It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

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The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir. 

The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.

Becoming

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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.

Working On The Inside

Tricia's Podcast

I have a dear friend, Tricia Miller, who is a brilliant and talented woman. I met her when she and I taught together at KIPP Houston High School. I eventually became the Dean of Faculty there and she became one of the College Counselors. We shared a special kinship from the very first and became close friends. Even after we had both the left the school we worked hard to maintain a close relationship with one another that has only grown stronger over the years. At first we mostly got together for celebratory occasions with other women who had also once worked at KIPP. Eventually Tricia and I called upon one another for advice, knowing that together we usually found the wisdom that we needed to tackle the problems that invariably crop up in everyone’s lives.

Tricia became a licensed therapist and did private counseling along with continuing to work with students while I began living the life of retirement. I know from personal experience how good she is at seeing both the pain and joy that lingers in people’s hearts either propelling them forward or holding them back. On more than one occasion she has helped me to find answers that I was seeking and encouraged me to have the courage that I needed to be my personal best. She is what I call an active listener who knows how to pose important questions and then sit back and truly hear the true meaning of what is being said. She is quite good at understanding the essence of people, sometimes even more than they do themselves.

This past summer Tricia decided to develop a podcast that would feature short stories of people who had overcome daunting challenges. I was honored to be one of the guests that she chose to interview, and so I one day found myself sitting in her sunny kitchen talking as friends while she posed guiding questions and recorded my answers. I had been a bit nervous about speaking into a microphone and I worried that I might stumble and stutter as I spoke, but Tricia created such a relaxed atmosphere that I soon forgot that my words were being saved for posterity. I was able to speak from my heart and not worry about how I might sound.

Tricia worked with intense dedication for months to interview individuals, edit their responses, and create a series of quality podcasts with topics intended to inspire listeners. Her efforts resulted in thirty minute episodes in a podcast called Working From the Inside that is currently listed on Google Play, Spotify and Apple iTunes. Her guests are diverse and earnest in sharing their stories of overcoming challenges and finding empathy and support in sometimes unexpected places.

Tricia decided to launch the episode that featured my interview as a gift to me just before my seventieth birthday. The theme of the spot focuses on the mentoring and compassion that I encountered in the sometimes winding journey of my life, particularly with regard to my career. Happily she edited my chatter to include the expressions gratitude that I have always felt for certain individuals who helped to guide me in my work and in navigating through the difficulties that invariably arose along the way. I was able to honor important people like my English teacher, Father Shane, the members of my neighborhood, school and church community, professors who inspired me, principals who helped shape me into a real educator, and elders who demonstrated sacrifice and love when I most needed it.

I hope that the listeners will be able to look past my soft, slow drawl that comes from my Texas background as they hear me speak. It is a trait that sometimes marked me as someone who was insignificant and perhaps also weak. I wanted people to know that even a seemingly shy and sheltered female is able to find grit when given enough encouragement from caring people, and I certainly had my share of kind souls who helped me to become the person that I am today. My story is one of countless moments in which I found good people who understood me and helped me to overcome my weaknesses and fears. Of course, Tricia Miller is one of those very special souls who took the time to really “get me.”

I’d like to invite everyone to look for Working On the Inside with Tricia Miller, M.Ed.,LPC on Google Play, Apple iTunes, or Spotify. Subscribe today and then sit back and enjoy Tricia’s creative talent and the stories of her incredible friends. I have little doubt that you will be inspired and will become a fan.
Tricia has created a kind of oral history of the life and times of our era. Her guests are diverse and from many walks in life. The common thread that binds them together is a determination to overcome even the most horrific difficulties that life throws at each of us. Tricia has such genius and empathy that she is able to bring uncommon honesty to each episode. I’m certain that listeners will find nuggets of wisdom and hope from meeting Tricia and her guests.