A Year of Healing and Love

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As we near the end of this extraordinary year there is light and hope. In spite of the horrors that seemed to define 2020 we learned that there is a strong core of humans on this planet who faced the challenges of the last twelve months and adjusted to meet them. We have been shown the glory of our minds and their ability to identify problems and solve them. We have witnessed worldwide sacrifice on a scale perhaps not seen since the tragic years of World War II. We were challenged to assert our obligations to one another and there was an outpouring of response that encircled the globe. We witnessed profiles in courage that left us in awe. We saw love win many times over. 

I would be remiss if I were to pretend that people on this earth acted universally with good will during the challenges and tragedies of this past year. We are after all only human and sometimes our fears and our beliefs lead us in questionable directions. We have been quite divided this year as to which were the right pathways to follow. We definitely chose sides convinced that the others who did not think like us were wrong at every turn. Perhaps it will take the distance of hindsight to be able to unravel the decisions that were right from those that were disastrous, but certain individuals, groups, and movements seemed to keep us hopeful that the coming year of 2021 will be a year of healing and love in our tattered world. 

  • Perhaps no other group epitomizes the astounding goodness of humankind during this pandemic than the healthcare workers across the globe. Doctors, Physicians Assistants, nurses, aides, technicians,  maintenance crews and hosts of heroes have labored for long and stressful hours, days, weeks, months without respite. Many died in the process of caring for the sick who came to them. They carried on with their work even as far too many among us questioned their advice and intentions. They have been angels among us who have earned our respect and gratitude.
  • There are nameless, faceless men and women with brilliant minds who unlocked the secrets of Covid-19 and developed vaccines that may soon free us all from worry and allow us to once again embrace the world and each other. Surely this remarkable feat demonstrates that science and ingenuity have the power to solve even the most frightening problems. These are the geniuses of our era whose work is as life changing as that of Galileo and Pasteur. They deserve our honor.
  • It required great faith and astounding courage to be one of the many individuals who agreed to test the vaccines inside their own bodies. They became the willing guinea pigs who took enormous leaps into the unknown in an effort to find a way to hopefully one day eliminate the scourge of Covid-19. They demonstrated the adventurous spirit that has defined humans from the beginnings of history and theirs is as important a contribution to progress as those test pilots who made it possible to reach the moon.
  • Speaking out against injustice has always been risky business. There is danger in pointing to societal problems. We humans tend to prefer calm and quiet and sticking with whatever has been the status quo. The brave men and women who protested the inequities of our justice system during the spring and summer were often misunderstood but their moral certainty that we must have change was as important for embracing the ideals of our country as the Declaration of Independence that began our grand but imperfect democratic journey long ago. As with any human attempt to draw attention to human rights there were some ugly moments, but viewed on the whole their efforts created a magnificent awakening that will hopefully lead to important and long needed change. They are the new patriots who will lead our country to a better and kinder version of itself. 
  • Ordinary men and women in every walk of life were innovative, flexible willing to adapt to necessary changes in the way we live and work. They set up offices and classrooms in their homes. They entertained themselves away from crowds. They donned masks out of respect for the health of others. They sent donations of money and food and personal items to those who have been devastated by the disruptions brought about by Covid-19. They reached out to those most vulnerable to the virus and kept them feeling safe and loved. They adjusted to every need without complaint reprising the kind of sacrifice that our grandparents and great grandparents endured during the Great Depression and the two world wars of the twentieth century. They are the everyday unsung heroes of the pandemic.
  • Our system of government weathered the storm of political strive. Not since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt have so many made their choices known in an election. Some braved the polling places and others like me sent their votes by mail to help prevent the spread of contagion. In the final analysis we the people made our voices heard and when attempts were made to defile our system brave individuals stood firm in defending our votes. The members of the Supreme Court followed the law, not political leanings and the process worked the way our Founding Fathers had hoped it would. This was a glorious moment for every American regardless of party or political leanings. Things did not fall apart. The center held. 

So as we approach a new year I am filled with optimism for all of humankind. I understand that there are still many hardships and challenges ahead but as people we have proven our mettle even though it was sometimes hidden in a war of words and disagreements. True moral character seems to have won the day in spite of attempts to derail it. We may hobble along but we are still moving forward. Hopefully a year of healing and love lies ahead. We have the people we need to insure that it happens.


Relearning How To Relax

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When I was a child my grandparents had a farm in Caddo Gap, Arkansas. Going to visit them there was like enjoying a preview of heaven. Every moment was slow and relaxed and fun. It was a simple time devoid of schedules and complexities. It felt as though there were no worries there. Those visits were an adventure that relied on imagination. The only cost of being there was the gasoline that we used in traveling from our home in Houston, Texas. 

Grandma and Grandpa’s house had no air conditioning even though the summer days were often quite hot with temperatures inching toward one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. They relied on cross breezes from open windows and floor fans that helped to boost the currents of air. We often spent lazy afternoons sitting on the screened in porch sipping on fresh squeezed lemonade or cold bottles of Orange Crush while watching the birds and butterflies flitting through the vegetable garden that served as my grandparents’ source of produce. We’d listen to the cow mooing lazily from her spot under a shade tree and laugh at the antics of the chickens being herded to cool perches by the rooster. Even the collie, Lady, took a nap when the sun rose high into the sky. 

We listened to my grandfather telling stories of his own youth and watched my grandmother’s nimble fingers embroidering linens or sewing tiny stitches to join blocks of cloth into a lovely quilt that would keep someone warm on cold winter days. We enjoyed learning about the Arkansas locals and laughed at stories of animals and their tomfoolery. Not even a visit to Disneyland would have felt more delightful than those glorious times. 

I suppose I learned then that relaxing has nothing to do with spending money. It is the art of purposefully stopping to quiet the stresses on the body and the mind. It is letting go of anxieties for a time and listening to the sounds of nature and the beating of our own hearts. Sometimes it can be achieved through laughing and talking with others. Often it is more likely to be achieved alone with a steaming cup of coffee or tea and a willingness to quiet the mind. 

I was asked what I would do if I had two hours to relax and only one hundred dollars to spend for the task. I had to laugh at the thought of needing to plan or have money in order to unwind. I found myself thinking that our tendency to ritualize and schedule breaks for ourselves is part of the reason that so many of us are stressed and unable to enjoy healing time alone. Even as we have been urged to celebrate our holidays with only our households we tend to panic as though being isolated even for a time is a kind of punishment. We seem unable to use that time as a great gift to both our physical and mental health. 

I have been observing for many years now that we have become a society in need of constant entertainment. We schedule every minute of our lives as well as those of our children. Each milestone has become more and more elaborate. Children have birthday parties that are worthy of royalty. Weddings cost tens of thousands of dollars. People embark on expensive vacations multiple times a year. We worry when the calendars for our weekends are blank. We are engaged in pressure to keep up with an ever more expensive, time consuming and elaborate way of doing things.

Since Covid-19 restricted us I have seen more children playing for hours in their yards. I hear their laughter as they invent their own entertainment. My neighbors sit on their porches or lawns waving to one another and shouting greetings. We borrow tools from each other rather than rushing to a store to purchase our own. It has been a joyful time much like those summers in Caddo Gap. In the past many months relaxing has meant just sitting for a time observing the birds visiting the feeder or laughing at the antics of the geckos racing across the lawn. Balls and water hoses and bicycles have replaced gaming systems as the toys of choice and laughter regularly fills the air. 

This has no doubt been a difficult year. Virtually everyone has been affected by the unfolding events in one way or another. We have been forced to change the way we live in sometimes painful ways. In spite of all the horrors or maybe because of them we have found ways of finding joy in the smallest of things. It’s amazing how much more delicious a mug of hot chocolate seems to taste of late than it did in the past. We have relearned how to delight in simplicity. We have realized how little we actually need to be happy. We have begun to better understand what is most important in our lives. 

Often times it is in the midst of tragedy that we discover how best to relax and enjoy a moment. We realize that we need not always have total control over our lives to be happy. The serendipity of just listening to rain can be more lovely than a carefully planned excursion. Relaxing is a state of mind and amazingly it is absolutely free. 

When Smiles and Hugs Are Back

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I suppose that I have always secretly wanted to be a print journalist, a reporter of the news and human interest stories. In high school when I revealed this dream to one of my teachers I was promptly informed that I would never make enough money to feed and clothe myself if I followed that whim. He guided me to alternative ideas like being a nurse or a teacher. This was after all in the nineteen sixties and women were yet to be fully embraced in the workforce. 

I began college without a real plan. I declared a major of unspecified arts and sciences and took core classes hoping that along the way I would find a niche that appealed to me. In the meantime a part of me still harbored the idea of writing for a living. My role model became a student at the university named Edith Bell who was the editor for the Daily Cougar. She was an exceptional reporter and I devoured both her articles and editorials with the enthusiasm of an apprentice. I learned much just from reading her work. 

Eventually I thought to channel my love for writing into teaching English. I took countless courses in the English department, focusing more often than not on linguistics and writing. Some of my professors encouraged me to forgo the idea of being an educator and take my chances by jumping headfirst into writing as a profession. By then I had invested far too much time, energy and money into preparing for a teaching career, so I thanked them for their encouragement and pushed forward with my plan to teach young people grammar, usage, literature and the art of writing. Little did I know that I would be hired instead to be a mathematics teacher because of the many math courses I had taken for fun. 

I ended up enjoying my life as a mathematics teacher immensely and never once regretted following that route during the many decades that I parsed information about algorithms and theorems. I often believed that my writing skills actually helped me to explain the intricacies of mathematics more clearly. I knew how to use words to clarify and I understood the importance of having a clear thesis and when I needed to elaborate. 

Still it was with great joy that I began writing daily upon my retirement. It became a hobby that brought me profound joy. I realized that in some ways I still yearned to be a journalist but I felt that the ship that might have launched such a career had sailed too many years ago to make such a silly dream a reality. Nonetheless I often find myself fantasizing about stories that I would like to write, headlines that I would love to create. Of late I have been writing a news story in my head whose content I hope will one day become a reality. It’s headline is Smiles and Hugs Are Back.

The news I want to report is that the vaccine has been successful in creating enough herd immunity that the world no longer has need to worry about Covid-19. In essence we have beaten it into near extinction just as we did with smallpox and polio. We are cleared to remove our masks and show the world our smiles once again. When we see people that we love it is now okay the hug and embrace them. Our relationships are normal once again and joy and peace reign. 

In the spirit of the scientific inquiry and cooperation that it took to overcome the pandemic we humans also realized the value of our relationships and the truth of science. We began working together to save our planet by changing our wasteful and destructive ways. We more clearly understood how interconnected we all are and began serious negotiations for peaceful relationships with one another both at home and abroad. We had time in our more solitary moments to realize and truly understand the pressing needs of all people. We understood the importance of sharing our bounty and insisting on equity and justice for everyone. In witnessing so much horror we had changed and become determined to rebuild our society in far better ways than we had ever before experienced. 

Of course such a wonderful story only exists in my ever hopeful and optimistic mind. We are far from creating an earthly utopia but I see positive signs that we are beginning to move in such directions. We have grown weary of turmoil and anger. We really do long for real peace on earth even as we know how difficult it will be to achieve. Perhaps the virus has clearly demonstrated that in essence we are all the same inside. The differences that so often drive us apart have been meaningless to Covid-19. It is only when we have worked together as people without nations or borders that we have been able to stifle the horrors that plague us. 

It can be tough to report the news from day to day. All too often it is bitterly dire. I want to believe that at the very least the day is nearing when the headlines will tell of the moment when we smiled and hugged again. I would like to think that we will cherish the wonder of that feeling enough to embrace the behaviors that made it possible. We not only need to heal but we have to change our ways to stay well. It’s a challenge worth pursuing so that we can keep those smiles and hugs.  

An Enchanting Christmas Time Vacation

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In 2004, husband Mike and I left for Austria a couple of days after Christmas. We met our friends, Monica and Franz, at the airport in Munich and travelled to a sweet bed and breakfast in the ski town of Soll. The inn was nestled in a snow covered Alpine village and from the moment we entered I felt the warmth of our hosts, the owners of the establishment. 

Our room had a balcony and windows that overlooked the mountains as well as the shops and restaurants of the town. The bed was small by American standards but just as cozy and comfortable as can be with its soft down comforter to keep us warm. A television with news in English kept us apprised of the local weather conditions and events happening around both locally and around the world. The bathroom was spartan but all we really needed was a hot shower and a place to store our personal items for the duration of our visit. No luxury hotel might have pleased us more.

Each morning we went to the dining room to enjoy breakfast. It consisted of a selection of chewy breads, cuts of meat and slices of cheese. Most people wanted the coffee but like another guest from England I preferred the selection of tea. Since I’m not inclined to eat much meat I mostly buttered my bread and ate it with the varieties of cheese. Before long the hostess was ready for me each day with new a teapot of hot water to brew my morning caffeine fix waiting at our table. The atmosphere was homey and lovely in that room and I would not have minded lingering there for hours but the glorious town and its surroundings called us to new adventures each day. 

Franz was intent on skiing since he had literally grown up enjoying the sport since the time he was a toddler growing up in Vienna. We accompanied him to the top of the slope and then left him to enjoy a day of skiing while we sipped on steaming bowls of soup and then took the lift back down to the village where we explored quaint shops and walked on snowy paths through the streets where the locals lived. It was as enchanting as a fairytale. 

There was a beautiful little church that we often visited. It was decorated with trees and flowers and a magnificent Nativity scene for Christmas. The mass was said in German and even though my memory of what I had learned in high school and college was sadly lacking I knew exactly what was happening because the services in Catholic churches are universal, the same throughout the world. I felt a deep spiritual connection with that little chapel and enjoyed just sitting there feeling God’s presence. 

Next to the church was a graveyard with tombstones dating back through centuries. It was touching to see how many of the town’s people had died during World War I. Because it was such small place those deaths must have touched everyone quite deeply. 

We enjoyed exquisite food each evening in quaint restaurants where it was not unusual to see religious symbols serving as part of the decor. Everything we ate was tasty and we were soon enjoying the tradition of lingering over our meal for hours, laughing and enjoying each other and the atmosphere. On some evenings we walked to one of the many bakeries and capped off the evening with delightful pastries and cakes accompanied by steaming cups of hot chocolate smothered with whipped cream. It was all quite decadent and just what one enjoys most on a vacation trip.

We traveled from Soll to destinations like Salzburg where the annual Christmas market was in full swing. There we saw the beautiful cathedral where Silent NIght was first played and Maria walked down the aisle in the movie The Sound of Music. We visited the birth home of Mozart and our senses revelled in the aroma of roasting chestnuts and the musical sounds of people having a good time. We even visited a salt mine, one of the reasons for the name of the city, and took an hilarious ride down a chute that eventually landed us on our bottoms. 

On another day we went to Innsbrook and walked the streets where history was all around us. Not far from town we enjoyed a tour of the Swarovski factory where I became enchanted by the beautiful crystal creations and started my collection of annual Christmas snowflakes that now numbers sixteen. 

We visited other places and climbed steep stairs through ancient castles or watched craftsmen creating Riedel glassware. We even went to a concert presented by local musicians in one of the schools. On another occasion we drove into Germany and saw the place where Adolf Hitler often went to rest and relax. We were caught in a blizzard on our way back to our rooms in Soll and driving became treacherous on the mountainous roads. We did not know how to attach the snow chains so Monica went to a farmhouse, knocked on the door and asked for help in her best German. A nice man came out in the storm and helped us to get back on our way. 

The following morning we learned that the road we had been traveling was eventually closed to all traffic because of the dangerous conditions. We had barely been ahead of the shut down and it took us many hours to slowly inch our way back to our safe haven. 

We spent New Year’s Eve in Soll. We went to mass in the little church and then had a lovely dinner in one of the nicer restaurants. As it neared midnight we went outside and saw that the mountain slope was li by skiers carrying torches. At the stroke of twelve they outlined the numbers 2005 and came down in unison. All the while The Blue Danube Waltz was echoing over the scene while the church bells rang. It was stunning!

On New Year’s Day we took walks around the village and watched the Vienna Philharmonic play their annual Christmas day concert. We ended with a sleigh ride that was so bitterly cold that not even our thermal underwear, quilted clothing, heavy coats and fur throws took away the chill but we did not care. The horses trotted over the snow with the bells on their harnesses ringing and we were filled with joy as we rode under the branches of enormous trees and into the woods. 

We stayed until Three Kings’ Day on January 6. The children in the town dressed as those wise men of old and went from house to house collecting and passing out treats. The townspeople inscribed the tidings of 2005 in chalk over their doors and everyone received gifts for the occasion. 

It was with great sorrow that we left our bread and breakfast to return home. The hostess packed sandwiches and pastries for each of us to eat on our flight back home. I knew I would miss the hospitality and the special feeling that our little room had provided us. I still find myself wondering how things and are going there and wanting so much to return.   

Bless Us All, Everyone

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There is a globe showing the world hanging on my travel Christmas tree. I placed it near the top as I was decorating without paying much attention to what part of the planet earth was showing on the round orb. As I gaze at it now I clearly see that it is focused on the Middle East, the part of the world where Jesus of Nazareth was born. Just to the left on the secretary that once belonged to my mother-in-law is a delicate porcelain rendering of the birth that so changed the world more than two thousand years ago. My mother gave me the lovely Nativity scene as a gift one Christmas and each year I place it in the room where I write my blogs. It reminds me of the real magic of the holiday season which was always present in the love that both my mother and my mother-n-law gave so freely during their lifetimes. They have been gone for many Christmases now but somehow I always feel their spirits as though they are still celebrating with me and teaching me what it means to be good and decent.

I believe that each of us is not just what we believe but what we do. From that little baby whose birth and life we celebrate each Christmas Day and those two women who were devoted to the ideals that he taught, I learned how I should act each day, even when things are difficult. More than anything my role models gave me a rubric for living by which I try to gauge my success in treating the people around me with dignity and respect. There set high expectations for me that I have not always been able to meet, but I nonetheless use the measure of their lives to assess my own. 

What I have learned is that love is at the center of this day and all days above all. Love is kind and patient and generous and forgiving. The best present that we can give anyone is the gift of ourselves. It takes no money and little effort to spread compassion and understanding and genuine concern to everyone we encounter in every interaction of every single day. We can delight in the glory of life itself wherever we might be and whatever our circumstances are. So even if we are alone on this Christmas Day of 2020, it is a time for pausing from our cares and our woes to rejoice in the hope that this celebration was meant to represent. 

For most of us there will be no rushing about this year. We have time to pause and think about how we are doing in our individual roles of bringing peace on earth. We have an opportunity to move slowly and deliberately through the day asking ourselves what Jesus would be like if he were being born again in the world of today. Where would he live? What would be his circumstances? Might his family be refugees or illegal immigrants confined to a camp or living homeless under a bridge? Would his mother and father be worried about being evicted from their home in the time of Covid-19? Would we see them and help them in their plight or would we simply ignore them and maybe even disdain them?

Jesus taught us to look beyond our own wants and needs and to see the goodness and humanity even in those that we do not understand. On this Christmas Day of 2020, may we all begin again to make joy and love the center of our lives. May we spend good cheer from one end of the globe to the other. May we realize that Jesus came for each of us in Christmases past, present and future in every part of the globe. May we resolve to be the change that we so desire from others and may God bless us all, everyone.