Dancing With Reckless Abandon

to_dance_around_the_sun_by_schakoyana

My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.    

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I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

Those Kids

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A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

When One of Us Hurts

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We can’t run and we can’t hide. Problems will find us no matter how hard we try to escape from them. Not only that, we can’t avoid the reality that all of us live in a symbiotic relationship even when we have never met each other. In fact, we intersect with all things on this earth and in our universe. The old adage that we feel a butterfly flap its wings in Africa is not that far fetched. Sooner or later the cumulative effect of our interactions and those of the natural world have an impact on us. To deny this simple truth is to threaten the very health of all humans and the survival of the earth.

We like to believe that when one person is hurting it has nothing to do with us. We may not have caused that individual’s problems, but there is almost always a kind of ripple effect that reaches out in all directions from someone with a shattered heart. In a million little ways each person has an impact not just on the people who know and love them, but on strangers who may not even realize their existence.

As parents we attempt to instill character and family values in our children. We often forget that they won’t always be with us. They will encounter people who may ultimately misguide or misuse them. Nothing hurts us more than seeing a loved one who has been degraded and disappointed by someone that they trusted. We would rather have to deal with something terrible ourselves than have to see family members or dear friends in pain, and yet such situations are very much part of human life. It’s critical that we teach our young how to work their way through the tough times because none of us fully escape them. It is impossible to be totally sheltered from hurt and betrayal.

Flexibility and resilience are two often ignored and underrated characteristics that help us to deal with tragedy. It’s critical that we take time to demonstrate to our young how to keep moving forward even when our path seems to be impossibly blocked. Providing them with a place where they feel free to vent and then communicate their fears is a first step in helping them to find solutions to the difficulties that plague them. Every person should understand the simple idea that there is always a way to resolve the conflicts in their lives. The outcome may be far different from anything they have ever imagined, but nonetheless a way of crawling out of the muck.

We don’t have to be filled with rainbows and unicorns and unrealistic expectations. Going to Disneyland is not always an answer to our prayers. Sometimes we have to endure tough times and work harder than we ever thought possible just to keep from falling into a pit of despair. It is in those times that we find our truest allies and friends and then it is incumbent upon us to always remember them when their moment of uncertainty occurs. We are in this crazy mixed up world together, and brawling over who is right and who is wrong only clouds the issues and delays solutions. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

Years ago my husband was critically ill with a disease that more often than not killed people back then. He was in the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy in the hopes of a cure. I had two little ones at home that needed my care so I wasn’t always able to be with him. His mother on the other hand was able to sit by his side throughout his treatments. In all honesty I became jealous of her attention to him while I was stuck at home with the children. Even when I showed up at the hospital she took control of the situation and made me feel as though my concerns did not matter. I allowed a smoldering anger to build up inside until I was about to burst. I finally admitted my feelings to my mother who gave me absolutely perfect advice.

She reminded me that my mother-in-law loved her son as much as I loved my two daughters. She asked me to imagine how I would feel if one of my girls was in the hospital fighting to win a battle with a deadly disease. She said that this was not a time to have a contest of who loved my husband best because he was in a very difficult position and should not have to choose between his mother and his wife. Then she said that what was needed most was for someone to emerge as the adult in the room, someone who loved everyone so much that he or she was willing to step back and just go with the flow of things.

Of course she was not so subtly hinting that I needed to be that person. She suggested that I keep the home fires burning in my husband’s absence and let his mother sit by his side. She pointed out that each of us has a role to play in the many chapters of our lives and if we work together everyone will ultimately come out better. It was wise advice that I decided to follow. In the process I began to better understand just how interconnected we all were in the challenges that we face. I realized the love that prompted my mother-in-law’s seemingly overactive concern. Instead of thinking of how I was feeling, I began to empathize with her and with my husband. In that moment of understanding I saw the importance and the power of working as a team.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can close our borders, lock our doors, hide in our rooms. The world will find us and if we have not embraced it before hand it will overtake us. For our own sakes and those of our children we must be willing to accept differing points of view and find ways to eliminate hurt and pain whenever we encounter it. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt and the best way to counter the suffering is to demonstrate compassion. One day it may be our turn to suffer and hopefully there will be unselfish souls to help us.

Beautiful Chaos

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Chaos is defined as a state of utter confusion. It can be tiring or exhilarating. I’ve had my share of chaotic moments and I’ve witnessed others in their’s. In spite of precision planning a few of my first days of school turned out to be the very definition of chaos with both teachers and students dissolving in tears before the new term even had time to get started. I once went to Epcot on New Year’s Eve not realizing that it was one of the most popular times only to find myself surrounded by a surging crowd of drunken adults with surly attitudes. I wasn’t sure that I would make it out of the park unscathed and realized that I don’t generally do well when faced with that kind of chaos.

Still there are forms of chaos that are actually quite beautiful and even therapeutic. The Friday nights at my Grandma Ulrich’s house were occasions when anything might happen. Thirty or more siblings, spouses and cousins would cram into her tiny living room where the noise level quickly rose to an almost unbearable peak and little ones ran around in a state of unfettered energy. My aunts and uncles were a rowdy bunch who laughed and argued in a space filled with smoke and more love than one might ever measure. Those evenings were surely nothing less than beautiful chaos, unregulated emotional gifts to all of us who participated in them.

My first generation American relatives were indeed a unruly group, viewed by their neighbors as being a bit wild. With ten children coming one year after another my grandmother had become resigned to having a noisy household. She lost two of her little when they were still infants and it had the effect of resigning her to a bit of disorder in the household. She quietly watched over her children’s antics with a loving smile on her face, not worrying about unimportant things. As long as her children were clothed and fed and tucked into their beds at night she was happy and so were they.

Her days became routine rituals of sweeping and mopping dust from the floors, preparing food, doing laundry, watering her plants, and showing her children that she thought each of them was wonderful. She loved them above all else and they in turn adored her. Their chaotic gatherings filled her with joy, and she sat in a corner of her living room just watching them with a contented expression on her face, happy that they returned to be with her each week. If their discussions tended a bit too much toward anger she had a way of stopping them with a quiet mention of their names. They understood that they had crossed a line and corrected their behavior immediately like the good boys and girls she had taught them to be, but they were rarely in a mode calmer than excited frenzy. 

I have in many ways become my grandmother. I enjoy simply observing my children and grandchildren and siblings when we are together. I delight in the chaos of that wonderful crowd. I quietly serve food and drink and then watch. It is a wonderful feeling to see so much love filling our parties in the form of animated conversations, raucous games, energy running freely. There is nothing boring about our gatherings and nothing quiet about them either. We celebrate our loving connections without filters and it is an emotionally glorious experience. Somehow we each realize that it is okay to fully be ourselves, knowing that each person will always be accepted and loved without reservation. That is the kind of beautiful chaos that energizes and brings confidence.

We humans have built societies based on rules and traditions. We grow up learning how we are expected to act in various situations. We must sit quietly and raise our hands in a classroom. We must stop at red lights, and be polite. It can feel very restricting to always follow the mores of the world. Sometimes we need a place where we can feel safe to let down our hair and speak our minds, be who we are. Most often that happens with close family members, but sometimes it is even better with very dear friends. It is in the informal settings that we most often feel the most relaxed and loved. We know that slips of the tongue will be forgiven, faux pas will won’t change our relationships. There is an easiness that we find with certain people that is quite glorious.

My big, crazy extended family has at times been viewed with a bit of consternation. We actually make some folks a nervous with our quirky ways. We are too loud for them, too inclined to raise the roof with our joy in being together. We have to choose our mates carefully lest they run when we expose them to our frivolity without warning. We definitely do not sit in a quiet circle chatting in a manner worthy of an audience with the Queen. More than one soul has cringed at the chaos that our meetings engender. Others have joined in gleefully proclaiming that we are so much fun.

I love our beautiful chaos. Nothing makes me feel better than spending time with the caring people who have allowed me time and again to just be myself with no expectations or demands attached. Our is a joyful acceptance that more often than not erupts into the most beautiful chaos of chatter and laughter and love.