Kindness Hope and Love

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The little priest walked slowly down the aisle of the church pushing his walker. He appeared to be so frail and yet there he was saying the prayers of the Sunday mass. When it came time for the homily I wasn’t expecting much. I supposed that he was long past his prime, a minister put out to pasture so to speak. It was wrong of me to judge, but he walked like Carol Burnett did whenever she was imitating really old people in one of her hilariously funny skits. I listened politely as he began to preach, and by the end I was in tears.

He told us that he was going to paint a beautiful picture with his words. He began by explaining how he had come to our town. An old friend had invited him to retire in the warmth of the south. The two thought that it would be wonderful idea for everyone, and besides they would have so much time to be reunited, telling their old stories and having a few laughs. He had decided to be adventurous even though the only thing that he knew about Texas was the stuff of legends and folklore. He really didn’t have any idea what to expect when he arrived in August, but his buddy had assured him that he would love every minute of his stay.

By the end of that month the rains began to fall from the effects of hurricane Harvey, a new experience for him for certain. The heavens opened up and refused to stop for days and days. By the time the sun finally came out more than fifty one inches of rain had fallen on the area. He had watched the rescues and the heartbreaking stories in horror, but then he realized that something utterly stunning was happening. He saw the love, hope and kindness of humanity unfolding in front of the eyes of the world.

Over thirty percent of the homes located near the church where he was staying had flooded. The parishioners swung into action turning the halls and the classrooms into a haven for those who had lost everything. They brought food, water, blankets, clothes, money, anything that the victims might need. They worked tirelessly day after day as the lines of people seeking help wrapped around the property. It was in that moment that he saw the utter beauty of humankind being revealed so magnificently. He realized that this was exactly the way God wanted his followers to be. It was as though all the best qualities of the human race were present for him and the world to observe It was a lesson in how we all should behave, not just in an hour of need, but for all of our days. He knew that he had come to a place that he would call home.

He told us to close our eyes and imagine the goodness, feel the hope, and luxuriate in the love. He reminded us that it is all around us, and that it is God’s way of assuring us that we are never alone. There will always be someone who will take our hands and guide us to a place of safety. We need only look around and we too will see the lovely image that we as people have painted.

I suppose that it is sometimes difficult to noticed just how wonderful humans really are when our media focuses so much on the horrors of our society. We have entertainers saying very ugly things about people in the name of humor. Our leaders have jumped the shark with their obnoxiousness. We see violence seemingly in every corner of the world. People shoot the bird and scream in anger at the smallest provocations. We align ourselves with groups and political ideologies. We argue and stuff our ears with our fingers lest we hear something that differs from our own points of view. We seem unwilling to compromise or get along, and so when a terrible disaster or tragedy occurs we are somewhat shocked to see kind hearts and heroes emerge. In reality the people who rise to the occasion have been around us all along. We were just so busy believing the naysayers that we failed to notice that most of us are truly and exceptionally good.

The priest said that God was smiling as He saw His ultimate creations demonstrate the kind of behavior that He had hoped for them. It filled Him with parental pride to watch his children performing acts of generosity without any consideration other than doing the right thing. Humans had made something horrible become beautiful and everyone took note. The priest got phone calls from all over the world from individuals that he had known. They were checking on his welfare, but also expressing their astonishment at the scenes of courage and warmth that they had witnessed. It had changed their perspective and reminded them of what makes humans truly exceptional. They too wanted to help, and so they did, just as thousands of others whose hearts had been touched.

I still think of those four days of inundation. I remember the fear that I felt as I saw the images of people being carried from their homes in boats. I believed that our city would never be able to recover from the devastation, but I had underestimated the spirit of humans. I had bought into the negativity that is swirling around us in abundance. I had been so very wrong.

We struggle and waver and even have moments of hopelessness, but the reality of who we are is so much better than the doomsday predictions. Our innate goodness rises up again and again to repair the wounds of our fellow beings. We get up after we have been knocked to the ground and check to see if anyone else needs our assistance. Life is far more wonderful than we may have thought it was, and people in all of their variety are ultimately the sparks that light the fires of optimism and love.

The good father painted a beautiful picture indeed. It is an image that I will cary in my heart to bring to mind when times get tough. It is a canvas painted with the colors of  kindness, hope and love.

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Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

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.

Abundance

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.