Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

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Flip or Fly Away

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I’m addicted to HGTV. I love watching the transformation of homes from rundown and ugly to bright and beautiful. Chip and Joanna and the Property Brothers make the whole process seem so quick and easy, not to mention affordable. It’s like watching a sweet fairytale unfold in under an hour. Of course I get inspired and think of small changes here and there that I might make inside my own home. That’s when reality rears its ugly head and I realize that what I have viewed on television is little more than fantasy for most of us.

The first thought that I generally have once I’m pulled back down to earth is that the people who seek the home improvements and upgrades are certainly well heeled financially. They reel off budget figures that make my head spin like someone in need of an exorcism. I mean who walks around with an eight hundred thousand dollar home purchase budget with one hundred thousand dollars set aside for renovations? What do these young thirty somethings actually do for a living that allows them to throw around money like that? How realistic is it for the rest of us to watch their homes being created with seemingly limitless income flows when we might be lucky to have a few thousand to devote to a project.

As I’ve reported in past blogs we recently had a bit of damage from a faulty hot water heater in our house. The estimate of the damage was in the range of about eight thousand dollars. Of course we have a high deductible so we did not receive that amount but the figure actually did represent the reality of the situation. What we got for almost ten thousand dollars was the replacement of most of the walls in an upstairs bathroom and a great deal of ceiling work in the kitchen. In addition those areas were freshly painted and we replaced an outdated light fixture. Since much of our carpet was ruined we decided to replace all of it and luckily got a sweet deal since manufacturers had reduced prices to help the victims of hurricane Harvey. Our nephew provided us with the electrical work that we needed and we did a great deal of the painting ourselves. Still the cost ate up what to me was an enormous amount of money, so I found myself wondering if those of us devotedly following the dream house episodes on HGTV are deluding ourselves into believing that with a few dollars and a hammer we too might transform our homes into nirvanas worthy of a photo shoot.

I laugh at those programs on another level as well. The designers react in horror to the wear and tear that they often discover in homes. They cringe at the crayon marks on walls and the scuffs on wooden floors caused by the children who occupy the spaces. They hint that the parents should take the little ones away and teach them how to be more orderly and respectful of property. They sneer at the everyday items that crowd closets and lurk in corners of rooms. They seem to want the occupants to tread lightly, not really using the house as a real home.

Let’s face it. Most of us actually sleep in our beds, eat food on the sofa, and purchase big televisions to watch our favorite programs. In other words we live in the buildings that protect us. They are not just showplaces staged to appeal to the masses. They are our very own and sometimes that means that there will be a puzzle on the dining room table, books piled next to the bed, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes tossed on a chair or even the floor, signs of life everywhere. We, the viewers of these programs, know in our hearts that nothing that we are watching seems real.

I used to truly enjoy following the guy who flipped houses in San Antonio. He’d find a bargain for well under two hundred thousand dollars and fix it up for maybe thirty or forty thousand more. The places weren’t perfect but they were definitely nice and clean and affordable for the common man. I suspect that this fellow was instrumental in starting a trend of regular folks buying an ugly house, doing a few repairs and then attempting to sell it at a profit of maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars. Along the way they no doubt found that the process was fraught with way more problems than they might ever have imagined. It took longer, cost more and brought in less gain than they had hoped.

I suppose that I will continue watching these shows if for no other reason than to get a few decorating ideas, but after having spent my traveling budget on my home this year I realize as I’m stuck in my four walls that seeing new places is a much better investment. Decorating trends come and go. The house continually needs repairs here and there. The joy of spending money on paint and flooring is soon gone, but those fabulous trips to exciting places pay back dividends again and again. The memories never fade or become thread bare. Even years later they bring smiles.

I suspect that what we really need is more Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. A great trip is a bargain and its profit is priceless. The average Joe doesn’t need a million bucks to live like one as long as he/she leaves home now and again to see the rest of the world. Instead of flipping a house, maybe we should just fly away.

Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

The Builder

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There was a hardware store near our home that my father visited each Saturday with an almost religious fervor. It was a sacred place in which I ultimately felt the full extent of my father’s happiness. Happily he regularly took me on his weekly excursions and I always felt special as we wandered together through the aisles of tools and gadgets and fasteners while my dad explained the purposes of the different items. He was in his element inside that store and his face willingly gave away the happiness that being there provided him. Whenever I think of him I recall the bins of nails of every size and remember his lessons on why there were so many different kinds. I can still see him carefully weighing the proper variety for his latest project on the metal scales that hung from chains connected to the ceiling. I can smell the aromas of oil, wood, and metal that permiatted the concrete floors and the wooden studs of the walls. This was a cathedral dedicated to the carpenters, plumbers and electricians of this world. In Daddy’s case it was a shrine for all who love to build the edifices and implements that we use to bring us comfort.

My father never treated me as though I was too young to understand what he was doing. It didn’t seem to occur to him that as a girl I might not have been interested in the things that he so loved. He spoke to me about his passion for construction and explained the hows and whys of his work. Thus it was that he allowed me to sit at his side as he created a miniature replica of our first home. He carefully drafted a blueprint and showed me how to shrink the proportions of the rooms into a drawing that fit on a single sheet of paper. I could not have been more than four years old when he demonstrated the techniques of scale to me, for I had not yet started school when he first told me of his idea. Somehow Daddy assumed that I possessed enough intellect to understand his calculations in spite of my youthfulness, and he was so right. I was mesmerized by the process and willing to sit quietly on a stool while he demonstrated his skill at his drafting table.

The next phase of his work was to build a tiny house that would resemble our home in every imaginable detail. I was fascinated as he measured and cut pieces of balsa wood to create a frame for the structure. Even before he had inserted the walls and other features I was able to see the rooms unfolding just as I knew them to be. It took many weeks and many visits to the hardware store to finish the lovely reproduction. Sometimes weeks would pass before he had time to return to the task of making the tiny house that almost appeared to be the work of fairies rather than a man. I was astounded when it was finally complete because the details were so exact. He had somehow managed to create an illusion of cedar shakes and bricks and shingles that was a perfect copy of the house where we lived. He had designed the roof so that it could be lifted to reveal the interior rooms with their gleaming wooden floors and brightly painted walls. It was a masterpiece in my eyes and I felt a quiet joy in having observed the entire process. Sadly I have no idea what eventually happened to that wonderful creation. I would give anything just to see it once again and to explain to my children and grandchildren how wonderful it was to have been a witness to my father’s painstaking work.

My daddy was just as likely to educate me regarding other things that he built as well. When I was about seven we had moved to a new home and he was annoyed that we had to walk on the grass to get to the front door from the driveway. He muttered that the builder should have thought to create a sidewalk leading to the entrance. Before long he had decided to rectify the omission himself and once again he used the project as an opportunity to teach me about the proper methods for installing a concrete pathway.

He began by carefully digging out the grass in a pattern that resembled the desired design of what would be the final product. After seeming to take forever to level the ground and straighten the lines he next built a form with wood and and string, taking care to survey his measurements accurately. He allowed the structure to cure for a time to be certain that the ground was not going to shift. He also watched the drainage pattern and made adjustments to insure that there were not low points that would hold water. Then he began filling the bottom of the wooden platform with metal rebar and even bits of nails and other metal shavings left from other things that he had built. He told me that the metal was the secret ingredient for insuring that the sidewalk would last for years without cracks or erosion. Finally came the day when he mixed and poured the concrete spreading it until it was smooth and as perfect as he insisted that it should be.

Nobody was allowed to walk on his creation for days until he was certain that it was set exactly as he had hoped. He was quite proud of the outcome and so was I. Our neighbors commented on how nice it was and joked that they were going to hire him to build one for their houses as well. Daddy boasted that it was a fine structure that would last for a very long time. In fact it has endured even longer than he did. I recently drove past our old home and saw that the sidewalk was as strong as ever. It was not leaning nor did it have any cracks. It had withstood decades of use, sixty two years to be exact. As I saw how well it had performed I swelled with pride in knowing that my father had built it with his ingenuity and engineering skills. More importantly he had believed enough in me to share his knowledge with me, something that made me feel capable and appreciated.

To this very day I find great pleasure in sauntering through hardware stores. I especially enjoy the ones that are more in line with those of old. I prefer the bins of nails and bolts over the plastic packages that are the modern day norm. I consider an outing to Harbor Freight or Ace Hardware with my husband to be a delightful activity. Repairing things or building something is as much fun for me as taking a vacation trip.

I suppose that a psychologist would attribute my love of constructing to the tragic loss of my father when I was only eight years old. My childhood memories of him revolve around books and building and Texas A&M University football. I only truly know him through the brief amount of time that we shared, and yet it was so revealing of who he was that recalling the feelings that I felt provides me with comfort. He demonstrated his love for me by teaching me about the things that mattered so much to him. He was a great father if only for a very short time. 

While I will never truly understand some of the mysteries surrounding Daddy’s death nor the void that he left when he was gone, I treasure the recollections that he left me. The emotions that I associate with the simple act of wandering through a hardware store are visceral and as real as if he were standing next to me with his boyish grin of anticipation about the next thing that he was going to build. When I remember I am filled with pleasure and a sense of security because I know for certain how much he loved me, and for that I will always be grateful. He was a builder not just of things, but of beautiful relationships and dreams. 

Houston We Still Have A Problem

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I have a friend who is a widow. When she first lost her husband she was showered with attention, but as time went by she became more and more alone. It was almost as though she had simply been forgotten. She and her husband had enjoyed an active social life until he became critically ill. After his death the invitations and visits that she had always so enjoyed became less and less frequent.

I recall the same thing happening to my mother over time until she mostly relied on family to invite her out of the house now and again. She remarked that it was human nature to provide comfort at the beginning of a loss, but that people slowly become preoccupied with daily routines that sap their time and energy making them less likely to stick around. She was quite understanding and nonjudgemental of those who drifted out of her life. She adapted and made do with the help that was offered, and didn’t dwell on the friendships that withered away because her life had become so different with my father’s death.

As the sun shines, schools open and so many people return to a semblance of normalcy after hurricane Harvey I find myself worrying and possibly even panicking for those most impacted by the devastating storms. Most of them have all of their possessions piled in heaps on the curb along with mounds of sheetrock, flooring and carpet. The stench of mildew and rot fills the air around their neighborhoods. They await word from FEMA or insurance adjusters to tell them how much assistance they will receive in rebuilding their lives. They often wear somebody else’s  clothing and shoes. They rely on others for rides because their cars are gone. Their futures are so uncertain that they are numb. They sit in their yards or rented rooms staring absently into the distance. Everything feels so overwhelming, particularly as the interest of others wanes. They have been the disaster of the week, the big news headline, but now it feels as though so many begin to move on to the next big thing.

Even the people who still remember them and appear to understand their plight are being pulled and tugged by the everyday demands of existence. They have to schedule their voluntary hours and assistance now. There is so much pressure to get back to the usual grind and a pervasive feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that must be done, but the piles of rubble are still there. The shells of what were once rooms where memories were made await financing that may or may not come. Stressed out homeowners jockey to book overworked contractors to bring their dreams back to life. Word is that it will take months, maybe even years to make all of the needed repairs. What are the injured parties to do while they are waiting? How much debt will they incur? Is there really any way to help them to feel safe and secure once again? Will they eventually be forgotten, or should they expect to be mostly on their own? These are the questions that haunt them in their sleepless nights. These are the worries that fill their thoughts.

Harvey has already been pushed to the back pages of the news. Irma is the new kid in town, the tragedy of the hour. FEMA is moving some rescue efforts from Texas to Florida. There will be competition for limited resources and funds making frustrations even more intense. All the while we have to continue to support our neighbors in the long journey that lies ahead for them even though we too are tired. Still those of us who were lucky understand that we do not have the luxury of simply resuming life as though nothing has happened. Our neighbors are frightened and weary and just as psychologically scarred as their homes are physically.

Every part of town is feeling the impact of this horrific event. Harvey was an equal opportunity storm whose wrath made victims of the rich and the poor and virtually every race and ethnicity. We have rushed to provide stop gap assistance. We provided cleaning products, tools and the labor to clean out houses. We gave food, clothing and shelter to those who have been displaced. We took school supplies to schools and did our best to care for the personal needs of people of all ages. There have been untold heroes who have worked tirelessly and selflessly for days. Now comes the hardest part of all, the moment when we just want to have happy thoughts and forget about all of the pain. Unfortunately to do so would betray all of those whose fate might have been ours but for the randomness of the destruction.

In the coming weeks we must be certain that all of our neighbors get the repairs that they need to make their residences whole again. More than that though, we must insist that measures are taken to make our streets and neighborhoods safer. This may mean purchasing homes that are in harms way and repurposing them as green spaces. We may have to strengthen and build levees, create more retention ponds, get dams up to date, install pumps around town, build houses on higher freeboard elevations, improve drainage. We have the know how, but we also need the vision and the will.

Long ago Houston leaders had a dream of making what was then a small town into a major port even though it was landlocked. They dug a big ditch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way into the city that became known as the Ship Channel. Today it is one of the busiest commercial centers in the world. With a bit of imagination we built the Harvard of the South on the campus of Rice University and created one of the best medical centers anywhere. We need the same kind of willingness to use technologies and knowledge to rebuild a city capable of withstanding even the unthinkable. We showed the world that we are not a population of ordinary people. We Houstonians are quite special and its time that we translate all of our spirit into a victory over tragedy. Houston we have a problem, but we have found answers to other conundrums before. Now let’s see what we might do to unravel the complexities that caused the worst flood that our country has ever seen, and insure that we will be prepared if such an event were ever to occur again.