Just Keep Dancing

Photo by Wesley Davi on Pexels.com

A have a Facebook friend who entertains us daily with stories of her recent move to a farm. She particularly enjoys thrilling us with tales of the exploits of her chickens and their rooster, Batman. I get a kick out of reading her posts because they are so well written and upbeat. I truly believe that her daily updates on “Cluckingham Palace” are the stuff of a best selling book. She has a way of creating joy out of life’s ordinary irritations that sometimes make us fret. Today she posted a meme that spoke to me in a most personal way, “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.” That little quote sent me back to a memory that has stuck with me for decades. 

I had enrolled my five year old daughter in a dance class and she seemed to enjoy the experience of learning different steps and routines. She was an exceedingly shy little girl, but somehow when the music started she forgot her inhibitions. It delighted me to see her so happy and excited about an upcoming recital. She and her fellow dancers were learning to sing and dance to a song called “Tattletale Duck.” I had the task of putting together her costume by fashioning a little skirt out of yellow toile. Both of us worked hard in the days before the big show.

On the night of the recital my daughter looked adorable all decked out in yellow, complete with a feathery tuft pinned to her hair. The sweet little troupe of girls did indeed look like a flock of ducklings as they walked on stage and waited for the music to begin. After the first note they were as precious as can possibly be with their tiny voices chanting the little tune and their feet shuffling and turning out of unison more often than not. All eyes were on whichever little girl they had come to see. 

My daughter was perfection. A smile lit up her face as she danced with the precision of a Rockette. Then, just as the routine drew to a close, disaster struck. The fastener on her yellow tutu came apart and the skirt fell around her ankles. I was mortified that my seamstress skills had failed so miserably in the height of the moment. Nonetheless, without changing her enchanting expression or missing a beat, my girl gracefully stepped out of the circle of netting and completed the routine. When the music stopped and the girls began to exit the stage she bent down as though continuing the dance, picked up the fallen garment and then raised it into the air with a flourish and then a bow. The whole audience went wild with applause. 

That moment seemed to define the grit that my daughter would continue to exhibit in difficult times. Behind her quiet exterior was a strength that would come out whenever life hurled hardships her way. She continued to dance and charm audiences all the way through her high school years. She accepted challenges again and again, always finding ways to make her most difficult moments part of the dance. Even as she headed to college she was willing to stretch her mind with courses that pushed her beyond her comfort zone. Over the years she would face difficulties with the same determination and creative spirit that she demonstrated as a five year old dancer. 

Life is rarely easy for any of us, but some people appear to be more adept at creating joy out of even the most horrific circumstances. None among us have never stumbled and felt that horrible feeling of looking foolish. The greatest in our midst have a way of making those ghastly moments part of the dance. They smile through the hardships and gracefully keep in step. They understand that the choreography of life is not about a single moment but is instead an entire routine that continues right up to our final bows.

Happiness and sense of self confidence comes from somewhere deep inside our souls. Some of us can bring laughter from stories of chickens. Others dance their way through the ups and downs. None of us are immune to feeling as broken as the tutu that fell to my daughter’s ankles. Something snaps and we don’t feel that we have effectively done our jobs. That’s the moment when we choose whether to just lie on the ground defeated or become a flash of loveliness waving in the air, resurrected from the ashes. 

If you are feeling down or broken or defeated it may sound trite to suggest that you just keep dancing, but what else is there to do? Think of that little girl in her yellow leotard shuffling her way to the end of the routine. Sometimes it’s the best we can do. 


Fifteen Minute Cities

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

Evidently there is a group that is advocating a planet saving idea known as “the fifteen minute city.” The idea is that everyone within an urban area would have access to most of the businesses that they might need for day to day living. This is a topic that I have considered from time to time. In fact, I have had long conversations about such an idea with friends, particularly when my mother was still alive and struggling to find the services that she needed near her home. 

When I was growing up I lived in a little neighborhood near one the the airports in the city of Houston. There was a little grocery store located at the end of my street that my family often frequented. I walked to my school on most days, sometimes even in the rain with the aid of a raincoat and umbrella. While we mostly drove to church we might just as well have walked there on a sunny day because it was only a few blocks away from our house. We had several little restaurants nearby and even a bowling alley just a couple of minutes away. In fact, there was a bit of everything available to us. We had barber shops and beauty salons, a great family owned pharmacy with a grill and gift shop, a mobile library and a lovely park. There were even doctors working in little clinics nearby. If we wanted a bit more adventure there was a large mall with movie theaters and every imaginable kind of store about fifteen minutes away. We literally lived in a kind of village before anyone ever thought of The Villages in Florida. 

Sadly that old neighborhood has become a kind of urban desert. The schools and churches are still there but little else. People living there have to travel longer distances to find the kind of conveniences that we took for granted back when I was growing up. Such is true of many of the older neighborhoods, including the one where my husband enjoyed his own childhood adventures. All too often those who live in the more depressed areas of town have to travel rather far to find what they need, even as they are the most likely to have a deficit of transportation. Low income areas are all too often abandoned, leaving those who live there to fend for themselves. 

I have moved farther from the center of Houston into a suburban area that offers me the same kind of amenities that I enjoyed as a child. The only difference is that the area that is my home base is larger than the more compact neighborhood of my youth. When I was young I knew almost everyone who lived in our enclave. Today I am only familiar with a few people here and there. The old idea of the friendly neighborhood is suffering a bit. Luckily our cul de sac is a little haven that celebrates together throughout the year and looks after each other every day. 

Some of my doctors travel once a week to a clinic that is about three minutes away from my home, but my church is probably thirty minutes away. Most of the time, however, I could probably get along doing everything I need to do on an electric golf cart if there were designated areas to drive one to and fro. There would be little reason for me to ever go more than fifteen minutes away unless I wanted to attend a ballgame or concert or drive to see friends in other areas. 

Some folks have responded to the idea of the fifteen minute neighborhood with anger. They seem to think that the idea is designed to limit their possibilities when it would actually make life much easier if we did not have to constantly drive far from home in heavy traffic to service our needs. I for one applaud the idea of creating centers of commerce and entertainment all over the city and most especially in the most forgotten neighborhoods.

I had a friend who was from Germany. He truly enjoyed his life in the United States but often spoke fondly of his parents’ lifestyle. They lived in Bremen where they truly had a “fifteen minute city.” Everything they needed was close by, including mass transportation. They only owned a car for vacationing or enjoying weekends in the countryside. My friend never quite understood why there are so many cities in the United States were vast numbers of people have little or no infrastructure for obtaining food, entertainment or medical care. He spoke of how few worries about such things his parents had and wondered why we had not created communities that considered the needs of the residents, regardless of their income levels.

I like my own “fifteen minute city.” I have all that I need close by. I often think of purchasing an electric car which would ultimately get me anywhere I need to go without the worry of gasoline. I would rarely worry about running out of a charge because I don’t have to travel long distances most of the time. I suspect that as we adapt to the future we will be changing many of our ways. Building “fifteen minute cities” may be a good start.  

The Storm

Tropical Storm Yagi in the North Pacific Ocean by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some have yachts. Some have canoes and some are drowning.”

Now and again I see a quote that captures my thoughts and this is definitely one of them. Life is a journey, a grand adventure if you will. There are times when everything seems wonderful and others that are filled with sorrow and even terror. From day to day, moment to moment we never quite know what challenges will come our way, nor how we will be left to face them. Even with our most cautious planning for tragedies, we may find ourselves thrashing in violent waves determined to make us drown. Depending on where we were born and who were our parents we will have vastly different resources to keep us afloat. Presuming that we actually know how someone is feeling in the face of difficulties is one of the most thoughtless things that we might do.

I vividly remember hurricane Harvey pounding my little cul de sac relentlessly. The rain never ceased for days, not even for a moment. My husband was recovering from a mild stroke and doctors had told us that the probability of another stroke event was highest in the first weeks after the initial event. I was terrified that he might need quick medical care in a time when it would be difficult, if not impossible to transport him to an emergency room. I don’t think that I slept for more than an hour or two until the storm had finally moved away from our area. 

I was glued to my laptop during those awful times, hoping to garner some news and clinging to long distance support from friends and even strangers on social media. I hid my own fears because friends and family members were reporting their own frightening stories of water filling their homes and last minute escapes from the rising tides in chest high rivers that suddenly roared through their neighborhoods. I was terrified and concerned for them and knew that, at least for the moment, my own troubles were minimal compared to theirs. 

I noticed a number of people reassuring each other with comments about how God had spared them the worst of the storm. They praised Him for keeping safe watch over them. I understood their feelings because they were parallel with my own, but then I saw a post from someone describing how cruel it felt to have their friends celebrating God’s goodness while they were refugees from their water logged homes. They begged the people they knew to be more careful in how they worded their good fortune lest it sound as though only the chosen few favorites of God were entitled to His protection. I realized that I too had been guilty of such words without realizing how much worse they made the fates of the unlucky souls whose lives had been upended so brutally. I saw that we were all in the same storm, but our boats, or lack of them, were quite different. Instead I began to privately be thankful for my good luck. 

Since that time I have seen the metaphor of surviving a raging storm many times over. I see the cruelty in assuming that I understand how someone is feeling in the midst of tragedy. I know that my friend whose son was murdered does not feel better upon hearing my own views of how he should move past his great loss. The unexpected journey that he is enduring is incomprehensible to most of us. All we can do is love him and allow him to react in the ways that work for him without bombarding him with platitudes. It’s difficult to walk in his shoes. We only are able to imagine how such a tragedy might impact us, but we will never really know what kind of boat will carry him or us to still waters and safety once again. 

I’ve had some trials lately. When I begin to linger in a pity party for my situation I often think of worse places that I might be. I’m not in a town being ravaged by war. My life has not collapsed in an earthquake. I am not a wandering refugee hoping to find compassion and safety in a strange land. I am simply experiencing a squall and I have a sturdy boat to keep me safe for now. It’s just a matter of time until the sun shines again and even if the changes wrought by the dreary weather are not to my liking, I feel certain that I will be able to adjust to them. I only have to reach out to family and friends and all will be fine. 

Some people in the world are right now enduring unspeakable horrors. The only difference between their situations and mine is the luck of birth. Through no effort of my own, I came to be in a free and wealthy country. I was the child of loving and bright parents. Even with the ups and downs of losing my father at a young age, I was surrounded by family and friends who never failed to pull me from moments of near drowning. I did nothing to deserve such good fortune. By the luck of the draw I came to be in a safe and loving place. 

We all have the same needs the world over, but some people are challenged with uncertainty for all of their lives. They don’t even have a boat when the storms come their way. They have to know how to swim or they will drown. They hope that along the way they will encounter enough kindness to keep them from sinking into the abyss. 

I try to remember to be that person who reaches out from my own boat to help those who did not have the same good fortune that I have. I do my best to be kind and understanding. I no longer assume that I am somehow more deserving of my place in the world than anyone else. Even on the worst of days I have a steady boat, but I know that even an ocean liner can sink given the right circumstances. I try to remember this and be grateful for what I have and then share more with those reaching up from the water. 

The Runner

He caught the Covid virus early in the game, long before the vaccines became available. He was young and seemed to sail through his illness with few of the most frightening symptoms. He was an exceedingly healthy athlete, so nobody worried much about how he might react to being ill. It was only 2020, and the entire world was still attempting to adjust a pandemic that would ultimately affect virtually everyone on earth in one way or another. 

He managed to continue his schooling remotely. It wasn’t a great way to spend his senior year of high school, but at least he would be able to graduate on time. He was a runner and a swimmer whose competitions and practices were in limbo. All of the years he had spent working toward what should have been his penultimate year were upended. He was on his own for keeping in shape. Running through his neighborhood was his only avenue of exercise for a very long time. It would be the spring of 2021 before his world began to feel a bit more normal, but even then there were restrictions that changed the traditions of his waning high school years. Being an optimist he looked forward to college and celebrated his recruitment to the cross country and track teams of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. By hook and crook he did his best to stay healthy and fit.

His first year in college sports was disappointing. He had trouble with his breathing. As an endurance runner it baffled him that he would lose steam as he neared the end of a race gulping for air. It was so unlike anything he had ever before experienced. Then he sustained an injury that slowed him even more. The young athlete who had once run like a gazelle was hobbled with pain and breathless moments. He too often found himself at the end of the pack of runners. 

He kept his optimism and his champion’s heart. He did what was needed to slowly heal. It was like taking baby steps as he continued his forward progress, improving his times by decimals. It was frustrating, challenging. Sometimes he felt as though someone had punched the air out of his lungs, but he kept practicing, strengthening, working on every aspect of his technique with optimism and determination. He celebrated the victories of his teammates and the tiniest signs of his own improvement. 

Spring of 2023 came. It had been three years since Covid had interrupted his running prowess. Three years since he had run miles and kicked ahead of of a pack of runners to place in the top. A lesser soul might have simply given in to the pain and sometimes weakness of his body, but he was determined to set things right. He adopted an attitude of making his journey fun. He wanted to race because it made him happy. It was something he loved to do even if it meant being an unsung hero on the team. 

This spring he began to resemble the runner he had once been. He raced at Texas Tech University and the University of Houston and did not place, but looked like someone with the potential to do so. He was no longer sucking for air at the back of the runners. He had moved up to a place where he had the potential to use his famous kick and overtake the other competitors. His beautiful stride had returned. His injuries no longer seemed to plague him. It was a wonderful transformation to witness. 

Then came what he would call “the funnest race” he had ever run. It was a steeplechase that required him to vault over hurdles and run through puddles of water for almost two miles. He kept up with the front half of the group for the first five laps around the track and then he began to make his classic moves. He overtook one runner and then another until he was on the heels of the second place competitor. The distance between the two of them was only three seconds. He had emerged as a champion once again. His breathing was strong. His body felt better than it had since 2020 when everything about it seemed to change and fail him. He came in third behind two runners who had been state and national champions the year before. He was elated. 

I like to think of that runner as an example for all of us. Instead of whining or complaining about what the virus known as Covid had done to him, he kept adjusting as he moved toward his goals. He was patient, hardworking, determined, willing to tackle setbacks with a smile. He never lost his optimism or his good humor. He did not wallow in self pity when his lungs would play out in the middle of a race, or his shin splints would cripple him. He helped his body to heal one day at a time. Little by little he regained the abilities that had seemed to be stolen by the pandemic. 

We would all do well to spend less time complaining and blaming when things don’t go exactly as we wish. Instead we would benefit from taking up our lives and setting small goals that ultimately lead to bigger ones. We don’t have to constantly act like victims. We can take charge and improve ourselves no matter where we presently are in life. It is in our attitudes and day to day sacrifices that we will find the progress that we want to see. Start today and stick with your plan one small step at a time. Before you know it, you too will be a winner. Don’t ever give up on yourself.

Move Forward Again

It was an October day in 1971. I was at home with my one year old daughter while my husband was at work. Our apartment faced Interstate 45, so I became concerned when I heard an almost continuous wailing of sirens along the highway. As I stepped outside I witnessed a long string of firetrucks and emergency vehicles racing toward the south. I knew that something terrible must have happened, so I went back inside and turned on my television. I learned that a train had derailed along Mykawa Road and that there had been an explosion. 

I stayed tune for more details. My interest was more than just vicarious. I had grown up only a block or so from the train tracks that ran along Mykawa. Many a night the sound of cars rumbling along the metal tracks lulled me to sleep. I had crossed those iron roads and walked alongside them hundreds of times. My mother and two brothers still lived near them. I needed to know if they were in danger. 

I was only slightly relieved when I heard that the accident had occurred a few miles south of my family’s home at a rail yard on Almeda Genoa. There was talk of unknown hazardous chemicals burning and filling the air. I worried that winds might carry the toxic fumes north to my family. The reporters mentioned the concern of the firefighters who had no idea what they were battling because the contents of railcars were not labeled back then. 

The scene was chaotic as film crews covered the incident live and civilians gathered to see what was happening. The firefighters were blindly doing their jobs with little thought of what kind of chemicals might have caused the explosion and fires that had resulted in the train yard devolving into a state of chaos. One firefighters was engulfed in flames and another had died with the impact of the explosion. Little did anyone know how dangerous the environment actually was as fumes from vinyl chloride and butadiene filled the air. Ultimately there was only one death, but thirty seven people were injured. 

The horrific incident was one of the worst train accidents in Houston’s history. Eventually it prompted the passing of legislation requiring companies to label the hazardous material contents of every car. Those strange looking letters on the sides of railcars and tankers instantly alert first responders to potential hazards that they might encounter. All firefighters now also undergo hazmat training and in most cities have special Hazmat units. The Houston Fire Department learned from that disaster and would later incorporate improved safety measures deemed necessary after other incidents that indicated a need for even more caution. 

I don’t recall anyone coming from Washington D.C. to reassure the citizens of Houston who lived near the tragic accident of 1971. Nobody made the incident a political cudgel. Instead the powers that be understood that additional precautions were needed for the future and passed the necessary legislation to fix the problem. It was a bipartisan effort, not one designed to grandstand for votes. It was all done quietly and without rancor. Then life moved forward. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I read about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. My understanding is that the reason for the accident had to deal with braking systems on trains. Evidently stricter requirements became law during the Obama administration, but they were rescinded during the Trump administration when Railroad companies complained. Now the issue is a political football when all that is necessary is for legislators to admit that the stricter rules were no doubt needed. It should take little discussion or effort to put them back into effect with appropriate revisions to make certain that they are work in the majority of situations.  

Our politicians seem to have lost the ability to come together with common sense to help the citizenry. Instead every issue becomes a public disagreement that is fodder for the media. The blame game for incidents over which nobody has any real responsibility is slowing down the ability to quickly react. Nobody should be using such tragedies to further their own political ambitions. The ridiculousness of the present day political impasse is frustrating and unreasonable. It’s long past time for our legislators to bury the hatchet and work for the common good. Frankly the focus has too often been on non-issues rather than the difficult topics that matter most. This recent train wreck is in many ways a metaphor for our Congress which has become a playground for adults acting like children and bullies in the hopes of grabbing attention from the reporters holding cameras. Instead, they need to get back to work and demonstrate some common sense. 

I would much rather write about joyful topics that inspire people than complain about our broken government. We the people have allowed those that we elect to go astray. We sense that our branches of government at both the federal and state levels are not working for all of us. We are weary of the disagreements that our elected officials and the media stir up continuously for attention and ratings. It should not be that difficult for all of us to work together to get things done rather than quarreling to the point of inertia. I for one, would prefer to see quiet but swift and effective responses that take all of our needs into account. 

We are a large and diverse nation of many different beliefs, but some things like train safety are universal. I urge our Congress to work together to create the proper legislation that may reduce the tragedies that are now occurring. It may be more difficult because our government has derailed. It’s long past time to make repairs and changes and move forward again.