The Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Move Forward Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Histories

Celebrating Womenu2019s History Month u2013 Getting Excited About STEM (NHQ201703280012) by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

March is Women’s History month, a celebration of women’s’ achievements created by Congress in nineteen eighty seven. The purpose of creating a special month was to highlight the contributions of women that had all too often been overlooked throughout most of history. As a female I know this to be mostly true. While I learned much about the men who influenced civilization, nods to women seemed to be few and far between. No doubt much of the  neglect came from the fact that women have not always been given equal footing with men in the world of work, invention and ideas. Nonetheless, it seems that they have indeed left a mark on society that has not always been as duly celebrated as it should be.

I cut my teeth reading about the lives of the saints, which included a number of women. I enjoyed those stories but rarely identified with the women in that august group. Most of them were martyrs or religious leaders rather than ordinary souls like me. I needed to learn about someone like Mother Teresa whose compassion and devotion to ministering to the sick and forgotten inspired me. I enjoyed reading about her courage in overcoming the kind of barriers that women face. I identified with her moments of anger over the fate of so many suffering people in the world. She felt very human to me and so I appreciated the incredible work that she did. 

I enjoy learning about women of the past who bucked the systems and traditions to get things done. Abigail Adams is one of my favorites. If ever there was a woman who should have been a member of the Continental Congress it is she. She was an educated and well read woman who understood the flaws in the plans of the Founding Fathers. She advocated for women through her husband, even though much of what she sought to accomplish never happened. I believe she would have fought to give the vote to women from the beginning, but there was still too much feeling that women did not have the good sense to make such important decisions back then. 

I absolutely adore Eleanor Roosevelt. She overcame almost paralyzing shyness to speak for underserved people around the world. She insisted on inviting Black Americans to the White House even as her husband, the President, sometimes balked at how it would look to do so. She was a progressive who was a warrior for equality and justice. She had the intellect and the strength to run the country in her own right if she had not been a woman.

I’ve had to find the stories of incredible women mostly on my own. They rarely showed up in the history of my student days. The were single sentences in chapters filled with tales of men and their feats. I barely knew about individuals who had pushed down barriers to contribute to engineering and science. The silent female trailblazers were rarely spoken of as anything but appendages to famous men. I often think of how difficult it must of been to be a brilliant woman in an earlier time.

A friend of mine from high school became well versed the in the historical accomplishments of women. She wrote articles about their achievements and even produced a movie that chronicled the incredible work of nuns in the development of the United States. I became particularly impressed by Frances Cabrini who was charged with the duty of traveling to America from Italy to work with the children and orphans of immigrants in Chicago and New York City. This woman who had never left Italy boarded a ship and travelled to a world unlike anything she had ever experienced. With an iron determination she built schools, orphanages and hospitals. Her impact on generations of poor immigrants to America is almost immeasurable. She overcame her own shyness and worries to create a legacy that few men would have been capable of achieving. According to my friend, Frances Cabrini’s story is only one of a long line of industrious, creative and determined women who overcame roadblocks and prejudices to do amazing work. 

I remember how difficult it still was for women to enter male dominated fields of endeavor when I was a college student. Friends attempting to earn degrees in engineering or architecture were often ridiculed by their professors and harassed by their male counterparts. There were formerly all male universities where trailblazing women who were the first to enroll were threatened with vile insults. It has not been that long ago when women with ambition were derided and denied entry into certain workplaces. We have a long way to go to learn the stories of those who persisted even in the face of violence. 

I have not heard much about Women’s History month. Most of what I have seen has been quite superficial. We need to hear more about Margaret Mead and Rosa Parks. Where is the twenty dollar bill that was supposed to bear the face of Harriet Tubman? Why is the redesign taking so long? What can we learn about the incredible women who have not always made it to the forefront of history? I think we need to hear about the unsung women who broke the mold in spite of efforts to hold them back. It’s long past time to make their unsung histories a part of curriculum for everyone.

To Marion

Ireland by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

I’m planning to cook my tractional St. Patrick’s Day feast today. I’ll be making corned beef with cabbage and potatoes. I may even include a loaf of Irish soda bread or a reasonable facsimile. It’s something I’ve done for years now because it’s fun to be Irish. 

I used to believe that I was only playing at being Irish until I discovered that my great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a woman of mystery who gave birth to my grandfather and then died three days later. I know nothing about her and never thought to ask my grandfather if he knew anything that might shed light on who she was. All I know is that Grandpa named his daughter after the mother that he never knew. He wrote her name in a bible he gave to my mother, but rarely mentioned her in his story telling. 

Marion is lost in the records of history. I have never found any reference pointing to her existence, and yet the fact that my grandfather was very much alive speaks to her importance in my family. With a moniker like Rourke, she was surely of Irish decent. In fact, my grandfather often spoke of himself as being Scots Irish, a bow to his father whose name was Mack and to the mother he would only know for a brief time. 

Marion has haunted me from the time that I first heard of her. I long to know more about her if only to discover more about myself. I had never thought of being a descendant of the Irish but I have always had an affinity for the Emerald Isles and its people. I like knowing that I have a bit of Irish in my DNA. I don’t have to play at celebrating St. Patrick now that I know that I am one of the many Americans with Irish roots. 

I find it interesting that even St. Patrick is as mysterious as my great grandmother, Marion. There is only spotty proof that such a person ever existed, let alone chased all of the snakes out of Ireland. Maybe he was real or maybe he was just a creation drawn from many different holy men. Whatever the case, he’s part of my tradition and the namesake for my youngest brother. 

I often think of Marion. I wonder how she felt when she held her baby boy, William, in her arms. I think of how tragic it must of been when she suffered to the point of death knowing that she would not live to see her son grow into a man. I find myself wanting to know what had happened during that birth that caused her demise. I can only imagine how she may have looked based only on the appearance of my grandfather. Did she have his pale skin dotted with freckles? What color was her hair, her eyes? Who were her parents. Was the grandmother who raised my Grandpa her mother? Why is there no mention of her in any of the records I have found?

I won’t be wearing green today because I truly look sick in that color regardless of the shade. Instead I’ll deck out my table with a green cloth and placemats that feature shamrocks. I’ll ask Alexa to play some Irish music and I’ll celebrate my heritage with my daughter and my grandsons. I’ll give a toast to Marion Rourke and tell my family the tiny bit that I know of her. 

My guess is that Marion was quite poor. Perhaps she and her family had not been in the United States for very long. Maybe she had even come here alone. She married James Mack who moved around so much that he too is never mentioned in census records. Perhaps the two of them lived in a rural area. I doubt that she had any assistance in giving birth. Any problems that arose would have gone unanswered. She would quietly die and become a cipher in the annals of history like so many souls who have traveled for a time on this earth. Her story, or lack of it, was quite usual for the times. 

Few of us find princes and potentates in our lineage. The United States has been a refuge for immigrants seeking better lives from its beginnings. Sadly many of those who came here continued to struggle. It was only in later generations that things sometimes turned around. We see that pattern even today with new immigrants seeking asylum from their troubles. They often remain as nameless and faceless as Marion, only to be discovered by a great grandchild farther down the line. Our stories are all linked together in the saga of humankind. 

Today is for celebrating and thanking Marion for bringing my family to life. I think she would smile if she were able to see what she created. We are a happy lot who have taken full advantage of the opportunities that were handed down to us. We’re a little bit Irish because of her and quite grateful to her for the gift of life that she gave to us. Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day wherever you are and if you get a chance lift a cup to Marion who will never be forgotten again.