Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

Forgiveness

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When I was twenty years old I became the caretaker for my mother when her bipolar disorder sent her into a psychotic state. At the time I was sorely ignorant of mental illness and lacking confidence in my own abilities to assess the situation and advocate for the very best care for her. I would make a decision regarding her therapy that would haunt me for well over forty years. I allowed my own instincts to fold under pressure from her doctor mostly due to my ignorance and non confrontational nature. I agreed to a treatment for her that I knew she would hate. I did not have the courage to stand my ground and insist that the doctor try something else. Nonetheless I learned from this incident and grew exponentially into a person who would never again be influenced to act against my own sense of right and wrong. Sadly, even though I changed I was never quite able to forgive myself and whenever my mother’s illness reared its most profound ugliness she would remind me again and again of what she saw as my betrayal of her. It took a great deal of internal reflection and wise counseling for me to finally accept that I was worthy of mercy.

Each of us has a story of something that we handled badly, something that we replay in our minds over and over again as though we might somehow change the outcome or at least assuage our guilt. On a rational level we know that we just need to genuinely apologize to anyone whom we have hurt, and then demonstrate through our actions that we have genuinely learned and changed. If we are willing to become better then there is little reason to continue to berate ourselves or to be reminded by others of our transgressions. Forgiveness should mean that our faults will never be mentioned again, and yet we all know of situations in which an offender is never allowed to fully transform because someone continually thinks of them as the incarnation of their sins rather than their contrition.

In the gospel of a few Sundays ago Jesus had died, risen from the dead and was with some of his apostles once again. Lovingly he chose not to remind them of how some of them had denied him when he most needed their support. He did not focus on the moments when their human frailties caused them to react badly. Instead he loved them for coming back to him and demonstrating their belated faith in him. It did not matter what had happened in the past because he knew that they loved him at that moment.

The Christian message is one of forgiveness, and yet so many of us pridefully hold grudges against people whom we believe have hurt us. Particularly in today’s society once an individual has displayed egregious behavior we tend to forever hold that person in infamy even when he/she makes attempts to repent. It is a prideful thing that we do forgetting that each of us has fallen from grace at one time or another. We want understanding for ourselves without granting it for those whom we have stereotyped with a broad brush of negative judgement.

Certainly there are acts that seem unforgivable and make it almost impossible to associate with any kind of absolution. When we think of the Holocaust we sense a special kind of evil that only God himself might unravel and pass judgement upon, but for the most part the hurts that we inflict on ourselves and others can be reversed. When people truly attempt to become better it is important that like Jesus we embrace them as they have become rather than what they used to be. Continually reminding them of the past is as cruel and hurtful as any wrong that they may have done.

I’ve always been impressed by stories of forgiveness and the people who demonstrated great love and compassion to those who had wronged them. They abound in our history, but of late they are the exception rather than the rule. Abraham Lincoln understood that if our country was to survive as a union we would have to have to embrace the people who had attempted to rebel against the nation, forgiving them for what they had done and moving forward without continually chastising them. Of course he was tragically assassinated and the resulting tendency to punish has bled over into the current political environment. As a society we focus on missteps rather than the evolution of character. It is not what a man or woman may have once done in a moment of thoughtlessness that should matter, but rather what kind of person he or she has ultimately become. 

I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. not just because he is a highly entertaining actor but because I believe him to be a good man. There was a time when his addictions were so severe that he almost lost himself and his career. He was slowly dying in a haze of drugs and alcohol that made him unreliable. Nobody trusted him even after he had done much work to rehabilitate himself. He could not get the insurance necessary to land even a minor part in a motion picture. It was Mel Gibson who was fighting demons of his own who came to the rescue, offering his own money as faith in Robert Downey, Jr. Ultimately Downey’s career was resurrected, but the loveliest thing about him is that he never forgot the kindness form Gibson who also became a pariah because of an outburst when he was drunk and under the influence of his own mental illness. Downey has appealed to the motion picture industry and one time fans to demonstrate some compassion for Mel Gibson just as he was given. He understands as well as anyone that life is a continuum, a journey in which we struggle to become better versions of ourselves. He knows how important it is to cherish those who make great efforts to change.

We seem to forget that Jesus modeled forgiveness again and again. The stories of his mercy resound in the Bible, and yet even many who profess to believe in his words turn their backs on those who fall. It sometimes feels as though our society has become a judgmental nag when what we really need is more absolution. The strongest people in our world are not the ones who are unwilling to see the goodness emerging in a fallen soul, but those who embrace those who change with love and clemency. 

You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.