Spread Kindness and Good Cheer

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I always become pensive in the days before Christmas. In fact, my pondering really begins on my birthday in November and continues through the Thanksgiving holiday and all the way into Christmas Day. It is a time during which I look back on the year that is coming to a close and forward to the dawn of a brand new twelve month cycle in which to do a bit better in the art of living. I mostly think about how amazing it is that even thousands of years later we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the humble son of a carpenter who became perhaps the most masterful teacher in the art of living that the world has ever known. 

Of course there are many religions in this world and many people who do believe in such things, so the annual holiday has morphed into an extravaganza of feasting and gift giving that does not always include mention of the reason that the season first appeared. I have to say that while Christ is very much part of my Christmas, I have no trouble respecting the beliefs of others. I have never been one to insist that everyone agree with my thoughts, but I am always willing to share my views with anyone who wants to take the time to hear or read what I have to say. My relationship with Jesus is quite personal and I do not think that it requires undue proselytizing or judgement on my part to be faithful. 

I have a friend whose son was murdered last summer. He has spent each day since then attempting to piece together some kind of explanation for why this tragedy happened to him. He wanted to know how he was supposed to think, to act, to believe. He ultimately came to the profound conclusion that we all too often make God more like a god, a clerk who randomly and sometimes unfairly doles out retribution and favors much like the all too human-like gods of the Greeks. He noted that God is not petty, nor does He love one of us more than another simply because we say prayers or show up at church services. 

I have always believed that Jesus was sent to the world to show us how we should strive to be. When I read about Him and His word I find love, empathy and compassion in every story. I find a God who is understanding and forgiving. His parables and stories honor prodigal sons, tax collectors, and a good Samaritan. These were people who would have been disliked or even detested by the people of Jesus’ time. By making them beloved in His stories the message is very clear to me. Our task is to be open and loving to all people. Jesus demonstrated again and again that self-righteousness was not the way, the truth and the light that he wanted us to accept. 

I can think of no philosophy more beautiful than the one that Jesus taught us. Sadly, as is often the case with humans we have often times distorted His words and His commands to suit our own narrower views. Because we are fallible we get things twisted in our minds. We judge when we should simply love. We avert our eyes from suffering and turn our backs on people we do not understand. Jesus embraced the sick, the fallen, the hated. We too often forget that his apostles were a rather rag tag group. His friend Mary Magdalene was a woman who had been shunned by the society of the time. 

Not once did Jesus tell us to judge who is a sinner among us and yet we do such things all of the time. He never suggested that we should confine our love to only those who agree with His way of living. In fact, He was ever aware that we will falter and He adamantly told us that He will always be willing to forgive our transgressions if we are willing to sincerely profess our contrition. I suppose this is what I love most about His beautiful way of looking at life. He taught us that there is indeed redemption for anyone who honestly seeks it. 

For me, Christmas is love. It is forgiveness and compassion. That tiny baby born in the humblest of circumstances would one day tells us that the souls living under our bridges are as important as those living in the mansions of power. He would chastise the hypocritical canons of religion that would place rituals over human decency. He would minister to the poor as though telling us that our duty lies beyond the comfort of our homes. It is out into a world of suffering that we must look. The refugees shivering in the freezing forests of Europe or at the southern border of our country are His sheep and He want us to continue the duties of caring for them just as a loving shepherd would do. 

Love was born at Christmas time. The word from this great prophet has endured through the centuries, but we know that we have time and again been derelict in following what He had to say to the fullest extent of our abilities. This Christmas let’s follow His lead and open our arms to all people, even the ones we do not understand. Let us demonstrate a willingness to give of our time, our talent, and our treasure to anyone in need. Let us spread kindness and good cheer wherever we go. 

Who Was the Greatest Leader?

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I’ve done a great deal of research into my ancestry and it appears that nobody in my family tree ever owned a slave. It might be argued that they were too poor to afford the possession of another human being, but I would like to believe that they somehow understood that owning another person was and has always been wrong. As far back as the times when slavery began in the American colonies there were individuals who spoke out against the practice. In the founding of our country there were signers of the Declaration of Independence who argued for freeing all slaves, but lost that enlightened view to compromise. Perhaps the birth of this country would never have happened without placating the desires of the slave holding colonies, but it certainly would have been a far less hypocritical way of declaring that all men are created equal. 

The words of our founding documents are lyrical and give the promise of a society that values all people, but the actual rules in the  original Constitution left out considerable portions of the population. Among many of the Founding Fathers there was a silent belief that given time the abomination of slavery would one day be abolished. Sadly they would have been horrified that it took so long to happen and that the process of reaching that moment would lead to a brutal civil war. 

We all know that even after the slaves were emancipated by force of law, there were those who were still embittered and filled with racist beliefs. Angered by their defeat in the Civil War, they took out their rage on Black citizens with Jim Crow laws that enshrined segregation and  unreasonable voting restrictions, not to mention often unjust treatment in employment and the courts. It was not until the 1960’s almost two hundred years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence that civil right legislation attempted to finally address the issues. While it seemed for a time that our country was finally headed in the right direction there is still much to do. The fight for civil rights should never end until every person in America genuinely feels equal with regard to justice and voting rights and educational opportunities.

Someone asked me recently who I thought was the most important leader of civil rights in our country’s history. I realized that just as the history of moving toward equality is ongoing, so too has the leadership been handed down from one era to another. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were officers in anti-slave societies in their respective states. Such leadership and influence lead many of the northern states to abolish slavery early in the history of the nation. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and David Walker were all devoted to abolition, sometimes risking their own lives to free slaves. Each of their stories is one of astounding courage and dedication to the cause, but it would ultimately come to Abraham Lincoln to herald the final decree to break the chains of slavery. The thousands of Union soldiers fought not only to save our union, but ultimately made it possible to end the despicable practice that had plague the country for far too long. 

Everyone has heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. and he is in fact one of my most cherished heroes, but he could not have won the fight for freedom without the efforts of thousands of souls whose work is overlooked or unknown. Rosa Parks refused to lose her seat on a Montgomery bus, but across the south Black citizens boycotted buses in a combined effort to bring attention to their plight. John Lewis rode with the Freedom Riders when he was still a very young man. Ruby Bridges bravely agree to become one of the first to integrate a public school in the south. James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were shapers of the Civil Rights Movement by planning sit-ins, marches and working for legislation. Today there is a new generation of people from many different races fighting to maintain fairness and equality for all. 

To simply name the greatest of all time would be to slight the efforts of even nameless individuals who put their safety on the line for the sake of elevating our country to a fairer and more even handed democracy. To claim that we have already reached the plateau of where we need to go would be naive. The struggle continues to eliminate the abominable treatment of anyone anywhere in America. Heroes devoted to the cause are emerging everyday. 

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

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To say that I grew up in a protective bubble would be an understatement. After my father died when I was eight years old, my mother had to find a place for us to live. Under the guidance of my dear sweet Uncle Jack she located a small but quite nice home in a neighborhood in southeast Houston known as Overbrook. At the center of that little subdivision was a Catholic church and a school that provided education through the eighth grade. Later a Catholic high school would be added to the mix. The church and schools would become the main focus of my youth as I grew from a child into a seventeen year old heading of to college. 

The scope of my world was quite small indeed, guided by a routine that included daily sessions in the classroom, Sunday mornings at church and Friday night visits to my grandmother’s house. On Saturdays we cleaned the house, did the laundry and went to the grocery store. Little varied from one week to the next and it felt quite safe and secure just as my mother hoped it would be. Nonetheless through the influence most especially of my teachers, I found myself longing to know more about the realities of the world. So when I attended the University of Houston I began to realize just how little I actually understood about people and perhaps even myself. 

I admittedly became a bit of a rebel, at least in my thoughts. I began to question just about everything. When my mother had her first psychotic break and the responsibility of her care fell to me, I made a quantum leap into the realities of the world. I clearly saw that everything that I had always believed required far more complex thinking than the simplicity of the life I had once lived. My horizons widened and I felt a feverish need to break away from the narrowness of my experiences. 

I married quite young which was an act of rebellion in its own right. Luckily that decision proved to be one of the best I ever made as I realized that in my husband I had truly found a soulmate. Together we began to navigate the adult world, all the while growing together through the incredible challenges of our twenties that included not just caring for my mom when her mental illness returned again and again, but also enduring a frightening health scare for my husband that threatened his life. I suppose that I was a twenty something going on fifty after those times.

Along the way we lived in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a blue collar town known for a somewhat conservative bent. It was there that I encountered people who were totally unlike those I had known in my school days. Most of them were only educated in the basics, non-readers who escaped from high school as soon as it was possible. Nonetheless I soon enough learned that they were well educated in how to survive. Most of them possessed an uncanny common sense and trade skills that baffled me. They worked with their hands and were unafraid of getting dirty. The men in particular often came home from work with grease on their faces and dirt on their clothes. They were honest, forthright folk who enjoyed life and I found that I really liked them. 

There was one woman, however, whom I avoided. She seemed a bit too brash for my taste.  I don’t ever recall seeing her wearing shoes and her bare feet were often in dire need of a pedicure. More often than not, she paraded through the apartment complex with tight tops that exposed too much of her breasts. All the while a cigarette dangled from her lips as she openly used the foulest language that my virgin ears had ever heard. Without ever actually speaking to her I had decided that I did not like her. 

Then came the day that I witnessed spousal abuse up close and personal. A group of us had been sitting in the courtyard talking and having a good time when we heard screams from a nearby apartment. Through the open window we heard the husband threatening to kill his wife while their children were crying for help. We saw him punching his helpless victim until she was down on the floor. We sat watching the scene unfold in frozen silence, not knowing what to do. There were no cell phones back then so nobody thought to call 911. It was an horrific situation that stunned and frightened us. 

From seemingly nowhere came the woman that I had quietly shunned. As always her feet were bare and her clothing was more appropriate for an evening at a bar. The cigarette was there as well. She ignored all of us as she ran toward the apartment where the children and the battered woman were screaming for help. As she sprinted she tossed her smoke to the ground and bounded up the stairs like an Olympic runner. She pounded on the door with her fists and using language that would have made anyone blush, she demanded that the husband open up immediately or she would break the window and come inside on her own. 

We were mesmerized by her courage and soon enough the door opened as the children walked out one by one followed by their mother. The woman who had rescued them hurled a final unspeakable insult at the batterer and rushed the ragged crew to the safety of her apartment. As she passed our little group of neighbors she glared at us as though she despised us all. I felt humbled and ashamed. 

After that incident I made it a point to befriend that woman. I found her to be one of the most interesting persons I have ever known. She was an artist of great merit. She had traveled extensively around the United States. She was a fabulous mother and a woman with a huge heart. She laughed at herself for her bad habit of smoking and promised again and again that one day she would finally quit. She was an enigma in many ways, but the one clear thing about her was that she was unswervingly kind and generous. 

She eventually moved away. While we promised to stay in touch I knew that she had the soul of a rolling stone and that it was unlikely that she would stick with her plan of writing and calling frequently. Sure enough the contacts became fewer and fewer until finally one of my letters to her was returned. 

I don’t know where she is now or if she is even alive, but I think of her often. She taught me one of the most important lessons of my life which is to suspend my judgements and preconceived notions about people until I actually know them. Good people come to us in many different packages. Brilliance is not alway found  in a degree or a certain kind of dress. Habits and mannerisms do not provide us with the essence of an individual. Sometimes the most wonderful people among us don’t look the part. 

When I finally settled down into a career in teaching I remembered my friend. I understood so well the importance of valuing each individual no matter how different he or she appeared to be. I was able to respect the father whose body was covered with tattoos and piercings because I saw that he cared so much for his son. I set aside judgement of students and their environments. I found the good in people and nurtured it. My dear friend taught me how to do that and for that I am grateful to her to this very day. 

Pet Peeves

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I’ll never forget a time when my husband Mike and his best friend Egon attempted to repair a plumbing problem in our house. They spent hours lying on the floor reaching underneath our kitchen sink all to no avail. In the end the leak that they had been trying to fix was worse than ever. We ultimately had to call a plumber who also happened to be a customer at the bank where Mike was an officer. With his expertise the man managed to have the problem fixed in under ten minutes. As Mike paid the plumber and complimented him on the great job he had done, the somewhat amused man commented, “Well I always believe that we should defer to those who actually know what they are doing. How about promising each other that I will come to you for banking advice and you will come to me whenever you have a plumbing problem?” 

That bit of wisdom has become a mantra for both Mike and I over the years and it has worked exceedingly well for us. It makes much more sense to listen to someone with experience and a good track record in some field of endeavor rather than people who are mostly just voicing opinions. If I want medical advice I’m going to a highly qualified doctor, not my next door neighbor who has read a bit about the value of vitamins and herbs. I believe that I am going to get much better advice from someone with a medical degree who works to make people well every single day than just listening to homespun tales about untested remedies. 

My pet peeve is that far too many people do not agree with my reasoning. If they have a question about banking and my husband answers it truthfully they will often argue with him as though his fifty plus years in the financial business is of no value. If I tell them what I know about education I’m often met with insistence that they have heard something different from a friend who has never taught a day in her life. It is incredibly maddening.

During the pandemic I have consulted with my team of doctors and my relatives who are physicians anytime I wondered what to do. People have nonetheless insisted that I am being led astray by my doctors. They insinuate that the medical people that I highly regard are lying so that they may get rich from providing vaccines. When I argue that I prefer to use more reliable sources than television personalities on Fox News to make informed decisions they suggest that I am just a sheep mindlessly following instructions from my doctors. Their comments make me want to scream, but I instead stay calm. 

I find myself wondering when so many became so self assured that they are willing to argue with people who are well versed in how things actually work in various professions. I would never tell a licensed electrician that I have a better way of installing lights in a bathroom just because I heard about from some untrained source. it’s fine to ask questions, do some research, get second opinions, but to outright insult and impune bad motives to someone who is educated and well-versed in a particular area is infuriating. Sadly, it is something that is happening over and over again these days as large swaths of the population deem themselves experts in areas about which they know little or nothing. 

I wonder when we became so distrustful of one another. How and why did we reach a point where we are unwilling to accept advice from experts simply because we don’t like what they have to say? I may find it difficult to give up sugar and carbohydrates, but there is no reason for me to accuse a doctor who advises me to do so of some evil intent. Still, it feels as though we have become a nation of chronic doubters and complainers. Instead we should be attempting to find truth from reliable sources. At least that is what I was taught while becoming educated. 

I am learning that many people only want to hear what they already believe whether it is wrong or not. Trying to convince them that their thinking is erroneous is almost wasted effort even when the facts do not support their beliefs. I’m slowly opting just to remain silent rather than attempting counter the lies that they have been told. When I speak up without invitation I find that I am not only totally ignored, but all too often attacked for trying to help. 

All of this makes me wonder how many people serve as jurors with preconceived notions guiding their decisions rather than the revelation of evidence. I worry about how votes are cast when I hear ridiculous propaganda and outright lies being embraced without question. I worry about what will become of our schools if teachers are forced to follow a watered down curriculum designed to make everyone feel good rather than to honestly discuss the truth. 

These are things that keep me awake at night, so calling them pet peeves seems almost too kind. In truth I see them as a kind of ignorant darkness that is spreading like the virus that has so affected our lives. People are grasping at straws to feel better and in the process they are turning their backs on inconvenient realities that must be addressed. They are grabbing the idea of least resistance rather than facing the realities of problems that we must address. 

We do not live in Disneyland. Ours is not a fairytale world where dreams come true like magic. We have to shoulder our problems together and seek answers from those most qualified to tell us what to do. Let the plumbers fix our pipes, the electricians wire our homes, the doctors prevent and treat disease. Find the experts. Listen to them. Follow their advice. Leave the back fence gossip for something less serious that the difficulties we now face. Learn how to discern propaganda and lies and distinguish them facts. That’s the only way that we will progress, and progress is always good. 

Seize the Day!

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My grandson, Ian, is all grown up now. He’ll be heading off to college next school year. He’s always been an interesting young fellow. When he was still eating from a high chair he was able to name all of the planets including all of their moons. He was able to quote statistics about them as well. Over the years he has taken and interest in all sorts of things. He has a huge Lego collection and he has a propensity for miniature objects. Once while I was visiting with him in San Antonio when he was an elementary school student he asked me to stop at a roadside display of bonsai plants. 

The seller had a unique group of tiny tree like plants pruned just so to resemble a tiny Japanese garden. I have to admit that I was as fascinated with the creations we saw as Ian was. I could tell that he wanted to take home one of the natural works of art but he was way too polite to ask me to purchase one for him. I glanced at the prices and decided that it was probably unwise for me to invest that much cash in an object that Ian might neglect and allow to die. 

We drove away marveling at the bonsai that we had seen. In fact we talked about them for days. I finally decided that I just had to acquire one of them for Ian because I could not imagine a youngster being more taken with something. We eagerly drove where the salesman had been before only find an empty parking lot. We checked back several times until I had to return home but sadly had no luck no luck. On later trips to San Antonio I found myself looking for the bonsai display all to no avail. I never again encountered the man who had shown us his lovely and unique wares. 

I searched for a reasonable substitute for Ian only to learn that the ones we had seen by the side of the road were actually being sold at an incredible bargain price. I wanted to kick myself for being so overly cautious. It would have been a great experience for Ian to tend the tiny plant and maybe even do some research into the history of bonsai plants. I imagined how such studies might lead to learning ever more about Japanese culture and maybe even a trip to that interesting country one day. Instead I knew that I had missed an incredible opportunity to introduce Ian to a tiny wonder of the world. 

I suppose that I should have known better than to be so hesitant to purchase one of the plants as soon as we saw them. Over the years I have learned that it is often unwise to think too hard about buying unusual items. One of a kind objects are too often gone quickly. Surely experience should have told me that. 

Long ago our family was driving through Canyon de Chelly National Monument when we encountered a Native American woman who had crafted tiny adobe homes that she was selling from the hood of her car. They were painstakingly detailed with roofs that lift up to show a little wonderland inside. There were woven rugs, pottery and a wood burning stove in the house. It was one of the loveliest things I have ever seen. The artist who had made it wanted thirty five dollars for the miniature at a time when that was an enormous amount of money. Somehow though I just knew that I would be angry with myself if I left her craftsmanship behind. We put our money together and came up with the cash we needed to pay her. I have never ever regretted that buy. I still have that little house and it is one of the most remarkable treasures in my home. 

My daughter often used to tell me that when I saw a really good thing I needed to grab it up. I never have spent thousands or even hundreds of dollars on a whim, but there have been unique items that I somehow knew I needed to buy immediately or be regretful later. Whenever I got cold feet and left such things behind I found myself feeling a strong sense of remorse. Some collectables are so wonderful that they instantly evoke the most incredible memories and even stories. They create a kind of bond with time. I have many such things from my travels. None of them are overly expensive, but all of them are priceless to me.

A great find does not have to be extravagant. There was a particular trip when we took our little girls to Taos, New Mexico. We were camping in a tent and forced to travel on a very tight budget. We decided to have a contest to see who would find the best souvenir from the market that cost only five dollars or less. I bought a bracelet made of shells that I thought was fairly good, but my eldest daughter, Maryellen, found a handmade pottery cup with the loveliest colors. She won the contest hands town and her prize was knowing that she had the most discerning eye of all of us. She still has that cup to this day. She holds pens and pencils in it on her desk. It is probably forty years old and it looks as wonderful as it did when it was brand new. Best of all we all smile when we think of that trip that we shared.

There are great finds out in the world, objects that attract us and reminds us of good times we have spent with others. We would do well to go ahead and buy the things that catch our eye when we have the wherewithal to do so. A postcard or a piece of blown glass, a trinket or a painting that comes from our travels or a fun time will be special to us for years to come. We’d do well not to pass up those items that make us smile. Seize the day. Buy the bonsai.