Changing the World One Person At a Time

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I watched an interesting movie, An Inspector Calls, a few nights ago that has stayed on mind. It was based on a play written by the English author J.B. Priestly and was first performed in 1945. It alludes to the impact that each of us has on the people that we encounter, even when those meetings are impersonal and brief. Each day as we go about our lives we are leaving impressions that either enrich or hurt the people with whom we interact. What we say and do is affecting someone’s psyche in deep and meaningful ways, making it imperative that we think before we act. 

All too often we are wrapped up in our own trials and tribulations, forgetting the power that we yield in even the most mundane situations. If we are irritable, taking out our frustrations on complete strangers we may think little of our actions, but our anger may in fact ruin the day of the person who is the recipient of our barbs. How we choose to treat people actually matters, and may in fact have lasting consequences of which we are completely unaware. So why wouldn’t we continually do our best to more pleasant and understanding?

According to a recent 20/20 episode road rage has become a national problem. In city after city there have been tragic cases of individuals who become so angry that they lose their composure and end up creating mayhem in the process. Far too many people are coming unglued and overreacting to snarls of traffic. Everyday folk become Mr. Hyde when they take command of the driver’s seat in a car. They forget that the automobile can become a weapon with fatal consequences when emotions take hold.

Extreme examples of people snapping and resorting to violence are still mostly rare, but we all too often use our words to tear people apart. It has become more and more acceptable to speak our minds, as though being brutally forthright is a badge of honor rather than the destructive force that it actually is. We sometimes even applaud those who utter vile things about the people with whom they disagree. It’s supposed to be a sign of toughness to be able to take an insult on the chin, but I find myself wondering how much damage is being caused by the deep hurt that is being so nonchalantly used to win arguments. Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but words are often even more powerful in breaking spirits.

I have to admit to feeling a bit sad these days as I see so much mean spirited behavior being bandied about without much thought. I find myself wondering how many souls are quietly hurting because of the suspension of manners in so many situations. Surely we must all be somewhat affronted by commentaries that threaten and insult. Where is the kindness that we know is far more effective in healing?

I was impressed by former President Barack Obama’s speech in South Africa upon the occasion of what would have been Nelson Mandela’s one hundredth birthday. He pointed out that Mr. Mandela understood the importance of forgiveness and understanding in leading a nation. Even though he had been imprisoned and treated badly, he chose not to hold grudges against those who had tormented him. He realized that the only way to bring his country together was to mend the divisions and bring all of the people together.

I have found that the greatest people of all time have understood the basic principle and power of love. Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course Jesus Christ followed a righteous path of justice, inclusion, and above all nonviolence. They were willing to forgive, to understand, to create alliances between people of different beliefs. In the final analysis we are all stronger when we come together in a spirit of forgiveness and peace.

I have a friend named Andriel who personifies the way in which each of us may play a small role in making our world a better place to be. Andriel’s life was shattered a few years ago when her beautiful daughter was killed in an automobile accident. The tragedy touched many of us, but its effect on Andriel was unimaginable. From the ashes of that time, Andriel has worked her way back to wholeness not by stewing in anger over the unfairness of her plight, but by reaching out to one hurting soul at a time and embracing them in their moment of need. She has healed herself by healing others, and continually being conscious of the power of even the smallest of her actions. She encourages  and inspires all who know her to consciously embrace and appreciate the people around them with positivity. She is a life coach who has walked in a valley of pain and sorrow only to emerge more whole than ever before. Her secret to being a joyful minister lies in opening her heart in all that she says and does, remembering how fragile each of us sometimes may be.

Andriel has advised those who follow her to spend some time each and everyday helping to mend someone who is broken. Make that phone call. Send that text. Say those words that are in your heart but somehow remain unspoken. Let people know how much they mean to you, how much you love them. Your efforts may make all the difference in someone’s life.

We don’t have to be victims of a movement of so called strong men and women who would abase and belittle us. We can do what we know is right and muffle the sounds of ugliness. There are more good people than bad. That has always been true. We have the power to change the world, one life at a time.

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Only Time Will Tell

33750316_1843978448978317_6669086996591280128_nThere was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.

As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.

My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!

After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.

The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.

My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.

Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.

In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country. 

In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.

By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.

In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.

The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.

We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.

My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking  on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime. 

I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .

When Two Beautiful Hearts Become One

37125721_10212650429280251_3292675091942342656_oThey were a cute couple, high school sweethearts who fell in love. Paul was a football hero, an all state lineman who was a beast on the gridiron, but a teddy bear off the field. It is little wonder that he was attracted to Shirley who was a real beauty with a warm and inviting smile. They found each other when they were still young kids, but they both understood that somehow their relationship was meant to last for the duration, and so they married fifty years ago.

Our world is overrun with problems these days. Divorce is on the rise, almost commonplace. Families are often torn apart by differences, disloyalty, and neglect. All too often relationships fizzle out before they have even begun to take hold. Single parent families are on the rise. Young people are wary of making promises to one another. Not so with Paul and Shirley. They not only pledged to honor and cherish one another till death, but they made good on their oaths to one another as their lives unfolded in one decade after another.

I knew Paul from a time when he and I were a young children. I met Shirley in high school. I was in awe of both of them even back then because they each appeared to be so genuinely kind and humble. Shirley was a particularly sweet person who rarely thought of herself, but always did her best to make those around her feel welcome. She was the kind of person who went out of her way to notice the one individual who was feeling uncomfortable or ignored. With her ever present calmness and inviting smile she took the time to say a hello or just to inquire about how someone was doing. I loved and admired her so, thinking myself quite fortunate to know her.

Paul was so handsome and gifted in his athletic prowess. I on the other hand was so awkward that he scared me just a bit, but like Shirley he had a million dollar smile and a way of being so open and friendly that I somehow felt okay around him. His innate sweetness was both charming and refreshing, and when he and Shirley began dating I thought that they were indeed a most perfect couple that somehow the angels had put together.

High school graduation came and I lost track of many of my classmates, just as always seems to happen. I went my way and Shirley and Paul went theirs. It would be almost five decades before I saw them once again and I learned that they had enjoyed a beautiful life together. As always both of them spent more time listening to the tales of others than boasting about their own accomplishments. They were as sweet as they had ever been, and it did my heart good to know that with a few ups and downs, they had mostly enjoyed the years.

Shirley was even more beautiful than ever, and her iconic smile still radiated the same loveliness that lit up her eyes and revealed the inner beauty of her heart. Paul was like a rock, one of those incredibly kind men who is unafraid to show just how much he cares about people. Together they had created  a loving family and worked to cement the relationship with each other that they had built so long ago.

Just about a year ago Shirley and Paul’s home flooded from the rains of Hurricane Harvey. Instead of complaining about the slowness of the recovery, the pain of losing so much, they instead smiled as they always seem to do, and worried about how everyone else was doing. In the midst of their own troubles they took the time to send me a lovely card expressing their hopes that my husband would fully recover from his stroke. I suppose that they never really knew just how much their thoughtfulness meant to me in that moment, but it was so typical of them to be selfless.

Anyone who has ever met Shirley and Paul Jauma knows just how much they love one another. Theirs is a union grounded in a deep faith that God is a partner in all that they do and endure. They have taken their vows to a spiritual level that is not often seen and have made good on the promises that they exchanged with each other on their wedding day. Their fifty years together have inspired the people who know them as evidenced in the many tributes that have come their way.  We find ourselves feeling so happy for them, and fortunate to number them among the people that we have known.

Shirley and Paul are quiet people who laugh at any suggestions that they are somehow icons, but I know differently. They represent the best of humanity with traits that are all too infrequently seen. I suspect that if there were more people like them in the world, we would be a much happier lot. They have much to teach all of us about love and what it really means to honor and cherish another person for a lifetime.

I’m quite delighted for Shirley and Paul Jauma, and I pray that they will be blessed with many more years together. We all need to witness their model of a loving couple, and I thank them for sharing the goodness of their hearts.

Taking One For the Team

37176894_10160474349250431_736566670557970432_oIt all began in 1979 when the University of Houston played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. It was an unusually cold day and Notre Dame’s quarterback, Joe Montana, had the flu. He was so sick that he didn’t even come back on the field for the beginning of the second half of the game. My Houston Cougars appeared to be in the driver’s seat for most of the game even though Notre Dame made progress in the second half. With only a few seconds left in a game that seemed to be leaning toward a UH win, Joe Montana came back onto the field after downing some chicken soup. With only two seconds on the clock he threw the winning touchdown pass snatching victory from my university.

We had been at a watch party with our friends, Linda and Bill, and to say that our disappointment hung heavily over the proceedings would be an understatement, but back then nobody really understood the pattern that would slowly but surely reveal itself. At least nobody looked to me as a jinx on that day, but time would tell a different tale.My family began to notice that anytime I watched any kind of sporting event my team would ultimately lose, often at the last minute on a fluke play. Mostly I wasn’t enough of a fan to create a noticeable pattern right away, but now and again the same kind of disappointment that occurred in the long ago Cotton Bowl game would rear it’s ugly head.

Then came the 1983 NCAA championship basketball game between the University of Houston and North Carolina Sate. The Houston Cougars were ranked number one in the country with players Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. I was in a class with Cylde and he and I were members of a group slated to give a presentation together. He missed our assigned date to play in the big game where he performed well, but NC State was determined and as the final seconds counted down the score was tied. Just before the buzzer, North Carolina took a risky shot and walked away with the victory. Oddly I rarely watched such games but because Clyde was a classmate of mine, I took an uncharacteristic interest. The game that everyone thought would be the Cougar’s proud moment was suddenly stolen from their grasp.

After that I felt as though I had some kind of bad juju, an aura of negativity that in some strange way affected any team for which I cheered. The bad results began to pile up in evidence that I was a jinx, a jonah, someone who needed to be barred from games. I can’t even begin to recount the number of times that things turned out badly anytime I was actively cheering for a team in a crucial contest. At first my friends and relatives scoffed at the very idea that I might have some crazy power to turn the tide in athletic contests, but more and more often the results of my interest in such events lead to the inescapable conclusion that I was somehow bad luck.

I know it sounds totally crazy, but even the most logical and rational people that I know now ask me to stay away from even thinking about critical sporting moments. I had to attempt to ignore the Houston Rocket’s basketball games when they twice won the National Championship. I felt it my duty to give Hakeem and Clyde a fighting chance, and it worked.

Whenever a big game is on the line I go shopping, take a walk, read a book, watch a rom-com, or go to sleep lest I send my favorite teams into a tail spinning loss. Just last year I had to completely ignore the Houston Astros in their run for the National Baseball Championship. I had been a faithful fan since way back in the nineteen sixties and could honestly say that I had never once been to a game where the team won. When they made a run for the gold in 2005, my entire family banned me from even listening to the games  on the radio. Last year I made a point of pretending that they were not even in the running. Unfortunately I was so certain that they were going to take it all in spite of any bad karma that I brought them that I snuck several peeks of the October 31, game which sadly they lost. I completely ignored the winning game lest they go down in flames, and they finally locked up their world championship.

I often think that my life as a jinx is totally silly, and so I do experiments to prove that there is nothing to the theory that I bring some form of bad luck. With that in mind I decided to attend an Astros game when they were playing the last place Detroit Tigers. The Stros had beaten Detroit 9-1 only the day before and All Star pitcher Verlander was slated to be on the mound. I was certain that I would finally witness a victory and lay my negative reputation to rest. I settled in with a bag of peanuts and nothing but positive thoughts only to watch my team go down as the Tigers hit one homer after another.

My friend Linda was also at the game. She has been a devoted Astros fan for most of the season and she sent me a text noting that the guys were not playing like themselves at all. When I reminded her that I have never seen them win, she realized what was happening and jokingly suggested that maybe I didn’t need to attend or watch anymore games. Her quip was followed by others asking me to stay away.

Somehow it is my lot in life to be the local purveyor of bad luck for teams. I also have the reputation for bringing rain whenever I travel somewhere. Both ideas are based on the fact that for some reason these things actually happen over and over again. I understand the vagaries of probability quite well, and duly accept that the story of my association with sporting losses is little more than a coincidence. Of course I have nothing whatsoever to do with the crushing defeats that I seem to witness over and over again, but then again why should I take chances? If a team legitimately loses without me, I have a clear conscience, but why should I tempt fate? So I revel in the glory of wins after the fact. It feels just as good to celebrate after viewing the video of the replays as it would to be in the moment. It also saves me from guilt. Who knows, maybe I’m just a silly goose, but I’ll take one for the team just in case.

Still Young and Beautiful

14711048_10209517113076623_2425488735163912169_oI’ve often been told that my blogs about people that I know are my best. In all honesty they are also the easiest to compose. The stories write themselves mostly because people are innately interesting, and the ones who have been part of my life are particularly so.

I grew up in a little neighborhood in southeast Houston. At the time it was almost on the far edge of the city, just barely outside the area that now encompasses Loop 610 which was not constructed until I was a teenager. The enclave was part of the post World War II boom and it centered around churches and schools and family life. In many ways it was a “Leave It To Beaver” kind of environment in which children were generally protected from the troubles of the adult world.

I attended a Catholic school because back then parents were told that it was their duty to provide a religious education for their children. The tuition was minimal, so it wasn’t a particular sacrifice for my parents to pay the monthly fees, particularly when my engineer father was still alive. After his death it became a hardship for my mother, but the nuns who taught at my school hired her to work for them and announced that free tuition was one of the perks of employment. Thus my brothers and I spent our earliest years in classrooms together with other Catholic children.

In the fifties and sixties in seems as though adults didn’t change their addresses nearly as much as they now do. Once we moved into our home on Belmark Street we essentially had the same neighbors until we ourselves became adults and struck out on our own. The same was true at school. With only a few exceptions we grew up with the same set of kids and got to know them quite well. Their parents were friends with ours, so it was as though we all belonged to a huge extended family.

Many of us went on to attend Mt. Carmel High School after the eighth grade. I received a scholarship which made it possible to continue my education in familiar surroundings with friends I had known from the time I was six years old. Sadly there were those who opted for the local public high school which had one of the best reputations in town. I missed them terribly when they were gone, but I made knew acquaintances with kids who came from a variety of Catholic schools in the southeast and east Houston areas.

As is true with most high school students I foolishly believed that the people that I met during my four years would all be lifelong friends. I did not realize that graduation was a turning point at which time we went forth in far too many directions to remain as devoted to one another as we had once been. Over time I slowly lost track of all but a handful of the people that I had known and loved, often wondering where the others were and how they were doing, but too busy to take the time to track them down.

Decades passed and suddenly there was this thing called social media that allowed us to communicate with friends and family without leaving our homes. Little by little I found long gone but never forgotten friends and began to vicariously follow the routines of their lives. Through the extraordinary efforts of individuals like my friend Carol more and more of my former classmates were found and just seeing that they were still alive and well cheered my heart.

It’s difficult to adequately describe what we shared in those long ago years when the foundations of our academic and spiritual educations were being built on very solid ground. Our differences came in the years that followed, but in many ways they were only superficial. What bound us together was a long history of learning the importance of the one commandment that truly matters which is “Love thy neighbor.”

I am neither a republican nor a democrat. Instead I am fiercely independent, but many of my school chums are die hards in their political persuasions. My own philosophies often confound them and they have even been known to chastise me for what they believe to be unwise thinking. This sometimes angers people that I have met later in life, but it only makes me smile. What I know is that even in our differences there is a commonality of truly caring about our world and each other that was imbued in our very natures long ago. We were not so propagandized that we became nonthinking clones, but rather we were taught to consider many points of view before choosing our own. The one constant, however, was the knowledge that God is our protector and that we in turn must be protectors of His people.

From what I can tell we’ve done a grand job each in his or her own way. We run the gamut from  Paul who is as progressive as anyone might become to Ted who is a staunch defender of conservative ideas. What guides us is memory of those long ago school days when we learned and played and laughed together. Somehow those times glued us together even as we went out on our own to discover more of the world. We now come together with little thought of our differences because what we share is far stronger.

I feel blessed to have the opportunity of getting to know my old friends once again. There was a time when such reunions would have been unlikely. Now I have the privilege of sharing the ups and downs of their lives. I see the smiling faces of their children and grandchildren. I commiserate with them in times of stress, health problems or deaths. I celebrate their birthdays and marvel at images of their vacations. Mostly though I remember them when they were young and beautiful and full of boundless hopes and dreams. I see that like me they have survived the roller coaster ride and are doing their best to be the kind of people that the adults who guided us hoped we would be.

I am so proud of my classmates, my friends. They have worked hard to be good people, and all of them are. I hope they know how much I admire them, and how happy it makes me to know them. My heart fills with joy whenever I think back to our school days. I laugh at the stories that I recall and wonder if they realize how much they have meant to me.

As we all enter our seventies we can no longer claim to be young, but from my vantage point I see that we are all still quite beautiful and young at heart.