Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.


The Least We Can Do

california-mud-slides-2018I watched a great program on black holes not long ago. I did my best to keep up with the theories, but the very ideas behind them are totally mind blowing. The universe is amazing and mysterious and we humans are only slowly learning about it using the mathematics and technology that we presently have. I suspect that we have yet to fully realize the depth of understanding needed to unlock all of the secrets, but there are great minds doing their best to unravel the puzzles. Somehow it is humankind’s nature to ask questions and seek answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do, and our creativity leads us ever forward in our quest. Nonetheless, we often find ourselves in frustratingly unprovable situations where it takes a leap of faith to become a believer.

I think of Galileo and the tragic persecution that he endured simply because a sector of his society was unwilling to accept his assertion that the earth was not at the center of our universe, but merely a kind of satellite coursing around the sun. The full acceptance of his ideas would not come in time to save him from a merciless punishment based on an ignorance that appears so clearly in retrospect, but was a bit more difficult to discern in the moment. We humans not only want to progress, but we want rock solid proof before we are willing to accept theories that are far different from our learned way of thinking. It is in our natures to be wary, just as Thomas the apostle was a doubter.

I find it quite interesting that there is a great divide between those who believe that the earth’s climate is changing and those who deny that this is the case. The premise of climate change is that we humans have a dramatic effect on our environment as we use and sometimes abuse its resources. Our numbers are so great that we literally change the natural world with our habits, and sadly we are accelerating a warming trend that is causing ice to melt in arctic regions and weather to be more erratic. Using data and scientific understanding of air flows and currents, those concerned with climate change urge us all to adopt habits designed to begin to heal our planet before it is too late. They point to droughts across the globe, strong hurricanes, and bone chilling winters as proof of the major changes that are taking place. Most of the scientific community is in agreement with these ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum are climate change deniers who insist that the data used to prove that our world is rapidly deteriorating is flawed. They argue that we have always gone through periods of drought and cold and that killer hurricanes are as old as the sea. They scoff at the idea that humans are somehow responsible for the very natural ways of weather that they believe continues with or without us. They use economic arguments to push for more use of fossil fuels rather than less. They believe that arguments about the climate are mostly political and as such support those who ignore the warnings of scientists. They liken the evidence that is presented in support of a theory of change to magic.

As someone who believes in God, but can’t actually prove that He is a true presence in our lives, I find the deniers to be short sighted. It is purely my faith in the promises of Jesus that guides me to prayer, devotion and a certainty that I will one day be united with my Lord in heaven. I have no rock solid proof that I am correct other than the words in the Bible and the teachings of my church, and yet I find no reason to doubt that I have found the truth. My own religious faith makes me wonder why any of us would be so wary of the much more concrete findings of scientists who have demonstrated with hard data that there are indeed great changes taking place that are associated with our habits of living.

I remember attending the funeral of a man that I knew who was originally from China. He had once been a Buddhist, but eventually accepted the beliefs of Christianity. His wife inserted elements of both Buddhism and his Baptist faith into the ceremony for him, noting with a bit of humor and irony that she didn’t want to take any changes that he might have accidentally made the wrong choice. I’ve often thought of her wisdom in conjunction with climate change, and I find myself wondering why anyone would be willing to risk being wrong by ignoring the warnings that Mother Nature appears to be sending us in greater and greater profusion. It would be far smarter to listen to those who are more educated about such things than to join in the rants of people whose sole purpose is to seek power. Namely, if each and every one of us began to live just a bit differently whether or not we are totally convinced that we in fact have an impact on the world it surely would not hurt us one iota. Like the wife who was unwilling to take a chance that her husband had been wrong, why would we want to hand off a more dangerous future to our children and grandchildren? What would it hurt to at least listen to what the scientists have to say? How could conserving just a bit more of our resources actually hurt us?

Our world is far more fragile than it appears. I have watched it being scarred of late in the most egregious ways. My city filled with water and so many homes were damaged and destroyed. Those of us who live here still shudder when thunderstorms rage overhead. We spent two days last week battling icy roads and temperatures lower than they had been in decades. All the while we watched homes burning in California and mudslides encasing them when it finally rained. We hear of Puerto Ricans still waiting for power to return months after a hurricane devastated the island. The damage to our earth is happening so often that we are almost becoming numb to its forces. We live in grave fear of terrorists and suggest that becoming more isolated from the rest of the world will keep us safer and at the same time ignore the one area where we have the power to make real change. In other words we can and should admit that we can do better in using the treasures of our planet.

Some things just make sense. Taking care of what we’ve got begins with each one of us. It’s far past time to be so silly about something as serious as the healthy functioning of the land on which we live. It can no longer be denied that our earth is sick and we must all work to bring her back to a better state. If is takes sacrifice, so be it. It’s the least that we all can do.


vans-2015-summer-geoff-rowley-footwear-collection-11My grandmother was one of those people who saved all of her nice things for some future day when she would need them. We used to joke that our Christmas gifts to her would be stored away and not seen again until the things that she had been using were worn beyond usefulness. When she died there were items still wrapped in cellophane and stored in boxes. I suppose that hers was the habit of a woman who had lived in a state of poverty for most of her life. She was brought up to use what she had rather than to concern herself with acquiring abundance. I suspect that there were many people of her generation and economic status who did exactly the same thing. It sometimes made us sad that her tendencies prevented her from fully enjoying the advantages that we sought to give her. I suppose that it mattered little to her because by then she was set in her ways, but it always amused me that we kept trying to provide her with luxuries even as she resisted our efforts. Perhaps in some ways she was actually wiser than we were because she was perennially happy with little more than our presence. The things we brought her were not required to make her smile.

I was reminded of my grandmother recently as I helped a friend to dispose of her deceased father’s possessions. I realized as we packed away boxes and boxes of items that he had accumulated that most of us probably own more than we ever really use. When all is said and done we are drowning in stuff and yet we continue to shop and add to our collections. I wondered if we have our priorities straight or if we are simply addicted to consumption, victims of enticing commercialism that convinces us of what we must have rather than what we actually need.

I mentioned to my friend as we worked that perhaps we would all be best served by pursuing memories rather than things. She smiled knowingly and noted that she had planned a summer trip to Alaska because of that very idea. It occurred to me that we don’t always recall all of our purchases, but we do think about experiences time and time again. Our trips and outings are the stuff that often make us the happiest and leave the longest lasting impressions.

I have two friends who live frugally so that they will be able to take phenomenal trips each year. They have travelled the world and seen wonders. The wisdom of their choice to buy vacations rather than things really made sense when their home was flooded by hurricane Harvey this past August. The one thing that they did not lose was the joy that their journeys had brought them. They were certainly devastated by the damage done to their abode, but somehow I found comfort in knowing that they still had memories that not even floodwaters could wash away. What after all, do we really require to live full lives? Is there a way to enjoy ourselves and still be mindful of our tendencies to waste our resources and purchase more than we truly need?

Years ago a cousin noted that we begin our time as an adult in a tiny apartment which soon becomes too full, so we move until we have accumulated so much more that we are once again searching for room to store everything that we own. The practice continues again and again and in many ways we end up with bigger and bigger homes not so much because we actually want the space, but mostly because our possessions have overtaken us. I have often felt guilty as I fill every nook and cranny including the attic with my acquisitions and  wonder if I need to scale back.

What would I truly want to keep if I were somehow forced to pare down my life to a barer minimum? I suppose that it would require a bed on which to sleep with enough linens to have a clean surface for my slumbers and a blanket to keep me warm. A chest to hold my socks and underwear, pajamas and some clothing would probably be good to have. I’d want a table and some chairs for partaking meals, and a couch on which to sit whether I’m reading or visiting with friends. I have to admit to my need to own a television if for no other reason than to have access to the news, but in reality because I enjoy relaxing with shows that touch my imagination. A few lamps would be nice and bookcases to hold my treasured volumes, but I suppose that I might even eliminate that necessity by purchasing electronic copies of my favorite titles. I’d need a refrigerator and a stove and I’ve grown accustomed to having a microwave oven, a coffeemaker and a toaster. I could wash dishes by hand but I wonder if that method is as efficient as doing a load now and again in the dishwasher. I also must have a clothes washer and dryer or at least a clothesline in my backyard along with some cleaning tools to keep things tidy. A few changes of clothing and some towels would round out my needs, and yet I own so much more than that and seem to think that it is important to preserve it all in a kind of shrine to my accumulations that takes twenty seven hundred square feet plus a garage and an attic to store. I don’t want to live like a monk, and I find nothing wrong with decorating and collecting, but I sometimes imagine my children and grandchildren one day culling through my things and wondering what to do with all that I possess. 

My mother once told me that she had never been owned by things. She commented that she might have carried all that really mattered to her in two suitcases which is in fact what she did in the last two and one half years of her life. She spent those months living with me and my brother with little more than a weeks worth of clothing changes, her bible, and a radio for listening to Houston Astros games during baseball season. She had uncluttered her life so totally that she had few worries related to possessions. When she died the distribution of her estate was uncomplicated and debt free. My brothers and I could not have had an easier task. Her life was in order because so little of it focused on things.

I know people in Houston who are back in their houses after having to leave when four feet of water flooded the insides back in August. They once again have walls instead of bare studs, but they walk on concrete floors and sit on lawn chairs. Somehow they are happy because they feel the warmth and security that they worried had been destroyed by the waters. They realize that it was never the things inside that made their houses feel like home. Perhaps each of us should consider how much we truly need and begin to live with less dragging us down. We may find freedom, joy and purpose in learning to live with what we need rather than being possessed by our wants. Perhaps my grandmother had the right idea all along.


A Good Year After All

main-qimg-296478081c816a7cde7561d1337b3514-cAnother year is drawing to a close, and what a year it has been. I find myself thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a character so full of vigor in the beginning who gradually grew old and weary by the end of his time. Perhaps more than most of our three hundred sixty five day journeys around the sun this one has been treacherous for me and most of my friends. Those of us who made it are far from unscathed, but determined and hopeful for better results in our coming opportunity to try the new revolution of around our favorite star. I’d like to believe that the future will be brighter in the coming months, but that is something that remains to be seen.

So many truly good people left us this year to begin a new and eternal life with the angels. They were joined by beloved pets as well. I have shed more than a few tears in saying goodbye to dear friends with whom I shared so many wondrous moments and  sweet animals who so often delighted me. My Google calendar is dotted with far too many reminders of death and the ultimate reality of our mortality. This year has taught me not to take anyone for granted because in the blink of an eye they might be gone forever. I have learned the importance of appreciating each pleasant moment that I share with someone whom I love, and of letting each of them know how much I care. The point has been driven home that we never ever know what is going to happen from one second to the next. All of our plans sometimes change in the blink of an eye, so rather than constantly worrying and thinking ahead we should all learn how to revel in the wonder of a moment.

Mother Earth has been speaking to us this year, and she has not been happy. The devastation that we have witnessed has been great from California to Florida to Puerto Rico to my hometown in Texas. Surely instead of worrying so much about how people choose to live, it is in our best interest to consider how we might change our ways and improve our structures to meet the demands of storms and fires. We have a tendency to concern ourselves with things that don’t really matter that divide us into camps, and then when horror strikes we somehow manage to pull together. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to live together in more harmony all throughout the year? I suspect that if we did not allow ourselves to be manipulated by politicians and the media the world would be a much kinder place to be. We shouldn’t have to get fifty one inches of rain that floods our homes to realize that ultimately we are all in this exciting thing called life together.

Politics have gone crazy, but there are small signs that we have grown weary of all of the sound and fury and that we are generally more decent than those who would lead us. The good folks in Alabama sent a message to the world that they will not accept unworthy and immoral people as their leaders. The margin by which they chose goodness was slim, but nonetheless won the day. I’d like to think that all politicians are now on notice that we expect more of them than they have been giving us of late. The new year will bring a big election and a great deal of posing behind a screen of smoke and mirrors. Hopefully we the people have learned how to see beyond the tricks and illusions.

We still have evil among us, but we have to remember in all cases that we cannot draw stereotypical conclusions from the actions of the few. Republicans should be reminded that a handful of terrorists is not representative of the millions of good people who hale from the same religions, countries or political persuasions. Democrats need to understand that from the millions of gun owners only a tiny percentage choose violence. We all need to calmly approach our problems with a willingness to provide solutions based on facts rather emotions. The news isn’t really fake, but the ways in which it is interpreted for us often is. This past year it has become increasingly difficult to know the truth because so many are preying on our fears rather than trusting us with the truth.

We are ending this year feeling wounded and even beset upon. It would be easy and even natural to feel cynical and sad after all that has happened, but I would like to suggest a different point of view. The truth is that we are all still here. We may have cuts and scrapes and feel more weary than at any other time in our lives, but if we are still drawing a breath we have time to change our attitudes just as Ebenezer Scrooge decided to do. When the whole world seems to be out of control the only thing over which any of us have sway is how we choose to feel. We can defeat the naysayers and the blues by having the determination to dust off our troubles and just keep trying. We don’t ever have to feel defeated.

I once attended the musical premier of a story about Holocaust survivors. It was a moving experience that brought me to tears multiple times. One song that has followed me spoke of our human resilience with the simple words, “I’m still here.” I’ve echoed that phrase many times over whenever there appears to be a conspiracy to bring me down. It taught me that even if I am stripped of every possession and many of my loved ones I have the capacity not just to survive, but to flourish. It all depends on how I choose to react to both my good and bad fortune.

So goodbye to 2017, a year that sorely tried my patience and my energy. If I am truly honest I will admit that there were far more positive days than those that almost broke my spirit. I watched two men pledge their love for one another on a beautiful beach. i witnessed the fulfillment of the dreams of many of my former students. I laughed and cried with friends and realized how loved I truly am. I did not lose my best friend and husband when he had a stroke, but instead received a second chance to help him become healthy and to show him how much I love him. I met new people who have already enriched my life. I learned that my city is one of the most glorious places to live on planet earth, something that I had always suspected but now know for certain. I watched my favorite baseball team win the World Series. I had my faith in mankind renewed by two incredible athletes and a man who owns a furniture store. I saw the light of understanding in the eyes of the students whom I have tutored and taught. I attended the weddings of former students so demonstrative of love that they filled my heart with great hope. I spent quiet moments with friends and others that were boisterous and filled with laughter. A grandson earned all A’s in his first year of college and other grandchildren won races and contests while still being the kind of young people that our world needs. How can I not think that when all is said and done it was a good year after all?


Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.