They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.

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Beautiful Chaos

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Chaos is defined as a state of utter confusion. It can be tiring or exhilarating. I’ve had my share of chaotic moments and I’ve witnessed others in their’s. In spite of precision planning a few of my first days of school turned out to be the very definition of chaos with both teachers and students dissolving in tears before the new term even had time to get started. I once went to Epcot on New Year’s Eve not realizing that it was one of the most popular times only to find myself surrounded by a surging crowd of drunken adults with surly attitudes. I wasn’t sure that I would make it out of the park unscathed and realized that I don’t generally do well when faced with that kind of chaos.

Still there are forms of chaos that are actually quite beautiful and even therapeutic. The Friday nights at my Grandma Ulrich’s house were occasions when anything might happen. Thirty or more siblings, spouses and cousins would cram into her tiny living room where the noise level quickly rose to an almost unbearable peak and little ones ran around in a state of unfettered energy. My aunts and uncles were a rowdy bunch who laughed and argued in a space filled with smoke and more love than one might ever measure. Those evenings were surely nothing less than beautiful chaos, unregulated emotional gifts to all of us who participated in them.

My first generation American relatives were indeed a unruly group, viewed by their neighbors as being a bit wild. With ten children coming one year after another my grandmother had become resigned to having a noisy household. She lost two of her little when they were still infants and it had the effect of resigning her to a bit of disorder in the household. She quietly watched over her children’s antics with a loving smile on her face, not worrying about unimportant things. As long as her children were clothed and fed and tucked into their beds at night she was happy and so were they.

Her days became routine rituals of sweeping and mopping dust from the floors, preparing food, doing laundry, watering her plants, and showing her children that she thought each of them was wonderful. She loved them above all else and they in turn adored her. Their chaotic gatherings filled her with joy, and she sat in a corner of her living room just watching them with a contented expression on her face, happy that they returned to be with her each week. If their discussions tended a bit too much toward anger she had a way of stopping them with a quiet mention of their names. They understood that they had crossed a line and corrected their behavior immediately like the good boys and girls she had taught them to be, but they were rarely in a mode calmer than excited frenzy. 

I have in many ways become my grandmother. I enjoy simply observing my children and grandchildren and siblings when we are together. I delight in the chaos of that wonderful crowd. I quietly serve food and drink and then watch. It is a wonderful feeling to see so much love filling our parties in the form of animated conversations, raucous games, energy running freely. There is nothing boring about our gatherings and nothing quiet about them either. We celebrate our loving connections without filters and it is an emotionally glorious experience. Somehow we each realize that it is okay to fully be ourselves, knowing that each person will always be accepted and loved without reservation. That is the kind of beautiful chaos that energizes and brings confidence.

We humans have built societies based on rules and traditions. We grow up learning how we are expected to act in various situations. We must sit quietly and raise our hands in a classroom. We must stop at red lights, and be polite. It can feel very restricting to always follow the mores of the world. Sometimes we need a place where we can feel safe to let down our hair and speak our minds, be who we are. Most often that happens with close family members, but sometimes it is even better with very dear friends. It is in the informal settings that we most often feel the most relaxed and loved. We know that slips of the tongue will be forgiven, faux pas will won’t change our relationships. There is an easiness that we find with certain people that is quite glorious.

My big, crazy extended family has at times been viewed with a bit of consternation. We actually make some folks a nervous with our quirky ways. We are too loud for them, too inclined to raise the roof with our joy in being together. We have to choose our mates carefully lest they run when we expose them to our frivolity without warning. We definitely do not sit in a quiet circle chatting in a manner worthy of an audience with the Queen. More than one soul has cringed at the chaos that our meetings engender. Others have joined in gleefully proclaiming that we are so much fun.

I love our beautiful chaos. Nothing makes me feel better than spending time with the caring people who have allowed me time and again to just be myself with no expectations or demands attached. Our is a joyful acceptance that more often than not erupts into the most beautiful chaos of chatter and laughter and love.

They Were Victims Too

Dayton shooter

I saw a news story along with comments from readers that really bothered me, but not for the reasons that most people would imagine. It was a piece about the parents of the Dayton shooter. They had posted obituaries for both their son, the young man who killed nine people, and their daughter, who was one of the victims. Each obituary was rather commonplace in the ways in which they described the lives of the two individuals. What riled those who read them was that the one for the murderer told his story as though he were some beautiful son that the parents had lost all too soon. People were so upset that the local newspaper pulled the obituary for the shooter and the mother felt compelled to explain herself and apologize.

Most of the comments regarding the obituary were quite vile with little or no respect for the grieving parents. It made me shudder to read them and to realize how vindictive people actually are. Of course there is much anger over what happened, but only one person was compassionate enough to point out that the parents of the perpetrator of the tragedy were suffering a great loss as well. They are wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their son’s thinking. They are remembering the person they thought he was and trying to understand how he became so vile. It must be indeed quite horrific for them, and acknowledging their own grief in no way underscores the tragedy.

As a mom I loved my daughters from the first moments that I felt the changes in my body telling me that I was carrying them in my womb. Over the months I delighted in their kicks and the movements that they made to tell me that they were alive and well. When I first saw their faces after their births I literally cried with joy. I counted their fingers and their toes and felt the creases in their skin. Over the years my heart swelled as I watched them grow into fine young women. Neither of them matured without making mistakes, but we got past them because I loved them always. So it is with almost every mother on earth, even when children disappoint beyond measure.

I once had a student who went haywire in a classroom, cursing and assaulting a teacher. Before he calmed down he threatened several other faculty members and an assistant principal. Eventually he lost steam and sat forlornly in a conference room waiting for his mother to take him home after being expelled. He was one of my favorite students so I was heartbroken over what had happened. I went to talk with him and he immediately began to cry, proclaiming that he knew that I now hated him. I insisted that I would always love him but also hate what he had done. I could forgive him, but not his act of violence. He understood exactly what I meant.

When Jesus was condemned to die on the cross the people who had once celebrated him taunted and jeered with venom. They turned on him completely, and even his apostles hid with shame and fear of having been associated with him. His mother, however, never wavered from loving him. She stood by him until the very end of his life. This is what mothers do.

I am also reminded of a story that my dear sweet Uncle William told me. Here in Houston decades ago there was an horrific story of mass murder. A crazed man enlisted two young teens to bring victims to him. They brought unsuspecting males to a house in Pasadena where they were sexually abused, tortured and then killed. They helped the man dispose of the bodies along the beaches of Galveston and in a storage facility in southwest Houston. The accounts made the national news because they were so horrific.

One of the teens who worked with the murderer was Elmer Wayne Henley. He lived on my Uncle William’s postal route. My uncle regularly saw him and was shocked by developments because Elmer Wayne had always appeared to be such a good boy. He took care of his aging mom and provided her with the extra income that she needed as a single parent. My uncle spoke of how proud Elmer Wayne’s mother had always been of him. Even after the news of his part in the horror became fodder for gossip, Elmer Wayne’s mom spoke of the wonderful son that she knew. Until her death she did not turn away from him. It’s what mothers do.

I wish that we as a society might be able to separate the sins of a son or daughter from the love of a parent.  Perhaps if we were more inclined for compassion in such situations we might have less anger, hate and violence in our society. One of the most touching stories I have ever heard came when Amish school children were killed by a crazed man who had a family of his own. There were threats being made on his wife and children as the anger over what he had done raged. Members of the Amish community made it known that they felt as much compassion for his family as they did for their own. They embraced the woman who was as shocked as they were over what her husband had done. They extended a hand of love and sympathy. They truly understood that there was much grief to go around.

I weep for the victims of the Dayton shooting, but I also cry for the parents of the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how much they ultimately had to do with how their son turned out, but I am certain that they too lost so much on that day. It does not hurt us to allow them a bit of dignity as they grapple with the confusion and sorrow that must surely be relentlessly stalking them. If their comments about their son seemed inappropriate it is most likely because they really don’t know what to think or how to act. Their shock is a great and maybe even greater than ours. It’s time we all begin to choose kindness over revenge when dealing with the families of killers unless it is proven that they were accessories to such crimes. They are victims too.

Be That Person

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It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

Overworked

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Houston, Texas finds itself in contention for “bests” quite often, and the titles are not always laudatory. We are definitely a foodie town with award winning restaurants that rival New Orleans and New York City. In fact, recently our chefs were honored as the best in the country. Along with that award comes the very negative note that we are also one of the “fattest” places in America. The truth is that we Houstonians seem to do a everything with just a bit more effort. in fact we might well be called the city that tries harder.

Recently Houston was highlighted as the second most overworked city, one upped only by Washington D.C. The designation was based on number of hours worked each week, daily commute time, work/life balance, and support systems from local government and employers. Most Houstonians spend around 43 hours on the job and drive one way to on average about thirty minutes. Benefits in terms of vacation time, cost of medical insurance and such perks falls well below most cities. With this kind of news one might wonder why anyone would ever want to live here, and that is a valid question indeed.

The reality is that Houston has been known from its earliest history as a place to find employment. My Slovakian grandparents arrived here just before World War I because of opportunities to work and my born in the USA grandparents found their way to Houston in the forties for the same reason. Houston has never been a city known for its beauty because it is as flat as a pancake and as wildly tossed together as a city without zoning might be. It’s a patchwork of businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up willy nilly through the wild ideas of entrepreneurs who weren’t above creating travel brochures for Houston that featured mountain scenes. Houston has always had audacious ideas like building a world class medical center in the middle of a prairie and cutting an enormous ditch from the Gulf of Mexico to the landlocked east end of town to create a major port of commerce. Our town has a university known as the Harvard of the south and landed the center for space travel. Movers and shakers with incredible ideas find a welcome home here and then create jobs for the masses.

Those of us who have always lived in Houston do our best to travel to more scenic areas where we often dream of luxuriating in rolling hills or mountains or seasides, but work always pulls us back. Houston is a place where almost anyone with a willingness to labor can find a job, and so it has grown and grown and grown. it also attracts the kind of people who don’t mind putting in a few extra hours each week, and because of the snarls of traffic many, like myself, prefer arriving early and leaving late to miss the height of the commuting congestion. I suppose that when averages of time spent at work are calculated such outliers make a difference. In my years traveling to my various job locations I always marveled at the number of drivers on the freeways as early as six or six thirty each morning.

Traffic is a fact of life in Houston. Our freeways get bigger and ever more crowded as more and more people like my grandparents arrive in search of work. Ours is a vast city spread out over many square miles. We are linked together by a network of concrete that is perennially under construction. We have a little Metro train that is only a spit in the bucket in terms of moving our citizens from one place to another. It has few routes and has yet to catch on as a viable way to move about. Thus each morning and afternoon those who work are subjected to a slow moving caravan of wall to wall cars.

Perhaps our work benefits are not up to par either, but then it really does cost less to live here than even many other cities in the state of Texas so economically things manage to balance out. We may pay more for health insurance but our homes and groceries and other needs are more of a bargain. In Houston even those with low incomes often have houses with big yards. It’s a trade off that works rather well in the long run.

Houstonians like to take trips. We travel through the state, across the nation and around the world. Such jaunts help us to deal with the lack of scenery in our own town. Nonetheless there are other diversions and perks in town that make up for our somewhat homely appearance. Ours is a very friendly and diverse place to live. We welcome people from all over the world and we tend to work together in relative harmony. Sure we have some tortured souls who never quite get with the program of inclusion, but they really are more aberrations than the norm. Somehow we generally understand that we are in this great big crazy working town together, and so we celebrate our rodeos and sports teams and families with as much abandon as we give to our jobs. We promote the arts and sciences and search for ways to have fun. On any given day there are so many things to do and see if only we take the time to seek them out.

The statistics may point to some problems in Houston, but they rarely tell the whole story. The very things viewed as negatives are often the reasons that our city has grown. This is a place filled with opportunity that makes it possible for ordinary souls to take an idea and run with it. Houston is a place where crazy dreams have come true and jobs have been available even in times of hardship. It’s where the where often find a place to rest and be accepted as well as work.

We have our problems and even know what they are. We have more crime than we would wish and we’ve been experiencing floods almost since the city’s inception. Water tends to accumulate in a place dominated by ribbons of bayous that are barely above sea level. We’ve been overrun by mosquitoes decade after decade and the summer heat would be unbearable without air conditioners that vie in size with the furnaces of the north. In spite of all of its flaws Houston is a wonderful place, a working place, and if we put in a few more hours of labor each week that is alright. We have Simone Biles, and J.J. Watt, and the Houston Astros and we have jobs. As both of my grandfathers always boasted, it is preferable to have a job than none at all. The rewards for our hard work are many, and so we stay.