Celebrating a Life

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Many years ago an acquaintance of mine asked me to watch her mother while she ran an errand. I was somewhat surprised by the request because up until that moment I had not realized that my friend was the sole caretaker of an invalid parent. Still I agreed to help her, and so I travelled the few short blocks to her house. There I found a home that had been reconfigured to meet the needs of a wheelchair bound individual. A homemade ramp led to the front door and much of the furniture inside had been moved to the perimeters of the rooms to allow enough space for the chair to move freely. There was a station that contained medical supplies at the ready and a bottle of oxygen stood in the corner of the living area. One of the bedrooms housed a hospital bed and the bathtub had been converted to a walk-in model with handrails and a permanent seat bolted to the floor.

I was stunned to see the extent to which my friend had redone her home to accommodate her mother’s needs. After sitting with ailing mother for a couple of hours I also realized just how much my neighbor’s role as a caretaker dominated her life. I realized that watching an invalid as ill as the old lady was akin to looking after a baby. I had not even a minute to myself, and I was exhausted and more than ready to leave by the time my friend returned.

I developed a new admiration for my friend on that day. She had been responsible for her mother for many years, but up until then I had not understood how isolated her duties had made her, nor how much time and patience she had devoted to her mom. I marveled at how upbeat and positive she was as well. Never once had I heard her complain about her responsibilities. In fact, she always indicated that she viewed her job as a privilege, an opportunity to repay her mother for a lifetime of sacrifices.

My friend’s mother died not long after I my brief time of watching her. It was then that I learned what a vibrant woman the elder woman had been in her prime. I suspected that she had passed down her energy and optimism to her daughter, a bright light in our circle who was known throughout the neighborhood for her generosity. I had to admit that I would not have been as willing to completely reconstruct my life the way that my buddy had done for her parent. I always stood in awe of her but never got around to voicing the deep respect that I had for her. Eventually our lives took us in different directions and I lost track of her, but she has been one of the most inspirational individuals that I have known to this very day.

I often wonder why we humans are so reluctant to voice our compliments for one another. We tend to get so caught up in our daily routines that we never quite get around to saying the things that we are thinking. Time passes. Things happen, and before we know it our opportunities are gone. It makes me wonder how many people never receive the praise that is due them simply because we humans tend not to prioritize expressing our feelings.

I remember once seeing a comedy in which friends of a dying cancer victim staged a surprise party in which they one by one expressed the thoughts that they might otherwise have reserved for comments at her funeral. I felt that it was a grand idea and have wondered why we don’t do such things more often. Perhaps we worry that it will seem macabre or that it will take away the hope of someone who is fighting to stay alive. Perhaps we are just a bit superstitious about doing such things. At any rate  we always seem to wait until the person who should be the object of our appreciation is no longer around.

My brothers and I decided to give our mother a surprise party on her eightieth birthday. One of my daughters had the idea of getting everyone write letters in which they told Mama how they felt about her. It was a glorious celebration and one that I’m so happy that we decided to do. While we had thought that our mom would live well into her nineties, she actually died fours years later. I have often reflected on how sad it would have been if she had never read all the accolades that people sent to her. She kept the letters in a beautiful album and she read them over and over again. It was a fitting tribute for a great woman that might not have occurred had we not been in a party mood and used her birthday as an excuse to celebrate.

We have roasts for celebrities and special events to honor the famous, but we rarely do the same for those unsung heroes who work so hard but rarely receive praise. We should take more time to bring a bit of joy and recognition to special people that we know. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. We might invite a few good friends or family members to a potluck dinner and then surprise the individual whom we are honoring. Think of how wonderful such events might be. I suspect that it would make everyone involved feel good.

One of my cousins recently died. The outpouring of love and respect for him at his funeral was amazing. I’m certain that he saw what was happening from his heavenly perch, but I also think of how much more wonderful it might have been if we had all gathered to tell him goodby and to make those same speeches while he lay dying. He had told us that his time was almost gone. We knew what his fate would be, and yet so many of us held back our stories and the true extent of our love for him until he was gone. While I suppose that our comments at his wake helped his family, I know that he would have enjoyed hearing them for himself. Who wouldn’t want to know how much people care?

We need not limit our praise parties for those who are ill, or dying, or old. We can just agree that someone that is quite special deserves to be an honoree. Our fetes might be large or intimate. It doesn’t matter how spectacular are efforts are as long as we get those feelings out in the open where they belong rather than hidden away in our hearts. So get busy now and begin the process of sharing your admiration and gratitude. Even if it is only a phone call, a note or a card your words of tribute need to be heard. Someone who is special to you is just waiting to learn what you have to say.

Unleashing Horror

tsar-bomba1I am a child of the Cold War. I grew up hearing an air raid siren every Friday at noon. I practiced crouching under my desk along with my classmates in readiness for a possible nuclear attack. I watched movies that featured apocalyptic scenarios and creatures that had grown out of proportion from exposure to radiation. I saw reports of individuals building bomb shelters and observed adults worrying about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of attack from Russia seemed to be a fixture of my childhood and teen years. Somehow the danger was so insistent that I and most of my peers actually began to ignore it. Of greater importance to us were the young men being drafted to fight and sometimes die or be injured in Vietnam. Violence was featured on the nightly news programs that entered our living rooms each evening, but we never became immune to the horrific images that we saw. Instead we grew weary of the constant hints that one day our world might explode. More than a few of us became peaceniks ready to do whatever it took to keep our country and our young men and women out of harm’s way.

For a time things settled down into an illusory peace. It felt as though the whole world agreed that we all loved our children too much to keep fighting. Unfortunately the lull in the militarism was brief and once again we have a generation of young people who have literally spent their entire lives hearing of wars, terrorism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a horrible place for them to be. It takes great mastery to shelter our kids from the worry of horrors. Even with our best efforts they will no doubt hear of the realities of the world just as I did, and it will worry them.

There is great saber rattling taking place between the United States and North Korea that is frankly far too reminiscent of the fear mongering that forced me and my classmates to endure those drills underneath our desks. The power of nuclear warfare that was unleashed at the end of World War II has been a specter that won’t quite go away. The arms race has placed dangerous weapons in the hands of tyrants capable of doing very unexpected things. This makes for great tension and requires great diplomacy and skill in reading the minds of those who would harm us. We are presently engaged in a nuclear chess game with potential consequences that are almost unbearable to consider.

It would have been impossible for my generation to spend all of our time concerned that one day our civilization as we know it might be wiped out with the push of a button. We had to believe that our leaders and the leaders of other nations would take their responsibilities for the safety of their people seriously. John Kennedy and the men and women that he had assembled in his cabinet proved to be more than worthy of the task. They averted what might have been a disaster of Biblical proportions. The true story of the thirteen days in October in which they stared down the Russians is one of courage and rationality. I think that after that particular occasion most of us continued to live our lives confident that we would never have to actually witness another nuclear attack like the one that was rained down on Japan. We grew more and more aware that with great power comes even more responsibility. Our leaders seemed up to the task.

I hate to admit this but many of my old childhood fears have come back to haunt me since President Trump has decided to take such a belligerent stance in reaction to learning that North Korea has the capability of attacking the United States. The game that he and Kim Jong Un are playing is high stakes, and we can only hope that it will remain in the realm of schoolyard taunting. The leader of North Korea is young and notoriously unstable. He may have little real appreciation for the consequences of launching a nuclear attack, but President Trump is of my generation and he should know full well that even thinking about such a thing is worrisome. His words may be designed to scare Kim Jong Un, but I wonder if they also might push the dictator to demonstrate that he is not afraid. Dealing with someone known for being unpredictable takes great finesse and I am not convinced that remarks about destroying a country are the best way to prevent the ultimate tragedy.

I find myself holding my breath just a bit but also trying to grasp why we humans would ever have put ourselves into such a precarious position. Surely we have evolved enough to realize that the horror of war never ends well for anyone, and yet here we are again dealing with evil in its worst forms, all so that a few may keep or seize power.

I would feel far more comfortable if the men and women that we have elected to lead us would show signs of coming together in such dangerous times. Now is not the moment to argue with one another, but rather a moment for uniting to find ways to keep the world safe. The idea that one individual is allowed to voice his opinions without counsel or a filter is appalling to me. Where are the profiles in courage that we so desperately need?

Innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed and injured because their leaders boasted that they would never surrender if it meant losing every man, woman and child. Even when it was apparent that the war had been lost the Japanese kept fighting, and so the decision was made to put an end to the conflict in the most terrible possible way. I shudder each time I think of what happened. A door was opened to unspeakable horrors that have threatened mankind ever since. Our goal should be to insure by hook or crook that nobody ever again has to endure such terror. Instead we seem intent on building our own arsenals even as we dare others to invest in their own. We appear to be at a standoff which is good, but what happens if someone finally decides to test the fates?

In the past when we still remembered how truly terrible a nuclear strike can be we asked ourselves who we wanted as our protector in the event of a possible nuclear holocaust. We have tended to neglect such thoughts of late. Perhaps it is time that we assert ourselves once again and be certain that there will be a steady hand at the helm. If that person is indeed President Trump, then more power to him, but if it is not then I urge the members of Congress to speak up now. We are all depending on cool heads to prevail. Let us pray that this crisis too will pass. God help us all if anyone makes a mistake. God help us to find the kind of men and women who have brought us safely through danger in the past. I want to believe that we will rise to the challenge. Our children are depending on it.

A Nation of Knowledge

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There are many national treasures in the United States, a number of them gifts from nature. The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking spectacle. The mighty redwood forests are haunting. The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the country. We sometimes forget our manmade creations that seem to pale in comparison to the ancient edifices and wonders that lie in other parts of the world, but one that stands out as a true gift is the system of Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. that span so many facets of human enterprise. Surprisingly the beginnings of that incredible institution came from a man who had never even been to the United States.

James Smithson was a wealthy Brit who possessed an intense curiosity about science and the world. From a young age he dabbled in research and his studies and findings enabled him to accumulate a rather tidy sum of money for the time. When he died his will stipulated that his fortune would go to his nephew, but if that nephew died without heirs then it would revert to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  As fate would have it Smithson’s nephew indeed died without children and so a plan was devised to send the five hundred thousand dollar estate to the U.S.

After a flurry of debate over how best to spend the windfall Congress decided to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.” In August of 1846, President Polk signed the bill into law and of course the rest is history. Today there are nineteen different museums in the Smithsonian family and countless visitors from around the world enjoy the exhibits and benefit from the research that happens all because of the largesse of one man who never actually explained why he had chosen to donate his wealth to the fledgling country. This generous act has indeed increased and diffused knowledge to countless ordinary people over the ensuing decades and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world.

I suspect that during his time Mr. Smithson saw the United States as a rather wild place with little history of which it might boast. The country was still struggling to define itself and to keep afloat in the early nineteenth century. Much of the world sat back waiting for the whole experiment that had been unleashed by the Founding Fathers to implode. It was easy to see that there were still many problems that needed addressing when Mr. Smithson died in 1829. He must have been considered rather eccentric to even consider leaving his fortune to a nation that had yet to prove itself, but in retrospect it was a brilliant idea. What better way to insure progress than to promote education? It is indeed in opening our minds to the knowledge that has come before us and the ideas of the future that we as people become stronger. The foundation of success lies in learning and uncovering truths. The Smithsonian Institution has dedicated itself to being a repository of information that is open to all people.

We are presently engaged in heated discussions about how to move forward in a world that is very different than the one that James Smithson inhabited, and yet his essential understanding of the importance of knowledge holds the key to unlocking our full potential. If the Smithsonian Museums that grace Washington D. C. have taught us anything it is that the power of mankind is unleashed at its best when we work together as people to provide win/win situations for all parties.

What worries me most about the environment that I observe today is that people are taking sides and demanding that their points of view be accepted without quarter. In other words there is an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that virtually insures that half of the population will be angry one way or another. Little effort is being made to consider alternatives or to engage in healthy research and discussion of issues. Much of the population is ignoring the knowledge that we have accumulated over time that might help in unravelling the challenges that we face. I find that few people even possess a fundamental understanding of our Constitution and why it was created the way it was. Even our presidents are sometimes guilty of believing that they have powers that do not belong to that branch of government. We seem to promote freedom of speech only as long as it aligns with our way of thinking and the entire political spectrum is quite guilty of intellectual laziness.

The Smithsonian Institution and all for which it stands should be more than just a vacation destination for Americans. It is not Disneyland, but rather a treasure trove of information and ideas about which we should be eager to learn and discuss while eschewing our preconceived notions. Ours is supposed to be a nation of “we, the people” not “you people” and yet so often I hear taunts that divide us into camps as though there is no possibility of ever coming together.

Propaganda is bombarding us every minute of every day. It is up to each of us to take the time to unravel fact from fiction, lies from truth. It should not be them against us, but rather all of us searching together for the truths that are evident and that may be found in the unfolding history of mankind much of which is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Our goals should not be to defeat those who think differently from ourselves but to find ways of managing our beautiful diversity so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and power. Our journey to such ideals should begin with educating ourselves and our children.

As we begin yet another school year we would be wise to be inspired by James Smithson’s generosity and wisdom. Somehow he understood that all nations need to learn from the knowledge that mankind has assembled over time. It is in using our rationality that we better the lives of everyone and those who have come before us have demonstrated time and again that struggles for power are not the answer. All of the lessons are right in front of our eyes. It’s time that we buckle down and take them to heart.

Escape from the Rat Race

ratrace1The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. – Lily Tomlin

I was a full fledged member of the rat race for most of my life. I’d leave home before sunrise and often did not return until after dark. I would hurriedly throw together dinner or maybe even bring home burgers or fried chicken if I was really tired. Most evenings I graded papers and did lesson planning until nine or ten while running loads of wash and getting my daughters settled with their homework. My husband Mike was engaged in a similar whirlwind of work activity during the week. On weekends we cleaned, mowed and repaired and somehow managed to find a bit of time for visiting with friends and family. So it went year after year until we one day ended our labors and retired.

We were not unlike most of the people that we knew. Everyone was seemingly rushing somewhere, part of that great rat race that consumes so much of our lives. Little wonder that at the end of our toil we had grown fat and out of shape. Being healthy takes time and attention and we were barely able to fit all of our responsibilities into our calendars. The prospect of spending time that we didn’t have to shop for healthy foods and then prepare them was overwhelming, and so we often opted for frozen items that allowed us to just pop our dinner into the oven without additional effort. The weight came on us in such small increments that we hardly noticed the real expansion of our girths.

Now and again we resolved to do better. We joined Weight Watchers online or paid for membership in an exercise program or a gym. We’d do well for a time and then a rush of activities would overtake our best intentions. Those night time meetings at school or the big project at work stole away yet a bit more of our time. We were exhausted from juggling so many balls and running so constantly. It was easier to set our personal goals aside and just go with the flow that always felt so hectic but was at least familiar.

I’d get a routine of weekend meal preparation going and my mother would become ill. I’d have to tend to her needs rather than spending time in my kitchen being a nutritionist. I’d try again and again but there always seemed to be something that was more demanding of my attention. I’d just keep running on that little hamster wheel telling myself that one day I would finally find the time to do the kinds of things that would make me a stronger, healthier person. Of course that day never really came, at least not until I was face to face with a life and death situation. At that point I understood the folly of my ways.

I’ve spoken of my new found efforts to concentrate more on the well being of my body and that of my husband. His stroke has shown us that a lifetime of running at full tilt and ignoring the warning signs that we were abusing our health has lead to conditions that need not have occurred. We may be a day late and a dollar short, but now we are changing our ways in earnest. Still I have to wonder why we ignored this incredibly important facet of living for so long. In the name of being good employees, faithful family members and loyal friends we time and again put our own needs behind everyone and everything else. In retrospect it was a foolish choice.

I am reminded of the instructions for flying in which the adult passengers are always told to put the oxygen on themselves before helping their children. The reason is quite simple. If the adult passes out, he/she is of little use to the youngster. In other words it is up to each of us to prioritize the healthful habits that we need so that we will then be able to take care of everything else. If only our society emphasized this important idea regarding our health as well as the airlines do with respect to oxygen perhaps we would all be better. Sadly we openly encourage participation in the rat race as the ultimate goal of life.

I have worked for many different organizations and bosses. Some of them understood the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal needs. They were compassionate with employees who required time to heal themselves and even encouraged everyone to take care of home life first. On the other hand I have been employed by people who seemed to believe that the best workers were the ones who were willing to sacrifice home, hearth and family for the good of the firm. They voraciously ate up most of the hours in the day and chastised anyone who dared to suggest that the work was not their main priority. I watched the employees in such places fall apart both physically and mentally. Unfortunately it is not all that uncommon for people to find themselves in situations that slowly but surely begin to beat them down.

I know all too well how difficult it is to be an exemplary employee, an outstanding parent, a good daughter, a devoted wife and also someone who cares for herself. I have been a bonafide member of the rat race and I know how debilitating it can be. In the midst of the daily run it is often difficult to even know where the pack is leading. We just follow out of habit and tell ourselves that it is the right thing to do because we have been taught from birth to follow that old ethic that we achieve success through hard work, discipline and sacrifice. The trouble is that we  misinterpreted the idea when we set aside the aspects of living that make our bodies and minds function more efficiently.

One thing that I appreciate about the younger generation is that more of them appear to understand the importance of good nutrition and regular exercise. They create blocks of time to take care of themselves and that is a very good routine to develop. I have a grandson for example who schedules his time in the gym just as he does his college classes. Exercising is a regular part of his day that is as important to him as eating, sleeping and studying. If he maintains those kind of habits for a lifetime I suspect that he will have fewer health problems later. He is quite wise to set his priorities now so that they become second nature.

I suppose that it is never too late to change and I am certainly in the process of doing so. I’ve learned from my own mistakes and I don’t plan to turn back. If I were to give a single bit of advice to those of you who still find yourselves being torn asunder by the stresses of daily living, it would be to jealously guard  the special times devoted to the sole purpose of making yourselves healthier in body and mind. You may have to learn how to say no to some of the multitude of requests that come your way, but stand tall and don’t let anyone intimidate you. Step away from the rat race and you will finally see the road ahead.   

A Knock at the Door

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It was nine thirty on a Saturday night. We were watching a Poirot mystery on television when there was a loud knock at our door. By the time I walked down the hallway to peek outside whoever had been there was gone. I had just settled back into my chair when there was another banging noise. This time I dashed to the entryway more quickly and turned on the porch light. I saw two young boys who appeared to be around fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them sprinted away quickly and the other stood like a deer in the headlights exclaiming his sorrow for bothering us and adding that he was just trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Of course I understood immediately that we had been pranked. I sensed that the boy who didn’t manage to get away was someone I had seen in the neighborhood. He seemed very familiar and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that he often plays basketball just down the street with a number of his friends.

There was a time when teenage mischief was almost a right of passage. My own girls wrapped houses with toilet paper and celebrated when our home was decorated with long strands of tissue as well. I did a bit of knocking on doors and making silly phone calls in my time. Such tricks are generally done with no ill intentions and I suspect that the young boys who visited our home were just continuing the tradition of being silly on a Saturday night. Nonetheless I found myself quite troubled after our surprise visitors had left, not so much because they had bothered me, but because I worried about what might happen to them if they continue their nighttime visits to other homes.

The world is not the same as it once was. When I was young we rarely locked the doors to our home until just before going to bed. Even then we slept with our bedroom windows wide open because our home was not air conditioned. The only thing between us and a home invader was a screen which might have easily been removed. In those days it never even occurred to us to worry that someone might attempt to do us harm while we were dreaming. Our world seemed so innocent and safe.

Now we live in times of uncertainty. We hear of criminals breaking into houses on a regular basis. There is fear in people’s minds. Many of them install cameras and alarms to warn them of danger. Others add an arsenal of guns and ammunition to their security program in case they need to defend themselves. Doors are now routinely locked all day long. In some ways we act as though our castles are under siege, and I suppose that it is rather prudent to be safe rather than sorry. The problem is that in such an environment individuals may act before they have all of the facts. Those same outrageous boys who came to my door might find themselves on the wrong side of a gun if they hit a home with a very nervous and excitable person inside. They might literally be injured or even killed all because they thought it was funny to scare people.

Years ago two of my daughter’s friends decided to pull a prank on her. They dressed in dark ninja style clothing and crept up to our back window and peered inside while we were watching a movie. Since I recognized them immediately their joke backfired. I was livid, not because I did not have a sense of humor, but because I knew for a fact that many of my neighbors were armed and would not have hesitated to shoot at strangers wearing dark masks while creeping through the dark of night. I scolded the boys for their stupidity while my heart raced at the thought of what might have happened to them had they been seen by someone who did not realize who they were. I was upset that they had been so unthinking.

I feel the same way about the two boys who were out having fun when they targeted our home. I know from an online neighborhood chat room that there have been several incidents of strangers knocking at night to determine if anyone is at home. So far nobody has been robbed or hurt but the comments that people make regarding what their response will be if anyone threatens their personal space make me realize that those boys are at great risk. Many of my neighbors insist that they will call the police. Others assert that they will shoot first and ask questions later. Such is the reality of today’s world, and such is the danger that the boys might encounter.

On that chat line I asked parents of teenagers to have a talk with their children emphasizing that they should not engage in reckless behaviors. I would be gravely upset if I learned that the young people were hurt or killed, but I would also understand why someone might overreact when they feel threatened. It’s up to teachers and parents to instruct the young on the folly of pranks that involve frightening people. What may have once seemed to be innocent fun is likely to be interpreted as a reason for defense in today’s environment.

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. They often do things that are more risky than they ought to be. I was the quintessential good girl and yet I also engaged in adventures that in retrospect might have resulted in great harm to me and my friends. I once crawled under the fence of a property where trucks were stored near my grandmother’s house. An armed guard roamed the area. I had no business in there but I thought it was exciting to be able to come and go without being caught. My antics were silly but they gave me a rush, made me laugh and felt liberating. It never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger.

It is imperative that we speak frankly to our kids before we let them lose on the world at large. Sometimes we shelter them because we do not want them to be fearful when we might be wiser to discuss the realities of various situations in which they may find themselves. We need to be frank with them about peer pressure and how to extricate themselves from situations that feel uncomfortable or wrong. We should discuss how to behave if they are stopped by the police. Just as most parents practice fire drills and show their kids where to go if a tornado hits, so too must we review the skills they will need when they are not with us.

Time and again experiments show that our children just don’t think when danger is lurking. They go with strangers to look for a lost dog. They follow other kids into strange places. They simply have not internalized the necessary skills for keeping themselves safe because we haven’t instructed them as well as we should.

We certainly don’t want to make our teenagers paranoid. Most of the time they will be just fine. What we must do is provide them with the survival tools they will need in those rare cases when things just don’t seem right to them. If we have practiced such things and given them the reasons why they should be vigilant and resourceful they should be okay.

I can’t help thinking about the two visitors to my home and wondering if they are still engaged in an activity that may one day end in tragedy. I hope that perhaps their parents will be informed by someone who knows them and that they will put a stop to their dangerous behavior. It’s sad that we have reached this point, but it is the new normal. It’s up to us to instruct our youth and then hope that they remember what we have taught them.