That Out of Body Feeling

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It was December and we were looking forward to a wonderful holiday. My daughter Catherine who was living in Chicago had delivered twins in October and we were excitedly anticipating her visit with the babies on Christmas Eve. It had been a glorious year during which my nephew had married a wonderful young woman and we had all celebrated at his wedding. Then without warning things began to unravel terribly.

I was at school when my principal called me into his office to deliver the grim news that my mother-in-law was at the hospital. She had apparently had a stroke. I only half listened to his attempts to support me. My mind was racing a million miles away. I vaguely recall laughing off his concerns and telling him that my mother-in-law was a tough women who would most assuredly be fine. I almost laughed when he asked if I needed to have someone drive me to the hospital. I was tough. I had weathered many family tragedies. It seemed silly to think that I would require some sort of assistance.

I called each of my daughters to tell them what had happened and talked with my husband who was on a business trip at the time. We all remained calm in the belief that our beloved “Granny” would survive her latest ordeal. We knew she was a very strong woman even though she stood only five feet tall. She was the rock of the family who wasn’t supposed to live past her teen years. Somehow she had persisted and proven one doctor after another wrong. We believed that she would ultimately be just fine.

I picked up my daughter who lived nearby and together we made the trip to the hospital where the news was more dire than we had expected. My mother-in-law had gone into a coma. The doctor told me to call my husband and urge him to get on the first plane home. He explained that there was nothing more the doctors might do. Suddenly I felt the full gravity of the situation and I began calling family members to tell them what had happened. It was a grim task.

We began a death watch, sitting in my mother-in-law’s hospital room seeing her breathe as though she was in a deep sleep. She looked so peaceful and beautiful that it was impossible to believe that she was nearing death. A ray of hope stayed alive in my soul because I knew that she had proven the medical community wrong so many times before. I could not imagine our family surviving without her. She was our glue, the person who brought us together and provided us with wisdom and strength.

I suppose that I was hoping for some incredible miracle without ever thinking of how her entire life had been a miracle. As the hours and then the days passed we rarely left the confines of the hospital as a parade of friends and family came to express their love. When we did allow ourselves to leave for brief moments it felt as though we were trapped in a never ending out of body experience. The lights and decorations of Christmas seemed somehow out of place. The smiling faces of people celebrating the holiday season seemed our of sync. I recall feeling quite alone in my grief, a sadly all too familiar state of mind that had visited me upon my father’s sudden death and during the many times when my mother’s bipolar disorder took her away from us.

My mother-in-law’s passing was peaceful but that feeling of being at odds with the entire universe followed me throughout the rest of the season. Somehow we stumbled through her funeral and found a way to gather together on Christmas day. I remember thinking that the whole world was rejoicing at the very moments when we were the most bereft. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. At the time it seemed as though we had suddenly lost our way as a family and that nothing would ever feel right again.

It’s been sixteen years since my mother-in-law left this earth and we did indeed survive. I still think of her often and miss her sage advice and calming presence. I sometimes wonder how she might advise me when I am faced with a difficult situation. Somehow I still hear her voice whispering to me and telling me what I need to know. Her presence is not nearly as far away as I had imagined it would be.

I have become more aware of those who are suffering around me. I see them even when my own life is bursting with joy. I realize that at any given moment in time there are others who are wondering how it is possible for everyone to be so happy when they are bearing great burdens. I try not to ignore them simply because I am busy. I realize how difficult it is to be living in the midst of tragedy when everyone else appears to be so happy.

After my mother-in-law died it was in the gestures of people who took the time to show that they cared that I found the strength to soldier forward. I realized that their acts of kindness meant the world to me. They had stopped their Christmas revelries just long enough to let me know that they understood my sorrow. I have never forgotten them.

Regardless of the time of year when tragedy knocks on our door we often feel alone in the hell of our circumstances. The people who rally to show their loving concern are our lifelines. Even the tiniest efforts are never forgotten. We find our way back when we realize that we are not alone. Look around. Someone needs you right now. Take the time to comfort them. Your efforts will mean more than you might ever know.

Our Own Hero’s Journey

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My teen years were a time of awakening. It was as though I had lived in a childish bubble for all of my previous ages and only then began to look at the realities of the world around me. My education in high school was rigorous. I found myself working harder than I ever had. I learned about things that not even my mother knew. Before I had seen myself predominantly as a citizen of Houston, Texas and the United States of America with little interest in other places. I suddenly saw the possibilities of exploring new locales, new ideas, new ways of living.

I had little realization that even my ever expanding horizons were still restricted by the small size of my high school and the fact that my classmates and I were at heart so much alike. Still I somehow sensed that I needed to purposely seek different ways of doing things. Since I did not have the income to attend college out of town I chose a large public university in my city instead of accepting scholarships to the smaller private ones. I wanted to increase the likelihood that I would meet a diversity of people and thinking which is exactly what happened.

I found myself itching to go out on my own to see all of the world. I had briefly lived in both northern and southern California and had found those locales lacking in the kind of southern hospitality of my own city so I was more inclined to look to the east where I imagined myself writing and hobnobbing with the artsy set. I thought that perhaps I might one day be a professor of literature at some well known university, sitting on a stool in front of my students wrapped in a shawl and quoting passages from Shakespeare.

Life has a way of rearranging dreams. I met a young man who was intriguing. He had also grown up in Houston but on the opposite side of downtown from me. His mother had been married more than once which was unique at that time and his stepfather, whom he considered to be his real father, was a handsome Puerto Rican fellow with a slight accent and a perfect mastery of both English and  Spanish. My new beau had studied for a time in New Orleans and he introduced me to the wondrous glories of that city, a kind of Paris only a few hundred miles from where I lived. I found him to be exotic in an exciting way that was different from anyone I had ever before known.

We fell quickly and hopelessly in love and in the tradition of the day were soon married and bearing more responsibilities that we were likely prepared to face. Somehow we muddled through living off of an income that was impossibly small and learned how to fend for ourselves on the fly. He and I dreamed together of both becoming college professors and landing jobs in grand universities. All such fantasies halted when my mother first became ill with her bipolar disorder. It became apparent that we would need to stay close to her so that we might be ready to care for her and for my brothers who were still minors whenever her depression and mania became extreme. It was a blow, but one that was not as bad as we might have imagined.

A succession of challenges awaited us including the birth of our two children and a frightening illness that my husband contracted just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in our edited futures. He spent four days a week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for several months during which he was unable to work. We were not yet thirty but we had adapted to the point of being like forty year olds. Our sense of responsibility for our children led us to a very careful lifestyle that precluded any but highly practical ways of living. It was not as vagabonds roaming across the globe that we grew up, but as people clawing just to stay afloat. Somehow we made it work and we did it together and with the support of our families. It wasn’t as glamorous as we had dreamed but it brought us ever closer together and made us stronger than we might have been.

I often hear people insist that success may only be found in attending prestigious universities and living in new places. There is a tendency these days for young people to extend their youthful activities into their thirties, eschewing the kind of responsibilities that my husband and I had to face when we were still quite young. “To each his own” has always been my mantra but I worry that we are more and more becoming a society in which our relationships are built on false dreams that will not make us as happy as responsibility for others does.

I learned that in caring for others at a young age I matured quickly and learned important skills for my work life. My experiences were as critical in developing me as any formal class has ever been. I became a better person than the one I had pictured in my mind. It did not take moving away or traveling to exotic places for me to understand the nature and glories of people. I studied in the school of hard knocks and rose to the top of the class. My hardships and how I dealt with them were as instructive as a series of theoretical lectures.

When I first began teaching my principal noted that I behaved as though I had been in a classroom for years. She attributed my confidence to the excellent education that I had received at the same university that Elizabeth Warren attended. There was a certain truth in her observation, but more than that was the humility and appreciation for humankind that I had learned from the struggles that I had personally overcome one by one. It was not just learning from books and brilliant professors that brought me success, but also the kind of knowledge that is only found in the responsibilities of maintaining the health and welfare of others.

Wisdom is not a commodity that is easily purchased and there is no one way of achieving it. It often comes serendipitously. It is in the unexpected turns of our lives and how we approach them that we often grow the most. Facing up to our circumstances and making the sacrifices necessary for overcoming problems teaches us our capabilities. It is often in a crisis that our true natures appear. As painful as those moments may be they are indeed the most glorious opportunities for our ultimate development. Like all heroes on a difficult journey we too can become better than we had ever imagined.

Sooner Rather Than Later

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She is an amazing young woman. She has worked very hard to earn a college degree and gain respect in her job. There are few challenges that daunt her. She fearlessly tackles problems with determination. She is faith filled and regularly attends church. She married her sweetheart not so long ago and the two of them are already living the American dream in a house that they purchased with the income gained from their dedication to their careers. She takes fun vacations with her spouse and charts plans for living a purpose filled life. She represents the epitome of the future of our nation and our world but she has borne a burden for the last two years that has threatened to destroy all of her dreams.

She is an immigrant who came to the United States as a young child. She lived here under temporary protection, all the while studying and pursuing a model lifestyle with dedication and grace. She has become an all American girl while never forgetting her roots. She is talented beyond measure and loving and gentle in nature. She should in every sense be exactly the kind of person that our country needs, and yet she has quietly worried about what might happen to her with the new immigration policies of the past two years. She wondered if she might have to return to a country that is now little more than a vague memory. She tried to imagine what she might do with her college degree if she had to leave for a place that has fewer opportunities. She thought of how she would miss all of the friends that she has made here in the United States. Her mind has been filled with thoughts of what might happen if she one day lost her protections.

In September she went for an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration System. She was applying for status as a permanent resident of the country. She had so much at stake, and even though she is generally optimistic she faced the reality that acceptance of her application was not automatic. She would have to undergo an interview, something that she generally does quite well. It is the kind of thing that is part of her work, but this would be so very different. All for which she had worked would be on the line. She confided her nervousness to me and requested prayers that her earnest desire to be a good and contributing resident of the United States would be seen by those who tasked with judging her credibility.

Those of us who know her well believed that she would greatly impress, but we also understood that such things can sometimes go in ways that are unplanned. We prayed and thought of her as the hours of her interview grew into what seemed like days. It was difficult to concentrate or relax. Happily good news soon followed. She now has permanent residence status and need not constantly look over her shoulder with anxiety any longer. She is free to enjoy her wonderful life and to continue to excel in it. The United States of America just won the lottery with her whether they know it or not.

I’m ecstatically happy for my young friend, but I can’t help but think of the thousands of other young dreamers like her who still live in fear. My heart aches for them because there is nothing worse than living with uncertainty lurking around every corner. So many twenty something immigrants are caught in a trap that is not of their own making. They know as little of their family history in another country as I do of mine. Only stories of people and places and ways of life create a vague picture for them but it never feels quite real. Instead their reality lies totally in the neighborhoods where they have lived in different parts of the United States, and in the schools they have attended and the friends they have made. Sending them away would be as terrifying for them as it would be for any of us who were born here. There is something intensely cruel about the very prospect of doing that to them.

I learned long ago that each situation in life must be judged by its own merits, not some ironclad set of rules that do not make sense in certain cases. The wisest judgements are those that take humanity into account. We have laws to keep order in society but when those laws do not fully consider implications that fly in the face of logic and compassion then we must change them, but so far we have not had the wisdom or courage to do so. We quibble and squabble but never quite get the job done. Meanwhile truly good and deserving young people live in the shadows wondering if and when another shoe will fall.

I am very excited for the new chapter of my young friend’s life. I know it will be glorious and that it will exemplify the dreams of the millions of immigrants who have contributed to the welfare of the United States of America over time. I wish her all the best and feel lucky that I have walked with her on her journey. My only hope that is that one day we will pave the way for more people like her to earn the right to have the weight of uncertainty finally lifted from their shoulders. It’s time that we all push for changes that will make that happen sooner rather than later.

A Tiny Grain of Sand

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A home is not a particular structure with objects inside. It is the sum total of the people who inhabit it. A neighborhood is likewise not just an address, a golf course or a community pool, but the essence of the many folks who live and work inside it. A school is so much more than just classrooms and desks and curriculum. It’s heartbeat is found in the students and teachers and parents who pour their hearts into it. A church is not the edifice or the clergy but the people who share a spiritual journey. A nation is far more than domed buildings, memorial statues, politicians and laws. It is the collective hope of the people.

We humans with all of our potential along with our imperfections are the true reason that any of the institutions that we have formed soar with the eagles or crash and burn in a state of destruction. Whether we realize it or not we have the power to set the tone wherever we decide to engage. When we see problems it is up to us to first look within ourselves and ask what we might have done to prevent the difficulties in the first place and what we plan to do to ensure that things improve. When we simply sit on the sidelines ignoring those who parade without clothes our troubles are sure to endure. More often than not making a difference means walking in the shoes of those who appear to have failed before we begin advocating far flung changes.

There are certainly enormously toxic situations in the world today that may worry us. Few people have the power to actually influence the entirety of society, so we have to conserve our energies by wisely choosing the battles that we are going to fight. Perhaps we should always keep in mind the old adage of putting our own house in order first. Love literally emanates from a home in which each person is loved and respected. Because we are all very human and prone to making mistakes, some of which are more grave than others, we must always be certain to include mercy in the daily workings of our households. An old adage suggests that we never allow the sun to set on our anger toward the people that we hold dear. In justice we may have to hold them accountable for bad behavior, but in mercy we should always forgive them once they have shown a willingness to atone.

Each of us have particular causes that resonate in our hearts. It may involve improving and providing excellence in education or reforming government systems. We can certainly vote to express our desires but the results often fall short of what we had hoped to accomplish with our trip to the polls. Keeping ourselves informed and taking the time to use all available avenues to express our ideas are ways that each of us can work toward the goals that linger in our hearts and minds. Sitting on the couch grumbling or shouting at those with opposing views does little to move the dial of any institution. Like the ants that almost silently move dirt to build a mound so too must we work with the people around us to quietly create a better world.

Each of us has a particular talent that will bring the kind of positive change that works for the betterment of the entire community. If we are respectful of what each person has to offer great things may happen. Teamwork is of the essence and we have to be aware that all groups and organizations follow a continuum of behavior that includes the process of forming and assigning tasks, periods of confusion and perhaps even disagreements, and eventually states of performing smoothly. Sometimes simply realizing that a situation is ignoring our human natures is all that is needed to grease the rails of success.

One of my heroes is Rosa Parks. She was a seamstress who lived in Montgomery, Alabama and worked at a popular department store. She altered the clothing of most of the well dressed white women in that city. She was liked by the customers of the store but her blackness reduced her to indignities that were untenable for such a refined and dignified woman. After work she rode home at the back of a city bus and on particularly crowded days she had to surrender her seat to any white person who wanted it.

We all know her legendary story by now. We marvel at her courage in refusing to participate in the demeaning injustice toward her people. Like the shot heard round the world, her simple act of refusing to leave her seat launched a movement that continues even today in the spirit of upholding the unalienable rights of all people. She demonstrated like so many have done that individuals begin the process of improving the world in which we live. All change happens one step at a time, one tiny pressure after another and its spirit lies in the willingness of humans to come together one by one.

All groups are complex. Creating a healthy family is no easy task. Guiding a school to caring for every individual inside its walls is daunting. Making a community or a city or a church or a nation a place noted for harmony is a balancing act of fully respecting each of the many beliefs of the participants. It requires great diplomacy and wisdom to keep all of our institutions working together. We can help by sending support to those who agree to work for a common good rather than a single idea. Doing so means that there will be many moving parts and numerous possibilities for disagreement, but it also provides a framework for the mutual respect needed for compromise. It is a system that works in the smallest and largest of relationships as long as all parties are willing to value and understand people.

There are no unicorns and always blue skies. There is no place like Atlantis. We can’t always have puppies and kittens making us happy. The reality is that it’s tough to make things work for each of us, but it is a worthy task. It’s only when we find ways to work together that great things begin to happen and sometimes such a relationship begins as quietly as that ant moving a tiny grain of sand.

Dancing With Reckless Abandon

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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.