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 We emptied every cabinet and pantry, getting rid of items that were outdated or never used and cleaning the walls and the crevices.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.

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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.”

An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

Finding Beauty In the Worst of Times

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My grandchildren read The Glass Castle this summer and recommended it to me. It is the memoir of a gifted writer recounting her sometimes harrowing, sometimes enchanting life with parents who at the very least were plagued by major eccentricities and alcoholism, and at worst suffered from bipolar disorder. The children at first saw their family disfunction as somewhat unique and maybe even rather fun. As they matured they began to realize that their situation was dangerous and unhealthy, and they were eventually able to break away from parents never willing to admit that their problems were real. The fairytale of denial can be enchanting for a time, but ultimately each of us encounter problems that me must face without guile if we are to overcome them.

I doubt that there is an individual anywhere on planet earth who has not felt victimized by circumstances at least once in a lifetime. Our existences are plagued by all sorts of wants and needs. We may live in grinding poverty or be afflicted with some terrible illness. We may lose a parent or child or loved one. We may seem to have no luck other than the bad variety. Our hard work may go up in flames. We may feel bullied or disliked because of our race, or religion, or sexual orientation. Each person sometimes feels as though life is cruel and difficult. To a greater or lesser extent we have all had moments of despair, longing, doubt, anger. We learn soon enough that life doesn’t always seem fair.

As we journey through the number of our days we have ups and downs, happy times and sad. We succeed and we fail. How we choose to approach each moment more often determines what our outlook will ultimately be than anything else. Some people learn early on to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on no matter what happens. They understand that the power that they have lies within. They refuse to devolve into a state of despair. They take charge of their destinies by maintaining optimism even in the face of great darkness.

Think of Holocaust survivors. Those who were not killed in the concentration camps still saw great evil, destruction, horror. Few would have blamed any of them for shutting down, refusing to rejoin society. Nonetheless, most of them went on to lead full lives. They learned how to chase the demonic images from their minds. They never forgot, but they allowed themselves to find happiness and to celebrate life. Perhaps because of their experiences they actually achieved a greater appreciation for simple joys than most of us. They understood the importance of love and its ultimate power over evil.

I often think about Jesus dying on the cross. He accepted the fate of dying a horrible and humiliating death because He wanted us to understand that part of the human experience is to endure suffering. None of us can escape sickness, death, disappointments. Unless we are afflicted with a severe mental illness, we can take charge of how to react to the slings and arrows that come our way. Our road my indeed be difficult, but the best among us learn to deal with whatever comes.

I was recently conversing with a friend who was outlining some health issues that her husband is experiencing. She spoke of taking a break from her cares and woes by getting her hair done. She has gone to the same hair dresser for years and the two of them have become confidantes. In the course of the cutting and styling of her tresses my friend learned that the beautician and her husband are dealing with almost unimaginable difficulties that somehow made her own concerns seem less dire. As she noted, we don’t have to go far to find someone whose problems are bigger than ours. In fact, we are all in this crazy thing called life together, and none of us are going to entirely escape hardships.

There are many folks who assume things about certain groups of people these days. We seem to think that some among us are so privileged that they are unable to understand our own travails. I tend to believe that such thinking is cockeyed because even the wealthiest people on earth know sadness, sometimes to a greater extent than the rest of us. They may appear to have everything that the heart desires, but in truth many times they are brokenhearted. Think of the rich and famous who only recently have left this earth by their own hands because the weight of the world became too much for them to bear.

It is true that we do not receive equal shares of good fortune and tragedy. There are indeed some who appear to have more than their fair share. There are no guarantees that we will see justice at every turn. That does not mean that we should despair or grow jealous, or insist that we must take from others to make ourselves feel better. Instead I suggest that we understand that we will encounter pitfalls and even downright unfairness, so it is important to learn ways that help us to move past such things.

Life is a marathon, filled with pain and scars, but also wonders. Sometimes to get past the ugliness we have to find a tiny patch of beauty and hope. The young girl who grew up to write The Glass Castle learned to view her life from the perspective of reality. She and her siblings endured much want, but they also found the joys of simplicity. Their parents were hardly models of responsibility, but they gave the children the gift of finding beauty in any situation. That’s the challenge that we all face.

Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.