It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.

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Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

The Other Side Of The Stars

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‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’

—Stephen Hawking

On the day I was born a little six year old boy was running around in Great Britain oblivious to the amazing future that he would eventually enjoy. Stephen Hawking was a bright child who would over time stun the world with his grasp of astrophysics, but in 1948, nobody might have guessed that his story would become the stuff of movies. Not even when Stephen had demonstrated his intellect while engaged in his university studies did the full potential of his life reveal itself. The feeling that he was a kind of shooting star, rare but brief, only became more likely when he was diagnosed with ALS while in his twenties. Doctors told him that his lifespan would be short, but somehow he defied the odds and rather than spending his time worrying about his impending death he went on to become one of the world’s most respected scientists.

Stephen Hawking merged Einstein’s theories of the universe with the Big Bang theory, explaining the workings of the universe in an almost lyrical style. His best selling book A Brief History of Time while tackling topics often difficult to comprehend made his theories more accessible to ordinary souls like me who usually struggle to understand the complexities of how the vast world of space actually works. He became an icon in the scientific community and an approachable and fun loving character in popular culture, all while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak without the aid of a computerized voice simulator. He possessed a love for life in spite of his physical difficulties and enjoyed poking fun at himself. He was a living miracle in our midst who demonstrated more than anything the power of optimism and an unwillingness to allow problems to dictate his destiny.

I first heard of Stephen Hawking when his book became a best seller. I purchased and read it with a bit of caution because its subject was not of the sort that I generally enjoyed. I love mathematics but my forays into the domain of physics and astronomy had been lackluster at best. They simply were not topics of great interest to me. That changed as I turned the pages of A Brief History of Time and began to grasp the workings of the universe in a manner that had previously been unattainable. I had to know who this brilliant individual was, and how he had managed to use words to so beautifully explain ideas that were almost beyond my human comprehension. I instantly became a fan.

Stephen Hawking was an unlikely rockstar. His shriveled body and strange robotic like voice should have made him odd, but instead they made his achievements feel even more incredible. He taught all of us that overcoming even the most difficult obstacles is possible. He ignored the naysayers who counseled him that his disease would severely limit his capabilities and his lifespan. He continued his work against all odds. His approach to life was perhaps even more remarkable than his brilliant mind, or perhaps it was because of his ability to envision a world beyond the limits of earth that he was so successful.

Stephen Hawking made it to the age of seventy six before he succumbed to his illness last week, an unheard of span of time for those afflicted with ALS to the extent that he was. Somehow it seems to me that he was one of those people who are sent to the rest of us for a very dramatic purpose. Like an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci or a Martin Luther King he gave us all the gifts of his abilities, inspiring us to reconsider our own contributions to the world around us. His legacy should push us to do more with ours.

I have always believed that each of us has a purpose no matter how small it may seem. We may not ever have the reach of someone like Stephen Hawking but as long as we have breaths to take we have the capability of somehow making a difference. Ours may not be lives as mind blowing as Stephen Hawking’s but even bringing a smile to someone’s face is an accomplishment. If we multiply our goodness and our talents millions of times over this universe becomes a better place that we might call home with the people that we love.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You challenged us to think, to be stronger and to understand and appreciate our universe. Your imperfections were many but you overcame your challenges and demonstrated the kind of courage and determination that we should all seek. Enjoy your new view of the universe. We will one day see you again on the other side of the stars.

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.

Old Faithful

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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.