Just Skate Away

red-vintage-shoes-sport.jpg

It’s prom season and the media is all abuzz about exclusion, promposals  and other things that are triggering a variety of emotions including a great deal of indignation. Somehow I find myself chuckling just a bit in wonderment over all of the concern. Talk about first world problems! Maybe we would be better served if we we worrying a bit more about all of the unfortunate souls from Syria who have been displaced, and in many cases left wondering if life will ever again be normal. I heard last week that somewhere in Africa there is another ebola outbreak. Now that’s a real life problem, and what about the erupting volcanoes in Hawaii?

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the teenage angst that sometimes centers around proms. I know all too well the sting of being left out because I did not get to attend my prom, and according to my classmates I was just about the only one who did not manage to round up a date so that I might go. Instead I stayed home because nobody had asked me, and I worked myself into a state of frenzy of sadness and self pity. I recall watching a sad romantic movie that evening that gave me cover for crying my eyes out. In spite of my temporary breakdown I did recover. I had worried that I was going to be doomed to a life of loneliness, but that didn’t happen after all, and when my husband heard my sad tale he actually took me to a formal dance so that I would know what it was like.

Ironically my mother was correct in suggesting that proms were probably not as much fun as I imagined. She even told me the story of how she showed up in front of her high school on the night of her prom wearing roller skates and bearing two skinned and bloody knees from an untimely fall. She was surprised when she saw all of the couples arriving in their formal attire because she had completely forgotten that there was a dance that night. Taylor Swift style she just shrugged off the embarrassment and skated back home.

I actually believe that prom has become a great deal more democratic than it was in my time when everyone was expected to come with a date. Since I decided that I would only go if someone asked me, I in essence made my own bed. I’m certain that one of my very handsome male cousins would have gone with me if I had asked, but I was way too proud to do that. Today the kids often just come in groups with no particular romantic attachments. Some of the kids even come by themselves sans even a hint of feeling peculiar. I really like that way of doing things. It takes so much pressure away from the occasion and actually makes it a great deal more fun.

There is also an over the top concern over cultural appropriation which to me is somewhat ridiculous. If I had to determine which culture was mine I would be up a creek. The fact is that I am a mixture of so many different countries that I’m what some might call a mutt. It’s likely that there is a little bit of everything in me. Besides, why is it so terrible to appreciate the fashion of another ethnic group than one’s own? One year the high school where I worked had a Bollywood theme and many of the students and teachers showed up in their finest Indian formal wear. It was really so much fun and everyone talks about how great it was to this very day. Nobody was stereotyping or poking fun. They simply wanted to enjoy the evening as authentically as possible. In truth the girls were elegant and beautiful and the young men were like handsome princes.

The promposals may be a bit over the top, but then so much of what we do these days is. My only concern would be if someone wanted to say no but felt compelled to agree because of all of the attention. Perhaps a more private invitation is better, but then I suppose that this will be a passing phase, so why get bent all out of shape.

I’ve heard that from time to time there are some teens who do and say inappropriate things in the promposals and my answer to that is for the adults to have a conversation with those particular individuals. To turn the entire process into an indictment of a generation or group is absurd. We’ve always had those who are an embarrassment and there always will be. We deal with them as needed and don’t attempt to make those innocent of bad behavior suffer. For the most part all of it is as usually innocent as can be. We need to quit rushing to judgement and stereotyping just because of a few knuckleheads. We really do not have an epidemic evil of  on our hands. Young people today are refreshingly open, democratic and fair.

The teenage years can bring a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s best that we help our youngsters deal with them on an individual basis rather than complicating them with our own biases. I certainly understand the sadness of feeling as though I was the first and last person of all time to be left out, but I now understand that nobody meant to be mean. It just happened, and I myself might have done something to change the situation. I grew beyond that moment and learned from it. I became more empathetic from it, but also know that it was not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be back then.

There are so many real concerns for which we should all be searching for answers. Why expend too much energy on incidents that matter so little in the grand scheme of things? Let’s keep prom season in perspective and show our teenagers how to do the same. Help them to have fun and to understand that a lifetime of experiences lie ahead. Show them how to take control of even the most uncomfortable situations and just skate away. It’s what my mom did and she very much had the right idea.

Advertisements

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

Invest In Experiences, Not Things

31069145_10214211870724166_4666296990132942638_n

Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.

The Dwellings In Our Minds

pexels-photo-214574.jpeg

I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become —- Oprah Winfrey

Have you ever noticed that some people who have very little manage to be quite happy while others who seem to have it all are miserable? How we view life has everything to do with how much joy we experience. The evidence that we are in charge of our feelings abounds.

I have a dear friend who has experienced more tragedies and setbacks than most of us. She has lived with a chronic illness for decades that has required frequent blood transfusions and limitations on her activities. She and her husband of many years divorced just when she was battling her disease, leaving her to survive on her own. She ultimately remarried and things appeared to be taking a turn for the better when her new husband had a series of strokes that left him bedridden. She has become his caretaker and as such is mostly isolated inside her home which is far away from family and friends. Most people would complain about the unfairness of such a situation, but she instead remains optimistic and grateful for the smallest of pleasures that enter her life. People like my friend refuse to be ground down by challenges no matter how difficult they may be. They serve as shining examples to those of us who know them or hear about their inspiring behaviors. 

As I was driving around last Saturday doing some errands I listened to a story on the radio about a young man whose hockey team was involved in an horrific bus crash. Several members of the team were killed in the accident. He survived, but broke his back and was left paralyzed from the neck down. His whole life was centered around being active and at least for now he will be confined to a wheelchair. With the loss of both his friends and his ability to play the game that he so loves it would be only natural for him to become deeply depressed. Many of us would descend into a pit of despair given the circumstances, but he is determined to beat this setback, just as he always managed to come out a winner in sports. He is grieving for his teammates who died, but also eager to begin the hard work to regain his strength and athletic abilities. He does not intend to be defeated, and my guess is that somehow he will find a way to accomplish his goals. It is evident that he is never going to give up and simply languish in self pity.

The champions of this world are people who manage to make the most of whatever hand life deals. They have the ability to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and turn them into beautiful mosaics. Des Linden is one of those people. You might know her name if you are a running enthusiast because she just won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since the nineteen eighties. Her Twitter feed features her mantra, “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Everyday I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try to do better.” Des understands that from moment to moment there will be ups and downs, but the main thing is to stay in the race. What was most remarkable about her victory is that she even halted her run to assist a fellow participant who needed to make a pit stop. Des not only has learned the importance of just showing up to each day, but also realizes that ultimately the true measure of each of us is in how we treat the people around us. Her philosophies have made her not just a champion but a happy person as well.

There is no job, no kind of existence that is perfect and without troubles. Every single person experiences difficulties, failures, temptations and tragedies. Those who show up, keep trying, and focus on relationships rather than transitory values are the happiest among us. Winning is not about accumulating laurels or riches. It is all about finding the real secret of life which is to carry on with a sense of purpose and gratitude that there are thousands of second chances to get things right. Grit is the factor that keeps people moving forward through even the most horrific times.

I have often wondered what in the human spirit keeps people hopeful when they endure the most terrible aspects of inhumanity. How did enslaved people find even a modicum of joy? What did Holocaust victims do to keep from going insane or giving in to a deep dark desperation? How were they able to live and work after they were saved given what they had seen and experienced? What keeps refugees from war torn countries optimistic when they have lost everything that they ever owned and have become nomads in countries where they are often unwelcome? How do people manage to smile again when all that they have known is taken from them?

Somehow the true survivors among us find a way to make the best of the things that they cannot change. They smile and just keep reminding themselves that as long as they are still breathing there is hope for better days. They refuse to give up, and like the young man whose family home was inundated with mud from a collapsing mountain top they just keep repeating, “I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.” Then they clean up the mess and manage to smile at their good fortune.

It’s not easy to become a person who sees opportunities in the impossible. It takes a bit of work to dwell on the things that bring us happiness rather than focusing on our sorrows. We just have to show up each day with a determination to change our thinking from sorrow to joy. Sometimes that means finding a tiny shred of hope to pull us from the negativity that stalks us. Just as we can retrain our bodies to become strong, so too may we redesign our thinking to become the happy people that we want to be.

A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.