Talking To Learn

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I collect ideas for blogs, as well as quotes that I like. I save them and then one day write about them. One that struck me was, “The best way to learn about things is to talk about them.”

This is a rather profound and complex idea that represents far more than it may seem. It resonated with me because I have found that the concept of talking about things has brought me all sorts of learning, starting when I was a student. When I was attempting to unravel the essence of various concepts I would begin with a conversation with myself in which I attempted to discern the essential elements of ideas or processes. If I was able to explain such things so that they made sense I knew that I was on the way to mastering them. It was an odd way to learn that my brothers laughed about. I would pace back and forth in my bedroom chatting out loud with myself as though I was in a real conversation.

I now understand from learning theory that I was enlisting several styles of comprehension at one time. I needed to hear what I was trying to remember because my brain performs better when there is audible input. I also required the movement of pacing to provide the kinesthetic elements that enhance the process of storing and sorting information in my mind. Somehow I had discovered a methodology for my particular needs, and in my years as a student it worked amazingly well. Talking was the key to my success.

The idea that we learn what we talk about also applies to dealing with personal or psychological issues. For many years I struggled with my mother’s mental illness in silence. Like far too many, I was initially embarrassed by what was happening. I remained ignorant of the power of speaking about the challenges that I faced in keeping her healthy until one day when I broke down and revealed my dilemma to a coworker with whom I was not particularly close. With a stroke of luck I learned that my colleague had endured many of the same experiences in a quest to provide his aunt with the treatments that she needed for her psychological problems. My confidant knew exactly what I needed to hear, and it was undeniably freeing to finally open my heart about the guilt and concerns that had been bearing down on me. Over time the two of us often conferred and our conversations brought me more and more moments of enlightenment that not only helped me, but ultimately helped my mother. I eventually abandoned my secretive ways, and as I talked about my situation with different people I learned how to better navigate the through the different crises that arose. I found that I also began to help others who were dealing with the health issues of a loved one.

Long ago when my husband Mike was still in graduate school his professors often invited him to casual gatherings at their homes. The talk always centered on the concepts that were being presented in classes. It was positively scintillating to indulge in such an intellectual pursuit. I always felt as though I was privy to the kind of cafe society that was so popular in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century when the giants of literature, psychology and philosophy would gather to collaborate and argue about the big questions of who we are. I learned more at those informal seminars than in all of the courses that I took for my two degrees.

MIke’s best friend, Egon, was a brilliant man and until his mind was stunted by his alcoholism visits to his home were like delving into a potpourri of knowledge. We would spend entire evenings discussing one issue after another. I always thought that if someone had brought in a camera those conversations would have made for incredible television. Long before reality programs were popular I saw great merit in those long evenings when we dialogue into the wee hours of the morning about meaningful and thought provoking ideas.

One of the problems that I see in today’s world is that we don’t talk enough to learn. Instead we simply argue and defend. We are not interested enough in differing points of view. We prefer instead to listen only to those who parrot our own thinking. I wonder how anyone might actually learn in such and environment. I believe that we have to continuously converse with people who see the world through eyes different from our own if we are to stimulate our brains enough to really gain more knowledge about the people and the world around us. Our minds must be open and willing to consider alternative possibilities. It is then that we feel that rush of excitement that comes from truly grasping the complexities of reality.

I keep thinking of John McCain standing in the halls of Congress only days after brain surgery, admonishing his fellow lawmakers to begin to work together, to talk and to listen without preconceived notions, to get things done. It is healthy to hear from many different people. It is good to ask questions and genuinely desire to engage in polite back and forth discourse. It is like exercising the mind, a routine as necessary as working out our bodies and eating a healthy diet. We should be willing to take as much time for the care of our brains as any other part of our beings.

Start some conversations about anything that excites you. Just remember that you need not do all the talking. Be open and honest and willing to make new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to engage and experiment. It is a truly wonderful way to be, and it guarantees learning regardless of what age you may be.

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There Can Be No Excuses

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I’m a Catholic. I was born into a Catholic family and baptized as an infant. I attended twelve years of Catholic school and have received all of the sacraments but Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick. I’ve been a rather lackluster cafeteria kind of Catholic for the last several years, but of late I have returned to the fold on a regular basis. I can’t imagine myself being a member of any other Christian denomination, but I have to admit to being angry and sorrowful over the latest accusations of priests engaged in sexual abuse with young children and seminarians. The details are literally vomit inducing, and I can’t even imagine how dreadful it must have been for those who had to endure such horrors. In my mind there can be no excuse for such egregious behavior from any adult, much less one in a position of trust.

My church has to face the problems that brew in its ranks and accept full responsibility for such incidents beginning with a willingness to report such violations of decency to the police as soon as they are discovered. Anyone who simply moves a priest to another location or thinks that sending them for rehabilitation without alerting law enforcement should be viewed as an accessory to a crime. The days of hiding the abuse from the public must be long gone. It is only right and just. If the church leaders want to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness, they may do so, but first there must be adherence to the laws of the state. If that means watching one of their own being sent to prison, then so be it.

I have long believed that the church’s insistence on maintaining celibacy with the clergy is an outdated and problematic ideology. I see nothing wrong with having married priests. In fact, I suspect that opening up the priesthood to those who wish to have families would be more conducive to finding psychologically healthy individuals to maintain the parishes. It would certainly be a boon to vocations, and would lead to clearer understanding of the problems that faithful face. One of my all time favorite priests became single after he had raised his children and lost his wife. He was allowed to enter the seminary, and he brought a wisdom and compassion that is heart warming. He knows what it means to have the challenges of raising a family. His life with a wife and children has provided him with a unique point of view. I truly advocate for changing the ancient rule that seems out of place in our modern world.

For that matter, I wonder if we are also ready to accept female priests. The old ways of considering women unable to handle the same challenges as men are long gone. We have lots of proof that women are not only able to perform many of the same tasks as males, but they often bring additional assets and talents to most jobs. So many of the nuns that I knew as a child would have been remarkable priests. They were as wise and intelligent as the men, but relegated to a more submissive role. Surely we have moved beyond that as well.

I see religious men and women in other faiths doing remarkable things while still caring for spouses and children. They do not seem to lack either the energy nor the time to care for their parishioners, and they generally do so with few psychological hangups. I feel that if we create a more normal atmosphere for our priests, those with problems will be less attracted to a religious life where they think they might hide their proclivities. With a few adjustments to the way things are done, many of the problems that continue to plague the church will be eliminated or at least minimized.

You may be wondering why I don’t just leave the Catholic Church and find a new experience say as an Episcopalian or a Methodist. The answer lies in my conviction that the church is more than a single priest or even all of them put together. It is the community of the millions of Catholics the world over. It is about a beautiful faith and set of beliefs that rise above the sins of a few. As a member of this holy body I have a right to question the difficulties that I witness, and even to suggest solutions, but I do not intend to leave.

Long ago a very good priest, a holy man, Father John Perusina, baptized me when I was a baby. Many years later he witnessed my marriage and was a faithful friend of my family. Once when I was frustrated about problems that I saw in the church I threatened to just leave and find a place to worship more to my liking. Father Perusina gently and wisely pointed out that if everyone had my attitude the church would soon be run by the very people with whom I disagreed. He urged me instead to stay and to feel free to make my voice heard. He insisted that the only way to make change was for those with good ideas to remain members of the church. I have found his advice to be more than true. I have often been able to constructively note problems and bring about changes in the parishes that I have attended.

I have been a fortunate soul as were my brothers. We did not encounter the evil abuse that has been perpetrated on some innocent souls. I feel certain that most priests are as good as we expect them to be, but the unfortunate fact is that all too often the really bad ones have been treated with kid gloves when they should have been made to feel the consequences of their sins, not just within the church but with the law. Until that becomes a uniform reaction any time someone is discovered engaging in such heinous acts, a sense of distrust will remain to tarnish even the best souls.

We seem to have found a courageous pope who will be honest about the problems and will work to find real solutions. I’ll pray that a productive path will be found. I love my church and want to see it enforce the values that it taught me even when those in the highest level of authority do wrong. There can be no excuses ever again. 

She Still Takes My Breath Away

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Growing up as a child I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where families came to stay. It was a rarity to see someone move. For that reason I went to school with many of the same kids from the second grade all the way until I graduated from high school. Among those who grew up with me were a set of twins, Terry and Tommy King.

At the time I thought that they were unique. I had never before seen two people who looked so much alike. It didn’t occur to me that I would one day have two sets of twin grandchildren of my own. Back then Terry and Tommy were like royalty in my mind. They were both handsome, athletic, highly intelligent, and best of all very kind. I suppose that I was not the the only girl in my class who had a crush on one or the other of the duo. By high school, however, it became quite apparent that Terry was already head over heals for a beautiful girl named Dixie.

I didn’t know Dixie very well but whenever she accompanied Terry somewhere she seemed to be a very sweet and gentle person much as he was. I liked her very much and thought that Terry had found a wonderful girlfriend. It was obvious that he was quite taken by her and I wished him well in my heart because he had always been so considerate and gentlemanly to virtually everyone. I was not surprised at all that he was the Vice President of our student body, or that he co-captained the football team. He was not just good at everything, but he was also humble about the many positive attributes that he possessed. It seemed very right that he had found a gorgeous girl like Dixie and that the two of them appeared to be so perfect together. 

We graduated from high school in 1966, and went our separate ways. I went to a couple of early reunions but thenI would not see Terry again until we were planning our fiftieth high school reunion. I had learned that he had married Dixie and that they lived not far from where it did, but somehow our paths didn’t cross. All the while he was living out his life with Dixie and I was living mine.

Terry’s wedding to Dixie was fifty years ago this month. Over the years the two of them created a family and even built a thriving business that took advantage of Dixie’s talents. Mostly their love grew ever stronger, and whenever Terry spoke of Dixie his eyes would light up with affection and pride. Whether having fun or facing disappointments and tragedies they were a team.

Spending a lifetime with another person can indeed be challenging, but somehow Terry and Dixie made it seem easy. Nonetheless, as their daughter describes their journey it took love, commitment, hard work and a never ending sense of family to keep moving forward together. Just as when he was young, Terry along with Dixie was a rousing success at being married. My guess is that he and Dixie knew when it how to balance the serious aspects of a relationship with those that are just plain fun. They have enjoyed decades of friendship with each other and with other couples with whom they laugh and share all of the ups and downs of living. Their mutual reverence for one another, family and friends is truly an inspiration.

I was quite touched when Terry and Dixie’s daughter posted a beautiful tribute to her parents on Facebook complete with a number of photographs of the couple on their wedding day and at various functions over the years. In each and every image the couple fairly glowed with the love that they felt for one another. They were as beautiful as celebrities. Even more wonderful was a comment that Terry left under one particular picture, “She still takes my breath away.”

Sometimes it seems as though the idea of loyalty to a single person for a lifetime has become almost old fashioned. Affairs and divorces are commonplace. It is a truly inspiring thing to see two people so in love after five decades. Our world would do well have have more people like Terry and Dixie to show us the wonder of an unwavering relationship. Through their union the world has been just a bit better than it might have been. Their children and grandchildren will certainly attest to that, but so do those of us lucky enough to know them as friends.

Terry has always been a fine person. He found a woman who matched his attributes and together they have been even more remarkable. All of us who know them send our congratulations on fifty years of growing together in age and in grace. May they enjoy many more.

Shame and Honor

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Back in the nineteen nineties there was an uproar when Bill Clinton eventually admitted his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. Both the public and his Republican opponents decried the fact that he had betrayed his wife and his office. There was a hue and cry proclaiming that he should feel a sense of shame for his lies. Many wondered what had happened to the sense of honor among our leaders and lawmakers. For decades the stain of President Clinton’s “sin” followed him and his wife. There was a kind of self righteous furor that engulfed him and members of his party who seemed reluctant to condemn his behavior. Many like myself felt betrayed because we had been ardent supporters and some of us even wondered how it was possible for his wife to accept such a public humiliation by staying married to him under the circumstances.

I remember having a long conversation with my mother who maintained that it was fine for me to feel anger toward him given that I had thought him to be a better person than his actions showed him to be. On the other hand, Mama argued, his relationship with his wife was a private thing, none of my business. Believing in the sanctity of marriage and being a proponent of forgiveness, she insisted that it was a beautiful act of love when Hillary chose to stand by Bill even while she admitted how much his actions had hurt.

I suppose that I learned a great deal about my mother’s wisdom with those discussions. In a sense she taught me a bit about a life as it really is. I began to understand that it was not my place to judge the relationship between two adults, but that I was free to have expectations about how an elected official carried out the duties of an office. As a voting citizen I have every right to desire that our official leaders should always operate with a sense of honor, and that they should be called to task when they bring shame to our country with egregious actions. Therefore, I understood the anger and judgement that drove Republicans to vote to impeach President Clinton. He had betrayed a sacred public trust and deserved the humiliation that was heaped upon him. As much as it pained me to admit, he had brought the fury upon himself.

I was, of course, saddened by developments because I thought that President Clinton had been one of the best presidents of the twentieth century. He had done a tremendous job, but there were ultimately far too many questions about his character to ensconce him in a hall of fame. It seemed such a waste of a brilliant mind. His feet of clay had made him seem ordinary and small.

The Republicans reveled in their self righteousness. They claimed the moral high ground, and even though I had twice voted for President Clinton I had to admit that he was wrong. I too felt a bitter disappointment in how he had conducted himself.

Now as a nation we are facing an all new moral dilemma with President Trump, and to my utter dismay I find that the same Republican party that was so eager to chastise President Clinton is mostly either defending or remaining silent about the salacious and disgusting behavior of the president. I find myself wondering where the men and women of honor have gone. I worry that we have truly reached a point at which the end justifies the means. We have surrendered to the god of winning rather than asserting the need for honor above all else.

I dream of seeing a moment when a Barry Goldwater leads a contingent of party members to a President Nixon and advises him to leave office for the sake of the country. That is honor. That is high moral character. That bold action forced me to view Goldwater with a new admiration. I was proud of our leaders at that moment. Today I look into the void and see so few who are willing to stand up for what is right and good not for victory at the polls, but for love of country. I see only a handful of such individuals, and without support they just get slapped down with insults from President Trump and his supporters.

I have made a list of the few good men and women who have the courage to speak the truth. John McCain has become one of my heroes, along with Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and Robert Corker. They have all been willing to speak out whenever they feel that President Trump is outrageously leading our country in a questionable direction. They have been unafraid to to what they believe to be right, even when it may mean losing political support. Few others have followed their lead. There is a deafening silence from most Republicans that I believe will tarnish them individually and as a party.

In fairness I also do not think that the gloating that is so apparent in the ranks of Democrats is much better. Their own track record in regard to setting an example of high moral character is far from sterling. In fact, much of the unwillingness to work in a bipartisan manner began with the events surrounding President Clinton and has only escalated in the ensuing years. There are not many Democrats willing to view any event from the perspective of what is right and good, rather than whatever they believe will help them win the seats of power.

I long for a time when honor wins, not just among the members of the political parties, but also among the voters. We need to send a loud and clear message that lying, cheating, and dirty tricks are unacceptable regardless of who does such things. The slippery slope of acceptance in the name of winning what we want is a dangerous way to go.

Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.