The Mission

I remember when company or school mission statements became all the rage. I even had to take part in the creation of one or two of them. I never really liked either the process or the products. The missions always sounded a little bit the same, and they were more often than not filled with platitudes. After they were completed they were usually features on the first page of the employee and student handbooks, and then promptly forgotten by mostly everyone. 

I’m not against having a clear mission, but most of the time mission statements are purposely vague which makes them very much like horoscopes or fortune cookies. One might easily be exchanged for another one without anyone really noticing. In fact, I often imagine the final products as initially being prewritten documents with blanks filled in to make it sound like the organization for which it stands. 

One of the best mission statements ever written was the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States. It rather perfectly outlines the intent of the laws that follow. Essentially it outlines seven general but noble goals including to form a more perfect Union, to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. Since the origination of the Constitution, the three branches of our government have been clearly tasked with maintaining the objectives outlined in the Preamble by following the laws outlined in the Constitution. It hasn’t always been an easy task.

Of course, as with any mission statement even the Preamble is purposely vague about how to achieve such lofty aims. The Founding Fathers wisely understood that a mission statement should be flexible enough to endure the test of time. So it is that our Constitution has been amended to allow for new philosophies and changing times. The Preamble, however, always remains the same in underscoring that the seven ideas in its body should always be the goal. These are commitments to a particular kind of government. 

I’ve often asked myself what my mission should be in the remainder of my life. Sometimes I laugh and think that just waking up each morning is an accomplishment given how many people that I once knew have died. But then I realize that greeting the new day is not something that I have actually done. It’s little more than an instinctive reaction. I certainly want to continue learning and with that in mind I read voraciously. If I did as much for my body as I do for my mind I would be quite buff, but I’m not totally bad given my age and the fact that I have not been able to return to the gym for over a year now. I’ll keep walking and hopefully install a  recumbent bike in the house to keep my muscles working. I’ll also partake of those fifteen minute HIIT videos on Netflix. I try to do something nice for someone everyday, but sometimes I get preoccupied with tasks that really do not have to take place, so I need to remind myself that kindness should be a priority. I enjoy writing, but I normally get inspired by the places I go and the things that I do. Covid has somewhat restricted my ideas so that I am not as satisfied with my efforts as I normally am, but then who feels normal these days anyway? I am determined to travel again, but I’m feeling a bit discouraged with the uptick in Covid cases, and for now my trailer is out of commission. 

I look forward to fall. I’m more inspired to be industrious and accomplish things when it is cool. The heat seems to slow my brain and my body. I don’t even get joy out of being in my yard when it’s ninety six degrees in the shade. Soon, however, I’ll be teaching my kids again, and there is little that brings me so much joy. I suppose that when all is said and done being a mom and grandmother and wife and teacher is my true mission in life so why would I need to create some kind of trite statement to define how I hope to represent my life?

In truth I’m far too much of a free spirit to tie myself down to a stilted document that attempts to define my future goals. I don’t even like planning my days too far in advance. I get antsy if I have too many appointments on the calendar. I want to be able to take a spontaneous drive or bake a cake or go out for lunch whenever the spirit moves me. I’m retired. I don’t want anything binding me to a particular routine. I’ve worked hard to get here and I just want to be able to wander however the spirit moves me. So I stand by my original thought that mission statements feel contrived and often quite meaningless. 

I hate to admit to mostly flying by the seat of my pants through life. I feel more creative and alive that way. I miss too much when everything is already planned. These days I can finally get by with being a kind of sprite, and it really feels good. 


The Artistry of the Lens

I often wonder how other people actually see me. When I look in the mirror I am viewing a reversed vision of myself that is unlike the image that others would encounter. When I gaze at photographs of me I am unable to find a single one that captures the way I feel about myself. Only once did someone get very close to snapping a picture that connected with who I think I am. It happened to be a student who had brought me a lovely rose colored shawl for Christmas. He wanted to save the moment so he asked if I would allow him to take a photo with the camera on my phone. He sat me in a chair and methodically adjusted the lighting and the folds of the shawl. He had me turn my head until he found the best view and then he snapped several pictures until he felt it was just right. The results were beautiful. 

That young man has become a professional photographer and his work is just as stunning as the image he took of me. Sadly I changed phones over time and I have not been able to find that photo ever again. It was a treasure, so I should have saved it immediately, but I was busy in those day and did not think of worrying about a single photograph no matter how lovely it was.

There is an artistry in photography. Some photographers have a natural eye and talent, but mostly the best images come from practice. The pictures I like the most tell a story much like one that I feature in my home that won a prize for another of my former students. It is a happy scene of children reaching their arms into the heavens and looking upward with unmitigated joy. I smile whenever I see it. The young man who took the photo tells me that it came from a time when he took a summer missionary trip to central America. The children were trying to catch a helium-filled balloon that had escaped from their hands and was rising into the air. My very talented student realized that the photo would be much more interesting if he cropped the balloon and focused instead on the children. He was so right!

I have a niece who is a masterful photographer. She has a way of capturing the essence of people. My favorite image from her is of my grandson Jack. It shows him crouching on the stage of his high school where he often portrayed different characters in his acting class. The portrait is done in black and white. It is the very picture of who he is and what he loves. 

My husband and I have been watching features on Master Class, a series of instructional videos from experts in virtually every field. We’ve learned how to cook from Wolfgang Puck and how to think from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Recently we decided to watch a session with Annie Leibovitz, the famous photographer who has created some of the most iconic photos of both the famous and unknown. I was literally in awe of her abilities and her eye for revealing the inner beauty of her subjects.

Ms. Leibovitz believes that every photograph should tell a story. She learns about people and then creates a vision of them in places and situations that are meaningful to them. The faces of her subjects literally come alive and speak to us as we gaze on their features. Some of her work is so stunning that I became emotional just viewing it on my television screen. She is fearless in what she attempts to do which is a very necessary trait for a photographer to transcend from the ordinary into artistry. 

i remember photographic sessions from back in my youthful days. They always took place in studios with glaring lights and uncomfortable poses. Somehow I always felt strained and worried that I would look terrible in those scenes. Nothing about them felt like me and so the pictures look stiff and unnatural. 

Today’s photographers seem to be reaching for something more personal, more interesting in the photos they take. The three people that I have mentioned make everyone beautiful and important. They find the settings and the poses that bring out the inner essence of their subjects. Perhaps like Annie Leibovitz they understand that photography is an art. They have a way of finding the story that lurks inside of every single person.

I used to laugh at those Glamour Shots that people purchased at the mall. I think they were really just an attempt to look and feel beautiful. A great photographer doesn’t need all of the makeup and big hair to succeed at that. I want to hire one of my students or my niece to do that for me. I need someone who can help me get beyond my worries that I don’t have a photogenic bone in my body. I’ve learned that when the right person is behind the lens everyone looks gorgeous even without photoshopping.

Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. An artist knows how to find that wherever he or she goes. it’s wonderful that we have such people in our midst. Their work brings happiness, beauty and truth into the world. 

I Want To Hear You

I suppose that what has disturbed me the most these days is how much we are fighting with one another, and how almost any topic results in disagreements. We are tending to classify each other into distinct groups when in reality who we are and how we react to various ideas runs along multiple continuums. The intersection of those things is a complex web rather than the simplistic descriptions that politicians and propagandists often use. 

I can choose virtually any idea as an example. Let’s say two people are discussing the Black Lives Matter Movement. It is actually possible to support that group without being gung ho about every single aspect of what many seem to think they represent. If I say that I believe black lives matter it does not mean that I do not think that other lives matter as well. In fact, that would be a rather absurd idea for anyone to believe, but I have had people engage in fierce arguments with me over this very idea. When I try to explain my meaning they generally quit listening or they are already thinking of ways to debate me on the idea. For me black lives matter is a very subtle idea that means that we have to begin placing more value on the lives of black members of our community who are too often instinctively viewed as being dangerous and violent in a very racist way. This kind of thinking is what so often leads to their deaths at the hands of law officers. It is also the reason why black citizens sometimes feel the urge to run from the police in fear for their lives. There is a tension and distrust that we have to address in meaningful ways that will make a difference for everyone.

For me the idea of getting rid of the police is not what defunding them means. In fact I think the term defunding police is a terrible misuse of words for an idea that is really about using fewer funds for military level tactical gear and policing as opposed to employing individuals trained to de-escalate dangerous situations. In truth there are others who say that black lives matter who are far more radical than I am. Lumping all of us together is a tactic designed to avoid a critical discussion of the matter. Over simplifying one another’s beliefs leads to misunderstandings and stalemates. Nothing ever changes when we are unwilling to suspend our own judgments long enough to really hear what others have to say. 

The converse of my thinking would be someone who is genuinely concerned about our justice system, but worries that saying black lives matter divides us even more or undermines the safety of our police. If I am to follow my own advice I must be willing to hear what they have to say, and consider how we might be able to blend our thinking. In fact, it is reasonable to say that in the end most of us want the same thing, a safer society for everyone.

Of course we have the radicals who are the outliers along the continuum. They often have frightening beliefs that become the face of each side. Sometimes we actually need them to draw attention to an issue, but then a bit more reasoning must ensue to come up with workable solutions. Sometimes the most radical among us are incredibly right and sounding an alarm that all of us need to hear whether we wish to or not. The important thing is to learn how to actively and critically listen to many points of view.

There are also people who are dangerous and we must learn how to differentiate between them and a young girl who is genuinely concerned about the future of our planet. I see people all the time comparing both democrats and republicans to Nazis. Of course such hyperbole does us little good, but we must be watchful for the real deals who are indeed among us spreading lies and propaganda and racist venom. Sometimes they are cloaked in religion or the American flag but if we listen carefully and watch their actions we soon realize that they are poison. 

There is so much noise and misinformation these days that it can be difficult to differentiate and determine who are the good guys and who is against all that is good in humanity. We have to be careful about living in a bubble that feels comfortable but does not provide us with all of the truths that we need to hear no matter how painful that may be. We have to be aware of how our own places on various continuums is influencing us to think and behave. If we only surround ourselves with likeminded people we become an echo chamber that reinforces even the ineffective and erroneous aspects of our thinking. 

I do my best to be open minded. It is very rare that I deem anyone to be all good or all bad. I am wary of followers who are unwilling to speak out whenever someone in power demonstrates malfeasance. I much prefer those who speak up when they see wrong doing even if it means losing something in the process. I look for courageous behavior wherever I can find it. There is no perfect leader but of late we have far too many imperfect ones who are being supported for all the wrong reasons without question.

If we don’t begin to admit to the complexities of every single challenge that we face, we are in deep trouble. If we can’t begin to genuinely attempt to hear one another we will become victims of an infinite loop of rancor. The next time someone says or does something that dismays you, don’t immediately argue with them. Take a deep breath and find out where they really stand. Don’t be thinking about how you will debate them. Hear them and then decide where you may share a common concern that might bring both of you to a point of real understanding. That’s when real solutions begin to unfold. 

Code Red

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A long time ago in a world that seems quaint and unreal I spent summers in Houston, Texas without air conditioning. There was a huge fan installed in the attic of our home that hummed away both day and night pulling air into the rooms through the open windows. We strategically created cross breezes to keep ourselves as cool as possible in the humid temperatures that often registered in the nineties during July and and August. I remember wearing shorts and sleeveless tops and being a bit jealous of my brothers who were able to walk around bare chested. Even as a child I got sweaty on those hot days, and the perspiration on my skin mixed with dust and dirt to form a kind of film on my neck that my mother called “grandma’s beads.”

My mother did not install an air conditioner in the house until I was in college. She only ran it when guests came to visit or at night as she became more concerned about keeping our windows wide open while we slept. It would be a few more years before she would move to another house that was fitted with central air conditioning, but even then she kept the thermostat so high that the temperature inside rarely fell below eighty degrees. 

The first home that I purchased had window units to provide air conditioning. They did only a fair job of keeping things cool. There were hot spots in certain places and areas that were freezing cold. We were on a strict budget in those days so I often attempted to emulate my mother’s saving techniques by eschewing the air conditioning during the day while my husband was at work, and only running it in the evenings so that we would be more comfortable as we slept. 

One summer my friend Linda and I decided to have a kind a contest to determine who could save the most energy and get the lowest utility bill. I knew that I was in trouble in that contest when I saw the lengths to which Linda had gone. She was cooking most of her meals outside on a grill and had set up a table for dining under a big tree in her backyard. I picked up a lot of conservation tricks from her, but soon enough had bowed to the heat and found myself using the air conditioning more and more often. Somehow I had lost the ability to bear the heat that had seemed so easy to do when I was a child.

By the time we finally installed central air conditioning in our house I was hooked on so many modern conveniences. I no longer sat mostly in the dark at night as my mother did in her quest to be frugal with her electricity use. I began to take the lights and appliances and huge utility bills for granted in ways that would have been upsetting to my mom whose frequent mantra was “turn that off and quit wasting electricity.” I rarely gave thought to my part of hurting our planet. In fact, it never even crossed my mind that I might be indulging in behaviors that were harmful to anyone or anything. I embraced a lifestyle of comfort that often raised my mama’s eyebrows as she quietly insisted that I might do well to be more circumspect in my use of energy and resources. 

I suppose that I first began to think about the environment when talk of global warming and rising seas became more than just chatter. I have to admit to being a bit dubious about the hyperbole that seemed to be associated with that movement, but over time the evidence that our world was in trouble began to mount. Things seemed to get especially bad in my own backyard as more and more heavy rain events flooded homes and businesses at a rate that I had never before seen. Even before the July 2017, arrival of hurricane Harvey I worried each time torrential downpours hovered over my city. The terrifying days and nights of nonstop precipitation from Harvey would become the face of climate changes and would awaken a realization in me that we all have to change our ways. 

The mounting evidence of our human folly is impossible to dismiss. We have unthinkingly attacked our environment with toxic emissions, fossil fuels, deforestation, pollution of waters. Instead of moderating our activities like my mother had done, we have almost thoughtlessly engaged in a proliferation of indulgence that is threatening the very existence of the planet on which we live. Instead of caring for our earth, we have all too often ravaged it as though it would just heal on its own. We have depleted our seas and our forests, and created so much garbage that we are running out of places to put it all. Now we are faced with the challenge of undoing the damage before it is too late, and I wonder if we have the wherewithal to take the measures that we need. 

Each of us can begin now to reconsider how to live. In my own case, if I were to better emulate my mother or the tricks I learned from Linda, I would be making a good start in contributing to the welfare of our planet. Sadly, even such measures will not be enough. We really do need to take steps that will surely be difficult, but that are necessary. It’s time to think about everything that we do and to consider a more sustainable lifestyle. It will mean changing habits that have become ingrained and accepting new possibilities. It will no doubt be a great challenge, but not impossible. I’ve survived heat and limited use of resources before. I am certain that I can do so again. Still I must do more than just that. The question is whether enough of us will be willing to join in the effort before it is too late. The warnings are here. I hope that we heed them or the future may be very uncomfortable and dark indeed whether we like it or not.

Creating Cuisine

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

My mother never let a scrap of food go to waste. Luckily she was a marvel at concocting wonderful recipes using whatever happened to be on hand. There were often times at the end of the month when the available fare was rather meager, but Mama somehow performed miracles and served us some of the best meals ever. 

I’ve been watching a documentary on Netflix called High On the Hog. It tells the history of enslaved people who brought seeds and knowledge of foods from Africa. Ultimately, they introduced foods like okra, gumbo, yams to the new world. The people were taken from their native country to perform hard labor in rice fields, on cotton plantations, and at building sites. They often had had to get creative with whatever food was given to them. In the process they learned how to make soups, stews, and other culinary innovations from the worst cuts of meat and leftover vegetables. They used their knowledge of cooking from back home and handed down those recipes from one family member to another. Over time, they introduced a distinctive cuisine that features some of the favorite dishes in America. 

It often amazes me how humans work so hard to create interesting menus from the items that are available to them. Like my mother they use new combinations of spices and sauces to change a recipe from bland to tasty. It takes a special talent to determine what combinations will create delicious flavors. 

My grandmother Minnie Bell did not read nor write. A cookbook was of no use to her. She learned to cook from watching and with an instinct for creating tasty combinations. She had some amazing techniques with vegetables and made the best pies I have ever eaten. Her style was pure country cooking because the ingredients she had were those that she was able to grow in her yard or gather from a hunting or fishing expedition. I still drool when I think of her greens and pinto beans, and like my mother she never wasted anything. She used the dregs to  make broths and soups and even created snacks like pork rinds. If anything was left over after that, she used it as fertilizer in her garden. 

We live in such a fast paced world that we depend way too much on ready made foods and items that take little of our time to cook. Those of us who work are tired at the end of the day, and the idea of having to spend time laboring over our meals is often unappealing, but I still know people who have turned cooking into an art. I wish I could say that I am one of them. 

I often call myself the “bean queen” because I can take any form of legume and turn it into a delightful feast. People really do enjoy my beans. I seem to have inherited my grandmother’s skill in turning them into something delightful. My secret is to always use the “trinity” of onion, celery and green pepper, but also to know exactly when to introduce those flavors to the mix. I cook my beans very slowly, starting with either vegetable or chicken broth along with a ham bone or ham hock, and then adding water over and over as the liquid boils away. I have to be patient and vigilant to end up with exactly the right flavor and consistency. Somehow it is one dish that I have mastered over time.

I also love to create soup from the leftovers that I have in my kitchen. I get quite creative when I try my hand at making a nice stew of vegetables and some bits of protein. I choose my spices depending on whether I am working with chicken or beef or pork or just vegetables. Again, I allow the flavors to slowly steep together, but I have to be very careful not to just end up with a pot of mush. The line between perfection and overcooking is very thin.

I suppose that I am best known for my gumbo, but I can’t take credit for the recipe. I have the benefit of literacy, and so I follow the direction for seafood gumbo from a cookbook that I purchased years ago at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I found a few problems with the concoction as described in the book, and so I’ve made a few changes. I add a bit more crab meat and am a more generous with the amount of shrimp that I use. I also add a bit more kick to the final product with spices. The real secret is in getting a dark roux without burning the thickening mixture. I’ve also learned to let the final product sit for a day or so before serving it to let all of the flavors come together.

Beyond that I would have to admit to being a very ordinary cook. Most of the time I have little desire to get fancy. In that regard I do not appear to enjoy the art of cooking like either my mother or grandmother did. It’s doubtful that I will ever be credited with creating something new like both of them were. I do, however, make a fabulous smoothy. I won’t give away my secret for that, but it is so yummy on a summer day, and rather healthy as well. I’d call it Sharron’s Summer Swirl. It’s the most original edible I’ve ever made.