Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

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The Brilliance of Forgetting

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Well that’s a relief! I just found out that forgetfulness is a sign of exceptional intelligence. If that’s the case I must be a genius because I’m one of those folks who walks from one room to another with great purpose and then ends up wondering why I’m standing in a closet in a state of confusion. I’ve had to incorporate all sorts of apps into my routine just to keep track of appointments and passwords and even to handle a record of tasks that I need to complete. If the electricity ever went our for several days I’d be up a creek wandering about dazed and disorganized.

I’ve never been good at recalling things like my license plate number. That’s why I so loved my GAMMY 7 car with its never to forget personalized identification. When I eventually gifted the car to my grandsons I was happy to help them out, but I hated losing the one thing identified by a series of letters and numbers that I never ever forgot. It does’t even seem like the same car with its now generic set of symbols. I’d probably lose it in a parking lot without its familiar name smiling at me on that little metal plate. I’d be wandering about hoping to hear a little honking sound as I pressed the remote on my key fob.

I have to look up the numbers on my driver’s license every single time that someone asks me for that bit of identification, but I can spout my social security info without even thinking because I’ve had to be able to retrieve that combination of numbers since I was a student. It’s been an important piece of usefulness for jobs and all sorts of situations, so it’s become second nature to me like my name or my phone number. Speaking of which, having both a land line and cell can become a bit confusing, but so far I’ve managed to differentiate between the two. I keep wondering if it’s time to ditch the land land though because it has become rare for me or anyone that I know to use it.

I’ve always had a bit of dyslexia so I frequently transpose numbers, a tendency which can be lethal when teaching mathematics. I learned long ago to always check my solutions to problems. I became rather adept in determining if an answer appeared to make sense or not. Whenever I made a mistake while instructing my students I used it as a way to encourage them by admitting that we all have those moments of imperfection. I also took that time to demonstrate how to assess an answer in terms of whether or not it made sense. Nonetheless to this very day I sometimes find myself freezing in terror when faced with the seven and nine multiplication facts. I have to take a deep breath and hope that my brain is not so rattled that I make a fool of myself in front of my students.

When it comes to birthdays I’m really bad. Facebook has done me one of the grandest favors of my lifetime by reminding me of who is celebrating on any given day. Unfortunately their algorithm does not always choose to keep me in touch with all of the people that I definitely want to remember, so I suspect that I am missing a few of my favorite people from time to time. I ask anyone who has been forgotten to just understand that I’m not a birthday wizard. I know mine, those of my children and my grandchildren. After that I have to check a calendar.

A friend was asking me about someone’s address recently. I had no idea how to respond. I’m one of those kooky women who is able to drive to the homes of my friends and family members strictly by dent of landmarks and house styles and colors. If you ask me for numbers and sometimes even street names I’m lost, but I know exactly what places of business are on the corners where I must turn and I have an uncanny sense of direction. I know immediately whether or not I am traveling the right way even in a deep fog. In spite of that I still think of Siri as my new best friend as she navigates me all over the country. It’s as though I have a dear companion in the seat next to me making certain that I will never get lost.

I know people who describe life events with exact dates. I can’t remember whether an occasion transpired this year or a decade ago. I hate the medical forms that ask me when I broke my foot. I really have no idea how old I was other than the fact that I was young enough to participate in a miles long fund raiser. I didn’t wear proper shoes for the occasion and I ended up with a stress fracture because I did not yet I know that I had osteoporosis and was more likely than most to get broken bones. i suppose that I am one of those folks whose mind keeps track of general details rather than specifics.

I am able to recall events and conversations from my childhood quite vividly. For that matter any situation involving an encounter with another person is planted clearly in my mind. I suppose that such incidents are of particular importance to me. It is as though I can actually relive them, hear the voices, see the details and colors, have the same feelings. I find myself back in those times as though they were happening right now. It’s so strange how the mind works. I wonder how we unconsciously decide what is important enough to recall with clarity?

When I was a teenager working as a receptionist for our family doctor during the summer I learned about the power of knowing how and where to find information. The kindly physician showed me his vast collection of medical books and demonstrated how he would listen to a patient’s description of symptoms and then use the volumes to match them to a disease and its requisite treatments. That’s when I realized that we never really know everything, at least those of us who are not brilliant savants. It was quite freeing to understand that much of education teaches us how to find the resources that lead us to the answers that we need.

As I grow older I must indeed be getting more and brilliant if the research is to be believed because I am more and more forgetful without the electronic reminders that I have set in place. I have to say that our brave new world of information right at our fingertips has come along at just the right time of life for me. I can at least face the world without looking ridiculously confused about what to do next. Still, I miss those lovely calendars that I used to religiously carry in my purse or briefcase. Being the tactile learner that I am made them all the more meaningful. I found myself recalling the color coding that I used and the little pictures that I drew to emphasize the importance of certain things. I suppose that like Mitt Romney I still prefer relying on binders to sort and organize my life. Those images on little screens sometimes rattle my dyslexia in a way that the paper images never did, but at least they don’t get lost and they take the time to remind me of what I need to do with bells and whistles and little bubbles. I’m growing more and more fond of them by the day, at least until those moments when I can’t find my phone or my laptop.

A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.

A Practical Education

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There is academic education and then there is life education. My paternal grandmother had little of the former but was a valedictorian of the later. It pained her that she was neither able to read nor write, but she possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. We have none of her recipes because her cooking skills were all in her head. She learned from the school of experience about nature, running a household, and history. Hers was an oral and practical tradition of knowledge, and her skills were remarkable. All too often we base our appraisals of a person’s intellect on grades, degrees and credentials. We assume that without those things the individual is not particularly bright, confusing educational level with intelligence. We place a lesser value on skills that do not require a doctorate which leads to grave misjudgments of certain people.

There are many things that we must know in order to lead good and productive lives that are not generally in the domain of a classroom. Knowing how to appreciate all people and demonstrate kindness toward them is not necessarily something learned from a book. It is a characteristic that we see modeled by example. In that regard both of my grandmothers were exceedingly gifted. They were open and welcoming to anyone who came to their doors. They appreciated people for who they were rather than how they may have wanted them to be. Their love was unconditional, guileless and unselfish. If someone came to their door at dinnertime whether invited or not they set a place at the table for them.

My grandmothers could sew on buttons and create fashions out of sack cloth. They understood the concept of thrift and were saving the planet with their frugalities long before doing such things was fashionable. They gathered rain in barrels and ladled bath water to keep their plants alive. They cooked bones for broth and turned broken cookies into luscious deserts. Every scrap of everything in their homes was used and reused in ingenious ways. They lived in the heat of the south without using air conditioners, and instead planted trees to shade their homes and rested in the steamiest portions of day by sitting on their porches doing chores that required no movements that might make them hot.

They knew how to raise animals to provide milk and eggs for the family. They fished for food that was free. They knew how to wring a chicken’s neck, pluck the feathers, and cook up a delicious stew. They understood how to make medicines out of herbs, vegetables and fruits that helped to heal wounds and cure coughs. They seemed capable of growing a thriving plant from a stick. They gathered seeds and made cuttings to expand their gardens, understanding what do to in each season to keep their land healthy and green.

We need to instill some of the old ways into our young. It would be to our benefit and theirs for them to know how to sign their names with cursive handwriting. We should encourage them to compose thank you notes, and demonstrate how to act at restaurants and concerts. I had an English teacher who took the time to explain when to wait and when to clap during a symphony. He showed us how to watch the conductor for cues. I think of him to this very day and feel accomplished in knowing how to carry myself in public places.

Last Sunday I was enjoying brunch in a lovely tea room. The music was perfectly quiet and relaxing. The decorating created a pleasing ambiance. Sadly there was a group of young people who did not appear to realize how annoying their loud chattering and laughing was to the rest of us. They seemed not to notice that they were not alone, and apparently nobody had ever shown them how to moderate their voices in public. We heard every sentence that they uttered and every joke that they told. We did not mind that they were having a good time, but they might have done so a bit more quietly. I don’t think that they had any idea how annoying they were because undoubtedly they had not been coached as I was by my mother and my English teacher.

My little niece stuns people with her ability to introduce herself with such confidence. When I asked her where she had learned to do this so well she told me that her fourth grade teacher had asked his students to enter the classroom every single morning with a greeting and a handshake. It taught her how to be gracious and aware of the people around her. She also mentioned that it kept bullying out of the classroom because everyone was conscious of the worth of every single person around them. It’s a skill that we too often neglect, but one that is so important.

When I was a child we stood and welcomed every adult who ventured into our classroom. Young men removed their hats inside a building, and we used the words “please” and “thank you” throughout the day. We learned to be considerate ladies and gentlemen and our courtesies became second nature. I’ve known teachers who have started clubs that teach students etiquette and how to navigate in various situations. Such lessons will undoubtedly serve them well.

A full education requires knowledge of many things not found in a curriculum guide. We need to know how to change a  tire, hang a picture, create a budget, plan our time, and save for the future. Sometimes such little things make all the difference in the direction of our lives. Learning geometry is a good thing but we can’t ignore the basics while we are doing so. Most we need to be teaching just how much worth their is in every single person, something that my grandmothers showed me long ago.

Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.