Lion Kings

the-lion-king-disney-rebootThis year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Broadway musical The Lion King. On any given day the shows for each performance are sold out, and there is no indication that interest in the story has waned since it rocked the entertainment industry two decades ago. Aside from the stunning costumes and the enchanting music, its story of loss and love resonates with virtually everyone. We are all Simba, and have felt both the sting of death and the exhilaration of love and friendship as surely as he did.

As I think back on this past year I recall moments of great pain and sorrow that have been balanced by lovely times shared with family and friends. My journey through the past twelve months has been marked by more than enough dark days, but somehow those times were always followed by sunshine and loveliness so exceptional that they seemed to blot out the sorrow that I was experiencing. In the course of a full revolution of the earth around the sun I felt the circle of life with all of its ups and downs and like Simba I survived to stand at the mountain top and rejoice.

I’ve attended far too many funerals this year. I suppose that it is inevitable that such occasions have become more and more frequent given my age. Many of my elders who were blessed with long lives and were nearing the century mark succumbed to the inevitability of our existence. We all know that there is no infinity for any of us, but we push the envelope of our lives as far as we are able. Sometimes when someone lives a very long time we lose sight of the reality that we may not have them forever, so when they leave us we are almost as surprised as when a young person dies. It is always difficult to let go no matter how old someone may be.

I have also lost peers this year, people who have walked along beside me from the days when we were young and so full of dreams. My book of memories is overflowing with images of the fun and laughter that we shared. We grew up together and then we began to grow old together as well. Somehow our human tendency is to ignore the years and the images of ourselves that we see in the mirror. Instead we think that we are as young and spry as we were when we were in our twenties. It is shocking to us when someone from our own generation dies. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. It causes us to falter just a bit. It reminds us that our time here has an expiration date and we secretly wonder what our own will be.

In that moment when my husband lay helplessly on the floor of a bathroom after having a stroke I was filled with terror. While I understand that neither of us will live to any guaranteed age, I had not even considered the possibility that death might come so soon. Both my brain and my heart were jolted into reality in that split second and it was a painful and devastating experience. I still have flashbacks that remind me to cherish every single moment that I have with the man who has filled my days with so much happiness.

My life has changed during this year. I don’t take much for granted anymore. I somehow appreciate the breathtaking beauty of life far more than ever before. I love with a more open heart and I find particular joy in being with young people who still possess such a zest for living. I have been to weddings and graduations and birthday parties that have brought me incredible joy. Seeing love unfold before my eyes is like experiencing the most enchanting miracles that we ever enjoy. It reminds me that there is a season for everything and that I am a part of the glorious unfolding of the cycles that have repeated across the centuries.

I went to a wedding in Cancun in the summer with a group of very special friends. Two of the sweetest men that I have ever known pledged their unending love to each other. It was a beautiful ceremony wrought with so much emotion that we all cried tears of joy. I never imagined that I would be blessed to be part of something so wonderful, but there I was, and I felt so much renewed faith in mankind. I was surrounded by such an abundance of love and good feelings that it carried me through the tough times that I did not yet know lay ahead.

There have been other occasions that have kept my optimism flowing. Two of my former students were married this year and I rejoiced at the ceremonies that they invited me to share with them. I saw the expressions of devotion on their faces and thought of all the wonderful times that they would experience together just as my husband and I have. I sensed that their love is so pure and strong that they will even be able to endure tragedies and everyday problems. I felt so much happiness for them and wondered if they realized how much hope they gave me as well. Weddings allow us to come together in celebration of the most wonderful traditions of unity and commitment to one another, the joining of lives that has transcended history.

Recently my husband and I traveled out of town to a magical party at my niece and nephew’s home in Dallas. They feted us with good food, incredible generosity, and so much fun. I doubt that they realized that it was the first time that we had dared to venture so far away since the incident of the stroke. That trip meant so much to us and our family’s outpouring of love only made it all the better. It reminded us that we have never been alone and that we will be fine no matter what the future brings.

Simba the lion cub thought that all was lost when his father died. He saw his world coming to an end. He ran away from the reality of his situation and experienced the deep hopelessness that sometimes creeps into our lives. His world fell apart and he felt as though there would never again be a way of controlling it. He found small comfort in the generosity of strangers who ultimately became his friends and taught him lessons in taking what the world offers one day at a time. In the process of providing for one another the unlikely friends all changed for the better, so much so that Simba began to realize that his situation had not been as dire as he had imagined. He embraced love and his own destiny, and then found his way back home. In the end he understood that he was never truly alone in his battles and never would be. He also realized that as we travel in the circle of life we have to learn how to deal with both the good and the bad.

While 2017 might be viewed as a terrible year in so many ways, it has also been a year of discovery. Somehow when life appears to be at its worst, that is the very moment when we have the opportunity to see the best of our blessings. This year has taught me to love more deeply and to set my worries aside as much as possible. The future will unfold with or without us, and it will up to each of us to decide how we will accept its challenges and its blessings. If we open our eyes and our hearts we will surely know that the spirit of all of the people who have loved us lives forever inside our souls. We will be lions. We will be kings.    

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A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

What Did You Do This Summer?

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“What did you did this summer?” It’s a question that will no doubt be repeated many times in the coming weeks as schools open and students return to classrooms once again. I’ve answered that query countless times, but only once has my answer held as much transformative impact as it does for this particular summer.

The last time that I felt as changed by events was when I entered the fourth grade after my father died. I wasn’t doing very well then. I was still quite afraid of what the future might hold for my family.. Everything was so uncertain and my faith that all would eventually get better was severely shaken. Our family would prove to be up to the task of moving forward with only one parent, and I would learn how truly strong we actually were, but it would take a great deal of time for me to realize that. This year’s ringing of the school bells marks another moment when I have been severely tested, but this time I have enough confidence and wisdom from experience to understand not only that I will be alright, but also that I have found a newfound contentment that comes from the certainty of knowing what is most important.

I am the first to admit that I am a planner and control freak. I’ve already placed appointments on my calendar for December. I like to have routines and keep things flowing smoothly. Deciding how I was going to spend my summer was no exception. I wanted to take my grandson to New Orleans in June because he had never been there. Our trip was indeed quite successful, but it was only the beginning of all the wondrous things that I was prepared to do, including experiencing a grand adventure traveling to Cancun and attending the wedding of a very dear friend. That particular journey was so incredibly exciting and made even better by the pleasant emotions that I shared with others who attended the ceremony who also happen to be quite important to me. I returned from my trip filled with joy and so many stories. After such a remarkable excursion I might have been content to spend the rest of my summer at home, but I had planned for so much more to come.

After spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of my children and grandchildren I was slated to relax for a week in a lovely Texas state park with friends Monica and Franz. Then I was traveling to Colorado to meet up with my brother and his family so that we might drive together to Wyoming to observe the total eclipse of the sun. I already had purchased the special glasses that I would need for the viewing, and I was beyond excited about that once in a lifetime event. I had no idea just how radically everything that I had scheduled would change, but it all did.

On July 3, my husband had a stroke as many of you who regularly read my blog already know. The thing is that as soon as I saw him lying on the floor unable to get up, with his mouth and eye drooping, nothing else mattered to me but the fact that he was still alive. If I had been required to give up every single material item that I own to keep him with me, I would surely have agreed to do so. As it was his symptoms disappeared within minutes and he is doing well these days even though he is not yet out of the woods. We’ve been mostly tied down to the house and our days have been rather quiet and uneventful. Because there is an increased chance that he will have another stroke within the first ninety days after the one that occurred in July we have cancelled all of our out of town plans, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

What I did this summer is change. I don’t want anything other than to enjoy the moment that I happen to be experiencing. I am finding happiness in the most ordinary activities, and I am so filled with love that my heart is fairly bursting. I have had the time to take stock of my blessings and they are many. I feel like a newlywed with my husband. After almost forty nine years of marriage I admit that I had been taking him for granted, but now I treasure every second that we are together. I like to hear the sound of his voice, and things that sometimes irritated me before now seem quite adorable.

I have also learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles that my friends endure. I find myself thinking about the shut-ins and the widows, those fighting illnesses and those who are afraid and uncertain. I am no longer as ignorant of their feelings, nor as cavalier about how brave they are. I have a new found respect for those who are wounded are marginalized. I have realized in a very spiritual way that nothing on the face of this earth is ever more important that its people.

I have enjoyed my interactions with friends and family as never before, and in the process I have remembered and appreciated those who helped me to become who I am today. I have had many thoughts of my departed mother and mother-in-law, and my only regret is that I never truly thanked them enough for the love that they showered on me. Now I understand how important it is to let people know exactly how much I care about them, not tomorrow but today.

I am like a whole new person, and it feels so very good to be me. I have found a contentment that is peaceful and fulfilling. I know that God is with me and that I have never been alone nor ever will be. I may be tested again, and my worst fears may come to pass, but I will be okay. This is what I learned this summer, and what a glorious time I have had reaching this destination! 

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.

Live Aqua

19113568_10212800199540924_6522367500719525467_nIt is difficult to believe that as late as the nineteen sixties Cancun was little more than a sleepy fishing village with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. Today it is one of the most popular seaside tourist towns in Mexico and boasts a central hotel zone of immense resorts that are visited by people from all over the world. The population of the city has ballooned to well over a million citizens since it was first envisioned as a vacation mecca in nineteen seventy. The economic engine of the area depends on a huge service industry workforce that caters to every need of those who come in search of sun, sand and relaxation. Cancun is a place where even the common man or woman is made to feel like royalty.

The city is located near the easternmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and is graced by white sandy beaches and the colorful waters of the Caribbean Sea. It was once home to the great Mayan civilization and not far from the hotels ruins from the height of Mayan influence remain even to this day. Many of the local people are descendants of that unique and fascinating society which was ultimately decimated by drought, famine, disease, war and the brutality of colonization.

Among the many resorts in Cancun is Live Aqua, the hotel where my husband and I stayed for a few glorious days. The cost is all inclusive meaning that all of the food and drink as well as the room are part of the contract. It is a five star world class destination with spectacular views from the luxuriously appointed rooms. Ours featured a private balcony that looked out on the Caribbean. It had a mini-bar that the staff kept loaded with drinks and snacks, replenishing the stock multiple times a day. The bed was amazingly comfortable with sheets as soft as silk. There were enough drawers and closet space to hold our belongings without crowding. The bathroom was as large as an en suite and had both an oversized bathtub and a huge shower. It was stocked with specially scented soaps and toiletries as well as large bath towels. There was no skimping on the kind of details that make such environs feel more special than most.

From the moment that we arrived we became honored guests. A young woman named Jessica gave me a hand massage and brought us a special iced tea to drink along with cold cloths to freshen us and take away the sting of the summer heat. Soothing music played in the background and exotic scents filled the air while another beautiful and energetic employee named Carla put herself at our service. True to her word she became our go to helper for the duration of our stay, making certain that we had exactly what we needed at all times.

Live Aqua features many restaurants all of which offer delicious food served with impressive care. Siete is a buffet that is open most of the day to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It has an almost limitless number food choices to satisfy virtually anyone’s tastebuds. The Hidden Garden features asian cuisine that is high end and quite tasty. Mb is perhaps the most elegant of the places to eat and has a somewhat formal dress code. Its three course dinner is a sumptuous feast featuring soups like the habanero cream that literally melts on the tongue and desserts that perfectly end a memorable meal. The hotel also offers also outdoor dining near the multiple swimming pools and the sea. There are both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages everywhere being delivered by staff members who seem to have permanent smiles tattooed on their faces. No request goes unanswered at Live Aqua. The accommodations are extraordinary and the employees are trained to anticipate every possible need, all of which leads to a sense of well being and enjoyment.

For those who want a true resort experience there is also a spa offering everything from facials and massages to manicures and pedicures. A large and well equipped gym is available for those who want to maintain their exercise regimen. Chaise lounges with umbrellas line the pools and the beach as well as cabanas that are available for an extra rental fee. The best feature, however, is the beach itself. The water changes colors throughout the day ranging from a lovely sea green to aqua to an almost purple hue. The sand is soft and white and most of the time the sky is a deep and beautiful blue.

The government of Mexico is quite proud of this remarkable town and works hard to insure that tourists are safe from the cartels that have made visits to other parts of the country worrisome and unpredictable of late. There are guards even at the airport and great efforts are made to keep Cancun free of incidents that might discourage visitors from coming. There is a welcoming spirit everywhere one goes and so many events and interesting places that it would take days just to experience it all.

Live Aqua may at first glance appear to be a bit pricey but there are deals to be had. We found ours on Expedia but friends used other sources to get as much as forty percent off of the regular costs. It would be well worth the effort to search for special rates and then make a reservation for this truly remarkable place. I can promise that you will not be disappointed. I personally left feeling nourished and reenergized. The memories of my experience keep replaying in my head and bringing a smile to my face. I find myself mentally planning my next visit.

Quite frankly I arrived in Cancun doubtful that I would be all that impressed because I have experienced some very grand vacations in the past. I departed feeling as though my trip had indeed been one of my very best, not in small part due to the care and diligence of the staff at Live Aqua. I will be forever thankful for their friendliness, courtesy and never ending efforts to make my stay one worth every penny that I spent to be there. I look forward to the day when I return.