A Joyful Presence

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Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.

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Finding the Love

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I am a believer. I am certain that there is a God, even when He doesn’t appear to be near. I have felt His presence in my heart on many occasions, and sometimes He has required me to be strong and muddle through really difficult problems seemingly without any sign of Him. I also believe in angels and saints. I think they do much of the day to day work of watching over us mortals, and often they are people that we have known who have earned a heavenly reward. I don’t really understand how it all works, but I have faith that it does. I pray knowing that some of my requests will honored in very different ways than I expected. Always I get the sense that I am never alone, even in my darkest hours, even in those times when what is happening seems cruel and unfair.

I get subtle messages during daily routines that ease my anxieties and allow me to carry on amidst the harsh realities of living. I may recall my mother’s smiling face and be filled once again with the boundless love that she always gave to me and my brothers. I may recall a bit of wisdom that I heard in a homily at church. I may look into the sky and realize the grandeur of the universe that tells me that somehow there is something more to the orderliness than the mathematical formulas of physics.

My brother was a fire fighter. He saw things that were tragic and difficult to process. Much like a military man he was affected by what he witnessed, particularly when it involved death. His work led him to God because, as he tells it, he saw many whose lives ended in the course of his efforts to help them. For some the last breaths were agony, but others looked heavenward with a confidence and even joy that radiated total peace. My brother wanted what those people had and found that it was faith in God that had comforted them as they drew their last breaths. It didn’t seem to matter what religion they had as much as their willingness to surrender to belief in something quite mysterious.

I was a teacher and I found over and over again that children being raised with some form of faith in some form of God tended to be more confident and resilient. It didn’t matter as much whether or not they were rich or poor as how deeply they were anchored by a belief in something bigger than themselves. They navigated through troubled times with heavy hearts just as we all do, but they believed that they were never alone and that feeling made their journeys just a bit easier.

I know many individuals whose faith is imprinted on their faces. They do not proselytize or advertise but instead they demonstrate the kind of inner calm that comes from believing with every fiber of their being. They are special souls whose faith is so deep that they radiate joy. They answer all of life’s problems by counseling with their Lord and then doing what they think to be His bidding. They proceed with an unquestioned knowledge that everything is unfolding just as it is supposed to be. I envy them the glory that they have found because I admittedly become far to impatient with the pace of existence. I want to know why bad things happen to good people.

In the western world of today there are fewer and fewer believers. We have become a secular society relying mostly on ourselves to overcome difficulties. There are both subtle and not so subtle criticisms of religion all around us. Well educated and powerful people almost laugh at the ridiculousness of thinking that there is a higher power or a life after death. They see churches and prayers as a waste of time. They suggest that we use our common sense and lean more on science and the manmade laws of justice to solve our problems. There are moments when they make sense, but then I get one of those messages in my heart that tell me that they are wrong. A little whisper helps me realize that there are mysteries that even science can’t unravel.

I see those who believe making it through terrible times intact while those who scoff at such ideas floundering when life becomes overwhelming. I want the nonbelievers to know and feel what I do, I am reluctant to sound like a preacher. I see their eye rolls if I suggest God or prayer. It seems that all that I can do is pray for them just as St. Monica pleaded for her fallen son. It frustrates me that they do not know the kind of joy that believing continuously brings me and I want to share. I know that they will only find what I have when they are ready. I long for the day when they too might embrace the knowledge that they have never been alone. I want them to find the love that I feel so deeply.

This morning I was worried about people that I see struggling. They are souls lost in a storm at sea. They battle the waves mightily but find themselves being pulled under the water where they choke and feel on the verge of losing hope. I see them fighting for their lives without the benefit of knowing that God is indeed watching over them. They do not sense His comfort. They are angry and hurt. I prayed for them and even that they might one day find the kind of peace that courses through my body and my mind. I needed a sign that my words were being heard, and then I began to see things that set my heart at ease.

There was a message on Facebook from one of the most faith-filled persons that I know. He was calling his many friends to prayer and his pleas included a photo of himself sitting in an empty church waiting for us to join him. Yet another post featured an image of a sunrise over Virginia. As I gazed at the magnificent horizon I found myself thinking of my grandfather and wondering if he had seen such sights as a young boy growing up in that part of the world. I remembered his long and optimistic life and once again recalled his wisdom and how comforting it had always been to me. Somehow I felt as though he was an angel sending me the message that things will ultimately work out and reminding me to be faithful and patient just as he always was.

I am a believer. I so wish that the gift of faith that I received first from my mother might comfort those who feel so lost and alone. There is a God. There are angels and saints. We are all part of a glorious plan that does not assure us that we will never suffer, but does guarantee that we will find the strength that we need to face our earthly challenges and find the love that will sustain us. 

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. 

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.”