The Dwellings In Our Minds

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I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become —- Oprah Winfrey

Have you ever noticed that some people who have very little manage to be quite happy while others who seem to have it all are miserable? How we view life has everything to do with how much joy we experience. The evidence that we are in charge of our feelings abounds.

I have a dear friend who has experienced more tragedies and setbacks than most of us. She has lived with a chronic illness for decades that has required frequent blood transfusions and limitations on her activities. She and her husband of many years divorced just when she was battling her disease, leaving her to survive on her own. She ultimately remarried and things appeared to be taking a turn for the better when her new husband had a series of strokes that left him bedridden. She has become his caretaker and as such is mostly isolated inside her home which is far away from family and friends. Most people would complain about the unfairness of such a situation, but she instead remains optimistic and grateful for the smallest of pleasures that enter her life. People like my friend refuse to be ground down by challenges no matter how difficult they may be. They serve as shining examples to those of us who know them or hear about their inspiring behaviors. 

As I was driving around last Saturday doing some errands I listened to a story on the radio about a young man whose hockey team was involved in an horrific bus crash. Several members of the team were killed in the accident. He survived, but broke his back and was left paralyzed from the neck down. His whole life was centered around being active and at least for now he will be confined to a wheelchair. With the loss of both his friends and his ability to play the game that he so loves it would be only natural for him to become deeply depressed. Many of us would descend into a pit of despair given the circumstances, but he is determined to beat this setback, just as he always managed to come out a winner in sports. He is grieving for his teammates who died, but also eager to begin the hard work to regain his strength and athletic abilities. He does not intend to be defeated, and my guess is that somehow he will find a way to accomplish his goals. It is evident that he is never going to give up and simply languish in self pity.

The champions of this world are people who manage to make the most of whatever hand life deals. They have the ability to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and turn them into beautiful mosaics. Des Linden is one of those people. You might know her name if you are a running enthusiast because she just won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since the nineteen eighties. Her Twitter feed features her mantra, “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Everyday I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try to do better.” Des understands that from moment to moment there will be ups and downs, but the main thing is to stay in the race. What was most remarkable about her victory is that she even halted her run to assist a fellow participant who needed to make a pit stop. Des not only has learned the importance of just showing up to each day, but also realizes that ultimately the true measure of each of us is in how we treat the people around us. Her philosophies have made her not just a champion but a happy person as well.

There is no job, no kind of existence that is perfect and without troubles. Every single person experiences difficulties, failures, temptations and tragedies. Those who show up, keep trying, and focus on relationships rather than transitory values are the happiest among us. Winning is not about accumulating laurels or riches. It is all about finding the real secret of life which is to carry on with a sense of purpose and gratitude that there are thousands of second chances to get things right. Grit is the factor that keeps people moving forward through even the most horrific times.

I have often wondered what in the human spirit keeps people hopeful when they endure the most terrible aspects of inhumanity. How did enslaved people find even a modicum of joy? What did Holocaust victims do to keep from going insane or giving in to a deep dark desperation? How were they able to live and work after they were saved given what they had seen and experienced? What keeps refugees from war torn countries optimistic when they have lost everything that they ever owned and have become nomads in countries where they are often unwelcome? How do people manage to smile again when all that they have known is taken from them?

Somehow the true survivors among us find a way to make the best of the things that they cannot change. They smile and just keep reminding themselves that as long as they are still breathing there is hope for better days. They refuse to give up, and like the young man whose family home was inundated with mud from a collapsing mountain top they just keep repeating, “I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.” Then they clean up the mess and manage to smile at their good fortune.

It’s not easy to become a person who sees opportunities in the impossible. It takes a bit of work to dwell on the things that bring us happiness rather than focusing on our sorrows. We just have to show up each day with a determination to change our thinking from sorrow to joy. Sometimes that means finding a tiny shred of hope to pull us from the negativity that stalks us. Just as we can retrain our bodies to become strong, so too may we redesign our thinking to become the happy people that we want to be.

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Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be. 

 

A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.

Becoming the Music Again

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I’m both a cockeyed optimist and a brooding cynic who oscillates back and forth between celebrating the goodness in humankind and deploring our baser instincts. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of life and seen near perfect days followed by violent storms. I am continually rewarded with unexpected acts of kinds and disappointed by outright betrayal. In other words, as people we have yet to achieve perfection, but in the big picture of history it seems that it is in our natures to want to be good. We are drawn to what is right and just even as we sometimes falter and lean toward the dark side. Like moths we are sometimes attracted to fire, but most of us prefer not to get burned.

The daily posts on my Facebook wall reflect our desires to be the best versions of ourselves even as we struggle to get there. I see videos from Ellen DeGeneres urging all of us to remember that on the whole people are quite good. “Be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people,” we are admonished, a gentle reminder that world views begin one person at a time. A friend features daily “messages from God” designed to guide our thoughts and actions away from the fears and jealousies that often lead to destructive behaviors that hurt us and those around us. The best among us understand what is most important in life and have the confidence to follow their loving instincts.

Our world is filled with so much noise, chaos that confuses us and causes us to question the motives of the people around us. It is easy to become withdrawn and to imagine that our self preservation is at risk. The blathering voices shine spotlights mostly on the horrors that exist in our midst, so much so that we begin to forget that while the potential for evil always exists, it is mostly an anomaly. Over and over again throughout history there have been heroes who rise up from their everyday lives to condemn and stop those who would wreak violence. We do not know their names or their faces, but we understand the power and the beauty of their sacrifices for the good of all of us.

Most of us are quiet people. We prefer to live our lives outside of the limelight. We spend our days working to create tiny slices of personal paradise. We follow the rules, work hard, and try not to make waves. We are in fact a silent majority that exists all over the world. We generally only desire to feel safe and secure and to find a bit of joy in our small personal circles. We take note of the problems around us and either attempt to solve them on a local level by offering our help or we use the power of our political voices to choose leaders whom we believe will create more sweeping governmental solutions. For the most part we desire to have peace of mind rather than to be constantly challenged, so we go quietly about our daily routines until situations demand our attention.

The story of mankind seems to repeat certain themes over and over again. Time and again the bullies and tyrants among us take advantage of our tendencies to want to ignore injustices that don’t directly affect us. We look away even as our sense of justice begs us to set things right. We ultimately reach a tipping point beyond which we no longer allow ourselves the luxury of avoidance. We find that heroic part of ourselves that we need to overcome the poisonous evil in our midst and we overthrow it. The dark forces go into hiding for a time and the princes of peace ascend. Still, we need to be aware that as of this moment in time there are still threats that we must take care to watch even as we celebrate the greater good in our midst. It is a balancing act that we and our ancestors have all had to learn to how to perform.

I watch the daily news and read about happenings both local and in the world at large, but try to remember that what I see and hear is not the entire representation of humanity. The bickering is a political creation designed to divide us and create problems between us. The sound and fury is part of a power play by groups intent on making us believe that we must choose sides, label ourselves as this or that. It would be easy to believe that we must ally ourselves like the tribes of old, devoid of any reasoning other than artificial designations of our differences.

I have seen four days of rain inundate my city, making roads impassable and filling homes with muck and mud. Those horrific hours brought out the true character of the millions of people who live in my city as well as those from far away. The boats came to rescue, the workers came to rebuild, the kindness of people was evident in every corner of the metropolis, from the poorest to the wealthiest areas. Nobody stopped to notice race or to inquire about religious beliefs or political affiliations. We were one people and our goodness and resilience momentarily inspired the entire world.

Sadly our news cycle is so rapid that we soon forget the wondrous examples of good that we see. Heroic efforts are replaced by stories of despots and the blathering of political opponents. We fall for the divisiveness and divide ourselves into camps. We see only the horrors around us and we begin to distrust and maybe even dislike anyone who does not think exactly the way we do. We fall for the propaganda that is used to distract us from the truth, which is that we are mostly good people who have a few villains among us. Our differences are not something to fear, but rather our greatest strength, but if we refuse to acknowledge that the truest successes of history have been the stuff of compromise we will quibble to the point of disaster.

The oldest trick in the book is to find ways to make us turn on one another, to view those who are different as our enemies. Right now we are in the midst of a worldwide effort to divide and conquer. We are being used as pawns by power brokers who want us to believe that we should be embattled with anyone who does not appear to be a kindred spirit. We have temporarily lost our ability to work together for common causes. The loudest and most obnoxious voices are calling the shots. Those of moderation are giving up the fight. We seem to have few choices, but we ultimately have the power and we will arise in all of our goodness when push comes to shove. It is what we humans do. We will one day quiet the noise and become the music again.

I’m Still Not Dead

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There’s a line in one of Willie Nelson’s songs that goes something like this, “I woke up still not dead today.” Willie has a way with words as well as music. I suppose that for someone in his eighties like he is it feels good to see one more day while still wondering when the clock will stop on his run. I’m about fourteen years younger than Willie, but I have to admit that there are times when I feel as though I’m taking a leap of faith when I go to sleep at night. At my age there are no guarantees that I will wake up the next morning. In fact, so many of my contemporaries have already died that I more and more appreciate the fragility of life. I understand that each passing day pushes me just a bit closer to my the ultimate human fate, death. For that reason I find myself trying hard to focus on the aspects of living that are actually the most important, and I am irritated when mundane tasks vie for my attention. Like everyone else I simply have no idea when I will draw my last breath, but at the age of sixty nine I am fairly certain that my days are numbered more so than when I was thirty. That means that it’s really time to pack as much meaning into them as possible.

Family and friends have always been first for me, but I have lately found myself also wanting to pack in as many experiences as possible before my health deteriorates or my income becomes too meager to allow for extravagances. When I think back on my life the moments that I remember always revolve around quiet nights spent with the people that I love and exhilarating moments when I witnessed something extraordinary. Things fall apart and become meaningless, but relationships and adventures are timeless and priceless.

I was watching the movie All The Money In The World last week and it reinforced my thinking that having a great deal of wealth is only as good as what we do with it. If we horde it or become obsessed with it our lives lose meaning. Sadly for some acquiring money becomes an end in itself. Young people are sometimes urged to choose career paths based more on future salaries than passions and talents. All too often adults counsel the young to go for the gold rather than happiness. It worries me that so many young people are being lead down a path that they may one day regret, for in the end there is something about the human spirit that longs for purpose and human contact more than riches.

Don’t get me wrong. Having sufficient economic power is crucial to fulfilling our most basic needs. Having money for nonessentials provides the means for a sense of well being. I don’t advocate living like a pauper, but I have found that it is very possible to lead an exceptional life without bowing to the demands of a lifetime spent chasing the dollar bill rather than fulfilling dreams. As a teacher I enjoyed a rather minimal salary, but it was just enough. The joy that I felt each day that I was at work was far more important to me than a burgeoning bank account. My riches are found in my sense of accomplishing something important and I still managed to enjoy creature comforts without sacrificing my altruistic tendencies.

Each of us is unique. For some there is great excitement in the world of business. For others it is in building things that the most contentment is to be found. If we are lucky we find the niche that helps us to experience the joy factor of life. Even better is when the people around us support our choices.

I used to tease my mother by suggesting that she write a book on parenting, but I was only halfway in jest. The fact is that she somehow managed to raise three children who are so unlike one another. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to follow our individual dreams. When one brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a mathematician, she provided him with the tools to develop his interests. He ultimately attended Rice University and worked for a NASA contractor creating the navigation system for the International Space Station. When my other brother revealed that he wanted to be a fire fighter she was just as proud of his accomplishments. He rose through the ranks earning two graduate degrees, running the training academy, and becoming an area chief. While she sometimes imagined that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, she was quite proud of the work that I did as an educator and even helped me to work my way through my earliest days in the profession by providing guidance and understanding. Not once did she ever indicate that one of our professions was better than the other. Nor did she point to the differences in prestige or salary associated by the public with our chosen careers. Instead she boasted that we had each been successful and that more importantly we had actually enjoyed our work.

As time goes by I become more and more convinced that we are making to many attempts to socially engineer our young so that they will become versions of what we want rather than acknowledging the importance of every single job. As I write this carpenters are replacing damaged sheetrock in my home. Given that my husband and I do not possess their skill, I am in total awe of what they are able to do, and appreciate that they chose to offer this service to me. Right now they are as important to me as a scientist or a financial wizard. In other words, we need a variety of people in our world and that even includes a Willie Nelson whose musical genius entertains and comforts us. Where would we be if everyone chose to only focus on the lifestyles that are most likely to bring wealth rather than finding that one thing that makes them feel so alive?

I’m happy each morning that I wake up still not dead. It’s one more day to spend doing things that I enjoy with people that I love. Lucky for me I have few regrets because in the long ago I was able to follow my personal dreams. I recommend that route for anyone who is just starting out.