Family

Long ago a priest told me that the story of Jesus’ final days on earth was an example of the ups and downs of human existence. He noted that Jesus entered Jerusalem as a hero with crowds cheering him and creating a carpet of palms for him to walk upon. By the end of the same week he had been betrayed by a friend, abandoned by his closest disciples and tried and convicted as a political criminal. As he was dying a brutal death on a cross the only people willing to be present for him were his mother, a cousin, a woman follower of sometimes questionable reputation and a complete stranger. Many who had only recently cheered him now taunted him and some who had been closest to him denied even knowing him. 

Such it often unfolds in our own lives. Over the entirety of our time on this earth acquaintances come and go, friendships sometimes disappoint, our popularity rises and falls until over time we think we have a good idea of who might be at our sides through the best and the worst of our days. More often than not family members are the core of those on whom we know that we may depend, especially our mothers and fathers who seem to love us no matter how imperfect we are. 

I saw the cycle of relationships unfold rather dramatically with my mother, an outgoing and generous woman who seemed to always be surrounded by people who loved her. She was the woman in the neighborhood and at church whom people trusted with their hidden feelings. Her door was always open and people flocked to her until the quirks of her mental illness made her more difficult to understand. One by one people became too uncomfortable with her depression or manic outbursts to keep visiting or even talking with her on the phone. They offered excuses for not accepting her party or dinner invitations. Her world shrank to a small group of ever faithful friends and family members who refused to abandon her even as her mind became more riddled and confused. Most of those who truly loved her were her brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and of course her children and grandchildren who stood by her no matter how dark her changing moods became.

For the majority of us family is the constant in a world of variables. By the time one reaches an age like mine the hangers on and flatterers have been culled and the people who really care are apparent. They are the ones who will sit with us in an ICU, comfort us when life feels cruel, check on us when we seem not to be ourselves, love us even when we have difficulty loving ourselves. At the center of our shrinking sphere of influence is family, people who know us better than anyone and still accept or at least overlook all of our many flaws. 

Family has provided me with rock solid support from the moment that my father died when I was a very young child. My mother was my number one fan, a woman who cheered me on when I was a winner and hugged me when I failed. Until the moment she died she was ever present with her unconditional love. I still miss her random unannounced visits when she would gleefully honk her horn in my driveway to announce that she had come bearing gifts of food or plants or ideas for how to spend a sunny day when I might otherwise have stayed home. I long for her birthday cakes and quirky gifts and the sound of her voice singing Happy Birthday with the memory of my coming into this world that only she would ever fully understand. 

My brothers have been fellow travelers with me through thick and thin. As we grew and went our independent ways the bond that we forged as children stayed as strong as ever. Now it is extended to my sisters-in-law and my nieces and nephews. We form an ever growing circle that feels unbreakable. It takes little more than a phone call or text to rally all of them to my side. I feel their genuine warmth and love and know that I am never really alone.

All but one of my aunts and uncles are now gone. It has fallen to my cousins to keep our once large and raucous extended family together. The clan has grown so large that some of us do not really know each other. Still there is a solid group of us who once laughed and played together at our grandmother’s house on Friday nights. Each of us has seen more of all sides of life than we might have wished. We may not get together as frequently as we once did and in fact often wish that we would not wait for weddings or retirement parties or funerals to take the time to visit once again. Still when we do rally the feelings that we have always had come back to the fore and our links are strong again.

Then of course there are those closest to me, my husband and my daughters and sons-in-law and grandchildren. They are my strength, my pride, my joy. We can be totally open and honest and still not break the ties that bind us together. We laugh and cry with the ups and downs of daily life. We create our family history together, a story that is still unfolding minute by minute. 

Family matters to each of us. We hold each member tightly in a special place of our hearts. We love them whether they are almost perfect or perfectly flawed. In a world that can sometimes feel cruel and without compassion if we are really lucky we will have a family that embraces us just as we are. 

Cruelty

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

She came to me with tears streaming down her face from behind her glasses with lenses as thick as the bottoms of bottles. She held up her braille copy of our mathematics text book so that I might see the hundreds of holes added maliciously to the raised marks on the paper. Someone had punched those holes uniformly with the point of a compass. She thought she knew who it was and as she made her accusation I watched him smirking and laughing as though he had done something wonderful. When I approached him he owned up to his antics with a kind of pride. He scanned the room with his sarcastic smile as if he knew that the other students would shower him with adulation. That’s when I lost my composure, all sense of decency, my usual instance on being kind to everyone. 

I tore into him with the advantage of being an adult, someone who knew how to use words as a weapon. My lips were dripping with sarcasm as I spoke of how small he had to be to hurt a blind girl just to get attention. I asked him what was wrong with him that he was only able to find friends by being ugly. I went on with my anger until he was sobbing like a small child and then I hurled my most lethal blow by shaking my head and saying, “That’s what I though. You are just a little worm with no courage, no character, no substance.” 

The students broke into a cheer. They smiled as though I had released them from an evil spell. There was a sense of relief as the poor soul continued to cry in shame with his head down on his desk. I should have felt victorious but instead I felt like scum on the bottom of a shoe. I had allowed myself to fall to a level of unkindness that I swore I would never use with another human. I had always believed that two wrongs do not make a right no matter the circumstances and yet here I was. 

I mostly try to be a kind person but sometimes my very human traits lead me down a rabbit hole of thought or words or actions that are as awful as the behaviors I most abhor. Of late I find myself all too often succumbing to the kind of nastiness that has seemingly become popular. Whenever I have had my fill of insulting language or actions I react but never as horribly as I did on the day I defended the little blind girl in my class. In retrospect I see that the boy who ruined her book was a damaged and disabled as anyone. His approach to life and people was toxic but I should have remembered that he had to have learned how to be that way due to some horrible circumstances. I did not need to accept his behavior, but I should have combated it in a more humane way. I should have been the example that he needed. Instead I became not just his worst nightmare but my own.

Of late I find myself muttering to no one that I am so tired. I still have more than a good share of physical energy but psychologically I am bushed. It is not so much that I am depressed because I am still able to take delight in the glory and wonder of the world and its people. I don’t mind the sacrifices I have made during the pandemic. It is my disappointment in people that is wearing me down. When I see someone note that a particular person or group is “human garbage” I shudder. When I witness abusive language or behavior being not only accepted but encouraged as some perverted form of bravery, I want to cry. I find myself wondering if the world has somehow gone crazy or if it is only I who have a problem. 

I am not fool enough to think that the world can ever be filled with rainbows and unicorns. History is proof that we humans are capable of unthinkable horrors. Nonetheless I want to believe that most good people are offended by cruelty no matter the reasoning for it. My stomach turns when I hear cheers for remarks that should never have been uttered, including those like I made to that unfortunate boy. It says something terrible about our society when we are willing to follow and revere brutishness. It is as inhumane as kicking a wounded dog. 

If there is one thing that is holding me back from celebrating each day with pure joy it is the realization that so many have wittingly or unwittingly allied themselves with individuals and groups that are almost barbaric in their assessment of those with whom they disagree. It worries me that we have allowed this trend to go as far as it has without insisting that it stop. Somehow too many have conflated boorishness and vindictiveness with courage. 

I still believe that we humans are mostly good. We want to be better than our natures sometimes lead us to be. We are usually a forgiving lot and we even know how to get together when necessary to topple the tyrants among us. There are signs that we are no longer willing to simply accept the cruelty that is so fashionable but in our haste to rid ourselves of it we have to be careful that we do not become as bad as the brutes who dish it out. We should always remember that it may be okay to topple a few tables to get the attention that we need but hurting people should only be a last resort. I’m betting that kindness and love will eventually win but it is going to take some concentrated effort from most of us to make that happen. We can’t look the other way anymore, but we must be careful not to descend into the darkness when we make the efforts to rid ourselves of the cruelty that we so dislike. Surely we are better than that.

Endless Learning

Photo by Budgeron Bach on Pexels.com

I have often admitted that learning and teaching gave me a way to temporarily turn off the challenges of living. Going to school comforted me after my father’s death and well into my teen years. I found it difficult to be too obsessed with my troubles while studying. As someone who is prone to chronic worrying learning provided me with a safe haven from which to escape from the concerns that seemed to follow me everywhere. Eventually my work as a teacher became my mechanism for feeling calm and safe. Keeping my mind active has always prevented me from becoming obsessed with my troubles. 

I often regret not continuing with my education. I have a graduate degree but I think I would have enjoyed enrolling in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston that so many of my professors were encouraging me to do. If not that, I might have worked toward earning a PhD. in educational leadership or some such thing. 

I suppose that I might well have done either of these things but I always seemed to have more irons in the fire than I was able to handle at one time. I was a kind of perfectionist with my work as an educator but I also had a family waiting for me at home. I was already robbing them of so much of my time that I did indeed feel guilty about adding rigorous classwork to my already bursting schedule. Then there was also the care of my mother which always hovered in the background. At any given moment I often had to drop everything to get her the care and the safe environment that she needed. I never knew when her mental illness would rear its head, but I did know that it would always inevitably happen. 

Now that I am retired I might have enrolled at a university not so much for career advancement but just for the love of learning. Instead I found the Glasscock School of Continuing Education at Rice University where I have taken a course each fall and spring since 2011. There is nothing more wonderful than learning just for fun, no certifications, no tests, no grades. I take the classes only because they make me happy. 

I’ve become a kind of groupie for certain professors and mostly history but I’ve experienced other types of learning as well. I picked up some tips on writing and publishing that have helped me with my blog and allowed me to lose some of the fear that I once had of exposing myself and my points of view to the public. I’ve enjoyed several histories of the city of Houston that have brought back memories as well as shown me how and why Houston developed into one of the largest cities in the United States. I’ve learned about India, China, art history, current issues, and the backstory of Downton Abbey. 

It’s been fun gathering information from extraordinary lecturers and surrounding myself with interesting and brilliant people who share my interests. Before COVID 19 I used my afternoons or evenings at Rice as a day out by always including a special lunch or dinner in the festivities. I’d dress up a bit more than I do at home and make a day of doing something just for me. 

During the isolation of the pandemic I have turned to studying and teaching once again as a way of keeping my mind from wandering into dark places. Helping my students to learn mathematics has been a gift to me just as it has been for so many years. I’ve also read and watched tutorials on various subjects in addition to taking two history classes remotely. All of it has filled my hours and made the past year more than just bearable. I have mostly enjoyed the quiet of my solitude and the opportunity to do research and meditate. 

I’ve recently watched a PBS series on Ernest Hemingway that has prompted me to want to reread some of his works. I first studied them as a teen and young woman in my twenties. I suspect that my age and my experience might cause me to view them a bit differently than before. I often find that the same words seem to change when observed from different points in time. I am now that old man fishing in the sea rather than a young woman feeling pity for him as he battles with the marlin. I’ve already realized that books I read long ago feel different when I read them now. I used to despise Heart of Darkness but in a recent reading I found it to be a masterpiece. 

We can all do with a bit of continuing education. Learning should never end and need not have any purpose beyond simply enriching one’s life. For me studying and gaining new knowledge is better than hours with a therapist or swallowing an antidepressant. Keeping the mind active is as critical as exercising the body and eating a healthy diet. It’s the route to a good and happy life.

Freedoms Fears and Frustrations

Photo by Alycia Fung on Pexels.com

We Americans are truly a different breed from most of the rest of the world. We are about as diverse as a nation can be and the reach of our land area is enormous. Bringing all of our disparate sections together has been rather remarkable given that similar attempts at creating such a grand mix of cultures has mostly failed in other attempts throughout the world. Our united states are a wonder but keeping them together has been difficult from the first moments that the original thirteen colonies signed on to the Declaration of Independence. 

If we boiled the beginnings of the revolution down to the kind of simplistic ideas that seem to so often drive politics today we might suggest that the war with Great Britain began over taxes, guns and freedoms of speech, press and religion, with taxes and guns at the forefront. It was after all worry that British troops were coming to take away firearms from the colonists that lead to the standoffs at Lexington and Concord. Our obsessions with guarding our personal rights, our pocketbooks and our weapons have continued from that moment forward. 

The argument about what behaviors should be protected freedoms have ensued from the earliest days of our government and have sometimes included troublesome ideas like the right to own slaves. The squabbles over our nation’s “original sin” culminated in a civil war that left a schism that has festered all the way down to the present day. Our efforts to compromise, appease and look the other way in issues of equality have been the source of great injustice over the decades with the progress toward a realization of the ideals of independence and freedom for all humans being gut wrenchingly slow for many or our citizens. 

In many ways our nation is inflicted with an ugly scab that sometimes appears to heal but all too often is suddenly torn off to reveal a pus- filled infection. For the most part we are indeed moving in the right direction toward remission of the disease that has been so much a part of our history but we still have those who stubbornly cling to the idea that it is not really true that all men are created equal. From time to time they reemerge from dark corners to remind us that our work to undo the terrible mistakes of the past is not yet finished. 

COVID-19 should have been an opportunity for national unity in a cause that affects every citizen. Instead some of the worst of our national traits have emerged to create chaos, confusion, and even death. We have made fighting a virus political and in doing that we have wasted our opportunities to halt its spread more quickly. Now there are new battle cries of “Freedom” and accusations that those who conform to medical directives and science are motivated only by “Fear.” 

I have grown weary of people who choose to ignore simple precautions in the name of some supposed freedom. I am angry with those who accuse those of us who have stuck with a scientific plan of being afraid. I am disgusted with politicians who flaunt the advice of medical experts and persist in creating potentially dangerous situations like removing mask mandates and allowing large crowds to gather. I want those guilty of such behavior to know that I am not afraid! I am simply of the mind that we can stop the spread of this virus if we use a common sense approach for the common good. I wonder when it became so popular to focus more on individual liberties than on the greater needs of society as a whole. 

Let’s be very clear we are engaged in a real battle against a real disease. As with any war we must have generals who create strategies and then we as the troops must stick with the plan. We need sentries to guard us and in this case those would be our doctors who are warning us that we are very close to victory and this is not the time to retreat. We need all of our defenses if we are going to win and not prolong the struggle. We have to wear masks. We need to get vaccinated. We have to demonstrate some rational thinking by avoiding the temptation of either planning or attending any events that involve crowded conditions with people that we do not know.

I am as eager to resume a normal life as anyone. I hate the masks. I dislike having to curtail so many of the activities that I love. I miss my family and my friends. I long to sit with them and see their smiles. I want to feel as free as anyone does but I do not believe that my personal rights should trump those of others. I may be vaccinated but it is possible that I can still carry the virus to someone else if I do not wear a mask. I may even get a mild version of the virus if others are not wearing a mask. We are working toward herd immunity but we are not there yet. If each of us cooperates we may achieve that goal more quickly than if we insist on protecting our own personal desires. 

Freedom will ultimately come to all of us if we are actually willing to sacrifice just a tiny bit. On the other hand it will be threatened if half of us refuse to help with the effort. We will be caught in a cycle of super spreaders and surges that will delay our progress toward eliminating the virus for good. We have to quit reacting and begin thinking. We have had many plans most of which have been upended because of the impatience of a few. Let’s at least agree that our history teaches us that turning our backs on truth and taking the easy least uncomfortable route has never worked. Our best times have been those when we buckled down and did the hard work of setting things right no matter what it took. Now is the time to revive that spirit of America for it is what is most truly good about our nation. Let’s be defined by a willingness to sacrifice rather than arrogant self interest.

Mask up. Vax up. Be responsible. Think of others. We will only be successful if we do this together with love and respect.

On Being Unheard

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I come from a very loud family. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Going to my maternal grandmother’s home was quite a trip. We often gathered there on Friday evenings and it was not unusual at all for my mom and her seven siblings to all be there vying for center stage in the conversations. I am rather certain that people heard the chaotic discussions for miles around. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise, especially for someone with a voice as quiet as mine. I learned to just sit quietly and take in the show. 

I often dreamed of being taken seriously in one of those wild debates and thought that my turn might come when my generation became adults. Sadly my brothers and cousins were as loud as our parents had been and I still found myself struggling to get anyone to hear anything I had to say unless they were sitting right next to me. No matter how hard I tried to break into the conversation I was generally ignored, even when I probably knew more about the topic than anyone who was speaking. 

One thing I’ve learned is that people will ask for professional advice from lawyers, bankers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and all sorts of experts but nobody wants to listen to the musings of a teacher. Even when the lively discussion is about education a teacher’s viewpoint generally gamers little respect. Teachers are mostly ignored, at least I always have been. I suppose that because everyone has once been a student in a school they tend to believe that they probably know about as much about what goes in classrooms as a teacher does. Anyway, when I announce that that I am a teacher I find that most people smile politely and walk away as quickly as possible. Among many circles there is a somewhat general belief that those who can’t do anything else decide to teach.

My former students and teaching colleagues still come to me for advice or to hear my thoughts but so many of the other people I know appear to think that I have nothing to offer. It can be rather frustrating and so I have turned to writing as a way to use my voice. I’ll never be able to muster enough volume to break into a group conversation but I am able to articulate who I am and what I am thinking with my written words. Having a web page has given me the pulpit that I never before had. 

For all I know I am writing for an audience of nobody but that is okay. I find it interesting that J.D. Salinger initially fought to get his work published but eventually wrote only for the joy of doing so. He lost interest in impressing others with what he had to say. In some ways that is how I now feel. Writing and expressing myself makes me happy and that is all that matters. If somebody happens to pay attention to what I have to say it is simply like a cherry on top of a bowl of ice cream. I don’t have to have their attention to survive but it sure feels nice when I know that somebody cares about my thoughts. 

Some people are really good listeners. I have a friend who is a counselor who has developed the art of active listening down to perfection. Whenever I talk with her either in person or via text I am certain that she has considered my words, my ideas. It is a joy to communicate with her.  

Others give me the impression that they are trying to think of ways to politely excuse themselves from me. Maybe the problem is that I talk too much when I do finally get an audience. What people do not realize is how exciting it is to finally have someone listen. I’ve been waiting for my whole life to be able to interject a comment without having to yell from the top of my lungs or raise my hand in the hopes of garnering attention.

I enjoyed the art of debate in high school when I was able to demonstrate that I do indeed know how to present logical, rationale arguments regarding the pros and cons of a particular question. Even then, however, I recall one of my judges being astounded that someone as “tiny and soft spoken” as I was had the ability to present and refute propositions so stunningly. I mean, really, what does a person’s appearance and voice have to do with knowledge and the ability to reason?

I would default to the idea that being a woman is my main barrier for being taken seriously but for the fact that my mother and her sisters always held their own in those raucous family discussions. Admittedly they were obnoxiously loud but people actually listened to them and considered what they had to say. Even my quite refined and elegant mother-in-law mostly managed to get her words into the fray, often with amazing success. I just failed and continue to fail in the conversation olympics with my extended family even when I have tried new tactics. 

It’s a frustrating situation for someone who was able to command the attention of known gang members during my teaching years. I’ve calmed parents threatening to kill other educators. I have supposedly inspired people with my wisdom. Not so with my brothers and cousins and the wild crew I call my extended family. I just sit back as I always have and smile at their antics knowing that often I do indeed have something worthy of saying that none of them will ever hear. 

I love my family. I suppose that my mom and her seven siblings grew up vying for attention. It was the survival of the loudest in their tiny house and they all perfected their skills save for one of the uncles who seemed to voluntarily surrender much as I have done. My brother and cousins were observant enough as children to learn how to enter the fray but somehow I never perfected that ability. I have to be content with quiet conversations in the corner or letting my hair down with my writing. I suppose that in fact my reality is not really so bad. At least nobody has ever accused me of being obnoxiously loud and the years of watching the show of the contenders has admittedly been great fun. Whether they listen to me or not, I love my crazy family and the verbal battles they fight. You really haven’t lived until you witness it. For now I am actually content knowing that I have mostly been unheard. They just don’t know what they are missing from me.