Legacy

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I recently saw an interview with politicians, celebrities and sports figures who were asked to describe what they would like their legacies to be. Most spoke of accomplishments related to their craft, which is certainly understandable given that society so often judges us by our occupations and what we do with them. Surely, I thought, there must be more to what we leave of ourselves than the body of our work life since there is so much more to each of us.

Of course I truly enjoyed being an educator and hope that I somehow will be remembered for my efforts in that profession. I honestly never saw myself as the most remarkable mathematics teacher ever, but I did put a great deal of effort into finding the best in each of my students, and helping them to realize the amazing potential that each of them had. I know that I loved each of them and toiled to make the learning process a bit more important to them.

I took particular pride in my work with teachers as well. We need exceptional educators and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring some of the most extraordinary ones. It has swelled me with pride to see both my students and my teachers go on to shine more than I ever might have. I like to think that my mark on the world is enhanced by the very small influence that I had on their successes, but in the end what they accomplish is theirs, not mine.

I tried to be a good mother, but I continually found myself in awe of moms who have it more together than I ever dreamed of being. I painfully recall every mistake that I made, and they were many. I was ultimately just happy that my daughters became such fine women in spite of my blunders. Being a mother is indeed one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. At the same time it is a joy and a great blessing to have the privilege of molding a life. The pride and the worries of parenting never really end so my grade as a parent is still listed as an Incomplete. Being a mom has been the central focus of my efforts and has created the most glorious purpose in my life, but also the one in which I often felt the most inept. I suppose that most mothers have those kind of feelings because it is such a daunting responsibility.

More than anything I would like my legacy to be that I was always a person of integrity. Fame and fortune have never meant as much to me as being honorable. My life is truly an open book. Aside from some missteps here and there I have never knowingly tried to hurt someone, nor have I lied or cheated to get ahead. My heroes are not necessarily the people who have been the most successful in life, but rather those who stood for a set of principles at all times. Nothing disappoints me more than learning of betrayal. I instead try to be steadfastly loyal, and I surround myself with people of a similar bent.

Our world is too much concerned with so called “winners” these days and if I were to leave any message to the people that I love it would be to be true to yourself and the people around you. I may not have a great deal of money in the bank or a list of grand titles when I die, but I have done my best to be worthy of trust. I know that there are liars and cheats in this world, but I choose not to be one of them, even if it means appearing to lose. I truly believe that at the end of the day each of us will earn our just rewards for doing our best to live good lives. Winning through deviousness is an earthly thing that doesn’t not last through eternity.

The people that we recall with the most respect are those who are kind and loving and sincere. We are dust and to dust we shall return just as our possessions will eventually rot and become useless. Our good names will live on in the minds of those who have known us if we tried to be truly good people. That is the kind of legacy I hope to achieve. It’s something that I work on every single day.

My mother died with few material possessions left behind, but her simple gestures of concern for people are remembered to this very day. My grandfather was penniless but my brothers and I recall his wisdom and optimism. My grandmothers were so gentle that everyone felt serenely safe with them. I hardly had time to know my father and yet his imprint on me is as deep as if he had been guiding me for all of my life. He gave me a love for learning and travel and the beauty of many art forms. My mother-in-law demonstrated how to be elegantly strong. None of them reached too far beyond the confines of their tiny network of friends and family, but each of them left a footprint on this earth that really mattered, for in their actions was character of the highest order. It was from their examples that my own desire to be a better person grew.

A legacy is strictly defined as an inheritance, a benefaction, an endowment, but it is really anything handed down from the past. It is a kind of gift to the present that need not be material. In fact the best legacies tend to be those that show us ways to be our personal best. I hope that I will be remembered for the good that I have done. It’s a challenge, but one that I take seriously.

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And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.

The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.