In the Blink of An Eye

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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

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The Reckoning

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart

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There is a political fire storm raging in our country today over the question of when life begins. In  particular the crux of the argument is whether aborting a baby from the womb is murder or simply a form of birth control, a reasonable choice for women’s health. It has seemingly reached a tipping point in which each side is ferociously secure in its beliefs, certain that the other side is unfair and perhaps almost evil. It has become a bitter fight with so much conflicting rhetoric that it confuses those who heretofore paid little attention to the arguments and the legislation supporting them. At the heart of the furor is the question of the definition of life. It is in that complex consideration that the true meaning of abortion lies, and as of this moment the emotionally charged effect of the differing opinions does little to help us determine the moral path forward for our nation and our world. 

Like many Americans I waffle back and forth between the Pro Life and Pro Choice positions. I feel that I understand the considerations of each side and so I have tended toward the neutral stance of insisting that I would never have had an abortion because I do believe that it is murder, but if someone doesn’t think as I do it would be okay. I have been challenged by both Pro Life and Pro Choice individuals to take a stand, to quit be so wishy washy. Instead I have kept a quiet profile and chosen not to reveal what I truly believe. It has been a bit uncomfortable, but I have done so in the name of keeping the peace. After all, who really wants or needs to know what I think? Why should I rock the point? Whose mind am I going to change?

Suddenly I find myself feeling quite uncomfortable as the issue becomes more and more volatile. I don’t know exactly how to react because it all seems so personal, hinging on questions that can only be resolved in the individual heart. Then I think about certain generalizations that persist in our society, namely that murder is wrong and just because someone is able to justify it does not make it right. I ponder our history of slavery and wonder how many people kept quiet about its practice simply because they felt that it was none of their business and it was, after all, legal. I worry that I’m mostly afraid of being ostracized if I state my true feelings, and my peacemaker personality urges me to remain silent.

Then I recall an incident from my young adult life when a large group of us looked on in horror waiting for the police to arrive while a man was mercilessly beating his wife. His children were screaming for help and yet we were frozen in a kind of fear of doing what we knew to be right. It took a “ good ole gal” from Buffalo, New York to show us what courage really is. She marched past us and forced her way into the apartment to rescue the tiny children and their mother. I still recall the feelings of guilt that I felt for having been such a coward while also being struck with awe over the woman’s courage.

I find myself wondering if the time has come for each of us to step forward to do what we believe to be the right thing. I worry that simply giving voice to our beliefs in the voting booth may not be enough to resolve this issue once and for all. I even consider that perhaps it is far too murky to ever find a clear cut solution. Still, it seems that those of us who are indeed part of the silent majority sitting on the sidelines must at some point come to grips and decide where we stand. Because my own feelings are so complex, I realize that finding the right path is going to be dangerously difficult.

I do believe that life begins at conception. To argue over life in terms of the ability of the fetus to survive without help is a convenient way of denying what I believe to be the truth. So I am one of those who believes that abortion is a form of murder. Nonetheless, I truly understand that as with anything there may be some extraordinary situations that require an abortion to save a mother’s life. Fortunately such incidents are rare, and generally approved by  both doctors and theologians. I learned in my religion classes of long ago that saving a mother is always tantamount to sacrificing her for a child.

I also understand that for whatever reason many very good women have had abortions. I view them with great compassion and understanding. I do not believe that they should be considered pariahs. In fact, I have a dear friend who has quite courageously admitted to having an abortion. She is openly discussing the many conflicting emotions that she felt both at the time and over the ensuing years. She now councils women who have walked in her shoes. She celebrates her own reconciliation and helps others to find theirs. My hesitation to go all in for the Pro Life positions lies in my own feelings for women who for whatever reason have taken this emotion charged step.

The key to the discussion lies not so much in judging decisions of the past but in moving forward into the future and doing the right thing. As with the issue of slavery we need to rid ourselves of a moral wrong, but we must not dwell incessantly on the past. We also need to carefully define those moments when abortion becomes a medical necessity for the safety of the woman. In addition, we have to take into account how to care for any children who are unwanted by being willing to foster or adopt them. We must support and provide forms of birth control that will be available to all women without extraordinary costs or sacrifices.

I do believe that each of us must look into our hearts and decide on this issue one way or another and be willing to stand for our convictions. We need not bring our differences to a warlike state, but instead demonstrate a willingness to understand the genuine feelings involved in the questions. We need to rid ourselves of insulting slogans and posters and silly hats of one sort or another and get down to the business of hearing and considering the merit of each argument. In the end our greatest treasure, our humanity, is at stake. I hope that we find a way to do the right thing. I believe that we may be at a watershed moment of reckoning. We may each find ourselves being called to task. It’s time.

Go Climb A Tree

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I was lying on a table about to get a bone scan when I saw the loveliest sight. It was an overhead image of a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds and the green canopy of a tree. It reminded me of being a kid again and lying in the soft grass on a spring day doing nothing more than gazing at the sky. If I exerted any effort at all in those long ago moments it was to use my imagination to find cloud formations that looked like animals or objects. Mostly I was simply chilling out, enjoying the glorious day and the joy of just being a child. There is something quite magical about that. It’s a time in life that can never quite be duplicated as an adult, a time of innocence when worries and cares are still mostly related to friendships and school.

Back when I was young I liked nothing better than climbing a tree, finding a nice niche between two branches and lying back to do some sky gazing. We once lived in a house that had a specimen that was perfectly made for such things and I spent more than a good share of time high above the earth leaning back in a chair created by nature. It was such a sturdy place that I was even able to read among the branches. One day I carved my name on the trunk to let some future climber know that I had once been there.

I often wonder what became of that tree. I suspect that a big storm or hurricane may have damaged the spot where I left my signature, but I like to believe that it is still standing tall. Perhaps it is inviting a new group of kids to find a foothold and use it as a magnificent stairway to the heavens. I hope nobody cut it down, but then such things happen all the time in the name of progress.

I have lots of memories associated with trees. There was a great tall one near the bayou where I grew up. It looked as though it had possibly been growing when explorers used those waters to navigate inland. Perhaps native Americans had once camped underneath its shade. It was quite magnificent and we used it as a launching pad for a rope swing that carried us over the water and back to the safety of the bank. I don’t think that I’ve ever had as much fun or felt as excited as I did when I climbed higher and higher into that tree and then jumped through the air clinging to the rope that was tethered in the highest branches. Sadly someone wanted to build a home right in the middle of where it once stood, and so it has been gone for some time now. I just wish that those of us who loved it might have saved it. There’s something so sad about losing a truly great tree.

Really old trees are spiritual. When I walk among the redwood forests of California I feel a kind of magic emanating from the gigantic plants that have withstood the centuries. Somehow they seem to be whispering to one another as the wind caresses their leaves, and I wonder what they are saying. Do they want us to go away, or do they understand that some of us truly love them?

My grandparents had a peach tree that filled with luscious fruit each summer. I once helped my grandmother pick the juicy orbs by skittering high up into the branches. It never occurred to me to worry that I might fall or break a bone. I felt the exhilaration of climbing until the branches became too thin to hold my frame. Then I would grab as many peaches as my arms would hold and slowly move back down to my waiting grandmother. I repeated my journey over and over again never getting tired or bored. Youth is like that, a time of unlimited stamina. I suppose that I miss that as much as sitting in a tree, something that I would now be afraid to attempt.

I hope that children still have fun like I did. I hope that they get as much joy out of nothing more than lying down at the foot of a tree and just staring up into the sky. There really is nothing quite as glorious as getting in touch with nature. Nothing that we humans can create or buy is quite as magnificent, save for our children, but that’s another topic for another day.

These days I have to even be careful about something as simple crouching down into the grass. Unless someone is there to assist me I may have a very difficult time getting back up if it’s a day when my knees decide to get surly. Of course I am unable to climb anymore, and even if I had the ability it would be dangerous for me. One small misstep might create a fall bad enough to break my now fragile bones. It’s such a bummer to lose the glorious abilities that I once had. If I could I would find a tree and climb it on a nice spring day. I’d look heavenward and just let my mind relax. Now the closest proximity that I have to such a sight is from the table on which a machine takes pictures of my bones.

Still, I have those memories that are so vivid that they still make me smile. If I close my eyes I am a child again, able to conquer the challenge of climbing as high as I wish. it’s a truly wonderful image. For now it will have to do.

Bring Back the Joy

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The best football game that I saw all year was the Texas 6A high school championship game that was a nail biter until the very end when Galena Park North Shore won with a Hail Mary pass in the final minutes. In fact, most of the high school games are a great deal more fun than even the college efforts these days. Sadly the whole football experience is about  money, and in today’s world that boils down to a few usual suspects with everyone else left behind. The fun and the possibility of surprises is mostly not there anymore. as coaches get lured by incredible salaries and players use universities to launch careers sometimes before they even graduate. Somehow the joy and the luster has worn off just a bit for me and nothing was a more obvious example of what I’m feeling than last Sunday’s Super Bowl game.

There was a time when that gridiron rivalry had something for everyone. Even if the game itself wasn’t particularly inspiring the food at the parities, the halftime show, and the commercials were enough to keep the excitement going for days. This year not one of those things seemed to spark the kind of enthusiasm that was so often generated in the past, which makes me wonder if the Super Bowl experience needs an overhaul, something to make it a bit more worthwhile. I find myself thinking that we may have just grown weary of the tried and true formulas or maybe we have just become so picky and even political that we can no longer be as easily pleased as we once were. We tend to shroud almost every aspect of our society in controversy these days and the game of football is feeling the blows of our discontent.

We grumble about the fairness of selecting the teams who will play. We scream about who should sing the national anthem and whether or not there should even be a performance of it. We preach to the fans about choosing healthy snacks rather than chowing down on chicken wings, pizza and beer. We watch the advertisements searching for reasons to become angry about them if they do not appear to represent America the way we think that they ought to do. We grumble about the performers in every manner from their choice of music and wardrobe to whether or not they honor the demographic realities of the country. We pick the whole event apart as if it is a presidential contest, or something that really matters.

There was a time when a kid from nowhere had a shot at glory in a particular sport, and that is generally still true, but virtually every kind of athletic endeavor is now driven by big money. The wealthy programs dominate and the fairytale of Cinderella teams becomes less and less believable. I wonder how many young souls are eaten alive in the competition to reach the top. When politics are added to the mix things get really messed up. Sport becomes distorted and used to satisfy the unrelated desires of businessmen, advertisers, and politicians. The Super Bowl becomes a circus of craziness that leaves us less and less satisfied over time.

It feels as though almost all aspects of life have become mega competitions to get bigger and better with each passing year. It’s not enough for our schools to produce students with the knowledge and skills to find success in college or work, we want to constantly improve the numbers. If everyone passes a test we push for all of the scores to increase. We exert more and more pressure on virtually every phase of our existence and when it’s not enough to satisfy us we grumble. Little wonder that we seem to have an epidemic of discontent. We have become like the poor rich kid who expects more and more for Christmas each year and pitches a fit of rage when his desires are not fulfilled.

I suspect that I am not alone in wishing for a return to a simpler way of doing things, a time when we focused on the games themselves and not the celebrity or distractions. Perhaps if we kept things simple and didn’t debate about every tiny little detail surrounding the actual performances on the field our enthusiasm might be energized. As of now we’ve gone off the rails.

I suppose that our reactions to the Super Bowl game are just another bit of evidence that we’ve lost our way in the present social and political climate. In general we are tense and irritable about almost everything. We’ve turned our nation into an anxious nail biting caricature of itself and that spills over into everything from football to who will host or not host the Academy Awards. In our efforts to become infinitely fair we have actually become a bit unfair. Our expectations for perfection are so high that we are stressing out our kids and driving good people from their jobs. The tendencies are everywhere and they are infecting our relationships with one another. Voicing an opinion is akin to hurling a live grenade.

Perhaps we need to scale back on almost everything, including the way we deliver the news and how much time we spend doing so. Maybe we were better off before we had a twenty four hour cycle of real time videos and discussions of the world around us. Maybe we don’t need so many pyrotechnics and analyses, but rather just a few lights, an enthusiastic crowd and two teams playing their hearts out. That may be enough to bring back the joy.

Nothing Is As Simple As It May Seem

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Some folks see the glass as half full, others as almost empty. Our views of the world are complex and the product of the totality of our experiences. If people have generally been kind and loving to us we are prone to feel confident that most of the time we will be in the company of goodness. If, on the other hand, our history has been one of physical or mental abuse we will be wary and less inclined to trust. Our thoughts and opinions often reflect the ways in which we have lived.

I’ve seen children who were aggressive or withdrawn with whom it was difficult to form a relationship. Their defenses evolved from hurts that were inflicted upon them. They learned to be wary, more cautious because they were expecting the hammer to fall at any moment. We often see such people as being troublemakers or loners when in truth they are simply protecting themselves.

As an educator I wanted to know why a child was either aggressive or unnaturally frightened. I generally found in each case that there were valid reasons for such behaviors. As my mom often told me, a student who goes home to a private hell is rarely interested in doing homework or studying for tests. They have to deal with far more important issues of safety.

I recall so many stories that still make me cringe when I think of them. I had a student who thought nothing of telling me to  F… off whenever I gave him a directive. I eventually learned that he had witnessed his father killing his mother. After his dad went to prison he was essentially orphaned and angry at the world. When I demonstrated patience and understanding his vulgar language disappeared. By treating him with respect I convinced him to reciprocate. It took a great deal of time and patience to work with him, but it was worth the efforts because he eventually developed into a delightful person. With unconditional love from the aunt who adopted him and concern from his teachers he emerged scarred but no longer filled with rage.

So it is with everyone. If we do not understand a person or his/her point of view it would be well for us to learn more about what has made him/her that way. In almost all cases a person’s background reveals much about them and why they think and act in certain ways. We are indeed complex beings and our reactions are part of a complicated history.

I can still see the faces and recall the stories. The boy who seemed not to care at all actually cared so deeply that he cracked. The girl who was loud and obnoxious was protecting herself from more sexual abuse than she had already endured. The young man who appeared to hate everyone felt that he was unwanted by his parents. The girl whose grades fell precipitously was filled with fears and self loathing because she had constantly been told that she was worthless.

On the other hand those whose lives are filled with love and security tend to be successful barring some mental disease or addiction. They delight their teachers and their friends. They work hard and find success. They are assured that people care about them like the young man who was tempted to follow the lead of gang members but was brought to his senses by his parents and the members of his church. When he saw how much they loved him in spite of his fall from grace he was moved to do the right thing. He ultimately became the very good man that the adults in his life had believed him to be.

We generally respond to love, so I wonder sometimes why we don’t use more of it to solve some of the problems that plague our society. We are too quick to judge and even to condemn without ever learning what is behind actions and beliefs that are contrary to our own. Nobody likes to be judged unfairly, and yet we see it being done all of the time and we rarely speak up when we see it happening.

While I’m not one for creating trouble, I also believe in defending the misunderstood. I’ve often become the voice of someone who is the victim of unjust judgements. I advocate for taking the time to develop understanding and compassion. That does not mean feeling sorry for people or defending evil, but rather walking just long enough in their shoes to learn what is driving them. Sometimes when we take the time to do this, we find, as I have on so many occasions, that their actions follow quite logically from what has been happening to them.

Think of all of the questions that we face in society, and ask yourself why there are so many different reactions and answers. When you begin such exercises you soon realize that very little is as simple as it may at first seem. Then you are ready to work toward find real solutions.