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.

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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.

Learning From the Past

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I was not born when it happened, but it was close enough to the time when I entered the world that I often heard about it. It was during the reign of terror brought on by Adolf Hitler that book burnings became common place in Germany. Any writing that Hitler and his men thought to be counter to their beliefs was deemed inappropriate, confiscated and burned in the public square. The idea was to eliminate works that might cause citizens to ask questions, to actually think. Books and philosophies have been banned in other eras and societies as well. It has been the topic of dystopian novels and movies depicting dark governments where freedom is obliterated in favor of a set of ruling beliefs. It is something that we particularly find abhorrent here in America, but nonetheless such extreme control sometimes creeps in, often with good intentions. We have learned that there is a very fine line between judging the appropriateness of the written word, and becoming authoritarian in controlling it. If we are to protect our freedoms we must be very careful in our approach to ideas that we find uncomfortable.

It is one thing to avoid certain books or authors on a personal level, and quite another to suggest that particular writings be removed from the public domain. I may find the Shades of Grey books to be offensive, but I would never suggest that others who enjoy them be denied the pleasure of reading them. The rantings of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf are impossible to accept, but I plowed through them just so I might know how the mind of a true fanatic actually works. Often our best option with volumes that disturb us is to become more familiar with them. As the godfather said we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. There is much to be learned from the words of those with whom we disagree. We may never embrace their philosophies, but we know what they are thinking which is always a good defense.

Lately we have a kind of policing of writings that is far from being akin to the Nazi methodologies, but nonetheless should be troubling to all of us. The latests dust up is over the Little House on the Prairie books from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a series of stories written for children Ms. Wilder described her life with a pioneer family moving west. She spoke honestly of the people and events that she encountered and for many decades now the volumes have been a favorite among readers, even spawning a long running and successful television program. For her efforts a literary award was even named in her honor, but recently the society of librarians who distribute the distinction decided to erase her name from the prize because of a perception that her works demonstrate racist and mysoginistic tendencies. The parsing of her words and ideas has even led to suggestions that schools named for Ms. Wilder be changed, and some question the appropriateness of reading them to children.

I find myself feeling a tiny bit squeamish about all of this, especially since the judgement of the books doesn’t appear to take into account the realities of a bygone era. Instead of using the tales to demonstrate how far we have gone or to hold discussions of how offensive some common ways of past thinking were, we want to just wipe the author away as though none of what she described actually happened. Children really can handle the truth, and usually do it better than some adults. It might be shocking to hear Ma Ingalls making disparaging comments about Native Americans, but think of what a teachable moment reading about it might be for youngsters. When Pa takes off his belt to whip one of the kids yet another dialogue about changing ways of discipline might ensue. It is important that our young understand that in judging historical events we are almost certainly going to encounter ways of doing things that seem foreign in today’s world. It’s a fairly certain bet that our own times will have elements that confuse and confound the people of the future. We are slowly but surely changing and evolving and approaching situations differently than our ancestors did. It should not hurt us to learn about their ways, but instead should enlighten us.

Whenever I read books written in a time passed I always consider the influence of the people and events that were taking place then, not now. Our manners and even our language adapt over the decades. I often wonder how shocked my great grandparents would be if they were suddenly plopped down into the twenty first century. They died without ever having electricity or running water. They lived in the wilderness in an atmosphere of quiet. They had little education and never traveled far from home. Their experiences were limited to a tiny geographical area. They did not enjoy the educational opportunities that we today take for granted. With such a limited worldview it is likely that they may have had philosophies that would make me cringe, but I would not be comfortable judging them because they were not exposed to as much diversity of thought as I have been.

Read the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder or not. It is an individual prerogative. Don’t however indict her for an honest telling of a time when minstrel shows were common and thought to be fine entertainment. Don’t call her racist simply because some of her characters were afraid of the Native Americans that they encountered. Don’t parse her every word to find omissions or slips of the tongue that appear to demonstrate a hidden agenda. I suspect that she was simply a talented writer who wanted to tell her story of a time and people that even she understood were not without flaws. In fact she made her characters very human and did not mince words in pointing out their problematic features. She should be applauded for that, not condemned.

So far nobody has suggested banning or burning Ms. Wilder’s books but a bit of a dust up of indignation has indeed occurred. If we let the ruckus go too far we might find ourselves obliterating the magnificent works of Mark Twain or even William Shakespeare. We need to be certain that our goal is only to critique, not to banish. Every voice must be allowed in the spirit of freedom, otherwise we run the risk of overstepping the bounds of liberty.

Life has changed in so many ways. My mother-in-law often told of the time that her father was beaten by a teacher when he misbehaved at school. She proudly noted that her grandmother demonstrated her disapproval of the punishment by summarily whipping the offending educator with a buggy whip. We know that such behavior would have ended badly for both women in today’s world, but the memory is expressive of just how much we have changed. My mother-in-law was one of the most nonviolent people I have ever known. To attribute bad behavior to her because she repeated the story would be absurd. Perhaps we need to think about things that trouble us with less judgement and more joy in realizing that we have moved beyond such beliefs. Use the past as an educational tool, not a whipping post.

The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

When We Open Our Minds

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If you have not yet read Fahrenheit 451 you should put it on your summer reading list. It is a dystopian tale written by Ray Bradbury in the early nineteen fifties. As with most classics it is still worthy of discussion today, and maybe even more so than back then. Bradbury managed to predict a number of pursuits that have almost become an addiction in today’s world long before such things had even been invented. The main idea of his masterful work is that books have been banned in the future world and firemen do not extinguish blazes, but instead burn any remaining volumes that they find. It is all supposedly done to make people feel better along with providing them with mind altering drugs and a daily diet of numbing entertainment.

The main character is a man named Montag who is quite a rockstar when it comes to carrying out his book destruction duties, at least until he begins to question the the process of turning the masses into unquestioning sheep. Ultimately his desire to find the truth becomes his compass.

The book itself is extraordinary and it translates well to film. The first effort was a movie from the nineteen sixties, and most recently HBO took a turn bringing the story to life. The latest offering changes many aspects of the original story, but not the main idea. It shows us an America that has endured a second Civil War in which millions of people died. Books are now contraband and Montag is one of the best at eliminating them. The HBO version is visually stunning particularly in its portrayal of the masses being instantly gratified by watching the firemen in action and tweeting comments as their work unfolds. It is a frightening look into what might happen when the members of a society are no longer able to accept differing ideas. To the victor belong the spoils, and that can result in a total refusal to allow critical thinking of any kind.

I found myself drawing so many parallels with our present day environment that seems to only grow worse. There is a kind of group think within the dominant political parties that actually worries me greatly. Even at universities that used to be centers for open discussion, certain people and ideas are denied a platform. It is so different from when I was at the University of Houston, and part of the excitement was being able to hear every possible kind of belief. Nothing was considered too out of bounds and we were taught to weigh philosophies heavily and ask relevant questions before accepting theories. Now people are judged by public opinion, often without any facts to back up the arguments. It truly worries me that we shut down public debate even before it has happened. How are we to know what different platforms actually are if we never find out about them?

There is a wave of concern that is being voiced by those courageous enough to point out that our political discourse has gone very wrong. We are asked to choose sides and give one hundred per cent agreement or bear the consequences. The militancy that both ultra progressives and ultra conservatives demonstrate is more and more becoming the norm, crowding out those of us in the middle. Few of us have been willing to hold out for individualism and truth rather than blindly accepting the noise of the crowd. It doesn’t take a grand leap to imagine a schism in our country growing so bad that violence ensues.

I suspect that some of my historical heroes would be deemed losers in today’s atmosphere. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisting on peaceful demonstrations or Republicans providing the needed votes for Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. We are no longer willing to give credit when it is due if the person is not in tune with our way of thinking on every issue. Today’s feminists refuse to consider a conservative woman who is pro life as a success even if she holds a powerful position. They certainly scoff at a woman who chooses to stay home to raise her children. When a conservative like John McCain valiantly votes in the name of honor, he is spurned as being wishy washy if his stance is not in tandem with the president and some mysterious base. We see so much hatefulness coming from all quarters, and we wonder why our teens are turning to violence to solve their problems.

Fahrenheit 451 asks us to imagine taking our anger just a few steps forward until we answer all of our problems by preventing freedom of thought. It is a world in which sadness and disagreements are not allowed in the ridiculous hope that if we simply avoid confrontations and free speech we will all be happier. Instead I maintain that such a world imprisons us. We should all push back at any attempts to treat us like mindless children. We need to be wary of electronic hypnotizers that are stealing away our individualism.

I used to tell my students that the most priceless thing in their lives was education and the freedom to learn about anything that interested them. It is true that the first thing that autocrats do is kill the educators and destroy the books of which they do not approve. That is the exact opposite of how a free nation should be. Over time I have read painfully horrific books so that I might better understand even the minds of evil. I plowed through Mein Kampf because I wanted to see for myself just how twisted Adolf Hitler’s mind actually was. I find the exercise of reading and seriously studying all forms of thought to be an important exercise. I find that I rarely am able to align myself totally with anyone because I am a free spirit, and I love that being that way is still allowed. Nonetheless, I see signs that being so are often misunderstood, and I have had my share of ugly criticism, Still, I will fight for my right to my own thoughts and I will continue to do so for others as well, even those with whom I vehemently disagree.

I sometimes wonder if we have become too prone to victimization. It seems that almost everyone has something to complain about rather than focusing on progress and all that is good. If we are continuously seeing half full glasses we change, and not for the better. It’s time for real dialogue, and lots of research and reading. We should beware of soundbites and slogans and ideas that bully us. There is no greater right than the ability to read and discuss even difficult tracts. We should be eager to hear from everyone, even when the words disturb us, perhaps even more so in such cases. We cannot allow ourselves to be drugged by the opium of mass media and entertainment. Like Montag we will find ourselves when we open our minds.