Wisdom, Prayers, and a Pot of Soup

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The day on which I am writing this blog is rainy, a situation that I might normally find to be peaceful and comforting. On this occasion it simply feels dreary and sad because a dear friend is dealing with great loss that she must not only bear, but which she must explain to her children. She is a strong woman and I have little doubt that she will ultimately rise from the ashes of her life, but I know from experience how crushingly cruel such interludes in time can be.

It is part of our human experience to encounter tragedies, some of which are life changing. We react to such events in a multitude of ways, perhaps turning to prayer or leaning on people who are close to us. Sometimes we attempt to go it alone, mustering as much courage as we can find inside our souls. Regardless of how we choose to react we feel great pain, often both mental and physical. For lack of a better description I have called it “the elephant sitting on my chest.” Tragedy makes it difficult to even breath or move. There is a tendency to want to stay in bed and shut out the world, but we all know that such reactions do not work forever. Eventually we must straighten our backs and bear the weight until we heal enough to feel somewhat normal. Sadly we will carry scars from our experiences for all time, but if we are lucky they will only hurt now and again.

What can we do to help someone who is in the throes of such an experience? It is difficult to know, but I think we must try. In my own lifetime very small gestures done with love have provided me with the hope that I needed to continue my journey as a human. The help has often come from the most unexpected places, but it has always occurred at just the right moment when my despair was overwhelming me.

I still carry the vision of my Aunt Valeria puttering around our kitchen on the day my father died. She represented a kind of stability on the shaky ground that I felt all around me. My Uncle William gave me hope on that day with an ice cream cone offered as a sign that he truly cared about me and my brothers. A lovely plant sent to me by my dear friend, Adriana, on the occasion of my mother’s death still grows in my home. She sent it with a simple note that reminded me that I had done all that was possible for my mom. I needed to hear that, and somehow she knew. Another friend, Linda, brought me a big pot of chicken soup when I was hurting from surgery. Somehow that soup tasted better than anything that I had ever eaten.

Often it is a stranger who brings us comfort. I once went to a doctor that I had never before seen for a yearly physical. He was supposed to spend thirty minutes outlining my health issues in a post conference. He laughed because the test results showed that I was in excellent shape, so he wondered aloud what we might speak about to fill the time. He innocently asked if anything was pressing on my mind. At the moment I was gravely worried about my mother’s bipolar disorder, and also wondering if I was doing the right things for her. In many ways I was filled with guilt that I was not doing enough. He assuaged all of my negative feelings and encouraged me to begin talking openly about the situation. He was so engaged in my situation that the conference lasted for over an hour, and I ended up releasing tears that had been pent up in my heart for years. I have thought back on him over and over again with so much gratitude because he freed me from the worry that had overwhelmed me for so long.

A fellow teacher once prayed with me for my grandchildren who were threatening to be born far too early. The predictions of their health if they came were dire. My dear colleague calmed me and assured me that she would be storming the heavens with pleas for a miracle. Somehow in spite of the frightening warnings from the doctors my daughter’s labor stopped, and the babies stayed safely inside her womb for enough weeks to insure that their problems would be minimal. The teacher who so understood my panic has remained in my gratitude for sixteen years as I have watched those little ones grow into beautiful and bright teenagers.

When my husband, Mike, had a stroke there were so many souls praying for him and for our family. The doctors and nurses who cared for him were not just knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate. Our friends and many of my former students sent messages of encouragement that sustained us. When hurricane Harvey hit Mike was still highly susceptible to having another episode. As the waters rose and our home became like an island I worried about what I would do if he had another attack. In the darkest moment of my anxiety a former student, Bieu, texted to assure me that if anything happened he would come with help in his big truck, and that together we would get Mike to the hospital. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt upon receiving that message. Luckily nothing occurred, but I will always and forever love Bieu for his empathy at just the right moment.

Someone you know may be suffering for one reason or another. You may not think that there is much that you may do to help them, but it is in the simple acts of compassion that they will regain their strength and have the courage to soldier on. Don’t hesitate to offer your wisdom. your prayers, or a pot of soup. Your efforts may be exactly what that person needs. You may make the very difference that will sustain them.

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Like a King

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A bed is such a simple thing that many of us take for granted that we will have a warm and safe place on which to rest our weary bodies each night. It hasn’t always been so, and for some it remains a luxury.

My mom used to speak of her sleeping arrangement when she was a girl. She and her three sisters shared a single full size bed, as did her four brothers. I sometimes think that I don’t have enough room on a queen bed with only my husband taking some of the space. I can’t even imagine how cramped it must have been to be crammed together with three other people, especially as they began to grow. I suppose that we adapt to whatever situation we have, but such living arrangements seem horrible to me.

I’ve had students whose only wish was to have beds of their own. One boy made horrific grades and fell asleep in most of his classes. When I quizzed him as to why he didn’t get more sleep at night he reluctantly admitted that his bed was the living room sofa. He further revealed that he had to wait until all of his family members were ready to slumber before the couch became his own. He noted that on most evenings someone was still using what should have been his bed until two or three in the morning. When I asked why he didn’t either use a vacant bed or ask the persons who were hogging his space to leave, he claimed that nobody would have agreed to an alternate plane. They just expected him to wait until they were finished using his resting place. He insisted that his situation really wasn’t that bad. 

I’ve heard of babies sleeping in dresser drawers and youngsters lying on the floor with only a blanket and a pillow. It seems that there are more people enduring discomfort while they dream than I had ever realized. Of course as we travel around the world we find that many cultures use only mats for resting and some families sleep under the stars each night.

Our ancestors often slumbered in a communal room on the floor along with the family animals. If they were lucky they had a bit of clean straw to ease their bones, but often they dreamed right next to the earthen floor. The wealthy had bed frames with ropes stretched across to hold a kind of cloth envelope of straw or down. It took a very long time to collect enough feathers from the ducks and the geese to make a comfy mattress.Those with such luxuries were indeed quite fortunate.

Now we have all sorts of mattresses designed for the needs of virtually every body type, and some that adjust to conform to anyone who happens to lie down. We use sheets with so much thread that they are like soft butter on our skin. We have a variety of pillows and even play ambient sounds to hasten our sleep. Still there are those who toss and turn in a state of insomnia that ultimately requires the use of sleep aides, music or meditation. We generally have some of the most comfortable sleeping arrangements in the history of humankind and yet we are often filled with anxieties that rob us of the slumbers that we need.

There is something so very personal about a bed. It is akin to a pair of shoes, fitted to the contours of specific people with specific needs. We think of our beds as a kind of refuge, but for some people unspeakable horrors occur in beds. There is an irony that some of the most egregious crimes take place in what should be the sanctity of a bed. It’s difficult to think of a bed as an instrument of horror. 

I have had students who had beds but chose instead to sleep on the floor lest a stray bullet find its way through the walls and into their bodies. It always made me cry to think of young people dealing with fears that nobody should ever experience. I always worried about those kids who were so tired that they were unable to keep from nodding off by the middle of the school day. There were certainly those who simply chose to play video games or send communications to friends on their phones all night, but some of them truly did not have a decent place to sleep or they were even afraid to sleep.

Many of us decorate our beds and the rooms where they stand. Our choices of color and fabric speak volumes about who we are and what our sleep means to us. A bedroom is a place where we are generally truly ourselves. What is there or not there tells a short story about us and the kind of existence that we enjoy or from which we hope to flee. Whatever the case we humans tend to adapt to our circumstances. My mom laughingly spoke of the routine that she and her sisters developed so that everyone would be comfortable in their tiny bed. They learned how to sleep in the same direction and turn in tandem at regular intervals. She maintained that she never had a complaint nor missed a night of blissful sleep, but she did appreciate the extra room when her eldest sister got married.

Now that I think about it, I feel that my own bed is a great treasure, a kind of blessing for me. I suppose that I need to be more thankful when when lay down my head, pull up the covers, and ask Alexa to turn out the lights. I sleep like a king. I am indeed fortunate.

Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

There Is No Better Way

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When I was still rather new in my profession of teaching I took a Myers Briggs test during one of the faculty meetings at my school. It turned out that I was an INFP which translates to someone who is introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive. I remember being a bit stunned by the tag of introversion because I assumed that it meant that I would not make a particularly strong educator. After all, a teacher is on view all day every day and to me being an introvert meant being someone unable to deal with other people. I soon learned that my homespun definition was totally inaccurate. Instead the idea describes how I unwind, come up with ideas, find peace. It seems that I am one of those individuals who finds inspiration and comfort on long solitary walks or inside the walls of my home. When I am feeling down I don’t want to go out on the town. Instead I need to recharge my soul quietly.

I have taken different versions of the same test many different times and get the same results again and again. I recently played a Facebook game for fun and ended up being described as a unicorn with my INFP characteristics. It seems that only four to five percent of the population earns that tag. I laughed as I realized why I have sometimes felt like a oddball in life, but it also helped me to realize why I seem to have a gift for understanding people, a talent that worked well with my teaching profession. In many ways I’m just one big gooey mix of emotions that from time to time drive my husband and other highly rational people insane. I greet the world with feelings and intuitions rather than a well thought out rational plan. I’m one of those people who quickly grows weary at planning meetings, which is ironic because a during my working years I frequently found myself guiding such events.

I had a dear friend who was impish and willing to go wherever the winds blew in a social setting, but when it came to more serious matters she planned with a vengeance. I soon learned that our relationship was glorious as long as it was all about fun. Whenever we worked together it went south. She was a person of outlines and scripts, while I preferred to quietly think for a bit and than go with the ideas brewing inside my head. I  corrected on the fly as needed and grew anxious with her need to plot and plan and fill notebooks with written descriptions. I suppose that we drove each other insane in our few collaborations, and so we ultimately abandoned all efforts and simply enjoyed each other informally.

We each have certain preferred ways of meeting the world. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know if these are innate traits or learned or a combination of both. What I do realize as someone who has worked with thousands of people is that there is no one best way of doing things. We each learn and work and find joy in ways that feel the most comfortable. The person who is the life of a party may not necessarily be the most likely leader, but our styles may determine how those with whom we interact perceive us and how we see them. As a society we often place great value on particular traits thinking that they are the best way to do things. We often judge people by our own characteristics rather than understanding that each style of interaction has its merits.

When I begin ranting and my emotions are in high gear it makes those who are more attuned to rationality and structure feel uncomfortable. I learned over time that I had to curb some of my tendencies and provide more written documentation for my ideas than I might have been inclined to do. What few people knew is that I did not begin with outlines, but rather with ideas from which I worked backwards to create outlines and such. As I worked with my colleagues I found kindred spirits and those who needed more structure from me. I realized that some of my bosses needed little more than evidence that I was doing my job well and others wanted hard copy documentation. I had to learn how to comply with the needs and demands of everyone that I encountered even when it became irritating.

I used to assume that everyone hated meetings, and plans, and goal setting because those things were so abhorrent to me. I soon realized that for many people they are as necessary as breathing. My vague descriptions of the thoughts in my head were not enough for them, and so I found ways to comply in processes that I knew that I would never personally use. I taught my students in similar ways. I knew that some of my pupils were eager to simply jump from a cliff to test their wings and others wanted detailed instruction and practice before attempting trial runs. So too I worked with teachers whose lessons were crafted with the briefest of descriptions and others who wrote out their plans almost word for word. I allowed both versions of planning from members of my faculty as long as I saw good results.

We humans are far more complex and diverse than most of us imagine. It’s why we have liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. It’s the chief cause of our misunderstandings. We tend to see the world through our own lenses and feel confused when we observe someone who is so different from ourselves. Some of us are tidy and others are messy. In truth neither one or the other is necessarily best. The world is as exciting and productive as it is because of our differences, not our sameness. We learn from each person that we meet.

Being flexible and understanding of the people around us is a necessary aspect of our existence. Extroverts are not better than introverts, just different. Democrats are not better than Republicans, just different. Rational thinking is not better than being emotional, just different. When we put all of the various personalities together and truly value them we create a society capable of doing great things. We truly do need everyone because there is on one better way.

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.