Admission. Contrition. Atonement. Reconciliation

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My grandfather was a storyteller. He spun tales for most of his one hundred eight years on this earth. Every episode came from his youth and always had an unspoken moral that not only demonstrated the morays of an era but the characteristics that Grandpa believed were most important in a moral human. 

One of my favorite memories from his childhood was about two boys who got into a fight in the school yard. Things got so out of hand that one of them grabbed a tree limb that lay on the ground and used it as a kind of sword. He scratched his opponent’s face leaving bloody tracks. Then with a last violent thrust the boy pushed the end of the stick into his adversary’s eye stunning everyone witnessing the incident. 

My grandfather thought that the fatal blow was probably an accident but the damage was done. The victim lost all sight in his right eye over what had begun as a petty squabble. Grandpa told us that the perpetrator of the the injury was instantly contrite and began sobbing when he realized what he had done. Eventually the parents of the guilty young party announced that they would pay all of the injured boy’s medical bills and then provide him with a monthly stipend until their own son was able to make the payments himself. They signed a promissory note vowing to care for the blinded soul for the remainder of his life. 

Grandpa went on the explain that personal responsibility was the hallmark of the people of his community. He was saddened that the incident had occurred and felt that tempers had flared in a moment of pique, but he also agreed that it was wrong to simply leave the injured party to his own resources. He greatly admired the initiative of the family that did the responsible thing without need of lawyers or a court ruling. He suggested that if we were all so accountable the world would be a better place. 

I’ve often thought of Grandpa’s tale. So often adults behave like children, skirting their duties or  blaming others for the consequences of their words or their actions. It is an immature thing to to justify immoral actions by accusing others of doing even worse things. That is the kind of explanation that young people still in the processing of developing character use to defend their egregious actions. 

So often when I had to deal with recalcitrant students they wanted to justify what they had done by pointing out that everyone was doing the same kinds of things. Sometimes they accused me of having one set of rules for everyone else and another set for them. They felt beset upon for being caught and held accountable for their actions. They moaned about how unfair things were.

My goal as a teacher and a mother has always been to make teachable moments out of the times when an individual has done something bad. Owning our transgressions is the first step in repairing breached relationships. We cannot stop with accusations, recriminations or punishments. We must demand that those who are hurtful go through a process of admitting their guilt, expressing sorrow for what they have done, and accepting the consequences for their transgressions. Only then can there be meaningful forgiveness and reconciliation. 

I once had a student who had become so angry in a classroom that he began to cuss out the teaching, threatening to beat him to death. Of course we had to find a suitable punishment for him but I also wanted him to come to his own realization of the seriousness of his outburst. As I was guiding him through an analysis of the situation he broke down crying and admitted that he had trouble controlling his temper. He began to outline ways that he believed that we should hold him accountable. He actually described punishments more excessive than what we had thought of requiring him to do. He was not off of the hook simply expressing contrition. The added time spent guiding him to an admission of how he might have approached the situation differently and what the consequences should be was the beginning of important change for him. He eventually became a rather remarkable man but I doubt that would have happened without requiring him to endure all of the steps that lead to reconciliation. Like the young man in my grandfather’s story he took a giant leap toward maturity.

I am saddened by our president and those who love and admire him in that he and many of them seem unable to accept their own roles in the uprising in the Capitol last week. They point to the rioting and looting that sometimes occurred during the Black Lives Movement protests of the spring and summer as an excuse. They insist that we have misinterpreted their intent. They whine that they are always beset upon and hated, so of course they fight back. Then they tell us that punishing any of them will only inflame the intensity of the situation and lead to more violence. It is as though they are holding the victims of their seditious actions responsible for the damage down to our democracy. They beg for peace and reconciliation without contrition. This of course is the response of a child.

We must focus for the moment on what happened on January 6, not other events. Those involved either through direct action, lies or language that incited anger must own the roles that they played in the unfolding of that horrific assault on Congress. Healing and working together only comes after honest admission of wrongs committed, an expression of sorrow and a willingness to accept consequences. 

I look forward to a day when this may happen. In the meantime I cannot wait for the January 20 inauguration of our new President, Joseph Biden.

The Perils and Joys of Following My Heart

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I’ve had so much drama in my life that I have a tendency to shy away from conflict. When people become emotional and argumentative I try to smooth over the situation and walk away. I make grand attempts to keep my world calm and happy. I prefer overlooking personal insults or slights to becoming engaged in disagreements. I have been known to defer to the demands of someone insisting that I change to their way of doing things. Most of the time the impact of my peacekeeping has fallen on me and I don’t mind the inconveniences that surrendering in some instances has caused me. I generally have far more important battles to fight and I am a proponent of rarely sweating over the small stuff.  

Now and again I find myself in situations in which morality and fealty demand that I stand firm in my beliefs. No matter the cost, I must speak out. Such occasions are usually quite painful and often result in loss of relationships that I had thought to be solid and unbreakable. I have lost sleep over them and prayed earnestly that my choices have been wise rather than based solely on emotions. It takes courage and steadfastness to do what I believe in my heart to be right. 

Most such occasions have centered on very personal incidents such as finding the best care for my mother when her mental illness raged out of hand. She was a noncompliant patient to the very end of her life and we sometimes engaged in soul crushing fights about her need for therapy and medication. I had to persist in my demands that she see her doctors and follow their instructions. In her mind I came across as a control freak intent on ruining her life. For my part the child in me wanted to run away from my responsibility so that I might ignore the venom that spewed from her mind when she was in a psychotic state. I had to gird myself and fight for her even when my courage wavered. I learned from our battles when there could be no retreat and how to broker peace. Love was my shield and my spear. It guided me in doing what I had to do. 

I’ve had other experiences in my professional life that demanded that I not simply look away. I have had to shine a light on abusive practices from both parents and educators more than once. I had to muster every ounce of bravery that I had to defend both students and teachers from individuals who should never have been given the responsibilities of working inside schools. Sometimes rather than remain silent about injustices I had to stand up to administrators who had the power to dismiss me. At times I stood alone because others were afraid to join my crusade. Holding onto principles can be a very lonely experience. 

Nonetheless I remain humble and a bit guilt ridden because more often than not I have preferred to maintain the status quo, to remain calm rather than stir up a hornet’s nest. I have to admit to being a people pleaser, someone who longs to make people happy. I would prefer having someone else assume the role of truth teller. I like being able to hide behind the mantle of a true hero, someone who regularly tilts windmills and questions the way we treat our fellow humans. I so admire those willing to withstand horrific criticisms in order to do what they believe to be right. I mostly dream of being like them rather than actually becoming a true champion. 

Since this time last year the world has been turned upside down. Twelve months ago I was happily planning trips and filling my calendar with plans to attend the Houston Rodeo and to see a live performance of Elton John. I naively thought that I was in the slow quiet phase of my life when I would no longer be called upon to engage in a contentious battle for my principles. I had almost become immune to the bombast of our president. In essence I had simply tuned him out because I found most of what he said to be offensive blather. I did not realize the extent to which he had electrified a sizable portion of the electorate with his poisonous fears even though younger friends and members of my family were warning me of this.

Then came the pandemic and the realization that Trump was not up to the task of leading the nation to safety. He tried for a time but grew bored with the heavy lifting, instead wishing and hoping that by some magic it would all simply go away. He discouraged his followers from listening to the science. He led them by refusing to wear a mask or forego his crowded rallies and parties. He eventually even hurled insults and innuendo at the medical people who were valiantly fighting the war against the virus.

Then came the Black Lives Movement and instead of inviting its leaders to confer with him he threw gasoline on the situation by instead focusing on incidents of violence rather than the bigger picture of sincere citizens attempting to demonstrate their frustrations with an often inequitable and racist system. He had an opportunity to be a real hero but instead he bolstered his popularity with his base by making it seem unpatriotic to point out the flaws in our nations’s history that have yet to be resolved. 

As we approached election day our president became more and more concerned about his own prospects for reelection than about the cries of citizens suffering all across the land. The frenzy of his speeches and rallies created division and unfounded fears. He had no policies to present, only a litany of untruths and half truths that created anxieties at a time when his job should have been to reassure us all. 

I had to speak up publicly and on record as all of this unfolded. I saw this as a moment in which remaining silent and hoping for the best would be the most unpatriotic thing that I might do. Every ounce of my being warned me that we were on the threshold of a clear and present danger and like Paul Revere and others who rode with him I had to voice my concerns. The price I have paid is higher than I ever imagined. My patriotism has been questioned and I have borne the brunt of bruising insults. I have been unfriended by relatives and people I thought to be my friends. It has been an emotional journey but I am proud of myself for refusing to turn back.

When I watched the horror of January 6, 2021, unfold at our nation’s Capitol I knew that I had been right in my assessment of President Trump and his manipulation of the people of this this country. Sadly I had not understood the extent to which his constant barrage of lies and fear mongering had driven so many of my fellow citizens into a frenzy of insurrection. Even I had underestimated the effect of his negative rhetoric on people some of whom had become cult like in their deference to him. I did not fully realize how horrific things would become because so many overlooked the worst aspects of his personality defects  and chose to be silent even when they knew that he was pushing his followers to an allegiance not to the country, but to him. 

Now it is time for our president to pay the price of his inglorious behavior. It is time for those who encouraged him to lose their credibility and power as well. We must heal from the pandemic. We must finally face racism in our midst head on. We have to ask ourselves what we need to do to move our country forward, not backward. We can no longer simply look the other way when we see or hear hate being voiced. I expect to be fighting this late battle in my life until I have no more voice. This is the remarkable peril and joy of following my heart.

Liver and Onions

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When I was young my mother sometimes cooked cow liver with onions for our dinner. She considered it to be a kind of delicacy that was also good for preventing anemia. I viewed it as the grossest thing that ever came into our house. Just smelling it made me want to gag and the mere thought of ingesting it turned my stomach. It was one of the few times that I became a recalcitrant and whiny child, unwilling to accept the bounty of what Mama chose to prepare for our family meal. 

My brothers never balked at eating the vile innards of a cow but I was adamant that it would never pass my lips. My mom was just as insistent that I was free to leave my portion of the main course for others to share but she was not willing to prepare something different for me. She would point to the accompanying vegetables that might soothe my hunger but I was still not satisfied because I was literally unable to be in the same room with the offending liver without feeling quite ill. Mama’s solution to that problem was to announce that I was free to go outside until the rest of the family had finished dinner if I so chose and I always took her up on that offer. 

I’d stand in the yard gagging at the thought of my mother and brothers actually ingesting the foul protein. I felt like a valiant crusader for standing my ground and refusing to be part of the disgusting ritual of dining on liver and onions. Luckily my mother only chose to serve such a meal once in a blue moon so I was able to reserve my histrionics for a full blown rebellion on the occasions when she brought such a meal into our home. I suppose that we both thought we had won since neither of us were ever willing to back down. Luckily I have never been particularly in need of a regular round of meals so going to bed without dinner was a very small sacrifice for me but I never let my mother know how little in mattered to me. Instead I acted as though I was being unfairly tortured by her lack of understanding of my stance. 

My mother was of course a widow with three children to feed and an impossibly small income with which to purchase food. She had to be quite creative when it came to planning meals, never wasting a single ingredient for any reason. She did not have the luxury of catering to our dining whims and so her strictly enforced rule was that we either ate what she offered or passed on that particular meal. She never made us eat something we did not like but she taught us to begin with small portions, perhaps just enough to taste something to determine if we wanted more. While she never made us clean our plates her face demonstrated her concern if we were wasteful of the food that we had. It was painful for her to throw something in the trash. 

I cannot think of anything else that she prepared for us that I was unwilling to eat other than liver and onions. She was a wonderfully inventive cook who made even the most humble ingredients seems to be a gourmet treat. She had a knack for combining spices and common items in a way that was unique and tasty. I think she thought of liver and onions as a splurge and it hurt her feelings that I made such a show of disgust when she placed it on the menu. 

I suppose that I might have been a little more reserved and polite in my commentary. I should have just explained that I did not care to eat on the evenings when liver and onions were on the table and then taken a walk around the neighborhood until the disturbing food had been consumed and the kitchen cleaned of its odor. Instead I became a drama queen to emphasize my disgust with the whole thing. It was as though I wanted to destroy the moment for everyone and become the center of attention with my antics. 

Over time I learned how to curb shows of dislike with food. I am far more polite when I do not want to consume a particular type of food. I fill my plate with things that I prefer and use the trick of taking a small spoon of the offending item so that when it is left on the plate it appears that I simply ran out of appetite. Sometimes I do not even partake in a charade but simply choose only what I like to eat. In today’s world filled with so many vegetarians and vegans I can get by with only fruit and vegetables without drawing attention to my dislikes of things like lamb, eels, raw fish, tripe and such. 

Because of my own childhood experience I find myself feeling quite comfortable with anyone who admits that they do no wish to eat something that I have prepared. I understand that each of us have differing likes and dislikes when it comes to food. Nobody should ever have to ingest something that makes them queasy or that they feel is not good for them. It makes preparing a meal for a crowd more complex because these days there are so many different kinds of diets to accommodate. I have to take carbs, meat, allergens and general preferences into account and even then I sometimes find someone who can’t find anything satisfactory in the buffet that I have offered. 

We’ve learned a great deal about food and healthy diets since the days when my mother was so proud of her liver and onion delicacy. More and more people would no doubt be joining me in the yard if they were to encounter such a thing on a menu. Still I feel conflicted over how I behaved. On the one hand it felt good to stand my ground but on the other hand it now seems rather childish of me to have behaved so abominably. I now realize that it was really my mother who understood what to do. I imagine that she and my brothers had a rather enjoyable dinner sharing the extra portion of liver and being free from my pouting and dirty looks. Because of her wisdom it worked out well for everyone and I got the privilege of deciding for myself what I was willing to eat. She outsmarted me just as she always did.

The Games of Living

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There are games of some sort everywhere. Their popularity has created an entire industry. Some watch or engage in sporting games of every imaginable kind. Others are addicted to computer games. There are card games and board games of every genre with entire stores dedicated to catering to the many varieties of interest. It seems as though everyone finds joy in playing some kind of game except for me. 

In all honesty I have little interest in games as most people think of them. I put up with sports but probably would not care if they went away entirely. They’ve become far too money driven for my taste. The same colleges and pro teams win again and again because they have the most cash. The monetizing of sports has taken so much of the fun and surprise out of the whole thing.

I used to play cards when I was young but as I grew older I found too many adults who took the games so seriously that I no longer enjoyed the experience. I’ve had people bite my head off for making the wrong play or for talking and laughing during the proceedings. What I thought was supposed to be a social gathering has somehow turned into a life and death competition. Since I think that we place way too much emphasis on rivalries in every aspect of life these days I no longer like the idea of being judged during a moment that is supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable.

I never had enough interest in chess to learn all of the nuances of the game. If I win it is more likely the result of chance than some kind of skill. I do way better with the simpler game of checkers but I don’t really find that satisfying either. In fact I’d rather be doing lots of other things than playing or watching any kind of game save for Scrabble or games associated with words.

I admit to spending hours working all sorts of word puzzles whether they be crosswords or word finds or just a classic game of Scrabble. I enjoy arranging the letters in my mind, attempting to make some sense out of them. I understand that chance plays a role in how well I will do as well as the competence of the person with whom I am playing but that only adds to the challenge. I would find it quite pleasant to play a game of Scrabble every single day and I often do by way of my phone. In fact, I actually play many different word games while I take walks on my treadmill. It’s amazing how much more quickly the time goes by when I occupy my mind as well as my body.

Sometimes I actually rehearse the creation of words in my mind. I calm myself by spelling out different combinations of the same set of letters. I don’t know if that is a sign that I am strange but it is a kind of defense against anxiety that I have developed over the years. It has carried me through many difficult moments when I might otherwise have been overcome by fears or uncertainties. Words are therapy for me.

I tend to believe that my all time favorite game however is actually that of living from day to day. It takes a special ability to see all sides of a difficult situation and plan to make the right moves. There is enough challenge in day to day interactions to satisfy my interest. I don’t need to escape into an artificial competition when the art of surviving is complex enough. 

I have nothing against games. They are just not for me. I’d much rather spend my free time writing or reading or engaging in a stimulating conversation. I’m a talker as my family and friends know all too well. I can spend hours listening and learning from others and then making my own comments about what I have heard. I find people to be fascinating and I really can’t get enough time with them. Games are not nearly as satisfying to me as learning all about other people. 

Perhaps my brain and my body were not hardwired for games of any sort. I am slow, deliberate, methodical. I do not respond well to pressure especially if it is timed. I like to watch and analyze and learn just as my mother always told me to do. I color outside of the lines and see what happens if I bend the rules. Most games are too rapid and too rigid for me. My mind wanders and I lose track of what is happening because I am distracted by the people with whom I am playing. 

I often join in games with those who enjoy such things. Sometimes I get lucky and win a hand of Blackjack or the cards go my way with Uno. I get dizzy and nauseated attempting to play video games so I have managed to avoid them totally. I’ll try most of the board games and even quietly enjoy some of them now and again, but ask me to quietly play a word game and I’m always ready. Ask me to play the game of living and I really get excited. Just don’t make me compete or push me to react hurriedly. Mine is a slow and contemplative way of meeting the world. That is my talent and thus far it has served me well in the bigger games of living.

What Lies Ahead

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 A year ago I was filled with mixed emotions about the coming year. I had spent the first days of 2020 at funerals for two wonderful women who had inspired me to be a better person. One was my cousin, Jeannie, who was always laughing and finding ways to bring people together for fun. She was a beautiful soul whose life was cut short all too soon and somehow saying our final goodbyes to her at the dawn of a new year seemed so wrong. To compound the sense of foreboding that I was feeling I attended the funeral of my Aunt Claudia, fondly known as “Aunt Speedy.” only a day after laying Jeannie to rest. I had loved and adored these two women from the time I was a child and somehow I could not imagine a world without them or a bright future in a year that began with so much sorrow.  

I’ve always found January and February to be a bit dreary. Aside from my brother’s birthday on January 6, there are never really many things on the calendar to brighten the winter days. There is a kind of letdown after the joyful feelings of the holidays that not even Valentine’s Day can counteract. It always seems a long way until spring when the trees and flowers begin to bloom again and the promise of summertime. In January trips and gatherings with friends seems impossibly far away. 

In 2020, I had little idea that those gloomy days of routine and grey skies would lead into ten months of pandemic isolation from those I love. Somehow I assumed when the virus did come that we would lockdown for a few weeks and then return to our everyday routines. In the meantime I took it as a personal challenge to remain optimistic and find ways of dealing with the strangeness of it all. For the duration of 2020, I made a game of staying home and not being physically present with my family or my friends. I found ways to have fun and enjoy the different way of living and everything turned out well. Now I find myself getting those January/February blues in spades this year so it’s time to make some new plans to lighten things up. Perhaps a nice day trip is in order.

I suppose that it would be lots of fun to spend the day at Brazos Bend State Park. I’d love to take my trailer there and stay for several nights but everyone is camping right now and getting a spot in a state or national park is almost impossible, so a day trip seems to be the most logical choice for getting away and I like the idea of just enjoying the serenity of the place for a few hours.

Brazos Bend is a swampy area along the Brazos River. It is a haven for wildlife of all sorts. On any given hike along the trails there are views of alligators and exotic birds. A rabbit might hop right past the visitors who always demonstrate a kind of reverence for nature. The quiet atmosphere save for the sounds of animals or breezes blowing through the trees is always a relaxing reminder of how we humans share this world with other living creatures and plants. It is an enchanting place and one where the specter of viruses and other human problems seem far away. 

Brazos Bend is about an hour’s drive from our home. If we pack a lunch we can spend a day there in a kind of mini-vacation and it costs little or nothing. It’s a perfect way to get out of the house and away from the fact that it may still be awhile before we see anything resembling normal in the world as we know it. The park is a kind of gift sitting in our midst just waiting for us to remember how truly beautiful simplicity is. Everything feels harmonious and basic there. The pace is slow and deliberate. 

I have thought a great deal about the way we do things of late. We spend too much time dreaming of going Disneyworld or enriching our bank accounts. We get caught up in a whirlwind of activities that leave us in an exhausted state. We rush and compete and purchase things and foods to make us feel better when nature itself is waiting for us to pause long enough to notice how healing it is to shed the trappings that please us for a time until they become old and uninteresting. Places like Brazos Bend on the other hand are timeless and so satisfying.

I think I will plan a day trip to the park very soon. It will be fun to wander aimlessly down the trails and to sit quietly observing and meditating on how glorious life really is when we strip it down to its most basic essence. I hear the call of the wild and I plan to answer it in the coming days. One step at a time will get me to spring and then we shall see what lies ahead.