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.

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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.   

Into the Weeds

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I love to watch all of the programs on HGTV. There are so many good ideas that always appear to be so easy, at least until I try them. Then I find myself taking two to three times longer to accomplish any of the tasks than indicated by the always lovely looking stars of such programs. Not only do I generally end up with a huge mess to deal with but I myself look like a homeless person or a time traveler from the Tudor era when nobody took baths or washed their hair. I have no idea how to stay put together when attempting home repairs, decorating or gardening. In fact, I try to do such things during the week when my neighbors are not around so they won’t see what becomes of me when I begin to sweat and get grimy. I’d hate for them to be thinking, “Well there goes the neighborhood!”

I have lately been working on my yard. Aside from the fact that it almost always rains when I choose a day for such work, I find that I invariably end up looking like I have been participating in a mud wrestling competition. I also have a tendency to get scratched by thorns and bitten by any stray insect that might be around. I do wear gloves and heavy rubber boots, but somehow the injuries to my skin and my appearance have a way of happening in spite of my best efforts, and I always run into some unforeseen problem.

I have a nineteen foot long flowerbed on the side of my house that is filled with double knockout roses that are simply gorgeous at this time of year. I prune and feed them and watch for problems. Generally they are quite lovely, literal car stoppers. I’ve had folks drive by and thank me for brightening the neighborhood with them. So why is it that in the long hedge there is that one bush that doesn’t make it? All of the others did just fine, so why that one that leaves a hole?

It reminds me of the time that I planted a trio of pines in my front yard. They were growing just the way I had hoped, and the look was exactly what I wanted to achieve. Then one day one of them was damaged by beyond repair by a freak accident. Somehow the balance was never quite right again, but I suppose that it could have been worse like the time a tiny tornado moved over the yard taking out everything in sight. I was glad that nobody was hurt and nothing major was damaged, but had to wonder if my yard was some kind of magnet for trouble.

I’ve put down tile floors and painted just about everything known to man. I’m not afraid to do things on my own, but I have learned that if the directions say it will take an afternoon, I must expect that afternoon to turn into several days. I don’t know if I’m just slow or if it’s a rule of thumb for Murphy’s Law to be part of every home improvement project. If there is something that might go wrong, it will go wrong for me. I’ve had to cultivate lots of patience which I suppose is a good thing after all.

My neighbor across the street works as hard as I do to make his home lovely, and it really is, but both of us noticed that the lawn at the house where nobody does anything is the greenest on the street. We were wondering if the key is to neglect and let nature take it’s course. Instead I’m becoming a devotee of Randy Lemmon, a local radio talk show host who has a supposedly sure fire schedule for achieving the perfect lawn. I’ve applied the fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides as well as the weed attacker exactly as he outlines. I’m waiting to see if the dollar grass goes away and the St. Augustine flourishes. We’ll see. With my track record it will work and then some fool will lose control of his car as he enters the cul-de-sac and make tire tracks on the lovely green carpet.

I suppose that I should just be satisfied that I am not one of those poor souls who has lost a home due to flood or fire or tornado. I saw so much of that during hurricane Harvey. My heart was saddened by the damage that was all around me. Earlier this spring I saw a before and after photo of a home that was totally destroyed by a tornado. I can’t even imagine how horrific such a thing would be. My little annoyances are nothing by comparison, so I should just count my blessings.

Still I am intrigued by the beautiful women who demolish walls, install wiring and plumbing, paint exteriors and still look as though they are ready to model the latest home repair fashions. Seriously, do they not think that we are on to them? Of course they don’t really do any of the work. They just pose for the cameras after some poor soul gets their hands in the muck. They can preach all they want, but I know how it really works, and it is never easy.

I tip my hat to the folks who work in yards or on construction sites every single day. They must have callouses and scratches and dirt under their fingernails. They are hardy souls who wade into the weeds and rarely get the credit for the beauty of the world. I try to remember that they are the ones who dug the holes and carried the bricks. They are my heroes.

Fashion

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A good twenty years ago one of the principals with whom I worked was complaining about a shopping excursion with his middle school aged daughter. He described how she had begged to purchase a pair of jeans with an acid wash that made them appear to be well worn. The jeans were expensive due only to the brand, so he was appalled by the idea of paying so much for something that looked like it had come from a rag bag. He asked the girl why they didn’t just go to a thrift store and find a pair of used jeans that cost maybe one sixth of the price. He wondered if I had ever experienced what he saw as the ridiculousness of fashion or if he was simply out of touch.

I laugh even to this day as I recall his concern, and wonder what he may be thinking if he has walked through the women’s and teen’s clothing sections lately. Trends have gone from washed out colors to purposefully placed holes in jeans. Sometimes the legs are even lopped off  to create shorts with stringy edges. Even I have gone from being an ardent supporter of the vagaries of fashion to wondering if procuring some very old jeans at a thrifty cost might make just as much sense as paying premium prices in the name of fashion. It would not take much skill to create the same looks that are on display in expensive boutiques with far less expense.

Fashion has evolved in so many directions over time. My husband was only recently longing for the days when women showed up at church on Easter Sunday with lovely pastel dresses accessorized with hats and gloves. He spoke of how elegantly his grandmother dressed even for Saturday shopping excursions. Now at church on Easter Sunday we will saw everything from jeans with sloppy t-shirts to shorts that seem more appropriate for a day at the beach. There are only a handful of ladies who still adhere to the idea of dressing up for services complete with wearing beautiful hats that compliment their lovely suits and dresses.

We have become a more casual society and I don’t mind that at all. I personally don’t like to wear hats. Most of them don’t fit right on my head and leave me with a headache after a few minutes. I am actually quite happy that I no longer have to worry about finding one that suits my features. I also hate the upkeep of those white gloves that we used to wear. I say good riddance to such things, but I miss others like the requirement of wearing hosiery for more formal occasions. There are very few women over the age of forty whose legs look good without stockings. The queen is correct to insist that all royals wear hose. They really do look nicer than pasty old legs and they aren’t all that uncomfortable.

I once looked into the possibility of wearing the same brand and color of hosiery that Princess Kate wears because she always looks so natural. I found out that I can even order a pair on Amazon. I was quite excited about the prospect of hiding the always and veins of my legs in a way that appeared to be almost invisible until I noticed that one pair costs forty five dollars. I knew that with my luck I would find a way to put a run in them on the first outing, so I decided not to even experiment with a pair. The problem is that finding an alternate source that does not look funny in today’s stockingless world is not that easy, so I just go with the flow of the current trend even though I would prefer to somehow camouflage my legs.

I’ve seen crazy things come and go. I was once part of the mini-skirt revolution back when hiking skirts was shocking to my elders. I loved the look and showed off my slender gams quite willingly. My girls wanted parachute pants and Vans which I never purchase for them because I thought that the price of those things was ridiculous. I still feel a bit guilty for not indulging them with looks that were popular at the time. My grandmother wore dresses that trailed down to her ankles and my mother got by with very short skirts by claiming that they were little playsuits. Women of every era try different ways of wearing clothing, some of which are actually stunning and timeless and others that quickly become dated.

I have settled into more classic looks in accordance with my age, but I actually appreciate the trendier styles for the younger set. It’s fun to try different styles and to determine what works best. I suppose that my mother was right whenever she told me to create my own looks by choosing the colors and the cuts that enhanced my figure rather than going with the flow. Each person indeed has skin tones and body issues that can be made to look lovely with a bit of care in choosing. The women who master such techniques are always beautiful and not obsessively worried about how they appear to the world.

Fashion is a superficial kind of thing, and yet I truly enjoy attempting to create a look for myself. I’ve lost two inches in height so I have had to change the way I pick clothing. My mid section is no longer long and slender so the sleek tower look doesn’t work for me like it once did. I do my best to hide my flaws and accentuate the things that are best about me. Mostly I now just want to blend in nicely. I sometimes have to remind myself that seventy year old women don’t have to look dowdy, but they should not look ridiculous either. There’s a fine line between staying modern and seeming to be a bit daft.

My granddaughter was recently invited to attend a military ball at her school. She wisely chose a very understated and classic dress, one that would work throughout the ages. I suppose that in the end the styles of women like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are defined by their timelessness. A photo of Coco Chanel looks as lovely today as it did decades ago. Perhaps the key to fashion is to have some fun now and again but always remember that in general less is more.

El Meson

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He sat by the window sipping on his beer, slowly and methodically eating the Palomilla that he ordered each week. He was a regular at El Meson, a Cuban restaurant in Rice Village. He came at precisely four thirty on Thursday afternoons and chose the same table every time. Invariably the other patrons who came and went while he leisurely enjoyed his fare were somewhat startled to see him because at first glance he appeared to be the image of Ernest Hemingway come back to life. His white hair curled down the back of his neck and met his trimmed white beard at his chin. He always wore a straw hat and casual clothing that was stylish, but a bit rumpled as though he was on permanent vacation on some Caribbean Island. He fit right in to the quirkiness of the area and the restaurant itself.

She had her own table set at a ninety degree angle several feet away from his. She too came to El Meson each Thursday, usually arriving just before he did. She tried different things on the menu, one day eating tapas and drinking wine, another enjoying only flan and coffee. She was elegantly prim and proper and confident. Her white hair was smooth and carefully coiffed as if she had just come from a comb out with her hairdresser. She was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a sharp crease and a soft pink blouse that accentuated her slender build. She too looked like somebody, but not in the same sense as the man. She had the appearance of someone important, someone who wielded power in the city. She might have known the Bush family when they were still alive. She undoubtedly traveled in the same circles as the rich and powerful.

He always left first in a slow kind of hurry, making a bit of a scene about the cost of valet parking. His ritual complete he went home to his books of which there were hundreds crammed into the townhouse that had been his refuge for years. He had once been a distinguished professor of history at Rice University, but now he was mostly retired. Sometimes he offered a course at the Glasscock School of Continuing Education and enjoyed the same kind of admiration from the adults that his graduate students had once showered on him. He had lost interest in his career when his wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer. For months his days and nights had been dedicated to her recovery, only the miracle for which he had prayed never came. She left him bereft and unanchored, filled with a longing for his world to just stop. His life became a series of routines that gave him just enough purpose to stay alive. Going to El Meson each Thursday was part of his therapy. Sitting at the same table and eating the same thing provided him with a small touch of meaning.

The woman who sat across from him always tarried at her table, taking tiny bites and sips so small that her food and drink seemed without end. She was in no hurry to leave. Going home meant being in that grand home that she and her husband had built together. He had been a doctor and she was a lawyer. They had worked hard and realized a dream to have a fine home in West University Place, one of the premier neighborhoods of Houston. They had beautiful children who succeeded at everything that they tried, including careers that took them to locales far away. Their’s had once been a gathering place of great minds. Now she was lonely in her little mansion, in no mood for empty conversations and grand parties. Without the laughter of her children and the presence of her husband she felt empty in her house. She coped by finding excuses to stay away as late as possible. There was nothing there for her anymore, at least not since her husband and died suddenly from a heart attack. El Meson was reassuring and warm for her. There she took comfort in the comical boar’s head that hung above the bar and the sameness of the place.

The seasons came and went and both of them arrived without fail at their self appointed times each Thursday. The waiters came to know them without speaking to them because they made it clear that they did not wish to talk. They were Thursday afternoon fixtures, expected guests with unofficially reserved tables, two lonely people sitting near one another never exchanging glances or greetings. They performed their rituals as though they had been carefully choreographed and rehearsed, and then went their individual ways until Thursday came again.

She arrived that Thursday like clockwork and the waiter dutifully showed her to the table that had become hers by right of routine. She ordered a glass of iced tea and said that she needed more time to decide what to eat. She sat patiently sipping on her drink showing no emotion as four thirty came and went. He had not arrived and the clock kept ticking away. A slight touch of worry showed on her face, but she said nothing other than letting the waiter know that she was still not ready to order her dinner. As the hands of the clock neared five she did her best to hide the panic that was rising in her chest. “Where was he?” she wondered.

A commotion at the door caused her to turn in her chair. There he was groomed and looking dapper in a suit. The hat that he always wore was missing and his hair was trimmed and groomed. She saw that he was quite handsome, an observation that had not escaped her notice even when he was in a somewhat disheveled state. She was relieved that he had finally arrived but also a bit uncharacteristically nervous. She turned back in her chair and did her best to resume her usual state of composure. She laughed inside at how ridiculous it had been for her to worry about him for he was, after all, a complete stranger.

As she lifted her glass of tea to take another sip he stopped at her table and pointed to the chair that sat across from her. “May I?” he cautiously inquired as he began to slowly lower himself into the seat. “Of course!” she smiled and her face lit up the room.

(Indulge me in this bit of fiction. I heard about a local author who just published a book of short stories featuring different areas of Houston. I thought of how much I would enjoy doing something similar and then I encountered two incredibly interesting looking individuals as I ate dinner at El Meson in the Rice Village. I was not able to get them out of my mind and had to create a little story for them before returning to my usual style of writing. I hope you enjoyed this little journey into my imagination as much as I did.)