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.

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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.

A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

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This happened for a few hours on August 21, 2017. Much of the United States of America was profoundly united by the majesty and mystery of a total eclipse of the sun. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the path of totality, but the images of a 66% eclipse that I saw in the sky were breathtaking nonetheless. Somehow I was reminded of how infinite and mind-blowing our universe truly is, and how small we are when we consider its expanse. Still, the fact that we have unlocked so many secrets of the cosmos with our mathematics and science is humbling to realize. We were all ready to witness this historic event because astronomers have mastered the tools to make such predictions. We saw images streamed from NASA and wore glasses that allowed us to look heavenward without doing damage to our retinas. Later we shared our experiences with people in distant places using technology that is as amazing as nature itself. Somehow this incredible moment left me in awe of not only the heavens, but also the intellect of mankind.

One of my favorite all time books is The Ascent of Man by Abraham Bronowski. It is a chronicle of the leaps of human knowledge that have brought us to the advances that we often take for granted today. The miracles of farming, construction, astronomy, physics medicine and technology that we enjoy are abundant, and provide us with a standard of living unimagined even two generations ago. Nonetheless we must be careful of relying on our hubris. Just as gazing at the sun during an eclipse without protective eyewear may cause us to go blind, so too will thinking that we unequivocally have all of the answers cause our downfall. We would do well to consider that our place in the universe is but a tiny speck. There is so much that we have yet to learn, but happily there are minds of geniuses working to continue to expand our knowledge just as they always have. I marvel at the thought of what is yet to come.

I sometimes like to consider what developments I would like to see. It would be so wonderful to be able to eliminate mental illnesses, or at least control them effectively. How nice would it be to have an injection or a pill to eliminate addictions to drugs, alcohol or food? I dream of a time when we are able to produce forms of energy that do no harm to our environment and are readily available to anyone anywhere. I’d love to see advances in food production that would eliminate hunger in all corners of the world. The possibilities are endless, and often the most humble sounding discoveries are the ones that have the greatest impact on society.

We still have so much to do with regard to bringing peace and synergy to our world. I often feel that the best possible human advances may one day come in the way we live together in harmony. We still have so much work to do in that arena, but if we can come together to watch the moon blot out the sun, then maybe the potential for humanity to ascend to a higher level of integration is truly there. I’d like to believe that this is not just an idealistic pipe dream.

At the moment in which the eclipse in my town reached its apogee I felt a kinship with the universe and its people. After all it seemed as though we are all more alike than we are different. I viewed the event in a park surrounded by hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers. Everyone on that day in that place was smiling. Somehow there was no room for jealousies or comparisons of one another. There was a definite feeling of unity and a spirit of cooperation. Everyone cheered the passing of the moon in front of the sun and declared that it was a remarkable sight that they will never forget.

We all agreed that we can’t wait for the next big event that will take place in the USA in 2024. That time the totality will happen right in my home state, and I plan to watch it with my children and grandchildren, By then they will be either in college or all grown up  with jobs and maybe even families of their own. The sun will have risen in the east, the moon will have illuminated the nighttime sky and the earth will have rotated on its axis for over two thousand days. So many changes will have taken place, but our fascination with the sun and the moon and the stars will not have waned. Somehow those celestial bodies still rule over our hearts and our minds. We are as fascinated by them as primitive man was. In their presence we realize both our potential and our limitations. We long to totally understand them and we marvel at their power, or at least we should.

Our planet is but one infinitesimal part of a universe so vast that we cannot truly imagine it. We measure our history with the rising and falling of the sun.

Everything

Turns,

Rotates,

Spins,

Circles,

Loops,

Resonates,

And

Repeats.

Circles

Of life,

Born from

Pulses

Of light,

Vibrate

To

Breathe,

While

Spiraling

Outwards

For Infinity

Through

The lens

Of time,

And into

A sea

Of stars

and Lucid

Dreams.

—- A poem from Suzy Kassem

The Dragonfly

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I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing.