inside the old structure where daily mass was being celebrated in spite of all of the gawking tourists. The sounds of the ritual prayers were so soothing to me, and their familiarity in spite of being uttered in a somewhat foreign language helped me to fully understand just how the word “catholic” means universal. I remembered my religion teachers telling us back when I was still a child that we might go anywhere on earth and find the same mass with the same prayers. Here I was thousands of miles away from home and I knew exactly what was going on inside that historical church just as I suspect its earliest parishioners would have also known. It was a joyful moment for me as the people raised their voices in song and praise because I felt a deep connection to them that came from being part of a Church that transcends local geography.

Of course I also thought about the tragedy of missionary work in Mexico that had so ignorantly trampled the culture and traditions of the Mayan people who were indigenous to the area. In the misguided belief that the natives and their own religious ideas were somehow less advanced, the Franciscans built San Sebastian and other churches throughout Mexico hoping to save them. We now see the practice as questionable, but back then it was viewed as a matter of doing God’s work. Thus it often is with religious fervor. There is a very thin line between actually helping people by spreading the love of Christ and being presumptuously and wrongly judgmental. Sadly the history of missionary work in the colonies of the European nations intent on founding new worlds were sometimes far too dismissive of the local morays.

Such backward thinking is present in radical and fundamental religious sects even in today’s more enlightened world. In particular the members of Westboro Baptist Church are an example of demonstrating the most obnoxious and invasive forms of overreach. In a blind belief that they somehow have all of the eternal answers they time and again force their presence and their tainted ideas about God on people who would rather not have to deal with them. This past weekend was no exception as noted by a longtime and dear friend of mine whose children were shocked when they encountered a demonstration being held by the group in front of a Lutheran church in Pasadena, Texas. The zealots were holding signs that read, “God Hates Gays!” a particularly repulsive statement to my friend because she is in fact a lesbian woman.

I firmly believe as my friend does that God doesn’t hate anyone. To say so is to contradict all of the preachings of Jesus whose one and only commandment was that we love one another. I often wonder how we manage to take His clear and powerful message and distort it to conform to twisted interpretations. I have little doubt that if Jesus were to walk among us once again He would emphatically reiterate that His is a religion of peace and kindness devoid of judging and other such nonsense. I can almost envision Him tearing up signs that indicate that any form of hate is a product of God. To me such pronouncements are nothing short of blasphemy, a perversion of His words.

Ironically as I was experiencing the sting of anger over the hurt that I knew my friend was feeling because of the rabid Westboro folk, I encountered a grainy old black and white photo of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church being built back in the early nineteen fifties. The church opened its doors for the first mass in the same month in which I turned four years old. Two years later I was a parishioner there along with my parents. I would spend the remainder of my school years learning about my Catholic faith in that parish built near Hobby Airport back when southeast Houston was little more than empty fields waiting to be developed in the post World War II boom. It was a wonderful experience in every sense mostly because it was where I was taught about a God who is all about love.

In the same spirit as Pope Francis today the nuns and priests and laypeople who were my teachers and mentors unveiled a love filled religion to me and my classmates. They taught us to honor our fellow humans and to see ourselves as citizens of a beautiful world in which we are all cherished by God. Ours were lessons in understanding and inclusion. We were told to empathize rather than indict, and so I struggle to understand how some fanatical Christians or those of other over zealous sects can be so self righteous as to presume that they are speaking and acting for God.

Of course religion or lack of it is a very personal thing. I would be loathe to foist my own faith on someone else. Still I would be remiss to simply leave my friend and others who are abused and misjudged to endure the taunts of groups like Westboro Baptist Church without defense from those of us who disagree with hateful preaching. Sometimes we have to speak up when the actions of others are so egregious.

Yes, it is a free country. Yes, the folks from Westboro Baptist Church have a right to their freedoms of religion and speech. I will not ever deny them those things. What I will do is shout from the rooftops that God is not about any form of hate and never will be. I will embrace my friend who is in fact a good and godly woman. I am certain that she is loved by our Lord, and I want her to know that those of us who have been lucky enough to join her in our collective journey through this life will always be by her side.

How To Be A Father

10433198_10204665991323147_2774262802798031590_nAs I was talking about this and that with a woman who was framing a piece of Mayan art that I had purchased at Chichen Itza, she casually mentioned buying herself a certain kind of tool for Father’s Day. She looked up from her work and let the comment hang in the air as though she expected me to have some kind of reaction. Of course I simply carried on with my babbling as though nothing unusual had been said. I didn’t even bother to mention that my brothers and I had always honored our mother with gifts on Father’s Day because she had been both our mother and our father all rolled up in one amazing person after my dad died.

In today’s society my family situation would not be considered unusual at all because there are huge numbers of children who are growing up with only one parent. My brothers and I are proof that it is possible to raise healthy and happy children in nontraditional ways. Still, I think that part of the secret to our mother’s success in rearing us was that she provided us with examples of exceptional male role models. Starting with stories of our father, she noted his best traits and explained how and why they had been so important. She encouraged us to watch and learn about goodness from men like Mr. Barry and our Uncle William. She took us to visit our grandfather regularly and noted the wisdom of his words that she prompted us to heed. She pointed out the loyalty of neighbor men like Frenchy Janot and took my brothers to watch Uncle Harold and Uncle Louie build and repair things. She created a picture of the exemplary father in our minds that helped me to find a man who would be kind and loving to our children and my brothers to successfully play a role that they had mostly seen from afar.

I suppose that because of my experience I have long observed fathers and mentally rated their abilities as parents. I am proud and happy to say that my son-in-law Scott is an exceptional dad who continually takes the time to interact with his four sons in loving and instructional ways. It has occurred to me as I watch him in action that he must have learned how to be such a great parent from his own father Gary, better known as Boppa to his grandchildren. Indeed as I have viewed Gary’s behavior around his family I believe that I have seen the actions of someone who literally revels in his role and exceeds the expectations that society has for fathers.

Gary grew up in Houston, Texas just as I did, but while I was living in the southeast part of town he was living in the southwest near the Medical Center. Still we experienced the world of childhood in very similar ways with adventures along the city’s bayous and games that filled our days with sheer delight. He still uses some of the same jokes and stories that I also heard and enjoyed when I was a kid.

Gary went to the University of Texas in Austin and became a die hard Longhorn and Chemical Engineer and met Barbara, the love of his life. They married and he began his life as a family man who worked hard to provide for Barbara and the two children that they would have together. It seems to me that the key to Gary’s personality was his insistence on making life fun. He saw the routine of our days as one grand adventure after another, filled with great wonders. Thus he made travel and learning and laughter the centerpieces of his family’s time together. Over the years they have gone all over the world experiencing the culture and flavor of different places right down to the smallest detail. At every juncture Gary was there patiently explaining the historical, literary and scientific significance of the things that they saw. Mostly though he made even the mundane seem exceptional and he had a knack for making the people around him feel very good about themselves.

Today I know Gary as a grandfather and he has continued his masterful abilities with his six grandchildren, taking each of them on grand tours and planning annual get togethers and traditions. He spares no expense because he sees such experiences as the stuff that sparks the imagination, so if the best way to view something is by helicopter then by golly everyone will have that adventure. He has ridden on the London Eye and trekked across Germany with the latest generation of young people who absolutely adore him. Even the children of my other daughter love being in his presence and laugh with delight as he plies his magic with them.

The true key to Gary’s success as a parent and grandparent lies in the unconditional love that he showers on the members of his family day in and day out. They are the center of his universe and they know it. He makes no bones about treasuring them just as they are with no demands that they conform to some preconceived notion of who he thinks they should be. He delights in their uniqueness and provides them with the confidence that comes from having such a nonjudgemental fan. He always seems willing to help them through rough patches in their lives with total support and he eagerly shares the wisdom that he has garnered from his own experiences. He continually shows them and all of us who know him what it means to be the very best kind of father.

Gary is fighting his own battles these days with an illness that has sapped his energies and sidelined him from the things that he most loves to do. Nonetheless he courageously steps up again and again to demonstrate to his family what it means to live life as fully as possible. He ignores his pain and pushes through at plays, sporting events, graduations and parties. He speaks little of his own struggles instead inquiring about the people around him and doing his best to make them feel happy. He is a very good man in every sense of the word and by example he has taught his son and his grandchildren and even those of us who are his friends how to be the kind of people who truly make a difference, the kind of people who love and are truly loved. He has shown us how to be a father.

A Heartless Insult

05BE14010000044D-0-image-a-71_1431039744759I am a woman who has my feet firmly planted in two distinct eras. I recall a time when working women with children were a bit of an oddity. Most of the ladies in my neighborhood wore the badge of homemaker with pride and those who left each morning to work in offices seemed exotic and maybe even a bit mysterious. Then my father died and my own mother found herself in need of a full time job. She chose an occupation that was very much the domain of highly intelligent women at the time, teaching. Through her connections to education I found myself intrigued by the world of work inside a classroom.

Somehow in my mind I always knew that I wanted to share my talents with the youngest members of our society, but for quite some time I fought my inclinations to become a teacher. I considered a number of alternative occupations and even stalled in my pursuit of a college degree as I struggled to find myself. Regardless of what I tried I somehow returned again and again to the very career that my mother had chosen in her moment of economic need. I realized that I was secretly happiest when I was helping some youngster to learn and so even though I had at times dreamed of becoming wealthy I decided to forge ahead in a career that I understood would reward me more with good feelings than financial gain.

My very first teaching job was one of my very best. I adored my principal and my students but I only made eleven thousand dollars a year, hardly a resounding figure and well below what my female peers were making as accountants or businesswomen. Still I was happy every single day, and so I told myself that money really didn’t matter, but of course it did. When I got an opportunity to move to a different school and up my salary by eight thousand dollars I leapt at the chance and realized soon enough that I would earn that extra money in blood sweat and tears. Still, it was a grand experience where I learned how to work with children with some of society’s most horrific problems. I became a bonafide educator in those challenging days and sensed that I had truly found my destiny despite the fact that my salary rarely increased more than five hundred dollars a year.

Time passed and I went to different schools and had new experiences, all of which delighted me. Still, by the early nineteen nineties I was not yet earning even thirty thousand dollars a year even though I had been plying my trade for decades. Teachers simply did not get paid well regardless of years of experience or the difficulty of the subject that they taught. Then the Texas legislature finally realized that they needed to make the profession more attractive if they were going to recruit and retain talented young people. They voted to dramatically increase the starting pay of educators so they had to do the same for those of us who had been faithfully working for years. Sadly they did not do so proportionately and the old timers were ultimately making not much more than the new kids on the block.

By this time my own children were in college and I began to feel the pinch of paying their tuition, board, and other expenses. I wondered if it was time to consider a career change and so I returned to college and earned a Masters degree in Human Resources Management. I had enjoyed the courses that I took and my professors believed that I would be quite outstanding working with employees. I had even worked in a Human Resources department at a chemical company one summer and my boss became my cheerleader. Having once been a teacher herself, she understood my dilemma and we became the best of friends as she encouraged me to transition into a new profession.

Somehow I was never able to force myself to make the change. I turned down wonderful offers and made excuses for not following up on leads. One of my professors confessed to me that he believed that I should stay in education because I was subliminally shouting that I didn’t want to leave the profession that had brought me so much satisfaction. After much reflection I knew that he was right. Instead, I took the five hundred dollar a year increase in salary that my new degree had earned me and kept at the job that I truly loved. Over time my pay began to approach a more reasonable level as teacher shortages became more prevalent, but I never broke into the kind of earning power that I might have achieved in the world of business. I loved my work and adored the students, so materialism didn’t seem to matter. Besides, the state had promised all of us a comfortable retirement with reasonable health insurance and so I felt that I had all that I would ever need.

Now I am retired. My monthly earnings are not exceedingly great because I never really made huge amounts of money. A brand new teacher of today earns only a few thousand dollars less than I did in my last year of work. Still my pension provides me with enough to be able to travel now and again and pay the expenses that I have. I’m not sure how well I will do if I lose my husband because I do depend on his Social Security checks and those will go away once he is gone. The federal government in its infinite wisdom seemed to think that teachers were double dipping when they received payments from both the federal and the state governments. I did pay into Social Security for enough quarters to get my own check each month, but because I have a state pension even that amount is offset so that I receive only about a third of what I actually earned. I have to maintain my composure each time I think about how teachers are slapped in the face over and over again, but then I remind myself of the intangible rewards that I have received and just count my blessings.

I suspect that the actions of the current Texas legislative session have sent me over the edge. As the saying goes, “I’m mad as hell.” With little regard for those who worked for decades inside public schools for ridiculously low salaries and conditions that were often verging on the abusive, our state senators and representatives have decided to cut the health benefits of retired educators and school staff members. Whereas we have heretofore been able to choose from four different insurance plans at a fairly reasonable cost, we now must accept a Medicare Advantage plan and pay almost three times more. Not only that, but the deductibles and copays have increased to the point where it is doubtful that we will ever receive a cent from the insurance company since Medicare provides the primary coverage. In addition, many of my doctors have already indicated that regardless of assurances from the state, they will not keep me as a patient if I have a Medicare Advantage plan. Furthermore, I am in the final months of taking a very expensive treatment for my osteoporosis and the pharmacy will suddenly change in September leaving me to wonder if I will be able to complete the two year regimen since it took me almost three months to be approved by my present carrier. I wonder how many of my fellow educators will be adversely impacted while they are in the middle of health crises and I truly worry for them.

The average retired teacher receives about twenty one hundred dollars a month in pension payments. By the time that they pay for supplemental medical insurance and Medicare they will have spent one seventh of their incomes. While I do far better than that, I still plan to continue tutoring as long as I can to offset the increases that are coming soon. Many of my colleagues are not fortunate or healthy enough to find alternative ways of handling the unexpected changes. They will instead be forced to tighten their already rather constricting belts.

The state has the income to help defray the expense of keeping promises made to its teachers but has chosen not to take that route. It has been almost nineteen years since retirees have been given a cost of living increase. When my mother, a former teacher, died she was receiving less than a thousand dollars a month from the Texas Teacher Retirement System. Luckily she had spent her final working years at the University of Texas Health Science Center and thus had health insurance paid for by the university. Still, she had felt forgotten and betrayed as she struggled to stay financially afloat and she quite often urged me to take my skills to a more profitable marketplace. She all too well understood how frightening it is to work for a lifetime only to find that it is almost impossible to meet the most basic needs. She worried most of the time in her final years.

I suspect that there are many former educators in the state of Texas who are wondering what they are going to do. Like my mother they are afraid. Somehow I can’t understand how Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and most of the Republican members of the state legislature can be so insultingly heartless. I worry about those who will be crushed by this travesty at the very time in their lives when they have earned the right to rest and reflect on the great gift of knowledge that they imparted to so many young people. Shame on the men and women who have forgotten their contributions. 

Live Aqua

19113568_10212800199540924_6522367500719525467_nIt is difficult to believe that as late as the nineteen sixties Cancun was little more than a sleepy fishing village with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. Today it is one of the most popular seaside tourist towns in Mexico and boasts a central hotel zone of immense resorts that are visited by people from all over the world. The population of the city has ballooned to well over a million citizens since it was first envisioned as a vacation mecca in nineteen seventy. The economic engine of the area depends on a huge service industry workforce that caters to every need of those who come in search of sun, sand and relaxation. Cancun is a place where even the common man or woman is made to feel like royalty.

The city is located near the easternmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and is graced by white sandy beaches and the colorful waters of the Caribbean Sea. It was once home to the great Mayan civilization and not far from the hotels ruins from the height of Mayan influence remain even to this day. Many of the local people are descendants of that unique and fascinating society which was ultimately decimated by drought, famine, disease, war and the brutality of colonization.

Among the many resorts in Cancun is Live Aqua, the hotel where my husband and I stayed for a few glorious days. The cost is all inclusive meaning that all of the food and drink as well as the room are part of the contract. It is a five star world class destination with spectacular views from the luxuriously appointed rooms. Ours featured a private balcony that looked out on the Caribbean. It had a mini-bar that the staff kept loaded with drinks and snacks, replenishing the stock multiple times a day. The bed was amazingly comfortable with sheets as soft as silk. There were enough drawers and closet space to hold our belongings without crowding. The bathroom was as large as an en suite and had both an oversized bathtub and a huge shower. It was stocked with specially scented soaps and toiletries as well as large bath towels. There was no skimping on the kind of details that make such environs feel more special than most.

From the moment that we arrived we became honored guests. A young woman named Jessica gave me a hand massage and brought us a special iced tea to drink along with cold cloths to freshen us and take away the sting of the summer heat. Soothing music played in the background and exotic scents filled the air while another beautiful and energetic employee named Carla put herself at our service. True to her word she became our go to helper for the duration of our stay, making certain that we had exactly what we needed at all times.

Live Aqua features many restaurants all of which offer delicious food served with impressive care. Siete is a buffet that is open most of the day to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It has an almost limitless number food choices to satisfy virtually anyone’s tastebuds. The Hidden Garden features asian cuisine that is high end and quite tasty. Mb is perhaps the most elegant of the places to eat and has a somewhat formal dress code. Its three course dinner is a sumptuous feast featuring soups like the habanero cream that literally melts on the tongue and desserts that perfectly end a memorable meal. The hotel also offers also outdoor dining near the multiple swimming pools and the sea. There are both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages everywhere being delivered by staff members who seem to have permanent smiles tattooed on their faces. No request goes unanswered at Live Aqua. The accommodations are extraordinary and the employees are trained to anticipate every possible need, all of which leads to a sense of well being and enjoyment.

For those who want a true resort experience there is also a spa offering everything from facials and massages to manicures and pedicures. A large and well equipped gym is available for those who want to maintain their exercise regimen. Chaise lounges with umbrellas line the pools and the beach as well as cabanas that are available for an extra rental fee. The best feature, however, is the beach itself. The water changes colors throughout the day ranging from a lovely sea green to aqua to an almost purple hue. The sand is soft and white and most of the time the sky is a deep and beautiful blue.

The government of Mexico is quite proud of this remarkable town and works hard to insure that tourists are safe from the cartels that have made visits to other parts of the country worrisome and unpredictable of late. There are guards even at the airport and great efforts are made to keep Cancun free of incidents that might discourage visitors from coming. There is a welcoming spirit everywhere one goes and so many events and interesting places that it would take days just to experience it all.

Live Aqua may at first glance appear to be a bit pricey but there are deals to be had. We found ours on Expedia but friends used other sources to get as much as forty percent off of the regular costs. It would be well worth the effort to search for special rates and then make a reservation for this truly remarkable place. I can promise that you will not be disappointed. I personally left feeling nourished and reenergized. The memories of my experience keep replaying in my head and bringing a smile to my face. I find myself mentally planning my next visit.

Quite frankly I arrived in Cancun doubtful that I would be all that impressed because I have experienced some very grand vacations in the past. I departed feeling as though my trip had indeed been one of my very best, not in small part due to the care and diligence of the staff at Live Aqua. I will be forever thankful for their friendliness, courtesy and never ending efforts to make my stay one worth every penny that I spent to be there. I look forward to the day when I return.