Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

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All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

Follow the Star

14521142994558_700It’s the first week of the new year and the holiday decorations are gone. Stores are filled with valentines and spring colors. It’s time to move on to the next phase of our annual celebratory calendar. So much for Christmas traditions. We have better things to do than linger over a long drawn out yuletide. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time to enjoy tidings of the season when the first hints of the big winter holiday return to our local emporiums somewhere around the end of July. For now it’s time to pack away our memories of Christmas 2016 and plan ahead without sentimentality.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time when we were more likely to follow the lead of our European and South American counterparts who extend the holiday revelry through January 6. The full Christmas story as recalled in the Bible included the arrival of the three wisemen (or kings, if you wish) who followed a star in the east to the stable to honor the newborn who would eventually change the world. In the liturgical calendar that event is remembered on the feast of the Epiphany. In many parts of the world the twelve days of Christmas include holidays and celebrations from December 25 until January 6. The traditions and parties will continue in those places long after we North Americans have stored away our holiday boxes in closets and attics. 

When I was growing up my mother always left our Christmas tree in our living room until after January 6. We may have returned to school and work but the warm glow of twinkling lights and the aroma of pine greeted us upon our return home. My brother Michael was born on Three Kings Day so we had a big celebration that included gifts for him and a final opportunity to enjoy the joyfulness of the season. Only after that auspicious occasion did we turn our tree into lumber for the neighborhood fort that the kids always built with recycled firs and pines.

I’m not sure when we changed our ways and became more and more anxious to divest ourselves of the tinsel surrounding Christmas as soon as the sun had set on December 25. Perhaps it is because most women work now rather than keeping the fires burning at home. The pace of our lives is so swift that we need to return to our normal routines without fanfare and we can’t countenance the complications of extraneous accoutrements lingering in our homes for too long. More often than not, most of the things that we associate with Christmas are gone by the end of January 1.

I have a few friends who defer to the traditions of old. They enjoy the trappings of the season well into the middle of January. Their friends and neighbors often view them with a bit of derision and assume that they must be lazy folk rather than traditionalists. In reality they have become rebels of sort in their insistence on following a more leisurely calendar. I have to sadly admit that I left their ranks many years ago because I knew that I would have little time for the luxury of lingering over the holidays once I had to go back to the classroom where I worked. 

I was in Austria at the dawn of 2005. I stayed there until after January 6. I noted how the season remained in full bloom throughout the first week of the new year, climaxing in parades of young children moving from house to house dressed as the wise men. The people marked the occasion with lettering on their doors indicating that the children were welcome to come. They passed out treats and ate special meals. The custom was delightful and made me a bit jealous that we did not have such traditions in my own country.

My husband grew up with a Puerto Rican father who followed the ways of his native land. He remembers receiving a special gift on January 6 that did not come from Santa Claus or his parents but from the Three Kings. He says that the Epiphany was as exciting as December 25 in his home. There were prayers and visits to church to honor the miracle of the savior’s birth.

It has been a very long time since I have kept my Christmas spirit alive past January 1. I am always ready to move on with the rest of my neighbors and friends. I usually want to put the clutter of decorations back into storage and focus on my resolutions which tend toward accomplishments rather than reflections. For whatever reason, however, I have found myself wanting to end the season a bit more slowly this year. I like the idea of returning to the traditions of my youth. I have decided to keep my two Christmas trees looking bright and cheery until at least next week. I plan to honor my brother on January 6, just as I always have but also to spend time contemplating the miracle that happened so long ago in Bethlehem. Like the three kings who brought gifts to the Christ child I want to perform more acts of kindness and sacrifice for my fellow man. 

The very part of the world where Jesus was born and later preached His message of love is a powder keg today. There is much suffering and uncertainty in the Middle East. In our own country Chicago has become a murder capitol with over seven hundred killed in a single year, many of them innocent children. All of us long for answers to the problems that plague mankind. We want to stop the senseless violence but don’t really know how. Perhaps if we were all to slow down just enough to meditate on why we celebrate each year and why we shouldn’t rush the process, we might find our way once again. By remembering the true meaning of the historic events of over two thousand years ago we may find the keys to spreading the true Christmas spirit across the globe. We don’t need to hurry back to normal. Instead we should extend the generosity of the season for as long as we can. Don’t be so hasty to put it all away. Those lights are a symbol of the powerful force of sacrifice and kindness that we should all strive to emulate regardless of our individual beliefs. Be inspired this year to take the time to go out of your way to follow the star that leads to goodness and joy.

A Time for Everything

maxresdefaultI have experienced sixty eight revolutions around the sun. This week I begin the sixty-ninth. I remember most of the yearlong journeys and what I have learned from them is that change is inevitable and that I should never take anything or anyone for granted.

I have witnessed the birth of inventions that most of us now consider to be commonplace but were once deemed miraculous. I have seen a man walking on the moon and been able to write and publish my thoughts on a daily basis because a computer allows me to type and quickly correct the mistakes that my fingers make. I have a vacuum cleaner that operates without my help and a mechanism that follows my voice commands to turn on lights and play music. The temperature in my home is neither too hot nor too cold with adjustments being made regularly to keep me comfortable. I carry a phone in my purse that allows me to talk with friends who live hundreds of miles away and even see them if I wish. I can order virtually anything from the recliner in my bedroom and it will arrive on my doorstep in only a few days, often without postage being required. I have hundreds of shows, movies and books from which to choose for my entertainment and I need not leave my living room to acquire them. I daily inject a medication that is rebuilding my bones. I have had a surgery performed by a doctor guiding a robot that left only four tiny holes in my body. The marvels that have come into my life abound and I have yet to take any of them for granted because I have witnessed the past when such things were only dreams.

Some who once accompanied me on my twelve month adventures have gone. I still long for them and find myself recalling the wonderful times that we shared. I didn’t always appreciate them as much as I should have. In my youth I felt immortal and did not think that I would be touched by death, not even after my father was taken far too soon. I now realize the importance of expressing feelings of love and appreciation at every opportunity. I understand that we must focus on the beautiful moments as they are playing out in our lives and embrace them fully, for the opportunities to do so may never come again. Life is riddled with uncertainties and even though I know that to be true I am surprised again and again.

I have developed traditions that I follow while I can. At the dawn of each new year I celebrate both the past and the future. I try to approach the coming months with optimism and a sense that I have yet another possibility of improving and focusing on the people and labors that will make a positive difference. I prepare split pea soup for luck. I learned how to do so from my mother-in-law who inherited the recipe from her mother. I have never cared much for black eyed peas, my mother’s preferred lucky charm, but I loved split pea soup from the first time that I tasted it. I go to the Airline Farmer’s Market each December specifically to purchase dried yellow split peas because the green ones are not nearly as tasty. I serve a ham on Christmas Day and use its bone to cook the peas. I place them in a heavy pot along with the bone and an onion, covering the ingredients with water. I cook the concoction slowly, adding more water as the peas become thick. Once they have softened and blended with the water I remove the ham bone and begin adding a bit of milk to make the mixture creamy. After several hours my soups is smooth and has a delicious blend of flavors. I always make it on New Year’s Eve and serve it for lunch on the first day of the year. It seems to have done it’s work in bringing me health, prosperity and happiness for I have had a good life in spite of bumps along the way.

I worry a bit as I grow older, a habit that I inherited from my paternal grandmother that haunts me more than it should. I don’t like losing friends or family members but the numbers of those who have passed before me grows with each year. I find myself wondering who among my circle will be afflicted with difficulties and wish that there were some way that I might forestall their problems. I tell myself that instead of spending fruitless moments in a state of anxiety I should instead reach out to my loved ones to let them know how much I care. I know that it is important to cherish every minute of every day.

I grew healthier last year because I worked at being so. I plan to continue with the improved habits that I developed. I am determined to publish my book no matter how much time and effort it takes to get that done. I want to keep my promises to meet with friends that I have not seen for far too long. I will try to be more relaxed about unimportant matters. I am a perfectionist at heart even though life has taught me that being so is ridiculous. I want to hear nature’s music and find joy in the pleasures that I sometimes ignore because I am so busy doing tasks that matter little. I desire to place more of my trust in the Lord without always asking Him why He does things the way He does. I saw from my late cousin how beautiful great faith can be.

I have come a long way and seen many wonders. I look forward to enjoying as many more as I am allowed, taking the glory of each day as it comes without holding on to hurts or fears. The sun rises and sets, the earth travels around the sun creating the seasons of our lives. In some miraculous way I have been part of sixty eight transitions from one year to the next. I have witnessed history, the best and the worst of the human experience and still I travel on with my fellow man. I have learned that the words of Ecclesiastes are so very wise.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Every day is beautiful, even when we are carrying our human burdens. There is nothing better than to be happy and and to do good while we live. That is my ultimate resolution as I set out on another adventurous year.

The Silver Lining

silver-liningEvery time I am in the Santa Fe area I make it a point to travel to Chaco Canyon. Getting to that remote national park is difficult. In the last many miles the road becomes so unbearably rugged that I always consider turning back. Since I know what adventure lies ahead I always choose to continue the journey to my destination. I am never disappointed. Chaco Canyon is one of the great wonders of our country and it is worth all of the effort to see it.

The year 2016 has been much like navigating the trail to Chaco Canyon. There have been many potholes and bumps in the last twelve months that made life a bit more difficult that usual but now that I am at the end of the course I can see the breathtaking beauty of my trek. All things considered, 2016 was another wonderful year in my life even though it may not have been quite as spectacular or free from loss as other times have been.

I learned when I was teaching that I should never judge the worth of a day’s work by a single negative incident. There were many times when I felt like a rockstar only to be plummeted to earth by a negative encounter with a difficult student. Early in my career when I still lacked experience and maturity I was overly critical of myself, always seeking perfection and hopelessly disappointed when my teaching was even slightly flawed. I lost my optimism and felt that I was a failure as an educator on many a day. A wise mentor came to my psychological rescue when she suggested that I begin to list both the good and bad aspects of each week in two columns. She assured me that I would almost always have visual proof that my efforts had been far more positive than I had thought. She noted that we humans have a tendency to magnify and remember negativity so much that it often overwhelms the excellence in our lives. In carrying out her suggestion I learned that even in the most frustrating weeks I had always accomplished way more than I had realized. It became my habit to look at the totality of a day, a week, a month or a year before focusing exclusively on the moments that had seemed to threaten my happiness.

Such it has been with 2016. I lost a friend and a very dear cousin during the year. I took a number of unexpected financial hits that strained my pocketbook and forced me to change some of my habits. I was surprised and disappointed by the results of the political primary races in the spring and then the national election itself in the fall. I grew weary and worried about the massive divide that has so torn the citizens of my beloved country apart. I worried about world events that seem to threaten peace. It would be easy for me to write off the last twelve months as a total loss if I were only to think about the things that made me sad and weary but that would be an incomplete analysis of the year. When I take the time to wander through my memories I realize that I was graced with many glorious blessings in 2016.

The year began in Galveston with all of my children and grandchildren. It was too cold for the beach but we spent time playing games, watching football, enjoying Moody Gardens and The Strand. It was fun and best of all I was with the people that I most love. It was really a dream come true because in most years my kids are so busy with other pursuits that I may see them on Christmas Day and not again until February or even March. I will always treasure January 1, 2016 as a very special day when we celebrated together.

On January 6, Mike and I met with a group of friends at Killen’s Steakhouse. The food was certainly a treat but being with Adriana, Tim, Jenny and Eric was the main attraction. I always feel revitalized just being around them and that evening was no exception. In fact it was one of those unforgettable times that bring warm feelings to the surface whenever I stop to remember.

There were the usual family birthday parties for my brothers, sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews, father-in-law, husband, children and grandchildren. All of them were fun and festive and gave us a perfect excuse to clear off our calendars and celebrate the love that so defines “the best family ever.” Perhaps the most extravagant and wonderful of them all was a Harry Potter themed birthday spectacular for one of my nephews who lives in Dallas. There was a quidditch game, a magician, a sorting experience and some of the best food I have ever tasted. As Muggles, Mike and I were in awe of the magic of that evening.

My sister-in-law retired from her work as a NASA contractor and spent many weeks touring in Europe with her sisters. My brother hung up his boots and retired from the Houston Fire Department after a career that spanned his entire adult lifetime. Both of them had gala parties in which we celebrated their dedication and achievements which were numerous. I felt so proud of both of them and excited that they now have the time to pursue their hobbies and to travel to their hearts’ content.

Of course Mike and I went camping and sometimes met up with our friends Monica and Franz in Huntsville or Blanco and enjoyed the solitude and the local sites together. We even traveled with our long time buddies to Colorado and stayed in my brothers’ cabin for a glorious week in the fall. We enjoyed nature’s colors and the art festivals as well as the food and quaint shops. Mostly we realized just how much we love being with our dear friends.

In the summer we took two of our grandchildren William and Abby on a grand excursion in our trailer. We reveled in the sights from Santa Fe to San Diego. We took that terrible road to Chaco Canyon and almost baked in the punishing summer sun but were enthralled by the powerful images of a past long gone. We stood over the rim of Grand Canyon at sunset and marveled at the beauty of Sedona. We escaped into a world of make believe at Universal Studios in Los Angeles and spent an entire day slathering our bodies with sunscreen at the beach. We sat under a clear sky and watched the stars in the Davis Mountains. We realized how vast and beautiful the United States truly is.

In October I met with many of my high school friends in a fifty year reunion. It was wonderful to see so many of the people with whom I had spent four years of my young life. They each had special stories to tell and even though the evening flew by with the pace of speed dating I walked away with renewed friendships and a glorious feeling that we had all learned our life lessons well. The people there were good and honest folk just as our teachers had wanted us to be.

There were glorious graduations. My cousin earned an advanced degree and a number of my former students became the first in their families to hold bachelor degrees. I gave a party for those who graduated in May and together we celebrated their stunning accomplishments. I felt a sense of pride in knowing how dedicated they had been and what wonderful futures they would surely enjoy.

I watched my grandchildren perform in musicals and plays, in swim meets and cross country competitions, in robotics games and concerts. I realized even more than ever how gifted and talented and hard working they truly are. I understood that in those moments when I don’t get to see them they are busy charting their own trails that will most assuredly lead them to achieving the goals and the dreams that they have designed for themselves. They will be ready to accept the challenges of the future and be the generation that keeps the faith in our family values.

I met with friends and family and former students throughout the year and truly enjoyed those quiet moments when we conversed and considered the challenges of the world. One particularly fun evening was spent with a large group of women laughing at the antics of less than perfect moters in the movie Bad Moms. The film reminded all of us to be kind to ourselves.

It was in the laughter and the love of friends and family that 2016 was transformed from a frustrating year to one that brought me enough happiness and satisfaction to make me optimistic about life and the world in which we live. Those bumps in the road were a mere disturbance far outweighed by the spectacular moments that happened when I least expected.

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring each of you the love and the happiness and the simple pleasures that make each day just a bit brighter. Look for the silver lining even on the cloudiest of days.