Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

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Dealing With Loss

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We all face a time of grief. Nobody is immune from the human destiny of death and loss. We build deep and loving relationships with people even as we know that one day we may have to live without them. Death and the emotions that it engenders are a kind of curse from which we cannot escape. When a beloved dies we are deeply affected and must bear the cycle of sorrow that descends upon us. How well we cope may be quite different from one person to another. It is a very personal and private journey which truly cannot be judged. The hurt is real and tangible.

We often wonder if it is better to lose someone suddenly or after a long illness during which we have had time to prepare. The truth is that both scenarios are traumatic. Loss is loss no matter how it happens, and it is something that we never really get over. Instead we allow ourselves to express our sadness in our individual ways and then we find the means of coping and moving on with our lives. When our depression becomes chronic and paralyzes us we need to seek help, but often don’t even realize that our suffering has overwhelmed our ability to find a way to heal.

I am now an orphan. Both of my parents are dead. One was killed suddenly when I was a young child. It has been sixty two years since his accident, but the memories of that trauma are as vivid today as they were back in 1957. I am not obsessed with the death of my father, but I do indeed miss him. When I was eight years old I felt scarred by the loss, but even then I understood that I had to find a way not to be perennially sad and scared. I found the solace that I sought in my studies at school. I suppose that it was inevitable that I would turn to reading and learning as a means of coping with my hurt because these were things that I fondly associated with my dad. In my childlike way I made it out of the abyss of depression by attempting to become the kind of person that I believed he would have wanted me to be.

I rarely spoke of my struggles until I encountered my mother-in-law who also quite unexpectedly lost her father in a hunting accident. Her dad was only a bit older than my father had been when he died, and she while in her twenties was still quite young when the tragedy occurred. Over tea and cookies she often told me stories of how great her father had been, and how his life had inspired her to be better in her own. Ironically we both had dealt with our sorrows by focusing on improving ourselves in honor of the men that we so loved.

I was an old woman when my mother died, eligible to retire from my life’s work of teaching. My mom had been afflicted with bipolar disorder for decades and in her final years my brothers and I had become her caretakers as her health also began to decline. I saw that she was not as energetic as she had once been and she was coughing constantly. The tissues that she stuffed into the trash were often tinged with blood, and still I refused to accept that she was going to die even with so much evidence. When her time came she insisted that she was ready and made me and my brothers promise that we would not resort to extraordinary means to extend her life. She was prepared for her fate, and so at peace. At the time I suppose that I was very much in denial and I walked through the days after her death in a kind of fog devoid of any visible emotions. Inside I was a basket case and believed that I had to find something to fill the vacancy in my heart left by her departure. That’s when I turned to writing, and I suppose it is what fuels me to this very day.

I still miss both of my parents and often find myself wishing that they were still around, even as I know that all was as it was meant to be. I rely on beautiful memories of them to sustain my desire to be with them once again. I turn my focus to constructive activities that push me outside of myself whenever my reveries lead to dark places. It is what we humans do. We love even knowing that one day that special recipient of our care and concern may be gone. We work to make them proud of the ways in which we carry on their legacies, because they do live in our very souls. As long as we breathe they are never completely gone.

I suppose that I love The Lion King because it so poetically outlines the circles of life that define our days here on earth. We find joys, relationships, purposes in spite of our disappointments, feelings of loneliness and sense of being adrift. The way of the world is both to be joyful and to suffer. Mostly we are continually finding ways to carry on in the face of adversity. For some like me and my mother-in-law that may mean embracing the mantle of responsibilities. For others it may involve learning how to relax and have fun. It doesn’t really matter how we choose to cope as long as we find a way.

I would like to think that I am a strong person, but I know that there have been times when I have felt utterly defeated by the realities of being a human. I have remembered and grieved. I have begged God to have pity on my poor wretched soul. I have arisen from the ashes again and again like a phoenix, and yet I still don’t really know how to comfort someone who is struggling with the death of a loved one other than to express my condolences. I know all too well that each of us has to find our own ways of dealing with the ultimate test of our endurance, being left behind when someone we love dies. It is incredibly hard, but we will heal. A warm hug or an understanding word of encouragement always helps. Be that person who brings kindness and hope.

Promote Love

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I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.

I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret. 

A Brilliant Choice

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On this day in 1968, my husband Mike and I pledged to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. For fifty years we have steadfastly done our best to live by the standards of our pledge, but in truth being married for five decades has required far more than adherence to a promise. The two of us are best friends in every sense of what that concept may mean. We enjoy being together and sharing our lives both as individuals and as a couple. We have certainly grown during our five decades together, and become even better as a team than we might have been alone.

I was nineteen years old when I walked down the aisle. My mother had to sign a document giving permission for me to marry. I was as naive as anyone might be when entering such a serious contract with another person, but I was dead certain that Mike and I had a very special relationship that was centered on love. I have often been reluctant to take a firm position of belief during my lifetime, but on the Friday evening when I walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church I had no doubt that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. Somehow it seemed as though the heavens themselves had aligned to bring me and Mike together, and I was unafraid to take the grand leap of faith that binds two people together for eternity.

We were joined by friends and family for our celebration. The church was gloriously bathed in light as Mike stood at the front of the church. The organ began to boom accompanied by the crystal clear sounds of a trumpet and my bridesmaids, Susan, Nancy and Ingrid made their way slowly toward the altar along with the groomsmen, James, Jack and Alan. When it was my turn I held on tightly to my brother Michael’s arm thinking of how proud I was that he was doing such a grand job of standing in for what might have been my father’s duty. I was lightheaded, giddy and nervous but mostly ecstatically happy. Admittedly once I reached the front of the church and stood next to Mike much of the rest of the ceremony became a blur. I recall the homily with clarity and I can still hear Mrs. McKenna’s beautiful soprano voice as she sang Ave Maria, but mostly I remember how secure I felt just being with Mike.

Our reception was a simple affair as most of them tended to be back then. We gathered in the Parish Hall and feasted on cake, punch and finger sandwiches. Mike and I greeted our guests and did all of the traditional tasks of cutting the cake, throwing out the garter and bouquet, and running under a hail of rice as we rushed to our car which was decorated with shaving cream and streamers of tin cans. Then we were off to our honeymoon in New Orleans and a life filled with challenges and good times.

We certainly did our best to be loving and honest and supportive of one another over the years. Our intentions were put to the test less than a year after we had married when my mother had the first of her mental breakdowns. It was such a strain that it might have broken our bonds, but Mike would prove to be my rock, my foundation, my support. It was a role that he would so lovingly assume over and over again whether during the times when I was caring for my mom or when I got ideas about degrees that I wanted to attain or work that I wanted to do. Mostly he was always and forever my sounding board. A voice of wisdom and concern on whom I knew that I might depend.

Our joy with one another only grew over the years as we were blessed with two daughters. We had a happy little family that was made better and stronger by the friends and family members who shared our child rearing years. I doubt that we would have been nearly as successful in our efforts had it not been for them. We had fun and exchanged concerns and sometimes even shed a tear or two together. Our circle became bound to an ever growing number of incredible people who were critical to our own matrimonial success.

Before we were even able to catch our breaths our daughters were leaving to begin families of their own. Our nest was empty and we began to enjoy the quiet contentment of just doing simple things with each other like sharing a passage from a book or laughing over a funny movie. We worked hard and together found solutions to the inevitable problems that enter every life. We centered our focus on God, family and friends. We lost loved ones and met new and wonderful individuals. The sun rose and it set through one day, one year, one decade after another.

We have weathered many a storm and celebrated even more joys. Our love has been the constant in our lives along with the people who shared our journey. We have seven grandchildren who are our pride and joy. Our daughters are as good as we had hoped we might teach them to be and they are married to very fine men. We are quite content with the story that we have created together. We know that not everyday will be sunny, but we have somehow always managed to weather the storms.

Joining our lives together fifty years ago was the very best thing that either of us have ever done. Together we are stronger than we might ever have been alone. We know that our family and our friends have also been part the success that we have enjoyed. I thank God every single day that we made that brilliant choice on October 4, 1968.