Heaven On Earth

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When I was just a tad older than forty my husband and I decided to attempt a climb of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park along with our two daughters. We camped a little way up the trail and rose in the dark of the early morning hours to begin our trek. There was a silence between the four of us and our fellow adventurers who moved patiently up the mountain with only the illumination of flashlights to guide the way. Around five in the morning we stopped to gaze at the lights of the town of Estes Park far below where humanity was just waking up for a new day. It felt like looking at a little fairy village in a scene inside a snow globe.

By the time the sun rose above our heads we had reached the Boulder Field, an outcropping of massive rocks over which we would have to climb to get to the final stages of our journey. As I stood there with a brisk wind blowing across my face I looked all around and down below experiencing an other worldly sensation. It was as if I had somehow found a slice of heaven on earth, a vision that stays with me and soothes my soul to this very day.

I was unable to continue the trek to the summit because one of my daughters became quite ill with mountain sickness. I knew that I had to get her to a lower altitude where the air was more rich with oxygen. I might have been disappointed in coming that far and not being able to continue to the to the end of the trail but for the fact that I felt such serenity in the place that I had already encountered. I literally was aware of God’s presence in the world and it was not necessary to go any farther to feel a sense of divine ecstasy.

There have been other times when I believed that I was in a heavenly place and each of those moments were defined by the people with whom I had shared the experience and the magnificence of the scene before me. Last year I traveled to a quaint little town near York in England. It was called Robin Hood’s Bay and the combination of sharing fun times with my brothers and sisters-in-law along with a spectacular view made me once again feel as though heaven had somehow come to earth.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a seaside town rumored to have once been an outpost for pirates. It is now a sleepy fishing village with a passage to the North Sea and from there to distant shores like Norway. It is built on rugged cliffs and the wind seems to whisper the stories of the valiant people who once lived and worked. It’s main street features shops and buildings sitting precariously on steep hills that meander up and down while sea laden breezes fill the air. The whole place appears to have come from a fantasy with its quaintness, but in truth life was once very hard there. Somehow now the people have settled into a slow pace of living and being there was quite glorious. Sitting with the people I love while laughing and looking into the eternity of the horizon brought me a heavenly peace.   

Heaven on earth has meant holding my babies, first my daughters and then my grandchildren. There is a hopefulness about being near little ones. Their innocence makes them seem like tiny cherubs. They remind me that there is still pure unadulterated goodness in the world. A baby sleeping on my chest brings me a calmness that only paradise itself might otherwise provide.

I have found heaven on earth in the most unexpected ways like sitting in the bough of a tree, watching the sunset in Grand Canyon, hearing the haunting cry of a loon. Sometimes relaxing in the quiet of my living room while listening to the laughter of the neighborhood children fills me with so much joy that I think this must surely be what heaven is like.

Each day I draw closer to the inevitable end of life here on earth that each of us will face. I sometimes wonder what heaven will actually be like. Will I get to choose what makes me happiest or is it so unimaginably special that my own images of it fall short of the reality? Will I once again see all of the people that I have known and loved? How will they appear? If I want to see Abraham Lincoln will that be possible? I’d like to believe that the contentment that I have felt on that mountain top and in that village will be mine for eternity but will it take a form that is more special even than my own thoughts?

Heaven is ethereal. How is it possible that we might get a glimpse of it even for a second here on earth? Somehow I believe that the glory of the best moments of my life will be magnified a thousand fold when I finally see my divine reward, but for now I am here and I want to find more of those times when the earth itself has felt so perfect. I think of a rainbow over the winding road of Glacier National Park, the first kiss from my husband, my mother’s smile, my father reading to me, my little girls kicking me from inside the womb. Surely heaven must be even more wonderful. 

It’s Never Too Late

Follow-Your-Dreams

First I loved to read and then I loved to write. First my father inspired me and then my high school English teacher helped me to believe in myself. I headed to the University of Houston determined to major in English, hoping to become a writer but convincing myself that I would most likely earn a living by becoming a teacher.

I was enchanted by the written word. Reading for my classes was a source of joy and then authoring papers became my passion. If I had been totally honest I would have admitted that my ultimate dream was to become so proficient in the art of writing that it might have become my profession. Instead I believed the naysayers who shook their heads and assured me that becoming a published author with enough income to live was akin to a sandlot ball player getting a spot on a professional team.

I hedged my bets by minoring in mathematics and securing certifications for teaching. I not only never got an opportunity to teach English, but I also never had the pleasure of writing for a fee. I admittedly enjoyed being an educator and have no regrets after a long and happy career. Still, the idea of actually being paid for doing the one thing that most enchants me is alluring. I sometimes wonder if I would have made it as an author or a journalist if I had not been so afraid that I might fail. After all, I had a class with a young man who began his journey to professional sports playing at a Houston city park. Clyde Drexler certainly had skills but he had to be willing to take risks to show the world that he was a champion.

I sometimes chide myself for being so overly cautious and for making excuses for my unwillingness to follow the less certain path. I might easily have continued writing even after I had secured a job as a teacher. Stephen King initially supported himself and his wife by working as a high school teacher. He wrote in his free time and submitted manuscript after manuscript until Carrie finally caught a publisher’s eye. He did not find excuses to abandon his passion but I certainly did. For a very long time I stifled that little part of myself that brought me so much joy because I believed that even thinking that someone might want to read what I had to say was silly. I hid behind a wall of apologetics while my heart longed to be free.

It was not until my children were grown, my mother had died, and I had retired that I allowed myself the luxury of writing again. At first I was so fearful of what people might think of my ideas. I wrote and rewrote passages to tame my thoughts, make them more acceptable to a wider audience instead of letting my heart speak. I had so often told students that the best writing has a very personal voice but I broke my own rules. It was only after I enrolled in a one day class at Rice University that I understood that I must overcome all of the trepidation and negativity that resided inside my head. I had to be myself on paper just as I had so unselfconsciously done when I was writing for my professors in college. They had seen the possibilities and had encouraged me to continue to develop my craft. I had believed that they were only being kind. I convinced myself that they were flatterers and the real truth came from people who insisted that I be practical, realistic.

So here I am at the age of seventy one suddenly shedding the my protective facade and showing myself as the person that I am with blogs written five days each week. I have become almost fanatical in my devotion to writing every single day. It is as though all of the pent up emotions that I failed to put on paper in the past are flooding onto the blankness of each new page. I am fearless in my adherence to the truth. My voice chatters on and on and on.

I may never earn a dime from my words. I may never receive an invitation from Oprah or Ellen to speak of my musing or the books that I hope to write in front of millions of  people, but I have finally made writing a priority in my life for no other reason than it seems to be something that I need to do. It feels oh so good to finally grow up and be my own person. Ignoring the clang of negative voices that we all seem to encounter has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. Writing has sustained my optimism during Covid-19.

I remain devoted to my thousands of students. I don’t believe that I would have been a particularly interesting or empathetic author without knowing them. They have been a source of inspiration for most of what I believe and do. I would urge them as they grapple with decisions about their own lives to listen to their hearts and follow the passions that speak to them. Take some risks and see where they may lead. There is nothing more wonderful than finding one’s true self. I found mine in being a teacher and now I have expanded my world through writing. Go find your dream. It is never too late.

(This blog is dedicated to a young man with the initials H.F. who is struggling to find himself while he watches his peers graduate with advanced degrees, work at extraordinary jobs, purchase homes and begin families. He is quite gifted and talented in his own right and I hope that he reads this and is inspired to take some risks to embrace his own passions.)

The Beat Goes On

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I have always found the story and the music in The Lion King to be profound, particularly the crowd favorite The Circle of Life. Indeed without ever realizing it each generation endures similar challenges, common growing pains, battles to deal with the perceived problems of the era. There has always been a tension between the old guard and the new, a feeling that somehow the two worlds are incapable of fully understanding one another.

I’m a bonafide Boomer, okay? I was a free range kid on steroids like most of my friends. We went outside early each day and played wherever we chose until dark. I remember Halloween nights when my brothers and I would trick or treat until well after ten because our Catholic school gave us a holiday on November first. We lived on our bicycles and spent entire days roaming the nearby woods along the bayou with our friends. We stepped on nails and broken glass with our bare feet that were usually caked with dirt and dust.

Life seemed uncomplicated back then but it really wasn’t. We all knew someone who had become crippled from polio. Perhaps it was one of our teachers or a fellow student or even a neighborhood kid who mostly lived in an iron lung. Going under our desks for air raid drills became so routine that we appeared to have forgotten the underlying worry that there might one day be a nuclear attack on our country. We watched science fiction movies that portrayed giant bugs and creatures mutilated and transformed by nuclear fallout and read a satirical magazine with a hero named Alfred whose mantra was, “What, me worry?”

We lived in fairly ordinary little houses that were usually under twelve hundred square feet. We shared a single bathroom with our parents and siblings, requiring strict rules about using up all of the hot water. There was normally one phone for the entire household whose central location made it almost impossible to have a private conversation of any kind. One television was also the general rule and a parent determined when it might be turned on and what programs would be watched. Things like sodas and sweets were delicacies that we did not often see. If we had siblings of the same sex we learned how to share a bedroom and a tiny closet with them. Vacations were a luxury and those who actually flew somewhere on a plane were the exception rather than the rule.

Our teenage years were marked with the usual angst of overcoming the challenges of puberty but our worries about the future became increasingly more complex. There were people in our midst fighting for rights that should have been theirs from the beginning of this nation. We were becoming more and more embroiled in a war that we did not understand but which used our peers to do the fighting either willingly or unwillingly. We watched the violence that seemed to be growing all around us while hearings chants of “Never trust anyone over thirty.” The times seemed so tumultuous and the changes were coming too slowly to keep up with our impatience.

By our college years we witnessed friends being drafted into the military and sometimes being shipped to that war that grew like a virus. We attended the funerals of friends who had been cut down in the flower of their youth. Some of us began to feel that our elders had somehow lost touch with the new realities of the world. We scurried to rallies to hear a charismatic soul named Eugene McCarthy who pledged to end the insanity only to become dispirited when he did not make it to the presidential nomination of his party. We watched the “silent majority” of our elders elect Richard Nixon, a man who seemed clueless about our own fears.

Along the way we became members of the over thirty generation. We had families of our own that required our attention. We set to work building our lives and in what seemed like a blink we were middle aged and our own children were coming of age as Generation X, a group seemingly without a cause that was in reality more like us than anyone ever realized.

Now we are the seniors of society, sometimes caught between the generation of the healthiest of our parents and our middle aged children. Our grandchildren, the millennials, are experiencing the same sorts of fears and disillusionments that once ruled our own thinking. They are as anxious for solutions as we once were. We have had the time to understand that we were no more unique than they are. We have finally found the wisdom to view those old photos of our parents, the so called “greatest generation” and see that like us they were once filled with visions of a grander world. That spirit is in our human DNA. It is something that we might trace back to the beginnings of time. Those seasons mentioned in the Bible are real, just as the circle of life is infinite. 

We push and we pull and we judge one generation after the next when the truth is that each group attempts to do its best. We make mistakes and manage victories. The world spins on its axis and revolves relentlessly around the sun. As nature does its thing we humans do ours until it becomes time for the next generation to try its own ideas. We grapple with our elders and lecture our youth during a lifetime, so often forgetting the simplicity of the best plan of all, to love, listen, laugh and respect one another. The beat goes on.

A Fine Mess

closetI have a closet under my stairs that my husband lovingly calls “the velociraptor closet.” He insists that going inside is a dangerous adventure because the area is most assuredly filled with wild beasts that may attack at any moment. He always wishes me well whenever I daringly go into the farthest reaches of the area, assuring me that he will send for help if I don’t return in a timely fashion. The joke of course is based on the messiness of all that I have crammed inside for storage. It is quite a challenge to maneuver along the passageway without sustaining a bump on the head or a bruised shin.

I’m known as a neatness freak by all of my friends and family but when it comes to closets I fail in organizational skills. I tend to use those hidden spaces as a means of holding all of the things that I rarely use but may or may not need in the future. The only rhyme and reason that I follow in storing junk is based on where each the items actually fit and the seasons in which I am apt to want them. I have an entire section of a closet just for Christmas wrapping paper, tablecloths, and serving pieces. Several square feet of my home’s real estate holds things that I only use for one month each year.

Back in the day all of us had cameras that used film that we had to get developed and converted into photos that came inside little paper envelopes. We never knew exactly what we would get from our efforts of recording events. Sometimes the resulting pictures were hilariously awful but we had to pay for them anyway. Most of the time I never bothered to throw away the defective images. I just kept them inside those little envelopes with all of the others. Over time I accumulated boxes and boxes of photos from our celebrations, milestones and trips. After my mother and mother-in-law died I inherited their boxes as well. Now I have an entire upstairs closet as well as a cedar chest dedicated to those old pictures. Much like my mother-in-law I keep promising to label and organize what I have so that future generations will have some idea of their meaning, but I never quite get around to completing the task. I suppose that one day someone will have to decide whether to toss the lot or make an attempt at finally achieving what Granny and I never did.

I used to marvel that my maternal grandmother never gave anything away and now I find myself hanging on to so much more than I really need. I’ve got items that I haven’t used in years but for some reason keep with the crazy idea that I may actually one day find a reason for hoarding. I remind myself of a notion that a friend once mentioned noting that the messy folks who never throw anything away end up with the prize possessions of the Antiques Roadshow. I keep convincing myself that valueless items may one day be worth a fortune if I just hold onto them long enough. I suppose that I am more sentimental than I should be. I imagine my children and grandchildren cursing me one day as they attempt to cull through all of the things that I have accumulated.

I’ve tried paring down the number of books that I have but somehow I just can’t part with them even though they fill spaces all over the house and even under the beds. I find myself hanging onto worn linens by noting that they are fabulous for covering my plants during the one or two freezes that occur each winter. I have boxes of rags just waiting for cleaning projects and an array of old paint that I use to touch up knicks once in a blue moon.

I haven’t changed clothing sizes in several years so I have outfits that date back twenty years. I’ve tried making a rule that if I bring in something new I must rid myself of something old but I convince myself that I need to wait just a while longer in case an item comes back into vogue. I even have a stack of clothing that I use when I paint or use bleach. It may sit in the corner for years but eventually I pull it out and feel rather proud of my foresight.

As the year progresses I begin setting aside gifts that I have purchased for friends and family. It’s a habit that I learned from my mother but I’m not as organized as she was. When she died we found items labeled with the names of the recipients. I just put my purchases alongside the Christmas section of the closet without mention of who I want to have them. Sometimes I forget that I even bought them and they languish in limbo for years.

I’ve been getting messages from Medicare and the CDC indicating that it might be best for someone in my age group to stay around the house a bit more until the threat of the coronavirus subsides. Maybe this is finally the time to tackle the messes that lurk inside my closest and under my beds. In all honesty I’d have to wrap Christmas packages for hundreds of people to finally use all of the paper that I have. I’m thinking that if I do nothing more than toss the photographs of sub par quality I will have made a big dent in the volume. I need to tame the velociraptor closet and admit to myself that I’m not going to read the vast majority of my books ever again. Do I really believe that I or someone else might actually use those dvds?

I suppose it’s time for a change and maybe I’ll get around to making it or maybe not. It’s a fine mess that I have. I’ll think about that tomorrow.

Somebody Needs You Today

Even in normal circumstances there are many stressors that threaten our mental well being. Depression is not just a controllable reaction to ordinary life. It is a disease that often requires treatment. Quite sadly society still tends to see it as a kind of weakness in those whom it afflicts. Far too many believe that dealing with depression is little more than a matter of changing one’s attitude, thinking positive thoughts, trusting in God. They believe that depression is a kind of selfishness that only occurs because the person afflicted with it is unwilling to “get a grip.” Depression as other mental illnesses is still hidden and all too often viewed so negatively that it is barred from open discussion. We will listen to someone describing a heart attack and even support them as they recover but we tend to squirm uncomfortably in conversations about depression. 

Depressed people often feel abandoned, alone and misunderstood. They fear mentioning their illness lest the lose jobs or friendships. Society values strength of character so highly that depressed persons are wary of mentioning their affliction, often making excuses for their absences. They too often live in a world darkened even more by the white lies that they tell to hide their affliction. 

I recall the furor that occurred in a presidential election when it was discovered that one of the vice presidential candidates had been treated for depression. Rather than applauding him for seeking treatment he was derided as someone who would be unfit for the job. The backlash was horrific and set back mental health even more than it already was. Ironically few people were aware that one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from depression that was so extreme that he had a breakdown after the death of a person who had been very special to him. 

Of late famous individuals are courageously stepping out of the shadows of depression and speaking of their own journeys with the disease. Michael Phelps is one the most notable among them. He has become a spokesperson and advocate for seeking medical help when darkness of the mind becomes crushing. He has now admitted to being plagued by crippling depression for most of his life. He had moments when he was so sick that he seriously considered killing himself even as he was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. It was only when his pain became unbearable that he sought the medical therapies that he needed to feel whole and healthy again. 

During this time of pandemic depression is on the rise. It is often triggered by stress and uncertainty or extreme changes of normal routines. It knows no demographic limits. it can affect young and old, poor and wealthy. No doubt it is reaching into thousands of households as individuals deal with the threat of illness, loss of jobs, dwindling incomes, concerns about sending children to school, fears of eviction, struggles with the deaths of loved ones. The world is being slammed to an extent rarely endured and depression is spreading suffering on a scale that we rarely see. 

In a recent podcast Michelle Obama spoke of her own sadness during the pandemic. Even though her situation is safe and secure she has been troubled and worried by what she sees happening to so many Americans. She realizes that there is a kind of national grief that so many of us are experiencing. Sometimes the brain chemistry that creates those dark feelings gets out of hand and the level of depression becomes unbearable. She urged all of us to reach out to those that we know and love, not just in emails and texts and posts on Facebook but with phone calls and face to face conferences.

We need human contact even as we require social distances. Behind our masks are psychological needs that grow into physical illnesses of the mind if we do not care for ourselves. As someone who is an unreserved advocate for mental health I know how dire depression can become if left untreated. Many times I watched my mother devolve into a paralyzing darkness that literally led her to a state of psychosis. Time and again I had to force her to accept medical attention that she desperately needed. I implore everyone to watch for signs of distress in both themselves and those they love. Do not hesitate to reach out for help. Contact friends. Contact doctors. Do not ignore the signs. Depression is a treatable disease. 

It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be as vigilant about depression as we are with Covid-19. The virus is creating havoc in often unseen ways. We have to wear our masks and follow the guidelines for social distancing but we also need to support one another emotionally. If the government will not provide security for those who are in dangerous economic situations then those of us fortunate enough to be okay need to find someone who is not and adopt them. Nobody should be thrown to the wolves during this time. It is up to all of us to provide support, love and understanding. Somebody needs you today.