And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

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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.

The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

Let’s Get This Thing Going!

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In just a little over I week I’ll be flying off to London. I’m currently in that frantic state of mind in which I just want to board a plane right now, and be done with all of the anticipation. I’ve been scheduling a full calendar of events for weeks now, and I am beginning to worry that if we don’t just get things going something is going to happen to blow the whole thing up. Sadly a lifetime of experience has taught me that the best laid plans often go awry. I get especially anxious in May given that my father died so unexpectedly in that month just before we were supposed to have a family gala at the beach on Memorial Day. It is the time of year when my mother also died the day before a retirement party that my daughters had sweetly planned in my honor. I’ve found that all too often when I fill my calendar with grand expectations too far in the future something almost always happens to change my course. I suppose that’s why I prefer a vagabond approach to life. I simply go whenever the urge hits me, and I’m rarely disappointed.

Traveling to London is a long held dream of mine. If only I can get there without too many glitches I’m certain that I will have a glorious time. My first challenge will be the flight. I always become anxious at an airport, not because I am afraid of flying, but because I absolutely hate the process of making my way to the plane. The lines are long and the ways of doing things are constantly changing. I don’t relax until I have maneuvered my way through all of the checkpoints. I truly admire those young women that I see with young children in tow because I would no doubt go insane having to herd little ones in addition to taking care of myself. I have to take deep breaths not to come unglued and frighten the TSA agents. Luckily I’ll have my husband, my brothers, and my very stable sisters-in-law to keep me grounded and point me in the right directions.

Once we actually arrive in London I know that I will be happy with whatever happens. We have reserved tickets to all sorts of places, but in all honesty just being there will be good enough for me. Most of the time my favorite thing about visiting a place is just walking around observing the people and the vibrancy of life. I don’t need to go inside anywhere to have a glorious time, but nonetheless we have a hefty schedule for the two weeks that we will be there.

My husband was talking about how we will have to be sure to allow time to eat, but in truth all I need is a bag of fruit or some nuts and I am fine. I rarely go anywhere and think about food. I’d rather use the time that I have exploring. The idea of spending hours in an eatery doesn’t appeal to me at all when there are palaces and towers and churches from hundreds of years ago to see. I want to take in the sheer magnitude of the British Museum and walk through the universities where Newton and other geniuses once studied and worked. I look forward to riding the Tube and feeling the heartbeat of a great city.

We have tickets to see The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theater. The Shakespearean comedy is not even close to being a favorite of mine and I realize that the present day theater is only recently built replica, but it will still give me a feel of what the Elizabethan world of so long ago might have been like. I’m brushing up on the story of Falstaff and his antics ahead of time so that I will be able to wholeheartedly enjoy being part of something that has endured in literature and the arts for hundreds of years.

We plan to travel to Bath and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, to York and York Minster. We will journey through the Cotswolds and hopefully get a taste of life in small towns. I hope to see farms and fields of livestock, and maybe sit in a pub of an evening to speak of the wonders that I enjoyed during the day. I want to take in the old and the new, the Tower of London as well as the Tate Modern and the London Eye. I hope to stroll through gardens and down tiny hidden alleyways.

I expect to leave with memories that will remain in my mind for the remainder of my days, but I am becoming so anxious to get things going that I can hardly sleep at night. I worry that there has been far too much time for fate to enter the picture and turn things topsy turvy. I suppose that I am filled with Shakespearean forebodings that will probably never unfold, but my mind is in hyperdrive as I wait, and wait and wait.

Travel is a glorious experience. I’ve always found ways to enjoy every minute in every place that I have ever visited regardless of the weather or other unforetold events that changed the direction of my plans. I know that all I need do is get to London and everything will work out for me, and so I impatiently attempt to calm myself. I will soon enough return to the land of my at least half of my ancestors, the people who gave me much of my history and appearance. I plan to revel in discovering what their world might have been like.

In the end I remember that they left the places that I will visit, and came to the new world where they became Americans through and through, Yanks who fought in the revolution and patriots who served with the Union Army to preserve the nation. In many ways my trip will be in honor of the people whose hard work ultimately provided me and my brothers with opportunities unlike anything that they ever knew, and the financial wherewithal to travel for pure enjoyment. I will remember and appreciate them as I tour the land from whence they came. In the meantime can we please just get this thing going!