A Practical Approach

NXA841_open.jpgMy mom was a member of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. She was proud of the fact that nobody in her family ever missed a meal even though their food intake was heavily rationed. Her mother and father owned their home because they had built it room by rooming, paying cash for each addition. They had also turned their backyard into a vegetable garden and they bought a cow. Those things kept food on the table along with my grandfather’s job at a meat packing plant.

My mom often spoke of her mother’s ability to stretch a few items into a decent meal for the ten members of the family. According to my mother my grandmother usually waited until everyone had been served before she took her portion of the dinner. Sometimes that meant that she got her nourishment from sucking on the bones of the roast or eating the head of a fish.

After my father died my mama prided herself in being able to provide us with food on an unbelievably thin budget. She told us that she had learned all of her tricks from her mother and a home economics class that she took in high school. We might have egg sandwiches in our lunch bags or a bowl of pinto beans for dinner but we never went hungry and our menus were healthy. Snacks and sugary items were a grand luxury.

As each month waned our refrigerator would grow more and more empty, sometimes threatening to be devoid of any possible ingredients for dinner. Somehow my mama was a miracle worker who never once failed to come up with something delicious no matter the circumstances.

I never recall seeing a fully stocked pantry or refrigerator in our home. Mama purchased the basics and enforced a firm rule that we were not to eat anything without permission lest she had intended to use it to feed the family. I suppose that’s why I have never forgotten a scene that I saw in the movie Goodbye Columbus in which the main character, a poor college student, opens his wealthy girlfriend’s refrigerator to discover a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and meats filling every corner of the appliance.

I saw that film with my husband Mike when we were still dating. When I mentioned how stunning I thought that scene had been he did not understand. Upon finally visiting his home I realized why it had been so meaningless to him because his own refrigerator was just as well stocked.

In our first days of marriage we struggled to stay financially afloat and I was happy that like my mom I had learned how to stretch our food budget to the max. With the help of both my mother and may mother-in-law who often brought groceries when they visited I got us through our early years without starving.

Once we had both graduated from college and were working at good jobs I was able to fill the shelves of my refrigerator with better and better quality items. Today if one were to open the door of my appliance they would find apples, oranges, berries, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and a host of other healthy fruits and vegetables along with chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese.

We live in a place where there is a remarkable bounty of food at affordable costs, a luxury that few other countries in the world enjoy. On a recent journey to England I realized that so many things that we take for granted were unavailable in the grocery stores where we shopped. The same was true in Austria and Canada. Our country’s proximity to Central and South America provides us with an almost endless supply of lovely produce. Our own farmers grow the rest.

I have heard of visitors from other countries marveling at our supermarkets. The variety of items that they hold almost overwhelms them. We had a German friend whose mom always wanted to spend time walking the aisles of Randall’s, Kroger, and HEB whenever she came to town. She was like a kid in a candy store.

Sadly there are still those even in this country who don’t have enough income to fill their larders. Like my mother and my grandmother they have to make do and hope that their dollars will stretch far enough to keep everyone fed until the next payday arrives. Sadly they don’t always possess the knowledge about food like my mom did or how to keep things healthy without breaking the bank. They don’t own their homes like my grandparents or have a cow. Nobody has taught them about budgets or nutrition or even how to cook and that is a travesty.

We spend a great deal of time in classrooms teaching our children about things that are interesting but not necessarily useful. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we educate our young. They need lessons in budgeting, shopping for healthy items and learning ways to prepare meals inexpensively. There really is a kind of science to running a healthy kitchen that fewer and fewer people understand. I think that a bit of practical knowledge would not only be well received by students but might also change their lives. We should not take for granted that such things just come naturally.

It would be wonderful if everyone had access to a refrigerator filled with the cornucopia of the one in Goodbye Columbus but since that will probably never happen maybe it’s time we at least gave everyone some guidance as to how to live better with what they have. My mom and my grandmother would have been in the one lowest economic levels but somehow they had the wherewithal to make their meager incomes work. Let’s teach everyone how to do that rather than just assuming that they will figure it out on their own. 

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

Her Wonderful Life

Jeanne

I vividly remember when I first met Jeanne. She was the kind of person who left a lasting impression on people and she definitely had that effect on me. I was about six or seven years old when my cousin, Leonard, brought his girl friend, Jeanne, to a family gathering at Clear Lake. She was a stunningly beautiful teenager with a mega watt smile and a confidence that made her an instant hit with my aunts and uncles. It wasn’t too long after that when she and Leonard were married providing me with my first encounter with what I thought of as the holy grail of true love.

Jeanne was undoubtedly one of a kind, a delightful spirit who found and gave joy wherever she went. She had a way of making everyone feel special and loved, and she always took time to let people know how much she cared about them. Even the smallest children knew that her interest in them was genuine. With her seemingly boundless energy she gave her heart and soul to every person who came her way. Her humble way of giving of herself guaranteed that she would become a favorite in our big extended family. It was not long before she was the person we felt most excited to see whenever she arrived at our events.

Jeanne and Leonard started a family of their own that grew and grew and grew filling their home with laughter and unmitigated love. Jeanne was at the center of the antics and delighted in planning raucous gatherings where fun and mischief were the order of the day. She was a premier hostess who literally chose her homes with entertaining in mind and understood the importance of having enough room to hold all of the love that was a constant presence in her life.

Jeanne was the bearer of so many gifts that she in turn generously lavished on her family and friends. She was a teacher, a woman of great faith. She was a light of optimism and a ray of hope. She humbly spread her kindness leaving no one untouched by her generosity. She loved to cook and she made preparing a feast for a crowd look easy to do. She danced her way through life grasping every possible opportunity to enjoy people and places and events. She built traditions that brought those that she loved together, hosting family annual reunions and scheduling week long camping trips at Garner State Park each summer.

Jeanne had a particularly amazing way of making each person that she encountered feel welcomed. Nobody in her presence went unnoticed. She took great pains to make everyone part of the fun that seemed to surround her like a halo. She possessed a charisma that made her unique and exciting but more importantly she maintained a quiet strength that was comforting. I found myself drawn to her just so that I might basque in the sunshine of her warmth.

Jeanne lived as full and meaningful life as anyone might desire. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, friend. She lived a simple life by choice but somehow everything she touched became extraordinary. She earned a college degree after her children were grown, proving to them that learning is a lifelong goal. She found ways to attend athletic events, band concerts, birthday parties, graduations and funerals with a faithfulness and sincerity that told people how important they were to her.

Jeanne had a beautiful heart but she was also an incredibly attractive woman with a flair for the flamboyant.. She loved bright colors that seemed to perfectly match her exciting personality. There were no grays and whites in her home or her way of living. Instead reds and oranges and deep blues shouted out her never ending joy and matched her ever present smile.

Jeanne left this earth last Friday. She had been very ill for some time. In her classic way she willed herself to remember others even as her health failed. She came to my fiftieth anniversary party with her oxygen tank and looking feeble, but still managing to have a glorious time. On Christmas Day she was surrounded by her huge family doing her best to laugh through the pain that had become her unrelenting companion. It was a fitting final act of love that was the definition of who she was.

Jeanne will be sorely missed. A great light in our lives seems to have gone away, but I believe that her impressions are so indelibly imprinted on our souls that we will always see and be guided by her example and her brightness. I agree with Jeanne’s granddaughter Madison who imagines her grandmother laughing and joking with Jesus and dancing with delight in her new heavenly home. She is waiting for us there, preparing a party for the time when we join her. For now we rejoice that her pain is no more and that she has so justly received her reward for living a truly wonderful life.

I saw a magnificent sunset not long after Jeanne died. Somehow I felt that it was a sign from her that we are supposed to continue to celebrate the beauty of life just as she always did. I know she would want us to embrace and comfort one another and find a way to dry our tears and carry on her traditions. She taught us well.

None of Them Are Stupid

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We humans are curious sorts. We love to ask questions. We wonder about things and we seek answers. Children are especially attuned to fining out more about the world and its people. They lap up information with a kind of unmitigated thirst. No topic is out of bounds for them in their innocence. As we grow older we become more circumspect. We are less inclined to be thought of as too inquisitive or lacking in common sense. Experience teaches us that our questions might elicit annoyed or angry responses, maybe even ridicule or laughter. We’ve all heard the chastisement, “That’s a stupid question!”

I taught at virtually every level of the learning ladder. The youngest were always filled with wonder and an unmitigated need to understand every aspect of life. They had so many questions that being with them was sometimes exhausting but always gratifying. I loved their almost divine innocence and their acceptance of each other. They were so joyful in their pursuit of knowledge.

I noticed that the fourth grade is often a kind of turning point at which youngsters become a bit more self conscious. Some of them even feel that they have become the proverbial “fourth grade nothing.” If the teacher doesn’t chide them for their questions the other students sometimes do. It is a time when society begins to beat the openness and guilelessness out of them. They eventually learn the sting of laughter at their comments and realize that their own ways of learning or seeing the world may be very different from those of others. Not wanting to feel strange they begin to be less likely to admit that they do not know or understand something and so their questions become more infrequent lest they become the focus of laughter or ire. 

Over time people become more and more circumspect unless they have great confidence. They hide our confusion and sometimes even forget how to ask a meaningful question. They silently hide what they view as their ignorance rather than understanding that those willing to admit to confusion by asking questions are the most courageous among us.

So much of our human potential is thwarted by an unwillingness to ask questions. Our inquisitiveness slowly begins to whither away and instead we simply think of ourselves as being slow or dim witted. We begin to recite defensive mantras like “I’m not good at math.” We settle for less in our lives because we don’t want to annoy others with our incessant questions. We hate to admit to a lack of comprehension that requires a seemingly endless stream of inquiries that try the patience of everyone around us.

I suspect that our journey into the frustration of silence begins the first time that we hear a teacher or parent declaring in exasperation that we ask too many questions or that the ones that we do utter are stupid. When our peers groan at our inquiries we sense that we are somehow inferior and so we begin to open our mouths less and less. Eventually our everyone begins to assume that our silence indicates that we have no confusion. They attempt to assess our mastery with queries that may have little to do with the ideas that are sending our minds into a tailspin. We get by with hiding our concerns so many times that we begin to erroneously believe that not only are many questions truly stupid but so are the people who ask them. In other words we unwittingly encourage ignorance.

If we were to develop one incredibly important trait it would be to have more patience both with others and with ourselves. Learning develops differently in each person and optimizing it requires a willingness to view questions as a key component in the process of mastering skills and knowledge. Each of us can be teachers if we encourage our natural human curiosity to remain vibrant throughout life. We should be overjoyed when anyone seeks to learn no matter how low it may take them to break through the barriers that are preventing them from understanding,

Long ago I read a book by physicist Richard Feynman. He told of his own journey to becoming a premier scientist and how it began with simple lessons from his father who encouraged young Richard to wonder about the world around him. The simple inquiry, “Why?” became the bedrock from which Dr. Feynman explored the physical universe and later inspired countless students by making physics more understandable.

I was recently appalled when I heard someone pronounce that most people are dumb. That is simply not true. In fact I have learned that most people are capable of far more than they ever dreamed as long as they encounter others who are willing to patiently work with them until the holes of their learning are filled. Question are the means of reinforcing the cracks that are holding them back. No inquiry is unnecessary or stupid. We would be wise to teach our children that questions are a glorious way to the fulfillment of our potential. None of them are stupid.

Risky Business

Business challenge

I have twin grandsons who have confounded their teachers and sometimes even family members with their almost identical looks. When they were babies my daughter had to always dress one of them in blue just to be able to quickly tell them apart. Over time their individuality became more and more apparent, particularly in their personalities. One of them is daring to the point of taking risks that might cause most of us to pause while the other is far more cautious. Life can be a rather risky business and each of us chooses different degrees and ways of taking chances. Being courageous does not always mean flirting with danger. Sometimes it simply requires a willingness to push ourselves to do things that frighten us or seem impossibly difficult. In that regard both of the twins are willing to engage in the risky business of failing while pursuing a goal.

Our society today is marked by competitiveness. We rank people beginning in their childhood. We place tiny babies into quartiles based on size. We note dates when they achieve certain physical and mental milestones. We begin testing them for this or that from their early years. Our efforts are intended to derive useful data that may assist in keeping them healthy but all too often our rankings have the unintended consequence of unfavorable comparison. We ferret out the gifted and the special needs children from the general population and begin the process of sending the message that we are often defined by our perceived level of intelligence. We may not mean to do so but we subconsciously tell our young that comparisons with others are important.

Over time our ways of doing things create more and more problems. Our children become acutely aware of who learns the most easily and who struggles. Everything evolves into a kind of contest to determine who is the biggest, fastest, smartest, prettiest, most likable. As humans we all too often strive not so much for the joy of learning or achieving some new skill but in a kind of perennial competition to prove our worth. It can be maddening to the point of causing us to feel insecure and at worst even unworthy. Many shut by dropping out of the race, refusing to take risks of any kind lest they be deemed losers. They quietly hide away, often unhappy with themselves and  angry at the world.

It would be wonderful if we were able to begin the process of development by focusing on self growth. The message we might send to our young is that if there is to be any form of competition it should be in that of continually improving by attempting to become our very best. Contrary to the wisdom of Yoda we might all aspire to a credo of trying many things without fear of failure. The best performances and innovations the world has ever seen often began with mistakes. Those willing to take the risk of  rejection again and again are likely to eventually overcome the challenges that befall them.

The most important message that we should give to all people is that the process of growing better should be couched in self care and improvement, not rankings with others. In this life we will always find someone who does things better than we do. If our measure of happiness and success is based on how we compare to others we are doomed to a life of frustration in which someone will always manage to best us. Contentment comes instead from a willingness to work hard to be just a tiny bit better than we may have been before. It means learning for the joy of discovering new ideas or developing new skills. It means walking a few more steps or lifting a bit more weight. Mostly it means understanding that each of us has unique talents and purposes that should be cultivated at our own individual paces. 

As adults it is important that we not unconsciously teach our young to fear taking risks because they know that we are continually judging and ranking them. We need to help them focus on opportunities to relearn, redo, retry until they reach a point of feeling confident of their mastery of knowledge and skills. It should not matter that one child completes a task quickly and another takes longer to achieve. The goal is the same but instead we sometimes leave so many youngsters behind to wonder about their worth. We reward and adore those with natural talents but rarely stop to consider that with a bit of time and effort we might help develop those who require just a bit more encouragement. Think of the power that we might unleash if we were willing to reconsider our rankings and our systems of scoring and comparing and instead kept a personal growth chart for each person detailing their success in increments great or small.

I suspect that we humans might become more and more likely to take risks if we were certain that nobody would laugh at us or think ill of us if our efforts proved disastrous. How glorious it would be to have a worldwide willingness to see our attempts as ways of learning and making slight adjustments that slowly lead us to success. Imagine our world cheering on each person willing to try things instead of making fun of them when they fail. How great might it be to be told what we did right in our efforts and then shown how to fix the things that were not quite how they needed to be. I suspect that we would discover so much untapped talent and most certainly would eliminate some of the unhappiness that so dominates societies today. Best of all risky behavior might not be so risky at all.