The Year of the Helper

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We had an unusually cold Christmas weekend that was filled with sunny but frigid days. Most of us stayed warm in our heated homes decked out in holiday splendor. We celebrated the holiday with friends and family and so much joy. We exchanged gifts and sipped on eggnog while munching cookies and all kinds of goodies. There were gifts under the trees and abundance on our tables in spite of inflation and the recent difficult times that so many endured. Life was good for most of us, but I found myself thinking of people both far away and near who are suffering in this season while I enjoy the prosperity of good fortune. 

The hard freeze that brought out our coats and blankets reminded me of the souls that I often pass as they wander the streets untethered from homes and families. Many of them are ill both physically and mentally. They suffer from addictions that drove them from their families and their homes. They struggle to survive from one day to the next and most especially when the weather becomes frightful. They remind us that we do so little to help them with the mental maladies that leave them without direction. So often we simply look away, hoping to blunt the feelings that tell us they they deserve our compassion and help even as we struggle to know what to do for them. 

An ocean away the people of Ukraine are at war with a nation that invaded their land under the pretense of questionable claims. The souls there have fought valiantly to maintain their freedom and independence from an authoritarian super power. Much of their infrastructure is destroyed. Once quaint towns lie in ruins. Millions have no power, no heat, no safe homes. It would be easy to write off the war in Ukraine as none of our business, a situation that is sad but not worthy of our attention. Nonetheless the human suffering in that country deserves to be acknowledged and addressed. 

There is worry that the famine in Somalia will lead to starvation and death for many of the people. The grain that might normally feed the population is not as plentifully as it once was. The supply chain has been interrupted by the war in Ukraine and droughts in parts of the world that were once fertile and productive. The fate of the Somali people demonstrates the interdependence of the nations of the world. It points to our global relationships that require us all to understand that no place is an island that can afford to ignore the rest of the world.

The women of Afghanistan and Iran are being denied the human rights that those of us living in democracies often take for granted. We complain about our educational system while they are being forced to leave classrooms and languish in the isolation of their homes. Our daughters and female friends have the luxuries of learning and voicing opinions that are too often denied to our sisters around the globe. We women need to embrace and appreciate the opportunities that are so abundant for us and attempt to find ways to keep all women learning. 

Sometimes the troubles that surround and threaten our complacence can feel so overwhelming that we have a tendency to retreat inward rather than looking beyond our own comfort. We know that we cannot possibly solve every problem, save every person who is crying out for someone to help, but we can be more willing to begin meaningful dialogue in search of ways to lessen the suffering. Instead of seeing those in need as less than ourselves or somehow so broken that they should be judged and shunned perhaps we should attempt to consider that but for the grace of God we might find ourselves in their dire situations. 

The story of Jesus from the beginning of his life until his death points us to the conclusion that even the least among us deserve our compassion and understanding. We may be overwhelmed by the numbers who need our help, but if each of us made it a point to choose a cause and do something big or small to lessen the suffering we would no doubt change a life. 

Recently I heard an interview on NPR with a man who returned from service in the war in the Middle East with physical and mental wounds. He eased the pain that he was feeling with drugs and alcohol. His depression was so severe that he began to skip work and eventually lost his job. He fought with his family and literally ran away from them, first to live in a cheap apartment and eventually to find his home on the streets of Austin. He wandered aimlessly in a stupor and his health declined. 

A team of physicians, dentists and counselors formed an alliance to bring medical care to those living without shelter or direction. They found this man and diagnosed all of his needs. They provided medication and therapy for him. They found a room where he might sleep at night. When he became healthier they help him to find part time work. He is on the mend, clean and sober, spending more and more hours working and earning a living. The group found an apartment that he can afford. They visit him regularly to help him to maintain a positive direction. He is feeling better than he has in years and is hopeful of one day feeling normal again. 

As a new year dawns it would be wonderful if we would all resolve to help fight ignorance, hunger, disease and war wherever it exists on this earth. Find a cause and do something positive to help. When we all join in the battle against the plagues that destroy human souls everyone wins. Make 2023 the year of the helper, the time for persons who do something positive for the world.    

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Try It!

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I love the quiet of a cold winter morning. For most of my life I had to rush around to be at school or work by a certain time. I’d rise from my slumbers on command from my alarm clock to fumble my way in the darkness before the dawn. I often left the comfort of my home before the sun had arisen to get in line with cars moving slowing to different destinations. I’d eat my breakfast as I navigated my way and sip on caffeinated drinks to keep me alert. 

I missed so much in those days. I was controlled by schedules and calendars. The only time I seemed to have to relax was when I fell into bed exhausted each night. That’s when my mind would drift to dreams and anxieties. I’d think of how lovely it would be to hide away in a tiny cabin in the woods where I had no worries or demands to keep me moving from one task to another. I loved my life and my career, but sometimes I felt so tired. I was living on a treadmill from which there seemed to be no escape, no time to just do what I wanted to to do. 

Retirement has changed all of that. Ironically I am unable to sleep late as I had so often wanted to do. I still mostly arise before the sun has lit up the new day. I like being alone in the house while my husband and father-in-law are still slumbering. I make my breakfast and my tea and find a quiet spot to watch the sun coming up on the horizon. I listen to my neighbors leaving for work and school. I revel in the sounds of living and laughter. 

I appreciate my morning freedom the most when there is a chill in the air. I don my favorite sweater over my pajamas and slip my feet into my furry slippers. I sit and experience total contentment devoid of thoughts about any plans or duties that I may have. I find that sweet spot in my mind that slows my breathing and brings my blood pressure down. I think that this surely must be what real meditation feels like. I smile and think of dear friends who used to attempt to show me how to find inner contentment through prayer and quiet reflection. In those days I was never able to slow down enough to understand how wonderful such moments can be. 

I have more clarity now than ever before. I think of how we all seem to spend too much time racing from one task to another, one place to another. I tell myself that “the world is too much with us.” I understand the power of stopping to smell the roses. I rejoice that “I can see clearly now.” All of the so called cliches come to mind and I find them too be far more wise than I ever thought they might be. We humans are actually no so different from the millions of souls who have come before us. We think that our modernity has made us different, but in reality life is about surviving and thriving and finding ourselves. Our tendency is to tackle the world rather than surrender to it. 

Perhaps we would all be wise to find balance in the way we live. We are certainly wired to tackle problems rather than to simply ignore them. We have the ability to learn and to change and our natures are often competitive. Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to find moments that are ours alone, time to chill however that may feel best. For some it will be reading or listening to music. For others it will be praying. For me it is just sitting still and listening to the sounds around me, allowing myself the luxury of doing nothing but existing alongside the people and the creatures who are on this journey of life with me. 

Soon enough my household comes alive with discussions of tasks that must be accomplished in the new day. There may be surprises that demand my attention or the routines of uneventful days may simply proceed. Like people all over the world I will dutifully join the daily procession of life armed with a new resolve born from my brief moments of early morning reflection. I’ll slip into my work clothes and tackle challenges or simply enjoy the monotony of an ordinary day. 

Time passes quickly. I blinked and I was suddenly a grandmother with flecks of gray sparkling in my hair. I glanced at my friends and saw old people and wondered when they had become that way. My little grandchildren are tall and confident young adults. My daughters speak of preparing for retirement within a decade or two. The family refers to me as the matriarch, a title that still seems to belong to my mother or mother-in-law until I remember that they are no longer here. I realize that my time is waning and I must make the best of every minute. Those early morning musings become more and more important to me. 

I wish that I had listened to good friends who counseled me to take more time for myself when I was young. Stopping for a moment does not have to be a lengthy or complicated venture. We owe it to ourselves to find a way to still the noise, relax, look deeply into our souls each and every day of our lives. I suspect that if we made our meditations an uncompromised part of our daily routines we would have a much better outlook on life. Find a way to stop the madness of the world if only for a minute or two. It will make a difference that will bring a smile to your face and comfort to your heart. Try it! I think you will like it.  

A Brief Moment In Time

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Several years ago I spit into a tube and sent my saliva off to be analyzed for DNA. From that little bit of my essence I learned more about my probable ancestry and even found cousins that I never knew I had. I have become quite fascinated with stories of how DNA is solving crimes, identifying long lost individuals, explaining human mysteries. It’s a fascinating science that promises to explain much about the history of humankind and lead to better understanding of how and why each of us might react to disease. Somehow I can’t seem to get enough information about the progress of DNA studies and how they are demystifying many of the questions we have about our past, present and future.

Of late the news is exploding with reports of major breakthroughs in the analysis of ancient DNA from human and animal remains many thousands of years old. Scientists around the world are producing a whole new archeological tool called paleogenetics which is demonstrating the patterns of interaction between groups of people from four thousand years ago and explaining why some people died during the Black Plague while others survived. 

It’s all quite exciting to me and makes me wonder if one day my DNA profile might be even more detailed than it now is. Am I related to ancient neanderthals? Who were my most ancient ancestors and how has their DNA impacted mine? It’s all so very fascinating and makes me wish that I were young enough to return to college to learn how to become one of the researchers who will unlock the physical history of humans over time.

One group has identified the ancestry of human remains found in a construction site as Ashkenazi Jews all of whom were related. DNA dates the remains as being from around the year somewhere in the early 1100s, a time when there was a third Crusade to the Holy Land and Jews were being persecuted. The remains showed signs of violence leading the scientists to believe that this family was in all likelihood attacked and killed for their religious beliefs. 

Other studies of ancient DNA have found what may be one of the first persons to venture into the Americas by way of Asia and then across the Bering Strait. DNA has confirmed that bones found in a gravesite in Russia were indeed Czar Nicholas and his family. Our past is becoming clearer as we learn about the travels and habits of the early ancestors of humankind who intermarried and eventually evolved into homo sapiens. 

While I enjoy learning about such things, I also find myself thinking about how small my bit of time on this earth is in the grand scheme of things. I realize that I am but a speck in time, no more important than any of the people who came before me or will come after me. It puts bad days into perspective. I somehow think of those ancient souls and their feelings. They may not have had the book knowledge that I possess, but they had feelings and knew how to survive in ways that I have never had to understand. They had to be more inventive than I am as they wandered across the landscape searching for food and shelter from the elements. Their methods may have been primitive but they were nonetheless precursors to the brilliance of modern science and innovation that makes my life so much more comfortable than theirs. 

The DNA stories of these ancient people tell me that they were intelligent and creative, but that they also had to deal with danger and violence. Somehow we humans have forged ahead to make the world more comfortable with our houses and modern conveniences, but the element of danger from each other remains, particularly during recurring times of upheaval. 

Today there is war in Ukraine. Women are being persecuted in Iran and Afghanistan. The people of Somalia are starving. Despots abound across the globe. At a time when we should be celebrating peace on earth, goodwill toward our fellow humans we sometimes seem more divided than ever. We quibble over how to best live while getting nothing done to improve things. The kind of hate that killed those Jews from eleven centuries ago still exists in many hearts. Somehow we muddle along not knowing how to live together as a community of souls willing to look beyond our differences. We remain a combination of the best and worst aspects of our humanity, sometimes allowing our basest instincts to overtake us.

As a new year dawns it would be lovely if we might finally join hands in love, but history tells us that we still have an ugly side to our natures that rears its head over and over again. All we can do is resolve to be better one person at a time. I still believe we are getting there, but the work to bring peace to our earth is far from done. Understanding who we are and who we have been will lead us to better days as more and more of us realize that we are given only a brief moment in time to set things right. Time to get busy!

Walking a Tightrope

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As a teacher and later as a school administrator I often had the onerous task of judging a student’s innocence or guilt in a particular situation. Once culpability was clearly established I then had to decide what form of discipline was most appropriate. It was the most difficult aspect of my otherwise delightful career. Judging another person regardless of the situation is not something to be taken lightly by any of us and yet there are times when we must do so to maintain a semblance of order in a household, a classroom or a society. Determining how to react to an individual who has clearly done something wrong is never to be done rashly or without great consideration of the consequences of our decisions. 

When I was a child it was not uncommon for corporal punishment to be used both in homes and schools. It was not something that I experienced from either my mother or my father except for one instance when I admittedly and knowingly challenged my father who then gave me a swift swat on my backside. It was more of a reminder that when he asked me to do stop doing something that I knew was wrong, I needed to respectfully cease my bad behavior. I instantly got his point and never again felt audacious enough to taunt anyone the way I had done with him. From that point forward neither of my parents ever laid a hand on me. Instead they guided me by example and with words. 

Early in my teaching career the paddle was still in use in schools. I mostly took care of my students’ discipline inside the confines of my classroom but now and again something happened that I had to report to the principal. On those occasions I sometimes found myself having to mete out justice with a paddle as decided by school administrator. It was an oppressive task that I never felt comfortable doing. My strokes were so half-hearted that my students had to force themselves not to laugh. I’d talk with them later and somehow we quietly agreed not to do anything that would land us in the court of school justice again. I became known as one of those teachers who had control of my classroom without needing the assistance of the folks in the office. 

I was thrilled when corporal punishment was banned from schools. I may be in the minority on that issue but I never felt that spanking other people’s children did anything to improve their behavior or the environment of the school. Most of the time the worst rule breakers were already being brutalized at home and knew little about kindness and the effects of their actions on others. It was more often than not far more effective to counsel them and require them to think about the consequences of what they had done. I held them accountable without responding with the kind of physical abuse to which they had become immune. 

Still, there were always behaviors that could not be ignored nor simply accepted. Those were the toughest situations when the young people needed to face the consequences of hurting others with violence or theft or bringing drugs into the school. Such situations required the wisdom of Solomon from mere mortals like me who never quite knew whether or not the punishments were both fair and effective. 

These days we argue amongst ourselves about how to judge and decree punishments for the most criminal actions around us. We no longer draw and quarter the guilty nor do we display their heads on pikes until they rot, but we can’t seem to agree how how much justice is too much, and how much is not enough. The hardliners believe that there are no grey areas in meting out fair play while others prefer to err on the side of reformation rather than retribution. Somehow we have yet to find the sweet spot that leads to equitable punishment, but also creates positive changes in behavior. Perhaps we never will be able to control the bad elements of our society as effectively as we might wish.

It is a sad truth that we will always have violent and evil people in our midst. My early teaching experience tells me that whipping children early in their lives does not seem to work any better than counseling them in the ways of controlling their unlawful urges. We can make a difference in some cases, but the frustrating truth is that many people among us are so damaged that nothing we do seems to work to make them better. Sometimes holding them accountable boils down to removing them from our midst. The conundrum that we face is in knowing how to decide who must be locked away and how to effectively treat them once they are imprisoned.  

We have innocents who are rotting in prison cells and offenders who get away with their crimes. Our justice system is not always blind nor is it always fair, but it’s what we have and in most cases in the United States we do our best to get it right just as most families and schools also do. Our challenge is to be certain that nobody is above the law while also realizing that no one group should be unduly persecuted by the law. We humans still have a way to go in perfecting the way we deal with problematic behavior. We walk the tightrope of justice everyday and hope that our decisions will have the effect of bringing positive change. It’s a delicate and angst ridden balancing act.

Racing Through Another Year

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This was perhaps one of the fastest moving years in my life. I can’t quite explain why I feel that way, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that my husband and I spent the first five months driving back and forth from his father’s home while his father’s wife was growing weaker and weaker from her congestive heart failure. It was quite sad to watch two formerly vibrant people slowly fade while we also lost other family members and friends. Our plans to finally travel without restrictions were cancelled one by one as we realized that for the time being our duty was to care for the older members of our family. 

In late May my father-in-law’s wife died on the same day that he was being rushed into emergency surgery to save his own life. He made it through that ordeal but was so frail that he recovered quite slowly and then contracted Covid which compounded his health woes when he ended up on a ventilator. As he worked hard to reclaim his health in a rehabilitation facility we divided our time between fitting our home with equipment to facilitate my father-in-law’s needs and visiting him at the rehab center in an attempt to keep his spirit positive. Days, then weeks, were a blur when we finally looked at a calendar and saw that it was already the middle of July. 

Then came the transition for my father-in-law into a new lifestyle that involved bringing him to live in our home. It’s been an adjustment for us all with ups and downs and moments when life felt so very different and each of us struggled to define our new roles. Instead of our usual vacations my husband and I worked hard to create a routine that worked for three adults all of whom have distinct ideas about how life should be approached. Our focus on adapting that took us beyond September and well into the last months of the year. 

My father-in-law will be ninety four when April rolls around. He is a sweet man with a decidedly hard headed streak that is accepted by my incredibly flexible husband, but sometimes creates friction with my own bull headed insistence on being a very independent woman. He is from the old school where gentlemen opened doors for women and men took care of all decisions. I suspect that my boldness irritated him in the beginning, but at the age of seventy four I was not about to become meek and mild. Happily we have both finally managed to understand each other a bit more and accept the way we are without too much judgement. At least we have learned how to keep quiet about our differences and just let each other be who we are.

Leaving the house to teach my students three days a week has helped me to cope with my new reality much as school has always been my refuge from difficulties since I was a child. I am certain that it was also a good relief for my father-in-law that allowed him to be with his son without my constant presence. The two of them bonded over watching sporting events and making trips to check on my father-in-law’s home. September, October and November flew by and as those weeks passed my husband and I even managed to feel comfortable enough to leave his father for a few days to go camping in our trailer. Our three day sojourn alone revitalized us.

Twenty twenty two has been a year marked by the deaths of far too many people that we loved and illnesses of family members that have been frightening. Somehow all of it points to the fragility of life and the fact that each of us has a very limited time on this earth. I suppose that it has made me enjoy each moment more fully than I might otherwise have done. I’m finding that it takes very little to bring me great joy these days. Just being with people that I love is really all that I seem to need. 

As we head toward a new year I am thinking less about resolutions and more about just taking the time to appreciate the life that I have. I have learned in the days and months from 2020 until today just how incredibly fragile life is. I have said goodbye to far too many people who were so important to me to waste time quibbling over much of anything. I don’t get upset as much as I used to do. I have truly learned how to live in the moment and not worry so much about the future which may or may not pan out the way I have so often attempted to force it to do. I’m just happy with the mundane and if something exciting happens in the meantime it’s like a cherry on top of my good life. 

Some of my high school friends are planning a cruise in the spring. Aside from the fact that nothing seems to quell my seasickness even on calm waters, I am not quite ready to make plans that do not take my father-in-law and his needs into account. I suspect that we have to be careful about scheduling extended time away from him for now and that is actually okay with me. I’ve come to prefer our quiet days and the slow and gentle routine of our lives. This is quite different for me. I am generally a ball of energy ready to go, go, go. It feels good to be able to change, to become an old dog learning new tricks. It’s also nice to make a small sacrifice to insure that my father-in-law is safe and loved.

If I had one wish for the new year it would be for each of us to learn how to better understand and accept our differences, something I have had to do quite often during the past twelve months. It’s not always easy to compromise, but it’s a skill we should all learn how to better develop. The constant pull and tug and hatefulness that has defined politics and religion and philosophies of late has been brutal. Perhaps it’s time to call a truce and learn like my father-in-law and I have that we have the power to get along if we care enough about each other to embrace our diverse needs. If it can work with two stubborn souls like us, surely it can work for the world.