What I Value

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I will be the first to admit that I have a fear of fire. I suppose that it came about from a time when I could not have been more than about four years old. One morning we heard the sounds of a fire truck and an ambulance racing down our street while we were eating breakfast. My mother took my baby brother out of his crib and grabbed my hand as she rushed outside to see what was happening. A crowd had gathered in front of a house halfway down the block. Nobody said a word as they stood staring at the flames and smoke coming from the roof of the abode. It was obvious even to a small child like me that the house would be a total loss, but the fire fighters fought the blaze until it was under control. Then they performed the grim task of checking to see if anyone had been inside. We all knew that an old man lived alone there and some of the neighbors began whispering that they hoped he had been gone when the fire started. 

After a few minutes a fireman motioned to the drivers of the ambulance who wheeled a gurney over the rubble and through what had once been the front door. When they returned outside there was a form underneath a sheet. People looked at one another and began to cry because they understood that the man had died. My mother attempted to gently explain to me what was taking place and I remember feeling a sense of terror at the very thought of ever having something like that happen to me or anyone that I knew, but I said nothing. I simply internalized my horror.

Since that time I’ve made a point of regularly checking my smoke detectors and keeping fire blankets and fire extinguishers at the ready. I held drills with my children so that they would know what to do if a fire ever broke out inside our home. I even purchased a ladder for the second story of my home that I keep under a table next to the guest bedroom. It attaches to the window sill so that if the stairway is blocked there will be a way out into the safety of the front yard.

When I was still a teenager an older cousin of mine was smoking a cigarette in his bed after a particularly long and tiring day of work. Sadly he fell asleep as he lay relaxing with that burning ember between his fingers. As it fell from his grip it set his mattress on fire. We do not know whether or not he woke up to realize what was happening, only that he died. 

My daughter was so well versed in emergency procedures that she was ready when a fire broke out in her Chicago apartment building. She heard the alarms and saw the smoke gathering in the hallway. She awakened her husband and the two of them quickly pounded on the doors of the other residents. They escaped with only their dog and stood in their pajamas and bare feet as they watched the flames consuming their worldly goods. They were later credited with being heroes for alerting the others who might have otherwise slept through the frightening event. The experience has vividly stayed in their memories for close to eighteen years. Things do not mean a great deal to them anymore. They profoundly value life over possessions.

A few years later my aunt was decorating for Christmas when a fire broke out at her home. She and my uncle grabbed a few family treasures before it became apparent that it was unsafe to be inside the house. They stood in the front yard that should have been decked out in holiday finery watching a lifetime of memories burn to the ground. It was heartbreaking for everyone who knew them because they were rapidly approaching their nineties and it seemed cruel for something so horrid to happen to them. 

I was recently asked what I would rescue if my house caught on fire. While I have many treasures that I would hate to lose, my automatic response was that I would grab my husband and get out as quickly as possible. I cannot even imagine risking either of our lives for some object. While there are heirlooms in our rooms that are priceless in our minds, none of them would be of any importance if either of us were to be severely injured or lose our lives. We have fire insurance to replace the house and any necessities for living that we might need. Our important papers are backed up in the Cloud. 

I thought about my aversion to fire during this past summer and fall. So many people lost their homes with everything inside due to wildfires in the west. I felt such great sorrow for them and hoped each day that none of them had lost loved ones. I thought of the firefighters who worked under such dangerous conditions and the risks they took to stop the spread of the flames. I was as mesmerized by the accounts and the images of what was happening as I had been as that four year old child. 

I suppose that what I value most when there is a fire or a storm or even a deadly virus is life. This year of 2020 has reminded me again and again what my treasures really are, and none of them are things. That little old man taught me long ago how horrible it is when even one person dies in such a terrible way. I did not really know him but I suppose that I have mourned his passing many times when I have thought of him. I wish to this very day that somehow he had been pulled from that fire before it was too late. Every person is irreplaceable. For now our focus should be on keeping as many as possible safe.

On Time

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There are those of us who are rarely late and those who have reputations for being late. We know who they are and adjust our own schedules to accommodate them. One of the funniest examples of this happened when a former student invited me and another teacher to her college graduation. Knowing that such events are sometimes very crowded I arrived about twenty minutes early hoping to nab a good seat. I walked in to find an empty auditorium save for the other teacher who sighed with relief when he saw me. We began to wonder if somehow we had come on the wrong date but a quick look at the invitation assured us that we were in the right place at the right time. We were befuddled but decided to wait to see if anyone else came.

Indeed people slowly trickled inside and at exactly an hour after the time noted on our invitations the graduation began. When we met with our former student after the event we mentioned our confusion and she laughed, explaining that people in her family were always late. Her mother had listed the time on the invitation an hour early so that they would be present when the ceremony began. This revelation provided us all with a good laugh.

My father-in-law is a stickler for being on time. We often joke that we might set our watches and clocks by his arrival to any planned event. He not only comes at the assigned time, but within seconds of indicated moment. We sometimes wonder if he is waiting around the corner watching the the hands of his watch tell him when to make his appearance. His punctuality is so assured that we begin discussions of sending out the troops to search for him if he is even a minute late.  

One of my dearest friends was always so late that I knew that I need not rush to prepare for her appearance. When she gave me a time to expect her I instead understood that it would be more like “something thirty’ than an exact moment. Very little in her life was ruled by a clock and in some ways I actually enjoyed the serendipity of her personality. Like my father-in-law I have tended to be a slave to the clock. Sometimes it was nice to simply linger a bit longer with her rather than rushing to the next event.

People use all kinds of excuses for being late, but where I live in Houston, Texas there is only one that is universally believed. The traffic here is so bad and so fickle that even with the best laid plans it is probable that something will cause the cars to stack up at a standstill. It may be someone with a flat tire or a stalled engine that wreaks havoc. A wreck or a lost load from an eighteen wheeler can bring movement to a standstill. Dealing with gridlock is a way of life that everyone here understands. Nobody doubts that traffic is a valid excuse for tardiness whether it is day or night. It is the one assertion that is never questioned. 

I am not a morning person by nature. I don’t mind rising from my slumber even before the sun has appeared on the horizon but I disdain having to rush around to leave my home. During my working years I hated the long drives in the dark when my brain was still foggy. Most of the time when I was late I could honestly blame it on the traffic but now and again it was because I had pushed the snooze button on my alarm a few too many times. I always dreamed of creating a society in which it would be acceptable for some people to arrive later in the morning than the seven o’clock that most schools and businesses favor. I envied an aunt who did shift work from noon to eight in the evening. It seemed like a very happy way of living. 

Covid-19 has slowed things down. So many people are still working from home. Children continue to learn remotely in many cases. I begin my own lessons at nine in the morning and it’s nice to have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before I begin. By the time I walk up the stairs to my make-shift classroom I am wide awake and filled with energy. It feels so much better than those years when I inched my way to work in an hour of traffic. I can be on time without the stress.

My friend who was always late died a few years back. I was bereft as I sat waiting for her funeral to begin. As the clock ticked past the designated time we learned that there had been a delay in getting her casket to the church. I felt a smile overcoming the hurt in my heart. Somehow it was like a wink from her telling us all that everything was going to be alright. Maybe we all need to enjoy life a bit more like she did and not worry so much about always being on time.

Discovering Myself and the World

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When I was nineteen years old I took a gigantic leap of faith by marrying my first sweetheart, Mike. At the time I did not even have a driver’s license and I was intensely shy, insecure and innocent of the ways of the world. Somehow I felt that I was doing the right thing and that there was nothing risky about my decision. I can only imagine how worried my mother and mother-in-law must have been as they considered the multiple ways in which Mike and I were not truly ready for such a major step in life. To their credit both of them blessed our decision and quietly supported us in the background. I realize now just how wonderful they both were as they managed to watch over us without a hint of their worry.

So many young people in my age group were being tossed into the maelstrom during that era, particularly the  males. With a military draft and the war in Vietnam there was an uncertainty that made the world feel as though it might blow up at any moment. Somehow it felt as though it was important to grab any form of happiness regardless of how risky doing so might be, I also felt totally confident that Mike was a very good person and that hitching my hopes and dreams to him was a wise move.

I discovered so much about myself and the world around me in those early days of wedded life. I met people who were very different from the ones with whom I had grown up as a child. My new found acquaintances tended to be a bit more rough hewn and uneducated but I found them to be delightful. They taught me how to survive in a sometimes rowdy world. They helped me to develop the courage that I never knew that I had. They were the salt of the earth, the kind of folk who never turned their backs on anyone in need. They worked hard at jobs that had once seemed menial to me and celebrated life with an appreciation for the smallest of joys. They showed me how to appreciate all people, not just the ones who appeared to be more like me. I doubt that I would have been as successful as an educator had it not been for my accidental kinship with them and for their homegrown wisdom I will always be grateful.

I discovered how fortunate I have always been. I lost my father and my middle class lifestyle when I was too young to really understand  but I was still surrounded by unconditional love from my mother, my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins and truly compassionate neighbors and friends. I have always known that I am never alone no matter how dire the circumstances of my life. Again and again there have been wonderful souls rallying to my side whenever I needed them. This realization has made me stronger than I ever believed that I might be.

My relationship with Mike has been unbreakable. Together we have traveled through the joys and sorrows of reality. We’ve stumbled a bit here and there but in sharing with him I have discovered one of the secrets to a good life. I learned how to be flexible, generous, loving, understanding in the day to day give and take of married life. I realized that there was more to achieving my dreams than deciding what only I wanted. I learned that we are always engaged in a symbiotic relationship with all of humankind. Anything that we choose to do has some kind of impact on others, often in unconscious ways. True love actually is patient and kind. It does not compete or envy or boast. It is guided by compassion, forgiveness and a desire to help each other to achieve together. I discovered how to treat all people through my relationship with Mike.

I have not designed a methodology for teaching that is followed by much of the world. I did not find a cure for a fatal disease. I do not write for a worldwide audience. My life may seem small and insignificant but I can honestly say that it has been an exceptional one. My greatest discovery has been knowing how to find happiness even in a moment of darkness.

I realize that life can be harsh and difficult to endure but there is always a silver lining to be discovered if only we search for it. Losing my father taught me to cherish the people that I love and never take them for granted. Caring for my mother during her struggles with mental illness showed me how to find help and to speak the truth. Almost losing my husband to a deadly disease when we had barely begun our life together made me more appreciative of relationship and the need to nurture them every single day.

In my seventy one years I have stumbled upon many discoveries that may appear to be insignificant but are in reality a way of knowing myself and understanding the world. I can’t think of anything quite so important as feeling a oneness with my fellow humans. It provides me with optimism and the will to keep moving forward. It reinforces my certainty that marrying my soulmate regardless of my youthful age was one of the best decisions I ever made. Stepping out into the world with someone in whom I gave my full trust has been a glorious adventure of discovery. 

Science and Love

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I began to feel quite ill, but it was December and I had to keep going with a flurry of activity to ensure that I would be ready to celebrate Christmas day with my family. I was decorating, shopping for gifts and holding classes for a group of kindergartners at my church. In spite of my efforts to keep going I was running out of steam with my energy level waning with each passing day. I ignored signs that all was not well until an encounter at the mall with my next door neighbor, Carol, who became gravely concerned when she noticed that my eyes had a yellow tinge. 

Carol was perhaps ten years or so older than I was and so she was much like a big sister to me. She chided me when I admitted that I had not been feeling well and insisted that I go home and contact my doctor immediately. I told her that I would do as she had instructed even though I did not think that it was actually necessary to do so. I believed that if I rested for a day or so I would be back to my old indestructible self. 

A day passed and I got a phone call from Carol asking me what my doctor had said. When I told her that I had decided not to contact him she became almost frantic, insisting that I take care of informing my doctor immediately or she would call his office herself. She believed that I was seriously ill and might be highly contagious. She emphasized how important it was for me to be responsible. 

While I still thought that contacting my doctor was overkill I nonetheless made the phone call just so I might assuage Carol’s fears. The receptionist listened to my story and connected me to the clinic nurse who asked a number of questions about my symptoms, including the discoloration of my eyes. She directed me to come to the office immediately to consult with the doctor and have some lab work done. 

I became a bit worried at the nurse’s unusually frantic response. I quickly found someone to watch my two little girls and drove to the clinic where I was immediately isolated from the rest of the patients waiting to be seen. The doctor looked at my skin and my eyes and asked a number of questions. Before even sending me for tests he made a diagnosis of hepatitis and explained that he would provide me with more directions once he had seen the results of my blood work.

That evening he called me to let me know that I did in fact have hepatitis. He insisted that I rest totally or he would have to send me to the hospital. He recommended that I avoid going places or having direct contact with anyone outside of my household. He then gave me more instructions for keeping the members of my family safe from contracting the disease from me. Little did I know that it was already too late. 

Within a few days I was so ill that I literally began to wonder if I was going to die. By that time my skin had taken on a golden hue and the whites of my eyes were a brilliant yellow. I was nauseated and had a violent headache that made it painful to even sit upright. My mother came to rescue my daughters and care for them while I recuperated. Then my husband presented symptoms of hepatitis as well and was soon diagnosed with the same disease. So too did my mother-in-law also come down with the illness. 

We joined forces by being together, taking turns resting and completing household duties. We theorized how we might have all become infected with the exception of my father-in-law and we narrowed down the possibilities to eating oysters on a visit to a seafood restaurant or being infected by a waiter at a Mexican restaurant who had looked so ill when he served us they my mother-in-law had actually complained to the manager. However it had happened we were quite the crew with various levels of the hepatitis. 

Christmas was bleak that year. We missed all of the family gatherings and but somehow managed to be festive for our girls. Mostly though my mother and brothers provided them with a holiday that they never forgot. Soon both Mike and my mother-in-law were well as proven by blood tests, but my infection lingered on all the way through January and well into February with doctors worrying that I might have a chronic form of hepatitis. 

I had become shockingly thin because the mere thought of eating was nauseating. My skin kept is bronzy glow and I had so little energy that I spent most of my days in bed. Perhaps the worst part was that I was quite isolated because few people wanted to somehow risk becoming ill from me. Those who did come wore make-shift masks or spoke with me from a safe distance on my front porch.

After enduring blood test after blood test for weeks and weeks and weeks I had all but given up on becoming well again. When I finally got a negative test I was elated, but so run down that I had no real desire to resume my life as it had been. It would take many more weeks before I once again felt a rush of energy propelling me to take my place among the living again. 

I’ve drawn on that time during this pandemic. It taught me to have patience, to follow instructions from my doctors, to appreciate small joys, to know that one day things do get better. I learned that I had a circle of people who truly cared for me like Carol, my mother and brothers, my mother-in-law, and several friends who brought food to my home or even braved visits to keep me from feeling abandoned. 

I became healthy again but I was changed. I would no longer be allowed to provide my blood to anyone because it was forever tainted by the hepatitis. I took even the smallest symptoms of illness much more seriously. I understood the importance of the loving people in my life.

Our economy, our jobs, our children’s educations are of incredible importance but if we ignore the sick among us or underplay the seriousness of Covid-19 we will surely dehumanize this terrible experience. We may be very tired of hearing about the virus or dealing with it, but we cannot simply pretend that it is not there. Facing it head on is the first step to healing our world. It’s well past time for all of us to work together to get and keep everyone well. It was science and love that got me back among the living. It is a formula that always works. 

Heroes of 2020

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There has been some atrocious behavior this year, but I am a glass half full kind of person and I much prefer to focus on the good people that I have seen. In a very difficult time there will always be those who are uplifting, people who inspire us with their courage, humor, compassion or determination. Herewith are my nominees for the most wonderful folks of 2020:

  • Without a doubt the doctors and nurses in our clinics and hospitals have been the superheroes of the 2020. For almost a year now they have been on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19. When others were complaining about sacrifices that they had been asked to make, the medical community never missed a beat. Their work was grueling and dangerous and yet day after day they have shown up all across the globe to be the soldiers in the battle for lives. 
  • Teachers have had to change and adjust to new ways of providing instruction in a moment’s notice. They have had to master the hybrid method of teaching face to face and remotely at the same time. They have donned gear more suitable for someone engaged in emergency medical care than for inspiring a classroom of students. They have faced uncertain conditions and compromised their own safety for the sake of their pupils. They have proven both their mettle and their dedication to our children.
  • Students have had to carry on with their educations under difficult situations. Their routines have been upset and they have often lost precious relationships with their peers. It has been tough learning how to navigate technology and to overcome the feelings of isolation derived from remote learning situations. They have demonstrated their resilience again and again.
  • Workers in manufacturing jobs have kept the supply chains filled even in times when their coworkers were falling ill around them. They have risked their own health to provide the necessary products that we need. 
  • Our farmers and those who work on farms have done their best to stock our grocery store shelves with grains, produce, milk, eggs, meat. They have fed us with the bounty of their hard work. Too often their efforts are unsung when they should instead become the stuff of ballads.
  • The truckers and railroad engineers have moved supplies to where they are most needed. They have lived on the road, away from home in these troubled times, ready to clock thousands of miles to keep our pantries filled.
  • Delivery people have brought packages to our doorsteps. They have shopped for our groceries. They have sometimes worked until the late hours of the night to get our orders delivered in a timely fashion.
  • The managers and clerks and stockers have kept our grocery stores operating even in the midst of a lockdown. They work inside with hundreds of strangers potentially bringing the virus into their midst. Somehow they keep smiling, cleaning, insuring that we will have access to what we need.
  • Entertainers have brought the gift of music and theater to our homes. They have found ways to make us laugh even when all we wanted to do is cry. They have demonstrated their talents for understanding our hearts and touching our emotions.
  • Our first responders have been on duty every minute of every day. They have fought fires, rescued people from floods, lost their lives in the pursuit of keeping us safe. They have carried the critically ill to hospitals and stood watch over those exercising their right to protest in our city streets.
  • Countless people have worked in offices to maintain the business of daily life that we do not often see, but miss when it is gone. They have sat behind computers at home making certain that the daily flow of commerce is not disrupted. 
  • Those who repair our homes, our cars, our appliances have kept things running. Sometimes they have had to enter places about which they knew little, potentially risking their health.
  • Peaceful protesters have endured criticism and sometimes even injuries in order to voice concerns and to advocate for justice. They have been branded as looters, destroyers of property and unpatriotic traitors even when those epithets are not true of the overwhelming majority of them.
  • Our military continues to serve throughout the world, quietly and valiantly keeping us safe and carrying out their pledge and duty to protect our Constitution. 
  • The media is too often unfairly criticized these days when, in truth, they keep us informed twenty four hours a day. They provide us with data on the virus. They alert us when a deadly storm is coming our way. They bring truth into our homes even when we sometimes prefer to believe the hoaxes of trolls. 
  • The scientists who are working to produce better treatments for Covid 19 as well as those who are attempting to develop a vaccine that will halt the spread of this virus are our greatest hope. We may never know who they are, but we will all benefit for their knowledge and inventiveness. Make no mistake, this vaccine will not have been the product of politicians, but of the genius of experts willing to burn midnight oil in search of anything that might halt the death and dying. 
  • Those who have demonstrated a sense of honor and respect for their fellow citizens by willingly wearing masks, keeping social distances, washing hands, and avoiding crowds and unnecessary gatherings are compassionate and caring. They have been willing to make sacrifices for the good of people that they may not even know. They have been cautious and they have shared their good fortune when able. They are people who realize that getting out and living does not mean partying, but caring for the most vulnerable and least fortunate among us. 

The good people outnumber the evil many times over. They come in every shape and size. They are male and female, of varying sexualities, from different races and ethnicities. They represent every religious and non-religious belief. They are old and very young. They represent all that is best in the world and they somehow find ways to step up to do whatever needs to be done without regard for how they might be rewarded for their efforts. They are everyday people whose names we will never know and that is fine with them. They are not seeking fame or fortune. They simply want to do what is right. They are my heroes and it has been joyful watching them in action during this challenging year. They being me hope and put a smile on my face.