The Dance

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“If you stumble make it part of the dance.” Author Unknown

My eldest daughter took dance lessons from the time that she was five or six years old. She had a kind of natural talent from the beginning, catching on to the steps and generally reveling in the art of using her body as a kind of poetry. She was a shy child but somehow being on the stage transformed her. She invariably began each performance with her head down and a serious look on her face as though she was trying to convince herself that everything was going to be okay. With the first beat of the music she would pop her head back, hold her chin up high, and flash a glorious smile. Then she became the very image of a swan moving with grace and beauty.

Her first recital as a toddler foretold of the kind of transformation that she would invariably undergo each time she performed in the future. She and her fellow dance students had learned a fairly simple routine centered around a song called “Tattle Tail Duck.” The girls were tiny fluffs of bright yellow with their rubber “duckie” colored leotards, tutus and feathery headdresses. They were quite adorable as they shuffled and pointed their toes while twirling in circle and singing with abandon. It was a somewhat chaotic scene as each girl seemed to be dancing to her own tune but my daughter was quite the performer having shed her usual inhibitions. She delighted those of us in her family with her entertaining expressions and total command of the steps. She was in her element.

Her performance was going well until the velcro on her tutu failed and the netting fell into a puddle of yellow around her feet. Without missing a single step or changing the happy expression on her face she somehow freed her feet from the obstacle and continued as though nothing had happened. If she was upset or embarrassed her face did not betray such thoughts. Instead her photogenic smile and look of confidence never faded. When the routine was over she gracefully bent down, picked up the tutu and raised it above her head with a flourish as she bowed. The crowd went wild with applause and laughter and she ended up receiving a standing ovation. That was when I knew for certain that she was already a warrior, a mighty woman who would meet life’s challenges with aplomb.

It sometimes feels as though we live in a perfectionist society in which everyone is being watched in  the hopes of catching them in moments in which they stumble. Once that happens the public seems to remember the flaw that occurred unwilling to allow the individual to forget the mistake. Such tendencies are particularly prevalent in politics and show business. We tend to hold lapses against people forever rather than applauding the ways they attempt overcome their deficiencies. Repentance may clean the slate with God, but we humans hold suspicions and grudges far too often.

In my mind there is nothing quite as glorious as watching someone take the wreckage of a situation or a lifetime and turn it around. I have always been of the opinion that as long as there is breath in a person it is not too late to change and adapt. I delight in stories of people who find their way out of bad situations, and I am a firm believer in the idea of forgiveness. It is just as important to reward good behavior as it is to sometimes punish the bad. I truly believe that it is possible for even an horrific individual to embrace penance and genuinely strive to become better.

Most of us make small mistakes here and there. We hopefully learn from them, change move on. We pray that the bumbling versions of ourselves will graciously be forgotten by those who witnessed us at our worst. We dread the thought that our past sins will corner us into living self fulfilling prophecies. We want to be able to make our stumbles a positive part of the choreography of our lives.

Our decisions to own our mistakes and find ways of turning them into victories should be a source of applause. Sadly so much of our society now deems admissions of wrong thinking to be a sign of weakness rather than the evidence of strength that is actually is. We tend to spurn those who express contrition and want to change. We wrongly attribute an unwillingness to own up to our flaws as a sign of greatness and character, when the opposite is actually the case.

We often don’t do enough to applaud the heroism of those who take positive steps to correct the slip ups and blunders in their lives. We act as though each of our actions is a still photograph that is forever unchangeable when the reality is that we are fluid and changing from one moment to the next. Very little in life is immutable and if it were some of the greatest stories in history might never have been allowed to happen. Failure has been a moving force from the beginning of time. It has been the catalyst for remarkable feats that changed the world. The importance of a stumble is not to be found in that instant but in the glory of what comes next when a person decides to  change from a wormy caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly, or when a little girl becomes a swan rather than a duck.

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A Different Drumbeat

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It may surprise some of the folks who only know me in one narrow aspect of my life that I tend to be someone who marches to my own drumbeat. If, however, you consider the totality of my life it becomes a bit more apparent that I’ve mostly done things my way. At school and work I was always the “good girl,” that person who was loyal and dependable. I tended not to make waves, but when things became just too uncomfortable for my way of seeing the world, I usually left in search of a place that allowed me to be the person that I felt I needed to be. A few times I pushed the envelope a bit too much before departing, but I am proud to say that I stood up for the ideals that make me who I am.

I’m known as a very forgiving person, but I prefer to think that I have a knack for seeing and understanding differing points of view. We humans are a diverse lot, and it would be ridiculous to believe that there is actually a one size way of thinking that fits everyone. Only in certain extreme cases is it true that there is an identifiable wrong or right, such as with murder or hate. Most actions or statements that bother us are in reality simply different ways of interpreting or reacting to life. These are the gray areas that create tensions and rifts between people, and are the causes of our feelings of anger and even betrayal. It is in such instances that I have a knack for realizing that there are indeed many different ways of tackling problems, some of which seem contrary to one another.

Thus it has been for me my whole life which has given me the reputation of being a soft hearted person. The truth is that I am able to take a deep breath when I disagree with some person or situation and then very rationally analyze our differences without becoming emotionally entangled. My mother realized that I had this talent and often suggested that I should have gone into law and become a judge. She marveled at what she saw as my fairness, but to me this “talent” is just the way I am.

I suppose that my ability served me well as a teacher and later a school administrator because I was never too quick to rush to judgement of a student or parent or teacher. Instead I wanted to assess each situation not so much from my own set of standards but from the realities facing each individual. I often realized that a parent who was cussing me out was simply frustrated  and at a point of extreme confusion and hopelessness. By validating the anger and and really listening to concerns I diffused many horrific scenes and reached a mutual solutions to problems. In other words, I was able to see the driving forces behind behaviors that were far deeper than just rudeness or refusal to follow protocols.

Sometimes the unfairness of life has little to do with rules and everything to do with feelings. While we may not be able to understand someone’s anger, we can listen for the unspoken words that lead to their hearts. How each of us feels is so complex that actions and words alone may not truly reveal the truth of the matter. For that reason we need not be so quick to react. Sadly, it has become the way of society to tap out a few keystrokes to demonstrate either our approval or disapproval of anything and everything that we observe. Sometimes we do such things with complete strangers whom we cannot possibly know. It is a terrible habit that sometimes leads to violence from those with unsettled minds. We must be careful and a bit more kind lest our words or reactions fuel flames that are already burning. It is possible to change the course of history if we are cognizant of the power of our commentaries.

President Barack Obama was often criticized for noting that many individuals who turn to illegal activities are lost souls unable to find any direction or sense of hope in their lives. He suggested that helping our young in particular to find positive pathways might prevent acts of terrorism or violence. As an educator I believe that he is absolutely correct. I have watched young men and women change under the guidance and concern of someone who chose to help them rather than to grind them down. People seek acceptance and when they find it from the good, then they themselves often become good. When it only comes from those who are hateful trouble looms for all of us.

Notwithstanding those whose minds are so evil that no amount of kindness or understanding will help them, we each have the power to reach others simply by having a willingness to understand why they believe and act the way they do. It is not up to us to be judge and jury of their behaviors, but instead to demonstrate our care and concern. I know from forty years of working with people that such methods actually create miracles. Self-righteous behaviors are off putting for everyone. They presume correctness when there may not be a clear cut standard. Punishing, judging, ignoring are mechanisms that rarely have as much effectiveness as listening, teaching, understanding. 

A recent example from my own experience may explain the point I am attempting to make. It is a somewhat silly example that escalated into some very unfortunate commentaries on social media. It centers around an incident on The Voice, a singing competition on NBC. Over the course of a season the number of singers competing for the top spot are slowly but surely whittled down by the coaches and the viewers until there are four finalists who vie for the championship.

This season a most unfortunate dilemma occurred when one of the contestants became ill and unable to participate on the live show. The situation became even more complex when she was one of the three persons with the least number of votes from the previous evening. In such cases the performers sing a quick song and there is a so-called Instant Save by way of Twitter.  The young lady, who happens to be fourteen years old, could not sing, but the producers chose to allow the viewers to vote for her anyway based on past performances. In an ironic twist her coach, Adam Levine, had two members of his team in the bottom three and one of them actually sang that night. In a rather bumbled moment he praised the present team member for his performance, but noted that he could not just ignore how wonderful the young girl was and urged the viewers to consider voting for her as well. Surprisingly she ended us winning a spot in the semi-finals and at the same time became an object of rage along with Adam Levine.

I saw things a bit differently from those who were insisting that Adam Levine be fired and the young singer be disqualified. I suspect that Adam meant no harm in his crudely crafted plea. Instead I think that he felt terrible that such a talented young girl might lose her opportunity because fate had dealt her a blow at such an inopportune time. He tried to demonstrate his support for both of his team members, but it was all in all a terrible place for anyone to have to be. I suppose that no matter what he may have said or what ultimately happened he would have been criticized, but the level of anger was far beyond what it should have been.

When I suggested on social media that we all needed to put the situation into perspective and calm down just a bit I was pilloried as though I had defended the actions of Adolf Hitler. I was called some vile names and even told to just “shut up.” I ended up congratulating all of the talented singers and wishing them the best in the future as well as noting that the variety of opinions being expressed was part of life. Nonetheless there were those who were intent on vindictiveness. Ironically I understand and accept them as well, but worry that our society has become so filled with anger that we become unhinged over a television program. There is so little willingness to forgive in today’s world and that is a tragedy.

I suppose that we will one day grow weary of the ugliness and things will ultimately change. I already see signs that give me hope.

Quiet Dignity

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I suppose that many of us long for an ideal society in which we all get along and work together side by side for the common good. We’ve had very few moments in history that worked out so well. There have been some events that have drawn us together, but for the most part there is no place on earth where people are continually in general agreement with one another. It’s a sad fact that those who attempt to be kind and understanding are often misunderstood and thought to be weak and wimpy. So it was with George H.W. Bush, a man so recently revered for his sterling character who was in many ways reviled as someone who did not have the backbone to be a leader when he was in office. The same was true of Jimmy Carter. Sadly both men were one term presidents because the voters saw them as ineffective when the truth was, and still is, that it sometimes takes far more courage to stand for honor and conviction than to wield power like a bully.

I was struck by the Bush family’s ability to bring disparate sides together in the hour of their sorrow. It was apparent that every great leader was ultimately in awe of George H.W. Bush’s character, charm and humility. He understood the need for our leaders to support one another and to put petty grievances aside for the good of the country. He was a man who always did what he believed to be best for all of us rather than for himself. That is a somewhat rare trait in today’s super charged political atmosphere where political grudges run deep.

I loved that the Bush family was so willing to take former President Clinton into their fold, treating him like a member of the family. It made me smile to see George W. teasing Michelle Obama even in his hour of deep sorrow. I was deeply moved that former President Carter and his wife came to honor a man who had once been his competitor. Even President Trump managed to maintain his dignity for the occasion, and the Obamas set aside their differences to show him respect. This was as it should be, not just at the end of someone’s life, but in all instances.

We seem to have lost our way, but occasions like the funeral of a great man reminds us of who we are as people and how we should behave. It was the hope of our founding fathers that we would find ways to compromise and get along for the sake of the nation. We have struggled with that concept again and again, even going so far as to split into a civil war. If not for the determination of another good man, Abraham Lincoln, we might not be such a prosperous country today. We might never have become a haven for people searching for better lives like my grandparents.

While I saw a glimmer of hope in the unity on display at the Bush funeral, I also witnessed the cracks that still need to be filled. I was disappointed that Hillary Clinton was unable to find it in her heart to be somewhat civil to President Trump. It would have been a triumphant move for her to demonstrate that she was the better person, but instead she refused to even acknowledge him. I was also disturbed by commentaries that took place almost before Bush was even buried that continued the rabid fighting between our two political parties. I realized that there is still so much rancor in our country that it will take some rare individual or event to pull us back together. Perhaps somewhere in our midst is a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt type figure who will one day bring us the kind of leadership that we so desperately need. I shudder to think that it will require a tragedy or a war to bring us back together.

I believe that most of us desire a quiet, kind and gentle way of doing business. We have instead allowed fringes on the left and right to call the shots. They are the loudest because the rest of us don’t operate their way. They are encouraged by pundits and journalists hoping to make names for themselves rather than finding the courage to be fair and honest. We have been emotionally manipulated for some time now, and I suspect that most of the people of this nation have grown weary of the tactics, but don’t know how to make them stop.

It is sad that we sometimes have to be faced with tragedy before we are able to see truths that are right before our eyes. We are not better off with extremes. It was never the intent of those who created this country to accept incivility and unwillingness to compromise as the way of doing things. We have to take a deep breath and think about how we really want to be.

It was said that George H.W. Bush was a great manager, but not quite as good as a politician. In truth this is exactly what a president is supposed to be, the person who helps to run the many systems of the country. We have far too many executive orders and ways around the intended processes these days. Our Congress should be making the laws, not a single individual. We desperately need to be reminded that the running of our country should not be the domain of a one person, no matter how charismatic or strong willed he or she may be. The president should be striving to be reasonable with all sides of an argument, not just the ideas of a political party. Always decisions should be made with a wide scope of opinions in mind.

I can only pray that we will one day remember who we are as a nation, admit to our mistakes, and move toward a more all embracing way of doing things. The fighting and snubbing and name calling will ultimately do us no good. Dignity must become our goal again. George H.W. Bush and his family have shown us the way. Perhaps it is time to follow.

Peace On Earth

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We have a human longing for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Somehow it feels as though such sentiments are little more than an ideal, a dream, and yet we are driven to at least try to make the world a better place. Ironically much of the rancor that occurs as we do our best to create harmony arises from our differing interpretations as to how to achieve such a lofty goal. We are only too aware of limited resources and the role that they play in our everyday relationships. We desire to be fair, but we also have tendencies that drive us to protect ourselves and those that we love. The tension between wanting to be magnanimous and satisfying our need to feel safe has been the enigmatic force that pushes and pulls us, and often leaves us quibbling rather than working toward a common good.

History has demonstrated time and again that there are indeed very good people sacrificing themselves in the service of others, but there are also evil doers who care little for anyone but themselves. Somehow we have to be astute enough to identify who is who lest we fall for propaganda and promises that rely on our fears and our darker sides. At the same time we cannot be naive about the ways of the world lest we become martyrs to noble causes without the grit to overcome the darkest aspects of human nature. Progress toward the peace that we so desire sometimes requires defensive measures that invoke violence. Thus is the conundrum of human history.

Watching the news these days makes it very difficult to believe that we will ever again find a measure of calm. There are hot spots all over the planet, and they have nothing to do with climate but rather everything to do with our grievances. We have battles between rich and poor, this religion and that, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, the educated and laborers, one nation and another. It’s difficult to find a place anywhere on earth that is immune to the disagreements that result from our diversity of opinions. It can be quite disheartening to watch the rancor playing out even as we pray for love and kindness to be the order of the day. We wonder and worry about the future and what it may bring.

Then we witness the death of a very good person like George H.W. Bush. We have the opportunity to see the entirety of his life. We hear his philosophies and mull over his words. We realize that there is indeed reason for optimism. We see that in spite of sharing our own tendencies to make mistakes and wrong choices he managed to live a life mostly comprised of forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to adjust his course when he needed to rethink his ways of meeting the world. We realize that qualities like honor, service, devotion to family never really go out of style. We see that true courage is not brash or insulting, but rather quietly committed to a cause. We learn from a man like President Bush that being a leader means cherishing those that we lead. We find that embracing defeat makes us champions. Somehow in viewing the life of such a man we find the hope that we have been seeking.

I doubt that we will change overnight simply because we have been reminded of how to bring out our better natures, but somehow I suspect that we will pause long enough to rethink the course of our nation and our world. We will begin to remember what is most important and we may even learn to get along again. We will search for the good rather than focusing on grievances. We will ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Then we will be back on the path to peace.

Somehow we humans keep repeating the same choruses over and over. We fight for a time and then grow weary. We work together for a time and then grow jealous. We forget those who struggle and then remember to work as hard for them as we do for ourselves. The patterns seem to repeat themselves with regularity, but we don’t have to be caught in a wheel of fortune over which we have no control. We can become more peaceful bit by tiny bit, but it will require a willingness to open our minds and to be more forgiving,

I read a profoundly wise article recently that spoke to the idea that it is often our self righteousness that leads to the battles between differing factions. We fail to see the reasons why people believe as they do. Instead we condemn them for what we see as faulty thinking. We spew epithets at them and posture as though we are somehow better. The anger between each side only grows. Sometimes the most difficult stance that we may ever take is simply to be nice even when we are being misunderstood.

I think that this is the essence of the message left to us by Jesus Christ, and whether or not we believe that He was indeed a savior and the son of God His example shows us exactly how to behave toward one another. In this season that celebrates His birth we should learn about and think about His life because it was a model of what is best in each of us. If we do nothing more than celebrate Him as a great historical figure we should still emulate His way of life, for it was profoundly wise. He demonstrated how to find peace on earth good will toward men by embracing and forgiving even those who have wronged us. It’s a difficult task, but one that will lead us closer to the world we desire.

Take A Moment Today

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Let’s take a moment today to do something kind for 1. ourselves, 2. someone we know, 3. someone we have met, 4. someone we don’t know, 5. someone we need to build bridges with. Be and do well. —-Ryann Madden

I slept in just a bit this morning. The sounds of school children gathering for the early morning bus are gone for the summer and so that “alarm” did not alert me that it was time to rise. Things become slower at this time of year for more reasons than just the summer vacation for our little ones. It’s so hot outside that our bodies and brains are somehow programed to take it easier lest we overheat and dehydrate. We’ve become so accustomed to the glories of air conditioning that we become almost more insulated inside our homes and cars at this time of year than we do in the winter, at least here in Texas. It’s the season of relaxation and fun, especially for students and educators. Somehow the seasons of a school year have become so programmed into my brain that I still react to the summer the same way I did when I was working. I allow myself to be just a bit more inclined to take it easy.

I won’t be able to sustain my vacation mode for too long though because I am hardwired with all of the Type A Protestant ethics that push me to be productive and to measure my accomplishments each day. I am committed to making the most of my time and descend into guilt whenever my slacking begins to appear to be a regular life change. I am mentally and emotionally compelled to make good use of my life, even as I age. For that reason I was particularly taken by this post from Ryann Madden, a teacher friend. It spoke to me because I am on a mission to transform my use of my waking hours from concentration of unimportant things to truly making an effort to care for myself and others.

Ryann’s “to do” list seems rather easy on the surface, but in reality it is laden with challenges, particularly with regard to being kind to ourselves and building bridges with someone with whom we have broken our trust. All too often we put ourselves last in the division of a day’s labor, and never quite get around to the self care that we need. We also tend to avoid those situations and people with whom a breach has caused us to lose touch. Our neglect of both ourselves and people with whom we have differed can be toxic, and yet we all too often have an “I’ll think about that tomorrow” attitude about these very important parts of our lives.

A very dear friend who is a counselor posted a wonderful blog about self care recently. In it she detailed her own personal journey to health of body and mind. She spoke of living such a hurried and harried life that she was using food as a kind of medication and she justified her neglect of herself by noting how much she was doing for others. Ultimately she found herself in the middle of a health crisis at a very young age. She knew that she needed to do more than just pop another pill into her mouth and otherwise ignore her own needs. She began to slowly but surely make a complete lifestyle change that began with thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day and a consultation with a nutritionist. Before long she was thriving and glowing with the radiance that comes from treating our bodies and minds with the same love that we offer to others. She had not forgotten the people around her, she had only taken the time to remember herself as well.

When my husband had a stroke last summer and the two of us embarked on our own journey to living our best lives I found it easy to care for him but much more difficult to remember myself. It was simple to rationalize lapses in my own habits and it took an aggressive demand from my primary care physician for me to realize that I needed to be kind to myself as well. My doctor insisted that I was mistreating my own body and ultimately would be of little use to anyone if I did not change my ways as well. He literally gave me a prescription for five days of exercise each week with no excuses for not meeting this goal. His insistence shocked me into doing what I should have done long ago, and now self care has become an integral part of each day.

Which leaves me to the building bridges aspect of Ryann’s suggestion. It requires a bit of eating crow, approaching someone who has very apparently felt the sting of neglect and lack of respect from me. That is a much tougher situation to face, but in my heart I know it must be done. The person of whom I am thinking is older than I am. She has been isolated by failing health and loss of loved ones. She has become more sensitive and worried. She has taken some of my comments and parsed them until she is certain that I have insulted her. I have been confused and sometimes angered by her reactions, and so I have generally chosen to ignore her. I suspect that instead it is time to reach out to her and plant the seeds of reconciliation. It will cost me nothing to do so, and it may heal a wound that doesn’t need to fester.

Today is a good day to follow Ryann’s sweet suggestions. In fact everyday is a wonderful time to weave care for self and others into our routines. Think of how great we will begin to feel if we do.