The Importance of Being There

largeAs adults we wear many different hats, all of which takes chunks of time to accomplish. We have relationships to nurture with family and friends. We may hold jobs that demand enormous numbers of hours. We want to be healthy, and so we may be dedicated to a routine of exercise and healthy eating. If we are religious we attend church services or read from tracts integral to better understanding our faiths. There are tasks related to our finances, the maintenance of our homes, and personal care and feeding. We push back moments of relaxation even though we know that we need them as much as the other dynamics of living. We are on the go from the moment that we arise in the morning until we fall exhausted into bed at night, sometimes far later than we might have wished. If anything happens to alter our routines we may feel as though we are drowning. An accident, an illness, a death, an unexpected event has the power of throwing us out of kilter, because we already feel pushed and prodded from all sides. Since we are responsible we do our best to satisfy everyone who is asking us to give them our time and talents, but we often feel as though we are slighting everyone and every aspect of our busy days. We find people among us who appear to keep it together so much better than we do which only adds to our feelings of imperfection. We are taught to admire the over achievers among us and to scoff at slackers, but we somehow think that living on a perpetually moving hamster wheel isn’t the best way to spend our days.

I’m as guilty of running at full speed in the rat race as anyone. I tend to be a classic Type A personality. I recall times when my mother or my in-laws would drop by our home unexpectedly throwing my finely honed schedule into a state of chaos. I still remember how anxious I felt and how much I wanted them to leave as quickly as possible so that I might resume my routines. Sadly I can’t remember any of the tasks that I was so frantic to do, but I do have fond memories of those visits and I find myself wishing with all of my heart that my loved ones might come knocking on my door once again. It’s funny how our perspective changes over time, and how we ultimately come to value our relationships over all of the other distractions that once seemed so important.

I copied a quote from someone’s Facebook wall that spoke to me. It goes something like this:

What if we stopped celebrating busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrate how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? —-Greg McKeown

It’s funny how Mr. McKeown’s words are little more than common sense, but they seem so profound. Why is it that we all too often choose to ignore what is truly significant in favor of tasks and duties that other people tell us are important? Why are we so often fearful of shedding some of our responsibilities so that we might devote more of our time to making ourselves and the people around us happy? Why aren’t our heroes the people who have learned how to say “No”, or those who allow a bit of dust to accumulate in their homes so that they will be free to have some fun?

As an educator I sometimes encountered parents who were well known and highly regarded in the community because of their many outstanding achievements, but they were literally neglecting their children. Somehow their little ones had become not much more than props that helped in the advancement of their careers. When their kids began to falter and fail they could not understand that their continual absence from the home was a major contributing factor. Instead of altering their own behaviors they often threatened to send the young ones away if they did not work harder to overcome their lazy ways. What those students actually needed was a more stable and loving home life, not lectures on becoming more like their parents. The oft lauded parents had eschewed their duties in favor of devotion to careers, and somehow never learned how to balance their lives to include loving time for their offspring. 

I’ve also met brilliant men and women who chose to view their jobs as an adjunct to the real purpose of their lives, which was to build a nurturing and loving home. These individuals were often viewed as being rather average employees because they gave full efforts during normal work hours, but insisted on going home at reasonable times. For them what happened at the end of the day when family gathered together was the highlight of their efforts. The job was work, but what happened at home defined their essence. We sometimes overlook the enormous accomplishment of being an excellent parent, even to the point of dismissing women who spend a significant portion of their lives staying home to raise the children. We dismissively ask them what they do and judge them to be uninteresting once we realize that they have not had exciting careers outside of their homes.

Perhaps many of the ills that we presently see in society have their origin in the frantic paces that define so many of us. We are so busy running from one event to another that we don’t allow ourselves to do the things that Mr. Mckeown suggests should be backbone of our existence. If we were more willing to listen there would be far less hatred and far fewer broken souls. If we allowed ourselves to ponder the things that we see and hear and read we would be less inclined to fall for propaganda. If we were to make meditation an integral part of our days we might learn to relax and love ourselves just a bit more. If we were to spend more time with the people that matter most to us we would find more contentment, and most assuredly we would build more beautiful relationships and memories.

As I look back over the sixty plus years of my life I recall  hundreds of spectacular moments that make me smile and feel accomplished. Few of them resulted from performing mundane tasks to impress people who would eventually drift out of my life. The best of them center around people, members of my family, my friends, my students and colleagues. In the end it is not how busy we are that makes us important, but how well we spend the time that we have. In being there for ourselves and the people who mean the most to us we find our ultimate success.

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An Honorable Day’s Work

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He is one of the most faithful people that I know. I depend on him to arrive each weekend and never once has he let me down. He has come to my home over and over again for twelve years, leaving his mark of excellence as visible proof of his efforts and making me feel quite happy. He is my yard man, Jose, an individual with a work ethic as strong and unwavering as any that I have ever known. I find him to be quite noble and I am awed in observing that his labors begin at the crack of dawn and do not end until the last light of day. When I see him hard at work I think of my two grandfathers who brought a consistent level of pride to their work in spite of the fact that it was often back breaking and punishing. Like them, Jose does not complain nor does he require praise or extra perks to leave his mark on the work that he does even though he is quite deserving of more than just the weekly pay that I leave for him on my door. I find his services to be extraordinary and I see him as an exemplar of what our expectations for a job well done should be. His is an honorable day’s work in every sense of that idea.

As an educator I always encouraged my students to become as well educated as possible and to aim for their dreams rather than settling for less than they might achieve. Nonetheless I wanted them to understand the importance of the sacrifices that their parents made for them. I recall a time when one of my students was embarrassed upon seeing his mother coming to a meeting at the school wearing her McDonald’s uniform. He literally avoided her notice by dashing in the opposite direction. When I confronted him regarding his behavior he expressed anger that she had not disguised her profession by changing clothes before coming. He also noted that whenever teachers ridiculed a student for a lack of ambition they always seemed to note that without some effort people end up working for a fast food restaurant. He did not want to be associated with his mother’s job because it embarrassed him.

It hurt my soul to hear this young man denying the importance of his mom’s hard work, but it also worried me that we teachers sometimes unwittingly expressed our hopes for our students in ways that demeaned their parents. In this particular situation I felt compelled to insist to my student that he and all of us should honor the fact that his mother worked so hard to provide him with a secure home. I reminded him of how difficult it must have been for her to balance all of the demands in her life, and yet she was so concerned about his welfare that she came straight from a long day of work to take an interest in his education. I remarked that her uniform was not something of which he should be ashamed, but rather that it was a true badge of honor that he should embrace. He listened intently to my arguments, but I was never certain that he had actually heard the full import of what I was saying. It was many years later that I learned that he had indeed understood what I was attempting to convey.

I had all but forgotten about this particular incident when my former student returned to the school where he and I had spent so many days together. He was all grown up, a very fine looking young man who was well on his way to earning a college degree. He told me that he had come back to thank me for setting him straight on the value of his mother’s efforts in his behalf. He had learned over the years just how remarkable she was, and he had eventually been able to understand how much he had benefited from her labors. He said that he had eventually seen her as a paragon of wisdom and generosity. Mostly though he was quite proud of her hard work and the care that she had always put into being the best possible employee. She had taught him the importance of showing up on time, ready to work. He had followed in her footsteps and with her guidance had accomplished more than either of them had ever thought possible.

As a society we don’t always give the proper respect to all forms of work. We somehow mentally rank occupations based on level of education rather than on efforts expended, and yet it is truth that we need every skill, trade and degree in order to function well. The young man who keeps the Panera Bread restaurant spotless creates a pleasing environment that provides us with a greater level of comfort as we eat. Ken who smiles and greets us each time we visit Cracker Barrel makes our dining experience more personal and pleasurable. Big John who provides us with an honest deal when we have a plumbing problem instills confidence that we are getting the best possible service. Miguel who climbs on my steep roof to fix a minor leak brings me a sense of security that I will be fine when storms rage overhead, as indeed was recently the case. Mr. Nguyen who makes my home cool with an exceptional new air conditioning system gains my respect and my thanks.

We certainly know that college degrees might sometimes bring a higher level of economic success, but merely having a job that requires one does not guarantee that the quality of work will be even close to someone like Jose who puts so much effort into being the best he might possibly be. We need to remember such things whenever we speak to our young about the expectations that we have for them as they move toward their own futures. What we really want from them is mastery and pride in doing a job well. That is the true secret to living meaningfully.

Jose began manicuring our lawn when we first moved into our home. Since that time he has secured contracts with five other residents on our street because they have observed that he has never let us or anyone else down. We also sent him to do my father-in-law’s yard several years back and that has led to more jobs in the Heights. I know that he keeps busy each evening after he completes his day job and all weekend long. He is a paragon of the work ethic that we should be encouraging all of our young to emulate and honor.

We need to be mindful in our enthusiasm for helping our young men and women to achieve the highest possible educations that we do not inadvertently give them the impression that the hard work of laborers and skilled craftsmen is somehow less than that of professionals. We cannot get along without those who do jobs that we either can’t or don’t want to do. it is up to us to praise any form of hard work because it is the true key to greatness.

Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.

Embracing Life

Come-to-Your-Senses-940x627When my daughter was in the first grade her teacher noticed that she appeared to be reading lips rather than listening with her ears. After a visit to the nurse it became clear that my little girl had lost over forty percent of her hearing. We took her to see a specialist who eventually performed surgery on her ears. As we were leaving the hospital she quite suddenly gasped and asked us what all of the noise was. Her eyes were as big as saucers as she heard normally for the very first time. For her it was a grand experience that she rewarded with a great big smile.

All too often we take so much in our world for granted that we miss some of the most remarkable pleasures. We rush from here to there with our heads full of thoughts about what we need to accomplish. We don’t even notice the hue of the sky or the singing of the birds. We fail to see the tiny gecko skittering across the yard or pay attention to the laughter of children in someone’s backyard. Our eyes don’t even see the beautiful white texture of the milk that we pour on our cereal. We don’t smell the aroma of the coffee as it brews. We are far too busy to stop long enough to allow our brains to appreciate the wonderfully simple miracles that are happening all around us, that is until something forces us to consider the most basic aspects of our lives. Then it is as though we have received a new pair of spectacles or a special hearing aide that allows us to fully experience the world as never before.

Those moments when we pause long enough to appreciate what we have refresh and renew us. They remind us that in most cases our blessings far outweigh our difficulties. We realize that the vast majority of the people we encounter are smiling and friendly. We feel the love and affection that comes our way and see that we are never really alone. We begin to fully understand the importance of the many tasks that people are performing to help us, sometimes so quietly that we hardly notice that they are there. In taking nothing for granted we are filled to the brim with optimism and gratefulness.

I pass the medical center of Houston all of the time without actually thinking about the people inside all of those hospitals. At any given moment there are so many people in distress who are being assisted by kind, caring and well trained medical personnel who are there ready to hep even on a big holiday. They do their work day in and day out with little fanfare simply because it is what they do.

I hear the sirens of passing fire trucks and ambulances rushing along the streets of my neighborhood and quickly return to whatever I was doing without considering how those noises signal that help is on the way. The men and women who rise from their sleep in the middle of the night are good Samaritans in every sense of the word. Their work is critical to us and yet we don’t even think of them until they are coming to our own personal aide.

We complain about our teachers and joke that they may not be the brightest bulbs in the pack even as we have to acknowledge that our entire workforce is built upon the foundation of the knowledge that they provide. Somehow in spite of our constant criticism they carry on with their duties, faithfully striving to help our young to learn. Neither salary nor respect matter as much to them as enriching a child’s mind.

Who ever considers the enormous contributions of engineers who anonymously advance our world? We use their inventions and products with little thought of the effort, inspiration and intelligence needed to build them. We travel down roads and cross bridges as though they somehow just miraculously appeared.

Our garbage disappears because of people who toil in the heat and the cold. Our homes are comfortable because workers built them to be solid and safe. We enjoy an abundance of food because of farmers working in fields hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Every single aspect of our lives is affected by the hard work of countless individuals who use their skills and hard work not just to earn a living but to make the world a better place. Even that ketchup bottle filled with a homespun kind of sauce is a miracle of sorts that we should never think of as just being ordinary.

We should all be like my child who rejoiced in the simple gift of hearing. The world is filled with the voices of those who would make us better. It is a repository for the music of nature and of composers who use instruments to bring us so much pleasure. It is but one of the incredible senses that we should never fail to enjoy. Even the feel of the clothing on our backs should fill us with joy and thankfulness.

Perhaps I have been reminded of late that it is a most unfortunate attitude to ignore the wonder of the people and things that are right under our noses. While a trip to an extraordinary place is a special adventure, our own backyards are also filled with treasures that we need to embrace. Rejoice that the sun rises and sets. Feel the rain as it falls. Enjoy life in every moment. The pleasure and happiness that you seek is already right in front of you. Embrace it with gusto.

Time Flies

Time-Flying-By-For-Sunny-And-Her-Sweetheart-3-kraucik83-21592704-380-270Time flies when you’re having fun! I celebrated my fiftieth high school class reunion last October. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles groundbreaking masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I’ve been attending countless seventieth birthday parties for friends. We are nearing the time when it will have been half a century since we traveled to the moon. News clips from my teenage years look like ancient history, and I find myself explaining what life was like back then to my grandchildren as though I am speaking of the Middle Ages.

Of course all of it seems like yesterday to me. I can’t imagine where the time went or how my contemporaries became so gray. I remember my biology teacher telling me that one day I might begin to shrink as my bones aged. I found his conversation to be bizarre at the time but now I measure my height and find that I have lost two and a half inches to the effects of osteoporosis. The arthritis in my knees has caused my legs to bow. My hair is thinner than it once was. My face is beginning to wrinkle. Time has visibly changed me and my long time friends, just as it has done to people for centuries. Our aging is as inevitable as the rising of the sun.

I do my best to stay in concert with the times. I had a great role model for that in my grandfather who read voraciously and interacted with the young people from his church often enough to keep his fingers on the pulse of the world. I myself attempt to be informed by staying involved with friends of all ages. I like to travel and observe. Much as my grandfather did, I read constantly. I talk with my grandchildren to learn about the current state of things.

Still I have a very difficult time accepting that I have traveled through so many decades. In my mind everything happened to me only yesterday. I suppose that I view myself as a fresh faced twenty year old rather than someone nearing her sixty ninth birthday. I literally forget that I am old in the eyes of most individuals until I experience the deference that people so respectfully give to senior citizens. I realize that nobody needs to check my driver’s license anymore to determine if I am of age. I often shock myself when I glance in a mirror. It takes me a second to recognize the older woman whose image is reflected in the glass. My brain and my body seem almost to be at odds.

What is the most remarkable to me is how quickly I have rushed through the many phases and milestones of living. I have been so busy that I hardly took time to notice the clock or the calendar. I’m still mentally sitting in a rocking chair holding my babies and singing to them, but the reality is that both of my girls are middle aged women with children of their own who are rapidly nearing adulthood.

I remember my first day of teaching as though it happened only minutes ago. I can see my students sitting expectantly in front of me not knowing that my heart was beating with fears that I would not be able to provide them with the guidance that they needed. One group after another came to me and I poured out my knowledge and my love in the hopes that I might somehow make a difference in their lives. All the while the clock was ticking and I never took note until one day I was walking away from a career that I so loved and handing over my responsibilities to a younger generation.

Wasn’t it just last night when I married the man who has been my best friend for decades? When did we come to think in tandem, so much so that we complete sentences for one another and read each other’s minds? How is it that he still makes me catch my breath now and again when I see him and realize that he has loved me faithfully for so many years? I can’t believe that I have lived with him longer than I did with my parents.

The world keeps turning through its twenty four hour cycles, its three hundred sixty five day years. We work and play, celebrate and grieve. We are but a small part of a history that moves relentlessly forward. What seemed like forever when I was a child now feels too quick. I want to squeeze every single drop out of time and all too often I feel rushed in my efforts. There is so much more that I want to see and do and experience. I worry that I won’t get to everything on my bucket list. I tell myself to slow down and linger longer over the moments that I have.

I more and more find myself enjoying the slower quieter times. Spending a few hours with my father-in-law seems like a gift. Sitting in my garden watching the birds is more exciting than attending a concert. Perhaps this is a sign of age, or maybe it simply means that I have learned to value simplicity and the true essence of living.

I think of walks that I took with my grandmother in the hills behind her farm. We did little more than stroll under the shade of ancient trees listening for the songs of the birds and breathing in the fragrances of the grasses and wildflowers. We were quiet and deliberate in our personal journey as though ours was some sacred quest not to be rushed or intruded upon. My grandmother was in her eighties by then. She had developed a wisdom that I did not yet completely understand or appreciate. It would be years before I would look back on the simple conversations that we shared and understand their importance.

Each day, each minute is precious. We take time for granted when instead we should treasure it. It won’t be long till we are wistfully looking back and wondering where it all went. If we have used our hours well we will also be able to point with pride to the purposes that we have fulfilled.