Serenity

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I tend to be a person of moderation. I’ve never smoked. I drink very little and I actually get so sick when I eat too much that I avoid gluttony like the plague. I was once addicted to Diet Coke, a habit that started when someone told me that I might forestall my migraine headaches if I drank the brew regularly. I got to where I was gulping down one for breakfast, another at lunch and two more during the day. I was terrified to quit because the drink was like a magic elixir that actually kept my headaches more at bay than prescribed medications. I was so known for drinking Diet Coke that my Secret Santas often included a carton of them with my gifts.

Two years ago I decided that enough was enough. I did not like the idea of being controlled by a substance and so I went cold turkey. I haven’t touched a soft drink of any kind since then for fear that I might resurrect my habit. It has been especially difficult at movies. There’s nothing quite like a big cup of soda with some popcorn to feel content. The same is true whenever I eat Tex-Mex or a Whataburger. In spite of my urges I’ve kept religiously to my goal of shutting Diet Coke and all other carbonated drinks out of my life,

I suppose that I do not like the idea of doing anything to excess, but in reality I know that my hidden secret is that I worry too much. I’m good at telling others not to waste time fretting over things, but not so good at following my own advice. My grandfather often warned me not to take after my grandmother who was a chronic ball of anxiety. I suppose that my genes are predisposed to being concerned about what might be, even when I have no power to change many of the situations that occupy my thoughts.

I suspect that the world lends itself to being a source of worry. I think about school shootings, trouble in the Middle East, climate change, poverty, the education of our children and a hundred other things. Sometimes it feels as though we are in deep trouble. Other times I’m able to control my mind and do whatever is within my capabilities and leave the rest to those in power and to God.

Mostly I think about my family and my friends though. I want to fix things for them, help them to have perfectly wonderful lives, even though I understand that sometimes each person has to face his/her own problems. I am a fixer who is constantly tidying up messes in the world, That is in fact the one thing that I do excessively even though I know full well that it is impossible for me to be all things to all people.

I suppose that I am not alone in desiring to mend hearts, educate minds, heal wounds. It’s not bad that I do my best to be considerate of other people’s needs. What makes my efforts a bit on the cray cray side is when I obsess and feel as though I am never able to do enough. I become addicted to being a panacea as surely as I was hooked on those Diet Cokes. Just as I understood that it was wrong to need that drink so much, so it is a bit prideful and presumptive for me to think that I can solve the world’s problems if only I try hard enough. In fact, if I’m not kind to myself I don’t think I can be really effective in helping others. In other words, I need to get my own house in order first.

I suppose that it is never too late to learn how to be empathetic and loving without becoming overly anxious. My resolve this year is to begin thinking logically about what is possible for me to do with regard to the difficulties of others and then let things go as the ear worm song says. Even love and worry in excess can be lethal. It’s time for me to change what I can and leave what I can’t to those who are more able. The Serenity Prayer is going to become my mantra. For those who haven’t heard it for a time here it is:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

If I have been able to give up those darn Diet Cokes I think maybe I can achieve a bit more serenity as well.

Rejoice

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His parents had dreamed of having a son and after three attempts their wish finally came true. Sadly before he was even born they learned that he had a rare condition commonly known as “brittle bones.” They were nonetheless undeterred by the dreary picture that the doctors painted for them. He was their child and they already loved him. They would do whatever they needed to do to care for him and show him how much they cherished him even with his physical imperfections. They named him Alec and convinced him that he should never be defeated by the challenges that his condition posed. They taught him how to be his best and to find optimism in the midst of his pain.

They sent him to the best doctors in Chicago where he found kindness and assistance from the Shriners who had worked to provide hospitals and care for children such as Alec. The boy grew to be happy and articulate and courageous even as he endured countless fractures of his fragile bones. Surgeries to mend and strengthen him became part of his routine as did learning how to maneuver his wheelchair so that he might play basketball with other youngsters with afflictions that left them unable to walk.

Along the way Alec became a spokesperson for the Shriners. His infectious smile and sincerely winning mays made him an instant hit and familiar face to millions of television viewers who stopped to listen to the precious boy who asked for help with the very worthy cause of sharing with youngsters who deal with crippling conditions, He possessed a natural charisma that was enchanting.

Alec is seventeen now and still a popular spokesman for the Shriners. He is small in stature due to his condition but his personality is gigantic. He is proud to represent the organization that has done so much for him and for his family. He admits that his life has not been easy but credits his parents for continually providing him with the motivation and love that keeps him moving forward with his life. He feels a sense of purpose in being able to bring attention to the children like him who continually struggle with their crippling illnesses. He has found multiple ways to enjoy the life he has without self pity.

Alec’s parents recently gifted him with a new car fitted out to accommodate his needs. It has a lift and hand controls that allow him to have a new sense of freedom. His voice is deep now but the same smile that made him a star as a child is ever present on his very recognizable face. He confides that he has suffered at times but he revels in the kindness that people have exhibited toward him again and again. He appreciates the gift of life that his parents gave him and the unending support that they continue to provide.

The story of Alec and his parents is uplifting and reminds us of our own blessings. It also demonstrates that the promise of life is not without challenges and suffering. How we face the pain that all humans endure is a measure of our understanding that each of us has the power inside our souls to endure even the most unthinkable. Our attitude determines how well we manage both the good and the bad events and Alec shows us that with determination and a will to find good wherever we go we indeed may find meaning and happiness in spite of difficulties that taunt us.

Depression is on the rise across the globe. Babies such as Alec are routinely aborted. Millions bury their sorrows in alcohol and drugs. We so fear pain and suffering that we attempt to run from it. When we have no other recourse we so often fill our hearts with rage, which is a very natural and human reaction that even Alec admits to having felt. The key to overcoming our inclinations to give up is to understand that while life can be overwhelming there are powerful alternatives to our sorrow. We only need keep the faith that each breath we take is a sign that we have something to give to the world even if it is just a genuine smile.

I have been blessed to personally know people who inspire me just as Alec has done. They have been beset with plagues of sorrow and pain and yet they soldier on, changing direction as needed but always surviving with determination to make the best of the hand that has been dealt them. My own mother was the consummate example of someone who might have given up but she remained one of the happiest individuals I have ever known through grave loss, debilitating illnesses and economic misfortune. The key to her happiness lay in her ability to find great joy in small things. She had an the wonder and appreciation of a child.

Take time each day to consider all the good things about the world rather than the bad. Think of the people who love you rather than those who hurt you. Be thankful for the talents that you possess and build on them. Each and every one of us is a precious and unique creation and the key to the contentment that we seek is first to cherish ourselves just as we are and then to do whatever we might to share our rejoicing with others.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

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I grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on television. I liked the simplicity of it and the routine. It was all so calming for a girl like me who had so many unexpected tragedies. I suppose that I always preferred the quiet nature of Mr. Rogers and his show. At some point I outgrew him and began to think that it wasn’t cool to watch the program anymore. Like Wendy I moved on and didn’t really think about him very much. My own daughters were from the Sesame Street generation with a spot of The Electric Company thrown in now and again. Since I only allowed them to watch so much television per day Mr. Rogers was not on the agenda. In other words I more or less forgot about him as time passed.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of his wisdom as a gift one time. Reading it made me feel a wave of nostalgia for the simpler times of my youth and those comfortable moments when I watched Mr. Rogers in lovely shades of black and white in our living room on Belmark Street. I always felt so safe and secure back then and had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead. All I knew is that I liked Mr. Rogers. He somehow seemed so real. Reading the book that held his thoughts convinced me that there was much more to him than I had realized when I was still a child.

When I heard that there was a new movie about him starring Tom Hanks I knew that I had to go to the theater to see how he might be portrayed. I eagerly sat back in the theater’s luxury lounger armed with lemonade and popcorn as A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood began just as the old program had done back in the day. There was Mr. Rogers come to life again under the stunning acting of Tom Hanks, putting on his sweater and his tennis shoes while welcoming us to his little world. It was indeed magical.

Before long I realized that the movie was so much more than a biography. It was a look into the kindness of a very gifted man who so genuinely understood and loved people of all ages. In a sense it was a grownup version of the old program designed to tackle the difficult topics that Mr. Rogers so openly discussed in a more moving and adult way.

The screenplay for A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is brilliant, There is nothing sappy about it. It tackles subjects that plague everyone and demonstrates the power that we have over ourselves, a theme that Mr. Rogers so beautifully made central to his programs for children. It is a story that we desperately need in these times in which we are so divided and angry as a society. We are reminded of the truths that Mr. Rogers taught us so long ago, wisdom that is timeless.

The actors are all incredible and most certainly one or more of them will be nominated for awards. Tom Hanks is one of the greats of our time and Chris Cooper gives his usual blockbuster performance. The real surprise came from Matthew Rhys whose acting was Oscar worthy and a show stealer.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. You will need some tissues for those moments when the film asks you to look into your own journey through life. There are minutes when catching your breath will be difficult but there will be no need to feel embarrassed because the sniffling will be happening all around you.

Fred Rogers was a real human being who disliked the idea of being called a saint or a hero and yet he had all of the qualities of an extraordinary human. He was known for personally praying for dozens of people at a time and for genuinely caring about the welfare of all the people he met. He believed that each of us is uniquely wonderful and worthy of being loved not for what we might become but just for who we already are.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is one of those inspiring movies that will leave you feeling good about yourself and optimistic about the world. It will remind you of what is truly important and it will show you what love is really all about.

It Goes On

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I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.

Be A Weed

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I am constantly fighting weeds. My roses may droop and look as though they are ready to just give up and die during the heat of summer or the freezes of winter but somehow my weeds are always lush and ready to take on any challenge that I give them. I might pull them out by the roots and then treat my flowerbeds with a blanket of mulch but those pesky weeds find a way to come back again and again. I may cover them with thick black plastic but they live on. No matter what I try they are determined to rule the roost in my garden. I have a perennial battle in my attempts to keep them at bay because I am as willing to fight for what I really want as they are.

Life can be brutal. It is filled with one challenge after another. Just when we think that all is well problems sneak into our world that sometimes feel insurmountable. Our best laid plans fall apart. We find that we have as much control over the things happening to us as I do in preventing those weeds from ever again returning. It is inevitable that each of us will one day face difficulties that will try our patience and our will to fight for what we believe to be right.

I’ve had to walk through fire many times. I am not unique in that. I have watched people that I know seeming to have charmed lives only to eventually encounter grave tribulations that threaten to destroy all of the good that they have built. It takes courage for each of us to face the surprises that come our way. Often we have to be flexible and willing to change our plans just to keep moving forward. Sometimes the problems we face are so horrible and demanding that few would fault us if we simply gave up. It takes great strength to travel through a lifetime. Some people among us are like those weeds, unwilling to surrender, always coming back with vigor regardless of how much damage is done to them.

I have witnessed true survivors in my lifetime, people who were challenged by the most grave problems imaginable that they did not allow to defeat them. My grandparents are chief among those that I admire for their persistence, but of course my mother is the icon from whom I take great example. She seemed to have been stalked by tragedy for her entire life and yet she fought back with a fierceness worthy of Joan of Arc. She was unwilling to let her circumstance rule the trajectory of her life even as she fought her own mental illness which chronically returned again and again.

I know a woman who lost her father at a very young age just as I did. By the time she was fourteen she was running a household while her mother worked to keep the family afloat. She was driving a car and writing checks, purchasing groceries and watching over her brothers. She is kind and tough at one and the same time and even though her trials continue to follow her she keeps an optimistic faith in humankind and keeps moving forward knowing that she will no doubt have to climb over new barriers in her journey.

I know a young man who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Houston. He had few role models to inspire him but he somehow decided that he wanted to one day become an engineer. He ignored the temptations that were rampant in the world around him and worked hard toward achieving his goal. He struggled with the financing of a college education and went to great lengths to make unbelievable sacrifices just to keep taking classes. It took him longer than usual to earn a degree but he was unwilling to try an easier route. He did exactly what he said he would do and now proudly bears the credentials that demonstrate his persistence. He has yet to find a job, but his optimism remains. I feel certain that some discerning employer will see his grit and provide him with an opportunity to show that he does indeed have the right stuff.

Here in Houston we love Jose Altuve, a diminutive baseball player who at first glance seems to be an unlikely hero in the world of sports. Jose was told that he was too small to play in the big leagues. Teams passed on hiring him. He might have simply settled for another kind of work and played baseball as a hobby but he knew the magnitude of his heart and his own potential so he persisted until someone finally agreed to give him a chance. Now he is a superstar who regularly knocks balls out of the park even when they are pitched at him at more than ninety miles per hour. Altuve is like those pesky weeds, fighting back with all of his might at every single turn, unwilling to give up the fight no matter the odds.

None of us get through this life without trouble. Sometimes we have long moments of respite but sooner or later we each have to face the unthinkable. It is in those times that we have to be like the weeds. We have to fight with everything that we have to survive. We cannot allow anything to take us down. It’s tough to be in the dark times when it feels as though we have been covered with a shroud of black plastic. The days and hours seem to move in slow motion and we wonder if we have finally met the one event that will defeat us. That is when we must show a ferocity that cannot be matched by the problems that stalk us. That is when our true strength takes us through. We’ve all got what it takes. We just have to keep our determination alive.