The Other Side Of The Stars


‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’

—Stephen Hawking

On the day I was born a little six year old boy was running around in Great Britain oblivious to the amazing future that he would eventually enjoy. Stephen Hawking was a bright child who would over time stun the world with his grasp of astrophysics, but in 1948, nobody might have guessed that his story would become the stuff of movies. Not even when Stephen had demonstrated his intellect while engaged in his university studies did the full potential of his life reveal itself. The feeling that he was a kind of shooting star, rare but brief, only became more likely when he was diagnosed with ALS while in his twenties. Doctors told him that his lifespan would be short, but somehow he defied the odds and rather than spending his time worrying about his impending death he went on to become one of the world’s most respected scientists.

Stephen Hawking merged Einstein’s theories of the universe with the Big Bang theory, explaining the workings of the universe in an almost lyrical style. His best selling book A Brief History of Time while tackling topics often difficult to comprehend made his theories more accessible to ordinary souls like me who usually struggle to understand the complexities of how the vast world of space actually works. He became an icon in the scientific community and an approachable and fun loving character in popular culture, all while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak without the aid of a computerized voice simulator. He possessed a love for life in spite of his physical difficulties and enjoyed poking fun at himself. He was a living miracle in our midst who demonstrated more than anything the power of optimism and an unwillingness to allow problems to dictate his destiny.

I first heard of Stephen Hawking when his book became a best seller. I purchased and read it with a bit of caution because its subject was not of the sort that I generally enjoyed. I love mathematics but my forays into the domain of physics and astronomy had been lackluster at best. They simply were not topics of great interest to me. That changed as I turned the pages of A Brief History of Time and began to grasp the workings of the universe in a manner that had previously been unattainable. I had to know who this brilliant individual was, and how he had managed to use words to so beautifully explain ideas that were almost beyond my human comprehension. I instantly became a fan.

Stephen Hawking was an unlikely rockstar. His shriveled body and strange robotic like voice should have made him odd, but instead they made his achievements feel even more incredible. He taught all of us that overcoming even the most difficult obstacles is possible. He ignored the naysayers who counseled him that his disease would severely limit his capabilities and his lifespan. He continued his work against all odds. His approach to life was perhaps even more remarkable than his brilliant mind, or perhaps it was because of his ability to envision a world beyond the limits of earth that he was so successful.

Stephen Hawking made it to the age of seventy six before he succumbed to his illness last week, an unheard of span of time for those afflicted with ALS to the extent that he was. Somehow it seems to me that he was one of those people who are sent to the rest of us for a very dramatic purpose. Like an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci or a Martin Luther King he gave us all the gifts of his abilities, inspiring us to reconsider our own contributions to the world around us. His legacy should push us to do more with ours.

I have always believed that each of us has a purpose no matter how small it may seem. We may not ever have the reach of someone like Stephen Hawking but as long as we have breaths to take we have the capability of somehow making a difference. Ours may not be lives as mind blowing as Stephen Hawking’s but even bringing a smile to someone’s face is an accomplishment. If we multiply our goodness and our talents millions of times over this universe becomes a better place that we might call home with the people that we love.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You challenged us to think, to be stronger and to understand and appreciate our universe. Your imperfections were many but you overcame your challenges and demonstrated the kind of courage and determination that we should all seek. Enjoy your new view of the universe. We will one day see you again on the other side of the stars.


A Kind of Angel

pexels-photo-414586.jpegThe first time I saw her I was struck by her elegance. Her hands were particularly lovely with long slender beautifully manicured fingers. She used them for effect in conversation and they were mesmerizing. She was kind and welcoming, but I somehow still felt inadequate in her presence. I found myself fidgeting and trying to think of something intelligent to say, some remark that would prove that I was worthy of her company. Nothing came to me so I just sat quietly listening to her confidently speak of this and that. I liked her, but I was in awe and so I felt uncomfortable and hardly tasted the food that was set before me. It would be a very long time before I understood that her strength and confidence made her kind and loving. She would be a lifelong ally, a kind of angel protecting me and those that I loved. That’s the way she was, a selfless person.

She was a tiny thing, only five feet tall, but she somehow always seemed statuesque. When she drove her car her head barely peeked over the dashboard. Sometimes it appeared that nobody was behind the wheel, and the sight of it made me laugh. She taught me many things about people and their natures. She was a great listener, someone who truly cared. Her advice was right on target, but I didn’t always take it. Perhaps I was hard headed or maybe a bit silly or even a tiny bit jealous from time to time. Still, I loved her so and took our moments together for granted as though she would always be around.

She had often told me of her health problems. She had already lived far longer than she should have. She was born with a heart condition. Not even surgery would guarantee that she would live as long as most of us do. I suppose that knowing that the clock was ticking made her more aware of the need to get as much out of each day as possible. She lived with optimism and a generous spirit, but she was unwilling to put up with hypocrites or fools. She was intensely loyal and protective of those that she loved. Like a mama bear she went after anyone who attempted to hurt the members of her family. She was not someone with whom to trifle.

I hung on to her words and tucked them away in my memory for future use, which was wise because she is gone now, and I miss her so. There are occasions when I need her wisdom and wish that we might have just one more opportunity to discuss the things that worry me. She had a way of setting things right by helping me to find the answers that I sought. She was stern with me whenever I was being foolish. She reminded me of my own strength and pushed me to be the person that I was meant to be.

I know that I am very fortunate for having known such a remarkable woman. Her spirit still lives inside my heart. When I waver I can almost hear her voice urging me to be courageous. It’s almost as though she leaves me little hints that tell me that she is still watching over me like a guardian. A few nights ago when I was stewing over a situation unable to sleep I listened to music from Pandora, and out of the blue came Fur Elise a song that she often played on the piano with those exquisite hands. I smiled as a calm came over me. I recalled the words she had used to soothe me when I became stressed and certain that my world was crashing down. She taught me how to control whatever I might and ignore those things that were beyond my reach.

It is something that she had learned as a child after she was told that she must relax or run the risk of dying. Instead of stewing over the possibility of an early demise she decided to pack as much wonder into each day as she might. She understood that she did not have time to waste on worry if her days were numbered. She did all of the things that she was instructed to do to stay as healthy as possible and then really lived. She ultimately survived far longer than her doctors had predicted. I suspect that was because she did not waste a single moment on cynicism or sadness.

She died peacefully. One moment she was hugging her husband and telling him how much she loved him. In the next second she had a violent headache and then went into a stroke induced coma. As she lay dying she appeared to be a sleeping beauty. It almost seemed as though she would awake and smile at us and give us her laugh of delight that literally brought sunshine into a room. We didn’t want to believe that she was taking her final breaths because she meant so much to all of us. She waited until we had all gone for some dinner to partake of her heavenly reward. It was so like her not to upset us by leaving while we watched. She would not have wanted us to be hurt.

It has been almost sixteen years since she left but somehow I feel her presence again and again. I see her in her granddaughters and great grandchildren. I retell them her stories and know that she would want me to remind them of what is important. Family and friendships were the focus of her life. Nothing was more important even though she was a woman who might have done anything. Those of us who knew her rank her among the greatest heroines of all time. Those who did not will never understand what they missed. She lived her life with integrity and compassion. I was lucky to be her daughter-in-law and her friend.

La Casa de Cooper

pexels-photo-922934.jpegLast week I was privileged to have my granddad Cooper stay over as a house guest. He’s an old fellow who doesn’t move around much these days. He’s perfectly satisfied with a few belly scratches now and again and generous bowls of food. He adheres to a strict routine these days and only barks when he knows its time for a meal. Never mind that Daylight Savings time is in effect, Cooper insists on enjoying his breakfast and dinner at exactly the same hours each day. He follows me around as I putter in the house and it’s quite nice to hear the pitter patter of his little feet.

I suppose that I forgot to mention that Cooper is a pug who seems to imagine himself as being a regal member of Chinese royalty. He bears his ancestry quite well and spends most of his time sunning in front of my bedroom window with only mild curiosity about the happenings outside. He came with me when I did a bit of gardening and got the attention of the neighborhood dogs who barked ferociously at him. He generally ignored their in hospitable greetings and looked at me as though he thought them to be rather silly.

While Cooper’s family was away having a mini-vacation and enjoying ice cream every single day I spoiled him a bit with treats and extra helpings of food. He’s supposed to be on a diet but what good is it coming to Gammy’s house if he can’t bend the rules just a tiny bit? His favorite activity is lying on the couch next to my husband while we watch television in the evenings. He sleeps peacefully without even noticing that we are viewing a John Wick film. How he snoozes through the action is beyond me, but he does.

Cooper is always welcome at my home because he is no trouble at all. Some dogs are quite demanding and have a tendency to make messes. He just leaves little tiny hairs that I will be vacuuming up for weeks to come. I’m probably the only one who notices them. so it hardly matters that he left them behind.

I sometimes think of getting my own full time pet once again but then I consider all of the responsibilities associated with having a little creature and I change my mind. My life has become far too gypsy-like to include a dog. Perhaps when I begin to slow my pace and spend most of my days at home I will find myself a nice little guy like Cooper and provide him a space in my home. Until then I’ll just keep inviting Cooper over for a stay.

Cooper was a rescue dog. When his family got him his name was Ben. The trouble with that is that they already had a son named Ben and didn’t think that it would work out to have two with the same name. Since it was a lot less complicated to change the moniker for the dog, gentle Ben was suddenly Cooper. He got his new designation because the other adopted pet that they owned was named Shane. Since he was found wandering along a highway the people who found him imagined whoever lost him wishing that he would come back. So Shane and Cooper became dog brothers and had a great time together until Shane died last summer.

The family thought that Cooper would hardly notice that Shane was gone, but instead Cooper was quite sad. They thought that bringing in a new dog might cheer him up. They purchased a yellow Lab puppy named Luna who is a ball of energy. She loves Cooper but wants to play with him all of the time. He gets a bit grumpy when she chases him and he can’t get away, but we can all tell that he actually gets a kick out of the little tyke. Nonetheless I think that he enjoyed having some time to himself at my house. We provide him with way more attention than he gets at home.

Domesticating dogs is one of the grandest ideas that mankind has ever had. They are loyal and and sweet and lots of fun. Some are even protective, but Cooper is a bit too old and tired to worry about such things. He sleeps more hours than he is awake. He’s a bonafide old geezer, set in his ways and happy as long as his needs are satisfied.

Cooper may not be the brightest bulb in doggy land, but that doesn’t mean that he is not smart. He understands that his breakfast consists of dry food and dinner includes a nice moist and meaty topping. If I move too slowly in creating the appropriate recipe he barks until I get my act together. There is no fooling him!

I hope that Cooper gets to come visit many more times. He’s in his eighties in people years so there is no telling how much longer it will be before he crosses over the Rainbow Bridge. I know that I will be quite sad when that happens. I hate to admit it, but he is the favorite of my grand dogs, and besides his snoring is just adorable. Mi casa es la casa de Cooper.

The Next Chapter

You can’t get to the next chapter if you keep rereading that last onepexels-photo-776646.jpeg.

When I write I am often tempted to seek so much perfection that I am unable to get past the first paragraph. I have had to train myself to just keep writing until my thoughts are completed and then I go back to edit. Life can be much like that. We sometimes find ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable rut because we keep repeating the same mistakes, or even more awful, we are so afraid of making things worse that we stay in a situation that makes us miserable. Making changes of any kind is difficult, particularly when our confidence has been battered. It’s why people often remain in abusive situations even though they want more than anything to escape from them. It takes courage to move forward and to leave our familiar routines behind.

I’ve known people who appear to have no fear, and others who can’t seem to extricate themselves from terrible situations. I’ve found myself in a rut now and again, a place that was painfully uncomfortable from which I can’t seem to move forward. On those occasions I desperately wanted to end the pain that I was feeling, but the fear that overcame me was paralyzing. It was only when I took a deep breath and turned the page that I managed to find the sense of accomplishment that I sought.

I vividly recall how frightened I was when I agreed to be an instructor in a class for middle school mathematics teachers. As soon as I had accepted the position I literally wanted to run away or feign an illness. I worried that I would be viewed as a fraud, someone who only pretended to know how to teach. I was so nervous in the first couple of classes that I probably did appear to be less than qualified. My voice wavered and I found myself drawing a blank when fielding questions. It was not until I confided in my supervisor that things began to improve. She suggested that I work with her before each session to share ideas, create plans, and even ask questions. She also recommended that I share my own nervousness with the teachers who attended the class. She assured me that they would learn from my honesty, Surely enough before long I was relaxed and truly enjoying my foray into teaching adult learners. It prompted me to take a graduate class in training and development where I learned even more techniques that I used when I was the Dean of Faculty at my school.

Over the years I have been challenged again and again to take control of the direction of my life. When my mother first showed signs of her mental illness I mostly cried and felt sorry for myself for having to help her. I was young and inexperienced with such things and would have preferred having a helpful adult step forward to counsel me, but none were forthcoming. I ignored my mother’s symptoms as long as possible, hoping that some grand miracle would occur. When even our parish pastor turned his back on my predicament I understood that either I would screw up my courage or my mother might never be well again. I did what I had to do, learning even from the mistakes that I made. By the time of my mom’s death I had spent more than forty years coming to her aid each time that her mind once again became ill. It never became easy, but I grew to feel more and more comfortable that I was doing what was best for her. I learned how to navigate the world of psychiatry and I became unafraid to challenge doctors on my mother’s behalf.

I suppose that given a more comfortable alternative there have been many times when I would have preferred not to push myself to do disagreeable things. Like Bartleby the Scrivener I might have been content to simply refuse to participate in the challenges that beset me. My nature is such that I imagine what it might have been like if I had found peace and quiet and routine rather than placing myself in supercharged circumstances. As I think about life I suspect that none of us are ever so lucky that we are never faced with having to deal with experiences that are painful and maybe even tinged with guilt. Each of us come upon turning points that demand that we move forward or devolve into a state of misery.

I greatly admire people who are courageous, resilient, willing to take risks. What would we do without them? Throughout history there have been individuals who were willing to attempt the seemingly impossible. They become our leaders and our inspirations, the speed readers who turn the pages so quickly that they take our breaths away. Eleanor Roosevelt once suggested that we do one thing that scares us each day. She followed her own advice by overcoming the shyness that had almost paralyzed her in her youth and she ultimately used her voice for those who were all too often ignored.

Sometimes just taking the first step is the most difficult aspect of changing for the better. There are certain situations that are wrought with dangers. We may make many mistakes before we finally set things right. There is nothing easy about eschewing an unhealthy routine or attempting to fulfill a dream, and each of us should be supportive of anyone who is trying to do so. We might begin by teaching our young that they never have to be stuck in a place that makes them unhappy. We each have more grit than we may think. We really do have the power to control what the next chapter will be.

The Heartbreak of Misbehavior


In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.