The Balancing Act

BalancingThere it was, a meme that spoke to me more than I cared to admit. “You’re killing yourself for a job that would replace you if you dropped dead within a week.” It’s a rather simplistic thought that generalizes a bit too much, but it’s point is thought provoking. It’s main thrust might be applied to almost any situation in life with just a few changes of words. The fact is that we sometimes become so over involved in certain situations that we lose sight of what is really most important in our lives. Our work ethic overtakes us to the point of wearing us down, and then we grieve when we realize that perhaps our efforts were not appreciated nearly as much as we had thought. Finding that sweet spot that allows us to achieve balance in our lives is one of our greatest challenges, and one that is far more important than we might imagine.

We are taught the importance of hard work from the time that we are quite young. In today’s world those lessons begin earlier and earlier as very small children are enrolled in early education programs, sports clubs, music lessons and a host of activities that keep them busy from the time that they awake until they fall into their beds at night. Some tiny children have an endless round of appointments designed to develop the best of their talents. Parents and nannies help them adhere to carefully orchestrated schedules. Admittedly there are many children who thrive in such circumstances, but there are others who begin to show signs of stress in the form of crying fits, behavior changes and exhaustion.

I have seen such children hanging limply onto their parents with vacant looks and sometimes even fear. When I worked in an after school program for pre-schoolers and kindergartners it was sometimes difficult to keep them awake because they were so tired. Many of them had arrived at the school at seven in the morning and would not be picked up by their parents until six in the evening. They were grumpy and probably would have benefitted more from play time at home than the all day structure that ruled their little lives. Smaller doses of opportunity generally work better for little ones, but we all too often adopt a more is better philosophy forgetting that all of us need respite from the daily grind now and then.

As children grow older the demands on their time and energy only increase. Not only do we plan their hours, but we also introduce them to the glories of competitiveness. We expect them to perfect their skills and talents so that they will eventually become champions. Of course there is nothing innately wrong with that, but often in our quest to help them to become their best selves we over extend them so that their hours are filled, leaving them with little time to explore and create on their own. Sometimes down time can be more powerful in helping youngsters to begin to know themselves than keeping them so busy that they can’t really think, It is when they are on their own that they organically develop and learn through trial and error.

By high school the pressure on our teens can be overwhelming. Not only are they expected to do well academically in as many Advanced Placement classes as possible, but also to participate in extracurricular activities and community service. As one young man recently noted, they generally have about seven hours to themselves each evening if they stay up until midnight, less if they go to bed earlier. If they are involved in athletics or other organizations that number of hours may be reduced by two or four hours each day, leaving them only a short amount of time to study and just relax and be a teenager. Research has shown that most high school students are sleep deprived from attempting to pack so much into their daily schedules.

One of my grandsons decided on his own to remedy the trend of over extending. While he was in high school he achieved balance by carefully limiting the number of activities and advanced classes in which he was willing to participate. He realized that he was more often enriched by discussions at the family dinner table or late night intellectual conversations with his father and older brother. He understood the importance of quiet times without obligations attached to them. He saw that far too many of his peers were crashing and burning because they were carrying way too much excess baggage on their shoulders.

When we finally go to work we want to impress our supervisors as well as our peers. We are often willing to go an extra mile to demonstrate our loyalty, which is all well and good if we also remember our own personal needs. When our job becomes an obsession then we may want to step back just a bit. if we see that family and friends are suffering because we are continually absent, a real problem is beginning to brew. When we can’t even rest without dwelling on our work, we may have become over involved. 

I’m not particularly someone to give advice regarding work life balance because there were multiple instances when I became so focused on studies or work that I totally neglected those who really loved me. I have been competitive to the extreme at times, and sadly my efforts were not always noted and appreciated by my superiors. Luckily those dearest to me were always there to pick up the pieces of my disappointments. At some point along my journey I finally managed to find a kind of work/life balance that made me far healthier than I had ever before been.

I am a living example of someone who looked outward and did my best to impress people who no doubt would have quickly found a substitute for me had I dropped dead. I worked so hard to be the valedictorian of my high school that I missed many of the joys of friendship and adventure that are an integral part of growing up. My achievement was soon forgotten and I found myself having to prove my mettle again and again in real life. I strove to be that person who demonstrated a willingness to be the last woman standing in pursuit of the goals of those for whom I worked. When others went home, I stayed behind to help, sometimes even when my own children needed me to be with them. I regret that I pushed myself so hard, but I am also thankful for dear friends like Pat and Bill who gently counseled me to learn how to focus on what was most important in my life. With such guidance and the support of my family I eventually found ways to have it all. I was able to clock out from work and leave it behind while I luxuriated in the warmth of home. It took me far too long to get there.

If I had one bit of advice for young men and women who are just beginning their careers or for new parents it would be to follow the wisdom of one of my teachers from long ago. He told us that we all needed to be fully present in whatever we were doing, never allowing ourselves to dwell on other things that were bearing down on us. He emphasized that we should work hard and play hard with equal vigor. He cautioned us to adjust whenever we found ourselves too preoccupied with any one thing. Keeping that balance, he suggested, would make us both healthy and happy. His was a message that all of us would do well to hear. Unfortunately I ignored his message for far too long. I’m glad I finally got my head on straight.



1933604_774098892733890_4368455666911963627_o.jpgI didn’t know Edi Cruz as well as I might have liked, but what I do know is that he was a KIPPster and I was a Big KIPPster and that makes us family. I recall seeing Edi in the hallways at KIPP Houston High School and what I noted about him was his always pleasant demeanor. His smile was of the legendary sort, and just spotting him made me beam inside. I wish I’d taken more time to get to know Edi better because from what I can gather he was greatly loved for being a truly genuine and caring person. Edi was slated to graduate in a few months from The University of Texas Permian Basin, but his dreams and those of all who knew him were tragically cut short when he was recently killed in a terrible car accident. All too soon a wonderful young person has left us all wondering why such horrific things happen to such good people.

Edi Cruz was known around the school for his unending sense of humor. He approached life with a joke and a feeling that every day was a good time for a laugh. He made people feel good about him and about themselves, and now they are left to consider all of the ”might have beens” for their good friend. Edi was not just about being hilariously funny, but also quite serious about earning a college degree, and he had worked hard for so many years to achieve his goal. It is a testament to his dedication that his plans were so soon to have come to fruition. No one could have known that his life would be so suddenly snuffed out. Even his college roommate is still stunned.

Edi Cruz was a very good friend. He gave fully of himself to others and his loving nature was always reflected in his face. After his death those who knew him spoke of his considerate nature and revealed things that he had done for them so unselfishly. He was someone who would take the time to thank a teacher with a sincerely written note, or stop to help a classmate who was struggling with some issue. He didn’t mind being a bit silly if it reduced tensions, or just made everyone enjoy the moment. He embraced life with an open heart that lead him to a loving relationship with a beautiful young woman who had hopes of her own for their future together. Everyone believed that they were going have had a wonderful time.

Edi had so many talents and interests. He liked to ride horses and looked as natural in the saddle as walking down the street. He was a people person who once served as a representative at a National Council of La Raza conference. He was a favorite of his high school art teacher who saved a caricature that he had created of himself long after he had left her class. The drawing captured his wonderful essence. It was as though he really knew and understood himself and felt confident in being a person who spread sunshine with his mere presence by his willingness to be humble and self deprecating.

Edi Cruz.jpgThere is a great feeling of sadness in losing someone of his moral stature, particularly at such a young age. In our humanity we can’t quite comprehend why such a terrible thing would happen, even as we console ourselves in knowing that he had lived a glorious life while he was here. Somehow thinking about Edi Cruz reminded me of a poem by an unknown author that I once read.

Do not judge a biography by it’s length,
Nor by the number of pages in it.
Judge it by the richness of it’s contents

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most poignant

Do not judge a song by it’s duration
Nor by the number of it’s notes
Judge it by the way it touches and lifts the soul

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most beautiful

And when something has enriched your life
And when it’s melody lingers on in your heart
Is it unfinished?
Or is it endless?

I am quite certain the Edi Cruz touched hearts so fully that he will live on in the cherished memories that friends and family have of him. For now they will grieve as they remember the good times that they had with him and think of the future that is no more, but one day their hearts will be healed and remebering Edi will make them smile again. 

I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than the death of someone so young. Thoughts of what we might have shared never quite leave us. That person is permanently fixed in our minds as a never aging soul as we ourselves grow old. I can tell you from experience that everyone who knew and loved Edi Cruz will remember him from time to time even as the years go by. The impact of a person as wonderful as he was is in truth endless.

A Real Prince Charming


He was a man who never met a stranger, someone with a smile so big that he instantly lit up a room. He liked to laugh and being around him always felt so comfortable. He was a very handsome man who stayed perennially fit with his devotion to exercise and athletics. He was a brilliant man with a degree in Chemistry who headed a laboratory for decades. He loved his beautiful wife and his two daughters. He was a Godly man who gave enthusiastically of his time and talents to his church. He was a friend who died quietly and peacefully last week. Those of us who knew Ed Millin have beautiful memories of him that we will treasure for the remainder of our days.

Ed Millin was from New York and he bore the characteristic accent of people from there even after living and working for decades in Texas. He came south for work and found love with a very sweet and pretty girl named Judy. Together they built a home and a family and along the way my husband Mike and I met the two of them. We enjoyed many wonderful times together at parties, gatherings and dinners. Ed was easy to get to know, because he was always open and inviting. He loved to tell stories and to listen with an intentness that meant that he really cared about what people were saying. He had a knack for making everyone feel good about themselves, and an evening spent with him was always relaxing and fun.

Ed was a runner who might be found racing around a track or through the streets all of the time. He was a high energy individual who worked all day long at his lab, and then played a rousing round of tennis or pickle ball. He was always in great shape and seemed more like a someone half his age. In fact he never seemed to grow older the way the rest of us did. His secret to what seemed like never ending youthfulness was certainly because of all of his physical activity, but it was also his big grin and the fact that he never took life too seriously that appeared to contribute to his good health.

Years ago I taught one of Ed’s daughters in a religious education class at our church. I had a the ridiculous idea of inviting the parents to attend one of the sessions so they might witness what their children were doing. The problem was that I was working with seventh graders, and anyone with even an ounce of experience with that age group understands that they are easily embarrassed, particularly when it comes to their parents. None of the other moms and dads came, most likely because their children had asked them not to do so, but Ed arrived with his always friendly demeanor and eagerness. When his daughter saw him she turned fifty shades of red and bolted from the room. Ed was dumbfounded, but rather quickly flashed a knowing grin as he realized that showing up had been a breach of teenage etiquette. Without missing a beat he made a quick exit and never mentioned the affair again. I can only imagine what the conversation at home with his child must have been, but I always believed that Ed handled it with finesse. He was a great student of human nature.

Because I thought that Ed was ageless it was particularly shocking when I sadly learned that he was afflicted with an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He slowly drifted into a state of confusion and became more and more of a recluse under the loving care of his wife Judy and his daughters. I missed seeing him and enjoying his warm personality. Eventually many members of the group with whom we had enjoyed such wonderful times together began to grow ill and die. Judy and I began to see each other far too often at funerals, but Ed hung in there even though his mind became more and more clouded with the passage of time.

Nobody should ever have to endure the slow deterioration that Ed endured, but it was especially poignant given his former vibrancy. I suppose that there is some consolation in knowing that he had lived life with a vengeance, and put every bit of his being into all of the minutes before illness ultimately took its toll. I suspect that we will all remember him running like the wind, chasing after a tennis ball, and always always grinning with a kind of joy that was infectious.

Ed was blessed to have the most remarkable partner. Judy was devoted to him and rarely complained about her role as his caretaker for so many difficult years. She demonstrated the kind of love that is the stuff of romantic novels even as her handsome man became less and less focused. The two of them were known in their circles of church and work and neighborhood as a generous and compassionate team, always together and doing so much good.

Ed’s daughters are as beautiful and good natured as he was. They returned the love that he had given them a thousandfold. I’m sure that they will hold fast to the wonderful memories that they shared with their remarkable father. He blessed them in ways that few ever enjoy.

Some people have a charisma that is difficult to explain. That was Ed Millin. All I have to do is think of his name and I can see him once again looking so dashing, laughing so heartily and enjoying every person and every situation with a kind of rare innocence. He was a very good man who led a very good life. I suppose that he’s running in heaven and maybe even challenging St. Peter to a quick game of tennis. No doubt he has enchanted them already because Ed Millin was a real life Prince Charming.


Fortunate Son

5377620The little child that lives inside each of us never quite goes away, not even as we age and mature decade after decade. Our memories of childhood whether magical or nightmarish linger inside our very souls and color the way that we view the world. Those like myself lucky enough to have known mostly love are often guided by the nostalgia of kindnesses and happy times. For others overcoming painful experiences is a lifelong battle. During the holiday season we often become more acutely aware of our long ago histories, and depending upon how they are affecting us we either feel an exhilarating happiness or a sense of sadness. Thus is the power of our pasts and our emotions.

I once wrote a paper detailing the folk history of my grandfather. Rather than guiding him in any particular manner I simply asked him a series of questions and then allowed him to respond in a way that revealed his personal take on the world in which he had lived and grown. He was approaching his hundredth year when I undertook this project and I uncovered a theme in his way of dealing with the ups and downs of life that he somehow passed down to me. Every single story that he told me involved elements of strength, courage and love. It was his personal point of view. His heroes were the people who overcame difficulties through not just their own determination, but with the assistance of caring individuals who often appeared serendipitously to save them. He firmly believed in the idea of personal accountability, but understood that everyone struggles, and when things become almost too much to bear there always seems to be someone who arrives to help.

Convinced that we each have an inner strength in spite of the problems that stalk us, and realizing that we are never truly alone was my Grandpa’s foundational philosophy and the cannon of his life. His was one of those nameless stories that never lead to fame or riches of the concrete kind, but rather the wealth of friendships and love that is far more substantial than the ephemeral nature of titles and things. By the time that he had reached his one hundred eighth year he had become an inspiration to all of us fortunate enough to have known him, and I was chief among his fans. I suppose that I either consciously or unconsciously modeled my own personality after his. I adopted his optimism even in the face of difficulties and soldiered through irritations and tragedies by reminding myself that I came from strong ancestors who refused to let anyone grind them down.

I often thought of my grandfather as a young virtually orphaned boy who never knew his mother, and yet honored and cherished her by naming his daughter after her. He spoke of her a hundred years after she had left him with a profound reverence as though her death in childbirth had proven to him how much she had loved him. The sacrifice that she made to bring him into the world was the foundation upon which he built the entirety of his extraordinary character. The fact that his father abandoned him meant less to him than the knowledge that his mother had died giving him the opportunity to live. His devotion to her was as deep as if she had raised him into an adult.

It was his grandmother who did the job of guiding him into a purpose driven life, and she did so with great care, providing him with wisdom and an unstoppable sense of humor. She gave him the tools that he would need to continue even after she too had died before he was quite ready to be alone. At the age of thirteen h head already risen to a level of maturity that was far beyond his years, so when he was charged by a judge to select a guardian he decided upon an uncle who seemed to be quite noble and honest. This man was so upstanding that my grandfather ultimately adopted his name to honor him for his morality and character. Indeed he also emulated the traits that he saw in this individual who was kind enough to take on the duties of helping a teenaged boy even though he himself was barely into manhood.

Grandpa was stalked by bad fortune. Not so long after he chose the man who would be his surrogate parent a deadly hurricane came to Puerto Rico. My grandfather’s uncle who was a graduate of West Point and a military man served his country by traveling to the devastated island to direct the distribution of aide and supplies. While there he contracted typhus and died. My dear grandfather was alone once again, and so affected by his multiple losses of loved ones that he was rather confused for a time. He bounced around the country doing jobs wherever work was to be found, living in boarding houses and drinking more than he should have to still the sadness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. On one particular evening he experienced a moment of clarity, raealizing that he had become his own worst enemy. He thought about his mother and grandmother and uncle and suddenly felt their spirit reminding him that he was meant to be better than he had allowed himself to become. He resolved at the moment to be the man that they had intended him to be, and with an iron will he turned himself around. Luckily he did so in time to meet my grandmother, the ultimate love of his life and the woman to whom he would surrender his heart. They became lovers, buddies, the best of friends.

The funny thing is that there was never really a time in my grandfather’s life when things came easily to him. He had to work hard and deal with tragedies that broke his heart, but never his will. Somehow regardless of his circumstances he found ways to survive and to find that one tiny speck of hope that kept him going year after year. When he was one hundred eight years old he had lost his beloved wife, his son and one of his daughters. Even some of his grandchildren had preceded him in death. Most of the friends in his age group had left this earth years before, and yet he rarely complained other than to note that he missed them all.

I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather in the tiny house where he rented a room from a widow who needed the extra income to stay afloat. He maintained his independence with a fierceness that I so admired. Much as he had done throughout his life he found ways to keep moving forward even when times became tough. When he grew older he became a bit more nostalgic, and even found ways to understand and forgive his father whom he kindly referred to as a bit of a reprobate, a man whom he nonetheless had grown to love or at least accept.

I find myself thinking of my grandfather more and more often these days, and when troubles come my way I wonder what he would do in similar circumstances. I know that he would somehow find the silver lining that he insisted is a part of every situation. He had been a penniless, homeless, seemingly unwanted orphan who was dropped on his grandmother’s doorstep like a stray cat, and yet he rose above the hurt and anger that might have been his guiding light. He chose instead to focus on the positive aspects of his story and those of the people he had met along the way. He saw himself as someone whose life had been blessed again and again.

We mostly choose how to view our individual stations in life. In the proverbial way of the glass we either decide that our lives have been half empty or half full. Grandpa taught me to choose the optimistic path, to proudly be a Pollyanna. What I have encountered has not always been pretty, in fact it has often been scary and wrought with tears. My grandfather showed me that rather than wallowing in the pity that may indeed be rightfully mine, I always need to ultimately find a way to pluck up my courage and move forward once again. Like him I have repeated the drill time and time again, and along the way discovered new friends, new allies and great love. My grandfather’s worldview has been one of the most amazing gifts of my life. He was indeed a fortunate son just as he believed and I inherited his wealth.


The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.