Just Like That

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Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.

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Throw Out the Lettuce

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During the great romaine lettuce scare there were a number of hilarious memes hitting social media circles. I loved the one that boasted that finally lettuce was dangerous to eat, but pie was a healthy option. Another spoke of how everyone immediately fell in line with the CDC warnings by tossing their romaine, but many of the same folks thought that vaccines were the work of the Illuminati. I actually posted that one because it struck me as being funny. I was somewhat surprised when I got comments that vaccines are indeed evil.

I am a baby boomer and as such my generation was the trial run for all sorts of vaccines. I remember standing in long lines at school to get the first polio vaccines. I was quite young and not exactly enamored with the idea of enduring the pain of a shot in my arm, but I knew of at least three people who had been afflicted with polio and I really did not want to end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like they were. I girded my courage and gritted my teeth in a bid to never contract that then dreaded disease.

I wasn’t as lucky with things like chickenpox and measles and mumps. There were not vaccines back then and I became ill with all three. The chickenpox were irritating beyond description and I appeared to receive a super duper dose of the sores that come from that disease. My mom gave me a bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls to ease the itching sensation but such measures actually did little to help. She eventually made me wear socks on my hands lest I scratch permanent scars into my face.

I’m a bit fuzzy about the mumps, but I do recall feeling as though I was swallowing razor blades each time that I attempted to eat or drink. I mostly slept a great deal rather than trying to deal with the pain and feverish symptoms that I had. I remember that many of the children, especially the boys, in my neighborhood came to our house so that they would purposely catch the mumps as children rather than risking to become ill with that disease when they were adults.

The worst of all of them was the measles. I came down with those when I was in the fourth grade during a very cold winter. I can’t recall a single time in all of my life when I felt as sick as I did then. I mostly slept day and night in a kind of feverish stupor. My mom kept the room dark because she had read that bright lights might cause me to go blind. When it snowed during my illness she wouldn’t even allow me to peek through the blinds to see a wonder that only comes to Houston once in a blue moon. I heard the neighborhood kids shouting and laughing with glee while I lay on my sick bed certain that I was going to die. While my mother and brothers were outside frolicking in the snow I cheated and glanced outside. Then I spent the rest of my two week sickness fearing that I was going to lose my sight because of my transgression.

My grandfather often told of his family’s experience with smallpox. He described the event in such vivid detail that I was ecstatically happy that I lived in a time when that horrific disease had been generally eradicated by immunizations. The injection for smallpox was the creepiest of all that I ever received. My left arm soon scabbed over with an oozing sore that I protected with a plastic guard. When it finally healed I had a scar that eventually faded away, but in the beginning it made me fully understand what my grandfather meant when he noted that the people who survived smallpox often had marks all over their faces that told of their battle with the disease. He said that his own father had appeared to be in danger of losing his nose in the height of his sickness, and was even told that death was near for him. Somehow he miraculously survived, but the terror of the illness stuck with my grandfather for all of his life.

There is a growing trend among people to decline vaccinations in fear of secondary complications. While I suppose that such things are possible, I also worry that if enough people follow this way of thinking we may begin to witness outbreaks of some of the diseases from the past more often. In most cases the immunizations’ problems far outweigh the results.

My own daughters have been fortunate to never have to deal with the pain of mumps or measles. Now even chickenpox is covered. It is rare to see anyone with polio, but in my day we saw many children and adults whose lives were changed by that disease. I would never want to go back to a time when we just took our chances with the possibility of contracting terrible illnesses that sometimes indeed lead to a lifetime of suffering or even death.

I know that there are numerous arguments against having so many different immunizations, and I suspect that nature may even find a way to overcome the preventive measures that we have set in motion. Still, it is imperative that we be wary of risking a return to days when children in particular were less likely to survive childhood intact because of diseases that were almost certain to affect them. I’m just old enough to understand that our ability to control the spread of so many illnesses is a rather recent phenomenon.

We are living in a time during which predictions indicate that more and more of us may live past one hundred years. Medicine has done wondrous things to make our existences less uncertain. I’m already well past the median life expectancy of the year in which I was born. Miracles are indeed happening that were unheard of back then. So throw out the romaine lettuce and keep getting the immunizations that doctors recommend. It’s an easy decision.

The Stops and Starts of History

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I suppose that I view the world a bit differently than the younger folk do. My seventy years on this planet give me a different sort of perspective. I am less anxious about the state of the planet than I once was, and I see time as a long continuum in which a few years here and there are simply time for the continual corrections that we humans make to our environment. Real change takes time, and often we never actually see the final product of our efforts. History teaches us that nonetheless we have a way of righting ourselves even after momentous upheavals.

I was reading that the sixth century might have been one of the most horrific in humankind’s timeline. It seems that a volcanic eruption and earthquakes around the world created a cloud that enshrouded the earth. During that time people in the Northern hemisphere lived in a frigid climate and literally endured dark days. Crops failed and there was widespread famine. To make things worse an outbreak of bubonic plague spread like wildfire during the same era decimating the population even more. Nonetheless people persisted and managed to rise from the ashes. It is a story that repeats itself in one form or another throughout the course of history.

With all of our flaws and imperfections we move forward, jolt backward, make mistakes and accomplish wondrous things. For the most part our intentions are good even when our decisions are bad. We sometimes get fooled by evil, but almost always crush the darkness that festers in our midst. We slowly find ways to be better, to do better.

My husband watches all of those programs on Netflix about the two world wars that threatened all of humanity during the twentieth century. One of them featured the stories of pilots in World War II who dropped bombs on German targets. For the most part their goal was to destroy military bases and industrial plants that produced arms. Toward the end of the conflict it had become more and more apparent that the only way to finally stop the Nazis was to hit them hard in the heart of their government in Berlin. There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth before the Allies finally agreed to bomb the city. Everyone understood that civilians would be affected along with high ranking government installations. It was with grave doubts about the ethics of such a maneuver that the campaign began. While it was ultimately effective in ending the war and the slaughter, there were those who wondered if we humans had crossed a line over which we might no longer claim the high road.

I suppose that we might debate the pros and cons of almost anything that people have chosen to do. Ultimately the merits of our decisions lie in future outcomes. President Lincoln understood that ending the Civil War required a more committed military offense that would most certainly affect many lives badly. This very kind man had to use great force to insist on peace. The irony of such realities is illustrative of how difficult it is for each of us to know what to do in difficult times.

Our world faces many problems, but it isn’t the first time that this has been the case, nor will it be the last. I am confident that we will work our way toward solutions one way or another, only to discover new concerns as we progress. It is doubtful that we will ever achieve perfection or even come close to pleasing everyone, but we will certainly try our best to reach a kind of consensus. We may quibble and accuse one another of evil motives along the way, but eventually we will realize that our strength lies in using our differences to compromise and effect ever closer approximations to the perfection that we seek but rarely achieve.

There is a kind of hysteria that is breeding in our midst. I see evidence of it in the emails that somehow find their way into my account. If I were to take their messages to heart I would be a nervous wreck because they are designed to incite my anger and worry. What I know from experience is that we do not need or want to throw all caution to the winds and make hasty decisions and laws that are not grounded in consideration of many points of view. I have learned that it is almost always dangerous to follow a single way of thinking with the exception of certain principles such as the idea that murder is wrong. Even in that regard I have learned to ask questions such as, “Would it have been wrong to kill Adolf Hitler to stop his murderous rampage?” In other words even the most clearcut beliefs are wrought with exceptions. Thus it is to our advantage to consider the concerns of those who would express reluctance to follow a particular path. Ultimately, however, we have to choose some kind of resolution and that is when the imperfections become the most clear. We have to weigh the good against the bad, and often accept that not every aspect of what we hope to achieve will be perfect. It is likely that we ill need to go back at some time in the future to remedy the flaws.

Thus it is with life. Whether in the microcosm of a family or the reach of a government we humans attempt to bring order to the chaos that seems to stalk us. Just when we resolve one problem another arises. We must learn to have patience with ourselves and with each other. Most of all it is to our benefit to be understanding and willing to consider ideas that don’t fit exactly into our personal ways of viewing the world. Things will shift and change and work their way toward our mutual happiness. History has many stops and starts but we humans invariably move forward just a little bit more.

The Golden Girl

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I have the most amazing friends! Their posts on Facebook invariably make my day. They seem to have a direct view into my heart and the things that matter to me. I suppose that we are friends because our spirits are kindred in one way or another and they often humble me with their wit and wisdom. There are so many days when they target the very concerns that are consuming my heart without ever realizing that they have hit such a tender target. A few mornings ago I shared several of the memes and stories that they posted because they were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Among them was a heartfelt admission from one of my former students, a young woman who in many ways had been a kind of “golden girl” in her class. I met her when she was a freshman in high school and was immediately taken by her obvious charisma. She was beautiful then and had become even more so in the ensuing years as maturity gave her a kind of polish. Intellectually she was outstanding in every sense. Her academic acumen was sharp and I saw her as a deeply gifted and talented individual. While her forte was writing, she was nonetheless one of the best in virtually every subject, easily rising to the top levels among her peers. Amazingly she was also a natural born leader who had the ability of assessing any situation and taking charge with a kind of ease. As if all of that were not enough, she was incredibly kind and compassionate, a trait that did not escape the notice of both her teachers and her classmates.

This magnificent person became a student at the University of Texas where she struggled a bit to find herself. Eventually she came back home to Houston and spent some time reassessing who and what she wanted to be in her life. She worked to put herself through college at the University of Houston and in the process developed managerial skills from her jobs. After earning her degree the KIPP Charter schools hired her to work in development. She brought so much heart and understanding of the organization and its goals that she has risen rather rapidly though the ranks. Her ascendancy does not surprise me at all because she is one of those rockstar individuals who consistently shines even in a crowd.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting this young woman for dinner. In a turn that speaks to her thoughtfulness she presented me with a replica World Series ring from one of the Houston Astro’s game that she had attended. She had noticed that I did not have one and that I had expressed my desire to get one from a silly post that I had placed on Facebook. While everyone else ignored my audacious request, she had taken it to heart thus proving to me what I already knew about her. She is the whole package, a woman with enormous gifts and and even bigger heart.

I had thought that nothing about this woman would amaze me because I deeply understood her talents and her drive. One morning when I was reading the offerings on my Facebook newsfeed I found the following post from her:

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t because I’ve never been one to put my business, good or bad, on social media. But I want to share this because I have come to terms with it. I have suffered from depression, I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know it went unspoken for longer than it should have. I thought that what I was feeling was normal, that the thoughts I had were normal. It wasn’t until I opened up to a friend about what I felt and what I thought that I realized how wrong I was. I was urged to talk, to seek help so I did. I started taking anti-depressants and sleep medication. A year and half later, things are better… most of the time. What people need to understand about depression is that it doesn’t have “a look”, you can’t always tell when someone is dealing with depression. Most of us live with it and are trying our best to get through it, we have good days. But some days are worse than others, and it’s more than just being sad and no we can’t just “snap out of it.” Yes I tried exercise, I tried meditation, I tried talking, I tried everything I could think of and some of it helped. At the end of the day I have accepted that this will come and go, that I needed to take the good days as wins and know that bad days will pass. I may not be the best at dealing with this, but I am dealing with it and I’m here for anyone who has questions, who needs someone to talk to or who just needs someone to listen.

I was literally overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude upon reading this post. In one moment she had proven herself to be even more remarkable than even I, one of her most ardent admirers, had ever dreamed. I fully understood how much courage it had taken for her to expose herself to potential criticism for I have witnessed so much ignorance about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in my own efforts to educate the public. In a single paragraph my lovely student perfectly described what life is like for those afflicted with diseases that invade the mind. I am over the moon in awe of her, and I have shared her words with others whom I know who have also walked in the shadows and confusion and loneliness of depression. Her beautiful description of her journey to health has already helped people that she does not even know to face their own battles.

We often see individuals who appear to be as perfect as anyone might be without realizing the challenges that they actually face. The beauty of my student and now adult friend is that she understood how much good would come from admitting to the struggle that she has endured. I feel that I am now one of her pupils learning what true determination and strength actually is. I am so grateful to know her. She is even more remarkable than I dreamed.

Get the Ball Rolling

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My two greatest fears are drowning and burning in a fire. I have had nightmares about both scenarios since I was a young child. I suppose that my fear of fires began when a man on our street died in his bed as his house became a blazing inferno. I vividly recall seeing the damage to his home and watching him being wheeled out with a sheet over his body. I was probably no more than four or five years old when it happened. I stood by my mother as I witnessed this tragedy, but never spoke to her of the horror that I felt. I only internalized the terror that it wrought in me, and worried about what I might do if my own home one day went up in flames.

I have smoke alarms and a ladder upstairs under a bed that can be used as a way of getting out through a window if the exit routes are blocked. I am very conscious of sounds and smells in the night and I used to drill my daughters when they were still children so that they would know what to do in the event of a fire. While the thought of losing my home to fire is one of my worries, I still feel as though the odds of it happening are unimaginable. I suppose that nonetheless my phobia has led me to closely follow the stories of wildfires in other parts of the country and to wonder if any such event might ever happen to me.

I have been both horrified and saddened by the most recent fires in California. The videos of individuals fleeing in their cars past walls of flames, burned out vehicles and structures reduced to ash is incredibly frightening. I find myself thinking about those images and the unfortunate souls trapped in a kind of hell on earth as they attempt to save their lives. The fact that so many did not make it, is sobering. One minute these folks lived in a delightful town that was truly a kind of paradise and the next all hell broke lose with little or no warning. They have returned to a landscape that not even a war might duplicate. There is literally nothing left of their material lives other than the clothes on their backs.

While still being alive is dear compensation given so many who have died and are missing, it is little comfort to think of having to start over from the ground up. So many questions and fears must be overtaking their minds. They have literally lost the sense of security that usually comes with having a home filled with all of the memories of a lifetime. How will they ever again sleep peacefully at night? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay and still feel safe? How will the world ever feel the same again?

I have no idea what we all might do to help these souls, but I suspect that if each and everyone of us became committed to sending them hope and supplies and funds for rebuilding their lives the goodness might help to assuage some of the that sadness must be overwhelming them at this moment. I know that those in Houston who lost their homes to the floods of Hurricane Harvey were bolstered by the kindness of both friends and strangers. While they still flinch when it rains and relive the moments when they had to flee their homes, they all tell of the ways in which people gathered like a village to ease their pain and suffering. It was in such human compassion that they found the courage to begin their lives anew.

I’d like to think that we will suspend our negative commentaries about what they might have done more to prevent those fires in the first place, or suggestions that they had somehow chosen places to live that were not meant to be inhabited. When water or fire is consuming your home it is not the time to hear lectures on what should have been. Instead voices of understanding and love are what is needed. Luckily there always seem to be caring souls among us, but in such extreme cases we need even more of them. It is up to us not to just have feelings but to help in constructive ways.

Here in the Christmas season many people search for families and individuals whom they might help in tangible ways. I’d like to suggest that the people in California who have lost so much represent a most noble cause. We might set aside a certain amount of money each day in December to be sent to organizations that will be helping in the rebuilding process. We may want to purchase a single household item each day to send to some family or group. How wonderful would it be to buy a book each day to ship to schools and libraries? One person doing this might not make a dent in the needs, but if our whole nation worked together like so many did in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, just think of how much more quickly the affected people might return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Such programs might be organized through schools or churches for maximum effect. Whole families may want to forego a present or two in order to instead purchase necessities for the people affected by the fires. Those with building skills might offer their services. College students could urge their fraternities, sororities and clubs to make the burned out families their special projects.

It’s up to us now not to criticize, but rather to find constructive ways to help. There will be plenty of time later to determine what changes must happen and how to insure that they take place. In times like this fault finding means little. Compassion and empathy and meaningful help are the things these unfortunate souls need. Let’s get the process started.