Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

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The Best Medicine

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It’s easy to lose perspective of what is most important during the holiday season and why we even celebrate it. I suppose that’s why I keep harking back to the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. There were many lessons in the days of celebrating his life, and one of the most touching for me was the character of his friendships. He was a man who seemed to bring out the very best values in the people closest to him, things like loyalty, humility and fun. I was particularly taken by the eulogies of James Baker and Alan Simpson, longtime work associates and devoted pals who knew President Bush so well that they had long ago eschewed formalities with him.

Alan Simpson delivered a humorous monologue about his relationship with President Bush that spoke to the fun times that the two had shared. It lightened the somber mood and brought laughter into the gathering, something that had obviously appealed to the playful nature of President Bush and served to balance the seriousness of his life’s work. Senator Simpson made me smile as I imagined the two buddies guffawing like a couple of school boys even as they shouldered the weight of the world’s problems. There is something quite intimate about good friends sharing jokes and inside stories that bring merriment. Laughter is one of our most essential human traits as long as it is not tinged with hurtful barbs. It not only heals our souls, but has also been known to assist in making our bodies feel better as well.

I’ve been a fan of Alan Simpson for some time mostly because he reminds me of my husband Mike. Both men manage to find humor wherever they go, and in my own life Mike keeps me laughing even when events threaten to take me down. The two of us not only exchange daily hugs and expressions of love, but rarely allow a day to pass without a hardy guffaw that rumbles from the depths of our bellies. It surely makes things better and keeps our minds young.

It does not surprise me that Mike and Alan Simpson are actually distant relatives joined in their family trees by Burnetts. The mother whom Alan Simpson so lovingly spoke of in his eulogy was a Burnett, and the common ancestor that he and Mike share was a pioneer of Wyoming. The Burnetts are a hardy lot whether they lived in Wyoming or Texas, and I often tell my daughters and grandchildren that they bear the genes of some very tough individuals. Now I know that they also possess a tendency to enjoy a nonstop sense of humor as well.

I sometimes worry that our ability to poke fun at the world is taking a dark turn. Instead of finding delight in humorous situations we tend to focus on making fun of individuals. Jokes are too often used as darts to wound people. Bullies badger the weak with crudeness. The funniest men and women have a way of making us howl without ever purposely hurting or demeaning anyone. Carol Burnett was a genius at bringing such great joy to the world with the simple use of facial expressions and body language. Her show was a kind of curative hour for the nation when it aired each Saturday evening.

I grew up with comedy front and center in my home. I recall my father savoring jokes to relay to his us and to his friends. Evenings at the dinner table were laced with his wry deliveries of the funny things he had seen and heard at work. Our first television always seemed to be tuned to comedic programs featuring geniuses like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. While my Uncle Jack was a western man, my father was pure comedy right down to some of the books that were tucked in his library. I missed his humor when he was gone, and I suppose that it is not an accident at all that I eventually married a man with a similar bent toward outrageous laughter.

We’ve also become a bit Puritanical in our society when it comes to judging humor. So many topics have become taboo that it must be somewhat frightening for comedians to open their mouths. I imagine them being attacked from the right and the left for even a minor slip of the tongue. They have to be more careful than their predecessors which no doubt makes them rather nervous. The odds are rather good that even the most innocent of jokes might offend. We’ve become a rather censorious society in which the only free game seems to be President Trump, a rather easy and boring target because it is so overused.

We need laughter in our midst. Even as a teacher I found the comedians in my classes and instead of punishing them for their outbursts I gave them brief moments on the stage in the hopes that a bit of fun might diminish some of the anxiety that so many have toward mathematics. A bit of hilarity often broke down the emotional barriers that my students brought to class. I was always so grateful to the funny boys and girls who knew how to insert joy into the seriousness of my work. To this very day I appreciate people who have the ability to keep the world from sliding into a valley of moroseness. God bless the comics for they remind us that there is always light even when things seem darkest.    

A Season To Be Thankful

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It’s the time of year when we are reminded to be thankful. I suppose that we should not have to create a holiday to be aware of our blessings, and express gratefulness for having them. We all get rather busy with worldly pursuits and sometimes forget to stop long enough to take note of all the ways in which we have indeed enjoyed good fortune. So it’s good to somewhat force the issue now and again. When we stop to think we no doubt realize that our bounty is far more wondrous than we may ever have thought.

On a humorous note, I’m quite happy that there are fewer political ads filling my email. I still receive some that look ahead to the 2020 elections, but for the most part the onslaught has quieted. It’s good to be able to take a breath for now. I know that soon enough there will be primaries to contend with followed by the really big election. I’d be even more thankful I I were able to find a way to turn all of the noise off completely, but I suppose that we are long past the good old days when we did not have to hear much until just before voting.

I’m overjoyed by the cooler weather. I’m an unfortunate seventy year old who still has frequent hot flashes. According to my doctor I may either take hormones which may cause me to develop a serious disease, move to a place with a colder climate, or just put up with the heat that courses through my body several times each day. I have chosen the latter, so when it gets cold outside in my neck of the woods I enjoy the reprieve that the chilly weather affords me.

I am quite happy that I am a Texan. I may not like all of the political leanings of my state, but I still believe that it is one of the best places on earth to live. The people are always friendly even when we disagree with each other. The cost of living allows me to enjoy a lifestyle that is quite comfortable. The state is big and diverse in geography and people. All in all I can’t imagine ever moving from here. The positives far outweigh any negatives that I might consider. Besides,  most of my friends and family are here which makes Texas almost perfect in my mind.

I’m thankful that at least for now my health is relatively good. I can’t see worth beans to read, but those cheap grocery store readers work great. My knees make me feel about eighty years old on wet days, but I still manage to get around. I just can’t do quite as much as I once did, but I enjoy walks and exercising at the gym. I just won’t be climbing mountains any time soon. All in all I have to praise God for my good fortune or at the very least for giving me some good DNA.

My mother taught me and my brothers to say a prayer each night telling God how great He was for giving us a warm bed and a roof over our heads. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I think of how safe and secure I feel in my home. I know that so many of my brothers and sisters in the world are not so lucky. I often wonder how I won a lottery in life that has given me so many comforts.

There were so many times when I was working that I would be frustrated and exhausted. I often counted the years until retirement on those occasions. Mostly though I enjoyed my work and felt a sense of profound purpose in my life. I know that not everyone who works for a lifetime feels that way, so I remember and appreciate my career, or vocation if you will. My working days were good and meaningful.

My friends are many and each and every one of them is unique and extraordinary. It’s remarkable that a girl like me who was once so shy and awkward somehow found an abundance of kindred spirits with whom to share my life. If I were to tell each of their stories and the joy that they have brought me, I would be writing blogs about them for the rest of my life.

Then there is my family. We are a wild and crazy lot, and we fiercely love each other. I am so proud to be a member of the Ulrich, Little, Fisk, Nias, Burnett and Gonzalez clans either by dent of birth or marriage. I love how our little family has grown and grown over time with new members adding so much joy to our circle. Nothing pleases me more than being with a great big gathering of all of the wonderful people that I get to call cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Of course I won the jackpot when I met my husband, my best friend. Life with him has been fun, adventurous and most of all filled with mutual respect and love.

I have seen very hard times. I have lost people that I intensely loved. I have struggled financially, emotionally, and even physically. All the while I have known that the sum of the parts of my life have been greater than any of the problems that I had to face. For that I am thankful beyond all imagination.

A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

Just Keep Going

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We’ve all known people who are sad sacks. They view life through a negative lens. When things don’t go their way, they blame themselves or perhaps their lot in life. On the the other hand we know people that we would describe as being optimists. They encounter just as many disappointments as the rest of us, but they remain positive by finding important lessons to be learned or they see a disheartening event as providing potential for growth. When we look at each type of person we find ourselves wondering how there might be such differences between people. We prefer the cheeriness of optimism, but worry that perhaps each of us is endowed with a set of immutable personality traits that determine our reactions to life’s ups and downs. It feels as though we are somehow the victims of fate rather than the captains of our own souls. 

The truth is that both optimism and pessimism are learned traits, barring chemical imbalances, brain disorders and injuries or mental illness. It is possible for any of us to become more positive if we focus on a few simple practices to assess both the successes and failures that we experience. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate how this works.

When I was in high school I ran for Student Body Secretary against two other classmates. We each campaigned for a week, restricted by certain guidelines as to what tactics we might use and how much we were allowed to spend. At the end of the period each of us spoke to the assembled students outlining reasons why they should vote for us, and describing our plans for improving the school. That afternoon everyone voted. I lost and will never know how badly because the actual tabulation of the votes was secret.

If I had reacted pessimistically I might have charged that the rules were unfair and that I had somehow been slighted. Even worse, I may have felt that the defeat was a sign that my peers disliked me. I would have questioned myself and my own self worth. I might even have sworn never again to submit myself to such humiliation, after all during the campaigning a boy had insisted that nobody liked me and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I might have believed that he had been right.

Instead I chose to be a bit more optimistic about my loss. I was surely disappointed and even a bit saddened that I did not win, that was only natural. Nonetheless, I understood that the two individuals who had run against me were extremely accomplished and even a bit more well known in the school at large. They were good people who undoubtedly attracted the support of many members of the student body. It wasn’t that I was somehow worthless, only that I didn’t quite garner as much support that I needed. I had to pat myself on the back for even trying because it was scary to stand in front of everyone and open myself up to criticism. It was a learning experience for me on many, many levels. I have never regretted my decision to run, and I believe that I actually entered adult life with a bit of an advantage over my peers because I had learned how to compete and how to gracefully accept the disappointments that were sure to come now and again.

My grandson who is a runner has also exhibited the classic traits of an optimist during this year’s cross country season. He had become accustomed to landing in the top rung in competitions, but this year he has been challenged by a team from a school that is consistently taking the prizes. He has found himself just behind them again and again, but instead of hanging his head and speaking of unfairness or wondering if he had overestimated his own abilities he decided to compete with himself. His goal was to keep bettering his own time and thereby inch closer and closer to being in the winner’s circle once again. He has developed a friendship with a runner from another school and the two of them push each other in the races. It’s become their way of improving. What had begun as a frustrating season is now beginning to show progress, mostly because my grandson refused to wallow in pessimism  and instead focused on the things that he had been doing right. He worked on perfecting his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses and he is doing better with each passing week. Given that he is only a sophomore, it seems certain that he will be doing great things by the time he is a senior if he keeps up his positive attitude.

We know that being optimistic is a healthy way to be. It makes life easier all the way around, but what are the characteristics that we might learn to use as we go through the ups and downs of our lives?

First, and perhaps most importantly, in a bad situation optimists look for the things that went well, rather than dwelling on mistakes. They are able to pinpoint the good aspects of even a disaster. They also use failures as learning opportunities, ways to improve in the future. They do not take rejections personally either. In other words they don’t obsessively wonder what is wrong with themselves. They understand that sometimes we just can’t quite achieve as well as we might like to do, but if we make small changes here and there we will surely improve. For this reason they tend not to give up. They pick themselves up and try again and again. They also realize that each of us is a bit imperfect and that bad things sometimes happen to good people. They don’t dwell on the negativity or over analyze the bad aspects of an event. They have a healthy relationship with themselves and don’t allow others to intimidate them into feeling inadequate. They are able to take note of all of the blessings that they most surely have.

It would be worth practicing optimism as often as possible. There are certainly times when we deserve and honest critique and we would do well to grow from it. The trick is not to become so obsessed with an idea that we are fated for bad luck or that we are so damaged that we are somehow unworthy of happiness and success. Whenever we find ourselves falling into a kind of pity party, it’s time to consciously reflect instead on all that we know is good. When we do that we will generally find ourselves laughing again, and ready to just keep going.