When One of Us Hurts

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We can’t run and we can’t hide. Problems will find us no matter how hard we try to escape from them. Not only that, we can’t avoid the reality that all of us live in a symbiotic relationship even when we have never met each other. In fact, we intersect with all things on this earth and in our universe. The old adage that we feel a butterfly flap its wings in Africa is not that far fetched. Sooner or later the cumulative effect of our interactions and those of the natural world have an impact on us. To deny this simple truth is to threaten the very health of all humans and the survival of the earth.

We like to believe that when one person is hurting it has nothing to do with us. We may not have caused that individual’s problems, but there is almost always a kind of ripple effect that reaches out in all directions from someone with a shattered heart. In a million little ways each person has an impact not just on the people who know and love them, but on strangers who may not even realize their existence.

As parents we attempt to instill character and family values in our children. We often forget that they won’t always be with us. They will encounter people who may ultimately misguide or misuse them. Nothing hurts us more than seeing a loved one who has been degraded and disappointed by someone that they trusted. We would rather have to deal with something terrible ourselves than have to see family members or dear friends in pain, and yet such situations are very much part of human life. It’s critical that we teach our young how to work their way through the tough times because none of us fully escape them. It is impossible to be totally sheltered from hurt and betrayal.

Flexibility and resilience are two often ignored and underrated characteristics that help us to deal with tragedy. It’s critical that we take time to demonstrate to our young how to keep moving forward even when our path seems to be impossibly blocked. Providing them with a place where they feel free to vent and then communicate their fears is a first step in helping them to find solutions to the difficulties that plague them. Every person should understand the simple idea that there is always a way to resolve the conflicts in their lives. The outcome may be far different from anything they have ever imagined, but nonetheless a way of crawling out of the muck.

We don’t have to be filled with rainbows and unicorns and unrealistic expectations. Going to Disneyland is not always an answer to our prayers. Sometimes we have to endure tough times and work harder than we ever thought possible just to keep from falling into a pit of despair. It is in those times that we find our truest allies and friends and then it is incumbent upon us to always remember them when their moment of uncertainty occurs. We are in this crazy mixed up world together, and brawling over who is right and who is wrong only clouds the issues and delays solutions. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

Years ago my husband was critically ill with a disease that more often than not killed people back then. He was in the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy in the hopes of a cure. I had two little ones at home that needed my care so I wasn’t always able to be with him. His mother on the other hand was able to sit by his side throughout his treatments. In all honesty I became jealous of her attention to him while I was stuck at home with the children. Even when I showed up at the hospital she took control of the situation and made me feel as though my concerns did not matter. I allowed a smoldering anger to build up inside until I was about to burst. I finally admitted my feelings to my mother who gave me absolutely perfect advice.

She reminded me that my mother-in-law loved her son as much as I loved my two daughters. She asked me to imagine how I would feel if one of my girls was in the hospital fighting to win a battle with a deadly disease. She said that this was not a time to have a contest of who loved my husband best because he was in a very difficult position and should not have to choose between his mother and his wife. Then she said that what was needed most was for someone to emerge as the adult in the room, someone who loved everyone so much that he or she was willing to step back and just go with the flow of things.

Of course she was not so subtly hinting that I needed to be that person. She suggested that I keep the home fires burning in my husband’s absence and let his mother sit by his side. She pointed out that each of us has a role to play in the many chapters of our lives and if we work together everyone will ultimately come out better. It was wise advice that I decided to follow. In the process I began to better understand just how interconnected we all were in the challenges that we face. I realized the love that prompted my mother-in-law’s seemingly overactive concern. Instead of thinking of how I was feeling, I began to empathize with her and with my husband. In that moment of understanding I saw the importance and the power of working as a team.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can close our borders, lock our doors, hide in our rooms. The world will find us and if we have not embraced it before hand it will overtake us. For our own sakes and those of our children we must be willing to accept differing points of view and find ways to eliminate hurt and pain whenever we encounter it. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt and the best way to counter the suffering is to demonstrate compassion. One day it may be our turn to suffer and hopefully there will be unselfish souls to help us.

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That’s Not What I Meant At All

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Words matter. The words we use and how we choose them matters. Even when we are careful the things that we say may appear to be offensive. Communication can be like walking through a minefield. One misstep in how we express ourselves may lead to irreparable misunderstandings. Even the tenor of our voice might be misconstrued. When we write things down the potential for imprecise interpretations of our thoughts becomes even more likely. For that reason it’s generally a good idea to really think before speaking or writing lest the nuances of our communication become twisted into something that we never intended.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock has always been one of my favorite poems because it encapsulates so much of our fragile humanity succinctly in some of the most clever lines ever written. For some reason I have often thought of the words of the protagonist of that work when he stammers, “That’s not what I meant at all.” Each of us has found ourselves in situations in which we meant one thing, but were thought to have said something completely different. Crawling out of such a hole is both difficult and dangerous because as we attempt to set things rights we often find ourselves falling deeper and deeper into trouble. This is particularly true whenever we speak without much forethought or in the heat of an argument. Our words become muddled, distorted and capable of taking on new life in a manner that we never intended. In the world of education we refer to such situations as having unintended consequences.

I was once participating in an exceedingly heated discussion of school policy that turned nasty when one of the members of the committee verbally attacked another member. Thinking that the moment called for a bit of diplomacy I attempted to forestall the ugly comments by reminding the speaker, who was a black man, of the kinder methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The combative nature of the meeting cooled down and we ultimately found solutions without insulting one another, or at least that’s what I thought was happening. I later learned that many members of the faculty who had not even been at the gathering were intensely angry with me for what I had said to the man who was verbally attacking another member of our group. I was befuddled because my intent had only been to find a way to cool the heat of the arguments in a non combative way. I did not see that I had done anything wrong and wondered why the argumentative man was seen as the good guy while I was being viewed as he villain.

I immediately went to the man who had been so outspoken in his criticism of the other faculty member to find out how and why what I had said had been so insulting that it had created a frenzy of anger and mistrust aimed at me. He was not shy about insisting that my mistake had been in using the words of the great Dr. King against a black man when I was a white woman who had no way of truly understanding what they had meant to an entire people who still struggled for their rights. I was so shocked and taken aback that I burst into tears in front of him, something that I rarely do. He was stunned by my stammering, “But I love Dr. King too! He is my hero. I was honoring him, not insulting you.” With my admission our mutual understanding of one another was suddenly complete and we hugged by way of apology.

I’ve thought about that incident for years. I did not understand in the moment in which I chastised the man who was haranguing another that I might as well have stabbed him in the heart. He heard my words as just another attempt by a white person to cut him down. The insult was compounded by my use of the words of someone who, like him, had suffered the indignities of racism. I thought that I was simply defending a colleague, but what actually happened was steeped in a long history of struggle. I had embarrassed this man publicly and in the worst possible way without ever realizing what I had done. Luckily the evidence of my sorrow as witnessed in my tears demonstrated to him that I had not meant to hurt him at all.

My mother repeated the old saw about taking care with how we communicate over and over during my childhood., “If you can’t say something nice. Don’t say anything at all.” We might do well to make that a national goal for a time much like the campaigns against smoking or drugs or drunk driving. We take our freedom of speech so for granted that we have pushed it to a new level of insult and hurtfulness. We bandy about words and phrases without really thinking about how they may sound. It’s just way too easy to tap our fingers on a keyboard and post our grievances in the space of seconds. We react without considering who may be hurt by what we say. Even when we believe that we are protecting some person or some group we may inadvertently be inflaming another. We think ourselves immune from the consequences of our utterances because we have grown to honor the most outspoken among us and thought of those who measure their words out of respect as wimps. Little word bombs go off all around us and we have grown immune to the dangers. Friendships erode. The tension rises.

There is nothing good about verbally attacking someone. We should all agree on this, but it is also wrong to be unwilling to admit and clarify unintended mistakes or misunderstandings. We are not less of a person when we make amends for hurtfulness that we did not expect to happen. It is a sign of courage to be willing to hear and understand differing points of view and to attempt to come together as people with the common goal of bettering the world. The bravest among us think before they speak, and strive to unite rather than to tear apart. Maybe we’d all be in a better place if we were more circumspect when we speak. Words are powerful and we must bear that in mind each time we choose to utter them. 

Speaking in Many Tongues

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As a student I took courses in Latin, German and Spanish. I remember telling friends and relatives what I was doing and often being challenged by the request,”Say something in German (or Spanish or even Latin). I would go into a kind of brain freeze and only be able to stutter something totally inane.

The thing about learning a new language is that it often takes a very long time before the brain actually begins to think in that vernacular rather than starting from English and then translating. It tends to be a slow and often tedious process unless it is used with regularity. Once the instruction phase is complete and there are no more assignments or tests it’s unlikely that there will be continued progress without a concerted effort to use the acquired knowledge on a regular basis.

My father-in-law was a native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico. When he first came to Texas he spoke English somewhat haltingly. The family still speaks of some of the mistakes in vocabulary and grammar with which he struggled. My mother-in-law had hoped to one day be an interpreter so she was able to help him along with the process of becoming more proficient with his speaking. Ultimately he was using English far more than his native Spanish at work, in social situations, and even while at home. He watched television and read voraciously all in English. At some point he was no longer translating from Spanish to English, but instead just naturally speaking the language that he has now used daily for almost seventy years. He recently admitted that while he is able to converse with his Puerto Rican relatives in Spanish he sometimes now finds himself thinking first in English and then translating words and phrases into Spanish.

Mike and I had a dear friend who haled from Germany where his father was born. His mother was Norwegian. He had an amazing facility with languages. He spoke English with no sign of an accent, but also was fluent in both German and Norwegian. He was able to slip easily into other languages as well, like French and Spanish.

Once my Chinese sister-in-law was attempting to teach some words to all of us. We struggled to achieve the correct pronunciations of the very difficult phrases. Only our German friend was able to repeat things exactly as they were meant to be. I suppose that somehow his brain had been trained to pick things up more rapidly than most of us have the ability to do because he first began speaking in different languages when he was a very small child. It was the only way that he was able to communicate with both his German and Norwegian relatives. Later when he attended the Gymnasium he took English and picked up the nuances of that language quickly just as he did with virtually any tongue.

I have the greatest admiration for anyone who is bilingual. Most of us in the United States exert little or no effort to become familiar with other languages, which is truly a shame. We live in such a global symbiosis in which the actions of one country invariably have some sort of effect on others. Those with the capability of communicating in many languages have a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

I have a certain facility with words and languages but I have never been able to reach that magical point at which I easily begin to think in a language other than my own. It is akin to struggling with a mathematical process without a clear understanding of how and why it works. It’s easy, for example, to find the areas of any figures once the concept is grasped. It becomes no longer a matter of remembering formulas and then plugging and chugging. So too is the process of feeling comfortable speaking another language.

I was well on my way to mastering German when I entered college but several things happened that destroyed my confidence. I was corresponding with a German pen pal and doing my best to write all my letters in German. I asked him to write to me in German as well. I hoped to become more and more proficient by not relying on English. Sadly, he became frustrated with my efforts, complaining about my horrendous grammar and poor word choices. He begged me to use only English in the future. I was quite embarrassed and shut down to the point of discontinuing my communication completely.

At the university I took a placement test and was put into a third year German class with a quite arrogant professor and a room full of classmates who had spoken that language with their parents from the time of their births. Our instructor praised them mightily for their proficiency while continually calling me out for what he considered to be a kind of barbarous south German pronunciation. I attempted to explain to him in my best German that I had only begun learning the language two years before landing in his class unlike my lucky peers, but my attempts at a bit of understanding were spurned. He sarcastically suggested that maybe I needed to start anew since I had not learned the basics in a manner consistent with his standards. I eventually decided to take Spanish instead of German so as to avoid any further ridicule of my efforts.

We are often quite haughty in our considerations of anyone attempting to learn a language, particularly our own. We are more likely to note what they can’t do rather than what they have mastered. We lose patience and then wonder why they choose to revert to whatever tongue they learned as an infant. We sometimes don’t consider that it becomes far too hard to continually feel like a fool.

We have many different cultures and ethnicities in the United States today. While English is indeed the predominant language, we should be more than willing to help those who are still learning its nuances. Anyone who even attempts to become bilingual is to be applauded, and those who are struggling should be patiently encouraged. It takes time and great effort to become proficient in anything. Learning a new language is commendable and worthy of pursuit without fear of ridicule. Being able to talk with one another leads to understanding and a realization that when all is said and done we are all pretty much alike.

Free to Pursue the Truth

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The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.” —-Franklin Roosevelt

So we have a football player objecting to all sorts of American flags and many conservatives objecting to him. We have baristas at Starbucks asking law enforcement officials to leave because they are triggering other patrons. This person bothers that person and before long we are removing books from libraries, taking down crosses and monuments, refusing to shop or eat in certain places. How about just calming down and allowing each individual the right to his/her own thoughts, occupations, and choices? As long as nobody is being hurt why do so many of us come unglued? The thought patrol is making it feel dangerous to express ourselves publicly, because even the most benign ideas have the potential of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and considered offensive. The mere choice of a wrong word may unintentionally cause pandemonium.

The quote that I chose to use at the beginning of this post might be construed to be sexist because it applies the word “men” to all humans. The idea of freedom to pursue the truth in today’s world often involves narrowing the parameters of what and who a person may choose to study. Unlike the days of my youth when I was encouraged to consider multiple points of view including before drawing conclusions, these days it has become risky to admit to actively searching out the merit of diverse ideas. Now there is a kind of closed mindedness requiring each of us to choose a particular side and then eschew all others. It flies in the face of all that I was taught to view as the pathway to wisdom.

I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely perfection in any person, organization, nation. As humans we make mistakes. Judging anyone or any group or any idea with a snapshot of only one moment is a ludicrous act. Instead we have to consider the totality to truly understand the nature, the character of all human pursuits. Each of us grows and evolves and changes over time as do even organizations. It matters less what someone did or said as an adolescent than how that individual eventually chose to live. Few of us would pass muster if the only yardstick for determining our morality were to view a few random moments from our youth. So t0o it often is with people who have spent decades in the public view. Our question should always be how they have changed to become better versions of themselves, not how they once were. The same is true of our country.

What I have always loved the most about being a citizen of the United States is my right to express myself without fear of being incarcerated or ruined. I have always understood that I had to follow certain guidelines with regard to my job because when I spoke, even in the private sector, I was still representing my employer. Nonetheless I always felt comfortable in supporting causes that I believed to be important. Mostly nobody really cared one way or another if I differed with them. Of late, however, it suddenly feels very different. People seem compelled to argue with me and tell me that they are disappointed whenever my views differ from theirs. Complete strangers come unglued by the mere mention of certain hot topics, even when I point out that I am attempting to hear the voices of as many different philosophies as possible before drawing conclusions.

It has become fair game to be close minded. Even in our universities where free thinking was once the norm, we shut down alternative discussions in the name of making everyone feel unsafe. Our debates are no longer ways to display differing ideas, but rather showcases for solidarity. Nobody wants to stray from the party line lest they be derided for abandoning the mutual cause. The result is a kind of stagnation of thought that is preventing solutions to very real problems and causing fear among those who genuinely wish to carry on lively discourse to find the truth.

I become wary whenever I hear the same phrases being mindlessly repeated again and again. I know that I am in the midst of propaganda rather than receiving facts. I have to explore different sources on my own, hoping that there will be people who have been willing to speak rationally about various topics even as they worry that their words may land them in a world of trouble.

We still have liberty in our country, but it does not feel as comfortable as it once did. The thought police are everywhere making it feel a dangerous game to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a nation we are far too busy pontificating rather than asking questions and then really listening to the answers. Sloganeering has become the fashion and in the process it is eroding the very freedoms that the grand experiment begun by the founders of this nation had hoped to achieve. So far we have yet to completely cross the line into tyranny, but our freedoms are threatened from both the far right and the far left. It’s time we demonstrate the courage to protect our precious liberties by letting those who would constrain our thoughts know that we are not so easily intimidated or bribed into submission. We are thinking people who want facts and information, not politicized propaganda.

Our process for selecting leaders has become as silly as a high school popularity contest or a beauty pageant. We don’t need clever soundbites, or demonstrations of insulting behavior. We need concrete ideas that are likely to actually become solutions to looming problems. We also need leaders who will accept our many differences and then use well thought out judgement to work for all the people, not just a small slice of supporters. It’s time for each of us to once again feel free to pursue the truth.

Finding a Long Lost Friend

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I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.