When In The Course

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It always amazes me how we humans generally follow the rules. On any given day millions of people adhere to speed limits, stop at red lights even if there is nobody around, stay inside their designated lanes. There is always an implied threat of being caught and given a citation for breaking the law, but mostly people do what they are supposed to do because they realize that the statutes have been set in place for safety and the common good. We innately understand the value of working together for the benefit of all even if it is sometimes a bit inconvenient.

There are thousands of examples of how most of us know, understand and appreciate conformity to the directives that keep our society running smoothly. Now and again, however, we encounter situations in which it becomes uncomfortable to simply sit back and adhere to the status quo. In those moments we feel a grip in our stomaches and ask ourselves what our role should be. Do we sit back and quietly watch or do we rise up to voice our concerns? When is it best to avoid the fray, and when must we say something lest we no longer be able to gaze at ourselves in the mirror? How do we decide which aspect of a complex disagreement is the most right and just?

Since I am a huge fan of history I tend to be a documentary fangirl. Netflix is all too aware of my viewing preferences, and they continuously alert me to any new features that are available for my viewing pleasure. Recently they suggested that I might enjoy a program about Winston Churchill and his role during World War II. The story began at a time when much of the world was doing its best to ignore the warning signs that Adolf Hitler was a maniacal and dangerous dictator. Churchill was one of the few who consistently voiced concerns about the direction in which Germany was heading, in part because he was so vocal, Churchill’s views were initially thought to be a bit kooky. Nobody wanted to engage in controversy, and doing so was thought to be risky. Thus most of the world donned rose colored glasses and went about their routines hoping that the shenanigans in Germany would at worst be little more than an annoyance. Of course we know that such was not the case and Churchill was proven to be the right voice at the right time. His analysis of Adolf Hitler was insightful and he never quelled his criticisms of the dangers that he saw unfolding in Europe. If not for his steadfast diligence, Britain might have endured the same fate as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France.

Churchill somehow sensed that quietly accepting Adolf Hitler and hoping that he would simply fade away was an untenable stance. He raised his voice at a moment in time when it was unpopular to do so. People were tired. They had lost much in World War I. They worried that becoming divisive might shatter the peace that was precarious at best. it felt better to just ignore the craziness, keep the boat from rocking. Eventually the entire world would be forced to take a stand, choose a side, something that most had hoped to avoid. The question that lingers to this day is what people might have done from the very beginning to prevent the carnage that ensued. How different would that phase of history have been if Hitler had been defied not just by other nations, but by the German people from the moment that his ideas began to appear unhinged? 

The problem with such wishful thinking is that it is utterly useless after the fact. It is only in the moment that each of us has an opportunity to be heard and to do what we believe to be right. The trick is in unravelling the complexities of a situation and reaching the heart of the matter. To be willing to stand on a mountain top warning our fellow human beings of danger, we must first believe with all of our hearts that we will not be viewed as just another boy crying wolf. We must sense that what we have to say is so important that to secret it away in our hearts would be morally wrong. In such instances we sense that we must bend or even fracture the mores and rules that confine us so that our warnings might be heard.

My Facebook wall has been filled with impassioned pleas for love and understanding of late. Mothers worry about the contentious world in which their children must grow into adults. It feels as though hate is festering in the most unexpected places. We can’t even get a sense of well being from listening to our president, because he is more concerned with defending himself than being a beacon of hope. It feels as though we are being torn apart as a nation and within our relationships. So many are choosing to lock themselves away from it all. Only a few brave souls are willing to take the heat of criticism by voicing their concerns. The rest try to pretend that the unrest will soon all just go away, but even recent history has shown us all too clearly that the issues that trouble us only become more and more complex when we ignore them. Furthermore, they are rarely resolved when we are unable to find ways of working together.

I truly believe that the evil of this world represents a small minority, but it is nonetheless up to all good people to keep it in check. The hate that we see must always be called out for what it is. There can be no excuses, no watering down of our contempt. We cannot just look the other way when we see it, for it is when the good people join forces that they transform into an immovable power. They cannot be stopped until the depravity is eradicated. This truth has been demonstrated time and time again, so I wonder why we are so often reluctant to use it.

The fact is that there are groups of people in our country today who advocate the most detestable ideas possible. Under the guise of protecting an object, a statue, such groups held an abhorrent rally in Charlottesville that ultimately resulted in the death of an innocent young woman and the injury of others. Their only intent was to spread their poisonous ideas, not to somehow save the history of the south. They travel from venue to venue hoping to gain attention and new followers. They besmirch the legacy of the generation who defeated Hitler and all for which he stood when they parade through towns imitating the one of the most vile regimes that the world has seen. They are petty and lost souls who fester in anger, blaming imagined  slights for their own inconsequential lives. Any good thinking person should shun them and their despicable ideas, not find excuses for their behavior and thereby fuel their momentum. In other words, this is a watershed moment in which decent people must stand together to let such groups know that we will not accept their torches, their Nazi salutes, or their philosophies of hate. We will not allow them to enlist us in their misdirected causes. We will not find ways to mitigate their responsibility for spreading a disease of prejudice. We will make them the pariahs that they deserve to be.

Don’t turn away. Don’t tune out. Sometimes we have to make noise. Sometimes we have to demonstrate our courage. Our children are watching. Let’s show them what to do when in the course of human events we have no other choice than to stand firmly, proudly and publicly for what is right.

Let It Go

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I grew up in Houston, Texas in the south. As a child I remember hearing Dixie being played and sung now and again. When I was young I actually believed that I had descended from Confederate Rebels and it was only later that I found out how wrong I had been. Of course my mom’s ancestors were busy chafing under the rule of Hungarians while the Civil War raged here. It was from my father’s side that I assumed that I had come from bonafide Johnny Reb stock. Imagine my shock, and maybe even a bit of relief, when my genealogical searches revealed that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, was a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Volunteers and that he fought for the Union. In fact, he participated in a number of crucial battles and was around to bury the dead at Shiloh. It ends up that the inclement weather and horror of that event badly affected his health in later years and after the war he seemed rather intent on putting his days of fighting behind him. I suppose that those of us who are still arguing over the aftermath of that terrible conflict might be wise to follow his lead.

I’ve always had a fascination for history and so I have read a number of biographies and historical texts. Robert E. Lee was someone about whom I wanted to know more. In so many ways he was an enigma. He graduated from West Point and for a time was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army of the United States. He sometimes questioned the morality of slavery, but nonetheless held the odd belief that it served a purpose in helping the enslaved humans to learn the necessary skills to be full fledged members of society. He loved his country but felt a higher allegiance to his state. He saw secession as treason, but agreed to join the Confederate cause nonetheless. In other words he was a highly conflicted man who wanted to be honorable but often demonstrated profound confusion about how one should live. In the end he actually felt that the long war should never have happened, and he spent much of his later years attempting to free his soul from guilt. 

The aftermath of most wars becomes a time for trying and punishing those guilty of crimes or treason, while the rest of the population goes on to live ordinary and quiet lives like my grandfather. The days after the Civil War were different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant felt that no purpose would be served in meting out vengeance against their fellow countrymen who had gone astray. There were no trials in which Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were held accountable or punished. Instead they were allowed to live with only their own self reflection to determine the final chronicle of what they had done. For Robert E. Lee it was a bitter pill to ruminate on the utter folly of the war and its impact on the entire country. He must have asked himself time and again why he had gone against his own beliefs that secession would be a fools errand.

Time has a way of glossing over the ugly realities of history. As the years passed people from the south often found ways to excuse the actions of their ancestors who had believed that destroying the country was actually the only way to deal with political conflicts. They saw the war as being noble and courageous, but the truth is that it was a horror that need never have happened. To celebrate those who led their fellowmen into the very jaws of hell seems to be a rather ridiculous idea, and yet that is what happened in cities and towns all across the south where monuments and statues were erected to honor men who in many ways had been fools. Perhaps it was a way of ignoring the truth of how incredibly wrong the entire conflict had been.

It would be one thing to mourn the lost souls who died in those terrible battles that pitted American brother against American brother, but it is quite another to glorify those who had took the common people so far astray. It would be akin to building monuments in honor of Adolf Hitler all over Germany. We would surely see the inappropriateness of such memorials, but somehow we fail to realize how ludicrous it is to honor men who literally performed treasonous acts against the United States when they chose to go to war against the government. Perhaps Robert E. Lee said it best. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

We have harbored the feelings of separation and divisiveness far too long. Walking through the Shiloh battlefield I felt no glory, but only a deep sadness that people were unable to find ways to settle their differences through any means other than fighting and killing. There is no magnificence at Gettysburg, only despair that man’s anger overwhelmed his ability to find common solutions. War is always hell. Slavery was wrong. We all know in our hearts that these are truths. Why then do we continue to quibble over hunks of stone and metal that remind us of a past that was horrific by anyone’s standards? We can remember all of those who lost their lives with compassion, but we need not attempt to honor those who were responsible for the carnage. Taking down the troublesome statues does not erase the history, for we can never forget how terrible it was. Instead it focuses on understanding and a willingness to move on and let go of feelings that seem to have festered long after they should have been set aside.

I suspect that if Robert E. Lee were to hear of the battles that now ensue over the appropriateness of monuments to in his honor he would remind us of his own words and respectfully ask us to take the monoliths down. We should do so not out of a sense of political correctness, but because it is time for healing that will never fully happen until we are willing to admit to the wrongness of that terrible chapter of our history. We can place those images on battlefields or inside museums where the story of that time might be told, but it is no longer necessary to glorify the mistakes of our past. We must move ever forward and remember the words of another contemporary of Robert E. Lee.

As the war neared its end and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address his mood was melancholy and compassionate. He pointed to the horrific waste of the war but also its necessity in bringing justice to our land. Still he wanted all of us to come together as brothers “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

This is our challenge as the American people. In the name of all 600,000 men who lost their lives as well as those who were forever altered, it is time for us to heed the words of our great president who himself became a martyr to his noble dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is far past time to stop the fighting and to let it go.

The Dragonfly

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I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

Celebrating a Life

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Many years ago an acquaintance of mine asked me to watch her mother while she ran an errand. I was somewhat surprised by the request because up until that moment I had not realized that my friend was the sole caretaker of an invalid parent. Still I agreed to help her, and so I travelled the few short blocks to her house. There I found a home that had been reconfigured to meet the needs of a wheelchair bound individual. A homemade ramp led to the front door and much of the furniture inside had been moved to the perimeters of the rooms to allow enough space for the chair to move freely. There was a station that contained medical supplies at the ready and a bottle of oxygen stood in the corner of the living area. One of the bedrooms housed a hospital bed and the bathtub had been converted to a walk-in model with handrails and a permanent seat bolted to the floor.

I was stunned to see the extent to which my friend had redone her home to accommodate her mother’s needs. After sitting with ailing mother for a couple of hours I also realized just how much my neighbor’s role as a caretaker dominated her life. I realized that watching an invalid as ill as the old lady was akin to looking after a baby. I had not even a minute to myself, and I was exhausted and more than ready to leave by the time my friend returned.

I developed a new admiration for my friend on that day. She had been responsible for her mother for many years, but up until then I had not understood how isolated her duties had made her, nor how much time and patience she had devoted to her mom. I marveled at how upbeat and positive she was as well. Never once had I heard her complain about her responsibilities. In fact, she always indicated that she viewed her job as a privilege, an opportunity to repay her mother for a lifetime of sacrifices.

My friend’s mother died not long after I my brief time of watching her. It was then that I learned what a vibrant woman the elder woman had been in her prime. I suspected that she had passed down her energy and optimism to her daughter, a bright light in our circle who was known throughout the neighborhood for her generosity. I had to admit that I would not have been as willing to completely reconstruct my life the way that my buddy had done for her parent. I always stood in awe of her but never got around to voicing the deep respect that I had for her. Eventually our lives took us in different directions and I lost track of her, but she has been one of the most inspirational individuals that I have known to this very day.

I often wonder why we humans are so reluctant to voice our compliments for one another. We tend to get so caught up in our daily routines that we never quite get around to saying the things that we are thinking. Time passes. Things happen, and before we know it our opportunities are gone. It makes me wonder how many people never receive the praise that is due them simply because we humans tend not to prioritize expressing our feelings.

I remember once seeing a comedy in which friends of a dying cancer victim staged a surprise party in which they one by one expressed the thoughts that they might otherwise have reserved for comments at her funeral. I felt that it was a grand idea and have wondered why we don’t do such things more often. Perhaps we worry that it will seem macabre or that it will take away the hope of someone who is fighting to stay alive. Perhaps we are just a bit superstitious about doing such things. At any rate  we always seem to wait until the person who should be the object of our appreciation is no longer around.

My brothers and I decided to give our mother a surprise party on her eightieth birthday. One of my daughters had the idea of getting everyone write letters in which they told Mama how they felt about her. It was a glorious celebration and one that I’m so happy that we decided to do. While we had thought that our mom would live well into her nineties, she actually died fours years later. I have often reflected on how sad it would have been if she had never read all the accolades that people sent to her. She kept the letters in a beautiful album and she read them over and over again. It was a fitting tribute for a great woman that might not have occurred had we not been in a party mood and used her birthday as an excuse to celebrate.

We have roasts for celebrities and special events to honor the famous, but we rarely do the same for those unsung heroes who work so hard but rarely receive praise. We should take more time to bring a bit of joy and recognition to special people that we know. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. We might invite a few good friends or family members to a potluck dinner and then surprise the individual whom we are honoring. Think of how wonderful such events might be. I suspect that it would make everyone involved feel good.

One of my cousins recently died. The outpouring of love and respect for him at his funeral was amazing. I’m certain that he saw what was happening from his heavenly perch, but I also think of how much more wonderful it might have been if we had all gathered to tell him goodby and to make those same speeches while he lay dying. He had told us that his time was almost gone. We knew what his fate would be, and yet so many of us held back our stories and the true extent of our love for him until he was gone. While I suppose that our comments at his wake helped his family, I know that he would have enjoyed hearing them for himself. Who wouldn’t want to know how much people care?

We need not limit our praise parties for those who are ill, or dying, or old. We can just agree that someone that is quite special deserves to be an honoree. Our fetes might be large or intimate. It doesn’t matter how spectacular are efforts are as long as we get those feelings out in the open where they belong rather than hidden away in our hearts. So get busy now and begin the process of sharing your admiration and gratitude. Even if it is only a phone call, a note or a card your words of tribute need to be heard. Someone who is special to you is just waiting to learn what you have to say.

Remembering A Wonderful Life

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The classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life considers the difference that one individual might make in the world. The premise is that if the hero had never lived everything in his town would have turned out differently. It demonstrated that while each of us only touch a limited number of lives, our impact is nonetheless profound.

I was thinking about this when the new RAISE immigration plan was announced. I wondered what might have happened if such a law had been in effect when my grandfather first wanted to come to the United States from Austria Hungary. He had only minimal education and no real skills beyond a willingness to do the most detestable of jobs. His English was minimal. He came with little more than the clothes on his back and did the kind of manual labor that is brutal and dirty. He was frugal and saved money until he was able to send for my grandmother. She had even less to offer our great country than he did. She spoke no English and her education was virtually nonexistent. Once she had arrived she worked as a cook, a cleaning lady and at a bakery until she began to have children and then she rarely left her home again. My grandfather eventually settled on a job at a meat packing plant. He cleaned carcasses and equipment, hardly a grand career but certainly a noble way to provide for his family. From his meager salary he built a tiny house for which he paid cash and there he raised eight children.

According to the point system of the RAISE plan Grandpa would hardly have been a candidate for immigration. There was little to indicate that he would be of great economic use to the United States. I am rather certain that he would have been denied entry to our nation. What a loss that would ultimately have been.

All four of my grandfather’s sons served proudly in the military during World War II. During their lifetimes they worked hard at their jobs, rarely missing even one day of work. Two of them were employed by the United States Postal Service and two worked for Houston Lighting and Power. His daughters held a variety of positions that included teaching, doing research for a high blood pressure study, serving the United States Postal Service and working at a Naval Station. Their children, my grandfather’s grandchildren, were even more remarkable. Among them were accountants, teachers, managers, businesspersons, firefighters, and engineers. In fact my brother coauthored the program for the navigational system of the International Space Station. I wonder who would have done that if my grandfather had never come here?

It’s difficult to imagine how different the lives of countless individuals might have been had my grandfather never been granted permission to immigrate to the United States simply because his education was lacking, his skills were so basic and his English was wanting. On the surface he most certainly may have appeared to be a risk, and yet he was a proud American who encouraged his children to always work hard and be their very best. When many citizens were struggling to survive during the Great Depression he kept his family safe in a home that he had build one section at a time, paying for each addition as he went. He was frugal and refused to even accept even charitable gifts, insisting that he wanted to earn whatever he had. He was exactly the kind of American that has made this country great, but with a law like RAISE he might never have stepped on our shores.

With each successive generation his successors have become ever more important contributors to American society. There are medical doctors and those with PhD’s in public health and mathematics. There are teachers, accountants, nurses, electricians, business people, builders, athletes, ministers and scientists. The talent pool that has come from him has widened and the future of his great great grandchildren appears to be even brighter. His was the American dream and it was fulfilled beyond even his own expectations. Certainly it has made a difference to the country in a measurable way, but what if he had never been allowed to come?

My grandfather’s story is not that unusual. It has been repeated many times over in the history of our nation. Individuals who came with little or nothing to recommend them went on to build families whose impact was monumental. If we were to take away all of their contributions how different would our land be? How can we ever know who among us will be the teacher that we need, the inventor who will make our lives better, the leader who will find solutions to our biggest problems? Each of us traces our ancestry back to some distant place and in most cases the person who first ventured here was desperate to find a better way of life, but did not appear to be outstanding on the face of things. How can we use a point system to determine which people will ultimately have the best impact on our land?

I have taught thousands of immigrant children. Many of their parents spoke no English, but they were good people who did their share of work, often the dirtiest and least desirable. Like my grandfather they wanted a better life for their children and sacrificed greatly to make it happen, many times by working multiple jobs. Among my students from such families are college professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, police officers, soldiers, fire fighters, mechanics, builders, accountants, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, public health administrators, computer programmers, public administrators, school principals, counselors, lawyers and even politicians. In a single generation they have fulfilled the hopes of their parents and are actively contributing to society in thousands of ways. They are the true face of immigration, not the hopeless gang members and welfare takers that fear mongers sometimes portray them to be. 

I respectfully submit that we should carefully consider what we might be missing if we restrict immigration to our country as outlined in the RAISE bill. Skimming what appears to be the cream of the crop from various foreign nations may or may not be the answer to a better economy. Sometimes the desire that comes from someone desperate to improve his/her condition cannot be measured by a rubric, just as the worth of my grandfather might have been considered rather low. What made him a good candidate for consideration was the “ganas” burning inside his belly. All he needed was an opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable he truly was. Thankfully he was given that gift and what a difference it has made to the United States.

We certainly want the best for our nation but we need to consider the consequences of limiting ourselves to rubrics that fail to recognize the intangible values that make truly good citizens like my grandfather and his descendants. The issue is far too complex to delineate with numbers. Human beings will surprise us again and again. We need to be open to thinking outside of the box, because it is beyond the confines of our imaginations that the best things happen. Let’s keep our lives wonderful and welcome the tired and the beleaguered. From them may come just the people that we have been waiting for.