Christmas Treasures

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I love decorating my home for the holidays, but it is always a somewhat bittersweet time. I don’t do coordinated colors and high fashion. Instead my Christmas ornaments come from a varied collection that dates back to a time even before my children were born. This year I have three trees in different rooms of the house. Each of them is filled with memories more than loveliness. They include trinkets made by my children and elegant china and crystal pieces. I have things that I purchased on vacations and at least twenty years of Hallmark ornaments that have tickled my fancy. Friends and family members who have gone to heaven gave me a number of the things that hang on the green limbs of my trees and I recall the times that we shared each time that I take the treasures out of the seven boxes that store them for eleven months out of the year. I shed a little tear here and there as I think back over the people and the years that each piece represents. Setting up my trees is a nostalgic time that requires just the right music or Christmas movie running in the background while I work to place each ornament just so.

I laughed this year as I hung the proof of my longtime loyalty to the Houston Astros front and center on the big tree in my great room. I have two ornaments celebrating the team that I purchased so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when or where I came upon them. Other teams are represented as well. Of course I have one from the University of Houston, but I also boast a little sled from Purdue and a bauble from Oklahoma State University that I purchased on the occasion of my brother’s graduation on a bitterly cold December day. Perhaps my most unusual team decoration is a Houston Oiler blue football player made out of yarn emblazoned with the number of the kicker Tony Fritsch. I bought that one at a craft sale long before the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and changed their name. Perhaps it’s time for me to find a J.J. Watt.

My first Hallmark ornament was a replica of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. It portrays him whistling and steering his ship so contentedly that I smile every single time I see it. To this day it remains my favorite among all of the members of my now extensive collection. I have an obvious preference for all things Mickey or Minnie. Various renditions of them dominate my selections. This year I added a metal lunchbox with Mickey’s image that even includes a tiny thermos inside. That one takes me back to my youth and the warm milk that I drank along with sandwiches that were always a bit stale after sitting in my locker for several hours. I can almost smell the aroma of all of the homemade lunches that my classmates brought and I hear the clink of the lids at they clattered open on the long tables where we sat never dreaming that we would one day grow old.

I also have a thing for Snoopy and Charlie brown. I can’t seem to get enough of those delightful characters. My favorite in the mix shows the whole gang singing in front of a scraggly tree. It makes me think of some of the fresh trees that we had when I was a child. It took a bit of work and a great deal of tinsel to transform them, but when they were finished they were so lovely. I used to lie on the floor gazing above at the lights and the shimmering icicles. Our mother gave us very serious lessons on how to distribute the silver slivers so that they hung just right. I haven’t seen any of those of late and wonder if they are even made anymore. They were almost as messy as the needles that fell from the limbs of the trees, but they were enchanting as they reflected in the glimmer of the colored lights.

For several years now I have purchased the annual Swarovski crystal ornament, a tradition that I began in 2005 after visiting the factory in Austria. Each year is celebrated with a different snowflake crafted in beautiful glass and marked with a tiny silver date plate. They hang so delicately and catch the light in their gorgeous facets. I have made it a yearly ritual to purchase the newest one around the time of my November birthday. I suspect that the lovely creations will one day become heirlooms along with the china gingerbread men that I collected for many years.

When I was still working I signed up to purchase a set of Victorian houses that came to my house once a month for at least two years. They are quite delightful to me and represent the kind of home that I often dreamed of owning, but was never quite able to do. They remind me of the structures in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was very young, and where my father-in-law now resides. They literally speak of Christmas to me and the gatherings that we shared each year when my daughters were growing up. We always drove to my in-law’s house so excitedly in anticipation of a great feast and lots of love and laughter. My mother-in-law eventually passed the holiday tradition down to me when she found the efforts needed to cook for so many to be too taxing. Even though I have done my best to create a new tradition, I suspect that everyone who once went to her home misses the feel of that old house and her special touch as much as I do.

I’ve got Harry Potter and Cinderella, golden aspen leaves and glittering pine cones, marshmallow men and gnomes, angels and nativity scenes. The story of my Christmas life fills the trees, telling of fun and friendships and memories. Tying all of it together is Santa Claus who laughs and smiles and glitters with glee. I’m a sucker for anything prtraying the jolly old man. I so vividly recall the magic of his visits when I was young. I can still feel the excitement of trying to sleep on Christmas Eve so that his sleigh might land on our roof to deliver toys for me and my brothers. I never quite understood how Santa did all of the wondrous things that he did each year, but I believed with all of my heart, and I still do. Christmas is truly a time for family and friendships and love and maybe even a miracle or two.

It’s been a tough year for so many in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Many of us  have lost loved ones and worried over those who are very sick. I suspect that we need Christmas a bit more than ever. It seems as though we are rushing it here in Houston, but I understand why. Our trauma has been great and we are still reeling and recovering from the floods. Things appear to be back to normal, but there are many who are not yet back in their homes. They may be spending Christmas in a hotel, an apartment or in a room in someone else’s house. Many of their own Christmas treasures washed away in the waters. I thought of them even as I gazed at my own collection that made it through unharmed. My tears of joy and nostalgia were tinged with a touch of sadness for all that has been lost. Still, the real message of Christmas is one of hope. The reason for the season is still about a baby born in a humble manger who came to provide us with the promise that we are never alone. Perhaps this year it is more important than ever to remember what our celebrations should be all about. It doesn’t really matter what our religious beliefs may be, but that Christmas is all about love.

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And Yet I Smile

fa63118bf63a334a496e6b0794b8de96--smile-qoutes-smiley-faces(With acknowledgment to the writers of The Walking Dead)

It has been a very difficult year from start to finish, and yet I smile. Many of my friends and relatives have endured illnesses and even deaths, and yet I smile. I witnessed my husband lying on the floor of a bathroom, slurring his words, unable to lift himself, and yet I smile. I watched in horror as my city filled with flood waters while fifty one inches of rain fell relentlessly, and yet I smile. Dear friends have suddenly died leaving me with a longing for the fun times that we shared, and yet I smile. My mother-in-law fell and broke her arm while my father-in-law fell and bruised his body, and yet I smile. There has been a fire in my kitchen, damage to my once lovely patio, and yet I smile. In so many countless ways the last eleven months have brought an unfair share of misery all around me, and yet I smile. Why is this so? It is because I am still here, still standing, still fighting the good fight, and through all of the travails I have learned again and again how wonderful people are, and so I smile.

I cannot control what happens to me, but I am always able to determine how I will react. I change and become a slightly newer person with every event, good or bad, that overtakes me. I may choose to collapse in a state of sadness which I honestly often do, but I may also look for the tiniest drop of positivity in even the darkest moments. When I find that grain of hope, I smile. Sometimes there is little more that I might do than to turn the corners of my mouth upward and view my situation with a bit of humor. Laughter almost always makes me feel as good as a big ugly cry does. A release of my emotions provides me with the will and the power to tackle whatever job lies ahead, and when I can choose I prefer finding something, anything about which to smile.

I haven’t always been this way. For much of my life I bemoaned my fate. I was a sad sack filled with self pity. I felt beset upon because my father died. I pouted because I counted how much I lacked rather than glorying in what I had. I was dissatisfied with my appearance, my personality, all sorts of things. I was jealous of people who appeared to enjoy life in ways that seemed unavailable to me. In other words I found only the bad and almost never the good that was always present but I hidden from my view. Then one day I smiled. It felt empowering to concentrate on my good fortune rather than my bad luck. I learned to approach each day much as people do in November by counting my blessings, and so now I frequently smile.

The reality of my husband’s health problems is a bitter pill, and yet I smile because he is still here with me. I know the importance of enjoying each and every minute that I have with him. I savor our conversations, the things that we share. I need little more than his companionship to make me smile.

I marveled at the outpouring of kindness that has flowed over my city during and in the aftermath of the floods. I have cried when viewing the damaged homes, and yet I smile, because there is a can do spirit every place that I go. I now understand that I will never be all alone. There are enough compassionate people that surely someone will always step forward to help me in an hour of need just as they have assisted so many. I smile because ours is not an ugly world, but a beautiful one in which people sometimes falter. I now believe that love will always find a way to conquer even the most terrible tragedies.

I miss the friends and relations who have died, and yet I smile, because when all is said and done I have laughed and played and enjoyed my time with them. I have known their love and it is a treasure that will always be alive in my heart. Even knowing how I may hurt when they are gone, I would go gladly go back in time to repeat the moments that we shared. I would not want to change a thing about those amazing times.

I suppose that it is when things are the most difficult that we realize the significance of how wondrous our lives have actually been. I recall not so much the things that I have accumulated but instances when I watched my children running and playing so carefree and happy. I can almost hear the laughter of Christmases with my big crazy family, even though I don’t really recall the gifts that I received. I think of the people who demonstrated their love by attending my mother’s funeral. They may not think that I noticed that they were there to support me and my brothers, but I did, and so I smile. I see the mountains, rainbows, glistening lakes, towering forests, and falling snow in places that I have visited. Those images that live inside my mind make me smile. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I think of the faces of my students lighting up with understanding. It feels so good to know that I did something so important.

Yes, not just this year but much of my life has had its share of disappointments, failures, tragedies, losses, and yet I smile. I have calculated the positive aspects of my existence and they far exceed those that made me sad. I’m still watching the sun rise and set. I keep moving forward toward who knows what. I will no doubt be challenged in ways that I have not yet imagined. I will have to endure tough times, and I yet I smile. I am certain that I will always somehow find the strength and support that I need. People that I know or have not yet met will walk with me on my journey, especially if I find the wherewithal to smile and the courage and gratitude that will allow them to help me. I have found the secret to happiness, and so I smile.

Twilight Dreams

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You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.—C.S. Lewis

I’ll be celebrating my sixty-ninth birthday this week and I still often behave as though I’m eighteen and just embarking on adult life. Sure I’m not as energetic as I once was nor as quick-witted, but as long as I am still able to care for myself I plan to keep dreaming.

There are certain things that were once on my bucket list that don’t matter much to me anymore. For a very long time I wanted to live in West University Place, an upscale neighborhood near Rice University. I love the big trees and old style architecture there along with the perk of being close to so much of the action in Houston. For most of my working years I held firm to the belief that I would one day get there, but the prices of the homes kept increasing, and my salary as an educator didn’t keep pace so it never happened. Once I realized that I may as well scratch that idea from my book of dreams I was briefly sad, but eventually it didn’t really matter anymore. I love my present home and my neighbors and have little desire to move. After the floods of hurricane Harvey I was was incredibly grateful that I survived without any damage and I didn’t once think of how it would have been if I had indeed found my way into West U. Sometimes such goals actually become irrelevant.

As I’ve aged my tastes and desires have changed. I’m much more mellow than I once was. I learned the importance of appreciating the many blessings that I have rather than constantly wanting more and more. Contentment has become my most worthy goal, and I am doing quite well in living the dream. I’ve become amazingly good at thoroughly enjoying myself just watching the birds and sipping on a class of wine in my backyard. I like long conversations with my husband, and the honor of helping my grandchildren with homework. I no longer have to be reminded to be thankful because I find myself thinking of my good fortune multiple times each day. I truly enjoy life whether I am doing something exciting or simply basking in the wonder of the people that I know.

When I was younger my dreams centered on finding success, accumulating things, becoming wealthy. I eventually realized that my desires were not making me happy because they were focused on the wrong things. Once I acknowledged the greater importance of being a good person and appreciating and cultivating relationships I began to have a sense of lightness even when I was merely performing routine tasks on very quiet days. It’s quite true that nobody takes any possessions with them when they die. They may be dressed in fine clothes, wearing golden rings and such, but few are ever remembered for what they owned. What truly remains are the legacies that they have created over time. For that reason my goals as I begin to approach my seventieth decade all center on people. I truly hope that I will leave love and memories of a purpose-filled life behind.

My dream is to stay healthy enough of mind and body that I will be able to continue to help and sometimes even inspire the people that I encounter. I don’t need much for myself anymore, but I would so like to be able to comfort and enrich other lives. I have begun to understand that it doesn’t always take a great deal of money or effort to do that. Just letting people know that they matter is a great gift. So many are struggling and the world can sometimes feel quite hateful. I want to be that person who smiles and improves a day that might otherwise have been bad.

It never takes great effort to bring joy into other people’s worlds, a kind word, an affirmation, just being there. When I received a “thinking of you” card from high school friends after my husband’s stroke it felt as though I had won the lottery. That little note of reassurance and thoughtfulness made what had been a very bad day seem bearable. My goal is to pay that sort of kindness forward a hundredfold. I suppose that everyone appreciates an unexpected pat on the back as much as I do.

I so admire Jimmy Carter for continuing to spend his time and talents in his twilight years helping the less fortunate. He might have traveled, played golf, spoiled himself, but instead he has dedicated his post White House years to being a shining beacon of hope for so many who might have suffered but for his largesse. I can’t think of more noble goals than the ones that he set for himself. I wonder if I would have been as forgiving as he was when the voters rejected him for a second term as president. As lesser man might have stewed in indignation. President Carter instead found a way to remain optimistic and loving. There aren’t many bonafide saints who were as magnanimous as he has been.

I have no idea when the clock will stop ticking for me. I’ve certainly witnessed friends and family members in my age group climbing the stairway to heaven. Their deaths remind me that none of us have a certain future. Nonetheless I plan to keep planning until I can no more. I think that just about anything is possible for me to accomplish as long as I don’t surrender to the passage of time. I’m just not yet ready to sit permanently in a rocking chair just watching the world go by. I suspect that there are still many miles to traverse and I want to walk them with a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve actually considered attempting to earn a doctorate, and the only thing that holds me back is that I would rather spend time with people than with books and my thoughts. I want laughter and love and life to be part of my days. I desire to have friendships and fun. I’d like to think that I have many more smiles to flash and hugs to give away. I want a twinkle in my eyes and a happy story on my lips. I believe that I have actually found the most worthy promises of my life, and I thank the good Lord that I have everything that I need to make all of them come true.

Stepping Back

earth-from-space-westernI possess a rather odd and illogical dread of odd numbered years. I suppose that my superstition began because almost consistently the most significant people in my life have died in a year marked by an odd number, or some especially dramatic and tragic event has taken place in times ending with a 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9. I quietly take a deep breath every other New Year’s Day and then heave a sigh of relief when we return to a reckoning in which an even number denotes the passage of time. I tend to laugh at my silliness and don’t really believe that there is some kind of curse on years not evenly divisible by two, but it’s a difficult  habit to kick when a coincidence of bad karma occurs again and again just as I feared that it might. God knows that this year of 2017 has been rather strange and difficult for virtually everyone, but there is in fact a silver lining that is almost always hidden in even the most trying times.

We have dozens and dozens of platitudes about our human resiliency and the notion that the hardest moments in our lives often bring out the best in us and the people around us. Loss and trauma are no small things and their after effects often linger for decades, but those also tend to be the very instances when the overwhelming goodness of humans becomes the most evident. It is when we feel as though we are in our lowest valleys of despair that we learn that we are not alone, for heroes appear of whom we were often not even aware.

I just finished Mitch Albom’s novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I had never before read it because I was miffed that Mr. Albom had appeared to have created a best selling story that was similar to an idea that I had. I had to set my pettiness aside because two of my grandsons are reading the tale as one of the assignments for their English class. I sometimes help them to demystify the intricacies of literature and so I needed to be familiar with this particular book. I found that the theme and the writing style were far more interesting and less maudlin than I had supposed. The thread of the story reminded me that life takes so many unexpected turns that may seem negative at the time, but often contribute to our betterment without our even realizing it. It is when we are most challenged that we witness the true courage of the human spirit.

Nobody who is suffering really wants to hear that what they are enduring is God’s will or that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. In the midst of tragedy we are mostly overwhelmed and struggling just to make it from one day to the next. Sometimes it feels as though our entire lifetimes are riddled with challenges that keep us perennially weary. Like Eddie, the protagonist of The Five People You Meet in Heaven we may even feel as though we are dying a slow death. We fail to see what is really happening in our lives. We are so fixated on hurt and betrayals and losses that we never realize the thousands of ordinary moments when people are loving and sacrificing for us. We are driven to react more by the ugliness that we see than the goodness that is far more overwhelming. We become locked in a struggle to unravel the old conundrum of deciding whether the glass is half full or half empty.

As an educator I often encountered problems that were so trying that I began to question my abilities. I would stew over my powerlessness to reach the hearts and minds of everyone of my students. I tended to focus on the most terrible incidents of my daily routines in the classroom rather than recalling that I had done well more times than I had failed. Like most humans I was unforgiving of myself in my quest for a perfection that is in fact nonexistent. We innately know that none of us will get through life without enduring or even creating total mess ups now and again, and yet we upbraid ourselves for our very humanity. It takes a great deal of living and self reflection to ultimately learn how to be kind not only to ourselves but to our fellow men and women as well. The wisest among us are those who take the hard knocks without beating themselves just for being normal.

It has almost become a blood sport to criticize people and actions that we do not fully understand. We sometimes hide our own insecurities in a cloak of smugness, pretending to be more righteous than we really are. The best among us are less likely to do that, and we often secretly long to be more like them. We all know someone who seems to maintain an almost angelic optimism and an ability to keep a cool head when everyone else is melting down. If we take the time to learn more about such individuals we generally find that they have worked hard to be self aware and nonjudgemental. They actually choose to take life’s blows in stride. Theirs is a very conscious effort to stay calm and carry on even when the disappointments that they face threaten to push them into the abyss. They allow themselves to be fully human and to find the good that is always present even when it is unseen.  Nobody ever escapes the trials of life. There is no Garden of Eden anywhere, but there are ways to step back just enough to get a wider view of what is happening and to witness the big picture of the world around us. When we are able to do that we almost always see that we are surrounded by more love than hate, more goodness than evil, more hope than despair.

In an era when we feel as though the very earth is wobbling it is especially confusing. We worry that mankind has gone mad, and there is certainly evidence that a significant proportion of our species is behaving badly. Still we have to remind ourselves that the sun is still rising and providing a new day to set ourselves straight. We have to inhale and truly see the brave souls who wade through high water to rescue the stranded, the courageous who run toward the bullets to aid the wounded, the friends and strangers who surprise us with their largesse. We are essentially a human race with the same blood tracing through our veins, the same desires for happiness, the same generous spirits. We cannot allow the ugliness to overtake the beauty of who we are as people. We shouldn’t have to go to heaven to learn the important lesson that each of us has significance in the flow of history and that our collective impact on life is far more dramatic than we might ever have imagined.

Perhaps if we all were to become more self aware and more conscious of all of the people around us we might find more hope even in odd numbered years or stressful times. We would gain a more realistic perspective of what is really happening in the long run. We would realize that it is incredibly rare for anyone to be always bad or always good. We might begin to enjoy more moments of clarity and insight if we learned first to look for the true meaning of what it means to be human. We might even find that those platitudes that sometimes irritate us exist because there are grains of truth and wisdom to be found in them. Mostly we will find the peace we seek when we take more time to number our blessings big and small.

I always think of how confused and unpleasant the world may appear to be from the vantage point of being in the middle a crowd on a noisy street. If we instead travel into the vastness and solitude of outer space we look down on a blue planet that is stunning in its beauty. It is as though in seeing the entirety of the earth we are able to finally understand how remarkable it truly is. That is what we must also do in assessing both ourselves and our fellow travelers in his journey between birth and death. It is a breathtaking experience to see all of the events of our lives put together forming a whole. Look carefully and you will see how truly beautiful we are.

Becoming Children Again

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The lovers of life, they are children at heart always in their wonder and delight.

—-Elizabeth Goudge

Have you ever noticed that there is a certain innocence about truly happy individuals. They somehow manage to find the good in people wherever they go. They get excited about the world around them, even when the things that they experience are quite homely and small. It doesn’t take much to make them smile or garner their appreciation. It is as though they see life in a manner quite different from most of us, but in reality they are generally all too aware of the challenges that we all face. The difference in their level of joy comes not from being lucky enough to never endure distress, but in the manner in which they face the ups and downs of living. They somehow hold fast to the wonder and delight of childhood, making them such pleasant people with whom to be.

Living is always about making choices and among the decisions that we encounter each day is the manner in which we react to both our successes and our failures. If we maintain an optimistic mindset we understand that our journeys may become quite difficult, but ultimately we will find the way to work ourselves out of even the darkest times. I suppose that I first learned this from my mother, a woman whose existence was wrought with so much pain and disappointment. In spite of all the terrible things that happened to her she was known far and wide as someone with a perennial smile on her face and a generous spirit. Sometimes she actually frustrated me with her almost childlike insistence that she was ultimately going to be just fine.

My father had died and we were always low on money, but she never seemed to worry about how we would survive. She budgeted like a CPA and managed to find what we needed again and again. She could have taught a course on how to feed a family of four on little or no income. She knew how to turn a roast or a pot of beans into multiple delicious and satisfying meals. Nothing was ever wasted in her kitchen, the fact of which she was quite proud. She taught me and my brothers the art of being satisfied and thankful for whatever we had. She was able to turn an evening at home with television reruns into a gala event. Somehow she even made a game of cleaning the house each week, so much so that we looked forward to the mopping and dusting. She would continuously remark that we were so lucky. She had a knack for finding the silver lining in virtually every situation which made her a great ally to have around.

I have a good friend named Cappy who is much like my mom. In spite of a series of circumstances that would have laid most mortals low, she seems to have a big grin permanently tattooed on her face. She finds fun in doing things that would generally seem quite ordinary simply because she chooses to be happy. It’s the one thing over which she has total control, and she takes full advantage of her ability to rise above her circumstances. Her attitude is amazingly upbeat in spite of the fact that she recently broke her hip and is the caretaker for an invalid husband. She gets a kick out of going to the local Kroger store and trying the food samples. She watches movies and programs from a laptop rather than owning a big screen television. She recycles everything that comes her way to save even more money. She operates on a budget that many might claim is impossibly small, and does so with panache.

I note time and again that the happiest people that I know live quite simply and appear to enjoy themselves no matter where they are. They go through floods and illnesses and even deaths with a positive outlook. They rarely complain of being beset upon. Like children they delight in the wonder around them rather than pining away for a different life.

I’ve certainly attempted to model their behavior of late. I find that I need far less than I once thought I did. I can spend time watching the hummingbird who flits among my hibiscus plants. I get a kick out of observing the antics of the geckos that seem to have taken over my backyard. I watch the clouds and imagine what kind of shapes they form. I listen to the buoy bell that hangs near my garden swing and recall a long ago trip that I took to Maine with my husband and two good friends. I plan the lessons for the children that I teach and feel so thankful that my brain appears to still be operating quite well. I enjoy the music that I have collected over the years and gaze in my yard at the flowers that have begun to bloom profusely again now that the weather is a bit cooler than it has been of late. I look forward to the class that I will soon begin at Rice University, and my heart fills with expectation of Friday night football games and trick or treaters on Halloween.

I have friends who continuously post images of their children on Facebook. Those little faces are so filled with wonder and delight. I see a promising future for all of us in their expressions. I doubt that their parents realize how much happiness I experience in seeing them. I laugh and smile from ear to ear at their antics and feel a sense of hopefulness that we are all going to be just fine. I am led to a place of great contentment by the little ones. I  constantly learn from them even when all they do is giggle.

I realize that many people that I know are dealing with great heartache and that they are weighed down by situations that sometimes seem insurmountable. What I have learned is that at such times we must be like children who haven’t yet grown cynical or unwilling to take risks. We must pause long enough to enjoy building a fort out of sheets, playing inside a cardboard box, or imagining the impossible. Once we adjust our mindsets from thinking, “I can’t” to “not yet, but I will” we become capable of not just enduring hard times but of overcoming them with smiles on our faces. We become childlike again and in that transformation we often find the answers that we seek.