Heaven On Earth

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When I was just a tad older than forty my husband and I decided to attempt a climb of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park along with our two daughters. We camped a little way up the trail and rose in the dark of the early morning hours to begin our trek. There was a silence between the four of us and our fellow adventurers who moved patiently up the mountain with only the illumination of flashlights to guide the way. Around five in the morning we stopped to gaze at the lights of the town of Estes Park far below where humanity was just waking up for a new day. It felt like looking at a little fairy village in a scene inside a snow globe.

By the time the sun rose above our heads we had reached the Boulder Field, an outcropping of massive rocks over which we would have to climb to get to the final stages of our journey. As I stood there with a brisk wind blowing across my face I looked all around and down below experiencing an other worldly sensation. It was as if I had somehow found a slice of heaven on earth, a vision that stays with me and soothes my soul to this very day.

I was unable to continue the trek to the summit because one of my daughters became quite ill with mountain sickness. I knew that I had to get her to a lower altitude where the air was more rich with oxygen. I might have been disappointed in coming that far and not being able to continue to the to the end of the trail but for the fact that I felt such serenity in the place that I had already encountered. I literally was aware of God’s presence in the world and it was not necessary to go any farther to feel a sense of divine ecstasy.

There have been other times when I believed that I was in a heavenly place and each of those moments were defined by the people with whom I had shared the experience and the magnificence of the scene before me. Last year I traveled to a quaint little town near York in England. It was called Robin Hood’s Bay and the combination of sharing fun times with my brothers and sisters-in-law along with a spectacular view made me once again feel as though heaven had somehow come to earth.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a seaside town rumored to have once been an outpost for pirates. It is now a sleepy fishing village with a passage to the North Sea and from there to distant shores like Norway. It is built on rugged cliffs and the wind seems to whisper the stories of the valiant people who once lived and worked. It’s main street features shops and buildings sitting precariously on steep hills that meander up and down while sea laden breezes fill the air. The whole place appears to have come from a fantasy with its quaintness, but in truth life was once very hard there. Somehow now the people have settled into a slow pace of living and being there was quite glorious. Sitting with the people I love while laughing and looking into the eternity of the horizon brought me a heavenly peace.   

Heaven on earth has meant holding my babies, first my daughters and then my grandchildren. There is a hopefulness about being near little ones. Their innocence makes them seem like tiny cherubs. They remind me that there is still pure unadulterated goodness in the world. A baby sleeping on my chest brings me a calmness that only paradise itself might otherwise provide.

I have found heaven on earth in the most unexpected ways like sitting in the bough of a tree, watching the sunset in Grand Canyon, hearing the haunting cry of a loon. Sometimes relaxing in the quiet of my living room while listening to the laughter of the neighborhood children fills me with so much joy that I think this must surely be what heaven is like.

Each day I draw closer to the inevitable end of life here on earth that each of us will face. I sometimes wonder what heaven will actually be like. Will I get to choose what makes me happiest or is it so unimaginably special that my own images of it fall short of the reality? Will I once again see all of the people that I have known and loved? How will they appear? If I want to see Abraham Lincoln will that be possible? I’d like to believe that the contentment that I have felt on that mountain top and in that village will be mine for eternity but will it take a form that is more special even than my own thoughts?

Heaven is ethereal. How is it possible that we might get a glimpse of it even for a second here on earth? Somehow I believe that the glory of the best moments of my life will be magnified a thousand fold when I finally see my divine reward, but for now I am here and I want to find more of those times when the earth itself has felt so perfect. I think of a rainbow over the winding road of Glacier National Park, the first kiss from my husband, my mother’s smile, my father reading to me, my little girls kicking me from inside the womb. Surely heaven must be even more wonderful. 

It’s Never Too Late

Follow-Your-Dreams

First I loved to read and then I loved to write. First my father inspired me and then my high school English teacher helped me to believe in myself. I headed to the University of Houston determined to major in English, hoping to become a writer but convincing myself that I would most likely earn a living by becoming a teacher.

I was enchanted by the written word. Reading for my classes was a source of joy and then authoring papers became my passion. If I had been totally honest I would have admitted that my ultimate dream was to become so proficient in the art of writing that it might have become my profession. Instead I believed the naysayers who shook their heads and assured me that becoming a published author with enough income to live was akin to a sandlot ball player getting a spot on a professional team.

I hedged my bets by minoring in mathematics and securing certifications for teaching. I not only never got an opportunity to teach English, but I also never had the pleasure of writing for a fee. I admittedly enjoyed being an educator and have no regrets after a long and happy career. Still, the idea of actually being paid for doing the one thing that most enchants me is alluring. I sometimes wonder if I would have made it as an author or a journalist if I had not been so afraid that I might fail. After all, I had a class with a young man who began his journey to professional sports playing at a Houston city park. Clyde Drexler certainly had skills but he had to be willing to take risks to show the world that he was a champion.

I sometimes chide myself for being so overly cautious and for making excuses for my unwillingness to follow the less certain path. I might easily have continued writing even after I had secured a job as a teacher. Stephen King initially supported himself and his wife by working as a high school teacher. He wrote in his free time and submitted manuscript after manuscript until Carrie finally caught a publisher’s eye. He did not find excuses to abandon his passion but I certainly did. For a very long time I stifled that little part of myself that brought me so much joy because I believed that even thinking that someone might want to read what I had to say was silly. I hid behind a wall of apologetics while my heart longed to be free.

It was not until my children were grown, my mother had died, and I had retired that I allowed myself the luxury of writing again. At first I was so fearful of what people might think of my ideas. I wrote and rewrote passages to tame my thoughts, make them more acceptable to a wider audience instead of letting my heart speak. I had so often told students that the best writing has a very personal voice but I broke my own rules. It was only after I enrolled in a one day class at Rice University that I understood that I must overcome all of the trepidation and negativity that resided inside my head. I had to be myself on paper just as I had so unselfconsciously done when I was writing for my professors in college. They had seen the possibilities and had encouraged me to continue to develop my craft. I had believed that they were only being kind. I convinced myself that they were flatterers and the real truth came from people who insisted that I be practical, realistic.

So here I am at the age of seventy one suddenly shedding the my protective facade and showing myself as the person that I am with blogs written five days each week. I have become almost fanatical in my devotion to writing every single day. It is as though all of the pent up emotions that I failed to put on paper in the past are flooding onto the blankness of each new page. I am fearless in my adherence to the truth. My voice chatters on and on and on.

I may never earn a dime from my words. I may never receive an invitation from Oprah or Ellen to speak of my musing or the books that I hope to write in front of millions of  people, but I have finally made writing a priority in my life for no other reason than it seems to be something that I need to do. It feels oh so good to finally grow up and be my own person. Ignoring the clang of negative voices that we all seem to encounter has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. Writing has sustained my optimism during Covid-19.

I remain devoted to my thousands of students. I don’t believe that I would have been a particularly interesting or empathetic author without knowing them. They have been a source of inspiration for most of what I believe and do. I would urge them as they grapple with decisions about their own lives to listen to their hearts and follow the passions that speak to them. Take some risks and see where they may lead. There is nothing more wonderful than finding one’s true self. I found mine in being a teacher and now I have expanded my world through writing. Go find your dream. It is never too late.

(This blog is dedicated to a young man with the initials H.F. who is struggling to find himself while he watches his peers graduate with advanced degrees, work at extraordinary jobs, purchase homes and begin families. He is quite gifted and talented in his own right and I hope that he reads this and is inspired to take some risks to embrace his own passions.)

Somebody Needs You Today

Even in normal circumstances there are many stressors that threaten our mental well being. Depression is not just a controllable reaction to ordinary life. It is a disease that often requires treatment. Quite sadly society still tends to see it as a kind of weakness in those whom it afflicts. Far too many believe that dealing with depression is little more than a matter of changing one’s attitude, thinking positive thoughts, trusting in God. They believe that depression is a kind of selfishness that only occurs because the person afflicted with it is unwilling to “get a grip.” Depression as other mental illnesses is still hidden and all too often viewed so negatively that it is barred from open discussion. We will listen to someone describing a heart attack and even support them as they recover but we tend to squirm uncomfortably in conversations about depression. 

Depressed people often feel abandoned, alone and misunderstood. They fear mentioning their illness lest the lose jobs or friendships. Society values strength of character so highly that depressed persons are wary of mentioning their affliction, often making excuses for their absences. They too often live in a world darkened even more by the white lies that they tell to hide their affliction. 

I recall the furor that occurred in a presidential election when it was discovered that one of the vice presidential candidates had been treated for depression. Rather than applauding him for seeking treatment he was derided as someone who would be unfit for the job. The backlash was horrific and set back mental health even more than it already was. Ironically few people were aware that one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from depression that was so extreme that he had a breakdown after the death of a person who had been very special to him. 

Of late famous individuals are courageously stepping out of the shadows of depression and speaking of their own journeys with the disease. Michael Phelps is one the most notable among them. He has become a spokesperson and advocate for seeking medical help when darkness of the mind becomes crushing. He has now admitted to being plagued by crippling depression for most of his life. He had moments when he was so sick that he seriously considered killing himself even as he was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. It was only when his pain became unbearable that he sought the medical therapies that he needed to feel whole and healthy again. 

During this time of pandemic depression is on the rise. It is often triggered by stress and uncertainty or extreme changes of normal routines. It knows no demographic limits. it can affect young and old, poor and wealthy. No doubt it is reaching into thousands of households as individuals deal with the threat of illness, loss of jobs, dwindling incomes, concerns about sending children to school, fears of eviction, struggles with the deaths of loved ones. The world is being slammed to an extent rarely endured and depression is spreading suffering on a scale that we rarely see. 

In a recent podcast Michelle Obama spoke of her own sadness during the pandemic. Even though her situation is safe and secure she has been troubled and worried by what she sees happening to so many Americans. She realizes that there is a kind of national grief that so many of us are experiencing. Sometimes the brain chemistry that creates those dark feelings gets out of hand and the level of depression becomes unbearable. She urged all of us to reach out to those that we know and love, not just in emails and texts and posts on Facebook but with phone calls and face to face conferences.

We need human contact even as we require social distances. Behind our masks are psychological needs that grow into physical illnesses of the mind if we do not care for ourselves. As someone who is an unreserved advocate for mental health I know how dire depression can become if left untreated. Many times I watched my mother devolve into a paralyzing darkness that literally led her to a state of psychosis. Time and again I had to force her to accept medical attention that she desperately needed. I implore everyone to watch for signs of distress in both themselves and those they love. Do not hesitate to reach out for help. Contact friends. Contact doctors. Do not ignore the signs. Depression is a treatable disease. 

It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to be as vigilant about depression as we are with Covid-19. The virus is creating havoc in often unseen ways. We have to wear our masks and follow the guidelines for social distancing but we also need to support one another emotionally. If the government will not provide security for those who are in dangerous economic situations then those of us fortunate enough to be okay need to find someone who is not and adopt them. Nobody should be thrown to the wolves during this time. It is up to all of us to provide support, love and understanding. Somebody needs you today. 

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

adult black pug
Photo by Charles on Pexels.com

I am a planner, a controller, a doer. I usually fill up my calendar and keep myself organized and busy. I’m like the energizer bunny on steroids. I make my bed each morning and put everything away in its place each evening. I know what I am going to do and how I will accomplish it weeks in advance. I rarely waste a single minute of each day even in retirement. Suddenly my way of living for a lifetime has been upended. My calendar is empty. I’ve come to fully appreciate my mother’s mantra of “God willing” when agreeing to any future activities. Covid-19 has forced me more than any other event in my life to slow down and smell the roses. 

I now allow myself to stay awake until 2:00 in the morning if something catches my interest late at night. I no longer feel guilty about sleeping until 9:00 in the morning or staying in my pajamas until noon. I eat ice cream and make banana bread instead of worrying about my waistline. I have not used makeup since February. The only time I wear shoes is when I’m walking on my treadmill or working in the yard. I “attend” mass on Sundays in jeans and baggy t-shirts. I get great joy out of very small things like a strikingly lovely bumble bee who hovers over my hibiscus bush or the family of cardinals that feast at my bird feeder. I enjoy the laughter of the children playing in my neighborhood as much as the sound of a symphony. I celebrate the mere act of waking up each morning and still being virus free. 

It’s not easy to set aside a lifetime of habits. Nothing before made me change my ways, not even retirement. I measured the success of my day by the number of my accomplishments. I judged myself on the miles that I walked, the pages that I wrote, the places that I went. As I erased my future plans one by one from my calendar I became less and less sad. They were just ways of filling the time, small sacrifices compared to the ones that so many people have been making. I realized that nothing that I did was as important as doing my part to help slow the spread of Covid 19. That meant curtailing my usual activities and being conservative in my outings and contacts with people. 

I’ve had to find ways to make my quietly mundane days bearable. In doing that I slowed my pace and learned to revel in silence. I have always struggled with the idea of meditation because my mind seems always to be racing. In the past many weeks I have enjoyed sitting and listening to my own breathing. I have felt the pulsating beat of my heart. I have noticed the wind and the birds and rain falling on the pavement. I have felt a greater appreciation of just being alive.

I would love to go back to church and sit among the people there. I want to get my hair trimmed and enjoy a pedicure. I long to hug the members of my family and my dear friends. I want to travel again before I grow so old that I am no longer able to walk for miles exploring new places. I dream of  being able to visit my aunts and uncle who are in nursing homes once again. I miss having tea time with my niece. I find that there is little else that I now want to do. I don’t need to shop or eat out or go to a movie theater. I don’t want to run around all day doing things that I may accomplish inside my home. Covid 19 has allowed me to think deeply about what is most important. 

I am happy to do my part to help end this tragic occurrence that has so changed our world. I still teach my little band of students remotely. I wear my mask willingly. I order my groceries through Instacart and give the workers who bring them to me very generous tips because I so appreciate what they doing. I get most of everything else I need from Amazon or by purchasing from other online vendors. I support local restaurants by getting take out now and again. I mostly take rides for diversion rather than mixing it up with people in enclosed spaces. I’ve already signed up for voting by mail to insure that I will be able to cast my vote in November no matter what the state of things may be.  

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but somehow Covid 19 has managed to do that for me. In a strange way it has actually made me more aware and thankful. Nonetheless I feel great sadness for those who have been so hurt by this sometimes deadly virus. I cry at the news of a teenager losing both of his parents or the story of an elderly couple dying on the same day. It is difficult to see Covid 19 as anything other than a great tragedy. I pray constantly that an end to all of the suffering will come sooner rather than later. I pray that each of us will do whatever it takes to make that happen. I pray that we will never forget how dependent we are on one another. I pray that I will spend however many days and years I have left on this earth always remembering what is truly important. 

 

Facing Our Fears

pexels-photo-1134204Fear is a normal human instinct that serves to keep us alert and safe when it is present in healthy doses. Unfortunately we humans all too often obsess over our fears and turn them into anxieties that crowd our minds with dark possibilities. The worries over Covid 19 combined with civil unrest and a national election have collided into a kind of atomic bomb of concern that is affecting people in different ways depending on their personal experiences. 

Appearances are often misleading because there seems to be a continuum of beliefs about our present situation that run the gamut from near inability to function normally to outright disbelief that there is any real danger. As our society navigates through the daily updates on numbers of sick and dying from the virus and the status of protests and demands we each react in slightly differing ways that eventually seem to gel into associations and groups. Because it is in our natures to protect ourselves from whatever we deem to be problematic we end up seeing those outside of our own belief system as being part of the problem. We worry that the ranks of those who dissent from our way of viewing the situation will swell and change our world in questionable ways and so we attempt to change minds even as we realize that the only people listening already agree with us. It becomes a zero sum game that all too often results in the loss of friendships and the surprise that our relationships were so fragile that a national crisis tore them asunder with little effort. 

In truth we miss the reality that everyone is actually afraid, even those who boast of their daring and appear to ignore precautions. Each of us is demonstrating what most bothers us and political forces are playing on our deep seated worries. There are those who do not deal well with death and suffering and those who fear changes in society. There are those who fear loss of economic well being and those who fear that changes will not be enough to rid society of injustice. There are those who fear that our country is not as exceptional as we once believed and those who fear that our exceptionalism is being destroyed. The list of fears is too weighty and complex to describe in a single tract but it is enough to divide us if we allow it to happen. 

I am reminded of a time when I was beginning a new job at a new school. I was rather nervous because I only knew the principal and two women who had decided to move to the campus with me. I was slated to speak to the faculty on my first day and I stewed over what to say and how to appear to them. The principal had warned me that the environment was tense and fractured so I chose my words and even my wardrobe with great care. I wore a nondescript black pantsuit on which I placed a good luck pin that a very dear friend had given me the weekend before. It was a gold star that she said would remind me that I was going to do healing work and that God and people who knew me would be wishing me all the best. 

Things didn’t go as well as I had hoped. There was great tension among the members of the faculty and much suspicion of who I was and why I was there. I did my best to be friendly and I indeed found kindred spirits with whom I am still friends to this very day but there was a rather large contingent of people who were quite obviously wary of me so it became my goal to find out what fears were in their hearts and why they viewed me as a threat. 

It took a great deal of time and patience but by listening rather than lecturing I began to break through the icy reception I had received but there were still those who held back from accepting me as anything but a potential enemy. Nonetheless I persisted in efforts to hear their voices and one day as one of the teachers most opposed to me vented her frustrations in a tirade of anger I suddenly felt tears streaming down my cheeks, not because I felt threatened but because I truly understood the source of her pain. I took her hands and told her how sorry I was and then she exclaimed, “Then why did you choose to put us down with that stupid star pinned to your chest like you were the new sheriff in town? Why did you humiliate us before you even knew us?” 

All too often we see or don’t see another person’s reality. We form judgements from our own experiences and sometimes we are completely off base. When we see glaring differences that seem to be at odds with what we believe to be right we would do well to patiently set our preconceived notions aside and attempt to get to the heart of the fears driving each of us. We may find that we want the same things but have conflicting ideas about how to get there. 

Each of us have triggers that raise our worst fears to the surface of our minds. Losing people through death or misunderstanding are two of  mine. Unwillingness to Ignore the pain and suffering around me is another. When I react to the issues facing us those fears direct me either consciously or subconsciously just as the fears each person determines how he/she will behave. We all worry about losing something whether it be a loved one, a job, a home, a freedom or an election. If we bear that in mind when someone is ranting or seemingly ignoring the gravity of a situation we may be able to finally understand. It will be in that understanding that we achieve the common ground that we need to finally be able to work together.