The Importance of Being There

largeAs adults we wear many different hats, all of which takes chunks of time to accomplish. We have relationships to nurture with family and friends. We may hold jobs that demand enormous numbers of hours. We want to be healthy, and so we may be dedicated to a routine of exercise and healthy eating. If we are religious we attend church services or read from tracts integral to better understanding our faiths. There are tasks related to our finances, the maintenance of our homes, and personal care and feeding. We push back moments of relaxation even though we know that we need them as much as the other dynamics of living. We are on the go from the moment that we arise in the morning until we fall exhausted into bed at night, sometimes far later than we might have wished. If anything happens to alter our routines we may feel as though we are drowning. An accident, an illness, a death, an unexpected event has the power of throwing us out of kilter, because we already feel pushed and prodded from all sides. Since we are responsible we do our best to satisfy everyone who is asking us to give them our time and talents, but we often feel as though we are slighting everyone and every aspect of our busy days. We find people among us who appear to keep it together so much better than we do which only adds to our feelings of imperfection. We are taught to admire the over achievers among us and to scoff at slackers, but we somehow think that living on a perpetually moving hamster wheel isn’t the best way to spend our days.

I’m as guilty of running at full speed in the rat race as anyone. I tend to be a classic Type A personality. I recall times when my mother or my in-laws would drop by our home unexpectedly throwing my finely honed schedule into a state of chaos. I still remember how anxious I felt and how much I wanted them to leave as quickly as possible so that I might resume my routines. Sadly I can’t remember any of the tasks that I was so frantic to do, but I do have fond memories of those visits and I find myself wishing with all of my heart that my loved ones might come knocking on my door once again. It’s funny how our perspective changes over time, and how we ultimately come to value our relationships over all of the other distractions that once seemed so important.

I copied a quote from someone’s Facebook wall that spoke to me. It goes something like this:

What if we stopped celebrating busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrate how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives? —-Greg McKeown

It’s funny how Mr. McKeown’s words are little more than common sense, but they seem so profound. Why is it that we all too often choose to ignore what is truly significant in favor of tasks and duties that other people tell us are important? Why are we so often fearful of shedding some of our responsibilities so that we might devote more of our time to making ourselves and the people around us happy? Why aren’t our heroes the people who have learned how to say “No”, or those who allow a bit of dust to accumulate in their homes so that they will be free to have some fun?

As an educator I sometimes encountered parents who were well known and highly regarded in the community because of their many outstanding achievements, but they were literally neglecting their children. Somehow their little ones had become not much more than props that helped in the advancement of their careers. When their kids began to falter and fail they could not understand that their continual absence from the home was a major contributing factor. Instead of altering their own behaviors they often threatened to send the young ones away if they did not work harder to overcome their lazy ways. What those students actually needed was a more stable and loving home life, not lectures on becoming more like their parents. The oft lauded parents had eschewed their duties in favor of devotion to careers, and somehow never learned how to balance their lives to include loving time for their offspring. 

I’ve also met brilliant men and women who chose to view their jobs as an adjunct to the real purpose of their lives, which was to build a nurturing and loving home. These individuals were often viewed as being rather average employees because they gave full efforts during normal work hours, but insisted on going home at reasonable times. For them what happened at the end of the day when family gathered together was the highlight of their efforts. The job was work, but what happened at home defined their essence. We sometimes overlook the enormous accomplishment of being an excellent parent, even to the point of dismissing women who spend a significant portion of their lives staying home to raise the children. We dismissively ask them what they do and judge them to be uninteresting once we realize that they have not had exciting careers outside of their homes.

Perhaps many of the ills that we presently see in society have their origin in the frantic paces that define so many of us. We are so busy running from one event to another that we don’t allow ourselves to do the things that Mr. Mckeown suggests should be backbone of our existence. If we were more willing to listen there would be far less hatred and far fewer broken souls. If we allowed ourselves to ponder the things that we see and hear and read we would be less inclined to fall for propaganda. If we were to make meditation an integral part of our days we might learn to relax and love ourselves just a bit more. If we were to spend more time with the people that matter most to us we would find more contentment, and most assuredly we would build more beautiful relationships and memories.

As I look back over the sixty plus years of my life I recall  hundreds of spectacular moments that make me smile and feel accomplished. Few of them resulted from performing mundane tasks to impress people who would eventually drift out of my life. The best of them center around people, members of my family, my friends, my students and colleagues. In the end it is not how busy we are that makes us important, but how well we spend the time that we have. In being there for ourselves and the people who mean the most to us we find our ultimate success.

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Resilience

21766401_1868966163120008_6720605651907966418_nI’ve written a great deal about the massive floods that inundated the city of Houston a month ago. The national media has featured multiple stories from varying points of view about the tragedy that befell my town. We will be working to rebuild for years and debating how best to prevent such destruction in the future for an even longer time. To say that all of us who live in Houston and surrounding areas have been deeply affected by what happened is an understatement. What has struck me most is the courage and resilience of the people with whom I share my part of the world as well as the outpouring of support and love that has been showered on us. I thought that I had written about most of the main themes regarding this event and its impact on human nature until I saw a photo from one of my Facebook friends that moved me so strongly that I have not been able to erase that image from my mind.

I still think of the woman who posted the picture as the little girl who lived across the street from me many years ago. She spent so many hours inside my house playing with my two daughters. She was always a very sweet child and I never minded having her around. She seemed to be smiling even in her sleep and she possessed a pleasant optimism about life that just felt so good. Her name is Priscilla and I never really forgot how much I liked her as the years marched by and we lost touch.

Eventually through the power of social media we found each other on Facebook and became friends again. I learned that she was happily married and had a handsome son of whom she was understandably proud. She lives in the same part of town that I do, and so one Christmas season I met up with her and my two daughters at a local restaurant. We celebrated our reunion with hours of conversation and recollections of happy memories. Now and again I encounter Priscilla at stores and eateries, but mostly I keep track of her via the Internet, and I enjoy hearing of her adventures with her family.

Not too long ago Priscilla made a move to her dream home in Pearland, a suburb of Houston. She excitedly kept her friends apprised of the decorating and landscaping that she and her husband undertook to make their house special. I was excited for her and enjoyed seeing all of the updates. So it was with a very heavy heart that I learned that Priscilla’s home was among those flooded by hurricane Harvey. In fact, the place took on water on the first day of the massive rains. It broke my heart to think of the sadness and fear that she must have been feeling.

I had forgotten that Priscilla is one of those people who is a survivor by nature. In almost no time she had managed to find a safe hotel in which to ride out the rest of the storm. She did her best to remain upbeat even in the face of so much uncertainty. It was as though she was more concerned about easing the fears of the rest of us than concentrating on her own fate. She kept us posted so that we would know that she and her family were secure and she exuded a confident belief that ultimately all would end well for them.

Almost as soon as the storms had moved from our area she was back at her house doing the work of cleaning out all of the muck that had found its way inside. She continued to send communications showing the progress that she and her family were making, somehow finding ways to joke about the pile of debris that grew and grew on their lawn. She always managed to allay our anxieties with photos of the cleaned out rooms now devoid of half of the sheetrock and all of the flooring. In essence she and her family had taken the place down to the studs, at least on the bottom half of the rooms.

I laughed at images of Priscilla’s garage which now housed a big screen television, a few lawn chairs, a barbecue smoker and a toilet. Priscilla had noted with a hint of sarcasm that the scene was about as redneck as one might ever get. She remained upbeat, at least publicly, and it was among the few times that I smiled rather than cried over what I witnessed after the storm.

Last week Priscilla posted an image that seemed to capture her spirit and that of my hometown. She and her family had moved back into their house even though there was still much work to be done. With a great deal of imagination she and her husband had created a makeshift kitchen that was a true sight to behold. The bottom cabinets were gone as was the flooring and even the sink. Only the sheetrock had been replaced. Instead of the normal amenities there were long folding tables serving as countertops, clear plastic bins providing cabinet storage, a camping sink acting as a station for washing dishes, and a new stainless steel stove gleaming like a beacon of hope. That photo spoke of Priscilla’s fighting spirit and resilience and at the moment that I saw it, she became for me the symbol of all that is good in our town. Hers was the story that I knew I needed to tell.

There is no doubt that Priscilla and so many others have suffered in ways that should not have happened. We all understand that we must address concerns about climate change, shoring up of levees around neighborhoods, improvements to dams, aggressive building in flood plains, increased attention to drainage systems and so forth. In our quest to reflect on what happened we cannot forget to applaud the human spirit that Priscilla so embodies. Rather than complaining or waiting for someone else to help, she and her family did indeed pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They tackled the hard work and found ways to make do until their world is rebuilt once again. They are models of how to react with positivity and inspiration in hard times.

I wish that Priscilla’s story and photos would be shared until they become viral because hers is a lesson that we all should strive to follow. Life is a series of events both wonderful and sometimes even horrific. We have little ability to control many things, but we always are in charge of how we react. Priscilla has chosen faith and joy and hope. We are all the better for seeing her example, and we somehow know that she will find a way to be just fine. We’d all do well to emulate her spirit. I’m thankful that she has been willing to share her journey. I know that I am humbled by what I have seen and I vow to attempt to be as resilient as she most assuredly is.

In the Course of Human Events

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Back when I was teaching in South Houston I had unusually large numbers of students who were Seventh Day Adventists. They were particularly sweet, hardworking and respectful pupils who made my job so much easier. I always appreciated that their parents had taught them values that included being thoughtful and compliant with regard to my classroom rules and routines. Mixed in with them were a number of hardcore gang members who seemed ready by their very natures to challenge me and thus divert my time and attention from the task of conveying and facilitating knowledge to all of my young charges. The gang members stood out with their swagger and their stealth ways of showing their allegiances. The children devoted to their particular religious tenets made themselves known in another way that we teachers accepted not as defiance but as their right with regard to certain features of the Bill of Rights. Namely, they sat quietly in their seats each morning while the rest of us stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

It was a given that their unobtrusive gesture of belief was something to be respected and perhaps even admired, and so nobody ever questioned their right or even their intent. There were no discussions, nor judgements. Instead we simply did our thing each morning and they did theirs. For me there was something quite beautiful about the freedom of it all, and the fact that we honored their freedom without making a big deal out of it. None of those kids had to have any form of proof of their religious belief on file. They might just as well have simply been frauds who took advantage of our largesse. We understood that it was really none of our business to question their views one way or another. It simply was what it was and it all passed quickly and without incident every single morning.

Over time I worked in many different schools and there was always the accepted actuality that we would not force our own religious or political or social beliefs on our students. We were to be respectful of individual thinking one way or another, and for the most part all of my colleagues defended the freedoms of the students, mostly without fanfare or drawing embarrassing attention to students who required special dispensations. We understood the importance of being fair and impartial.

Now a huge brouhaha has been dusted up over some rather inappropriate comments from the President of the United States of all people regarding players in the NFL and other sports who choose to take a knee rather than stand for the National Anthem. It is unfortunate that our leader appears to have neglected to thoroughly read and understand the full contents of the Bill of Rights, for it is rather clear that those athletes have as much right to make a political point by refusing to stand as my students did. The President may not agree with them or even like what they are doing, but to call them “sons of bitches” and suggest that they be fired is way out of line, and all Americans should call him out for doing so, regardless of their feelings about the players’ methods or intent. The fact is that the athletes have a right as Americans to express their discontent, and instead of mocking them our leaders should be proud that the Constitution with its Bill of Rights is still working as it was intended to do.

Of course the owners of the teams also retain the ability to employ whomever they wish. Players are regularly sent packing for a host of reasons, most of which deal with their abilities to perform their duties well. In truth if one of the owners wished to require their employees to stand during the opening ceremonies of each game he/she would be well within the guidelines of employment, but they need not respond to the whims of the President in making such determinations. It was wrong of President Trump to intimidate the owners with his remarks and his tweets which were undoubtedly made to garner political capital.

The question of how best to define patriotism has been argued since the very beginnings of the United States of America. There are those whose ideas are more narrow and confining. They insist that we will work best as a republic if we all agree to always honor our country and our leaders. Others feel that what is best about America is the ability to voice concerns without retribution. They see symbolic resistance as the highest form of patriotism, for it harks back to the Founding Father’s insistence that no authoritarian government has the right to tread on the rights of the individual. Our country began with revolution against a tyrannical government. The writers of the Constitution were determined to make certain that no one individual or group would have the power to insist that we think in lockstep. In this regard President Trump has overstepped his bounds. While he too has the right to disagree with the athletes who are mounting a protest, he surely is wrong when he disparages them for exercising their rights as citizens. Furthermore, his bullying tactics with regard to the team owners are both embarrassing and questionable. He would do well to retake a Civics course before mouthing off so publicly. He might also consider reacting the way we did when I was teaching whenever we encountered individuals whose beliefs were different from ours. We always understood that it was their right to question conventional thinking, and that our duty was to provide them with a safe space for doing so.

We will each react a bit differently to the protests among our professional athletes. The Constitution provides us with the protections to do so. We may turn off the games if we feel strongly enough. We may join them in taking a knee. We may even just choose to quietly ignore the whole incident and celebrate the wondrous idea that we have the power to make our own choices regarding such things in this country. It does not defile our national honor whenever any citizen exercises his or her rights. In fact it dramatically demonstrates that we are a truly free people.

Our military has fought for liberty from the time that those first shots were fired at Lexington and Concorde. We haven’t always created a perfect form of government, but we have worked hard to make it better. We haven’t always chosen the right sides, but we have somehow been able to recover from our mistakes and improve our ways of doing things. We will never reach the goals of a more perfect union if we are unwilling to pause now and again to question the way we do things and to discuss methods for being certain that every man, woman and child has a voice and a sense of security.

Our Founding Fathers were radicals in the world in which they lived. Their ideas were audacious for the time. I suspect that if they were around to comment they would insist that the players be allowed to have their moment to shed a light on issues that worry them. They would also encourage President Trump to be less domineering and pejorative, and far more willing to stop his tirades long enough to find out why these men feel so strongly about their concerns that they are willing to endure the wrath of their fans and the leader of the nation. It’s time for all Americans to insist that our president work for the good of all, not just the few that form his base of voters. That is what our founders intended, and that is the way it should work.

Frankly I am weary and I know that most of my fellow Americans are as well. I agree with Senator John McCain that it is well past time to dispense with all of the quibbling and attempt to remember what this country is supposed to be about. It’s a watershed moment in which we must set aside our hatefulness and invective and begin again to consider the diversity of needs that we have. Most of all it should be the duty of all to protect our First Amendment rights regardless of our own beliefs, for they are far more important than pledges or anthems or routines. Sometimes in the course of human events it becomes necessary to speak out.

  

Embrace the World

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The world may seem like a fairly ugly place right now if one only looks at the headlines. We’ve got President Trump railing about “Rocket Man” at the United Nations, and in return North Korea threatens to attack our country. There are riots in cities and on university campuses, and the mere mention of political topics tends to elicit hate filled arguments. We speak of building walls to keep people out, and watch helplessly as violence appears to be routine. Civility seems to be a thing of the past, and some might argue that it never really existed. There is much talk about how horrid our ancestors were and how much of the population is following in their footsteps. It’s enough to make one believe that we are going to hell in a hand basket, and in fact there are those who predict that the end of the world as we know it will be coming very soon.

Somehow I manage to hang on to the belief that we humans are not nearly as bad as some would have us think. I see far more signs of goodness than hate. I recently learned of a story about high school students who donated thousands of gift cards to their arch rivals at a football game last Friday. The kids had heard that their opponents had suffered more than most in the recent floods in the Houston area, and they decided to do their part to provide them with a bit of relief. What started as a minor effort turned into a very big deal, and it’s not the only instance of service and good works that I have seen of late. In fact, I have been impressed in particular by the efforts of young people in attempting to help their fellow Houstonians during a difficult time.

I have been watching the ongoing story of rescue efforts in Mexico after the horrific earthquake that has claimed so many lives. The heroic efforts to save those buried under the rubble of fallen buildings has kept me holding my breath and praying for both the victims and those who spent days without rest in a race to find as many survivors as possible. It has been touching to see the crowds signaling for silence so that the teams would be able to hear the sounds of cries for help.

In Puerto Rico the destruction from the recent hurricane has been frightening and without power and instant aide it has fallen to ordinary citizens to begin the process of bringing the island back to life. The people have been moving downed trees, picking up rubble and rescuing people trapped by floods. Rather than complaining, they assert that they are ready to do whatever is needed to help their friends and neighbors. Their spirit is something quite wonderful to see.

I hear so many people claiming that we have been overtaken by negativity and hatred, but what I witness day after day is just the opposite. On a regular basis I see teachers working extra hours and spending huge chunks of their paychecks to help their students. In turn I witness students volunteering to care for the elderly, visit the sick or help with animals that have been abused. Complete strangers have come from as far away as Australia and Norway to assist my city after the devastation of hurricane Harvey. Sure there have been a couple of incidents of looting and thievery, but on the whole the response has been good and generous.

I enjoyed the movie Wonder Woman because its theme was one of hope and faith that mankind even with so many imperfections is ultimately a loving species. I believe that to be quite true. My experience has always been that there will be people who provide and that nobody is ever completely alone. It is in our natures to want to be generous. We listen for those cries of help and we respond.

It would be quite easy to be cynical and to close ourselves off from perceived threats, but I choose instead to embrace the world with optimism. We may have some rough times, but ultimately our goodness as humans always seems to find a way of winning the day. We definitely won’t have a chance at happiness if we immerse ourselves in negativity. We have to be willing to trust that our fellowmen and women will mostly be good people with the same kind of dreams that we have.

One set of beliefs insists that we are all born sinful and that we have to be saved. I prefer to think that each of us comes into this world as innocent as can be and that we have the opportunity to become even better as long as we keep trying. There are few people who are lost causes, and most of them are either mentally defective or have been so abused that they have only learned to hate. We need to deal with people on an individual basis rather than making assumptions that they are representative of entire groups or populations.

We have many problems that will only be solved if we learn how to talk with one another again and begin to trust that we each have good intentions but different solutions. If we are able to dialog and work together we will learn how to live with a variety of ideas and actually like them. We have to think of how to keep our nation safe without being unjust. There must be ways to have a fair and controlled immigration system without building walls. We have to consider alternative points of view and ask ourselves how we will meet the costs of programs that we find to be important. All issues are complex and we must be willing to admit that no one of us has all of the answers. Sometimes the best solutions come from the diversity of our opinions.

We might start by taking the time to look at the state of our world without so much hyperbole. The truth is that our goals are much more alike than they are different. We somehow find ways to solve the most difficult of problems when disasters strike. Perhaps we might consider what it is about our instant responses that makes us more cooperative and willing to set aside differences. Maybe it is the simple fact that we don’t overthink when we must react quickly. We just do what seems most needed and important at the moment, and don’t fret over what the consequences will be. Maybe our instincts to be helpful and unselfish are the ones that we should be following most of the time. Let’s have a bit more trust in human nature. I think we may find that we really can count on our fellowman more often than not. We people are actually rather kind. I like knowing that.

A Birthday Gift To Us All

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I have to pinch myself when I look at my husband, Mike. I still can’t believe how lucky I have been to have him as my husband. I tend not to notice that he is no longer the young lion that I met so long ago nor that his hair has grown white and thinner than it once was. I marvel that he is still with me after so many years, as loving and faithful as ever. I rejoice that we will celebrate another of his birthday’s together today, and I can’t quite believe that this will be his seventieth. As I look back over time I have so many wonderful memories of our life together, but mostly I marvel at the person that he has always been.

I have learned that he is the amalgam of lessons learned from his grandmother, his mother, his father and his education at St. Thomas High School. He was taught through example how to be a truly great man. His mother was a remarkable woman who was far ahead of her time with her independent spirit. If she had run for President of the United States I feel certain that she would have won. She always insisted that Mike treat women with great respect and who better to learn from than his father who has always been the consummate gentleman? In high school Mike was shown the importance of faith, loyalty and good character. He learned his lessons well but in many ways it was his grandmother who showed him the value of unconditional love. All of these factors produced a man who has always been kind and generous and guileless, but never naive. He is a strong protector but also an equal and supportive partner.

Mike has a brilliant mind that allows him to digest and synthesize information readily. Conversations with him are beyond interesting because he draws his comments from a library of information that he has somehow managed to catalog in his brain and pull up at a moment’s notice. He is one of those lifelong learners who reads and watches continuously. He has made our life together so much more exciting because of his encyclopedic knowledge on so many topics. In many ways he is a true renaissance man with his abilities to do and discuss almost anything. He is as good at wiring a house as discussing history or business. He is a truly delightful person to be with and I have had the honor of walking at his side for almost fifty years, never once growing bored with our companionship.

Mike often tells people that he was thunderstruck when he met me, but I don’t mention enough that the feeling was quite mutual. I remember telling my friends at the time that I thought I had just met the man with whom I was going to spend the rest of my life. I had no idea then just how exciting our journey together would be. When people see me today they are encountering a woman who was much different when I first met Mike. He has been my mentor, my muse, and the one person who encouraged me to take risks to become who I am today. No matter what I have wanted to accomplish, he has been my cheerleader, telling me that I have the power to accomplish anything. I suspect that I would not have been nearly as happy or successful in life had it not been for our chance meeting so long ago. I thank God for him every single day.

This particular birthday for Mike is of especial importance to me because of my understanding that I might very well have lost him this summer when he had a stroke. In true Mike fashion he has been the rock who has helped me to deal with our new reality. He has prepared me for any eventuality and insisted that I will do well with whatever situation arises. That is the kind of person that he is, always thinking of me and our family. He loves with a passion that is immeasurable and he has always been willing to sacrifice for the well being of me and our girls.

Mike is a humble man except for when it comes to our children and grandchildren. Then he puffs out his chest and fairly glows with pride. He has quietly watched them grow in wisdom and age and grace and it brings him great contentment to see how well they continue to do. His love for them and for all of the members of our extended family is boundless. He is always at the ready to open his home and his heart to any one them who may be in need.,

Perhaps my greatest admiration for Mike is related to the way that he treated my mother. Her bipolar disorder often created very unlikeable symptoms. When she was in the throes of a manic episode she sometimes said horrific things to him. Somehow he always remained steadfast in understanding that it was her disease speaking and not her true heart. He continued to show her kindness even as she insulted him in every possible way. When she came to stay at our home at the end of her life he was welcoming and enjoyed being able to provide her with a touch of security as she slowly became more and more ill. At the very end he sat holding her hand and promising to take care of me and my brothers with all of the powers within him. He and my mom shared a bond of mutual understanding on the day that she died. They expressed their love for one another and it made my mother comfortable to know that he would indeed watch over her family in her absence. Like me, she had witnessed his steadfast strength and love.

I can only hope and pray that there will be many more birthdays with Mike, but I have most recently learned just to appreciate the moments that we have without overthinking and worrying too much about the distant future. He is a most extraordinary man and I celebrate that our world has been lucky enough to have someone of his caliber working day after day to make our little corner of it a better place. It’s funny how on his birthday I am reminded that he has been a gift to all of us who know him. It is so typical of him to be the giver just by his existence even on his birthday.