Winter In My City

winter-weather-and-chimneys-houston-tx-lords-chimneyThe weather on Christmas Day was glorious, but the days following have been cold, damp and dreary. The only thing to do in such a situation is make soup, hot chocolate, tea, coffee or all of the above which is exactly what I have been doing. Being from Texas my first inclination was to make chicken tortilla soup, but I’m known as the soup and bean queen so I had a number of possibilities, including a really mean potato leek concoction that I sometimes prepare. Somehow the standby chicken tortilla soup seemed most perfect for the occasion, and so I settled on preparing a steaming pot to take the chill off of the day. I suspect that I’ll be making all sorts of delicious brews in the coming weeks because winter in Houston is brief but almost always rainy and bone chilling when it occurs.

Coats last forever around here because we don’t really wear them that much from year to year. I’ve got jackets and capes that have served me for decades. Sweaters go out of style long before they become threadbare. They are more likely to dry rot or get eaten by moths than to fall apart from use. I always wonder why the stores carry so many heavy items in October and November when the temperatures are most likely to be in the eighties, and then replace them with spring clothing just when it finally becomes cold enough to use that sort of thing.

The few times that I have been in traditionally cold climates I have truly enjoyed the frigid weather. I’m told that I would soon grow weary of winter weather if I had to live in such places, but as a visitor who rarely witnesses low temperatures or snow, I get quite excited by what I consider to be normal climate. I’ve got wonderful memories of walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with snow falling on my face. The best such event, however, was in a little mountain town in Austria where I went on a nighttime sleigh ride through the countryside. I was so cold on that trip that I literally lost feeling in my limbs even though I was wearing long johns as well as snow boots and woolly socks that I had purchased from L.L. Bean. I’ve had those shoes for twelve years now and never had occasion to wear them again. I keep them just in case but unless I travel far from home in the winter I don’t expect to need them ever again.

My idea of truly enjoying a snowy place would have to include having someone to shovel the white stuff from my driveway and sidewalks, not to mention retaining an experienced driver to take me on my errands. I haven’t mowed my lawn in years, and I don’t think I would enjoy shoveling snow either. I just want to enjoy the experience like a tourist, and then return home when I grow tired of the work associated with winter.

Even in my temperate climate I somehow I love the wintery moments far more than the summer. I like log cabins in the mountains and hillsides glistening with snow. I enjoy sitting by a warm fire and wearing layers of clothing with cute boots and warm gloves. I like hearing the crunch of snow under my feet and building snowmen. Somehow in spite of the fact that I have always lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and rarely experienced a true winter, I long to have that experience. It just seems more natural than wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops in the middle of January. Still, I love my hometown and have no desire to leave except for a brief interlude that might provide me with the winter wonderland of which I dream.

It’s ironic that so many snow birds come our way for the winter because they have grown weary of the long relentless winters. They’ve traded in their snow shovels for RVs that allow them to be sun seekers. One of the prime spots for such folks has traditionally been Rockport, Texas, a small town only a few hours away from Houston, which welcomes folks from northern states each winter. The town is usually filled with refugees from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and other frigid places. This year there is no town of Rockport. It was quite literally blown away by hurricane Harvey. There are tent cities in vacant lots even six months later, and there is a grave shortage of places for the natives to live. The rebuilding has been brutally slow because in some ways Rockport has been forgotten and many of the citizens worry that the quaint seaside town will never again be the same. The regular visitors have had to find other places to stay this year and it’s possible that they will never return again now that they have been forced by circumstances to find an alternative location for wintering.

I suppose that the grass is always a bit greener in places that are not like our own. We wish for things that we don’t have without really thinking about the implications. I never consider how much work it might be to live in a place that fills with snow, while those who come to our neck of the woods rarely consider the horrors of the hurricanes that now and again come our way.

I suppose that I will have to be content to have a kind of make believe winter experience. I’ll wear my winter gear when I can and enjoy our small doses of soup weather with an appreciation for not having to endure the more difficult aspects of Jack Frost. I’ll crank up the fireplace and maybe even build a bonfire in our outdoor pit on cold dry days. I know that I probably appreciate the cold more because it is so rare, something very special around here. Soon enough it will be warm again and I’ll be donning my sleeveless shirts and sandals.

I’m afflicted by never ending hot flashes. I’ve been told that if they have not gone away by now, they never will. I’ve done research to find out how I might minimize them and learned that the best way to do so is to live in a cold place. Since that is not going to happen, I’ve had to learn to live with them much as northerners understand how to avoid frostbite. It’s funny how we adapt to whatever our situations may be.

This is still my favorite time of year even though it’s wintery aspects are short for those of us who live this far south. I’ll miss going to visit the Whooping Cranes that winter in Rockport each year. I hope that their habitats will be sufficient for them because I suspect that the humans who generally protect them are busy with their own survival this year. We’ll all make do with what we have, but I still have hopes of a snowy January day.

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Splat! Bam!

laziness-2

I’m generally known for my high energy approach to life. I’m the sort who can’t sit still for long and I tend to drive folks a bit crazy because of that trait. I am the Martha rather than the Mary of biblical fame. I am a rather determined soul who gets things done one way or another. Long after everyone else has collapsed into a heap of exhaustion I tend to find that last bit of liveliness that allows me to complete a task. I’ve been that way for my entire life, but another aspect of my vitality is rarely seen by anyone other than those who are closest to me. Those are the moments when the big event is over, the exams are completed, the end has successfully arrived. That is when I hit the wall like a bird flying into a clear glass window. Splat! Bam! I become a useless puddle of goo. I take to my recliner or perhaps my bed and literally waste away an entire day recharging my inner batteries for the next big push.

I seem to do nothing halfway. I’m either blowing and going like a crazed bunny, or I’m as listless as a spent dishrag. That’s been my nature for as long as I remember. I was the kid who would be dancing around the room one minute and then asleep on the floor in the blink of an eye. I throw myself into life and adventures with so much abandon that I’ve been the butt of jokes within my family. There have even been suggestions that I may have been the model for Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame. Others wonder if perhaps I’m a bit more akin to Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy. My daughter thinks I’m a kindred spirit to Hillary Clinton and a recent quiz on Facebook did indeed verify that I appear to be more in line with her than any other First Lady. The difference is that I am driven mostly by a need to do things properly rather than a quest for power which I tend to eschew. I am a self confessed control freak, but I have never wanted to run the show.

Then there are my limitations. Like any ordinary human I eventually run out of steam and I do it with the same level of enthusiasm that I attempt to apply to my other accomplishments. When I  rest I am all in, and on the day after Christmas this week I immersed myself into a state of total relaxation.  I was done, caput, unable and unwilling to make any unnecessary moves. Luckily it was a dreary day and nobody came calling either on my phone or at my door, so I was able to become a virtual hermit for a full twenty four hours.

I vegetated in my bedroom with no plan, no idea of how I would choose to spend my hours other than doing as little as possible. I comforted myself with leftover mac and cheese and an assortment of cookies that I had made for Christmas. I indulged in a marathon of programs on Netflix and dozed off into wintery naps more than once. I found myself longing to be a bear hibernating inside a cave and wondering what it would be like to spend the winter months resting up for the sunnier days of spring. I luxuriated in the gloriousness of unadulterated sloth, telling myself that I had more than earned the right to such an extravagance of listlessness.

Wishing that the SciFy Channel would run it’s Twilight Zone marathon on the day after Christmas rather than New Year’s Eve I stumbled upon a Netflix series called The Mindhunters. It captured my fancy so much that I watched one episode after another, transfixed by a well written story and interesting characters who were on a quest to understand what makes serial killers tick. Their research lead them to question whether individuals are born evil or made to be that way by the environment. In particular they began to wonder if there is a critical point at which deviant inclinations might be eliminated by a proper intervention. Of course the topic was fascinating to me and I became a junkie for hours as I lay in repose nursing my tired body.

I woke up the following morning with my batteries fully charged and my usual enthusiasm for making outrageous plans that will fill my days in the coming weeks. I have little doubt that I will over do it just as I always have and eventually find myself only fit for a lost day dedicated to appreciating my sluggish inclinations. Fortunately I have always understood when it was time for such an interlude and I have managed to renew myself time and again.

I feel for the souls who do not have the luxury of selfishly devoting a full twenty four hours to themselves. I know that there are circumstances that preclude such excess. Babies don’t wait for their mamas to feel better. Some jobs demand attention no matter how one is feeling. Little wonder that we often hear of a major star landing in the hospital from sheer exhaustion. Our humanity has few super powers no matter how much we attempt to push ourselves to create them. The reality is that we really do need to pace ourselves lest we wind up with more than an overwhelming tiredness. We also must be willing to accept that even our leaders require time away from the clock or they will ultimately crash and burn.

Our expectations for ourselves and others are all too often beyond mere perfection. We chide ourselves for being less than we think we ought to be even as our bodies and minds tell us that we need to stop and reconsider the abuse that we are piling on ourselves. We are sometimes too unwilling to accept our limitations or those of the people around us. When a political candidate requires a day of rest while on the campaign trail we tend to write that person off as being too weak for the task of governing. If a coworker has to miss a day we become judge and jury and find that person guilty of being too soft. We create false images of perfection that are generally impossible to achieve and then chide ourselves and those around us for their inability to be all things to all people.

The wisest among us know none of us is made of iron or steel. We have frailties which make us more beautifully human and understanding. They are not bad things, but rather simply an essential aspect of who we are as people. Now and again it is essential that we learn how to embrace our need for R and R. It is a far better tactic than waiting until we have made a big mess in the act of slamming into a wall. Perhaps we would be wise to build in days of nothingness as part of our routine just as the good Lord appears to have intended. According to the Bible even God had the good sense to rest at the end of his labors. It’s time that we all learn to do the same, so go ahead and indulge in leisure. It’s a very good thing to not do anything.

Fortunate Son

5377620The little child that lives inside each of us never quite goes away, not even as we age and mature decade after decade. Our memories of childhood whether magical or nightmarish linger inside our very souls and color the way that we view the world. Those like myself lucky enough to have known mostly love are often guided by the nostalgia of kindnesses and happy times. For others overcoming painful experiences is a lifelong battle. During the holiday season we often become more acutely aware of our long ago histories, and depending upon how they are affecting us we either feel an exhilarating happiness or a sense of sadness. Thus is the power of our pasts and our emotions.

I once wrote a paper detailing the folk history of my grandfather. Rather than guiding him in any particular manner I simply asked him a series of questions and then allowed him to respond in a way that revealed his personal take on the world in which he had lived and grown. He was approaching his hundredth year when I undertook this project and I uncovered a theme in his way of dealing with the ups and downs of life that he somehow passed down to me. Every single story that he told me involved elements of strength, courage and love. It was his personal point of view. His heroes were the people who overcame difficulties through not just their own determination, but with the assistance of caring individuals who often appeared serendipitously to save them. He firmly believed in the idea of personal accountability, but understood that everyone struggles, and when things become almost too much to bear there always seems to be someone who arrives to help.

Convinced that we each have an inner strength in spite of the problems that stalk us, and realizing that we are never truly alone was my Grandpa’s foundational philosophy and the cannon of his life. His was one of those nameless stories that never lead to fame or riches of the concrete kind, but rather the wealth of friendships and love that is far more substantial than the ephemeral nature of titles and things. By the time that he had reached his one hundred eighth year he had become an inspiration to all of us fortunate enough to have known him, and I was chief among his fans. I suppose that I either consciously or unconsciously modeled my own personality after his. I adopted his optimism even in the face of difficulties and soldiered through irritations and tragedies by reminding myself that I came from strong ancestors who refused to let anyone grind them down.

I often thought of my grandfather as a young virtually orphaned boy who never knew his mother, and yet honored and cherished her by naming his daughter after her. He spoke of her a hundred years after she had left him with a profound reverence as though her death in childbirth had proven to him how much she had loved him. The sacrifice that she made to bring him into the world was the foundation upon which he built the entirety of his extraordinary character. The fact that his father abandoned him meant less to him than the knowledge that his mother had died giving him the opportunity to live. His devotion to her was as deep as if she had raised him into an adult.

It was his grandmother who did the job of guiding him into a purpose driven life, and she did so with great care, providing him with wisdom and an unstoppable sense of humor. She gave him the tools that he would need to continue even after she too had died before he was quite ready to be alone. At the age of thirteen h head already risen to a level of maturity that was far beyond his years, so when he was charged by a judge to select a guardian he decided upon an uncle who seemed to be quite noble and honest. This man was so upstanding that my grandfather ultimately adopted his name to honor him for his morality and character. Indeed he also emulated the traits that he saw in this individual who was kind enough to take on the duties of helping a teenaged boy even though he himself was barely into manhood.

Grandpa was stalked by bad fortune. Not so long after he chose the man who would be his surrogate parent a deadly hurricane came to Puerto Rico. My grandfather’s uncle who was a graduate of West Point and a military man served his country by traveling to the devastated island to direct the distribution of aide and supplies. While there he contracted typhus and died. My dear grandfather was alone once again, and so affected by his multiple losses of loved ones that he was rather confused for a time. He bounced around the country doing jobs wherever work was to be found, living in boarding houses and drinking more than he should have to still the sadness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. On one particular evening he experienced a moment of clarity, raealizing that he had become his own worst enemy. He thought about his mother and grandmother and uncle and suddenly felt their spirit reminding him that he was meant to be better than he had allowed himself to become. He resolved at the moment to be the man that they had intended him to be, and with an iron will he turned himself around. Luckily he did so in time to meet my grandmother, the ultimate love of his life and the woman to whom he would surrender his heart. They became lovers, buddies, the best of friends.

The funny thing is that there was never really a time in my grandfather’s life when things came easily to him. He had to work hard and deal with tragedies that broke his heart, but never his will. Somehow regardless of his circumstances he found ways to survive and to find that one tiny speck of hope that kept him going year after year. When he was one hundred eight years old he had lost his beloved wife, his son and one of his daughters. Even some of his grandchildren had preceded him in death. Most of the friends in his age group had left this earth years before, and yet he rarely complained other than to note that he missed them all.

I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather in the tiny house where he rented a room from a widow who needed the extra income to stay afloat. He maintained his independence with a fierceness that I so admired. Much as he had done throughout his life he found ways to keep moving forward even when times became tough. When he grew older he became a bit more nostalgic, and even found ways to understand and forgive his father whom he kindly referred to as a bit of a reprobate, a man whom he nonetheless had grown to love or at least accept.

I find myself thinking of my grandfather more and more often these days, and when troubles come my way I wonder what he would do in similar circumstances. I know that he would somehow find the silver lining that he insisted is a part of every situation. He had been a penniless, homeless, seemingly unwanted orphan who was dropped on his grandmother’s doorstep like a stray cat, and yet he rose above the hurt and anger that might have been his guiding light. He chose instead to focus on the positive aspects of his story and those of the people he had met along the way. He saw himself as someone whose life had been blessed again and again.

We mostly choose how to view our individual stations in life. In the proverbial way of the glass we either decide that our lives have been half empty or half full. Grandpa taught me to choose the optimistic path, to proudly be a Pollyanna. What I have encountered has not always been pretty, in fact it has often been scary and wrought with tears. My grandfather showed me that rather than wallowing in the pity that may indeed be rightfully mine, I always need to ultimately find a way to pluck up my courage and move forward once again. Like him I have repeated the drill time and time again, and along the way discovered new friends, new allies and great love. My grandfather’s worldview has been one of the most amazing gifts of my life. He was indeed a fortunate son just as he believed and I inherited his wealth.

A Good Year After All

main-qimg-296478081c816a7cde7561d1337b3514-cAnother year is drawing to a close, and what a year it has been. I find myself thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a character so full of vigor in the beginning who gradually grew old and weary by the end of his time. Perhaps more than most of our three hundred sixty five day journeys around the sun this one has been treacherous for me and most of my friends. Those of us who made it are far from unscathed, but determined and hopeful for better results in our coming opportunity to try the new revolution of around our favorite star. I’d like to believe that the future will be brighter in the coming months, but that is something that remains to be seen.

So many truly good people left us this year to begin a new and eternal life with the angels. They were joined by beloved pets as well. I have shed more than a few tears in saying goodbye to dear friends with whom I shared so many wondrous moments and  sweet animals who so often delighted me. My Google calendar is dotted with far too many reminders of death and the ultimate reality of our mortality. This year has taught me not to take anyone for granted because in the blink of an eye they might be gone forever. I have learned the importance of appreciating each pleasant moment that I share with someone whom I love, and of letting each of them know how much I care. The point has been driven home that we never ever know what is going to happen from one second to the next. All of our plans sometimes change in the blink of an eye, so rather than constantly worrying and thinking ahead we should all learn how to revel in the wonder of a moment.

Mother Earth has been speaking to us this year, and she has not been happy. The devastation that we have witnessed has been great from California to Florida to Puerto Rico to my hometown in Texas. Surely instead of worrying so much about how people choose to live, it is in our best interest to consider how we might change our ways and improve our structures to meet the demands of storms and fires. We have a tendency to concern ourselves with things that don’t really matter that divide us into camps, and then when horror strikes we somehow manage to pull together. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to live together in more harmony all throughout the year? I suspect that if we did not allow ourselves to be manipulated by politicians and the media the world would be a much kinder place to be. We shouldn’t have to get fifty one inches of rain that floods our homes to realize that ultimately we are all in this exciting thing called life together.

Politics have gone crazy, but there are small signs that we have grown weary of all of the sound and fury and that we are generally more decent than those who would lead us. The good folks in Alabama sent a message to the world that they will not accept unworthy and immoral people as their leaders. The margin by which they chose goodness was slim, but nonetheless won the day. I’d like to think that all politicians are now on notice that we expect more of them than they have been giving us of late. The new year will bring a big election and a great deal of posing behind a screen of smoke and mirrors. Hopefully we the people have learned how to see beyond the tricks and illusions.

We still have evil among us, but we have to remember in all cases that we cannot draw stereotypical conclusions from the actions of the few. Republicans should be reminded that a handful of terrorists is not representative of the millions of good people who hale from the same religions, countries or political persuasions. Democrats need to understand that from the millions of gun owners only a tiny percentage choose violence. We all need to calmly approach our problems with a willingness to provide solutions based on facts rather emotions. The news isn’t really fake, but the ways in which it is interpreted for us often is. This past year it has become increasingly difficult to know the truth because so many are preying on our fears rather than trusting us with the truth.

We are ending this year feeling wounded and even beset upon. It would be easy and even natural to feel cynical and sad after all that has happened, but I would like to suggest a different point of view. The truth is that we are all still here. We may have cuts and scrapes and feel more weary than at any other time in our lives, but if we are still drawing a breath we have time to change our attitudes just as Ebenezer Scrooge decided to do. When the whole world seems to be out of control the only thing over which any of us have sway is how we choose to feel. We can defeat the naysayers and the blues by having the determination to dust off our troubles and just keep trying. We don’t ever have to feel defeated.

I once attended the musical premier of a story about Holocaust survivors. It was a moving experience that brought me to tears multiple times. One song that has followed me spoke of our human resilience with the simple words, “I’m still here.” I’ve echoed that phrase many times over whenever there appears to be a conspiracy to bring me down. It taught me that even if I am stripped of every possession and many of my loved ones I have the capacity not just to survive, but to flourish. It all depends on how I choose to react to both my good and bad fortune.

So goodbye to 2017, a year that sorely tried my patience and my energy. If I am truly honest I will admit that there were far more positive days than those that almost broke my spirit. I watched two men pledge their love for one another on a beautiful beach. i witnessed the fulfillment of the dreams of many of my former students. I laughed and cried with friends and realized how loved I truly am. I did not lose my best friend and husband when he had a stroke, but instead received a second chance to help him become healthy and to show him how much I love him. I met new people who have already enriched my life. I learned that my city is one of the most glorious places to live on planet earth, something that I had always suspected but now know for certain. I watched my favorite baseball team win the World Series. I had my faith in mankind renewed by two incredible athletes and a man who owns a furniture store. I saw the light of understanding in the eyes of the students whom I have tutored and taught. I attended the weddings of former students so demonstrative of love that they filled my heart with great hope. I spent quiet moments with friends and others that were boisterous and filled with laughter. A grandson earned all A’s in his first year of college and other grandchildren won races and contests while still being the kind of young people that our world needs. How can I not think that when all is said and done it was a good year after all?

The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.