A Birthday Gift To Us All

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I have to pinch myself when I look at my husband, Mike. I still can’t believe how lucky I have been to have him as my husband. I tend not to notice that he is no longer the young lion that I met so long ago nor that his hair has grown white and thinner than it once was. I marvel that he is still with me after so many years, as loving and faithful as ever. I rejoice that we will celebrate another of his birthday’s together today, and I can’t quite believe that this will be his seventieth. As I look back over time I have so many wonderful memories of our life together, but mostly I marvel at the person that he has always been.

I have learned that he is the amalgam of lessons learned from his grandmother, his mother, his father and his education at St. Thomas High School. He was taught through example how to be a truly great man. His mother was a remarkable woman who was far ahead of her time with her independent spirit. If she had run for President of the United States I feel certain that she would have won. She always insisted that Mike treat women with great respect and who better to learn from than his father who has always been the consummate gentleman? In high school Mike was shown the importance of faith, loyalty and good character. He learned his lessons well but in many ways it was his grandmother who showed him the value of unconditional love. All of these factors produced a man who has always been kind and generous and guileless, but never naive. He is a strong protector but also an equal and supportive partner.

Mike has a brilliant mind that allows him to digest and synthesize information readily. Conversations with him are beyond interesting because he draws his comments from a library of information that he has somehow managed to catalog in his brain and pull up at a moment’s notice. He is one of those lifelong learners who reads and watches continuously. He has made our life together so much more exciting because of his encyclopedic knowledge on so many topics. In many ways he is a true renaissance man with his abilities to do and discuss almost anything. He is as good at wiring a house as discussing history or business. He is a truly delightful person to be with and I have had the honor of walking at his side for almost fifty years, never once growing bored with our companionship.

Mike often tells people that he was thunderstruck when he met me, but I don’t mention enough that the feeling was quite mutual. I remember telling my friends at the time that I thought I had just met the man with whom I was going to spend the rest of my life. I had no idea then just how exciting our journey together would be. When people see me today they are encountering a woman who was much different when I first met Mike. He has been my mentor, my muse, and the one person who encouraged me to take risks to become who I am today. No matter what I have wanted to accomplish, he has been my cheerleader, telling me that I have the power to accomplish anything. I suspect that I would not have been nearly as happy or successful in life had it not been for our chance meeting so long ago. I thank God for him every single day.

This particular birthday for Mike is of especial importance to me because of my understanding that I might very well have lost him this summer when he had a stroke. In true Mike fashion he has been the rock who has helped me to deal with our new reality. He has prepared me for any eventuality and insisted that I will do well with whatever situation arises. That is the kind of person that he is, always thinking of me and our family. He loves with a passion that is immeasurable and he has always been willing to sacrifice for the well being of me and our girls.

Mike is a humble man except for when it comes to our children and grandchildren. Then he puffs out his chest and fairly glows with pride. He has quietly watched them grow in wisdom and age and grace and it brings him great contentment to see how well they continue to do. His love for them and for all of the members of our extended family is boundless. He is always at the ready to open his home and his heart to any one them who may be in need.,

Perhaps my greatest admiration for Mike is related to the way that he treated my mother. Her bipolar disorder often created very unlikeable symptoms. When she was in the throes of a manic episode she sometimes said horrific things to him. Somehow he always remained steadfast in understanding that it was her disease speaking and not her true heart. He continued to show her kindness even as she insulted him in every possible way. When she came to stay at our home at the end of her life he was welcoming and enjoyed being able to provide her with a touch of security as she slowly became more and more ill. At the very end he sat holding her hand and promising to take care of me and my brothers with all of the powers within him. He and my mom shared a bond of mutual understanding on the day that she died. They expressed their love for one another and it made my mother comfortable to know that he would indeed watch over her family in her absence. Like me, she had witnessed his steadfast strength and love.

I can only hope and pray that there will be many more birthdays with Mike, but I have most recently learned just to appreciate the moments that we have without overthinking and worrying too much about the distant future. He is a most extraordinary man and I celebrate that our world has been lucky enough to have someone of his caliber working day after day to make our little corner of it a better place. It’s funny how on his birthday I am reminded that he has been a gift to all of us who know him. It is so typical of him to be the giver just by his existence even on his birthday.

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Put the Fun In Dysfunctional

Jumping with balloonsI recently attended a Hans Zimmer concert (which would be a great topic for another day) and toward the end of the event he urged all of us to find the playfulness in everything that we do. He used the performances of his musicians as examples of how that might look. It wasn’t difficult at all to see that they were working hard but also having the time of their lives. They had taken their jobs to the ultimate level of fulfillment by actually finding happiness in the very act of executing their skills.

We often fail to find the fun in the tasks that we must do. So many people are stressed by jobs that seem to be a daily drudge, or they find themselves in situations that bear down on them unremittingly. It would be so nice if each of us were able to find ways to make the best of whatever we happen to be experiencing at any given moment. All of us have known individuals who appear to be  quite adept at doing so. We sometimes confuse their upbeat personalities as being a kind of innate trait that they were simply lucky enough to possess from birth. We rarely consider that they may have consciously worked to develop playful spirits that allow them to navigate even the roughest of waters.

The Italian movie Life Is Beautiful tells the story of a Jewish father and son who become imprisoned in a concentration camp during the German occupation of Italy. The loving parent finds ways to protect his child by using humor and turning their ordeal into a kind of game. It is a moving account of survival even under the most horrific conditions, and it showcases the power of the human spirit in dealing with evil. In fact, many Holocaust survivors often speak of having found ways to laugh as a means of dealing with the daily horrors that they witnessed. Psychologists have in turn suggested that the people who willed themselves to joke and smile were far more likely to make it in such inhumane conditions. It is in our playful natures that we often find the courage that we need to overcome our most critical challenges.

The first born cousin in our family is a man imbued with optimism. He recently underwent a serious treatment for his heart. When a nurse told him that he was going to receive the anesthetic propofol he remembered that this was the substance that Michael Jackson was using as a sleep aide when he died. My cousin jokingly inquired if he would wake up from the surgery with amazing abilities to sing and dance. In other words he transformed a tense moment into one in which everyone in the room no doubt laughed and then relaxed a bit. His antics demonstrated both his confidence in the team that was operating on him and his own belief that all would go well.

I used to love the television program M.A.S.H.. It was a situation comedy featuring characters who were part of a M.A.S.H. unit in South Korea during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses were charged with the responsibility of saving the lives of soldiers under almost impossible circumstances. To keep from going insane with the pressures under which they worked, the crew turned to humor in the form of sarcasm and practical jokes thereby easing the tension. While their humor was sometimes over the top, so were their responsibilities. It was in their playfulness that they found the courage to do their duties. The show was not just based on the imagination of some writer. In fact, an uncle of mine who also served in a M.A.S.H. unit in South Korea confirmed that the behaviors portrayed in the show were indeed based on reality. In fact, he noted that many surgeons even in modern day hospitals rely on fun to keep the seriousness of what they are doing in perspective.

I know that every teachers’ lounge in which I partook of my lunch was filled with lighthearted banter and laughter. Our lunch time antics were a relaxation technique that evolved naturally from the stressful nature of our jobs. We released so much of the tension that we were experiencing with the inanity of our conversations. Lunch with my peers was an almost sacred time for renewing our collective spirits. Luckily there always seemed to be at least one soul with an especial knack for making us chuckle. I’m certain that we would not have been nearly as effective had we not been allowed to behave as playfully as our students sometimes did. Even better was when we felt confident enough to banter humorously with our students as well. I often accomplished more after my pupils and I had laughed than when I was all seriousness.

My happiest times at work were often the craziest. I recall one school where the end of school year tradition was to hold water gun and balloon fights in the hallways after the students were all gone. We behaved like the teenagers whom we had taught all year. The building was filled with joyful screams and belly laughs while we hurled balloons at each other. It was a grand celebration of our accomplishments during what had sometimes been very difficult school years. It bound us together and brought out the best in all of us.

Life can become quite unbearable at times. There are even moments when laughing and joking would not be appropriate. Still we need to allow ourselves the gift of being light hearted now and again. I actually have signs in my home to remind me not to be too somber. One urges me to live, laugh and love. Another simply tells me to laugh. Still another says, “I put the fun in dysfunctional.” I have such impish reminders all over my home. Some might see them as kitsch, but I know that they are not so subtle hints that I often need to remember to lighten up.

There is a playful spirit inside all of us. It is there to help us to keep our perspectives properly aligned. Having fun and learning how to really laugh is actually quite healthy. As the old adage says “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s a platitude of which we all need to be mindful. It really does help to find the lighter side of life as often as we can. I sometimes wonder if many of the problems that we witness in today’s world are the product of being too darn serious all of the time. I fear that we have somewhat lost our societal sense of humor. Even our politicians can’t seem to take a joke in stride.

My father in law has a number of long playing albums from the sixties that are filled with hilarity. They mock the Kennedy family, the pope, and even the death penalty. Mostly they are satire that made us laugh at our human foibles. Luckily back when they were popular we all seemed to understand that they were not so much meant to hurt anyone as to point to our flaws in a very amusing way. I recommend that we all learn to laugh again or we will be doomed to buckets of tears.

Find the little bits of playfulness that abound in each and every day. It really is okay to use humor to struggle through the difficult times, and it can often be the best way to deal with our most serious problems. Smile. Be impish. Have fun. Don’t think of life as being short, nasty and brutish. Find ways to make it delightful and humane. It will make all of the difference in each of your days.

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.

It’s All Good

Newsslett_COP2If ever there was someone who had every right to complain about the cards that life dealt her it would have been my mom. At thirty she was a happily married woman with three children who were the center of her universe. Overnight her entire world changed. She woke up to a shocking phone call informing her that her husband of eleven years had died in a car accident. She had little money in the bank, no car, no job and was so consumed with grief that she struggled just to wake up and face each day. From somewhere deep inside her soul she found the grit that she needed to move forward, coping with the challenging lifestyle of a single parent with so much aplomb that she managed to earn a college degree and become a highly respected figure in the community.

It would have been fine if her story had ended on such a high note but it was not to be her destiny to lead an uncomplicated life. Instead she was eventually afflicted with the debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder and that illness would stalk her for the remainder of her life. She would struggle to keep her health and to balance her checkbook. From the outside looking in, hers appeared to be a dreary battle just to stay afloat in a sea of health and financial troubles. The cycle of debilitating challenges might have defeated most ordinary people, but my mom was not so inclined. In fact, I can’t think of a single time when she became so low that she was willing to just give up. In fact, even in her darkest states of depression she cried not for herself but for the pain that she saw others enduring. In regard to her own situation she remained ever optimistic, convinced that she was a special child of God and that He would provide for her.

I was often angry that my mother seemed to be the target of the fates. It bothered me that her very existence was so difficult. I raged over the facts of her life and its unfairness. Oddly she would smile and console me, assuring me that she was quite content. She would recount her blessings, which seemed so meager to me, as though she had been the recipient of great wealth. It took so little to make her happy, and everyone who ever knew her was infected by her laughter and almost childlike generosity. I never quite understood how she was able to maintain such a positive outlook on life given the relentless pounding that she received. Her faith that all was exactly as it was supposed to be was unending.

I was watching a bit of Joel Osteen’s weekly sermon at Lakewood Church a few weekends ago entitled, “It’s All Good.” He spoke of the premise that it is only when we are able to see the totality of our lives that we begin to realize that there is a beautiful plan for each of us that makes perfect sense. When we are focused only on a particular moment we may be unable to understand the reasons for the events that have happened. We instead harbor anger about those instances when the trajectory of our existence appears to be rushing downward. We forget the good times and somehow feel as though we will never again be able to see the light of our lives. We become discouraged, sometimes even shouting at God about our discontent. We don’t notice what we have, only what we lack. He argued that if we were able to step back just a bit we might see that in truth “it’s all good.”

I find the idea of every situation being part of an “all good’ totality to be a somewhat simplistic idea that I personally struggle to embrace, but I know for a fact that it defines the way my mother chose to live. She did not believe it was up to her to question the events that conspired to bring her down. Instead she always accepted her realities and then dealt with them as best she could, confident that her God was always right behind her, ready to catch her if she started to fall. Again and again she rallied against forces that might have defeated most of us. I can’t help but believe that her willingness to trust in God without reservation was the main reason that hers was ultimately an extraordinary life. She had somehow taken to heart the idea that “it’s all good.”

I am not as faithful in my religious fervor as she was. I am as doubting as Thomas the apostle. I see the pain of the world and seriously wonder why a higher power would allow it to even exist. It seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that we should all strive to find the good even in our darkest moments, and yet I have seen the power of such willingness to surrender in the saintly glow of my mother’s eyes as she was drawing her last breaths. It is a vision that haunts my thoughts because it tells me that she somehow found the very secret of how to live well that we all seek.

It doesn’t stop with my mother. I saw it in my mother-in-law as well. I have found it in some of my former students like Danny, Jezael, Shaun and Martin. Such people possess an intangible aura of positivity that literally radiates from their very beings. They approach the world not with worries about themselves but continual concern for others. They have found the golden ring that allows them to seize each day with a sense that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

I have to admit that I would so love to become like them. Most of us really do fight battles with ourselves that cannot be won. We lose sight of the endgame and get caught up in the babble and strife of daily living. We forget to be truly thankful for whatever we have, even if it is only the fact that we woke up for one more day.

Perhaps those who face the greatest challenges life are better able to appreciate the small moments of beauty. My mother-in-law had a heart condition that was supposed to shorten her life by decades. She felt an imperative to pack as much into every single minute as possible, and so she did. She did not have time to become mired in the pettiness that so often distracts us. Like my mother she saw her troubles as a gift that allowed her to see her destiny and purpose more clearly. She drew every single breath with profound appreciation.

Life is filled with both wonder and ugliness. How we choose to deal with each aspect is up to us. Perhaps we can learn from those who emerge again and again from the ashes with unwavering hope. I suspect that they have somehow learned that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

Tea Time

564_HighTeaAtTheEmprassHotelFor most of my life I have rushed around with a schedule so busy that I rarely stopped blowing and going until I fell into bed at night. Now that I am retired I have developed a lovely habit of pausing for afternoon tea. I noticed that between two and three each day I would suddenly become sleepy. I’m not yet ready to take naps so I decided to perk myself up with a cup of brew in the English style which meant drinking tea rather than coffee. I sit in my favorite easy chair with a view of my gardens and sip on Earl Grey, Chai, English Breakfast or some exotic blend of teas from the east. It is a rather invigorating experience that I have grown to love.

My daughter who is a nurse says that there is actually a physiological reason that we grow weary in the afternoon. It has to do with food intake and elevated body temperature. I suppose that long ago certain cultures took note of the general dip in energy that we humans experience and decided to create traditions of ingesting caffeine products to induce a feeling of well being. The afternoon tea was part of that trend and has been followed now for centuries. I am one of its more recent converts.

There is something very civilized about taking care of oneself by pausing for refreshment that we tend to ignore in our go go go society. It’s truly a shame that we mistreat ourselves. Back when I was a child my mother always took a break at almost the same time every day. She gave me and my brothers fruit or cookies and a glass of milk. She prepared herself a cup of coffee and sometimes shared it with friends who would drop in for a brief respite from their chores. The tasks that she had to perform seemed far less odious after a little pause. We tend to do less and less of that sort of thing as we focus more and more on constant productivity.

One year Mike and I accompanied a friend from Austria on a trip to his homeland. We enjoyed a lovely concert in one of the local schools which prompted a discussion of the school day schedule in that country. Our friend told us that the required time in the classroom was much shorter than what our American students experience. He said that pupils are usually finished with their lessons rather early in afternoon and go home. In fact, throughout much of Austria shops, banks, restaurants and places of business close for a time each afternoon so that employees will be able to relax before completing the day’s work. I know that we had to wait for almost an hour one day before getting inside a bank because it was the time of day for a long break. The coffee and tea shops opened for the crowds of people who sat for a time enjoying warm drinks and conversations.

I had always read about the tradition of high tea. On a number of occasions I found myself walking through five star hotels where people were enjoying such a luxury, but I never actually got to try the experience. On a trip to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada I finally fulfilled an item that had long been on my bucket list when Mike and I and two of my grandsons went to the high tea at the Empress Hotel. It was not exactly an inexpensive diversion, but certainly one that I will always remember.

I felt like a dignitary as we sat at a table draped with a brilliant white starched tablecloth in a room dripping with chandeliers and warm mahogany. An elegant waiter explained the process to us and asked if we had any special requests. Soon he was bringing us heaping bowls of strawberries with real whipped cream along with trays of crumpets, delicate sandwiches, chocolates, scones and other delights. The tea itself was a special blend unique to the hotel which was served in delicate china cups. The waiter was at our service and his every move was refined and almost balletic. The funny thing is that we had brought two ten year old boys, one of whom was in thrall with the occasion and the other who seriously wanted to get away as quickly as possible because he did not like the smell of tea. The disgruntled one behaved beautifully in spite of his reservations and managed to find enough to eat to make it worthwhile. The happy one was so ecstatic that he swore that he wanted to move to Victoria one day and then take his mother and his future wife to tea time whenever he wished.

I purchased some of the special tea and brought it home to share with my other grandchildren who like to have a tea party when they come. They insist on using my china and having sugar cubes to sweeten the lovely brown liquid. When I finally ran out of the exquisite tea I tried to send for more only to learn that the hotel will not mail items to the United States. A friend of my daughter’s who lives in Calgary came to the rescue when she heard of my dilemma. I have it sent to her and then she forwards it to me. It is a rather expensive process but so worth it in the long run. My grandchildren grow excited when they hear of a new delivery arriving at my home.

I carry a metal teapot in my travel trailer for afternoon tea time. We used it over and over again last summer when we journeyed to California. It made us feel as though we were passengers on the Orient Express, seeking new lands and adventures. I was so happy that I had someone with whom to share my special passion.

My sister-in-law introduced me to a wonderful tea store in Estes Park, Colorado not long ago. She recommended that I try their Cream Earl Grey and it is phenomenal. I try to visit there at least once a year now to replenish my stock. When I am unable to travel I use their mail order service to keep myself always at the ready.

Tea is so delicate and has such an amazing history. One of my all time favorite mornings was spent with two of my former students who treated me to a tea tasting. We sipped on golden colored liquids from China and India while talking of the world’s problems and solving them at the same time. Later one of them gave me a book on the history of tea and a lovely teapot with matching cups along with cans of my favorite varieties from a Chinese market. I remember our special time whenever I use those items. There is something about sharing food and drink that creates a never forgotten bond.

When I was still working at South Houston Intermediate one of the teachers hosted a tea time for her students. She asked them to dress in their finery and she brought lovey dishes and china from her home for them to use. Few of them had ever experienced such a thing and they were so excited. I suspect that they recall that lovely treat just as much as I do and think of their thoughtful teacher warmly. Maybe they even began the tradition in their own homes.

I truly understand why tea has played such an important role in the history of the world and why rebellious colonists scoffed at the taxes levied on the imports of their favorite brews. Enjoying afternoon tea becomes a delightful habit that makes even a dreary day feel a bit brighter. If you’ve never tried it maybe now is a good time. Even a pot of plain old Lipton served in a pretty cup will energize you and send you back to work ready to tackle anything.