Endless Learning

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I have often admitted that learning and teaching gave me a way to temporarily turn off the challenges of living. Going to school comforted me after my father’s death and well into my teen years. I found it difficult to be too obsessed with my troubles while studying. As someone who is prone to chronic worrying learning provided me with a safe haven from which to escape from the concerns that seemed to follow me everywhere. Eventually my work as a teacher became my mechanism for feeling calm and safe. Keeping my mind active has always prevented me from becoming obsessed with my troubles. 

I often regret not continuing with my education. I have a graduate degree but I think I would have enjoyed enrolling in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston that so many of my professors were encouraging me to do. If not that, I might have worked toward earning a PhD. in educational leadership or some such thing. 

I suppose that I might well have done either of these things but I always seemed to have more irons in the fire than I was able to handle at one time. I was a kind of perfectionist with my work as an educator but I also had a family waiting for me at home. I was already robbing them of so much of my time that I did indeed feel guilty about adding rigorous classwork to my already bursting schedule. Then there was also the care of my mother which always hovered in the background. At any given moment I often had to drop everything to get her the care and the safe environment that she needed. I never knew when her mental illness would rear its head, but I did know that it would always inevitably happen. 

Now that I am retired I might have enrolled at a university not so much for career advancement but just for the love of learning. Instead I found the Glasscock School of Continuing Education at Rice University where I have taken a course each fall and spring since 2011. There is nothing more wonderful than learning just for fun, no certifications, no tests, no grades. I take the classes only because they make me happy. 

I’ve become a kind of groupie for certain professors and mostly history but I’ve experienced other types of learning as well. I picked up some tips on writing and publishing that have helped me with my blog and allowed me to lose some of the fear that I once had of exposing myself and my points of view to the public. I’ve enjoyed several histories of the city of Houston that have brought back memories as well as shown me how and why Houston developed into one of the largest cities in the United States. I’ve learned about India, China, art history, current issues, and the backstory of Downton Abbey. 

It’s been fun gathering information from extraordinary lecturers and surrounding myself with interesting and brilliant people who share my interests. Before COVID 19 I used my afternoons or evenings at Rice as a day out by always including a special lunch or dinner in the festivities. I’d dress up a bit more than I do at home and make a day of doing something just for me. 

During the isolation of the pandemic I have turned to studying and teaching once again as a way of keeping my mind from wandering into dark places. Helping my students to learn mathematics has been a gift to me just as it has been for so many years. I’ve also read and watched tutorials on various subjects in addition to taking two history classes remotely. All of it has filled my hours and made the past year more than just bearable. I have mostly enjoyed the quiet of my solitude and the opportunity to do research and meditate. 

I’ve recently watched a PBS series on Ernest Hemingway that has prompted me to want to reread some of his works. I first studied them as a teen and young woman in my twenties. I suspect that my age and my experience might cause me to view them a bit differently than before. I often find that the same words seem to change when observed from different points in time. I am now that old man fishing in the sea rather than a young woman feeling pity for him as he battles with the marlin. I’ve already realized that books I read long ago feel different when I read them now. I used to despise Heart of Darkness but in a recent reading I found it to be a masterpiece. 

We can all do with a bit of continuing education. Learning should never end and need not have any purpose beyond simply enriching one’s life. For me studying and gaining new knowledge is better than hours with a therapist or swallowing an antidepressant. Keeping the mind active is as critical as exercising the body and eating a healthy diet. It’s the route to a good and happy life.

Freedoms Fears and Frustrations

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We Americans are truly a different breed from most of the rest of the world. We are about as diverse as a nation can be and the reach of our land area is enormous. Bringing all of our disparate sections together has been rather remarkable given that similar attempts at creating such a grand mix of cultures has mostly failed in other attempts throughout the world. Our united states are a wonder but keeping them together has been difficult from the first moments that the original thirteen colonies signed on to the Declaration of Independence. 

If we boiled the beginnings of the revolution down to the kind of simplistic ideas that seem to so often drive politics today we might suggest that the war with Great Britain began over taxes, guns and freedoms of speech, press and religion, with taxes and guns at the forefront. It was after all worry that British troops were coming to take away firearms from the colonists that lead to the standoffs at Lexington and Concord. Our obsessions with guarding our personal rights, our pocketbooks and our weapons have continued from that moment forward. 

The argument about what behaviors should be protected freedoms have ensued from the earliest days of our government and have sometimes included troublesome ideas like the right to own slaves. The squabbles over our nation’s “original sin” culminated in a civil war that left a schism that has festered all the way down to the present day. Our efforts to compromise, appease and look the other way in issues of equality have been the source of great injustice over the decades with the progress toward a realization of the ideals of independence and freedom for all humans being gut wrenchingly slow for many or our citizens. 

In many ways our nation is inflicted with an ugly scab that sometimes appears to heal but all too often is suddenly torn off to reveal a pus- filled infection. For the most part we are indeed moving in the right direction toward remission of the disease that has been so much a part of our history but we still have those who stubbornly cling to the idea that it is not really true that all men are created equal. From time to time they reemerge from dark corners to remind us that our work to undo the terrible mistakes of the past is not yet finished. 

COVID-19 should have been an opportunity for national unity in a cause that affects every citizen. Instead some of the worst of our national traits have emerged to create chaos, confusion, and even death. We have made fighting a virus political and in doing that we have wasted our opportunities to halt its spread more quickly. Now there are new battle cries of “Freedom” and accusations that those who conform to medical directives and science are motivated only by “Fear.” 

I have grown weary of people who choose to ignore simple precautions in the name of some supposed freedom. I am angry with those who accuse those of us who have stuck with a scientific plan of being afraid. I am disgusted with politicians who flaunt the advice of medical experts and persist in creating potentially dangerous situations like removing mask mandates and allowing large crowds to gather. I want those guilty of such behavior to know that I am not afraid! I am simply of the mind that we can stop the spread of this virus if we use a common sense approach for the common good. I wonder when it became so popular to focus more on individual liberties than on the greater needs of society as a whole. 

Let’s be very clear we are engaged in a real battle against a real disease. As with any war we must have generals who create strategies and then we as the troops must stick with the plan. We need sentries to guard us and in this case those would be our doctors who are warning us that we are very close to victory and this is not the time to retreat. We need all of our defenses if we are going to win and not prolong the struggle. We have to wear masks. We need to get vaccinated. We have to demonstrate some rational thinking by avoiding the temptation of either planning or attending any events that involve crowded conditions with people that we do not know.

I am as eager to resume a normal life as anyone. I hate the masks. I dislike having to curtail so many of the activities that I love. I miss my family and my friends. I long to sit with them and see their smiles. I want to feel as free as anyone does but I do not believe that my personal rights should trump those of others. I may be vaccinated but it is possible that I can still carry the virus to someone else if I do not wear a mask. I may even get a mild version of the virus if others are not wearing a mask. We are working toward herd immunity but we are not there yet. If each of us cooperates we may achieve that goal more quickly than if we insist on protecting our own personal desires. 

Freedom will ultimately come to all of us if we are actually willing to sacrifice just a tiny bit. On the other hand it will be threatened if half of us refuse to help with the effort. We will be caught in a cycle of super spreaders and surges that will delay our progress toward eliminating the virus for good. We have to quit reacting and begin thinking. We have had many plans most of which have been upended because of the impatience of a few. Let’s at least agree that our history teaches us that turning our backs on truth and taking the easy least uncomfortable route has never worked. Our best times have been those when we buckled down and did the hard work of setting things right no matter what it took. Now is the time to revive that spirit of America for it is what is most truly good about our nation. Let’s be defined by a willingness to sacrifice rather than arrogant self interest.

Mask up. Vax up. Be responsible. Think of others. We will only be successful if we do this together with love and respect.

On Being Unheard

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I come from a very loud family. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Going to my maternal grandmother’s home was quite a trip. We often gathered there on Friday evenings and it was not unusual at all for my mom and her seven siblings to all be there vying for center stage in the conversations. I am rather certain that people heard the chaotic discussions for miles around. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise, especially for someone with a voice as quiet as mine. I learned to just sit quietly and take in the show. 

I often dreamed of being taken seriously in one of those wild debates and thought that my turn might come when my generation became adults. Sadly my brothers and cousins were as loud as our parents had been and I still found myself struggling to get anyone to hear anything I had to say unless they were sitting right next to me. No matter how hard I tried to break into the conversation I was generally ignored, even when I probably knew more about the topic than anyone who was speaking. 

One thing I’ve learned is that people will ask for professional advice from lawyers, bankers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and all sorts of experts but nobody wants to listen to the musings of a teacher. Even when the lively discussion is about education a teacher’s viewpoint generally gamers little respect. Teachers are mostly ignored, at least I always have been. I suppose that because everyone has once been a student in a school they tend to believe that they probably know about as much about what goes in classrooms as a teacher does. Anyway, when I announce that that I am a teacher I find that most people smile politely and walk away as quickly as possible. Among many circles there is a somewhat general belief that those who can’t do anything else decide to teach.

My former students and teaching colleagues still come to me for advice or to hear my thoughts but so many of the other people I know appear to think that I have nothing to offer. It can be rather frustrating and so I have turned to writing as a way to use my voice. I’ll never be able to muster enough volume to break into a group conversation but I am able to articulate who I am and what I am thinking with my written words. Having a web page has given me the pulpit that I never before had. 

For all I know I am writing for an audience of nobody but that is okay. I find it interesting that J.D. Salinger initially fought to get his work published but eventually wrote only for the joy of doing so. He lost interest in impressing others with what he had to say. In some ways that is how I now feel. Writing and expressing myself makes me happy and that is all that matters. If somebody happens to pay attention to what I have to say it is simply like a cherry on top of a bowl of ice cream. I don’t have to have their attention to survive but it sure feels nice when I know that somebody cares about my thoughts. 

Some people are really good listeners. I have a friend who is a counselor who has developed the art of active listening down to perfection. Whenever I talk with her either in person or via text I am certain that she has considered my words, my ideas. It is a joy to communicate with her.  

Others give me the impression that they are trying to think of ways to politely excuse themselves from me. Maybe the problem is that I talk too much when I do finally get an audience. What people do not realize is how exciting it is to finally have someone listen. I’ve been waiting for my whole life to be able to interject a comment without having to yell from the top of my lungs or raise my hand in the hopes of garnering attention.

I enjoyed the art of debate in high school when I was able to demonstrate that I do indeed know how to present logical, rationale arguments regarding the pros and cons of a particular question. Even then, however, I recall one of my judges being astounded that someone as “tiny and soft spoken” as I was had the ability to present and refute propositions so stunningly. I mean, really, what does a person’s appearance and voice have to do with knowledge and the ability to reason?

I would default to the idea that being a woman is my main barrier for being taken seriously but for the fact that my mother and her sisters always held their own in those raucous family discussions. Admittedly they were obnoxiously loud but people actually listened to them and considered what they had to say. Even my quite refined and elegant mother-in-law mostly managed to get her words into the fray, often with amazing success. I just failed and continue to fail in the conversation olympics with my extended family even when I have tried new tactics. 

It’s a frustrating situation for someone who was able to command the attention of known gang members during my teaching years. I’ve calmed parents threatening to kill other educators. I have supposedly inspired people with my wisdom. Not so with my brothers and cousins and the wild crew I call my extended family. I just sit back as I always have and smile at their antics knowing that often I do indeed have something worthy of saying that none of them will ever hear. 

I love my family. I suppose that my mom and her seven siblings grew up vying for attention. It was the survival of the loudest in their tiny house and they all perfected their skills save for one of the uncles who seemed to voluntarily surrender much as I have done. My brother and cousins were observant enough as children to learn how to enter the fray but somehow I never perfected that ability. I have to be content with quiet conversations in the corner or letting my hair down with my writing. I suppose that in fact my reality is not really so bad. At least nobody has ever accused me of being obnoxiously loud and the years of watching the show of the contenders has admittedly been great fun. Whether they listen to me or not, I love my crazy family and the verbal battles they fight. You really haven’t lived until you witness it. For now I am actually content knowing that I have mostly been unheard. They just don’t know what they are missing from me.

Destiny

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Each of us has a destiny that is mostly of our own making but life has a way of intersecting our plans and sending us in directions that we might never have otherwise imagined. When we are young we tend to think big, hoping that somehow we will be that one person who impacts the world in positive life changing ways. As time goes by we begin to realize that for most of us our influence will be rather quiet and unassuming but nonetheless critical to the unfolding of history. It is in each small act multiplied a thousand times over that we actually make differences that may never be noticed but nonetheless have a ripple effect on the future. It is most often in our unplanned moments that we achieve the relevance that we seek. Sometimes we never even know how we may have changed the course of life.

Like most young people I began my journey into adulthood filled with outsized dreams. I suppose that I initially wanted it all, fame, fortune, significance. I certainly felt that I had the potential to achieve whatever I desired but my attention to matters of career and success were diverted time and again by affairs of family and friendship. I soon occurred to me that the so called trappings of power and influence meant less to me than caring for the people that I loved. I felt a responsibility for their safety and happiness that over road my ambitions on occasion after occasion. By choice I embraced a quiet and mostly obscure life of balancing work and home and friendships. I passed on opportunities that might have propelled me into the limelight because I knew that it was more important to perform the age old balancing act that women have embraced for centuries. 

Tradition encourages men to be providers and women to be caretakers. Moving out of that mold requires a level of energy and skill that I never fully developed. I all too often found myself doing a mediocre job of trying to be all things to all people and so ultimately I had to decide exactly what I was able to handle and still manage to do a somewhat good job in each arena. Added to my responsibilities was the life long care of my mother whenever her mental illness rose to the forefront of my concerns. In those times I suppose I neglected my job, my children and my husband to varying degrees in that order. Luckily I was surrounded by incredibly understanding people who took up the slack for me in each part of my duties. 

For a time I felt resentful that my role in life was so confined by circumstance but over time I began to understand that I was actually choosing how to react. I was not bound by anyone but myself. When I realized that I had been exercising my own free will I began to see that my destiny had always been to quietly minister to the people closest to me. I saw it as an honor, albeit a challenging one, to be able to nurse my mom through the cycles of depression and mania that overtook her mind with the regularity of the seasons. I found that my work gave me enough flexibility to do something important while still being a rock of refuge for my mother. It also allowed me to be present for my daughters in ways that other jobs might have inhibited. 

My family supported me on the thousands of evenings when I graded papers and planned lessons. They listened to my babbling about my students. They honored and respected what I was doing even though the hours that I gave to it were never repaid in monetary rewards that may have allowed them to enjoy a higher standard of living. They sacrificed so that I might feel good about my small contribution to the world. 

My destiny ended up being a life of service which in some ways has been a somewhat selfish thing. I think I may have given myself more joy than I ever shared with the people for whom I cared. The feeling of doing something important for a single soul is beyond measure and I have felt that rush of altruism over and over again. Still, I find myself thinking that there is more that I must do. I listen for hints of how I might make small differences in each of my remaining days. 

I am now retired. My influence and contacts are dwindling. The world is chugging along without me. My mother is gone, freeing me to do more for others, but I no longer have the energy that I once had. I accomplish smaller and smaller things. I imagine a time in the future when I may even become someone’s project, a person who must be helped rather than being a helper. It will be more difficult for me to accept that role than any other that I have thus far performed. 

My hope is that I will maintain my mind, my health and my independence like my grandfather did. I want to be like him in providing a kind of wisdom and hopefulness to those I encounter. He was a teacher, a storyteller, an historian, a philosopher in the last decades of his life. His world became smaller and smaller as he approached his one hundred eighth year but his knowledge and understanding only grew. He shared his optimism and inspired us with his certainty that life was unfolding just as it was meant to be. He helped us to understand how the jumbled threads of our lives ultimately weave a glorious and unique tapestry. 

Each of us has a destiny. From moment to moment we are changing the world in ways both big and small. Every life is important. Hopefully we have made choices that make us better people. Hopefully we will be ready to accept and tackle the unexpected challenges that come our way. The millions of choices being made the world over ultimately affect us all. Let us hope that we always choose well.

A Joyful Relationship

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I have been married for so long that I no longer have any idea what it is like to be single. I’ve always been an independent minded woman who made my own decisions and followed my dreams but I have come to rely on the constant presence of my husband in my life after fifty two years. He is always there to listen to my ideas, my worries, my joys, my laughter. I know that there is someone in the other room to patiently allow me to vent my frustrations or pitch my sometime crazy theories about life. He often says something I am thinking before I have even had an opportunity to open my mouth. We find the same things funny and complete each other’s sentences. Being together is as comfortable as wearing a nice soft old robe that may be a bit out of style or worn but feels just right on any day. 

My man and I don’t always agree on things but that is one of the best aspects of our relationship. We do not have to be totally in sync to respect each other’s opinions. I learn from him and like to think that he also garners new information and wisdom from me. He’s a bit on the hard headed side when it comes to some things but mostly he is rather relaxed and a perfect foil for my perfectionism. Our friendship has worked out quite well over the long haul so much so that it really does feel as though we were destined to be together. 

We are slowly reaching a somewhat disturbing age when we realize that the death of one or the other of us is more and more inevitable. I’d like to think that we will at least reach our nineties but my mother and both of my grandmothers died in their mid-eighties and many in his family did not even make it to those golden years. I try not to dwell on such thoughts but I already have friends who are widowed and far too many of the people who were once our dearest friends have already died. Each year it seems as though someone not too far removed from our age group passes, often somewhat suddenly. 

I suppose that it is a bit morose to even speak of such things but it is in my nature to consider the future and make plans for whatever may happen. I am not so obsessed with the idea that I make myself sick over it but I do know that if anything were to happen to my husband it would require a huge adjustment for me. I was only nineteen years old when we married so I have literally spent my whole life with him.

I remember that my grandfather lived for more than twenty years after my grandmother died and for the most part he adjusted to his new situation quite well. Now and again though he would speak so nostalgically of the good times that he shared with Grandma. He would smile and call her his buddy and admit that he missed her every single day. 

Being married keeps me balanced. I have a tendency to become overly absorbed in anything that I do. Because I have someone else in my life I pull myself back from switching my days and nights or becoming a total hermit. My husband reminds me of the importance of enjoying life more than I might if I were alone.

My mother was only married for eleven years when my father died. She was thirty years old and spent the next fifty four years by herself. She had to learn how to be independent and find ways of providing for a family. Back in her day women were mostly housewives and that was all she ever really wanted to do. She struggled financially for the rest of her life but her frugality and financial wizardry pulled her through. At the time of her death she fully owned her home and had zero debt but she suffered from mental illness that I sometimes wondered might have been exacerbated by the stresses of raising a family alone. In her later years she was content to be by herself but as she grew older she became more and more afraid that someone might take advantage of her. Like my grandfather she admitted that she still missed my father.

I envy women who have mastered the art of living alone. I have a cousin who has been a roaring success at fending for herself and enjoying life as a single woman. I have to admit that she has accomplished more and experienced more than I have even dreamed of doing. She is my role model in case the need ever arises for me to be alone. In the meantime I treasure my good fortune in having decades of joy with a person who understands me better than anyone ever has, sometimes more than I understand myself. It’s rather amazing to know that someone loves you in spite of many flaws. I know that I am not the easiest person in the world with whom to live but somehow he just smiles and lets me be me. I suppose that in the final analysis that is the real secret to our success. I hope to enjoy each moment that lies ahead because everyday with him is a joy and I don’t want to miss even a tiny bit of it.