Let It Go

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I grew up in Houston, Texas in the south. As a child I remember hearing Dixie being played and sung now and again. When I was young I actually believed that I had descended from Confederate Rebels and it was only later that I found out how wrong I had been. Of course my mom’s ancestors were busy chafing under the rule of Hungarians while the Civil War raged here. It was from my father’s side that I assumed that I had come from bonafide Johnny Reb stock. Imagine my shock, and maybe even a bit of relief, when my genealogical searches revealed that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, was a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Volunteers and that he fought for the Union. In fact, he participated in a number of crucial battles and was around to bury the dead at Shiloh. It ends up that the inclement weather and horror of that event badly affected his health in later years and after the war he seemed rather intent on putting his days of fighting behind him. I suppose that those of us who are still arguing over the aftermath of that terrible conflict might be wise to follow his lead.

I’ve always had a fascination for history and so I have read a number of biographies and historical texts. Robert E. Lee was someone about whom I wanted to know more. In so many ways he was an enigma. He graduated from West Point and for a time was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army of the United States. He sometimes questioned the morality of slavery, but nonetheless held the odd belief that it served a purpose in helping the enslaved humans to learn the necessary skills to be full fledged members of society. He loved his country but felt a higher allegiance to his state. He saw secession as treason, but agreed to join the Confederate cause nonetheless. In other words he was a highly conflicted man who wanted to be honorable but often demonstrated profound confusion about how one should live. In the end he actually felt that the long war should never have happened, and he spent much of his later years attempting to free his soul from guilt. 

The aftermath of most wars becomes a time for trying and punishing those guilty of crimes or treason, while the rest of the population goes on to live ordinary and quiet lives like my grandfather. The days after the Civil War were different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant felt that no purpose would be served in meting out vengeance against their fellow countrymen who had gone astray. There were no trials in which Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were held accountable or punished. Instead they were allowed to live with only their own self reflection to determine the final chronicle of what they had done. For Robert E. Lee it was a bitter pill to ruminate on the utter folly of the war and its impact on the entire country. He must have asked himself time and again why he had gone against his own beliefs that secession would be a fools errand.

Time has a way of glossing over the ugly realities of history. As the years passed people from the south often found ways to excuse the actions of their ancestors who had believed that destroying the country was actually the only way to deal with political conflicts. They saw the war as being noble and courageous, but the truth is that it was a horror that need never have happened. To celebrate those who led their fellowmen into the very jaws of hell seems to be a rather ridiculous idea, and yet that is what happened in cities and towns all across the south where monuments and statues were erected to honor men who in many ways had been fools. Perhaps it was a way of ignoring the truth of how incredibly wrong the entire conflict had been.

It would be one thing to mourn the lost souls who died in those terrible battles that pitted American brother against American brother, but it is quite another to glorify those who had took the common people so far astray. It would be akin to building monuments in honor of Adolf Hitler all over Germany. We would surely see the inappropriateness of such memorials, but somehow we fail to realize how ludicrous it is to honor men who literally performed treasonous acts against the United States when they chose to go to war against the government. Perhaps Robert E. Lee said it best. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

We have harbored the feelings of separation and divisiveness far too long. Walking through the Shiloh battlefield I felt no glory, but only a deep sadness that people were unable to find ways to settle their differences through any means other than fighting and killing. There is no magnificence at Gettysburg, only despair that man’s anger overwhelmed his ability to find common solutions. War is always hell. Slavery was wrong. We all know in our hearts that these are truths. Why then do we continue to quibble over hunks of stone and metal that remind us of a past that was horrific by anyone’s standards? We can remember all of those who lost their lives with compassion, but we need not attempt to honor those who were responsible for the carnage. Taking down the troublesome statues does not erase the history, for we can never forget how terrible it was. Instead it focuses on understanding and a willingness to move on and let go of feelings that seem to have festered long after they should have been set aside.

I suspect that if Robert E. Lee were to hear of the battles that now ensue over the appropriateness of monuments to in his honor he would remind us of his own words and respectfully ask us to take the monoliths down. We should do so not out of a sense of political correctness, but because it is time for healing that will never fully happen until we are willing to admit to the wrongness of that terrible chapter of our history. We can place those images on battlefields or inside museums where the story of that time might be told, but it is no longer necessary to glorify the mistakes of our past. We must move ever forward and remember the words of another contemporary of Robert E. Lee.

As the war neared its end and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address his mood was melancholy and compassionate. He pointed to the horrific waste of the war but also its necessity in bringing justice to our land. Still he wanted all of us to come together as brothers “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

This is our challenge as the American people. In the name of all 600,000 men who lost their lives as well as those who were forever altered, it is time for us to heed the words of our great president who himself became a martyr to his noble dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is far past time to stop the fighting and to let it go.

The Dragonfly

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I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

Celebrating a Life

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Many years ago an acquaintance of mine asked me to watch her mother while she ran an errand. I was somewhat surprised by the request because up until that moment I had not realized that my friend was the sole caretaker of an invalid parent. Still I agreed to help her, and so I travelled the few short blocks to her house. There I found a home that had been reconfigured to meet the needs of a wheelchair bound individual. A homemade ramp led to the front door and much of the furniture inside had been moved to the perimeters of the rooms to allow enough space for the chair to move freely. There was a station that contained medical supplies at the ready and a bottle of oxygen stood in the corner of the living area. One of the bedrooms housed a hospital bed and the bathtub had been converted to a walk-in model with handrails and a permanent seat bolted to the floor.

I was stunned to see the extent to which my friend had redone her home to accommodate her mother’s needs. After sitting with ailing mother for a couple of hours I also realized just how much my neighbor’s role as a caretaker dominated her life. I realized that watching an invalid as ill as the old lady was akin to looking after a baby. I had not even a minute to myself, and I was exhausted and more than ready to leave by the time my friend returned.

I developed a new admiration for my friend on that day. She had been responsible for her mother for many years, but up until then I had not understood how isolated her duties had made her, nor how much time and patience she had devoted to her mom. I marveled at how upbeat and positive she was as well. Never once had I heard her complain about her responsibilities. In fact, she always indicated that she viewed her job as a privilege, an opportunity to repay her mother for a lifetime of sacrifices.

My friend’s mother died not long after I my brief time of watching her. It was then that I learned what a vibrant woman the elder woman had been in her prime. I suspected that she had passed down her energy and optimism to her daughter, a bright light in our circle who was known throughout the neighborhood for her generosity. I had to admit that I would not have been as willing to completely reconstruct my life the way that my buddy had done for her parent. I always stood in awe of her but never got around to voicing the deep respect that I had for her. Eventually our lives took us in different directions and I lost track of her, but she has been one of the most inspirational individuals that I have known to this very day.

I often wonder why we humans are so reluctant to voice our compliments for one another. We tend to get so caught up in our daily routines that we never quite get around to saying the things that we are thinking. Time passes. Things happen, and before we know it our opportunities are gone. It makes me wonder how many people never receive the praise that is due them simply because we humans tend not to prioritize expressing our feelings.

I remember once seeing a comedy in which friends of a dying cancer victim staged a surprise party in which they one by one expressed the thoughts that they might otherwise have reserved for comments at her funeral. I felt that it was a grand idea and have wondered why we don’t do such things more often. Perhaps we worry that it will seem macabre or that it will take away the hope of someone who is fighting to stay alive. Perhaps we are just a bit superstitious about doing such things. At any rate  we always seem to wait until the person who should be the object of our appreciation is no longer around.

My brothers and I decided to give our mother a surprise party on her eightieth birthday. One of my daughters had the idea of getting everyone write letters in which they told Mama how they felt about her. It was a glorious celebration and one that I’m so happy that we decided to do. While we had thought that our mom would live well into her nineties, she actually died fours years later. I have often reflected on how sad it would have been if she had never read all the accolades that people sent to her. She kept the letters in a beautiful album and she read them over and over again. It was a fitting tribute for a great woman that might not have occurred had we not been in a party mood and used her birthday as an excuse to celebrate.

We have roasts for celebrities and special events to honor the famous, but we rarely do the same for those unsung heroes who work so hard but rarely receive praise. We should take more time to bring a bit of joy and recognition to special people that we know. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. We might invite a few good friends or family members to a potluck dinner and then surprise the individual whom we are honoring. Think of how wonderful such events might be. I suspect that it would make everyone involved feel good.

One of my cousins recently died. The outpouring of love and respect for him at his funeral was amazing. I’m certain that he saw what was happening from his heavenly perch, but I also think of how much more wonderful it might have been if we had all gathered to tell him goodby and to make those same speeches while he lay dying. He had told us that his time was almost gone. We knew what his fate would be, and yet so many of us held back our stories and the true extent of our love for him until he was gone. While I suppose that our comments at his wake helped his family, I know that he would have enjoyed hearing them for himself. Who wouldn’t want to know how much people care?

We need not limit our praise parties for those who are ill, or dying, or old. We can just agree that someone that is quite special deserves to be an honoree. Our fetes might be large or intimate. It doesn’t matter how spectacular are efforts are as long as we get those feelings out in the open where they belong rather than hidden away in our hearts. So get busy now and begin the process of sharing your admiration and gratitude. Even if it is only a phone call, a note or a card your words of tribute need to be heard. Someone who is special to you is just waiting to learn what you have to say.

A Knock at the Door

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It was nine thirty on a Saturday night. We were watching a Poirot mystery on television when there was a loud knock at our door. By the time I walked down the hallway to peek outside whoever had been there was gone. I had just settled back into my chair when there was another banging noise. This time I dashed to the entryway more quickly and turned on the porch light. I saw two young boys who appeared to be around fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them sprinted away quickly and the other stood like a deer in the headlights exclaiming his sorrow for bothering us and adding that he was just trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Of course I understood immediately that we had been pranked. I sensed that the boy who didn’t manage to get away was someone I had seen in the neighborhood. He seemed very familiar and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that he often plays basketball just down the street with a number of his friends.

There was a time when teenage mischief was almost a right of passage. My own girls wrapped houses with toilet paper and celebrated when our home was decorated with long strands of tissue as well. I did a bit of knocking on doors and making silly phone calls in my time. Such tricks are generally done with no ill intentions and I suspect that the young boys who visited our home were just continuing the tradition of being silly on a Saturday night. Nonetheless I found myself quite troubled after our surprise visitors had left, not so much because they had bothered me, but because I worried about what might happen to them if they continue their nighttime visits to other homes.

The world is not the same as it once was. When I was young we rarely locked the doors to our home until just before going to bed. Even then we slept with our bedroom windows wide open because our home was not air conditioned. The only thing between us and a home invader was a screen which might have easily been removed. In those days it never even occurred to us to worry that someone might attempt to do us harm while we were dreaming. Our world seemed so innocent and safe.

Now we live in times of uncertainty. We hear of criminals breaking into houses on a regular basis. There is fear in people’s minds. Many of them install cameras and alarms to warn them of danger. Others add an arsenal of guns and ammunition to their security program in case they need to defend themselves. Doors are now routinely locked all day long. In some ways we act as though our castles are under siege, and I suppose that it is rather prudent to be safe rather than sorry. The problem is that in such an environment individuals may act before they have all of the facts. Those same outrageous boys who came to my door might find themselves on the wrong side of a gun if they hit a home with a very nervous and excitable person inside. They might literally be injured or even killed all because they thought it was funny to scare people.

Years ago two of my daughter’s friends decided to pull a prank on her. They dressed in dark ninja style clothing and crept up to our back window and peered inside while we were watching a movie. Since I recognized them immediately their joke backfired. I was livid, not because I did not have a sense of humor, but because I knew for a fact that many of my neighbors were armed and would not have hesitated to shoot at strangers wearing dark masks while creeping through the dark of night. I scolded the boys for their stupidity while my heart raced at the thought of what might have happened to them had they been seen by someone who did not realize who they were. I was upset that they had been so unthinking.

I feel the same way about the two boys who were out having fun when they targeted our home. I know from an online neighborhood chat room that there have been several incidents of strangers knocking at night to determine if anyone is at home. So far nobody has been robbed or hurt but the comments that people make regarding what their response will be if anyone threatens their personal space make me realize that those boys are at great risk. Many of my neighbors insist that they will call the police. Others assert that they will shoot first and ask questions later. Such is the reality of today’s world, and such is the danger that the boys might encounter.

On that chat line I asked parents of teenagers to have a talk with their children emphasizing that they should not engage in reckless behaviors. I would be gravely upset if I learned that the young people were hurt or killed, but I would also understand why someone might overreact when they feel threatened. It’s up to teachers and parents to instruct the young on the folly of pranks that involve frightening people. What may have once seemed to be innocent fun is likely to be interpreted as a reason for defense in today’s environment.

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. They often do things that are more risky than they ought to be. I was the quintessential good girl and yet I also engaged in adventures that in retrospect might have resulted in great harm to me and my friends. I once crawled under the fence of a property where trucks were stored near my grandmother’s house. An armed guard roamed the area. I had no business in there but I thought it was exciting to be able to come and go without being caught. My antics were silly but they gave me a rush, made me laugh and felt liberating. It never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger.

It is imperative that we speak frankly to our kids before we let them lose on the world at large. Sometimes we shelter them because we do not want them to be fearful when we might be wiser to discuss the realities of various situations in which they may find themselves. We need to be frank with them about peer pressure and how to extricate themselves from situations that feel uncomfortable or wrong. We should discuss how to behave if they are stopped by the police. Just as most parents practice fire drills and show their kids where to go if a tornado hits, so too must we review the skills they will need when they are not with us.

Time and again experiments show that our children just don’t think when danger is lurking. They go with strangers to look for a lost dog. They follow other kids into strange places. They simply have not internalized the necessary skills for keeping themselves safe because we haven’t instructed them as well as we should.

We certainly don’t want to make our teenagers paranoid. Most of the time they will be just fine. What we must do is provide them with the survival tools they will need in those rare cases when things just don’t seem right to them. If we have practiced such things and given them the reasons why they should be vigilant and resourceful they should be okay.

I can’t help thinking about the two visitors to my home and wondering if they are still engaged in an activity that may one day end in tragedy. I hope that perhaps their parents will be informed by someone who knows them and that they will put a stop to their dangerous behavior. It’s sad that we have reached this point, but it is the new normal. It’s up to us to instruct our youth and then hope that they remember what we have taught them.

Stubby

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Who knew that a tiny gecko was capable of bringing so much joy? No, I’m not speaking of the Geico gecko even though he is a rather dashing fellow. I am referring to a resident of our backyard whom we have named Stubby.

Stubby lives underneath a potted hibiscus plant that sits on top of two bricks on our patio. We first noticed him several weeks ago when he found the confidence to come out from the safely of his abode to sun himself while we ate dinner. Part of his tail was missing and not even the passage of time has remedied his affliction like we thought it might. He’s a rather ordinary fellow all in all but he has a charisma that draws our attention to his antics. Since we eat outside most evenings we now look for him, and so far he has not failed to greet us.

He is quite fond of entertaining us by climbing onto the seat of a wrought iron chair near his domicile. Once he reaches his perch he celebrates by puffing up his mouth until it reveals a brilliant red color. He’s a bit of a show off but that’s actually what makes him so much fun to observe. He’s quite a character with a penchant for being a star. We’ve noticed a number of tiny offspring wandering not too far from him and wonder if he is their proud father.

I suppose that it may sound a bit sad or even crazy that we derive so much joy from Stubby, but our interest is easily explained. We’ve had quite a round of trauma of late. We’ve had to change our lifestyles as well as our outlooks. We’ve come to appreciate the blessings that we have, and one of them is having a remarkable creature like Stubby right in our own backyard. We are actually quite happy that he has so graciously accepted our hospitality. I suppose that his antics are one way that he demonstrates his gratitude for our largesse.

I worried a bit about Stubby when our grand dog Cooper came to visit recently. I didn’t know if the little pup would chase or harm our resident gecko. Luckily Cooper is a bit overweight and as a result slow on his feet. If he even noticed Stubby he didn’t let on. Instead he ran straight for the fence where our neighbors’ dog greeted him with a bark. He proceeded to mark his territory and let out a warning salvo. After that he simply went in that direction every time we let him out just to see what was happening next door.

Cooper is quite fun in spite of his lack of athleticism. He is a very polite and laid back dog so he doesn’t perform any daring feats like Stubby, but he has the warm heart of a lover. He likes to sit next to my husband Mike and only requires a little scratch or two now and again for thanks. I suspect that he is still pining a bit for his brother dog Shane who recently crossed the Rainbow Bridge. We try to be very accommodating to Cooper’s every need in this difficult time for him. Mostly he’s willing to placate us as long as we feed him at the correct time.

It is little wonder that even soldiers with PTSD are often advised to get a service dog for companionship. Pets have a way of diffusing stress in the most amazing ways. They make us laugh and fascinate us so well that we forget the cares and woes that may be demanding our attention. They are actually as good at making us feel better as a cocktail of psychotropic drugs. I don’t advocate eliminating medications in favor of a pet, but I think that adding them to the pharmaceutical mix is a powerful antidote to anxiety and sadness. I know that it works quite well for me just to allow myself to be almost hypnotized by the things that they do so well.

Birds also have an incredible capacity to  bring us peace of mind. We have a single hummingbird that flits from one side of the yard to another. His speed is so remarkable that sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with him. I never fail to smile when I see this wonderful creature, but my favorite among the feathered friends is a dove who perches on our roof and sometimes dares to get rather close to us as he balances on the rim of our fountain preening himself and partaking of a drink. I like hearing his cooing which is as soft and comforting as a lullaby. He has a mate that has been absent of late. I wonder if she has been busy nesting or raising her young. I long for her return because the two of them are so much more magnificent together. I hope that she has not run afoul of some terrible injury, but for now I have no way of knowing what has happened to her.

We’ve got a rather impressive colony of bumblebees in our yard contrary to the thinking that they are almost extinct. I managed to step on one a while back and learned that I am allergic to its venom. I got quite dizzy and my tongue began to swell. Sadly I suspect that my attacker didn’t do so well either. I felt guilty for walking around without shoes and causing the demise of a worker who was only doing the job that came naturally. Now I am more careful as I stroll through the grass. I know that the lovely flowers that adorn my garden are enhanced by the bees who spread pollen even as they enjoy the nectar.

I’ve often thought that I might have enjoyed a lifetime of interacting with animals. ( I can hear my teaching colleagues laughing as they think that maybe I did work on an animal farm now and again. Of course I’m just kidding.)  Nature’s creatures can be so very interesting and I think they actually teach us a bit about ourselves. They remind us to enjoy the beauty and variety of the natural world. They demonstrate how much bounty is to be found in the plants, the trees, the sun and the rain that we all too often take for granted and don’t even notice. They invite us to slow down and live a bit in the moment so that the scales that are blinding us from seeing our blessings fall from our eyes.

I know that Stubby will one day reach the end of his days on our patio. I’ll be a bit sad when he no longer joins us for dinner. He’s helped me to deal with situations that are so difficult with a much bigger smile on my face than might otherwise not have been there. He’s adorable and I’d like to believe that he likes us as much as we like him. Of course I understand his anatomy and realize that he does not have the capacity for such feelings, but I guess that if a gecko can become a television celebrity, so too is it reasonable to think that maybe just maybe Stubby knows that he is bringing us happiness. Either way I’m just glad that he is here right now. He’s the right guy in the right place at the right time.