Wisdom, Prayers, and a Pot of Soup

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The day on which I am writing this blog is rainy, a situation that I might normally find to be peaceful and comforting. On this occasion it simply feels dreary and sad because a dear friend is dealing with great loss that she must not only bear, but which she must explain to her children. She is a strong woman and I have little doubt that she will ultimately rise from the ashes of her life, but I know from experience how crushingly cruel such interludes in time can be.

It is part of our human experience to encounter tragedies, some of which are life changing. We react to such events in a multitude of ways, perhaps turning to prayer or leaning on people who are close to us. Sometimes we attempt to go it alone, mustering as much courage as we can find inside our souls. Regardless of how we choose to react we feel great pain, often both mental and physical. For lack of a better description I have called it “the elephant sitting on my chest.” Tragedy makes it difficult to even breath or move. There is a tendency to want to stay in bed and shut out the world, but we all know that such reactions do not work forever. Eventually we must straighten our backs and bear the weight until we heal enough to feel somewhat normal. Sadly we will carry scars from our experiences for all time, but if we are lucky they will only hurt now and again.

What can we do to help someone who is in the throes of such an experience? It is difficult to know, but I think we must try. In my own lifetime very small gestures done with love have provided me with the hope that I needed to continue my journey as a human. The help has often come from the most unexpected places, but it has always occurred at just the right moment when my despair was overwhelming me.

I still carry the vision of my Aunt Valeria puttering around our kitchen on the day my father died. She represented a kind of stability on the shaky ground that I felt all around me. My Uncle William gave me hope on that day with an ice cream cone offered as a sign that he truly cared about me and my brothers. A lovely plant sent to me by my dear friend, Adriana, on the occasion of my mother’s death still grows in my home. She sent it with a simple note that reminded me that I had done all that was possible for my mom. I needed to hear that, and somehow she knew. Another friend, Linda, brought me a big pot of chicken soup when I was hurting from surgery. Somehow that soup tasted better than anything that I had ever eaten.

Often it is a stranger who brings us comfort. I once went to a doctor that I had never before seen for a yearly physical. He was supposed to spend thirty minutes outlining my health issues in a post conference. He laughed because the test results showed that I was in excellent shape, so he wondered aloud what we might speak about to fill the time. He innocently asked if anything was pressing on my mind. At the moment I was gravely worried about my mother’s bipolar disorder, and also wondering if I was doing the right things for her. In many ways I was filled with guilt that I was not doing enough. He assuaged all of my negative feelings and encouraged me to begin talking openly about the situation. He was so engaged in my situation that the conference lasted for over an hour, and I ended up releasing tears that had been pent up in my heart for years. I have thought back on him over and over again with so much gratitude because he freed me from the worry that had overwhelmed me for so long.

A fellow teacher once prayed with me for my grandchildren who were threatening to be born far too early. The predictions of their health if they came were dire. My dear colleague calmed me and assured me that she would be storming the heavens with pleas for a miracle. Somehow in spite of the frightening warnings from the doctors my daughter’s labor stopped, and the babies stayed safely inside her womb for enough weeks to insure that their problems would be minimal. The teacher who so understood my panic has remained in my gratitude for sixteen years as I have watched those little ones grow into beautiful and bright teenagers.

When my husband, Mike, had a stroke there were so many souls praying for him and for our family. The doctors and nurses who cared for him were not just knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate. Our friends and many of my former students sent messages of encouragement that sustained us. When hurricane Harvey hit Mike was still highly susceptible to having another episode. As the waters rose and our home became like an island I worried about what I would do if he had another attack. In the darkest moment of my anxiety a former student, Bieu, texted to assure me that if anything happened he would come with help in his big truck, and that together we would get Mike to the hospital. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt upon receiving that message. Luckily nothing occurred, but I will always and forever love Bieu for his empathy at just the right moment.

Someone you know may be suffering for one reason or another. You may not think that there is much that you may do to help them, but it is in the simple acts of compassion that they will regain their strength and have the courage to soldier on. Don’t hesitate to offer your wisdom. your prayers, or a pot of soup. Your efforts may be exactly what that person needs. You may make the very difference that will sustain them.

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A Hard Headed Bunch

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I truly enjoy talking with young people. They are filled with high energy, adventurous spirits, and a sense that anything is possible. Today’s youth are attuned to the environment, justice and a sense that change is not just inevitable, but something very good for all of us. They think about the world at large, not just the tiny corner in which they live. They are worried about the future and dedicated to improving it. They are anxious to get started, ready to demonstrate that they’ve got the chops to take on responsibilities. I love their enthusiasm and I remember when I felt their way.

I’m slower than I once was. Most of what I will accomplish in this life is behind me. I am in my golden years when I have time to think deeply and critically rather than to react. I have years of experience under my belt that have taught me to be cautious before proceeding with any plans. I analyze and search for unintended consequences. I still have ideas and things to say, but I am less certain that I have all the answers than I once was. I’m not yet ready to simply sit by the wayside and hand over the running of things to another generation, but I understand that it’s time to begin the process of doing so little by little. There is a time and a season for everyone, and I know that the young folk will soon be running the show, and deciding how things are going to be. It is the natural way of things that has been moving history forward since the beginning of time.

There has always been a tension between the young and the old, the future and the past, change and the status quo, the progressive and the conservative The differences sometimes appear to create a dangerous gap between generations into which much anger is hurled.

I was on the precipice of my adult journey at a time filled with excitement and promise, but also war and uncertainty. I leaned toward radical thinking about how to fix problems and run things. I was ready to make sweeping changes that I felt were necessary in a time that still seemed so old fashioned. Some of my elders called me and my peers by names meant to be insulting. To this very day we bear the weight of the negativity of the labels meant to define us. Our young men were sent to war, but we were not supposed to have any say in why and how that was happening. We were deemed too young and ignorant of the way things work to be worthy of a hearing. In our youthful exuberance we made mistakes that have been held against us to this very day. The term “baby boomer” is almost an insult to some, meant to define an entire generation of people as somehow selfish and ridiculously inept.

Of course in our hearts we know that such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, and yet we continue to look at our youth and attempt to categorize them without ever having taken the time to consider their points of view, to think about the way that the times and the society has molded them. We wave off their concerns and laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of their ideas, rather than congratulating them on taking the time to consider solutions for problems that they see. Some among us saddle them with tags that are meant to disparage them and stuff them into square holes in which they rarely fit. We interrupt them in mid sentence to insist on the ridiculousness of their thoughts, after all they have no experience at living so how can they possibly know what we all need?

Few of us are well enough versed in history to know that with the exception of a few men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, our Founding Fathers were relatively young men, some of them barely in their twenties. They were bristling with a sense of injustice and filled with revolutionary ideas. It was in fact their youthful points of view that concocted a whole new way of governing. It might be true to say that the thought of a rag tag group of people taking on the might British Empire was both audacious and absurd, and yet with a firm determination they somehow became victorious. They were left with so many questions, so many ways to make mistakes that might cause their creation to tumble down before it ever got started. Indeed the imperfections of what they had done were soon apparent and yet the crux of their idea has endured.

History is in many ways the same song with endless verses. We change and modernize but return to the identical themes, the recurring refrains. Many of the young want to revolutionize the way we live and to do so quickly. The older among us are more cautious, wanting to take things slowly. They see problems and often suggest that doing nothing may in fact be the best alternative, Why change?

We are at one of those watershed moments in which one group thinks that we are doomed if we do not move with speed and another insists that things are mostly fine and hardly in need of an overhaul. One side feels a sense of urgency and another is worried that we will wreck everything if we throw caution to the wind. In such environments there tends to be more shouting at one another than listening and considering differing points of view. Historically wars have sometimes begun this way.

There is usually genuine sincerity in both sides of a disagreement, good points to be made all around. A gifted leader knows how to accommodate as many ways of thinking as possible. Everyone gets a bit and we all mostly win. Such political genius is difficult to find, but when it is present mankind gets to the moon in a few short years, people work together for a common cause.

An image from my youth often comes into focus in my mind. The war in Vietnam is raging. There are so many questions about why we are there and what we hope to accomplish and how we will do it. Young people are protesting what they see as injustice. They are camped at the Lincoln Memorial when the President of the United States comes to visit them. He is wise enough to ask them what they are thinking, but then he virtually ignores what they have to say, arguing more than listening. They too don’t seem to realize that this man is making an effort to come hear them out. They turn on him with blinders and an unwillingness to give him the benefit of the doubt or to learn about his point of view. There is an impasse.

We seem to have rotated into a time during which all sides cling to their preconceived notions and ideas with little hope of respecting one another. We prefer confrontations to conferences, arguments to discussions. We slap epithets on people and refuse to allow them to be more complex than our simplistic classifications. We worship cults of personality rather than ideas. We’ve been here before, and often such atmospheres of disagreement don’t end until we have grown weary of hurting each other. We humans can be a very hard headed bunch.

It remains to be seen how we will eventually proceed. Somehow the future keeps repeating our past.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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It was one of those days when the skies were grey, the streets were slick and the air was heavy with fog. It might have been a great day to stay home with a good book, but we had appointments to keep and errands to run. The traffic was stacked up and moving slower than normal so I had ample opportunity to see things that might otherwise have passed by without notice. Some of what I viewed made me sad, others made me laugh.

There was a billboard advertising a Brazilian butt lift with prices starting as low as $35,000. I chuckled at the very idea, but mostly I wondered why anyone would be willing to pay that much money for something so silly. Surely everyone has better ways of investing or spending such a large amount. Even a very wealthy person would be better served by giving it to charity or providing a valued worker with a bonus. Somehow making one’s fanny more appealing seems as wasteful as one gets, so I began thinking of literally hundreds of alternative ways to use the cash more wisely, not the least of which was to save it or provide some worthy college student with a scholarship. Even tossing it into the bucket of one of the many homeless people begging on street corners has more merit, but who am I to judge?

Next we went to an office filled with the nauseating bouquet of room fresheners. It seems that a rodent had died somewhere on the premises and the foul odor was sickening the employees. An exterminating company had come out to set traps but refused to go hunting for the creature’s carcass. I suppose it will be some time before the blended aroma of rotting flesh and artificial scents will be gone from the premises. I truly feel for the workers because my own reaction was to get away as quickly as possible.

Speaking of rats I suppose that they are only behaving normally in light of all of the rain that we have had this winter. It’s predicted that wildflowers will be better than ever, but our lawns are as soggy as sponges and mud seems to be coating everything and everyone. Little wonder that the rats are attempting to find refuge. I’ve heard more than one story of those pests invading homes and businesses. You really know that there has been too much rain when the animals run for cover. I suspect that mosquitoes will be as abundant as the bluebonnets because of the wet season that has marked most of our January and February days this year. Now that’s something to think about that gives me the shudders!

Eventually I found myself sitting in a waiting room at an imaging center feeling increasingly uncomfortable as others around me reacted to the appearance of President Trumps former attorney Michael Cohen speaking before Congress. The level of anger being expressed by the people around me without even a small attempt to filter  what they were saying made me worry about the state of our country. I found myself sinking quietly into my little corner of the room burying my thoughts in a crossword game on my phone lest I too become involved in an outburst of emotions. I silently worried about the future in ways that I never before have.

As we were leaving the medical facility a Code Blue was announced on the PA system. I was both amazed and quite impressed by the rapid response of the nurses and doctors. They quickly found the woman who had fainted and brought her back to an alert state. I realized how professional and dedicated they are and felt that if anything like that ever happens to me I will be in very good hands. It ended up that the woman had come for a blood transfusion and had become dizzy while in transit to her doctor. All ended well but it was like a scene out of one of the many hospital series that I watch on television. It made for a bit of unexpected excitement to go along with the crazy tone of the day.

As if the my journey needed to become a bit stranger we were getting close to home when a woman turned in front of our truck going the wrong way on a one way street. The look on her face when she realized what she had done said it all. Her features were marked with sheer terror. Luckily we were the only other auto on the street at the time so she was able to make a quick u-turn and drive away. A few minutes later and a fleet of fast moving vehicles would have made her escape almost impossible and who knows what kind of accident might have ensued.

I’m normally a person who enjoys rain and prefers colder weather, but I have to say that the weeks and weeks of damp dreary days have grown old. I think we all need a few sunny days to dry things out and lighten our moods. We’ve been stuck indoors for too long and the ugliness that hangs over us like a shroud is causing us to act a bit strangely. Old man sun needs to come back to bring smiles to our faces again.

I really don’t know how folks survive in places known for more rainy days than not. I suppose that they somehow adapt, but it’s not something that I would like to have to do. I say bring on the warmth and let us play outside. I’m done with the fifty shades of grey that have been the norm for way too long, and I suspect that everyone else is as well.

Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there. 

We’re Only Human

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Remember those stories we heard as young folk about the hardships that our parents and grandparents endured in their youth? You know what I’m talking about. They went something like this, “I walked five miles up hill in the snow to school, both ways.” Of course that’s an old joke about our elders attempting to shame us into believing that we had it easy compared to the lives that they had, but the exaggeration isn’t really all that out of line. The fact is that the act of preparing to be an adult is a tough one in almost any day and age. Behind the glamor of youth there is invariably a great deal of angst even for the seemingly most brilliant and well adjusted, and all too often we forget our own journeys and the mistakes that we made as we attempted to develop ourselves into persons able to contribute to society. We give the impression that all anyone ever has to to is set a goal, work really hard, and then watch the fruit of those labors grow. Somewhere deep in our hearts is the understanding that life is rarely that easy and that the push and pull between the world of childhood and becoming an adult is filled with challenges that often confuse and break spirits.

I continually applaud teachers and the work that they do to help build strong bodies and minds in our young. The best among them are the ones who go that extra mile “uphill” to touch the souls of their students. They understand that their duty as educators is not to play “gottcha” with kids but rather to demonstrate compassion and teach them how to navigate through the land mines that will most certainly litter their paths along the way. Teaching is so much more than conveying knowledge and then testing for learning. It is a process, a continuum that has to be individualized to the extent of realizing that we are all individuals who learn in varying ways. We bring both physical and emotional baggage to the classroom and a good teacher knows how to unpack it and tidy it up. No human is the sum of test scores, and yet we so often send the message that only those who make the grade will survive. As adults we know better but insist on spreading the myth that all hard work is duly rewarded.

I often repeat a story related to me by my husband from the days when he was a student at the University of Houston. He had a brilliant professor who had gone out of his way to know his students. This man took the time to discuss his subject in informal settings devoid of the pressures created by research papers and exams. In a conversational way he explored the gist of his knowledge with them, learning how much more they actually knew than what the snapshots of formalized appraisals might convey. My husband saw this man as a caring mentor, and took full advantage of the opportunities to become almost a disciple of him just as the students of Socrates had done in the long ago.

On one occasion my husband’s nerves got the better of him during an exam. He had one of those classic meltdowns that left his mind blank. The more he panicked the less he remembered. As he turned in his test paper he was certain that he had failed and he was disappointed and angry with himself. He immediately went to the professor to apologize for what might have appeared to be a lack of effort and concern. The kindly man began to talk about each question, prodding my husband to explain what he knew about the topics. Before long they were like two friends having one of those glorious discussions in which it is actually believable that they might change the world with their brilliance. By the end of my husband’s confessional the professor announced that it was apparent to him that his student had a deep command of the information and he promptly assigned a grade of “A.”

We rarely see teaching genius like this. In fact we are often an unforgiving society in which mistakes are held against people with dire consequences. We are proverbial Scrooges rather that Fezziwigs, sending individuals into spasms of self doubt and sometimes even severe depression. The truth is that we are continually spilling milk, messing up, making bad decisions and if we are fortunate we find people who will forgive us and help to redirect us. Sadly we are seeing less and less tolerance for the very normal and natural aspects of being human and our society is paying a very high price for so much indignation.

I had a delightful meeting with a high school counselor last week. He works hard on a daily basis to help young people find their way in our very complex society. Some of the students that he meets appear to have no problem heading straight for success, but most stumble and fall along the way. He makes a point of gently picking them back up and helping them the recover and begin again. He is one of the many heroes who takes the time to redirect and reassure even those who seem to have lost their way. This is indeed how we all should be approaching the people around us instead of abhorring words like forgiveness and amnesty.

We are losing far too many people to a competitive and combative world that chews them up and spits them onto a trash heap of hopelessness. We blithely seem to believe that we must only reward strength and perfection or we will create generations of weaklings. We set mistakes in stone and forever remind people of their faults rather than developing their best qualities. We insinuate that only those with specific talents will own the jobs of the future. We praise the young who excel, but send the message to those who struggle that their value is worth less. We even attack minors who don’t quite know how to act when they find themselves in touchy situations. We forget our duty to guide, forgive and encourage.

Luckily we still have many who quietly understand our human frailties and compassionately teach and reteach. They are educators, parents, friends, bosses, lawmakers who remember what it is really like to be human, those who understand that learning and becoming is a lifelong process that can’t be measured with numbers. Success is not made of discrete moments but rather a never ending progression of starts and stops, victories and defeats, exhilarations and frustrations, wisdom and mistakes. In reality it is never too late for each of us to become what we wish to be so perhaps it’s time that we set aside judgements set in stone whether they be test scores, grades or attempts to determine the content of character that is always evolving. We are all walking miles, sometimes even uphill in the snow, but the journey can and should be an adventure, not a dreaded task.