Let’s Stop

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The idea of harassing another human being has always been repugnant to me. When I was in the fourth grade I had a teacher who should never been in the profession. Her method of managing the classroom was known for its terror and humiliation. I despised what I saw her do and heard her say even at the young age of nine.

In middle school I witnessed some of the boys making fun of one of my female classmates to the point that she literally broke one day and had an emotional meltdown. My all time favorite teacher came to her defense in a manner that inspired me. I would never forget the deft way in which she taught all of us that bullying behaviors are never acceptable. She literally stopped the practice in its tracks and restored the young woman’s self esteem and status in the process. I so admired the idea of speaking up for someone who is unfairly being targeted with ugliness.

As a teacher I made it my focus to watch for instances of students being emotionally or physically torn apart by the kind of mob rule that constitutes bullying. I was unwilling to look the other way, or to justify such behaviors even when the object of derision was not a particularly likable person. I fought many such battles again and again, sometimes even with my colleagues who took a general dislike to certain individuals. Something in my personality found constant harassment for any reason to be horrific.

I’ve made it well known that I do not care for President Donald Trump. He himself has the horrific habit of making exceedingly offensive remarks about anyone whom he perceives to be out of step with him. His boorish behavior is a turnoff and embarrassment to me. I cannot accept him as simply being someone who is using his bully pulpit to fight for certain causes. A leader can be strong like Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln without demeaning others in the process. Nonetheless, I believe that far too many in our society have reacted to our president with insults and anger that is as disturbing to me as any utterance that Trump has made.

I have been particularly concerned by the taunts hurled at Melania Trump and her son. I do not know the First Lady nor do I have any idea why she chose to marry Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, it is really none of my business or anyone else’s to concern ourselves with such things. What I do see is a stunningly beautiful woman who carries herself with great dignity and kindness. I also note that many of her efforts to be thoughtful are thrown in her face.

From the very beginning Melania Trump has been overly criticized at every turn. When she showed up for her husband’s inauguration wearing a modest and lovely blue suit it was suggested that she had copied another first lady. Her attempts at decorating the White House for Christmas were ridiculed as being weird and creepy. When she wore high heels to flood ravaged Houston there were those who wondered how she could have been so tone deaf. Her recent visit to Africa was covered not for the compassion that she displayed but for her choice of wardrobe. It seems that because she committed the sin of marrying Donald Trump she will forever be found inadequate and even repulsive.

I have to admit that I was a huge fan of Bill Clinton. After his liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky the luster wore off for me. What bothered me most was that his wife, Hillary, stood by his side. I argued that she should have left him like any honorable woman might have done. I spoke of this with my mother, and in her wisdom she argued that none of us will ever really understand the dynamics of a relationship between two people. She further insisted that it’s not our place to do so. She defended Hillary’s choice to stand by her man, and urged me to worry about my own household.

I think that my mother was absolutely right. It is not up to any of us to judge another because of the ways in which they choose to love. Such things are actually a kind of mystery to anyone on the outside looking in. So it has been with countless first ladies including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and now Melania Trump. Often their love for their husbands seems incredulous to us because of the unfaithfulness that they have had to endure, but they were in fact able to overlook seemingly insurmountable flaws in their spouses. They should not be insulted because they remain faithful to someone that seems to betray them. They have their reasons.

The latest travesty aimed at Melania Trump should be soundly criticized by anyone who is of good heart, and most especially by all women. A rapper named T.I. has made a video that features a Melania look alike wearing a raincoat like one for which the First Lady was shamed. The model enters what appears to be the Oval Office, climbs on a desk, takes off the coat, and dances in the nude. If all persons of  even moderate decency do not find this utterly offensive, then I worry about the future of this nation. If we do not demonstrate respect for all people regardless of their beliefs, then I fear that our children are learning lessons that will not bode well.

It’s well past time that we all speak out whenever we witness the unfair degradation of anyone. If we rationalize bullying of any form or just laugh as though it is a joke we are complicit in allowing harm to fester in our midst. If we might unite in one common cause it should be to insist that this sort of thing should never be allowed. It is not funny nor is it justified. Let’s stop! 

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Our Angel

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My youngest daughter had little idea how difficult it would become for her to have children. The women in our family tended to be hardy souls who were models of the old frontier stock who laid down next to a covered wagon to birth a child and then continued on the journey. I had joked with both of my girls to be careful because we seemed to have DNA that led to pregnancy if we did little more than glance sideways at a man. I came from a family of women who without birth control might have mothered ten or more children. It seemed inevitable that having children would be one of the certainties of my girls’ realities.

When boasting about our seemingly genetic fertility I didn’t take all of the members of our family tree into account. I knew little or nothing about my paternal great grandmother who died from childbirth. I didn’t really consider the large number of only children in my husband’s family. Because having a successful pregnancy had been a walk in the park for me I never thought that either of my children would find the task to be daunting, but I was wrong. 

Just a few months before my youngest had been married for a year, she announced that she was pregnant. There were few visible signs of the child growing inside of her, but as with all women she had felt the subtle changes in her body, and a doctor had confirmed her suspicions to her utter glee. Her celebrating ended unexpectedly and abruptly when she miscarried shortly after she had so happily told us of her joy.

I had never had such an experience and I fumbled to comfort her in a meaningful way. It was my dear friend, Pat, who came to the rescue. She had been in my daughter’s shoes, and she knew exactly what to say to her. She wrote a long letter of support to my girl, accompanied by a care package filled with goodies that were meant to bring succor and understanding. A bond grew between those two women that only mothers of little angels who don’t quite make it into this world ever truly understand. I was so grateful for the love and counseling that Pat so willingly gave to my own child. I knew that my girls was hurting beyond my capacity to speak the words that she needed.

Sadly my daughter’s saga was to be filled with one disappointment after another. She learned soon enough that getting pregnant and keeping that condition was almost impossible for her. One terrible loss after another occurred until she was seeking help in a fertility clinic in Chicago. The doctor was renowned for his ability to help women to bear children, but he was honest about my daughter’s chances and they were not particularly good.

Over time she endured hormone shots, and multiple treatments that threw her body into a continuous cycle of hope and loss. Finally she and her husband and her physician agreed to try in vitro fertilization. It was risky and there were no guarantees, but nothing else had come even close to working so she endured yet another treatment. Not long after, on a cold February day she got the news that she was pregnant with two children. The tulip bulbs that her husband had given her for Valentine’s day had bloomed at that very moment with two perfect flowers. She took that as a sign that the spirit of her first angel baby was reaching out to her, assuring her that this time things would be okay.

It was a difficult pregnancy, made worse by the worry that stalked her. She and her husband had worked so hard to get to this point, and they prayed as each month passed that their babies would make it to become healthy enough to enter the world. It seemed as though their entreaties had been answered until my girl went into early labor, so early that the probability of her children having grievous health problems was almost certain.

My daughter lay in the hospital hearing dire predictions from her doctors. Her children might be born without the ability to breathe properly. They might endure brain damage, become blind. It was a terrifying time but in a miraculous moment that not even the doctors were able to explain her labor suddenly stopped. She spent the remaining many weeks on full bed rest emotionally willing her children to grow healthy and strong. They would ultimately be premature and tiny at their births, but they were mostly healthy in spite of some lingering problems. Today those same babies are in high school. They are brilliant and beautiful and loving. They have a little brother who surprised everyone as a miracle who wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

My daughter still speaks of her four children. She knows that there is a baby in heaven watching over her, a child who may have even been the angel who guarded her through all of those difficult times. Now that little one has been joined by Pat, the woman who gave her the courage to soldier through her difficult journey toward motherhood. My baby girl who is fully a woman and devoted mother herself knows how blessed she has been, and she understands in the deepest way the women who like her lose the little children that they so much want to bring into the world.

I never before knew that there is actually a day in October set aside to remember all of those tiny ones who were so wanted and loved by their mothers, but were not quite able to make it into our lives. Somehow it seems fitting that my sweet daughter’s twins were born in October. I find myself believing that I have had eight grandchildren, not seven, and one of them is truly our angel who has gone ahead of us into heaven.

The Closet

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I remember how the world used to be. I had heard about gay people. I knew they existed, but I didn’t think that I knew anyone like that. The words that were used to describe them back then were ugly and started with letters like “f” and “q.” I was quite naive about such things. I had no feelings one way or another because I assumed that I would never meet a gay person.

The first time that I realized that I did indeed have an acquaintance with someone who was gay occurred in the nineteen eighties at the height of the AIDS epidemic. That’s when I read an obituary for someone who had died from that dread disease. Back then code words like “special friend” were used to name partners, and the person who was named as such was someone that I knew.

For a time my only reaction was shock, but rather quickly I came to realize that I really liked my friend, and realized how much he was hurting because of his loss. There was no way I was going to turn my back on him because of this revelation. I became complicit in his secrecy. Never discussing his situation out loud. I knew all too well that he would not be as accepted by everyone as he was by be.

After that I began to slowly learn of more and more of my friends, acquaintances and family members who were gay as they courageously came “out of the closet.” There was a neighbor and mother of my daughter’s best friend who formed a close and loving relationship with a female partner. I found out that one of my bosses was gay and had been taunted since his youth. On a visit with my nephew after he went to college in Chicago I learned that he was gay as well. As time passed many of my co-workers became more and more open about their sexuality. Most recently I was proud to attend the weddings of one of my dearest gay friends and my gay nephew. Both of the ceremonies were beautiful and emotional, and most of all right and just.

I have seen the genuine love between two gay individuals. I have viscerally felt its power. I recall my neighbor’s partner telling of a trip to Israel that they had taken. With tears in her eyes she spoke of placing their hands together on the Wailing Wall and joining in a tradition of thousands of years that united them spiritually. She described the oneness that the two of them felt in that breathtaking moment. When she looked across the room at her partner their eyes locked and I saw the purest most intense love in their glances. I felt tears well in my own eyes in that powerful moment.

I have seen the same emotion with the two couples whose weddings I was privileged to share. They care as deeply about one another as any straight couples, perhaps even a bit more, because they have had to fight so hard for the realization of being married in the eyes of the world. It is a beautiful and inspiring to watch them together, and I am happy that they have found the happiness that they deserve. Nonetheless, I realize all too well that they are still subjected to hate, bigotry and even the fear that one day their rights to be married may be overturned by zealots who abhor their way of life.

People sometimes ask why it is so important to gay individuals to “come out.” I have a small inkling of what they are doing when they admit to their sexuality in front of the world. I too carried a secret that burdened me for a very long time. I was unwilling to speak of my mother’s mental illness to anyone beyond a highly trusted group of friends. I walked a tightrope hoping that nobody would learn why I sometimes missed many days of work, or why I seemed so down. I can’t really explain why I was so afraid. I worried that people would not understand my family’s situation, or that they would treat my mother differently once they knew. It was a burden that only grew as the years went by until I finally reached a point at which I was unable to hide my truth any longer. I literally blurted out my story to one of my bosses, and thankfully his response was to reveal that he too was responsible for the health and safety of a mentally ill relative. He prayed with me and gave me some excellent advice. After that I began a campaign of sharing my reality. I learned that so many people were frightening and hurting, and my witness gave them hope. It was a good thing for me, my mother, and those that we knew to speak the truth. In a sense I was able to take her illness “out of the attic.”

When I read testimonials from friends, acquaintances, and family members about the emotional journeys that they have made because of their sexuality, I truly understand what they are hoping to accomplish. As a society it is long past time for opening our minds to the fact that love between two people is always a good and wholesome thing. In fact, stability, devotion, and commitment should be honored by us all. These are not things that should be hidden or reviled.

I don’t know when we will finally reach a time when our gay and lesbian brethren will be viewed by all people as perfectly normal and acceptable, but I would like to believe that such a day will one day come. I’ve searched the New Testament high and low, and although I don’t count myself as a scholar I can find no clear evidence that Jesus condemned the union of anyone who is truly in love. There is a vague reference in the Old Testament that might in fact be interpreted any number of ways, but Jesus Himself told us that He had come to show us the new ways. He consistently argued with the Pharisees over outdated rules and spoke in favor of accepting and loving all people. I think if He walked among us again He would embrace the gay and lesbians to show us how we too should live.   

A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

The Tragic Hero

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The tragic hero is a staple of literature. From the earliest Greek authors we learn of individuals whose feet of clay lead them down paths of destruction. Somehow we are taken by such characters, wanting to love them while hating their actions. Shakespeare mastered the art of creating sympathetic but flawed protagonists, like Hamlet. With a grave foreboding our stomachs clinch as we watch his descent into a hell of his own making. Thus it is with one story after another.

We know the literary formula, but even though we have seen it again and again we find ourselves hoping and praying that such tragic figures will somehow see the light before it’s too late. We pray for their redemption even as we helplessly watch them slide into a kind of evil that need not happen. There are no happy endings for them either in the realm of fiction or real life.

I’m addicted to Better Call Saul, a spinoff from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad series. It is the story of a likable soul named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy got into a scrape when he was a teenager, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Charles, a highly respected and successful lawyer. Over time Jimmy seemed to get his act together. He worked in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm while earning a law degree from a questionable but legitimate school in Samoa. He’s a cheerful and impish sort who seems to be naturally loved by the people he encounters including his girlfriend, Kim, so when he finally becomes a lawyer he fully expects to work in his brother’s law offices. When his bid for a position is denied because Charles does not trust him, we get our first hint of trouble. Our since of foreboding, well trained as it is from previous forays into tragedies, tells us that things may not work out as well for Jimmy as he and we may have initially thought.

Of course those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know that Jimmy McGill will somehow morph into Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer working for clients who represent the underbelly of society. Even as we enjoy seeing Jimmy as an affable fellow our stomachs clinch at the thought of what he will become. As the series progresses we want to warn him to beware, and he disappoints us with his slow decline, all the while blaming everyone but himself for his woes. It’s the kind of thing that all tragic heroes do.

We’ve all seen the same kind of individuals in real life which is what makes the artistic inventions of authors, screenwriters and movie directors seem so accurate. These tortured souls are people with so much potential who somehow believe that their bad behaviors are justified by the unfairness of their lives. Instead of taking the high road, they take shortcuts and bend laws and morality. The ultimate tragedy of their lives is the waste of what might have been a truly good person, and all too often they leave wreckage in the wake of all of their relationships. They don’t seem to realize the pain and suffering that they cause for those who truly love them. Often they don’t seem to realize how broken they actually are. They are the adulterers who won’t stop their philandering, the addicts who are unable or unwilling to fight their demons, the abusers who think everyone else is the problem. Sadly, not only are their lives miserable, but so is everyone else caught in their horrid world until they find the courage to make a clean break.

I have had students who were amazingly lovable, but totally irresponsible and dishonest. They disappointed again and again, even when they appeared to be headed for a change of heart. I’ve had friends who married people who were quite wonderful as long as things went their way, but as challenges entered their lives they wandered from the straight and narrow. It is emotionally crushing to be around people that we want so badly to trust, knowing that to do so would defy common sense. Walking away from our tragic heroes is even harder to experience than watching their downfalls. Our hearts tell us to give them one more chance, while our heads remind us that they have failed us so many times before.

I’m not certain what causes a seemingly wonderful person to lose his or her way. Often there is great tragedy in the background, but sometimes they have had what most of us would consider to be a good life. There are sociopaths among us and we have yet to understand how to help them to change. Few efforts in this regard have been entirely successful. The question becomes who most deserves our compassion, and the best answer is usually that we must help the innocents that they harm. We might still love them, but there comes a moment when we can’t accept their bad behavior. We have to push them out of our lives, lest we become unwilling collaborators in their deviant behaviors.

We find characters like Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman all too realistic. We love and hate them all at once. Art is sometimes brilliant at imitating life. The truth is that they are not heroes at all.