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.    

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.

The Brilliance of Forgetting

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Well that’s a relief! I just found out that forgetfulness is a sign of exceptional intelligence. If that’s the case I must be a genius because I’m one of those folks who walks from one room to another with great purpose and then ends up wondering why I’m standing in a closet in a state of confusion. I’ve had to incorporate all sorts of apps into my routine just to keep track of appointments and passwords and even to handle a record of tasks that I need to complete. If the electricity ever went our for several days I’d be up a creek wandering about dazed and disorganized.

I’ve never been good at recalling things like my license plate number. That’s why I so loved my GAMMY 7 car with its never to forget personalized identification. When I eventually gifted the car to my grandsons I was happy to help them out, but I hated losing the one thing identified by a series of letters and numbers that I never ever forgot. It does’t even seem like the same car with its now generic set of symbols. I’d probably lose it in a parking lot without its familiar name smiling at me on that little metal plate. I’d be wandering about hoping to hear a little honking sound as I pressed the remote on my key fob.

I have to look up the numbers on my driver’s license every single time that someone asks me for that bit of identification, but I can spout my social security info without even thinking because I’ve had to be able to retrieve that combination of numbers since I was a student. It’s been an important piece of usefulness for jobs and all sorts of situations, so it’s become second nature to me like my name or my phone number. Speaking of which, having both a land line and cell can become a bit confusing, but so far I’ve managed to differentiate between the two. I keep wondering if it’s time to ditch the land land though because it has become rare for me or anyone that I know to use it.

I’ve always had a bit of dyslexia so I frequently transpose numbers, a tendency which can be lethal when teaching mathematics. I learned long ago to always check my solutions to problems. I became rather adept in determining if an answer appeared to make sense or not. Whenever I made a mistake while instructing my students I used it as a way to encourage them by admitting that we all have those moments of imperfection. I also took that time to demonstrate how to assess an answer in terms of whether or not it made sense. Nonetheless to this very day I sometimes find myself freezing in terror when faced with the seven and nine multiplication facts. I have to take a deep breath and hope that my brain is not so rattled that I make a fool of myself in front of my students.

When it comes to birthdays I’m really bad. Facebook has done me one of the grandest favors of my lifetime by reminding me of who is celebrating on any given day. Unfortunately their algorithm does not always choose to keep me in touch with all of the people that I definitely want to remember, so I suspect that I am missing a few of my favorite people from time to time. I ask anyone who has been forgotten to just understand that I’m not a birthday wizard. I know mine, those of my children and my grandchildren. After that I have to check a calendar.

A friend was asking me about someone’s address recently. I had no idea how to respond. I’m one of those kooky women who is able to drive to the homes of my friends and family members strictly by dent of landmarks and house styles and colors. If you ask me for numbers and sometimes even street names I’m lost, but I know exactly what places of business are on the corners where I must turn and I have an uncanny sense of direction. I know immediately whether or not I am traveling the right way even in a deep fog. In spite of that I still think of Siri as my new best friend as she navigates me all over the country. It’s as though I have a dear companion in the seat next to me making certain that I will never get lost.

I know people who describe life events with exact dates. I can’t remember whether an occasion transpired this year or a decade ago. I hate the medical forms that ask me when I broke my foot. I really have no idea how old I was other than the fact that I was young enough to participate in a miles long fund raiser. I didn’t wear proper shoes for the occasion and I ended up with a stress fracture because I did not yet I know that I had osteoporosis and was more likely than most to get broken bones. i suppose that I am one of those folks whose mind keeps track of general details rather than specifics.

I am able to recall events and conversations from my childhood quite vividly. For that matter any situation involving an encounter with another person is planted clearly in my mind. I suppose that such incidents are of particular importance to me. It is as though I can actually relive them, hear the voices, see the details and colors, have the same feelings. I find myself back in those times as though they were happening right now. It’s so strange how the mind works. I wonder how we unconsciously decide what is important enough to recall with clarity?

When I was a teenager working as a receptionist for our family doctor during the summer I learned about the power of knowing how and where to find information. The kindly physician showed me his vast collection of medical books and demonstrated how he would listen to a patient’s description of symptoms and then use the volumes to match them to a disease and its requisite treatments. That’s when I realized that we never really know everything, at least those of us who are not brilliant savants. It was quite freeing to understand that much of education teaches us how to find the resources that lead us to the answers that we need.

As I grow older I must indeed be getting more and brilliant if the research is to be believed because I am more and more forgetful without the electronic reminders that I have set in place. I have to say that our brave new world of information right at our fingertips has come along at just the right time of life for me. I can at least face the world without looking ridiculously confused about what to do next. Still, I miss those lovely calendars that I used to religiously carry in my purse or briefcase. Being the tactile learner that I am made them all the more meaningful. I found myself recalling the color coding that I used and the little pictures that I drew to emphasize the importance of certain things. I suppose that like Mitt Romney I still prefer relying on binders to sort and organize my life. Those images on little screens sometimes rattle my dyslexia in a way that the paper images never did, but at least they don’t get lost and they take the time to remind me of what I need to do with bells and whistles and little bubbles. I’m growing more and more fond of them by the day, at least until those moments when I can’t find my phone or my laptop.

The Golden Girl

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I have the most amazing friends! Their posts on Facebook invariably make my day. They seem to have a direct view into my heart and the things that matter to me. I suppose that we are friends because our spirits are kindred in one way or another and they often humble me with their wit and wisdom. There are so many days when they target the very concerns that are consuming my heart without ever realizing that they have hit such a tender target. A few mornings ago I shared several of the memes and stories that they posted because they were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Among them was a heartfelt admission from one of my former students, a young woman who in many ways had been a kind of “golden girl” in her class. I met her when she was a freshman in high school and was immediately taken by her obvious charisma. She was beautiful then and had become even more so in the ensuing years as maturity gave her a kind of polish. Intellectually she was outstanding in every sense. Her academic acumen was sharp and I saw her as a deeply gifted and talented individual. While her forte was writing, she was nonetheless one of the best in virtually every subject, easily rising to the top levels among her peers. Amazingly she was also a natural born leader who had the ability of assessing any situation and taking charge with a kind of ease. As if all of that were not enough, she was incredibly kind and compassionate, a trait that did not escape the notice of both her teachers and her classmates.

This magnificent person became a student at the University of Texas where she struggled a bit to find herself. Eventually she came back home to Houston and spent some time reassessing who and what she wanted to be in her life. She worked to put herself through college at the University of Houston and in the process developed managerial skills from her jobs. After earning her degree the KIPP Charter schools hired her to work in development. She brought so much heart and understanding of the organization and its goals that she has risen rather rapidly though the ranks. Her ascendancy does not surprise me at all because she is one of those rockstar individuals who consistently shines even in a crowd.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting this young woman for dinner. In a turn that speaks to her thoughtfulness she presented me with a replica World Series ring from one of the Houston Astro’s game that she had attended. She had noticed that I did not have one and that I had expressed my desire to get one from a silly post that I had placed on Facebook. While everyone else ignored my audacious request, she had taken it to heart thus proving to me what I already knew about her. She is the whole package, a woman with enormous gifts and and even bigger heart.

I had thought that nothing about this woman would amaze me because I deeply understood her talents and her drive. One morning when I was reading the offerings on my Facebook newsfeed I found the following post from her:

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t because I’ve never been one to put my business, good or bad, on social media. But I want to share this because I have come to terms with it. I have suffered from depression, I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know it went unspoken for longer than it should have. I thought that what I was feeling was normal, that the thoughts I had were normal. It wasn’t until I opened up to a friend about what I felt and what I thought that I realized how wrong I was. I was urged to talk, to seek help so I did. I started taking anti-depressants and sleep medication. A year and half later, things are better… most of the time. What people need to understand about depression is that it doesn’t have “a look”, you can’t always tell when someone is dealing with depression. Most of us live with it and are trying our best to get through it, we have good days. But some days are worse than others, and it’s more than just being sad and no we can’t just “snap out of it.” Yes I tried exercise, I tried meditation, I tried talking, I tried everything I could think of and some of it helped. At the end of the day I have accepted that this will come and go, that I needed to take the good days as wins and know that bad days will pass. I may not be the best at dealing with this, but I am dealing with it and I’m here for anyone who has questions, who needs someone to talk to or who just needs someone to listen.

I was literally overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude upon reading this post. In one moment she had proven herself to be even more remarkable than even I, one of her most ardent admirers, had ever dreamed. I fully understood how much courage it had taken for her to expose herself to potential criticism for I have witnessed so much ignorance about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in my own efforts to educate the public. In a single paragraph my lovely student perfectly described what life is like for those afflicted with diseases that invade the mind. I am over the moon in awe of her, and I have shared her words with others whom I know who have also walked in the shadows and confusion and loneliness of depression. Her beautiful description of her journey to health has already helped people that she does not even know to face their own battles.

We often see individuals who appear to be as perfect as anyone might be without realizing the challenges that they actually face. The beauty of my student and now adult friend is that she understood how much good would come from admitting to the struggle that she has endured. I feel that I am now one of her pupils learning what true determination and strength actually is. I am so grateful to know her. She is even more remarkable than I dreamed.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.