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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Old Faithful

old-faithful

I see people still living in public shelters weeks after the floods of hurricane Harvey have gone, and it saddens me that they have no place else to go. I honestly believe that I have a number of individuals upon whom I would be able to depend given similar circumstances. There is no doubt that my father-in-law or one of my two daughters would open their homes and their hearts to me if I found myself suddenly homeless. I’m fairly certain that my two brothers and their wives would take me in as well. I even suspect that I have multiple cousins and friends who would come to my aid, so it’s very difficult to imagine circumstances that might force me to depend on the kindness of strangers for a roof over my head. Sadly, there are people who find themselves with nowhere to turn for any number of reasons.

One of my daughters and I have discussed the names of people upon whom we have total confidence. These are the individuals whether through blood or friendship who always seem to be sharing both our good times and our bad. We almost assume that they will have our backs because they always have. Then there are those who surprise us with their attentiveness to our needs. When times get tough only the most loyal of the people that we know will stand beside us, but it is amazing how many of them there are. Over time we learn just who those individuals are, but for some reason we don’t always let them know how much we appreciate their efforts. Sometimes we even run out time to express our gratitude and that lack becomes a regret.

When I first began to teach my young daughters became latchkey kids. I worked far from home and rarely made it to the house before dinner time. My mother-in-law filled in that gap by traveling from her own job to be with the girls each afternoon. She sometimes cooked dinner for all of us while she waited for me to arrive. On days when one of the children was sick she became the sitter while I went to my job. I not only took this tremendous gift for granted, but I sometimes even immaturely got peeved when she did little house keeping tasks to help me. Somehow I interpreted her actions as being judgmental of my own abilities. It was silliness on my part, but even more problematic was the fact that I never really thanked her for the sacrifice of time that she made for so many years. I truly would like to kick myself for taking so long to become wise enough to realize what a great gift she was giving me and my family. To her credit she never appeared to feel any animosity due to my neglect of basic manners. She was a far better person than I was.

My mother used to come to my home bearing bags of groceries. It was her way of helping me with my budget and it was a lovely gesture, but I was sometimes silly in thinking that it was her way of telling me that she did not think that I was capable of taking care of myself. How ridiculous I was back then. I should have embraced her generosity and thanked her profusely for thinking of me with those loaves of french bread, cartons of eggs or fruits and vegetables. She had grown up during the Great Depression and food was an offering like manna from heaven. It was her way of showing how much she loved me and my family. Sadly I probably did more eye rolling than showing appreciation.

There is a tradition at KIPP Houston High School where I once worked that takes place when seniors are about to graduate. They have an evening when each student has the opportunity of remembering and appreciating the people who have helped him/her to reach that momentous occasion. It is a moving ceremony filled with laughter and happy tears as each person speaks of very personal thanksgiving for parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, teachers and fellow classmates. Everyone feels so good upon acknowledging and being acknowledged. Each time I witnessed this lovely practice I found myself thinking of so many people to whom I had never revealed my feelings.

The times that I actually did express my gratitude were wonderful. They helped me to feel as though I had closed the circle of giving. I once sent a long letter to a college professor whose influence had been profound. I never saw him again until many years later when he had become a white haired bent old man. He recognized me before I knew who he was. His face lit up with pure delight as he recalled the letter that I had sent him. He revealed that he had referred to it again and again over the years because it told him that he had indeed done something quite right in his career. I would never have guessed that my simple gesture of saying thank you would be so powerful, but after working for decades myself I now understand how meaningful such things truly are. I have a collection of notes that I cherish so much that I made certain they were safely upstairs during the recent floods, lest my home fill with water and I lose them.

At a recent funeral a classmate from high school urged us to take a bit of time each day to do something special for someone who has been faithful to us. Perhaps we might make a phone call or send a note or funny card. He challenged us to make each day a bit brighter for someone who has been kind. He warned that the opportunities to do so fade away far too soon, something of which I am already keenly aware. He noted that practically every single day of the year is national something or another, so we should look to see what is on the agenda each day. Maybe we might mark the day by taking ice cream to someone we know. Perhaps we can acknowledge that daughter or cousin. It’s actually quite easy to make every day of the year a way of thanking the faithful in our lives for all that they have done. We really do need to make a point of letting them know that we have noticed their kindnesses.

If there is one thing that I have learned the hard way it is to never again take anyone for granted. I have lost far too many of the people who did very special things for me thinking that I would one day have more time to shower them with praise. So many of them never got to hear my words, and that is such a shame. It’s really easy to take a few minutes to remember and appreciate. Like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park we need to make it a daily ritual. Only then will those who would shelter us even after a storm know how much we truly love them.

Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.

  

The Leftovers

leftoverheader3We humans are so incredibly complex. Even those of us who grow up in the exact same household with the same parents will be unique, just a bit unlike one another. We see beauty in different ways and are attracted to works of art according to our own preferences. We demonstrate our emotions in a multitude of ways, and when tragedy strikes there is no one manner in which every single one of us will react.

An amazing television production completed its final season a few weeks ago. The Leftovers was an offering of HBO that never quite caught the attention of a wide ranging audience, but it became a cult favorite of enough individuals to keep it alive for a year longer than HBO management intended. I am among those who believed from the very beginning that I was watching a masterpiece of theater unfold before my very eyes and I was rarely disappointed.

The Leftovers takes us to a situation in which people suddenly and quite randomly disappear on an otherwise normal October day. There is no rhyme or reason that explains who was selected or why certain people were left behind. Some families were not affected at all and others were decimated. It was a mysterious tragedy that left most of the world bereft and focused on dealing with the emotions that might accompany such a strange happening.

The story that unfolds introduces us to a cast of characters from Mapleton, New York who are dealing with the trauma each in his or her own way. The power of the program lies in the unveiling of the individual emotions of those people, and the actors portray them with a craft that is worthy of every possible award. They bring a humanity and believability to the stories even when they become far fetched indeed.

I don’t believe that anybody ever intended the audience to see the sequence of events in The Leftovers as anything other than allegories and metaphors for life. The plot unfolds in a kind of dreamlike sequence that strains credibility if one demands rational explanations. Instead it should be viewed much as one considers an abstract painting in which reality takes many forms. The best way to watch The Leftovers is as a tour de force of imagery and acting that is superior to most of the simple minded fodder on television.

In its three seasons the story moves from New York to Texas to Australia. I happened to be camping in McKinney Falls State Park in Austin when some of the Texas sequences were being filmed there. It was fun to see the images of places so familiar to me. My granddaughter was called for a role in the program that summer, but when they learned that she was not yet twelve they had to turn her away because the work would have been too dangerous for a younger child. I suspect that it might also have been a bit traumatic as well because The Leftovers is a show that is never fearful of taking emotional climaxes to the very limit.

This series is not for the faint of heart. It ruthlessly studies our humanity and the ways in which we choose to deal with tragedy or attempt to ignore it. Ultimately it becomes a story about love. It looks at questions of faith and portrays true believers as well as agnostics. It does not attempt to provide the audience with any kind of answers, but instead tempts us to think about such things and wonder how we might react if we were to endure a similar situation. I keeps the mysteries of our existence in the realm of unanswered questions, leaving us to decide for ourselves what everything that we see actually means.

I have discussed this series with a number of people who were discouraged from watching by the ephemeral feel of the story. I suppose that they require a bit more closure and reality than I do. I find myself agreeing with Bob Dylan, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that if the words and ideas of an artistic endeavor somehow sound good to us, we will imprint our own meanings on them. For me The Leftovers is a journey into a kind of hell much like Dante’s Inferno. It shows the dark places that we take ourselves as we search for meaning in an often cruel and confusing world. It provides us with a small taste of optimism as well in demonstrating that it is in the relationships that we somehow manage to build even when the worst happens that we ultimately find our salvation.

Everything about The Leftovers is so carefully considered for its impact. The music is as important as the script. The images are often like great paintings from the most masterful of artists. The acting is so real and intense that it often leaves those of us in the audience breathless. It is like watching a moving definition of beauty and truth.

I am sometimes reluctant to recommend The Leftovers to anyone because it is the essence of a figurative world where every aspect of the show means something and those meanings can be very different for each person. If you tend toward the literal this program probably won’t work for you, but if you are willing to suspend reality for the sake of pure art then you may be in for a treat.

For those of us who are huge fans of this program it is sad to realize that it is no more, but it is also true that elongating the story for the sake of keeping it going would undoubtedly detract from its ultimate beauty. The Leftovers is a masterpiece that will be studied by writers, actors and directors for years to come. I’m glad that I was part of the audience that understood its genius from the very beginning. I will miss Kevin and Nora and Matt and the others, but I am thankful that they came into my life for three years and provided me with a glimpse of brilliance.

True Love

true-love_2767240He and his friend were giddy in an anticipation of their inside joke. It was a sibling setup, the kind of thing that big brothers sometime do to their little sisters for a laugh. It was supposed to just be all in good fun. He had agreed to go along with the impish brother’s plan to embarrass his unwitting sister, but he was unprepared for what would actually happen.

The two men sat at a table eating the dinner special. Just as agreed he demanded to speak with the cook, his coconspirator’s target. They winked at each other in anticipation of her reaction, stifling their amusement until the preplanned time. She seemed to suddenly appear, a tiny little thing with a puzzled look meekly inquiring, “May I help you sir?”

His chest heaved. His throat constricted. He had not expected to be so taken with her. Suddenly this was no longer a joke. He had never before been so utterly thunderstruck by another human being. His brain began whirring as he knew that he had to abandon the original plan. He took a deep breath and smiled at her. “I wanted to know who made this delicious food. I wanted to tell you to be prepared, because I am going to marry you one day.” 

She smiled and quickly glanced at her confused brother with the kind of knowing look that siblings give one another. It was a sweet moment, and little could she have known that the gentleman who had so complimented her would indeed one day be her husband.

Theirs would be a true love story. He called her his “buddy” and they not only shared the gift of parenting two children but also enjoyed just being together. He showered her with affection and she made him feel more of a man than he felt that he really was. They laughed their way through life’s ups and downs, sharing dreams and hard work and disappointments. They were a team as perfect as ever there was and then came the diagnosis.

She was very sick. The cancer had spread throughout her body. They dismissed her from the hospital and sent her home to die. He was by her side day and night, rarely leaving for more than a few minutes. He became her nurse, caring for her medical needs and soothing her when the pain became almost unbearable. He lay beside her running his hands through her hair and caressing her fevered cheek. He reminded her of how much he had always loved her. He silently prayed for a miracle that would never come.

He was bereft when she died. He never quit talking about her even as the years stretched from one to ten to twenty. His eyes would light up when he told stories of their time together. She was still the love of his life and never a day went by that he did not miss her. He kept her photograph on his bedside table. She was the first thing that he saw each morning and the last thing before he fell asleep each night.

Eventually he too became ill. Not even surgery helped. He slowly sank into a state of confusion that we thought had been brought on by the drugs designed to ease his pain. He told us that she had come to visit him and asked if we had seen her. He seemed happier than he had been in a very long time, and then only a few days later he died.

Love is a beautiful thing, and I am a sucker for stories and movies about romance whether they are tragic or comic. I suspect that I am not alone in that regard. The world has been savoring literature from Romeo and Juliet to Pride and Prejudice for centuries. Mostly the characters of such efforts are young and beautiful. Their’s is love borne out of the passions of youth. Rarely do we see the chronicles of older couples, and yet in so many ways those tales are far more moving. It is in the twilight years that the true ardor of a coupling often becomes the most apparent. Thus it was with my grandparents, and this was their story, one that resonates again and again. They had created a bond with one another that was profound.

Such moving partnerships tend to be quiet and seemingly ordinary and yet each of us has witnessed such unwavering love between people that we have known. These kinds of relationships are selfless and spiritual. They are examples of exactly how young couples should strive to be with one another. Such couples survive all of the challenges that real life throws at them because their partnerships are not shallow, but rather based on a deep and abiding connection between two souls that grows as the two share milestone after milestone.

Instead of watching silly reality shows about superficial people who look for love in all the wrong places we should ask the true survivors to share their experiences. We need to hear from the couple that makes the time to laugh and celebrate regularly with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We would be wise to hear from the caring and devoted wife whose husband has been sidelined by ill health. How nice it would be to realize that love ultimately has little to do with appearance or status and that contentment may be had just sitting together in a backyard.

We all too often paint a very misleading picture of love and marriage for our young. They harbor expectations but rarely think of their own obligations. They forget the importance of their own kindness and patience. They don’t understand the power of being someone’s “buddy.” True soulmates walk with one another through rain, fire and glory. They grow together with all that such an idea implies.

I worry a bit about our world. The kinds of connections that were so visible between my grandmother and grandfather are no longer happening as frequently as they once did. So many are afraid to become committed to another. We have far too many broken and toxic relationships, and I wonder how our young will learn how to truly love as I did from my grandparents. It is in the role models that we see and the stories that we share that we form our own ideas of how to behave with someone that we love. Sadly of late we tend to be focused on the underbelly of marriage rather than the most beautiful examples of how it should be.

If we truly want to be the change that we wish to see then it is up to each of us to find the most incredible couples that we know and introduce their stories to the world. It is time that we once again see just how extraordinary love can be.