Be Linus

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For fifty-five years Linus has waited faithfully each October 31 in a pumpkin patch in hopes of finally seeing the Great Pumpkin rise into the air to deliver gifts to all the boys and girls. Since 1966, he has missed trick or treating with his friend, Charlie Brown and sister Lucy. He has not been able to attend Violet’s annual Halloween party. He has endured the taunts of the Peanuts crew for his insistence that the Great Pumpkin does exist and that one day he will she him come if only Linus can find the “most sincere” pumpkin patch in which to wait.

I have followed Linus’ exploits for all of those fifty-five years, first as a young girl living in my mother’s home. Then as a newlywed watching with my husband, I cheered for Linus. Later as a mother excitedly introducing Linus to my own little girls, I hoped that he would finally witness the miracle that he believed to be true. Eventually as a grandmother, I reminded my daughters to tune in to the annual showing of this traditional Halloween film. Finally, as someone who has grown old I still believe that Linus’ dream will one day come to fruition. 

I am a lover of fairytales. A cockeyed optimist who never gives up. I like the idea of someone so dedicated to a lovely idea that he or she is unwilling to suspend belief in possibilities. I am one of the persons who would love for resolutions to materialize quickly, but who understands that most problems are solved incrementally. Like Linus I possess infinite amounts of patience and determination. 

As an educator I learned that some processes take more time than others. I might have an eager, exceedingly brilliant student sitting at the front of the classroom who is capable of learning a year’s worth of Algebra in only weeks. Another seemingly uninterested soul languishing in the back may take three or four times longer to grasp concepts and gain enough confidence to believe that learning mathematics is possible. I always remained patient and hopeful for all of my students because I knew that with time each of them was capable of rising up and embracing the gift of knowledge. 

I look around today and I think that we would all do well to have some patience. We need to be willing to believe in one another and to wait for the gratification of our needs. The pandemic has stressed the normal supply chain all across the globe and our usually rapid “on time” ways of operating have slowed to a snail’s pace. The only fault of this situation lies in the impact of Covid-19 on all of humanity, not on any single person or entity. It is time for us to be patient and allow the system to get past the kinks and heal just as so many of us have had to do. Instead there seems to be a great deal of whining and wailing because we suddenly can’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, at the price we prefer to pay. We might instead think of Linus and chill just a bit in the belief that with time we will work this out.

Last March my husband and I ordered an item that is produced in Wisconsin. It is assembled with parts mostly produced in the United States, but a few of the key elements come from other places in the world. It usually takes about four to six weeks to create this machine and ship it to a particular area. Because of slowdowns when workers were becoming ill with Covid-19, we were told in March that it would more likely involve double that amount of time. Then came the message that so many people were finally spending money again and ordering things that we would need to add another month to the estimated time of delivery. Each time we have inquired, the ETA has been pushed farther and farther ahead on the calendar. It is now almost the end of October and there is no end in sight. 

This situation has nothing to do with lazy workers or strange trucking laws or the President of the United States. It is simply a result of two years of uncertainty as workers across the world dealt with Covid-19, often on a very personal level. All we can do is be patient. The company is doing its best build the machines as quickly as possible. The truck drivers are working hard. Everyone wants things to settle down and most certainly they will. Eventually we will catch up. We just all need to be flexible and adjust because all the finger pointing and whining in the world will not repair the damage that a tiny virus has inflicted on every aspect of lives across the globe. 

The way I see it is that I am still alive and doing well. I don’t need fine cuts of meat or fancy Christmas gifts or immediate gratification of my wishes to feel grateful. I appreciate those who are sacrificing time away from their families to service our desires. I know that they risk their own health in the work that they do. I am thankful that they are doing the very best to keep us supplied with as many of the items we use as possible. If something is missing or unavailable, my part in helping shall be to do without or find a substitute. Most of all I want to be Linus. I intend to  be patient.   


See the World For What It Really Is

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We had a bit of a storm last night. I awoke in the wee hours before dawn to flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder. For some silly reason as I lay on my pillow attempting to resume my slumbers, I thought about an old science lesson from my earliest school days. I remember following my teacher’s instructions to draw a couple of clouds on my paper and fill them with pluses and minuses to represent electrical charges. Then I drew a tree on the ground with a man standing next to it. The positive charges were at the tops of the clouds and the negative ones sunk to the bottom. The objects on the ground were positive. The teacher explained that lightning occurred when there was a need to create balance between the charges either within a single cloud, between two clouds or from a cloud to the ground. She warned us of the dangers of being the highest point on the ground during a thunderstorm, and then read us a story about Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with a set of keys tied to a kite that created a strike of lightning. It was all so fascinating back then and still is for me today. 

I’ve always like mathematics and processes that are logical, so the balancing of positive and negative charges that make the static electricity of lightning made perfect sense to me. I have forever been in awe of lightning storms but also wary of being outside while they are taking place. I don’t grinch whenever I’m told to leave a swimming pool or if a sport is temporarily halted until the danger of lightning is gone. I even started hikes to the tops of mountains well before the first signs of daylight so that I would arrive before the regular afternoon rainstorms that threatened those standing proudly on summits. 

When I was still a child a man named Johnny built a wonderful neighborhood grocery store at the corner of my street. I loved running down there with a dollar in my hands and a short list of items that my mother needed to create one of her yummy dinners. Johnny was a very nice man who knew everyone by name and watched over all of us as though he was our uncle. One day he was standing under a tree in his front yard when a stray bit of lightning came from nowhere and struck him to the ground. It was big story that made the front page of one of the local newspapers. Houston was still more small town than city back then, so the tale of a citizen’s brush with an electrical shock was big news. Johnny became even more of a celebrity in my little girl eyes. 

We often use lightning as a writing tool. It is a metaphor for something unlikely to happen. It can represent both good and bad luck. It sets a dark and foreboding mood. It is a kind of omen of evil. We attribute properties to lightning that are mystical and sometimes even satanic, when in reality it is nothing more than a very natural occurrence. It is a way of keeping balance in the atmosphere. We should respect its power but with the right precautions it is unlikely to harm us the way that we may fear. 

It seems as though we all too often ignore the actual science of the natural world around us and attempt to force our own beliefs and concerns onto a situation, particularly when we don’t like the inconvenient truths of reality. We humans have cast some very strange ideas onto the workings of the world throughout history resulting in stories of witches and the condemnation of a brilliant man who understood that the earth is not at the center of the universe. We gazed across the horizon and thought that our earth was flat. Even as humans began to sail around the oceans without dropping off into an abyss we still had those who would not accept that maybe our planet was actually round. To this very day we have people in our midst who are unwilling to believe many of the discoveries of science. They cling to their own limited and misguided beliefs in spite of mounting evidence that they are wrong. 

I marvel at those with minds so great that they determine how things work. Chemistry is like music to me. Biology is miraculous. Physics takes my breath away. I think of trailblazers in science and medicine like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. I remember how inventive Benjamin Franklin actually was, so when I visited a museum dedicated to his remarkable life I was enthralled by his inventiveness and both his physical and mental prowess. Little wonder that he was a world renowned personality who was a favorite in the French court. He was an incredibly accomplished man. 

Science is at the forefront of new frontiers in living. We don’t have to accept every single finding that comes from that world but the scientific method along with the scientific community have rules in place that ultimately determine the veracity of discoveries and claims. Science is built on evidence, proof, not just hopeful beliefs. Good theories grow from slow, deliberate processes. There is a beautiful diplomacy that exists between researchers of the world who share information and expose hoaxes. Science is honest and rational, and we would all do well to learn more about it rather than blindly accepting the word of charlatans who pass rumors over the backyard fence. 

Benjamin Franklin was one of our Founding Fathers, but he was so much more. His little kite experiment should demonstrate our own need to learn the truth of how things really work. A bit of time reading about climate change, vaccines, alternative energies, worlds of the future might be the best way to understand how our own behaviors are impacting the world. Conspiracy theories have littered the pages of history all to no avail while pioneers like Ben Franklin have brought us the kind of knowledge that is the true mark of freedom. Listen and learn about science. Know that lightning occurs for a reason that is devoid of ill intent. See the world for what it really is.

Developing A Growth Mindset

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I have always believed that learning is a lifelong journey. There is no fixed time period that works universally to keep our minds strong and healthy. Just as with our bodies, our brains need constant exercise. Failing to keep active results in entropy and a mindset that is unwilling to grow and change with the times and needs of the world. 

I remember reading a story about Michael Jordan from years ago. When he was in middle school he was not regarded as a particularly good basketball player. Rather than simply accepting that he might never make a team, he set out to improve his skills through practice and hard work. He followed this kind of regimen to the very end of his career, repeating moves over and over again until his muscle memory reacted instantly. With his growth mindset he became a legendary player.

Many of us grumble that we are not very talented at this or that. As a mathematics teacher I have often heard people assert that they are just not good with numbers. My colleagues in the English department had students claim that they would never be great at writing. Such ideas indicate a fixed mindset, a belief that we are each somehow born with certain talents or not. This theory of life is based on the erroneous idea that there is little use in pursuing certain skills or ways of thinking because we do not possess the inborn abilities to do them well. If Michael Jordan had believed this, we would never had heard of him. 

A growth mindset leads to more well rounded individuals. The idea behind this theory is that any of us can learn any new skills if we are willing to put in the time and effort to master them. We may develop at different paces, but with determination we can achieve much more than we may have originally thought. 

I am reminded of one of my former students who was rather exceptional in mathematics but struggled with the art of writing. He was convinced that freshman English in college would be his downfall. Luckily he encountered a professor who adhered to the idea of the growth mindset. The educator worked with my student one step at a time, helping him to learn how to improve his writing skills slowly but surely one sentence at a time. By the end of the semester my former student was truly amazed at how much better his essays and presentations had become. With the teacher’s patience and helpfulness and my student’s willingness to practice, practice, practice a new confident writer was born. 

We all too often categorize ourselves as athletic or non-athletic, mathematical or not, literate or not so much. We give up before we even try to change our thinking about ourselves and the world itself. When someone approaches us with new ideas or theories we too often recoil and refute before we have even studied what they have to offer. We cling to what is comfortable and easy rather than challenging our own thinking. We avoid changes that force us to push ourselves into new frontiers. 

Much of the trouble that we see in the world today comes from a majority of fixed mindsets rather than growth mindsets. We do not question things that would require us to do some research and analysis. We cringe at the thought of adjusting the ways in which we have always done things, even if there are signs that it is time to change. We want to be left alone to simply accept the status quo. Learning about our true history or the realities of science is tiring and we are already weary. It’s easier just to be naysayers and reject new ways of doing things. Our fixed mindsets ignore the need for the inevitable flow of progress that is so much a part of history until events push us into action. Thinking ahead can be too hard. We tell ourselves that we just can’t consider about such things because it stresses our brains too much. Learning is often draining, so we too often stop when we should keep going. 

I exercise my body on most days. I don’t enjoy it. My joints are riddled with arthritis and it hurts more than it once did to maintain my mobility and strength. I push myself because I understand that just sitting around may feel more comfortable, but it will most assuredly hasten the breakdown of my health. The same is true of my mind. If I let my reading and writing and ciphering go, my brain will begin to grow into mush as I age. I may also be unwilling to accept truths about science, climate, our human history if I stop thinking. Doing that affects how I vote and whom I support in elections. Ultimately it has an impact on my state and my nation that may be bad for all of us. It’s important that we each work hard to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible. A growth mindset encourages us to keep working with determination even as we may believe that we have reached our limits. A healthy nation requires citizens who are willing to push themselves to truly understand the truth of what we need as a community. 

If we were to overhaul our educational system and our society in a productive way we would adopt a growth mindset all around. Growth should be never ending. it must be a daily goal in which we are willing to feel the burn in our bodies and minds. Our personal and national health depends on it. 

Serotonin Coursing In My Brain

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Every year in October the Houston Garden Society hosts a Bulb and Plant Mart. I’ve gone to each event since I retired from working full time. Last year was somewhat dreary because COVID-19 was raging, and so the gala consisted only of picking up pre-orders on a gray and rainy day. This year things were better. The sun was out. Many people were vaccinated. Cases of COVID-19 were down in Houston. Thus there was a green light for celebrating the event in all its usual glory. 

The Houston Bulb and Plant Mart is one of my favorite days of the year. It has changed locales over time, but of late it has been held at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church. Vendors offer all sorts of plants known to do well in Houston’s gumbo soil and humid climate. They have entire areas of ferns of every variety and plants that attract butterflies. They feature native plants that grow and multiply naturally without any effort. There is one of the best selections of herbs that I have ever seen. Best of all are the many kinds of bulbs like daffodils, irises, ranunculus, and amaryllis. 

I began purchasing amaryllis bulbs since ten years ago. They tend to be rather expensive, so I can only afford two or three a year. I have planted them along the fence line in my backyard and each spring they burst forth in all their glory. It literally makes me smile to think of how lovely they will be when March and April come around, no matter how cold it has been or how little or how much it has rained. They faithfully burst forth in blooms of red, pink, orange and white. 

I’ve also enjoyed irises from the market that I plant in the wet areas of my yard. Most are native to Louisiana and they thrive in a shaded and damp environment. They are as regal when they bloom as orchids but they take little or no work on my part to grow. They also spread over time, so one plant can lead to a profusion of blooms. 

I also have a penchant for ferns, as does my husband. My love of ferns began with a plant that a friend gave me when my second child was born. From that one gift I filled my backyard and many pots with a hardy fern that came from New Orleans. When I moved I did not think to dig up some of my beauties and bring them to my new home, but that same friend made a trip to New Orleans to get me some more. I now have two huge pots of the delicate fronds that will need to be divided next spring. I love those plants not just because they are so lovely, but also because they came from an act of kindness and thoughtfulness from mydear Linda. 

This year at the Bulb and Plant Mart I purchased more amaryllis bulbs, three new kinds of fern, some more iris bulbs and a wonderful angel leaf begonia. I will be planting for days which is enchanting to me. I literally feel the serotonin of happiness pulsing through my brain whenever I am working among my plants. Plunging my hands in the soil to position my bulbs feels like heaven. Being one with the earth is a fabulous. 

I’ve often thought of actually joining the Houston Garden Club, but I don’t have enough time to get all of my writing and teaching and  sewing and gardening and traveling done as it is. I would have to give something up and right now I can’t think of what that might be. Still, I like the sort of people who hang around plants just as much as I do those who hike in the mountains or camp under the stars. I feel a kinship with them. Plants bring us together at least once every year in October. On that day nobody is a stranger and smiles abound even if they are hidden behind masks and only seen in the twinkling of eyes. 

I joked with one of the ladies this year that I was becoming my grandmothers. Both of them spent time everyday puttering in their gardens. They kept rain barrels and created compost heaps to nurture their flowers and trees and vegetables. They wore rubber boots as they trudged around the yard with floppy hats protecting them from the sun. They were always so happy in their little Edens. I always loved seeing them there but I never dreamed that I would one day share their passion for growing things. 

October warns me to prepare for winter. I clear a place in my garage to store my plumerias and my orchid plant. I watch the weather reports carefully so that I know when I must move all of my fragile potted plants inside the warmth of my kitchen. I have plant blankets to cover my citrus and my least cold hardy varieties. I care for my beauties the way I would a special pet. 

The Bulb and Plant Mart reminds me to get ready for Old Man Winter and it is always as wonderful as usual. This year they even had a section housing a lovely kind of garage sale. There were wooden chests, table linens, wooden desk sets, crystal and china. As I have noted before I have so much of that sort of thing that I dared not bring anything else into my home, but I surely enjoyed window shopping and admiring what was there. 

I’ll be back at the Plant and Bulb Mart again next year if all goes well. It’s one of those glorious events that, for me, are just as wonderful as Christmas and even better than Halloween.   

The Greatest of All Time

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So Houstonians are feeling rather good today. Our Astros have overcome the jeers and hateful comments to become the American League champions headed to the World Series. There is great joy in H Town, Clutch City, Space City or whatever you wish to call the place where I was born. There’s even more in my heart because I happen to know that there was never a more faithful and loyal Astros fan than my mother. 

Mama was never much of a sports fan for any team other than the Texas A&M University Aggies when I was a child. She’d listen to all of their football games on the radio with my father and his Aggie buddies. She’d tell stories of watching the team practice for games and then running to the train station to meet them after away games. She knew all the cheers and school songs and engrained them into our little minds even long after my father had died. I can still see her humped over singing the spirit of Aggieland or the Aggie War Hymn.

In the midst of Mama’s dedication to Texas A&M along came the Houston Astros. (Of course the real story is that they began as the Colt 45s and she was already hooked on them before the big name change.) Back then the Houston boys of summer played in the Astrodome and Mama had a friend with connections who invited to many of the games. Mostly though my mother listened to the play by play of the competitions on the radio or watched them when they occasionally appeared on television. She literally planned her life around those games, never failing to tune in to a single one year after year after year from the nineteen sixties to two thousand eleven when she left this earth.

Mama collected baseball cards and knew all of the statistics of the Astros players. She would lie in her bedroom listening to Mylo Hamilton describe each play, shouting with joy over each hit, home run, or perfect pitch. Of course she wanted the Astros to win but her loyalty to the team did not depend on success. She stuck with them even in the times when they had a hundred losses and they looked more like a little league team than a group of professionals. 

My mom puffed out with pride when her youngest grandson Ryan was named after one of her favorite players, Nolan Ryan. It almost seemed as though Ryan was born with orange blood in his veins and he and mama shared a special kinship over their love of the Astros. The two of them would talk baseball shop in a way that none of the rest of family mastered. 

My mother rarely saw an Astros game in person. Her budget never quite stretched far enough to purchase the tickets which slowly became more and more expensive. Now and again members of the family would an extra ticket and invite her along. The last time she was at the stadium in person she had a difficult time walking the long distance to her seat so we all knew that she would probably never be able attend a game with the joy and roar of the crowd ever again. 

It did not really matter to Mama that she was stuck at home listening to the games unfold. In fact she enjoyed her favorite past time. She had grown up listening to the radio in the thirties and forties. She knew how to imagine the sights of the ballpark inside her mind. When she came to live with me in the last year and a half of her life she would often retire to her room upstairs, lie on the bed and listen to the games. We would hear her shouting with joy over a home run or a really good play. 

She never invited us to join her. I think that listening to the Astros was her special thing, something that she loved to do more than anything else. She did not want to be distracted. This was serious business even as it was so much fun for her. It delighted me to know that she was finding so much joy from the simple pleasure of following the Astros season after season. 

eMy mother died from lung cancer in June of 2011. One of my brothers and I rushed her the the St. Luke’s Hospital emergency room one evening when she appeared to be having trouble breathing and staying awake. Her oxygen level was extremely low and she was on the verge of dying. We agreed to placed her on a ventilator long enough to determine what might be done to save her as well as to give members of the family time to come see her for what might be the last time. 

rWe had gathered around Mama in the ICU when Ryan arrived. Somehow his entrance jogged her memory and she realized that the Astros were playing a game on television that day. She could not talk with the ventilator, but she was using her own version of sign language to communicate with us. She pretended to pitch a baseball and then pointed to the t.v. in the room. Ryan instantly understood and turned on the game. Her eyes smiled as she and Ryan watched the action for what would be her final game. She died only a few hours later. 

My mother would be so excited on the ultimate success of the Astros. She might have been disappointed when they were accused of cheating, but they were always her boys and like any mother she would have loved them in spite of their transgressions. She would have been happy that they got a wonderful manager like Dusty Baker and that they were willing work their way back to the top again. I’d like to think that she was watching them play from heaven last Friday when they won the American League Championship and maybe even cheering along with Mylo Hamilton. The Astros and the rest of Houston may not know it, but with a doubt as Astros fans go she was the Greatest of All Time. Holy Toledo, they need to have her name in the fan Hall of fame.