A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.

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A Different Drumbeat

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It may surprise some of the folks who only know me in one narrow aspect of my life that I tend to be someone who marches to my own drumbeat. If, however, you consider the totality of my life it becomes a bit more apparent that I’ve mostly done things my way. At school and work I was always the “good girl,” that person who was loyal and dependable. I tended not to make waves, but when things became just too uncomfortable for my way of seeing the world, I usually left in search of a place that allowed me to be the person that I felt I needed to be. A few times I pushed the envelope a bit too much before departing, but I am proud to say that I stood up for the ideals that make me who I am.

I’m known as a very forgiving person, but I prefer to think that I have a knack for seeing and understanding differing points of view. We humans are a diverse lot, and it would be ridiculous to believe that there is actually a one size way of thinking that fits everyone. Only in certain extreme cases is it true that there is an identifiable wrong or right, such as with murder or hate. Most actions or statements that bother us are in reality simply different ways of interpreting or reacting to life. These are the gray areas that create tensions and rifts between people, and are the causes of our feelings of anger and even betrayal. It is in such instances that I have a knack for realizing that there are indeed many different ways of tackling problems, some of which seem contrary to one another.

Thus it has been for me my whole life which has given me the reputation of being a soft hearted person. The truth is that I am able to take a deep breath when I disagree with some person or situation and then very rationally analyze our differences without becoming emotionally entangled. My mother realized that I had this talent and often suggested that I should have gone into law and become a judge. She marveled at what she saw as my fairness, but to me this “talent” is just the way I am.

I suppose that my ability served me well as a teacher and later a school administrator because I was never too quick to rush to judgement of a student or parent or teacher. Instead I wanted to assess each situation not so much from my own set of standards but from the realities facing each individual. I often realized that a parent who was cussing me out was simply frustrated  and at a point of extreme confusion and hopelessness. By validating the anger and and really listening to concerns I diffused many horrific scenes and reached a mutual solutions to problems. In other words, I was able to see the driving forces behind behaviors that were far deeper than just rudeness or refusal to follow protocols.

Sometimes the unfairness of life has little to do with rules and everything to do with feelings. While we may not be able to understand someone’s anger, we can listen for the unspoken words that lead to their hearts. How each of us feels is so complex that actions and words alone may not truly reveal the truth of the matter. For that reason we need not be so quick to react. Sadly, it has become the way of society to tap out a few keystrokes to demonstrate either our approval or disapproval of anything and everything that we observe. Sometimes we do such things with complete strangers whom we cannot possibly know. It is a terrible habit that sometimes leads to violence from those with unsettled minds. We must be careful and a bit more kind lest our words or reactions fuel flames that are already burning. It is possible to change the course of history if we are cognizant of the power of our commentaries.

President Barack Obama was often criticized for noting that many individuals who turn to illegal activities are lost souls unable to find any direction or sense of hope in their lives. He suggested that helping our young in particular to find positive pathways might prevent acts of terrorism or violence. As an educator I believe that he is absolutely correct. I have watched young men and women change under the guidance and concern of someone who chose to help them rather than to grind them down. People seek acceptance and when they find it from the good, then they themselves often become good. When it only comes from those who are hateful trouble looms for all of us.

Notwithstanding those whose minds are so evil that no amount of kindness or understanding will help them, we each have the power to reach others simply by having a willingness to understand why they believe and act the way they do. It is not up to us to be judge and jury of their behaviors, but instead to demonstrate our care and concern. I know from forty years of working with people that such methods actually create miracles. Self-righteous behaviors are off putting for everyone. They presume correctness when there may not be a clear cut standard. Punishing, judging, ignoring are mechanisms that rarely have as much effectiveness as listening, teaching, understanding. 

A recent example from my own experience may explain the point I am attempting to make. It is a somewhat silly example that escalated into some very unfortunate commentaries on social media. It centers around an incident on The Voice, a singing competition on NBC. Over the course of a season the number of singers competing for the top spot are slowly but surely whittled down by the coaches and the viewers until there are four finalists who vie for the championship.

This season a most unfortunate dilemma occurred when one of the contestants became ill and unable to participate on the live show. The situation became even more complex when she was one of the three persons with the least number of votes from the previous evening. In such cases the performers sing a quick song and there is a so-called Instant Save by way of Twitter.  The young lady, who happens to be fourteen years old, could not sing, but the producers chose to allow the viewers to vote for her anyway based on past performances. In an ironic twist her coach, Adam Levine, had two members of his team in the bottom three and one of them actually sang that night. In a rather bumbled moment he praised the present team member for his performance, but noted that he could not just ignore how wonderful the young girl was and urged the viewers to consider voting for her as well. Surprisingly she ended us winning a spot in the semi-finals and at the same time became an object of rage along with Adam Levine.

I saw things a bit differently from those who were insisting that Adam Levine be fired and the young singer be disqualified. I suspect that Adam meant no harm in his crudely crafted plea. Instead I think that he felt terrible that such a talented young girl might lose her opportunity because fate had dealt her a blow at such an inopportune time. He tried to demonstrate his support for both of his team members, but it was all in all a terrible place for anyone to have to be. I suppose that no matter what he may have said or what ultimately happened he would have been criticized, but the level of anger was far beyond what it should have been.

When I suggested on social media that we all needed to put the situation into perspective and calm down just a bit I was pilloried as though I had defended the actions of Adolf Hitler. I was called some vile names and even told to just “shut up.” I ended up congratulating all of the talented singers and wishing them the best in the future as well as noting that the variety of opinions being expressed was part of life. Nonetheless there were those who were intent on vindictiveness. Ironically I understand and accept them as well, but worry that our society has become so filled with anger that we become unhinged over a television program. There is so little willingness to forgive in today’s world and that is a tragedy.

I suppose that we will one day grow weary of the ugliness and things will ultimately change. I already see signs that give me hope.

Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

The Reason For The Season

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I’ve got my Christmas trees decorated, some of my gifts purchased and wrapped, a few of my Christmas cards addressed, and lights twinkling in my front yard. It’s really looking like Christmas 2018 is well on its way. As I celebrate this year I pause now and again to think of people that I know and even some who are strangers who are suffering and finding it difficult to find the joy that I feel. I know all too well how Christmas time can be quite difficult for those who have experienced great loss or who are watching a loved one suffer. It can be quite lonely to observe the world seeming to have so much fun when everything around you is falling apart.

As I begin my revelry I think of a family whose father died quite unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving. They are bereft and struggling to make sense of what has happened to them. I truly understand their pain for long ago when I was only a child of eight my I awoke on a Memorial Day to learn that my beloved father had died in a car accident the evening before. My entire world crashed down around me and my family seemed to be locked in a state of chronic grief. It felt as though nothing would ever feel normal again, and when Christmas came the old rituals felt odd and out of place. It was when friends and family members came to visit that I began to understand that we would eventually be alright. The gift of love brought us through the darkness and suddenly the lights on our Christmas tree shone so brightly.

I know of a man who is so very ill that his doctors have pronounced that he is living his last days. He drifts in and out of a hazy state of mind. He is a good man and his family would love nothing more than for some beautiful miracle that would save his life for a bit longer. Sadly they know that this is unlikely to happen, and so they make their Christmas preparations with heavy hearts. It is difficult to go through the motions that have been so joyful and routine in the past. They plant smiles on their faces even while their hearts are breaking.

A few years back we were wearing their shoes. My mother-in-law lay in a hospital in a coma after suffering a stroke. While the rest of the world was partying and visiting Santa we sat in her room in a watch that would only lead to her death. We rarely left the hospital and when we did it felt so strange to see signs of Christmas all around us. It was hard to imagine the revelry that was taking place as we felt such sorrow.

That was a very strange Christmas for our family. After her death we gathered as usual on Christmas Day for dinner and the exchange of gifts. It felt as though we were in some strange out of body experiment as we so half heartedly carried on. What helped us most were the cards and letters and gifts of flowers and love from friends who demonstrated how much they understood how we felt. We were not forgotten in the rush of the season and it meant so much to us.

I know of a recently widowed woman who is attempting to find her life without the partner with whom she shared so many joys. She is hurting and more than willing to express her sorrow. She is sustained by words of compassion and indications that she has not been forgotten. It will take time for her to heal, but that time will eventually come. Until then she simply needs hugs and love.

I suspect that each of us knows of someone who is having a very hard time this Christmas. As we load our busy calendars with promises of parties and good times, we would do well to take a bit of time to remember those who are suffering. My mother was wonderful at doing that. She spent a few minutes each day just calling people to cheer them. It was a simple gesture that took little time, but when she died all of those whom she had gifted with her compassion remembered those moments and spoke of how much they had meant. I was overwhelmed when I learned just how often she had quietly brought joy for people with the simple gesture of letting them know that they had not been forgotten in the rush of the season.

I am feeling fortunate and happy this year. I plan to enjoy Christmas, but I will also take the time  to remember that it is not a joyful time everywhere. There are people who are hungry, sick, lonely, grieving all around us. As they view the celebrating their sorrow only becomes more intense. They need us to remember them and make them part of our plans.

I hope to go see my aunts who are now in their nineties and living in nursing homes. They used to decorate every corner of their homes and bake goodies for days. Now they are bound to wheelchairs and dependent on the kindness of others. I want to bring them the cheer that they so deserve. I also plan to be sensitive to those who have lost or may be about to lose a loved one as they struggle through the season. Their hearts are heavy and they are in pain. I want to do something special for them.

Christmas is a time for remembering that Jesus Himself came down for the express purpose of saving us all. If we truly celebrate in the most appropriate way we will include those who need us most when we make our plans.

Just Like That

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Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.