Dancing With Reckless Abandon

to_dance_around_the_sun_by_schakoyana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts and Prayers

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Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly shocks the entire system. One moment the world seems to be filled with promise and the next everything feels as though it has changed. That late night call announcing the accident that took the life of a friend or family member in many ways feels like death itself. The visit from the police to announce that a dear one has been killed by a stranger is a gut punch. Many of us have experienced such life changing events, so we know only too well how the specter of that horrific moment changes us, hovers over us, burrows into our souls.

For most of my life I have relived the moment when I first learned of my young father’s death. I went to sleep dreaming of the family gathering at the beach that lay ahead and awoke to learn that the gathering would take place behind a curtain of sadness and tears inside our living room. I was only eight, but even a child understands the horror of such things. My emotions ruled me for a very long time. I was afraid, angry, hopelessly confused and unhappy. The shock of my father’s death left a gaping wound inside me and the members of my family. I felt as though I was suddenly an entirely different person than the one I had been only hours before I received the horrific news.

I have always understood the deep seated emotions that bury the survivors of such tragedies. The process of healing is a long and difficult road, made even worse in instances when the cause of death is violent. Each time I hear of a mass shooting my heart becomes heavy for the survivors who must pick up the wounded pieces of their lives. I know how long their journeys will be and how different they will feel. I want to tell them that it will take much time for their emotions to feel normal again. I want to hug them, help them, do something for them, but what am I to do from so far away? My only recourse is to keep them in my thoughts, pray that they will find the comfort that came to me in my own time of need.

I have been reading about the tortured souls who lost friends or family members in school shootings. They once seemed happy, content, set for good things in life, but the horror of their situation ultimately overcame them. They were unable to cope with the feelings of depression, guilt, frustration that strangled the very life out of them. They may have covered the depth of their despair with smiles or perhaps they simply surrendered to the hopelessness that they felt. Each of us who hear of them wonder what we might have done to help them, even knowing that there was little that strangers such as ourselves have the power to accomplish. We fall back on the only positive thing that we have. We think of them and pray for them and for their families. We feel their pain and maybe donate to an organization dedicated to helping those stricken with grief. We may even write a letter to a Congress person suggesting changes that will make tragedies less likely. In the end, however, our thoughts and prayers seem to be the best that we have to offer, even as we sense that they may not suffice.

It was the thoughtfulness of the people in my community that ultimately saved me from the brooding and the desperation that I was feeling after my father’s death. My recovery was slow and the compassion of those around me was relentless. I was fully aware of the love that came my way and it ultimately healed me. Knowing that people cared enough to mention me and my family in their prayers meant everything to me, and over the years I have been calmed by the heavenly petitions of devoted individuals who sincerely asked that God watch over me. I have found great serenity in the kindness of prayers.

There are those who would spurn the very idea of thoughts and prayers, insisting that they are little more than worthless utterances that accomplish nothing. I would insist nonetheless that I know their power from personal experience. I truly believe that I might have been lost were it not for the loving support that came from thoughts and prayers directed at me. They told me that I was not alone, that people truly cared about my well-being. Thoughts and prayers are not to be mocked.

I am greatly saddened by the deaths of those left to survive the ashes of mass shootings. I pray for those who have endured the unimaginable horror of such events. I pray that we will find ways to make such occasions more and more unlikely in our country and throughout the world. I pray that we will have the wisdom to find solutions. I pray that we will all understand the complexities of the human spirit and that we will be open and honest in our communications with each other, especially our children. I think and I pray because it is important to do so.

I have a dear friend who keeps a prayer journal. She places the names of those whom she is remembering on Post It notes. Beside the name she writes a brief description of the needs of that person. When she prays she refers to those little slips of paper and personally thinks of them during her very busy days. She is a beautifully selfless and faith filled woman whose sincerity has helped many survive unspeakable ordeals. I believe that the real power of what she does is found in the love that she provides those who are wounded. There is something quite comforting in knowing that another person is taking the time to pray for us. It provides us with hope.

Do not underestimate the power of thoughts and prayers. They have moved mountains and seemingly prompted miracles. We need them.

In the Blink of An Eye

city man person people
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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

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.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

eclipse

This happened for a few hours on August 21, 2017. Much of the United States of America was profoundly united by the majesty and mystery of a total eclipse of the sun. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the path of totality, but the images of a 66% eclipse that I saw in the sky were breathtaking nonetheless. Somehow I was reminded of how infinite and mind-blowing our universe truly is, and how small we are when we consider its expanse. Still, the fact that we have unlocked so many secrets of the cosmos with our mathematics and science is humbling to realize. We were all ready to witness this historic event because astronomers have mastered the tools to make such predictions. We saw images streamed from NASA and wore glasses that allowed us to look heavenward without doing damage to our retinas. Later we shared our experiences with people in distant places using technology that is as amazing as nature itself. Somehow this incredible moment left me in awe of not only the heavens, but also the intellect of mankind.

One of my favorite all time books is The Ascent of Man by Abraham Bronowski. It is a chronicle of the leaps of human knowledge that have brought us to the advances that we often take for granted today. The miracles of farming, construction, astronomy, physics medicine and technology that we enjoy are abundant, and provide us with a standard of living unimagined even two generations ago. Nonetheless we must be careful of relying on our hubris. Just as gazing at the sun during an eclipse without protective eyewear may cause us to go blind, so too will thinking that we unequivocally have all of the answers cause our downfall. We would do well to consider that our place in the universe is but a tiny speck. There is so much that we have yet to learn, but happily there are minds of geniuses working to continue to expand our knowledge just as they always have. I marvel at the thought of what is yet to come.

I sometimes like to consider what developments I would like to see. It would be so wonderful to be able to eliminate mental illnesses, or at least control them effectively. How nice would it be to have an injection or a pill to eliminate addictions to drugs, alcohol or food? I dream of a time when we are able to produce forms of energy that do no harm to our environment and are readily available to anyone anywhere. I’d love to see advances in food production that would eliminate hunger in all corners of the world. The possibilities are endless, and often the most humble sounding discoveries are the ones that have the greatest impact on society.

We still have so much to do with regard to bringing peace and synergy to our world. I often feel that the best possible human advances may one day come in the way we live together in harmony. We still have so much work to do in that arena, but if we can come together to watch the moon blot out the sun, then maybe the potential for humanity to ascend to a higher level of integration is truly there. I’d like to believe that this is not just an idealistic pipe dream.

At the moment in which the eclipse in my town reached its apogee I felt a kinship with the universe and its people. After all it seemed as though we are all more alike than we are different. I viewed the event in a park surrounded by hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers. Everyone on that day in that place was smiling. Somehow there was no room for jealousies or comparisons of one another. There was a definite feeling of unity and a spirit of cooperation. Everyone cheered the passing of the moon in front of the sun and declared that it was a remarkable sight that they will never forget.

We all agreed that we can’t wait for the next big event that will take place in the USA in 2024. That time the totality will happen right in my home state, and I plan to watch it with my children and grandchildren, By then they will be either in college or all grown up  with jobs and maybe even families of their own. The sun will have risen in the east, the moon will have illuminated the nighttime sky and the earth will have rotated on its axis for over two thousand days. So many changes will have taken place, but our fascination with the sun and the moon and the stars will not have waned. Somehow those celestial bodies still rule over our hearts and our minds. We are as fascinated by them as primitive man was. In their presence we realize both our potential and our limitations. We long to totally understand them and we marvel at their power, or at least we should.

Our planet is but one infinitesimal part of a universe so vast that we cannot truly imagine it. We measure our history with the rising and falling of the sun.

Everything

Turns,

Rotates,

Spins,

Circles,

Loops,

Resonates,

And

Repeats.

Circles

Of life,

Born from

Pulses

Of light,

Vibrate

To

Breathe,

While

Spiraling

Outwards

For Infinity

Through

The lens

Of time,

And into

A sea

Of stars

and Lucid

Dreams.

—- A poem from Suzy Kassem