Her Serpentine Life

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I’ve always envied the brilliant souls who seem to be decisive in their life choices. These are the people who announce their plans in high school and never waver in pursuit of their philosophies and goals. Their paths seem to be straight and even when they approach a fork in the road they know exactly which way to go without a moment’s hesitation. We all know someone like that and if they are especially lucky we see that their hard work and laser sharp focus pays off for them again and again. The rest of us find ourselves in a confusing maze in which we often simply react to whatever trials and tribulations come our way. We sense that blind luck is playing a bigger role in our lives than we would actually like it to do, but somehow we can’t find a way to be more linear.

My mother used to joke that if she did not have bad luck she would have no luck at all. In spite of her surrender to the fates that befell her she still managed to remain eternally optimistic. I never quite understood how she kept it together so well. Her first fiancee died in the Pacific during World War II. She often spoke of how brutally that tragedy had impacted her ,including describing what might have been her first bout with bipolar disorder. Somehow she pulled herself out of the depression that overcame her by adapting to the reality of her situation. She went to Massey Business College and was soon working as a secretary to judges, engineers and professors. Along the way she met my father and found love once again. 

Mama loved being a wife and mother. It was as though she had been born for that role. She applied both her knowledge of home economics and her business acumen to running a household. She was in her element and loving every minute of it when my father died, leaving her bereft once again with the additional responsibility of raising three children under the age of eight. After an initial frightening episode of depression she pushed herself to be a model of ingenuity as she carried the weight of being mother, father and provider for her family. She did so with an ever present smile and a determination to keep me and my brothers feeling loved and safe and happy. To say she accomplished that would be an understatement. 

There were financial and medical ups and downs and stalls and starts but Mama never complained. We traveled down a long and winding road with her, unaware as children of how difficult the navigation must have been. We hardly even noticed how frugal our lifestyle was because she made even a meal of pinto beans and cornbread seem like a feast fit for kings. Still she was like a giddy child when she was offered a job as a teacher at our Catholic school. The only proviso was that she complete coursework in education after school and in the summers. 

Mama felt certain that she had finally found her niche and she eagerly threw herself wholeheartedly into teaching, studying and continuing to take care of the family. For the first time she had enough income to purchase small luxuries like a new sofa or a weekend vacation trip to San Antonio and Austin. She was the happiest that I ever remember her being and she spoke excitedly about both her students and her classes at Dominican College. 

Eventually my mother realized that juggling and spinning plates at the same time was a bit more than she was capable of doing, so she resigned from her teaching job in order to accelerate her progress in earning a degree in education. She would attend school during the day and spend her evenings studying, writing papers and poring over reading assignments. She got less and less sleep and she exhibited signs of great stress and exhaustion, but she kept on pursuing her goal. With only a few hours to complete, she even landed another job as a fifth grade teacher. 

What should have been the culmination of all of her efforts turned into a disaster. While she had a very successful first semester at the school, the introduction of a very difficult student to her classroom stressed her well-being and her reputation as a strong teacher. By the end of the school year the principal told her that her contract would not be renewed and that it was her opinion that Mama should find another profession. That triggered a decades long battle with mental illness for my mother. For the first time she seemed lost and unable to pull herself back into fighter mode. She was very very sick.

The next few years were torturous for my mom. She was like an animal caught in a complex maze. She finally had her college degree, but she had been blackballed in the teaching profession that she so loved and had a difficult time even finding a job as a clerk in a department store. After months of searching for work she stumbled upon employment at the University of Texas Health Science Center analyzing data for a long-term study of blood pressure. Ironically it would become a place of comfort and security for her, with perhaps the kindest co-workers that she had ever in her life encountered. She made far less than she would have as a teacher, but she had continuing work and the understanding of people who would support her whenever her symptoms of bipolar disorder made it difficult for her to be present. It was the final match made in heaven for her. 

I think that we all imagine and desire a life devoid of the kind of horrific roadblocks and injuries that plagued my mother. We most admire those whose trajectory leads them exactly where they wanted to go. We equate success with such people and yet it would be difficult to deny that my mother’s journey was a model for persistence and courage. She may not have appeared to be on the right track with all of the twists and turns that appeared to be ruling her decisions and her life, but indeed she persevered remarkably. The shortest distance between her beginning and her end might have been a straight line, but she managed to make a beautiful life out of a dangerously serpentine path. 

Before she died, she got to where she had hoped to be. She was admired by her co-workers at the University of Texas. She was loved by her family and friends. She left the world with no debts and no regrets. How many of us will be able to do as well? 

Wasting Away My Way

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

I haven’t approached retirement in the typical sense. I don’t think I sufficiently prepared myself for having hours of free time. I had worked twelve to sixteen hour days for decades and stopping suddenly felt terribly strange to me. Because I had measured my worth by how much I accomplished, I felt a yawning hole when I was free to decide whether I would sleep in or rise early, labor at something meaningful or just wile the day away enjoying the view. It rather quickly became apparent to me that I was one of the people who needed a purpose to feel happy and somehow in those early weeks of retirement there was little that I did that gave me a sense of meaning. 

I found great joy in writing each day, but that only took a few hours and then a whole stretch of time lay before me. Thanks to a good friend I landed a part time tutoring gig that made my blood rush again and brought a smile to my face. I was doing the kind of things that had always brought me peace of mind. 

Eventually I had written an entire book which I have yet to publish. Someone in my family seems to have an emergency that takes most of my attention and the funds that I have saved to get a cover designed each time that I get very close to offering my memoir for public view. I sometimes wonder if my mother is sending me a message that I need to take another look at what I have written since it is mostly about her. 

My tutoring led to becoming a home school mathematics teacher, a job that I had never imagined doing. I’m a cheerleader for public education but I soon learned that there is a very big world of kids who quite earnestly learn in small groups without all of the complications of larger schools. It became my new obsession to work with them. 

I’m proud to say that two of my first home school students have earned Associates’ degrees and are planning for further training as an electrician and a pilot. It made my heart sing to see how well they did in their college level mathematics classes and now I am working to send another group on to higher education. I suppose that teaching is in my bones and I will do it until I no longer have the energy to plan the lessons, present concepts, grade papers and evaluate progress. For now continuing to teach in like a lifeline for me. I would rather be doing it than almost anything else.

I found that traveling was a panacea for my boredom as well. Not even the pandemic interrupted my wanderlust that I believe game from my father, a man who had set a goal to visit all of the states. He was almost there when he died and I suspect that his next journeys would have taken him across the globe. I saw him get a faraway look in his eyes whenever he listened to a cousin speaking of his work in Libya. Surely conquering the world was next on his list.

Things are slow right now. My students are off for the summer and our focus is on my father-in-law whose health and life has been upended since March. Most of my time these days revolves around getting him well and preparing for a future that may include moving him into our home to live. Leisure time and traveling are on the back burner for the moment. 

I know I need to exercise more and get that book published once and for all. I have tasks that need to be done around the house. The only ones that I enjoy doing are those revolving around my plants that I nurture as though they were my children. I remember a teacher from long ago insisting that we can only love people, not animals or things. I disagree with her soundly because I have sincerely loved my pets and my plants as well. I would amend her admonition to instruct that we should only love living things but then I would have to leave out mountains and landscapes that warm my heart.

I suppose that I have learned that it is mostly a waste of time to attempt to change someone’s political views. If they want guidance they will ask and then they will generally listen, ask questions, want to know more. Debating their points of view is little more than a good way to lose friends, but not influence them. Nonetheless I love writing opinion pieces more than anything even as I see such essays turning off my readers. I suppose it is because I really wanted to be in charge of the editorial page of my high school newspaper and instead I was relegated to editing the news. That is when I became a lover of facts even though a little voice kept telling me that I really wanted to influence the way people think. 

I like my life and I’m not ashamed to admit that I do my best to fill every hour of everyday with tasks that seem meaningful. That is my definition of fun so I will no doubt carry on just the way I have barring any accident or life changing incident. I’m a firm believer in celebrating the diverse ways in which we each decide to live. I enjoy watching the passing parade of humans and marveling out how different we all are while still have the commonality of wanting to have the freedom to live in our own personal ways. Some spend their days on the beach, others watch birds. I’m all for whatever floats your boat as long as you don’t try to sink mine. I’ve found a rhythm that suits me well. I hope I can keep it humming along while I waste away my way.

The Windows of Our Souls

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I always loved the first day of school. Everything was shiny and new and exciting in that moment. The students arrived with never before worn shoes and backpacks filled with sharp pencils and blank sheets of paper. The teachers mostly had rested looks on their faces as they modeled their outfits just purchased for the occasion and strutted their optimism about the coming academic year. It was a new beginning when everyone was hopeful  and determined to be the best versions of themselves. All of us were ready to begin anew. 

I usually gave my students assigned seats from the very start. The chart I had made allowed me to learn their names quickly and put faces on the souls who would be in my care for the next many months. As we did “get acquainted” activities I studied the body language and responses of the youngsters with whom I would share most of my daytime hours. In particular I looked at their faces and learned much about them from their eyes, the windows to how they were doing and what they were thinking. 

I saw shy and worried stares as well as the twinkle of mischievousness as I gazed at each student sitting before me. Sometimes I noted a detached and sorrowful look as though all of the joy had somehow been beaten out of a soul. I witnessed eager attentiveness and brilliant curiosity in those eyes. I worried about the angry and mistrusting eyes telling me that I would have to prove my mettle with my kindness and trust. In only a few minutes I already had some idea of the fears and hopes of my students just by watching their eyes. 

It’s difficult for someone to hide how he/she is feeling. Our eyes tell so many stories, especially when we are still young and have not perfected techniques of hiding truth. Our eyes tell all the world when we are tired or rested, happy or sad, honest or lying. They are windows into who we are and how our many moods unfold. If we become aware of the signals that a person’s eyes are sending us we begin to know when we have made them feel good and when we have hurt them. The cues from the eyes tell us what is happening inside a person’s heart moment by moment. 

Of course as we mature many among us learn how to be great actors. Some perfect the art of forcing their eyes to convey meanings that are not real. They become able to fool everyone by hiding how they are actually thinking or feeling. We don’t see that they are depressed or angry or even lying. We are surprised when we learn the truth about them, sometimes even disappointed. Most of us, on the other hand, are open books. We are so guileless that our eyes give away our thoughts and our feelings. 

There is nothing quite like the look of betrayal in the eyes. They seem almost dead as though the acts that surprised and wounded them temporarily snuffed out the very life in the eyes. When I saw such looks as an educator it was heartbreaking. It was the look of a young girl who had been impregnated by her uncle and then told by her parents to keep quiet. It was the look of a young man whose abusive father had convinced him that he was weird and unlovable. It was the expression of a colleague who had found out that her husband was involved in an illicit affair. Something dies inside people when they learn that they have been deceived or abused  by people who should have been loyal and loving. It is the worst expression that I have ever seen.

I should not judge people by the looks in their eyes but I find that a careful analysis of how they appear gives me clues as to what they are really thinking rather than what they are saying or doing. I’ve heard stories of doctors using the eyes to detect unseen diseases long before they become chronic or deadly. My ophthalmologist was able to note things about my health that were uncannily true just by examining my eyes. 

I cannot imagine life without eyesight. It is the one sense that means the most to me. Perhaps because I am a visual learner I more acutely feel the importance of my eyes in navigating through life. Maybe it is because I watched my grandmother become almost blind in her last years. It was difficult to see her being unable to cook without noticing that the milk she used was curdled or that she had somehow made food that contained shards of glass. Nothing made her happier than watching us devouring her delicious meals, so having to eat with great discretion was a sorrowful task for all of us. Her once brilliant and dancing blue eyes became clouded with sadness and worry but somehow they also conveyed her undying love for us. 

My mother used to chide me for staring at people. She did not understand that I was observing them and especially looking at their eyes. I suppose my lengthy studies of them may have seemed invasive, but my only intent was to get to know them and understand them. Their eyes were the windows through which I needed to peer. 

I love the eyes of infants. When they are healthy and loved they gleam with innocence and joy. They are utterly delightful. Sadly the world sometimes wears them down. By the time I would see them in my classroom many of them had experienced grievous atrocities. Theirs were the eyes I most needed to understand. They begged me to help them. I did my best to intercede but knew that I had not always been successful. Nonetheless when their eyes began to smile I knew I had done my job. 

I can still see those thousands of eyes. They both comfort and taunt me. I wish I might see them now to confirm that most of them are okay. All I would need is one look to know. Their eyes would tell their stories just as they always have.

A Wonderful Way of Being Beautiful

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There was a time when, like many teens and young adults, I felt self-conscious about my appearance. One of my cousins had noted that many of us shared a family trait of having a weak chin. Another had pointed out my very fine hair hair that seemed never to hold a style. I was also likened to Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oil, for being starkly thin. I viewed physical defects as a mess and felt uncomfortable in public because of my hangups about my appearance. .

My mother encouraged me to forget about myself, noting that people rarely think about how someone looks, but always consider how one behaves. She insisted that I should be more concerned about treating people with interest and kindness than worrying incessantly about a few flaws that nobody would even notice. While I did my best to follow her advice I did not really understand how profoundly correct she had been until I was in my mid-twenties. That is when I finally began to develop confidence and to feel good about myself. 

Looking back at photos of teenage me, I see a quite pretty but very shy young girl. My features went together quite nicely and all I really needed was a bigger smile to light up my eyes and be a more inviting person. My thinness made it possible to wear virtually any style and look quite lovely. In fact, I would welcome a lithe frame like that now that I have added the pounds that come from living an enjoyable life. 

I still fret over my hair, but only because it is so difficult to maintain. I admit to envying anyone who can just pull their luxurious hair into a ponytail or a bun. Mine flies away like corn silk and refuses to do as I try to instruct it to do. Nonetheless, I have learned to work with it just as it is and move on to more important issues like caring for the people around me. 

My chin is indeed almost nonexistent. I’ve learned that full faced photos flatter me the most and I have one side that is definitely better that others. At this point I would probably look very strange if I were to suddenly purchase a better chin from a plastic surgeon. I find that very few people actually look better after going under a knife in the hopes of improving things. I mostly never even think about that tiny familial trait that one of my brothers hides nicely behind a lovely beard. It has become a matter of very little consequence to me. 

I’m one of those slow learners who realizes more clearly with each passing year just how wise my mother always was. She maintained that attractiveness had little or nothing to do with actual physical aspects. She noted that some of the most beautiful women in the world were acutely aware of flaws that nobody else ever noticed. She insisted that the rarest beauties were the ones who had the most loving hearts. 

We had a neighbor whom my mother almost revered. Her name was Rose Marie and she was the mother of five children. Her home was often chaotic and messy but the love inside was palpable. Rose Marie was a bit chubby after birthing five babies but somehow she did not come across as being overweight. It was her cherubic face that drew all of the attention. She had stunningly beautiful features, most especially because of her warm smile and her eyes that literally seemed to twinkle. She sported a think mane of dark black hair that she usually just wound into a knot at the back of her head. When she spoke it was as though her countenance was lit by an ethereal light. Her generosity was well known and admired by everyone who knew her. Her beauty was indeed enhanced by her personality. 

I suppose that we have all also known someone who might have been thought to be homely but for the loveliness of his/her generous spirit. I have met many women who had enough confidence to laugh off their flaws and approach the world stage with not just confidence but love and concern for the people around them. Few would instantly think of Mother Teresa as a beauty and yet hers is one of the loveliest faces I can imagine. Likewise, Eleanor Roosevelt was taunted as a child for her lack of feminine pulchritude, but her courageous spirit in pursuit of justice for all people radiated from her face hiding any flaws that may have been there. She was beloved by the American people because she had proven that she really cared for them, not because she was a gorgeous First Lady. 

As a young child I watched a television program called Father Knows Best. In my own case it was my mother who possessed the wisdom that I needed. She taught me to put myself together and then go out into the world without thinking about how I might look. Instead I followed her lead and worried more about how people were feeling. Most of the time it felt good to be that way. 

We live in an often superficial world that has a tendency to make young people feel self-conscious about themselves. We see individuals becoming successful with little more to offer than good looks. We learn soon enough that they often suffer because they never learned the importance of spending time just living and laughing rather than chasing after physical attractiveness. When the bloom of their beauty fades they feel as though they have nothing to offer. My mother showed me that real beauty is way more than skin deep. 

Princess Diana was beloved not as much because she was a beautiful woman, but because she exuded warmth for every person she met regardless of their social class or circumstances. Audrey Hepburn was gorgeous until the day she died, but it was her work as a benefactor that made even her wrinkles and greying hair disappear from our gaze. We all have flaws but the worst of these is a closed and selfish heart. Anyone can be beautiful simply by forgetting about themselves and concentrating on all of the people they encounter. It is a wonderful way of being beautiful.  

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

My mother and I used to have conversations that only other women were able to understand. We left out words and whole sentences but knew exactly what the other was saying. My husband would scratch his head wondering if we were using some kind of code to communicate. It was difficult to explain to him that we were using woman speak from a language that we had perfected since I was a small child. In fact, my daughters and I have the same ability to talk to one another with a paucity of words. 

My husband and I have perfected a way of predicting the future utterances of each other. It is not unusual at all for us to complete sentences. It is as though each of us is living in the other’s head. After fifty years of marriage we really do understand the other’s thinking, but once in awhile I confound him with ideas that don’t make sense to him at all. 

It is often suggested that men and women have very different ways of communicating. In fact, there have been entire books written on the subject. In schools it is almost humorous to watch students in action. The girls tend to be attentive and focused while the boys seem to have trouble sitting still long enough to grasp concepts. All of these things affect the ways in which we speak to and respond to one another. 

I am totally a visual learner. I have to see things, read printed matter, take notes in order to comprehend a concept. My husband is an auditory learner. He can simply listen and be able to understand and remember what he has heard. Then there are those who need to touch and feel and interact to really grasp ideas. I suppose that I have a bit of that in me as well because I always studied while pacing back and forth. I was never able to just sit quietly in a library attempting to memorize facts. Without movement it was as though my brain was not working. Sometimes I even combined all three learning styles by walking back and forth in my room reading information out loud so that I might remember it for a test. I performed this ritual while preparing for exams on extremely difficult topics. 

I’ve learned the hard way that written communication can be totally misunderstood, regardless of how clearly I think my ideas are being expressed. Without the presence of vocal and facial cues people may misread a sentence or a comment . I have literally lost friends or angered family when I was not present to note their confusion and instantly clarify the intent of my remarks. Once feelings are hurt it is like picking up all of the feathers that have flown out of a down pillow. A kind of resentment remains and no apology seems to be sufficient. Our facial expressions and body language cues really do matter for the purpose of clarity. 

In today’s environment we would all do well to be more attuned to our communication skills because we seem to be talking over each other. Really understanding requires active listening. Our interactions should not be a debate in which we are constantly planning our next argument. Instead, it is always nice to attempt to understand why the other person is saying certain things. Suspending judgement can be difficult, but it is also the beginning of honest discourse. 

I hear a great deal of group speak these days. It’s lazy to categorize someone’s comments without finding out how they reached their conclusions. We’ve got some very bad habits of calling MAGA folk racists and fascists and Democrats communists and haters. The truth is that very few people fit into a neat mold. When we actually attempt to communicate with one another we begin to hear their voices and understand their histories and their needs. Using canned talking points de-legitimizes our individual personalities. 

We are products of our genetic structures, the environments in which we grew into adults, our educations, our experiences, our jobs. and so many other factors. Thinking and speaking and acting differently is a good thing that should be celebrated, but all too often divides us into camps. Really listening before talking is critical to the smooth functioning of our society. We seem to have lost the ability to appreciate the variety of our thoughts and dreams. 

The first step in reuniting should always be in finding our common ground for communicating. It requires practice to learn the ways in which people express themselves. If we take the time to understand who they are and where they are coming from we can lower our voices and sometimes even just sit together saying nothing. If we don’t make an effort to really hear the other person our conversations become little more than blathering. Take a deep breath and begin the process of really attempting to understand even the unfathomable conversations. It is a good step toward real communication.