Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

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All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

The Universe Awaits

DannyI truly love all of the young men and women who were once my students. Still, now and again there are those who stand out just a bit, making me certain that they will have a glorious life ahead. One of those is Danny Martinez. I have written about Danny in previous blogs. His faith is a beautiful thing to witness and whenever I need a special prayer I always make certain that Danny is on my prayer chain. His earnest belief in the power of God is quite special. He likes to remind me that I should already know that God is caring for me, and in every case I find his words to be true.

Danny is also a person filled with optimism and determination, a man who is not willing to give up no matter how difficult things become. It has been said that grit, or the willingness to persist, is one of the most important adult qualities. If that is so, and I believe it is, Danny will go far in life.

Danny is the first to tell the stories of the time in which he made a dramatic change in his life. He was only in the fifth grade but already having scrapes with the law. He was going nowhere fast, and somehow he peered into a dreary future and decided that he needed to become a better person. He saw education as the pathway to the kind of existence that he wanted. He yearned to be an engineer and maybe even to one day be selected for a job at NASA so that he might have a shot at being an astronaut. In pursuit of that goal he buckled down and became the kind of student that every teacher dreams of educating. By the end of his high school years he was admired by his classmates and all of his teachers, earning him the highest honor that the faculty give to one senior each year.

Danny headed to the University of Texas Permian Basin for college. His struggles continued. His family’s car broke down on the way to the campus and lacking the money to stay in a motel his loved ones slept inside their car. Danny had few opportunities to travel home because the cost of doing so was too much. He might have complained about his fate, but in characteristic fashion he looked on the bright side of things and soldiered on without mentioning his travails. His optimism and sense of purpose impressed those he met, and so he made many friends at the university and caught the eye of his professors as well.

At one point Danny finally managed to get an automobile to drive back and forth but sadly had a very serious wreck that might have severely injured him save for what appeared to be a miracle. Danny was certain that God had a plan for him and so he was not discouraged even when it took him longer than he had anticipated to earn his degree. He kept working hard and believing that God’s grace would pull him through. In the process he became beloved on campus and just last year was named the outstanding student. Everyone saw his indomitable spirit just as we had when he was back in high school.

Danny graduated this month and I suspect that he is only at the beginning of what will surely be an incredible future. Danny is not one to give up, nor is he likely to forget his humble beginnings and all of the people who have encouraged and supported him along the way. He already knows that God is by his side, and he proclaims the joy that his relationship with the Father has brought him.

Danny grew up in the north side of Houston, in a place where there are many temptations to take the easy way out. He chose instead to put in all of the effort he needed to demonstrate his heart and his abilities. Not once did he make any excuses, even when times became tough. He simply carried on taking one day at a time, convinced that he would be able to achieve a life that had at one time seemed almost impossible when he spoke of it to those who would listen. In the process Danny has influenced members of his family and friends to make the kind of changes that he has. He is not only propelling himself forward, but also bringing others with him. He is indeed an exquisitely beautiful soul.

I am bursting with pride over Danny’s accomplishments. I still recall the first time I met him when he was a freshman in my second period Algebra I class. He was so welcoming, and he encouraged the other students to behave and take advantage of the opportunity to learn. Even then he was extraordinary,

I know that my friendship with Danny will continue and I look forward to watching him navigate adult life with the same aplomb that he has always shown. “Congratulations, Danny Martinez. The universe is waiting for you, and we know that your impact will be as incredible as you are.”

Shout For Joy!

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Christmas is my favorite day of the year. For me it is a time to pause from the hurry of life and to contemplate my many blessings while in the company of the family and friends that mean so much to me. As a Catholic it is also a reminder of the birth of our Savior, a humble beginning of an incredible story that resonates with millions and millions of believers and even non-believers across the world. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable on a cold winter’s night and would grow to become one of the most influential voices ever heard on this earth. Even without the religious overtones of His preaching, the kind of life He advocated is beautiful in its simplicity and its immense love. It is so fitting that we still acknowledge His impact on the world over two thousand years after He walked and talked among the people of His time.

I’m not one to proselytize. I think that each of us has a right to whatever beliefs suit us, but I am eternally gratefully that my parents, and particularly my mother, taught me about Jesus and encouraged me to accept His teachings. I was baptized at All Saints Catholic Church by Father John Perusina. My godparents were my Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack. I was an infant then and recall nothing of that moment, but I do know that my godparents took their vow to guide me in my religion very seriously. I understood that I would be able to count on them to be like two guardian angels quietly watching over me. They and my mother and father modeled the essence of being good people, the kind that Jesus said that we all should be. Following His word and their example has brought much happiness to me and taken me through the most difficult of times. I truly cannot imagine my life without my faith to sustain me.

I understand that the world is comprised of a vast diversity of beliefs. I try to honor the opinions and ways of thinking of others. I value their right to view the world through their own unique lenses. At Christmas time I know that my Jewish friends are just as sincere in their religious philosophies as I am in mine. So too it is with the Muslims that I know, the Christians of other sects, and even those who choose not to believe in a higher power. Still I would argue that Jesus was a good guy with very brilliant thoughts that if followed even in a secular sense would make for a glorious world. After all, what can possibly be wrong with following His mandate to love one another? I suppose that is what Christmas means to me.

At this time of year I am reminded to stop long enough to share my own bounty and joy with others. I know that mine has been a wonderful life, mostly because of people who have followed the ways of Jesus, even when they did not adhere to Christianity. I have mostly encountered and been surrounded by individuals who did their best to be kind and generous, honest and loyal. In that regard I suppose that I may count myself as rich. In the end not a single one of my possessions is even remotely equal to the value of the family, friends and acquaintances that I have met in the journey that has lead to my seventy first Christmas. The gifts that I give and receive are but symbols of the love that surrounds me. In this regard I have been truly saved.

At the center of all of our Christmas revelry is a man who was willing to give his life so that we might all be saved. Even if we do not believe that he was not anymore godlike than the rest of us, he left us the treasure of his way, truth and life. Surely everyone must admit that it was a glorious gift that has indeed saved millions of us throughout the ages. I know that it has been my hope and salvation.

So on this Christmas Day I shout for joy! The Lord has come and He has been my Guide and my Savior.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! May each of you find the words and the teachings that will anchor you to happiness throughout the days of your lives.

A Kinder Gentler Man

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Barbara Bush often mentioned that she had been enthralled by George Bush from the moment that they met as teenagers. He was handsome, athletic, bright, and most of all kind. George was a gentle soul with an inner courage that demonstrated itself during World War II when he enlisted at the age of eighteen in the Navy and became the youngest pilot. The love between him and Barbara only grew during the years when he was gone. He named his plane after her and sent her letters that unabashedly expressed his feelings for her. They married in 1945 and became partners in a life that would bring them both tragedies and great joy.

Barbara was George’s helpmate, supporting him in following each of his dreams. Their journey together led them to places like Midland, Texas where George would make his fortune. Later they moved to Washington D.C. and points all around the world when George decided to serve his country once again in a number of positions that ultimately led him to the White House. Along the way the two of them created a beautiful family, but also suffered the grief of losing a child. Through it all their love and optimism only grew.

Barbara was always there for George. She waited for him to return home from the war. She was the first person he saw when he came home from work. She was the source of comfort when he was dealing with the problems of the entire world. They were a real team, and their’s was the kind of marriage that stands as a model of equal partnership and mutual sacrifice. They became icons of togetherness that we all loved to see. Their union represented the best of love and devotion.

George H. W. Bush was an energetic and driven man. He did well at anything that he attempted to accomplish. He appeared to have a Midas touch, but it was in fact hard work and the backing of his family that kept him going. Mostly it was also his profound love for the United States of America and his belief that it was his duty to serve the country in any way in which he was called upon to do. He had learned that from his father and he passed the lesson on to his children. He knew that our nation had to be tough at times, but he also felt that we should strive to be kind and gentle.

George H.W. Bush was humble. Angela Merkel has called him “the father of the unification of Germany” because he was indeed the person who orchestrated the diplomacy that resulted in the demolition of the Berlin Wall. When celebrations of that event took place he insisted that the spotlight be shone on the German people. He refused to take credit for his work, instead noting that the moment belonged to Germany alone, not a particular man.

George H. W. Bush was fair minded. He loved to compete and wanted to win as much as anybody ever did, but when he was defeated in his bid for a second term as President he conceded without rancor. He hid his disappointment and worked to make the transition for President Clinton as smooth as possible. He left a generous note of encouragement for his successor even as he buried his own disappointment in his heart. Eventually he and President Clinton would become great friends, partners in efforts to help the victims of natural disasters like Katrina. Bill Clinton would become known as “Bubba” in Bush’s family, and the two would become such good friends that they were almost like father and son.

George H. W. Bush taught us so much about dignity, family, dedication, optimism and openness. In his later years he and Barbara lived in Houston, Texas and enjoyed all of the same kinds of things that we all do in this often misunderstood city. He regularly ate pizza at a family restaurant in his neighborhood. He became good friends with the owner and with all of the people that he encountered on his walks with Barbara and his dogs. As he grew frail and wheelchair bound he still found ways to get out to support the Astros and to attend  football games at Texas A&M where his presidential library is located. There was nothing stand offish or patronizing about him. He was as genuine as they come, and we Houstonians loved him and treasured him. He was one of us.

George H.W. Bush impressed those that he met with his earnest attempts to make them feel comfortable. He liked to laugh and enjoy the small moments of his life, especially when Barbara was by his side. He became one of the most brilliant points of life in our city, our country and our world.

I suppose that to me the words “Make America Great Again” would mean to find leaders more like George H.W. Bush, a hero, a statesman, a dignified, humble and honorable man who loved his God, his family and his country with all of his heart. No doubt Barbara was waiting for him when he entered heaven just as she always did here on earth. He is at peace and enjoying his just reward, but we will surely miss him.