A Most Extraordinary Life

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My cousin and I were having one of those silly conversations in which we asked each other what our favorites are in different categories. I realized as I answered each query that it is truly difficult to narrow down my preferences to just one or even two things. Let’s take the category of best book, for example. I’ve read so many from differing genres that choosing only one is literally impossible. I’ve always loved classics like Jane Eyre, but then more recent picks might be Things Fall Apart or The Kite Runner. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction as well. Isaac’s Storm kept me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, but reading about Czar Nicholas, Queen Victoria, or John Adams was as interesting as it gets. In other words, I so love to read that I’m often taken by whatever I have read most recently which would include The Nightingale and The Tenth Muse.

Choosing a favorite movie is just as impossible. There are some that I consider to be works of art like The Godfather ( both I and II), Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings, and The Mission. Others are just fun and appealing. Those might include Titanic, Christmas Vacation, or Love Actually. I’m such a movie fan that it would literally take pages and pages to list all of the flicks that I have loved. To me there is nothing more satisfying that spending a rainy day watching old Alfred Hitchcock films and munching on junk food, even though these days I try to be good and stick to fruit and vegetables. Just tell me that someone is featuring a movie marathon of some sort and I am in!

The same is true of television shows. How is it even possible to list all of the programs to which I have been addicted over the years. Breaking Bad was epic, but Better Call Saul is pretty great as well. Unlike most people I was totally satisfied with the totality of Game of Thrones including the ending. In fact my recent trip to London with its study of the reigns of kings tells me that the violence and madness portrayed in the series was maybe a bit tame compared to real life. I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery or crime series, but I love to laugh as well and while it’s difficult to beat Seinfeld, there have been many contenders over the years. The glory days of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and others was magnificent, but that venerable program has lost its magic over time.

I’ve traveled to many places both in the United States and abroad and there are some that I enjoyed so much that I have returned multiple times and never grown weary of seeing them. I’d go back to New York City any time, but it’s not a place that I would ever want to live. Chicago, on the other hand is a city that I not only like to visit, but I would be willing to set down roots there if I had to move for some reason. I love San Francisco and San Diego, but despise Los Angeles. Boston is a wonderful place that I never tire of seeing and also one where I would be willing to live. I visit New Orleans again and again. A piece of my heart lives there, but I would be afraid to settle down in that region because of the continual threat of hurricanes. I suppose that I truly feel the happiest in Colorado with so many cities and towns that I adore. If I were able to go there many times each year I would do so. I fell madly in love with London on my recent trip there, but I’m a die hard American, a Yank who loves my English speaking cousins but can’t imagine living outside of the USA.

It’s quite interesting to speak of favorites. I enjoy hearing what other people like and dislike. It demonstrates aspects of living that we share as well as those that make us unique. The world is filled with so much variety which makes it possible for there to be something for everyone, particularly in this day and age. So much has changed from the times when I was young and most people lived in a narrowly defined area with few opportunities for seeing the rest of the world. Back then books were the best source for expanding horizons and libraries were the places where we found the volumes that most intrigued us. Television was in its infancy featuring only three or four stations with rather predictable programing. Movies were often a treat that not everyone could afford, and travel was mostly by car.

I am thankful each and every day for the magnificent advances that allow me to be ever more part of the world. I have so much from which to choose that life is never a dull moment. I seriously thank the good Lord for my blessings at the beginning and end of each day. I have seen more of the world that almost all of my ancestors put together. I have more education than they even dreamed of having. Movies and television programs and books are literally at my fingertips. It’s difficult to even consider complaining when I think upon the advances in quality of life that I enjoy compared to either of my grandmothers. Neither of them were able to read or write and their daily activities were labor intensive. They rarely ventured too far beyond the confines of their homes and I’m not sure if they ever went to a movie theater. While they seemed happy enough, it boggles my mind to think of all that they were never able to experience that has so enriched my own life.

I chastise myself when I grow sad or dissatisfied with my lot in life. I have read so many books, seen so many movies and traveled to so many places that I cannot choose a favorite. The only thing that I should be doing more of is counting my good fortune and expressing my gratitude for a most extraordinary life.

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The Yanks Come Home

The Yanks Come Home

Each of us is unique and yet through a combination of nature and nurture we also share common traits and histories from our ancestors and our relationships. Our characteristics and our personalities come together to make us who we are and how we react in the world around us. I am a mixture of European DNA and a lifetime of experiences in the United States of America. I have always been curious about the long strand of genes and stories that brought me to my personal place and time. I have been surrounded by books and tales and inherited traits for all of my life, and I have sought answers to questions that swirl in my mind.

In a sense I have been slowly moving in search of the source of so much of who I am from the time that I listened to my father reading fairytales to me and the days when my English teacher, Father Shane, enthralled me with literature and poetry from the greatest authors of Britain. I am a “Yank” who desperately needed to see the place from whence I came, and so I embarked on a journey meant to enlighten me and answer the questions for which I longed to find answers.

Thus I planned a trip to England with my husband, and my siblings and their wives that was to commence in the middle of May and end on the anniversary of my father’s death which seemed a fitting tribute to him and the people who had made him. It would prove to be more than a casual adventure, and instead provide me with the a kind of spiritual appreciation of the intricate dreams and journeys of the people who came before me. I have witnessed my own humanity in the eyes of strangers in a foreign land who nonetheless seemed so much like me.

Our trip began with the irritations and vagaries of rainy weather that left my brother and his wife stranded in Houston and threatened to prevent the rest of our party from making a connection in Dallas. Luckily we had a determined pilot who got us where we needed to be just in the nick of time. Our economy seats were hopelessly uncomfortable and so we spent the night fully awake and thinking that perhaps we might never again want to board a plane to fly home unless we upgraded our accommodations.

I had to admit that one night of torture in cramped conditions was nothing to fuss about when compared with the dangers and discomfort that our long ago ancestors must have endured as they traveled on ships to a world of unknowns. I wondered what hardships had driven them to leave kith and kin behind, and thought of how awed they would be to see me watching movies while a bird like machine flew me across the Atlantic in only a few hours. Somehow my complaints seemed overblown when viewed through the lens of their realities.

It was around noon London time when we arrived. Thanks to the help of Gerald Warren, a friend and work colleague who travels frequently to that glorious city, we knew exactly how to navigate from the airport to our hotel in Bloomsbury. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then secured a taxi for a ride to the Holiday Inn where we would stay for the next fifteen days.

Since it was a Sunday we quickly left our rooms in search of the traditional English Sunday roast, and found a nice pub just across the street that was serving the food we sought in a warm environment filled with locals who chattered happily with one another. My husband Mike had grown up eating his grandmother’s roast and Yorkshire pudding. She had immigrated to Texas from Newcastle just before World War I when she was only eight years old. While she grew to love her new country she often recalled hearing the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” when her ship departed and she could never again enjoy that tune without feeling a bit of wistfulness. All that she had known seemed to have been left at that dock, but she never forgot the traditions of her native land which included having afternoon tea and preparing Yorkshire pudding with roast beef on Sundays.

The roast, potatoes and carrots at the pub were quite good, but the Yorkshire pudding was rather disappointing. Mike had eaten the muffin like delicacy that his grandmother made and he was searching for some that might come close to hers. Ours was not even close to his granny’s. Nonetheless we felt quite satisfied and ended our first day in London with a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. We were tired from staying awake all night and eager to begin our tour in earnest on the following day, so we went to the Russel Square underground station that was just around the corner from our hotel and purchased Oyster cards to cover the cost of rides on the Tube in the coming days.

I was already enchanted by what little I had already seen of London and I felt somewhat like a young and eager child as I tried to quell my anticipation of the wonders that lay ahead. Thanks to the common language, the friendliness of the people,  and the advice from Gerald and others who had already visited England I felt certain that we were in for a glorious time. My brother Pat and his wife Allison were finally on their way to meet up with us, and I had rain gear at the ready for London’s notoriously wet weather. I was ready and so I fell soundly asleep feeling as though in some spiritual way I was back home visiting relatives. I felt that we Yanks had finally come home.

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

A Springtime Ritual

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Winter has returned again after several days that made those of us in Houston feel as though spring had come early. I took advantage of the warmer days by working in my yard and beginning the clean up process that ushers in the best growing season of the year. It felt so good to work out every muscle in my body lifting and bending and filling bags with the refuse of pruned roses and weeded flower beds. I felt so alive and robust and in harmony with nature. As is usual, however, the cooler temperatures and rains came back to chase me indoors just as February always does. Mother Nature may still have some winter blasts up her sleeve before we get those lovely months when our gardens burst forth in all of their glory.

Until the next lovely day I suppose I’ll begin the process of reorganizing my space indoors. So many folks are giving Marie Kondo credit for showing us how to simplify our lives, but my mother taught me the same techniques back when I was still a child. She had a college degree and worked for a time as a teacher, but she always seemed most proud of her home economics skills. She often quoted the high school teachers who had taught her how to cook, sew, and clean. She had an uncanny knowledge of nutrition and often told us about the value of each of the foods that we ate. Whenever spring was on the horizon she organized me and my brothers for a cleansing assault on our house that she somehow managed to turn into a fun activity.

She’d assign tasks to each of us, turn on some rousing music, and then give us pointers on how to achieve the best results. No nook or cranny was left untouched as we washed down all of the walls from the floor to the ceiling, and cleaned the venetian blinds by hanging them from the clothesline and blasting them with the hose. We polished furniture, and waxed the floors. We scrubbed the grout in the tile with cleanser and a toothbrush. We emptied every cabinet and pantry, getting rid of items that were outdated or never used and cleaning the walls and the crevices. By the end of a week or two every single part of our home gleamed as though the place was brand new.

To this day I get a kick out of spring cleaning. Life is unpredictable in so many ways, but deep cleaning is something over which I have total control. It has a way of redirecting my worries and anxieties into something quite practical. Removing the grime and reducing the overstock of things, has the power of making me feel accomplished and more in tune with my universe. I know that there are other grander purposes in life, but sometimes the simple act of taking care of what I already have is a freeing experience.

There is so much waste in our world today. I see people who literally move because they feel that their homes have become too crowded or outdated. They begin anew rather than attempting to first redo and repair what they already have. I learned from my mother how to repurpose everything from food to clothing. She’d take old t-shirts and turn them into rags for cleaning or dusting. She used leftovers to create grand new dishes. There was little for which she did not find some use, and she knew how to organize and recycle with the best of the those who do such things.

As my mother grew older her energy waned. There came a time when she no longer engaged in her springtime tradition of making things gleam. Her home became dusty and broken. We’d try to help her get it back in order again, but she had let so many things go that the task was exceedingly difficult. Even then, however, we got that same feeling of accomplishment whenever we managed to restore her house to a semblance of order.

I’ll be starting on my own springtime ritual very soon. We put things in perfect order last year when we had to virtually start over after our hot water heater damaged so many areas. In the rush of vacations and holidays we’ve accumulated a few messy areas again that scream for our attention. Improving them one day at a time will be a fun way to pass the hours until the long warm days pull us outdoors again. We will no doubt fill bags with trash as well as offerings for Goodwill. We’ll set our home in order, and feel a bit more healthy mentally as well. It’s nice to know where everything is rather than having to hold scavenger hunts just to find particular items.

There are some things with which I still refuse to part. I love my books and have many that date all the way back to my childhood. I fondly read or use them again and again. I have my high school grammar books, and many a time I have referred to them when my grandchildren have questions about usage or punctuation. I reread classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and find new joy and meaning in the words.

I also have keepsakes from family and friends that have deep meaning for me. I have no desire to exchange them for trendier artifacts. The old things bring me joy. There’s a painting over my sofa that hung in my mother’s house. I can’t remember a time when she did not have it. She often spoke of how she and my father chose it together. I have built an entire room around it’s colors and essence. I gaze at it each day when I write my blogs and somehow derive inspiration from the very sight of it.

In the same room is a vase that once belonged to my great grandmother. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me long before I truly appreciated it. Now it is one of my prize possessions. I would no doubt rush to grab it before leaving a burning house. I think of how it must have graced some table or dresser in my great grandmother’s humble home. I think of my own grandmother presenting it to me with so much grandeur regarding its importance. It is a link to my history.

So on these rainy days I’ll commence the spring cleaning and renew that age old feeling that I have enjoyed for seven decades. Whether its Marie Kondoing or just following my mother’s lead I know that it will bring me a sense of peace.

Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”