The Next Chapter

You can’t get to the next chapter if you keep rereading that last onepexels-photo-776646.jpeg.

When I write I am often tempted to seek so much perfection that I am unable to get past the first paragraph. I have had to train myself to just keep writing until my thoughts are completed and then I go back to edit. Life can be much like that. We sometimes find ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable rut because we keep repeating the same mistakes, or even more awful, we are so afraid of making things worse that we stay in a situation that makes us miserable. Making changes of any kind is difficult, particularly when our confidence has been battered. It’s why people often remain in abusive situations even though they want more than anything to escape from them. It takes courage to move forward and to leave our familiar routines behind.

I’ve known people who appear to have no fear, and others who can’t seem to extricate themselves from terrible situations. I’ve found myself in a rut now and again, a place that was painfully uncomfortable from which I can’t seem to move forward. On those occasions I desperately wanted to end the pain that I was feeling, but the fear that overcame me was paralyzing. It was only when I took a deep breath and turned the page that I managed to find the sense of accomplishment that I sought.

I vividly recall how frightened I was when I agreed to be an instructor in a class for middle school mathematics teachers. As soon as I had accepted the position I literally wanted to run away or feign an illness. I worried that I would be viewed as a fraud, someone who only pretended to know how to teach. I was so nervous in the first couple of classes that I probably did appear to be less than qualified. My voice wavered and I found myself drawing a blank when fielding questions. It was not until I confided in my supervisor that things began to improve. She suggested that I work with her before each session to share ideas, create plans, and even ask questions. She also recommended that I share my own nervousness with the teachers who attended the class. She assured me that they would learn from my honesty, Surely enough before long I was relaxed and truly enjoying my foray into teaching adult learners. It prompted me to take a graduate class in training and development where I learned even more techniques that I used when I was the Dean of Faculty at my school.

Over the years I have been challenged again and again to take control of the direction of my life. When my mother first showed signs of her mental illness I mostly cried and felt sorry for myself for having to help her. I was young and inexperienced with such things and would have preferred having a helpful adult step forward to counsel me, but none were forthcoming. I ignored my mother’s symptoms as long as possible, hoping that some grand miracle would occur. When even our parish pastor turned his back on my predicament I understood that either I would screw up my courage or my mother might never be well again. I did what I had to do, learning even from the mistakes that I made. By the time of my mom’s death I had spent more than forty years coming to her aid each time that her mind once again became ill. It never became easy, but I grew to feel more and more comfortable that I was doing what was best for her. I learned how to navigate the world of psychiatry and I became unafraid to challenge doctors on my mother’s behalf.

I suppose that given a more comfortable alternative there have been many times when I would have preferred not to push myself to do disagreeable things. Like Bartleby the Scrivener I might have been content to simply refuse to participate in the challenges that beset me. My nature is such that I imagine what it might have been like if I had found peace and quiet and routine rather than placing myself in supercharged circumstances. As I think about life I suspect that none of us are ever so lucky that we are never faced with having to deal with experiences that are painful and maybe even tinged with guilt. Each of us come upon turning points that demand that we move forward or devolve into a state of misery.

I greatly admire people who are courageous, resilient, willing to take risks. What would we do without them? Throughout history there have been individuals who were willing to attempt the seemingly impossible. They become our leaders and our inspirations, the speed readers who turn the pages so quickly that they take our breaths away. Eleanor Roosevelt once suggested that we do one thing that scares us each day. She followed her own advice by overcoming the shyness that had almost paralyzed her in her youth and she ultimately used her voice for those who were all too often ignored.

Sometimes just taking the first step is the most difficult aspect of changing for the better. There are certain situations that are wrought with dangers. We may make many mistakes before we finally set things right. There is nothing easy about eschewing an unhealthy routine or attempting to fulfill a dream, and each of us should be supportive of anyone who is trying to do so. We might begin by teaching our young that they never have to be stuck in a place that makes them unhappy. We each have more grit than we may think. We really do have the power to control what the next chapter will be.


So Beautiful To Me

pexels-photo-658687.jpeg“She woke up every morning with the option of being anyone she wished. How beautiful it was that she always chose herself.” —-Unknown

I was a gangly, awkward girl all the way through high school, so shy that I often hid in the library pretending to do homework so I wouldn’t have to mix it up with my fellow classmates in the cafeteria each morning. I often found myself wishing that I was more like this girl or that. There was the beautiful young woman with that almost electric smile, the sweet person who was able to talk with anyone. All of them had something that I wanted and thought that I would never have, a car, a boyfriend, tons of confidence. I was a mound of teenage angst, and all the while so was everyone else but I had little idea that they were as confused and self conscious as I was.

Ultimately I grew up, literally overnight. When my mother had her first and scariest mental breakdown I found myself mostly on my own in finding her the care that she needed. My love for her was so strong that I was able to pull strength from deep inside my mind that I never thought that I had. At first I simply copied the attitudes of the women that I knew and admired for their courage. Eventually muscle memory trained from encounters with doctors and bankers and such transformed me into my own person. I no longer needed to pretend to be someone. I knew that I was someone.

I met a married a remarkable man who loved to tell the story of how he was “thunder struck” from the moment that he first saw me. He became my best friend and my muse. He thought that I was beautiful just as I was and that even my imperfections were made me unique. I was hardly the kind of person who would turn heads in a room full of people, but he convinced me that loveliness begins from inside and radiates outward with little relationship to external features. It is an aura derived from depth of character and inner determination to live life with joy.

I vividly recall the very day when I totally embraced and chose myself. It had started with an unremarkable daily routine of washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was in the process of hopelessly attempting to tame my fine fly away hair when I caught a unique glimpse of my image in the mirror. It was as though I was seeing myself with a new set of eyes, and I realized how much I liked me. I smiled at the realization that even if I had the option of being anyone I wished, I would choose myself. It was a stunning moment that transformed me forevermore. It was as though I had unlocked the power that had always been there, but I had never before realized.

Over time I worked with young adolescents in middle schools and high schools. I saw their unsteadiness firsthand, and understood that even the most self assured among them was in truth filled with self doubts and sometimes even self loathing. Trying to fit into our own skin is a painful developmental process that takes as much time to achieve as physical or academic growth. Researchers into such things now know that our brains are not fully developed until well into our twenties and even then some of us take a bit longer. Just as babies meet their milestones at varying ages, so too do we adults find and believe in ourselves at different times of life. Sadly there are those who sometimes never reach a point of fully appreciating their own essences.

Of course it is in our natures to question ourselves from time to time. The stresses of living bear down on us and cause us to become dissatisfied. We look over our fences and invariably find grass that is greener than ours. There is always someone who ages more gracefully, drives a better car, lives in a more exclusive neighborhood, earns more money. If we spend a lifetime of comparing we are continually wishing to be someone other than ourselves. We never quite reach that joyful moment of truly liking ourselves and wanting to be no other, or we interrupt our contentment with waves of jealousy.

I once read a book whose title now eludes me that posited a theory that even if we were to have multiple opportunities to think and act in ways other than the ones that we initially chose we would in all probability react to various people and events in much the same way. In other words we each view the world based on our genetics and environmental realities, and those factors guide our thinking through a series of motions and emotions that slowly but surely teach us how to be. We become ourselves through trial and error, and hopefully learn to accept ourselves with whatever strengths and weaknesses we may have. As mature adults we work with what we have to make the changes that we desire. We learn to use our best traits not so much to make ourselves more attractive, but to better the world around us. The most lovely among us are those who have been able to think less about how they may appear and more about how to help the people they encounter.

I now enjoy and embrace the opportunities to be with the individuals who once walked the halls of my high school with me. We have all grown older and wiser and far more beautiful than ever before. Our thoughts are not of who seems to have done the best, but simply of each other’s welfare. We know and like who we are as individuals and we revel in the well being of every member of our group. Looking back we are able to see that our blessings have outweighed our trials. All of us know that our thinning hair and expanding waists do not define us. The wrinkles on our faces and wear and tear on our hands are badges of honor, bearing witness to our hard work and compassion. The mistakes we have made attest to our adventurous spirits. We smile at the images in the mirror without seeing the flaws or wishing that it were that of someone else. It is beautiful to choose ourselves.

God Is Not A Coke Machine


I begin each morning with prayer and then have little talks with God all throughout the day until I end with a kind of good night affirmation of gratitude. My prayer life is rather ordinary and flawed. I know people who are inspiringly spiritual whose devotionals are profound, but mine are more akin to the kind that people utter from the bottom of foxholes as bullets are flying over their heads. I say a few thank you phrases acknowledging the Lord’s presence in my life, but all too often follow up with requests for this person or that. Of late my list of those in need has grown to the point that I sometimes can’t quite recall all of the names and causes. I simply suggest that God must indeed remember all of the situations and I ask that He care for each of them. I try to include some praises of His glory, but admittedly I often sound like a child begging a parent for goodies as I reel off my hopes and dreams in a rush of impatience. I sadly all too often grow anxious that the answers I seek are taking too long to materialize. I know, and so does God, that I still have a long way to go in my prayer life.

I’ve often laughed at how we humans pray. I’ve seen students silently pleading for a good grade as I am walking through the classroom returning the results of tests. Of course, by then it is a bit late to change the scores. The real intersessions should have come earlier and might have centered around guidance during the studying phase. By the time that the marks are being returned only an impossible miracle is going to change the number that I have already made on each person’s paper.

I suppose that many of us use prayer in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. Instead of asking for strength to deal with the human challenges that we must all face, we all too often ask God to for very specific outcomes that would force Him to choose one person over another. We beg for a win in an athletic endeavor as if the Lord is wearing the same jersey as ours. We have a tendency to place time limits on our requests and wobble in our faith when the answers that we seek are slow in coming.

The best prayer warriors that I know have a completely different style of communicating with God that is based on trust. They do not presume to question the challenges that they face, but rather seek the courage and peace that they need to deal with realities. Instead of entreating a higher power to grant them favors they ask instead for the kind of character that they will need to withstand the buffeting winds of life’s difficult moments. They focus on becoming an instrument of peace, justice and love. They ask what they must do rather than imploring for gifts. It is definitely a better way, and the sign of a deep and abiding understanding of God.

Of course there are also those who think that the very idea of some all powerful force watching over us and guiding our way is absurd. To them prayer is a wasted effort that might better be served with action and effort. They cannot imagine that otherwise sensible people believe in some nebulous and unproven concept like God, or miracles. They see religion as a kind of fantastical crutch that we humans use to explain away our own frailties.

I have several friends who meditate daily. They read the Bible or find comfort in the writings of those who have somehow found wonderful ways of explaining how best to form a meaningful relationship with God. They emphasize the need for patience as our individual purposes unfold. They urge us to quiet our minds so that we might actually begin to understand what we must do to find contentment. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality that is elevated from the kind of babble that I seem to utter in my own haste to get on with the duties of the day. I suspect that I am not unlike many of my fellow humans in that that regard.

I was humbled during the recent floods in my city by a comment from a friend whose home had been inundated. She noted all of the people who were thanking God for not sending those waters into their own houses. She suggested that comments speaking of God’s goodness in saving them implied that those whose abodes were devastated were somehow not chosen for blessings as though they may not have had enough faith or goodness to deserve salvation. She suggested instead that those who were high and dry simply be thankful that they were lucky.

A priest once explained to me that God is not like a coke machine. We can’t just insert a coin of prayer and expect a certain outcome. He insisted that the object of prayer should be to praise the Lord and seek His guidance in navigating the arduous journey that is life. We become disappointed when our only goal is to achieve very specific outcomes. “He doesn’t work like that.” When we focus on wanting rather than asking what we must do we run the risk of losing faith and questioning the very existence of God if things don’t work out the way we had hoped. If we do it properly prayer can be a very beautiful thing with the power to bring us comfort. It helps us to find answers to the questions that concern us.

My mother lead a prayerful life. She never questioned the hardships that came her way. Instead she thanked God for living inside her heart and keeping her optimism alive. She saw the dawn of a new day as a great gift from her God. At the time of her death she almost appeared to wear a halo around her head as her eyes shone brightly with the confidence that she was heaven bound. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive the only reward that really mattered. She had been a faithful servant her entire life. She had always understood how to pray.

I try to improve. I watch people like my mom and others whom I greatly admire. They teach me what I must do and tell me that it is okay to have feet of clay. I just have to keep trying to get it right. God knows that I try. 


Igniting the Fire


We all know someone who appears to have walked straight down a pathway to the unfettered fulfillment of dreams and goals. From the outside looking in it may even seem as though certain groups of people have more access to lives uncomplicated by roadblocks and disappointments than the rest of us. In truth those whom we believe glide effortlessly through life are the exception rather than the rule. Most of us mere mortals are faced with multiple challenges that change the courses of our journeys or sometimes even create almost intractable roadblocks. It is in how we choose to face down the limitations and difficulties that beset us that determines our mettle as human beings.

I am quite naturally drawn to interesting stories that speak of determination. I’m fascinated by the extent to which some humans will work to be their best selves regardless of the discouragement that they may encounter. Their unwillingness to resign themselves to bitterness or self defeating behaviors serve as inspiration, but all too often we neglect to truly analyze just how much courage and effort it may have actually taken for them to succeed.

It was most unlikely that Abraham Lincoln would one day become one of the most admired and best loved presidents of all time. He was born in the backwoods of Kentucky and had the bad luck of being poor and not particularly attractive. There was little of great merit to recommend him as a leader, and besides he suffered greatly from recurring depression and thoughts of suicide. Nonetheless it was his moral code of honesty and compassion, along with his gift of speaking that slowly propelled him into history. His life was continually beset with tragedy and his melancholy produced tremendous suffering for him, but his sense of responsibility somehow overcame all of the adversities that befell him. It was as though he understood that he had a destiny to follow, so he soldiered forward even as he considered and feared his ultimate fate.

I heard a writer speaking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recently. I had always thought FDR to be a brilliant, confident and almost aristocratic man who altruistically devoted his talents to the betterment of the country. In fact his had been a rather unsure and disappointing beginning. As a young man his appearance was somewhat awkward and his academic record was rather average. Even though he was admitted to Harvard he struggled to fit in there. He was not as wealthy or intellectual or talented as his peers. In the early days of his political career he lived in the shadow of that other Roosevelt who had been a charismatic adventurer and president. When he was diagnosed with polio it appeared that his career and possibly even his life was over, and yet it was at that watershed moment that he found an aspect of himself that would ultimately define him as one of the greats in the pantheon of history. He turned one of the biggest disappointments of his life into a lesson in humility, courage and empathy. He willed himself from the depths of despair and used both his strengths and his weaknesses to lead a nation through one of its darkest moments.

The annals are replete with story after story of individuals who seemed doomed to lives of soul crushing tragedy and lack of fulfillment who through sheer persistence found their better selves. Such was a post on Facebook about a little girl with Down’s Syndrome who told her mother that she wanted to become a model. In spite of having all of the odds stacked against her, she never gave up on her dream. She worked out and practiced her walk and sent her photographs to hundreds of places hoping that someone might provide her with a moment  to demonstrate what she believed she had to offer. Her grit eventually paid off. She has been featured on runways across the globe and in multiple fashion magazines. She has shown the world a new definition of beauty and grace. Mostly though she has demonstrated that not one of us has to wait for opportunity. Sometimes we have to go out and create it.   

J.J. Watt was just named the Man of the Year by the NFL for the good deeds that he continuously performs when he is not working as one of the premier defensive players in professional football. A fan wanted to know what J.J. had been doing at the age of nineteen, and was stunned by the answer. J.J. noted that his first run with college had not worked out well. He found himself at home again with his parents, taking classes at a community college and working at a nondescript job at night. Nonetheless, he was not done. He worked out and trained so that he might try out for a walk on spot as a player at the University of Wisconsin. Even at a young age J.J. was demonstrating the characteristics that would ultimately make him a superstar as a player and a human being.

Our society can be harsh and ugly at times. We often hear the word “No” more than we receive encouragement. We are ranked and categorized from the time that we are very young. Test scores and economic measures often serve as arbiters of our future. People with small minds tell us all of the reasons why we should not be able to accomplish certain things. Our system sometimes seems designed to push us down rather than lift us up. We are told that our qualifications are inferior, our physical appearance is wrong, our talents are mediocre, our profile doesn’t fit the norm. It is easier at times to just accept the judgements and settle into an uncomfortable rut. Then we hear of people who  have constructed their own destinies by building the roads they need or following winding and adventurous paths. They show us that there is always a way and that it is never too late to be who we want to be.

We may not be famous or even find riches as we inch forward, but we will experience the happiness and sense of well being that comes from finding the spark inside our souls that ignites the joy that comes from a sense accomplishment. Each of us has the capacity to make the most of our lives. We only need begin.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    


The Virtue In The Body Of The People


“The general Government…can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form; so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.” George Washington

People that I love are afraid. People that I love are deeply saddened. People that I love are angry. People that I love have grown cynical. My daughter worries that her beautiful sons may become targets for a crazed gunman at their schools. A former colleague in education just wants to cry as he hears his students asking what they should do if a shooter comes to their classroom. A principal fields the concerns of his teachers who now see every backpack brought into their classrooms as potential trouble. A former student struggles to recover from the trauma of being in the recent shooting incident in Las Vegas, and even as she makes progress news of more tragedy shakes her confidence. She attends a movie to help alleviate her stress and overhears children discussing what to do if an attacker brings havoc to the theater. As a nation we are deeply troubled and we want to do something, but all we hear are the same knee jerk reactions from our President and Congress and little desire to do anything other than say prayers or blame everything on guns. We already think we know that this will end with nothing being done almost ensuring that there will be yet another mass shooting sometime and somewhere in the future.

Washington D.C. has lost it’s resolve and worries most about invoking the ire of the various and sundry bases. Instead of representing all of the people our leaders now see themselves as only being beholden to a narrow group of people who finance their campaigns and mold their political philosophies. They don’t seem to realize or care that vast numbers of citizens need them to work for them as well. This should not be a nation of laws built only on the voices of about thirty percent of the electorate at any given time. Our lawmakers and executive should be attuned to the concerns and desires of the nation as a whole. While each elected official certainly has a foundation of devoted supporters, most elections are won with the votes of independent thinkers who choose sides based on a multitude of reasons. They need to be heard and their opinions heeded. All ideas both pro and con must be considered without knee jerk reactions. Taken together answers to the problems that face our nation will be found, but if our leaders continue to voice the same tired platitudes nothing will be done. It is up to the virtuous citizens of our country to demand a sincere effort to curb the murderous trends.

Gun violence is a plague on our nation. We have all heard that most of the shooters in such incidents would not have been subject to many of the proposed laws. The thinking appears to be that since none of the suggestions for solving this dilemma would be a hundred percent effective then it is best to do nothing at all. On the other hand there are those so focused on gun control issues that they continue to miss the point that law abiding gun owners fear that their rights will ultimately be curtailed. Both of these groups need to set aside their prejudices regarding this issue and open their minds and hearts to the myriad suggestions that are circulating among the people of this country.

One of my former students noted that this is a heart issue. He was of course alluding to the social, emotional and mental health aspects at the core of many of the shooters’ motivations. While there are exceptions, in general most of the killers have displayed signs of gravely deviant behavior long before embarking on their murderous sprees. All too often they live in isolation, growing more and more dark while those who know them either throw up their hands in frustration or turn away entirely. We have to create avenues and programs for helping them even if ultimately that means committing them to psychiatric care facilities. It will be difficult but the process of dealing with those whose minds have become sick is almost always a long journey. We should not leave the individuals or their families to travel alone.

A former principal posted an article about a teacher who uses a simple exercise to find the students in her class who are feeling alone or being bullied. Each Friday before they leave her room she tells her pupils to name four people with whom they would like to sit in the next week. She prompts them to tell her whom they most admire in the class as well as the names of students about whom they are worried. She spends hours over the weekend studying the responses so that she might identify the loners, the unloved, and then she makes certain to reach out to those children and their parents. This same teacher insists that parents attend tutoring sessions with their children. She wants the adults to understand what their children are learning, but mostly she wants to create a bond between the school and the families.

We need far more of this type of involvement from our teachers and our schools if we are to identify troubled souls long before they are so sick and enraged that they are killing others. Dividing large schools into smaller, caring groups can often solve the problem of having students fall through the cracks. In one of my former jobs each teacher belonged to a team that consisted of educators representing each of the core subjects. All of the the team members taught the same students and met several times each week to stay apprised of any brewing troubles whether they be academic, behavioral or both. They discussed ways to support one another and their students. Part of their discussions always included making note of pupils who had become withdrawn or who appeared to have few or no friends. Such a team approach needs to be implemented in all schools so that no child will become a cipher.

I recall a teacher with whom I worked talking about the community efforts to help children when we were growing up. She noted that if one of the neighborhood kids did something vile his/her actions were immediately reported to the parents. The youngsters understood that they were being watched and protected. They realized that there were many people who cared about them. I loved such stories because they reminded me of my own situation. My father had died when my brothers and I were very young. The people of our neighborhood quietly took on the job of helping us. There were wonderful men who encouraged my brothers to join sporting teams and taught them how to build things. All of us were included in the family circles of so many of our nearby friends People took the time to let us know that we were not alone and should not be afraid. We turned out well through the efforts of my mother, but also because of a vast support system from the people who lived near us. Thus it worries me that we have so little interaction in many of our local communities these days.

Of course there is also the issue of controlling the use of guns in our nation, even knowing that there will no doubt always be an illegal underground just as there always is in such instances. There are many common sense things that we can try that will have no effect on law abiding gun owners. The old Brady Bill from the Bill Clinton era had some notable ideas. Perhaps we should revisit that law and then find ways to improve it. It makes sense to strengthen the kind of background checks that we presently have to fill in the cracks that exist. We can take another look at tightening the ages at which individuals can purchase and own guns to mirror the laws for alcohol. We have to ask ourselves what type of guns and ammunition need to be prohibited. The average gun owner doesn’t require an arsenal for protection, so instituting such changes will hardly affect most people but it may help to reduce the availability of weapons for those contemplating mass murder.

We can tighten security at schools with architectural changes and the use of technology. We don’t need to arm our teachers. That will only create a whole new set of problems. If we want to hire well trained guards, we need to understand that they will not provide a complete answer. It will only be by admitting to the complex nature of overhauling the many problems that lead to such tragedies that we may begin to reduce the violence.

When I was as young as many of the victims of the horrific massacre in Florida movements to end the egregious war in Vietnam and to provide basic civil rights to all Americans began on high school and college campuses. It was when students across the country joined the efforts of adults who were already working to foment change that more attention was drawn to these issues. A revolution not unlike that of the founders of our country began to unfold and it continued until all of the collective voices exerted enough pressure that they were finally heard.

In this present time there are plans for young people to mount a campaign to bring about changes to make our schools and our movie theaters and our music venues safe again. I applaud them in advance and urge them to remain patient and willing to stay the course. I believe that this is a watershed moment in our country being lead by the virtue in the body of the people. I suspect that George Washington would approve.