Our Own Hero’s Journey

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My teen years were a time of awakening. It was as though I had lived in a childish bubble for all of my previous ages and only then began to look at the realities of the world around me. My education in high school was rigorous. I found myself working harder than I ever had. I learned about things that not even my mother knew. Before I had seen myself predominantly as a citizen of Houston, Texas and the United States of America with little interest in other places. I suddenly saw the possibilities of exploring new locales, new ideas, new ways of living.

I had little realization that even my ever expanding horizons were still restricted by the small size of my high school and the fact that my classmates and I were at heart so much alike. Still I somehow sensed that I needed to purposely seek different ways of doing things. Since I did not have the income to attend college out of town I chose a large public university in my city instead of accepting scholarships to the smaller private ones. I wanted to increase the likelihood that I would meet a diversity of people and thinking which is exactly what happened.

I found myself itching to go out on my own to see all of the world. I had briefly lived in both northern and southern California and had found those locales lacking in the kind of southern hospitality of my own city so I was more inclined to look to the east where I imagined myself writing and hobnobbing with the artsy set. I thought that perhaps I might one day be a professor of literature at some well known university, sitting on a stool in front of my students wrapped in a shawl and quoting passages from Shakespeare.

Life has a way of rearranging dreams. I met a young man who was intriguing. He had also grown up in Houston but on the opposite side of downtown from me. His mother had been married more than once which was unique at that time and his stepfather, whom he considered to be his real father, was a handsome Puerto Rican fellow with a slight accent and a perfect mastery of both English and  Spanish. My new beau had studied for a time in New Orleans and he introduced me to the wondrous glories of that city, a kind of Paris only a few hundred miles from where I lived. I found him to be exotic in an exciting way that was different from anyone I had ever before known.

We fell quickly and hopelessly in love and in the tradition of the day were soon married and bearing more responsibilities that we were likely prepared to face. Somehow we muddled through living off of an income that was impossibly small and learned how to fend for ourselves on the fly. He and I dreamed together of both becoming college professors and landing jobs in grand universities. All such fantasies halted when my mother first became ill with her bipolar disorder. It became apparent that we would need to stay close to her so that we might be ready to care for her and for my brothers who were still minors whenever her depression and mania became extreme. It was a blow, but one that was not as bad as we might have imagined.

A succession of challenges awaited us including the birth of our two children and a frightening illness that my husband contracted just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in our edited futures. He spent four days a week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for several months during which he was unable to work. We were not yet thirty but we had adapted to the point of being like forty year olds. Our sense of responsibility for our children led us to a very careful lifestyle that precluded any but highly practical ways of living. It was not as vagabonds roaming across the globe that we grew up, but as people clawing just to stay afloat. Somehow we made it work and we did it together and with the support of our families. It wasn’t as glamorous as we had dreamed but it brought us ever closer together and made us stronger than we might have been.

I often hear people insist that success may only be found in attending prestigious universities and living in new places. There is a tendency these days for young people to extend their youthful activities into their thirties, eschewing the kind of responsibilities that my husband and I had to face when we were still quite young. “To each his own” has always been my mantra but I worry that we are more and more becoming a society in which our relationships are built on false dreams that will not make us as happy as responsibility for others does.

I learned that in caring for others at a young age I matured quickly and learned important skills for my work life. My experiences were as critical in developing me as any formal class has ever been. I became a better person than the one I had pictured in my mind. It did not take moving away or traveling to exotic places for me to understand the nature and glories of people. I studied in the school of hard knocks and rose to the top of the class. My hardships and how I dealt with them were as instructive as a series of theoretical lectures.

When I first began teaching my principal noted that I behaved as though I had been in a classroom for years. She attributed my confidence to the excellent education that I had received at the same university that Elizabeth Warren attended. There was a certain truth in her observation, but more than that was the humility and appreciation for humankind that I had learned from the struggles that I had personally overcome one by one. It was not just learning from books and brilliant professors that brought me success, but also the kind of knowledge that is only found in the responsibilities of maintaining the health and welfare of others.

Wisdom is not a commodity that is easily purchased and there is no one way of achieving it. It often comes serendipitously. It is in the unexpected turns of our lives and how we approach them that we often grow the most. Facing up to our circumstances and making the sacrifices necessary for overcoming problems teaches us our capabilities. It is often in a crisis that our true natures appear. As painful as those moments may be they are indeed the most glorious opportunities for our ultimate development. Like all heroes on a difficult journey we too can become better than we had ever imagined.

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Therapy

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There is something about working outside in my yard that is primal. I throw myself so totally into the tasks of planting and feeding and weeding that I eventually resemble a wild woman with my matted hair and dirty fingernails. My arms and legs and clothing bear the stains of the dirt in which I luxuriate. I’m no Martha Stewart with cute rubber boots, a fashionable hat and perfectly coiffed hair as I tackle the tendencies of nature to challenge me in planning a lovely vista for the plot of land that is my domain. By the time that I finish my work I resemble someone who has been living on the streets without access to soap or water. My muscles, my back and my knees ache from the contortions to which I must subject them in order to keep my garden in tip top shape. There is nothing glamorous about the labor I do in my yard, but somehow it brings me so much contentment that it works quite well to soothe any anxieties that might be stalking me. It’s rewards are immediate and tangible unlike so many of my other duties.

I sometimes feel as though I carry genetic tendencies to luxuriate in the back breaking labor of gardening. All four of my grandparents thought of growing and caring for plants as a glorious pastime. My grandmothers tinkered with their flowers daily and my grandfathers dreamed of becoming independent of markets with the produce from their bountiful crops. Both men toiled on less than satisfying jobs for decades, dreaming of a time when they might own enough land to be known as farmers. One grandfather eventually achieved that goal. The other died before it became a realization. There is something in my own nature that compels me to hold dirt in my hands and watch my plants bursting forth with color or bounty from one season to another.

I remember going to visit my paternal grandmother as a child and taking walks with her to gaze at the wonders of what she had grown. She was known for an ability to reproduce any kind of plant. Someone once joked that she could take a dry dead stick and bring it to life. She rarely purchased vegetation at a nursery. Instead she worked with seeds and cuttings from friends. Both she and my maternal grandmother caught rainwater in barrels and took the time to lovingly water each plant by hand. They collected egg shells, coffee grounds and unused portions of fruits and vegetables to enrich the soil of compost heaps. The food they gave their flowers and bushes and trees came from the recycling of nature’s bounty. It took time and much effort to grow the magnificent specimens that decorated their yards but theirs was a labor of love and a desire to keep the earth beautiful.

Neither of my grandmothers had much formal education. They were unable to read or write, and yet the knowledge of gardening that they held in their heads was encyclopedic. Sadly I was too young to take full advantage of what they knew. I never dreamed that I would one day be as taken with growing things as they were. Had I known that my obsession with gardening would grow as much as it did I might have taken notes and garnered their expertise. They certainly were unable to leave a written record of their practices. Experience was their only guide.

I had a lovely compost heap at my last home. I lived in a neighborhood unencumbered by rules from an HOA. I chose a spot behind my garage that was visible to my neighbors who seemed unconcerned with the unsightly mound. They instead used the times when I added scraps to the soil to talk with me over the chain link fence that separated our property. We conversed quite often and got to know each other well. The loveliness of such moments made my gardening experience even more precious. It took on a communal nature that brought me happiness and security.

Now I generally work behind a wooden fence that is lovely but has the unexpected consequence of keeping me from really knowing the people who live around me. I have privacy but few opportunities to talk with them as we all come and go in a continual rush to complete the tasks of our lives. Most of them hire people to mow their lawns, put mulch in their flowerbeds and generally tend to the upkeep of their yards. When they are outside it is usually behind the wall of the fence so that we hear them but cannot see them. Like the neighbors in the old television show Home Improvement we may catch a glimpse of the tops of their heads if they are especially tall, but little more. We make promises to get together but time passes quickly and the right moment rarely comes to do more than just smile and wave as we go about our individual lives. I sometimes long to tear down the barriers that separate us but instead I just toil quietly on my own.

Working in my garden is a joy. It releases so much serotonin into my brain that I feel as though I have taken a powerful happy pill. I feel close to the earth, to my ancestors, and even to those neighbors that I cannot see. I enjoy the sounds of life and laughter along with the buzzing of the bees and the chirping of the birds. I like the idea of providing a home for butterflies and hummingbirds and tiny lizards and dragon flies. It’s a dirty job in the heat of the south, but one that brings me more happiness than I might ever describe.

As I grow older I am less able to spend hours working outside. I recall the time when my grandmothers eventually abandoned their adventures with nature. They became unable to tackle all of the work that a splendid garden requires and their lovely collections of flowers turned to seed. I dread the thought of becoming that way so I know I must take advantage of the energy and good health that I still possess while I can. Yard work is a lovely therapy for me. I intend to enjoy it while I can. 

Can We Just Laugh?

64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals

The Saudi Arabian government has cracked down on freedom of expression. Those who speak against the government often find themselves being questioned, jailed or worse. One noted journalist left his birth nation out of fear and then felt compelled to write about the events that he saw unfolding with his fellow countrymen who voiced their concerns. His wife became so afraid of what might happen to her because of her husband’s views that she asked for a divorce to protect herself and her children. The man nonetheless continued to speak out about abuses of freedom and ill treatment of dissidents. Eventually he found new love and decided to remarry. When he visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey to complete the necessary paperwork he was never again seen alive. Eventually his dismembered body was found, leading many to believe that he had been silenced by the government that he had been criticizing as a warning to those who dared to speak their minds.

In Hong Kong citizens have been protesting the prohibitive excesses of the Chinese government. The once democratic and free city that operated under the wing of Great Britain now struggles under the excessively restrictive rules of China. Those who dare to defy the government are being publicly beaten into submission. While here in the United States those who dare to side with the demonstrators in Hong Kong are finding that doing so can bring unexpected consequences. 

It’s seemingly unthinkable for those of us who live in the United States to imagine living in a place where we have to watch every word that we utter or write lest we be chastised or ostracized or imprisoned. We live under the assurances of our Constitution and the free speech that our Founding Fathers thought essential to a healthy democracy, and yet there is a kind of shadow hovering over our public interactions that is ruled by mobs intent on controlling what we believe. In the world of tweets and social media comments those who stray from conformance with certain opinions are sometimes figuratively pilloried in the public square.

Much that occurs on the platforms of social media worries me. I am appalled by the rush to judgement that occurs with the flick of  the fingers on a keyboard. The anonymity that we believe we have often leads to cruel and bullying behaviors from perfect strangers who somehow delight in raising our ire with the things that they do and say. Luckily a true hero emerges now and again from the sound and fury of the ether.

I have been an avid fan of Ellen DeGeneres from the time that she first emerged as a talented comedian. I find her to be an honest and loving person with a heart of gold. She’s also quite funny which makes her daily program a fun way to spend a bit of time escaping from the stresses of the world. She is lighthearted and one of those people who mostly stays away from controversy which I appreciate because I have grown weary of encountering everyone else’s political commentaries wherever I seem to go.

On a recent weekend Ellen was invited by her friend, Jerry Jones, to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game where she shared Mr. Jones’ private box with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura. Ellen admitted that she had a good time even though she is more of a Green Bay Packers fan and to her delight her team actually won. Like any average person being treated to such a grand afternoon she took selfies of herself cutting up and laughing with President Bush and posted them proudly on Twitter.

What should have been an innocent bit of fun turned into a controversy as people excoriated her for daring to even talk to someone like Bush much less have a good time with him. The process of raking Ellen over the coals went berserk despite the fact that she had done nothing wrong other than be polite and appreciative of the hospitality that she received at the game. She behaved in a perfectly respectful manner but so many thought she should have instead ignored the Bushes or even expressed her disdain for having to be with them.

To her credit Ellen used the platform of her television program to clarify her feelings. She courageously told her audience and those who had criticized her that her friends do not have to agree with all of her views to be embraced by her. She admitted that she actually likes George Bush and that his beliefs have nothing to do with their relationship. Once again she proved her mettle in standing up to her detractors and in the process she demonstrated the content of her character. In that moment she became a role model for all of us who are weary of the often illogical and violent divisiveness that is tearing our society apart.

This is not Saudi Arabia nor is it Hong Kong. It is the United States of America and heretofore our nation has mostly been tolerant of different ideas. Sadly many among us more and more often choose sides and steadfastly ignore and despise any thoughts that diverge from their own to the point of insulting and even ostracizing those with whom they disagree. There is so much anger in the public square that many American citizens have grown wary of expressing themselves and often rightfully so because there are extremist groups who actually believe that certain ways of thinking should be illegal.

Our country is treading a very thin line that must never lead to the muting of individual opinions and actions. We must always be free to associate with whomever we desire and to freely state our points of view. It would be wise for everyone to remember that it is never a good idea to strive to be of one voice. We need our dissenters and our revolutionaries. Who knew that one day we would also realize that we sometimes need a brave comedian to remind us of the importance of respect and tolerance and the power of a good laugh?

Strong

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Childhood is a kind of bubble of naiveté that protects us while we are learning about ourselves and the world around us. Some children like myself experience tragedy early in their lives and such events become cautionary tales for them. Hurt and loss changes little ones in varying ways. I suppose that in spite of the fears that lie at the bedrock of my personality I was somehow able to develop somewhat normally into a healthy adult who is perhaps a bit less adventurous than I might other wise have been. The shock of losing my father after a long journey to and then back from California left me quietly confused and desirous of clinging to any form of security that I might find.

I blanketed myself in the luxury of routine and a certain level of isolation from the realities of the world. I spent the remainder of my growing up years in relative ignorance of hurt and intrigue. I became resilient and once again confident by living a quiet and somewhat uneventful life inside the little neighborhood from which my family and I rarely needed to venture save to visit with my grandparents and my aunts, uncles and cousins.

I cared little about world affairs or intrigue of any sort. It was not until I was fifteen and in high school that I once again faced death when my beloved grandmother developed cancer and died. That was about the same time that President Kennedy was assassinated while he was visiting Dallas. I went into the same state of shock and grief that I had felt when my father died. I wanted to look away, to somehow pretend that such events were not really part of our human experience. I buried the fears that I inside my heart and pretended that I was stronger than I actually felt.

Like so many of us so often do I ignored my feelings and stoically moved forward, avoiding contact with negative thoughts or people or situations. I tried to make life a fairytale forgetting that the theme of all such stories revolves around triumph over hardship. It was not until I was twenty years old and I saw mental illness take hold of my mother that I realized there was no running away from the tragedies that each of us must face. I had to become fearless without warning or practice and it was painful.

For some time I hid my reality as though it were some ugly thing that defined me and my family. I did not share with others. Instead I dealt with the situation hoping that my mother would be cured and I would be able to move forward as though nothing had ever happened. Of course her chronic illness kept jerking me back into a dark world that was confusing and painful beyond measure. It was only when I freed myself from the constraints that I had placed on my willingness to face the truth that I began to see the world around me in all of its good and bad iterations.

By becoming honest with myself and with the people that I knew I developed more and more trust even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. I saw that there is always someone willing to help if only I had the courage to ask. I found friendships and relationships that made me a better person each time that I reached out for understanding and assistance. By facing the toughness of life I actually began to see its true beauty more clearly.

There are patterns among human beings that repeat themselves over and over again through the centuries. How we deal with our longings and our sorrows may change ever so slightly as we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors but the basic feelings are in total harmony with every man and woman who has ever walked on this earth. We strive for happiness while enduring the inevitable sorrows. None of us will make it through life without scars, but if we are very lucky and willing to embrace those situations with wisdom and determination we will surely learn from them.

I know so many who are suffering at this very moment. It hurts me to see their pain and to know that in some cases there is so little that I might do to help them. I offer small bits of encouragement knowing that theirs is a season of sorrow through which they must walk. In other cases there are tangible things that I am able to do because of the resources that I am blessed to have. Mostly I simply demonstrate how much I care because I have learned that even the tiniest bit of generosity has the power of bringing joy to a broken or frightened heart.

We should never underestimate our power to say or do exactly what someone needs in a dark moment. Thoughtfulness and openness are like healing salves when administered at just the right moment. From my own experiences I know for certain that small gestures of love are never forgotten. It may be a neighbor lighting the pilot light of a heater on a cold winter’s day who brings hope or a pot of soup delivered by a friend that begins the process of healing.

I see the faces of those who took the time to comfort me when my father died and then my mother. I know exactly who extricated me from the darkest times of my life. I have never forgotten how impactful their kindnesses were. They remind me even when I am feeling low that I am not as alone as I might sometimes believe. I may stumble and skin my knees in this grand adventure called life but I will always find a hand reaching out to save me. I have learned time and again that there are very good people just waiting to be at my side and in that knowledge I have become very strong.

Life

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October is respect life month. It seems intuitive to think that every human would respect the life of another and yet the headlines are filled with evidence that such is not always the case. In fact, we are all too unable to even agree on the definition of life. One simple definition based on scientific theories is that life is “ the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.”

The religious definition of life is that  our life as a human begins at the time of conception. Using the more scientific definition above it is easy to see that functions originating within the embryo begin the processes that define an organism as living rather than dead. The legal definition of life has become more and more convoluted, depending on the politics of the people from which it is encoded. There is much disagreement as to whether a clump of cells inside a woman’s womb are the essence of a person or little more than a gooey mass. The controversy is at the center of ethical discussions that are far from resolved.

For those who believe, as I do, that life begins at conception it is unarguable that purposely doing anything to harm or bring death to an embryo or fetus is murder. Such beliefs make abortion unacceptable for me and a vast segment of the population. When we hear of the millions of babies who have been killed in the name of women’s health or rights or whatever euphemisms one might use, it is an unbearable thought. If I witnessed someone being killed in the street I would immediately call for help to intervene. I would willingly serve as a witness at a trial for the perpetrator. I would be considered a hero for doing so, and yet if I protest the use of abortion for all but those cases in which a mother’s life is in danger, I am viewed by many as a kook or, even worse, someone who is heartless and unkind.

I actually feel somehow complicit in something that is very wrong because I tend to be more than reluctant to speak out against a practice that I think goes against the very nature of all that is decent. I worry more about what people may think of me if I reveal my thoughts or attempt to influence theirs than about the fact that I am by omission providing my acceptance of something that I feel is wrong.

Our society sends so many mixed messages about life. We are willing to convict someone who kills a pregnant woman and her baby for two murders, but we do not consider the work of an abortionist to be a crime except under the most extreme circumstances. We have no problem arresting someone for killing or cruelty to animals and yet some argue that abortion should be legal all the way up to the point of birth.

I not only cannot abide by such thinking, but I am feeling more and more guilty for not working to end such barbarous practices. I suppose that admitting such a thing will cause me to lose friends, readers, people that I love, but somehow I don’t feel I can continue to look the other way as though I do not see. If I am to show respect for human life then it must include the child who is growing inside a mother’s womb.

There is a brilliant writer named Kevin Williamson. He is a Texan who was adopted after his birth mother gave him up. He is a master of words and a joy to read. I do not always agree with him for he is far too conservative in some areas, but I always appreciate his total mastery of expression. Perhaps because of his own circumstances he is unapologetically pro life. He often considers out loud what his own fate would have been had his birth mom decided to simply end her pregnancy rather than carrying him full term and giving him to a family that wanted him. For the world it would have been the loss of great talent at the very least, and the extinction of a beautiful individual at most.

Mr. Williamson was hired by The Atlantic not long ago, an honor of which he was quite deserving. The magazine wanted to bring more political balance to its readers which is a worthy cause in these days of so much division. Sadly Mr. Williamson did not last a week at the job. Other writers and many of the readers protested his views on abortion and loudly exclaimed that his very presence was triggering their anxieties.

In particular Mr. Williamson had once been interviewed about abortion and during the conversation he admitted, like me, that he felt that abortion was murder. The interviewer then remarked incredulously that if it were indeed murder then all those involved including the woman would be tried for murder and given the appropriate punishments. He asked if that would be okay with Mr. Williamson who answered the ridiculously hypothetical question by saying that he supposed that would have to be so. From that point forward he became known as the man who thinks that women who have an abortion should be tried and punished for murder which was hardly the whole truth of the purposeful entrapment by the reporter.

We must respect life and we must also respect the deeply held feelings of those who have strong beliefs that abortion is wrong. We honor those whose faiths do not allow them to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We let girls of the Muslim faith wear head coverings to schools where head gear is against the rules. We constantly defer to religious beliefs but freak out whenever someone admits a strong feeling against abortion even though they base their beliefs on conscience. We argue with them. fire them and make them feel as though they are somehow mean. In truth nothing is further from the truth. Pro-life proponents are simply demonstrating the respect for life that they believe begins at the moment of conception and continues util the last breath. There is nothing egregious about that.