A Time For Renewal

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After weeks of isolation and horrific winter weather spring is showing off its glory everywhere in my neighborhood. April and May are perhaps the most beautiful times of the year where I live. By June the temperatures will mostly remain in the nineties and by July they will be trending toward one hundred degrees or more. Spring around here is glorious in every possible way and this year brings more promise than ever as more and more people get fully vaccinated and feel free to get together safely for the first time in over a year. 

I generally awake early. I can’t seem to sleep for long periods of time anymore. Once the sun begins to barely peek through my curtains I arise and begin my day with a routine that I really enjoy. I make myself some tea and breakfast and take it to my front room where I enjoy the gathering of children at the bus stop near my home. I love the sound of their laughter and conversations. These days they are fully masked and ready for the ride. If this bothers them they don’t complain. They appear to have grown accustomed to the new ways of doing things. Children are incredibly flexible like that. It’s one of the aspects that I most like about them. 

Once the three buses have picked up the elementary, middle and high school students, in that order, the parents begin their journeys to work. I listen for the garage doors to open and observe them navigating to the end of the cul-de-sac. Many of them now stay home and work remotely so the neighborhood is more populated and lively during the day than it has ever been in the past. I like knowing that my friends are nearby if I need them. Now and again one of them has an emergency and we all don our masks and do whatever we can to help. An elderly man recently fell and was unable to get up on his own. He was too heavy for his daughter to lift him alone. Some of the younger neighbors who work from home had him on his feet in minutes and luckily he appeared to be fine. That brought a big grin to my face. I like knowing that I am surrounded by good people.

I especially enjoy watching one of our locals begin his day with a stringent exercise routine that he completes in a gym he has created in his garage. He faithfully dedicates one hour each day to a series of exercises and weightlifting that is so inspiring. I marvel at his agility with a jump rope and long for the days when my knees allowed me to do such things. Instead I stick to my treadmill and long walks around the area. Such is the exercise of choice for most of the other residents who fill the sidewalks each morning as though there is an official promenade. 

Spring cleaning and repair seems to currently be the most popular task. Everywhere I gaze I see painting and planting and hear the sound of hammers and saws. Garbage days bring sidewalks filled with tree limbs and worn out items that nobody wants anymore. Sometimes enterprising individuals drive by in their pickup trucks scoping out the trash in search of items that they might recycle and bring to life again. 

Back in early March the landscape looked as though there had been a forest fire on our properties. Bushes were brown from the freeze. Lawns seemed to crackle under our feet. Everything felt gray and muddy and lifeless. We were outside with all of our neighbors attempting to coax our trees and shrubs and flowers back to life. It was a daunting task because certain varieties were quite obviously dead. Now green is everywhere. The lawns are growing so fast that everyone is mowing again. The trees are filled with lovely leaves. Roses are bursting with blooms of many colors. Flowers seems happier than ever before. It is like a landscape painting from Renoir around here and it makes everyone smile. 

Mostly I enjoy seeing the children finally playing outside. They ride their bicycles and play basketball at the end of the street. They run and laugh and fill the air with unadulterated joy. They remind me to remain hopeful because happiness always finds a way to bloom even in times of great distress. 

The world is certainly coming back to life where I live but I find my heart feeling a bit heavy over the places in the world where suffering from Covid-19 is at unparalleled levels. I understand that as long as anyone anywhere is dying from this virus we are not yet home free. I have to continue to pray and do my part to beat back the devastating effects of this pandemic which has so tragically united us all as fellow humans. I long for everyone everywhere to begin to feel the same sense of optimism that is slowly but surely poking its head into my part of the world. 

The birds and butterflies fill my yard and entertain me from my windows. My optimism soars from all that I see but I cannot become complacent. We are one in this world and nature, even in the form of a tiny microbe, is an integral part of who we are. We should be happy to celebrate a bit while still respecting those around us with the same precaution and care that we have given our gardens and our homes. This should be a time of renewal and repair with all of the people throughout the world. I hope we heed the call to put in the work. If we do our efforts will surely bloom.


A Lovely Investment

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I remember a time when it was commonplace for people with green thumbs to take visitors on a tour of their gardens. My Grandmother Minnie Bell was proud of the flowers and vegetables that graced her landscape and why not? She worked quite hard to cultivate the profusion of flora that lined the fences and burst forth in resplendent glory under her care. She regularly donned her khaki pants, work shirt, rubber boots and floppy hat to work the soil and pamper her plants. It was a routine as ever present as cooking meals and brushing her hair. As with preparing food, tending a garden was a joyful experience for her and so she never minded the amount of effort and folk knowledge that it took to create her masterpieces of nature. 

My Grandma Mary turned her entire backyard into usable ground with pathways that took her from one plot to another. She was more inclined to plant fruit trees and perennials that provided sustenance and a bit of color without a great deal of effort. Still, her creation was like a lovely maze and always made me think of how the garden of Eden may have looked with its tempting fruit hanging above lilies and herbs. 

I always got a kick out of visiting my friend Linda’s mom who seemed to experience as much joy from her gardening as my grandmothers did. Mrs. Daigle would proudly point out the many varieties of flowers and bushes that she often grew from cuttings, seeds, and gift plants from friends. She seemed to enjoy sharing her wealth of nature and I often left her home bearing a new variety to plant in my own yard. To this day her daughter has the same knack for growing things like a pro that her mother had and she also likes to share what she has. I have huge pots of fern from New Orleans from her and an orchid tree that she grew from seeds and brought to me during our period of COVID 19 isolation. 

My thumb is not nearly as green as my grandmothers’ or Mrs. Daigle’s or Linda’s but I certainly caught the gardening bug from them. My love of puttering in the soil is so strong that I literally feel as though the mere act of planting activates the serotonin in my brain and makes me giddily happy. My rubber boots of the same kind that my grandmother wore are my favorite pair of shoes. The heavy rose gloves that protect my hands and arms are a prized possession. The hours melt away when I am working in my yard and I don’t even notice my achy bones and muscles until I have finished my tasks and realize that I have probably overextended myself. 

The joy of gardening is real for me. It’s almost seems to be baked into my DNA and especially when spring rolls around it feels as though I can’t visit nurseries often enough. I am constantly looking for one more plot of land or big pot to plant some flowers or a new bush. I fill my calendar with reminders to fertilize my roses, azaleas, hibiscus and plumeria. I walk around the beds looking for weeds to pull or branches to trim. I smile at the birds that come into my yard and pray that the caterpillar on my bush will indeed turn into a monarch butterfly. 

If someone were to give me a gift of a hundred dollars with the proviso that I spend every dime on something for myself I would probably visit a vendor of plants or save it for the Houston Garden Society Bulb Mart that has a gala event of plant heaven each October. Vendors bring amaryllis bulbs, native plants, citrus and fruit trees, compost and special soils. It is a celebration of gardening with kindred spirits smiling as they fill carts with the promise of lovely things to come. Some of the most wonderful things I have ever planted have originated from this market and none of it ever dies because it is perfectly suited for the conditions of soil and climate in our area. 

Even now I find myself scanning my yard wondering if I might plant some flowers in an open space or bring in some compost and soil to create a new bed to expand the glory of my domain. My plants are like my children needing to be tended and loved. I talk to them and urge them to grow and enjoy my care. I pamper them and keep them warm when the temperatures become too cold. Sometimes the potted ones winter inside my house and my garage like snowbirds seeking refuge in the south. 

My former home had a huge yard with ample room for a compost heap. I kept it on the side of my house and nobody complained because there were no members of an HOA deciding what I might not do. That dirt was rich and filled with juicy earthworms that kept it from clumping into clay like the native soil of this place. I’d use in to grow vegetables or to enhance the long line of azaleas that grew along the back of the property. I miss that composting area. I think I’d like to have one again but neighborhood rules preclude such a thing so I might be tempted to take the aforementioned one hundred dollar gift to invest in an enclosed compost drum. Like my both of my grandmothers did I would become a recycling queen by using the leftovers from my kitchen as eventual food for my yard. 

Spring takes me to my garden and fills me with hope even in the direst of times. I think that growing things is one of the most wonderful things we humans have learned to do. There are few sights as beautiful to me as a lush landscape created by the hands of a dedicated individual. It can be a work of natural art. Spending time and money and care to make our world more beautiful is a wonderfully worthy task and it seems to me to be a panacea for many ills and areas producing plants do not have to be mowed. It is a lovely investment indeed.

Kindred Spirits

I am grieving today! A beautiful soul has left us and I am finding it difficult to convey how horrible that feels for me. There is an irony in the situation because I knew of the person for whom I cry for many years but I did not really know her until quite recently. Bren Ortega Murphy was one grade behind me in school from the time that we were both quite young. If my parents had not insisted on placing me in the first grade when I was only five years old Bren and I would have been classmates and in all probability the best of friends for a lifetime. Instead it took Facebook and national events for us to realize how kindred our spirits truly were. 

Bren was an amazing individual from the time I first really noticed her when we were both in high school. She seemed capable of doing virtually anything with a kind of excellence that few ever achieve. Even selling World’s Finest Chocolate was a skill that she mastered so well that she won kudos for the number of bars that she sold one by one with her warm smile and charismatic charm. Her brilliance really shone through in her participation in speech and debate where she became an outstanding member of our high school forensic team. She brought home medals and trophies with her seemingly natural ability to mesmerize an audience whether reciting poetry or arguing a point in debate. 

When I was a senior in high school and Bren was a junior we formed a slate of candidates for school wide offices. I ran for secretary of the student body and she ran for treasurer. Our campaign materials included a photograph of the two of us along with the two young men who represented our party as president and vice president. None of us won but I still remember how cool and calm Bren was in delivering her speech to the entire school. If the vote had been based on her speaking ability and confidence she most surely would have been a victor. 

I left high school and rarely looked back. A lifetime of living filled my days and weeks and months and years as happened with Bren as well. She went on to earn a doctorate and become a tenured professor at Loyola University in Chicago. There she built a resume of achievement that was stunning. More significantly she earned a reputation of kindness, wisdom, profound compassion. She left her mark on papers, books, films and hundreds of students and colleagues who felt that she had changed their lives for the better. She also created a family that loved as deeply as she loved them. She spread happiness and understanding wherever she went.

Retirement and Facebook and the pandemic happened for both of us and suddenly Bren and I realized how alike we were. We shared stories and talked on the phone. She invited me to come stay with her anytime that I wanted to visit Chicago. We mailed each other cards and messages. She even sent me a special stamp that she said reminded her of me. I felt the rush of excitement that comes from realizing that I had truly found someone who totally understood me. In fact we were in such sync with each other that we might have been sisters and it was beautiful. I imagined our relationship growing deeper and deeper for many years into the future.

Bren supported me as I became more and more willing to take a public stance on political ideas. She helped me to challenge injustices and encouraged me to be myself when stating my beliefs. She made it easier to find a strength that I didn’t even know that I had. I excitedly told everyone about this wondrous person who had become my friend. I felt so comfortable with her while also being in awe of her goodness, her intellect, her accomplishments. It felt like an honor just to talk with her even has she treated me as though she was the lucky one. 

Bren fell last Friday and died from her injuries. I still find it difficult to think of a world without her. She was important to so many people. She was a whirlwind of energy with a boundless supply of love and encouragement for everyone she encountered. She seemed to literally adore all of the people in her sphere of influence but most especially her family. She liked to decorate her home with a whimsical touch and make even the most casual gathering a special occasion. She proudly posted joyful messages about her children and made it clear that life with her husband had been a profound romance. 

Bren was a deeply spiritual person with a Christian spirit that embraced the message of Jesus without reservation. Her heart was pure and open to everyone. After the death of George Floyd she and I discussed injustice, inequality and issues that affect far too many people on this earth. She guided me to books and articles that enlightened and supported my own views. She was indeed the quintessential friend, teacher, mother, wife, follower of Christ. 

I feel a void that will not be easily filled. I had hoped to one day visit with Bren in Chicago. i wanted to continue our talks. I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to tell her how much she had impacted my life. She was so vibrant that I thought we had more time. I never expected to lose her so soon. 

Bren is with the angels now. She has always been one of them in so many ways. Heaven rejoiced in her arrival because she lived on earth as a saintly person while still being delightfully human. She squeezed every second out of the time that she was here with us and gave us an example of how we all should live and love. May she now rest in peace and hopefully know how magnificently she changed the world into a better version of itself. Those of us fortunate enough to spend time with Bren Ortega Murphy will be eternally grateful for that opportunity. She showed us all what true love is like and how to live a purposeful and happy life.

Breaking Bread In Style

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As a child one of my duties, especially at my grandmother’s house, was to set the table for dinner. From an early age I learned how to properly place the silverware on each side of the plates as well as where to position the napkins and the glasses, the coffee cups and the salad plates. I always felt rather important as I gently opened my grandmother’s china cabinet to remove the lovely dishes that I needed. I handled them as though they might break in my fingers because they seemed so fragile.Then I went to the big wooden chest where she kept her silver and took out the gleaming knives, forks and spoons that she kept polished to a lovely luster. I was awestruck by how grand the setting always looked complete with a freshly laundered and ironed tablecloth. My grandmother went to great lengths to make dining a special time even on an ordinary day. She was definitely a master cook but the extra touches provided by her tableware made each meal taste even better. 

My mother was a stickler for manners so she also taught me and my brothers how to behave when we were eating. She told us to never make negative comments about the food no matter what was being served. She also encouraged us to take small helpings at first and then go back for seconds only if we decided that we really liked the food. We were never to pile our plates high and then leave half of the items uneaten. Another hard and fast rule was never to talk with food in our mouths and to keep any conversation positive. We were to place a napkin on our laps and clean our mouths and our fingers with the cloth, not with our tongues. She even showed us the proper way to pass the bowls from one person to another and insisted that we use “please” and “thank you” with any requests that we had. 

I have always felt comfortable dining even in the most elegant places because of the instructions and practice that my mother and grandmother gave me as a child. I sometimes wonder if children today are lucky enough to learn such things. The manners of fine dining sometimes seem to be outdated and yet they were designed to make everyone comfortable during a meal. Nobody did or said gross unappetizing things. Nobody insulted the cook. Nobody wasted food. It was a rather civilized and kind way of doing things.

Studies tells us that most people do not even eat together at a table anymore. I’ve noticed that young people have sometimes asked me where the various utensils go. I know that phones find their way to the table as do comments that might have landed me and my brothers in hot water. There is a much more casual and free atmosphere that may be relaxing but often feels less polite. Without table manners we become too much like the folks of the Middle Ages who ate with their hands and threw bones on the floor while belching with glee. Let’s face it nobody really wants to see something like that but my guess is that some people actually do encounter barbaric behavior at dinnertime. 

Maybe we don’t need the fine china and silver and tablecloths but a bit of decorum never hurts in any situation. One of my daughters is of the mind that if we all followed the manners outlined in an etiquette book the world would have fewer conflicts. Rules for mannerly behavior were developed to demonstrate respect for one another. I can’t think of any reason why honoring the people we encounter with dignity is anything but a good thing. I would love to see more opportunities for young people to learn the ways of table manners and other tidbits of a more considerate way of doing things. 

I realize that not everyone has fine china or silver. I had only stainless flatware until my mother died and left her silver to me. Many young folks no longer invest in china either but setting a paper plate with a plastic knife, fork and spoon in the correct place is all one really needs to learn a few tips about how to do things. More important are the rules for just being decent by staying positive, not being gross, being certain not to waste anything. Let’s face it, when we are eating it’s nice just to have a pleasant environment that is relaxing and kind. Surely such a situation makes for better digestion if nothing else. 

Some of the very best memories of my childhood are associated with dinners at my grandmother’s home. The food was legendary but that is not what I most appreciated. It was the feeling that everyone at the table was special. All of the elements of table settings and manners created those incredible feelings that I had. The sharing and and kindness were as tasty as the food.

Breaking bread at a table has always been the supreme gift that we might offer one another. Eating together represents life and and healing. It has always been a very personal human experience especially when we follow rules that make it more special for everyone. Perhaps it is time we do more of that. 

Reputation Does Not Equal Guilt

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During my long career as a teacher I mostly worked in areas of town where life was difficult for those who lived there. They were places where gangs and violence were far more commonplace than in the suburbs. I saw the underbelly of poverty and neglect and its impact on good people who were doing the best they could to care for their families and provide opportunities for their children. By far the vast majority of my students in such places were hard working, law abiding individuals who were simply caught in the uncaring cycle of economic want. They were generally determined to better themselves and most of them eventually did. Sadly a few bad eggs sometimes spoiled the whole lot giving the impression that life in such places was by definition violent and dangerous. I learned instead that such communities were filled with vibrancy and hope and that misbehaving adolescents usually grew into fine adults. 

Nonetheless all too often certain students achieved reputations as troublemakers when in fact they were actually quite sweet. Whenever things went missing they rose to the top of the suspect list and so became victim to a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. One of them was a very bright young man with whom I formed a relationship of mutual respect. I saw that behind his tough veneer was a bright and eager student who struggled to be seen as a good person. His quick temper had often landed him in hot water either from talking back to his teachers or refusing to be pushed around by his peers. He and one our counselors were working on anger management but his fame as a firebrand often preceded him. When I overlooked his antics and focused instead on his intellectual abilities he calmed down into a model student whenever he was in my class. 

I was in charge of a fundraising program from St. Jude’s Hospital that involved recruiting students to get sponsors who would pay them for working a series of mathematics problems. Those funds along with the completed workbooks would then be returned to St. Jude’s. I was such an enthusiastic supporter of the annual event that I volunteered to do all of the work involved in checking the student work and compiling the money into one check for the organization. It took extra time from the students but they took pride in being able to do something for others. They were as enthusiastic about the mathathon as I was, so the donations came pouring in from the community. 

On one afternoon I was busily counting the money at my desk when there was a disturbing commotion in the classroom next door. Without thinking about securing the funds I rushed over the see if I might assist the teacher there. It ended up that she had fallen and so I helped her get to her feet and waited to see if she was going to be okay. I then called the school nurse to come to do a brief inspection. All the while the stacks of money sat unguarded on my desk. 

When I finally returned the notorious young man who was often regarded as a delinquent by my peers was sitting casually behind my desk. He immediately chastised me for being foolish enough to leave so much cash unattended but assured me that he had watched over it in my absence. He cautioned me to be more careful in the future. 

I was probably more lax than I should have been when it came to protecting valuables. Not long after that someone stole my wallet which just happened to be filled with money that I had withdrawn from the bank for a trip to a conference that many of us were planning to attend. I only realized the theft when I decided to purchase some snacks for the road trip and found that my wallet was missing. Several people immediately suggested that they had seen the same young man who had guarded the St. Jude’s donations lingering near my classroom. They were as certain that he was my thief as I was that he was innocent. I was so sure that he was innocent that I didn’t even want him to be interrogated. 

Many years passed when I received a call from the neighborhood police department. A city worker had found my wallet while cleaning out the sewer system. It was intact with all of my bank and credit cards neatly placed in the leather slots of the wallet. Only the money was missing. 

I was overjoyed to get the wallet because it was the final proof that my student had not been involved in the theft. He did not live in the neighborhood where is was found and there was no way that he would have been there. Each afternoon he boarded a bus that took him in the opposite direction to an apartment complex that was far away from the place where my wallet was found. He had always been vindicated in my mind but now I absolutely knew that he was not involved. 

I will never know who stole my wallet but I am glad that I was unwilling to jump to conclusions based on innuendo. I have always believed in the saying that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. We often jump to erroneous conclusions about people that have nothing to do with the truth. Justice demands that we do not equate the circumstances or appearance of someone with reality. Past mistakes do not make someone a criminal. In fact I have found that given a chance most people want to do the right thing. We all need someone to believe in us but sadly some among us are too often denied that basic equality that most of us enjoy. Reputation does not equal guilt.